Word Count 32,025
The stage pulled to a stop in Morro Coyo and Murdoch Lancer waited as the passengers disembarked. A frown crossed his face as the last of the travelers stepped out. He approached the driver. “Is that all the passengers, Pete?”
“‘Cept for him,” Pete hooked a thumb toward the back of the stage.
Murdoch turned to see the young man jump off the tailgate with a small carpetbag. His head was bowed, jet-black hair falling forward and hanging loosely. The rancher’s jaw clenched.
“Why is he riding back there?” he demanded.
“I gotta listen ta all the passengers, Mr. Lancer. They refused to let ‘im ride inside. I offered to let ‘im sit up top,” Pete shrugged.
Murdoch gave the man an aggravated look before walking to the back of the stage. “Ben Twofeathers? I’m Murdoch Lancer.”
The boy raised his head and looked at the rancher then glanced at the offered hand. Finally, he dropped his head again.
Murdoch let his hand drop to his side and cleared his throat. “Well, the buggy is right back here.”
The boy turned abruptly and walked to the surrey. He threw his bag in the back and climbed in, sitting with head still bowed, hands clasped tightly between his knees.
Murdoch sighed and shook his head. He climbed in and took up the reins, giving them a quick slap as Zanzibar trotted off.
He took an opportunity to look at the boy’s profile. He was sixteen and evidently had a chip on his shoulder. His dark skin shown starkly against the white cuffs of his shirt. The light gray suit only accented the contrast. It was the green eyes that really gave him away. Murdoch remembered those eyes in a child of five.
“How was your trip?” Murdoch asked.
“Fine,” he mumbled.
“I was so sorry to hear about your mother, Ben. She was a fine woman.”
There was no response.
“Did she tell you much about me?”
The boy shook his head.
“Well, when your father died she decided to move to Chicago. She thought there would be more opportunities for both of you there. Your parents were good friends of mine.”
“My father didn’t die. He was murdered.” He spoke harshly yet never looked up.
“I know what happened. I was there,” Murdoch responded softly.
They spoke no more. Murdoch pulled the surrey in front of the house and Ben looked up at the estancia.
“I see the stage was on time for once.” Scott smiled as he approached them.
“Ben, this is my son, Scott. Scott, this is Ben Twofeathers,” Murdoch introduced.
“Pleasure, Ben.” Scott kept his smile and extended his hand.
The boy looked at him as if he had the plague. He grabbed his bag and walked past Scott without a word.
“What’s the matter with him?” Scott asked his father.
Murdoch shook his head. “He’s a very angry young man. I’m not sure exactly why. We’ll have to be patient with him.”
Scott nodded and followed Murdoch into the house. Ben was standing in the entryway looking up the stairs.
“I’ll show you to your room,” Scott offered and started up the steps.
Ben hesitated a moment then followed.
Scott opened a door near the end of the hall. “This is your room. If you need anything just let us know. We’re glad to have you.”
“Why?” Ben asked.
“I’m sorry?” Scott replied in confusion.
“Why are you “glad to have” me?”
Scott raised a brow at the sarcastic tone. “Well, your parents were friends of my father. You’re welcome in our home.”
“You welcome a lot of half-breeds, do you?” he asked sarcastically.
Scott smiled wryly at the boy. “One or two.” With that, he closed the door and left Ben alone.
“That boy has a large chip on his shoulder,” Scott said as he entered the great room.
Standing behind his desk, Murdoch was staring out the picture window, his hands clasped behind his back. He didn’t turn around when he replied. “He’s lost a lot.”
Scott let out a soft sigh as he came to stand beside his father. “I realize it hasn’t been long since his mother died and he’s still grieving. That doesn’t explain his rudeness, Sir.”
Murdoch turned aside to look at Scott. “He’s angry. Give him some time, son. He has a lot to adjust to being back here. I doubt he even remembers living in this valley. Maybe you could help him with that since you’re a city slicker yourself.”
Scott’s head came up, his eyes widened for a second as he stared at his father. He saw the slight twitch at the corner of Murdoch’s mouth and bit the inside of his cheek.
“Well, I’ll certainly try, Sir, although I don’t know if I’m qualified. I’ve only been here two years.”
Murdoch chuckled and laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll do your best, son.”
Ben wandered around the bedroom, opened drawers and the closet door then shut them back. He stared out the window at the corral below then the mountains beyond. He didn’t remember anything of this valley. He wished he could remember his father better. All he could really recall was a tall man with long black hair and deep brown eyes. He couldn’t even remember his father’s voice. Suddenly, tears welled in his eyes and he rubbed them hard, disgusted with himself for his weakness.
He shook his head hard and looked back out the window. The sun was lowering in the sky and he realized he was getting hungry. He wondered what kind of food these people ate. With all the cows he’d seen, he imagined there was a lot of beef eaten here. Well, it didn’t matter, he was sure he’d hate it as much as he hated California.
He didn’t know what to do so he walked into the hallway and saw a door at the far end. He ventured toward it quietly then opened the door, surprised to find himself outside. He headed down the steps and into the yard where men were working around the barn and corral and some riding in on horses and in wagons. The sun was topping the mountain in the distance, casting longer shadows as it began its nightly ritual.
Ben wandered closer to the corral. Several horses milled about snorting and shaking their manes. He smiled. He’d always liked horses although he hadn’t seen all that many. Most of them had been attached to cabs in Chicago. There was the pony at the circus. He frowned at that memory and shook it away.
He leaned into the fence, pressing his hands against the top railing he could barely see over. Two of the horses walked close to him and he almost reached out to pet them, his hand in midair before he stopped. He supposed he shouldn’t touch someone else’s property without permission. Mother had taught him to respect other’s things as he expected his to be respected.
“Pretty, ain’t they?”
Ben jumped a foot and turned quickly to find a man standing behind him with a crooked smile on his face and a saddle slung over his shoulder. His mouth went dry and his throat closed as he stared.
“They don’t mind if you pet ‘em. They’re gentle enough.”
Ben took a breath and found his voice and his anger.
“I don’t touch other people’s property without permission. Maybe you shouldn’t be so bold as to give that permission for your employer.”
The man’s eyes seemed to dance and sparkle in the setting sun. He smiled then looked at the ground for a second before finding Ben’s eyes again.
“Sounds like good advice. I’ll remember that.”
Ben wasn’t expecting that reply. He didn’t know what to say so he simply nodded his head.
“Well, this saddle is getting heavy. Best put it away. See ya.”
Ben watched the man walk into the barn and for reasons he didn’t understand, he followed.
Inside the barn was darker and cooler and Ben appreciated the relief from the hot day until the scents permeated his thoughts. He wrinkled his nose as his eyes landed on the man hoisting the saddle onto a railing of some kind. He moved aside toward some hay bales and watched as the man walked into a stall and began brushing down a beautiful golden horse. Ben moved closer almost without realizing it so he could get a better look.
The man had his back turned so when he spoke, Ben was startled once more.
“Now this one … he’s muy especial. Very special. He gets a little more attention than most.”
Ben heard him laugh softly before he went on.
“Okay, more than a little but he’s a smart one. Best horse I’ve ever come across and I’ve come across more than a few, I can tell ya.”
The man stopped brushing and turned. Ben found those shining eyes on him again. “You know horses?”
Swallowing hard, Ben answered, “A little.”
“Well, you stay around here long enough you’ll learn more. If you want to, that is.”
“I do.” Ben startled himself with his quick response.
The man only nodded and smiled before turning his attention back to the horse which was nudging him with its nose.
“I’m sure Mr. Lancer has better things for you do to than show me horses.”
Ben wasn’t sure why he’d said it but he was also sure he was right. He was disappointed with his own words and more than a little surprised he even cared.
“He might have other things he’d rather me do but none of them would be better.” The man raised up from brushing the horse’s hindquarters and grinned.
Ben moved closer until he was standing in front of the stall. “What was that you said earlier? Mooey …?”
“Muy especial. That’s Spanish.” He stood up straight again, the grin still there. “I’m Mexican. Well, half anyway. Grew up around the border towns. I speak Spanish and, well, English of course.”
Ben frowned and looked closely at the man. His eyes were bright blue, his hair shone black and his skin was browner than any white man he’d known. He’d assumed the man simply spent a lot of time in the sun but now, he could see the truth. His eyes narrowed. “You sure seem like a happy half-breed.”
He watched for the man’s reaction. There wasn’t one. He simply stared at Ben for a few seconds before letting out a huff of breath.
“And you sure seem like a miserable one. Me? I’d rather smile than frown and be mad all the time. Not much future in misery, boy. Reckon I spent my fair share of doing that when I was younger.” He paused for a second and Ben was thinking of a reply but he wasn’t done. “And I guess you’re gonna have to go through some of that, too. But I can tell you one thing. It won’t help you any. It won’t make things better, only worse and you’ll spend a whole lot of time suffering at your own hand.”
Ben stood still and stared at the man for a long moment before his anger took over again. “I don’t think I’ll be taking advice from a cowboy on how to live my life. If you were an intelligent man, you’d have your own ranch or business. It’s easy to smile and take orders from others, to have someone else do your thinking for you. I don’t make a habit of listening to … underlings.” He almost smiled, proud of his diatribe and his ability to express his thoughts intellectually and not lower himself to this man’s level. He was utterly surprised when the man burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded.
The man sputtered a few seconds longer before answering. “You are, boy. That was some fancy talkin. The only problem with what you just said is that it’s horse … manure. A smart man takes good advice no matter who it’s from. And a really smart man listens to the voice of experience. But, you just go ahead and stay mad, act like a jackass and see how far that gets ya. I don’t know about city folks too much but I can tell you one thing. There ain’t a handful of men out here who wouldn’t knock you on your backside for what you just said to me.”
His eyes narrowed and the smile was gone and Ben took a step back. “And if you talk to me like that again, I’ll be one of ‘em. I don’t take sass from bratty kids. Only reason I’m taking it easy on you now is because you didn’t know any better. But now, you do.”
Ben stood stock still for a moment longer as the man returned to caring for the horse. He took a few steps backward before turning and running from the barn.
Back in his bedroom, Ben fell onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. What had just happened? Who was that man? He frowned then sat up in the middle of the bed. How dare he talk that way to me? He thought. Why, he’s nothing. Just a hired hand.
He felt angry but also frightened and … he wasn’t sure how to describe the feelings even to himself. He shook his head and got up, walking to the dresser and staring into the mirror. It wasn’t worth worrying over, certainly. He doubted he’d ever even see the man again. He didn’t plan on staying here very long although where he was going was still undecided.
He picked up his comb and ran it through his hair. His stomach rumbled and he winced. He decided to go downstairs and see if they were planning on feeding him any time tonight. Just as the thought formed, there was a knock on the door.
“Ben, supper’s ready if you’re hungry.”
He frowned and walked to the door, jerking it open and glaring at Scott before edging past him and heading downstairs.
Scott stared after the boy and sighed, shaking his head. “This should be interesting,” he muttered.
Downstairs, Murdoch sat in an overstuffed chair near the hearth as Johnny told him about his day. He stared thoughtfully at his own boots as he listened with some amusement at his son’s description of an irreverent heifer. When Johnny stopped talking, Murdoch looked over at him.
“Sounds like a typical day, son.”
Johnny smiled and shrugged. “It was until I got home. I met …”
The loud thumping of boots on the stairs stopped Johnny from finishing. He turned to see Ben walk into the room. He raised a brow and turned back around, settling further into the cushions of the sofa, a small smile still on his face.
Murdoch watched the boy walk in then stop and look around as if he didn’t know what to do next. He sat his drink down then stood and walked to Ben. “Did you get any rest?”
Ben just shook his head. He seemed to have trouble talking to this man for some reason. He wasn’t sure what it was about Mr. Lancer that was so … intimidating. Well, other than his size and deep voice. Maybe …
His thoughts were broken as Scott walked up behind him. “Well, I see you’ve met my brother, Ben.”
“No,” Murdoch answered, “I was just about to introduce them.”
Johnny stood and turned, the crooked smile on his face growing and straightening. “Oh, we’ve already met.”
Ben’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “You!”
Johnny laughed softly and nodded. “Fraid so, kid. Well, come on. Let’s eat.” He strode to the table and slid into his chair.
Murdoch and Scott stared at each other then, Scott shrugged. “You heard the man, let’s eat.” He laid a hand on Ben’s shoulder and guided him to the table. The boy still seemed to be in a state of shock. Once again, he thought to himself this should be an interesting meal.
Ben sat next to Scott and looked over at … he frowned, he still didn’t know the man’s name. Had anyone ever said it? He didn’t think so. Well, he still had that ghost of a smile on his face. Seemed he thought most things were pretty funny. Ben remembered his remark to the man about being a happy half breed. Why was he so happy, anyway? Well, he sure wasn’t going to ask. In fact, he decided he wouldn’t talk to the man at all.
Murdoch watched Ben watching Johnny and wondered what had transpired between them and how bad it had been. He was hoping Johnny could give Ben some insight into being mixed but, evidently, their first meeting hadn’t gone too well if Ben’s expression was any indication. Johnny was smiling but Murdoch knew that meant nothing. His son could be mad as a hornet and still smile at you.
Scott was watching, too, his curiosity piqued. Not one to dillydally when he wanted an answer, he dove right in. “So, you two already met? How did that happen?”
Johnny looked over at his brother, his eyes gleaming with mischief. “He was out at the corral when I rode in. We talked a bit.”
Ben looked over at him and waited for the man to tell them how rude he’d been. But, he hadn’t known the man was a Lancer. The man didn’t say anything else and it didn’t seem as if he was going to.
“Talked a bit? About what?” Scott asked.
Johnny laughed softly. “Brother, you are the curious sort. Is that a common trait with easterners or are you just nosey?”
Scott smirked at his brother and glanced at Ben. “There is nothing wrong with curiosity, Johnny. If one wants to know, one must ask.” He raised his glass in a toasting motion to his brother.
Johnny. So that’s his name, Ben thought.
Reciprocating the toast, Johnny grinned. “Not according to cats.”
Scott almost choked on his wine as he chuckled at his brother. Recovering quickly, he retorted. “Luckily, we aren’t cats.”
“What’s lucky? Let’s see, you sleep most of the day, chase mice and about anything else smaller than you then, you sleep some more. Sounds like a pretty good life to me.”
Murdoch sighed loudly and gave his sons ‘the look’. Scott looked chagrined; Johnny smiled.
“Ben, you’ll have to forgive my sons. They seem to get lost in their foolishness at times and forget we have a guest.”
Scott smirked a little then regarded Ben. “Yes, I apologize, Ben. Perhaps you’d be able to give a more in depth answer as to what you and Johnny were chatting about.”
Ben looked over at Johnny and shrugged. “Like he said, we just talked.” He lowered his head and concentrated on his food. To his surprise, it was pretty good. Of course, he was starving so anything might taste good to him right now. He decided to eat as quickly as he could then go to his room for the night.
Johnny watched him for a moment then looked back at his brother who was staring a hole through him. He gave Scott a look he hoped his brother could read easily enough and apparently Scott did as he shrugged and focused on his meal.
The rest of the meal was eaten in near silence until Murdoch decided everyone was almost finished. He set his coffee cup down and leaned back in his chair, eyeing the three young men before him. It didn’t take long for his sons to notice his posture and look up at him.
Murdoch smiled a little. “Johnny, Ben has been having some trouble coming to terms with his ethnicity. I was hoping you could help him with that.”
Johnny just stared at his father for a few beats before sitting back in his own chair. He looked over at Ben who was wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“Is that right?” he asked softly.
“Yes, that’s right. And, I think Scott could give him some insight as well from his experiences in the war.”
The older son looked almost as surprised as Ben as he addressed his father. “In other words, you want us to talk to Ben about anything that may be troubling him.”
“Don’t bother. I don’t need another talking to. I know what’s what and I know how I’ll be treated,” Ben injected. He looked briefly at Johnny before focusing his frown back on Murdoch. “The same way I’ve been treated my whole life. The city isn’t any different than out here.” With that, he stood, tossed his napkin on his plate and stormed out the front door.
It was quiet at the dining table for a few moments after Ben left. Scott stared toward the door then looked over at his brother who was staring at his lap. “Maybe we should go after him.”
Johnny sucked in a breath then looked up at Scott, giving him a brief smile. “Leave him be a while, brother. Some things a man has to work out on his own.”
Frowning, Scott asked, “what do you mean?”
Johnny shrugged and stood. “I could use a drink.” He walked into the living room and stood by the sideboard. “Anyone else?”
Murdoch and Scott followed him, each taking a seat in the matching chairs opposite the sofa. Both nodded in response and Johnny poured a round. He handed the drinks off before settling on the sofa.
“What did you mean, son? And, by the way, I don’t consider Ben a man quite yet,” Murdoch said.
Another smile wafted across Johnny’s face. He wasn’t sure his father considered him a man at times.
“Just that sometimes …” he paused a second, “a person needs to be alone, is all. We can talk to him, Murdoch. I can tell him a lot of things but it won’t help much. He has to live it to know what it’s like and it sounds like he’s already had a little taste.” He took a drink and sighed lightly.
“Well, I’m not sure how much I could help. There’s a big difference between witnessing prejudice and living it,” Scott imparted.
“I think any experience is knowledge, son. We could all help him understand.”
“Understand what?” Johnny asked. “What is there to understand, Murdoch? It’s pretty cut and dried. Hate is hate and it doesn’t make any sense no matter how many times you talk about it.” He stood quickly and walked to the fireplace, leaning into the mantle with his shoulder. “Didn’t his mother ever talk to him about this?”
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I have no idea. I’m afraid we didn’t keep in touch as much as I would’ve liked. A letter a year is about all there was.”
“How did she die?” Scott asked.
Murdoch’s frown deepened and a look of sadness crossed his face. “It was sudden from what I understand. Her employer is the one who contacted me. The doctor told him her heart gave out. He basically took control of her estate since she had no one other than Ben. He found some of the letters from me and wrote to tell me what had happened. He also asked what I thought he should do about Ben. He was considering an orphanage.”
“And you told him to send the boy to you,” Scott easily surmised.
Murdoch nodded. “I know I should have waited and spoken to you both about it first.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered, Sir. You know what our answer would’ve been.” Scott smiled warmly at his father before glancing at his brother.
“Thank you, boys. His father was a good friend to me.” Murdoch frowned. “Ben believes he was murdered.”
“Was he?” Scott asked.
Murdoch shook his head. “No.” Sighing, he sat back in his chair. “He said something about it when he first arrived. I didn’t correct him then, he was too angry and I knew it would only spawn an argument, but Twofeathers wasn’t murdered.”
“How did he die then?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch shifted in his seat and took a long swallow of his drink before replying. “I think the issue here is how to help Ben adjust and figure out what he wants to do with his life.”
Johnny and Scott looked at each other, equally puzzled over their father’s hedging. Neither pushed the issue.
After a moment, Scott stood. “Time is what he needs. We can’t expect him to make a decision right now. He needs to let go of some of that anger before he can even begin to plan the rest of his life. I think I’ll go herd him to bed if I can find him.”
“Check the barn or corral. He seemed to like horses,” Johnny suggested.
Scott grinned. “Well, that’s a good place to start, brother. There’s nothing better than a good ride to let off some anger, right?”
Johnny looked nonplussed at his brother. “Don’t know what ya mean.” A hint of a grin pushed at his lips.
Murdoch chuckled lightly as he stood. “I appreciate any help, boys. Right now, I’m going to bed. Maybe we can get a fresh start tomorrow.”
Before Murdoch could take a step, the front door opened and Ben walked in, looked at the three of them then ran up the stairs.
“Well, I guess you can save your herding for the cattle, brother.” Johnny walked over and slapped his brother in the gut. “I’m going up, too. G’nite.”
The next several days proved to be chaotic at the ranch. It seemed anything that could go wrong did go wrong. Each evening the Lancers returned home drained, barely making it through dinner before collapsing in their beds. Murdoch would attempt to ask Ben about his day but, in the end, he nearly nodded off before the boy’s staple answer of “fine”.
Johnny and Scott fared no better and neither tried talking to Ben, nor did they discuss him during the infrequent days when they worked together. By the end of the week things started to settle down, almost in concert with the return of Teresa from Stockton.
She arrived to an empty house and was filled in on recent goings on by Maria. Once Teresa learned of Ben’s presence, she sought him out. As he had most days, Ben was at the corral watching the men working in the area. Teresa approached and introduced herself.
Turning to the call of his name, Ben stood dumbstruck, staring at the petite girl smiling at him. He opened his mouth then closed it, hoping some moisture would magically appear there. Trying again, he managed to whisper a simple “hi”.
Teresa smiled and hooked her arm through his, walking him toward the veranda as she chatted. “We’re so glad to have you. I know everyone has been terribly busy all week. Maria told me everything. Why don’t we sit and get to know each other?”
Ben found his senses and managed to smile at her as she showed him to a chair.
“I’ll just get us some lemonade. Do you like lemonade?” At his nod, she hurried inside.
Ben took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. He shook his head and felt he’d just been through a tornado. Then he smiled fully for the first time in months as he leaned back in the chair. She’s beautiful, he thought, and nice and sweet and … a small laugh escaped. Hearing the door open, he pulled himself together and leaned forward in his chair as she approached with a tray laden with cookies, a pitcher of lemonade and several glasses.
“I brought more glasses in case the boys happen to make it home early for a change.”
He nodded and wondered how she knew what he was thinking. She positioned the tray on a table between them and poured two glasses. After a few quiet moments, she looked side-long at him. “I can’t imagine how you’ve been able to occupy yourself with all the men so busy lately.”
It was a question, he knew, and he quirked his lips a little. “Mostly, I’ve been watching the people work. I like the horses, but …” he stopped and frowned.
“But, what?” she asked.
He glanced at her and shrugged. “It seems cruel when they break them.”
Teresa smiled then laughed a little. “I’m sorry. I was just remembering when I was a little girl. The first time I saw someone break a horse, I cried. I thought it was so mean and that the horse was being hurt. My father explained how they were needed to work the ranch and that without the horses, they would never be able to raise cattle. I guess I understood but it was still hard.” She leaned back a little and smiled. “Daddy promised me no one on the ranch would ever hurt a horse.”
Ben watched her as she told the story, the soft warmth in her eyes as she spoke of her father, the smile that made her face glow and he suddenly thought of something. “Did you know my father?”
She blinked out of her memories and frowned in thought. “No, I don’t remember him, I’m sorry.”
He bowed his head. “Neither do I, really.”
“Some of the hands have been here for years, a couple from the beginning. I’m sure they’d remember him,” Teresa said.
Ben looked at her hopefully. “Could you introduce me to them? Mr. Lancer has been so busy, he hasn’t told me anything.”
Teresa stood suddenly and grabbed his hand. “Of course!” She half-dragged him until he caught up and matched her gait. Teresa walked around the bunkhouse to a row of small homes behind the estancia. She stopped at the first one.
Her knock was answered by an older woman with a broom in hand and a bright smile for her visitor.
“Hola, Senora Cipriano. I hope we aren’t intruding.”
The woman flapped a hand and gave a half-hearted scowl. “Nina, you could never intrude. Come in and tell me who this is you’ve brought.”
Teresa introduced Ben as they settled at the small kitchen table. The senora offered refreshments and simply shrugged as the youngsters declined. She poured her own coffee before joining them. “Now, what can I help you with, nino?”
Teresa looked at Ben and nodded. He cleared his throat and realized he was nervous. “Ma’am, Miss Teresa thought you may have known my father, Twofeathers. I was hoping you’d have some memories to share.”
Senora Cipriano nodded, her eyes sad as she sipped her coffee. “Si, I remember him. A tall man, as tall as El Patron.”
Teresa leaned toward Ben and whispered, “she means Murdoch.”
“Si, si. A proud man, I remember. You could see it by the way he stood.” She straightened her spine, pulled back her shoulders and jutted out her chin to demonstrate. “El Patron was a good amigo to your papa and he was a good man.” She nodded definitively then drank her coffee.
Ben waited but it seemed she was done. “That’s all? Can’t you tell me more?”
“Like what, nino? A proud, hard-working man. That was your father. Oh, I could tell you he was handsome. I could tell you how he adored your mama. But these things do not tell you his measure.”
Ben swallowed hard and whispered the words. “Yes, I see. Thank you, ma’am.”
Teresa saw the disappointment and understood it well. Ben wanted to hear stories but she knew they wouldn’t get those here. The senora didn’t spin takes. That was for men’s entertainment. She chewed her lip then stood and smiled. “Gracias, Senora. We should be going.”
Senora Cipriano stood with them and nodded, seeing them to the door. As she watched them walk away, she sighed and shook her head sadly for the nino.
As they walked toward the house, Teresa could see Ben’s distress. “We’ll talk to her husband. Cipriano will be able to tell you more. He’s been here since the start of the ranch and he has a very good memory.”
Ben nodded but he kept his head bowed. He wondered if this Cipriano would be able to tell him who killed his father and why. The anger started to seep in again and he stopped walking, turned and stared out over the land.
Teresa waited for a moment then touched his back. “Are you alright?”
He turned quickly; his eyes afire. “I won’t be alright until I find out who murdered my father and have my own revenge!”
She stared, aghast at the sudden change, as he ran toward the barn.
For the first time in a week the Lancers arrived home almost simultaneously. As Scott and Johnny walked out of the barn, Murdoch was dismounting. A hand took Nessie as Murdoch stretched his back and waited for his sons.
A wry grin came on Johnny’s face as he sauntered over to his father. He looked up, pointed a wagging finger, and said, “Don’t I know you?”
Murdoch relaxed from his stretch and returned his son’s expression. “You look a little familiar. Do you work here?”
Scott laughed and leaned against the hitching post, crossed his arms and shook his head. “I’m not sure any of us do anything but work here these days.”
Murdoch kept his smile and rubbed the back of his neck. “This is what I meant when you two first arrived about arms and legs.”
“You didn’t mention backs as I recall,” Scott grimaced.
Johnny moved to stand beside his brother and slapped Scott squarely between the shoulders. “Well, it seems to be easing up now. At least my day wasn’t complete hell.”
“Nor mine. It must be a sign,” Scott looked toward the sky with the last.
Murdoch chuckled. “There’s one thing for certain. It won’t be the last time we get hit like this. It seems to come in cycles. Boys, I’m going to sit down and have a nice Scotch. Anyone care to join me?”
“No, I think I’ll take advantage of the hour before dinner and take a hot bath,” Scott said as he pushed off the hitching post and straightened his posture.
“I vote for the Scotch,” Johnny grinned.
As they walked into the great room, the men were greeted by a surprise. Teresa ran into Murdoch’s arms for a welcoming hug then gave her brothers a hug.
“Come sit down and tell us about your trip,” Murdoch offered.
“I will but after supper.” Teresa paused, a frown coming to her face. “I met our houseguest.”
All three men turned to her and waited. Scott was nearest to her and saw her lower lip tremble a bit. He moved closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Did he upset you?”
She sighed and looked up at him. “A little but he didn’t mean to. I’m afraid I may have made a mistake.” She quickly told them about the visit to the Cipriano home.
Murdoch’s frown deepened with each word of the story. When she’d finished, he shook his head slowly. “I wish you hadn’t done that, Teresa. I’ll handle Ben.”
She lowered her head. “I was just trying to help him. He seemed so lost. But then he got so angry and ran off to the barn.”
“Well, he’s not there now. Scott and I just came from there. He’ll show up sooner or later.” Johnny plopped down on the sofa.
Teresa took a few steps toward him. “Don’t you think you should look for him? He may have run off all together.”
Johnny only shrugged and twirled the sofa pillow in his hands. “I doubt it. He talks big but the kid doesn’t have any idea where he is or how to get anywhere from here. Deep down, he knows that. Nah, he’ll show up.”
“Well, if he doesn’t come around by dinner, we’ll look for him. Meanwhile, I’m heading for that bath.” Scott smiled and gave Teresa a peck on the cheek. “Try not to worry too much.”
Scott walked into the great room feeling much lighter and in a better frame of mind. There was nothing like a good bath to rejuvenate his spirits. He nodded to his father and brother, neither of whom appeared to have moved since he’d left them. Pouring himself a Scotch, he settled on the sofa next to Johnny and took a sip. “I take it our wayward guest hasn’t shown?”
“Not yet,” Murdoch muttered.
Scott raised a brow and looked at Johnny who simply shrugged. Sighing in his frustration, Scott leaned forward a little. “Sir, perhaps you should tell us how Ben’s father died. It may help if one of us encounters him before you.”
“If that happens, you send him to me,” Murdoch countered.
“You know that won’t work, old man. Scott and I have to deal with the kid same as you and we need to know the details to do that. What’s the big mystery, anyway? You said he wasn’t murdered so what happened to the man?” Johnny maintained his relax position on the sofa but his eyes told the story. He expected an answer.
Murdoch frowned and shifted in his seat. He knew they were right. He just didn’t want to get into it. Maybe telling his sons would help him prepare for telling Ben. He nodded mostly to himself as he made his decision.
“It was, put simply, an accident. Twofeathers and I went to town one day for supplies. I was expecting a horse to be delivered but the seller hadn’t arrived by the time we’d loaded the wagon. I asked him to go ahead and get the supplies back before dark in case I was delayed even longer. He’d been gone about an hour when the seller finally arrived and we settled our business. I rode the horse home.”
Murdoch stopped here, a distant look coming over his eyes. He didn’t speak for long seconds then he took a breath and went on. “There was a deep rut in the edge of the road on that down grade coming around the hill about two miles from here. You know the one.”
Both young men nodded.
“I hadn’t noticed it before so I moved the horse to the edge of the road. The wagon was at the bottom in what looked like a million pieces. I called to Twofeathers but there was no answer. Once I climbed down and dug through the debris, I finally found him but … it was too late. He was dead.”
No one spoke for a few minutes then Scott shrugged his shoulders a little. “I’m sorry about your friend, Sir, but it sounds like an accident, as you said. Why would Ben think his father was murdered?”
“I have no idea unless …”
Johnny sat forward. “Unless what?”
“The sheriff came out to take a look around. He found some fresh horse prints near the bend in the road that weren’t mine and they weren’t from a draft horse. It was probably nothing and he never found anything else.”
“Horse prints isn’t much. In fact, it isn’t anything. That road is pretty well used,” Scott pointed out.
“Not at that time, son. Lancer was the only ranch on this side of Morro Coyo back then. In fact, Gregory Richardson had just bought the land bordering us not two weeks before that but he hadn’t settled in yet.”
“I’ve never heard that name before. Who is he?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch scowled. “He called himself a rancher but he wasn’t very good at it. I tried to help him when I could but he seemed to need help on a daily basis. He didn’t last long. He sold out to Henry Conway two years later. It’s just as well. He wasn’t a pleasant man and not much of a neighbor.”
“Wait a minute. If no one else used that road much then who was out there? I mean, what if someone did cause the wreck, Murdoch? They could’ve been waiting for you.”
“Johnny, there was no evidence.” Murdoch hesitated before going on. “Some people did think I was a target but nothing else ever happened after Twofeathers died and the sheriff dropped it.”
“Was there ever a suspect, even just in gossip?” Scott asked.
Murdoch shook his head slowly. “No, no names were ever mentioned. Boys, it was a tragic, needless loss of a good man but it was an accident.”
Scott and Johnny looked at each other, neither totally convinced of that statement.
Ben was ashamed of how he’d treated Teresa. She didn’t deserve his anger and he wasn’t really sure why he’d gotten angry. But then, he never was. He didn’t know what drove him to seek revenge for a man he barely remembered. He could only feel the burning of his blood that made him sure of his path.
He’d stayed in the barn for hours with the horses then took a walk. He found a small stream nearby and spent the rest of the afternoon staring at the water and watching the small fish. He thought once about trying to catch some but he’d never been fishing and didn’t know how. If he’d lived here, if his father hadn’t been murdered, he would have learned how to fish and hunt and all sorts of things. Anger seeped in once again and he pushed it down. He needed to get back and apologize to Teresa. He stood and dusted his pants, took a long look out over the land then headed back to the hacienda.
At the front door, he hesitated, unsure what the girl might have told them and how angry Mr. Lancer might be with him. Well, this was one time he deserved it so he decided to just face up to the man. Still, he opened the door quietly and slipped inside. Just before he was about to step into the great room, he heard the Lancers talking. He heard Scott ask how his father died. Ben leaned back against the wall and listened intently.
Once they stopped talking, he walked in and straight over to Murdoch.
“How can you be so sure it was an accident? You said there were hoof prints and some new rancher around. People thought you were a target. I heard you. How can you say it was just an accident when someone killed my father?!”
Murdoch stood up and put a hand on each of the boy’s shoulders. “Ben, there was no evidence and I couldn’t think of anyone at the time who may have wanted to kill me or your father. I still can’t think of anyone. Why are you so sure he was murdered?”
Ben stared at him, breathing heavily and trying to make his heart stop pounding. “My mother told me!” he blurted out.
Murdoch stared wide-eyed at him. “I can’t believe that. Maybe you misunderstood her, son. Your mother accepted what happened. It nearly killed her but she accepted it.”
“Maybe she didn’t. Maybe she just let you think that. Maybe that’s why she left here because my father was killed in your place!”
Murdoch let his hands slide off Ben’s shoulders. He turned and walked away, ending up at the hearth. He turned back, a deep frown on his face. He shook his head slowly. “Maybe she did, Ben. I don’t know.”
Johnny eased to his feet and walked over to stand beside Ben. Softly, he said, “Maybe we’ll never know for absolute sure. Can you live with that?”
Ben looked at him, pain deep in his eyes. He swallowed hard and shook his head. “I don’t know.” Looking back to Murdoch, he asked, “Isn’t there anyone around who knew about this? What about the sheriff?”
“He died years ago. His deputy is still alive but he’s an old man now. Ben, he probably won’t even remember it.”
Ben pulled back his shoulders and jutted out his chin. “Maybe not but I won’t know if I don’t ask. I’m not going to stop until I know the truth. If my father died in an accident …” he swallowed hard again, “fine, but if he didn’t, I will find out who killed him.”
“And then what?” Scott asked as he came to his feet. “What will you do then, Ben?”
The boy turned to face him. “Make him pay however I can and with whatever it takes!”
“Alright, Ben. If you’re set on doing this, you’re going to need our help.”
“Johnny, it’s a fool’s errand. After more than ten years, no one is going to remember anything,” Murdoch chastised.
“Maybe, Murdoch, but this kid deserves some answers. Maybe your mother was wrong, Ben. Maybe she was right. Either way, it won’t hurt anything to ask around.”
Ben looked at Johnny and almost smiled. “Thanks, I appreciate that.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday. We need to go into town for supplies anyway. I see no reason why we can’t make a few stops along the way,” Scott said as he joined the other two young men. “If we need help, Johnny knows a very good lawman.”
Johnny snorted. “Val can’t help. Not his jurisdiction.”
“When did that ever stop him?” Murdoch grumbled. He sighed and threw his hands up. “Fine, do your investigating but make sure it’s on your own time.”
“Where have I heard that before,” Johnny muttered. He smiled and threw an arm around Ben’s shoulders. “Now that’s settled, I think you have something else to take care of from what I’ve heard.”
Scott took Ben’s other arm and started pulling him toward the kitchen. “Teresa is in there.”
Ben lowered his head and nodded. “Yeah, I owe her an apology and thanks.” He looked back up. “Thank you all, too. I couldn’t do this alone; I know.”
“We just hope you find what you need, Ben, so you can move on with your life,” Scott said.
Ben entered the kitchen slowly, his eyes scanning the room. Teresa was at the counter, her back to him, and no one else was around. He relaxed just a little and approached her, coughing lightly to let her know he was there.
She turned around and smiled at him then went back to cutting her vegetables. Ben figured she was still upset. He took a deep breath as he walked to the other side of the counter. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.
“For what?” Teresa asked without looking up.
He looked at the top of her head for a second. “For earlier. For getting mad and running off. You were trying to help me and I appreciate it. Sometimes, I just get so mad and I…” He stopped in frustration.
She laid her knife down and wiped her hands down her apron. “Come over here and sit with me for a minute.” She walked to the table and took a seat, waiting for him to follow. Once Ben settled, she smiled at him again. “Apology accepted. I understand, you know. I mean, I understand why you’re so angry a lot of the time and I can’t say I blame you. Maybe, you should talk to Johnny and Scott.”
“I have and to Mr. Lancer. They’re going to town with me tomorrow and help me figure out exactly what happened.” Ben then told Teresa of the conversation he’d overheard between the Lancers.
“Well, it seems there’s hope you can learn the truth,” she smiled.
Ben nodded then frowned. “Why is it Johnny is mixed but Scott isn’t?”
Teresa raised a brow; her first instinct was to not answer. Then she thought it may somehow help Ben to understand some things so she told him a shortened version about the brothers and their mothers.
“I guess we all have problems, Ben. My father told me mother died but, in fact, she ran away. Last year she showed up out of nowhere and I didn’t even know who she was at first. It was hard coming to terms with my father lying to me all my life but I understood he was trying to protect me. I like to think that, had he lived, he would have told me the truth some day when he felt I was old enough.”
Ben bowed his head. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” He looked back at her, sincerity shining clearly in his eyes. “If I ever talk badly to you again, kick me or something, ok?”
She laughed and stood up. “I don’t think that will be necessary but, if it is, don’t think I won’t. Now, get out of here and let me get dinner on the table.”
The next morning, the brothers readied for the trip to town for supplies. Scott had the name of the deputy from Murdoch and the last place his father knew the man lived. He shook his head as he checked to make sure the information was in his pocket. The man must be ancient by now. Hopefully, his memory was still intact.
He looked across the yard as Johnny started toward him from the barn. His brother had not been in a very good mood all morning and Scott hadn’t been able to get more than two words from him. Maybe he’ll open up once we get on the road, he though, rather hoped. It was seldom these days that Johnny got in a mood and Scott was always concerned. Sometimes, his brother’s frame of mind went a long way in determining how he handled a given situation and when that frame of mind wasn’t a happy one, Johnny’s reactions weren’t always pleasant.
Ben climbed into the back of the wagon without a word and slumped down, his back against the side of the wagon bed, head hung. Scott thought he looked the depiction of misery. He sighed lightly and climbed aboard, waiting to see if his brother wanted to drive.
Johnny got in the other side and slumped down much the same as Ben had. Scott raised his brows and grabbed the reins. Without further ado, he slapped the horse’s rumps and they set off.
The first thirty minutes were spent in complete silence until Scott could stand it no longer. As quietly as he could, he asked, “what’s eating you, brother?”
Johnny raised his head and turned to look at him and Scott saw the lack of sleep in his eyes, the haunted look he hadn’t seen in some months.
“Didn’t sleep too good is all,” Johnny replied softly.
“Any particular reason?” Scott knew something had kept his brother awake and that was usually bad dreams but Johnny only shrugged in answer. It was then Scott had an insight and he could have kicked himself for not thinking of it before. He let out a soft breath. “Could it be Ben’s situation has you strolling down memory lane, brother?”
Johnny glared at his brother then glanced in the back of the wagon. Ben hadn’t moved but that didn’t mean he hadn’t heard. “Think you could mind your own business, Scott?”
The older brother raised a brow at the tone. He recognized it well. Johnny was pissed but he didn’t want to cause a scene. Scott knew he’d made a mistake trying to make light of things but sometimes, he still wasn’t sure how to handle Johnny’s moods. Maybe, I should just mind my own business, he thought then he simply nodded to Johnny.
Nothing more was said the rest of the trip and they pulled to a stop in front of Baldemero’s store.
All three men stood on the boardwalk silently for a moment until Johnny spoke. “We should lay in supplies first, get that out of the way, then go hunt down this deputy.”
“I agree,” Scott said. Ben opened his mouth but Scott cut him off. “That way, we’ll be free to spend as much time as needed.”
Ben closed his mouth and nodded then followed them into the store, head hung once more.
As always, Senor Baldemero was happy to see the Lancer brothers. Not only were they his best customers but he would never forget how they rid the valley of Day Pardee and his banditos. He welcomed them enthusiastically and devoted his attention to their needs.
It didn’t take long to load the wagon bed and soon they were free to start their investigation. Scott leaned against the side of the wagon and crossed his arms. Perhaps we should talk before we start this expedition.”
“What’s there to say?” Ben asked.
“Well, we need to tread lightly, Ben. Firstly, none of us knows this man and secondly, he may not remember a thing. You need to be prepared for that disappointment.”
Ben nodded his understanding but Scott wasn’t done. He looked directly at his brother. “Agreed?”
Johnny was slumped against the hitching post looking bored to death. When Scott spoke to him, he kept his expression blank and simply shrugged. Scott sighed through his nose and walked over to his brother, leaning in and speaking quietly. “If you’d rather not do this, Ben and I can go. The boy could use our support, Johnny.”
Johnny straightened his posture and glared at his brother for a moment then his expression relaxed and he sighed. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, I’ll be good.” A quirky grin spread across his face as Scott smacked him in the gut.
“Can we go now?” Ben asked impatiently.
Johnny looked over at him. “Just waitin on you, kid. Stop dawdling and let’s go.”
Ben gave him a look of disbelief and Johnny smiled as he walked over and threw an arm around the boy’s shoulders. “Scott, lead the way.”
The deputy lived on the edge of town, still in walking distance. The house was small but well-kept on the outside. The three young men stepped up and Scott knocked on the door. He was about to knock again when he heard shuffling footsteps. He almost groaned, figuring the man was near decrepit if it took this long for him to get to the door.
Amos Creely wasn’t anything like Scott expected. He was probably past middle-age but his brown eyes were bright and clear and his posture was straight as an arrow. He was disheveled as Scott realized they’d awakened him.
“What can I do for ya, gents?”
“Mr. Creely, we apologize if we woke you.”
“Didn’t exactly wake me but I wasn’t far off it. Just takes me a while to get movin’ in the morning.”
Scott smiled. “Well, Sir, my name is Scott Lancer. This is my brother, Johnny, and this is Ben Twofeathers. We’d like to talk to you about a death that happened some ten years ago. You were the deputy here at that time?”
Creely’s eyes landed on Ben as soon as he heard the name. He nodded absently to Scott’s question but he didn’t make any further move for some seconds. Finally, he sucked in a breath. “Come on in here, boys.”
The former deputy pointed to the kitchen table set up toward the back of the main room. “Have a seat. I’ll get some coffee for us. Ain’t had none yet this morning.”
Johnny turned his chair backwards and straddled it, resting his forearms across the back. He looked around the small room that served as both living and sleeping quarters. It reminded him of Val’s house except this one was clean. He smiled a little at the thought. “Well, he don’t seem like he’s lost his mind, at least,” he whispered.
“Nope, ain’t lost my hearin either,” Amos said as he walked back in balancing four cups in one hand and a coffee pot in the other.”
Johnny dipped his head then stood and helped the man with his load. “Sorry.”
Amos chuckled. “No worry, boy. Reckon I am getting up there in years but I’ve been blessed with my health for the most part.” He settled in a chair and poured coffee all around. “Milk or sugar?”
Everyone shook their head and he nodded his approval. “Don’t see much sense in drinkin coffee if you’re gonna turn it into a glass of sweet milk, myself.”
Johnny grinned and looked at his brother who preferred sugar in his coffee most of the time but he said nothing. Scott’s head was down and he nearly laughed at the sight.
“Mr. Creely, I need to know about my father’s death,” Ben said, tired of the pleasantries.
“I figured when I heard the name. It was a long time ago but I remember your father. Mostly because he was the only civilized Indian in these parts.” He held up a hand to stave off the glower Ben gave him. “By that, I mean livin with white folks. Reckon he did that for your mama’s sake. Matter of fact, if it weren’t for Murdoch Lancer, I doubt the man woulda stood a chance. Murdoch kept folks from botherin him.”
“How?” Johnny asked, always interested in hearing stories about his father.
Amos looked at him. “Well, mostly just by bein a supportive neighbor. Oh, there was a time or two some hothead would try something but Murdoch always seem to be right there with Twofeathers, mixin it up.” He chuckled at some memory.
Johnny and Scott both smiled at that.
“I take it you two are his sons? I heard ya came home.”
“That’s right, Sir. Johnny and I are trying to help Ben find out exactly how this accident happened and if it was indeed an accident.”
Amos nodded then sat back, staring off in thought. Suddenly he nodded his head and stood up. “Reckon the boy has that right. I got my notebooks in that trunk over there. Let me see if I can find that one.”
“Notebooks? You kept notes?” Ben asked.
Amos walked over and lifted the lid, bending down on one knee to rifle through. “Sure did, boy. I wanted to make sure I got my facts straight. Back then things came down to a man’s word most times, just like now, I reckon. If I wrote it down at the time, the judge would take more stock in what I said as bein the gospel truth. Now let me see. Ten years ago, that was just before I retired so it should be close to the top.”
They all waited anxiously for the man to find his notes, Ben watching his every move.
“Why did you retire if you don’t mind my asking?” Scott asked.
“Got married. Little woman didn’t like me bein a lawman. We had us a little general store for a while then she died and I just didn’t much care to keep it goin. I sold out. Been livin off that money since. Course I don’t need much so I figure it’ll keep me fine til I go to join her. Here it is.”
“I’m sorry,” Scott said.
Amos stood up and turned to him. “Well, thank ya. You got good manners. Let’s see, you’re the one that grew up back east, right?” At Scott’s nod, he turned to Johnny and grinned. “And, of course, you’re the one who woulda given me fits if I was still a lawman.”
Johnny smiled a little. “Not me, deputy. I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
Scott snorted. “Sometimes.”
Ben sighed loudly and they all looked at him. He lowered his eyes.
Amos retook his seat. “Reckon the boy’s a might anxious. Can’t say as I blame him. Well, let me see here.” He opened the book and thumbed through the notes. “Ah, here it is. That was in December of ’61. I remember is was colder than a …”he stopped and looked at the boy. “Well, it was cold. Lancer came to the office and told us there’d been an accident. Me and the sheriff rode out with him and found the wagon off the side of the ravine.” He grimaced and shook his head then looked over at Ben. “If it’s of any comfort to ya, I don’t think he suffered. It was pretty quick.”
“Murdoch said there were hoof prints around the area,” Johnny said.
“Yeah, that’s right. It was a little unusual since that road only led to Lancer at that time. I remember we went down and got your daddy out from under the wagon, Ben. At first I thought it was strange he was wearing Murdoch’s coat but then it was pretty cold and Twofeathers didn’t take to wearing a coat too often.” He blinked and came out of his memories then started reading again.
“When we got back to town, the sheriff just said it was an accident and to drop it but I wasn’t ready to do that.”
“Why not?” Scott asked.
Amos rubbed his chin. “Well, I’m not sure. It just seemed strange to me what with them hoof prints and all. I checked around to see if any strangers had been in town lately. There was one fella who checked out of the hotel that afternoon and caught the late stage out of town. All I got on him was that he was an easterner and the hotel clerk said he was about as out of place as a man could be. He did rent a horse while he was here. Other than him, there weren’t any other strangers.”
“Didn’t have to be a stranger,” Johnny murmured. “What was his name?”
Amos looked through his notes for a moment. “Here it is. Just his name and town. He didn’t put down what his business was. Samuel Collins. Boston, Massachusetts.”
Scott stood so quickly, his chair wobbled several times before righting itself. “Collins! Are you sure about that name, deputy?”
Johnny looked at his brother like he was crazy. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Real sure, young fella. I wrote it right off the hotel ledger.”
Scott grew pale then sat back down slowly. He looked at his brother and Johnny saw something like regret in his eyes.
“My grandfather had a man named Samuel Collins working for him. He was a bodyguard of sorts.”
Johnny leaned forward. “What did Harlan need a bodyguard for?”
Scott frowned. “I don’t think I ever knew. He was always around but grandfather fired him years ago.”
“How many years ago, Scott?” Johnny asked.
Scott looked at him and shook his head. “I’m not sure but I’ll find out.” He sighed and looked at Amos. “Is there anything else?”
“Afraid not, boys. It was a dead end after that. If you do find out anything, I’d appreciate knowin. It’s the only case I ever had that we didn’t get a real answer on.”
The three young men stood and headed to the door followed by Amos.
“We’ll be sure to let you know. Thanks for the information, Mr. Creely. It was a big help,” Johnny said as he shook hands with the man.
Outside, Ben turned to Scott. “What does this all mean? I don’t understand why a man who worked for your grandfather in Boston was out here.”
“Neither do I, Ben. I’m going to send a wire to my grandfather to find out.”
“You think he’d tell you anything, Scott?” Johnny shrugged at the frown he received. “If Collins was here at that time and he still worked for Harlan …” he left it hanging, knowing his brother understood his intent.
Scott’s shoulders sagged. “I don’t know, Johnny, but I have to ask. It’s not that unusual a name. It could be a coincidence but it would be a pretty big one.”
“Maybe we should ask Murdoch. Collins might have been here on some other business or passin through and talked to the old man.” Johnny stepped up to his brother. “It doesn’t have to mean a thing, brother.”
Scott gave a half smile and nodded. “And it could mean a great deal. Let’s go get the wagon. I’ll send the wire then we need to talk to Murdoch.”
Ben sat in the back of the wagon on some sugar sacks trying to figure out exactly what was going on here. Why would Scott’s grandfather send a man all the way out here from Boston? What business could he have here if Scott was living with him then? Teresa had told him both brothers had only been home a couple of years. It didn’t make any sense to him but both Johnny and Scott thought it was possible. That meant they knew something they weren’t saying. He looked up at Johnny, sitting on the front bench with his arms crossed and his head down. Ben didn’t think he was asleep so he wiggled his way around to sit on his knees directly in back of Johnny.
His head came up and he looked left and right. There was no one about but someone was watching him. Johnny took a breath and braced himself for the onslaught he was sure would come. “What’ya want, kid?”
Ben leaned back just a little, surprised Johnny knew he was there for some reason. He quickly pulled himself together and leaned back closer to Johnny. “I’d like someone to explain what’s going on. Why would Scott’s grandfather have anything to do with my father?”
Johnny relaxed his arms, laid his hands on his thighs and drummed the fingers of his left hand there for a moment. “We don’t know that he had anything to do with it. That’s what we plan to find out. Scott’s grandfather … he just ain’t got no use for Murdoch, is all.”
Ben frowned and sat back a little more. “So, would he send someone here to try and hurt your father?”
Johnny turned in the seat to face the boy. “I didn’t say that and I don’t know. Which is what I just told you. Look, I know this is confusing and I know you want answers but, sometimes, you have to be patient to get what you want.”
Ben scowled at him. “And sometimes, even if you are patient, you don’t get what you want.”
Johnny’s lips curled up a little. “True enough.” He became solemn and looked steadily at the boy. “Can you live with not knowing what really happened?”
Ben stared at him a long beat then sighed and dropped his eyes. Shaking his head, he answered softly, “I don’t know.”
Johnny dropped his shoulders then spotted Scott crossing the road. His brother didn’t look any happier than he had when he’d gone to the telegraph office. Johnny figured his bad mood had spread wide then he turned back around in his seat and shook his head slightly. No, not his bad mood. Nothing could put a damper on a day like mentioning Scott’s grandfather. He hated it but the man had brought it on himself. He’d never forget that old man had almost gotten Scott killed. He hoped Scott didn’t forget it either. He looked over as his brother climbed aboard then just sat there staring ahead. Johnny leaned forward and grabbed the reins and slapped the horses into a trot.
Murdoch stood staring out the window, his hands clasped behind his back as he took in what his sons had told him. As much as he despised Harlan Garrett, he wasn’t sure the man was capable of nor, and this was more likely, willing to pay for a hired gun. That’s what it was, after all, if what he’d seen in his younger son’s eyes was any indication of what Johnny thought of the possibility.
The room was quiet and he knew they were waiting for him. He had nothing to tell them. He was as confounded by the news as they and more than a little annoyed this was the first time he was hearing any of it. Why hadn’t Creely shared this with him ten years ago when he may have been able to do something about it?
Finally, Murdoch turned and faced them, his two watching him closely, the third staring at the floor. “I never had any contact with this man and I don’t know why Amos never told me about it. Maybe he didn’t think it was important. On the surface, it doesn’t mean anything.”
“Maybe on his surface but if he’d told you about it, you could have made the connection,” Scott pointed out.
Murdoch frowned and shook his head slowly. “Yes, I may have, son, but that doesn’t mean anything. Collins was long gone before we even got Twofeathers back to town. I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to even talk to the man.”
Scott sighed heavily. “Yes, that’s true. Maybe grandfather can shed some light.”
Ben finally looked up and at Scott. “What makes you think he’d tell you?”
Johnny said nothing but he wondered the same thing.
“Because, I told him I’d met Collins in Sacramento and he was interested in doing business with Lancer. I asked for a character reference. I didn’t want him to think anything more of it than that.”
Johnny crooked a quick smile. His brother could be devious when he had to be.
Murdoch paced the room a bit. “Still, son, it’s unlikely anyone would mistake Twofeathers for me.”
“He was wearing your jacket, Creely said,” Johnny told him.
Murdoch stopped and looked at his son, the frown deepening in his brow. “Yes,” he nodded,” yes, I remember that now. It was a cold day.” He stared off, his memories taking him back in time.
“Well, I still don’t understand. Are you all saying this Collins came here to kill Mr. Lancer and mistook my father for him? Are you saying my father died in your place?” Ben glared at Murdoch; the accusation profound.
Murdoch faced the boy fully, his shoulders taut. “We aren’t saying anything, Ben. We don’t know that this man, or anyone else, had anything to do with your father’s death. We’re simply looking into the events and facts of the day. That is what you wanted.”
Ben deflated and relaxed his own shoulders. “Yes, that is what I want but it’s starting to look like my mother was right.” He looked back at Murdoch. “Maybe that’s why she left here. She knew the truth and she couldn’t stand to be around you.”
Johnny stepped up to the young man. “How could she know? And if she did, why wouldn’t she tell Murdoch?”
Ben faltered only a moment. “Maybe he threatened her.”
Scott raised a brow. Ben would make a good lawyer the way his mind worked. “That’s a possibility, Ben. It’s also possible that we’re way off track. Sadly, we can’t ask your mother about this. I don’t want to think my grandfather had anything to do with this but, if he did, I assure you he’ll pay for it.”
Johnny turned on his heel and walked away to the sideboard. He poured a drink and, without turning around, asked if anyone wanted one. No one answered and he could picture the scene. Scott standing there, Murdoch studying him as if he were a prize bull, sizing him up to see if he’d be able to hold that promise. It wasn’t fair to even ask him to and, in fact, Johnny was waiting for the old man to say something like that.
“That’s my responsibility, Scott. If your grandfather had a hand in my father’s death, it’s up to me to make sure he pays.”
Johnny turned back and stared at the kid. Without being able to see him a second ago, Ben sounded like a grown man with conviction and purpose. Not a man to take lightly and Johnny was starting to see the boy coming into his own right before his eyes. He almost smiled at the thought.
Scott gave Ben a sort of nod. “I suppose that is your right, Ben. If it comes to that, I’ll help anyway I can.”
“I don’t think that’s wise, son. I think, if it comes to that, you should have no part in it. It isn’t fair to ask or expect you to do that even though I know you’d stand by what’s right and just.”
Johnny sauntered back over to stand at his brother’s side.
“Be better if you just did the ‘stand by’ part, Boston. You know we’re all just jawin here. I mean, Harlan’s an old goat,” he paused and crooked a grin at his brother, “but I just don’t see him as the gun hirin type.” He walked away again then turned to face them all. Hoisting his glass in the air toward them, he said, “it could be this Collins fella took matters into his own hands and that’s why Harlan fired him.”
All three men took this idea in for a long moment.
Murdoch exhaled deeply and gave his younger son an appreciative smile. “All we can really do now is wait. Supper will be ready soon. Why don’t you boys get cleaned up.”
In his room, Ben washed up quickly then sat in a chair by the window. He stared at the land, a deep frown marring his features and making him appear years older. It didn’t seem likely to him this man would go out on a limb, commit murder, without being paid to do so. Mr. Lancer didn’t know him so there was no personal grudge there.
No, if Collins killed his father, it must have been on behalf of his employer. Why Harlan Garrett would want Mr. Lancer dead was a mystery to him but it didn’t really matter. The end result is what mattered now. His father had been killed for nothing. Well, he’d be sure this Garrett knew he was going to die for something. If he had in fact been the one behind the killing, Harlan Garrett would know how revenge felt.
Ben swore right then he would kill the man himself if he had to. His father would be avenged.
Ben waited impatiently for Garrett’s wire. He was sullen and quiet as usual but there was a dark undercurrent the Lancers all felt in his presence. Scott tried to talk with him but was met with glares and frowns. He understood the boy’s upset but he wasn’t making things any easier on himself by conjuring up scenarios without any facts. When he brought this to Ben’s attention, the young man simple stalked away.
Johnny wasn’t faring much better even though Ben would at least talk to him a little. Niceties, Scott had called it. Just this side of rude was more how Johnny saw it. He knew the boy was anxious, wanting to know Garrett’s answer but things like telegrams took time to send, time to receive, time to reply to if, in fact, the old goat was going to answer. There was also the chance he was away on business and hadn’t even gotten the wire yet. Johnny pointed out all these possibilities to Ben who simply nodded. He kept his head down most of the time and spent most of his day with the horses.
Several days passed in this fashion and Murdoch was well aware of Ben’s disposition and that of his sons. Scott was tense, as well. He didn’t have much to say, always seeming to be in deep thought. Murdoch wished Harlan would send his answer, no matter what it may be just to put this whole thing to rest, hopefully. As he went through the mail this day, he knew things were about to get worse. He leaned back in his desk chair and sighed loudly. Well, he had no choice. This had to be taken care of and everyone would just have to get over it. Nodding his head to himself, he snorted. He knew it wouldn’t be that easy.
After supper that evening, he called everyone into the great room. He usually didn’t discuss business in front of non-family members but Ben needed to know what was about to happen. Once everyone settled, he began. Standing in front of the sofa where all three young men sat staring at him, he braced himself.
“Gentlemen, I received a letter from the army today. It seems someone has made multiple errors in their books to such an extent that they need to renegotiate our beef contract. Scott, I need you to go to Los Angeles immediately and take care of this.”
Ben stood and stared at first Murdoch, then Scott, then Murdoch again. “What about his grandfather’s wire?”
Murdoch set his jaw. “I understand you have concerns, Ben, but this is business and it can’t wait. We need to have those contracts in place and binding before the Spring round-up next year. Now, I know that seems a long way off but it really isn’t. October is just around the corner and we have to prepare.”
Ben shook his head slowly. “Why can’t Johnny go or you?”
Murdoch found some patience. “Because, Scott negotiated the contract, he was in the army and they respond well to him and I don’t need to explain my decisions to you, young man.”
Johnny stood and placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “We’ll take care of whatever happens here. We’ll keep Scott informed, too.”
Scott sat where he was. “I am disappointed but I understand I’m the one who needs to go. Johnny, please do make sure you let me know what happens, if anything.” He put emphasis on the last two words.
Ben stared at Murdoch for another few seconds then stomped out of the room and up the stairs.
“That boy is going to make himself sick with all that anger,” Murdoch mused.
Johnny plopped back down on the sofa and sighed. “Yeah, he is. We need to keep a close eye on him. Damned the army. Can’t they get anything right?”
Scott raised a brow and looked at his brother. “One or two things, brother. Everyone has mishaps in business. Even us.”
Chagrined, Johnny looked shyly at his brother then his face took on an innocent expression. Placing his hand on his chest, he said, “Us? You must be crazy, Boston. We’re perfect.”
Murdoch chuckled as he retook his seat while Scott delivered a backhand to his brother’s gut. “Scott, make sure we get the same deal we agreed on the first time. If not, they can get their cattle elsewhere.”
“Yes, Sir. Well, since I’m leaving, I think I’ll turn in early. Goodnight, gentlemen.”
As he rose, Johnny craned his neck to look at his brother as Scott walked behind the sofa. “What about me?”
Scott paused and looked seriously into his brother’s eyes. “Oh, yes, goodnight to you, too.”
Johnny went upstairs shortly after Scott and headed to Ben’s room. Knocking once, he opened the door to find the boy staring out the window at nothing he imagined since it was black as pitch out there. He ambled over and sat in the chair opposite. “Well, the army has lousy timing, I’ll say.”
Ben looked sideways at him but said nothing.
“Look, I know you’re mad but there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll work it out whatever Garrett has to say.”
Ben turned and sat straight in the chair. “What makes you think he’ll even answer?”
Johnny stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. “Well, if he had anything to do with it, he’ll want to cover his tracks plus, he’d never just ignore Scott.”
Ben frowned. “What do you mean? Why wouldn’t he just not answer?”
Johnny shrugged. “Let’s just say the old man cares too much about his relationship with Scott to ignore him about anything. I told you there’s all kind of reasons the man hasn’t answered yet. It hasn’t really been that long, ya know. Just a week tomorrow.”
Ben’s shoulders fell and he rested his chin on his fist. “Yeah, I guess I’m just … I don’t know. Now that we have some information, I want all of it.”
Johnny grinned and sat forward, slapping Ben on the knee.
“You city boys are just in a hurry for everything. Time takes care of everything, Ben. Sooner or later, it takes care of everything. Now, try to get some sleep. If you don’t learn how to let go of some of that anger, it’ll eat you alive. I know what I’m talkin about.”
He stood and walked to the door, opened it then paused. “And give my brother a break. He didn’t have anything to do with this.”
The next morning, Scott left for Los Angeles after suffering his brother’s teasing for almost an hour. He took it in his stride and refrained from belting the younger man. He noticed Ben found none of it amusing and disappeared when his family saw him off. He was partly glad to be going, if he were honest with himself. The boy was getting on his nerves with all his pouting. Scott felt a little bad for thinking that way but not too much. He smiled at the thought as his father gave him one final word of advice on his meeting.
The smile stayed on Johnny’s face as he watched his brother ride over the ridge and toward town.
“Well, guess the army will take better care of its books once Scott gets done with them.”
Murdoch laughed and threw an arm around his son’s shoulder. “Yes, I’m sure he’ll make it clear how inconvenient this is for us.”
“Us? You mean me. I’m the one who has to take up the slack while he’s gone!”
Murdoch turned his son toward the house and started walking. “I’ve been thinking about that very thing, son. Ben has been here quite a while and hasn’t done a lick of work. I think it’s time he started earning his keep.”
Johnny pulled to a stop and stared up at his father. “You’re not serious? You want me to teach that kid to be a cowboy?”
Murdoch frowned then shook his head. “If he wants. Otherwise, I’m quite sure he can hammer a nail.”
Sighing, Johnny dipped his head and mumbled, “I’m not.”
After several minutes of arguing the validity of the idea, Johnny accepted defeat and found Ben at the corrals. He grabbed the boy’s arm and pulled him into the barn.
“Listen, kid. I’m already behind this morning what with seeing Scott off and all. Murdoch wants you to earn your keep so you’re gonna ride the range with me today. I know you can ride a horse. We’re checking fence line and makin repairs. Just hammering nails and the like. I don’t have time to argue with you about it, either.”
Ben stared at him for a beat then shrugged. “Okay.”
Johnny’s mouth opened a little then he sighed and grabbed the boy around the shoulders. “Come on, I have the perfect horse for you.”
For three days Ben worked with Johnny. He wasn’t anything near being a cowboy but he was strong and sturdy and could swing a hammer pretty good. Johnny had to admit, even if it was to himself, Ben was a big help to him.
Saturday evening the three men and Teresa sat in the great room after supper. Ben had his hands full of yarn Teresa had roped him into holding for her. Johnny stretched out on the sofa, nearly asleep and Murdoch sat in an overstuffed chair reading the Sacramento paper.
Murdoch looked over the top edge of the paper at his son. “Staying in tonight, son? The boys have already left for town.”
Johnny opened his eyes halfway and smiled a little. “Just enjoying a quiet evening at home, Murdoch.”
The older man chuckled. “You mean Scott’s not here so you don’t want to go.”
Johnny sat up and flashed his old man a glare. “Hardly. The day I can’t go to town all by myself will be a cold day in … hades. You tryin to get rid of me?”
“That was my plan,” Murdoch said from behind the paper. He then looked back over the paper at his son and raised a brow.
Johnny snorted. “Nice try. Ben has worn me out all week, working me like a dog. I’m too tired to go to bed let alone go to town.”
Ben looked over at him with surprise then stuck his tongue out.
Teresa kicked the boy to regain his attention. “Keep the yarn straight, please.”
Johnny grinned and stood up, stretched then walked over behind Ben. “Yeah, you best keep that straight. She’ll whomp ya good if you don’t.”
Teresa gave him an indignant look. “I do not whomp people, Johnny. Except for you, of course, and only when you deserve it.”
Scratching his head, Johnny replied, “I must deserve it a lot.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Ben muttered.
Johnny raised a brow. “Well, since you’re all so happy with my company tonight, I think I’ll just go to bed.” He walked to the doorway leading to the stairs then turned his head. “Ingrates,” he shot as he started upstairs.
“Goodnight, son,” Murdoch called.
Johnny stopped on the second step and leaned over the railing. The sincerity in his father’s voice gave him pause. He knew they were all just teasing and so was he but he wanted his father to know for sure. He grinned one of his best and gave the old man a wink before heading on up to his room.
Once Johnny left, Ben looked over at Murdoch. “You’re all so comfortable with each other. Reminds me of home.” He lowered his head.
Murdoch smiled at the boy. “It wasn’t always so easy but, by trial and error, we’ve managed to keep from killing each other long enough to actually like one another.”
Teresa sighed and rolled her eyes. “Like. Yes, we all just like each other so much. You men, you can’t stand to say to those simple words, can you?” She looked at Ben and smiled. “We love each other, they’re all just too stubborn to say it.”
Ben blushed and dropped his head again and Murdoch squirmed a little in his chair. No more was said on that or any subject the rest of the evening.
The next morning, Murdoch and Teresa headed for church. Johnny rode out to check water holes and left Ben behind for a well-deserved day off.
As he sat on the veranda, Ben watched the men riding in slowly from their night on the town. They all looked in pretty bad shape and he wondered what they did all night long. One of them walked his horse up to the house and dismounted with a loud groan. He dug in his saddle bags and pulled out a stack of papers. Walking a bit unsteadily, he approached Ben and nodded.
“Johnny or Mr. Lancer in?”
“No, Mr. Lancer’s at church and Johnny rode out a while ago,” Ben replied and stood. “You okay, Mister?”
The man looked up, squinting at the boy and sighed. “Here’s the mail. I picked it up yesterday. Figured I’d save ‘em a trip.”
Ben took the papers and nodded. “Thanks, I’ll let Mr. Lancer know.”
“Yeah, thanks. Oh, there’s a telegram in there for Scott, too.”
Ben froze, his hand gripped the missives tighter and he just nodded to the man. He waited until the cowboy made it to the barn before going inside.
Ben rifled through the mail until he found the telegram from Boston. He stared at it a long time, fighting with himself about opening it. It was addressed to Scott but he knew it was about his father’s killer or, maybe, from his father’s killer. His anger won out and he tore the wire open.
Scotty, I fired Collins ten years ago for gross misconduct. He is not to be trusted under any circumstance. I will be in Chicago next week on business. If possible, I’d like to see you there. I’ll be staying at The Plaza Hotel on the North Side. Regards, Grandfather
Chicago. Ben had lived in Chicago most of his life. He knew exactly where the Plaza was. It was one of the best hotels in town. Scott would never make it back here in a week much less to Chicago. The telegram really didn’t provide any answers. So Collins was a bad employee. That didn’t tell anything about why he was here ten years ago or if Garrett had sent him here. Maybe he was fired for killing the wrong man.
Ben wadded the paper into his fist and paced the living room. He passed the fireplace the turned back. Looking at his fist, he made his decision and threw the telegram into the fire. He watched as it burned completely then headed upstairs.
Once in his room, Ben began to pack. He wouldn’t take much but he’d need his coat. Tomorrow was the first of October and it would be cold in Chicago. He still had one or two friends he could stay with so that wouldn’t be a problem. His only worry was getting there. He opened the dresser drawer and took out the wallet he kept there. Counting his funds, he smiled and knew he had more than enough to get there and back. He paused. If he came back. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d just move on once he had his answers and his revenge. But if Garrett really didn’t have anything to do with his father’s murder, he’d have to come back here. He sighed and knew he’d have to figure that out later.
For now, he had to get away from here unseen. He figured he could leave once they’d all gone to bed, take that horse he’d been riding to town and leave it there for the Lancers. It wasn’t really stealing, just borrowing. But he couldn’t leave a note. He couldn’t let them know where he’d gone. They’d warn Garrett, for sure.
With his plans made and his clothes packed, Ben felt he was finally making some headway. It was pure luck those plans led him back home. Not that he was looking forward to that so much. Chicago only reminded him of his mother’s death. He shook the thought away. All he had to do now was wait for tonight and act like everything was normal. Then, he’d be on his way.
At midnight, Ben quietly made his way out of the house and to the barn. He saddled the mare he’d been riding with little sound. She was a gentle horse and had gotten used to him so she didn’t put up a fuss at being awakened. He walked her almost to the arch before mounting up and putting her in a slow trot. He thought his father would be proud of how quietly he moved.
It was dark, the moon new so it was hard to see where he was going. He’d only been in the town twice and he was trying to remember the way. The good thing was he had plenty of time.
By morning, the Lancers would know he was gone but would they think he’d simply run away? Probably, unless that cowboy mentioned the telegram and why would he? Even if he did, he didn’t know what was in it. Ben felt confident no one would have a clue where he was going.
Johnny finished his breakfast with a frown and yet another glance toward the doorway. He threw his napkin down and stood.
Amused, Murdoch looked up at him. “Going to wake him?”
Johnny saw the smile on his father’s face and smirked. “Just this one time.” He headed upstairs to the sound of his father’s chuckle.
Ready to pounce on the bed, Johnny opened Ben’s door without knocking and pulled up short. The bed was made and the room empty. He started to leave but a bad feeling came over him. He walked around the room and opened the closet. Ben’s bag was missing. Johnny checked the dresser and found what seemed like half the boy’s clothes gone.
He headed back to the kitchen to make sure he was right. He asked Teresa how much clothing the boy had and she ran upstairs to check. Confirming quite a few items were missing, she and Johnny went to the living room to report to Murdoch.
Perplexed, the older man went through the mail quickly. “There’s no telegram from Harlan here.”
“What if there was and he took it,” Johnny suggested.
“But he said he didn’t go through the mail,” Teresa said.
“What he said and what he did might be two different things, honey.” Johnny turned back to his father. “I’ll find out who brought the mail home.”
Johnny returned to the house shortly and reported Hal had told him there was a telegram for Scott and that he’d told the boy as much to make sure it didn’t get lost in the shuffle.
Murdoch paced the floor for several minutes. “Well, if he took it we’ll never know what it said. Something in there caused him to leave, though.”
Johnny drummed his fingers on the sides of his legs as he paced in his own tight circle. He stopped and looked at his father. “Pete will tell us.”
Murdoch raised a brow at that. “You know how seriously he takes his job, son. He isn’t supposed to divulge the contents of personal telegrams to anyone other than the person it’s intended for.”
“Yeah, well, he’ll tell me – or you. We have to find that kid, Murdoch. Who knows what kind of trouble he’s heading for?”
“Alright, son. Let’s get to town.”
It was after noon by the time the Lancers rode into Morro Coyo. They stopped in front of the telegram office and Murdoch took hold of Johnny’s arm. “Let me handle this, son.”
Johnny waved a hand in front of him for his father to step ahead. Inside, he knew if Murdoch’s diplomacy failed, Sam Colt would not.
After thirty minutes of cajoling and arguing, Murdoch was no closer to getting the information than when he’d started. Johnny had had enough. He looked around the streets and saw few people and no one near them. He walked inside the stage coach office and through to the small room where Pete held his ground. Before the telegraph man knew what was happening, Johnny was behind him and cold steel was poking him in the back.
In a soft but cold voice, he spoke, “I’m sorry, Pete, but this kid’s life is on the line. Scott would want you to tell us and he’d demand it if he was here but he ain’t. So, I need to know what was in that telegram, Right Now!”
Shaking in his boots, Pete stuttered, “Jjjohnny, you wouldn’t kill me, wwwould ya?”
“Maybe not but I’ll shoot you and it’ll hurt real bad. Now, what’s it gonna be, Pete?”
Swallowing dryly, the man nodded his head. “It was from Scott’s grandfather. Somethin about not trustin some fella and for Scott to meet him in Chicago at the Palace hotel.”
Johnny smiled, uncocked his gun and slid it in the holster. He squeezed Pete’s shoulder then patted it. “Now was that so hard? Is there anything else?”
Pete turned his head to glance at Johnny. “Well … the boy left on the stage this morning. He paid for his ticket, didn’t think a thing about it and …” he swallowed again and Johnny gave his shoulder a harder squeeze. “Annd, he asked how ta get to Chicago.”
When Johnny stepped onto the boardwalk, Murdoch gave him a scathing look. “You realize he could have us arrested for that.”
Sighing, Johnny looked down for a moment. “You realize that kid is going to Chicago to maybe kill Garrett. Right now, I don’t much care about bein legal, Murdoch. I’m goin after him.”
“I’m coming with you,” Murdoch countered.
Johnny put his hands on his hips and gave his father a frustrated look. “And who’s gonna run the ranch? Besides, you get to wire Scott and tell him about all this.”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “Then maybe I should go alone. Johnny, you’ve never been to Chicago. How are you going to find anything?”
“Gee, I don’t know, old man, ask someone?”
“Don’t get smart with me, boy,” Murdoch growled then dropped his shoulders. “Alright, go. But, Johnny, try not to kill Harlan yourself.”
Johnny looked truly surprised. “Why would I? If he did hire this guy to try and kill you, he’d never admit to it. Besides, give me a little credit, Murdoch. I know Scott would be a little mad at me if I took down the old goat.” With a quirky grin, Johnny walked over and mounted Barranca. “Well, come on, I gotta pack.”
Scott was a little annoyed but more worried when he was pulled out of his meeting with Colonel Anderson for an urgent wire. Pens were in hand to sign the contracts – again. Now, he could only hope the savvy man he’d just left didn’t come up with some additional terms while he was otherwise engaged.
Shaking his head, Scott opened the envelope and read the wire. Then, he read it again just to be sure. Stunned, he fell back against the wall, his hands dropping to his sides. He needed a moment to let it all sink in and when he had, he knew he needed to get home quickly. With determination he reentered the Colonel’s office and, without ado, signed the contracts, bade the man a short goodbye and headed for the train station.
Murdoch still cringed when he thought of Pete’s hands shaking while he’d sent the telegram to Scott. Somehow, he was going to have to make this up to his friend. No, Johnny was going to have to make it up to him.
Still, in the end, Murdoch knew they needed the information and that someone, possibly more than one person, was in danger. His foremost concern was his own son’s safety. Johnny could take care of himself but this was new terrain. He wasn’t even going to take his coat with him. Murdoch had to grab it at the last minute and explain the change in weather Johnny would likely encounter in the north. He was going to be a fish out of water in Chicago. He wouldn’t be able to wear his gun on his hip and Johnny was probably least happy about that bit of information. Still, nothing Murdoch said could dissuade his son. He was going after the boy and that was all.
Murdoch had to wonder why, though. Johnny hadn’t been terribly interested in Ben until just lately. He frowned and sat forward in his desk chair then understanding dawned. When things started pointing toward Harlan was when Johnny became engaged. He’s protecting his brother, of course.
Murdoch sighed and shook his head. He hoped Scott appreciated his brother’s actions and the reasons behind them. He was sure Scott would understand that part quickly, as sure as he was that his older son was on his way home at this very moment.
His other concern was the telegram he’d sent to Garrett. In all good conscience, he felt he had to warn the man of a possible threat. It wouldn’t surprise him if Harlan had Ben arrested on sight. That may not be such a bad idea until Johnny could get to the boy.
Johnny stepped onto the train platform and was met by a blast of cold wind. He pulled his coat closed and adjusted his hat as he took in the Chicago train station. He wasn’t impressed with the city so far but it didn’t matter. All he had on his mind was finding Ben before he did something stupid.
Retrieving his bag, he asked directions for a hotel near the stockyards, hailed a cab and was on his way.
He stood outside the hotel he’d just checked into and felt more at ease with the smells and sounds of the nearby stockyards. A slight smile adorned his face. He found it amusing that cow manure would relax him. Shaking his head, he hailed a cab and set off for the Palace Hotel. It was five o’clock in the evening and the trip was a slow one. Johnny was astounded by all the cabs, wagons and people on the streets. It took an hour to arrive at the hotel. By the time he got there, he was more than ready to get off the streets of Chicago.
“I’m sorry, Sir, we have no guest named Harlan Garrett registered here,” the thin, balding desk clerk reported.
“Look again. He said he was staying here.”
The man raised his brows and perused the register once more. “No, he isn’t here.”
Johnny drummed his fingers on the desk, his head down as he tried to control is frustration. “What’s the next most expensive hotel around here?”
The man pulled his shoulders back and pushed his spectacle back up his nose. “Well, Sir, the only hotel that comes near the Palace in quality and service is the Grand Hotel. One block north, turn right and you’ll find it at the end of that block.”
Johnny almost burst out laughing. He hadn’t intended to insult the man or the hotel but this fella sure did take his job seriously. Still, he couldn’t help but to have a little fun. “I wonder why Mr. Garrett chose a second-rate hotel? He always goes for the best in everything.”
Another man walked up during this part of the conversation. He was dressed immaculately, even more than the clerk and wore an air of authority. “Pardon me, Sir. Did you say Garrett? Harlan Garrett?”
“I did. Why, is he here or not?”
“No, Sir, I’m afraid not but we did receive a telegram for him from California. I sent a reply that Mr. Garrett is not a guest here but I still have the wire. If you’re a relative?” He left it there.
Johnny almost swallowed his tongue. Relative? He almost said “hell, no!” but, he figured the wire was from Murdoch so he decided to play along. “He’s my grandfather,” he replied and his voice actually cracked a little.
“Very good, Sir. I’ll just be a moment.”
Johnny nodded and leaned further against the desk. Mostly because he knew it was annoying the clerk and he figured he ought to enjoy himself a little on this god-forsaken mission.
Finally arriving at what he hoped was the right hotel, Johnny stepped inside and quickly decided the Palace clerk was more jealous than offended. This place was much fancier and he felt a little self-conscious about his plain dress. He was getting a lot of stares from the staff and customers. Shaking it off in a second’s time, he ignored them all and fixed his gaze on the restaurant. Harlan might be having his dinner by now. Johnny was getting pretty hungry himself. He walked to the doorway of the restaurant and peered inside. The interior was dark wood paneling, heavy red drapes and dark carpet. He wondered how anyone could see to walk in there let alone find someone.
“May I help you, Sir?” A rotund man in another fancy black suit, asked.
Johnny reciprocated the smile he received. It was the first smile he’d seen since stepping off the train. “I was looking for Harlan Garrett. I thought he might be eating about now.
The man shook his head.”Mr. Garrett doesn’t dine this early, Sir. I’m afraid I don’t know if he’s yet returned to his room for the day.”
Johnny nodded and was beginning to think Garrett was the hardest man to find in the world. “Well, I’ll just ask at the desk.” As he started to turn, the man laid a gentle hand on his arm. Johnny looked at him questioningly.
“Are you a friend of Mr. Garrett?”
Johnny hesitated a moment. He wasn’t sure his stomach could take declaring that man as family again. “He’s my half-brother’s grandfather.”
The man smiled. “Allow me to check at the front desk for you?”
Shrugging, Johnny nodded and leaned against the door frame as the man walked away.
A minute later, he returned. “Mr. Garrett is in his room, Sir. Number 349, third floor.”
“Thanks, Mister …”
Johnny smiled, “Thank you, Mr. Hawkins.: He paused and gave a small laugh. “I know I’m not dressed fancy enough for this place.” He looked at the man, eyes sparkling with humor. “I’m just a simple rancher from California.”
Hawkins smiled widely at that. “Welcome to our fair city, Mister…?”
“Lancer, Johnny Lancer.”
If nothing else, Johnny thought as he stood outside Harlan’s door, he figured he’d made a kind of friend here. He smiled and knocked on the door. It was 6:45 pm.
Harlan Garrett was sure he’d never been more surprised in his life. As suddenly as the shock of who was standing at his door came, so did the fear.
“Johnny! What’s wrong? Is it Scotty?”
Johnny didn’t even consider Harlan’s reaction to him showing up out of nowhere. He saw the worry on the man’s face and held up a hand.
“Easy, Mr. Garrett. Scott’s fine. Sorry to surprise you but we need to talk. It’s important.”
After allowing himself a second of relief for Scott’s safety, Harlan opened the door wider. “Of course. Please, come in.”
Johnny cocked a brow at the man’s civility as he stepped into the biggest hotel room he’d ever seen. He almost whistled. “Nice place. I thought you were at The Palace.”
“That was my original plan but a room became available here and I prefer this hotel. Please, have a seat and tell me what in the world you’re doing in Chicago.”
Johnny sat in an overstuffed chair as Harlan took a seat opposite in it’s twin. He began telling Garrett the whole story of Ben Twofeather’s, their investigation into his death and Collins’ part in it all. By the time he’d finished, the mantle clock struck the half hour. It was 7:30 pm.
Harlan sat back in his chair and pressed his fingers together under his chin as he took it all in. “Why did Scotty lie in his telegram?”
Johnny winced at that one. “He was fishing.”
Harlan scowled. “He actually thought I might have sent that scoundrel to kill Murdoch? Why in the world would I do such a thing? Why, I …”
“Mr. Garrett,” Johnny interrupted. “After last year, Scott’s had some trouble trusting you and he’s not the only one. The point is, Ben is here somewhere. He probably thinks you didn’t come after all since you aren’t at the Palace. I don’t have a clue where he is and that worries me.”
“Is the boy capable of murder?” Harlan asked, putting aside his hurt and anger with his grandson for now. “And why didn’t Scotty come?”
“He was in Los Angeles. We couldn’t wait for him.” Johnny dipped his eyes then smiled a little. “He’s gonna be mad at me, if that helps any.”
Harlan rolled his eyes. “We’ll discuss family issues later. Right now, you didn’t answer my first question.”
Johnny sighed and shook his head. “I think he thinks he’s capable of it but once he comes face to face with you? Well, I just don’t know.”
“So, what do we do now?”
Johnny shrugged. “Wait, I guess. He grew up here, he knows the city. Best to let him come to you.”
Garrett nodded and stood up. “It’s the dinner hour. I suppose we should stay in the room. Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” Johnny grinned.
It was 8:30 pm when room service arrived. Johnny was sure he’d fall out if he had to wait one more minute. Even with his stomach trying to gain all his attention, he was more concerned as to why Ben hadn’t shown yet. He was a smart boy and would’ve figured out Harlan might be staying in some other hotel.
As they finished the meal, Johnny stared into his coffee cup and wondered if he was going to have to sleep on the floor here.
“I do wonder what the boy is waiting for. If it were me, I’d be anxious to confront the man I believed responsible for my father’s death.”
Johnny looked up at the man then sat back in his chair. “What was your father like?” At the surprised look on Harlan’s face, he shrugged. “I don’t know anything about you.”
Harlan considered the question for a moment. “I suppose I’m a lot like my father if that gives you any idea.”
Johnny laughed softly. “Not really. Somehow, I think there’s a lot more to you than blackmail.”
Garrett’s shoulders went up, his mouth opened but a knock at the door stayed his reply.
Johnny was on his feet in an instant.
“It could be room service,” Garrett said.
“Maybe. I’ll just stand behind the door. Go ahead and answer it.”
Harlan nodded and waited for Johnny to get into position. He opened the door at 9:30 pm.
The young man standing before him was staring at him with wide green eyes. He was disheveled and looked as if he hadn’t bathed in weeks. Harlan scowled. “Well? What do you want, young man?”
Ben continued to stare for a beat then blinked. “I want to talk to you about my father and Samuel Collins.”
Harlan looked sidelong at the boy for a moment. He didn’t feel threatened and Ben seemed very unsure of his standing. He nodded. “This is about the wire my grandson sent, then. Very well, young man, come in.”
Ben let out the breath he was holding and walked inside. Somehow, he thought he’d be angrier when he saw this man but now, all he felt was fear and uncertainty. As the door clicked closed, he turned around and his jaw dropped. “Johnny!”
Johnny leaned against the wall, his arms crossed over his chest. “Hey, kid. I figured you’d beat me here but it looks like you’ve had some trouble.” His eyes raked over Ben.
The boy dropped his head. “I guess I didn’t have the friends here I thought I had. Seems hotels aren’t in any hurry to rent a room to a kid.” He looked back at Johnny, eyes afire. “Or maybe just to half-breeds.”
Johnny heard the anger growing in the boy’s voice and wondered what had taken so long but he wasn’t going to play into it. He just shrugged. “I didn’t have any problems.”
Ben glared at him but didn’t get a chance to retort.
“Gentlemen, this is all very interesting but … actually, it isn’t interesting at all. The point is, I had nothing to do with your father’s death, young man, and I certainly did not send Collins to kill Murdoch Lancer,” Harlan declared. He frowned then, a look of surprise followed by understanding and disbelief lit his face. “That must be what Collins meant.”
Johnny looked hard at him. “What do you mean?”
Garrett shook his head. “I received a letter from Collins a few months after I fired him saying he’d taken care of a problem for me and was sure I’d be indebted enough to re-hire him. I never answered, thinking it was just more of his blathering. I remember now, the letter was sent from San Francisco.”
“So, he thought if he killed Murdoch, you’d be grateful. Wonder why he’d think such a thing?” Johnny asked sarcastically.
Harlan sighed. “It is no secret Murdoch is not my favorite person and I’m sure I voiced my opinions in Collins’ presence. He certainly knew how important Scotty is to me. However, I never said I wanted Murdoch dead to anyone at any time!”
Johnny sighed and shook his head. “I believe you, old man. It’s just a damned shame that two grown men can get to the point where someone would think they’re doing you a favor by committing murder.” He looked over at Ben. “And worse, still, killing the wrong man for nothing.” He walked over and placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “What do you think of all this?”
Ben took a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t know. I believe him for some reason but that doesn’t make him innocent. Like you said, if it weren’t for his hatred, Collins would never have had the idea to kill Mr. Lancer.”
Johnny understood that. “You’re right but it doesn’t make him guilty of anything more than hating a man.”
Ben nodded. “I guess the only one to blame is Collins and we don’t know where he is.”
Garrett stepped forward. “But, I thought Scotty had met him.”
Johnny grimaced. “Yeah, well, that was a lie. Part of the scam.”
“My grandson has some explaining to do,” Harlan grumbled.
Johnny rolled his eyes. “I think it’s time for Ben and me to head back to my hotel and get some shuteye. We’ll head home tomorrow.”
Harlan headed to the door. “Very well,” he said as he opened the door. Just tell my grandson, I …”
Johnny stepped into the hall and grabbed the arm of the man hurrying down the corridor with suitcase in hand. “What’s happening?”
The harried man took a deep breath. “Fire! They say it started on the west side but it’s jumped the river and headed this way. You’d better get out of here, gentlemen. It’s just a block from here now!”
Johnny tightened his hold as the man tried to free himself. “Which direction is it headed?”
“North and east from what I could gather. Please, let me go!”
Johnny released the man then stepped back into the hotel room. He glanced at Ben who was wide-eyed, his adams apple bobbing up and down.
“It seems there’s only one direction left to head. What is south of here?” Harlan asked.
Johnny almost smiled in appreciation for the man’s calm demeanor. “The stockyards and the hotel where I’m staying. Ben, can you get us there on foot?”
The young man simply looked at him with something akin to panic in his eyes. Johnny walked swiftly to him, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.
“Ben! We can get out of this but we need your help. You grew up here. Can you get us to the stockyards on foot?!”
The boy swallowed dryly then found his center. “Yeah, yes, I can get us there.”
Johnny smiled and patted his shoulder.
“We should take some blankets and I need to grab a small valise,” Harlan said as he headed to the bedroom. “Is it very far? We may need drinking water.”
“No, I mean it’s a walk from here but we should be okay,” Ben answered.
“Old man, we don’t have time for you pack all your stuff and I’m not draggin it halfway across the city, either.”
Harlan reappeared with his valise and lifted it in front of him for show. “This is all I require, Johnny. Now, there are blankets in the closet and don’t call me ‘old man’!”
Johnny refrained from rolling his eyes and wondered why he was being such an ass to Garrett. Hell, he didn’t want to be here in the first place and now he had to fight a damned fire? He jerked the closet door open and grabbed three blankets, handing off two. “Okay, we’re gonna make our way outside. There’s probably a stampede of people out there and some of them might be panicked so we have to stay together. Anybody feels like they’re getting pulled away from the others yell …” he paused, thinking of a good word, one that would be unusual and easily noticed. He smiled, “Madrid”.
Harlan rolled his eyes. “Fine, let’s get on with it, then. It would be advisable to keep Ben between us. Do you agree?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Ben, just push me the direction you want me to go and grab my arm or something if you need us to stop.”
Ben took a deep breath and nodded as they headed out the door.
They made it outside the hotel and Johnny pressed them all against the wall of the building. They could smell the smoke and see some buildings down the block already engulfed in flames.
Ben closed his eyes and mapped out a route in his head that would get them to the south side quickly and with as little trouble as possible. When he opened his eyes, he pulled on Johnny’s sleeve and leaned in to be heard over the shouts and screams around them.
“Once we start through there might be looters along the way. It’s best to ignore them and just keep going.”
Johnny nodded and looked over his head to see Garrett nodding his understanding as well. He took a second to find he was impressed with the old man so far. Then his lips curved up remembering Garrett telling him not to call him an old man.
Garrett’s eyes widened as he saw Johnny smile. That, that right there was why he was so concerned about Scotty. This complete disregard for the danger they were in … smiling as if this were some sort of joke! Preposterous! He intended to let Scotty know about all of this once they were safely away from here.
He was still stunned that this was happening. He’d read about the several fires Chicago had endured this year but they’d all been quickly disposed of by the fire brigades. He didn’t understand why this one had gotten so completely out of control but that didn’t matter at the moment. Of course, this would never have happened in Boston. He was brought out of his reverie as Johnny yelled, asking if they were ready. He nodded and took hold of Ben’s shoulder.
At first, it was a struggle to stay together through all the pushing and shoving as everyone tried to make a path away from the fire. They managed to stay together without using the code word. Suddenly, they found themselves in a narrow alley, not another soul in sight.
Ben stopped and took a breather. “All those people from the hotel are from out of town so they don’t know about the alleyways. But, the locals do and we might have to go through some more of this as we make our way. It just depends on how many people know which way they should go.”
“That makes sense, young man. Let us just hope they don’t know.”
Both younger men gave him an astounded look. Harlan sighed and shook his head. “I did not intend to sound as if I wanted them all to run straight into the fire, gentlemen. Shall we just move along as quickly as we can?”
Johnny quirked a grin and nodded. “Your call, Ben.”
As they proceeded, they began to see more people but nothing like the throngs they’d endured at the hotel. Johnny figured Ben knew this city very well and he was glad to have the kid for this. The people they did see were walking or running quickly through the same alleys, turning off here and there.
“These people are probably headed home or to their family’s homes, figuring they’ll be safe now,” Ben informed them.
“Will they be?” Johnny asked.
“I don’t know. That depends on what the fire does, I guess. Who knows if we’ll be safe on this side of town?”
“Are we on the south side now?” Harlan asked.
“Yes, the stockyards are less than a mile from here.”
Garrett blew out a breath. “Well, that wasn’t so terribly far.”
Ben glanced back at him. “No, but this last mile will be the most dangerous. Lots of rough types around here and don’t forget what I said about looters.”
Johnny reached toward his back and snugged the Colt down in his waistband. A move that wasn’t lost on Harlan. He said nothing but felt some relief knowing Johnny was armed.
“Whatever is so important in that bag, Mr. Garrett, it ain’t worth your life. If we run into trouble and I nod at you, hand it over,” Johnny said.
Garrett balked then quickly thought it over and nodded his own agreement.
“Okay, we have to get on the street now,” Ben said and pushed Johnny onward.
They paused at the corner of the alley and took in the scene. It was as Ben said, men were breaking into businesses and looting everything they could carry. One man was seen running off with a cash register, another with a large dining table.
Harlan shook his head. “I don’t understand these people. Why aren’t they helping their neighbors instead of stealing from them?”
Johnny shook his head. He couldn’t answer that one. It was senseless to him, too. “Some people are just plain ornery, Mr. Garrett.” It was all he could come up with. “Let’s go.”
They made it almost to the end of the street where Ben indicated they needed to turn left at the next intersection when two men running toward them slowed to a walk. They glanced at each other and nodded as they proceeded toward Johnny, Ben and Harlan. One of them was holding some sort of large wooden stick.
Ben squeezed Johnny’s arm.
“Just keep walkin,” Johnny said softly.
They were nearly abreast of the strangers when the twosome stopped directly in front of Johnny who was in the lead. Johnny stopped and gently pushed Ben back a little.
“Evenin,” he drawled.
The two men looked at him and smiled. “Evenin, to you, Sir. A very busy evenin it’s been, too.”
Johnny smiled back. “Boy, you ain’t kiddin. I’ve never seen anything like it. I hope you gents and your families are safe.”
The tallest of the two gave him a bow of the head. “We are, thank ya for askin. And, what of you gents? Would ya be needin any assistance?”
“Well, that’s right neighborly of you but, no, we’re almost to where we’re headin. You boys have a good night and stay safe, now.”
Johnny took a step to go around them when he was stopped by the man again. This time, the man took light hold of his upper left arm.
“Well, now, we can’t let you gents continue on all alone. It’s plain you ain’t from around here. Wouldn’t want ya gettin lost. Why, we wouldn’t sleep a wink knowin we’d left ya out here to the elements, would we, Paddy?”
Paddy snickered and nodded his head.
Johnny looked at the hand on his arm them slowly into the eyes of the man it belonged to. His own eyes had lost the friendly light, now they were nearly as dark as the night. In a low, dead tone, he spoke, “We can take care of ourselves. Now, take your hand off me and there won’t be any trouble.”
The man stopped smiling, his face falling expressionless.
Johnny felt the grip tighten and he wrenched his hand free just as his right hand appeared from behind him, Colt cocked and ready. “Is this clear enough for you, Mister? Back off!”
The two raised their hands and took a couple of steps back.
“Ben, take Harlan on around the corner and wait for me.”
“But, Johnny, you said we weren’t to separate,” Harlan said. “I believe it would be prudent if we all went together,” he continued as he moved to stand beside Johnny, a .22 in his own hand.
Johnny grinned when he saw the peashooter. “I did say that, didn’t I? Alright, if you gents will excuse us, we’ll be on our way. Oh, and, if I see even your shadow again, you’re both dead.”
The thugs smirked a little at the bravado.
“I would believe him, gentlemen. He’s killed at least a dozen men that I know of and we’ve only been acquainted a year now.”
Harlan smiled and tipped his hat at them as he and Ben walked away. Johnny hung back and back-stepped until he was around the corner then pulled up and waited a few seconds. He peeked back around and saw the thugs heading off in the opposite direction.
Sighing lightly and replacing his Colt in his waistband, he cocked a brow. “A dozen, Mr. Garrett?”
The older man shrugged. “It’s an even number.”
Johnny shook his head then looked past them and smiled. “That’s my hotel. It ain’t fancy but it ain’t on fire, either.”
Johnny had little trouble getting another bed but there were no additional rooms available. In fact, the clerk told him, they’d filled up fast. The extra bed was one used for the night security guard when he stayed over after his shift on occasion. It was brought to the room and the three men fell into whatever furniture would hold them.
“Well, that was quite a journey, gentlemen. I am exhausted.” Harlan repositioned himself in the chair then frowned. “I’m also hungry. I don’t suppose there is room service here?”
Johnny laughed from his position laying on the bed, his arm slung over his eyes. “I doubt it but I’ll go down and see what they have. Ben, have you eaten tonight? Or at all today for that matter?” He moved his arm to look at the boy sitting in a straight back chair at the small table, his head resting on his crossed arms.
When Ben didn’t answer, Johnny sat up and called out to him again. Frowning at still not getting a response, he walked over and leaned down, his hand on Ben’s shoulder when he heard a soft snore. He straightened up and shook his head.
“He’s asleep. Well, I’ll get us all something. Be right back.”
Harlan shook his head. How the boy could sleep in that position was beyond him. Then again, he was just a boy and children were easily adaptable. He frowned as Johnny closed the door behind him. Maybe not so easily, he thought. Scotty had always had difficulty adapting to not having parents. Though he never complained and never spoke of it often, Harlan knew the boy struggled.
He stopped his line of thought, knowing it would do no good because it never had the times he’d pondered it before. It was done now. Any mistakes he’d made rearing the boy were over and Scotty was a fine young man. There was nothing to be gained in beleaguering the point.
He stood and stretched his back, wincing at the soreness. No small wonder. He’d been terrified the entire trek here, not that he’d ever admit to it, of course. They didn’t need any complaining; they’d had enough to think about. He had to admit as he slowly paced the small room, hands clasped behind his back, that Johnny had impressed him. He’d never seen this side of the man before. Was that Madrid? Most likely. Yes, it was impressive and he believed Johnny would have killed those men to keep them all safe. He was prepared to shoot as well, if he’d had to. It was simple survival, after all.
Ben stirred and Harlan looked on as the boy’s head slowly came up. He blinked and rubbed his face before looking around. As their eyes met, Ben’s widened a moment as he seemed to orient himself.
“Johnny has gone to find us something to eat,” Harlan informed.
The boy stood and stretched then looked around the room.
Suppressing a grin, Harlan said, “I believe the facilities are at the end of the hall.”
Ben blushed and nodded then headed out the door. He doesn’t talk much, Harlan thought.
Johnny returned with sandwiches and they ate their fill. After an interminably long discussion about sleeping arrangements, he finally got Harlan settled in the extra bed and Ben in the bed next to him. Seemed no one wanted to imposition anyone else but sleeping on the floor when they didn’t have to was just plain crazy to Johnny. He’d finally convinced Bed he didn’t shoot his gun in his sleep, he didn’t snore much and he didn’t kick out so the boy agreed to sleep with him.
The next morning, Johnny was up at dawn and headed downstairs to find news about the fire. It had finally been contained when it started raining during the early morning hours. He thought that must have started not long after they’d all finally gone to bed. There was no damage to the stockyards which he was glad of but the downtown area, the business area was destroyed. He wondered how Harlan would take that news. As for the trains, only westward bound was running and the clerk didn’t know when the eastbound tracks would open. He also sent a telegram home so his family would know he had Ben and everyone was safe. He didn’t figure they’d hear about the fire before he made it home so he didn’t bother with that.
Once all this was taken care of, he ordered breakfast and waited to take it upstairs to his companions.
Balancing the laden tray on one arm, Johnny managed to get the door open. Trying to be quiet was turning into a chore he didn’t care for but as he stepped inside, he found it wasn’t completely necessary. Harlan was just shrugging into his vest and Ben was still asleep.
“Ah, I was wondering where you’d gone off to,” Garrett said softly.
“Got some news but it’s not very good,” Johnny replied in the same soft tone so as not to awaken Ben.
Harlan helped him with the tray and they both ate as Johnny relayed what he knew of the damage to the city.
“This is devastating news. I believe they will be able to rebuild, though. Chicago is too important a city not to go on. There’s a great deal of investment, banking and, of course, the stockyards.”
Johnny cocked his head to the side. “I didn’t think you’d give two hoots about the stockyards.”
Harlan sat back and considered the younger man. “I would not want to go anywhere nearer to them that I have to but the business of buying and selling meat, hides and all the other byproducts of animals is very profitable, Johnny. You know that being on the beginning end of the business, providing the beef, but the rest is just as lucrative if not more.”
Johnny nodded and smiled. “I guess I always see you as the kind of man who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty or have to do with anything of the like.”
“Being a businessman can mean dealing largely with the numbers of a product and not necessarily being the one who produces that product. Your father, for example, is a businessman and he knows all about cattle prices and what it takes to keep your ranch running and profitable. I, on the other hand, have no idea what ranching entails but I do know beef is a highly priced and sought-after commodity.”
Johnny frowned then leaned forward, crossing his arms on the table. “So, really, you’re investing in what Murdoch, or any rancher, knows about raising and selling cattle.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“You been makin money off my old man, Mr. Garrett?” Johnny’s eyes lit and a grin tugged his lips.
Harlan’s eyes widened then he harrumphed. “You are exasperating, young man!”
Ben snorted as he watched and listened to them then he sat up and scrubbed his scalp. Yawning widely, he staggered over to the table and plopped down.
Johnny pushed an empty plate in front of him and poured a cup of coffee and watched as the boy began to inhale the food.
“Good morning, Sunshine!” Johnny said too loudly.
Ben gave him a half-hearted glare and Johnny chuckled.
“There was one other thing, Mr. Garrett. The east-bound trains aren’t running and they didn’t know downstairs how long it would take to open the lines again.”
Harlan frowned deeply at that then, he had another thought. “Well, my business here won’t be happening now. I believe I will join you and visit Scotty for a few days. I have some things I want to say to that young man.”
Ben looked up then. “You gonna whomp ‘im?”
Johnny laughed heartily at that.
“Certainly not!” Harlan proclaimed then seemed to reconsider. “However, it would do him no harm.”
“Well, reckon I’ll get us some tickets,” Johnny said as he made to stand.
“I will take care of that, young man. You have already provided enough.” Harlan stood and held a hand out to stay Johnny. “I’ll have no argument about it, Johnny. We will be on our way as soon as is possible.” With that, he donned his hat and walked out of the room.
Scott walked into the great room and waved the paper he was holding in the air.
“Johnny wired. He has Ben and everyone is safe. They’re on their way home.” He paused and frowned in thought. “He didn’t mention Grandfather specifically.”
Murdoch sat back in his desk chair and shrugged. “He said everyone was safe. I’m sure he would have said if there was a problem, son.”
Scott sighed and sat in the chair in front of his father’s desk.
“I suppose. I just wish I’d been here to go to Chicago myself. Grandfather can be … difficult.” He looked up at the snorting sound emanating from across the desk and grimaced. He was still frustrated with his return from Los Angeles taking so long. The tracks were being repaired and he was forced to either wait an additional two days or ride home on horseback. Neither choice was appealing but his better sense won out and he had waited.
This past week had been tortuous awaiting news. He trusted Johnny, of course, but if Ben had lost all reason, it was no telling what the boy would do. Evidently, Johnny had been able to talk some sense into the young man for which Scott was most grateful but he didn’t like having to wait for news about his family’s well-being.
“I know it’s hard not being there, son, but Johnny said everything was fine. I’m sure he’ll be able to control Ben.”
Scott cocked a brow and a twitch of a smile fought and lost the battle to appear fully formed on his lips. “I wonder how he managed.”
Murdoch cleared his throat and maintained his own serious expression. “I’ve only been to Chicago once, to the stockyards. I don’t recall seeing any woodsheds there.”
The battle lost, Scott broke into a wide smile then laughed softly. “I’m sure they have their own means. He said he’d wire again when he was sure of their arrival date.”
Harlan procured three tickets for a train leaving at 8 p.m. that very night. The smile on his face for his good fortune didn’t last long as he thought of all that was happening. It was bad enough Collins had been resurrected but that Scotty would even contemplate the idea he’d sent the man here to kill Murdoch was disheartening to say the least.
As he walked back to the hotel, he realized he had no clothes save the ones on his back. He was sure he wouldn’t find much in this part of town but he was even more convinced it would be better than anything he’d find in California. He stopped someone on the street and asked about a men’s clothing store. Following the directions, he walked the short distance in no time.
It wasn’t Boston’s finest but he supposed he could have done worse, he thought as he waited for his purchases to be packaged. Another thought occurred to him. Ben didn’t have any bags with him. Did he run off without a stitch to change into or had he lost his possessions somewhere along the way? He decided he’d ask the boy before trying to buy him a few things. Anyway, he had no idea what size the young man wore.
Harlan returned to the hotel and walked into a thick curtain of tension. He looked from Johnny to Ben then proceeded to put his packages down.
Johnny sucked in a breath and regarded the man. “So, how long do we have to wait around here?”
“Luckily, there is a train leaving at 8 p.m. and we have tickets for it. I stopped and bought a few clothes. Ben, I noticed you don’t have a bag with you. I’d be glad to buy you a few things if you need them.”
Johnny raised his brows at that then sauntered over to the window.
Ben, sitting on the side of the bed with his head hung, slowly looked up and shook his head. “Why? I came here to kill you and you want to buy me clothes?”
Harlan sighed. “Young man, we all make mistakes in life and I doubt this will be your last. If you feel the need for self-recrimination, don’t let me stop you. However, since we will be spending a great deal of time together for the next several days, I would appreciate it if you made the effort not to smell up our car.”
Ben grinned at that lengthy explanation. “I have my bag stashed away. I just need to go get it.”
Johnny turned and glared at him. “I’ll go with you.”
“I’m not going to run off!”
“No, you ain’t. And you ain’t gonna get yourself into any trouble like we ran into last night, either, kid. It’s still not safe out there so I’m going with you unless you just want to tell me where it is.”
Ben stood and huffed loudly. “You’ll never find it. We aren’t far from the place anyway.”
“Fine but just so you know, I’m not taking my eyes off you until we’re back at Lancer. I promised my old man I’d find you and keep you safe and that’s what I aim to do.”
Ben paused at this then relaxed his shoulders. “You gave your word, I understand. It won’t take long.”
Johnny followed the boy out of the room, giving Harlan a quick glance and a shrug before closing the door behind him.
They arrived at the train station thirty minutes early. Johnny sent a telegram home to let them know when the trio would likely arrive. He never counted on trains or stages to be on time so he promised nothing.
They boarded and were shown to a private car. Johnny raised a brow at Garrett who simply shrugged. He didn’t know why he was surprised, though. Of course, ole Harlan would want the best.
They settled in and soon, the train was underway. Johnny’s shoulders relaxed a bit as they lurched forward, homeward bound.
“Well, gentlemen, now that we are all safely on our way, may I ask what was going on between you two earlier? When I returned from purchasing our tickets, it seemed very tense in the room.”
Johnny looked over at Ben whose head was bowed and he smirked.
“Ben was having second thoughts about leaving Chicago again. We had a little disagreement until I pointed out to him that the city was in worse shape than him right now.”
Ben looked up, a frown on his face then he dropped his eyes again. “I don’t suppose it matters. It’s not like I have any family there, or anywhere.”
Johnny repositioned himself on the bench.
“I know how hard it is, kid. I’ve been where you are. The difference is, you do have people to care for you, to help you. That’s more than I ever had. It’s hard to see or believe right now but you are gonna be okay.”
“The only barrier to that end result may be your own sense of vengeance, young man. You may want to think long and hard about this business of finding Collins. He may well be dead by now or heaven knows where. Think about spending the rest of your life trying to find a man you know nothing about.”
Johnny nodded. “Mr. Garrett has a good point, there.”
Ben sighed heavily and looked at first Garrett then Johnny. “What would you do if it were your father? Could you live with knowing the man who killed him was running free, has been free all these years?”
Johnny grimaced and dropped his head. How could he tell this kid not to do exactly what he did; hunted down the man who killed his mother. It was the only point to his life at that time as far as he was concerned. Would he have listened to anyone tell him it was a fool thing to do? No, he wouldn’t have. The circumstances were different, though. He knew who he was after and he knew about where the man would be. He only had one part of one country to look in. Ben had the whole world.
Garrett watched Johnny drop his head and wondered what the man was thinking and if he would answer that question. He leaned forward slightly as Johnny raised his head and looked at Ben.
“No, I couldn’t live with knowing the man who killed my mother was free. I was twelve when she died and I spent the next three years searching for him and practicing with a gun. I got very good with it, too.” Johnny paused and moved closer to Ben. “But it did take me three years to find him and I knew he was in Mexico, knew right about the area he’d stay in. Three years, Ben. In the end I guess it was a good thing I didn’t find him right off. He would have killed me easy then.”
Ben lowered his eyes briefly before looking back at Johnny. “I’m sorry about your mother but at least you understand.”
“I ain’t finished, kid,” Johnny replied harshly. He glanced at Garrett taking in every word and wondered if the man would spill it all to Murdoch. The hell with it, he thought. “Once I killed him … and puked my guts out, there was no turning back. It was a big show, this fifteen-year-old nobody callin out a man who had a reputation and winnin. I guess you could say my fate was sealed in that blink of an eye. At least, for a lot of years. I will tell you this because I know it’s true. If Murdoch hadn’t brought me home, I’d be dead right now. So, tell me this. Would your father want you to avenge him? To ruin your whole life? Because that’s what we’re talking about here.”
Ben leaned back and stared at the floor for a long time, a frown creasing his forehead. Finally, he looked back at Johnny. “I’m not trying to be sarcastic but, I honestly don’t know if he would want me to avenge him? I don’t remember him very much.”
“And your mother? You knew her well. Would she want this for you?” Garrett asked.
Ben looked at him and shook his head. “No, no she wouldn’t. Still, I just don’t think I can live with myself if I don’t find that man.”
“Then find him and turn him in to the law, young man. Nothing says you have to kill the man to get justice.”
Johnny smiled a little at the logic. “Sounds like the best idea to me only, we still don’t have any idea where he is. For now, how about you get some shuteye, kid?”
Once Ben was settled, Harlan sat next to Johnny on the bench and stretched his legs out. “I’ve never cared much for train travel but they are making it more tolerable these days.”
Johnny quirked a smile. “You didn’t have to go to all this trouble but we appreciate it.”
Harlan nodded; his brows knitted in thought.
“What you were saying to Ben about your mother’s death and the vengeance you sought … that was the beginning of your life as a gunfighter. Did you really have to keep living that way?”
Johnny sighed lightly and shrugged. “Have to? No, I didn’t but I didn’t have a whole lot of other options. I could’ve been a thief.” He paused and grinned at the old man. “Or I could’ve been a farmer, I guess. The fact is, Mr. Garrett, it was my best option at the time. Well, if I wanted to eat fairly regular anyways.”
“You were quite young, why didn’t you go to an orphanage?”
Johnny grimaced and shook his head.
“Mexican orphanages are nothing more than work farms or jails. And before you ask, I couldn’t have gotten into an American orphanage. Back then, they didn’t take breeds. A lot still don’t. Look, I may not have chosen the best way but I won’t apologize for it. I’m not ashamed of bein a gunfighter, Mr. Garrett.”
Harlan hid his surprise at that statement. He stared at his shoes for a long moment.
“The first letter Scotty wrote to me after arriving in California was about you, most of it, at any rate. The rest was about his decision to stay. I will say I didn’t read the part of the letter about you at first as I was quite stunned by that decision. When I did read it thoroughly, I was even more stunned and, honestly, very concerned for Scotty’s welfare.”
“I can imagine and I can’t blame you. I don’t reckon you knew a lot about gunfighters.”
Harlan glanced up at the grinning face and shook his head. “I knew nothing and I wasn’t able to find out much in Boston. It isn’t something anyone there has had experience with. Even a few men I talked to who had been out west had no information since they hadn’t dealt with any gunfighters. I’m still not sure exactly what that job entails.”
Johnny’s grin lessened as he studied the man now looking him in the eye.
“Are you asking?” At the nod he received, he sighed. “Well, mostly people hire us to deal with problems they can’t deal with themselves. Like range wars or someone tryin to take their land like Murdoch. If they need someone to fight for them because they either can’t for whatever reason or don’t know how, they hire a gunfighter.”
“Weren’t the men trying to take Lancer gunfighters?” Harlan asked.
“Yeah but that’s not normal. Day always did think a lot of himself. Always lookin for that big score so he could ‘retire’.” Johnny shook his head. “I guess it might’ve worked if he’d picked a smaller area but tryin to take over a whole valley is just crazy.”
“From what Scotty told me, he very nearly did succeed and may have had it not been for the two of you.”
Johnny smiled briefly. “Scott killed him. I gotta say I was impressed with that grandson of yours. He’s one tough hombre.”
Harlan felt some chagrin as well as pride in his boy. “How long were you a gunfighter?”
Johnny shrugged. “Five years or so. I lasted longer than a lot of them do, I guess.”
Harlan repositioned himself, sitting almost sideways to see Johnny better. “I suppose owning one third of a ranch was a much better deal.”
Johnny looked over and saw the smile. Reckon Scott didn’t tell him everything, he thought and wondered why he was telling this man anything at all. He simply shrugged again. “Either way my days as a gunfighter were over. If that Pinkerton agent hadn’t found me when he did, I would’ve been dead in another minute. I was facing a firing squad at the time.”
Harlan was shocked and was sure it showed on his face. He gawked at Johnny for a moment before regaining his composure. He heard the younger man laugh.
“Guess Scott didn’t tell you all of it.”
“No,” Harlan swallowed hard, “No, he didn’t tell me that part. May I ask why?”
Johnny cocked a brow wondering why he was just now asking permission. “It’s kind of a long story. Let’s just say there was a revolution of sorts and we lost. Anyway, it’s all done with now. We need to worry about doing something about that kid.” His eyes went toward the other room where Ben slept.
Harlan followed Johnny’s gaze toward the sleeping area where Ben rested and nodded thoughtfully. “He needs something other than his father’s death to focus on although, honestly, I doubt that will happen.”
Johnny stretched his legs and slid down a bit on the bench, crossing his ankles and dropping his hands to his lap.
“No, I don’t think it will. With any luck, we’ll find this man first. Anything you can remember about him would help.” He turned his head and locked eyes with Garrett. “Now ain’t the time to worry about what’s done or why you hired him, Mr. Garrett. That boy will ruin his life if he don’t get some justice.”
Garrett leaned back, resting against the side of the car. He studied Johnny for a moment before answering. An almost smile came to his lips.
“No, I suppose that time is well past. I hired the man because some men I was doing business with were … well, let us say I didn’t trust them much. Collins was my protection and he did a good job. I kept him on as a safety net should similar business come about. He was with me all day at my office and at home much of the time. I suppose that’s why Scotty remembered his name.”
“Why did you fire him?” Johnny asked softly.
Garrett scowled. “He was becoming too familiar. It was partly my fault for trusting him to stay in the room when business was discussed. And, I suppose I was getting used to him. He was unobtrusive most of the time. In fact, many times I forgot he was even in the room.”
Johnny grinned. “Like when you were talkin up the devil about my old man?”
Garrett’s scowl deepened then he had the grace to appear embarrassed. At least it seemed that way to Johnny.
“That’s one way of putting it. It was after one of those moments he approached me with a solution. He said he would ‘get rid of’ Murdoch for me. I didn’t … this is the truth, Johnny. I didn’t realize what he even meant at first. When I asked, he remained vague but also managed to make his meaning perfectly clear. I was astonished, frankly. In that moment I realized he’d become much too ensconced in my life. I saw my out and I fired him for even suggesting such a thing. He actually didn’t believe me at first but I made it clear he was no longer in my employ. I paid him his wages and even severance pay. I never saw him again and only heard from him that one time. That was a year after the fact and I honestly had no idea what he was talking about.”
“And you ignored the letter, you said before. So, he figured you were just acting, makin it seem like you never agreed to his idea to keep yourself out of the fire.” Johnny sighed loudly. “He figured you really did want him to kill Murdoch or, he figured if he did kill the old man, you’d give him back his job.” A grin touched his lips. “You must be a great boss, Mr. Garrett.”
Harlan rolled his eyes. “Do you ever take anything seriously, young man? Collins tried to kill your father and you find it amusing.”
Johnny pulled a face. “No, I don’t find that amusing. I figure he thinks he did the job and left before making sure. That’s always a big mistake. He must not have been a professional killer. Maybe just a man who was willing to do anything asked of him.” He held a hand up to stay the older man. “I know it wasn’t asked but, like you said, maybe he thought it was. At any rate, finding him after ten years is gonna be nearly impossible.”
“If he’s even still alive or even still in the country.” Harlan added then stood slowly. “I’m going to bed. It’s quite late.”
Johnny nodded and stood as well. “We have plenty of time to try and figure it out. Besides, you haven’t told me what I really need to know. What sort of man he is, what type of things he likes, places he likes to go? That kind of information would be a lot of help in tracking him down.”
“I’ll have to think about that. All we know for certain is ten years ago he was in California.” Garrett headed to the sleeping room and Johnny followed.
Murdoch stared at the envelope with the Pinkerton insignia which had been hand delivered less than an hour ago. He’d decided to wait for Scott to get in from the range before reading the contents. Even though this Collins had apparently tried to kill him, Murdoch thought Scott was the one having the hardest time with this aside from Ben, of course.
As much as he’d told his son he didn’t think Harlan would go to such lengths, a small part of him dreaded that it may be true. He couldn’t help but think of any eventuality. He always tried to think through any possible implications of any problems or business issues in his life before making a decision. He’d learned his lessons hard and he’d learned them well over the years.
He heard the front door open and leaned back in his chair, taking a deep breath and steeling himself. Scott walked in looking the worse for wear.
“Hard day, son?”
Scott paused on his way across the room then continued toward his father’s desk with a slight shrug.
“Aren’t they all?” A smile graced his face for a moment. “What’s that?” he nodded to the envelope still in Murdoch’s hand.
“It’s from the Pinkerton’s. I was waiting for you before opening it. I just hope what’s in here finally gives us some answers.”
Scott sat down across from Murdoch, his shoulders tense. In a soft voice, he spoke. “I hope it’s promising news, at the least.” Looking into his father’s eyes, he continued. “And that my grandfather really had nothing to do with any of this.”
Murdoch nodded, not knowing what he could say to assuage his son’s fears. He knew this had been wearing heavily on Scott. He tore the envelope open as his son leaned closer.
As they sat in the dining car for breakfast, Ben stared out the window at the quickly passing landscape. He’d been quiet for the past two days, not bringing up Collins or anything else, for that matter. Johnny worried about the boy but he knew sometimes a person just needed to be left alone for a while. Still, he couldn’t let this go on much longer.
“We’ll be in Cross Creek tomorrow, should reach Lancer by supper.”
Ben turned and gave him a small smile. “Maybe Maria will cook you some Mexican food.”
Johnny laughed softly. “She usually does when I’ve been on a trip.” Addressing Harlan, Johnny took the opportunity of having the boy’s attention. “Have you been able to think of anything?”
Garrett gave him a frown then he remembered. “Ah, yes. Well, it isn’t as if we socialized together. I do recall he had an affinity for gambling. He would talk about poker games he’d been to from time to time. I’m afraid that’s really all I can remember.”
“Well, it’s something. If we can find his general location, we’ll have a place to start looking.”
Ben nodded. “That’s a good lead. Did he like to drink?”
Harlan nodded. “I wouldn’t say he drank to excess but now that you mention it, he did seem to enjoy higher quality liquor. I believe Brandy was his drink of choice. Yes, Hennessy Cognac, I recall now.”
Johnny smiled a little. “Ya know, kid, you could probably be a Pinkerton agent the way your mind works. Maybe even a lawyer.”
Ben shrugged. “Just trying to think of anything else that would help. If you don’t mind, though, I think I’ll lay down a while. I didn’t sleep much last night.”
Johnny stood so the boy could get out of the seat then laid a hand on his shoulder as Ben stood up. “I know, kid. Try not to think about it. I know it’s hard but you do need to get some decent rest. “
Johnny retook his seat and watched Ben walk out of the dining car.
“You’ll make a fine father someday, Johnny.”
He jerked his head round to gawk at Garrett who was smiling. “I don’t think so. Don’t think I want kids now. Seems too hard a job.”
Harlan chuckled. “It is the hardest job but, usually, the most rewarding.” A shadow fell across his eyes.
Johnny spoke softly. “I don’t think I could live through what you have.”
Harlan’s eyes came up, the sadness there indisputable. “I wasn’t sure I would either but I have, somehow.”
Johnny fidgeted in his seat. “I know this won’t sound right but, at least, you were with her.”
Harlan’s eyes widened for a second then his face fell. “Yes, I understand what you’re saying. I will always cherish being able to see her one last time. It had been too long since we’d been together as it was. Bittersweet, certainly.” He inhaled sharply then frowned. “How on earth did we get on this subject?”
Johnny grinned. “Me being a father. I always liked being around kids even if they are a pain sometimes. I just remember what it was like not to have any parents.” A scowl came to his face. “Some folks have no business being parents, if you ask me.”
“I agree with that but I hope you aren’t speaking of your mother,” Garrett said, brows raised.
Surprised, Johnny shook his head. “No, but I have friends who didn’t have a parent worth a lick, for sure.”
“I must say I’m surprised, pleasantly so, at how well you and I are getting along on this journey.”
Johnny’s frown was replaced with a wide grin. “Don’t tell Scott. He’ll be jealous.”
Harlan rolled his eyes. “I think I’ll go back and read a while. I purchased a few books if you’d like one?”
Johnny pulled a face. “Maybe in a while. Think I’ll stay here. I need some more coffee.”
Murdoch sat staring at the contents of the Pinkerton report with stunned silence. Eventually he looked up at Scott who was lost in his own thoughts.
“I suppose we should come up with a plan.”
Scott blinked and looked at his father with a frown. “I just can’t believe the man has been in prison all these years and just when we try to locate him, he’s released!”
“At least he hasn’t been a free man very long. He’s still in San Francisco and we know where he’s staying.”
Scott sighed and stood, pacing in front of Murdoch’s desk.
“Yes, for now. What we don’t know is if he’ll stay there. Actually, we know nothing about this man. Didn’t the Pinkerton’s give any idea what sort he is? Where he spends his time or anything?”
“I read the full report to you, son. There’s nothing like that in here.” He waved the report in the air then tossed it atop his desk. Murdoch stood and stretched his long frame then walked around the desk to intervene in his son’s pacing before it got on his nerves. “I think we should wait for Johnny and Ben.”
Scott glanced at him then turned and walked to the picture window behind the desk. “I suppose. I’m just afraid he’ll leave the city before we can get to him. Unless …”
Murdoch waited but Scott didn’t continue right away. “Unless what?”
Scott turned to face his father, a wicked smile on his face. “Unless we get someone to keep an eye on him. Someone cunning. Someone … sneaky. Someone who is familiar with the law and how far he can bend it.”
Murdoch gave him a sidelong look. “What makes you think Val would go all the way to San Francisco?”
Scott’s smile widened. “I have a plan.”
Val Crawford had no clue why he was being summoned to Lancer. All he knew was he wasn’t very happy about it. He knew Johnny was off on some trip so he couldn’t figure out what the Lancers wanted. He almost reined to a stop as he topped the rise above the hacienda. What if something had happened to Johnny? He thought. Nothing else made any sense. His heart was pounding as he descended the hill. It took him the whole time getting to the yard to pull himself together and put the scowl back on his face.
Steeling his heart against anything and everything, Val knocked on the door. When Scott opened it with a smile on his face, Val relaxed measurably. Scott wouldn’t be smiling if Johnny was hurt or worse. He let out a breath as he passed Scott on the way into the great room.
Scott cocked a brow as Val walked by him, wondering what was wrong with the man. He acted as if a huge boulder had been lifted from his shoulders. He frowned and followed Val inside.
“Sheriff, thank you from coming all the way out here. We didn’t think this was a discussion to have in town. Please have a seat,” Murdoch said.
Val plopped into a chair. “Just so I’m clear. Nothin’s happened to Johnny, right?”
Scott understood the strange behavior now. “No, Val. In fact, we’re expecting Johnny and Ben home today. I’m sorry, it didn’t occur to me you may think something was wrong.”
Val snorted. “Couldn’t figure what you two would wanna talk to me about.”
Murdoch handed the man a glass of whiskey before settling on the sofa next to his son. “We need a favor. A big favor.”
Scott managed not to glare at his father but this wasn’t how he’d planned to start this conversation. He quickly interrupted. “Actually, it’s Johnny who mostly needs your help.” He almost smiled as Val became more alert. Scott then went on to explain the situation, some of which Val knew, most of which he didn’t.
Johnny sighed as he drove the surrey they’d rented in Cross Creek over the ridge and started down the drive. He looked over at Garrett when the man softly chuckled.
“It’s always good to get home but in this instance, I’d say it’s even better?”
Johnny smiled widely. “I always hate being away for very long but I really hate going to big cities that catch on fire in the middle of the night.”
“Does that happen to you often?” Ben asked with a smirk.
Johnny craned his neck and looked back at the boy. “You’d be surprised, kid.” He pulled the surrey to a stop and frowned.
“Is something wrong?” Harlan asked.
“No, not wrong just odd. That’s Val’s horse. Wonder what he’s doin here.”
Ben slid out of the back seat and started unloading the small amount of luggage. He didn’t know who ‘Val’ was and thought nothing of it.
Garrett didn’t know either and even though he would ordinarily ask, he was anxious to see his grandson.
“Well, shall we? Hopefully, Scotty is home.”
“Sure. He’s home this time of night. Like I said, we’re just in time for supper,” Johnny smiled.
He waited for everyone to gather at the front door and put a finger to his lips, a grin sliding on his face. He opened the door, stepping quietly into the foyer when he heard his friend’s voice loud and clear.
“Are you outta your mind?!” Val shouted.
Johnny closed his eyes briefly and wondered what more had happened. He glanced at his companions and shrugged then stepped quietly through the doorway to the great room. Val was glaring at his family and they both looked ornery. He almost laughed aloud; until he heard what Scott had to say.
“No, we aren’t out of our minds and like I said, this is for Johnny. You two always say you’d do anything for each other. So, what’s it going to be, Val? Are you going to let my brother down?”
Val’s face reddened as he continued to glare. He managed to reply through a clenched jaw. “That ain’t fair, Scott.”
Johnny stepped further into the room, his own anger rising rapidly for his brother. “No, it sure ain’t.”
All three older men turned quickly to the door. A barrage of greetings could be heard as they descended on the travelers. Johnny was still put out but he managed to hold back his own questions until everyone had settled down.
“I didn’t know you were coming, Grandfather.” Scott took the older man’s arm and guided him to a chair.
“It wasn’t planned but I had little choice,” Harlan replied gruffly.
Scott smiled. “Did Johnny kidnap you?”
“Certainly not, young man. We can discuss that later. I’m sure Johnny would like to know about the conversation we walked in on.”
Scott cocked a brow and was about to ask why his grandfather would care what Johnny wanted when his brother spoke up.
“Yeah, I sure would. What were they tryin to talk you into Val?”
The sheriff sneered and walked over to the cold fireplace, leaned his shoulder against the mantle and shrugged. “Ask them.”
“Maybe we should all sit down and I’ll tell you what we’ve found out about Collins,” Murdoch suggested.
For the first time, Ben perked up. He was beginning to think all this was some family matter and had nothing to do with him. In fact, he was about to excuse himself and head for safer ground. Now, he leaned forward on the sofa where he’d initially sought a haven. His eyes fixed on Murdoch.
Johnny begrudgingly sat on the arm of the sofa near Ben but he shot his brother a look that told of more discussion later.
Once everyone was settled, Murdoch took a breath. He was exhausted from the emotional upheaval between arguing with Val to the sheer relief and happiness he felt when he saw Johnny safely home. He pushed his own questions to the back of his mind as he relayed their information.
The room was quiet for a while after the telling. Johnny wore a frown of thought then sucked in a breath and looked at his brother. “What does any of this have to do with Val?”
“We need someone to go to San Francisco and tail Collins and find a way to get him back here. If he hears the name Lancer, I’m sure he’ll head for safer ground. We …” he paused and glanced at his father, “I thought Val would be the perfect candidate since he’s so sneaky.” He ended his explanation with a grin. One he noticed his brother did not reciprocate.
Johnny stood and ambled toward his brother until he was standing right before Scott. In a low voice, he said, “and you figured using my name and friendship would be the way to do that?”
Scott just stared at him a moment then dipped his eyes before finding his brother’s near-glare. “I didn’t think he’d do it otherwise.”
“I ain’t doin it any-wise,” Val grumbled.
Harlan came to his feet. “Gentlemen, I suggest we table this discussion until Johnny, Ben and I have had an opportunity to rest and settle. We’ve had a long journey and quite an experience which we will share later.”
Ben stood as well. “I agree. I could use some time to think this through then I’d like to talk more about why any of you think I shouldn’t have a say in how this is handled.” With that, the young man turned and walked out of the room and up the stairs.
Johnny smirked, knowing the kid was right. “Sounds like a good plan to me.” Turning back to his brother, he added, “then you and me can have a nice long talk. Meantime, Mr. Garrett has the right idea.” Addressing Harlan, he said, “I’ll have someone bring your bags up but I need to talk to Val. Maybe your grandson would like to do that for you.” Without looking at Scott or Murdoch he nodded his head at Val and walked outside.
Johnny paced a small area of the yard as he waited the few seconds for Val to catch up then he stopped and turned to his friend. “I’m sorry.”
Val waved him off. “You didn’t know about it. I will tell ya this, that brother of yours is gonna get a piece of my mind.”
Johnny quirked his lips. “Mine too. But that can wait for later. What exactly did they want you to do?”
Val shook his head and wandered off a few paces. “Oh, just go up there and get that snake back to this jurisdiction – somehow. Mind you, neither of ’em had a plan. Said I could figure it out once I got the lay of the land.” He stopped and turned back to Johnny. “The lay of the land, they said! Johnny, sometimes I wonder if you really are related to them two. Sometimes they don’t seem to have a lick of sense.”
Laughing softly, Johnny put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Sometimes, I think you might be right. I also think they were trying to figure a way to fix this before Ben got back and had to deal with it.”
Val rubbed a hand down his face. “Makes sense. Still, I don’t think they have any idea what they were askin.”
Johnny shook his head. He didn’t know what to make of his family at the moment, more so, what to make of Scott. He’d known this was his brother’s idea before he had ever admitted it. Sometimes, Scott got a little carried away with his plots and plans.
“Well, you want to stay for supper?”
“Hell, no! I’m gettin out of here before they come up with some other grand notion.” He looked squarely at Johnny and even wagged a finger. “Don’t you go off half-cocked, neither, Johnny.”
“Don’t worry. I’ve had enough excitement for a while. Besides, the last thing I want is to go to another big city. Whatever we figure out, I’ll let you know.”
Val rolled his eyes and headed for his horse, He grabbed the reins, mounted up and looked back down at his friend. “Just don’t tell me nothing if it’s illegal til after ya do it.”
Johnny laughed and waved him off as Val trotted down the road. He sighed heavily and wondered what was wrong with his brother. He headed back inside, hoping old man Garrett had really gone upstairs.
When he entered the great room, it was empty. Partly glad Garrett was gone and partly disappointed his brother had run out on him, Johnny plopped on the sofa and sighed heavily. Exhausted wasn’t the word. He wasn’t sure there was a word for how tired he felt. Still, he couldn’t lie around in bed – yet.
He had a notion; one Scott would probably hate but he thought it a good idea. At the moment, he wasn’t much interested in what Scott had to say anyway. Johnny frowned and wondered what his brother thought he was doing. He heard the footfalls and hoped he was about to find out.
Scott slowed as he approached the back of the sofa and spied his brother’s head. Tensing his jaw momentarily, he relaxed and plastered a smile on his face as he rounded the furniture. Sitting across from his brother, he said, “It’s good to have you home. I can’t wait to hear why you brought Grandfather back with you. What was that about his coming not being planned?”
Johnny stared at him for a long moment, long enough for Murdoch to appear. He watched his father cautiously enter the room and tried not to laugh. It wasn’t funny, after all. Once Murdoch settled in the chair next to Scott, Johnny explained. “Well, there weren’t any trains running east after the fire.”
“What fire?” Murdoch asked as he sat forward.
“Chicago damned near burned to the ground while we were there. The only side of town that wasn’t burned was the south, the stockyards, which is where I was staying.” He quickly told them of the narrow escape but he left out the part about the two thugs they’d run into. No sense in getting them more upset.
Murdoch sat back in his chair and shook his head slowly. “My God, son. That city is a hub for cattle and so much more.”
“Yeah,” Johnny sighed out. “Lucky Ben was there. He knows the city and got us through pretty easily. Anyways, the old man didn’t have much choice. Either stay put or come with us. He chose to come here.” Johnny eyed his brother. “I think he wants a piece of your hide for lying to him about Collins, brother.”
Scott grimaced. “I’m sure he’ll understand once I explain it.”
“Then you best explain it better than I did because he wasn’t real satisfied. Anyway, that can wait. What I want to know is what the hell you thought you were doin trying to drag Val into this.” He sat forward quickly. “More than that, using me to do it.”
Scott had the grace to look chagrined.
“We wanted to get this taken care of or, at least, have a plan before you got back with Ben. I thought he’d run off again only, this time, he would have been heading for much more dangerous ground. I know I shouldn’t have … I just didn’t think Val would do it unless he thought it was for you.”
“He wouldn’t have done it anyway and you want to know why? Cause it’s loco, that’s why!” Johnny shook his head. “You got carried away with your plottin and planning, is all.” He leaned forward in his seat and narrowed his eyes. “What you tried to do was plain wrong and you know it. Don’t ever do that again, Scott. Not with anyone. Don’t ever use my name without my knowin it.”
Scott locked onto the stare then dipped his eyes. Resting his jaw on his fisted hand, he sighed. “You have my word. Still, I thought it was a good idea.”
Johnny quirked his mouth and glanced at his father who was staring at his own lap. He chewed the inside of his cheek as they both reminded him of a couple of school boys caught skippin school or something.
“Well, in case you were wondering, I have an idea myself but, it can wait til supper. I’m tired and I’d like to get cleaned up. Besides, whether you agree or not, Ben does have a right to be part of this as long as we keep him from doing something foolish.” He almost said, ‘like Scott’ but refrained.
Murdoch looked up for the first time in a while. “You do look tired, son. I’m just thankful you didn’t get hurt or worse.”
Johnny smiled as he stood with a grunt. “Thanks, I’ll see you both at supper.” He looked down at his brother and shook his head but he couldn’t stop a little grin for the older man.
Harlan descended the stairs five minutes before the supper hour. It was ridiculous to him to eat so early but he supposed if you were going to go to bed with the setting sun, it was feasible. He still would never understand how this life could appeal to his grandson. He saw Murdoch at his desk and quickly scanned the room, finding no one else. He stood there a moment; unsure his former son-in-law would want to be in the same room with him when Murdoch called out for him to enter.
“Did you rest?”
“Yes, thank you, I did. It was an exhausting journey.”
Murdoch waved a hand toward the sitting area in invitation.
“Johnny told us about the fire. While I’m happy the stockyards weren’t affected, I know it’s a devastating loss for the business center.”
Harlan seated himself in a wing-backed chair and nodded. “Yes, I’m afraid it will take some time for them to rebuild. I’ve never seen anything like it. I must say I feel fortunate to have had Johnny and Ben there to help me. I’m not sure what I would have done without them.”
Johnny stepped across the threshold and snorted softly. “You could’ve handled it fine on your own from what I saw, Mr. Garrett.” He grinned at his father. “You shoulda seen him, Murdoch. He was ready for about anything.”
Scott stepped into the room followed by Ben just then. “What does that mean?”
“Nothing at all, Scotty. Nothing at all,” Garrett interceded. He wasn’t thrilled with his grandson knowing about their encounter with those ruffians. Perhaps if he’d appeared more … fragile, Scotty would come home and ‘take care of him’. Well, it was too late now. He had witnesses, after all.
Ben settled back on the sofa, uninterested in retelling their adventures at the moment. “Has anyone come up with an idea on Collins?”
“Apparently, Johnny has it all worked out,” Scott said, a slight tone of sarcasm to his voice.
Johnny smirked at him. “I have an idea. I never said it was all worked out but, mostly it is. Of course, it all depends on if Mr. Garrett is willing.”
All eyes fell on Harlan as he stared openly at Johnny. “I don’t see what I could do to help.”
Johnny smiled. “It’s simple, really. Go to San Francisco and find Collins. Offer him his job back and tell him you know what he tried to do all those years ago. Tell him you want him to finish the job. Take Scott with you. Make something up about how Murdoch is evil and won’t give Scott his due.” He sat back and shrugged. “You know, figure some story he’ll buy that you both want the old man dead. Once we get him here, we can have him thrown in jail.”
Murdoch cocked a brow and considered the idea. He wasn’t thrilled with Scott being a part of it but whether Johnny had suggested it or not, he knew Scott would go with Harlan. That is, if Garrett agreed to it.
“Won’t he be suspicious? Scott’s been living here now all the sudden he wants Mr. Lancer dead?” Ben asked.
“Collins has no way of knowing Scott came home. He just got out of prison and, as far as we know, hasn’t left the city at all,” Johnny explained.
“I’m not crazy about the idea of grandfather being involved in this, Johnny. Why can’t I just go alone?”
“Because, Scott, Mr. Garrett knows Collins and Collins will be more trusting of him.”
Harlan nodded thoughtfully as he examined the idea in his mind. It could work as long as he played it just right. He couldn’t be too eager to rehire Collins, more a matter of the lesser evil. A slight smile adorned his face as he concreted a plan.
“Yes, I think that will work, Johnny. I have an idea of just how to go about this.”
Johnny laughed softly. “Yeah, I figured you might.”
Murdoch tapped his fingers on his knee as he listened to it all. “It may work but I’m not thrilled with the idea.”
“Murdoch, the greater danger will be to Grandfather which is why I’m going along. Collins may decide his anger is greater than his greed and I have no intentions of leaving my grandfather to the wolf, as it were. No matter how well he handled himself in Chicago.” Scott cocked a brow that told his father the matter was closed.
“What am I supposed to be doing all this time?” Ben asked.
“Staying right here, young man. No more traipsing off half-way across the country. I haven’t forgotten what you did, Ben, and we will be discussing it at some length,” Murdoch warned.
Nearly a week passed before Harlan felt up to traveling again. Scott was adamant they wouldn’t leave until Garrett was well rested. He was convinced there was more to the story of what happened in Chicago than he was hearing.
Glances between Ben, Johnny and his grandfather during the various stories all but cemented that belief. What surprised Scott most was the apparent goodwill between Harlan and Johnny. He’d spent quite a bit of time contemplating how that may have come about. More to do with what wasn’t told, he was sure.
Johnny spent this time keeping Ben occupied as much as he could. He took the boy out on the range, tried to show him how to be a cowboy but Ben was still less than interested. Probably a good thing, Johnny had surmised.
Most of Ben’s time was spent thinking about Collins and how they all thought he was incapable of taking care of himself. Okay, he did mess up in Chicago. He assumed he could count on old friends but, apparently, those friends were fair-weathered at best. Still, he did find out more information and helped Johnny and that old man get clear of the city burning around them. He still couldn’t believe all the damage done. What surprised him most was he didn’t feel any real loss. He supposed once his mother died, Chicago didn’t really feel like home anymore. He wondered if any place ever would.
Lancer didn’t feel like home. Especially after Mr. Lancer blistered his ears for a solid hour about taking off on his own. He’d said nothing but he knew he’d been just fine without their interference. Did they think he was just going to shoot Garrett on sight? He didn’t even have a gun, had no thoughts like that. It was Collins he was after. All he wanted from Garrett was the truth of what happened and where Collins was now.
He grimaced a little knowing they’d been able to find Collins without ever leaving the ranch. But, how was he supposed to know that? It seemed to him no one was willing to really dig once they found out Scott’s grandfather was involved. He was glad the old man didn’t have anything to do with it, for Scott’s sake.
Now once again, they were going off without him. Not allowing him the justice he was due. They’d promised to bring Collins back but what if they couldn’t? What if he slipped away from them? Ben had been thinking long and hard of how to convince them to let him go along. Now, he had just about decided to just follow them. The only problem was his shadow. Johnny hadn’t let him out of his sight for more than a minute all week.
Sunday evening after dinner, Murdoch called his sons out to the veranda. He stared off toward the mountains and the sun making its slow descent to sleep. Johnny and Scott settled on the low wall on either side of him.
After a long moment of silence, Johnny, always wary when his old man was quiet like this, spoke. “What’s on your mind, Murdoch?”
Murdoch’s lips twitched a little as he glanced at his impatient son. He moved back into the shadows a bit to keep the sun from his eyes and so he could see them both. “You two. There’s been a lot of tension between you since Johnny got back from Chicago and I’d like you to settle things before Scott leaves tomorrow.” He held up a hand as he saw Johnny open his mouth. “Before that, I’d like to clear the air, as well. I was wrong to drag Val into this, Johnny. It wasn’t fair to him and it wasn’t fair to the town. I suppose I, we, got caught up in trying to settle this whole mess and I didn’t consider the consequences. I owe him an apology.”
Johnny lowered his eyes and his shoulders before looking over at his brother. A cocked brow was his only communication.
Scott smiled softly and bowed his head to one side. “I’ve apologized to Johnny but, you’re right, Sir, I’ll make sure to speak with Val.”
Johnny leaned back against a column and considered his brother’s response for a moment. “You’ll talk to Val? Not apologize, just talk.” He asked for clarification.
“That’s not what I meant. Yes, of course I’ll apologize. I understand your point and I shouldn’t have used your friendship to try and guilt him into helping. However, I still think it was a good idea to keep an eye on Collins. I suppose we could have come up with a better idea of who could do that.”
Johnny allowed a small smile. “Why didn’t you just ask the Pinkerton’s? Ain’t that something they get paid for?”
Murdoch cleared his throat. “We could go at this all night, boys. What’s done is done and we can only hope Val will accept our apology. I’d like to move forward and concentrate on not making any mistakes with this plan which, by the way, I’m still not happy with.”
Scott stood and stepped up to his father. “I know you aren’t happy with it, Sir. I just don’t know what else to do. Short of kidnapping Collins, we need to get him back here some way.”
Johnny came to his feet as well. “He’s right.” He paused and slid his eyes sideways toward Scott. “Finally,” he grinned widely.
All three shared a laugh and all three felt a weight lift.
Scott loaded the last of their luggage in the back of the buggy then checked the traces. As he finished, he glanced toward the arch and saw a rider approaching. He stepped further into the yard as Murdoch and Johnny walked out and joined him.
“Well, I guess you two are about to get your chance to apologize sooner than you thought,” Johnny smirked as he waved at Val Crawford slowly making his way toward them.
Scott took a deep breath and steeled himself for Val’s reaction to seeing him again. He was sure the sheriff was still angry. Hopefully, he’d cooled off a little but once Val got closer, Scott didn’t believe that.
Johnny walked out and took hold of Milagro’s bridle as his friend dismounted looking grouchier than usual.
Val nodded as the other two Lancer’s converged. His eyes went to the buggy. “No need for that if you was plannin a trip to San Francisco.” He stopped and looked past them as Harlan and Ben walked outside and joined them.
“Why is that, Sheriff?’ Murdoch asked.
“Got word yesterday from the police up there. I asked ‘em to keep an eye on Collins.” He paused and glanced at Scott. “He got hisself killed in a poker game Saturday night.”
Murdoch stepped closer. “Are they sure?”
“Dead sure. Shot between the eyes, they said. They know it’s him cause they were already watchin ‘im. Reckon it didn’t take him long to cause a ruckus or two up there.” Silence greeted the news. “Well, figured I’d save ya a trip. Need to get back ta town now.”
Scott’s head came up then. “Just a minute, Val. If I could have a word?”
Val nearly growled and noticed Johnny was trying hard not to laugh. He glowered at his friend then walked away with Scott.
“Well, I must say I’m not disappointed. I wasn’t looking forward to another long trip,” Harlan spoke.
Johnny grinned. “I thought you were all-fired set to get Collins.”
“An unfortunate choice of words, young man. Yes, I was ‘all-fired’ to face him. I would have preferred to do it in a safer arena.” Harlan perked up. “Of course, I’m sure it would have been uneventful with Scotty as my traveling companion.”
Johnny put his hands on his hips. “Ya know, I didn’t start that fire, old … Mr. Garrett.”
Murdoch raised a brow at his son’s show of respect to Harlan and he realized something. Something that made him uncomfortable. Johnny and Harlan were becoming very friendly. Before he could ponder what that might mean, Scott and Val reappeared.
Johnny walked over to Ben who stood with his head down. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“What are you thinkin about?” Ben looked up at him with a deep sadness in his eyes.
“Just wished I could face the bastard. Getting killed like that was too good for him. He killed my father, ruined my mother’s life and mine, too, I guess. Just doesn’t seem right, Johnny. He should’ve had to answer for what he did.”
Johnny sighed and shook his shoulder lightly. “Ya know something, Ben? There’s a lot that isn’t fair in this life. Everything doesn’t always work the way it should. Think about this, though. He spent ten years in jail and not long after he got his freedom back, he got himself killed. Sounds to me like a pretty lousy life. Maybe, knowing he wasn’t livin it up, that he was being punished for something will help some.”
Ben nodded. “Maybe. I guess. Think I’d just like to go to my room for a while.”
Johnny smiled a little at him. “Sure thing, kid. Take your time. You know where I am if you want to talk things out some more.”
Scott approached his grandfather. “Well, Sir, I suppose we should unload the buggy. You’ll be staying a while, I hope.”
“If you’ll have me, Scotty. I would like to stay in one place for a while longer.”
Johnny strolled over to Val who was standing beside his horse. The grin on his face was warning enough for Val and he readied himself.
“Everything okay, now?” Johnny asked softly. “I mean, you two settle things?”
Suspicious of the straight questions, Val answered sarcastically, “Yeah, sure. It’s all roses now.”
Johnny locked eyes with him. “Thanks for not bein stupid. For not agreeing to go along with it.”
Val was more than surprised at the sincerity. It seemed Johnny wasn’t going to needle him after all.
“Yeah, well, I try to stay away from crazy.” He looked over Johnny’s shoulder to see Murdoch Lancer closing in. Val actually groaned then quickly mounted up. “Done talked to Scott, Mr. Lancer. No need to drag it out. Let’s just forget the whole thing.”
Murdoch pulled up short, paused then nodded. “I think that’s the best thing. Thank you, Sheriff.”
Val nodded then took off at a lope down the road.
Murdoch laid a hand on his son’s shoulder. “I guess we should see to Ben.”
“I talked to him, Murdoch,” Johnny sighed out. “He feels cheated right now but he’ll get past that. Reckon he’s finally going to have to think about his future instead of the past.” A quick smile lit his face. “I might be able to help him with that. Got some experience in that area.”
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