Word Count 33,745
“Scott, I think maybe I got something for you.”
“What’s that?” Scott asked from across the kitchen, still chewing on a mouthful of bacon.
Johnny looked down at the basket on the kitchen stoop, hearing the fall of Scott’s boots on the kitchen tiles as his brother strode closer. “Anything you need to be telling us about?”
“I don’t have time for riddles, Johnny. Murdoch wants the calves cleared off the north range before dark and we need to be saddling up.” Stopping abruptly at Johnny’s shoulder, gazing down to the stoop as well, Scott asked, “What the heck is that?”
“I was hoping maybe you knew.”
A wedding-ring quilt had been loosely folded into the woven reed basket, the kind of basket Maria might have used balanced against her hip when she hauled wet laundry to the line, and the quilt’s silk-hemmed corners lapped over a lump in the middle, leaving an opening at one end. Through that opening, the crown of a small head with tight golden curls showed.
“It’s not mine,” Scott said.
“It’s got your hair.” Johnny squatted, careful not to sit on his spurs, and lifted up a bit of the quilt, just enough to catch a flash of long lashes and pink cheeks. The lashes fluttered and he let the quilt slip back, looking over his shoulder to Scott. He whispered up, “It’s a baby all right.”
“Apparently. You don’t suppose it’s Murdoch’s?”
“Think he could sire something that small?”
“From little acorns, as they say. What do you think it’s doing here?”
Still squatted down, Johnny looked beyond the stoop to Teresa’s garden and the low stucco wall guarding it. None of the women folk were bent over the bushes there, gathering chilies or cilantro leaves, keeping an eye on the kid as they worked, and this thing couldn’t be their niño anyway. Besides Teresa, the only women on the ranch were dark—-black hair and brown eyes, just like their vaquero husbands—-not pink-faced like this little one. Johnny straightened, gazing out beyond the garden to the paddocks and the corrals, watching one hand curry the tail of a big Appaloosa and another scatter hay over the corral dust. Mexicans, both of them.
“Doesn’t look like mama’s around,” Johnny said.
Scott did the honors, hefting the basket from the stoop and carrying it carefully to the kitchen table. The thing stirred as he shoved a bowlful of corn muffins out of the way, fitted the basket between the dirty dishes, but it still didn’t wake. All it did was make a cooing music, a sound that drove Johnny’s hand to the quilt, made him pull it snug around the baby against his better judgment.
“Don’t wake him,” Scott said, shooting a disapproving glance Johnny’s direction.
“I know he’s fine, but don’t mess with the blanket.”
Not that it mattered. “Here she comes,” Scott said as the sound of Teresa’s rustling skirt moved through the hallway. Murdoch’s heavy steps moved with her, but Teresa swept through the kitchen doorway first, her hands full of Murdoch’s coffee tray. Murdoch strode in right behind her.
“What’s in the basket?” she asked, setting the tray on the buffet, making the china clink and scaring another coo from the kid. Spinning around, eyes full of delight, she asked happily,
“Not exactly,” came out of Scott while Murdoch was peeling back the quilt. The kid’s arms popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, its face flaring immediately red. The squeal that thing let out should have shook the pots off the walls, but the kid was in Teresa’s arms, being patted and bounced and hushed and fussed over, before Johnny could even tell what had happened.
By turn, Murdoch looked them both in the eyes. “Well, boys?”
“Ask Scott,” Johnny said over the kid’s screams. “All I did was find the thing.”
“We found the thing—the infant,” Scott said just as loudly, “alone on the stoop. And actually, Murdoch,” he said with a back-handed slap at Johnny’s arm, “we were just wondering if the child might be yours.”
“You were, were you?”
“Sure,” Johnny said, reaching for the basket, fidgeting with the quilt. “You did make that trip to Modesto ‘bout nine months back, so Scott and me—well, we were arguing whether any woman would have had you.”
“And which side of this argument did you take?”
He couldn’t hold back a grin. “I never knew a woman yet who could say no to a Lancer.”
Tucked under the quilt were two glass bottles with rubber nipples tied around their necks and Johnny set them on the table. “Here you go, Teresa.”
She grabbed one up, shoving the infant into his arms. “Hold him while I get the milk heated,” she said, and as she scurried off to the range, she called back, “And he needs his diaper changed.”
The diapers were buried under the quilt, they found a stack of them when they rummaged deeper, and after peeling off the top one, they got the diaper changed with Scott barking orders, Johnny doing the wrapping and Murdoch inserting two thick fingers between the diaper and the kid and running the pin against them. He was a she, maybe three months old, a cute little niña with chubby legs and chubby arms she kept flailing around as she wailed.
Murdoch took her when the bottle was ready, settling into a kitchen chair with her stuck into the crook of his arm. She quieted down then and Scott, Johnny and Teresa all sat as well, admiring both the kid and the stillness.
“So what are we going to do with her?” Scott asked.
“Find her parents,” Murdoch said, his deep voice rumbling hushed and low.
Scott looked doubtful. “If they wanted to be found they wouldn’t have left her on our doorstep. “Teresa snatched the diaper stack into her lap and started thumbing through it, mouthing the numbers as she counted, while Johnny reached across and offered his finger to the infant, letting her wrap her five small fingers around his one.
“We don’t even know it was her folks that abandoned her,” Johnny said.
“Who else?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny tugged gently but the kid kept a firm grip on his finger. “Somebody could have snatched her. Got scared maybe, and wanted rid of her before the law caught up.”
“Johnny?” Teresa dragged something white from between the diapers, giving him a worried look. “I think this is for you.”
He pulled free from the infant’s grasp as Teresa handed over a letter-sized envelope, too fat to contain only a note. Johnny steeled himself after reading the name printed on the front and slipped open the sealed flap. He gave a low whistle and pulled out a fistful of paper money and a folded paper.
Scott reached for the envelope. “Johnny Madrid,” he read aloud.
“Yeah,” Johnny softly said, riffling through the money. “Here, Scott, count this.” He passed the money over and opened the note. Murdoch managed to rise without disturbing the infant’s hold on the nipple and walked around to stand behind Johnny’s chair, looking over Johnny’s shoulder to the note.
“The kid’s in trouble.” Johnny tipped the paper, holding it higher so his father could read the handwriting. “‘Keep her safe,’ it says. The money must be for protection.”
Teresa jumped up and crowded in against Murdoch, then just grabbed the note from Johnny. “That’s all? There isn’t a name or when her parents will come for her?”
“Nope. Just ‘keep her safe’.”
“Twenty-three hundred,” Scott said, slipping the money back into the envelope. “I’m not sure what the going rate is, but that seems high for protection money.”
“Best pay I ever got.”
“Well, I can’t see who would want to hurt this little one.” Murdoch was still keeping his voice down, and when Johnny looked up over his shoulder, his father was jiggling the baby, not exactly smiling down at her but looking a lot more pleased than he should have been with a pint-sized target in his arms. “Whoever left her here obviously knows your past, Johnny. Any ideas who it might be?”
“No.” Johnny scratched at his brow, trying to remember the faces from that other life, but the only memories that came to him were hard ones—hard eyes and wind-roughened faces and scars, they all had scars, even the gamblers with their shiftless ways. None of them looked like this soft little one. “She’s doesn’t look like south of the border. That narrows it down some.”
“But it still leaves the entire state of California.”
“And Nevada and Arizona,” Johnny said, “and parts of New Mexico.”
“So who are you, sweetheart?” Murdoch murmured. “And what are we going to call you until we find out?”
Maggie was what they landed on. Teresa wanted Alexandra but Murdoch got a sour look on his face at that suggestion, saying a name shouldn’t be bigger than the body it attaches to and besides, it sounds like a queen’s name and he’d left all that royal nonsense behind in Scotland. Maggie was Murdoch’s choice, short for Margaret and stated with a finality that made Johnny think his father had kept it in his hip pocket just for this kind of morning, where the day breaks with a niña on the doorstep. The name fit her though, and the first time they used it she spit up on Teresa’s blouse, giving it her own sort of baptismal blessing.
Nothing stops a ranch’s operations, but the day’s orders changed, with a crew of men sent off to wrangle the north range calves, three hands issued Winchesters and posted to sentry duty, and Scott and Johnny sent into Green River. Murdoch stayed at the hacienda, where Johnny figured he’d spend the day hovering, just making certain Maggie didn’t disappear as mysteriously as she’d appeared.
“Who do you think Maggie was?” Scott asked as they were riding into town. His big chestnut had pulled up lame the week before and Scott had kept it stabled while the horse recovered, a week’s incarceration that had it straining at its bit now, wanting to break ahead. Johnny had to touch the spurs to Barranca’s flanks to catch up.
“An old lover?”
“Could be, but I don’t think so. For some reason the name sounds familiar.”
“I knew a Maggie down in Matamoras once. Worked the back rooms at Frenchie’s Parlor. Didn’t seem like Murdoch’s type.”
“The Old Man seems kind of sweet on our little Maggie though.”
“He is a man of surprises, our father.”
Johnny let Barranca fall behind a stride, contemplating the truth of those words, but then touched the spurs again and came shoulder to shoulder with his brother. “How do you figure it? What kind of trouble can a man get in that he dumps his own flesh and blood like that? Can’t be anything legal or he’d go to the law.”
“Unless he doesn’t trust the law.”
“Val? Everybody knows Val shoots as straight as they come.”
“If this infant’s father is just passing through, he wouldn’t know who to trust.”
“He knew where to find me.”
“True enough. Or she knew where to find you. We can’t assume Maggie’s father left her on our doorstep, it could have been her mother.”
Faint, barely there beneath the thud of the horses’ hooves, came a sharp echo. Johnny looked to the foothills, scanning the scrub oak as if the sound might materialize, make itself as flesh and blood as the niña. Nothing moved.
“Hold up, Scott.”
This time the echo was followed quickly by a second—two sharp reports with only a beat between them.
“They could be shooting rabbits,” Scott said.
Three more reports, so close together that their echoes came as one.
“Sounds like the rabbits are shooting back.”
Johnny spun Barranca toward the foothills and pushed the horse into a gallop, with Scott’s chestnut opening up beside them. The road sat in a valley a good half mile from where the land started to rise, and the horses were breathing hard by the time they’d climbed the first of the foothills. The reports were clearer here, closer, from just to the west and maybe another mile away. Another hill and then they came up on a rise with a view down into a bowl, with two thin streams snaking down from the higher hills, trickling on either side of a massive outcropping. Sounds ricocheted in these hills and the gunshots could be coming from either one of those canyons.
“Right or left?” Johnny shouted.
“Right,” Scott shouted back.
Johnny took the left canyon, slipping his Colt from its holster when the boulders crowded in from the steeply ascending slopes. The canyon twisted, heading off on a tangent every time he thought he could get a good look ahead, but the gunshots kept him urging Barranca up the rocky stream. The shots were coming six in succession now, crisp and clean, a rhythm Johnny could feel in his bones.
Climbing a narrow piece of the canyon, forced into the stream, Barranca stumbled, knocking rocks together, and the gunshots suddenly stopped. Hoof beats followed, pounding hard but fading rapidly as they gained distance. Johnny kept going, following the stream to where the canyon opened up again into a clearing ringed by spruce, with a big noisy jay swooping from tree to tree. He dismounted at the clearing’s edge, took a good look around just to be certain he was alone, and then led Barranca to a fallen tree at the far side of the clearing.
Tin cans littered the grass under the tree’s rotting trunk and a few cans still perched where the shooter must have set them just before taking off. Johnny knelt beside the tree, picked a can out of the rubble, and rolled it in his palm. The thing was riddled with bullet holes, .45s most likely. From the concentration of damage in the target’s center, this wasn’t the first time the shooter had taken this kind of practice. Johnny straightened and tossed the can down into the grass.
The jay was above him now, chattering down from the top of a half-dead spruce. Irritated, unsettled by the jay, by the rapid fire of its calls, Johnny tipped his hat back, set his hands on his hips and called up, “I know, I know.”
He didn’t need any damn bird telling him what he’d heard riding through the canyon, what he’d suspected as soon as he’d read the name Madrid. Little Maggie was in some real kind of trouble, and if he didn’t figure things out quick—so was he.
“So come again—-what makes you think I’ve got some gunslinger out terrorizing the town’s tin cans?”
Val had his boot on his desk, with his chair balanced back on two legs, and Johnny mirrored him, setting his foot up against the opposite side of the desk and tipping his chair up as well. He wagged a finger at the can he’d brought back, the one he’d tossed into the clutter of papers, coffee cups, and bread crusts littering Val’s desk. “Count the holes.”
Val stretched for the can but couldn’t reach, so Scott got up and handed the can over, then slid a stack of papers aside and wedged his butt up on the corner of the desk.
Poking his finger at the holes, Val counted. “Six. But that don’t tell me how many times this can got lucky. For all I know your gunslinger missed more times than not.” He handed the can back to Scott, who turned the can in one hand and spread the thumb and forefinger of his other hand to span the breadth of the holes.
“If the shooter wasn’t accurate,” Scott said, “there should be holes at the top or bottom rims, but none of these missed the middle by more than two inches.”
“So he’s got a steady finger, but that don’t make him a gunslinger. He’s gotta put some grease on his draw before he’d really have those cans quaking in their boots.”
“He was working on it,” Johnny said.
“Working on it or gettin’ there?”
Johnny shrugged. “The shots I heard were coming pretty fast.”
Val studied on that for a moment, staring at Johnny with a dumb dog look that Johnny knew was anything but dumb. “The law can’t say anything about a man taking some target practice. You still taking any yourself?”
“Not lately,” Johnny admitted, a fact that had been worrying him plenty since riding out of the canyon that morning. The one good thing that had come out of those years on the border was a fast gun, an advantage that had kept him mostly whole and the other guy dead. Now he was spending sunup to sundown pushing beef around instead of practicing his draw. He was getting soft. “Maybe I ought to bring that little niña into town, leave her with you,” he said, allowing a small smile to work its way out where Val could see it. “I’ll even let you have the protection money, seeing as I’m a bit rusty for the job.”
Val moved his foot and his chair slammed to the floor. “You do, Johnny Lancer, and I’ll shoot you myself.”
“Come on, Val, you were doing a pretty good job wrangling all those Indian kids. One little baby would be nothin’ for a man of your experience.”
“I’d rather teach a pig to square dance.”
“So is that how you met those kids’ mama?”
“Is that how I met their mama?” Val repeated with disgust. “You ain’t ever goin’ to let me forget those kids, are you?”
“Scott?” Val looked up imploringly. “You wanna kick that chair out from underneath that ingrate brother of yours?”
Scott gave Val a small smile of his own, one Johnny knew was forced, and then slapped his gloves against his thigh, looking down thoughtfully at the floor. “Has anybody new moved into the area? We don’t know if the infant was abandoned by her mother or her father, we don’t know anything really, so all we can do is start asking questions. Any idea where we should start?”
“You might start over at the hotel.”
“Why’s that?” Scott asked.
“Because that’s where the stranger I found shot in an alley last night is doing his recuperating today. “
The stranger turned out to be one George Dorsey, a business man from Denver. What kind of business Val didn’t know.
“Didn’t he tell you?” Scott asked as they all strode together down the boardwalk toward the hotel.
“Sure,” Val said. “He does a little of this and a little of that. If the victims don’t want to talk, then I don’t beat it out of them. Especially when they’re already bleedin’ on me.”
“And he didn’t see who shot him?”
“Says he didn’t.”
“You believe him?”
It was decided that Johnny would stay in the lobby while Val and Scott went up to see Dorsey. If this man was tied up with little Maggie and the protection money then he might recognize Madrid, and no sense showing their hand before all the bets were on the table.
“Let me do the talking,” Scott said just before rapping on the man’s door.
“You have a plan?” Val asked.
“Just follow my lead.”
The man yelled a hearty, “It’s not locked!” after the knock, and they entered to find him sitting by the window in an upholstered chair, with his feet up on an ottoman. His left arm was in a sling, but he was dressed and his hair was slicked back with crème, giving it a nearly black sheen. He had a book lying open across his lap, and as Scott walked across the room, held out his hand, the author’s name became visible: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“We didn’t mean to interrupt your reading,” Scott said, shaking the man’s good hand. “Scott Lancer.”
“George Dorsey. And you didn’t interrupt. I was just digesting Mr. Emerson’s words while observing your town. The management has provided me with a fine view through this window.”
Sashes held the curtains open, providing line of sight to the livery and saloon across the street and the wagons passing by.
“I suppose the view could be worse,” Scott said, “considering how close Sheriff Crawford tells me you came to being killed.”
Dorsey laughed. “I’ve always enjoyed a good fire, but I’m in no hurry to view it for eternity. Sit, Mr. Lancer.” He gestured toward a straight-back chair by a small table and Scott took it. “I’m sorry, Sheriff, but I’ve only the one extra chair. You’re welcome to take a seat on the mattress if you like.”
“I’ll stand,” Val said.
“Of course. So, gentlemen, what can I do for you?”
“My family holds some mining interests in Colorado,” Scott told him, “and we were expecting a representative from the company with some legal papers. He didn’t show up and when we heard a businessman had been attacked, I went to Sheriff Crawford. We thought perhaps you might be the representative.”
“Is this mining interest a profitable operation?”
“Then I wish I were in its employ.”
“Well, it was worth a try.” Scott stood. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, Mr. Dorsey, and I do wish you a speedy recovery. It was your arm that was hit, wasn’t it?”
Dorsey touched his fingers to his shoulder. “Here. A damn derringer.”
“That’s an unusual weapon choice for a robber. You were robbed, I presume?”
“No, I wasn’t, but only thanks to one of your citizens. It happened behind the saloon and one of the ladies there heard the gunshots. Her scream frightened the shooter away.”
“God bless the ladies of the saloon.”
Dorsey laughed again. “My sentiments as well.”
Scott started slowly for the door. “I’m sure Sheriff Crawford will catch your attacker. You gave him a good description, didn’t you?”
“No, unfortunately. I’m afraid the man has had every opportunity to be miles away by now because while I have this bullet to prove he was there, I never actually saw him.”
Feigning surprise, Scott stopped and turned. “You didn’t see your attacker? That’s a shame. I suppose a successful businessman like yourself can attract unfavorable attention though. What kind of business did you say you’re in?”
Dorsey smiled faintly. “Insurance mainly, providing protection against high risk for my clients. Recently I’ve done some transactions in the banking field.”
“Banking? If you’re here to see the Green River Bank, my family is one of their best customers. As a matter of fact, I have to stop by the bank this afternoon, so if you need any messages sent over I’d be happy to carry them for you.”
“That’s very kind of you, but it’s not necessary. See, Sheriff Crawford,” Dorsey said, rubbing his injured shoulder and gazing over at Val, “didn’t I tell you this is the friendliest town I’ve been in for years? Everyone is so helpful.” He trained his mild gaze back to Scott. “And inquisitive.”
“Well,” Scott said, retreating to the door again, “I hope you have time to finish Emerson before you have to leave our fine inquisitive town.”
“With any luck,” Dorsey said.
“That all you found out?” Johnny asked when they caught up to him in the lobby.
“No,” Scott told him while leading the way out to the boardwalk.
The sun was nearly straight overhead now, leaving no shade from the high storefronts. Johnny pulled his hat lower over his eyes.
“Our Mr. Dorsey is up to something,” Scott said. “I know that. Val, did you notice what he didn’t do when you walked in his room?”
“Ask me if I’d found his attacker.”
“Exactly. Dorsey has a bullet hole in his shoulder, yet he doesn’t seem at all curious about who did it.”
“So he knows who’s after him,” Johnny said.
Scott stepped down into the street and headed for the saloon. “Anybody thirsty?” he asked.
Old Seth was working the bar, a white-whiskered gentleman with round spectacles and a quiet way of speaking that worked on a man as much as the liquor, made him feel like he was swigging his beer in church. The only customers in the place at that hour were two cowboys nursing a bottle off in the corner, but it didn’t take long to locate the gal who’d done the screaming, all they had to do was ask.
“Back in the kitchen,” Seth told them, hooking a thumb to point the way. “You want Sallie, but you’ll have to cut her out from the herd. Breakfast just hit the table.”
“Your new cook any good?” Johnny asked.
Seth shot a look back toward the kitchen door, then leaned in. “I’d stay away from the gravy, but his biscuits go down easy. Keeps the girls from getting too bony, anyway.”
“Thank him for that, would you?” Val said.
The saloon was deep and narrow, a dark cavern of a room, with a flight of stairs at the back leading up to the rooms and a door tucked under the stairs. A shaft of light cut through when they opened the door.
‘My, my, but they’re coming early today,” a feminine voice called out, and Johnny squinted into the light, finding three familiar ladies sitting around a table, with a door behind them wide open to the alley. There was no cook around, but the girls had done some damage to his breakfast, leaving just a few biscuits on a plate. A cornflower bowl still held something grey and lumpy-looking, and a tabby cat stood on the table, its tail up and flicking as it lapped at the bowl.
“Don’t mind us, ladies,” Johnny said, moving into the kitchen with Scott and Val behind him. He snatched a biscuit from the plate.
“Oh, we don’t mind, handsome,” said the redhead, a leggy gal who’d shown up a year before calling herself Isabel and turned into Sophie Mae by the fall. She put her long limbs to work, gathering her skirts higher, shoving a wad of them between her thighs for modesty and stretching out her bare legs, wiggling her toes like worms on a hook. “We were just taking in the breeze, wishing some excitement would show up.”
“And you boys will do, honey,” said Lucy, combing her fingers through her hair, fluffing up what was already a mess. “Although if we’d known you were eager, we’d have fixed ourselves up a little.”
“We just want a moment with Sallie,” Scott was quick to tell them.
That couldn’t have done much to settle Sallie’s breakfast. A pale girl, barely nineteen if you bought her lie, Sallie was picking nervously at the biscuit crumbs on her plate, dropping more of them than she was getting in her mouth. A man couldn’t help but watch as gravity took its pleasure, dragging the crumbs down into her sweetly freckled cleavage.
“Is this about last night?” Sallie asked.
“Don’t you worry, Miss Sallie,” Val said gently. “We just didn’t get a chance to talk last night due to you being occupied and all. I was hoping we could get some questions answered this morning. Once you’ve finished your breakfast, I mean.”
“Sallie didn’t see anything.” Lucy bounced up, sweeping her hair into a sequin-crusted comb, and strutted toward them. “And it doesn’t take three of you to question one little girl. I heard the gunshot too, you know, and I don’t mind talking about it if you’re a mind to.” Crowding up against Johnny, she braced herself with a hand on his belly and tipped her mouth up to his ear. “Or doing anything else you’re a mind to.”
She drew back, smelling of rose-water, and gazed up at him with blood-shot eyes.
“Just some questions, Lucy darlin’,” Johnny said.
“Well, now, that’s a pity.” She looked to Scott. “How about you, Scott Lancer? I’ll even give you the early bird special, two bits off.”
“You just back off,” Val told her, “and let us get our work done. We ain’t got all day. Miss Sallie, you want to tell us what happened last night? Maybe start with where you were standing when you heard the shot?”
“Sure.” She got up, scaring the cat off the table, and walked over to a spot just inside the open doorway. “I was here, only the door wasn’t open then.”
“And what were you doing there?” Val asked.
It was an odd place to be well after 11 o’clock at night. The kitchen would have closed hours before and all the money was changing hands in the rooms upstairs.
“Hiding,” Sallie admitted, casting a worried look at the other women.
“Jack Hansen and his boys were in town,” Sophie Mae explained, throwing in a kindly smile aimed Sallie’s way.
Val shook his head with disgust. “Those Hansen’s are all kinds of trouble and I can’t blame you none for hiding from them, Miss Sallie. Smart move, if you ask me.”
“Last time we went upstairs, Luke Hansen bit me,” Lucy said.
“And you belted him for it, but good,” Sophie Mae said.
“Did you see or hear anything before the gunshot?” Scott asked.
Sallie walked them through it, how the shot rang out in the alley and was followed immediately by a grunt and a crashing noise. She’d stepped out to see a man crouched in the dark, broken crates scattered around him. Footsteps had started behind her, pounding away, and Sallie had turned to see a man disappear around the corner of the saloon. He wore a light-colored hat, and a dark slicker flapped at his legs, like a flock of bats swooping through the night. Sallie had offered a hand to help the crouching man up and he’d reached out with his own covered with blood. That’s when she’d screamed.
“Poor Sallie,” Lucy said, “she must have been plumb scared to let out a wail like that.”
“Pure powerful lungs, she has,” Sophie Mae said, “and that man was right lucky she has them.”
Sallie slunk back to the women, let them pet at her as if she was a dog that needed soothing. “Is that all you want to know?” she asked.
“You done good,” Val told her. “But you’re sure you didn’t recognize the man running away?”
“I don’t know how I could have, seeing as how it was dark and all.”
Scott had ambled into the middle of the alley and was standing with his hands on his hips, looking off down the alley’s packed dirt, stacked crates and garbage pails. Johnny ambled out to stand beside him.
“Are you wondering what I’m wondering?” Scott asked.
Johnny nodded. “What was Dorsey doing out here in the dark? Think he’d tell us?”
“Think we can get it out of the man who shot him?”
Scott swept his hat off his head, wiped the sweat off his brow, and then resettled the hat. He started back to Val and the women, calling over his shoulder as he went, “Maybe we can and maybe we can’t. But we won’t know until we find him.”
She was dead weight on his chest, just flat out asleep with her head sliding down his shoulder, about to break off. Johnny had nearly paced a trench in the floor and would have given his father’s watch to lay Maggie down. Maybe if he palmed the back of her head this time, held her tight as he set her in her cradle, maybe this time she wouldn’t wake up.
Five minutes, that’s all he needed. Three. If she would only hold her fire for three minutes, he could sneak off to his bed and Teresa would find the niña crying, never knowing he’d surrendered, that this little nothing had beaten Johnny Madrid. Hell, if he didn’t get some sleep soon, he didn’t care who knew he’d been whipped.
He balanced on one foot, kicked the head of the cradle perpendicular to the wall, and then slowly, keeping the niña pressed against his body and bowing like a matador to the crowd, he lowered her to her bed. This was the tough part now, the separating, and for a moment she seemed suspended in air, just floating between his embrace and the crib’s pillow. Eyes still closed and breath coming out in soft little whistles, she landed. Johnny slipped his one hand out from under her bottom and then worked on freeing the hand under her head, feeling a cautious elation when Maggie didn’t wake.
He was in his stockings and managed to back off without waking any of the loose boards either. A safe distance away, he stretched out the sore muscles of his neck.
Scott’s voice came from behind him. “Did you get her down?”
Johnny turned with a whispered, “Shhh…” and glared at his brother. “Haven’t you ever heard about letting sleeping babies lie?”
“I think that’s dogs.”
“Well, it ought to be babies. And yeah, she’s down, and that’s where I’m going too. What time is it, anyway?”
Scott came to stand beside him, looking down to the peaceful niña. “About two thirty.”
“So what are you doing up?”
“Trying to puzzle the pieces together.”
The niña stirred and Johnny tapped Scott on the arm, nodded toward the hallway. They retreated to it, but lingered just outside the doorway under a dimly lit lantern, still watching her sleep.
“So what’d you figure?” Johnny asked.
“Not much. Somebody shot Dorsey, but he’s not going to tell us who. Somebody is taking target practice, but even the preachers out here carry a gun, so that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. And we don’t even know Maggie’s real name.”
“Preachers don’t hide in the hills to do their shooting.”
“There is that.”
“And their draw ain’t especially fast.”
Scott gave him a sideways glance. “How long has it been?”
Johnny knew what his brother was asking, but there was always the chance that he could get out of having this discussion now, that he could just fall into his bed and start in on the measly four hours’ sleep left before dawn. “How long since what?”
“Since you killed some cans.”
“A month. Maybe two.”
“During the war our sharpshooters took practice every morning. On any particular morning if they couldn’t hit a ten-inch plate from two hundred yards away, we moved them to regular infantry.”
“Hard on the feet if they couldn’t do what they were hired for.”
“Hard on the enemy if they could. Was our shooter up in the hills good?”
“For a preacher.”
Scott gave Johnny another sideways look. “You know what’s really bothering me?”
“If our shooter is already fast and still feels he has to work on his draw, then how good is the gunman who wants to take him down?”
A yawn had been working at him and Johnny gave in to it, scrubbing his hand through his hair and scratching at his scalp when he was done. “I don’t know, Scott, but I tell you what—you keep working at it, and I’ll see what you came up with in the morning.” He started padding away, careful not to step too heavily as it might wake the niña.
His brother wasn’t having it though. “Johnny?”
Irritated now, Johnny stopped. “What?”
“Promise me something.”
Johnny rubbed at one eye, squinting at his brother with the other.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Scott said. “Just because the envelope said Madrid doesn’t make it your fight. Maggie showed up on the Lancer doorstep and Lancer will handle it.”
“Sure,” Johnny said, backing away. “Now can I go to bed?”
He made it to his bedroom, even dragged his pants off and crawled under his sheet in blessed silence, but all Johnny got was a few minutes rest before the niña started in again—she surely did miss her mama. He held his ground this time, until heavy steps moved through her wailing and Murdoch’s voice came through the walls, telling her to hush, and then Johnny buried one ear in his pillow. Still, even through the thick adobe walls and even with him sinking deeply into sleep, he could have sworn he heard the Old Man singing a lullaby.
On a rise the next morning, looking down to the third of three homes on the list he had stuffed in his pocket, Johnny yawned.
“You had three cups of coffee,” Scott said.
“Well, they didn’t take.”
They’d given the reins some slack and both horses were cropping at the grass while he and Scott watched nothing happen at the house, nothing happen at the barn and nothing happen in the corrals below them. Nothing had been happening for awhile now.
“You know why Val took the homes up north,” Johnny said.
“The Widow Roswell.”
“I don’t recall that name on the list. I thought all the names Val got from Doctor Jenkins were new mothers.”
“And Martha Lawrence is a new mama and the widow is her mama, not that you could tell by looking at her. Val’s been eyein’ the widow ever since she dropped her trunk on his toes coming off the stage.”
“Bodily damage can be quite alluring in a woman.”
“I knew a woman down in Laredo took two men to the ground in a bar fight. Had one of them proposing before the week was out.”
Scott swatted at a fly with his gloves. “Did she accept?”
“Don’t know. I left town before her husband found out, didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire. Scott?”
“We goin’ to wait up here all morning?”
“After you,” Scott said, hauling his chestnut’s head up.
They rode into the paddock with their Colts holstered, but Johnny kept a watchful gaze through the windows of the small white-washed home, waiting for something to move. Nothing was happening in there either, and he tied Barranca to the porch post at the far end of the house, where the shade of a cottonwood tree would cool the horse some before they gave up on this mama, too, just like the other ones. The first had been in the barn, milking the cow, when they’d ridden up, and she’d come out with her arms full of a fat little thing and her skirts full of the baby’s brothers and sisters, all clinging and hiding and peeking out with their big blue eyes. The second had been Molly McGuffey, as ruddy-faced and red-haired as Johnny remembered her, with a ruddy-faced husband and baby to match. This third mama must be sleeping in, a sensible decision in Johnny’s opinion.
Scott knocked on the door. Silence at first, and then he knocked again, harder this time. Johnny slipped to the side of the window and peered through the glass. The first room, a parlor, was empty, but a door across the room stood half open, and a man was lying on a bed in that room. The man moved.
“Who is it?” the man shouted, swinging his legs to the floor and reaching for something with a long barrel. A scatter gun, Johnny figured from the size of it.
“Scott,” Johnny warned, waving him away from the door and edging away from the window, drawing his Colt.
Scott drew his pistol but kept it loose in his hand, letting it hang ready at his hip as he stepped to the side of the door. “It’s Scott Lancer,” he called out.
“Who?” the man called back. He lowered the barrel.
“Lancer, Scott Lancer. My brother and I have some questions for you.”
The man just stood there for a long moment, staring down at the floor, but then started stumbling through the parlor, carrying the scatter gun like a limp member. He swung the door open and his sluggish gaze fell to Scott’s Colt. “You can put that away,” he said.
Scott gave his head a good tilt, looking down to the scatter gun. “I’d feel more comfortable if you set the shotgun down first.”
The man smiled faintly through graying whiskers and poked his head through the doorway, giving Johnny a bleary but hard look. “You might as well come in,” he said, and then he left the scatter gun leaning up against the door jam and the door wide open, retreating to a leather chair next to the parlor’s settee. “You have to excuse me, but I haven’t been feeling myself lately.”
With Scott ahead of him, Johnny strolled into the parlor, looking around at the plain furnishings. No pictures, no vases, no porcelain figurines, not even much dust to speak of it. A whiskey bottle sat empty on the cold stove. “Sorry to hear that, Mr. Harrington.”
“I’m not Harrington.”
“We understood the Harringtons live here,” Scott said. “Ada and Moses?”
“This was their place. Sold out.”
Scott and Johnny traded looks, and Scott asked the man, “When did this happen?”
“You’re the new owner?” Scott asked.
“That’s what it says on the deed.”
“And what name would be on that deed?”
“The name’s Stanton.”
Stanton never did give them an invitation to sit, so Scott did all the talking from the middle of the parlor, standing on the faded roses of a thin carpet, while Johnny took advantage of the bare furniture, sliding his butt up on a chest of drawers under the window.
The Harringtons had gone back East, Stanton told them. Ada Harrington’s folks were getting old and Moses Harrington had finally agreed to do what Ada had been nagging him to do for years. He’d given up California for the family business, a mill on the banks of the James River in Missouri. The baby had gone with them, along with all their personal items and a blue tick hound named Bud. Johnny had to imagine it’d be easier traveling two thousand miles with a hound than being trapped on a train with a wiggling bundle of clotted spit.
No, Stanton wasn’t aware of any trouble, no reason the Harringtons might have been worried about their kid. He couldn’t fathom why anyone would abandon an infant at a stranger’s door.
“How is the baby?” Stanton asked.
“Healthy,” Scott told him.
“I hope it’s not too big an imposition for you to take her in.”
“We’re managing,” Scott said. “We’re not sleeping much, but I hear that will improve once we get into a routine.”
Stanton didn’t have a response to that, he just kept looking up at Scott like he had to work at it, like he’d worn out just sitting in that chair. “Anything else you need from me?” he finally asked.
“Just to welcome you,” Scott said. “We should have done that first. It’s good to have you as a neighbor,” he said, stepping forward to offer his hand,” and if you need anything while you’re settling in, we’d be happy to help out if we can.”
As they shook hands, Stanton peered around Scott to Johnny. “Nice talking to you,” he said.
Johnny had been holding his hat, running the brim though his fingers, and now he lifted it to Stanton. “Good talking to you, too,” he said, sliding down from the chest.
They left Stanton still sitting, but after they’d mounted their horses, as they were riding past the still open front door, Johnny looked over to see the leather chair empty. The scatter gun was gone from the doorway, too. Johnny kept watching the house as they rode away, until a stand of live oak got in the way.
“It would explain the money,” Scott said once they were out of hearing.
“A farm like that would pay out more than twenty-three hundred dollars.”
“And they kept to themselves, nobody knew much about them. Had you even met the Harringtons?”
“So we have a stranger in Green River with a hole in his shoulder, somebody fast drawing on cans, and now a drunk taking over the Harrington’s farm, with the Harrington baby missing.”
“On its way to Missouri.”
“Or hiding out at our ranch.”
“Hold up, Scott.”
They’d come up on the eastern edge of the Harrington farm, where a pretty little creek snaked between the rises and the live oak thickened, giving the cows some shelter from the sun. Three heifers were huddled in the shade just off the dirt path, chewing their cud and being dumb, but it was the white pickets behind them that had drawn Johnny’s eye, and the mound of dirt behind the pickets.
“See that?” Johnny said, pointing.
They both turned their horses to the pickets, scattering the cows, and rode up on a fenced-in cemetery, with a fresh grave marked with a wooden cross. A handful of black-eyed-susans lay wilting in the middle of the mound, their petals still mostly yellow. Give them a day in this heat and they’d shrivel up to nothing, turning as dead as the body beneath the dirt.
“Looks like Stanton was out picking flowers this morning,” Johnny said.
“And digging a grave yesterday.”
Johnny dismounted and stepped over the pickets. Kneeling beside the grave, he scooped up a handful of the mound’s dirt and let it drain out between his fingers. “Dry as this is, the day before sounds more like it.”
Scott nodded, and looked west through the oaks, toward the house they’d just come from. “Maybe none of the Harringtons made it to Missouri,” he said.
At first sight they thought it was a farm boy coming at them on a spotted grey mule. The rider bounced with each fall of the mule’s big hooves, a wide-brimmed hat flopping, booted feet slapping at the mule’s fat belly. A blue-checked shirt, big enough for three-years’ growth and rolled up at the sleeves, flapped in the warm afternoon breeze.
Scott said it just as Johnny, only then coming to the realization, pushed up the brim of his hat for a better look.
“She’s not wearing much under that shirt.”
Hot damn, but she wasn’t.
It was Sallie, he could tell that from the freckles on her chest. Her shirt was unbuttoned as far as respectability would allow and had slid some beyond that. The white lace flashing under the shirt couldn’t have been holding in much, and Johnny let up on Barranca’s reins, enjoying the view as what wasn’t held in bounced right along with Sallie’s boots and hat.
“You figure the saloon gals are making house calls now?” Johnny said.
They’d reached the crossroads just below Snake Creek, where the road east would take them on to Green River and the road west home to Teresa’s lemonade and a thick slice of roast. Sallie was coming down the east road.
“Scott Lancer!” Sallie shouted out, waving a hand up in the air. “Johnny! Hold up!” She kicked the mule, having no effect whatsoever on the animal, which just kept trotting along at its own jerky pace. “I want to talk to you!”
“Where’d you get that mule?” Johnny called back.
“The Preacher Sloan. Had to listen to some bible verse before he’d loan me this stubborn old thing, but it was sure better than walking.”
“Not that we aren’t glad to see you, Sallie,” Scott said, “but to what do we owe this pleasure?”
“Oh, I do like the way you talk,” Sallie said. “I reckon you were a fine one with those Boston ladies, Scott Lancer, with those fancy manners of yours. Say something else.”
Having covered the ground between them and Sallie, Johnny and Scott both reined in, while Sallie’s mule planted its hooves suddenly, throwing her forward and her shirt sliding even deeper. Johnny shot a glance at his brother after she’d settled herself again, catching his brother still in full grin.
“Did you borrow that mule with the sole intention of finding us?” Scott asked.
“I did, and you saved my rear end a whole lot of hurt by making it so convenient. Thought I’d have to kick this thing all the way to Lancer and back but lo and behold, there you were.”
“We were just on our way home,” Johnny told her. “So what’s on your mind, Sallie?”
She’d had a fair bit of sun, even with that hat hanging over her face, and Sallie’s cheeks were streaked with pink, making her blue eyes bluer. She held his gaze with them for a long moment, but then looked down, hiding under her hat, and started fidgeting with her reins. “Don’t get mad,” she mumbled.
“Hey. . . Sallie,” Johnny said softly, and she gave out a sigh so loud it made her mule twitch its ears.
“I should have told you yesterday,” she said.
“Told us what?” Scott asked.
“About them two arguing in the alley.” She stole a look from under the brim of her hat. “Before that poor man got himself shot.”
His brother never could hold his temper. “You heard arguing? Why didn’t you tell us this yesterday?” Scott said, irritation rasping what was left of that fine Boston accent. Too bad this couldn’t have waited until they were back at the ranch with his belly full. A man can handle a woman a whole lot easier when he’s fed.
“Because I couldn’t, don’t you see? Lucy and Sophie Mae were there listenin’ and they might have told Seth, and I don’t know where I’d go if I couldn’t work at the saloon anymore. You won’t tell Seth, will you? Please don’t tell him. Please, Scott? Please, Johnny?”
And that was the other thing about his brother—he never could say no to a woman in trouble. Scott held up a steadying hand. “We’re not going to say anything to Seth,” Scott said, “and everything’s going to be fine. Just tell us what really happened.”
The truth came tumbling out of her, that she’d been hiding in that kitchen a lot longer than she’d wanted to confess, long enough to get real good at peeling potatoes for the new cook. He’d been sworn to secrecy just like Johnny and Scott, even raised his right hand and crossed his heart that he wouldn’t rat her out to Seth, wouldn’t tell how many times she’d escaped. Sallie still didn’t quite trust him though.
“Sallie,” Scott said, “if you don’t like working at the saloon, there must be something else you can do.”
Sallie shook her head sadly, setting her hat to flopping again. “No, sir, there isn’t. I’m no good at sewing, and, except for potatoes, I can’t cook worth a damn. Besides, it’s not the work I object to. That’s just men doing what they do, can’t hold that against them. It’s the drunks that scare me.”
“A saloon’s likely to have its share of them,” Johnny said.
“Don’t I know it.” She swept the hat off her head, letting loose her piled-up hair. Holding the crown wadded in her hand, she started fanning herself with the brim. “Sometimes there’s fighting when they get liquored up. That’s what I thought the arguing was back in the alley, just two drunks goin’ at it, but thank the Lord most of those arguments don’t end in shooting.”
“What makes you think this argument is connected to the shooting?” Scott asked.
She shrugged. “Just seems likely. One of them kept asking about his money and the other kept saying he didn’t have it, that it wasn’t his money to give back anyway. Then they got real quiet and I peeked out. One of them was still there, sittin’ on a barrel, and didn’t look like he was in any hurry to go anywhere. Oh—and one of them was named Hayes, I heard the man asking for the money call him that. He said, ‘Hayes, I’m not a patient man.’ That’s what he said.”
Scott asked, “Did the cook hear any of this?”
“Him? Nah, he’s half deaf and says it’s none of his concern anyhow. Claims it’s his business to keep the stew hot and our business to cool down the men. Besides, he didn’t have his ear laid up against the door like I did.”
The sun was behind Johnny and Scott, beating down on their backs, but Sallie had it full in her face. A trickle of sweat had started at her temple, worked its way past the mess of her hair, and kept going right on down her neck, headed for the white lace. Sallie wrapped her reins around her saddle horn and used her freed left hand to hold her shirt away from her body, fanning down there with the hat in her right.
“Sallie, tell me again,” Johnny said, “how old are you?”
Scott gave her a hard look. Sounding real serious, he said, “Sallie.”
She tilted her head and scrunched up her face. “You won’t tell Seth this neither?”
Scott crossed his heart.
“Seventeen. But I’ll be eighteen come January.”
“Do your folks know how you’re making your living?” Johnny asked.
“I reckon they know, but they ain’t likely to do much about it from where they are.”
“And where’s that?”
She quit fanning long enough to look upward and point the hat to the cloudless sky. “Up there.”
“I’m sorry,” Scott said.
“Why? You didn’t do nothing to them.”
“No, but we are responsible for making you ride all the way out here. Is there anything else you want to tell us?”
Sallie bit thoughtfully on her bottom lip. “Nope, nothin’,” she said finally, confirming it with a shake of her head. “I just didn’t feel right about holding out on you, but now that you’ve got it all, you mind if I get this mule back to the Preacher Sloan? My rear ain’t used to this saddle, you know.”
“You did the right thing,” Scott told her, digging in his shirt pocket. He brought out a few gold coins, and, urging his horse closer, offered them to her. “Here. For your trouble.”
Sallie flashed a smile. “Oh, it wasn’t no trouble,” she said, but she took the money. “And if there’s anything else you need, just bring your fine talk into the saloon and I’ll be happy to do what I can.”
She’d already taken up her reins and was trying to manhandle the mule, tugging at its head and pressing her heels into its flanks to turn it.
“Sallie?” Johnny called out.
There was no stopping the mule though once it had its head pointed home, and Sallie just hung on, calling over her shoulder as the mule jerked into its rough trot. “Yeah?”
“You know your way around a baby?”
Laughing, Sallie plopped the hat on her head. “Fed and diapered twins for my Uncle Ivan and Aunt Pearl. You got some gal knocked up, Johnny?”
“Watch your ridin’,” he shouted, and she did, bouncing away on the big grey mule.
There was both comfort and worry at the sentries who waved to them as they rode under the Lancer arch. Carrying a gun was easy enough, even a cowhand could do that, but shooting one was a different matter. Johnny didn’t have much faith in the sentries if trouble came, but then he still didn’t know who or what that trouble might be.
He knew what trouble was waiting in the kitchen though. They’d headed there directly after taking care of their horses and could hear the niña’s wails from outside in Teresa’s garden. Only a powerful hunger kept them from tucking tail and riding out again.
“Do you think they’d have anything to eat in the bunkhouse?” Scott asked.
“Some beans, maybe,” Johnny said, “but they’d be cold.”
“And last I knew Maria still had apple pie.”
Braving it, they opened the door to find the floor slick with water and Murdoch standing over a tub set on the kitchen table, with Maggie in it, screaming and kicking and face all screwed up and beet red. Teresa stood on the other side of the tub, keeping the niña’s head above water and shouting over Maggie’s wails, telling Murdoch he was scrubbing too hard, to let her take the cloth. Murdoch, his face nearly as red as Maggie’s, just kept swearing he knew what he was doing, that it would be over in a minute if Teresa would just hold the infant still.
“I’m trying!” Teresa said.
“Get me a towel,” Murdoch told her, glancing up at Scott and Johnny. He took a towel from the back of a chair himself and spread it out on the table. “Come here, Maggie,” he crooned, hauling her dripping from the water. He wrapped her quickly, and, murmuring a soft, “There, there,” took her swaddled in his arms.
With two big shuddering breaths, Maggie quieted, and Murdoch looked around with a triumphant smile. “See? We managed her bath just fine.”
“Looks like a success,” Johnny said.
“Don’t humor him,” Teresa said, dragging a stack of towels from the buffet. She started wiping up the floor while Scott heaved the soapy tub from the table and emptied it into the sink. Johnny set to slicing the roast beef onto plates for him and his brother, adding a hunk of buttered bread to each. By the time the place was cleaned up and lunch was sitting where the niña had been having her bath, Maggie was sleeping soundly and Teresa had abandoned them for her weeding.
“So did Val make it back yet?” Johnny asked.
His father nodded. “He rode in an hour ago, and apparently all of the families he was checking still have their infants safe and sound. So what did you boys find out?”
Scott tore a bite from his bread, saying, “Did you hear the Harrington farm sold?” before popping it in his mouth.
“It sold? No, I knew Moses had it up for sale but hadn’t heard he’d found a buyer. Who bought it?”
“A man name of Stanton,” Johnny said. “Drinks some from the looks of it, and I don’t put much stock in him making a success of farming. Says the Harringtons went back east. That sound right to you?”
“It’s possible.” Murdoch shifted the niña around, moving her from one arm to the other, and settled himself more comfortably in the chair. Holding the niña had to be tough on his back. “Moses wasn’t much of a farmer either, not at first anyway. I think he’d been a shopkeeper before.”
“Was he from the east?” Scott asked. “Stanton said they moved back to Missouri.”
Murdoch frowned down at Maggie. “Missouri doesn’t sound right. I seem to remember him being from Texas.”
“You sure he was a shopkeeper?” Johnny asked.
“No, I’m not sure. In Scotland a man knows everything about his neighbor back to which clan his great-great-grandfather belonged to, but that’s not the way of things here. You’ve seen that, haven’t you, Scott?”
Still chewing, Scott just nodded, but then he forced down his mouthful with a slug of lemonade. “A man’s past is just that here in California. It took some getting used to, but I’ve managed to adjust to asking only a stranger’s name and how he likes the weather.”
“And some days you need to be careful about his name,” Johnny said. “When would Harrington have been in Texas?”
“He bought the farm three years ago,” Murdoch said, “so anytime before that.”
“He could have known Madrid in Texas then,” Johnny said.
“He could have. But I can’t see Harrington earning his living with a gun, if that’s what you’re thinking. And if they’ve gone back east, it’s unlikely they could have anything to do with Maggie here.”
“Except we’re not certain all the Harringtons made it to Missouri,” Scott said.
That just confused Murdoch, so Johnny jumped in, saying, “We found a fresh grave on the Harrington property, and Stanton hadn’t mentioned anything about it.”
“Any markers?” Murdoch asked.
“Just a cross,” Scott told him. “No names.”
“Too bad Val didn’t stick around,” Murdoch said. “I’d like to hear what he knows about the Harringtons. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get a telegram sent to Missouri. Matthew Colton handles most of the land transactions in the valley and he might know where to send it. You boys want to go into Green River tomorrow and see about that?”
“Sure,” Johnny said, cutting a bite of beef. He wagged his fork, beef and all, at the niña. “And since we’re going to town anyway, what do you say about Scott and me bringing back someone to help with Maggie? We’ve got a ranch to run, you have your books piling up, and Teresa’s running herself ragged keeping up with this kitchen and a baby to boot.” He looked to his brother. “What do you say, Scott? Think the Old Man could use a little help with the niña?”
Scott swallowed hard and kicked at him under the table, missing Johnny’s shin but knocking his chair back a bit. Still and all, Sallie did need rescuing and Scott knew it. There’s no escaping a man’s truer instincts. “Maggie does have the money for it,” Scott said, “And it’d be a shame not to let her spend it.”
“No need,” Murdoch insisted, smiling down at the sleeping kid. “We’re doing fine, aren’t we, Maggie, my love?”
Johnny rolled his eyes and shoved the bite of beef in his mouth. “You sure about that?”
“Well, then do me a favor, will ya?”
“What’s that?” Murdoch asked.
“Sleep on it,” Johnny said.
He’d ridden out an hour before sunset and now, with his shadow thrown nearly to the cans lined up thirty feet away, Johnny slipped six more bullets into their chambers, holstered the Colt, and faced off against the targets. He let out a breath, drew, and a can went flying. Another breath, another draw, and a second can flew. Then again and again until he’d counted down six bullets, six cans knocked to the ground behind the rotten log.
Alone, with only Barranca tied to a limb on the other side of the clearing and the crickets starting to chirp in the grass, he walked to the log, reset the cans on the decaying wood, and paced back to the same spot he’d stood before. His shadow went all the way to the trees this time. Again he filled the chambers and holstered the Colt, but this time he waited, trying to feel it, reaching for that old hunger. It was there, it had to be, buried deep in his gut.
Another breath, and then he drew. Maybe it’d be fast enough.
He knew it was a dream even as he dreamed it. The saloon was on fire, red light blazing against the brawling men, broken glass glittering in the flames. He sat in the midst of the destruction, drawing three cards against two aces, sucking on a cold beer, while two Sallies stood above him, one on the long bar and the other in the mirror, both of them hiking their skirts out of reach of the flames, and both of them screaming, their shrieks piercing through the hiss of the fire. Johnny wanted them to stop, wanted to make the dream go away, but they just kept prancing up there on the bar, all freckles and legs and bouncing parts, and they just kept screaming.
He rolled, conscious of the dark suddenly. Awake. Muffled by the hacienda’s adobe walls, the niña was crying. Madre de Dios! He fumbled for his pants in the dark and pulled them on, hopping and stumbling and cursing to the door, and then, shirtless and barefoot, he padded to the niña’s bedroom.
A lamp was lit low in her room, its glow barely illuminating his brother where he stood by the window, his shirt hanging unbuttoned and the niña in his arms, bawling her head off. Johnny watched them from the hall for a moment, calculating the odds of retreat, of just backing off and crawling into his bed again, but then Scott turned to him. Mierda.
“Have you tried jiggling?” Johnny asked.
Scott tilted his head back, the only distance he could get from the kid’s screams. “Can you repeat that?”
“Jiggling.” Johnny demonstrated, wagging his hand up and down. “Bounce her a little. Put your knees into it.”
“I’ve tried jiggling. And changing her diaper and feeding her and burping her, you name it.”
“Want me to wake up Teresa?”
“Sssh, sweetheart,” Scott said to the niña, patting her on the back. “No, don’t wake Teresa. I relieved her about an hour ago, and she looked dead on her feet.”
“How about the Old Man? He seems to think he can handle Maggie just fine.”
Scott just glared at him.
“You figure we got it all wrong?” Against his better judgment, Johnny padded into the room.
“We’ve been looking for somebody in trouble, when maybe her daddy just has it out for me. Maybe all this is payback for something bad I did to him.”
“Well, whatever that was, don’t do it again.”
Maggie had quieted some, and Johnny peeked around his brother’s shoulder, hoping to find her nodding off. Maggie’s blue eyes looked back at him.
“I hate to tell you this,” Johnny said, “but she’s supposed to be asleep.”
“You don’t say.”
“You jiggle.” Rolling the niña from his shoulder, slipping her to the crook of his arm, Scott shuffled toward Johnny. “And she’s probably due for another diaper,” he said, pressing her into Johnny’s arms.
She’d stopped whining though, the movement must have shaken all the fuss out of her, and now she was gazing up at him with the tip of her tongue poking out of her mouth. A corner of her blanket dragged at the hairs on his chest, tickling him, and Johnny folded it down, tucking it under her chin, then looked up at his brother. “She sure does cry a lot.”
“Colic. That’s Murdoch’s theory anyway. He says you had it when you were a baby, too.”
“Yeah?” Johnny considered that a moment, trying to picture it—his father young and sleepless and walking the floor with him. He couldn’t quite bring the image to mind. “You saying I was as big a pain in the ass as this little thing?”
Scott rubbed at the side of nose, his hand nearly hiding a restrained smile. Turning for the door, he yawned. “Not me, Brother,” he said, plodding across the room, “talk to our father about that one,” and then, “Good luck,” he added from the hallway, just before pulling the door closed.
“Well, little Maggie,” Johnny said, “looks like we’re two of kind, you and me.” She squirmed and he threw a look at the door, making certain they were alone, the niña and him, that his brother was out of hearing, and then he tilted his head to hers, whispering down to her sweet-smelling ear. “But we’re going to get you back to your daddy.”
It was the sentry’s alarm that drew the Lancers away from their morning coffee, not the sun streaming in through the kitchen window. Even Murdoch hadn’t pushed the point on starting the day’s chores before the look-out got their attention. One shot coming from the roof over their heads sure woke them up though.
Scott and Murdoch went out through the Great Room, headed for the gun cabinet and their rifles, while Johnny grabbed his holster from its hook by the kitchen door, and was buckling it on, releasing the tie on his Colt’s hammer, even as he followed the path through the garden to the paddocks. From there he could see the barns in one direction and the road clear to the Lancer arch in the other. A black horse was pulling a buggy down the road at a trot.
Johnny nodded to the roof sentry as he strolled over to join Scott and Murdoch, and the sentry acknowledged him with a wave.
“One man,” Johnny said to his brother and father, coming up on the veranda. “Could be Doc Jenkins.”
“If Jenkins’ horse was black,” Scott said.
The rig was stirring up some dust, moving fast, and it didn’t take long for a sling to become visible on the driver’s left arm, pretty much settling who he was likely to be. Johnny strained to make out the man’s features, hoping to recognize Dorsey before the man might recognize Madrid. He was dark, but not Mex. Nothing about him looked familiar.
“How’s your arm?” Scott called out to Dorsey when he came close enough.
“Better, much better. Whoa, horse!” Dorsey hauled one-handed on the lines. “Thank you for asking.”
He brought the rig to a stop just short of the hitching post and hopped down while Scott and Murdoch were walking out to meet him, relaxed, but with their rifles weighing down their left hands. Johnny hung back in the shade of the veranda.
“Hello again, Mr. Lancer,” Dorsey said to Scott, slapping dust from his long black jacket. “And you must be Murdoch Lancer.” He started to offer his hand, but then quickly took it back, wiped it on his sling, and offered it again. “Charles Dorsey, and I understand you have a special houseguest.”
Murdoch shook hands. “And what interest would that be of yours, Mr. Dorsey?”
Smiling, Dorsey said, “I’ve come to take her into Green River.”
With Murdoch’s back to him, Johnny couldn’t see his father’s reaction but he could guess it from the tense, “By what authority?”
Dorsey dug into his jacket’s deep pocket and brought out a folded paper. He handed it to Murdoch, but Johnny kept watching the jacket and the way it knocked back against Dorsey’s hip. The pocket wasn’t lying smooth, either.
“By her father’s,” Dorsey said, using the hand in the sling to pull his jacket more snugly closed. “Mr. Hayes and I are business partners, as you can see in this letter of introduction, and he asked me to retrieve his precious property while he took care of some pressing matters.”
His head bowed to the letter, Murdoch took a few seconds to respond. “This only tells me you and this Mr. Hayes have common business interests,” he finally said. “It doesn’t say anything about the child.”
“Of course it doesn’t,” Dorsey said, “but I assure you I mean only to see the child to safety.”
“She’s quite safe here,” Murdoch said.
Dorsey looked up to the sentry on the roof, who had settled cross-legged under a sombrero with his rifle across his lap. “I have no doubt about your intentions toward the child’s safety, but as I am acting on her father’s directive, I must insist on relieving you of her.”
“No,” Scott said firmly, drawing Dorsey’s attention to him.
“I’m sorry?” Dorsey said.
“No,” Scott repeated even more clearly. “The infant was left in our care and we have no intention of releasing her to anyone but her parents.”
Dorsey took that in, retrieving the paper from Murdoch’s hand and taking his sweet time folding it, even if he was doing it with only one good hand. “Most commendable,” he said, returning the letter to his pocket, “but also most foolish. Have you considered that I already had one attempt on my life? Somebody is after Hayes and I highly suspect that I was simply in the way. If whoever shot at me discovers the child is here at your ranch, I can only hope your man on the roof will be enough to stop him.”
“And how do you know someone is after Maggie’s father?” Murdoch asked.
“Because he told me so.”
“When?” Scott asked.
“The same night I was shot,” Dorsey said. “And in the same place, as a matter of fact. I thought it was strange that he’d want to meet in an alley, but after he told me he was being followed, that someone was after him, his discretion seemed sensible. As least it did before it got me a bullet in my shoulder.”
“Do you know who wants him dead?” Murdoch asked.
“I wish I did. I asked, but he wouldn’t divulge that information. Apparently Mr. Hayes’ past business relationships haven’t always been as aboveboard as the law would require, and I believe he owes somebody a great deal of money. As it would happen, this person would like his money returned.”
Dorsey looked up to the morning sun and pivoted suddenly, then strode to the back of his buggy. “I don’t mean to seem impolite, but while my arm is healing, I’m still not quite up to this heat and I’d like to be on my way in time for the afternoon stage to Sacramento. If all goes to plan, Hayes will be waiting for us there.” He took a basket, big enough to hold Maggie, from the boot of the buggy. “I know her father is most grateful for the care you’ve given her and if you’ll just detail what expenses you’ve had, I’ll be happy to see that you’re reimbursed.”
“You won’t need that basket,” Murdoch said, but Dorsey kept coming at him, taking several more steps with the basket swinging at his side.
Murdoch brought his rifle barrel up. “I said you won’t need that basket.”
Looking at the rifle, Dorsey stopped.
Scott swung his barrel up too. “And we already told you you’re not taking the infant.”
They were a formidable pair, his brother and father, and Johnny just watched the standoff, resting his hand on his Colt and leaning his shoulder against a veranda column, knowing Dorsey couldn’t be a big enough fool to go for the pistol he had hidden in his pocket. Probably had a derringer stashed in his sling too.
Dorsey wasn’t fool enough. “You have no right to keep her, and you know it,” he said.
“And if any of this story were true,” Scott said, “then you had your chance to tell it two days ago.”
“And you could have mentioned you had the infant. I heard the talk last night in town, that the Lancer ranch had found an infant on their doorstep. I imagine Hayes must have brought her here as a last resort after I was shot. It’s hard for a man to go on the run with an infant to care for.”
“Why didn’t you tell Val?”
“The sheriff? I probably should have, but I have some sympathy for the infant and I hate to see her orphaned by prison. As I suspect might happen were the law to become involved.” Dorsey tested Scott’s resolve with a step forward, and it almost worked. Scott looked to Murdoch, letting him call the tune.
“Well, Mr. Lancer?” Dorsey said.
There was no mistaking Murdoch’s resolve. “As my son already told you, you’re not taking the infant.”
The stand-off held long enough for Johnny to take a step out of the shadows, but then a resigned smile crawled across Dorsey’s lips. “At least I can tell Hayes I tried,” he said. Handicapped by his injured arm, he still managed to store the basket back in the boot, climb into the rig, and take up the reins fairly easily. The horse was eager to move on, but he gave it sharp, “whoa,” and pulled up on the lines, holding it back as it pawed at the ground. Dorsey gazed down at Murdoch. “A friendly word of warning? If I were you, I’d watch my back. Whoever’s after Hayes knows his way around a gun, and I’m afraid you may come to regret this decision.”
“Probably will,” Murdoch told him, “but we all have our regrets, don’t we? Good day, Mr. Dorsey.”
“Good day, Mr. Lancer.”
As Dorsey flicked the lines, Johnny could have sworn the man was looking at him.
Dorsey’s visit must have really rattled the Old Man, because he gave up on hovering over Maggie and saddled up instead, snapping, “I need the air,” when Johnny questioned why it was taking three of them just to ride into town and have a talk with Val.
“Well, don’t let me stop you,” Johnny had snapped back, a dumb thing to do. Just to be on the safe side, he’d held Barranca back a few strides as the three of them started down the east road to Green River, hoping to stay out of his father’s line of fire. The day was warm and the rear view of Scott’s horse uninspiring, so after they’d covered a mile or two of dirt and dust, he stopped fighting his eyelids. It couldn’t hurt to close them for just one minute. “Johnny,” brought him out of it, his name called in his brother’s voice. He jerked his head up, aware suddenly of having dozed off, and found Scott turned in the saddle, looking back at him.
“You still with us?” Scott was saying.
Johnny touched his spurs to Barranca and brought him up even with the chestnut, the three horses shoulder-to-shoulder, spanning the width of the road. “Am now,” he said.
Murdoch leaned over his saddle horn, looking past Scott to Johnny with a stern expression. “Wake me next time Maggie cries,” Murdoch told him. “It’s a lot more sensible than having you falling off your horse the next morning.”
“Yes, Sir,” Johnny said, and he even had the good sense to wait for his father to settle back into his saddle before rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
“You know what we forgot to ask Dorsey?” Scott said.
“What’s that?” Johnny asked.
“Maggie’s real name.”
“You’re right,” Murdoch said.
They were coming up on where he’d heard the gunshots two days before, and Johnny scanned the rolling land around them, kicking himself for having dozed off and listening hard. A bird twittered up ahead, where blue feathers flashed in a lone ponderosa pine, but everything else was still, just grass and gopher holes and a stand of scrubby oak between the road and the first rise of the foothills. It was too damn peaceful.
“You think Dorsey was telling things the way they are?” Johnny asked.
“Probably not,” Scott said, “but that doesn’t make it all lies. My guess is he’s deeper into Hayes’ legal troubles than he wants to admit.”
Johnny nodded. “Pretty much the way I see things.”
“Travis Hayes,” Murdoch said. “I saw his full name on the letter of introduction.”
Scott stiffened at the same time Johnny saw it. Something had flickered in the oaks, a glint, sun on metal. Dirt puffed up at the chestnut’s hooves and Johnny pulled up, spinning Barranca, as the report rang out over the distance. A rifle shot, too far for a pistol.
“Get down!” Johnny shouted, but Scott and Murdoch were already diving off their horses, yanking their rifles from the scabbards. Another report and Johnny, in the dirt with his rifle now, scrambling for the shelter of a big rock, picked out the shooter, saw him shift behind a tree. He cocked the rifle, laid out, and fired. Beside him a second rifle went off.
No report answered, and Johnny cocked again, held tight on the trigger. A dark horse and rider sprinted from the trees, running hard for town, on the wrong end of the Winchester’s range. Mierda. Johnny squeezed the trigger anyway.
“Everyone okay?” Scott shouted, up and going after the horses. They’d moved only a few steps, Barranca looking down the road at the escaping rider and the others at the edge of the road, cropping at the grass.
“Hold up, Scott,” Johnny called out, watching Murdoch rise to his knees, a big hand pressed to his side, his head bowed. “Murdoch?” Johnny said softly, kneeling at his father’s side, slipping his hand under his arm to support him.
Murdoch’s voice was strained. “Go after him,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“Sure you are,” Johnny said, taking his father’s weight against him. Blood dripped through his father’s fingers to the dirt.
The digging was done, with Murdoch’s rib shrapnel and a bullet lying in one of Teresa’s china bowls and the doc wiping his forceps clean, laying them with his other instruments on a cloth on the nightstand. Chloroform hung sweet in the room, even with the window open and a warm breeze stirring the curtains. Murdoch was stirring as well, never having been completely under. Three stitches held his skin closed over the seeping wound, but the hole hadn’t been bandaged yet and Johnny kept catching glimpses of it as Doc shifted at his bedside work.
“All in all, your father is still in better condition than Gilbert Saunders,” Doc said, wrapping the cloth around his instruments. He handed them to Teresa. “Make sure the water’s boiling,” he told her, and she nodded, carrying them off.
“Who’s Saunders?” Scott asked.
“A new hand over on the Sandoval ranch. He about wore holes clear through his boots walking in from the north range yesterday.”
“He lose his horse?” Johnny asked.
“No.” Doc folded a compress and pressed it to the wound. “Boys, would you give me a hand here?” Grunting out directions, a terse, “Hold him there,” and, “Now,” as Johnny and Scott lifted Murdoch’s shoulders from the bed, Doc dragged the bloody linens out from underneath their father and manhandled a long swathe of cloth around his torso. Murdoch’s breathing deepened, but he took it without complaint.
Doc tied the bandage off over the compress. “No, Saunders didn’t lose his horse, he just couldn’t sit the saddle. That’s fine, boys.”
Johnny shared a look with his brother. “And why couldn’t he sit his saddle?”
“He had a boil on his derriere . . . ” Doc cupped his hands apart and stared down into the empty space between them. “This big. It was an evil-looking thing, simply evil. Took me most of a vial of carbolic acid to clean it out, and I probably should have just amputated instead.”
As exhausted as he was from lack of sleep and now this worry, his father shot and no telling what kind of infection could set in, Johnny still felt a grin crawl up the side of his mouth. “You saying taking a bullet is better than being half-assed?”
“It is.” Doc nodded somberly, but with a twinkle in his eye. “It is for a fact.” He stood and dipped his hands into a basin of water on the nightstand, scrubbing some soap into his palms. “That rib’s broken, but the bullet wasn’t deep. I’ll be out again in a day or two, and in the meantime just keep him down if you can. I’ll talk to Teresa about changing the bandages.” He dried off, and looked from one of them to the other. “He’s going to be fine, boys. I’m more worried about the two of you. You both look like you haven’t seen your beds in three days.”
“That’s about right,” Scott said.
“The infant isn’t sleeping well?”
Johnny snorted and dragged a chair closer to his father’s bed. He dropped into it. “The Old Man says she’s colicky. I figure she has it out for us.”
“You need your rest, but maybe I help. One of you want to show me to your ungrateful guest so I can have a look at her?”
“Gladly,” Scott said, before leading the way.
Alone finally, knowing he had only a minute or two before Teresa would be back up the stairs and fussing, Johnny wiggled deeper into the chair. He leaned his head against its hard back and watched his father’s ashen face, catching his eyelids flickering. Maybe Murdoch would be fine. Maybe. Maybe one of their bullets had hit the man in the trees, and he was lying somewhere in the dirt right now, dying with his guts on fire. Not likely.
He’d need a fresh horse to go after the bastard. And a damn clue who the bastard might be. A drunk, a businessman, and the shooter in the hills—at least he had somewhere to start.
Teresa’s steps came down the hallway and Johnny pushed up from the chair, looked down at the bloodstains on his shirt, and met her at the doorway. Passing, he gave her arm a squeeze.
“Take care of him,” he said.
It hadn’t rained for weeks, and the dirt on the grave was dry as a bone. Johnny knelt next to the mound, eying the two older graves in the overgrown cemetery. A slab of limestone marked each of them, one with the name Flossie etched into the soft rock and a death date only two years after her birth, and the other carved with the name Jacob Maddox. Maddox had lived a good long life, eight-one years, and it had been six years since he’d gone into the ground. He couldn’t have anything to do with this new grave.
After yanking a seedling oak out of the middle of Maddox’s grave and tossing it to the other side of the picket fence, Johnny kicked at an anthill at the grave’s foot, sending a stream of angry ants spreading out through the weeds. That gave him some satisfaction. A handful of black-eyed-susans were growing along the fence line and Johnny picked a few and laid them on top of the dead ones already lying on the new mound.
He’d tied his horse, a dapple grey, to an oak limb, and Johnny freed the reins, swung up on the horse, and turned it to Stanton’s house. No reason not to extend his condolences on whoever was in that grave.
Stanton met him on the porch this time, his shotgun leaning up against the wall a few feet away. He’d cleaned up some, at least he was wearing boots and had his shirttails stuffed into his pants. He ran a hand through his rough hair as Johnny dismounted and came up on the porch.
“How’s that infant your brother was telling me about?” Stanton asked.
“Fine. Good.” Johnny cocked a brow. “Still ornery. Your health improved any?”
“I’m up and around. What can I do for you?”
Johnny looked over at the shotgun, pointed, and asked, “You mind if I take a look at that?”
Chewing on the side of his mouth a little, his graying whiskers sucking in and out, Stanton shrugged. “It’s just holding up the wall,” he said, “but if you’d feel better moving it aside a bit, I don’t see as I object.”
“I would feel a mite better.” Johnny sauntered to the shotgun, picked it up by its double barrel, and set it inside the house, taking only a quick look at the parlor. Still nothing to speak of decorating the place. He pulled the door closed behind him. “You know anything about a new grave on your property? Looks like it’s maybe a couple of days old?”
Stanton’s gaze hardened. “I know it.”
“Mind telling me who’s in it?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Well, see,” Johnny said, dipping his head, setting his hands on his hips, “that’s where you’re wrong.” He brought his gaze up again. “My Old Man took a bullet today and I’m real curious to find the man who shot him. Don’t mean to seem un-neighborly, but seeing as you have a body buried on your land and you’re not putting any name to that grave, I’m starting to get real curious about you.”
“Still none of your business.”
Stanton tried to walk past him, headed for the door, but Johnny grabbed the man’s arm. “I don’t suppose you were anywhere near the Green River road today?”
Stanton looked down at Johnny’s hand. This close, Stanton smelled dirty, stale liquor setting on the scent of old sweat. “I didn’t shoot your Old Man, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Mind if I take a look at your horses? Not that I don’t trust your word, but I’d rest a little easier seeing for myself.”
“They’re in the barn.”
“Lead the way,” Johnny said.
Stanton didn’t seem to be in an arguing mood. Johnny let him go, and he hopped off the end of the porch and led Johnny through the corral and into a musty barn. Two horses brought their heads over their stall gates, pricking their ears to the sudden light streaming in through the barn door.
“There they are,” Stanton said, scooping a handful of oats from a hanging bucket near the door. He held his palm out flat to a pretty mare, letting it mouth up the oats. Johnny slipped in through the gate and felt the mare’s chest and belly, ran his hands down its legs. The mare stood patiently.
“Nice animal,” Johnny said.
“You might want to watch the back legs on the gelding. He’s touchy.”
Stanton patted the mare and then stood stroking its ears while Johnny moved into a stall with a well-shaped bay. “Easy,” Johnny told the horse as it shuffled back a step, knocked its hindquarters on the stall rails. The gelding stood for him as well as the mare had.
“Satisfied?” Stanton said.
The horses were clean, a lot cleaner than Stanton. No flakes of dried lather, no road dust, no leaves caught in their tails. “Yeah,” Johnny said, “either you have a good hand for currying, or it doesn’t look like these horses have left their barn.”
Stanton moved his hand to the mare’s chin and started scratching. “How bad is your Old Man?”
“Could be worse.” Johnny ducked under the gelding’s neck and came out of the stall. “Doc says he’ll make it.” The saddle blankets lay folded on a trunk near the bay’s stall and he ran his fingers between them, feeling for any dampness left from a hard ride. They were dry.
Stanton kept scratching the mare, but he was watching Johnny, his eyes clearer than they’d seemed outside on the porch, no whiskey haze reddening the rims. A wry smile drifted into them. “Too bad I’m not your ambusher, right? It would have been convenient.”
Johnny walked past him, heading out of the barn. “But I’m still going to find out who’s in that grave.”
The saloon had picked up early for a weekday, and Seth was working fast, wiping out mugs and pouring beers at the bar while keeping an eye on the tables, nodding his head to one of the girls if a bottle there looked like it was getting low. Johnny had been waiting long enough to down one shot of tequila and had the second in his glass, swirling it, when Val walked through the batwings. He lifted his glass to his friend.
“Shoulda known you’d beat me here,” Val said, setting his rear on the chair opposite Johnny’s. “What’d you find out over at the lawyer’s?”
“That lawyers have better hours than ranchers. Colton wasn’t in but his woman said she’d give him the message.”
“Martha? If she’s on it, you can bet your ass Colton’ll have a telegram off to the Harringtons by the morning.” Val leaned back, looking over his shoulder to the bar, and shouted, “Hey, Seth? Can I get me a beer over here?”
“Sure thing,” Seth called back, and then motioned to Sophie Mae. She swung her long legs off the lap she had been sitting on and strutted over to the bar.
“So what about Dorsey?” Johnny asked, counting on Val’s ears to still be working even if his eyes were locked onto Sophie Mae. She’d grabbed the slopping beer from Seth and was strutting her way through the tables, coming toward theirs. “He back sittin’ cozy in the hotel?”
“Snug as a mouse.” Val snuck a look down at his shirt and swiped at a mud stain, then locked his gaze onto Sophie Mae again. “Darlin’, you are an angel of mercy,” he said, taking the mug when those long legs had reached him.
“Oh, go on with you,” Sophie Mae said, knocking her hip into his shoulder and making him spill the beer on his shirt. “Haven’t seen you in here drinkin’ in a month of Sundays. Where you been keeping yourself, Val?”
“Chasing down trouble for Johnny here,” Val said, snaking an arm around her waist. “Don’t know how I’d earn my pay if it wasn’t for him stirrin’ things up.”
Sophie Mae turned her smile on Johnny. “I tell ya though, he’s the kind of trouble I don’t mind handlin’. You doing okay with that tequila?” she asked. “Anything else I can get you now?”
Johnny sat back and shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“Well, then.” Sophie Mae patted the hand Val had on her waist and dragged herself free. “I’ve got me a cowboy to entertain.”
Val watched her strut away, saying, “The way Dorsey tells it, he came straight back to town, turned in the rig at the livery, and went back to keeping his chair warm at his window, just observin’ the town’s finest passing by. Says he told ya so, that your daddy wouldn’t have gotten himself shot if you’d just turned the baby over to him.”
“I bet he did.”
With a sigh, Val gave up on Sophie Mae, who’d plopped back into her cowboy’s lap, and gave Johnny the full view of his scraggly face. “Dorsey’s story squares up with what Jake over at the livery had to say. The rig came back late morning.”
“Could have had time to ambush us.”
“Sure he could, if he’d had a saddle horse instead of that buggy. Seems like you said your ambusher took off sittin’ on a horse, not driving it.”
“Yeah.” Frustrated, Johnny leaned forward and started swirling the tequila again. “Still and all, Murdoch wasn’t real quick about getting saddled up this morning and Dorsey could have gotten the rig back and still had time to set up in those trees. Maybe we should ask Jake if he hired out any horses.”
“Already did. That rig was his only business before sittin’ down to his lunch.”
Johnny snatched up his glass, threw the tequila down his throat, and bit into a hunk of lime, sucking the sour juice. He tossed the lime rind to the table. “I guess that leaves Travis Hayes then. Dorsey says Hayes had some trouble with the law. Maybe you could look into that?”
Sophie Mae’s cowboy jumped up suddenly, knocking his chair back, and said a loud, “Damn, Woman!” Sophie Mae was stumbling backward, trying to catch herself after being thrown from his lap, and Old Red, the grizzled foreman from the Parson Ranch, dropped his cards to catch her.
Red helped Sophie Mae straighten herself and looked down at the wet trickling down the cowboy’s leg. “You having trouble holding your piss?” Red said, doing an admirable job of damping down his laughter.
The cowboy was turning the same color as Red’s hair. “Damn woman poured beer on me!”
Seth had his club in his hand now and he came around the end of the bar, stalking toward the cowboy, while Sophie May wrung out her skirt, dribbling down to the boards at her feet. “Don’t know what your problem is, Ikie,” she was saying. “Got more on me than I did on you.”
Seth shoved his way between Sophie Mae and the cowboy and set the tip of his club in the cowboy’s chest. “Ikie, is it?” he said, low and careful. He nudged the man back.
“Yeah,” Ikie said.
Giving him a good-natured smile, Seth nudged a little harder. “Ikie, my friend, I don’t suppose you gave Sophie Mae any reason to misbehave, now did you?”
“He snuck his hand up where it don’t belong,” Sophie Mae said, trying to flap her skirt dry. “Least not before I get him upstairs.”
“Is what Sophie Mae says true?” Seth asked Ikie, still holding him at the point of the club.
Looking past Seth to Sophie Mae, Ikie slapped the club away. “Still no call for pouring beer on a man.”
“True enough.” Seth nodded and clapped the cowboy on the shoulder. “But right now I have to ask you to sit down while one of my gals gets you another beer. You can do that for me, can’t you, friend?”
“I’ll sit, but you better keep her away from me.”
“Much appreciated.” Seth pushed the man down in his chair and started leading Sophie Mae away by the elbow. “Go back to your drinking,” he called out to the saloon, searching around. Johnny saw a flash of skirts, Sallie slipping out through the kitchen door, just before Seth’s gaze fell on Lucy.
“Get our friend a beer,” Seth shouted to Lucy.
“Settles that,” Val said with a chuckle. He eyed Johnny. “Hayes, you say?”
“Travis Hayes. Dorsey claims he’s the niña’s father and he’s got somebody gunning for him over money. Doesn’t think he came by the money legal.”
“Guess I can dig though my wanted posters, see what I come up with.”
“You do that,” Johnny said, pushing his chair back and standing. “And hey—you didn’t tell me how the Widow Roswell was when you went out to see her.”
Val scrunched up a glare. “Boy, I’d rethink where you’re headin’ if I were you.”
Grinning, Johnny pulled a roll of bills from his pocket and peeled off a couple. “Well, right now I’m heading back to the kitchen to see about hirin’ some help.”
“You stealing Seth’s cook? Teresa ain’t goin’ to like that.”
“Nope. Jenkins said me and Scott need to get some rest, so I’m hiring us a whore.” He tossed the bills on the table. “Doctor’s orders.”
The sentry on the roof had been squatted down under his big sombrero, but he stood as Johnny rode closer. Pointing, he shouted across to another man in the barn loft. That sentry’s whistle cut through the early evening air.
Johnny turned in the saddle, seeing a good length of Sallie’s bare leg dangling down over the horse’s flank. “You decent back there?”
“Decent enough,” she said, but she unwrapped one of her arms from his belly and parts that had been pressed up against his back started rubbing as she squirmed. He glanced back when her arm came back around and saw that she’d tugged her skirt down at least to her knees.
“You’ll do,” he said.
The grey was worn out from riding double and he didn’t have to use the bit at the hitching post, the horse just came to a lumbering stop and hung its head. “Sit tight,” Johnny tried to tell Sallie, but she’d shoved herself to the horse’s tail and was already going off its back end. She landed on her butt in a heap of freckles and skirts.
Johnny swung down while looking up at the sentries. Both had settled into a squat again, just enjoying the view. “You might want to get out of the way before this horse gets a mind to kick,” he said, but Sallie was already picking herself up.
As Johnny led the horse away she called out, “You mad, Johnny?”
“No, I’m not mad.” But he was and for no good reason.
A hand came at him from the barn, one of Jose’s boys. Barely fifteen, as scrawny as a picked-clean chicken, Manuel was strutting with his thumbs in his pockets and a shit-eating grin on his face.
“You got somethin’ to say?” Johnny asked him, handing over the reins.
“No, sir. Just wonderin’ whether to give him some oats,” Manuel said, stealing looks past Johnny to where Sallie stood waiting.
“He earned them.”
“Brush him down for you? Don’t mind doin’ it, don’t mind at all.”
“Seein’ as that’s your job, then yeah, brush him down.”
Manual was twisting the reins around his hands, in no hurry to lead the horse to the barn, and Johnny sidestepped in front of him, making Manual look at him instead Sallie. He leaned in to the kid. “Ain’t polite to stare.”
The shit-eating grin could have swallowed every pile in the north range. “Can’t help it, Johnny. A man just ain’t built to ignore a thing like that.” Finally Manual clucked to the horse, then, still looking back over his shoulder, he started leading the grey away. Johnny turned back to Sallie.
She truly was a sight. Riding bare-legged had turned the inside of her thighs an angry red, and Sallie was bent over, scratching at the rash with most of her appreciable assets bobbling and hanging out of her low-cut gown. Her hair had come out of its combs and wild waves of it were falling loose, enough to put a man in mind of sweaty sheets. Even her boots were all wrong for the ranch, too low at the ankles and too high in the heels, leaving her tottering over them and liable to fall on her back if a man just touched.
“Let’s get you inside,” Johnny told her.
Sallie looked up from her scratching and smiled sweetly. “Ready when you are.”
With Murdoch laid up, there was a good chance none of the family would be in the Great Room and Johnny took her in that way, herding her up the steps and into the upstairs hallway with his eye out for Teresa. The bedrooms were peaceful for once, even the niña was quiet, and he thought he had a prayer. All he had to do was get her past Murdoch’s door and he could slip Sallie into his own room and find some clothes to change her into. She’d have to cinch his pants tight to keep them from falling off, but anything would be better than her saloon get-up.
Murdoch’s door stood half open, and, holding Sallie’s hand in his and feeling her crowd up behind him, Johnny peered into the Old Man’s room when they reached it. His father was lying back on his pillows with his eyes closed, his face still tight and grey. Blood had seeped through his bandages and that drew Johnny’s gaze, stilling him for a second, but then a boot came into view, off to the side of his father’s bed. Wood squeaked against wood, his brother scooting his chair most likely, and Johnny stepped softly and quickly past the doorway, holding his breath as Sallie’s heels knocked on the boards.
It was Scott’s voice, still not as bad as things could be. Johnny backed up, holding tight to Sallie’s hand and keeping her hidden behind him as much as he could. He grabbed the doorframe with his free hand and leaned in, looking around the door to where his brother sat with a book, catching the light from the window. “How’s he doing?” Johnny asked softly.
Scott hushed his voice, although not enough to suit Johnny. “Doctor Jenkins gave him some laudanum before he left, so he’s sleeping well. Where have you been?”
“To Green River. Had a talk with Stanton, too. Look, Scott—give me a minute, will ya? Got somethin’ I need to take care of and then I’ll sit with the Old Man.”
“No,” Scott said, closing his book and dropping it to the floor. Johnny winced when it hit with a pop. “Get in here now and tell me why you broke your promise.”
“You said you’d let Lancer handle this. Remember?” Scott pushed up from the chair and strode toward the door. “I’m looking forward to hearing why you feel free to take off without even consulting me, Brother. And the explanation better be a good one.”
Sallie set her palm on the small of Johnny’s back and tried to pull her hand free, whispering up to his ear, “Ow. You’re hurting me.”
He let up the pressure on her hand, but it was too late. Scott yanked the door open and Sallie, having dragged herself loose, wiggled her fingers at him.
“How nice to see you again, Sallie,” Scott said. “You’re looking well.”
“We needed the help with Maggie,” Johnny said, wrapping his arm around Sallie’s waist and pushing her in front of him, “and she knows babies.” He tried to shove Sallie down the hall but Scott took her hand.
“The twins,” Scott said, guiding her into the bedroom, “Uncle Ivan and Aunt Olive, wasn’t it?”
“Aunt Pearl,” she said, peering past Scott to where Murdoch’s eyes were flickering. “That your daddy, Johnny?”
“He sure don’t look much like you.”
“Let’s go,” Johnny said, trying to drag her back despite Scott’s firm grip. “We don’t want to wake him.”
“He’s awake,” came from the bed in Murdoch’s voice, only quieter and gruffer than Johnny was used to. Murdoch opened his eyes. “Would you like to introduce me to the lady?”
Johnny shot his brother a pleading look and knew he’d owe his Scott big time when Scott offered his arm to Sallie and guided her hand to it. “This is Sallie,” Scott told Murdoch.
“McFadden,” Sallie whispered to him.
“Sallie McFadden. Miss McFadden is experienced in the care of infants,” he said, escorting her closer to Murdoch’s bed, with her tugging hopelessly at the gown’s neckline. “And as you won’t be available to assist Teresa with Maggie for some time, Johnny and I consulted on the issue,” he tossed an accusatory look back to where Johnny stood in the hallway, “and determined that the best course of action would be to hire a nursemaid for the infant. Fortunately Miss McFadden has accepted the position, haven’t you, Sallie?”
“Guess I have,” Sallie said.
“Excuse my not standing,” Murdoch told her, shifting in bed just enough that he winced from the effort. He pressed his hand to his wound.
“Oh, that’s all right,” she said.
“Is this your usual line of work?” Murdoch asked.
“No, sir. About the only real job I’ve ever had is pleasuring men. But I learned that right quick and I figure I can handle whatever that was Scott said I’d be doing.”
“Sallie’s quite a dependable young lady,” Scott said quickly, “and I’m sure she’ll make an excellent nursemaid.”
“No doubt,” Murdoch said.
Scott turned her to the door. “And since there’s no time like the present to get started, Johnny—would you like to show Miss McFadden to Maggie’s room?”
“Come on, Sallie,” Johnny said, giving his brother a grateful look. Not taking any chances by entering his father’s room, he just held out his hand for her to take. Sallie darted over, grabbed hold, and leaned in close.
“He’s scary,” she whispered.
“His bark’s worse than . . .” Johnny started to whisper back, but then his father found his full voice.
“Johnny,” Murdoch said, “I’d like a word with you after you’ve taken care of Miss McFadden.”
Mierda. “Sure thing,” Johnny said.
A low flame burned from the sconce on the hallway wall, casting a dim light over the niña’s door, and Johnny expected to see darkness when he peered into the infant’s room. Instead a candle was lit on a table and Sallie sat in a dainty oak rocker beside the table, holding Maggie.
“She asleep?” he called quietly across the room.
“Nah,” Sallie called back just as quietly. “But I don’t mind. It’s kinda nice just sittin’ in the quiet. Besides, she’s a sweet little thing.”
He walked over to stand beside the rocker, looking down at the niña. Sallie was stroking her cheek with one finger and the niña was locked onto Sallie with her big blue eyes. “How’d you do that?” he asked.
Sallie started the chair to rocking. “Do what?”
“Get her to stop cryin’.”
“Oh, that. Poor thing was just colicky is all. Teresa got me some peppermint leaves and we brewed up a syrup. Miss Maggie did just fine sucking it off my finger and it settled her tummy some.”
The niña made a sound, sort of like a sparrow squawking, and Johnny squatted beside the chair, resting one elbow on the rocking arm and watching Sallie pet at the kid.
“What’d your daddy say after you left me?” Sallie asked. “Couldn’t have been good, the way he was lookin’ at me. You in trouble over me being here?”
“Trouble? Nah, he’s just worried about this little one. Wanted to be sure he can trust her with you is all.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“That he could. I told him you’re a real fine lady, and that’s the truth of it.”
Sallie gave him a shy smile. “Your daddy ain’t fool enough to believe that.”
“Well, he did.”
“Then Johnny Lancer, you must be the smoothest talker since that snake in Adam’s garden.”
“Well, don’t you look like a lady?”
Sallie looked down at her borrowed clothes. “Guess so. But I don’t reckon wearing Teresa’s dress makes me any different than I was last night. Don’t feel different anyway. But I am powerful glad to be holding Miss Maggie right now instead of Rufus Gates. Rufus may be real quick about his business, and that is a blessing mind you, but Lord could that man use a bath.”
Johnny let that lie for a long moment, just feeling the chair rock under his arm and hoping none of the ladies at the saloon were of a like mind with Sallie and holding it against him that he wasn’t ‘real quick’ like Rufus Gates.
Sallie stopped her rocking and shifted the niña from her arm to her lap, settling Maggie in with her head at Sallie’s knees and her hands held in Sallie’s, being tugged and fussed with. “She looks like my Aunt Pearl’s twins. Got their nose.”
“Why’d you leave them?” Johnny asked.
“The twins. Your aunt and uncle.”
Suddenly guarded, shrugging as if it didn’t matter, Sallie said, “No reason. Just cause.”
Johnny let that lie as well. He stood. “Well, I wanted to look in on Murdoch. You’re doing a fine job with that niña.” He headed for the door but Sallie called out.
“Johnny?” Sallie said. “You reckon I ever will feel different?”
He didn’t need to think about it. “Yeah, some. Not much though. Mostly you just figure out that what you are ain’t as bad as you think.”
The niña squawked again and Sallie bent to her, clasping and kissing Maggie’s tiny hands. “Be real quiet when you look in on your daddy,” she said, letting Maggie try to grasp her nose. “Old people need their sleep, ‘specially when they’re laid up like he is.”
“I’ll be careful.”
Feeling oddly unsettled at escaping the niña’s room without having to walk her all over the floor, Johnny crept down the hallway to his father’s room. He tested the door first, and when the hinges didn’t creak too loudly, pushed it open.
“What are you doing up?” his father asked from the dark across the room. Shadows moved at his father’s bed and a match flame flashed.
“I could be asking you the same thing,” Johnny said, watching his father set the match to the wick of his nightstand candle. The light revealed Teresa curled up asleep in a bedside chair. “You know what time it is?”
Moving stiffly, Murdoch stuffed his pillow up against his headboard. “It seems having a bullet gouged out of your ribs isn’t conducive to sleep. And what would your excuse be?”
“Habit, I guess. Gave up sleepin’ when that niña showed up.” Johnny moved to the foot of Murdoch’s bed and pushed the mattress corner with his palm, making it bounce. “You need anything?” he asked.
“For you to stop that. Sit down.”
Johnny sank to the bed and leaned back against its post. “Still hurtin’ bad?” he asked.
“It could be worse. Teresa gave me a dose of laudanum a few hours ago and that’s keeping the fire down to a slow burn. How’s Maggie?”
“I tell you, Murdoch, that kid ain’t the same one we found in that basket. Sallie’s got her smilin’ and cooin’ and—did you know the niña has blue eyes? Every time I get near her, she has them all scrunched up and crying, but she does—she has blue eyes.”
“I am aware of the color of her eyes.”
Maybe it was the laudanum softening his father, it surely could do worse to a man, but the tone of his father’s voice nudged at Johnny. “Is that why she’s got that name? Did your Maggie have blue eyes like that?”
Murdoch smiled faintly. “No, not that shade of blue anyway.”
“But they were blue.”
“As a still pond on a summer morning.”
Johnny felt a grin settle in. “So who was she?”
His father shook his head and rested it against the headboard. He closed his eyes. “Yesterday’s regrets, that’s who she was, and our little Maggie is all about tomorrow, which is going to come fast enough. Don’t you think you should be finding your bed?”
“You sleepy yet?”
Johnny swung his legs up on the bed, crossed them at the ankle and kept watching his father until Murdoch opened his eyes again. “Still waitin’ to hear who Maggie was,” Johnny said.
Even with the laudanum loosening his tongue, Murdoch kept Maggie’s secret. They talked though, about nothing mostly, until Teresa woke up hours later. Murdoch’s breaths were getting ragged then, and she poured him another dose of laudanum. That put him under. With his father asleep finally and Teresa awake to watch him, Johnny found his own room. He fell asleep before his second boot had even hit the floor.
Val was right and Colton’s woman must have had the lawyer send a telegram first thing. A reply came back mid-morning, and Val carried it out to the ranch along with a exhumation order just as Maria’s tamales hit the kitchen table. All of the Harringtons were alive and well in Missouri, somewhat of a disappointment to Val, who would have preferred identifying the body in Stanton’s grave without the extra effort of digging it up. They planned their next move while removing husks and stuffing masa in their mouths.
“Talked to Dorsey this mornin’,” Val mumbled through a mouthful of tamales.
“And?” Johnny asked.
“Got the lowdown on this Hayes fella. Dark hair, sorta tall. No scars he could think of. Does a little of this and a little of that, just like Dorsey.”
Scott wiped his napkin at the corner of his mouth. “I see Dorsey is still a veritable fount of information.”
“Don’t guess you found out the nina’s name?” Johnny asked.
“Nope, Dorsey doesn’t know it,” Val said. “May just have to wait for her to start talkin’ and tell us herself. You ready?”
Johnny grabbed the last tamale as they were heading out the door.
Stanton’s farm wasn’t a long ride, but as bare as his place seemed they couldn’t depend on him having tools and they’d lashed pick axes and shovels to their saddles. The tools didn’t ride well and the handles kept whacking the horses, making them shy sideways or suddenly lunge forward. Both the men and horses were in a real bad mood before they’d made it to the gulley that cut through the west end of the ranch. Maybe that’s why the gunshots snuck up on them—they’d been too busy cussing at the horses to hear them.
“You hear that?” Val asked, sitting higher in his saddle and looking off to the hills on the far side of the gulley.
“Sounds like our boy’s back,” Johnny said.
Scott pulled his hat down tight. “And it wouldn’t be polite not to say hello.”
They were miles away from where they’d heard the shooter the first time, but not far from Stanton’s. Maybe the shooter’s relocation was a coincidence, but Johnny had an itch that needed scratching. “Val, you think you could overlook a little breaking and entering? If that’s Stanton up there, anything he has to hide back at his farm is wide open for findin’.”
“It’d be easier to overlook it if you don’t get caught,” Val said.
Scott and Val took off through the gulley in a rush of scrambling hooves, flying mud, and flapping tools, while Johnny held Barranca back from following and counted the shots. One, two, three, just about that quick. The shooter wasn’t any preacher.
At Stanton’s, he came up on the rise first, watching the barn and the house below as long as the itch would let him, and then untied his shovel and left it on the rise. Stanton might be a drunk, but he wasn’t a fool, and if he was home then that shovel swinging made it hard to claim this was just a social call. Besides, Johnny was tired of toting the damn thing.
Stanton wasn’t home.
It takes a certain kind of man to be a farmer, one who likes staking his claim to one piece of land and setting his roots down deep. A person tends to collect things sitting in one place too long, but Stanton must have been new to that kind of living. The pie safe held a bit of jerky and a few tins of meat. A skillet hung from a hook next to the stove and a pot sat on its burner, but there didn’t seem to be any coffee anywhere. Two dirty plates, an empty whiskey bottle, and a bible had been left on the fireplace mantle, and Johnny opened the bible to where a pink ribbon stuck out between the pages. The book was Ezekiel, full of “thus saith”s and “behold”s and a lot of names his tongue couldn’t get around. He set it back on the mantle.
The bedroom was just as empty as the parlor. The bed had a grey wool blanket spread out over the mattress and a few clothes sat folded on a wooden chair. An ornately carved armoire stood against the far wall, a fine piece of furniture Ida Harrington must have sorely regretted leaving behind, and Johnny swung its doors open to find nothing hanging from its rod and its shelves empty. He’d almost given up on finding anything when he dropped to one knee beside the bed. His mama would have said it was the kneeling that did it, she’d made him knock his knees to the floor often enough, but his prayers had never been answered then so Johnny was counting this find as pure luck. Two saddlebags made a dark lump under the bed.
All he found in the first bag were the usual things a man would need—a straight razor, two pairs of socks, and a few shirts. The second bag was heavier. It dragged up dust as he pulled it out and he swiped a brown spider from its strap before opening the flap. A cotton gown spilled out when he turned the bag on its side and Johnny kept digging out clothes, finding a woman’s skirt and three blouses, along with a thin chemise. A photograph and a gold ring had been buried under the clothes, and Johnny held the photograph to the light of the window, studying the woman in it. In her own plain way, she was pretty. Light hair pulled back into a braid. Eyes that could be the niña’s. Young.
The front door creaked open, and Johnny drew his Colt.
Thanks to Kona Babe for the beta and my apologies to Cat for not giving her time to do one.
Stanton came into view halfway across the parlor rug, his hand resting on the buckle of his gun belt, his gaze falling placidly to the photograph Johnny still held in his hand. “You find what you were looking for?” he asked.
“Who is she?”
Stanton kept on unbuckling his belt. “How about you point that Colt somewhere else?” he said, laying the rig across the back of the settee. “And I don’t guess it would do any good to remind you this is my house?” He came as far as the bedroom doorway.
Johnny held his gun steady. “I think I asked you who she is, and I’m getting real tired of hearing it’s none of my business.”
Stanton leaned into the door’s frame. “Then quit asking, because it’s none of your business.”
“I’ll tell you then.” Johnny tossed the photograph on the bed. “The woman’s the spittin’ image of the niña, so I’m guessing she’s its mama. And no decent woman would go off without her wedding ring or her baby, so I figure that’s her buried in your cemetery. That’s right, ain’t it.”
Stanton had let his gaze follow the photograph to the mattress, his whiskered cheeks sucking in and out.
“How’d she end up dead?” Johnny asked.
It took him longer than it should have, but “Natural causes,” Stanton finally said, “no concern of yours.” He pushed off the doorframe and strolled to the bed, where he snatched up the photograph. He ran his finger over its edges. “Nobody’s fault but mine.”
“Well, which was it—natural causes or your doing?”
Stanton looked up at him finally. “I didn’t kill her, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I’m thinkin’ a lot of things, like maybe my Old Man wouldn’t be shot up if you’d just asked for our help instead of dumping your niña on us. And like maybe you’ve got some real bad trouble coming after you.”
“Me? Trouble?” Dipping his head with a weary smile, Stanton slipped the photograph into this shirt pocket. “I’m just a farmer. What kind of trouble could I have?”
“Stanton . . . or Hayes, whatever your name is, I tell ya, as bad as you’re pissing me off, I can see how somebody might want you dead.” Even the weight of the Colt had become an irritation and emptying its lead into Stanton was becoming a powerful temptation. Johnny dropped its barrel and feathered down the hammer. “Dorsey figures that somebody is looking for his money back.”
“You’ve been talking to Dorsey?”
“Yeah. He came out to the ranch trying to take the niña.”
“He what?” Fear rippling over his face, Stanton spun to the parlor and lurched to the settee. “Damn it! Damn you, Madrid! Why the hell did you let him near her? Why the god-damn hell?”
Johnny had started for him, holstering his Colt and saying, “Hold on,” but Stanton was already grabbing up his rig and slinging it around his hips. He buckled it while nearly crying the words, “If Dorsey has her, if that god-damn man has her…damn it!”
“Dorsey doesn’t have her,” Johnny said, grabbing Stanton’s arm, and Stanton stopped, breathing hard and looking at him like a sleepwalking man, like one wrong move might hurl him into a nightmare he’d never wake from. “We sent him packing,” Johnny said, “she’s safe.”
“Yeah. She’s at the ranch, and she’s safe. She’s fine, probably bawlin’ her head off right now.”
“Damn,” Stanton said softly, bracing a hand against the sofa. He fumbled his way around to its seat and sank to it. Then, still breathing hard, he bent his face into his hands and scrubbed his fingers hard into his sweat-stiffened hair. Johnny came around to stand looking down at Stanton, waiting for him to stop trembling, and when Stanton did finally, swiping at his eyes, Johnny stared down at his own boots until Stanton lifted his gaze, giving the man that moment too.
“This hasn’t. . .” Stanton started in, thumbing some wetness from his nose, “this hasn’t been easy, this past week. Not since Sarah . . .” He wiped his thumb on the knee of his pants, studying the smear it left. “That was her name—Sarah. And I’d appreciate it if maybe you could use some of the money I gave you for a stone for her grave. She should have that, something so people would know who she was.”
“How’d she die?”
“Her heart. We knew it was weak, and she never should have had the baby, never should come here with me. If she’d stayed in Salt Lake City, if she’d just stayed with her folks. . .”
“I’m sorry,” Johnny said.
“You don’t have to be sorry. Just take care of Cora for me.”
“That the niña’s name?” Looking around, Johnny settled on the parlor’s leather chair. He moved to it, plopping down as he said, “My Old Man calls her Maggie.”
“Maggie,” Stanton said, seeming to consider it. He wiped his sleeve at his nose this time. “Call her anything you like, but just keep her away from Dorsey.”
“The way I see it, that’s your job. Why does Dorsey want her, anyway?”
“To get to me.”
“And why would he want to get to you?”
Stanton gave him another weary smile and a bleary-eyed but knowing look.
“None of my business, you’re saying?”
Stanton answered that with a single nod.
“And here I thought we were gettin’ so close.”
Stanton ran his hand through his hair again, leaving it as much a scraggly mess as it was before. He couldn’t have shaved or bathed anytime soon, and all that grey in his dark hair aged him, but he was younger than Johnny had guessed. Had to be. The sun hadn’t dug itself into his face yet, hadn’t cut lines deep enough to hide that unwashed dirt. He was too young to look so old.
“Let’s cut this deck again,” Johnny said. “What’s keeping Dorsey from just finding you here? The road to your farm comes out of Green River just as easy as it does from Lancer.”
“He’ll get here, soon as he asks enough questions.”
Stanton shrugged. “That would do it.”
“That why you’ve been shootin’ cans up in the hills?”
Looking down to Johnny’s rig, flicking a finger at it, Stanton asked, “How long have you been out of the game, Madrid?”
“A while. And the name’s Lancer.”
“Fair enough. Then—Lancer—has it been your experience that a different name changes things? Puts the past where you want it?”
“Takes more than a name to do that.”
“What do you figure it does take?”
It didn’t sound like Stanton was expecting an answer and Johnny didn’t have one to give him anyway. The thump of hoof beats, faint at first, was getting stronger, and Johnny glanced to the door. “You know my brother and the sheriff are comin’.”
“I’ve been wondering when you were going to set the law on me.”
“You mean to make any trouble for the sheriff?”
Stanton shook his head. “No trouble, not me. I’m done with that, just as soon as I take care of one last piece of business.”
“And what’s that?”
“I’d tell you it was none of your concern, but like you say—this little talk has brought us closer. I figure you know what I have to do.”
Scott would have tried to talk Stanton out of it, that realization drifted through Johnny’s head. There was a civilized way to handle things, a legal way, and it may not have been pretty but it’d keep things wrapped up nice and tidy. Might keep the niña from becoming an orphan too. Johnny just nodded. “I do. Dorsey any good with a gun?”
“We worked up north mostly, Montana and Wyoming. The range wars were going pretty strong up there a few years back and they were paying out good money. Dorsey likes to keep a low profile, he—“ Sucking in his cheek again, Stanton dipped his head for a second and then brought it up, looking Johnny square in the eye. “He has his reasons for not wanting his face too well known, but he was good, you can take my word on that. Took Jack Stone in a fair fight.”
Johnny gave out a low whistle. “Guess I’ve been out of it too long. I hadn’t even heard Stone was dead.”
A boot hit the porch planks, its fall echoing into the parlor, and Stanton leaned toward him as the steps came closer. “Count your blessing, Madrid, and stay out of it. This is my business and I’ll thank you to let me handle it.”
Fair enough, Johnny figured. Only Stone had been a fast gun, one of the best, and if Dorsey had squared off against him and jerked his gun first, what did that say about Stanton’s chances? Johnny resurrected the rhythm, the one-two-three of the shots he’d heard in the hills, and they didn’t add up, didn’t come fast enough to take down Stone, let alone the man who’d put Stone in the dirt.
Scott and Val came through the door, letting the afternoon light stream in behind them, and Johnny had one thought as they looked across the parlor at Stanton—they were looking at a dead man.
Val wasn’t much for staying out of Stanton’s business, not after he’d found out the man’s real name was Hayes. “Bout time I got some answers about the shootin’,” he said after hauling Stanton into one of his cells.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Johnny told him.
The only thing Val got out of the man was some snoring, which started about half an hour into Val’s interrogation, such as it was. Other than that, it was all the same information Johnny already had—that Stanton’s wife was born with a bad heart which gave out the night of the shooting, that he’d left the infant at the ranch to keep it out of harm’s way, and that the money stashed in the baby’s basket was none of Val’s business, an answer that drove Val to whack Stanton with his hat. As to why he wanted Dorsey dead or why he’d become a farmer or where the money had come from, Stanton wasn’t giving them anything but a sullen glare.
“We could have used you at the ranch,” Scott told Val, looking through the bars to where Stanton was sprawled out on the cot, sound asleep. “The mere sound of your voice might have had Maggie down for the night.”
“You want to trade me for Sallie?” Val asked.
“Not on your life,” Johnny said.
They all three watched Stanton a moment longer, admiring the flat-out exhaustion that had dragged his arm off the cot and left his mouth hanging wide open.
“Prisoners always look so damn peaceful when they’re sleepin’,” Val said.
Scott rolled his eyes and headed out of the cell room for the office. “Just like little angels,” he said.
Despite Dorsey’s claim that he hadn’t seen anything and couldn’t identify his assailant, it only made sense to put him face-to-face with Stanton. After all, Val told them, Lancer had already shanghaied his best witness. Still, there was no hurry. Val set to making a fresh batch of coffee while Johnny and Scott divided up the stacks of newspapers, letters, and wanted posters littering the office. They sifted through them with Stanton’s hacks and snorts rattling the walls, and by the time Johnny had pulled the last pile into his lap, Stanton’s snores had settled down to a rhythmic buzz.
“You findin’ anything?” Val asked, shoving his pile aside on the desk. The top papers started to slide and Scott came up out of his chair to catch them.
“Just a bunch of rustlers and train robbers,” Johnny said. “Nothing with the name Stanton or Hayes.”
Val stood and reached for his hat by the door. “Well, keep lookin’. Been my experience if a man won’t tell the law much, then he most likely has the law after him.”
“Dorsey hasn’t exactly been forthcoming,” Scott said.
“And I ain’t seen his name on any of those posters either,” Val said, sounding real sorrowful about that fact. “See if you can’t get some coffee down Stanton before I get back with Dorsey.” He set his hat on his head and stepped out onto the boardwalk. “Or get some coffee down Hayes, or whatever the man’s name is. It sure would simplify my life if people would just stick to one name.”
As Val pulled the door closed behind him, Scott headed for the coffee pot. “As sound as he’s sleeping, I’m not convinced even dynamite would wake Stanton.”
Johnny flipped a newspaper to the floor. “Well, I wouldn’t want to put a match to Val’s coffee.” The wanted poster staring up from his lap was a rough sketch of a person unknown, with only a few lines of description. Dark hair, thirty to forty years old, medium build. It wasn’t much to go on and the date on the poster made it nearly three years old. He threw it to the floor too, then looked up to see that Scott had poured the coffee and moved to the doorway to the cells, where he stood blowing on the coffee’s steam.
“So what do we do about the infant if Val lets Stanton go?” Scott asked.
“The niña?” Johnny said, tossing aside the next few posters. They floated to the floor next to the person unknown, drawing his eye to its sketch again. “I guess we have to hand her over if Stanton wants her.”
“And why wouldn’t he want her? She is his child.”
Johnny reached down for the first poster and took it back into his lap, studying it. “Well, Brother, sometimes the past has a way of coming back and bitin’ a man.” He folded the poster and slipped it under his waistband. “And Stanton in there may not want his kid gettin’ bit when it does.”
Scott turned to him with a curious look. “Do you know something I don’t about Stanton?”
“Would you like to tell me what that is?”
“A hunch, that’s all.” He was down to the last few papers in his pile and Johnny flicked through them, seeing nothing but newspapers. He threw those to the floor, then looked up to see Scott staring down at him, still blowing on the coffee. “You going to wake Stanton?”
Scott didn’t have the heart. Val had to wake the man after he’d walked Dorsey through the office and into the back room to the cells. Leaving Dorsey waiting outside the cell, Val leaned over Stanton and shook him hard, then jumped back when Stanton came up with a right hook and a crazed grunt. It took Stanton a few seconds to rub the sleep off his face, but he found Dorsey soon enough, squinting up through the bars to Dorsey.
“Good to see you, Travis,” Dorsey said.
Stanton ducked his head and scrubbed his fingers into the hair at his neck. “Go to hell.”
“Well,” Val asked, “is he or is he ain’t the man who shot you?”
“Ain’t,” Dorsey said with exaggerated pronunciation. “I already told you that. The man who shot me was an imposing figure, and look at him—Travis isn’t any taller than Mr. Lancer here.” Dorsey gestured with his good hand to Johnny, who had hung back in the doorway. Dorsey gave him an appraising look and Johnny answered it with a slow smile. “Besides,” Dorsey said, “Travis is a businessman, just as I am. I seriously doubt he even owns a gun, let alone could manage to hit a target in the dark. Could you, Travis?”
Something was going on in Stanton’s head, but that little bit of sleep had done the man some good. His voice tight but controlled, he said, “I don’t have it, Dorsey. You’re pissing up a dry stump.”
“Have what?” Val asked.
“I believe my friend is referring to some funds he was holding for an associate,” Dorsey said. “In my opinion, that is the source of our problem here, and until the funds are returned anyone who may have them in their possession will remain in grave danger.” This time Dorsey turned to Scott, who had leaned up against the bars of the neighboring cell. “I understand your father was attacked on the road the day of my visit. I trust he’s recovering well?”
“How do you know about the ambush?” Scott asked.
It was Dorsey’s turn to give a slow smile. “Your fine town isn’t only inquisitive; it’s also quite full of gossip.”
“How much money are we talkin’?” Val asked.
“Eight thousand dollars,” Dorsey said. “Which I would be happy to see returned if Travis would simply tell me where it can be found. He didn’t leave any money with your family, did he, Mr. Lancer? Perhaps at the same time he abandoned his child?”
“No,” Scott said, just as innocently as if it were the truth.
“Well, that’s fortunate,” Dorsey said, “most fortunate indeed, as I’m sure you can appreciate how treacherous it could be for anyone who might be withholding the funds.”
“So who is this cut-throat you’ve got after ya?” Val asked.
“You’ll have to ask Travis,” Dorsey said, “as I’ve never known the man’s name.” Dorsey slipped into the cell and stepped directly in front of Stanton, looming over the sitting man. “Travis, you want to tell the sheriff who you owe this money to and why?”
They stared each other down for a good long moment, Dorsey keeping his good hand too close to his sling for Johnny’s comfort and Stanton looking like somebody just asked him to drink a big slug of turpentine. Then Stanton swallowed. “I already told you to go to hell,” Stanton said.
Dorsey swept his hand out in surrender. “I tried, Sheriff Crawford, you have to admit that. But as crass as I may find my associate’s language, I can assure you that he was not responsible for my attack and you have no reason to hold him.”
“You mind if I decide who I have a reason to hold and who I don’t?” Val said.
Dorsey laughed. “As long as I’m free to return to my hotel room.”
“Nobody’s stoppin’ you.”
“Then if you’ll excuse me.” Dorsey came out of the cell and looked expectantly at Johnny as he walked toward the doorway. Obligingly, Johnny moved out of his way but Dorsey stopped just short of the doorway and gave Johnny a penetrating look. “Have we met before? Somewhere other than Green River?” he asked.
“Nope,” Johnny said.
“My mistake then.” Dorsey brushed Johnny’s shoulder as he passed.
None of them could muster up much sympathy for keeping Dorsey alive, but it still didn’t make much sense to set Stanton free. Either he’d put a bullet in Dorsey or Dorsey would do the same to him, and whichever way it went, Val would have a mess to clean up off his streets. But since Stanton hadn’t exactly threatened Dorsey’s life, there’s wasn’t much to hold him on either. Val seemed satisfied with his solution.
“Seein’ as you’ve already got his little one stayin’ at the ranch,” Val said, “I reckon you might as well take the daddy in, too.”
“And what if he doesn’t want to come?” Scott asked.
“I got that all figured out.” Val pulled a badge from his desk drawer and tossed it across to Scott, who caught it one-handed. “Hold up your right hand and repeat after me.”
Deputy Scott rode point on the road home, ahead of Johnny on Barranca and Stanton on his mare. Stanton kept his silence the whole way home, a habit Johnny was starting to respect in the man, but he also kept his eyes on the shrubs and the rises as they passed, a trait Johnny found downright admirable. Knowing the ambusher was still out there somewhere, he was doing a fair bit of careful watching himself.
Teresa was coming down the stairs with an armful of wet towels when they brought Stanton through the great room, and she cast a curious look his direction. “Murdoch has been asking where you went.”
“How’s he doin’?” Johnny asked.
She lingered on the bottom step as they came up them. “There’s no fever yet, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep him in bed.”
“Give us a minute and I’ll look in on him,” Scott said.
Still puzzled, her tired little face scrunched up with it, Teresa called up the steps, “Are you wearing a badge?”
“It’s a long story,” Scott called down.
Murdoch had his door pulled closed and they knew he could hear them—three sets of boots clumping down a hallway can get a man’s attention when he has nothing else to occupy his time—but they led Stanton past the Old Man’s door anyway and kept on walking. The niña’s door stood half open and Johnny reached it first, peeking through to see Sallie pacing the floor with the niña in her arms and the kid’s head lying on her shoulder. Stanton gazed past him to the pair.
“The gal’s name is Sallie,” Johnny said, laying his palm against the door and pressing it open wider.
Bleary-eyed again, Stanton stumbled past him. “Is she asleep?” he asked quietly.
“Don’t I wish,” Sallie said. She came to a stop next to the rocker and stood waiting while Stanton walked to her. “You want to hold her? She just had a bottle so I can’t promise she won’t spit up somethin’ on you, but it won’t hurt you none.”
“I’d like to take her,” Stanton said.
Maggie made that sound again when Stanton pried her from Sallie’s shoulder, that sparrow squawk, and Stanton answered with a murmured, “Hush, baby girl.” He cradled her in the crook of his arm as Sallie stood awkwardly by, clumsily folding a blanket while looking from Stanton to Johnny. Johnny waved her to the door.
“She already had a nice big burp,” Sallie said, sidling between Stanton and the rocker. “Just thought you might need to know that.”
Clearing his throat first, Stanton said, “I appreciate it.”
Once Sallie was out of his way, Stanton lowered himself into the rocker and bowed his head over the squirming niña. She squeaked a little and he brought her up to press his lips to her head. She seemed to like that.
At Johnny’s side, Sallie tipped to her toes and whispered into his ear, “Who’s that?” but it was Scott, standing behind Johnny, who answered.
“He’s the infant’s father,” Scott said.
“Oh, you found her daddy.” Sallie looked back to where Stanton was still bent over the niña, holding her wrapped in his arms and talking some sort of soft something into her ear, and then she gazed up at Johnny with a smile of pure wonder. “Well, ain’t that somethin’,” she said.
Thank you as always to Cat and Linda B. for the beta. Typos and errors no doubt remain, and I alone am to blame.
Sunrise was a long time coming, the night sky warming slowly above a bank of black clouds. Johnny had followed the east road nearly two miles past the Lancer arch, where the Piney Creek snaked up to a small corral, and he bent over Barranca’s neck, watching the dark ground, as he turned the horse up the creek. Barranca’s footing had been sure over the road’s packed-down dirt but here the trail was rocky, with gopher holes and rivulets hiding in the weedy grass. After Barranca stumbled the second time, Johnny swung out of the saddle and led the horse the rest of the way.
They didn’t use the corral much, just for spring calving mostly, and vines had grown up over its gate. Johnny pulled those off before taking six cans from his saddlebags and balancing them on the gate’s top rail. He checked the east sky again, judging that the sun had to have risen behind the clouds by now. Maria would have the bacon frying.
He paced off twenty feet from the cans, turned, and slipped his Colt from its holster. One chamber had been left empty for safety and he placed a cartridge in that chamber, then holstered the revolver again. He steadied his breath.
He counted by the ping of lead hitting tin, six quick incisions into the revolver’s echoing reports. And then he waded through the damp grass to set the cans up again.
The smell of bacon hit him as soon as Johnny opened the kitchen door, and the sight of Murdoch sitting at the table hit him next.
“What are you doing out of bed?” Johnny asked, tossing his hat onto its hook.
Murdoch shook his head slowly, and pressed his hand over his bandaged ribs as if even that slight movement hurt. “Not you too,” he said.
“He won’t listen to a word I say,” Teresa complained, banging a skillet on the stove. She snatched up a towel, then picked up the skillet again just as Scott came in through the great room hallway.
“What’s all the noise about?” Scott asked, looking over to where Teresa was carrying the skillet to the table, using a spatula to pry fried eggs off its bottom as she went. His gaze landed on Murdoch. “Well, that explains it.”
Murdoch held his plate out and Teresa slapped two eggs on it. “And I suppose you have something to say to me as well?” Murdoch said to Scott.
“No.” Scott shared a concerned look with Johnny as Johnny headed for the coffee pot. “Not at all.” He took the chair across from their father. “I’m just considering the opportunities presented by the reopening of your wound. Teresa? You’ve been working on your embroidery, haven’t you?”
She slipped two eggs onto the plate in front of him. “I haven’t, but go on.”
“I just think it’s a shame to waste the doctor’s efforts like this,” Scott said, adding two biscuits to the eggs, “and since he’ll no doubt have to replace Murdoch’s stitches, perhaps he can demonstrate a few embroidery stitches this time? Maybe a French knot?”
Teresa beamed a smile at Scott and Johnny got the tail end of it when he handed Scott a hot cup of coffee. Johnny sat with his cup in the chair next to Scott’s, uniting the two of them against the Old Man. He took his first sip while looking through the steam to his father. Murdoch was acting like a fool kid, but still and all, seeing him sitting there like it was any other morning—that went a long way to making up for the sleep he’d lost shooting cans. Or maybe the coffee was just that good.
“If you three are through chastising me,” Murdoch said, “maybe we can discuss more pressing matters, like why Scott has a badge in his pocket.”
Scott looked down at the lump in his chest pocket. “Because it feels ostentatious wearing it on my shirt.”
“Of course. I don’t know why I even bothered to ask. Then perhaps you could tell me what your plans are for the prisoner you’re holding in Maggie’s room?”
Johnny hadn’t had the heart to tell the Old Man that her name was Cora. “Hadn’t exactly decided. I figured I’d head into town again and have a talk with Dorsey.”
Scott forked some bacon onto his plate. “You won’t get anything out of him.”
“You got any better ideas?”
“We haven’t talked to Colton yet. If he handled the deed transfer on Stanton’s farm then it’s possible he knows something. And I’d like to follow up at the saloon and the livery; maybe there’s something there we missed before.”
“Aren’t you forgettin’ something?”
“What’s that?” Scott slid a glance his way, then went back to his breakfast.
“You’ve got a prisoner to keep an eye on, that’s what.”
“I can watch Stanton,” Murdoch offered, and behind him, taking a plate from a shelf, Teresa turned and set her hand on her hip.
“Don’t you dare let him do anything but go straight back to bed!” she said.
“Murdoch, you heard her,” Scott said, “and are you willing go up against a woman as determined as our Teresa?”
“Need I remind everyone that I’m not an aged invalid?”
“No,” Scott said, wiping his napkin at his mouth, “but you don’t have to worry about our prisoner because I have a plan.”
“Yeah?” Johnny said. “So what’s your plan?”
“Trust me,” Scott said.
After breakfast, Scott helped Murdoch back up to his bedroom while Johnny looked in on Stanton. He found the man hunched over a washbasin, half of his face still lathered and a razor in his hand. Sallie sat across the room, rocking Maggie. Johnny got Sallie’s attention with a soft, “Hey, Sallie,” and then, “Your doin’’?” he asked with a nod toward Stanton’s shaving.
She jiggled the niña. “No, this one was doing the askin’. His whiskers were kinda irritating the poor thing.” She rubbed her cheek in sympathy. “But don’t he look a sight prettier?”
Stanton turned at that comment, still cleaning lather off the razor with a towel and looking over his shoulder at Johnny. He must have put a wet comb through his hair and his shirt was clean. One of his, Johnny realized after recognizing the embroidery at the cuffs. “You do look kind of pretty at that,” Johnny told him.
Stanton turned back to his mirror. “What do you want, Lancer?”
“He’s sorta prickly, bless his heart,” Sallie said. “Ain’t had his breakfast yet, and you know what an empty belly can do to a man’s way of thinkin’.”
“Teresa has plenty on the table,” Johnny said, starting to pull the door closed again. “Oh, Stanton,” he said, just to be on the safe side. “You know better than to take off on me, don’t you?”
“And what would you do if I did?”
“Might have to shoot you.”
Stanton dipped the razor in the basin, tapped the water off on the basin’s rim and smiled as he set the razor to his chin again. “Now that would be a shame, wouldn’t it.”
Johnny caught up to Scott at the front hitching post and waited as Scott ambled over to the hacienda wall and shouted up to the sentry on its roof, “Here, catch!” Scott reared back and threw something up high, missing the sentry by only a foot or two. The sentry leaned out to snag it.
“Now, put the badge on,” Scott hollered up, “and hold up your right hand.”
Once in Green River, Johnny and Scott split up, believing they could cover more ground that way. Scott headed for Colton’s office mid-morning, only to learn that Colton hadn’t made it in to the office yet. Scott was beginning to regret the discussion he’d had with his grandfather years before, the one during which he’d flatly refused to consider a career in law. Nothing could be more tedious than writing legal arguments, he’d said then. His grandfather’s position would have been strengthened if he’d mentioned cows.
Seth at the saloon hadn’t seen Dorsey since the night of the shooting, so that got him nothing but the lingering scent of Sophie Mae’s cologne on his shirt and a persistent stirring south of his shirttail. The offer she’d whispered in his ear wasn’t one he’d heard before and he wasn’t sure it was even physically possible, but he had to respect the woman’s entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe he could reward it after he’d talked to one more citizen.
The sharp repeated ring of Jake’s blacksmith hammer reverberated through the livery when he entered its cool interior.
“Can I do something for you, Mister?” a squeaky voice said from a stall. Scott peered through the stall slats at Jake’s daughter, a gangly kid in overalls and pigtails. She stuck her pitchfork in a pile of raked-up straw and droppings, and stepped up on the stall’s bottom slat, resting her chin on the top one.
“I just have some questions for your father,” Scott said.
“Oh, well, he’s down there fixin’ up some horseshoes for that old Mr. Beeson. You know Mr. Beeson? He’s got a three-legged dog follows him around sometimes. Let me pet it once.” The girl scrunched up her nose, making her eyes scrunch too. “You smell funny,” she said.
Scott glanced down at the manure and tried not to smile. “Sorry about that.”
The kid shrugged and dropped back into the stall, and Scott walked on to where Jake had set his hammer on his anvil and was watching him approach. A big man, but not as big as most blacksmiths, Jake was known more for his bald head than his size and especially the deep purple scar that dribbled unimpeded down his skull. Scott steeled himself to avoid staring at the scar.
“Jake,” Scott said when he came near.
Jake peeled off his gloves. “Are you looking for a hire, Mr. Lancer?”
“Just some information, if you don’t mind. You probably heard that someone shot at my father?”
“I heard.” Jake folded his gloves into his belt. “How’s he doing?”
“He’s doing well,” Scott told him. “But we’re still trying to track down the man who ambushed him.”
“I already told Sheriff Crawford that the buggy was the only rental we had that morning.”
A sweat sheen glowed on the blacksmith’s head, making the scar shimmer. Drawn to the shimmer, fascinated by the regular spacing of each purple drop, Scott became suddenly aware that he wasn’t meeting the man’s gaze. He dropped his.
“It was the new rig, with our black gelding in the traces. Dorsey took it out just after eight and had it back before eleven. Harry at the bank hired our roan mare that afternoon, but that was it for the day. Not what you were looking for, was it.”
“No. Our ambusher was on a saddle horse, a black one.” Scott turned and looked down the line of stalls. Most of them were occupied, Jake did a good business, and several horses had their heads stuck out over their stalls, turned with their ears perked at him. Only one was black. “Is there any competition in Green River?” He brought his gaze back to Jake’s, keeping it carefully below his brows this time. “Anywhere else he could have obtained a horse?”
“Not for rent,” Jake said. “But he could have just taken his own. It’s a black.”
“His own horse? Why didn’t you tell Sheriff Crawford that Dorsey had his own horse available?”
“Because he didn’t ask about Dorsey, just about the rig.” Jake looked past Scott. “Hey, Puddin’,” he called out, “you remember if Dorsey’s gelding was out of its stall in the last couple of days?”
“Not yesterday,” the kid called back.
“The day before?”
“I’m trying to remember.”
Moving past Scott, Jake backhanded him on the arm. “You want to see the animal?”
The gelding was black enough. Sixteen hands and leggy enough for some speed. The kid climbed up to the stall’s top rail with a handful of hay and then straddled the rail, feeding the hay out one straw at a time and puckering her mouth, thinking hard. Scott stood at her knee, watching the horse work each straw past its big lips.
“So?” he asked her. “Can you tell me everything that’s happened here in the past two days?”
Jake’s purple scar slipped in beside him and the man set a boot on the bottom rail. “You got a couple of hours? Because I’m telling you right now, my Puddin’ can talk.”
Johnny had found Dorsey just where he’d expected the man to be. It’s a wonder the man hadn’t died of sheer boredom, sitting out the days at his window in his room. Apparently it’d had the opposite effect on his health though, and his arm was all but healed. “Green cabbage,” Dorsey had said when Johnny asked him about his quick recovery. “It cleans out the poison in your blood, makes a new man of you. The good owner of this establishment has been bringing me a bowl of cabbage soup with my dinner every night.”
“I’ll remember that,” Johnny had told him.
“I hope you never have a need for its restorative powers,” Dorsey had said.
Now the man sat in the light through the open curtains, studying the poster Johnny had handed over after the niceties of offering seats and faking concern had been satisfied. Johnny pushed the curtain back on its rod, trying to get even more light on the poster’s fading print.
“I’m not sure I see the resemblance,” Dorsey said. “If anything this sketch resembles you as much as it does Hayes.”
“It’s from Montana, two years ago. Stanton—”
“You mean Hayes,” Dorsey interjected.
Johnny dipped his head, rubbing at the side of his nose. “No, I don’t,” he said, strolling from the window to the bed. “The way I see it a man has the say so over the name he wants to hang on himself.” He leaned back against the footboard and wagged a hand at Dorsey. “Take you for example. All we have is your word for it that you’re a businessman.”
“I gather you have some doubts.”
“You could call it that, yeah. I tell ya, Dorsey, you do start my skin to crawlin’.”
“How terribly inhospitable of me.” Dorsey set the poster aside on a small table. “In light of the discomfort you experience in my presence, perhaps we should move this conversation to its conclusion. What is it that you want from me, Mr. Lancer?”
“A deal,” Johnny said. “You move on and I don’t show that poster to the sheriff.”
Dorsey smiled. “As generous as your offer is, if you think my loyalty to Hayes would induce me to accept it, you are sorely mistaken. If he is a wanted man, then Hayes deserves to go to prison.”
Johnny smiled back. “Bank robbery carries what—ten to twenty?”
“Ten, if the amount stolen isn’t excessive.”
“This job was eight thousand. And the funny thing is, you were mentionin’ a figure to Stanton in the jail last night—what was it? Eight thousand dollars? What kind of time would that bank job get you?”
Dorsey reached for the poster again, and this time when he held it, the edges of the paper quivered. “Montana, did you say? And this account mentions an associate. I believe I’ve already shared my knowledge of Mr. Hayes’ associate and if you’re looking for someone to join him in prison, I suggest you start there.”
“Well, you see, that’s where you and I aren’t seein’ eye-to-eye. You keep saying there’s somebody out there gunnin’ for Stanton and I keep thinkin’ you’re a damned liar.”
“Would you like to tell me how it is I’m supposed to be lying?”
“Like you said in the first place, you’re Stanton’s partner. I figure it was him and you in on the bank robbery, ‘cept you couldn’t hang on to the money and Stanton did. Only it’s gone now, Stanton spent it or lost it or buried it—hell, I don’t know where it went, but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll just count it as a lesson learned and move on.”
“And you can deduce all that from a poor sketch on a two-year-old wanted poster?”
Dorsey handed the poster over. Folding it, slipping it back under his belt, Johnny said, “No, this here’s just a little insurance. I figured all that when Stanton wouldn’t say anything in his cell yesterday. He knows if you go down, he goes down.”
“Your friend is protecting someone, but it isn’t me.”
Johnny stood. “So you’re sticking to your story about some associate?”
“I’m sticking to the truth.”
“All right,” Johnny said, heading for the door, “have it your way. I’m giving you a day—that ought to give you time for one more bowl of cabbage soup. If you’re still in Green River after that, the sheriff and I are going to have a little talk.”
“Let me offer an alternative,” Dorsey said, and Johnny turned back to him. “Let’s suppose for a moment that I am exactly what I claim to be and my only interest here is in helping your friend. He, on the other hand, is more interested in retaining his ill-gotten gains than in doing what is right and prefers to be rid of his offspring so that he can disappear with the funds. Maybe he even left a portion of the money with the infant to assuage his guilt. I wouldn’t put it past him to have ambushed your family simply to dissuade you from asking any more questions, or perhaps it was his associate, but either way you have placed your family between a professional gunman and eight thousand dollars. If I were you, Mr. Lancer, I don’t believe I would feel comfortable with that decision.”
“A day, Dorsey.”
“No,” Dorsey said, setting his feet up on an ottoman and relaxing back into his chair, “I don’t believe I would feel comfortable at all.”
If Johnny had his way, he would have kicked Dorsey’s rear all the way to Val’s jail as soon as Scott told him about the horse. Even if Jake’s kid wasn’t sure how long the horse’s stall had been empty, a fast horse could cover a lot of ground in a hurry and eight thousand dollars can put a man in mind of his spurs.
“All we have is a horse and a wanted poster,” Scott had said, studying the poster while downing a beer at the saloon “We still can’t prove Dorsey shot Murdoch.”
“You going to let him get away with it?” Johnny had asked.
Scott had waved the poster at him. “Are you going to keep withholding your hunches from me?”
They’d left the saloon with Johnny casting a look up to Dorsey’s hotel window and Scott sending a longing glance back at Sophie Mae, and now, standing just outside Stanton’s door, Scott had the poster folded into his pocket.
“We do this exactly as we discussed,” Scott said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Johnny said, “all sweet and nice.”
“I believe I referred to it as firm persuasion.”
“You going to open the door?”
Scott did, making Sallie look up from where she sprawled belly down on the floor with the niña on a blanket beside her. Neither of them were hiding much with their skirts, not with Maggie’s gown crumpled up around her belly while the niña flailed her legs and especially not with Sallie’s bunched up around her ass while she wiggled her bare legs on the floor. Even the back of Sallie’s knees were freckled.
“I didn’t hear you comin,” Sallie said, scooping Maggie up and scrambling to her feet. She shook her skirts out, making her parts jiggle with the motion. “Your daddy ready, is he?” She bent down to pick up the blanket, manhandling the squirming niña, and came up again with her cheeks pink. “Gettin’ this one up from her nap and your daddy up from his at the same time is plain wearing me out.”
“How long have you had him down for a nap?” Scott nodded toward Stanton. Slumped in the rocker by the window, Stanton hadn’t even stirred at the noise they’d made.
“You mean Travis?” Sallie put a finger to her lips and started whispering. “Shhh…..he just started snoring.”
Johnny strolled to Sallie and stuck his finger out for the niña to take. “You mind leaving us alone with Stanton?”
“You ain’t going to wake him, are you? I swear, a man goes a week without a woman to take care of him and he plain forgets how to sleep. But Maggie and me have him doin’ just fine now.”
Coming up on Sallie’s other side, Scott wrapped his arm around her shoulder and turned her toward the door, pulling Johnny’s finger free from the nina’s grasp. “We have to wake him, Sallie,” Scott said, “I’m sorry but it can’t be helped.” Scott shoved gently, and Sallie took the hint and kept moving.
“He’s likely to wake up cranky,” she said.
“Thanks for the warning,” Johnny told her, “and tell Murdoch we’ll be in when we’re through here.”
They waited until Sallie had taken Maggie from the room and closed the door before positioning themselves in front of Stanton, Scott nearest to the window and holding the poster and Johnny between Stanton and the door, resting his hand on his Colt.
“Hey, Stanton,” Johnny said, knocking the toe of his boot into the man’s shin. When that barely got a twitch from him, Johnny kicked harder. “We need to talk.”
Like a drowning man rising from the depths, passing the water’s surface and taking in air as one instinctive act, Stanton was in motion even as he woke. He reached for a gun at his hip, found only rough denim, and, after a second’s confusion, he rubbed at one eye and squinted past them with the other. “Where’s Sallie?” he asked.
“Down the hall,” Scott said. “She’ll be back.”
Leaning back against the rocker, Stanton closed his eyes. “You know she’s a saloon gal.”
“Was,” Johnny said. “That bother you, having a saloon gal playing mama to your niña?”
After a second’s silence, Stanton squinted up at them. “What do you want, Lancer?”
“Some answers,” Scott said, shoving the wanted poster at Stanton. “Somebody robbed the bank in Bannack, Montana three years ago, and according to this sketch, whoever did it looks a lot like you. We want to know if Dorsey is after you for the eight thousand dollars that was taken in that robbery.”
“Just like that, huh?” Stanton ducked his head and ran his fingers through his hair, then gazed up again. “You think I’m going to confess to bank robbery just because you’re asking?”
Scott dragged a stool over and sat in front of him, coming eye to eye with Stanton. “Yes, I do think you’re going to confess, because you have a daughter who’s already lost her mother; she doesn’t need to lose her father as well.”
Stanton gave him a bitter smile. “She’ll get over it.”
“Hey,” Johnny said, landing a back-handed slap on Stanton’s shoulder. Scott laid a steadying hand on Johnny’s arm, but not before Stanton jerked a hard look at him.
“If you’re so sure I did that job,” Stanton said, “then turn me in to the sheriff. According to your poster there’s a five hundred dollar reward. That ought to make it worth your while.”
“We don’t want the reward,” Scott said. “We want Dorsey. We found his horse at the livery and I’ll bet you your five hundred dollar reward that he’s the one who shot Murdoch.”
“If you want Dorsey, let me out of here.”
“We want him put away,” Scott said, “not dead.”
This time Stanton’s smile was real. “Well, that’s where we differ.”
Mierde, Scott’s plan was getting them nowhere. A vision of his father bleeding in the dirt flashed through Johnny’s head, a black horse flicking its tail as it carried Dorsey away. Anger drove him to move, made him twitch his hand at his hip and twist a look at his brother.
“Hear me out,” Scott was saying, glancing back at Johnny. “If you go after Dorsey, one of you is going to end up dead. Testify against Dorsey and we’ll talk to the judge for you, probably get some years taken off your sentence. You’ll have to do some time, but you’ll be alive to see your daughter grow up.”
“You’ve thought it all out, haven’t you?” Stanton said.
“We’re offering you a chance.”
Bowing his head again, making a real mess of his hair this time, Stanton seemed to give it some consideration. Finally he looked up. “I can’t help you.” He thrust the poster back at Scott. “I’ve never even been to Montana.”
“Bull,” Johnny said, lunging for Stanton. He grabbed Stanton’s shirt, yanked him out of the rocker. “You worthless piece of shit,” he said, inches from Stanton’s face, before shoving him back.
The rocker tipped and Stanton, grunting like a wild animal, lunged up. Stanton swung, landing a fist, and Johnny spat blood, grabbed Stanton again. He drove him back, clutching two fistfuls of Stanton’s shirt, and heaved him up against the wall. “Murdoch never did nothing to deserve what he got.”
“Neither did I!”
Stanton shoved back but Johnny held on.
“God damn it,” Stanton shouted, “I never stepped foot in that bank. Dorsey did it.”
Johnny slammed Stanton against the wall. “Tell me the truth.”
“We were done with a job, on our way to Wyoming. Dorsey went in the bank and came running out with a bandana tied around his face. People started shooting at us, so we both took off. I didn’t even know he had the money until we were five miles out of town.”
Sensing Scott coming up beside him, Johnny loosened his hold. “How’d you end up with the money?”
“Dorsey took a bullet. We made camp, I thought he was dying on me, and I wasn’t about to let the posse catch up just to save his ass. I took the money and got the hell out of there.”
“Where’s the rest of the eight thousand dollars?” Scott asked.
“Doctors,” Stanton said bitterly. “Fancy medicines that were supposed to save Sarah. Some of it’s in the farm, and what was left I gave to you to take care of my daughter. I’d give it back to Dorsey if I had it, but I don’t.”
“So you shot him in the alley,” Scott said.
“We had a new name, a new place—I thought he’d never find us. Then he shows up and he wouldn’t listen to reason.”
“All right,” Scott said, “let’s tell that to the sheriff.”
“It’s his word against mine and my face is on that poster.” Stanton knocked Johnny’s hands off him and stalked to the rocker. He straightened it, setting it back in its place beside the window, and took a few deep breaths. “Madrid, you know how it is. If it’d been you trying to keep Sarah alive, you trying to start things fresh, would you have trusted the law to sort things out?” He looked back over his shoulder. “I never had the gun you did, but that’s what I know and there’s no hiding from it. And no, I don’t fault Sallie for being what she was. Maggie’s a hell of a lot better off with her than she ever was with me.”
Something was niggling at Johnny a few minutes later as he sat at the foot of his father’s mattress, rubbing a thumb at his sore lip and watching his father cradle Maggie on the quilt beside him, his father’s big arm wrapped around the swaddled niña. Scott had taken the chair next to the Old Man’s bed and he kept sneaking looks over as he explained what a bastard Dorsey was, making Johnny think something was niggling at his brother too.
“So you stole a wanted poster from Sheriff Crawford’s office?” Murdoch moved his foot under the covers just enough to poke Johnny’s leg.
“Wouldn’t exactly call it stealing,” Johnny said.
“Then what would you call it?”
“I’m not sure the sheriff would agree.”
“You going to turn me in?”
That made the Old Man smile. “No, it seems the sheriff has enough to do bringing Dorsey to justice.” The smile faded as he looked down at the niña. “I just wish Stanton hadn’t been involved as deeply as he is. It will undoubtedly make life more difficult for this little one.”
That little one was dead to the world, as soundly asleep as Johnny had ever seen her. Every now and then she’d suck on nothing, dreaming of her bottle.
“So what do we do about Maggie?” Scott asked, crossing his ankle over his knee and settling back into his chair.
“I suppose that depends on Stanton,” Murdoch said. “He could be facing a stiff sentence and if that’s the case, Maggie could be a grown woman before he comes out of the penitentiary. If he’s any kind of father, he won’t want to enforce his parental rights if he’s not able to care for her.”
This time it was Johnny sneaking a look at Scott, judging how close to home that had landed on his brother. Scott had dropped his gaze, but he brought it back up to Murdoch as he asked, “So she’ll be adopted out?”
“To a good family,” Murdoch said. “We’ll make sure of that. The Becks lost their son last winter and I’d want to talk to them first. They have a well-run ranch and they’re fine, church-going people.”
“Then the Becks sound like a very sensible choice.”
There had been nothing out of the ordinary in Scott’s tone, but Murdoch blinked anyway, seeming suddenly distant, and forced out a deep breath. “Perhaps this discussion is premature,” he said, “as we don’t even know if Stanton will be charged with his crimes. When do you boys plan to show that poster to the sheriff?”
“Johnny promised Dorsey we’d wait twenty-four hours,” Scott said.
“Oh?” Murdoch turned to him. “And why did you make that promise, Johnny?”
He’d been wondering the same thing himself, especially after Scott dug up the evidence that Dorsey must have been the ambusher on the road. Why give Dorsey a chance to take off? Scott saved him from having to answer.
“I believe we’ve all developed protective instincts toward the infant,” Scott said, “and although he doesn’t mind ignoring our plan and beating information out of Stanton, apparently Johnny hopes to resolve this without having to incarcerate Maggie’s father.”
The niggle dug in. “Right now I’d settle for keeping him alive,” Johnny said. “Did you hear what he called the niña?”
“Cora,” Murdoch said with distaste. “I knew a Cora once and she was an old prune of a woman. I just can’t bring myself to call this little one by that name.”
“Neither can Stanton,” Johnny said. “Just before we left him to see you, Stanton called the niña Maggie.”
Murdoch gave him a curious look. “And what do you make of that?”
“Well,” Johnny said, “it’s like Stanton said, a name don’t change much, not when you’re already wearing a certain kind of life. But Maggie isn’t wearing much of anything yet.”
“May I remind you that Teresa is still slipping laudanum into my coffee?” Murdoch said. “I’m sure you meant to answer my question, but I’m somewhat too foggy to make the translation.”
“He’s already given her away,” Johnny said. “Hell, he did that when he left her in that basket and took off.”
Scott brushed a speck of dirt from the hem of his pants. “It didn’t sound to me as if he’s ready to turn himself in.”
“He ain’t,” Johnny said, watching the niña start to suck again. “Give him a revolver and a horse, and he’d be in town right now facing off against Dorsey.”
“And who would win?” Murdoch asked.
Johnny swung his legs off Murdoch’s bed. “Dorsey. And Stanton knows it, too,” he said, heading for the door. A rustling in the hallway caught his ear and Johnny poked his head out to catch Sallie rising from where she’d been sitting against the outside of Murdoch’s wall. She shook her skirts out again and Johnny allowed her plenty of time to finish before asking, “You need something, Sallie?”
“Just waitin’ for you and your daddy to be done talkin’.”
“I guess you’re wanting Maggie back.”
“No, I mean sure—if he’s done fussin’ on her.” Sallie crept closer and peered through the doorway at Murdoch and the niña, then stretched up on her tiptoes and whispered into Johnny’s ear. “What’d you do with her daddy?”
“What do you mean, what’d I do with him?”
She grabbed a hunk of his shirt for balance and pressed her lips closer to his ear. “He ain’t in his room,” she barely breathed. “Couldn’t find him anywhere.”
“Stanton’s gone,” Johnny said to Scott, taking Sallie by the arm to move her out of his way. “Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked Sallie, leaving her to follow as he took off for Stanton’s room with Scott loping in behind him.
“I didn’t want to bother you,” Sallie was saying through the patter of her boots. “I messed things up, didn’t I, Johnny? I didn’t mean to mess things up. You mad at me?” she ended up shouting down the hallway, already on her way to tears.
Johnny hit Stanton’s doorway first, stopping himself with a thud on the frame and nearly colliding with Scott when he shoved himself off again, darting back down the hallway to the stairs.
“He wouldn’t have taken off without a gun,” Scott said, bounding down the steps beside him. “I’ll talk to the sentries—you check the gun cabinet.”
“He wasn’t supposed to have one?” Sallie called out behind them. Both men caught their momentum with the banister and turned, looking up to where Sallie was standing at the top of the stairs, watery-eyed and wringing fistfuls of skirt through her hands.
“Tell me you didn’t give Stanton a gun,” Scott said.
“He couldn’t sleep,” she complained, “and he promised he wouldn’t do nothing with it, just keep it close like a baby with blanket. It made him settle some.”
“Where’d you get it?” Johnny asked.
“Your daddy’s drawer. He wasn’t needin’ it, and I was going to give it back.” She let go of her skirt long enough to swipe a hand at her tears. “Maggie’s daddy is real nice and he wouldn’t hurt anyone. I know he wouldn’t.”
She was a miserable sight, just a kid, no more responsible for any of this than Maggie was, and scared to death. Johnny could feel Scott softening beside him, hear his brother’s resigned sigh before Scott said what they both were thinking. “It’s alright, Sallie. Don’t worry about anything; we’re not mad at you.”
“You’re leakin’ on the rug,” Johnny said gently. “Go dry your eyes out.”
“Sorry,” she said, swiping again and wiping the wet off on her blouse. Looking as grateful as any saloon gal ever had, Sallie gave them a weak smile.
“Let’s go,” Scott said, and they both jerked into action, trotting down the remaining steps and hitting the great room floor at a jog. The sentries would have reported in if they’d caught Stanton, they both knew that. And it wasn’t like Stanton wasn’t a grown man, couldn’t make up his own mind whether he wanted to risk his hide against a gun like Dorsey’s, but as Scott reached for his rig and Johnny wrapped his around his hips, tied the holster’s cord around his thigh, Johnny had two worries pounding in his head.
Maybe they wouldn’t reach Stanton in time. And if they did, the only way to keep Maggie from being an orphan might be to face off against Dorsey himself.
Striding briskly from the hacienda, both brothers tugged the brims of their hats against the mid-afternoon glare and looked west. The road under the Lancer arch led that direction, into the sun, and the air above it shimmered with the heat, but no dust clouds were visible through the haze. If Stanton was gone, he was long gone. Johnny picked up his pace, while Scott spun and shouted up to the sentry on the roof, “Did you see Stanton take off?”
The sentry had been sitting under his big sombrero, and he crawled closer to look over the edge of the roof, his sombrero flopping forward and nearly falling before he grabbed it. “Who?”
“Stanton—the guy we brought in yesterday.”
“Could have. All I can make out from up here is the top of a man’s hat.”
“Do you still have the badge I gave you?”
“Your deputy status is being revoked.” Scott held his open hand up toward the roof. “Toss it down.”
“Yes, sir,” the sentry boomed out, and he fumbled the badge free from his shirt and sailed it down to the dirt a few feet left of Scott’s boot. Scott lunged sideways, picked it up, and slipped it into his pocket, and then spun again and followed Johnny to the stables. Johnny had Manuel cornered there, asking him the same question Scott had been asking the sentry.
“Thataway,” Manuel said, pointing to the arch.
Johnny headed for Barranca’s stall. “How long ago?”
“I don’t know.”
“He have a fast horse?”
“The Appaloosa gelding.”
“Fast enough,” Scott said, already hefting his saddle off its stand.
Manuel lingered at the stable door, watching as they threw their saddles on the horses and gave the cinches a hurried but careful check. When they led their horses out of their stalls and toward him, he cocked his head and let loose with that same god-damned shit-eating grin. “You need me to keep an eye on Sallie for you?” he asked.
He got out of the way, but not fast enough to avoid the back-handed swat Johnny aimed at his belly. “Your mama’s calling,” Johnny softly said.
Scott mounted first, and Barranca, unnerved by the hasty saddling, started following Scott’s chestnut as soon as Johnny’s boot hit the stirrup. Johnny hung tight and swung up, the horse already rolling into a canter as his butt hit leather.
He knew Dorsey. Stanton hid in the livery shadows for a long moment, searching up to each window in the hotel across the busy road. Four windows faced the front, two on the second floor and two on the third. Dorsey would be in one of those rooms, watching for him. All of the windows stood open, nobody kept a room closed up in this heat, and their curtains fluttered in the light breeze. There was only one way to find out which window was Dorsey’s.
He backed deeper into the livery alley and leaned up against a wall. He’d wrapped the photo in a bandana and tucked it under his shirt, and he dragged it out now. His sweat had soaked through the cloth, another mistake he’d made on top of all the others, but the photograph had survived. Sara had worn her yellow dress that morning, the same dress he’d buried her in, but it showed up dirty white in the photograph. One of her pinned-up curls had come loose and Sara had fretted over that every time she looked at the photograph, had made him promise to have another taken as soon as they settled anywhere long enough to get one made. He touched his finger over the loose curl, and then he closed his eyes tight.
Time was wasting. He snapped what sweat he could out of the bandana and wrapped the bandana again around the photograph, then walked to where he’d left the horse tied at the back of the alley. He knotted the ends of the bandana around the saddle horn, where the Lancers would find it and keep it safe for Cora.
Coming out again into the brighter sun of the street brought a glint to the wetness in his eyes, but he couldn’t take a chance on Dorsey seeing him wipe it off. He crossed in front of the open livery doors and stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon. Two horses were tied to the far hitching rail but the nearest rail had only one dusty old mare. He swept his hat off, leaned against the rail opposite the mare, and looked up at the hotel windows. It didn’t take long.
Second floor, right side. A curtain moved and a face appeared at the pane. Stanton lifted his hat to it and the face disappeared. The curtain fluttered back into place.
Stanton strolled back into the livery alley.
It’s hard to miss a horse as flashy as an Appaloosa and Scott kept his eyes open for it as they rode into Green River. They tied up in front of the hotel without spotting it, which he decided to take as a good sign. They’d all been seeing Stanton as a good but troubled man, a sort of “there but for the grace” version of his brother, trying to escape the same hard life that Johnny had left behind. With his dark looks, Stanton even reminded Scott of an older and more worn version of his brother. Only maybe all that was wrong and Stanton was nothing but a thief who had abandoned his infant a second time. Maybe he was on his way back to Montana, a possibility that appealed to Scott. Nobody had to get hurt if Stanton was out of harm’s way.
They climbed the steps to the hotel’s second floor cautiously, listening hard for any raised voices. Somebody was whistling, hitting all the notes wrong, on the hotel’s back side, but otherwise the floor was quiet.. As they walked down the hallway, a thick carpet deadening the fall of their boots, a sliver of light made it obvious that Dorsey’s door stood slightly ajar.
Johnny reached the room first and knocked twice. No answer came. He moved out of any line of fine, pressing himself against the wall next to the door, and reached out to swing the door open.
“Dorsey?” Johnny called out, peering around the door jam. He looked back with a quick shake of his head, and Scott stepped out and scanned the room. The bed had been made up and a chamber pot sat next to the nightstand, ready to be emptied, not under the mattress where it should have been if Dorsey was coming back to use it. No book lay open on the table next to Dorsey’s chair, no bags lay open or closed on the floor.
“You figure he’s gone for good?” Johnny asked.
“With any luck.”
“You puttin’ any odds on that luck?”
“I wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.”
They argued their next move while pounding down the stairs, Scott insisting they should stick together and Johnny asking, “Why? Don’t you trust me not to do something stupid?”
“I wouldn’t risk the ranch on that either,” Scott said.
They hit the hotel lobby with Scott winning the argument, but that was before they both nearly fell over a yellow dog. It lay stretched out across the hotel porch, one tail and three legs wagging up, as Puddin’ crouched over it, scratching at the dog’s belly.
Puddin’ dragged the dog out of their way, an indignity the poor dog tolerated, and then she looked up at Scott. “See—I told you Old Man Beeson’s dog’s only got three legs. You ever see a dog with three legs? You’d think it couldn’t scratch itself, but it can, only it likes me doing it better. I’m real good with dogs, like’em almost as well as horses, ‘specially three-legged dogs. You like dogs, Mr. Lancer, do ya? My daddy says–”
“Miss Pudding,” Scott interrupted, “I need you to do something for me.” He dug in his pocket and brought out a silver coin, which he held up to show her. “If Mr. Dorsey comes for his horse, I want you to come tell us and I’ll give you this dollar for your trouble.”
“That’s all I have to do for a dollar?”
“We’ll be down at Sheriff Crawford’s office,” Johnny told her, “and that’s all you have to do, just come find us there.”
“Can I hold the dollar?”
Scott handed it to her, but kept his palm out to take it back. Puddin’ shoved it down into the bottomless pockets of her bib overalls and grinned like a pig-tailed devil.
“Easy money,” she said, “cause Dorsey’s already over at the livery.”
“Deal’s off,” Johnny said, already dropping from the boardwalk to the dirt of the street. “You go find Val, and I’m seeing that Dorsey don’t get lost on his way out of town.”
“Nothing stupid,” Scott reminded him, but he couldn’t tell that Johnny had heard the warning. Hesitating just a second, searching again for an Appaloosa among all the chestnuts and sorrels and bays tied up along the street, Scott finally gave in and played the odds. He pulled out the wanted poster and headed for the sheriff.
The livery was a large one, Jake did a good business, and Johnny remembered when he walked into the cavernous barn that he didn’t even know which stall Dorsey’s horse was kept in. A big black had his head in a bucket three stalls down, but there was no Dorsey. While Johnny was looking over the stall rails at the horse, the kid ran past him for the livery’s open back door.
“Hey, kid!” Johnny called out. “I thought you said Dorsey was here.”
The kid clambered up some hay bales stacked next to the door and poked her head out into the alley. She looked back and shushed him with a finger to her lips, then waved him closer.
Dorsey’s voice came to him first, angry but controlled, as slick as the man always was. Stanton’s was next. Johnny sprinted to the back of the livery.
In the alley, Stanton stood at one end and Dorsey at the other, a good twenty feet apart and squared off, ready. Johnny grabbed a fistful of Puddin’s overalls and hauled her off the bales. He set her down roughly and shoved her back into the safety of the livery. “Run quick and get the sheriff,” he said.
“Do I get another dollar?”
Glaring, he stomped a step toward her and the kid scrambled to get her feet moving fast enough. Arms and pigtails flopping, she took off, and Johnny turned back to the alley.
“This doesn’t get me my money,” Dorsey was saying as Johnny stepped out where he could be seen.
“You boys playin’ nice out here?” Johnny asked, looking first to Stanton, who kept his gaze on Dorsey, and then to Dorsey, who appeared relieved.
“Good to see you, Lancer,” Dorsey said. “Maybe you can talk some sense into your friend.” He gestured toward Stanton. “That ridiculous gun belt doesn’t even fit him, and he’s still bound and determined to draw against me.”
It was Murdoch’s belt, sized to fit a man a foot taller than Stanton and with ten more years of good eating on him. Stanton had it cinched up as tight as it would go, but the holster still hung too low.
“Don’t seem too brainy,” Johnny told him.
“Stay out of it, Madrid,” Stanton said.
A slow smile worked its way into Dorsey’s smugness. “Madrid—of course. I’ve been trying to work out how I knew you ever since I came to your fine town. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the way I heard it, you’re dead.”
“You heard wrong.” Johnny looked down to his own gun belt, settling it just right on his hips, and then cocked a look Dorsey’s way. “But I can see as you might be wishin’ I was right about now.” Satisfied with his rig’s balance, Johnny strolled over to Stanton’s side.
“This isn’t your fight,” Stanton told him.
“Hey, Dorsey!” Johnny called out. “You shoot my Old Man?”
The smug smile never left Dorsey’s face.
“The hell it’s not my fight,” Johnny said to Stanton. He touched his fingers to his Colt, testing the reach again. “Besides, you already paid me for the job.”
Footsteps pounded through the livery and Johnny knew without looking whose they were.
“Get out of the way,” he told Stanton.
“I never asked you do this,” Stanton said.
“Nobody said you did.”
Still watching Dorsey, never taking his eyes off the man, Johnny thrust out hard at Stanton and caught him off balance. With Stanton stumbling to the dirt, rolling, and coming up to his knees, Johnny sidestepped away.
“You want to dance?” he called out to Dorsey. “You dance with me.”
“Sheriff?” Dorsey said, excited now, eyes widening, wanting it. “You’re a witness, and it’s a fair fight.”
Val bellowed from just inside the livery. “It damn well better be.”
Scott was there too, Johnny could hear him arguing quietly with Val, and the thought came to him that he didn’t want Scott to see him die, not that way, not with a bastard’s bullet tearing through his heart, but God help him if he didn’t feel his blood surge too, didn’t feel the world spin down to Dorsey and him and nothing else.
He waited. Felt his heart slow. Watched the eyes. Hungered to move.
Dorsey reached, and Johnny cleared leather and fired.
Dorsey hit the dirt.
Sallie laughed again, and, looking across Val’s desk to where Scott stood next to the seated sheriff, Johnny watched a smile soften his brother’s eyes. Johnny set a boot up on Val’s desk and shoved, tipping his chair back far enough to see into the cell room. Sallie had moved her chair up against Stanton’s bars and she was on the outside of them, jiggling the niña in her lap, and Stanton was on the inside, sitting on his cot and sticking his hand between the bars, letting the niña hang on to his finger. Stanton wasn’t laughing—three days in Val’s cell wasn’t conducive to putting a man in that kind of mood—but he wasn’t exactly looking sour under his stubby whiskers.
Johnny let his chair drop.
“So hand it over,” Val told Scott, jabbing a finger at the twelve square inches he had cleared on his desk for the receipt of Stanton’s ill-gotten goods.
Scott started peeling bills from the roll in his hand, counting them off as he laid them in the space. “Twenty-three hundred,” he said as he finished the roll. He dug back into his pocket, dragged out the badge, and set it on top of the stack. “You can have that back, too.”
Val flicked through the bills. “The town of Green River, the territory of Montana and the Bank of Bannack thank you, but we’re still what—fifty six hundred short?”
“Fifty seven,” Scott said.
“They’re going to want his farm,” Val said.
“Stanton paid three thousand for it,” Johnny said, “but that’s the last of the money, all he’s got in this world except that niña in there.”
“And Lancer is willing to mortgage the farm for the same three thousand dollars,” Scott said.
Val turned a cocked brow to them. “So you’re handin’ over three thousand dollars to a man who’s headed to prison a thousand miles away?”
“With the farm as collateral,” Scott pointed out. “Murdoch may have developed an affection for the infant, but he’s still a businessman. We discussed it and determined that Stanton is a good investment. Particularly as the prosecutor in Brannack has been generous enough to bargain Stanton’s sentence down to only six months.”
“And how the hell did you make that happen?” Val asked.
Johnny grinned. It’d felt good to know he hadn’t lost his edge, could still settle a disagreement with his gun if he had to, but one of the things he’d learned as a Lancer is there are forces more powerful than a Colt .45. Like a wired donation to the Montana governor. “You don’t want to go up against my Old Man,” Johnny said.
Shaking his head, Val grabbed up the money. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, opening his drawer to stick the bills in it.
Scott held the drawer to keep it from closing. “You’re going to want to count out five hundred dollars of that.”
“Huh?” Val said, but the click of heels brought his eyes around to the outside door, and the rush of skirts and squeals and bosoms coming through it made him leave the drawer wide open and stand to watch.
“Where is she?” Sophie Mae belted out, swishing through the office.
“Sallie!” Lucy called, and when she spotted her in the cell room, she squealed again. “Damn, child, but it’s good to see you lookin’ so fine!”
They both scurried to Sallie, and Val, Scott and Johnny all came around to the cell room door. Stanton was sucking on his cheek again, looking up at the women with a bemused look on his face, but Sallie was on her feet, hugging first Lucy and then Sophie Mae, and letting the niña get fussed on in-between.
“What’d you need with five hundred dollars?” Val asked.
Lucy’s strap had slipped and she twisted it up on her shoulder, wiggling things back into place.
“The reward,” Scott told him. “Maggie is claiming the five hundred dollars offered on her father’s wanted poster.”
Sophie Mae plopped herself into Sallie’s chair and crossed her long legs, making a lap for the niña to be dumped into, and it took Val a moment, but Scott’s answer finally sunk in. “And what’s a baby going to do with five hundred dollars?”
“Hire herself a nursemaid,” Scott said. “We thought we could set things up for Sallie and the infant at Stanton’s farm, at least until he gets out of prison.”
“After that,” Johnny said, “well…six months may not be long enough to mourn good an’ proper, but Sallie’s going to be eighteen come January, a good marrying age.”
Sallie laughed again and reached a freckled arm through the bars to Stanton, taking his hand as she introduced him to Lucy and Sophie Mae. She smiled down at him and Stanton stopped sucking his cheek long enough to offer a feeble smile in return.
“And like Manuel said,” Johnny added, “a man just ain’t built to ignore a thing like that.”
“Watch the infant,” Scott said, helping Sallie up to the wagon seat where Johnny was already sitting. Maggie lay swaddled in a basket at their feet, with enough bedding and kitchen utensils and food piled up in the bed behind her to last years, let alone the six months before Stanton would return.
“I reckon I’m ready,” Sallie said sweetly, arranging her skirts as Johnny took up the lines, but then she turned to where Murdoch stood with Scott at the wagon’s side and held out her hand. Murdoch took it with the hand on his uninjured side. “I thank you kindly, Mr. Lancer,” she said, giving him a formal shake. “You and your boys are real fine people, and Sophie Mae and Lucy said to tell you that you’re welcome anytime at the saloon and they won’t even charge you for the first visit upstairs, they’re that grateful for everything you’ve done for me.”
It had to hurt, Murdoch’s ribs were still painfully sore, but he brought his other arm up, the one that should have been in a sling if he’d listened to what Doctor Jenkins had told him, and Murdoch wrapped her hand in both of his. “That’s a generous offer,” he said, “and you’re very fortunate to have such good friends.”
“I surely am,” Sallie told him, “and that’s the truth of it.”
“Daylight’s wasting,” Johnny said to her.
Sallie took her hand back and fidgeted with her skirts again. “Then what are ya’ waiting for?”
“Ha!” Johnny flicked the lines and the wagon took off with Sallie waving and calling out goodbyes. Scott waved back.
“Quite a spirited girl,” Scott said, risking a look at his father’s face. Amusement twitched at Murdoch’s mouth. “I’m sure Maggie will be well taken care of though, and Johnny or I will be checking on them every few days.”
“Maggie will be fine,” Murdoch said with assurance. “But you needn’t trouble yourself with all the visits. I’ll fulfill my fair share of that duty.”
Suppressing a smile, Scott turned for the hacienda. “You coming in?”
Murdoch stood silently for a long moment, just watching the haze of dust raised as the wagon drove away, but then he bowed his head thoughtfully. “Your mother chose the name,” he said quietly.
“Excuse me?” Scott drifted closer.
“Maggie. I know you boys have been wondering about it.” Lifting his head, Murdoch turned to him with a fond sadness in his eyes. “It was the name you were to be called had you been a girl, after an old Scottish drinking song.”
Despite his best efforts, this time Scott couldn’t help but smile. “My mother—grandfather’s refined daughter—wanted to name me after a drinking song?”
Falling into a thick brogue, Murdoch softly sang, “Wha wadna be in love wi’ bonnie Maggie Lauder? A piper met her guan to Fife.” Slowly, favoring his injured side, he started limping toward the hacienda and Scott fell in beside him. “I was singing that song in front of McGuffey’s Tavern when your mother’s fine carriage came careening onto Long’s Wharf.”
“And what would my mother’s carriage be doing there?”
“It’s a long story.” Murdoch placed a hand on Scott’s shoulder and leaned just enough weight. “One best told over a bottle of scotch. Would you like to join me?”
“Are you sure you should be drinking? You haven’t taken any laudanum today, have you?”
Murdoch grimaced. “That stuff? Teresa was determined that I should take it and I never could abide a woman telling me what to do. I poured it in my shaving water and I’m free to relieve my discomfort any way I choose.”
“So your excessive pride is our good fortune.”
Thankfully, his father gave that a pained chuckle. “A small blessing it may be,” he said, “but take them as they come, my son. Just take them as they come.”
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8 thoughts on “Small Blessings by Karen Campbell”
I hope little Maggie gets to stay with the Lancers until her father is free. Thank you for sharing this special story-in time of need The Lancers are always gracious.
Very good. Nice dialogue and exposition.
You got the characters quite well. I will say,
Scott wouldn’t have poured a tub of water
in a dry sink. It would have been poured on
the garden, or a barrel to settle the soap.
Really enjoyed your story.
Enjoyed this story very much. Beautifully written. Sallie was a great character.
This was a great story ! Reading it was just like watching an episode. Liked the humour between the brothers. Well done!
Very enjoyable,I can easily imagine the actors performing your story,it would have been a great episode!
What a fantastic story! Mystery and intrigue and Lancer men with a baby. My favourite exchange was Johnny asking if Scott didn’t trust him to now do something and Scott’s reply that he wouldn’t bet the ranch on it. I can hear Johnny’s aggrieved question and Scott’s dry tone.
Nice story. It’s amazing how the little ones can tame the toughest of men.
It’s an enjoyable story.