Meeting Destiny

A Collaboration of Lancer Writers

Word Count 23,741

by: Kathy Padfield (Kathy P), Christine Jensen (Christine), Anita Morrison (Skyehyker), Terri Derr (Doc), Maureen Olley (Olley), Sandy Wells Sharp (SandySha), Diana Littner (Bucksin), Sherry Dancy (Sherry), Cathie Flynn (Flynnie)

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“Are you just going to let him ride out?”  Scott’s hands went to his hips.  

“What choice do I have, Scott?”  Murdoch’s eyes never left the barn door behind which Johnny had disappeared.  “Nothing I say or do will stop him.”

“Well, I’m not you and I have to try.”

He touched Scott’s shoulder to keep him from leaving the verandah.  “No, don’t.”   Murdoch sighed.   “This is…what he needs to do.  Your brother knows better than anyone what’s at stake.”

The blood rose in Scott’s face.  “So, your plan is to do nothing to help Johnny?  I suppose you’ll sit in your chair by the fire reading more Homer until he comes home…”  His voice lowered.  “Or doesn’t.”

“I expect I’d read the same sentence over and over if I tried that.  Even so, Homer has taught me many things.  One of them is that no man, coward or brave, can shun his destiny.”

“Murdoch, whose destiny are you talking about?” The anger, desperation, was back in Scott’s voice. “It doesn’t have to be Johnny’s. Johnny may know what he’s facing and he probably thinks he should face it alone because he’s always been alone. But he’s not alone anymore.” The anger was quieter, “Or at least he shouldn’t be.”

“Scott, it’s gone too far, it’s out of our hands.”

“No!” Scott turned toward the barn. “I’m going to go get my brother and see if I can talk some sense into him and if I can’t I’m going with him.”

Murdoch watched Scott walk away. How had it come to this? It was just a few weeks ago that everything was running smoothly. The weather was holding, a healthy calving season saw the herd grow, no ranch emergencies or mishaps. Then that damn article in the Sacramento Bee. Why did I have to call attention to it? Johnny wouldn’t have found out and then he wouldn’t feel like he had to take care of something that happened before he came home.

********

Scott caught up with his brother about ten miles south of Stockton. He had stopped in Morro Coyo just long enough to learn that Johnny had not boarded the stagecoach, which meant he was riding to Sacramento. Having made the trip with Johnny in the past, he had a pretty good idea where to find him.

True to his hunch, his brother had made camp in a small glen by a creek a few hundred feet from the main road. The sun had set, but darkness had not yet fallen. Scott dismounted and approached the camp.

Without turning his head, Johnny said, “What part of don’t follow me didn’t you get, Boston?”

“How did you know it was me?”

“I heard you on the road. And who else would know to find me here?”

“Point well taken,” Scott said, as he joined Johnny at the fire.

Johnny turned to look at his brother, no humor in his eyes. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to go home?”

Scott scrutinized his younger brother. The seriousness of his mood was etched on his face. “I don’t suppose I can convince you not to go to Sacramento?”

His brother’s dark eyes met his. A verbal response was not necessary. They both silently accepted the resolve of the other.

“Help yourself to some beans and biscuits,” Johnny offered.

“Thanks, I believe I will, but after I’ve taken care of Charlie,” Scott said. He led his horse to where Barranca was bedded down and set about his chore. He hoped Johnny was in a talkative mood. If he was going to go with him to Sacramento, he wanted to know what he was getting himself into.

Darkness had surrounded the camp. The soft glow from the fire barely illuminated the faces of the brothers. Scott ate his dinner in silence, while his brother brooded over his cup of coffee.

Setting his empty plate aside, Scott asked the question foremost on his mind.  “So, what’s this all about, Johnny? Obviously, you have history with this man Reno.”

Johnny set his mug down and leaned back against his saddle. Eyes lowered, lips pursed, he contemplated his response. He toyed with the Indian bracelet on his wrist. Finally, he spoke,

“Yeah, I know Jake Reno. Met him when I was a kid. Of the bad men I met in my days in the border towns, he ranks pretty high on the list. The man’s not fit to breathe, let alone run for public office. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I heard Murdoch read that article. He’s got no business being mayor of anything.”

“How long since you’ve seen him?”

“Six or seven years, I suppose,” Johnny replied.

“That’s a long time. Enough time for a man to change the course of his life if he had a mind to.”

Johnny looked at Scott, “I know what you’re suggesting. Maybe he’s changed, just like I have.” Johnny shrugged, “I suppose it’s possible. That’s what I have to find out. Hey, it might not even be him. I’m sure there’s more than one Jake Reno in the world.”

“And if it is him, do you have a plan?”

“No, I don’t have a plan. But if it is him, we have unsettled business.”

“So, Johnny Madrid is going to settle a score, is that it?” Scott asked.

“Yeah, Scott, that’s it.”

“Well, little brother, I know you don’t think you need any help, but I’m going with you to watch your back. If you want to tell me the details of what happened between you and this man, that’s your choice. And if not, I trust that you have reason to face him, whatever form that may take. So, what do you say we get some sleep? I’m sure you want to get an early start tomorrow.”

With a slight upturn of the corners of his mouth, Johnny said softly, “Thanks, Scott.”

********

Neither brother felt much like talking the next morning; they broke camp, saddled up, and were on the road shortly after sunrise. Scott figured three days to Sacramento, riding easy. Johnny was in no mood to ride easy though, and when they reached the state capitol, it was nearly dark and just one day after they left Lancer.

Scott knew nothing more of Jake Reno than he’d learned at the campfire. Watching Johnny’s gradual transformation from a comfortable cattle rancher to a hardened gunman as they rode, though, made chills creep up his spine. He wondered what they would find; he wondered who they would find.

“Hold up a minute, Johnny, what’s your plan?” Scott reined his horse to a halt and squinted into the evening gloom.  He saw Johnny’s shoulders slump as he eased forward to rest his hands on the saddle pommel. There was silence, so he filled it.  “Do we know where to find Jake Reno? Sacramento is a city, not a wild border town, so as much as you’re set on having a gunfighters’ dance with this man, it will draw unwanted attention to you.”

Johnny dismounted, pushing his hat to hang down his back and studied his dusty boots. “I know Scott, I know.” His back was to Scott and his voice so low Scott had to strain to hear him. “Been thinking Murdoch Lancer is known and respected hereabouts. You know I don’t hide who and what I was, but I don’t want to cause problems for his ranch and business.”

“It’s our ranch, Johnny, and our business.” Scott let that statement linger in the evening air. “I have an idea if you are willing to listen.”

Johnny turned to look up.  “A Lieutenant Lancer plan?”

Scott dismounted to stand in front of him. “The local paper, the Sacramento Bee, has a reputation for shining a light on individuals who think they are above the law. If this Jake Reno is the same one from your past, his misdeeds should be made known.”

Johnny tilted his head to one side. “This something about the pen being mightier than the sword?”

Scott had to smile.  It never ceased to surprise him at the nuggets of knowledge Johnny had picked up despite his admission of lacking much in the way of an education.

“Yes, Johnny, my plan is we find this man, you put Madrid to one side and play the dutiful son while I play Scott Garrett reporter from back east who is writing articles about the background of notable Californians.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows. “Would I be one of your notable Californians?”

Scott grinned. “Well you are notable and you are a Californian, but no for this plan, Murdoch is our notable Californian.” Scott leaned forward and pulled at Johnny’s pink shirt. “You were only 14 or 15 years old when you crossed paths with Jake Reno.  Do you think he would recognize you? It would be a good idea if you lost your spurs and wore your gun higher, maybe wore a plain shirt.”

His brother pushed out his bottom lip and adjusted his gun belt. “This is who I am now, Scott, but back then I was just a young mestizo starting out.  He didn’t give me any credit.”

********

They had booked into a quiet downtown boarding house a safe distance away from the hotels Murdoch and his cattlemen association colleagues would frequent. Scott, under his adopted reporter disguise, had obtained from the Sacramento Bee the name of the hotel at which Jake Reno was staying and had sent a card and message asking to interview him as part of a series of articles about leading citizens. As Scott had pointed out to Johnny, no politician he had ever met would turn down an opportunity to make the most of free publicity.

Scott had been fascinated to watch Johnny readjust his gun belt to sit higher on his thigh, to keep checking his hideaway gun was securely located in the special pocket at the back of his jacket and his knife was easily released from his boot.

In Scott’s opinion, the new plain white shirt and string tie made his brother look the part of a young rancher and he told him so.  “Just relax Johnny.  Put on that innocent little boy act that works so well on Aggie Conway and you will be fine.”

“What do you mean, Scott?  That ain’t no act, that’s my natural charm.” Johnny grinned.  “Come on, let’s meet this prospective mayor, but don’t get fooled.  The Reno I knew was a dangerous snake.”

Scott had arranged a mid-afternoon meeting at a small discrete hotel a few blocks away from their boarding house. At the appointed hour, an upright well-dressed middle-aged man was directed to his table. Scott rose to shake his hand and make introductions. 

“Mr. Reno, I’m sorry I am running a little late.  Allow me to introduce John Lancer. I am hoping to write about how his family immigrated to California from Scotland.”

Jake Reno sat down and Johnny looked into the face he remembered from all those years ago. He found Madrid to help him keep up the act and put on his cowboy drawl. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Reno.”

Johnny realized he was being closely studied, but kept a smile on his face. “Scott here is really interested in how folks made it to California. I was just telling him he will be welcome to come and visit.  My Pa sure does like to talk about the old country and how good the scotch whiskey is.”

Scott coughed as the beer he had been sipping went down the wrong way.

Reno looked from Scott to Johnny. “And are you from Scotland, young man?”

Johnny laughed and slapped the table. “Me?  No, I’m a born and baptised Californian. And you, Mr. Reno, did you make your way here from some distant parts?”

The man shook his head. “I made my way from a place called Matamoros.”

Scott was watching Johnny. He had his emotions firmly in place; even so, he could tell his brother was close to reacting. Beneath the surface, Scott knew Madrid was ready to act.

He knew the history behind his family and Matamoros. What he didn’t know was Johnny’s history with Jake Reno and Matamoros.

“Matamoros?” Scott responded. “I believe I’ve heard of it. Isn’t it in Mexico somewhere along the Texas border?”

“That’s right.” Reno kept glancing at Johnny. “It’s southeast of Brownsville.”

Scott once again looked at Johnny, noting he’d dropped his gaze and wasn’t staring at Reno any longer.

“What brought you all the way to California, to Sacramento?”

Reno smiled.

Scott recognized the smile of a politician. It made his skin crawl. He’d seen that same smile on men in Boston, friends of his grandfather. He knew Reno was trying to decide how to word his answer so as not to give anything away.

“I left Mexico around the time Juarez and Maximillian were going at it. The government was unstable, and as a businessman, I felt it prudent to cross over into the United States. That was back in ’65.”

“That’s amazing, Mr. Reno. In five years, you’ve come a long way.”

Reno nodded but didn’t say anything. His attention was turned once again on Johnny.  “Mr. Lancer, you look familiar. Have we met before?”

Scott held his breath.

Johnny shook his head. “No, sir, Mr. Reno. I don’t think I’ve ever met you. Us Lancers stay pretty close to home. Have you been down to Morro Coyo or Green River? Maybe that’s where you’ve seen me.”

Reno shook his head. “No, I’ve never been to Morro Coyo, but….”

“But?” Johnny shifted ever so slightly so that he could reach the gun in his jacket if he needed to.

“Morro Coyo sounds familiar. I’m not sure where I’ve heard of it before.”

Scott chimed in before Reno could jog his memory further.

“Mr. Reno, Mayor of Sacramento first and then what? I’m sure you have other ambitions?”

Again, that damn politician smile. “Of course, I have ambitions, Mr. Garrett, but for now, Mayor of Sacramento suits me.”

As Scott continued his interview with Reno, Johnny stared at the man.  Yes, this was the same Jake Reno he’d known as a child. Yes, this is the same man who had hurt him and his mother. Yes, this was the same Jake Reno, who was going to meet Johnny Madrid and soon.

Madrid didn’t fail him. He occupied the chair as Johnny Lancer, conversing with Scott Garrett and the man running for Mayor of Sacramento. Jake Reno. A name from the past.  A man responsible for inflicting pain and violence on Maria and young Juanito. Johnny had all he could do to sit like the gentleman rancher he was portraying and not give himself away.

He watched as Scott fielded the questions and Jake Reno answered them, his pompous sickening smile stretching fat lips across his mouth. Johnny wanted to rip the man’s head right off his shoulders and leave, but he knew he needed to stay. He needed to get his mind under control and listen. Scott was here to help and, where Johnny was thankful for his offer, the past was sneaking in; memories prickled like lightning bolts inside his brain. He had to get hold of himself before he did something he would regret. But he wouldn’t regret killing this man, no, not ever.

*******

“I need a drink!” Scott walked shoulder to shoulder with Johnny down the boardwalk, sharing the anger radiating from him.

Johnny suddenly turned down a narrow alley and pivoted to look back, his right hand hovering over his gun. 

The change of direction had Scott backtracking to stay with Johnny; he quickly stepped to one side to be out of Johnny’s sightline, and any bullets that might fly.  Scott held his breath and watched from the shadows as Sacramento citizens walked by.

“He suspects, Scott. He ain’t sure, but I could see the doubt.” Johnny stepped past Scott, his gun out and held loosely at his leg.

Scott stayed quiet, trusting Johnny to read the situation.

“Come on, Scott, we’ll take the quiet route back to our room.” Johnny walked backward, his eyes still watching people walking by the alley entrance. They made their way to the far end of the alley, past the closed back doors of businesses in this district. The only inhabitant was a black cat arching his back and hissing as they passed by.  Johnny led the way through alleys and quiet streets, double backing and making unexpected stops. 

Scott realised that even in a city, Johnny’s instinct for losing an enemy tracking him was in play.

Once in their room, Scott dug out a bottle of whiskey from his saddlebag and drank straight from it. 

Johnny stood sideways at the window and took the offered bottle without taking his eyes off the street.

“I think now is the time to tell me your history with Jake Reno.”

Johnny rolled his shoulders, swallowed whiskey and held onto the bottle. “After my stepfather was killed, me an’ Mama moved around a lot, ending up in a small place on the outskirts of Matamoros. Didn’t know at the time it was where Murdoch had met her.”

Scott waited, knowing his questions would have to wait.

“We were doing okay. Mama was working for a nice old Abuela who owned a respectable cantina. I found work running errands and helping at the livery. Then Jake Reno showed up and declared himself the local protection for the small business.” 

The contempt dripped from Johnny’s voice as he drawled out Jake Reno’s name and occupation. 

 “He was the worst sort of a bully, knowing how to intimidate folks who just wanted to live quiet lives. He wanted a share of Abuela Rosita’s cantina and when she showed him the door, he beat her. An old lady who was nothing but kind to everyone. Then he saw Mama…men like Reno, they just take what they want and he wanted the cantina and Mama. I did my best to protect her, but I was still a kid, no more than twelve years old, and no match for him—at least not back then.

“When the beatings he dished out didn’t make me show him the respect, he thought he was due he had me sent to a work farm. That was one of his schemes; he would find reasons to have the boys of the families he wanted to control sent to his farm, to be unpaid labour, until they paid off a ransom.”

Johnny took another swallow of the whiskey, his whole body stiff. “He took pleasure in coming out to the farm telling me what he was making Mama do to pay off my ransom. It was there I learned to hide my anger and hate, to keep my temper until the time was right. It took a while of watching, waiting and tolerating the mistreatment until his overseer thought my spirit was broken.”

Johnny Madrid turned to look at Scott and handed the bottle of whiskey back.

“I had got hold of a knife; it was then I killed my second man in a long list of dead men. Took his gun and horse and rode back into Matamoros with vengeance on my mind.

“Like I said, I was just a kid starting out and made a mistake letting my anger get the better of me. I went to face him down right there in the cantina. The cowardly piece of shit held Mama as a shield and took delight in telling me she had always been a whore and of the gringo who fathered me right there in Matamoros.

“He laughed as he shot me. He didn’t miss, but he didn’t kill me. Mama was kicking and screaming and I didn’t dare fire back. He took another shot, right through her… Scott, she looked at me and I wanted to die with her.

“He stood over me to check if I was dead or dying when I was saved from a kill shot by old Abuela Rosita firing off a scattergun.  Boy, she may have missed him, but she damn near took the whole ceiling down, it sure scared him and his customers off and brought the neighbours out who saw the chance to run him out of town.” 

Johnny turned away and looked back out of the window.

Scott let out the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. “So, to summarise Jake Reno killed your mother and thinks he killed her son. He may or may not know the name Lancer. Did he stay in Matamoros?”

“He left for a while then went back to paying off or blackmailing folks to look the other way. You know how it works, Scott, money and power can create a smokescreen. What he does know is Johnny Madrid is after his blood. I went back to Matamoros a couple of years later when I was trading as a pistolero looking for him. He heard I was coming for him and he skipped over the border. I lost track of him, then got caught up in that revolution and ended up getting the call from Murdoch. Now our paths have crossed again. It’s what you might call destiny.”

Scott rubbed his chin. “I think we should take this information to the Sacramento Bee and ask them to write something. This needs to get out.”

Johnny looked at him blankly. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about exposing Jake Reno for the vicious man he is. It surely won’t take long for a newspaper reporter to check out what you’re saying, and then to print the facts.”

A look of understanding broke across Johnny’s face, but he didn’t smile. He looked darker and blanker than before. “You got this all wrong, brother.” He snatched the whiskey bottle back and tossed down another swallow. “I don’t want him exposed. I want him dead. And I want to be the one to do it.”

“I understand. I really do, but you can’t kill him. Jake Reno needs to be tried and judged in the court of public opinion.”

“Public opinion isn’t gonna see him dead. My way will.”

“Don’t you see, he has to be discredited first.”

Johnny downed another swallow of whiskey and grimaced, wishing it was tequila.  “Scott, Jake Reno needs to die, not be discredited. Don’t you see, I need to make it right for Mama. I need to make it right for myself.”

“We will make it right, but we need to do it legally. Once the newspapers have had a field day with Reno, I’m sure they’ll uncover more corruption. You heard what he said about having to leave Matamoros. The man is most probably wanted on both sides of the border.”

Johnny sighed. This wasn’t going the way he wanted it to go. What he wanted was to get Reno in the middle of the street and make him draw first. Then he’d put to bed a nightmare that had plagued him since he was a boy.

“Johnny, do you think he recognized you today?”

“I don’t know. If he did, I’ll need to watch my back. Jake Reno never plays by any rules but his own.”

“Then, we need to act fast. We need to get to the Sacramento Bee as soon as possible.”

********

Johnny lay awake. The sleep so desperately needed eluded him. All he could think about was that bastard Reno. But this was doing him no good running the old memory, no, it was a nightmare through his head. He needed to be alert, be ready to face the murderer. But every time he closed his eyes, he saw his mother with Reno’s arm around her neck, then she went limp as the bullet tore through her back and out her chest, blowing a large hole as it exited her body. And he felt the cold agony of loss. His stomach rolled and he left the bed.

Silently he pulled on his clothes and sat in the chair by the window. Jake Reno. A name from Hell. The ugly sound slammed into Johnny’s brain.  It was all he could do to not strap on his Colt, march over to the man’s bedside, and put a bullet into the man’s head, blowing his brains out over the pillow. 

Scott opened his eyes and immediately jumped out of bed. “Johnny! Are you alright?” he asked, shaken by his brother’s ashen and sweaty appearance. 

“No, but I will be when I put a slug into Reno.” Johnny pulled himself out of the chair and, going to the washbasin, upended the pitcher over his head. The cold water sluiced through his hair to drip into the bowl, washing away fatigue and produced a clarity that of moments before was missing. 

“Brother, did you get any sleep?” Scott asked. 

“Nope,” Johnny’s answer deceptively soft in the room. 

“Why don’t you lay down while I go get us some breakfast and we can plan our next steps,” Scott suggested. He had a few ideas that perhaps Johnny would not object to. He left the room as his brother flopped bonelessly onto the bed. 

With their breakfast eaten in silence, Johnny sighed. “Boston, I think we need ta get separate rooms. Reno can’t find out we’re brothers. I’ll get a room someplace away from here.” 

Scott watched his brother’s eyes. “Yes, that’s a good idea. I’m going to write a few questions to submit to the reporter who will be writing this story on Jake Reno. Why don’t you see if you can get some sleep, then maybe you will want to read what I wrote and add to it.” 

Not sure any sleep would come, Johnny agreed. “Yeah, sure, Scott.” 

Again, Johnny stretched out while Scott began to write. ‘Just who is this man, Jake Reno? What do we know about him and is he fit to be the mayor of Sacramento? What about his past? Where does he come from? What do the citizens of southern Texas and Mexico have to say about him?’ 

An hour later, Johnny held the paper that would be the beginning of the end for Jake Reno. Scott’s list raised many questions. Questions that set a mind to wonder. And as Johnny read more of Scott’s list, he began to think that perhaps it would be to their benefit doing things Scott’s way, cause the man some embarrassment and make him sweat.  Putting a bullet in the man would be too fast, he thought. ‘And I want the pendejo to know why he’s gonna die. He might not remember me yet… but he will.’

********

Murdoch Lancer paced back and forth along the length of the veranda, replaying in his mind the event that had spurred Johnny’s sudden departure for Sacramento. Over breakfast a couple of days ago, he had read aloud to the boys an article in the Sacramento Bee announcing another candidate running for mayor of the city. When he read the man’s name, Jake Reno, Johnny’s reaction had been immediate and intense.

He stood abruptly and said, “I have to go.”

“Go where?” Scott asked, surprised by his brother’s sudden outburst.

“To Sacramento,” Johnny replied, as he headed for the stairway.

“What on earth for?” Scott asked.

“It’s personal. And don’t follow me,” Johnny replied, adamantly.

Murdoch stood. “Johnny, wait. Is this about this man Reno?”

Johnny stopped and turned to look at his father. 

Murdoch was shocked when he saw his son’s face. His jaw was set, his eyes dark with determination. And something else. Hate. A shiver ran down Murdoch’s spine. He felt as though he could see every dark memory from his son’s past displayed on his face.

“Yes,” Johnny said, then he disappeared into the hallway.

At the time, Murdoch felt it best to let Johnny face this demon on his own. After all, any unfinished business from his son’s life as Johnny Madrid was just that, his business. And he had been vehement about no one going with him. He knew how stubborn his son could be.

Arguing was often pointless. But now, after a couple of restless nights, he realized that this particular demon was deeply personal to his son. This couldn’t be just another gunfighter with whom he had unfinished business. He had left those days behind when he accepted his rightful place at Lancer. No, this was something more. Murdoch couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling in his gut that Jake Reno had something to do with Johnny’s mother, his second wife, Maria.

Scott was right, Murdoch acknowledged to himself. Johnny shouldn’t have to face the ghosts from his past alone. He had people who cared about him, people who loved him. He smiled at the thought of how quickly Scott had defied his brother’s instructions and set out to follow him.

Long before now, Scott had taken on his brother’s burdens as his own. He questioned why he himself had taken so long to understand that Johnny was deserving of the same acceptance from his father. He had some reparations to make with his youngest son. If Johnny truly was meant to face his destiny in Sacramento, he needed to be there with him.

Murdoch turned and saw Cipriano, his Segundo and friend of many years, in the yard.

“Cip,” he yelled out, “saddle my horse. I’m going to Sacramento.”

“Is everything all right, Patron?” Cipriano asked.

“No, it’s not. My sons need me. I’m going to pack a few things, then I’m leaving. You’re in charge while I’m gone.”

“Your horse will be ready, mi amigo,” Cipriano said.

*******

Reluctantly, Scott had agreed to Johnny’s plan of separating with the proviso that Johnny stay at the boarding house while he would move to a hotel in the city centre. He was registering at the Union Hotel when Murdoch’s voice took him by surprise, causing him to drop the pen.

“Scott, have you just arrived?” Murdoch had that ‘I call the tune’ tone in his voice.

Scott stumbled over his words, aware the receptionist was listening. “Murdoch! I, well… What a pleasant surprise, shall we have a drink at the bar?” He steered his father to a dark corner table with a view of the entrance.

Murdoch shook his head. “Scott, you do realise you are picking up your brother’s habits…By the way, where is he?”

Scott waited until two beers were delivered and the waiter had retired back to his post at the bar. “I want you just to listen, and please keep your voice down.”

Murdoch sat forward and waited.

Scott marshaled his thoughts. “Jake Reno is the man who killed Johnny’s mother, murdered her in front of him and shot John and left him for dead. Johnny set off from Lancer with the sole purpose of calling him out and shooting him, but I hope I have convinced him that we take the man down by legal means. I have suggested I go to the newspaper with questions about Jake Reno’s history”.

Murdoch frowned. “Is Johnny sure this is the same Reno who is running for mayor? I cannot recall the Pinkerton reports mentioning that name.”

“Johnny is sure. Reno haunts him.” Scott gulped down a mouth full of beer before continuing. “I know you met Maria in Matamoros, but did the Pinkertons report that is also where she was murdered?”

That news made Murdoch pale and as he made to get to his feet, Scott put his hand on his father’s arm to prevent him from saying or doing anything.

“Murdoch, wait; there is more. We arrived here two days ago and I arranged for us to meet Jake Reno so Johnny could be sure it was the same person. I introduced myself as Scott Garrett, a reporter and Johnny as John Lancer, Murdoch Lancer’s son.”

Murdoch sat back and composed himself. “What happened?”

“Nothing then, but we could see Reno had doubts about Johnny. In my opinion, the man was extremely evasive, typical of the worst kind of corrupt politicians that unfortunately Boston has more than its fair share of. We were booked in a quiet boarding house, but Johnny said we should separate as he is sure Reno was suspicious, and as he put it, Reno never plays by any rules but his own.”

Murdoch rubbed his hand through his hair. “I know the editor of the Sacramento Bee. First we go there, then take me to your brother.”

*******

Fred Asbury, editor of the Sacramento Bee, couldn’t believe the story he’d just heard. After talking to Murdoch Lancer, Fred began writing the editorial that would tear the town apart.

Jake Reno had a firm hold on Sacramento. The story, which would appear in tomorrow’s paper, would shake the very foundation of Sacramento’s political system.

********

“I think that went well.” Scott was trying to keep pace with his father as they made their way to the boarding house where Johnny was staying.

“Yes, Fred Asbury’s a good man. He’ll do justice to the story. Now, I want…no, I need to see your brother.”  Murdoch stopped mid-stride and put a hand on Scott’s arm.  “Scott, I’ve done your brother a disservice. He deserved more from me. I should have been with him from the very beginning. He, and you, shouldn’t have had to face this alone.”

“Murdoch, I know Johnny will be happy to see you. You’re right, you should have been by his side from the beginning, but you’re here now. That’s what he’ll remember.”

“I hope so. Now, where exactly did you leave him?”

“At the boarding house. As I said earlier, we felt it prudent to split up.”

“Scott, do you actually believe your brother would stay at the boarding house? When has he ever done what he was told?”

Scott closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Of course, he wouldn’t stay put. He just wanted me out of the way. You think he’s gone after Reno?”

“Let’s get to the boarding house. Maybe he’s surprised us.”

Scott took the lead, this time with Murdoch trying to keep up.

********

Knocking on the door to Johnny’s room, Scott called out, “Johnny.”  When he got no answer, Scott used his key to open the door. Neither he nor Murdoch was surprised when they found the room empty.

“Well, where do we look for him?”

Scott shook his head. “I’m not sure, but I have a feeling if we find Jake Reno, we’ll find Johnny.”

“Let’s go.”

The two men backed out of the room. Scott locked it and started to follow Murdoch down the hall when they heard the sound of a gunshot coming from the rear of the building.

The Lancer men dashed down the hallway to the back door. No additional shots had been fired; they heard no shouting, no running footsteps, no indication of what might be going on. They burst through the door into the alley behind the boarding house, guns drawn, back to back for protection.

The body of a man lay, unmoving, twenty feet from where they stood. His sightless eyes looked up at the sky; the front of his black duster was shiny with blood still oozing from his chest.

“Murdoch! What are you doing here?”

Scott jumped a foot at the sudden voice. He twirled to see Johnny, crouching, leaning into the wall of the building, his Colt still smoking in his hand. 

Johnny looked up at Murdoch, grimacing, but he kept his gun trained on the body on the ground. 

Murdoch holstered his own gun and reached down to give Johnny a hand up. “What’s going on? Who is this?”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know.” He took a step toward the body but stopped with a groan.  “Scott, make sure he’s not gonna get up again, okay?”

Scott knelt to check for a pulse. He shook his head. “He’s dead. What happened?”

“He came up behind me. I didn’t see what he used to knock me down, but it was real heavy. He shoved me out the back door and started kicking at me.” Johnny rubbed a shaky hand over his face. “He kicked like a mule. I managed to get to my gun, and I told him to back off. He drew on me and I shot him.”

Murdoch looked more closely at his son. “You look rough, John. Let’s get you back inside.”

But Johnny waved him off and turned to the dead man. Moving slowly, he patted through the bloody clothes until he found a purse. He tossed it to Scott and kept looking through pockets for clues to the man’s identity.

Scott opened the purse and whistled. It was stuffed full of hundred dollar bills. “Don’t see too many of these denominations.”

“That’s a lot of money,” Murdoch agreed. “Boys, if you’re all right here, I’m going to go find the law. John, go lay down and don’t go anywhere. Scott, you make sure he’s here when I get back.”

Scott nodded. 

Johnny looked miffed, but his butt and his gut really hurt where the pendejo had kicked him. Laying down for a while wasn’t a bad idea.

Murdoch disappeared down the alley. As the brothers went back inside, Johnny grinned and turned down the hallway toward the privy. 

“This is where I was headed when I was so rudely interrupted. Still gotta go. That OK with you, Boston?”

*******

Johnny came out of the privy to find Scott waiting for him. “Don’t need you babysittin’ me, Scott.” He slapped a hand against the wall for support when the hall started to spin.

“I can see that.” Scott grabbed his brother’s elbow in support. “You ready to find that bed, brother?” He maneuvered Johnny toward his room.

“I don’t need to be handled, Boston. I’m fine.” Johnny unlocked his room and stepped inside. “I don’t like Murdoch goin’ off by himself.”

“Johnny, rest. If he’s not back soon, we’ll go after him.”

Johnny nodded and sat slowly upon the bed. He hung his head downward and rubbed the back of his head. “Damn, what did that guy hit me with?”

“Here, let me see.” Scott dampened a cloth at the washstand and brought it over to drape over Johnny’s neck. “Better?”

Johnny nodded and placed his hands over the cool cloth while Scott inspected the knot on the back of his head.

“You want me to get a doctor? How’re your ribs?” Scott asked, noting Johnny’s left-hand holding his abdomen.

“Nah, nothing a night’s sleep won’t mend. Don’t need a doctor spoutin’ orders and wanting to pass out powders and elixirs.”

A knock at the door interrupted their discussion. Johnny’s hand hovered near the butt of his gun. 

Scott went to the door but looked to Johnny before opening it. Johnny nodded, and Scott said. “Who is it?”

“Scott, it’s Murdoch and Sherriff McCroy.”

Scott opened the door.

Murdoch and McCroy walked in, and Murdoch started introducing the Sherriff to Scott. McCroy, however, had eyes only for one person in the room.  “Johnny, Johnny Madrid!” The Sherriff was in front of Johnny in two paces.

********

Jake Reno paced across the carpet in his hotel room. The nightmares woke him and he lay awake thinking for many dark hours. It was the eyes. THOSE eyes from long ago. ‘I should have killed that half-breed bastard, just like I did his whore mother!’ he thought as he pounded a fist into the palm of his other hand. Damn! Never leave a job half finished!

Well, it would be finished when Frank Weston gets done with him.  Reno thought again the money paid out to Weston to kill that little mestizo was well worth it! I need to contact that reporter, what was his name? Garrett, Scott Garrett! I have to get something in the Bee, have to start pushing my campaign. 

Barging into the adjoining room, Jake startled the man at the table with a bottle and deck of cards in front of him.

“Dammit, Brady, if you’re going to act the part of a campaign manager, then look the part!” 

“Sorry, Boss, didn’t know you’d be needin’ me today. What can I help you with?”

“Get working on the campaign, you idiot! What do you think? I need an article for the newspaper!”

“Sure thing, Boss!”

*******

 ‘Madrid! What are you doin’ in town? I thought them Rurales got ya a coupla years ago!” 

It was a face from the past. Johnny’s aching head was spinning. Damn, that’s all I need is someone thinkin’ them wanted posters are still good. Johnny shut his eyes. He didn’t need this right now! Did the sheriff ever find out the truth of what happened in his town years ago? Or is he still thinkin’ I’m guilty?

“Sheriff McCroy. I didn’t know you had been taken on as the law in Sacramento.” Johnny took a chance on what Murdoch told the sheriff. “This here is Scott Garrett, a reporter from back east.” He waved toward Scott, trusting Murdoch would play along and hold his tongue.

The sheriff looked Scott up and down then turned back to Johnny. “Had a report of a shooting from Mr. Lancer. Who did you kill this time, Madrid?”

“Some would-be bushwacker. His body’s out back. From the amount of money he was carrying, reckon someone has put a price on me.”

Johnny sat on the bed, the wet towel still around his neck. He squinted through his headache at McCroy, trying to decide if the man was still the “look the other way, anything for a quiet life” kinda sheriff who had crossed his path with all those years ago.

McCroy put his hand on the handle of his gun. “And maybe he was a bounty hunter with a long memory.”

Johnny scowled. His past still not in the past. “You and I both know that poster wasn’t legal. It was a private one printed by Jake Reno in a deal with the Federales.”

Before Murdoch or Scott could open their mouths to ask difficult questions, until he was sure of Sheriff McCroy, he needed to be Madrid and go on the prod.

“You and Reno have an arrangement, Sheriff? He gets to be mayor and you get the easy life as his lawman?”

McCroy glared at Johnny and took a step forward, his fist clenched. 

Scott took a notebook out of his jacket. “This tale gets more interesting by the minute. Can I take a statement, sheriff, for publication?”

“Later, maybe. In the meantime, there’s been a killing and the one left standing is a well-known gunman. Madrid, you’re under arrest while I get to the bottom of this. Pass your gun over real slow like.”

Murdoch couldn’t control himself any longer. “What do you mean he’s under arrest? He was the victim! Instead of a jail cell, he needs a doctor to look at his injuries.”

“It’s okay, ol’ man. The doc can visit me in jail.” Johnny handed his gun over to the sheriff, who tucked it into his waistband. Johnny stood and waited for the handcuffs he knew would be locked around his wrists.

Murdoch was now steaming mad. “Damn it, sheriff, Jake Reno wants my boy dead. He will be a sitting duck in your jail cell. I’m going to get the best lawyer in town; Johnny will be out before supper time.”

Johnny grinned at the sheriff. “Bet you can’t believe your ears hearing Johnny Madrid acknowledged as Murdoch Lancer’s boy! Thanks, Murdoch, you watch your back. Reno will try again and I don’t want you in the way.” 

Murdoch grabbed his youngest and hugged him close; no more words were needed.

It was quite a parade to the Sheriff’s office. Johnny led the way—loose-limbed, spurs jangling, completely unconcerned at the stares the handcuffs attracted, and all the while watching his surroundings. 

Sheriff McCroy followed, his gun drawn. 

Murdoch walked to one side with his gun out. 

Scott fetched up the rear, his eyes going everywhere looking for danger.

********

At the office, Murdoch held back and turned to Scott. “Get a lawyer, the best money can buy, and stay out of trouble.”Scott had no idea who or where the best lawyer in town would be found but suspected the editor of the Sacramento Bee would know.  Fred Asbury couldn’t write down Scott’s retelling of the events quickly enough and then suggested Jason Fitzsimmons on 2nd Street as an honest lawyer who was not interested in tying his career to any politician.

Scott stepped out of the lawyer’s office, feeling confident that Johnny would indeed be free by supper time.

“Mr. Garrett, is it?”

Scott turned to face a stranger, a man in an ill-fitting city suit. 

“Yes, I am, and you are?” Scott tried not to smile at the distant memory of the Pinkerton agent confronting him as Scott Lancer in Boston. Having lived with both names all his life, he was at ease with either, but maintaining two different characteristics at the same time could get confusing. He would have to ask his brother for some advice.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Don Brady, the election campaign manager for Mr. Reno. He is keen to meet with you to discuss an article in the Bee.”

Scott allowed himself to smile. “A further meeting with Mr. Reno would be just what my intended article needs. When and where?”

“At once, Mr. Garrett, if you would be so kind. I have a carriage on the corner.”

Scott considered Murdoch’s order to stay out of trouble, but instinct told him his cover as a reporter was safe. “Excellent. Lead the way.”

Jake Reno sat in a large winged chair in a well-appointed library room. 

Scott was impressed; everything about the property spoke of money and taste. Not at all the surroundings, he imagined for the man Johnny had described.

“Mr. Garrett, please come in; can I get you a drink? There is a fine Scotch whiskey or imported brandy, maybe a cigar?” Reno was on his feet, shaking his hand, every inch the slick politician.

“A brandy will be fine, thank you.” Scott took a comfortable seat opposite the winged chair; he could have been in one of the Boston clubs he used to frequent.  Once they were settled, Scott reached for his notebook and pencil. “I understand you wish to offer me a fuller interview.”

Reno sipped his brandy and sighed. “Yes, to your eastern ears, what I am about to tell will sound far-fetched, but it needs to be told.”

Scott nodded. “California needs honest leaders. Some have colourful pasts, but that does not make them less honest or trustworthy to work in the best interests of the citizens of this state.”

“Well put, Mr. Garrett. I may need to borrow that in my speech.” Reno raised his glass in a toast. “I need to tell you the young man you introduced as John Lancer is, in fact, a notorious murdering border town gunslinger called Johnny Madrid.”

Scott coughed as if taken by surprise and his pencil scribbled in his notebook.

Reno continued. “Some five years ago, I was living in Matamoros when word reached me that he had been hired to kill me. I fled to safety in America.”

Scott looked up, knowing he was expected to ask. “Who hired him and why?”

He put down his notebook and pencil to take a drink, hoping the glass would mask his dark expression.

Reno drank the last of his brandy and looked directly at Scott. “Murdoch Lancer, a successful but ruthless rancher in the San Joaquin valley. The reason was a rivalry he had with me over a Mexican woman. An affair of the heart on my part but murderous jealousy on his. She was a victim in an attempt on my life.”

Scott had to put his glass down, afraid he was holding it so tight it would shatter in his hand. How dare the man in front of him play the part of a wronged lover?

“That is quite a story. Are you sure the man who I know as John Lancer is, in fact, the gunfighter Johnny Madrid?” Scott looked directly at Reno and could see the man was so used to lying he half-believed his own twisted version of the truth.

“Oh yes, I’m sure, and if he is here using the name Lancer, I suspect the great Murdoch Lancer has again bought his gun, and my life is in mortal danger.” Reno got up and refilled his glass and offered the bottle of brandy to Scott, who shook his head.

Scott finished making notes and pursed his lips. “Have you reported your suspicions to the law? Sacramento is the state capital, a growing civilised city, not a wild border town.”

Reno laughed. “Of course. I have reported my suspicions to the sheriff and I have had to make my own security arrangements. I intend to disclose this information at my next election rally, the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s good to know, Mr. Reno. Very good to know.” Scott cleared his throat and took a deep breath. He needed to control his temper.  Scott stood up, knowing he had to get out of Reno’s office as fast as he could. “I must be going, Mr. Reno. I’m anxious to get my story written and present it to Mr. Asbury at the newspaper. Normally, I’d send it to my editor back east, but this is too important to wait.”

Reno smiled and extended his hand. “Thank you for hearing me out, Mr. Garrett. I look forward to reading the story.”

Scott returned the man’s handshake and tried not to run out of the office. Once outside, he took a deep breath, glanced over his shoulder, hoping no one followed him, and then walked down the boardwalk. He had to get to his father. He had to get to Johnny’s attorney. God, he desperately needed to get to his brother.

********

Jason Fitzsimmons listened to Scott’s recount of Jake Reno’s story. He shook his head in disbelief.  “You believe Reno would do something to your brother while he’s in custody?”

“Mr. Fitzsimmons, I believe Jake Reno is capable of anything. He’s got the sheriff’s ear.”

“Mr. Lancer, I know Brad McCroy. He’s an honest man. I can’t believe he would be in Reno’s pocket.”

Scott shook his head. “Perhaps he is, and it could be Reno’s playing him, but my brother has done nothing wrong. We need to get him out of jail. Oh, and by the way, I introduced myself to the sheriff as Scott Garrett, a reporter from back east. He doesn’t know I’m Johnny’s brother.”

“I take it you did that for a reason?”

“Yes. In trying to get information on Reno, I pretended to be a journalist. I gave Reno my name as Garrett. I didn’t believe I’d get much information from him if he knew me as a Lancer.”

“I believe you’re right. Alright, I’ll address you as Garrett. Now, let’s see the sheriff. Where’s your father?”

“I’m not sure. I believe Murdoch was going over to the jail with Johnny. He wanted to make sure the sheriff got a doctor to look at his head.”

The attorney stood up and grabbed his coat and hat as he headed for the door. Scott followed him.  It was a short walk to the Sheriff’s office.

Scott opened the door to the office and let Fitzsimmons enter ahead of him. 

Brad McCroy sat behind his desk, while Murdoch paced in front of it. The Sheriff’s head came up when the door opened.  “Jason, is there something I can help you with?”

“Sheriff, I’m representing Johnny Lancer…”

“Madrid.”

“What?”

“Madrid. His name is Madrid.”

“No,” Murdoch snapped, “His name is Lancer. Johnny Lancer. He hasn’t been Madrid for some time now.”  Murdoch turned to Scott.

“Murdoch, this is Jason Fitzsimmons. I’ve hired him to represent Johnny. Has the doctor been to see him yet?”

“No, he hasn’t.” Murdoch glared at the sheriff. “I’ve been trying to get the Sheriff to get him here.”

The attorney frowned and looked at McCroy. “Sheriff, why hasn’t my client been given medical care. I understand he was attacked tonight and suffered a head injury.”

“I’m still trying to sort out what happened. I’ve got a dead man…”

“Yes, I heard Mr. Lancer had to kill the man in self-defense.”

The Sheriff huffed. “It’s never self-defense with Madrid.”

“Lancer. His name is Lancer, Sheriff, and I need to see my client.”

“I’ve got him locked up.”

“Well….”

The sheriff stood up and picked up a set of keys from his desk. He looked at Murdoch and Scott.

“Leave you guns out here.”

The two Lancers handed over their guns. The sheriff looked at the attorney.

“I’m not armed.”

The sheriff nodded and led the way to the cells. They could see Johnny lying on a narrow cot in the second cell. His head faced the wall. He wasn’t moving.

Once the cell door was unlocked, Murdoch pushed past the sheriff and rushed inside.

“Johnny.” Murdoch put a hand on his son’s shoulder. There was no response. “John!”

Murdoch turned Johnny’s head to Johnny.  “Get a doctor in here, now! He’s unconscious.”

Scott glared at the sheriff. “Well, don’t just stand there.”

McCroy hesitated.

Jason Fitzsimmons spoke up, “Brad, you need to get the doctor in here. Lock us in if you have to, but go.”

The sheriff nodded. “Alright, I’ll go, but Jason….”

“I know. Trust me, Brad. He’ll be here when you get back.”

Murdoch looked down at his younger son. Johnny was pale, but his breathing was fine, for now.

“Scott, help me get him covered,” Murdoch said without looking up. Together they worked the blanket out from under Johnny’s body and spread it over him.

Jason Fitzsimmons stepped to the side of the narrow, uncomfortable looking bunk.

“Mr. Lancer, what time did this happen? The Doctor should have been here to see to this long before now.”

“Scott, what has it been, forty-five minutes? An hour?” Murdoch asked as a look of disgust flooded his features.

“At least. I was asked to see Mr. Reno, then it took some time to track down Mr. Fitzsimmons, here. Probably longer than an hour, Murdoch.”

Murdoch sat on the side of the bunk next to Johnny. He still hadn’t moved, and the father in Murdoch was filled not only with worry, but his temper was exploding out of control. If McCroy didn’t get back here soon with the Doctor, he would be on the receiving end of Lancer rage.

“If anything happened to Johnny because of this…”

“Murdoch, he’s coming around,” Scott interrupted the threats, no, they were promises swirling in the patriarch’s head. But Scott was right. Johnny turned toward him, and a soft groan escaped from between his lips.

“Johnny, can you hear me, son?” Anticipating an attempt to try a sit up, Murdoch held a hand on Johnny’s chest that provoked a louder moan.

Scott spoke up, “Murdoch, when he was jumped in the alley, I think he suffered a blow to his ribs, be careful. He was holding his chest when we saw him in the alley.”

Murdoch didn’t wait; he pulled the blanket down to his son’s waist and unbuttoned the shirt. Bruising began to discolor the skin in the shape of a boot print. Fury flashed in front of his eyes. Was Jake Reno behind this, because if he was…

The door to the Sheriff’s office opened. A short man of about sixty years of age entered carrying a doctor’s bag and followed by McCroy. 

“I’m Dr. Bennett. I’ll need you all to step out of here while I complete this examination, please.”

“Doctor, I’m Murdoch Lancer. This is my son, Johnny. He was attacked in an alley. There was a blow to the head and may have broken ribs. There’s bruising started here.” Murdoch pulled the dirty shirt to the side.

The Doctor looked at Scott and Fitzsimmons. “I think you two should wait out with the sheriff.” And not waiting for a reply, Doc Bennett got to work, assessing the injuries.

Scott and the attorney did not go far. There was no way Scott was going to leave his brother until he knew the diagnosis on Johnny. Leaving the crowded confines, the two men walked to the last cell, free to talk without disturbing the Doctor. 

“Mr. Fitzsimmons, I need to tell you what happened as we know it. The man that attacked Johnny, and ultimately ending up dead, had many hundreds of dollars in his pocket. He was paid to take Johnny out.

“Johnny knows what Reno is, Johnny knows what Reno has done, and now, Reno wants him dead. I’ve just come back from an interview with the man. He told me Murdoch hired Johnny Madrid to kill him.”

Jason Fitzsimmons needed to sit. There was too much information that could be lost, and he needed to record all of it. He motioned Scott inside the cell to sit on the bunk. He immediately took a notebook out of his pocket and began jotting down notes. After filling two pages, he looked at Scott. 

“Alright, why does he think Mr. Lancer wants him dead?” the lawyer asked.

“Because of something Jake Reno did over twelve years ago.”

“Twelve years ago? What was that?”

“He killed Murdoch’s estranged wife, Johnny’s mother and Johnny witnessed the murder. Now Reno’s recognized him and wants him dead. Johnny can expose him for what he is, and his bid for Mayor of Sacramento will be finished. He said five years ago he fled Mexico, afraid for his life upon receiving the news that Johnny Madrid was hired to go after him, hired by Murdoch Lancer because of an ‘affair of the heart.’”

Fitzsimmons looked up from his writing several cells away to where the young man lay on the bunk. He watched as Murdoch held Johnny while the Doctor wrapped his ribs in white bandages. His mind filled with questions. Then he turned back to Scott.  “You’re acting as a newspaperman?”

And from the look in Fitzsimmons’s eyes, Scott realized the man had something on his mind.

“Yes, and I think a visit to Mr. Reno for another interview is in order,” Scott said, mentally compiling a list of issues that deserved an answer.

“Suppose you help me write down a few pertinent questions.  Such as, why did he come to California where he knew Murdoch Lancer was living when it only took a rumor that Johnny Madrid was coming after him to make him leave Matamoros. He thinks he’ll be able to control Sacramento, that there’s an opportunity for him here. I’d bet on that.”

Jason Fitzsimmons smiled. “You missed your calling, Scott. You should have become a lawyer. Let’s go see how your brother is doing. Oh, one more thing, Scott. When is the story supposed to break in the Sacramento Bee?”

“Tomorrow’s edition. Why?”

“I think you should have all your questions asked by then. Once the story on Reno breaks, I don’t think anyone is going to be safe. And I think we need to keep your father and brother protected. If Reno’s as dangerous as he appears to be, we will have to prepare for the worst and be ready for it.  Let me know as soon as possible when you have spoken to him again, and I will take that information and prepare our defense.”

The two men stood and left the cell, stopping to see how Johnny fared. The Doctor stood and snapped his bag shut.

“Well, Mr. Lancer, he’s got at least one broken rib, and possibly one or two cracked, but that will heal. I am concerned with the concussion. I don’t want him alone, and he really should be in a decent bed. I’ll see what I can do. Don’t hesitate to call me if he needs me. Oh, I’ll have the Sheriff bring in a bucket. Johnny will probably be sick to his stomach when he wakes.”

“Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate your time,” Murdoch held out his hand and shook with Bennett.

“I’ll speak to the sheriff.” With that, the Doctor left them alone.

“He’s alright, isn’t he, Murdoch?” Scott asked.

Murdoch Lancer shrugged. “I hope he’ll be alright.” And he once again sat at Johnny’s side.

The voices raised in the outer office as Dr. Bennett gave Sheriff McCroy what-for. 

“He needs a decent bed! That’s why he should be moved. This place isn’t fit for him to be. And let me tell you something, Sheriff, if you don’t move him, and I find out he needed me, and you didn’t come and get me, I will be filing charges against you! You should have come for me sooner! Concussions can go either way; there’s no predicting…”

“All right, all right, Doc, ya made your point! I’ll get him moved, but he’s still under arrest!”

*********

Meanwhile, back at the Sacramento Bee, Fred Asbury was writing a story that might become his defining moment as a newspaper editor. Sacramento was fast becoming one of the most important cities in California.

What once had been one of California’s smaller cities blossomed after gold was discovered in 1848, bringing with it a large number of new settlers to the area.

In 1854, the California State Legislature moved to Sacramento. There were rumors the city was being groomed to be the next state capitol. If Scott Garrett Lancer was correct, the corruption this man Reno might bring to the city was just the tip on the iceberg. Reno was ambitious and would be a danger to the entire state of California if elected.

Fred had to get this right. He contacted a Sheriff friend of his in a town called Elk Grove. A man by the name of Val Crawford. Fred had worked closely with Sheriff Crawford in the past and knew he could trust him. McCroy, not so much. He had his suspicions about the Sheriff, but there was nothing he could outright prove.

The Sacramento Bee owned a private telegraph service and it came in right handy on a day like today. Once the information started rolling in on the wire service – it just did not seem to stop.

Apparently, Jake Reno had been a busy man. He was wanted for two violent murders, including the rape of a Rurales’ wife in Matamoros. He was a person of interest in a New Mexico bank robbery where the Bank Manager and a US Marshal had been killed, and then there was that rape of the Governor’s daughter in Texas. The Texas Rangers were all over that one.

Fred was wondering how in the world Reno had not yet been caught. At least the Sheriff should have come across at least one or two wanted posters.

*********

Burnt coffee smoke radiated off a pan in a tiny Elk Grove, California jail office. Sheriff Val Crawford looked over the telegram he had just received from his buddy Fred, the Sacramento Bee Editor.

When Fred wired him about Reno, it hadn’t taken long to get the information the Editor wanted. 

Val sent it, hoping it would be enough.

Fred replied that he was printing the story so that it would appear in tomorrow’s paper.

 “Well, I’ll be. Jake Reno is gonna be in an Asian Killer Hornet’s nest by tomorrow mornin’s edition. By the time Fred Asbury makes the spaghetti hit the fan, Reno won’t know which way is up.” Val sat back, cackling to himself as no one listened.

Rereading the telegram, Val shook his head. Fred mentioned two names he knew well.  The first name was Murdoch Lancer.  It was the second name that got his attention, Johnny Madrid. Johnny was alive and in Sacramento. 

That set a fire under Val the likes of what might match all the pans of burnt coffee he forgot to take off the stove at least once a day.

*********

Murdoch was coming down the hotel stairs when he saw a scruffy looking man walk into the lobby. Murdoch caught a glint of light on the star pinned to the man’s shirt as he went to the front desk.

“May I help you, Sir?”  He heard the desk clerk ask.

“I’m looking for Murdoch Lancer. I understand he’s staying here.”

“Yes, Sir, Mr. Lancer is…”

Murdoch moved forward.

“I’m Murdoch Lancer.”

The man turned to the tall rancher. “I’m Val Crawford. Fred Ashbury sent me a wire.”

“Yes?”

“Do you know where I might find Johnny Madrid?”

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed, suddenly at a loss for words. Apprehensions began to swirl in his head, apprehensions and fears for Johnny.

Sheriff Val Crawford scrutinized the mountain of a man standing before him. So this is the pendejo what tossed Johnny an’ his mama out, lettin’ ‘em ta fend for themselves… He’s a big sonuvabitch! “

The cold, suspicious eyes held Val in a stare. “Do you know my son, Sheriff?”

“Ya might say that. Now, do ya know where he’s at? I need ta talk with him.” Val’s impatient reply only served to elevate the tension between the two men, neither man willing to give an inch.

“Just why do you want to see Johnny?” Murdoch asked. The Sheriff was an officer of the law. It was the star pinned on the shabby shirt that was given the due respect, not the man behind it.

“It’s official business. I need ta see him now!”

There was nothing left to do but take the Sheriff to see Johnny.

*********

Johnny willed the pounding in his head to cease.  And it hurt to breathe.  Clinging to the edges of consciousness, he heard voices, one familiar, the other oddly out of place.  He struggled to understand what they were saying.  Murdoch.  His father was speaking, but who was he talking to?  It wasn’t Scott.  He shook his head to gain some clarity, but that only made his head hurt more.

“John, can you hear me?” 

It was his father, now close to his ear.  He tried to respond, but couldn’t get enough air to form the words.  He made a quick assessment of his body.  Definitely took a blow to the head.  He felt a tight bandage around his chest.  Shot?  No, it didn’t feel like a bullet wound—another painful deep breath.  Ribs felt shattered.  Head and ribs.  Right.  He was hit on the head, kicked in the ribs.  He’d shot the stranger who attacked him.  

He forced his eyes open.  His father’s face appeared in a blur before him. 

“Murdoch,” he was able to croak. He blinked several times, his father’s face finally coming into focus.   “Where am I?” he asked, raising his hand to his head.

“You’re in Scott’s hotel room.  The doctor insisted you be moved from the jail to someplace with a proper bed.  You have some broken ribs and a concussion.  I’m glad you’re awake.  I was starting to worry about you.  How are you feeling?” 

Johnny moved to sit up but quickly changed course.  “I’m gonna be sick,” he moaned.

Murdoch reached for the bucket and handed it to Johnny just as he started to retch.

“The doctor said you’d probably be sick when you woke up.  It seems like your recovery is right on schedule,” Murdoch said, offering some levity to the situation.  When Johnny finished, Murdoch handed him a glass of water.  “Here, rinse your mouth, then lie back.  I don’t think you should move until the doctor sees you again.”

Johnny eased his head back onto the pillow and closed his eyes.  No threat of moving, if that was the result.

“I have to say, mi amigo, I’ve seen you look better,” came a voice at the foot of his bed.

No, it can’t be, Johnny thought to himself.  He slowly opened his eyes.  “Dios, I must be sicker than I thought.  Val, what are you doing here?”

“Nice to see you, too, Johnny,” Val said, a wide grin across his face.  “You never could stay outta trouble, could ya?  It sure is good to see you’re still alive.”

“You didn’t answer my question.  Why are you here?”

“Your pa and I share a friend in Fred Asbury.  Fred wired me askin’ if I knew anything about Jake Reno.  He mentioned you and your pa.  Well, seeing your name sure got my attention. 

“I skedaddled up here to find out what was goin’ on.  That’s when I learned the Rurales didn’t kill ya after all, yer living with your old man and you’ve got a brother to boot!  And yer not Johnny Madrid anymore, yer Johnny Lancer.  And a rancher, no less! 

“I gotta tell ya, Johnny, I’m still tryin’ to take it all in.  Last time I saw you, you had a belly full of nothin’ but hate for two men, Murdoch Lancer and Jake Reno.  Now ya understand why I’m here?”

Johnny released a soft laugh.  “Not really, Val.  You’re not making any sense to me.  Where are you calling home these days?”

“I’m the Sheriff in a small town about 15 miles south of here.  Place called Elk Grove.  Soon as I saw that wire, I hightailed it up here.  If Jake Reno has a mind to take over this city, I can’t stand by and let it happen.  Then I learned you were alive, and Reno wants you dead.  So, just like the old days, I thought you could use my help.”

“Man, this just keeps getting weirder.  First Reno, then Sheriff McCroy, now you.  Is my entire past coming to Sacramento to stare me down?”

Val laughed.  “Well, I don’t know about that, Johnny boy.  From what I can figure, Reno, and probably McCroy, are the only ones out to get ya.  But we’re not gonna let that happen, are we papi?” he asked, turning to Murdoch.

With a conspiratory smile, Murdoch said, “No, we are not.”

“So I take it you two got acquainted while I was sleeping,” Johnny said, looking suspiciously a the two men.

“Sure did.  Ya know, Johnny, your pa ain’t half as bad as you said he was.  He told me the whole story, how he rescued you from the Rurales and you came up here and joined the ranch.  How you sorted out some things about your mama.  I gotta say, you finally fell into a pile of good.  About time, if ya don’t mind my saying.”

“No, Val, I don’t mind you saying.  And it’s good to see you, too.  It’s been a long time.”

“Wish I’d a known you was still alive.  I woulda tracked you down.”

“Well, you found me now.  I’m glad you’re here,” Johnny said, smiling at his old friend.  He attempted to sit up again, this time with better success.  He sat with his back against the headboard.  His head felt better, his thinking more clear.  “Murdoch, where’s Scott?”

“He went back to see Reno.  Reno told Scott that I hired you to kill him.  Which of course is a lie.  I’ve never met the man.  Asbury sent Scott to ask Reno some more questions for the article he’s publishing tomorrow.”

“Yeah, that’s his trademark.  Making up stories to make him look like the victim.  How long has Scott been gone?”

“A couple of hours.  He should be back anytime now.”

“I think we should go find him.  I don’t trust Reno.  Any hint that Scott is lying to him, he’ll kill him.”  Johnny started to move to the edge of the bed.

Murdoch put his hands on Johnny’s shoulders and declared, “You’re not going anywhere.  I need to get the doctor in here.  He said to call for him when you woke up.”

Val retrieved his hat from the back of the chair.  “I’ll go find your brother.  I’ll send the doctor on my way.”

“Thank you, Val, that would be a big help,” Murdoch said.  “He’s going by the name Scott Garrett, posing as a reporter from Boston.  He was to meet Reno in his campaign headquarters at the Sacramento Hotel.”

“Gotcha.  Don’t you worry, Johnny, I’ll find your brother and bring him back here.”  He shook his head.  “Still can’t believe you got yerself a brother!”  he mumbled as he left the room, closing the door behind him.

Murdoch turned his attention back to his son.  “Do you feel like eating anything?”

“No, my stomach’s still not right.  Maybe some water.”

He drank some water, eased back onto the bed and closed his eyes briefly, then turned and looked at Murdoch.  He smiled and chuckled.  “Val Crawford!  Can’t say I saw that coming.”

“He seems quite the character.  And a good friend to you.  Fred speaks highly of him.”

“Yeah, Val took good care of me for a while, back in my border days when I was young and needed some guidance.  Then he decided being a pistolero wasn’t really what he wanted to do, so he became a lawman.  Had no idea he had come up here.”

“Well, I’m glad to know him.”

They both looked to the door as it opened and Scott walked in.  

Scott acknowledged his brother, “Hey, Johnny, good to see you’ve returned to the living.  Just saw your friend Val Crawford as I was coming in.  He went to get the doctor.  I just left Asbury at The Bee.  He’s doing the final edits for tomorrow’s article.  I think Reno’s days as a candidate for Sacramento mayor are numbered.”

“No, Scott, Reno’s days on this earth are numbered.  We’re not gonna just run him out of town.  He has to pay for the things he’s done.”

“I know that, Johnny, but I think we should let the courts determine his fate.  There’s enough evidence on his past crimes to put him away for a long time,” Scott said.

Johnny swung himself to the side of the bed.  “You don’t really think McCroy is going to arrest him, do you?  He’s in Reno’s pocket.  There’s only one form of justice that’s fit for him.”

Murdoch stood.  “Johnny, get back into bed.  You’re getting yourself all worked up.”

“Stop crowding me, Murdoch!  I’m fine!”

Val and Doctor Bennett entered the room as Johnny slumped back onto the bed.

“Well, I can see my patient has regained consciousness and some of his strength,” Dr. Bennett said.  “Why don’t you all step out while I examine him.”

“I’d like to stay, if you don’t mind,” Murdoch said.

“That’s up to Johnny,” Dr. Bennett replied.

Johnny looked at his father.  With a sigh of resignation, he said softly, “Sure.”  

Murdoch stepped to the window and gazed out at the fading light, while the doctor examined Johnny and asked him some questions.

Finally, the doctor presented his assessment.  “You’re going to be fine, Johnny, but you need to rest for a couple of more days.  You’re still showing signs of a concussion.  You need to give your head and the ribs time to heal.  Starting tomorrow, you can get out of bed for meals downstairs, but nothing more.  Do you understand?”

“Yeah, doc, I hear ya,” Johnny said with a sigh.

Murdoch stepped away from the window.  “Thank you, Dr. Bennett.”

“You’re welcome.  I’ll come back in a couple of days to see how he’s doing.”  He turned to his patient. “I’ll see you then, Johnny.”

“Sure.  Thanks, doc,” Johnny said with a nod, his lips pursed.

With the doctor gone, Murdoch faced his son.  “I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, John, but you need to let yourself heal; otherwise you’re not going to be able to see this thing through.”

“It’s not like Reno’s gonna wait for me to be in top shape to come after me.  And he will come after me.”

“That’s why you have me and Scott, and now, Val, here to protect you.”

“I shouldn’t need your protection.  I’ve always taken care of myself.”

“But, Johnny, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore.  Whether you like it or not, we’re not going to let anything happen to you.  So while you sit there and contemplate that you have a family that cares for you now, I’m going to go get you something to eat.  I’ll send that no good brother and that questionable friend of yours in here to keep you company.”

As Murdoch left, Johnny settled his head against the headboard.  He wrapped his arms loosely around his chest, allowing a slight grin to form on his face.

*********

Murdoch sat at a table in the hotel restaurant with the newspaper in his hands. Scott sat across from him with his own copy of the paper.  Occasionally, they would look away from the paper at each other and smile. Fred Asbury had outdone himself.

*

The Sacramento Bee                                         August 12, 1870

Mayoral Candidate Corruption Uncovered

Jacob Reno, a local businessman, plans to kick off his campaign tomorrow for Mayor of the City of Sacramento. Mr. Reno has been a resident of the State of California and this city for the past five years. During that time, he has, on the surface, been everything this fine city would want in a Mayor.

Jake Reno is anything but the honest, upstanding citizen he proposes to be. Once the editor of this newspaper was made aware of possible corruption on the part of Mr. Reno, it didn’t take long to discover the darker, seeder side of the man.

The Sacramento Bee has confirmed Jake Reno is wanted in Mexican for two known murders. In the United States, Reno is wanted for the robbery of a bank in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which also resulted in the death of the bank manager and a United States Marshal.

If robbery and murder were not enough, there are confirmed reports that Mr. Reno is wanted in Matamoros, Mexico, for the rape and murder of the wife of a Rurales officer and in Texas for the rape of a young girl.

As they say, a leopard cannot change his spots. Once it was determined Jake Reno was a wanted man, a little investigation revealed his business interests in Sacrament include illegal gambling, drug trafficking, and extortion.

It is strongly believed that Mr. Reno is responsible for the attempted murder of John Lancer, son of San Joaquin Valley rancher, Murdoch Lancer. John Lancer was attacked in his hotel last night by an assailant identified as Frank Weston.  It is a known fact that Weston worked for Jake Reno.

In an unbelievable turn of events, Sheriff Brad McCroy arrested Mr. Lancer, who killed Hanson in self-defense. At this time, the sheriff has not disclosed the charges against Mr. Lancer, who we might add, suffered injuries in the altercation. This paper calls for the immediate release of John Lancer and an investigation into Jake Reno’s activities and business dealings.

Citizens of Sacramento beware. Before electing Jake Reno as Mayor of our city, the people need to think long and hard about the man running for office.

*

Laying the paper down on the table, Scott looked at his father.

“Well, what do you think?”

“Asbury spelled it out. It’s amazing the information he pulled together from you, Val, and his own sources.  Now we wait to see what Reno does. He’s not going to be a happy man.  We need to stay close to your brother until this is settled.”

“Is he safe? I mean here, at the hotel.  Is he safe?”

“As safe as anywhere else in Sacramento.  You know the sheriff actually did us a favor by putting one of his deputies to guard Johnny’s room.”

Scott smiled.  “I wouldn’t tell Sheriff McCroy that right now.  He’s still mad that the doctor insisted he not be kept in the jail and brought here.”

“I know, but jail is no place for John in his condition.”

“Do you think the Sheriff will release him from custody now?” Scott pushed back from the table and stood.

“I hope so.  Still, from what you told me, McCroy believes Madrid is the problem.”

“Well, maybe that’ll change now that the paper is out.  I’m going back up to sit with Johnny.”

“Go ahead, son, I’m going to speak with Jason Fitzsimmons.  I’ll bring him back so we can talk. I want Val there when we do.”

*********

Murdoch, Scott, Mr. Fitzsimmons, and Sheriff Val Crawford sat around the small table in the room adjoining Johnny’s, speaking in low tones. From where Scott sat, he could keep an eye on his brother as he slept.

Val did not hold back with his opinions or ideas. He knew what they were up against.

“Well, I can tell ya that Reno’s gonna do everything he can ta get ridda Johnny. Won’t let nothin’ get in his way if he thinks he’s gonna come out on top. I’ve seen it before. If he can’t pay his way outta something, he’ll resort ta another means ta get what he wants. So,” Val took a deep breath, “I think it may be a good thing that Johnny’s under arrest… for now. There’ll be an authorized guard here ‘round the clock. That’ll give us protection.”

“Perhaps Sheriff Crawford is on to something, here,” Fitzsimmons said. Then, he slid the newspaper over to Val. “Have you had a chance to see the article in the Sacramento Bee? We have our intrepid reporter here, Scott Garrett, to thank for this insightful story. I think you should read it, Sheriff Crawford.”

Val picked up the paper and began to read.

*********

Jacob Edwin Winkelman, Reno, to those who did not know his real surname, nearly exploded when he read the article on the front page of the Sacramento Bee. His face contorted in purple, wrinkled rage. He could hear his blood pounding in his ears as his hands crumpled the paper.

“Brady!” he screamed.

“Yeah, Boss?”

“Get me Will Maxwell! Tell him it’s urgent! Then get back here and write a rebuttal!” The situation was getting out of hand, and he was at a loss as to how he would control the damning information leaked to the paper.

As Brady left on the errand, Reno paced, thinking Madrid would not live to see next week. Maxwell would see to it. Should have had him take out Madrid instead of Weston!  

If Fred Asbury had this information, what had the editor uncovered about the crimes he’d committed as Winkelman? The thought made Mr. Reno, hopeful Mayoral candidate of Sacramento, shiver clear through to his rotten, black core.

*********

As Murdoch Lancer sat with Johnny trying to coax him to eat, Scott and Jason Fitzsimmons sat in the adjoining room discussing the situation. The brandy in their glasses flowed smoothly, and Jason’s cigar smoke swirled toward the ceiling in graceful white waves.

“You know, Scott, this has the potential to get ugly. No doubt, Reno has read the paper by now. He will be, at the very least, writing a rebuttal.”

Scott shrugged, a tug at the corner of his mouth pulled in a smirk. “I don’t doubt that one bit! He was not a happy man when I left him last night, I can tell you that!”

“Tell me about it. What happened?”

Taking a deep breath, Scott related the account of his meeting in Jacob Reno’s home.

 “It began as a civil interview. Reno answered my questions when it was of benefit to him, and when it wasn’t, he evaded the issue entirely. He certainly embellished tales of his humanitarian efforts, however, upon discussing it with Fred Ashbury, he assured me that those were, indeed, tales. Then Fred produced articles from the Bee to back up the claims. Jake Reno is no philanthropist, quite the contrary.

“Things began to take a turn for the worst when I asked about his business enterprises here and why he came to Sacramento. He told me after he’d inherited a large amount of money, he felt the need to help others. If he could provide even the most meager assistance and help right some wrongs, he will consider himself a success.

“Then, I asked about the incidents that started to plague individual businesses, such as burning buildings, people being beaten, and robberies.  And ironically, all those involved had spoken out against Reno regarding his run for Mayor.”

Mr. Fitzsimmons listened as Scott continued to speak of the man hoping to win the prestigious office in Sacramento.

Scott took a sip of his drink. It was excellent brandy, and it helped to keep his emotions in check as he relayed the rest of the interview to Fitzsimmons.

“Reno began to sweat.  He was growing increasingly aggravated with the questioning.  When I asked about his current lucrative business dealings, and if the aforementioned ‘accidents’ had anything to do with his success, his eyes turned to ice, and he became furious.

“He summoned his assistant, ha, rather loudly, and I was shown to the door and told not to come back. To which I replied, ‘Oh, Mr. Reno, I think I have all that I need right here, thank you!’  I added an insolent smile that I learned from my brother and left. The door slammed behind me, and I could hear Reno shouting at Brady.     

“I can tell you; I was relieved to get out of there in one piece.  If Reno had any idea I was Scott Lancer and Johnny’s brother, I don’t think he would have hesitated in having me killed.”

“Scott, now that the editorial is out there, what do you think Reno will do next?”

“If I’ve learned anything from Johnny, it’s to be on guard at all times.  I suspect Reno is trying to figure out how to save his political career and how to get to Johnny.  As long as Johnny’s in Sheriff McCroy’s custody, he has a guard on him.”

“But…,” Fitzsimmons thought for a moment, “we’ve asked that Johnny be released from custody.”

Scott closed his eyes and leaned his head back. 

“We may have played right into Jake Reno’s hands.”

As if an omen come true, Murdoch walked into the room.

“Good news, the sheriff has dropped the charges against your brother.  Johnny’s a free man.”

As Murdoch spoke, the Deputy guarding the door gave them a knowing smile, tipped his hat, and walked down the hallway, leaving Johnny unguarded.

*********

Sheriff Val Crawford left his amigo Johnny in the capable hands of the Lancers and their Lawyer at the Hotel. He wanted to run over to check up on Fred Asbury, the Newspaper Editor. Fred had knowingly placed himself directly in the cross-hairs of one Jake Reno and Val right now was imagining all kinds of explosive and violent ways Reno could take the Editor and the Sacramento Bee out.

Plus, Val was keenly aware that Fred had that wire service in the back of the Newspaper office. It was in a large old Bank Vault along with a protected area for housing the plates, printing molds, and steam press. Fred had bought the building of a failed bank business years earlier. He always knew that Bank Vault would come in handy one day. Today seemed that it might be the day.

As Val entered the building, Fred plastered on a smile a mile wide for his old friend. “Sheriff Val, what brings you to Sacramento? You weren’t worried about me, were you?”

“Fred, you and my old buddy Johnny both have a need for stirring’ up trouble. It’s like the two of you have a need to poke the hornet’s nest – and the queen bee, in this case, is Jake Reno. Right about now he’s madder than one of them hornets trapped in a tin can.”

“Yeah Val, I guess we just might need to shake that can and kick it down the road. Don’t you think? Speaking of Reno, got a wire for you from a Marshal McKinney.”

Val took the wire and read the message out loud, “Marshal says he will be here in a couple of days. And one more thing, he’s bringin’ a Texas Ranger and two Pinkerton Agents with him. Seems there are some people south of here who want Jake Reno locked up bad.”

Before Val could finish reading the wire, a glass bottle partly filled with a flammable liquid and a soaked rag crashed through the front window of the Newspaper. Someone had ignited the bottle with a burning rag which was now on fire, spreading at a fast pace, and threatening to destroy the Sacramento Bee news offices.

Val quickly stuffed the message from Marshal McKinney in his pocket and led Fred out the back door after they locked the fireproof Bank Vault tight.

*********

“Fire, Fire! Down at the Bee!” Murdoch, Scott, and Fitzsimmons heard the commotion out in the street.

“Murdoch, you two check the newspaper office. I’ll check on Johnny.” Scott’s first thought had been to get to his brother.

Scott made a headlong dash for Johnny’s room. Seeing the deputy was already gone, he rushed in to find the bed empty. Panic turned his knees to jelly, and his stomach sour. His gun materialized in his hand, and in two strides, he was bedside.

“Scott.” A whispered gasp.

“Johnny?” Scott could hear his brother, but where was he?

“Down here, by the window.” Johnny was propped against the wall by the window, gun in hand. His face was a shade whiter than the lace curtain that floated in the light breeze. Large droplets of sweat had gathered on his forehead.

“What are you doing down there?” Scott holstered his gun and grabbed Johnny underneath the arms to help him back to the bed. Johnny struggled to stay down.

“NO. No. Don’t you know, it’s a distraction. They’ll be coming for me while everyone’s putting out the fire. McCroy dropped the charges; the guard’s gone, distraction—perfect time to get rid of ol’ Johnny Madrid. Kill two birds with one stone.” Johnny was out of breath and leaning against the wall. “I expect Reno’s latest hire to come through that door just about now.”

Scott turned and ducked behind the bed just as the door blasted open. Three shots rang out. One bullet went into the pillow of the vacant bed. Two went into the chest of the man who had just broken into Johnny’s room.

“Check him, Scott. Make sure.” Johnny breathed out the command to make sure the man was dead.

Scott kicked the man’s weapon across the room and stooped to feel his neck for a pulse. “He’s dead, Johnny. Do you know him?”

“Gonna have to help me up.” Johnny was struggling to pull up by the bed.

Scott quickly moved to his brother’s side and threw an arm around his waist. They hobbled over to the body. “Anyone, you know?”

Johnny stared and hung his head. “Yeah, I knew him. Dallas Thomson. Tough hombre. Hate that he crossed over to Reno’s side.”

Scott placed a hand on Johnny’s back. He wondered if Thompson had once been a friend. Johnny looked to be disappointed that the man had died this way.

“Where’s Murdoch and Val?” Johnny asked and started buttoning his open shirt.

“Murdoch and Fitzsimmons have gone to check on the fire at the newspaper office. I’m not sure about Val. You are going back to bed, and I’m your guard until things settle down.” Scott started steering his brother back to the bed.

“Brother, when did you start guarding the likes of me?” Johnny laughed but did comply, maybe a little too easily. But Scott grinned and tucked him in.

“It’s part of big brother duty. Now rest. We’ll hear from Murdoch and the rest soon. I’ll push this body out in the hall.”

Scott opened the door to a scowling Sheriff Brad McCroy.

“God damn Madrid, you attract death worse than the grim reaper.” McCroy bent down to examine the body, taking out a blood-soaked money clip.

“How much was I worth this time, sheriff?” Johnny watched from his bed as Scott backed up to stand guard over him.

“$200,” McCroy put the money in his jacket pocket. “Madrid, you’re making my life here in Sacramento real difficult; had a wire from the Governor himself wanting a report on your fracas.”

Johnny let a sly smirk creep across his face, the McCroy he remembered bent rules, looked the other way if the price was right and when the going got too bloody would disappear.

“You off to quieter pastures, or here to collect on me?” He shifted in the bed his colt under the sheets pointing at the sheriff.

McCroy held his palms out. “Will Maxwell has signed on with Reno and I don’t aim to be around when the next round of bullets let loose.”

“Then you had best find employment elsewhere.” It was Madrid giving fair warning to McCroy.

Scott watched McCroy leave the hallway before closing the door on the dead body. “Are you sure he has left this particular battlefield?”

“Yep, but Will Maxwell he’s a top gun, he won’t make the same mistakes as Dallas or Weston.

*********

“It’s a lot of money you’re offering for Madrid’s death.” Will Maxwell, hired killer, glanced around the library room, mentally calculating the value of his surroundings. “I heard a couple of attempts have failed, so I’m guessing it’s not a straight forward dance ‘tween me an’ Madrid. What am I up against?”

Reno sat behind an imposing mahogany writing desk clenching his hands endeavouring to keep his temper under control.

“My sources tell me Madrid is injured and holed up at the Union Hotel with his father, a rancher called Murdoch Lancer.  It seems they have the protection of a Sheriff Val Crawford. Besides Madrid I want a reporter called Scott Garrett taken down.  He’s at the same hotel. The slanderous story in the newspaper must have come from him and I don’t tolerate double-crossers. His killing will send a message to any other nosey reporters,” Reno laughed. “He’s from back east, so will present no problem for a man with your abilities.”

Maxwell flexed his neck and cracked his knuckles. “Val Crawford used to ride with Madrid.  He’s a handy gun, might be best to take him out first, and Madrid has a Papi has he, that’s interesting. My fee has just gone up to $1,000, I want half payment now, rest on completion.”

*********

Val Crawford’s blood was boiling. That bastard, Reno, wasn’t going to stop until he killed them all. How did the man think he was going to get away with it? Even McCroy couldn’t cover for him anymore without incriminating himself. Val needed to get back to the hotel and make sure Johnny and his family were alright. This felt like a diversion, and Val had a sneaking suspicion that ol’ Johnny-boy was the target.

“Fred, are you gonna go ta the Sheriff? Or ya wanna come with me. I’m goin’ ta the hotel and check on Johnny.”

Fred Ashbury was shaken. He’d been threatened before, even had a gun pointed in his face, but never was there an incident that had risked other lives. Innocent lives. All he could hope was that no one had been injured in the fire.

“I think I need to see Sheriff McCroy. I’ll check on my employees, then file a report.” Fred reached for Crawford’s arm. “Val.”

Val stopped and met Ashbury’s eyes.

“You be careful, Val. Marshall McKinney and those he’s bringing with him won’t be here for a few days, and a lot can happen between now and then. You watch yourself!” Then Fred left on his way to the Sheriff’s office, and Val turned toward the hotel.

*********

Fred Ashbury pushed through the door just as Sheriff McCroy tossed the badge on the desk.

“What are you doing, Sheriff?”

“I ain’t the Sheriff no more. You’re gonna hafta get someone else ta fight this. Too much for me.”

McCroy pushed past the newspaperman and slammed the door behind him.

*********

Murdoch Lancer and Jason Fitzsimmons, satisfied the fire was now under control, left the crowd of Sacramento’s citizens to watch as the firehoses spewed water into the flames. It was soon under control, appearing to have missed critical areas, such as Ashbury’s office, the printing presses, the supply room, and the vault. However, the lobby, a large hallway, and staircase were beyond salvaging.

Fitzsimmons sighed. “This is getting serious, Mr. Lancer. Another ‘accident’ and this one, too, opposed Jake Reno.”

“Yes, I know. I have to wonder…” Murdoch’s sharp intake of breath alerted Jason to trouble.

“What is it, Mr. Lancer?”

“We need to get back to the hotel! I think this may have been a diversion, and Johnny may be in danger! Come on!”

Murdoch didn’t wait to see if Fitzsimmons followed. All he knew was his son, wait, sons, Scott was there with his brother. His sons could be in trouble!

He charged down the street, running the three blocks to the hotel, and his boys. Mr. Fitzsimmons tried to keep up but fell behind. He’d seen the look in Murdoch’s eyes and knew nothing would slow him down.

********

His heart was in his throat as he skidded to a halt. Oh, God, NO! Murdoch gasped as he watched men carry a stretcher out of the hotel and load it in a wagon. He raced to the blanket-covered body and threw it back to reveal a stranger. A stranger with two bullet holes in his chest, and he couldn’t help but sigh in relief. He turned quickly to run into the building and up the stairs.

Val ran to the hotel. People paid him no mind. Everyone was flocking to the newspaper office to watch the fire. But one man, a very tall man, was running in the same direction as he. Murdoch! This ain’t good! Then Val saw Murdoch stop at the wagon outside of the hotel. A body! Val couldn’t have stopped running if he wanted to. But then saw Lancer turn into the hotel, and he followed as if the hounds of Hell were nipping at his heels.

Murdoch reached the room, noting blood smeared on the floor. Please let them be alright! He turned the nob and pushed the door open as a duet of Colts, cocked and aimed at his chest, greeted him, and his heart skipped a beat.

Scott in the chair and Johnny in bed, let out a collective sigh and eased the hammers down. Then footsteps pounded down the hallway, and immediately, the pistols were again ready and waiting. Murdoch turned as Val Crawford barged in the door.

“What happened here?” Murdoch panted as he fought to catch his breath and to give his sons a cursory exam. Noting no new bandages or injuries, he walked to the side of the bed. His eyes searched both Scott and Johnny.

Val stood just inside the door, allowing Lancer the time he needed.

“What happened?” the father’s worried voice could ask no more.

Johnny’s brows went up. “What happened? He blew the stuffin’ outta my pillow, that’s what happened!”

Val couldn’t help but smirk, but Murdoch leveled him with a withering glare over his shoulder.

“But you’re alright? Both of you?”

“Yes, we’re fine, but the man that came calling is… well, he’s not well at all,” Scott volunteered.

Murdoch sighed. “Yes, I saw them loading the body. I thought… I thought it was one of you boys.” And Murdoch sagged into a chair.

Scott cleared his throat. “You both might be interested in knowing that Sheriff McCroy has gone. He was here after that man broke in and began shooting, and told Johnny that Madrid was making the Sheriff’s life here difficult. Then he took the $200 that the assassin had on him and left. He’s gone, but said the Governor was waiting for a report on Johnny’s ‘fracas’. He also said that Will Maxwell would be coming after Johnny next.”

“Johnny, I got a wire, we’re getting’ some company,” Val said with a grin that nearly split his face. “Them that’s comin’ will be able ta help with all a this mess.”

Johnny let his head flop back on the pillow. Several feathers puffed into the air and settled in his hair.

“Do I wanna know who it is?” Johnny sighed.

“Ah, yeah, I think ya do. Marshall Billy McKinney an’ he’s bringin’ Tom McBride, too!” Val laughed. “Betcha never thought you’d be seein’ them again, huh? An’ they’re bringin’ two Pinks. A Marshall, a Texas Ranger an’ two Pinks! Guess that bastard, Reno, is in a lot more trouble than what we thought. They’re after a man named Winkelman. Comin’ here ta pick him up and take him back ta Texas.”

Murdoch and Scott exchanged puzzled frowns. Johnny stared at Val. But it was Johnny that broke the silence.

“So, who’s McKinney comin’ after, Val? Winkelman or Reno?”

“Winkelman?” Scott and Murdoch said in unison.

Val snickered. “Yeah, that’s Reno’s real name. Jacob Edwin Winkelman.”

Johnny tried to hold back the laugh. His ribs were beginning to hurt. Damn, if I could only keep my mouth shut… but he had to say it. “What the hell ya expect from a man named Winkelman? The name don’t exactly imply he’s tough or nothin’. Hell, I’d change it, too!” And that was all Johnny could say. He wrapped his arm around his chest as best he could for support until the laugh ran its course.

“Hey, Johnny,” Val said around his chuckle.

“Huh?”

“Ya better get cha another pillow, ya got feathers in your hair. Don’t do too much for your image!”

*********

Fred Asbury stood in the doorway of The Sacramento Bee, looking over the ashes of his outer office.  It had been a long night.  First the fire, then the attempt on Johnny’s life, and finally a man he thought to be a friend, Brad McCroy resigning and walking away.

“It could have been worse.”

The voice startled Fred.  Spinning around, he found Val standing on the boardwalk behind him.

Fred huffed, “Yes, much worse.  The printing pressing and the type survived.  If it hadn’t been for the fast reaction of the townspeople, I would have lost it all.”

“You gonna be able to put out a paper anytime soon?”

“I plan on it.  All of my employees will be here soon.  We’ll get this mess cleaned up and be back in business in no time.”

Val kicked a stack of burned paper on the floor and watched it crumble into ash.

“How’s Johnny this morning?”

Val nodded.  “He’s just fine. That ruckus last night wasn’t anything for him.  I think it put Scott more on edge than it did Johnny.”

“You’re expecting Billy McKinney and Tom McBride to be here sometime tomorrow?”

“They should be.”

Fred Asbury went to the back of the newspaper office and dug through his desk.  Finding a notepad and pencil, he turned toward the door.

“Where you going,” Val asked, stepping out of the editor’s path.

“To Jake Reno’s rally.  He’s kicking off his campaign this morning.  It’s news, Val.  The article about the rally will be the prelude to the editorial I write when McKinney and McBride arrest him.  Do you want to come along?”

Val shook his head.  “No. I’m headed to the hotel.  I don’t think Reno’s gonna let things stand.  Someone’ll be coming for the Lancers, and I plan to be there to watch their backs.”

*********

“Will you get back into bed?” Scott stood in front of the open door with his arms crossed over his chest.

“Nope.  I’m fine now.  No headache.  No pain.  I’m getting out of this room and find Reno.”

“And do what, John?”  Murdoch moved across the room to stand next to his oldest.  “Do you plan to shoot him in cold blood?”

“If I have to.”

“If you have to?” Scott snapped. “Think this through, little brother.  You shoot Reno and then what?”

“I don’t care what happens next.”  Johnny started moving forward when another voice from the doorway stopped him.

“I do!”

“Val, don’t start in on me too.”

Val stepped into the room, pushing past Murdoch and Scott.

“We need just a little more time.  Billy and Tom will be here tomorrow.  Reno’s gonna go down, the right way, the legal way.”

“Right…legal… where was the law when he killed Mama?  There was no right or legal about it.  I’ve waited for a long time to see Reno dead. I’m not waiting any longer.”

Murdoch edged past Val.

“Alright, Son. We can’t tie you up and keep you here.  Go ahead. Do it you’re way, but don’t expect me to watch you hang.  I will not watch you die at the end of a rope.”

Johnny hung his head and took a deep breath.  Looking at the three people standing between him and the door, between him and Reno, he could see the hurt and disappointment in their eyes.

Flopping down on the edge of the bed, Johnny shook his head.

“Alright, you win.  We’ll do it your way, but if Reno …”

“I know, amigo, if Reno doesn’t get what he deserves from the law, I’ll stand with you.  We’ll go after him together.”

“No, Val,” Murdoch said, “we’ll all go with him.  I let you ride away from Lancer and into Sacramento without me.  That won’t happen again.  Jake Reno has a lot to answer for, and we’ll make sure he gets what he deserves.”

*********

In the street outside the hotel, Will Maxwell leaned against a lamp post and stared up at a window.  Madrid was there, he knew it.  All he had to do was get him alone. 

*********

They needed a plan and a good one.  The Lancers, Val, the lawyer, and every guest for that matter registered at the Sacramento Hotel were sitting ducks in their rooms. Like lambs waiting for slaughter.  They only had to last it out one more day.

Fred Asbury was leaving the smoke scented Newspaper office after speaking to Val.  Before they parted, Fred handed Val another wire – more people coming for Reno.  So pen in hand ready to take notes, Fred made his way to the downtown Reno rally. 

Val was worried.  He wanted him protected, so the sheriff hired a fellow gun who had appeared in the area that day – Jimmy Jon Baker. 

Val knew Baker as a stand-up guy and was certain he had not hired on with Reno.  After all – Reno was responsible for killing members of his family.  Reno did not know who Baker was, but Maxwell did.  Just that fact would keep Maxwell from messing with the Sacramento Bee Editor as long as Jimmy-Jon Baker stood behind him, displaying his six-gun belt prominently.

Val and Jimmy-Jon were stationed around the corner from Reno’s rally by the post office. Val was trying to stay out of sight, thinking he maybe Maxwell’s next target along with Johnny.

“Jimmy-Jon, all I want ya to do is stand behind that guy over there and look ready to fire – he’s the Editor of the Sacramento Bee newspaper.  We don’t want him harmed by Maxwell.”  Val stated, pointing to Fred Asbury. 

“What do I do just stand behind him looking like I want to take Maxwell out?”  Baker replied, “Seems easy enough.  Might just have me some fun.”

And that’s what Val was hoping.  Another gun distraction in the mix with a purpose who hated Reno almost as much as Johnny did.

Now Val had to deal with Johnny, who was already bursting from the seams ready to pounce on Reno and take him out.  As Val rushed back to the hotel, Johnny, Murdoch, and Scott were coming through the front door.

“Are you crazy?  Get back inside – NOW!” Val ordered.

“Is that an order, Sheriff?” Johnny stared at Val with as much Madrid as he could muster, then pivoted around and turned into the hotel lobby.

“I swear Johnny – if I have to knock you out and lock you up, I’ll do it.  Just try me.  You are diving’ headfirst plummeting right into Maxwell and Reno’s trap.”

“What do you mean?  I ain’t hurtin’ nobody by walkin’ the streets like a normal citizen. If he wants to take me out, then let him try.”

“No, Johnny, what you’re doin’ is baiting him – and it ain’t gonna work in this situation.  There are too many innocent people around out on the streets today. What if he hit your father or Scott or me?”

“You? Val, why would Reno be targeting you right now?”

“Because I was the one who found all the wanted posters.  I know Reno is Winkelman. He’s after Scott for the newspaper article and you know I got a price out on my head right now for just bein’ friendly with you, or did Johnny Madrid even think about anything other than what Reno did to your Mama?”

“Nope.”

“Johnny, anytime someone throws your Mama in the mix, it’s like you become a half-deranged animal. Do you realize that?”

“Nope, didn’t much think about it.”

“Well, she is your hot button and you’d better get it under control, or you will be hangin’ from a tree before the summer is out.”

“Alright, Alright. What are we gonna do, Val?”

Johnny stood for a moment, seeming to lose the cocky Madrid persona all in the span of less than a minute. His arms wrapped around his stomach, head down, while his right boot kicked at a floorboard sticking out near the fireplace.  Scott and Murdoch just stood there motionless amazed at how this Sheriff Crawford seemed to be able to get Johnny under control.

“Now I got a plan, do you want to listen to it or are you gonna go off half-cocked by your Madrid self and bait an unarmed Reno with your cocky ass disrespect?”

“I’m listenin’ Val, alright? You don’t have to be so mean!”

“Well then stop acting like a baby and I ain’t bein’ mean, just tellin’ it like I see it.  Now, Marshal McKinney, Tom McBride, and get this Jo Hamilton will be riding in with two Pinks.  They should be here by sunset tomorrow.”

“Jo Hamilton?  You didn’t tell me he would be comin’.”

“Didn’t know till the wire that came this mornin’.  Governor is concerned about the elections here with Reno in command of the town. So he’s sendin’ the Attorney General to make sure Reno is off the ballot and that dirtbag Sheriff McCroy may not last long in whatever town he escapes to.”

“We need to ride out and warn them and make sure they all get to Sacramento safe,” Johnny observed.

“Now your thinkin’ straight boy.  I got Jimmy-Jon Baker protectin’ Fred at the Reno Rally. Reno is gonna bait you at that rally and make the mistake of accusing Murdoch of trying to murder him.”  Val paced back and forth with Johnny watching for his next move.

“I don’t think Maxwell or Reno have any idea this bunch of lawmen are comin’ around the bend so soon.  If they did, then the attack would have happened last night. Unless McCroy told them the Governor was making inquiries before he left.  Right now, Maxwell is trying to get you alone to take you out.  He’s got orders to get me and Scott next. Best thing we can do is go find McKinney and the others and make sure they get here safe.”

“So how are we going to do this, Sheriff?” Murdoch, finally speaking up, inquired.

“We got all our horses stationed out back.  We ride them out southwest. Their last wire came from a place named Vacaville. Said they’d be stopping in a town called Webster to receive any wires and rest their horses.  We’ll meet them there.”

“What if someone interrupted the wires?” Johnny asked, always covering all angles.

“Then little brother, we will all be there to alert all the lawmen to how dangerous this situation has all of a sudden become.  I assume we can also get more ammunition in Webster, Sheriff?”  Scott looked to Val with a renewed sense of respect for the lackluster plainly dressed lawman.

“Yeah, we know a place.  Don’t we, Johnny?”

As Johnny, Scott, Murdoch, and Val made their way through the back kitchen – Murdoch stopped Val and grabbed his arm.  “How does my son know the Attorney General?”

“You’ll have to ask Johnny the details.  Jo Hamilton was a Prosecutor before he became Attorney General. Lots of bad folks were threatening to take him out. But rest assured when you save someone’s life by giving them save passage, they tend to remember ya.”

The four men mounted their horses and were off, leaving only a large cloud of dust in their wake. Scott earlier had left a rather cryptic message at the hotel desk for their Lawyer informing him where they could be reached.

As they rode away, cheers from the downtown rally could be heard in the distance while Jake Reno babbled on about yet another conspiracy theory involving the Lancers.

********

Jake Reno smiled as the band played and the people of Sacramento cheered.  He’d been talking for half an hour.  From the reaction of the crowd, he’d gotten his message across.  He held up a hand to silence the applause.

“Fellow citizens of Sacramento.  Thank you.  In summary, I can only tell you that I can give you, the citizens, what you need.  You now know that the  slanderous remarks made in our cities newspaper, The Sacramento Bee are false..”

A combination of applause and boos rang out.

“I won’t stoop so low as to repeat the allegations thrown at me.  Just know they are lies. All lies.  Remember, we reap what we sew, and the Sacramento Bee has sewn the seeds of discontent that will be proven wrong.  I will be your next Mayor.  The  Mayor of the greatest city in the State of California.”

The band started playing and cheers rang out.  Jake Reno grinned and waved to the crowd.  Off to the side, he saw Fred Asbury scribbling notes.  Standing behind Asbury was a man Reno knew as Jimmy-Jon Baker. 

Reno didn’t know why Baker was in town.  He needed to talk to Will Maxwell. More importantly, he wanted Johnny Madrid and Scott Garrett dead.   

*********

A scraggly group of men rode into Stockton, stopping in front of the Occidental Hotel.  Dismounting, the leader of the men looked around, sizing up the town, before stepping inside.

The desk clerk cleared his throat, his eyes settling on the dusty looking man in front of him.   

“May I help you, Sir?”

“My name’s McKinney.  I’m looking for a man by the name of Jo Hamilton.”

The desk clerk straightened his shoulders.   “Yes, of course, Mr. Hamilton is here.”

McKinney waited a few seconds and took a deep breath.  “Well, can you tell me where?”

“It’s highly irregular….”

From the lobby of the hotel, a man called out, “Marshal McKinney?”

Turning, the Marshal nodded.  “I’m McKinney.”

The tall thin man stepped forward. 

“Marshal I’m Jo Hamilton, the Attorney General for the State of California.  I’ve been expecting you.”

“Billy McKinney.”  The Marshal accepted the Attorney Generals extended hand.

“I hope you’ve got a place we can settle for the night, Mr. Hamilton.  I’ve got several men with me, and we’re all tired of sleeping rough.”

From the open doorway, three men walked in and joined McKinney.

“Mr. Hamilton, this is Tom McBride.  McBride’s a Texas Ranger out of Austin.”  Turning slightly, he looked at the other two men.  “These gents are Pinkerton Agents, Emmet Carlton and Greg Carr.  They joined us in Los Angeles.”

“Gentlemen, it’s nice to meet all of you.  It seems Val Crawford has gathered his forces.”

“What about you, Mr. Hamilton?  I figured you’d already be in Sacramento.”

“I was with the Governor in San Francisco when I received the telegram from Crawford. We won’t go back to Sacramento until after the first of the year.”

“So what do you know, Mr. Hamilton.”

Hamilton looked suspiciously around the hotel lobby.  “Why don’t you check in and then we’ll meet in my suite.  We can discuss it there without prying ears.”

McKinney and the others took the hint.

An hour later, all five men assembled in the Attorney General hotel suite.

“Marshal, perhaps you should begin.” Jo Hamilton handed drinks to everyone and sat down.

“I got a telegram from Val Crawford saying a known criminal was going to run for Mayor of Sacramento.  He put me in touch with Tom McBride.  Tom….”

“Texas has been looking for Jacob Edwin Winkelman for years.  It wasn’t until we put two and two together and figured out Winkelman changed his name to Jake Reno that we got solid leads as to where he was.

“Several years ago, Reno was running stolen cattle across the Rio Grande.  Reno’s wanted in Mexico for several crimes, including raping and killing the wife of a Rurales officer.   In Texas, Reno’s wanted for theft, murder, and rape.  

“You can imagine how excited my superiors were when we got word Reno was in California.”

“And what about you, Mr. Carlton?”

“The Pinkertons first became aware of Jake Reno several years ago while working on a missing person’s case.  You might say Greg and I are along to see the case wrapped up.”

“Missing person?  Who’s missing?”

Carlton smiled.  “He’s not missing any longer.  We finally found our man in Mexico.  He’s the youngest son of Murdoch Lancer.  It took us almost 20 years to find John Lancer, but we did, and he’s back where he belongs.”

“But..,” Hamilton started.

“That’ right.  You know him as Johnny Madrid.”

Hamilton smiled.  “Yes, I know Johnny.  How does he figure in with Reno?”

It was Carr who answered, “Not many people know, but it was Jake Reno who killed Madrid’s mother.  Reno tried to kill the boy too, but failed.”

Hamilton looked around the room.    “Marshal McKinney, do you know Johnny?”

“I do.  Met Madrid a few years back when he was building his reputation.  He and Crawford saved my hide when I was working in San Antonio.”

“And you Mr. McBride?”

“I was with Billy during that same fracas.  I owe Madrid and Crawford.”

“So, gentlemen, it would appear we’re all going to Sacramento for more than one reason.”

McKinney shook his head.  “No, Sir, we’re all going for one reason.  We’re going to help Johnny Madrid.”

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Hamilton stood and refilled his drink.  “Johnny has affected the lives of all of us in one way or another.  It’s as if Destiny brought us together.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Tom McBride lifted his glass.  “To Johnny Madrid.”

They raised a toast and, in one voice, said,  “To Johnny Madrid.” 

McKinney took a long drink and set his glass down.  “I told Val we’d stop over in Webster on the way to Sacramento.”

“When do we leave?” Hamilton asked.

“First thing in the morning. I’m calling it a night.  I’ll see you fellows at first light.”

McKinney stood and headed for the door.  “You’d better get some rest.  We’ve got a long ride tomorrow, and I don’t think we’ll be getting any rest in Sacramento when we get there.” 

********

Webster wasn’t a large town, but being on the route between Stockton and Sacramento, it was busy.  The Langley House Hotel was one of the buildings that expanded a few years earlier to accommodate frequent travelers between the two large cities.

Jo Hamilton had stayed at the Langley House more than once and the hotel manager knew him on site.

“Mr. Hamilton, it’s good to see you.”

“Thank you, Les.”  Jo looked behind him to see the others just coming through the door.  “Les, I didn’t wire ahead, but do you have rooms for my friends and myself?”

Les Townsend counted the men who were part of the Attorney General’s party. 

“Certainly, sir.  I have rooms available, but I’ve been expecting you.”

McKinney heard the manager’s words and stepped up to the desk.

“You’ve been expecting us?”

“That’s right.  Four men checked in last night and said you’d be along.  I have rooms set aside for you already.”

“What four men?”  Jo Hamilton asked.

“It’s about time you fellows showed up.”   

They all turned to see Val walking down the stairs.  

********

The posse was making good time approaching the outskirts of Sacramento. Johnny had allowed Murdoch and Scott to ride ahead, knowing Val would stay close by his side.

“Val hold up.” Johnny reined Barranca to a slow walk. “We can’t all ride in like this. It’ll cause too much of a ruckus and give Reno cover to escape.”

Val turned to study Johnny and sniffed. “Welcome back Madrid. You got a good point, what are you thinking?”

Johnny looked ahead at Murdoch and Scott and the other good men who had heeded the call.

“It won’t just be Maxwell with guns, Reno will have liquored up a mob and you know that’s a bad combination with good folk likely to get caught up in any crossfire. I’m thinking fight fire with fire.”

“How exactly?”

Johnny waved his left hand forward. “Get the Attorney General and those good men up there to hold their own rally with the Marshall providing protection, give the crowd the true facts. In the meantime, me and you get Murdoch and Scott out of Maxwell’s sights.”

Val looked from the riders in front and back at Johnny. “It’s a plan, not sure how your kin will take to it.”

Johnny grinned, “Hell, Val, they think I’m a hot-headed fool. You sell them the plan.”

“You always were a sneaky son of a gun,” Val smirked, then urged his horse forward and shouted out for the posse to hold up.

While Val informed the group of the plan, Johnny kept his head down. It was Scott who raised objections. “I, for one, do not want to hide away. I want to be there when Reno is arrested.”

Johnny looked up. “Aw, Scott, you and Murdoch won’t be able to have your day in court if Maxwell has bullets put in you. We don’t know where he is and he ain’t going to call you out to a dance, more than likely it will be a bushwhack. We need to fort up, get him to come to us and trust Val with our backs.”

Murdoch reached over to put his hand on Scott’s arm. “Son, what your brother says has merit. After all, it worked with Pardee.”

Scott squinted first at Johnny then Murdoch. “Where is this fort?”

Johnny pushed his hat back to hang down his back. “Reckon the jail has a vacancy and it’s a strong building with no innocent inhabitants in there.”

Murdoch laughed. “Back to jail for you, young man, but perhaps we could be deputized to make it legal.”

********

The posse divided into two groups before going their separate ways into the city, Jo Hamilton reached over to shake Johnny’s hand.

“We won’t let you and your family down. I’ll send word to the Sacramento Bee asking them to print flyers inviting all the citizens of Sacramento to the rally.”

The Lancer’s and Val Crawford rode tall and proud through the city to the jailhouse. Scott and Murdoch with rifles noticeably at the ready, Val and Johnny their right hands resting on their handguns. The crowded streets fell quiet as the citizens watched, any muttered critical voice soon silenced when Johnny caught their eye.

Johnny dismounted slowly and patted Barranca’s neck, all the while surveying the crowd and rooftops. Val opened the jail door, turning to face the street his gun drawn and ushered Murdoch and Scott in, Johnny stepping backward was last in.

“Well that went well, word will soon get to Maxwell and Reno. Guess we could all do with some coffee.” Johnny grinned a Val, “Not your frying pan brew. Murdoch knows how to make a decent pot of coffee, and I bet old Sheriff McCroy has some whiskey someplace to pep it up.”

Scott shook his head, “You Johnny are enjoying this a mite too much for my liking.”

Johnny put his hand on his heart. “Who me? I’m just trying to bring the bad guys down all legal like.” He slapped Scott’s arm as he walked past to open the jails rifle case and then went to check the cells were empty and the back door secure.

Murdoch’s coffee with added whiskey was just what they needed and all four men took the opportunity to relax. Scott broke the companionable silence. “I would dearly love to be at the Attorney General’s rally and hear what he has to say.”

Murdoch looked over his coffee cup to Johnny. “Me too, I would be interested in the details of how Jo came to owe you such a favour.”

Johnny ducked his head down, “It was a while back, Murdoch, I reckon you can read all about his speechifying in the next edition of the newspaper.”

Val got up and patted Johnny on his shoulder. “Suppose we have given Maxwell enough time?”

He made his way to the shuttered window and opened it slightly to study the street and buildings. “Hey Scott, Johnny has told me you are one of the best riflemen he knows, you want to have a look and point out where Maxwell is likely to be hunkered down?”

Scott raised an eyebrow at Johnny, who shrugged. “If I was in Maxwell’s shoes, I would take up position on the building roof behind that sign.” Scott indicated an emporium at the corner junction with an advertising hoarding. “That position would provide good cover and a view not only of the front of the jail but also the alley the back door opens onto.”

Johnny got up to join the two at the partially open shuttered window and squinted up at the roof Scott had identified.

“Good position, plenty of cover, need someone to go up there and get the drop on him while he is distracted.” He stepped back and adjusted his gun belt.

“Hold it” Val got to the door first. “I’m going out with that drop and roll trick I taught you.  Scott here meanwhile is going out through the back door and will cross over to get to the roof. Murdoch, you’re good with a rifle you provide me with covering fire from this window. You, Johnny, watch your brother’s back, and no damn heroics you hear me?”

Murdoch was impressed with Val’s orders. “I second that, I don’t want either of you boys to play the hero. None of this will be worthwhile if I lost either of you.”

Johnny blinked and looked over at Scott and in unison, they replied: “Yes sir.”

Johnny turned to Val, “Goes for you, amigo.”

Val nodded. “Cuídate, muchacho.”  (Take care, boy)

*********

Scott and Johnny both walked in the shadows of the alley to the opening onto the street. Johnny had his gun out and was close behind Scott.

“Wait until I say so, Scott, then I’ll cover you from here. Remember what Murdoch said, no heroics, I’d rather Maxwell dead than you.”

Scott kept his eyes on the roofline. “Thanks, brother.”

They heard Val crash out of the jail door and the blast from Murdoch’s rifle.

“Now, Scott.” Johnny nudged his brother and studied the roof, his gun at the ready but not wanting to draw fire away from that which Val and Murdoch were laying down.

Johnny watched as Scott reached the other side of the street and made his way down the side of the emporium. He then melted back into the shadows.

*********

Scott raced up the outside staircase listening to the sounds of gunfire being exchanged and horses hooves clattering down the street. At the top, he took a deep calming breath before peering around to view the rooftop. Maxwell knelt in a well-protected spot behind the Emporium sign, as Scott prepared to step out Maxwell stood, and Scott knew it was to take a kill shot.

“Maxwell, drop it.” His order was loud and sharp.

The assassin turned towards him.  Two shots rang out.

Maxwell’s body flew backward over the roof edge to land in the dusty street. Scott ran to look over and saw his father at the jail door rifle pointed forward. Two bodies were lying on the ground.

Murdoch was already bent over one body by the time Scott raced back down. “Murdoch?”

“It’s Val, he has taken a bullet high in his chest, he’s alive.”

Scott knelt down. Blood was seeping through a bandana Murdoch had pressed against the wound.

Val opened his eyes and let out a slow breath. “Good shooting Scott.”

Murdoch put an arm around Val’s shoulder. “Hold on, Val, we’ll get you to the jail and send for the Doctor?”

Val closed his eyes. “I can make it.”

Scott shouted to the storekeeper to send for the doctor and an undertaker then helped carry the wounded man to the jailhouse, he glanced over at Murdoch. “Well, now we know who Johnny learned some lessons from.”

“Johnny!” Murdoch almost dropped Val onto the cell cot, “Where is he?”

Val reached up to tug at Murdoch’s sleeve. “Cut off head of the snake.”

Murdoch understood. “Reno.  He’s gone after Reno. Damn the boy. I told him no heroics.” He turned to Scott, “But where, the rally, or Reno’s house?”

Val had drifted into unconsciousness.

“Scott, does Johnny know where Reno’s house is?”

“Yes, sir, I told him about it after I’d been there.” Scott chewed at his bottom lip.

Murdoch issued the order, “You go to Reno’s, and I’ll go to the rally.”

*********

Stepping lightly onto the front porch of Reno’s home, gun drawn, Johnny edged his way to a window and looked inside the living room.  There was no one there.   Moving along the porch, he checked the next window.  Still seeing no one, he went to the door, took a breath, and opened the door.

Johnny stepped into the house.   There was only silence.  It took him only a few minutes to search the entire place.  Reno wasn’t there.

Johnny holstered his gun and walked outside.  Looking up and down the street, he wondered where Reno would have gone.

Heading back to the jail, Johnny was almost there when he heard the sounds of cheering coming from the Jo Hamilton’s rally. 

Johnny smiled.  He knew where Reno was.  

Making his way to the city center, he looked at the grandstand.  Jo was speaking.  On either side of him stood Marshall Billy McKinney and the Texas Ranger, Tom McBride.   To one side, he could see the Pinkerton agents Emmett Carlton and Greg Carr.

As Johnny started to walk around the edge of the crowd, his eyes searched for Reno.  He found Jimmy-Jon Baker standing with the Sacramento Bee Editor Fred Asbury.    It seemed everyone was there except for Murdoch, Scott, and Val. 

For a moment, Johnny felt guilty in leaving his family and Val back at the jail, but he wanted Reno.  It was him who was supposed to get Jake Reno, it always had been, and no one was taking that away from him.

It seemed to be a peaceful rally, and the citizens of Sacramento were listening intently.

Circling the crowd one more time, Johnny still saw no sign of Reno.  He finally settled on a spot near the end of the grandstand steps.   McKinney spotted him and nodded.

The rally ended in applause.

Johnny waited for Jo Hamilton and the others to join him.   

“Well,” McKinney was the first to speak, “what happened at the jail?”

Johnny dipped his head.  “I’m not sure.  Scott was going after Maxwell.  Val and Murdoch were covering him from the street.  I went to find Reno.”

McKinney’s eyes narrowed.  “You left your family to handle Maxwell?  Do you know if anyone was hurt or killed?”

Johnny shook his head.  He felt shame.  His need for vengeance had blinded him.  He wanted Reno so bad he didn’t care about anyone or anything else.

Jo reached out a hand.  “Come on, Johnny.  Let’s go see what happened.”

*********

As the group walked toward the jail, Jake Reno stood in the shadows of a nearby alley.  His eyes never left Madrid.

Everything was collapsing around him, all of it brought down by this one mestizo. He should have killed him years ago. 

*********

Johnny started walking at the head of the group of men.  Slowly he dropped back until the others were in front of him.   Stopping, Johnny slowly turned around and then stepped into the street.  His eyes searching for the man he knew was there.

Reno stepped out of the alley and into the street, coming face to face with Johnny.

“I’ve waited a long time, Jake.”

Reno laughed.  “I should have killed you when I killed that slut you called a mama.”

Behind him, Johnny was aware the others had stopped.  He heard heavy footsteps on the boardwalk, coming towards him.  He knew who it was.

“Stay out of this, McKinney.”

“Can’t do that Madrid.”  Billy McKinney looked at Reno.  “Jake Reno, you’re under arrest.”

Reno laughed.  “No one takes me to jail, Marshall.”

Johnny laughed, “McKinney, that’s alright by me.  He don’t want to go to jail.  Let me send him to hell.” 

“John!” 

Murdoch left Scott with Val and Doctor Bennett and went hunting for his youngest son.  It hadn’t taken him long to find the boy standing in the street facing the man who’d killed his wife. 

Reno would never stand trial for killing Maria, but there was enough evidence for his other crimes to put Reno at the end of a rope.

Although his blood boiled at the sight of Reno, Murdoch didn’t want Johnny to kill the man. He hurried forward until he stood on the boardwalk, even with his son.

“John, don’t.”

“It’s my right, old man.”

“Yes.  Yes, it is, but I don’t want you to do this.  Reno will pay for his crimes, but not by your gun.  Son…”

Reno laughed.  “Listen to him, Madrid.  Listen to the man who kicked your mama and you out.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to speak, but Johnny beat him to it.

“See, that’s where you got it wrong, Jake.  My ‘father’ didn’t kick us out, and he always wanted me and Mama.  Mama ran off with a gambler. It turns out he was as big a loser as you are.”

Murdoch smiled.  It was the first time Johnny had called him ‘father.’ 

Reno didn’t say a word.  His eyes went between Johnny and Murdoch, finally coming to rest on Johnny.

“You want me.  Admit it, Madrid.  Come one, try and take me.”

Johnny looked at the sneer on Reno’s face.  For a brief moment, his mother flashed before his eyes.  His hand poised over his gun; all he could think about was the revenge he’d waited years to get. 

“Johnny.  Son,” Murdoch fought to quiet his calm his voice. “Let it go. Let the law handle Reno.”

In the space of only a few seconds, Johnny fought the battle within himself.  Revenge or walk away?  Taking a long look at Reno, he took a deep breath.

“McKinney, he’s all yours.”

Murdoch released the breath he’d been holding.  Marshal McKinney started to step forward to take Reno into custody.

The only ones still watching Reno’s eyes were Johnny and Jimmy-Jon Baker.  They both saw Reno’s move at the same time.  As Reno went for his gun, Johnny crouched, drew, and fire.  A second shot from Baker’s gun was close behind the first.

Reno crumpled to the ground; his unfired gun still clutched in his hand.

Murdoch waited until Johnny straightened up and holstered his gun before going to his son. 

“Johnny….” Murdoch put an arm around his son’s shoulders and pulled him close. 

Together they turned to look at the body of Jacob Edwin Winkelman, aka Jake Reno.  The man who, in a moment of rage, changed Johnny’s life and helped create Johnny Madrid.

“Come with me, Son.  It’s over.  Val needs you now.”

“Val?  What’s….”

“Maxwell shot him.  He’s at the Sheriff’s office with your brother and Doctor Bennett.”

Johnny turned out of Murdoch’s embrace and started toward the Sheriff’s office.  Entering the building on the run, he stopped in the outer office, finding it empty. 

“Where…?”

On the desk was a note.  ‘Val taken to Doctor’s office.’ 

Johnny pushed pasted Murdoch, who was just coming in the door. McKinney, McBride, and the others were right behind Murdoch and slammed into his back.

Johnny thrust the note in his father’s hands and kept going.

*********

Sitting on the low wall surrounding the garden at Lancer, Johnny watched setting sun inch its way toward the horizon.   

A lot had happened in the two weeks since he’d killed Reno.  

When Johnny entered the Doctor’s office, he found Scott pacing the floor. 

The look on his older brother’s face was a mixture of worry, relief at seeing his little brother, and anger at Johnny for going off on his own. 

“Val?”

“Doctor Bennett’s with him now.  It’s a bad wound, but Val was conscious and talking.  I wouldn’t want to be in your boots, little brother when Val gets hold of you.   Going after Reno by yourself was reckless.”  Scott paused.  “What happened?”

“Reno didn’t want to go to jail or hang.  He had only one other choice.  He’s dead and I hope he rots in hell.”

The room quickly filled with the men who’d come to Sacramento to stop Reno.  No one spoke while they waited for the Doctor to tell them how Val was.

When the door to the surgery opened and the doctor stepped out, there was a smile on his face.

The following week Johnny, Murdoch, and Scott spent their time with Val. By the time he was ready to travel it, Johnny had decided his friend would go to Lancer until he was well enough to go back to  Elk Grove.

Val objected in the beginning, but the Lancers wouldn’t take no for an answer.  The day they left, Sacramento Mc Kinney and McBride were ready to go as well. 

The Pinkerton Agents, Carlton and Carr, had said their farewells the day before.  Shaking Murdoch’s hand, the two men told him it was a pleasure to finally close the case they’d both been working on for close to two decades.

Jason Fitzsimmons and Fred Asbury were there to see the Lancers and Val off.

“Come see me when you get back to Sacramento,” Asbury said.  “It looks like whenever you’re in town, the newspaper’s circulation goes up.”

Johnny shook Jason and Fred’s hands.  “Thank you both for what you did for us…for me.”

With Val in the back of a wagon and Scott’s horse tied to the rear, the Lancers left Sacrament.  Johnny and Murdoch trailed close behind.

********

Johnny heard someone coming into the garden.  Turning his head slightly, he could see both Murdoch and Scott walking his way.

“Beautiful sunset.”  Scott handed Johnny a glass of tequila.

“Thanks.” Johnny accepted the glass.  “It sure is pretty.”

“How’s Val?” Murdoch asked.

“Sleeping right now.  Teresa and Maria are fussing over him earlier.”  Johnny laughed.   “I think he likes it.”

The sky turned a brilliant orange as the sun sank behind the mountain range to the west.

“Johnny,” Murdoch spoke up, “about Reno.”

Johnny sighed.  “I was going to let the law handle it, Murdoch.  Reno decided to draw on me.  I did the only thing I could.”

“I know.”  Murdoch put a hand on his son’s shoulder, squeezing gently.  “I’m proud of you, son.”

“For what?” Johnny turned to face Murdoch.

“For being willing to walk away from Reno and let the law handle it.”

Johnny didn’t say anything.

“The way things worked out, it was as if it… it was meant to be,” Scott said.

Johnny nodded. 

“Yeah, it was meant to be.  You see, everyone has a destiny.”

“You believe that?”  Murdoch asked.

“I believe it.  Meeting our destiny is something we all have to live with at some point.”

“Destiny.”  Scott looked at Murdoch.  “You were right, Sir.  That first day when Johnny rode away.  You said, ‘Even so, Homer has taught me many things.  One of them is that no man, coward or brave, can shun his destiny.’

Johnny looked at his father and smiled.  “You said that.  Well, I guess you understand better than anyone that it was my destiny to kill Jake Reno and his… he was to die by my gun.  There was no other way for him to die; it’s always been me, no one else, only me.”

The sun finally dipped below the horizon, leaving behind a blanket of diamonds on a velvety black sky.

“Well, I’m heading in.” Murdoch downed the last of his drink. “I think I’ll read a little Homer tonight.”

Murdoch and Scott walked away, leaving Johnny alone once again.  As he turned to go inside,  Johnny took one last look at the night sky.

Speaking softly, he sighed, “I got him, Mama.  I promised I’d get him for what he did.  I was willing to walk away, but I knew he wouldn’t.  I knew he’d rather die by my gun than hang.  It happened the way it was supposed to happen.  I didn’t… what was it, Scott said…I didn’t shun my destiny. I never intended to.”  

Inside the hacienda, Johnny heard his father and brother laughing.  It was good to be home.

~end~

June 2020

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