(Note: one or two lines in this story are taken from the relevant episodes, and so belong not to me, but to the copyright owners of Lancer)



Chapter One

He had to blink hard when he walked into the lawyer's office.  It was dark after the brightness out in the street, the sun kept out by muslin blinds pulled right down to the window sills.  Only time he'd seen muslin blinds that thick, he'd been in that solterona's parlour in Mexico City, holding his hat in his hand, shuffling his feet and feeling the sweat trickling down the back of his collar.  He didn't know many old maids, but Dios, he'd got to know that one.  Johnny ducked his head to hide his smile, working on not laughing in case anyone wanted to know why.  He wasn't about to explain his dealings with Señorita Edelmira Rodríguez de la Peña y de Ybarra.  Scott would laugh and maybe even slap him on the back in admiring envy, but it wasn't fit for the girl's ears and Murdoch would likely burst something.

He looked around when his eyes grew used to the dim light.  Like the salón back at the hacienda, every wall was panelled with dark wood, lined with cupboards and shelves.  But these shelves didn't just hold books.  These were loaded with tin boxes and rolls of parchment tied with dirty tape torn from dark red calico.  Johnny sniffed, wrinkling his nose.  Musty old paper and dust.  It smelled like that time in El Paso jail, when his stuff had been put some place where the damp and mice had got at it.

James Randolph, the lawyer, was another wiry-looking Easterner, like Scott.  He looked like an older, fussier Scott, too, and he talked like him: kind of clipped, like the words were sliced out with a knife.  He held up the partnership deed.  "This is a simple legal transaction, gentlemen, setting out a deed of ownership dividing the Lancer ranch and holdings into three equal parts.  I'll recap the terms, so that we're all clear about the deed's content and ramifications." 

Randolph cleared his throat and looked around at them, like he was checking they were all listening.  Murdoch loomed up over the desk, nodding, but Johnny couldn't read his face.  Murdoch would be one to watch at poker.  Scott just looked real polite and the girl didn't count for this.  She stood beside Johnny, her hands clasped together like she was praying.  Maybe someone needed to pray: the Lord would sure be needed to keep this family thing on the level.  Johnny eased his shoulders and stared back at the lawyer.  The room was so quiet he could hear a clock ticking. 

The lawyer took a deep breath and began.  "This document divides the current ownership of the Lancer ranch, buildings and livestock and all appurtenances pertaining to the property—that is, all the existing rights of access, water rights, contracts and so on—into three shares of equal financial and legal value, one to be held by each of you.  All three partners will draw top-hand rates of pay and the profits will be paid annually each December, after ranch expenses and agreed reinvestments are deducted.  The profits will be divided equitably: this year's will be paid pro-rata, of course.  Mister Murdoch Lancer is named as senior partner.  Other provisions ensure the smooth transfer of any one share to the remaining partners in case of death or abandonment of the property, although the latter will have to be proved in a court of law and forfeiture may not be assumed for a grace period of six months." 

Damn, but the man sounded just like Scott.  They both talked liked they'd just swallowed a book.

"And, of course, there are provisions dealing with the effect on the partnership shares in the event of the marriage of any of the partners, to ensure provision for children and other dependants."

That had Scott grinning at him and mouthing Clause Seven, and rolling his eyes.  Murdoch made a hmmphing noise and frowned at both of them.  The lawyer took no notice.

"At its simplest, gentlemen: one ranch, three owners, three equal shares in the partnership."

"But one man calling the tune," warned Murdoch. 

"Of course."  Randolph made a queer little bow in Murdoch's direction.  "The senior partner does have the deciding vote in discussions about the ranch's future and retains day to day command of operations." 

It wasn't like they needed the reminder.  Murdoch said it about every five minutes even though neither Johnny nor Scott were stupid enough to forget in-between times.  Well, Murdoch could call as many tunes as he wanted.  There was no law to say a man had to dance to any tune other than his own.

Johnny glanced at the deed in Randolph's hand.  Sure, it was all about legal stuff, about a business partnership.  But it didn't feel like it was just business.  It couldn't be just business.  What more it might be… well, he couldn't make that out yet.  The way he couldn't make out Murdoch or Scott, or, sometimes, not even the girl, Teresa. 

He caught the look Murdoch gave him, the one he'd been getting from the old man since breakfast, tense and unsmiling.  Looked like Murdoch had done some thinking about what they'd talked about last night.  He didn’t look like he'd done much sleeping, anyway.  Scott was smiling, but he looked worried underneath it, glancing from one of them to the other.  Looked like he'd picked up that something had happened, but hadn't worked out what.  So.  Didn't look like either of them were much better at making him out, then, if it came to it, than he was figuring out them.  Well, keeping 'em guessing was always best, whatever the game.

When he was a kid he'd learned the jarabe, dancing it with a bunch of other kids in the village for a fiesta.  This family thing was like dancing.  But it was like dancing with his eyes closed so he couldn't see his partner's steps, and his ears blocked up so he couldn't hear the music.  And for all the lawyer said it was simple and had laid it out on a page or two of parchment in plain, clear writing, the dance they were learning—him, Murdoch and Scott—was anything but clear or plain or simple.  They were falling over each other all of the time, treading on each other's toes.  Mama would have been shamed, him being so clumsy. 

He needed new dancing shoes, maybe.  Or a new dance.
Lawyer Randolph handed the deed to his clerk, who inked in the date.  Johnny couldn't see any difference to the old writing.  It was very neat.

Law hand, Boston had called it on the trip into town.  He'd used a helluva lot of long words explaining it to Johnny.  He'd said that the hand that lawyers used on legal documents was meant to be unbiguous or something, some fancy word Johnny had never heard of.  Johnny hadn't asked about how lawyers wrote things and he didn't much care.  But he'd let Scott tell him all about it anyway, listening to the flow of long words that came out of Scott's mouth like a creek in spate.  His half-brother's mouth, and wasn't that a turn up? 

Still, when Scott had spouted out those long words, Johnny had stared at him until his ears had gone red.  "Sorry Johnny.  I meant plain and clear, so everyone can read it." 

"That so, Boston?  I never had a lot to do with lawyers, but I never thought of them being plain and clear.  The law, neither." 

Scott had given him that look again and hitched up one eyebrow.  "Not much experience of lawyers?  I'd have thought—" And then he bit the words off hard.  So that was one of the things he was considering, was it, when he looked Johnny over and wondered if it was a winning hand?  Well, Johnny would be damned before he made it too easy.

After a moment, Johnny had nodded, letting him off the hook.  "The ten commandments, now, they're pretty plain and clear.  I guess that God didn't get himself a lawyer to draw them up for him in that law hand you're jawing on about." 

Scott stared.  "No.  You're right, there."  His smile, when it came, had been slow and warm.  "You're full of surprises, little brother."

Yeah, right.  Just being a little brother was the biggest surprise of all.
Yeah, Boston sure liked to talk.

Not much about himself or things that were important, though.  Scott only ever talked about stuff that floated right at the top of things like leaves floating on the creek, and not about the secret stuff in the mud and sand at the bottom. 

If Scott could hear the music and knew the steps of this dance, he sure as hell wasn't saying.
Johnny leaned back against a cupboard, chewing on the stampede strap from his hat.  Beside him Teresa bounced on her toes like a little girl and turned to give him a big smile.  Hard to see why she was so happy and excited by it all.  She wasn't getting anything out of this that Johnny could see.

Randolph's clerk finished up on adding dates and stuff to the deed and handed it back to the lawyer.  And then they were signing up to… to whatever it was this deed meant.  Scott signed it first, then Murdoch.  When it was Johnny's turn and he took a step towards the table, Murdoch spoke up. 

"Mister Randolph, I should have told you—"

Something in Johnny's gut went hard and tight, like it did when he stepped into a street with the sun at his back and maybe la muerte staring him in the face.  His hand drifted down towards his gun.  So the old man had done his thinking, had he?  And maybe had made up his mind that he didn't want someone signing this deed who didn't know who John Lancer was. 

"—that last name should read John Madrid, not Lancer."

Johnny stared at him. 

I don't know what to think of you, the Old Man had said the night before Pardee came, when he'd thought Johnny was taking Pardee's side.  But Johnny had a pretty good idea of what Murdoch thought about pistoleros and he figured the Old Man didn’t think much different because the pistolero in question was a son he hadn't seen for twenty years.  So what did this mean?  Only yesterday Johnny had been shooting his mouth off as usual, being clever and trying to get them to stop asking him about the rurales. 

What was it he'd said?  Something about sometimes you strap on your gun for a third of a ranch and sometimes it's for beans; it's all work.

That's what he'd said.  Maybe Murdoch agreed.  Maybe Murdoch's offer to him and Scott was just business, so maybe it didn't matter, then, what name Johnny signed with.  Maybe Murdoch had done as Johnny said and thought it all through, and what he was saying was that this was payment to Madrid for hiring out the gun the old man had wanted to defeat Pardee, or payment for taking a bullet in the back.  Maybe Murdoch didn't know John Lancer, after all, and didn't care to.

The lawyer didn't so much as twitch.  He took the deed back and bent over it.  "Won't take me a minute."

Murdoch met Johnny's gaze.  He looked… Johnny didn't know what Murdoch looked.  Anxious, hopeful, wondering if he'd done the right thing, if he'd understood Johnny right, accepting that Madrid was there and always would be?  Maybe some of that or all of that or none.  He couldn't read the old man's face too well, not and be sure that what he thought he saw there was right.  Johnny turned away.  He looked at the deed.  Maybe there was a clue there, in the name the lawyers had written on it. 

Maybe it was time to meet John Luis Lancer. 

"No." Johnny took a step forward, before the lawyer could make the change.  "Let it stand."

Murdoch's mouth curved upwards a bit.  He nodded at Johnny and looked at Scott. 

Scott grinned at both of them.  "Good."  That sharp, chopped-off Easterner's voice was real soft.  Satisfied.

Johnny looked down at the deed.  Why was Boston so pleased about it?  What did it matter to him what Johnny was called?  It was just a name: Madrid, Lancer or Martínez, Johnny or Juan or Luis.  So many names.  And all of them him, all of them Johnny.

The lawyer had left a space for Johnny to sign underneath the others.  Murdoch had signed his name with letters that were tall and straight, just as he was himself; a great barricada of spiky letters.  Nothing would ever get through that.  Boston's signature was real neat.  It looked like the writing done by the clerk, what Scott had called the law hand.  Maybe Scott should have been a lawyer. 

Johnny picked up the pen, dipping it into the little porcelain pot of black ink before he could change his mind.  He didn’t write that well.  What was that old bruja back at the orphanage called, the one who'd used her switch across his fingers to teach him his lessons?  Sister...  Sister Aurelia.  That was it.  The character of a man is seen in how well he writes his name and that chicken-scratch of yours, Juan Lancer Martínez, is shameful enough to make a saint weep bitter stones

Well, he didn't have much call to use a pen.  He had no one to write to.  He took a breath and held it a moment to keep his hand steady and took his time to form the letters so that he didn’t start with an M.  The pen scratched its way across the parchment, sputtering ink behind it.  He had to dip the pen back into the ink two or three times before he'd finished scrawling out the long L and the letters that followed to make the name of a stranger.  He gave the L a big loop on the corner, for luck. 

It looked like a noose.

Well, he couldn't do anything about it but live with it.  Let it stand, he'd said, and he had to stand by it now.

Scott was still grinning when Johnny straightened up and dropped the pen onto the desk.  "Now it's done."

Murdoch laughed, smirking like a cat in a dairy.  "And well done."

Johnny only nodded and went back to where Teresa stood beside the wooden cupboards that lined one side of the room.  He straightened his shoulders so no one would notice, stretching to ease the ache in his back, and tucked his right hand behind him, his fingers moving over the smooth wood of the cupboard door.  No point in worrying about what Murdoch meant by that nod towards Madrid.  He'd find out soon enough.  He tapped his fingertips against the door, soft and quiet.  

Sister Aurelia had liked that switch of hers.  She'd often brought it stinging across his hands to teach little Juan Lancer to keep his restless fingers still.  He rubbed his thumb against one very old scar on the side of his forefinger.  The old hag was probably still there, tormenting the orphans in the Tijuana mission school.  Hell, yes, he'd bet she was.  Her kind didn't die; they just wizened up some more every year that passed, sour as old apples dipped in vinegar.

Still, she wasn't here to stop him now.  He tapped out a new pattern, louder. 

What had Murdoch meant by it?

Randolph and his clerk both signed to witness the signatures and put the deed into a black enamel deed box that had the Lancer name stencilled on it in white paint.  Johnny rose onto his toes for a second to snatch a glimpse inside.  It was full of papers and parchments, folded and docketed on the outside or rolled and tied with tape.  Nothing much to see.

The lawyer had three copies of the deed, one for each of them, and called them back to the table.  "Now, if you'll just initial the copies... thank you, Mister Lancer.  There's one copy for each of you so initial all three please... that's all three witnessed and notarised…  thank you, gentlemen.  That's everything completed.  My congratulations to you all."

JML, scratched out onto each of the copies beside his name.  This time he didn’t bother with the noose.  The M could be just as much for Martínez as Madrid, but Johnny could see that Murdoch frowned as he looked at his copy.  Then Murdoch looked up and nodded.  Maybe neither name really sat well with his father, but both of them were his, as much as Lancer was.  He had to let them all stand together somehow: Lancer, Martínez, Madrid.  Dios only knew which one would end up calling the tune, but he'd give this thing a try.

He took his copy of the deed as soon as the clerk had blotted it dry, and folded it.  His fingers were very brown against the creamy-white paper as they smoothed down the creases.  It was thick paper, and he had to press hard to get a clean, sharp fold. 

When he looked up, Scott was grinning at him and folding up his own deed.  "No getting out of it now, Johnny."

"Guess not, Boston."

"And now we're both respectable Californian ranchers."


"Do you gentlemen wish to keep your copies secure with us here?"  Randolph waved a hand at the deed box. 

Johnny's fingers tightened on the paper.  He'd never thought to own anything like this.  He'd never owned anything much before.  Hell, he'd never owned even one third of anything much before.  He pushed the folded paper into the inside breast pocket of his jacket.  "No, I'll keep mine."

The grin on Scott's face got wider.  "I'll… er… retain custody of mine too.  But thank you, Mister Randolph.  It was a very kind offer."

Murdoch looked pleased and shook the lawyer's hand.  Nearly shook it clean off.  He had big hands, did Murdoch.  Get a crack on the jaw from those hands and a man would be eating mush for weeks.  The lawyer had likely lost all feeling in his fingers.

Teresa put her hands on Johnny's arm and squeezed.  She smiled at him.  He smiled back, and eased away bit by bit until he was out of reach and she had to take her hands away.  She went to clutch at Murdoch instead, but he didn't seem to mind.  'Course, Murdoch had helped bring her up and he was maybe used to it.  Funny that she was the only one of them who'd grown up at Lancer, that she was the one closest to the old man and knew him better than Johnny and Boston put together. 

Murdoch was far more her father than theirs.  Something else to think about, maybe, along with everything else.

Randolph shook hands with everyone, even Teresa.  He made a point of it when he got to Johnny.  "It was very pleasant doing business with you, Mister Lancer."

It was going to be strange, going by Lancer all the time.  And he'd have to get used to lawyers shaking him by the hand, now he was a respectable Californian rancher.

He followed Murdoch and Teresa out of the law office, Scott falling in beside him.  He drew in a deep breath.  Even the town smelled better than the office. 

This was his first sight of Green River.  It was a white man's town, built since California was taken by the Americanos.  There wasn't anything here to remind the townsfolk that this land had once been Mexico.  Morro Coyo had cool adobe buildings and a huge, towered church.  Nothing like that here.  Instead there were board-walks lined with offices or shop-fronts, some with plate glass windows and lamps hanging outside of them.  There was even a fancy hotel standing catty-corner across the street from the lawyer's office. 

And there was a saloon.

Johnny glanced down the street to the Bull Moose, and ran his tongue over his bottom lip.  The first two or three weeks he had been so tired doing nothing but get over having Day Pardee's bullet dug out of his back, that he'd faded out soon after they'd eaten supper.  Hell, but he hated sleeping so much.  But the last few evenings he'd felt well enough to sit up longer, enjoy a glass or two of reposado before bed and play a couple of games of checkers with Scott.  Gave him something to do, at any rate, other than sleep or count cows.  But right then he wanted a cold beer so bad he could almost taste it, and if he was lucky there'd be enough players for a game or two of faro or poker.  It felt like months since he'd had himself a good time in a saloon.  He'd been cooped up in his sickroom too damned long. 

"We did our hiring in the hotel." Scott fell in beside him as they followed Murdoch and Teresa on the board-walk outside the lawyer's office.  "You know.  When I came into town with Cipriano last week."

They'd have got more men in the saloon, but maybe Cipriano knew what he was doing.  Weeded the drunks straight out if they couldn't stagger up Main Street as far as the hotel.

"That right?  You on for a beer, Boston?"  Did Scott know how to play faro?  All he'd seen him play so far was checkers or chess.

"It's Scott, not Boston.  I'm just from the place, Johnny.  It isn’t my name."

Looked like they were all going to have to get used to being called something different, then.  Johnny nodded.  "You want a beer?"

"I think Murdoch has other plans." 

Johnny cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Sam's joining us for a meal in the hotel dining room.  Don’t you remem—oh, wait.  You'd fallen asleep by the time Murdoch talked about it last night.  I should have mentioned it at breakfast."

"And Murdoch wants us there."

Scott gave him an odd look.  "Of course.  It's a celebration."

Johnny came to a halt on the board-walk.  Murdoch and Teresa had already stepped into the street and were halfway across to the hotel.  He watched them go.  "I'm not one for eatin' fancy meals in hotels.  I'm more your beer and cantina kind of pistolero."

Since he'd meant to be funny, he wouldn't shoot Boston for laughing.  He grinned back, instead.

"Well, come and see how the other half live, Johnny.  Murdoch wants to mark the occasion, that's all.  It's an important moment for all of us, don't you think?"

"He wants to celebrate giving away most of his ranch?"

"Of course not.  He wants to celebrate getting his family back."

"That right, Boston?" Johnny stared at Murdoch's back.  He smiled.  "Is that what he thinks he's got?"

Chapter Two

Sam Jenkins was waiting for them in the hotel lobby, dressed in his town suit as usual.  That collar must have nearly choked him, but he just sat sipping on a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper like he didn't notice.  A man could probably get used to most anything, but a collar like that would be something else.  Johnny ran a finger around his own open collar, easing the linen away from the back of his neck, and smiled.  Sam put down the newspaper when he saw them and kissed Teresa's cheek before he shook hands with everyone.

Green River was growing, Murdoch had said, and the hotel had just been built.  It wasn't as fine as some Johnny had seen in bigger cities; in El Paso, say, or Mexico City or Santa Fe.  Still pretty fancy for a little place like Green River, with big leather chairs in the lobby and lots of polished wood and fancy glass.  It smelled of fresh pine boards and new leather.

The hotel manager seemed to think Murdoch was important.  He bowed up and down and smiled a lot, and then he bowed up and down again.  "Mister Lancer, Miss O'Brien." 

Bob up, bow down.  Bob up, bow down.  Bob up...

Wonder his head didn't fall off with all that bowing and bobbing.  He didn't look at Johnny much except out of the corner of his eye.  He knew who Johnny was, then. 

Teresa looked like she was in a real good mood.  She gave the little man a big smile.  "Good day, Mister Phipitt."

Phipitt?  Johnny had to look down at his boots and grin.  Damn, but that was close enough.  He watched as Scott returned the greeting, real polite and gentleman-like.  Did they have pipits back east, bobbing their tails up and down?  Boston wasn't grinning, so maybe he'd never seen one or didn't see the resemblance.  Johnny'd have to remember to point one out when they were riding about the ranch.  He'd seen plenty of pipits flying about when he'd been out on Barranca.

Mr Phipitt ushered them into the dining room.  A big room with one of those big candelabro colgante... what was it the gringos called it?  A chandelier, that was it.  Near on as big as the one in the hotel in Santa Fe.  The chandelier in the salón back at the hacienda was a big round metal wheel for holding the candles and that was right; it matched the room.  But this one was fancy glass, the hanging pieces moving in the draught and sending bright little rainbows dancing all over the walls.  Real fine place, this.  Murdoch was right.  Green River was on the way up.

Murdoch stopped at the gun tree just inside the door, and took off his gun belt.  He stared at Johnny like he was trying to send a message without opening his mouth.  Huh.  This was one tune Murdoch wasn't going to be calling.  Johnny walked past Murdoch and the gun tree, to a table in the middle of the room under the chandelier.  The silverware and glasses sparkled in the sun coming through the windows.  It was fancy as the table Teresa had set for supper the very first night they'd got to Lancer.  It was real pretty.

"No.  Not here."

They all looked at him.  Maybe he'd said it in Chiricahua or something, way they stared. 

"Not this table."

Murdoch scowled at him.  "What's wrong with it?"

They had no idea.  Johnny looked around the room and walked to a table in the back corner.  The room was so quiet that the jingle bobs on his spurs jangled real loud.  They sounded just like the pandero in a Conjunto Jarocho band.  Dios, but he missed good music.  Maybe he'd get to the cantina in Morro Coyo one night for enchiladas and tequila, and proper music, and a dance with some pretty dark-eyed girl.  Boston might like to come along.  He might like beer and cantinas, too.

Johnny took the corner chair, one wall at his back and another to his left side, hanging his hat by its stampede strings on the back of his chair.  Everyone stood in the middle of the room, staring at him.  Murdoch was reddening and even from that distance, Johnny could see his mouth getting thin and tight.  Murdoch likely wouldn't roar in public, but Scott jumped in before Murdoch could say anything.  He gave Johnny one of those looks again, before coming to join him.

He took the chair opposite Johnny.  "Nice view from here." 

"Yeah."  Johnny turned the bead bracelet on his wrist, round and round.  He watched Murdoch.

"I remember what you said about always sitting with your back to a wall.  I should have reminded Murdoch."

Oh.  Yeah.  That damned dime novel Scott had read to him when he was sick.  He'd said something then about how he'd never walk into a saloon and stand at the bar, the way the writer had made 'Johnny Madrid' do in that book.  Pile of horse shit, that book.

"Keeps me alive."

"I'm glad of it.  Oh good.  Here comes our respected Papa.  Takes a while to catch a hint, sometimes, doesn't he?"

Respectable Californian ranchers didn't have to think about where they sat, or make sure that no one could sneak up behind them.  Respectable ranchers likely never thought about anything except getting the best seat or the best table, didn’t matter what state they came from.  Johnny grinned.  He let the grin broaden when Murdoch loomed over him wanting to know why he was making such a fuss about moving tables.

"Like Boston says, the view's better."  Johnny looked up to catch the hotel manager's eye.  "Get me a glass of milk, por favor.  You'd best get your people to move that stuff over here."  And to Murdoch: "I don't sit in the middle of rooms, Murdoch."

"We'll be fine here."  Sam Jenkins' old eyes saw a lot, and they were crinkling at the corners.  Maybe he was laughing at Murdoch.  Or maybe looking to see if Johnny had been doing what he'd been told about not riding half-broke palominos.  Johnny straightened his shoulders again, as if the ache in his back wasn't there.  Maybe Sam wouldn't see it.  But Sam raised an eyebrow at him and all Johnny could do was smile back.  Damn.

Murdoch humphed and huffed a bit, but he nodded to the manager and held out a chair for Teresa to Johnny's right.  Johnny inched his chair away to give himself more room.  It'd be pretty stupid getting killed because his gun hand got caught up in the girl's petticoats. 

Scott, Sam and Teresa talked while he sat quiet and Murdoch got over his mad.  Sam was from the East too, and he and Scott swapped tales of Boston while Teresa asked questions.  A couple of the hotel's workers scurried about, bringing over the cloth and all the fixings.  They wouldn't look straight at Johnny while they did it.

Murdoch had to have a dig at him, when the hotel staff had finished.  "I hope this meets with your approval?" 

Johnny let a grin through.  "It's just fine, Murdoch."

Murdoch snorted.  Scott choked a little, and his mouth twitched as if he was trying not to laugh.  He started to talk instead and Dios, but nothing stopped him talking once he got going.  It was a gift, or something.  Boston kicked off this time by asking about Green River and Morro Coyo and the other local town, Spanish Wells, and the others joined in, talking about the folks and who was where and who did what and why.  Towns were all the same for gossip.  Johnny picked up his fork and twirled it between his fingers, listening.

The girl, though, was enjoying herself.  Gossiping about folks was what girls did, weren't it?  She had to miss chatting to folks, stuck out on the ranch all the time.  "We don't go to Spanish Wells very often.  It's not a very nice place."

Sam smiled and patted her hand.  "No, it's not.  It's a wild place; actually dangerous.  There's no law in any of these towns, or even much of the valley.  No town sheriffs, no jails, no courts.  Since Pardee killed Joe Carbajal in Modesto, the nearest US marshals are in Stockton or San Jose, the better part of three days' journey away.  It's too far."

Murdoch chimed in on the preaching.  "Joe hasn't been replaced yet.  He'll be missed.  He was a good man and well-respected."

"The only lock-up in this part of the county is the old guardhouse at Lancer."  Sam smiled at Murdoch.  "It's seen some use over the years."

"That it has.  It'll change, Scott.  The land's getting more settled.  People want safer towns to live in and I hope they'll soon have them.  The Cattlegrowers Association has plans for some law around here, although it may take a few weeks yet to sort something out—"

Sam snorted.  "You mean you do.  You'll end up paying most of the salary."

"No matter.  We need law closer than Modesto.  We need lawmen of our own, keeping the towns safe.  The change will come."

Yeah, spoiling things for everyone else.  Johnny looked up from his fork twirling.  "Why's Spanish Wells different?" 

Murdoch looked like he'd bit on something sour.  Johnny remembered that look.  That was the 'I don’t know what to think about you' look.  "It's an open town."

Scott frowned.  "An open town?  That's not a term I'm familiar with."

"Here and in Morro Coyo, there may not be any formal law but the citizens do keep some sort of standards.  Not in Spanish Wells.  They don't discourage lawless elements."

"Murdoch means folks like me, Boston."

"So I guessed," said Scott, but he grinned back at Johnny.  No offence meant, then.  "If Spanish Wells would have made it easier for Pardee, I'd have thought he would have operated out of there rather than Morro Coyo."

"He probably did."  Johnny straightened up as the servers came with the food.  Steak and a mound of golden fried potatoes, and a big pitcher of gravy.  Hell, what wouldn't he give for chicken mole, or tamales and beans?  "But Morro Coyo's the closest to Lancer, where the feed merchant and lumber yards are and where Lancer gets its supplies and does a lot of its business.  If you're trying to scare some rancher stupid, you don't do it from a town ten miles away that he never goes to.  Day would get supplies, maybe, in Spanish Wells, and drink and—"  Damn but that girl was looking at him, real wide-eyed.  She probably didn't know much about working girls and soiled doves, and Murdoch would kill him if she found out.  "—and other things.  But he had to make Morro Coyo walk small, try to close it off to Lancer."

"I suppose you’re speaking from experience, brother?"

Johnny copied the prissy way of talking.  "I suppose I am."  

Murdoch's mouth tightened right down.  Likely Murdoch had been glad to have Johnny around when it came to a shooting war, but maybe now he was trying to work out what to do with a gunhawk now all the shooting had stopped.  Scott gave them both that damn look of his, opened his mouth and talked some more.  About something else, this time.  Dios, was there nothing the man couldn't talk about?  He barely gave himself time to eat what was on his plate.

Johnny didn't join in.  He worked his way through the steak and potatoes instead, taking more when no one else wanted them.  When he'd finished, he moistened one finger tip and got the last of the gravy on his plate.  Boston was still talking.

Johnny lifted his glass to finish his milk.  "Brother, do you ever run out of things to say?"

Boston shut up, real fast.  He turned his head to look at Johnny—he'd been telling Teresa about a dancing troupe called the Bah-lay at some concert hall in Boston—and he looked like he'd just trodden in a heap of Barranca's leavings.  After a minute or two's staring, he shook his head.

"Not all of us, Johnny, are taciturn and inarticulate.  I'll have you know that I was noted throughout Boston as an accomplished deipnosophist."

A what?  A dip-noss-off-what?  "Uh-huh.  Better warn you, Boston.  Out here, that sort of thing's likely to get you shot."

Sam laughed out loud.  Teresa looked puzzled and Murdoch… well who the hell could tell what Murdoch looked.  But Murdoch wasn't mad, that much Johnny could tell.  The corner of his mouth was twitching, like he was trying to remember how to smile.

Scott's grin got wider.  "It's Greek.  It means someone who's a good conversationalist, who's skilled in table talk."

Couple of years back, Johnny had met a man called Greek Spiro in a saloon in Nogales, who'd talked in some queer words Johnny had never heard before.  Greek Spiro had braced him, but hadn't been so fast that Johnny had had to kill him.  Mind you, he'd be surprised if Greek Spiro would ever be able to use his right arm much ever.  After the shooting, Greek Spiro had lain on the saloon floor bleeding and yelling and spitting out a lot of things at Johnny that had sounded real interesting, but Johnny didn't remember any diss-noff-anything.  Maybe he'd tell Boston about it, one day and see if Boston knew any of the words Greek Spiro had used.  Better not ask in front of the girl.  Murdoch would have a fit. 

"So what you're saying is that you don't ever run out of things to say?"

Scott's shoulders shook.  "I never have until now, no.  Back home this is considered to be a welcome skill.  People there appreciate it.  It's an art.  It helps grease Society's wheels."

Back home in Boston, maybe.  Johnny shook his head.  "People here'd say that you're talking through your hat."

Scott's grin widened so much that he was beaming.  "Ah yes.  I'm a pretty good perpilocutionist, at that."

Both Sam and Murdoch burst out laughing.  Murdoch's eyes creased up and his face lightened until he didn't look stern anymore.  He looked younger.  Teresa giggled, but Johnny thought it was more because the others laughed.  Johnny watched them and ducked his head, smiling.  Boston grinned at him.

Maybe Johnny would be the one to shoot him.
"If it's all right with you, sir, perhaps Johnny and I could follow you back to the ranch later.  I hoped that I might persuade Johnny to come to the gunsmith and help me pick out a handgun."  Scott patted around his mouth with his napkin and put it down beside his plate, folded and smoothed so neat you wouldn't think he'd used it. 

Johnny hadn't used his.  Boston was as fine as this hotel, when you came down to it.  He was at home in fancy places like this.

"You're welcome to keep using that spare."  Murdoch's mouth turned down again. 

"That's very good of you, sir, but I think I need to have one of my own.  This one's a little heavy for my taste, and… well, it'd be good to get some professional advice about what would best suit me.  And since we have an expert in the family, it seems stupid not to get his advice."

Murdoch scowled, most of it for Johnny.

Johnny ignored it and glanced at the gun belt Scott had hung over his chair.  Better than where Murdoch's gun was on the gun-tree by the door, but Scott would still have to twist to get at the gun and if he needed it in a hurry, he'd be dead.  He pictured Scott wearing it, remembering it had ridden high, but the holster was loose and was set all wrong.  Greenhorn was likely to get killed before he could draw that thing or shoot his balls off, trying. 

"That's a poor rig, Murdoch.  I'd better go with him to make sure he doesn't pick out one just as bad."

Scott grinned.  "Yes, that was the point of asking you.  Cipriano told me there's a gunsmith in this town."

"Zimmermann," nodded Murdoch.  "Down past Higgs's store."

"Zimmermann?  He was in Laramie, last time I saw him."  Johnny touched the butt of his gun.  "Converted this for me."

"Converted?"  Sam leaned forward, frowning at Johnny's gun.  He didn't wear one himself.  Probably because he mostly had to deal with all the crap that came with a gun.

"Getting it changed to take metal cartridges.  I had to get a new working gun and bought this one off Zimmermann.  A couple of years ago, maybe.  Zimmermann's good.  One of the best gunsmiths I've come across."

"And you've come across a few," guessed Scott.

What did that mean?  Another hidden question about Madrid?  "One or two.  All right, Boston. I'll come and help you find a decent gun."

"Scott.  Not Boston.  Scott."

Johnny grinned and nodded.  "Scott."

"I will train you, little brother."

"Well, you'll try."

Sam's smile broadened.  He seemed to think that they were real funny.  "How long will you be?  I don't have any calls to make, so Murdoch and Teresa can visit here with me until you're done.  I could do with another cup of coffee and maybe Phipitt has more of that pie."

"And maybe I could go and look at that new hat shop next door."  Teresa's voice was bright and little-girly, but there was an edge to it.  The good Dios knew she needed a new hat.  That thing she had on her head wasn't up to much.

Murdoch grunted. "Maybe."

"I suppose we'll be an hour or so?" Scott looked to Johnny and lifted an eyebrow.  Johnny shrugged.  It would take as long as it took.  "If it's going to take longer, one of us will come back and tell you, sir."

Murdoch nodded.  His scowl hadn't gone away any.  Maybe the apple in his slice of pie had been sour.  Teresa smiled at them as they got up.  Probably she'd twist Murdoch round her little finger so he'd let her go take a look at the hats.  Couldn't blame her.  Women spent all their time waiting on men, and Johnny couldn’t see that listening to Murdoch and Sam nattering would please her much.  She'd have more fun with the hats. 

Johnny waited until Scott had put the borrowed gun belt back on again.  Yeah, it rode too high and didn't look right.  He led the way out, stopping Scott at the hotel's double glass doors.  The glass was cut with the pattern of some sort of big vase with flowers in it.  Real fancy.  Maybe Murdoch was right about folks wanting Green River to grow into something better.  The hotel was a sign that it might.

Still, he could see through the fancy glass well enough.  He studied the street.  It was busy, but no more so than most small towns.  A wagon was loading outside the Mercantile.  Randolph's clerk came out of the law office and trotted down the street to a small eating house.  A woman and child crossed the street over to his right.  Two men walked from the livery to the saloon.  Johnny watched them, but they didn't look at the hotel or see him behind the glass doors.  It looked peaceful enough.  He stepped out onto the board-walk. 

Scott followed him.  "You're a suspicious-minded character, you know that, don't you?"

"Keeps me from ending up in Boot Hill."

"As I said earlier, I'm glad of it."  Scott threw his arm around Johnny's shoulders.  "I'm very glad of it, little brother."

Johnny couldn't see why.  But he let Scott's arm rest there for a moment or two before he slid to one side and got his shoulders free.
Chapter Three

The name painted on the board outside the gunsmith's shop was Lukas Zimmermann.  He wasn't the man Johnny knew.

"That would be my brother, Frederick.  He's in Colorado Territory now."  Zimmermann looked at Johnny over a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles.  He spoke real good American with the accent that reminded Johnny of the gunsmith back in Laramie, only maybe not as thick.  "I know that he did some work for you, Mister Madrid.  He was very proud of it.  You were his first famous customer."

"He told you that he converted a gun for me?"

"I haven't seen Frederick for more than eight years, but he's my brother and we're still close.  We stay in touch.  He writes often.  An Army Colt, wasn't it?" Zimmermann gestured towards Johnny's gun.  "May I?"

Johnny's fingers tap-tap-tapped on his holster.  That old bruja at the mission would have had something to say about that, bringing her switch lashing across his sinful hand.  He stared at Zimmermann and kept tapping.

Zimmermann waited, still looking over the top of those spectacles.  He went to the main shop door and turned the key.  No one would be able to walk in on them.  "Professional interest, Mister Madrid.  It’s the family trade, you see, and I'd like to see Fred's work."

Johnny drew his gun, reversed it and let Zimmermann take it from him.  "It has a hair trigger." 

Scott leaned over to watch as Zimmermann handled the gun.  "Well, this is the closest I've seen your gun, Johnny.  That barrel's cut short.  It must be a good inch or so short."

"Yeah.  It's my working gun.  It has to clear the holster real fast."

"I see that you've cut the holster down, too."

Johnny watched everything Zimmermann did, not taking his eyes off him.  Scott should stop talking.  Johnny needed to watch the gunsmith and listen out for anyone trying to get into the shop.  "It was made that way.  Means there's not as much holster to clear.  It's all about having an edge, Boston."

"No sights." Zimmermann raised the gun and sighted down the barrel.

"There's no time to use sights when you're called out to a dance."  Johnny paused, glanced at Scott.  Keep it all on the low-down, that was the trick.  Hell, but that's why he hated people like King Fisher or Jim Courtright, always shooting off their mouths and boasting.  "There's no time to worry about it.  You just have to hit what you aim at, first time."

Zimmermann gestured to his tools.  "May I?"

Johnny hesitated.  Beside him, Scott took off his gun belt and coiled it around the holster.  He set it on the counter, the butt of the gun towards Johnny. 

Johnny's mouth was dry.  How did Boston know?  How in hell could he know? 

He glanced at Scott, but Scott wasn't looking at him.  He was watching Zimmermann, who sat with his tools poised, waiting for Johnny.  Maybe it meant nothing.  Boston couldn’t know, not really, so maybe it was just chance.  Johnny rested his right hand on the counter near the butt of Scott's gun, his left hand curved ready to slam down over the holster to hold it in place if he needed to draw the gun fast.

He nodded.  "Okay."

"Zwei minuten.  Two minutes."  Zimmermann broke the gun apart and looked at it for a few minutes.  He pushed the spectacles to the top of his head and used a jeweller's eyepiece, peering down into the gun's innards.  He looked very happy.

Johnny rolled his shoulders, watching what the man did. 

"Schön.  Sehr schön.  Fred worked on the rachet housing.  See?  So precise and perfect.  He handmade the spring on the locking bolt to give you the hair trigger—I'd know Fred's work anywhere.  And that isn't a standard trigger and bolt pivot.  It's one of his, too."  Zimmermann sighed.  "This is a very fine gun, Mister Madrid.  A lovely piece of work.  No wonder Fred was so proud of it."

"Yeah.  Put it back together."

Zimmermann looked startled, but he did as he was told.  Johnny watched every move and when the gunsmith had reassembled his gun and reloaded it, Johnny took it back and checked it over himself.  It looked all right.  It felt all right.  He let it drop into the holster and rested his hand on it, curling his fingers over the butt.  It was cool and smooth, fitting his hand just right.

"And this is what we've come to replace." Scott pushed his gun belt across the counter.  "This is a borrowed gun, and I want one of my own."

Zimmermann unholstered Murdoch's spare gun for a second or two and glanced at it.  He unlocked a cupboard and spread over the counter a dozen or so handguns, each wrapped in a square of oiled canvas.  Johnny watched him unwrap them.  He let his shoulders relax.  His back ached and he had to stretch to ease it.  Musta been standing too long.

"You'll find this one interesting, Mister Madrid."  Zimmermann unwrapped the last gun and held it out.

Johnny took it.  It looked ordinary enough at first look: ivory grips, a bit of fancy engraving on the frame, cylinder a bit fatter… well, damn.  No ordinary gun had two hammers and two triggers.  Hadn't seen one of these for a long time.  He didn’t like the flat sided barrel much but this was still an interesting gun, a curiosity.  "A Walch."  He hefted it in his hand and nodded.  "Nice piece."

"I've worked on it."  Zimmermann looked pleased.  "Improved it."

"What is it?"  Scott leaned over to take a look. 

"A Walch twelve shot pistol.  There's a few of them around.  Not many."  Johnny hefted it again.  A nice weight and the barrel was a good length.  "Takes point-thirty-sixes.  I like a heavier bullet myself."  He looked at Zimmermann and nodded.  "Maybe later, okay?  We need to pick out a gun for Boston here, first."  He looked over the handguns that Zimmermann set out.  "Did you carry a pistol during the war, Boston?"

"The Cavalry wasn't all sabre work, you know.  I started out with a Remington Navy pistol, but I lost that in a raid and had to find myself another.  I bought a Colt Army from my sergeant, one he'd taken from a Rebel soldier.  And it's Scott."

Johnny touched the grips of his own Army Colt.  He'd have to test it, to be sure that Zimmermann had put it back together properly.  "I'll remember."

"See that you do."

Johnny grinned.  "So where's the Colt?"

"I lost that one, too, sadly."

"Pretty damn careless of you, losin' your guns like that."

"There were circumstances beyond my control, Johnny, especially regarding the Colt.  I… I lost a lot, that day.  I did buy a replacement when I got back to Boston after the war.  Another Remington.  I should kick myself the length of Main Street for not bringing it with me.  I think it's in a trunk in the attic at ho— back in Boston, at my grandfather's."  Scott laughed.  "I remember saying to him when I was planning the journey, that maybe I ought to bring it.  But I don't think I really believed the stories about what it was like out here, where every man carries a gun."

"Don't they in Boston?"  Johnny picked up a long-barrelled Navy Colt with walnut grips and held it at arm's length, sighting down the barrel.  This was one fancy gun—the cylinder had little ships engraved on it and the brass frame and flat-sided silver steel barrel, and even the ejection rod, were engraved with scrolls and stuff.  Maybe they were supposed to be the sea.  It was fancier than a brothel parlour.  Not his style.

"No."  Scott grinned at him.  "You'd be the odd man out there, Johnny.  You'd be the greenhorn in Boston."

Johnny shrugged. 

"Good gun, that.  I did some work on it for a customer, but he never came back to pick it up.  Never will now."  Zimmermann smiled at Scott.  "I heard that you shot him, Mister Lancer."


Johnny laughed.  "Day always did like fancy guns."

"Pardee?" Scott looked from Johnny to Zimmerman.  "This was Day Pardee's gun?"

Zimmermann shrugged.  "It was going to be.  He never used it."

"It was a damn good shot you made, Boston, that morning."  Johnny put down the Navy Colt.  He eased his shoulders again against the twinge in his back.  "This is too heavy for my hand and the barrel's too long.  Feels off balance."   He picked up an Army Colt with smooth walnut grips, just like his own gun, and hefted the weight of it.  "This one's better."

He went back to looking through the pistols.  That Walch was pulling at him, but Boston hadn't shown much interest in it and it was no use pushing it at him.  Besides, Scott wouldn't get on with the double hammer and trigger, most likely.  He hesitated over a neat .44 Smith and Wesson he hadn't seen before—a new model, called the Russian, said Zimmermann—but put the other Smith and Wesson pistols and the Remingtons to one side.  The Le Mat wasn't worth looking at.  Colts were his favourite gun.  They were sturdier, didn't jam as often. 

"This is a very decorative gun."  Scott picked up the Navy Colt.  "The engraving's very fine."

Johnny didn't bother looking at it again.  "A man doesn’t need anything that fancy."

Scott chuckled  "So says the man with the fanciest shirts I've ever seen."

"That's different."  Johnny smoothed a hand down the front of his shirt.  This one was almost plain, anyway, with nothing but a bit of embroidery on the front.  Teresa hadn't let him wear his pink shirt.  Not fancy enough for a lawyer's office, she said, making him wear one of the new white shirts Cipriano's wife had embroidered for him.  "A gun's a tool, not a toy,  It doesn’t need to be fancy.  'Sides, like I said, I like a heavier bullet and I don't like those flat sided barrels."

"The bore inside the octagon's still round.  Er – an octagon is a shape with eight sides, Johnny." 

Johnny looked at Scott for a minute before picking up another of the Army Colts.  He sighted along the barrel at Scott, and grinned.  "You know the Spanish for eight, Scott?"

"No."  Scott looked wary.

"Didn’t think so."  Johnny twirled the heavy Colt on his trigger finger and put it down.  "Well, I'd say one of the Colts myself, brother, or that new Smith and Wesson.  Your choice though."

"I'll take your advice.  Which one would you have?"

"Well, that's not really the point, now is it?  I don't like Day's pretty Navy Colt, but if it feels good in your hand we'll give it a try."  Johnny sighted down the barrels of the other Colts, before laying two Army Colts and the Russian down beside the gun Scott liked.  "These, for me.  But what feels good and balanced in my hand, might not be right for you, Scott.  Feel them for fit before we try them."

Scott obeyed.  He held out one of the Army Colts with both hands, squinting down the sights.  "What is the Spanish for eight?"

"Ocho," said Johnny.  He grinned at the look on Scott's face.

Scott sighed and shook his head.  "Of course it is.  From the Latin.  Remind me not to underestimate you, little brother."  He smiled.  "I expect you know Latin, too, just to confound me."

"Church Latin, anyway.  Enough to follow Mass when I was a kid.  Can't remember much now.  Your range out back, Mister Zimmermann?"

"In the barn.  I have paper targets set up on straw bales.  There should be some tin cans, too."

"Okay.  How do those other Colts feel, Scott?"

"Fine.  Do we try them all?"

"Might as well."  Johnny took the boxes of bullets that Zimmermann offered and watched as the gunsmith went to hang a red flag outside the shop and lock the door again from the inside.

Scott looked the question at Johnny. 

It was easy enough to explain.  "The flag lets folks know that he's out back and the shooting's coming from his range, not some bandito robbing the bank."

"That makes sense."

Johnny laughed.  "This is going to surprise you, big brother, but I usually do make sense."

Scott grinned back.  "That would surprise me."
They spent a long time in the barn's shooting range. 

Zimmermann had a real good set up there, maybe the best Johnny had come across.  Even better than his brother's up in Laramie.  A lot of small town gunsmiths just set up a few bottles and cans on a corral fence, but not Zimmerman.  He'd built something better.  The bale-shaped targets were canvas, very tightly packed with straw, stacked up against a double row of thick railway sleepers set close together on end.  The targets had round papers pinned to them, marked off in rings and the sleepers were pockmarked with bullet holes.  A long bench at the firing point made a place for loading the guns. 

Yeah, a real good set-up.  Neat.

While Zimmermann hung more red flags around the barn and Scott loaded the pistols, Johnny took a few practice shots himself to try out his gun.  After reloading, he drew his black leather glove onto his left hand and fired again, real fast this time, fanning the hammer.  He knew a lot of pistoleros whose claims to be fast guns rested on hip-shooting and fanning to recock the gun faster, making up for shitty aim by spitting out bullets faster.  He didn’t rely on that.  Fanning made the gun jerk around in the hand, and a man had to work hard to hit the target.  Instead, Johnny relied on hitting what he aimed at, first time.  But still, it never hurt to practice all the possible moves he might need.

His gun felt smooth in his hand.  It was perfect.  Beautiful, just like Zimmermann said.  He reloaded straight off and dropped the gun into the holster, rubbing his fingers over the smooth walnut of the butt.  He loved this gun.  Best one he'd ever had.

He took a look at the targets.  He hadn't missed, of course, but he needed to get back to his usual routine, to loosen up some.  He'd been out of it too long already.  More'n three weeks, now.  He'd be slowing up.

Scott tried all four of the guns they'd brought out to the barn.  He was good, better than Johnny had expected.  He'd known Scott was more than fair with a rifle, pretty damn good in fact.  Scott had a good eye with a handgun too, and he hit what he was aiming at.  But he took too long setting up each shot, sighting carefully down the barrel before pulling the trigger.  Whatever speed he'd had when he was in that war of his, he'd lost in the years since, when he stopped needing to be sudden to stay alive and lived in a place where a man could go unarmed.  He needed to be faster than that, out here.  Johnny chewed on his hat's stampede straps.  How loud would Murdoch yell if Johnny offered Scott some lessons? 

Scott decided on the Smith and Wesson Russian in the end, although he kept looking at the fancy Navy Colt like a man yearning after a long-legged saloon girl.

"Buy that one if you like it better."

"What?  No, this one feels right."  Scott picked up his new pistol.  "It's just a bit plain."

"Dandy."  And Johnny laughed, real soft, dodging the cuff Scott aimed at his head. 

"Here." Zimmermann handed Johnny the Walch.  "I've loaded it.  Give it a try."

Some folks'd do anything for a sale.  Johnny twirled the gun once or twice, feeling how it balanced as it moved.  It felt fine in the hand, the barrel maybe a little too long to suit him, but the balance was good.  The butt slapped into his palm and wouldn't need too much work to be moulded into the right shape; shorten the barrel a half-inch and it'd be nigh on perfect. 

The third time he twirled it, he started firing the instant the butt slapped into place, not going for speed and pulling back the double hammers with his thumb, not fanning it with his left hand.  The Walch settled into his hand like it had always been there.  He gave it one more twirl and nodded.

"It's a fine gun."

"Ja.  It needs more work, but I thought it would interest you."

"Show-off," murmured Scott. 

Johnny just grinned and handed the gun back to Zimmermann.  Probably didn't have enough on him right now for the Walch and he'd have to decide if he really wanted it.  It'd make a good second gun and the extra shots would give him one helluva edge.  And hell, a .36 in the gut stopped a man as dead as a .44 or .45. 
They followed the gunsmith back into his shop, where Scott agreed the price.  Thirty dollars wasn't bad for a brand new model; not here, anyway, where a man always paid more for new stuff brought out from the East.  Johnny and Zimmermann between them broke down Scott's new gun.  Johnny went over every part as if the gun were his. 

Scott watched them work.  "I appreciate the trouble you're taking, Johnny."

Johnny grinned.  "Don't want you in Boot Hill neither, brother."

That got him a smile and a nod.  "I can strip a gun and clean it, of course, but I've never attempted to take one to pieces before."

"You have to know what you're doing."  It was a good gun.  The loading lever needed some work to smooth it, and Zimmermann agreed to lighten the hammer action and the trigger a mite.  Otherwise, a good gun.  Johnny let the gunsmith gather up the parts. 

Zimmermann rewrapped Day's fancy Navy Colt to put it away.  "The Walch, Mister Madrid?".

"Put it on one side for me, while I think about it, okay?  I could do with a second gun.  If I do buy it, you'll need to make it over to suit me."

"I'd be honoured.  I'll do a deal on the price for you, too."  The gunsmith snickered.  "I'd like to tell Fred I kept it in the family."

Johnny grinned.  Zimmermann was a good man, good as his brother.  He turned to Scott.  "You’d best pick out a gun belt and holster while Mister Zimmermann works on your gun."

"Can't I just use the gun belt Murdoch lent me?"

"No.  Well, you can.  I wouldn't."  Johnny touched the belt that Echevarría had made him.  It had cost him a damn fortune and he'd been damned lucky to get it back after the trouble in Sonora.  He wasn't going to be poking his nose into other people's revolutions, ever again.  "Scott, the belt's almost as important as the gun.  You need one that's the right weight, and the leather needs to be supple so it hangs just right on you, moulds itself to you.  Sure, you ain't going to be standing out there in the street facing up to no gunhawk, but this is like any other tool.  You get the best you can."

Zimmermann was nodding as he set out the gun parts on his workbench behind the counter.  "Ja, that's right.  Yes, I mean." He waved a hand at the belts hanging on a rack on a side wall.  "All I have is there."

Scott looked at the rack and then at Johnny's belt.  "Where did you get yours?"

"Manuel Echevarría hand made it for me.  He's the best leatherworker in Mexico.  He learned his trade in Córdoba, back in Spain."

"A famous place for leather working."

"That's what Echevarría said.  Took me three months to earn enough to pay for it, and I'm an expensive gun to hire."

"You were an expensive gun.  You're a rancher now."  Scott's mouth twitched the way Murdoch's did when he was trying not to grin.  "A respectable rancher."

"Sure."  Johnny turned away and studied the rack.

Zimmermann had the belts ranked by price.  Johnny went straight to the expensive end and spent a few minutes checking them out.  He chose two, flexing them in his hands to make sure the leather was supple enough.  He made Scott try them both before shaking his head and returning to the rack.  The third belt was better: supple, but not so supple that the holster sagged on it, and the perfect width for the holster's loops.  He'd want to work on it for himself, but Scott wasn't a professional, after all.  The belt was well made from the best leather, the stitching was strong and even, and the leather would soon mould itself to Scott.  There were holes enough to get it on tight.  It was a good belt.  He made Scott wear it a little lower than he'd worn the borrowed one, although not as low as he wore his own.

"This one.  It's the best one."

Scott looked at the little label tied onto it with string.  His eyebrow went up.  Amazing how much the man could say just by moving his eyebrows.  Maybe there was a long word for that as well.  "At this price it ought to be."

"That was about the cost of my holster, Boston."

"Just the holster?  Good Lord.  Then you're right, I don't think I could afford your gun belt."

"You don't need to." 

"And it's Scott, remember."

"Sure, Boston.  I remember."  Johnny picked up the new belt while Scott huffed.  He sounded a lot like Murdoch when he did that.  "This is a good rig."

Zimmermann kept leather tools as well.  He handed Johnny a soft, rolled pouch.  "I don't do much leather tooling myself but it's easier to have the means handy to adjust a gun belt than send you over to the saddler's."

Yeah.  Some folks really liked to make a sale.  "Keeps all the profit here, too."

"Oh, ja!" Zimmermann just grinned and nodded, and went back to his workbench.  He looked real pleased with himself..

Johnny used an awl to make two small holes in the back of the stiff leather holster, near the bottom.  Threading a long rawhide string through the holes was a tricky job.  "¡Mierda!"

"Something wrong?"  Scott was grinning when Johnny looked up.  "I've not learned a lot of Spanish yet, Johnny-my-boy, but the hands were very good at teaching me how to swear.  They definitely have their priorities right."

"Maldiciones."   Johnny spoke clearly, for Scott's benefit.  He pushed his fingers into the holster to catch the end of rawhide to feed it back out through the second hole, until he had two long tails hung from the holster.  "It's just fiddly." 

"Rather you than me, then."

Johnny knotted each tail so the string couldn’t slip loose.  He slid the holster frog back onto the gun belt, fixed it into place, and handed it to Scott.  "The thong's so you can tie it around your leg.  It keeps the holster in place where you need it to be instead of it flapping about like a saloon gal's tongue."

Scott laughed.

"I'm serious about this, Scott.  I saw that you didn't tie the holster on that belt you borrowed from Murdoch.  Didn't it move around when you walked?"

"Sorry.  Yes, it did, a bit."

"Yeah, well that's not good.  If it's moving and you need to draw your gun, you could be a dead man ‘fore you can get your gun clear."  Johnny glanced over to where Zimmermann was reassembling Scott's new gun.  "Look, you're a good shot.  You need to take less time setting up a shot, though.  I need to start practisin’ again.  Cipriano told me about a small box canyon a couple of miles from the house that he figured I could use.  Ride out with me tomorrow and I'll—" He stopped.  Scott might not want lessons from a gunhawk.  'Specially a gunhawk he wasn't sure of.

And Scott wasn't sure, not yet.  Johnny got that considering look again, a long minute before Scott nodded. 

"Thank you, Johnny.  I appreciate that."

"Just make sure you do, Boston, cause Murdoch's gonna yell so loud they'll hear him in Stockton."

"Scott.  Not Boston.  Scott."

"Oh, pay for your gun, big brother, and stop worrying about what folks call you.  It's just a name.  You can buy me a box of bullets while you're at it.  Call it my fee for today."

"I thought you said you were an expensive gun to hire.  What's one box of bullets?  Family rate?"

Johnny turned away.  "Make the most of it.  I'm not always this generous."


Dios, would Scott never stop talking?  Johnny spun on his heel, grinning.  "Whoo-ee, Scott!  We've got you a gun and you almost ain't a tenderfoot no more.  Wonder if Teresa talked the Old Man into buying her a hat?"

Scott looked kinda disappointed.  "Sure, Johnny.  Let's go and see."

Damn it. 

And he still hadn't got his beer.
Chapter Four

When it came to shooting lessons for Scott, Murdoch surprised Johnny by not yelling at all. 

He looked up from those damn ledgers that he spent so much time on.  "Why?"

Damned if Johnny knew what Murdoch was going to think.  He blew hot and cold, and never the same two in a row.

Johnny perched on a corner of Murdoch's desk and played with a big glass paperweight, tossing it from hand to hand.  Teresa was putting a celebratory supper together with Maria.  Scott was Dios knew where.  Talking to someone somewhere about something, probably; but only talking through his hat when he wanted to. 

"He has to learn, Murdoch, if he's stayin' out here."

"There's a lot you can help him with.  He needs to learn to rope cows and put up fences, to tame horses and drive cattle.  He can help you learn the business side." Murdoch sighed.  "But I've been thinking about it, and I suppose you're right and we need to teach him how to use a gun, too."

"He can already use a gun.  He's pretty good with it, too.  I just aim to show him how to use one better, not like an Eastern cavalryman but the way a man needs to use a gun out here.  He's a good shot, but he hasn't carried a gun since that war he was in."

"I never touched a gun until I came to America, did you know that?  Back in Scotland, nobody carries guns the way they do here."

Where the hell was Scotland?  Was that where Murdoch was from?  "Like in Boston.  Scott told me." 

"Yes.  Like in Boston." 

Johnny tossed the paperweight high, watching it spin and flash in the lamplight.  He caught it one-handed, grinning as he watched Murdoch tense up and then relax.  Before the old man could grumble at him, he said, "Where's Scotland?  Is that where Scott's name comes from?  Where you're from?"

Murdoch's mouth shut with a snap, like a trap closing on a grizzly.  It was so tight his lips whitened.  "Didn't she—?  Your mother… didn't she tell you anything?"

Johnny studied the paperweight for a minute, turning it in his hands.  It was full of twists of colour; red and green, blue and yellow.  It was a pretty thing, though a stone would have done the job just as well.  He put the glass globe down on Murdoch's papers, real careful, and stood up.  "So, you're okay about Scott coming out with me tomorrow to do some shootin'?"

Murdoch gave him a long look, like he was trying to see right down into Johnny's insides.  What was it with him and Scott, both measuring up a man all the time like this?  "Yes.  I can't think of anyone better qualified to help Scott get used to carrying a gun again."

"It's what I do best, Old Man."  And ain't that the truth.

"Yes.  I'm glad…  " He stopped. 

"Fine."  Johnny flashed him a grin.  "Think I'll go and see what's for supper.  See you later, Murdoch."

"Yes."  But before Johnny could get out of the room, Murdoch called after him.  "Johnny?"

"Yeah?"  Johnny paused in the doorway.

"Scotland's on the other side of the world.  I can show you on the globe, if you like.  I left there when I was about Scott's age to make a new life for myself, to make my own way.  My ship docked in Boston, where I met Scott's mother.  His name comes from a very great Scottish author.  All the books are on the shelves there, if ever you want to look at them.  You're half-Scottish, half-Mexican, Johnny, and that's probably not a common combination."

Mama had never said anything about Scotland.  Mama had never said anything much.  We weren't good enough, querido,  so we had to go.  It doesn't matter.  He doesn't matter anymore.  We have your Papa now—he will never make us leave.  He nodded, almost feeling Murdoch's eyes on him. 

"What you did today, Johnny, at the lawyer's office… well … .  Well."

Johnny put up one hand on the door stanchion.  His ears buzzed and he ducked his head down, shaking it to clear it.  Just ahead of him, at the end of the passage, Maria came out of a storeroom tugging a sack of flour behind her.

"Yeah."  He pushed away from the stanchion and went to help Maria with the flour.
The box canyon Cipriano had told him about was nigh on perfect.  It wasn't too big.  He could leave Barranca ground tied near the entrance and no one could come up on him without him knowing.  Perfect.  He set up the cans he'd begged from Maria onto a big boulder with a flattish top.

He looked Scott over and made him untie his holster and empty his gun.  "Draw your gun."

Scott did as he was told.  Johnny could almost feel it himself, the way the leather clung to the gun like a saloon girl hanging onto a man's wallet.

"Feel it?  The holster's trying to come along with the gun.  Slows you right down."

"Yes.  Yes, I can now I know what to look for.  I see how that could be risky."

"When it comes to gunplay, we aren't talking even seconds to get your gun clear.  A holster like that could get you killed.  Okay.  Now tie it as tight as you can get it without it cutting into your leg.  It needs to sit there snug and tight."

"It feels awkward."

"Yeah, it will for a few days.  You'll get used to it.  Try pulling the gun again, but don't try for fast, but for smooth.  Feel the difference." 

Scott grinned and nodded.  "It is much smoother.  The holster's staying put."

"Yeah."  Johnny stepped back and studied Scott's gun belt.  "You need to fasten that belt tighter."

"Surely it's tight enough?"

"Nope.  Breathe in and hold it, and pull the buckle in another hole."

Scott followed orders real well.  Must come from him being in the cavalry.  He blew out the breath.  "It's too tight, now."

"You'll get used to that, too.  Mine's tighter."

Scott snorted.  "Along with those fancy pants of yours, brother."

Johnny laughed.  "I never had any complaints about my pants."

"Not from the ladies, perhaps." 

"Specially not from the ladies.  All right, let's take one more look at you." 

Scott struck a pose, one hand on his hip and the other flung out, grinning.

"Oh, you are pretty!"  Johnny went to stand behind Scott, real close, and reached for Scott's gun.  Even with the inch or two of height Scott had on him, that still wasn’t working.  "That holster's still not right.  Take the rig off for a minute."

Lucky he'd brought his leather-working tools.  He pulled the drawstring pouch from inside his shirt.  He'd had it a long, long time, from a time so far in his past he sometimes couldn't remember what it was like being a kid with Mama there and Edgardo Madrid, before everything got turned upside down and he was on his own.  The pouch was about all he had left.  Still, the past was dead and gone: the old man had said so, that first day.  He'd barked out orders and offered them drinks and said stuff that didn't make no sense, that didn't gel with what Mama had said… .  The past didn't matter to the old man, and it wouldn't have to matter to anyone else because the old man calls the tune. 

"Did you borrow those from Zimmermann?"

"These are mine.  I like working with leather, when I get the chance." 

"May I?"  Scott picked up the pouch and gave it the same long look he'd been giving Johnny for days.  "Did Indians make it?"

"Kumiai.  They range up and down the coastline, clear down into Mexico.  They're mostly peaceful.  Not that many of them left, these days." 

"It's seen some service."  Scott handed the pouch back.

Johnny shook the tools out onto his bandanna, spread on the cañon floor, holding the pouch with careful hands.  Most of the beads were gone from the fringe now.  The tanned buckskin was soft and warm against his fingers, the way it had been the day he'd dodged his Mama's clutchin' hands and pretended he didn't hear her frightened "Juanito!", and had gone skittering out of the house to watch Edgardo barter with a band of wandering Kumiai.  Papa had been squatting on the ground in front of the old woman who led the band, talking.  He'd looked up at Johnny and held out a hand to pull him close.  He'd smiled, his eyes crinkling up against the sun.

It had been a good day.  A damned good day.

"Johnny?" And damn it, but Scott was turning that look Johnny's way again.

"I've had it a long time.  Got it from a family band; no warriors, just a couple of squaws wizened up by the sun, and a few kids." Johnny huffed out a laugh and reached for the holster.  "The sun's always hot in Baja California and they looked so dried out that they must have rattled in the breeze.  The old squaw – reckon she was the abuela, the grandmamma – took a fancy to me."  Johnny fingered the beads threaded around his wrist.  When the old squaw had tied them there, they'd gone twice around his skinny kid's wrist.  They fit better now.  He grinned.  "All the ladies love me."

He checked again, then bored a hole in the leather holster frog that was above and to the left of the existing holes. 

Scott watched him.  "I saw some Indians on the trip over, on the plains somewhere.  One of the men on the train said they were Crow."

"They run a bit north of my range.  Had a run in with the Chiricahua once over in Arizona.  They're Apache.  They're warriors to the bone, like the Crow.  Worse, maybe."

"They were different.  I'd never seen anything like them."

"Uh-huh.  They can be real dangerous."

"The man kept his rifle ready," nodded Scott.  "I thought… I thought it was a matter of some regret that we can't reach some accommodation with them.  It always ends in fighting."

"Well, Boston, that's in the Code of the West, too.  It's dog eat dog.  We want their land, so they have to go.  They'll fight every inch, but they'll go."

Scott sighed.

"Hand me the belt."  Johnny fastened the holster to its frog.  It didn’t hang straight now, but tipped backwards a bit.  That looked about right.  He threaded the gun belt through the frog loops and handed the rig back to Scott.  "Here you are.  As tight as you can get it, remember."

Scott grumbled as he obeyed.   "I don’t know why Murdoch bothered to have that clause put in the agreement.  At this rate, he needn't expect grandchildren.  I tell you, this is so tight it's going to cut off all the circulation to places I'm not going to mention even to you.  Nothing's going to be working."

"Everything I have works just fine, brother, and my rig's tighter."  Johnny laughed and Scott grinned at him, just like any other amigo would.  The holster looked just right now.  "That looks better."

"It's not as low as yours."

"Ain't ever going to be.  Wearing your rig this low, Scott, well that's the sign of the professional.  I need to draw, and the gun slaps straight into my hand, see?"  Scott jumped when Johnny drew.  Johnny let the grin widen.  Scott saw, all right.  "You wear it like this and folks'll think you're a gunfighter, and every kid from here to Texas will want to try and take you on."

"That is amazingly fast, Johnny.  I could barely see it."  Scott finished tying down his holster.  "All right.  If I understand you correctly, wearing your gun like that is a warning sign, but also tells everyone that you're fast with a gun.  That has almost to invite people to take you on.  Why keep wearing it that way if you're serious about giving it up and becoming a rancher?  Maybe then every kid from here to Texas would leave you alone."

"I'd be dead.  I only know how to draw this way.  If I change how I draw, then I'll be too slow.  I can't just walk away from this game, Scott; there'll always be someone who'll try to make their name outa taking mine.  And yeah, having the gun this low is a warning.  Keeps a few drunks and kids away, anyway, and lets other gunhawks know I can use this."  Johnny let the gun twirl on his finger and holstered it, real smooth.  Maybe it was time to answer some of those questions Scott had never actually asked him.  "The other day, I told you that I strapped this gun on to stop people throwing down on me because I'm a mestizo and that both sides throw down on someone who's mixed.  Remember?" 

Scott nodded.

"I picked up the gun to stay alive, Scott, and to get out from under the shit people piled on me.  They stopped beatin' up on me and walked small.  They left me alone.  That's all I wanted.  But the other thing is that using a gun's a trade, like any other way for a man to make his living.  I'm pretty damn good at it.  Better than most." 

Scott looked at him for a minute, his face serious, and those pale eyes missed nothing.  All this measuring and considering was getting pretty damned old.  "And range wars, like the one here with Pardee?  Where do they fit into this trade of yours?"

Yeah.  That was one question Scott must have been measuring and considering for a good long time. 

Johnny shrugged.  "Sam and Murdoch were right when they said there ain't much law out here."  He drew his gun again.  "This is about the only law there is.  So when folks get into fights, this is what settles it.  If you're goin' into a big fight, Boston, you take the best you can in with you so it gets settled the way you want it.  So they hire people like me."

"To frighten the opposition."  Scott paused.  "Among other things."

He had to be thinking of what Day's men did to Gaspar and Maria.  Made a man sick inside to see it.  Day had been a mean cuss at best.  Real mean, like a rattler, and just as deadly.  Might have known that was what was stickin' in Boston's craw.  Hell, it stuck in his.  Boston had done a good job of dealing with it, so far, but he couldn't be blamed for wonderin'.

"Among other things."  Johnny reholstered his gun.  "Gunfightin' ain't illegal, Boston.  I'm not wanted by the law, except maybe by the rurales, and that don't count.  I'm not a back shooter.  I don't bushwhack folks.  I've never hurt a woman or a child.  I shoot straight.  The trick in a gun fight is to let the other man make the first move and still beat him to the draw, and never to miss.  That's what I do and I won't hide that.  I'm proud of bein' good at my trade."

"And Day Pardee, was he proud of his trade?"

"He was good at it."

Scott nodded.  " I see."  He took a deep breath.  "I've been thinking about it.  A lot."

"I know."

Scott nodded again and took a few steps away, turning his back to Johnny.  Johnny blew out a soft, quiet sigh.  Took him long enough to ask and nothing now to do but wait.  After a few minutes, Johnny sat down on a rock, looking down at his boots and scuffing a pattern in the dust.

Scott didn't turn around.  "I keep telling myself that it's different here and that maybe morality isn't as immutable as I thought.  I never expected to be in this situation again, where I have to go armed to stay alive."  There was something sad in his voice.  "And do things that I may later come to regret."

"The war?"

Scott nodded.  "There were things…"  He stopped, shook his head.  "You do things in war that at other times would repel you... that do repel you, and remorse just isn’t enough.  I did things….  I thought I'd left all that behind.  I have to keep telling myself that this isn't Boston."

"Yeah?  And are you listenin'?"

Scott made that funny hmphing sound that was like Murdoch, only less like he was mad and more like he was almost laughing.  "I'm trying."  He turned around to face Johnny.  He didn't look mad, or anything.  "I don't know what to think about it, really.  You aren't what I'd have expected from the newspaper reports and the dime novels." 

"Those dime novels are a pile of shit."

"I remember you said so, when I read that one to you."  Scott shook his head.  He took a deep breath.  "So, what are we going to do today?"

"You want to go on with this?"

"I want to stay here in California, at least for a while, and see if we can make a go of this, you and me and Murdoch.  If I'm going to stay then there are things I have to learn.  Handling cattle is one thing; handling a gun is another.  As you say, it's the only law around here right now."  Scott paused.  "You'll excuse me if I say that I hope that changes one day, and soon, even if it means everyone in your former trade goes out of business altogether."

Johnny shrugged.

"And if I am going to learn how to use a gun, western style, I can't ask for anyone better to teach me, can I?  So what are we going to do first and why did you make me empty my gun?"

"You want to shoot a hole in your foot while you're practising your draw, you go right ahead.  Only you get to explain why to Murdoch.  I'll be too busy laughing."  Johnny let his shoulders relax and stood up.

Scott's grin was twisted.  "Of course."

"It's called bein' slow on the draw but too fast on the trigger.  You start your draw, your finger starts pullin' on the trigger, the gun catches up on the holster, say, and stops momentarily and the trigger finger keeps going."  Johnny grinned.  "If you're lucky it'll be your foot.  There was this hombre I knew once, tried practising his draw with a loaded gun.  Shot himself in a real bad place.  Let's just say he could sing real high after that, and Murdoch wouldn't be expecting grandchildren."

Scott let out a bark of laughter that might even be real.  "That brings tears to the eyes, just hearing about it.  So we're going to practice drawing the gun."

"And shooting the hell out of those tin cans later.  You sure you want to do this, Scott?" 

Scott nodded.  "Yes.  I'm sure."  He stood up straighter and said it again, this time like he meant it.  "I'm sure, Johnny."

"Fine."  Johnny eyed the way Scott stood.  "It's not just about pullin' the gun outa the holster.  It’s everything: how you move, how you stand, how you think.  You're standin' too stiff, too pokered up.  You ain't in the army now, you know.  No one's going to be shooting the hell out of you, just outa the cans, so relax.  Just stand easy on your feet, and drop your shoulders so you ain't so stiff.  Yeah, that's better.  Swing your hand and feel how it will slap up against the gun butt.  Do that a few times."  He watched, nodding.  The holster was in the right place now.

"I feel a little foolish doing this, you know." 

"Better a fool than dead."

"A very good point, Johnny.  You'd do well in a debating club, cutting straight to the chase."

"Well, it's important.  It's about—"  Johnny paused, seeking the right word. "Balance.  Bein' ready for anything.  Not lookin' for it, maybe, but bein' ready for it."

Scott nodded.

"Okay.  Swing your hand again, and this time let the gun just slide into your hand.  Your thumb should be up against the hammer spur, just right for pulling it back.  That cocks the gun as it comes out of the holster, and your finger'll be on the trigger, ready.  Got it?"

Scott grinned as the gun slid into his hand and came up, ready.  Johnny made him do it over and over for ten, fifteen minutes before he nodded and let him stop.  Not bad.  Really not bad for a dandy of an Easterner who hadn't had a gun in his hands for more'n five years.  He said so, and Scott grinned.

"Was it fast enough?"

Hell, no!  There was no way Johnny was going to let him go down that road. 

"Fast enough against a cowhand or a townsman on the prod?  Yeah, I reckon so.  It wasn't bad at all.  Enough to give you a good chance, anyways.  Fast enough against someone like Coley McHugh, say, or Day Pardee?  No.  Fast enough against someone like me?  Hell, no."

"Oh."  Scott's ears went red.

Johnny took a step towards him and put his hand on Scott's arm, blocking the next practice swing.  "Listen to me, brother.  There's a real difference between bein' fast, and bein' sudden.  Fast don't mean shit unless you can hit what you aim for and you're willin' to kill the man who's bracing you.  That matters more than bein' fast.  Too many hombres have been in so much of a hurry to make a fast draw, the man facing them who's cooler and more determined… well, the cards are more likely to fall his way than theirs, even if his gun clears leather slower."

Scott watched him steadily, his head cocked a little to one side.  Damned shame that he had to teach him this. 

"It's maybe not what you're used to, Scott, facing up to a man with a gun in your hand, so listen good.  You need to get to a place where you can draw, cock and fire without thinking about it, get faster on sighting and firing.  Then all you have to worry about is hitting what you aim for.  Well, from what I've seen, you've got a good eye so I ain't worried about that.  A few weeks' practice here and you'll be hittin' the target without bringing your gun up to aim down the sights.  You'll be shooting as soon as your gun's clear of the leather, like it's second nature."  Johnny paused.  "So that when it's a man, not a target, you're ready to do what you have to."

"I hope I never have to."

"This ain't Boston.  And there are a lot of men like Day Pardee." Johnny hesitated, then shrugged.  If he was going to stay here, Scott would have to face up to this.  "Aim for the gut, Scott.  You might not kill the man, but you sure as hell will stop him.  He's not likely to be able to shoot back at you, rollin' around in the dust with lead eating his belly."

Scott winced.  "That's pretty ruthless, Johnny."

"Yeah, I am.  Hell, it's how a gunfighter thinks and lives, and makes sure he's the one who walks away."  Johnny watched the expression on Scott's face, and sighed.  Maybe that was too much for Scott, too much to take in right now.  "But then, we aren’t out here to make you into a gunfighter.  That's my trade, not yours."

"And you're very good at it."

Johnny looked at him steadily, this stranger from the East who was his brother.  Scott was smart and capable, so honest that it took Johnny's breath away, and he knew a lot.  But he didn't know everything, and what he didn't know could get him killed.  Not if Johnny could help it though.  Scott was all right.  He deserved a chance.

He smiled.  "I'm the best there is, Scott."

Scott didn't smile back.  But he did nod, his face solemn, like he was in church.



Frederick Zimmermann


Part Two: Preparations