Diamond by goldieasj

Word Count – 23,228

Some clouds today, fewer than lately.  The yesterdays were full of clouds, billowing dark vapors crowding the sky that touched down hard on Scott Lancer – letting him know that his world was very dark.

And then it had finally rained.

In Scott’s heart.

Today the clouds were white.  Scott never moved from the window, never moved at all, when the door to his bedroom opened.  Instinctively he knew it was his father.  “Murdoch,” he said without emotion.

“Wondering if you’d like some breakfast.”

Back to the mundane activities of everyday life.  Back to the breakfasts, and the chores, and the planning for the future, and the family . . .

“Son?”

“I expect so.”  Scott dropped the curtains and turned to face his father.

“You didn’t sleep well, did you?”

“No.  Did you?”

Murdoch sighed.  He sat on the bed and indicated his son should sit next to him.  “Want to talk about it?”

“No.  What’s done is done.  There’s nothing to talk about.”  Scott didn’t want to, but something made him sit next to his father.  Maybe he did really want to.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind?”  Murdoch’s tone was gentle and calming.

“It doesn’t matter, Murdoch.  It was the best thing to do.  We couldn’t have known how it would end.”  And as an afterthought, “And now it’s over and past.  So it doesn’t matter anymore, does it?”

Dismayed by Scott’s anguish, Murdoch watched him closely.  “There is nothing in this world that is worth the death of a son of mine!”

Scott closed his eyes.  “And for just forty-four cows,” he said.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

“Forty-four head of cattle,” Murdoch Lancer had said two weeks earlier.  “Out of fifteen hundred, you think that’s not a very significant number?”

“Not really,” Johnny answered.

Murdoch turned on him.  “But it’s significant to me!  We’re not in the business here of distributing charity to thieves!”

“So that’s what we’re talking about here – thieves?” Scott asked.

“Of course that’s what I’m talking about,” Murdoch boomed.  “Forty-four head don’t just wander off by themselves.  Not when there’s a full contingent of hands and an experienced drover to herd them just two hundred miles!”

“You could let it go,“ Johnny suggested.

“That’s right, Murdoch,” Scott added without much hope.  “It’s only around three or four percent.”

Murdoch turned on him ferociously.  “Only three or four percent?!  How about if I dock your pay three or four percent and you see if you have the same attitude!  The two of you and every hand who works here.  How much of a ranch do you think we’d have left?”

Scott sighed.  “Well, what are you suggesting?”

Murdoch glared at his sons for a moment before pouring himself another drink and sitting in his armchair.  Both Scott and Johnny got the impression he was well aware of what he was going to say but trying to find a way to break it to them gently.  When he did speak, his anger was kept under wraps. 

“I couldn’t spare either of you for the drive last month as you know,” he explained tersely.  “Perhaps if either of you had gone along, this would never have happened.  But the point is – it did happen.  Somewhere between this ranch and the final count twelve days later, forty-four head of cattle disappeared in the Valley.  I don’t for a second suspect any of my men . . . “

“You’re right, Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted, “they’re all good men.”

“And I’ve known many of them longer than you have, Johnny.  There are always strays, but never this many,  No, this was thieves, plain and simple.  They most likely struck at night, purging a few head here and there.  Possibly riding alongside the herd the whole way.  Waiting for opportunities.”  He set down his drink and stood to his full height.  Scott stood as well.  “And now it stops,” Murdoch said decisively.

“Meaning .  .  .?”

“I want the two of you to find these cattle thieves.  I want you to go to Sacramento and start backtracking – the entire length of the trail if you must – until you find some clues to lead you to these men.  I want you to watch people, interview them, ask questions, look for evidence, find indications of just who might be involved.  Most likely individuals but possibly rival ranches.  Then I want you to take it to the law.”

“Oh, come on, Murdoch,” Scott protested.  “We’ve got plenty to do right here.  It’s only a few head!  We can afford the loss!  This is a waste of our time!”

When Murdoch had said “Sacramento,” Johnny’s attitude suddenly changed.  “Wait a minute, Scott,” Johnny said quietly.  “I think I understand what Murdoch’s getting at.  Murdoch, you’re afraid this is just the beginning, aren’t you?”

“That’s right.  Someone no doubt has the misguided belief that we will either not realize we’ve suffered a loss, or else take the attitude that it is insignificant enough to ignore.  This will give them the incentive to strike again;  and next time it might be quite a few more head.  This could also affect friends at other large ranches in the Valley as well, boys.  Cattle rustlers are the scourge of honest hard-working ranchers.  It must stop!”

Johnny stood slowly.  “Well, Scott?  You with me?”

Scott hesitated.  “I’m not convinced it’s . . . I don’t know . . . Murdoch, do you really think Johnny and I can make a difference?”

“I’m sending my sons because there is no one better for this job and because I have more faith in the two of you than anyone I’ve ever known!  But, be careful – these men might turn out to be quite bold.  Maybe deadly.”

Johnny shook his head ‘yes.’

–  –  –  –  – 

It wasn’t long after they had embarked on their journey that Scott made his brother smile.  “I was thinking, Johnny, that we could turn this into a vacation.”

“Nothing like a cattle drive that doesn’t include cattle, right?”

Scott laughed.  “Exactly.  Here we are re-tracing the exact steps Frank and the hands took, only they had to tend to fifteen hundred head . . . “

“Fourteen hundred and . . . fifty-six!”

Scott laughed again. 

Johnny continued, “And when you think about it, that’s a lot of steps!  Let’s see – eleven men, and they each have two feet!  And fourteen hundred and fifty-six head, and they all have four feet.  And, of course, there’s the horses the men were riding, and the chuck wagon horses, and the remuda . . .  How many feet does that total up to?”

“Uh . . . five thousand nine hundred twenty-two!”

“And each one of them walking these two hundred miles . . . how many steps in each mile, Scott?”

Scott laughed happily.  “Millions!  Billions!”

Johnny chuckled.  “I knew I could count on my college brother for the answer!  Scott, we’d better watch where we’re going – with all that action right before us, we’ll be lucky if the ground doesn’t cave in!”

“There is a certain illogical logic in that,” Scott smiled.

They rode in silence for a minute, then Scott said, “Having you along will make this job a lot easier, Johnny.”

“Oh yeah?  How so?”

“Well . . . I suppose, due to things like the conversation we just had.”

“You mean my illogical logic?”

Scott smiled and looked down.  “Yes.  And a lot more.  It’s just . . . nice . . . to have some time together.”

Johnny had been watching his brother the whole time.  Now he smiled and looked down.  “I’m glad you’re along, too, Scott.”

For a few miles they rode in silence, each lost in his own thoughts.  After a while, Scott said, “I wonder what Murdoch meant when he said to look for clues on the trail.”

“I don’t know.  But I’m not planning on doing that.”

“What do you mean?  Murdoch said . . . “

“Murdoch wants us to find the rustlers and take them to the law.  That’s what I plan on doing.”

“But how?  If you don’t . . .”

“My plan is to head toward the endpoint, but stop short.  At a town called Vallefrio.  Probably no need to go all the way to the end.”

“Why?”

Johnny hesitated a little.  “Oh, I don’t know, brother.”

Scott knew his brother was hesitant to say anything more.  He decided to let it drop and could have kicked himself when he found himself saying, “Sure you do, Johnny.”

Johnny glanced at him before looking straight ahead again.  “Sure you want to know?” he drawled.

“Can’t get your back if I don’t.”  Scott tried to keep it light.

“It’s a bad place, Scott.  Like that mining town where we ‘rescued’ Melissa Harper.  They will be just about as happy to see us in Vallefrío.”

“You think this town is involved?”

Johnny looked straight ahead again.  “I don’t know, Scott.  I got no special sight.  Just common sense.”

“You’ve been there?”

“Yeah, I’ve been there,” Johnny sighed.  Scott knew the conversation had ended.

–  –  –  –  –

This day was much cooler than it had been lately.  Both brothers pulled their jackets tighter when the wind began to pick up.  Clearly rain was in the offing.  Scott checked the back of his saddle for his rain slicker, happy to see he’d remembered to bring it.  Johnny, he noticed, had not thought to bring his along.  Scott idly wondered if Johnny had decided it wasn’t necessary or simply forgotten. 

He’d chosen not to bring it, Scott decided with a little smile.  In looking back, Scott realized he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he’d seen Johnny protect himself from the weather.  “It’s just rain!” Johnny always said.  Scott shook his head.  That brother of his!  Not much bothered him.  Not rain, or snow, or mud, or sticking briars, or finicky cows, or bucking horses, or gunshot wounds . . .

And there’d been plenty of those, Scott knew.  He himself had seen Johnny shot.  And he knew Johnny had sustained other gunshot wounds before the two of them had even met.  Maybe long before . . .

Johnny Madrid.  Gunfighter.  Gunshot wounds an occupational hazard.  Scott lost his smile and studied his brother.  Johnny appeared to be resting lazily in the saddle, but Scott knew better.  He knew Johnny was on the alert, always keeping watch on his surroundings in case danger lurked.  An occupational necessity. 

Scott reflected on the dangers in his own history.  When the war had ended, no one shot at him anymore.  Peace newly reigned in his life, and it was a welcome respite from the violence.  Scott Lancer might have been a military man for a while, but he was Scott Lancer again.

But you didn’t stop being a Madrid once you became a Lancer.  This weighty thought, often occurring to Scott and actually enhancing his love for his brother, was sharply evident now as he watched Johnny ride along.  Johnny was alert.  Alert to danger.

Unexectedly, Johnny said, “We’ll camp here for the night.”

Forgoing his desire to point out that they were probably only about five miles from Vallefrio and should spend the night in a comfortable hotel, Scott followed Johnny as he rode Barranca far off the road into the brush.

–  –  –  –  –

“What’s on your mind, brother?”  The campfire, low by now, was still crackling occasionally.  It was hard to tell which were sparks and which were fireflies.  The rain had not materialized but the night was cloudy and cool.

“You know what’s on my mind, Johnny.”  Scott poured a little whiskey into his brother’s coffee.

Johnny nodded thanks.  Scott returned to the log he was sitting on.  “And thanks for the idea of laced coffee;  I doubt I’d have thought of that.”

Johnny nodded again.  “Ask your question.”  His lazy drawl did not mislead his brother;  Scott knew he was alert and tense.

From his position, Scott threw more twigs on the fire.  “You don’t fool me, Johnny.”

Johnny smiled.  “Maybe I’m not trying to.”

“Why are we here?  Camping five miles from town.  We could be staying in Vallefrio in a hotel tonight.”

Johnny’s smile disappeared and he sat upright. He stared at his brother for a minute, then at his coffee mug.  “Who do you figure owns Green River, brother?”

“Who owns the town?  I expect the people who have taken deeds and mortgages on the various properties.”

“What about Modesto?”

“I think I see what you’re getting at, Johnny.  Are you saying Vallefrio is owned by someone in particular?”

“Lock, stock and barrel.”

“Anyone I know?”

“No.  Someone I know, though.”  He took a swig of his spiked coffee and let it sink in for a minute.  “If there’s trouble, I’m thinking it started there.”

“Not if!  There has been trouble.  Go on.”

“Man named Diamond.  Dan Diamond.”

“Well,” Scott said lightly.  “At least I never heard of him.”

“Nah, you wouldn’t.  Keeps in the shadows.  He’s rich, though.  He’s an asshole, too.”  Johnny’s voice was soft but Scott knew his brother well enough to detect a small tone change.  A signal of anger, maybe very strong anger.

Scott took a drink of his coffee and let the alcohol and his brother’s words sink in.  “And you want us to go to this town.  Why?”

“Like I said.  I’m just thinking that if there’s trouble, that’s where it started.”

This time Scott didn’t correct his brother.  He spent a moment considering the situation.  A town owned by one man.  Could be an exaggeration on Johnny’s part, or he could even simply be wrong.  One thing was crystal-clear, though:  Johnny didn’t like this Dan Diamond.  And somehow at some point Johnny had managed to make contact with a powerful man who kept a very low profile.  Apparently not a good contact.  Scott’s protective big-brother instincts kicked in, the first of many times in the next few days.  “Perhaps it would be best to simply avoid Vallefrio and backtrack all the way to . . .”

“Can’t!  I’m thinking that’s . . .”

“ . . . where the trouble started.  I get it.  Just how powerful is this Diamond?”

“He owns the town, Scott.  Maybe not really owns it, but he sure as hell owns everybody who lives in it!  They’re loyal as hell to him.  He’s good to them and they bow and scrape to him.”  Johnny hesitated.

“And?”

“And they don’t let a little thing like the law get in their way.”  Johnny threw his coffee in the fire.  It flared up briefly.

“Uh . . . Johnny . . . exactly what kind of dealings did you have with this man?”

Johnny shrugged and headed for his bedroll.  “I’m still alive to talk about it.  So far so good.  Time we got some sleep, Scott.  Big day tomorrow.”

–  –  –  –  –  –

Although his brother seemed to sleep well, Scott found himself waking every few minutes.  When dawn came, he had already been up for a while and had breakfast ready when Johnny first stirred.

“What’s your plan?” Scott attacked his brother immediately. 

Johnny yawned.  “Plan?  My plan is to head in the bush over there for a minute.”

“Come on, Johnny, what are we going to do?”

“You’re going to have to wait a minute, brother.  Don’t forget I’m human.”  And he disappeared.

“I try not to,” Scott replied sarcastically.  He thought about his brother being human.  But his brother was also Johnny Madrid, and was he as human as Johnny Lancer?  No doubt Johnny’s contact with this Dan Diamond had been back in his gunslinging days or Scott would have known about it.  Something had happened.  It wasn’t anything good, that was obvious – but both Johnny and Dan Diamond were apparently still alive.  Scott had been consumed with curiosity all night and he wanted answers.

When Johnny headed back in to their clearing, Scott attacked again.  “Come on, Johnny, let me know what’s going on in your head!”

Johnny laughed.  “That bacon you’re cooking!  I could smell it way over there.”  He grabbed a fork and reached for the pan.

But Scott was too fast for him and pulled the pan away.  “No bacon!  No bacon until I get some answers!”

Johnny made a face.  “All right, brother – you drive a hard bargain.  Here, put some bacon and a couple muffins on this plate and I’ll tell you the whole story.”

Scott chuckled as he handed Johnny a plate.  “Want some beans, too?”

“You got beans?  Hell, yes, brother!”  Johnny took his full plate back to a log and sat to eat his breakfast.  “Only a crazy man would withhold food from a gunfighter,” he said with his mouth full.

“What can I plead?  I was desperate!”  They both laughed and ate silently for a moment.

Soon they had finished and Johnny poured them both some coffee.  He sat back down and sighed.  “It’s not a pretty story, Scott, but I’ll tell it.  This happened two or three years before I came back to Lancer.  I went wherever my jobs took me, and I was summoned to Vallefrio.”

“By this Diamond?”

“Yeah.  Or one of his thugs.  Diamond was second-generation in the town.  From what I heard, his father was a more reasonable man.  But Dan – he sure as hell wasn’t.  His daddy had passed on, and Dan had ambitions – he wanted to take over the whole town.  He already owned half of it – had people paying him what he called rent.  Wasn’t just rent, though.  More like . . . what’s that word?”

“They paid him extortion money?” 

“Yeah, that’s it.  But he wanted even more.  He wanted a couple things.  For one, he wanted everybody and not just some folks paying him.  And he also demanded loyalty.”

“Loyalty,” said Scott thoughtfully.  “How did that work out for him?”

“At that time, not as good as he wanted.  I bet it’s a lot different now.  Things were starting to turn when I left.  Well, like I said, he called me in.  Said he wanted me to ‘tame’ a couple people.  One guy was the saloonkeeper and he was outspoken against Diamond.  He was number one on Diamond’s list.  This guy was a jerk and Diamond was good to me and so I went to the saloonkeeper and it was easy threatening him.  It didn’t end in gunplay – he left town.  But the other guy – the other guy was the preacher!”

“Diamond wanted you to kill the preacher?”  Scott had trouble believing it.

“Exactly.  ‘Get rid of the preacher.  He preaches against me in church.’  That’s what he said.  He wanted me to kill the guy!”

“Uh . . . did you?”

“No, of course not.  Job or no job.  I went and talked to him, though.  I was planning on pressuring him, lying, whatever I had to do to get him to leave town.  But he and his wife sat me down and gave me sourdough muffins – just like these . . .”  Johnny chuckled.  “ . . . and they told me about how nice the town had been when Diamond Sr. had been around, before Diamond Jr. got all high and mighty.  He said the town was becoming corrupt.  The Diamond family was rich and they could own a lot – legitimately – but Junior there took it a whole lot of steps further and decided to intimidate everyone into bowing down to him.”

“I see. What method did he use?”

“Well, I asked the preacher that.  Diamond was nice to people at first, and that’s always part of it, and whenever they needed money he’d lend them some, or if they needed help, he’d send some of his men to help them, that kind of thing.  He was buying them off.  He won their loyalty that way.  But there were those who couldn’t be bought, and for them he hired guns.”

“Guns?”

“People like me.  A show of power.  But I wasn’t the only one, Scott, not by a longshot.  No, but I was the only one who stood up to Diamond!”

Scott set down his coffee.  “I see,” he said slowly.

“I took his front pay and I scared off the saloonkeeper and a couple more folks, but once I talked to that preacher, suddenly it all felt just . . . wrong!  My gut had been kicking me since I met Diamond but the preacher put into words why.”

Scott shook his head.  “Diamond was good to people at first and unless he felt they financially appreciated it appropriately, he was the cause of something bad happening to them.”

“That’s the words, all right.  So I decided I’d cut my ties with him and with the town.  But before I could tell him, one of his other hawks took out the guy.”

“You mean the preacher was killed after all!  That’s incredible!”

“Yeah, he was.  At night.  They kidnapped him from the church when he was in there alone writing a sermon or something, and they took him out of town and killed him.  It looked like he had been driving his wagon and it went off the road, rolled over on him and killed him right away, but I knew better.  His wife was scared.  She told me she had been planning on bringing him a late supper and he knew that, so he would never have left.  She was so scared.  After that . . . well, after that, I guess I knew the truth.  My gut stopped hurting me.  I knew what I had to do.”

“Oh, Johnny!”

“Yeah, I acted without thinking.  I’d know better now.  I went to his place and forced my way in and found him in his parlor.  He had two hawks with him, Eddie D’Arcy and Pitch Leander, and they stood on each side of him.  I knew them both and they were good.  I told Diamond I was quitting and I told him why.  He laughed, I remember he laughed, and then he took some money from his pocket and threw it at me.  He told me that was what he still owed me and even though I didn’t do my job, he was an honorable man.  That’s what he said!  That made me mad because he sure as hell wasn’t honorable.  And then he told me to get out and never come back.  He was wearing his gun and I thought about taking him down, but D’Arcy and Leander were right there.  And I could see they were thinking about downing me, but they knew my reputation.  It was tense.”

“A standoff.”

“Exactly.  So I picked up the money, and never took my eyes off the men, and then I threatened to kill Diamond someday for what he did to the preacher and then I backed out of the room.  I told him to remember my face because he’d see it again someday.  But no one died that day.”

“You were lucky.”

“Maybe.  Luck’s never been a big part of my life.  But I went over to the preacher’s house and his wife was packing a bag with her things.   She was scared and meant to leave right away.  I told her I would escort her safely out of town anywhere she wanted to go.  She knew how to ride so I saddled the preacher’s horse for her and we put her bag and a few small things on our saddles and we headed out.  Away from Vallefrio.  And I’ve never been back.”

“Where did you take her?”

“All the way down to Arizona Territory.  She had family there.  And from there I just headed on to Mexico.”

“And your threat?”

“Nothin’ ever came of it.  Tell you the truth, I forgot about it.  Until Murdoch mentioned about those cattle being stolen.  That’s the kind of illegal business that makes money for Diamond, always has.  My gut’s acting up again;  I have a real strong feeling he’s behind this.  Probably been doing it for a while lately;  we just found out because it was the first time Lancer was hit.  If Murdoch didn’t keep a good eye out, we might not have noticed missing forty-four head.”

Scott took a long breath.  “If you’re right, then we’ve got a real fight on our hands.  And it’s going to be next to impossible to prove he’s at the heart of it.”

“He is, Scott.  You can count on it.”

“We’re going to need a plan, Johnny.  Probably get the Sheriff involved.”

“I don’t usually rely on Sheriffs or deputies.  You know that, Scott.”

“Well, we’re still going to need a plan.”

“I’ve got one.  And it involves you riding into Vallefrio first because they don’t know you.  Once I ride in, all hell will break loose.”

–  –  –  –  –

Was it only yesterday that Scott told Johnny he was glad they were doing this together?!  Scott Lancer loved his brother but he had to admit that Johnny’s plan left a lot to be desired.  For one thing, there were quite a few loose ends.  Many of these could lead to bloodshed or even death.  Maybe Diamond’s.  Maybe Johnny’s, maybe his. 

Or something could go wrong and it would backfire on the good people of Vallefrio – the people, Johnny had convinced him, who really did not want to be under Diamond’s thumb.  Scott didn’t want anything to happen to them, either.  Unless, of course, Johnny was wrong and they were completely devoted to Diamond.  In that case, if they aided or abetted in crimes, they should be punished as well.

There were too many ifs, not enough facts.  Johnny couldn’t account for these.  He was a simple man in some ways, who sometimes saw things in black and white.  He had confidence that he would be able to face any situation with courage and intelligence.  When the time came, Johnny would be able to do whatever was necessary to “terminate” Diamond’s illegal activities.  At least where Lancer was involved.

Scott liked the generalities of the plan, but there weren’t many specifics.  He was on his own.  His confidence in his own abilities with a handgun did not equal his belief in his abilities with a rifle.  And he would be in a town, not a place conducive to rifle use if it came to that.  Johnny, on the other hand, was incredibly adept with a handgun.  And he could be a hothead, too.  A pistol with a pistol.

The first part of Johnny’s plan had Scott circling past Vallefrio and entering the town from the north.  A few extra hours’ ride that Scott felt had been unnecessary, but he grudgingly honored his brother’s plan.  As Scott checked into the Valley Hotel, he rued the fact that he had let his father talk him into coming and that he had let Johnny brainstorm the “plan.”  Way too much could go wrong.

–  –  –  –  –  –

After stabling his horse in back, Scott checked the hotel restaurant but it was a little too early to be open for the lunchtime diners.  A jaunt down the street revealed the same thing with the only other cafe.  He was hungry but willing to wait.  He headed across the street for the mercantile.  A glance at the sky made him wonder when the rains would start.

He tried on a couple pairs of gloves and settled on some tan leather ones.  The man who waited on him was not much of a talker, but Scott’s real reason for being there was to gather information.

“Nice town you got here,” Scott said as he paid.

“Yeah, nice.  Not my town, though,” the merchant said with a derisive snort.

Scott didn’t miss a beat.  “Oh?  Whose town is it then?”

“Ask anyone.  You’ll find out.”  The man handed Scott his change and then seemed to turn suspicious.  “You in town long?  Something bring you here?”

“No, not really.  Just traveling through.  Pretty place, though.  Might stay here a couple days to rest up before moving on.”

This seemed to relax the merchant a little.  “Well, enjoy it while you can.  If you need anything, I’m here most of the time.  Name’s Timmerman.  Folks call me Tim.”

“I’m Scott Garrett, Tim.  You’ll see me again.”  Scott gave Tim a half-salute as he left.  He looked toward the diner and someone had changed the ‘closed’ sign to ‘open’ so he headed in that direction.  As he walked he mused over his limited conversation with the shopkeeper.  The man had seemed reticent to talk until he discovered Scott only meant to be in town a few days.  Would there be a reason for that?

A lovely woman in her early 30s smiled widely as Scott entered the restaurant.  She seated him and handed him a menu.  Scott immediately endeared himself to her by setting the menu back on the table and saying, “Why don’t you bring me what you think is the best thing in the restaurant?”

“Pork chops with herbs and apples,” she said.  “And fresh sourdough and wax beans in butter.  I’ll be right back with them.”  She headed for the kitchen, leaving Scott alone with his thoughts. 

His thoughts at this point were vaguely positive ones about the town itself.  What he had seen so far was a verdant well-kept little town.  The shopkeeper hadn’t been friendly, and, for that matter, neither had the few people Scott had passed on the street.  The woman who waited on him in the restaurant, however, was a nice exception.  Her smile was comforting, so Scott decided asking her some of his questions would be a good idea.

When the woman returned with the food, Scott had to admit that it did indeed smell quite appetizing.  “It looks wonderful,” he said, and she beamed.  “There’s no one else in the diner.  Why don’t you sit down for a minute and keep me company?”

She seemed to like the idea and graced him with another smile, but this one wasn’t quite as bright.  “You just passing through?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yes, I am.  Name’s Scott Garrett.”  Scott held out his hand for her to shake. 

She gently took it.  “Hello.  I mean – nice to meet you.  I’m Elfie.”

“Elfie?  I’ve never heard that name before.”  Scott started in on the pork chops.  They were delicious.

“Short for Elfrea.  Means ‘magical.’  Or something like that, I guess.” 

“Well, Elfie, I think perhaps you were named for your enchanting beauty.”

She blushed and said, “Oh, stop now!”  Probably hoping he wouldn’t.

“Elfie, this food is delicious!  Did you cook this yourself?”

“Yes, but on weekends I have someone in to help cook.  Busier then.”

“You mean you usually run this place all by yourself?”  This surprised Scott.

“Yes.  My husband and I used to work this place together.  But he died a couple years ago at Christmastime, and I’m stuck here.  Can’t just abandon the place.  And, besides, I like it.”  Her voice tone had lowered a little.  Scott knew immediately that she had loved her husband and had a good life with him.  His untimely death had changed her entire life, but she was clinging to what was familiar.  He admired her greatly.  Death was not easy to get past.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.  

She shrugged.  “My mama used to say ‘It is what it is.’  You deal with what life gives you.  Todd and I – we had it good.  But I can’t complain;  I like the restaurant, I like cooking, I like the people who come in.  I just wish . . .”  She hesitated and her tone lowered even more.

Scott watched her closely.  This wasn’t sadness on her face – it was anger, barely concealed.  “What?” he encouraged.

But the moment passed.  She smiled again and repeated her question.  “You passing through, Mr. Garrett?”

“Yes, like I said.  Passing through.  But always looking for business opportunities.  I was left a modest sum and am looking to invest in something promising.  From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a lovely town.”  He looked right at her as he said this and she blushed.  He enjoyed this for a moment, then said, “I wouldn’t mind starting up a business here.  Don’t worry – it won’t be a restaurant!”

She laughed a little.  He smiled, too.  She was lovely and when the tenseness and anger had left her face, her true beauty shined through.  Scott realized he was enjoying her company immensely and selfishly hoped no other patrons came in to disturb them.

And then – it was back.  That look from before, the look that seemed to be anger and resignation and sadness all rolled into one.  “Mr. Garrett,” she said, “please don’t take this wrong.  But maybe this isn’t really the right town for you.  I know it’s beautiful . . . and there’s nice people here and all . . .”

“But . . . ?”

“Well, Vallefrio isn’t . . . well, it just isn’t the town it used to be!”

Scott put down his fork and placed his hand on hers.  “First of all,” he said gently.  “Forget this ‘Mr. Garrett’ stuff.  Please call me Scott.  And then tell me why a town with someone as lovely as you in it isn’t the ‘right’ town.”

She looked at his hand and blushed again but made no effort to remove hers from under it.  She lowered her voice almost to a whisper.  “It’s just that . . . not everybody here is . . . all that nice.”

“That doesn’t matter to me.”

“Oh, but it might!  I mean . . . there’s a man here who . . . well, he thinks he owns the town.  Maybe he does, I don’t know.  He doesn’t own my restaurant anyhow.  But he’s pretty powerful and rich and he orders people around and they usually do what he says or else!”

“Or else what?”

“Or else something bad happens to them, like the horse they’ve known for years suddenly bucks them off, or they fall off a roof or something.  Jinx Carlton ended up drowned!”

Elfie was getting riled so Scott tried to bring it down a notch with humor.  “Well, maybe he was named that because he was jinxed.”

“I know.  He was.  But he went to that river every day of his life and he never fell in before!  Scott, I’m telling you, this isn’t the place it once was.”  Now she just looked sad.

“What happened to change it?” Scott asked as gently as he could.  He was now holding her hand in both of his.

“I told you – it’s him,” she said softly.  She looked off at nothing and spoke slowly and dreamily.  “Sometimes I think about leaving.  I don’t really want to, though.  This is my place.  I just wish he’d left when his daddy died.”

“When his father died?”

“Diamond Sr. was a good man.  He was rich but he didn’t flaunt it.  He just ran his ranch and did business with us all and left us alone otherwise.  He was well-liked, in fact.  But Danny’s different.  He . . . he just . . . thinks he owns everyone, that’s all!”

Just then the bell over the door rang and a family entered.  Elfie quickly removed her hand from Scott’s and jumped up, smoothing her hair.  She grabbed a couple menus and handed them to the new customers as she seated them.

On her way back to the kitchen, she merrily suggested Scott save room for the apple pie.  “Real good today.”

Scott appreciated the friendly moments he had shared with Elfie and the fact that she had let down her guard enough to speak of some things that were obviously emotional for her.  He thought of himself as an honest person and he always recognized and respected honesty in others.

But Elfie hadn’t given him enough information.  She’d just hinted at things that he suspected.  And those hints were tantalizing; he wanted to know more about this Diamond Jr. she seemed so angry at.  Except for serving Scott apple pie, she had not had time to return to speak with him, for the restaurant had begun filling with a lunch crowd.  She was certainly very busy and he admired her, depositing a large tip on his way out.

Elfie clearly didn’t like Diamond Jr.  Tim the shopkeeper had told him to ask around to get more information;  it seemed to Scott that Tim had, like Elfie, been angry.  And Johnny himself had suggested Dan Diamond ran a corrupt town, corrupt because he made it that way.

Scott was beginning to get that idea himself.  If this turned out to be true, it was certainly within the realm of possibility that Diamond was responsible for the loss of the Lancer cattle, not to mention a plethora of other crimes.  Suddenly Scott was glad Murdoch had sent him on this errand.  Scott had always welcomed adventure and, like Johnny, wasn’t afraid to face unknown dangers.  He decided he needed to get as much information as he could, and as soon as possible.  He headed for the saloon.

Before entering, he noticed the sign hanging above the doors said “DIAMOND Horseshoe Saloon,” the word ‘DIAMOND’ in all caps.  He looked down the street and noticed a gambling house, the “Ace of DIAMONDS.”  A few other businesses had names like “DIAMOND General Goods,” “DD Emporium,”  “DIAMOND Dry Goods & Sundries,” and so on.  Just to confirm a hunch, he glanced back at Tim’s store, which was called simply “Vallefrio Dry Goods.”  He shook his head in wonder, happy that Tim’s establishment and Elfie’s restaurant (“The Happy Tummy”) were at least not under the direct purview of Dan Diamond.

The dozen or so men who were in the saloon at this time of day looked up as he entered.  They seemed curious but no one attempted to greet him.  He went up to the bar and ordered a good whiskey.

He was ready for the bartender’s “Just passing through?”

“Maybe.  Nice town here.  I’ve been thinking of opening a business.  What’s your opinion?”  He downed the drink.

Scott wasn’t sure how he expected the bartender to respond, but the man’s laugh surprised him.  “New business in town, huh?  What kind of business are you in?”

“Well, I’m not sure yet.  Just looking to invest somewhere.  Somewhere in a nice town with good people.”  He turned to look at the other patrons, and they were all watching him.  He turned back to the bartender.  “I could use another.  And some rounds for everyone here – on me!”

That broke the ice.  The men sitting at tables hurried up to the bar.  There was some laughing and good-natured banter and the bartender himself smiled as he poured drink after drink.  “I’m Scott Garrett,” Scott said, happily shaking a few hands.  It only took a couple dollars, and Scott went from being warily watched to being one of the gang.

“Where you from?” someone asked.

“Out east.  Boston, in fact.”

“I thought so,” the bartender laughed.

Scott laughed too.  “How so?”

“You just sound like one of them Easterners!”

All the men concurred in varying degrees, and Scott didn’t care since he now was being accepted.  He asked questions of them and they asked questions of him (Scott making sure not to mention Lancer or anything associated with it), and there was a kind of trust developing.  Eventually, after being asked what kind of business he was planning on opening a number of times, he came up with, “A little art gallery is what I was thinking.  If there’s not already one in town, that is.”

This was met with wonder but clear approval.  The bartender scratched his face thoughtfully and said, “You know, that sounds like a real fine idea.”

“I figure – if there’s not one around here – that this would be a good town to open one,” Scott said. 

“I expect Mr. Diamond would like the idea a lot,” the bartender said to his clientele, and the men generally agreed.  He turned back to Scott and asked, “You think you got enough money for such an undertaking?”

Scott thought quickly.  Johnny had said that Diamond “bought” people with money; loyalty would then be assumed and enforced.  This might just be the “in” Scott needed for his investigation.  “Well, I don’t know,” he said, pretending to think.  “Maybe it’s too lofty an enterprise to engage in.  It’s a dream of mine, though.  Is the bank in town good for a loan?”

“Hell, man, you don’t need a bank!  You got to talk to Dan Diamond!”

“Dan Diamond?  Who might he be – the mayor?”

“Yeah – in a way.  He’s the town’s leading citizen!  He owns this saloon, and a passel of other businesses around here.  I recollect him talking about his town needing some sprucing up, and he might just think an art gallery is the way to go!”

“Well, how can this Mr. Diamond help me?”

“Unless I miss my guess, I expect you can put your money in, and he’ll match it dollar for dollar.  You can open the best damn art gallery in the state!”

Scott smiled and raised his glass and said, “To Dan Diamond!”  But he was already beginning to feel the first pulls of the Diamond rope around his neck.  He wondered how many other small businessmen had felt the same.

–  –  –  –  –

An hour later, Scott found himself ushered in to what unquestionably had to be the largest house in the town, or any town in the area, for that matter.  The ushering was done by an un-usher-like man with a gunbelt tied down the same way Johnny wore his.  The thought that Johnny could easily down this man as he reached for his gun occurred to him.  This was not the occasion for such thoughts, so he concentrated on his surroundings instead.

Said surroundings were fairly opulent.  The fireplace was marble, the light fixtures were gilded and their candles were large, with initials embedded.  DD, of course.  The rug beneath his feet was thick and new, and where he could see flooring, it was clearly a richly varnished wood.  The furniture was primarily hand-carved and the cushions thick and comfortable-looking.  But what struck him the most was the artwork.  There were several paintings on the walls, and they were without question well-done.  In a small town like this, he had to assume there were no Old Masters originals here, but it was clear some of the artists had real talent.  He wondered if these were copies of originals, but most of the paintings weren’t familiar to him.

He had just stepped closer to one of the paintings in an attempt to read the artist’s signature when he was interrupted. The non-usher gunman stepped aside as a fairly tall man entered the room.  If this was Diamond, he obviously lived the good life, at least at the dinner table, as he was a few pounds overweight.

The man held out his hand and offered a smile as well.  “Dan Diamond at your service,” he confirmed.

Scott offered the same patent smile as he shook Diamond’s hand.  “Scott Garrett.”

Diamond indicated his visitor should sit.  “Make yourself comfortable.  Imported furniture.  From Europe.”

Scott cringed at the flagrant boasting.  His own home, Lancer, in fact his previous home in Boston as well – both were also nicely appointed.  But in these cases the money used to purchase the luxury surroundings came from good hard honest toil.  Scott knew that wasn’t the case here.  Not just from what he’d heard, but also from what he was observing in the slimy attitude of his genial host.  He shuddered involuntarily.  “Thank you,” he forced himself to say.

“Drink?” Diamond asked.  Without waiting for an answer, he nodded to his man.  Fascinated, Scott watched the man head for what appeared to be a liquor cabinet.  No words had been exchanged between Diamond and his employee, but Scott knew a snifter of brandy would shortly be headed his way.   Probably imported brandy.  From Europe.  Or the moon.

“I understand you are entertaining the thought of settling in our little town,” Diamond continued without an interruption.

“News travels fast.”

Diamond shrugged complacently.  “You know how it is . . . small towns . . .”

“Well, actually, I’ve given it a little thought.  I’m trying to find a place to settle, someplace that matches my sensibilities.  I was left a modest inheritance and I’m looking to find a sensible lucrative way to use my education.”

While Scott was being served his brandy, Diamond lit a cigar.  “I was educated as well, Mr. Garrett.  East of the Mississippi.  Chicago, in fact, at their best university!  I’m sure you know which one I mean.”

Scott had no idea which university Diamond meant, but he nodded and said, “Of course!  Excellent!  And I was educated in a modest little school in Boston.  I’m sure you’ve heard of that as well.”

“Ah!  Harvard!”  Diamond was clearly impressed with this information about his visitor.  “Indeed I have.  And I assume you were educated in the field of art?”

“My, news truly does travel fast in this town.”  Scott nodded his thanks as the brandy snifter was handed to him.  When he tasted it, he was doubly thankful.  “Armagnac!  I’m amazed.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible so far from . . .”

“From civilization?”  Diamond chuckled.  “Anything is possible, friend, if you know how to make it work.  Now suppose you tell me about your interest in the arts.”

Scott settled back in his chair and took another sip.  “Don’t be mistaken – I have no such talent myself.  But I am a connoisseur of the arts, if you will.  I enjoy fine sculpture, architecture, dance, craftworks, and so forth.  But my true love – other than a beautiful woman, of course – will always be the paintings of the masters.”

Diamond smiled.  “Old Masters?  New masters?”

“All of them.  Fine art.  As a matter of fact,” Scott looked around the room, “I see a number of wondrous examples on your walls.  Do I dare to hope they are originals?”

“What do you think, Mr. Garrett?”  Now Diamond was chuckling.

Scott knew he was being manipulated into providing the correct answer.  “They are originals!” he said, shaking his head in fake astonishment. 

“Indeed they are, Mr. Garrett.”

“Call me Scott.”

–  –  –  –  –

Johnny Lancer had strayed from the campsite he and his brother had shared the night before to exercise Barranca.  But, as pre-arranged, he was waiting for his brother’s return visit late in the afternoon.

“Had a little trouble finding you,” said Scott as he dismounted.  “Forgot where we turned off the road to get here.”

“Never mind that.  How did it go?  Diamond still there?”  Johnny was obviously anxious for news.

“Oh, yes.  He’s definitely still there!”

“Still full of himself?”

“As pompous an ass as ever I’ve seen.”

Normally Johnny would laugh at such a description but he just shook his head in disgust.  “Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of.”

Scott pointed to the campfire.  “Thanks for making some coffee.”

“Yeah, help yourself, brother.”  Johnny sat on a log.  “I guess you’d better tell me what you think.”

Scott poured a mug of coffee and sat near Johnny.  “I will tell you exactly what I think.  And what I think is that you’re right about this – Diamond is every bit as unscrupulous as you suggested.”

“So you think he could have been behind the missing forty-four head?”

“That and a lot more.  I have no doubt.”

“Well – we’re going to have to do something.  We’re going to have to take him to the law.  Maybe Sacramento, or some other town.”

“I agree, but we’re going to need proof first.”

“Proof?  What kind of proof?”

“Some kind of proof that he’s behind the cattle thefts.  Something to prove that he masterminded the thefts, even if he didn’t dirty his own hands in so doing.  Once this crime is made public, his other crimes will become known as well.”  A faint smile was beginning to appear on Scott’s face.

Johnny knew what that smile meant.  “Brother, you have a plan!”

“I do, Johnny.  And I won’t even bother telling you that it might be dangerous because you thrive on danger.”

“Good!”  Johnny was starting to smile now, also.  “What do I do, Scott?”

“For the time being, nothing.  Yes, I know, it kills you to wait around.  But you’re going to have to for a couple more days because I don’t want you riding into town too early and getting recognized.”

“While you do what?”

“I was in his house, Johnny!”

Eyebrows got raised.  “You work fast!”

“It’s true, Johnny.  I introduced myself to some of the good citizens of Vallefrio and a couple of them took me to his house after I dropped some hints that I might need a financial partner to help me with a start-up business.”

“Yeah, that’s catnip.”

“The man knows nothing about art but believes he is a fine connoisseur.  I told him I want to start an art gallery in town.  Import fine art, take regional art on consignment, that kind of thing.  What he calls Old Masters and New Masters.  He practically salivated at the suggestion.  He showed me a room in his house he reserves for only ‘lovers of fine art’ to see.  Apparently I fell into that category because he made his henchman stand outside the door – wouldn’t let him in.”

Johnny snickered.

“He had artwork, mostly pictures, all over the house.  But in this room he kept what he called his ‘masterpieces.’”

“Let me guess what they were.”

“Go ahead.”

“Stuff he painted.”

“Go to the head of the class.  Terrible oil paintings of mostly still-lifes.  A few pen-and-ink drawings;  these were female nudes.  Some watercolors of animals like rabbits, some horses, even dragons.  Nothing anyone in their right mind would pay good money for, but he was tremendously proud of his work.  The room was fairly dark but I swear I could see his eyes light up when he told me that he would finance half my art gallery and how excited he was that his ‘masterpieces’ would finally be unveiled to the world.”

“Are they really that bad?”

“Yes, Johnny, they are really that bad.”

“What did you say?”

“I faked excitement over the fine quality of his work.  I told him it was high time for the world to see the real Dan Diamond.  ‘Let’s get this art out of this room and into a gallery!’”  Scott shuddered.

Johnny laughed and punched him in the shoulder.  “I bet that was hard for an art lover like you to do!”

“That’s a fair assessment.”  Scott sighed.  “Anyhow, he left the room for a few minutes to go retrieve our drinks.  I took advantage of the time to look behind all the pictures for a safe.  No safe.  At least, not in that room.”

“Why a safe?”

“A guy who makes as much money off illegal enterprises as he appears to do must keep some kind of records.  I was hoping to find a safe or some hiding spot where he keeps records like this.  They’d probably take up about as much room as a couple of books, maybe one or two volumes.  That’s around safe-size.  But this is the only room I was allowed to be alone in, and then only for a couple minutes.  Johnny, I’ve got to get back in that house and keep searching.  If I find those records, that’s all I’ll need to take to the law.  It will constitute proof.”

“What about that thug you talked about?  He was always there?”

“Afraid so.  And he wears his gun like you do.”

“Who was he?  Does Diamond still have D’Arcy or Leander?  Been a while, but he might. They’re good.”

“No names were mentioned.”

“If so, he’s a gunfighter, still on his payroll.  Could be dangerous for you, Scott.”

“I don’t think so, at least not at this point.  Diamond seems to have some high opinion of me.  I love art.  I claim to have some money, but not enough to start an art studio.  He loves art.  He wants to dominate everyone he comes across.  I’m giving him the perfect scenario and right now he’s in love with me and wanting to invest in me.”

Johnny laughed in spite of himself.  “And what happens when the honeymoon ends?”

“I hope not to be nearby when he discovers my ulterior motives.  Or I hope you’ll be my back-up.”

Johnny poured more coffee into their mugs.  “Well, I had a plan but I’d like to hear yours.  So far it sounds like you think you’ve got him under your control.”

“He’s anxious to start building the art gallery as soon as possible.  But I’m going to tell him that I’ll need to find a place to build myself a house first.  So I have somewhere to live, a base of operations.  He’ll balk at that, but I’ll be firm.  It’s all a stall a stall so I can arrange to meet with him a couple times – get back inside his house and find a way to get everyone out of the rooms so I can check them out.  Oh, by the way! – while we were in his parlor talking, he showed me he had a safe behind one of the fake Gainsboroughs.  He opened it and showed me several wads of bills!  Thousands of dollars, as far as I could see.”

Johnny whistled.  “So he is as rich as I thought.”

“Yes, that’s a lot of money to keep in a house safe.  But the important thing here is that I was able to look inside that safe.  The only thing in there was money – no ledgers or record books of any kind!  Johnny, those books are in that house somewhere, and I’ve got to find them!”

–  –  –  –  –

Scott, as always, enjoyed the time he spent with his brother, but it was necessary to get back to Vallefrio as soon as possible so he would not be missed.  Also, he needed the time to speak with as many citizens as possible in order to get a feeling for how many were under Diamond’s thumb and how many weren’t. 

For this reason, he chose to take his dinner at the hotel dining room.  He didn’t recognize a single person there, so he sat at a table alone, strategically placing himself for a good view of the doorway.  A waitress barely in her 20s showed him a menu and took his order.  “Nice town,” Scott said. 

“Yeah, I’ve lived here all my life,” she answered noncommittally.  Apparently the idea was that she’d seen few to compare it with.

“Nice scenery, lovely people,” he continued.

She perked up at the implied compliment and smiled.  “Oh.  Yes, thank you.”

“In fact, I like it so much I’m thinking of settling here.”

The smile disappeared.  “You are?  You sure?”

“Well, not yet, anyway.  Is there some reason I shouldn’t settle here?”

“Have you talked to Mr. Diamond?”

This blatant question surprised Scott so much that he almost lost his train of thought.  From the fearful expression on her face, it was clear she was one of the people Diamond had control of.  Scott thought quickly and worked to control his own expression.  “Why, yes, I have spoken with Mr. Diamond.”

“And he’s OK with that?” she ventured cautiously.

“Yes.  In fact, we’re thinking of going into business together.”

Now the smile was back in full force.  “That’s great!  Let me get this order to the kitchen right away.”  She trotted happily to the kitchen, pausing only to turn back and announce to Scott, “Pie’s good today!  Save room!”

A few heads in the room had turned to look at Scott, so he kept the benign smile on his face.  Their interest apparently waned and they went back to their conversations, allowing him the opportunity to scrutinize them further.  He recognized that looks could indeed be deceiving, so he decided not to draw erroneous conclusions.  In a moment, the waitress was back with a bowl of soup.

“Here, try this oxtail before your meal.  Momma made it and it’s especially good today.  On the house!”

“Why, thank you.”  Scott wasn’t particularly interested in oxtail soup but found it was as delicious as he’d been told.  “Gracious of you.  Thank your mother for me.  I take it she’s the cook?”

“Yeah.  One of them.  My brother is too and he helps out in the dining room sometimes.  Cathy comes in to work here sometimes, too.  She lives down the street.”

“Is your father also involved?”

“He owns this hotel.  Him and Mr. Diamond.  He’s always in the back room working on the books.  Mr. Diamond comes in sometimes and checks them out, too.”

“Mr. Diamond is involved in a lot of things, isn’t he?  Delicious soup, by the way.”

She beamed.  “Yeah, he’s in just about everything in town.  My daddy says he’s a good businessman.”  She noticed a customer raising a hand for her attention.  “Gotta go.  You eat that and your dinner’ll be out real soon!  I promise!”

–  –  –  –  –

Scott unhappily envisioned Teresa having to let out his pants if he kept having pie for dessert with every meal.  Although the idea was distasteful, he considered the possibility that he might have to eat primarily salads on this trip.  But there were only two dining spots in town and, in the gathering of valuable information, he had managed to endear himself to the women who ran each restaurant.  And they apparently wanted to fatten him up.

Pie.  Could he say no?  No.

He chuckled as he realized he was donating his body to the cause.  Full-course meals including desserts, and imported liquor shared with the town’s “leading citizen.”  And he wasn’t getting any exercise to compensate, which would have been happening in spades if he were back at Lancer.

By contrast, Scott figured, Johnny was probably eating beans and jerky or other trail food while he waited patiently by the campfire for word from his brother.  Scott felt guilty.

–  –  –  –  –

At that moment, Johnny had actually just finished polishing off tamales and enchiladas, washed down with fine tequila, and was about to enjoy his dessert.  Said dessert was promised him by Francisca, 29-years-old and with ample cleavage and a very friendly attitude.  Francisca possessed three things important to Johnny:  a little rural home in the area, excellent cooking skills, and a fond memory of Johnny the last time he had traveled through.

Dessert was not pie but it was delicious.

–  –  –  –  –

The plan, sketchy though it was, was for Johnny to avoid Vallefrio at this juncture and wait until Scott told him things were ready for him to advance into town.  Scott, meanwhile, would be doing his best to get his hands on the papers that would prove Diamond was behind the thefts.  Scott was absolutely certain that a man like Diamond would keep records of all his conquests.  If not for business purposes, then for his own amusement.

In fact, Scott said, Johnny’s appearance might not even be needed, if Scott could find those papers right away.  Johnny would only be used if Scott needed a diversion.  And what a diversion Johnny Madrid would cause!

Scott would ride out to their campsite daily each late afternoon to fill Johnny in on his progress.  With any luck, they would be able to ride on to Sacramento with the proof they needed, contacting the law there and bringing them back to Vallefrio to arrest Diamond and anyone abetting his illegal activities.

Johnny was essentially free to do whatever he wanted the rest of the time.  He enjoyed Francisca’s company that first day after Scott had left, watching her make cookies and even staying at her hacienda most of the night, but he was back at the campsite by dawn.  Francisca had given him some paper and he was taking notes of the ideas he had for their plan.  He knew Scott wouldn’t show up until late afternoon, so he occasionally nodded off during the day.  He hadn’t gotten much sleep during the night.

–  –  –  –  –

On the second day, Scott enjoyed another delicious filling meal for breakfast at the hotel dining room.  The young woman he had met before was not there, but another young woman was.  She handed him a menu.

Scott nodded his thanks.  “You must be Cathy.”

He expected her to be surprised but her reaction was matter-of-fact.  “Yeah, Cathy Metcalf. Nelly told me to watch out for you.  She said you’re new in town.  You talked with Mr. Diamond.”

Now it was Scott’s turn to be surprised.  “Indeed I am.  News certainly does travel fast in this town.”

“Yeah, that’s how it is here.  Everyone knows everyone’s business.  Nelly told me you like steak and potatoes and carrots and oxtail soup.  You want that again?”

“Uh . . . no.  Not for breakfast.  Perhaps hamsteak and eggs?”

“Sure.  I’ll get it.”

It wasn’t long at all before Cathy returned with his breakfast.  It hadn’t been clear to Scott if Cathy liked him or not, but when he saw the huge meal she delivered, he figured she did.

“Here you go, Mr. Garrett.  Ham and three eggs, side of applesauce.  I added some fresh-baked bread, toasted, and put some strawberry jam on top.  We preserve it here.  Nelly told me to treat you good.  She said you were nice.”  Cathy’s smile was now beaming.

Scott knew he’d be at the restaurant a good long time if he tried to eat everything, so he asked if the bread and jam could be wrapped so he could eat it later.  His intention was to take it to his brother.  Then he ventured a question.  “You and Nelly are friends, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, good friends.  We’re the same age.  I’m an orphan, and her ma and pa helped me by giving me this job.”

“I’m sorry to hear that – about you being an orphan, I mean.  How long have your parents been . . . gone?”

“Two or three years now.  I just woke up one morning and they were gone.  Left me the house and everything in it but took the horse and buggy.  I’m trying to save up enough to get myself a horse.”

Scott was stunned by her story and her mostly stoic reaction to what had happened.  “That’s terrible,” he said without thinking.  “Do you know why they left?”

“No idea.”  Cathy’s smile, which had started lessening with her first announcement that she was orphaned, now completely disappeared.  “No note or anything.”

“Were the authorities able to assist you?”

“You mean the Sheriff?  Nah.  He tried, but he never found out nothing.  My folks didn’t like it here since Diamond Senior died.  They had been talking about moving to another town anyway.  I guess I always figured they’d take me with them.”

“Uh . . . yes, that would . . . “

“But, like you can see, I’m doing OK.  Doing good, in fact.  I’ve got Nelly and her folks and this job, and Mr. Diamond sometimes helps me out when I need extra money, so I’m getting by fine.  And he said when I get a little more money he’ll sell me a horse cheap.”

Scott was overwhelmed by her admission.  He placed his hand on hers and said gently, “Cathy, I’m very sorry you’re going through this.”

The honesty in his emotion apparently struck a chord with her and she started tearing up.  Recovering quickly, she said, “I’ll take the toast and jam and put it in a bag for you and you eat the rest of that!  It’s good.”  And she returned to the kitchen.

–  –  –  –  –

People don’t suddenly just disappear.  Especially people who leave a teenage daughter behind.  There was a lot here that was disturbing to Scott.  On the way to the stable to fetch his horse for the day, his mind raced.  What could possibly have happened to Cathy’s parents?  Did they really desert her?  If so, did they do it willingly? 

And why, of all things, did she refer to herself as an orphan, when to her knowledge they had simply driven away?

Did she suspect they’d been killed?

These thoughts, and others, filled Scott’s head as he readied his horse.  His plan for the day was to talk to as many people as he could in the outlying farms and ranches around Vallefrio.  He spent a moment talking with the liveryman, only to determine very quickly that the man was in Diamond’s employ.

Scott took a bag lunch with him and spent the day roaming the countryside around Vallefrio.  He stopped at a number of rural homesteads and spoke with a number of people, mostly couples, many with children, and an elderly couple who were managing well on their own.  He asked questions of them that started out rather benignly, but became more specific and personal after he had gauged their willingness to talk.  Questions like:  Is it possible to make a good living around here?  Does Mr. Diamond help you in any way?  Isn’t he a great man for doing that?  And other bushwah.

One middle-aged couple spoke glowingly of their five adult children but seemed unhappy that they had all moved away.  When Scott inquired why they’d leave such a lovely area, they replied that their children were dissatisfied with the way Mr. Diamond ran the town.  Scott was elated to find someone who was at least a little willing to talk and he pumped them with more specific questions about Diamond’s activities.  Unfortunately, they didn’t know too much.  Or, maybe they knew more than they were willing to say.  Scott just couldn’t be sure with the people around Vallefrio.  They all seemed to like the area and to tolerate Diamond but he also felt a strong resistance to answer his questions, even with this otherwise-amiable couple.  But this couple made it clear that their children had left because of Dan Diamond. 

Where had they gone?  Most to Sacramento or San Francisco.  They write regularly.  But our boy Jonas, he never writes.  We’re not sure where he is.

–  –  –  –  –

Johnny was dutifully awaiting Scott’s late afternoon visit to the campsite.  The coffee was on the campfire and there were some cookies waiting for Scott also.

Scott eyed them skeptically.  “You didn’t ride into Vallefrio, did you, Johnny?”

“Nope!  I’m keeping to the schedule, brother.  And I’m bored to death.”

Scott accepted the proffered mug of coffee as well as a cookie.  “This is pretty good!  I can’t believe you made these over a campfire.”

Johnny shrugged. “Believe what you want.”

“And you look tired, Johnny.”

“Mostly bored, brother.  What have you found out today?”

Scott sighed.  “I’m beginning to get the feeling that Diamond has some kind of invisible hold on most of the people in the area.  I’m having a hard time getting people to talk, and when they do, I’m sure it’s not the whole story.  Or sometimes even an outright lie.”

Johnny nibbled at one of the cookies.  “Hey, you’re right!  These are pretty good!  Well, was anyone willing to talk?”

Scott seemed lost in thought.  “Johnny . . . “

“Yeah?”

“Oh . . . never mind.  I probably shouldn’t say anything until I know more.”

“About Diamond?  His ‘illegal activities’?”

“Yes.  Let me gather more information before I jump to conclusions, Johnny.”

“Do what you have to do, Scott, but remember Dan Diamond is a dangerous man.”

“I’m starting to figure that out for myself.  But, never mind . . .”  Scott shook his head to change the tone of the conversation.  “When I leave here, I’m going to have supper at the restaurant in town and try to get more information.  Then I’m supposed to meet Diamond at his house to discuss our art gallery plans.”

“And he’s got a full-time hired gunhawk guarding him, Scott.  You watch yourself!”  Oddly enough, when Johnny pointed this out, Scott’s first reaction was to worry about Johnny.

–  –  –  –  –

Elfie was delighted to see him.  “I’m glad you’re back.  I was afraid maybe I’d scared you away with my talk.”  Her talk this time was kept low to preclude restaurant diners from overhearing their conversation.

Scott smiled.  “I could never pass up the opportunity for a Happy Tummy!”

Elfie handed him a menu, but once again Scott won her heart by telling her to simply bring him whatever she thought he would like.

It was a few minutes before she returned with the food because she was obviously the only employee in the restaurant that day.  “Here you go.  Chicken breast stuffed with corn stuffing, boiled potatoes and carrots with dill.  Dill’s fresh. I grow herbs in back.  Some vegetables, too.  And coffee.  I mean, here’s some coffee – I don’t grow coffee in back!”  She blushed.

Scott thoroughly enjoyed her presence, whether she was delighted to see him, warning him away, or blushing at something either of them had said.  She was a definite high point in his trip and he made a mental note to have as many meals as possible at her restaurant before he’d have to leave.  He also wanted to get back to the hotel restaurant to speak with Nelly or Cathy again.  This was turning into a fattening-up trip!

“No dessert today!” he yelled after her as she was returning to the kitchen.

“We’ll see,” she said slyly.

Forty-five minutes later, Scott pushed his chair away from the table.  His trousers felt tight and he wanted to stand and walk around, but the restaurant had emptied out and Elfie came and sat at his table.

“How did you like that lemon cream cake?” she asked.

“You’re an incredible cook, Elfie,” he answered honestly.  “You really have a knack for making anything taste delicious.  Frankly, I think your talents are being wasted in a little town.  You belong in a fine restaurant in a large city, like Sacramento.”

“Or Boston?” she asked adventurously.

“Yes, or Boston.  You’d fit in anywhere!”

She blushed again and looked down.

“Uh . . . Elfie . . . I’d like the chance to talk with you again, but I have an appointment with Mr. Diamond shortly.”

The smile she started to show with the beginning of Scott’s sentence disappeared by the end.  “Oh,” was all she said.

“I wonder if it would be possible for us to speak after I leave my appointment with him?”

“An appointment?  Such a formal word.  I expect it will be a lot simpler than that – he will be demanding something of you, Scott.”

“Well, we’ll see about that.  If I drop back here around nine pm, will you still be here?”

“The restaurant’s closed then, but I’ll be washing dishes in back.”

“Would you mind if we talked then?”

Elfie hesitated, but just for a second.  Apparently it wasn’t a hard decision to make. “Just knock on the back door.”

–  –  –  –  –

“Don’t be late again,” was the way Dan Diamond greeted Scott.  Scott looked from Diamond to his henchman and both scowled at him.  Wordlessly Diamond nodded for his gunman to leave and the man left the room, closing the door behind him.

Scott knew he wasn’t more than a couple minutes late and he certainly was not about to apologize for something trivial, not to anyone and certainly not to this lawbreaking thug.  But in order for his plan to work, he had to endear himself to Diamond.  Mistakes or suspicions could prove deadly.  He bowed deferentially.  “I know, Dan, and I apologize.  Next time I will pull the cinch a little tighter!”

Scott managed to say the perfect thing;  Diamond roared with laughter.  “Don’t tell me you slid off your horse!”

Scott bowed again.  “I leave you with that mental image.”

Diamond patted him on the back.  “No problem, no problem at all.  I’ve got the drinks waiting for us.  What will it be this evening – cognac or Armagnac?  And I had old Betsy make some cakes for us.  Have a couple.”  He shoved the tray in Scott’s direction.

Oh, good.

“Have a seat, Scott, have a seat.  Now . . . I want to let you know my ideas for the art gallery.”

“Now, Dan, first things first.”

“Very true, very true.  I almost forgot to mention.  You put in $4,000 and I’ll finance the rest.  Now, the gallery will have two stories.  The first floor will be the display area.  There will be a large museum at the front – price tags on everything, of course! – and a smaller room in the back for the more, ahem, expensive items.  The upstairs will be reserved for special artists, such as myself . . . works in progress, you know . . . membership fees . . .“

Scott held up a hand.  “Whoa, hold on a minute, please!  $4,000!  That’s a lot of money!  That will almost wipe me out.  And don’t forget I have to have a place to live, too.  I was scouting out the area today for a nice place to build a new . . . “

“I think you should rent for a year or two, until you get the hang of the business.  There’s a nice boardinghouse Alma Sauerbreit runs.  It’s clean and the rooms are spacious.  I should know – I own it.”

Scott shook his head.  “Although I appreciate your generosity with the art gallery, Dan, I could never live in a boardinghouse.  I’ve never rented in my life!”

“What’s that?”

“No, I’d have to have my own place.  I need the . . . uh . . . privacy.”

“Priv . . .?  Oh!  I get it!”  Diamond winked and nudged Scott with his arm.  “The ladies, eh?  Yeah, I can see that!  You’re a top-class guy, all right!  All right, Mr. Harvard, you just find that place to build and I’ll finance you!”

Scott grabbed his hand and shook it.  “Dan, I just don’t know how to thank you!  You’re a generous man!  I hope to make you proud of me.  With my knowledge and your talent and backing, this will be the best art gallery in the entire state!”

“There’s no doubt of that.  Now tomorrow you go out and find yourself a nice lot and start building your house and I’ll get the plans for the gallery drawn up.  I trust you’re all right with my ideas?  Of course you are!  And, Scott – don’t drag your feet on that house.  I want this gallery up and running as soon as possible!”  Suddenly Diamond’s smile was gone.

At least the cakes were good.

–  –  –  –  –

Outside the back door of Elfie’s restaurant, Scott paused for a minute to look in the window.  Elfie was, as she had indicated, washing dishes, with a large pile of drying dishes on a table.  He noticed how lovely she looked, even with her hands in dishwater up to her elbows.  For a moment he felt vaguely guilty, as if he didn’t have the right to watch her.  But something made her look up and she saw him.  She smiled and waved him in with her hand, soap suds flying everywhere.  His guilt disappeared and he happily opened the door to her world and stepped inside.

The sudsy hand pointed to another table.  “Lemon cake left over.  Help yourself!”

“No!  I mean, no thank you.  I’ve really had enough.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, Scott, you could use a little fattening up.”  As soon as the words came out of her mouth, Elfie blushed and looked down.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be personal.”

Scott smiled.  “No, I don’t mind you saying so.  Your honesty is refreshing, and I appreciate it.  But, Elfie . . . I was wondering if we could spend a few minutes talking?”

“Oh?  What about?”  Elfie suddenly found the dishwater fascinating.

“Like I said, you’ve been honest with me and I’ve been looking for someone to give me their honest opinions  about this town.”  He reached in the dishwater and pulled out her hands with his.  He was mesmerized momentarily by the close contact with her, soap suds notwithstanding.  Her downcast eyes told him she was not immune to the flirting.  He ran his thumb along her arm, feeling the soft skin.  Under other circumstances, he would most certainly have turned her face to his and kissed her.  But there was too much at stake here – there was Dan Diamond’s lawlessness and the corruption of the town and Murdoch’s forty-four head of cattle and . . .

Oh, hell! 

Scott grabbed her head with both his soapy hands and kissed her.  And enjoyed it.  And guessed she was enjoying it too because she put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him right back!

Scott was reluctant to let her go but after what was probably a long time even though it seemed like mere seconds, he moved away from her.  “I’m sorry,” he said genuinely.  “I had no right to do that.”

“No,” she said, somewhat breathlessly, “don’t . . . I mean, it’s all right.  I . . . I’m glad you did that.”  She had reverted to her usual shy self.

“You are?”

She shook her head ‘yes.’

“Well, then . . . maybe we can do it again sometime,” he smiled.

She giggled, which surprised the hell out of him, and he laughed too.  She grabbed a towel and started brushing the soap suds off his shirt.  “This is a restaurant, not a laundry,” she said happily.  He grabbed the towel and wiped her hands and then his own.  Being close to her made him feel good.  It was the kind of insouciant closeness that he had with Johnny.  Well, not exactly the same kind, thank God!  Scott laughed at the thought.  But this reminded him of the serious circumstances that had brought him to Vallefrio in the first place.  His smile disappeared.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Scott held out a chair for her.  “Elfie, I would really appreciate a few moments of your time.”

She sat down, rather hesitantly, and he sat near her.  “I like to laugh, Scott.  It takes my mind off my troubles.  But I remember you just came from seeing Dan Diamond, so I guess you’re not much in a laughing mood.”

“No,” he breathed.  “I’m not. That’s just what I want to talk to you about.”

“I figured.”

“Dan Diamond is a . . . powerful man.  I’ve only had brief encounters with him, but the more exposure I have to him, the more I realize how much power he really does wield.”

She shook her head in agreement.  “It’s awful,” she said softly.

“Elfie,” he said softly.  “Please don’t take this wrong, but . . . how has his power affected you personally?”

She looked down again, and he felt he was losing her.  But then she looked him straight in the eyes and said, “He killed my husband!”

This news did not surprise Scott, but her stalwart tone did.  “I’m very very sorry, Elfie.  I don’t have the right to ask, but . . . I would like to know what happened.”

“It was that gunman of his.  He ate here and claimed Todd was trying to poison him and he called him out.  But Todd wasn’t any good with a gun – he was just a restaurant owner.  Just a cook . . .”  She seemed to be faltering.

“It’s all right, you don’t have to . . .”

“So the bastard called him out and when Todd said he wouldn’t go up against him, the bastard shot him.”  She shivered.  “Right here in the restaurant.  Right in the middle of the restaurant.”

Scott gave her a moment, then asked in a soft voice, “How many witnesses were there?”

Elfie looked down.  “None,” she said gloomily.  “He made sure to come in when the restaurant was about to close.”

Scott shook his head sadly.  “And of course, that was an excuse?  About the poisoning?”

“My husband would never have done a thing like that, even though we hated Dan Diamond and his hired thugs.  But I’ll tell you one thing – if that bastard ever comes in here again, I’ll poison him!”  She said it with such force and determination that she gasped at herself and started chuckling.  Scott was drawn along with her roller-coaster ride of emotions and smiled as well.

“No, I don’t really mean that,” she said, blushing.  “It’s not like me, either.”

“I believe you,” he said, but wasn’t sure which of the two Elfies he believed.  “What happened after that night?”

“Dan offered me money for the restaurant.  Good money.  Acted all phony like he was sorry for what happened. I know the truth, though.  He sent his thug in here with the pure intention of killing Todd!”

“But why?  How could he possibly gain by that?  Was Todd talking against him in public?”

“No, never.  We talked about him, though – just the two of us.  No, Dan owns the hotel and that has the only other restaurant in town.  That’s it, pure and simple.  He wanted all the business to go his way.”

“I see.”

“Dan comes in here every now and then – offering to buy me out.  Usually ups the offer each time.  He plans to tear down the place so everyone has to go to the hotel to eat.  But I like it here, Scott!  It was a wonderful little town before Dan. Sr. died.  I have no intention of leaving.”

“Elfie – I’m not sure how to say this.  You might just be in danger, you know.  If Diamond wants this place so badly, he might just decide to get rid of you!”

“He wouldn’t dare!”

“Well, actually, he might.”

–  –  –  –  –

At about the same time Scott was entertaining romantic thoughts about Elfie, Johnny was having similar thoughts about Francisca in her little house.  And she apparently was having the same kinds of thoughts about him. 

In the morning, Johnny said “No!” to a third helping of huevos rancheros.  He fingered his waistband.  “Francisca, you’re going to make me fat!”

Johnny and his brother Scott were a lot alike.

–  –  –  –  –

Scott slept later than he intended in the morning, primarily due to the fact that he and Elfie had sat at the table half the night talking about Dan Diamond and his town.  Scott found her to be a wealth of information.  So much so, in fact, that he wondered if he should start taking notes.  But the notes that Dan Diamond would no doubt have been taking about his nefarious undertakings would prove to be his downfall at Scott’s hands, so Scott refrained and decided to depend only on his memory.  He did very little talking and mostly listened;  she apparently had a lot to say.  Whenever she asked him about himself, he stuck to his fabricated story.

He wasn’t sure if he could trust Elfie or not.  This was, of course, true of everyone in town.  Diamond had loyal friends and they could look just like the people who didn’t like him.  Elfie had expressed a supreme dislike for the people responsible for her husband’s death, and her emotion had seemed genuine enough.  But Scott still had a nagging feeling that she wasn’t being honest about everything.  He made a compromise with himself and decided to tell her about the false plans he was making with Diamond, but refrained from mentioning his real last name, his brother the gunman camping just outside town, or the cattle theft from his ranch.  As far as Elfie was concerned, Scott Garrett was just a gentleman from Boston intending to re-locate, and who was taking offense at the guy who was responsible for the corruption of an otherwise lovely town.

He ate his breakfast at the hotel and spent a little time talking with Nelly.  He was careful to mention Diamond only in positive terms and her reaction made him think that she was in the “Diamond camp.”  No doubt due to her family.  He was able to finagle several other names of Diamond supporters from her.

After breakfast, he headed over to Tim’s dry goods store.  “I’d like to see some pants,” he said.  Tim looked at his tightening waistline, shook his head, and asked Scott what size he wore.  Scott told him, and Tim brought out several pair that were the next size up.  Scott noticed and was secretly grateful.

“I heard you’ve been talking to Mr. Diamond,” Tim said noncommittally while Scott tried on pants behind a screen.

“I’ve been talking to everybody,” Scott answered.  “Your suggestion, remember.”

There was a short pause.  “And what have you been finding out?”

Scott stepped out from the screen.  “I’ll take these brown ones, and also the ones I’m wearing.  Well, Tim, I’ve been finding out that not everyone in town is infatuated with Dan Diamond.”

Tim shook his head and started wrapping the package.  “Surprised?”

“No, not really.”  Scott paid for his purchase.  Slyly, he added, “And where do you stand?”

Tim nodded at the open front door.  “There’s a Diamond General Goods down the street, and also a Diamond Sundries.  Yet you came here.  Why?  I don’t ask you because it’s none of my business.”

Scott smiled.  “You don’t ask me because you know the answer.  And now so do I.”  As he left, he nodded and said, “See you around, Tim.”

Tim smiled, the first Scott had seen from him.

–  –  –  –  –

As Scott was heading for the hotel stable to collect his horse for the day, he was intercepted by the thug he had seen at Dan Diamond’s house both times.  The man remained on horseback but blocked Scott’s way.

“’Morning!” said the man.

Scott was unsure of the man’s intentions but felt no fear since they were both out in the open.  “’Morning,” Scott said.  “What is it you want?”

“Mr. Diamond would like to see you.”

“Now?  I’m about to start hunting for a place to build my house.  That was his suggestion.”  Well, sort of.

The thug actually smiled.  A line of crooked teeth showed.  “Yeah, now.  Mr. Diamond has the plans for the museum.  He was up all night working on them.  Can’t wait to show you.  You’ve made Mr. Diamond mighty happy, Mr. Garrett.”

Scott maintained a straight face.  “Well, now, that’s good to hear!”

The man dismounted.  “Here, I’ll walk with you.”

“Uh . . . all right.”  Scott thought quickly.  Unless Diamond was wise to him, this really would fit in with his plans.  If Diamond was on to him, well . . .  But, no, he couldn’t be, not yet.  “Lead on,” said Scott.

He was aware of people staring at the two of them as they walked down the main street.  The new man in town – the art gallery builder, the Diamond pawn – was walking with the Diamond gunman.  What an imposing pair they must appear!  Scott wanted to yell at the onlookers, “I’m not really what you think I am!”  But instead he asked the man his name.  “I’ve seen you around but we were never properly introduced.”

“Name’s Henry Leander.  I’m known as Pitch.”

“Nice to meet you, Pitch.”

Leander stared at him.  “You don’t know the name?”

Scott pretended to think.  “No, can’t say that I do.  Should I?”

“Maybe.  Some folks know me for certain things.”

“Oh?”  Leander didn’t answer and Scott didn’t push it.  But he remembered from Johnny’s talk that Pitch Leander was one of the gunmen Johnny had backed down in the past.  He was still around.  Obviously loyal to Diamond!

But apparently the other gunman from the past was no longer with Diamond.  Dan Diamond didn’t need much to control his town these days!

–  –  –  –  –

It was a short walk to Diamond’s house, fortunately, for Scott was tired of being stared at.  Leander, with more friendly body language than previously, ushered Scott into Diamond’s study.  This time he nodded at Scott before leaving and closing the door behind him.  Obviously, he’d been instructed ahead of time.  Scott considered this a good sign since Diamond apparently trusted him enough now to feel safe in Scott’s presence without a bodyguard.

“Sit down, Scott!  Sit over here!”  Diamond’s excitement was clear.

Scott sat in the extra chair pulled up to the desk.  There were papers of drawings spread out on the desk.  Crude architectural drawings, penned in a variety of colored inks.

“Good morning, Dan.  I see you’ve been busy!”

“Yeah, good morning.  I’ve been busy all right – up all night!  Look at these beautiful drawings, Scott!  Just look at them!  Aren’t they brilliant?  This is my – our – art gallery in these drawings! These are the blueprints and I drew them up!  Just look at these!  Isn’t this building going to be exquisite?!”

The drawings were rudimentary and Scott knew no self-respecting builder would be able to construct any kind of permanent structure based on just these sketchings.  Words escaped him.  He settled on, “Fantastic, Dan!  These are absolutely fantastic!”

Diamond leaned over the desk.  “Now, look – here’s the entryway (you can’t see it but there will be a big sign right over the door saying ‘Diamond Art Gallery’ – or maybe ‘Diamond Arts’) . . . “

“Of course . . .”

“ . . . There will be a little desk just to the right of the door where all visitors will be registered.  We’ll need a pretty girl for that job – probably Elfie Tanner from the diner – “

“Isn’t she busy with that diner?”

“I’m buying her out and she’ll need a job.  She’ll look good sitting there.  Then you can see how I’ve got the room widening out gradually – my angled walls are more interesting-looking, aren’t they?  This, you can see, leads to . . .”  Blah blah blah.

So Diamond was buying Elfie’s restaurant!  Was this more of Diamond’s incessant bragging, or was it the truth?  Had Elfie been lying to him, Scott wondered.  He felt a twinge of anger and hated the fact that its source was unclear.  Elfie might indeed have been lying to him to determine his loyalty level to Diamond.  He was glad he didn’t tell her anything about his real life.  The more he thought about it, the more he considered the probability that she was a spy from Diamond’s camp.  The story about her husband dying from Leander’s shot – this could have been entirely fabricated.  It would have been believable in the nighttime in the restaurant kitchen.  Elfie with her hands in dishwater, always working hard . . . yes, she would indeed have seemed the victim.

And then, this morning, Leander’s entire attitude toward Scott changing.  After Scott had left Elfie last night, she could conceivably have headed for Diamond’s house to fill him in on everything.  “It’s all right, Mr. Diamond,” she might have said.  “He’s no one.  You can cheat him.”  A spy!

But – no!  Everything she’d said last night seemed to ring true.  And Scott had kissed her . . .

“Scott!  The staircase!  Don’t you agree?  Of course you do!  The stairs, each and every one, are going to be covered with a rich woven rug, woven to fit each stair.  Maybe Oriental, I haven’t decided yet.  And the railing will be . . .”

Scott found it difficult to listen to Diamond’s incessant prattle in the light of the new information he was processing.  Scott certainly didn’t want to believe that Elfie was a Diamond spy, but if she was, she was dangerous to him.  He would have to continue to feed her mis-information.

Suddenly Scott just wanted to be done with this whole business.  He felt betrayed and unexpectedly very tired.  Last night, with Elfie, he’d wanted this job his father had asked him to do to last forever.  Now he just wanted to bring it to an end and go home.  Leave Vallefrio and go home.  Go home to people who loved him.

But the job wasn’t finished yet.  And Johnny was still waiting for him at their campsite five miles from town, waiting for a word from him – waiting to become a gunslinger again.

This afternoon, he determined.  This afternoon he would tell Johnny what he’d decided.  He was suddenly very determined.  And surprised to realize that he was now worrying for his brother.

–  –  –  –  –

The whole morning was spent in Diamond’s study, listening to the man warble on and on about his brilliantly-composed plans for their enterprise.  Scott tuned out a few times, only to be brought abruptly back to his hellish day by some declaration like “Scott!  I knew you’d like it!” or “Scott!  You certainly do have good taste!  I was right to bring you in on this.  There’s money to be made here!  For you, too.”  Apparently, Scott realized with a wry smile, he had been nodding off and Diamond had taken it as an acceptance of whatever he was saying at the time.

On two occasions, Diamond left Scott alone in the room.  The first time, Scott checked to make sure he wasn’t being secretly scrutinized before he sprang into action and started searching Diamond’s desk.  Drawer after drawer revealed nothing that looked like any kind of notepad or bound notes.  There was another table with drawers and that one came up empty also.  The second time, Scott checked behind all the paintings hung in the room and saw only the one safe, and he’d already had a glimpse inside it.  Scott was becoming quite frustrated!  What if Diamond in fact did not keep any kind of records of his illegal activities?  As impossible as it sounded, Scott was beginning to think it might be true.

And then at 12:30 Diamond apparently tired of discussing the project.  “Well, Scott, what do you say we go get ourselves some lunch?  We can spend some time discussing art.  I’ve been doing all the talking, and, frankly, I like hearing what you have to say about the subject.  Especially my pictures!  Why don’t we head over to that café that Elfie Tanner still runs?”

“Uh . . . no.  How about the hotel restaurant?”

Diamond nudged Scott with a sneer.  “Elfie’s something to look at!”

“I . . . prefer the food at the hotel.”

“Yes.  Yes, it is good, isn’t it?  Well, all right, the hotel it is.  Shorter walk anyway.  Let me just move these plans.”

Scott watched as Dan Diamond carefully folded up the plans for the art gallery that he’d spread out all over his desk and put them off to the side.  And there – hiding under those plans all the time – was a notebook.  A notebook with a title clearly marked “Diamond Profits.”  Handwritten.

Bingo!

And then Scott spent the next couple hours at the hotel restaurant still listening to Diamond but also eating.  It was quite a while before he could break away to meet with his brother to make their final plans.

–  –  –  –  –

As Scott arrived at their campsite, he was confused at first because Johnny wasn’t there.  Much of Johnny’s gear was, though, so Scott checked the frying pan.  It hadn’t been used at all that day, and, in fact, the ashes in their campfire were cold.  The weather had been cold and cloudy the last few days but the rain had not yet materialized.  The campfire had most likely not been lit since the day before!

He was beginning to feel some alarm, but then Johnny himself rode into the campsite on Barranca.  Scott’s relief was palpable;  he loved Johnny very much and they were both about to embark on a dangerous mission.  He was unable to suppress the worry he felt for his brother.  Logically he knew that, at least for the time being, he would have to set this worry aside.

“Hey, brother,” Johnny said, dismounting.  “Hope you haven’t been here long.”

“Not long.  Where were you?”

“Oh, just out exercisin’ Barranca.  Gettin’ a change of scenery.”

“You must be hungry.”

“Always hungry, brother.  You got some food for me?”

“Yes, here.”  Scott handed over a piece of double-crust apple pie in a cloth napkin.  “It’s from the hotel restaurant;  they seem to like me there and gave me an extra piece to take back to my hotel room.  Oh! – and here’s some toast with homemade jelly from breakfast.  You’ll have to make your own coffee.  But first,” he said accusingly, “you’ll have to start the fire.”

Johnny avoided looking at his brother.  “Hmm . . . must’ve gone out.”  He lit a match to the fire and the kindling ignited, albeit grudgingly due to the moisture In the air.

“It did – yesterday.  Didn’t you sleep here last night, Johnny?”

Now Johnny looked directly at Scott.  “Does it matter, brother?”

“I don’t know where you were last night or today, Johnny, but I do know this:  we’re playing a dangerous game here.  If you let anything slip to the wrong people . . . “

“Francisca’s not the wrong people, Scott.”

“I figured it was a woman.  How do you know you can trust her?”

“Calm down, Scott!  Stop worrying!”  Johnny put his hand on his brother’s arm.  “I trust Francisca with my life.”

And Scott trusted Johnny with his life.  All of a sudden, Scott felt very ashamed – if only he’d been able to trust Elfie.  He looked away.  “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “Sometimes . . . sometimes people let you down.”

Johnny discretely turned away and waited a moment before speaking.  Not looking at his brother, he asked, “Everything go OK?”

Scott took a breath and steeled himself.  “Yes, everything went well.”

“Everything?”

“No . . . not everything, I suppose.  But that doesn’t matter anymore.  Johnny, we have a job to do!  Any time you’re ready, you’re heading into town!”

At last!  Johnny re-wrapped the food and put it in his saddlebag.  “I’m ready any time, brother.  What’s your plan?”

“Before I tell you that, I have to mention that Pitch Leander is still there.  How good is he, Johnny?”

“One of the best.”

Scott slumped a little;  this was the last thing he wanted to hear.  “Maybe we should re-think this whole thing.”

“No, Scott!  What’s the plan?”

Scott hesitated a moment.  “It’s dangerous, Johnny.”

“Good!”

–  –  –  –  –

The two Lancer brothers, so different but so alike in many ways, rode to Vallefrio together.  On the way, Scott explained his plan for the theft of the notebook he had seen on Diamond’s desk in his study.  He had no plan beyond that, only to steal the notebook and hopefully get as far away as possible before its absence was noticed.  Johnny listened respectfully and nodded his head a few times.  He asked a handful of ‘What if’ questions and posed a couple ‘Be careful’ scenarios, but other than that, he respected and loved his brother enough to allow him to take the lead in this dangerous plan.  And how did Johnny himself fit in to all this?

“You’re my backup, Johnny.  If something happens to me, I want you to grab the notebook and get out of town with it.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you, Scott.”

“Johnny, you’re the one who keeps telling me how dangerous Dan Diamond is . . . “

“He’s unpredictable too and that makes him more dangerous than most.”

“ . . . And I’m playing it close.  He’s going to suddenly be extremely unhappy with me once he sees both me and his notebook missing.  And that gunman of his . . . “

“Nothing’s going to happen to you, Scott.”

Scott reined up his horse and waited for Johnny to stop.  “I know what you’re thinking, Johnny.”

Johnny smiled.

“You’re thinking you’re going to engage Leander in gunplay to get him out of the house . . . “

“The term is ‘call him out,’ Scott.”

“But you yourself said he’s dangerous with a gun.  ‘One of the best,’ you said.  Don’t do it, Johnny.  Get into a fistfight with him.  Or something like that.  Everyone keep their guns holstered.  I just need a diversion, that’s all.  No one has to die.”

“I don’t think Leander remembers me fondly enough to limit himself to fists, Scott.”

“I don’t care!  Your life isn’t worth those forty-four head of cattle.  It’s not worth keeping the people in this town from being cowed by the thug who runs it.  Let Diamond keep on corrupting his town.  We’ve got one chance here, Johnny, and if we make it, we make it.  If not, we’ve tried.  And we’ll still be alive.  I’m worried about you!“

Johnny shrugged again.  “I’ve always said I’d be brought down sometime.  By someone.  Not up to me to say when or where.  I’m a gunfighter, Scott.  That’s always hanging over my head.”

“No, you’re not.”  Scott grabbed his brother’s shoulder.  “You’re Johnny Lancer now.  And you’re my brother.  And I’ll be damned if I’m going to bring you home slung over Barranca’s back!”

Johnny seriously searched his brother’s face and found a number of emotions there, not all of which he understood.  But he understood one – love – because he felt that himself.  He patted his brother’s hand with his own, then said softly one more time, “Nothing’s going to happen to you, Scott.” 

Before Scott had the chance to respond, Johnny suddenly yelled, “Let’s go!,” spurring Barranca into a gallop.  “See you in town!” he yelled back at Scott.

Scott and his horse had both been surprised by the action of Barranca suddenly rearing up before taking off at high speed, but he reflected that he should have expected nothing less from his brother.  Scott shook his head sadly and took off after Johnny.  The plan was for him to arrive first and inside Diamond’s house before Johnny arrived.  They must not be seen together;  it must not be obvious that they know each other.

And it was absolutely imperative that no one realize that they’re brothers!

–  –  –  –  –

As Scott rode into Vallefrio, the rain that had been threatening for so many days finally arrived.  He made it all the way to Diamond’s house before the clouds broke, but he knew Johnny, coming in from a different direction and therefore arriving a few minutes later, would get wet.  Scott remembered that Johnny had not brought raingear and that bothered him, but he had too much on his mind to worry about things like that. 

He stood under the overhang at Diamond’s front door before knocking, studying the town street.  The street was empty as the sudden rain had moved everyone indoors.  He could see faces peeking out from several doorways and windows.  He looked at his own horse, obediently waiting for him.   Scott knew he would most likely be making a hasty exit from the house and he didn’t relish having to jump into a wet saddle and grab wet reins.  He was a good rider but horses could be unpredictable in heavy rains, and it was indeed coming down heavily.

Unpredictable.  Unpredictable and dangerous.  Johnny’s words to describe Diamond, and this could be a deadly combination.  Nothing’s going to happen to me, Scott paraphrased his brother in his mind.  But what about you, Johnny?  What’s going to happen to you?  Dear God – what if something happens to you?!

Scott shivered.  It wasn’t something he wanted to think about.  Besides, it was too late.  Johnny was already on his way to be his backup, whatever that could end up meaning, and Scott knew there wasn’t a better backup man on the face of the planet.  Scott took a breath, squared his shoulders, and smiled.

This was the time.  It was happening.

He raised his hand and knocked on the door.  It was opened almost instantly by Pitch Leander, who smiled at him.

Scott nodded.  “Leander.  Might Dan be at home for a visit?”

“Yeah.  In his study.  Go on in;  he’ll be glad to see you, Mr. Garrett.”

They switched places in the doorway and Leander started walking away from the house in the rain. 

This was a surprise.  “Leander?  You’re going somewhere?”

“Yeah.  Mr. Diamond told me to get lost.  He doesn’t like me there when he has good company.”  And he turned and headed for the saloon.

“But he wasn’t even expecting me!” Scott called after him feebly, and then decided to let it drop.  This was a great stroke of luck!   Leander wouldn’t even be in the house when Johnny arrived!  Scott knew he was perfectly capable of completing his theft without Diamond ever suspecting, and he knew he could subdue the man if he was caught in the act.  Everything suddenly looked good to Scott!  He’d be out of there in no time and on his way to Sacramento with the evidence of Diamond’s multiple crimes, and neither he nor Johnny would face any danger!  This was exactly how a plan should work out!

Scott entered the parlor and, in what he considered a moment of inspiration, turned back to lock the door.  No one could surprise them that way.  He headed for the parlor.  Diamond was talking to someone and laughing.  Could be the cook.  Could be another visitor.  Either way, Scott knew he could handle the situation and he confidently entered the parlor, surprising the two people in the room.

“Scott!” Diamond called, obviously happy to see him.

Scott didn’t answer.  He was focused on the other person in the room.  Elfie.

Scott tried hard to avoid showing any emotion and to focus on the task before him.  Elfie stared at him with wide-open eyes.  There was obvious recognition but no friendliness in her stern expression.  Neither said anything.

Diamond noticed.  “Scott, remember I told you about our front desk receptionist?  I want someone pretty for that job.  And there just isn’t anyone prettier in my town than Elfie!  Elfie, meet Scott Garrett.”

Elfie put a bogus smile on her face and held out her hand.  “Mr. Garrett,” she said woodenly.

Scott had the presence of mind to know he was expected to shake her hand, so he took it in his and squeezed it tightly.  Way too tight, for his anger had to be allayed somehow.  It had to hurt, but Elfie just smiled and said, “My, what a strong handshake.”  Scott nodded;  he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this angry.  So he was right about Elfie!  Here she was consorting with Diamond, in his house, friendly, just the two of them.

Scott forced himself to turn away from her and faced Diamond.  “Has she agreed to sell you her restaurant then?  So she can work for us?”

“Oh yes.  Everyone always agrees to do what I want.  She’s here now to discuss the terms.  Scott, we probably will be wrapping this up shortly.  Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll be with you soon.”

“Gladly,” Scott answered, surprised at the intensity of the iciness in his voice.

“Oh!  Oh, no!  No, Mr. Diamond, you have company and we have business to transact.  I’ll just come back later.  My . . . our . . . business can . . . wait.  I don’t want to . . .to interrupt . . . your . . .”  Elfie moved quickly to pick up her things in preparation for leaving.  She grabbed her hooded shawl as well as her purse, which fell to the floor with a loud thump when she dropped it in her haste.

“Elfie, wait!  We’re almost finished here!”

“No, I . . . Goodbye, Mr. Diamond.  We’ll talk tomorrow.  I’ll just . . . “  She fiddled with the front door before realizing it was locked, and dropped the key while trying to unlock it.  Scott was deeply disappointed in her and no longer found her shyness appealing.  He frowned as he watched her go.

Diamond shook his head.  “Strange woman,” he said under his breath.  “Well, she’s gone for now.  Glad you’re here, Scott, I’ve been thinking of adding some things to the art gallery.  Here’s what we’re going to do . . .“

–  –  –  –  –

It was a good half hour before Scott could get Diamond to leave the room.  Scott had listened to Diamond drone on and on about his wonderful ideas and was ready to tear his hair out.  He needed a break so he excused himself to visit the washroom, and was happy that his suggestive ruse worked.  When he returned, Diamond then left for the same reason.

At last!  Once he knew he was safely alone, Scott shoved the ever-present design plans to the side of the desk.  But this time the notebook was not underneath!  Diamond had moved it!  Scott felt a momentary twinge of panic since he knew everything depended on his being able to find that notebook.  Even Johnny . . . oh no, Johnny!  Johnny would be in town by now, anxiously watching for him to exit Diamond’s house with the notebook.  If he didn’t show up with it, everything would change!  Scott knew Johnny would do anything he had to do to protect Scott from any danger.  He had to make an appearance outside with that notebook.  Johnny had to see him give the ‘all OK’ sign.  They both had to leave town and meet up later on the trail to Sacramento.  Scott shuddered as he thought about what would happen if anything would go wrong.  He knew Johnny was perfectly capable of shifting gears to adjust to any situation, but Scott didn’t want any unnecessary trouble.  Not for his brother, anyhow.

He frantically searched the room, finding nothing.  It seemed highly unlikely that Diamond would have hidden the notebook in the only safe in the house.  He’d want access to it regularly, and it wasn’t technically worth anything.  But where could it be??

Scott recognized he was allowing tension to get the better of him.  He took a deep breath and tried to think logically – where might Diamond have put the notebook?  Or where might he have hidden it, if he’d felt threatened?  Elfie visited recently; maybe he felt threatened by her.  No, they had seemed chummy.

Scott felt his body tensing again as he thought about Elfie lying to him.  He glanced frantically around the room.  Where was that . . . and then he felt it.  Under the rug that Diamond had bragged about . . . there was a small notebook-sized bulge.  Unfortunately, just then Scott heard Diamond heading back to the room.  Quickly Scott lifted the edge of the rug and crawled under to reach forward for the notebook.  He missed it on the first attempt but snatched it on the second.  He stood up immediately, placing the notebook inside his shirt and kicking the rug back in place with his foot.

When Dan Diamond returned to the room, he looked a little suspicious, but Scott dismissed that as his own conscience bothering him.

“Uh . . Dan . . . I think I’ve had enough for now.  Let’s call it a day.  It’s raining and damp and we’ve been talking for a while now and I’m hungry.  I’d like to go to the hotel to get some supper.  Interested?  I can meet you there.”  Scott was backing toward the room exit, closer to the front door, as he spoke.

Diamond never took his eyes off him.  “You’re hungry, Scott?  You don’t want to talk about our little venture any longer?”  He advanced as quickly as Scott backed away.  From the way he was acting and his voice tone, Scott began to wonder if Diamond suspected something.

“Yes, Dan.  I’d like to go to my hotel room and change into dry clothes.  I can meet you downstairs in the restaurant in half an hour.”  Scott’s hotel room was empty for he had already removed all his belongings and put them on his horse, which was tied to a tree at the side of Diamond’s house.  He’d never bothered checking out of the hotel because information like that would no doubt have made its way to Mr. Diamond.

“Maybe I can change your mind, Scott.  I’ve got something right here that you can eat.”  Diamond had reached his desk and opened a drawer to remove a gun.  This gun he pointed at Scott.  “Six bullets.  Lead.  And it’s all for you.  ‘Eat lead’ – isn’t that the expression?”  He chuckled at his own cleverness, but the laughter never reached his eyes.

Scott gauged the distance between himself and the front door – four feet.  But he couldn’t turn around to see if Elfie had re-locked the door when she’d left.  And he’d been so upset at the time that he couldn’t remember.  “What’s this all about, Dan?  What are you doing?” he said to stall for time, continuing to back away.

“Scott, in case it slipped your mind, you just robbed me.” 

“Robbed?  No.  No, of course not, Dan.”

“Just reach inside your jacket and hand me that book, Scott.”  Diamond’s voice was so smooth and the man was so sure of himself that the word ‘oily’ occurred to Scott.  Several things occurred simultaneously to Scott, in fact.  Most importantly – how could he get out of this?  And where was Johnny?  Scott didn’t want him to suddenly show up and have Diamond shoot him on impulse.  Scott would have preferred to die himself instead.

Scott’s hesitation caused Diamond’s voice tone to become ominous.  “Unbuckle and drop your gunbelt with your left hand.  Kick it over by me.  That’s right.  Now reach in your jacket and remove that book.  Hand it to me.”

My God, the man was sure of himself.  Scott figured the only reason he was still alive was because a bullet might puncture Diamond’s precious book.  Scott slowly removed the notebook and reached it out to Diamond.  He held it tantalizingly close and actually managed to get Diamond to come closer to him in an unconscious effort to grab it.

Suddenly Scott lunged at Diamond and knocked him to the ground.  With despair, Scott realized Diamond had managed to hold on to his gun the whole time.  Scott’s gunbelt was lying under Diamond.  From the floor, Diamond fired at him.  Scott dove behind a divan.  Another bullet came close.

He could hear Diamond getting to his feet and heading his way.  Scott was thinking through defensive moves when he heard Diamond say, “Who the hell is that?”  Quickly Scott hazarded a glance around the divan and saw Diamond looking through one of the windows that sided the front door.  Someone was outside and Diamond couldn’t see who it was due to the filmy curtain.  Scott watched Diamond step closer to the door, now leveling his gun on the unknown visitor.  Scott knew it had to be Johnny.  He couldn’t stand the idea of Diamond shooting Johnny, innocently standing outside.  Ignoring all danger to himself, Scott emerged from behind the divan and was about to lunge for Diamond again, when . . .

The door flew open.  Scott couldn’t see who stood outside but noted the look of surprise on Diamond’s face.  His surprise didn’t last long.  Diamond instantly cocked the hammer on his gun, preparing to kill the visitor.

But the visitor shot first.  With a scattergun.  Pieces of Dan Diamond flew everywhere around the room, including on Scott.  Scott ran his sleeve across his eyes to clean them and heard the scattergun drop to the floor.  He was very grateful to still be alive but curious as to why Johnny would choose a scattergun as his weapon of choice.

But Johnny wasn’t standing in the doorway.  Elfie was.

–  –  –  –  –

“He was going to kill me, Scott.  He was going to kill you, too.”  Once Elfie was safely in Scott’s arms, she was able to speak coherently.  “And he killed Todd.  He’s killed lots of folks, that monster.  I’m glad he’s dead.”

Scott tried soothing her with his voice tone.  “You were planning on killing him when you were here earlier, weren’t you?  I think that was a gun I heard when you dropped your purse.”

She shook her head ‘yes.’  “I’ve been planning on killing him for a long time now.  Just waiting for the right moment.  But when I saw you, I had to leave.  I didn’t want to get you involved in my plan.  You’ve been so good to me.  I went home to get a better gun and came back.  I figured you’d be gone by now.”

Scott held her close and ran his hand through her hair.  “Well, I for one am glad that you returned!  I’d be dead right now if you hadn’t!”

“I’m glad too,” she said rather matter-of-factly.  She pulled away from him and straightened her raingear.  “I was afraid I’d miss.  Hard to see through this rain.”

Scott chuckled.  “You wouldn’t miss with a scattergun.  Not from four feet.”

Elfie sighed deeply.  “Well, it’s over.  And I’m glad I did it.  They can take me away now.  I’ve made my peace with it.  I avenged my husband’s murder.”

“Elfie, there might be a trial.  But it was self-defense.  I saw it.  I don’t think he could see your scattergun under your rainjacket.  He was going to kill you, thinking you were defenseless.  Then he would have come for me.  No jury in the land would convict you.”

“Maybe you’re right, Scott, but . . .”  Just then Pitch Leander arrived noisily in the doorway.

Pitch took one look at what was left of his boss lying dead on the floor and incorrectly drew the conclusion that it was Scott who had killed him.  “What the hell!  You’re dead, Garrett!”  He drew his gun.

Elfie said, “No!” but Scott stepped in front of her to shield her.  He had no time to dive for his gun.  Scott awaited his fate.

Then they all heard a bullet strike the wall on the far side of the room.  Clearly it hadn’t come from Leander’s gun, but what was the source? 

Johnny Madrid’s voice called out from the street.  “Get out here, Leander!  We got business!  Quit hiding!”

Johnny!  Of course!  Johnny had been nearby, watching and waiting.  And now he was here!

Leander growled.  From his close proximity, Scott felt the hair on his arms prickle.  The man was pure menace.  As Leander stepped outside into the rain to face Johnny, Scott forgot about Elfie.  In total dread he stepped outside also.

“You’re finally back, Madrid!  I been waiting a long time to bring you down.  I learned a lot since you been here last!”

“Me, too,” Johnny called back to him.  They were about fifteen or twenty feet apart.  “I learned how to be a human being.  You figure that out yet?”

Johnny was clearly intending to rile his adversary.  Scott figured maybe Johnny thought that an angry gunman’s fast-draw might just be slowed down a little by . . .

But he was wrong.

Johnny Madrid and Pitch Leander drew and fired at the same time.

Johnny Madrid and Pitch Leander both slumped to the ground at the same time.

–  –  –  –  –

Scott ran to his brother, on the way having the presence of mind to kick Leander’s gun away from him in case the gunman was still alive.  Scott reached Johnny and sat on the wet ground, cradling his brother’s head in his lap.  “Johnny, please . . . “  Johnny’s eyes were closed and blood was obvious on his shoulder.  The rain was relentless and pelted both of them.  Scott was just about to feel for a pulse when he heard Elfie come up next to him.  “He’s dead,” she said.

No!  Scott was unable to concentrate.  Johnny dead?  His beloved brother dead?  Oh no, no.  Scott cradled his brother in his arms and held him close.  It couldn’t be – it just couldn’t be.  Rain pelted down on him and he was sitting in mud and none of that mattered to him.  The only thing that mattered was that he had lost his beloved brother.

“You know this guy?” Elfie asked.  “Well, if you care about him, you should get him out of this cold rain and over there to the doc’s office so he can take that bullet out.”

Scott vaguely wondered if Elfie meant to say the undertaker instead of the doctor.  And then he saw Johnny’s eyes open!  Johnny was not dead!  Johnny was alive and warm and injured but very much alive.  He blinked in the rain and shook his head lightly.  “Asshole must’ve knocked me out for a second,” he said.  “Is he dead?”

“Yeah, he’s dead,” Elfie answered.

Scott shook his head in wonder.  He looked at Elfie and said, “You meant Leander was dead?”

“Of course.  Who’s this guy, anyhow?”

–  –  –  –  –

“Scott, you don’t look so good,” Johnny said.

The doctor paused in his gauzy wrapping of Johnny’s shoulder long enough to check on Scott.  “He’s right.  You look a little pale.  When I’m done with this one,” he nodded toward his patient, “I’ll have a look at you.”

“No, I’m fine.”  Scott waved it off.

Johnny looked skeptical.  He knew his brother well enough to know better, but he kept his mouth shut.

In a moment, the doctor had finished bandaging & lecturing his patient and Johnny started putting his shirt back on.  “Hmmm.  Looks a little bloody.  Might have to get a new one.”

“Sit down,” the doctor said to Scott.

“No, I’m . . . “

“Sit!”  Johnny said.  “You look worse than I do.”

Reluctantly Scott sat on the table where Johnny had been and submitted to the doctor’s scrutiny.  “Well, I can’t find anything wrong, but I think you should relax for a while.  Looks like there’s something that’s bothering you.”

Scott nodded.  “Sure.”

“How much do we owe you, doc?” Johnny said.

“Not a cent.  Nothing!  It’s a red-letter day in Vallefrio.  Getting rid of that hired gun of Dan Junior’s!  I think the good citizens owe you plenty instead!”

Johnny smiled and patted the doctor on the back.  Once they had left, Scott turned to his brother and said, “Johnny, I’m not going to take my eyes off you ever again!”

Johnny laughed.  “That might get a little boring.  Listen, I’m hungry.  Let’s head over to that restaurant I saw.”

Scott had been more-or-less in a daze since seeing his brother ‘dead.’  Mention of the restaurant and therefore Elfie perked him up a little.  “Yes, let’s do that.  I’d like to talk to her.”

They headed down the middle of the street to the Happy Tummy.  The rain was still coming down and the street was muddy, but everywhere people came out of their buildings to talk to the two of them and congratulate them, including Tim and even people Scott had incorrectly believed were Diamond supporters.   They heard “thank-you”  a lot, as well as other heartfelt gratitude.   Scott had to admonish more than one man who tried to slap Johnny on his back.  “He’s been shot!  Be careful!”   But Johnny said without exception, “It’s OK, Scott, really.”  Everyone seemed very happy with the day’s outcome.

When they got to the Happy Tummy, the door was open and Elfie was sitting at a table talking with a number of townspeople, even the deputy sheriff.  When she saw them, she pulled a couple more chairs around for them.

“Good to see you patched up, Mr. Madrid,” she said.  “I was a little worried about you.  After taking down Pitch Leander and all.”  No one seemed surprised to hear that Johnny Madrid was in their presence.  News did indeed travel quickly in that town.  Johnny got a few more thank-yous for his trouble.  He enjoyed the adulation but watched a little fretfully as Scott asked Elfie if he could speak to her in private. 

Scott handed the precious notebook to Johnny, and then followed Elfie to the kitchen.  She turned to face him.  “The restaurant’s been closed all day, Scott.  I know you’re hungry, but . . .”

“You know that’s not what I want to talk about.”

She shook her head and looked down.  “I know.”

“Elfie . . .”  Scott resisted the temptation to put his arms around her.  “I had some serious  . . . doubts . . . about you, I’m ashamed to say.  I thought we were beginning to mean something to each other, and then I saw . . . you . . . at Diamond’s house.  Looking pretty cozy there.  It seemed like you had lied to me.”

“No, Scott, I never lied to you.”  Elfie shook her head and her tone had become businesslike.  “But I sure couldn’t tell you about my plan to kill Diamond Junior, could I?  That was something I had to do for myself.  I didn’t want anyone else involved.”

“Not even me?”

“Not you, not anyone.  I’m a murderer now.  I’ll have to live with that the rest of my life, even if, as you say, I most likely won’t go to prison for it.”

“It was self-defense.”

“The facts remain, though, that it was pre-meditated.  And I won’t lie about that.  He’s dead, at my hand, and I’m glad of it.”

“Elfie, it looks like everyone is glad about it.  I think you’ve liberated a whole town.”

“Maybe.  But if I have to go to prison, I’ll gladly do it.  I can never get Todd back.  But at least Diamond Junior won’t walk around another day on this earth.”  She closed her eyes and looked to be in pain. 

It was at this point that Scott realized how much she still loved her dead husband.  He knew he really had no chance with her.  It was a painful understanding to come to, but he accepted it.  He took her in his arms and held her for a moment.  She did not respond;  her thoughts were elsewhere.  “If you ever need me, Elfie, you can find me at the Lancer Ranch in Morro Coyo.”  Then he kissed her on the forehead and left.  As he walked back through the restaurant, Johnny noticed how haggard he looked and jumped up to walk with him. 

Their walk back to the hotel just down the street took almost an hour as they were again bombarded by well-wishers, hand-shakers, back-patters (Scott made sure Johnny was able to avoid that part), offers of home-cooked meals, and more thanks.  Once they arrived at the hotel, both Cathy and Nelly hugged Scott and Johnny as the brothers sat in the dining room enjoying their free meal.  Even Nelly’s father, the hotel co-owner, came out to thank him.  They were all happy that Mr. Diamond was no longer holding anything over their heads.  Scott did not ask what it might have been.

After their meal, the Sheriff intercepted them in the hotel lobby and asked to interview both of them.  Apparently observing Johnny up close, he concluded that Johnny did indeed look like a gunfighter capable of outdrawing Pitch Leander.  A fair fight, in his opinion.  He did, however, ask many questions of Scott in regard to the murder of Dan Diamond Jr.  Diamond had apparently been killed instantly.  He fell backward from the force of the scattergun and his thumb was still caught in his own gun.  His position convinced the Sheriff that he had intended drawing on Elfie, but she had expected it and shot him first.

“That’s it,” Scott said wearily.  “I saw it.”

“You can swear to that?”

“Yes.  Will this go to trial, Sheriff?  Must Johnny and I stay in town?”

“Trial?  I doubt it.  That depends on what the judge thinks.  He’ll be in the area next week.  But, no, I don’t think you have to stick around.  You’re from the Lancer Ranch, and I should be able to find you there if I need you.”

Johnny looked at Scott.  Scott seemed exhausted and sad and he was worried for his brother.  “I think we’d better get heading back in the morning, Sheriff.  Getting home will be good for us.”

“Before you leave in the morning, boys, stop in at my office and I’ll have you sign a deposition of the events as you witnessed them.  That should suffice for the judge.”

Scott sighed deeply.  “It’s been a long day,” he said and, without another word, headed upstairs to his room.

–  –  –  –  –

The brothers spent that last night in Scott’s hotel room.  Johnny had briefly considered making one last visit to Francisca but was too worried about his brother to leave his side.  So instead Johnny spent the evening trying to get Scott to talk.   Scott would talk, but not about Johnny’s injury.  Finally Johnny came right to the point and asked his brother outright, “What happened with you when I was shot?”

“I thought you were dead,” came the answer.  And Scott turned away from Johnny and closed his eyes.  No more discussion.

–  –  –  –  –

Scott and Johnny had another interesting talk with the Vallefrio Sheriff regarding the notebook the next morning.  He had apparently spent much of the night perusing it and explained to them that he encountered the written “admission” of almost two hundred crimes, penned by Dan Diamond himself.  The notebook, he explained, was very incriminating evidence and was going to be handed over to the State Attorney General’s office.  Diamond himself would not face prison time since he was dead (Johnny enjoyed that little bit of law humor although Scott didn’t smile), but hopefully his estate would be forced to pay reparations to the many victims of Diamond’s crimes.  Johnny did ask about the forty-four Lancer cows, and, yes, they were listed.  Although Diamond listed the number at fifty, apparently even cheating himself!

Before the two of them left Vallefrio, there was one more meeting with Elfie.  She was waiting for them in the lobby of the hotel as they tried to pay the bill and were again thanked and told they owed nothing. “I came to say good-bye,” she said.  “And to thank you both.  This will be a better town now.”

There were a few things Scott wanted to say to Elfie, but somehow they just didn’t matter anymore.  Instead, he merely mentioned a small point that had been bothering him.  “Elfie,” he said, “when you left Diamond’s place as I arrived, I saw you fiddling with the lock on the front door.  You left it unlocked on purpose, didn’t you?”

“What do you think?” she said.  And then she left.  No longer shy, or coquettish, or adorable.  Just Elfie, a woman who had been wronged and who had sought and received her revenge.  Something, as she said, she would always have to live with.  She was changed forever.

Scott watched her walk back toward her restaurant and envied her.  He knew she had undergone an emotional transformation and wished he could himself.  But he worried it would be a long time before he would be able to forget holding his bleeding brother in his arms.  The brother he loved so much and had believed was dead.

Scott looked at Johnny and tried to smile, but that smile wouldn’t come.  He knew it would be some time before he would feel like smiling again.

–  –  –  –  –

“Forty-four cows,” Murdoch repeated Scott’s lament in a whisper.  He studied his eldest son, the son who was  sitting dejectedly next to him on the bed.  Scott’s eyes were closed but Murdoch could so clearly see the pain behind them.  Murdoch and Johnny had both tried in vain to get Scott to talk about what was bothering him since the sons had returned home.

“Murdoch, he wouldn’t talk to me at all about himself on the ride here.  We discussed Diamond and Leander and Vallefrio and he told me that he thought he’d started to fall in love with Elfie . . .”

“Perhaps that’s it?” Murdoch had suggested.

“I thought so too at first but that’s not it.  He had no trouble talking about her.  It was just himself he wouldn’t talk about.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on in his head.  Or maybe,” Johnny had then put his hand over his heart, “in here.”

Murdoch had smiled gently.  “My sons have always had trouble talking about what’s going on in their hearts,” he’d said.  “Perhaps they get it from me.”

Now, sitting next to Scott, Murdoch absolutely knew he was right.  He knew Scott was hurting, and it was the kind of hurt that could only emanate from love.  And he knew the love was not for Elfie.

Murdoch had sat up most of the night thinking what he would say to Scott.  He found that now that the moment had arrived, nothing he had decided to say really mattered anymore.  All that mattered was what would come spontaneously from his own heart. 

“Scott . . .”  Murdoch’s voice was very soft and soothing.  “When you saw Johnny shot, you assumed he was dead, didn’t you?”

It was a long time before Scott answered and Murdoch waited him out.  Eventually, Scott merely said, “Yes.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Johnny told me you carried him in to the doctor’s office.  You yourself.  And he was talking to you on the way.”

Scott nodded.  “I barely remember.”

“The doctor removed the bullet and I saw the job he did.  He did a fine job.  Johnny tells me the doctor used some kind of pain-killer on his skin and he was awake for the whole procedure.”

Scott shrugged.  “That sounds about . . .”

“Knowing Johnny, he probably joked through the whole thing.  And you saw he walked away from it.  His arm’s in a sling now, but he’s going to make a complete recovery.”

“He’s so . . .”  Scott stopped talking.

“Johnny also told me the doctor was more worried about you.  I expect it’s because you had thought your brother was dead.  More of a shock than you were ready – or able – to handle.”

 “I’ve . . . I’ve seen men die before.”

“But not a brother.  Not Johnny,” Murdoch said gently.  He slipped an arm around his son and simply held him for a moment.  “I think I understand now,” he said softly.  “You saw Johnny shot, right in front of your eyes.  You saw him drop, you held him in your arms, and you thought your brother had died.”

“Yes,” Scott said miserably.

“And this happened right after you realized that Elfie was not ever going to be a part of your life.  In your mind, you had lost two people you loved, not just one.  The timing was bad, Scott.  I think it might have been more than you could handle.”

Scott stared at his father in complete wonder.

Murdoch continued, “You held Johnny close and his blood was on you.  It was just a little too much for you.  You and Johnny have been very close, almost since the beginning . . .”

“Murdoch, I . . . I was wrong.  Wasn’t I?” 

Murdoch noticed there was no more pain in Scott’s eyes, eyes that were now scrutinizing him closely.  Instinctively Murdoch knew his role as a father well.  He knew Scott.  He knew Scott just needed to hear the words.  “Johnny’s just fine, son.  He’s absolutely fine.”

A small smile was beginning to appear on Scott’s face. 

“You’ll heal, Scott,” Murdoch continued in his soft comforting voice.  “You both will.   And someday this will all be forgotten . . . “

Scott stood suddenly.  “Murdoch!  Murdoch!  You’re right!  He’s fine!  I’ve got to . . .  Where’s . . .”  Scott ran to the bedroom door and then turned back to his father.  With tears and a very clear smile in his eyes, Scott said,  “Thank you, Murdoch!  You are a very wise man.”

And then Scott ran out of the room yelling, “Johnny!  Where are . . .?”  Murdoch didn’t hear the rest of Scott’s sentence because Scott had run downstairs to find his brother sitting at the breakfast table and had thrown his arms around him.

–  –  –  –  –

Murdoch lingered in Scott’s room to allow his sons some time alone together.   As he joined them at the breakfast table later, they were finishing up and about to leave.

Johnny said, “Murdoch, why don’t you take the day off?  Scott and I think you look a little tired.”

Murdoch chuckled.  “No, there’s work to be done.  I might knock off a little early, but that’s about it.”  He looked at Scott and smiled.  Scott was back to his normal self.

“Well, Murdoch,” Scott said, “you did tell me you didn’t sleep well.  And you are getting older.”  Both brothers laughed.  “Come on, Johnny, we’d better get out there and get some real work done.”

“That’s right, brother.  You’ve got to work off all those pies you ate!”

“Pies?” Murdoch inquired.

Scott stood at attention.  “I donated my body to the gathering of intelligence information to be used against the enemy, Sir!”  He saluted.

They all laughed.  Johnny and Scott put their arms around each other as they walked out the door.  “See you later, Murdoch!” they called back to him.  Murdoch stood and watched them from the doorway.  His sons’ good-natured bickering had resumed and he listened happily. 

Scott’s voice called out, “I want you to stop calling me Mr. Garrett!  Or I will endlessly quote Euclid to you!”

And then Johnny yelled, “You can quote My-clid or anyone else’s.  I never listen to you anyway!”

Things were back to normal and Murdoch was very content.  His sons would have the day together and this was one of many things that made him happy.  He smiled as he watched them playfully punch at each other, Scott careful to avoid hurting Johnny’s arm.

Murdoch turned back to his breakfast.  Then something suddenly occurred to him.  He looked back at them, only to see his boys disappearing into the barn. Did Johnny just call Scott . . . Mr. Garrett?

.

June 2022

.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email goldieasj directly.

26 thoughts on “Diamond by goldieasj

  1. This was a really interesting story, that held my interest all the way through. Did you actually add up how many horses and men’s feet there were? I was tempted to get out my calculator and do the math, but restrained myself LOL. I was glad nobody was killed, as the intro seemed to imply, and that all turned out happily. Very much enjoyed it.

    Like

      1. Rita, I’m very happy you enjoyed the story. Thank you for taking the time to read and to leave a comment.

        Like

  2. Eleanor,

    Ha ha! That’s my little secret – and Scott’s! I’m so happy you took the time to read “Diamond,” and glad you enjoyed it so much. Thank you for letting me know!

    Like

      1. Jill, I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Sorry about causing concern at the beginning, but sometimes it’s necessary LOL! Thank you for reading and commenting.

        Like

    1. Charlene,
      So happy you saw it as an episode, an image I strive to create. And thanks for writing to let me know!

      Like

  3. This was a really good story. Loved all the characters that were introduced and the love between Scott and Johnny especially
    Thank you!

    Like

  4. Another great story! I confess that after reading the initial part I cheated and scrolled ahead to be sure it wasn’t a death fic…was I the only one who did that? It ruined nothing, of course I simply had to read all that was inbetween!

    Like

  5. janbrac,

    LOL! I promise you I will never EVER kill off one of our characters, so you’ll be safe in the future! Thank you for sticking it out. I appreciate you leaving a comment!

    Like

  6. I almost looked at the end to make sure Johnny hadn’t been killed but I didn’t. That’s a great hook because the story is
    irresistible after that. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    Like

    1. Debra,

      Glad you found the story irresistible! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to leave me a comment letting me know you enjoyed it!

      Like

  7. What a great story ! I also was afraid that Johnny had died when I was reading the beginning even though I am a Scott girl ! Thank you for writing this story.

    Like

  8. Caterina, I appreciate you taking the time to read the story and letting me know that you liked it! Thank you!

    Like

  9. Thanks for your very good and enjoyable story. I needed some Scott and Johnny escapism today. I really enjoyed Scott playing lead detective while Johnny entertained himself. Good job, fun story!

    Like

  10. Jane Elise,

    Thank you for your lovely comment. Glad I could fill in your day for you so nicely. I appreciate you reading and commenting!

    Like

  11. You had me in the beginning! I was dreading reading the worst and was afraid of it coming up in the next part, and the next, and the next. Ha ha. Great read!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: