Word count: 25,327
Johnny Lancer and his father, Murdoch, entered the white hacienda which had been their home since Johnny’s birth. Of course, when Murdoch had first built what would become Lancer, it had not been as elaborate; but with prosperity and the return of his dark-haired son, the tall Scot had decided that it was time to build a true home, befitting his growing empire.
In those early days, Johnny’s mother, Maria, had reigned as the mistress of the house, until one day she had left her husband, unable to abide the loneliness of her position. The unfortunate woman of passionate nature had not been able to understand the cool disposition of her husband. He had seemed so different as a suitor, indeed she had offered him her body in a moment of rapture, only to realize that motherhood had brought her little comfort in her husband’s attentions.
With the addition of an heir, the tall man with whom she shared a bed seemed to drive himself even harder as if to create the perfect world for his small black-haired son with the sapphire eyes. Maria had smiled with thanks in her heart the first time she had seen Murdoch pick up the small babe. He had been so tender, so loving. Surely some of that love would be spent on his wife who had presented him with this small miracle. But it had not been so. While he accorded her the respect due his spouse, something had been lacking. The fiery blood of Maria Lancer needed to be met in kind, but in the beautiful woman’s eyes, her husband’s love focused on only one thing—his mistress, his passion—the land called Lancer. As a by-product of that obsession was her spouse’s pride and plans for their son who would one day be the master of the magnificent ranch.
Then, one day two years after Johnny’s birth, Maria Lancer had fled from Lancer, taking the boy with her. In her desperation, she hoped that the move would force Murdoch to reevaluate their relationship. To her regret and humiliation, it had done no such thing.
While the Lancer owner had made a perfunctory search for his wife and son, he had quickly given up looking. To a man of his pride it was difficult to admit that his own wife had abandoned him, seemingly for another man. After all, he had worked hard to create a comfortable world for his wife and son which should have cemented their life together.
As the weeks had passed by, Maria’s resolve to remain apart from Murdoch waned until the day she met a man with gleaming black eyes and a silver-tongue who spoke the words her lonely heart needed to hear. The gambler praised her beauty and the appeal of her son spoke to his rambling heart so he seemed to be an ideal companion until the day he found himself on the winning side of a poker game. Even his silver-tongue could not stop the bullet fired by the disgruntled loser.
The beautiful woman had not mourned long. She could not afford such indulgence and in her own pride so could not return to the husband who had found other consolation . Maria tried to find respectable work, but as she regretfully had to acknowledge, she had been raised to be the chatelaine of a great house. In her girlish fantasies she had also seen herself as the object of adoration who presided over the manor, not merely as a possession, but as an equal.
Stiffening her resolve to make a life for Johnny and herself, Maria had taken a job as a maid in the household of a small landowner. The man had a wife who was an invalid so he needed someone to help his wife while he was taking care of the ranch. He had even welcomed the small boy to the household since he and his wife were childless. The situation had seemed ideal for a period of weeks until one evening, the man had returned late at night to the ranch house. It was immediately obvious that he had been drinking so Maria had offered him a cup of her excellent coffee. Instead, he had begun to make suggestions about other needs. Embarrassed for herself and his wife, the woman had tried to divert his attention, but it had not worked. Pushing her into the bedroom she shared with Johnny, he took his pleasure of her body before wandering back to his own room.
Later when all was quiet, Maria wrapped her son in warm clothes and fled the accursed house. That began her descent into the hell that ended with her death from pneumonia a few months later. In the last days as her strength slipped towards its finality, she had swallowed whatever pride she had remaining and asked the local priest to contact Murdoch Lancer. He had appeared just in time to receive from the priest’s arms, the small wriggling boy that he had not seen for nearly a year. On the nearby cot lay the thin body of the woman he had once loved so much. After arranging for her burial, Murdoch Lancer had returned to Lancer, a Lancer that once again had an heir.
In the next two decades, Murdoch continued to build his empire, acquiring acres of land and herds of cattle. Each step was planned as carefully as a military campaign. He wanted, no he needed to have the finest ranch in California and one day it would all be Johnny’s. That fact was as real as the air they breathed. Twice a year, on Murdoch’s and on Johnny’s birthdays, the two would ride to the great overlook and the rancher would proudly point to the snow-capped mountains and say the magic words, “From here all the way to those peaks, it’s all ours and one day it will all be yours.”
Of course, initially the small boy didn’t understand as he sat on the horse in front of his father, but then came the memorable day came when the sapphire-eyed boy stared out at the landscape and echoed his father’s words, “M-mine?”
Murdoch had tousled the dark hair, giving the boy a hug. “Yes, John—yours and don’t let anyone ever take it from you!”
The solemn blues opened even wider at his father’s admonition. “Mine!” And this time there was no hesitation, no question. Lancer truly had its heir.
Over the next two decades, that thought became ingrained in both men as land-hungry men tried to nibble away at the boundaries of their land. There were always scoundrels who resented their success and wanted what they had not earned themselves so Johnny and Murdoch had little time to enjoy the fruits of their labors when there was a constant demand to protect what was theirs. Naturally, Murdoch hired men to help them since two men could not manage 100,000 acres alone. As a result, Paul O’Brien and his wife came to live at Lancer. O’Brien was foreman in name only since everyone knew that Murdoch gave the orders, but their relationship was a comfortable one—and O’Brien’s loyalty was unquestioned.
Murdoch rejoiced with his foreman when his wife Angela gave birth to a daughter a year later. The small babe, named Teresa, was virtually ignored by the Lancer scion since she was a girl. He was too interested in ranching to care about the squalling infant, but as she grew and began to toddle after him, he tried to exhibit some patience with the little girl. After all, her father worked for him or at least for his father. One of the first things Murdoch Lancer had instilled in his son was the need to realize that Lancer could not survive without trustworthy help–as such Paul O’Brien was invaluable. Also, it was quite apparent that his father had a soft spot in his heart for the determined little girl.
As Johnny matured, Murdoch made a point of stifling his natural protectiveness for the boy. It was not enough that Johnny would be the heir to a great ranch, he had to be man enough to keep it and help it to prosper. The boy could not be weak or there would always be those willing to take advantage. And in the years that followed there were certainly those who tried, none more so than Day Pardee.
By the time, Johnny was twenty, his proficiency with a gun had reached legendary proportions. The hands enjoyed watching him practice, knowing that his skill would be used to great advantage if it ever became necessary. When Pardee began his raids, it was obvious that the brunet’s skill and those of Murdoch’s men would be needed if Lancer was to endure.
As the great ranch struggled for survival, Murdoch lost one of his bulwarks with the death of Paul O’Brien which was compounded by his own serious wound. When he passed out at the side of his foreman’s body the patriarch’s only comfort was that Johnny would be around to continue the fight. Fortunately, although his recovery was slow, Murdoch Lancer did rally and along with his son and the few remaining loyal hands dealt out defeat to Pardee and his raiders, securing Lancer for at least a measure of time.
With some semblance of peace, Murdoch brought Teresa into the household, offering her a place in the only home she had known. It was with a sad feeling in his heart that the tall man watched as Teresa placed flowers on the graves of her parents, but the indomitable young woman had mourned inwardly, throwing herself into the running of the household.
Finally, it seemed that Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa could now take the time to enjoy their dream.
Upon entering the white building, Johnny rubbed his stomach and announced in a loud voice, “Sure hope Teresa had dinner about ready. I am starving.”
His father made no answer as he had stopped short in front of his trailing son. Sitting there on one couch was a tall, slender young man with blond hair and blue eyes. Standing up, the young man hesitantly walked towards the taller man.
Johnny, who hadn’t been paying attention, bumped into his father. “Hey, Murdoch, what’d you stop for?”
The white-faced rancher said not a word, but just stared at the blond man in front of him.
At that moment, the dark-haired Lancer too caught sight of the stranger. “Who the hell are you and where’s Teresa? he demanded.
Forthrightly, “I believe Miss O’Brien is in the kitchen preparing coffee. She should be out in a moment. My name is Scott Lancer and I believe we are brothers, John.”
The pugnacious Lancer son moved closer to the stranger, “The name’s Johnny and you’re lyin’! I don’t have any brothers!”
The tall man at his side grabbed the younger man’s arm. “Johnny, calm down. He’s not lying. Let’s go over and sit down. I. . .I’ll explain.”
As the three Lancers took their places with Johnny sitting on the couch next to his father and Scott across the room, Teresa entered carrying a tray with cups of coffee and plates of cookies. Seeing the grim faces on the two men of her household, she calmly put down the tray down then added the decanter of brandy to the tray before bringing it over.
“Gentlemen, I’ll leave you to your talk.”
Murdoch looked up at the young woman gratefully. “Thank you, Teresa. Perhaps, you could delay dinner for an hour or so?”
“I already took the pot off the heat. Take your time. I’m sure there’s a great deal to say.”
As soon as the brown-haired girl had left the room, Johnny’s curiosity burst out. “Are you gonna tell me the truth or not?”
Nervously, the rancher poured a small amount of the brandy into his cup and took a gulp. “Johnny, I know this is difficult for all of us, but I need you to be patient and listen while I’m explaining about Scott and his mother.”
The impassive easterner leaned forward to take his cup of coffee, added a smidgeon of milk and leaned back to listen as well.
“Some twenty-five years ago, I met a young woman named Catherine Garrett. She lived in Boston, but I had dreams of starting my own ranch here in California. She agreed to marry me and start a new life out here. The only problem was her father. Harlan Garrett was a wealthy, successful man who didn’t want his daughter to marry a man with no prospects and practically right off the boat from Europe.” Murdoch glanced over at Scott to see if there had been any change in his expression then continued. “After a tense period, we left for California. Of course, Lancer was nothing like it is today. The days were back-breaking with work and Catherine had some difficulty adjusting to such a primitive life, but we were happy. Then, she told me that she was carrying my child. Naturally, I was ecstatic, but just like with Pardee there were many real dangers and so after some months I asked Paul O’Brien to take Catherine to a safer place. Unfortunately, the trip or her delicate health caused her to. . .deliver the baby early. The midwife was the only one there and evidently she couldn’t handle the difficult birth. Before Catherine. . .died Harlan Garrett arrived and took custody of Scott. Before I could get to Cartersville, he left for Boston with my son.”
Face flushed with angry, Johnny hissed, “You let an old man take somethin’ that belonged to you?”
On the other side of the room a cold voice emphatically announced, “Johnny, the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865 so I did not belong to my grandfather. He did what he thought was best for me, just as I assume your father did five years later.”
Sapphire eyes swiveled from the blond to the gray-haired man. “What’s he talkin’ about?”
Taking another gulp of the coffee, Murdoch stammered, “When S-Scott was five, I. . .I traveled to Boston hoping to. . .to convince Garrett to hand him over to me. He threatened to take me to court so I returned to Lancer.”
“You backed off from a fight?”
“Johnny, it wasn’t a fight with guns or fists, I just didn’t think I could spend years fighting such a powerful man and in the end, I thought. . .I hoped it would be better for Scott to be raised by his grandfather. A week after I returned from Boston I received the message from your mother and I got you back.”
“Mr. Lancer, obviously I did not know that you had married again or that you had another son or I would not have come here.” The slender man in his fine suit stood and started for the bedroom where his bag had been placed. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to stay here for tonight and then I’ll continue with my trip.”
Murdoch took a close look at the pale face of the son he hadn’t seen in twenty years. “You. . .you don’t have to go. Why not spend a few days? You could send. . .Garrett a telegram telling him you’ll be delayed.”
“That won’t be necessary. My destination is San Francisco, not Boston. My grandfather died a few months ago and I thought, well, I thought it would be nice to know the man who I vaguely remember looming over me at my birthday party.”
“Yes, and as I have inherited a considerable fortune, I decided to do some traveling. However, I never intended to cause a problem between you and your son. I didn’t even know he existed, just as he obviously had no knowledge of me so I believe the best solution is to pretend that I never made this visit.”
The youngest Lancer jumped up. “And just how the hell are we supposed to do that? You poke your nose where you’re not wanted and then all of a sudden you want to pretend you didn’t? Well, let me tell you it don’t work that way. I don’t believe your story about just wantin’ to visit, but it’s fine with me if you’re on that next stage out!”
On that note the short man stalked out of the great room towards the stable.
Murdoch Lancer’s shoulders slumped before he turned back to his older son. “I. . .I apologize for his behavior. This has been quite a shock. I should have told him about Catherine before.”
“It doesn’t matter, Mr. Lancer, as I said I didn’t intend to stay. I promised my grandfather that I would visit Lancer and now I’ve kept my promise.”
The tall man shook his head in bewilderment. “I don’t understand. Why would you promise Garrett something like that?”
“My grandfather was, above all, a realistic man. When he knew he. . .he wouldn’t recover, he asked me to promise that I would travel and find a place to call home. You see he knew that a staid life in Boston wasn’t for me nor did I want to follow in his profession. With the money he left me in his will and my grandmother’s trust fund, Grandfather knew that I could start a new life anywhere I chose. He said I owed it to myself to meet you and make my own decisions, just as he had done as a young man—and as you did.”
“Scott, Johnny’s feelings aside, there are things that you and I need to talk about. Would you reconsider staying here—for a week at least?”
Steel blue eyes glared back at the tall man. “Somehow, I find it hard to believe that we can resolve twenty-five years in a week, but I’m willing to stay for a few days—as long as your son doesn’t object.”
“Leave it to me. I’ll talk to him.”
“Fine. I’ll clean up before dinner.”
“Do that. I’m going to go talk to Johnny. He is so like his mother.”
In a soft voice, Scott replied, “Grandfather sometimes said I was like my mother. Maybe in a few days, you’ll be able to tell me if that’s true.” He then walked slowly into the guestroom.
Stretching his long body, Murdoch stood up to go outside and search for his missing son. He had a hunch that the impetuous boy would be in the stable with his favorite palomino. Over the years Johnny had developed the habit of spending time grooming his horse when he was troubled, and it was quite obvious that the revelations about Scott’s existence had struck deep. Not that the patriarch could blame his younger son. Seeing the slender blond man standing there in the great room had brought back many painful memories, not the least of which was the small boy, dressed in his birthday finery. At the time Murdoch had stubbornly believed that he had the best possible thing for himself and his older son, but a small doubt had remained which he had pushed to the back of his mind as the years had passed. The joy of Johnny’s return had filled the emptiness as had his need to create and consolidate his empire. Now, at least he had the heir he had always desired so that his dream would not die. But Johnny, and eventually Teresa had eventually become more. They loved Lancer with an obsession that matched his own and so the trio had formed an unbreakable bond, but now there was a small crack in the bond—in the form of one slim man from Boston.
Slipping quietly into the stable, Murdoch was relieved to see Johnny murmuring softly to Barranca as he curried and combed the golden coat. “Johnny?”
The sapphire eyes swung round to gaze at him without hesitation. “So have you come out here to skin my hide for what I said to that. . .that dandy?”
“No. I came out here to ask you to be polite to a guest.”
Johnny spit onto the dirt floor. “Guest? He wants his share of Lancer!”
“You don’t know that! I’ve asked him to stay for a week.”
“Oh ho, so now you’ve talked him into staying past tomorrow. How convenient for him!”
“Johnny, I know that I should have told you about. . .Catherine and Scott before, but the fact is that he is here and is a guest in our house. I expect you to be civil to him. Do you understand?”
“Guest? He’s your son!”
“And your brother!”
“Son, you know that you have been everything to me since. . .since you returned to Lancer as a boy. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you, but I need you to try to get along with Scott for a short time. It’s not likely that you’ll ever have to see him again after he leaves.”
“I can’t guarantee that, but I think this is a good lesson for you. You won’t like every man you do business with, but you can get along with them. Words and understanding can be just as powerful as a gun used in the correct way. Now, do I have your word that you’ll be polite to Scott while he’s here?”
Johnny hesitated and then gave in. “You’ve got it.”
“Good. I only have one other thing to ask of you. I want you to go in and apologize to him for your rudeness.”
A thundercloud formed on the dark-haired man’s brow. “I won’t.”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “I can’t force you to. I’ll be inside working on the books. Dinner will be ready in an hour.”
Johnny Lancer continued to brush his horse’s coat as the anger within his body percolated to boiling. For twenty years he had worked at his father’s side, building, sweating and bleeding and now that pasty-faced dandy had turned up to take what belonged to Johnny.
It wasn’t only the land, he told himself. Murdoch’s affection was not to be shared with anyone else. Well, maybe Teresa, but she was a girl and no threat. This easterner was his father’s first-born. In his heritage, Johnny knew how important that was. Could the blond weasel his way between Johnny and his father? All that Johnny was shouted no, he wouldn’t allow anyone to take what was his. Hadn’t Murdoch pounded that into his head all these years?
But then the young man remembered the look of disappointment in the gray eyes. Perhaps his father was right and this Scott was only a temporary cloud in the blue sky of Lancer. If he treated this stranger as a guest, his father would be happy and Johnny could find out just what the blond truly had in mind.
Determined to discover Scott Lancer’s true plans, Johnny’s resolve stiffened his spine as a hazy plan began to form in his brain. If his “brother” was sincere and left within a week, all well and good, but if he had skullduggery in mind, the blond would find out that Johnny Lancer never ran away from a fight.
Finishing his work with Barranca, Johnny entered the house. To his relief Murdoch was not in the great room, but in the kitchen talking to Teresa where he was probably informing the girl of the situation. Walking over to the guestroom door, Johnny knocked and entered. The blond man had removed his suit jacket and boots and was seated on the bed, reading a book. Swallowing, Johnny asked, “Could I talk to you a minute?”
“I. . .I just wanted to say I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I guess you were as surprised to find out about me as I was to find out about you.”
The blond paused significantly before saying anything. “I understand. It’s not easy for either one of us, but I assure you I didn’t come here to make any claim on Lancer.”
“That’s what Murdoch said. Sorry if I was wrong about you. Sometimes I get a little hotheaded. Anyway, I think Murdoch wants to show you the ranch tomorrow and I thought, well, if you want to, me and some of my friends might take you out huntin’ with us on Saturday. There’s also a dance on Saturday night we could attend. There are lots of pretty girls in the valley to dance with. Uh, ‘course I guess you can ride and dance, can’t you?”
“You don’t have to worry about me, Johnny. There are excellent riding schools as well as dancing schools in Boston.”
“Great, so we’ll plan on it. Teresa can cook whatever we shoot. Speaking of that, I ‘spect dinner will be ready soon so come on out whenever you’re ready.”
“Thanks, I will.”
Dinner that evening turned out to be more pleasant than anyone would have imagined. After a strained silence, Scott started to talk about some of the European cities he had visited which kept Teresa enthralled. Johnny concentrated on his food, but did have to admit that Scott told a good story—even if he himself wasn’t interested in all those foreign places. As for the patriarch, he was pleased that Johnny was making an effort to be polite to their visitor. His hopes for a peaceful week grew. After Scott helped Teresa remove the dishes to the kitchen and helped her to wash up, he retreated to the guestroom. The long trip and tense emotions of earlier had left him exhausted.
Taking out his journal, Scott lay down in the bed to write as he had done nearly every night for five years. This neat summary of the day’s happenings always seemed to prepare him for sleep. He had written only a few words when there was a knock at the door and his father peeked his head in. “Mind if I talk to you a minute?”
“Come in, Sir.”
“Uh, Scott, would you mind calling me Murdoch while you’re here?”
“If you’d like.”
“Thank you. I understand that Johnny came to see you?”
“Yes, he apologized and offered to take me hunting on Saturday with some friends of his.”
The rancher nodded. “That would be Wes and Tom. They work on the ranch and are his best friends. I hope you’ll enjoy it.”
“I hope so although I’m not too fond of hunting.”
“Uh, would you want to take a tour of the ranch with me tomorrow? I have some free time and I thought you might like to see it.”
“I’d be delighted. From what I saw on the drive out here, the scenery is spectacular.”
“Yes, it is, but Lancer is more than beautiful. It represents years of sacrifice and work.”
“Believe me, I do understand, Sir. . .I mean Murdoch. My grandfather said the same thing about his business. His family consisted mostly of fishermen who lived north of Boston, but he wanted a different life. I think my grandmother, my mother and I were the only things that meant more to him than his work.”
“Catherine never talked much about her family for obvious reasons I guess. Anyway, I always like to start a work day early so I’ll meet you in the kitchen for coffee and biscuits at dawn. Is that all right?”
“Fine. I’ll see you then. Goodnight.”
Little butterflies skittered through the blond’s insides as he thought about what the morrow might bring. Still it was only for a week. A man could endure anything for a week and at least both his father and his brother were talking to him.
Shrugging off his pessimism, Scott opened his journal to continue his entry:
I have done as you asked and am here at Lancer. Hopefully, it will not be the greatest mistake of my life. It is beautiful here and not at all like Boston, but it is lonely too. I find myself wishing that you were here with me. I can see the distrust in Johnny’s eyes.
Well, I suppose that is only to be expected. It is Murdoch who puzzles me most. He seems to want me here and yet seems to fear it. Ah well, I am too tired to think anymore about it tonight. I have to get up at dawn to go on a tour of Lancer. It’s too bad that there isn’t someone to blow reveille. It has been a long time since I rose at dawn. Your loving grandson, Scott.”
Placing the book on the nightstand, Scott turned the lamp low before falling into sleep. His first day at Lancer was over.
After a quick breakfast of coffee and biscuits, Scott and Murdoch Lancer walked out to the stable to get their horses. “Scott, you have your choice of horses, except for Johnny’s palomino. He’s a bit possessive about Barranca.”
Glancing over at the horse with the golden coat, Scott smiled. “He looks to be a fine animal, but I believe I’ll take that chestnut over in the end stall.”
“Uh, that’s Firecracker. He’s, well, he’s spirited, if you know what I mean.”
Wryly, the blond assured the older man that he could handle the horse.
Although slightly concerned, Murdoch didn’t make any further protest.
By the time that the two men had reached the north range, the rancher was more than satisfied that his older son could take care of himself on a spirited horse. As they paused to take in the majesty of the nearby snow-capped peaks, Murdoch took the opportunity to carefully observe the younger man. The pale eastern face had picked up some color during the ride and since Scott was now wearing clothes that any cow hand might have chosen, it was almost easy to believe that the Bostonian had always lived at Lancer. Just that flickering thought brought a sigh of regret to the tall man.
“Is something the matter,. . .Murdoch?”
“No, no, I was just wondering where you learned to ride so well?”
“In the cavalry.”
“Cavalry? You mean during the War?”
“I joined a Massachusetts cavalry troop in ’63.”
“Harlan Garrett let you fight in the war?”
Scott’s blue eyes shuttered over. “As I said to your son, Grandfather did not own me. He. . .he would have preferred for me to stay in Boston, but I wanted to go and I did.”
Seeing the determination in those cold blue eyes, Murdoch could almost imagine the titanic struggle between Garrett and the man on the horse opposite him. “I had no idea.
We were apart from the War out here. Many Californians, including some of the hands, went east to fight, but fortunately Johnny was too young and I was very grateful for that. I just never imagined that you. . . .”
“It was a long time ago, but that’s one of the reasons I decided to leave Boston. I thought being out here would make it easier to make a fresh start. Naturally, I didn’t want to leave my grandfather alone, but now that there’s only me to worry about, I thought it was time to take the chance.”
“I’m glad you did. Now, would you like to head towards the south range? We’ve got even more cattle there.”
A shy smile crossed the easterner’s handsome face. “We had beef a lot in the Army. I wonder if I ever ate any Lancer cattle?”
“Probably. The Army was always buying from us.”
“Truthfully, most of what I had was none too good. The cooks would barely cook some of it. When I got back to Boston, I didn’t have beef for over two years!”
“Well, I hope you’ve learned to eat it again because we have it almost every day for dinner. Teresa’s always complaining that she moos in her sleep!”
Scott’s smile stretched into a grin. “She seems to be a wonderful young woman. She didn’t bat an eyelash when I knocked on the door yesterday and introduced myself as Scott Lancer.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without Teresa. I still feel guilty that her father died because I acted so rashly.”
“Sir, if I learned one thing in the War it was that life’s too short for regrets. We all make mistakes. Miss O’Brien seems to be very close to you and your son and certainly doesn’t blame you for what happened.”
“I know. She’s warm-hearted and generous. I just hope that one day she’ll meet a man who can give her the love she deserves.”
“You don’t want her to marry your son?”
Sheepishly, Murdoch replied, “Oh, I thought about it once, but they’re too much like brother and sister. He can be. . .selfish and he constantly takes advantage of her desire to please. Well, I guess I do too, but I want Teresa to have a man who cherishes her for herself—not just because she’s a good cook or sews well! Besides, they’re both too young to be thinking of anything like that!”
“I would agree with you there, Sir. The choice of a marriage partner is probably the most important decision a man or woman can make.”
Murdoch nodded. “What about you, Scott? Did you leave anyone special in Boston?”
“I was engaged once, but it didn’t work out. Who knows maybe I’ll meet some beautiful woman in San Francisco? There are so many possibilities out here.”
“That certainly is true. Now, we’d better get a move on. There’s a lot I want you to see before we head back.”
After riding together for a half-hour, the two men were astonished to see the flying golden figure rushing towards them with Johnny Lancer on his back. Reining to a halt, Johnny pushed back his hat which had threatened to fly off in his mad dash.
Eyes narrowing, Murdoch inquired, “Johnny, what are you doing up here? I told you to finish the fencing on the south range.”
“It’s done so I thought I’d just mosey up this way and see what our guest thinks of the place.”
“It’s magnificent, but I’m sure you’ve been told that many times, Johnny.”
“Well, sure, but it’s always good to hear again. Me and Murdoch have worked hard to make this place what it is. Hell, Murdoch almost got himself killed by Day Pardee.”
“Yes, I believe I remember hearing that name, but I didn’t know you had been seriously injured, Mr. Lancer.”
The oldest Lancer addressed his older son with an air of embarrassment, “I was shot in the back and had some trouble with my leg for some time. That was the night Teresa’s father was killed. Fortunately, Johnny had spent the night in town with Wes and Tom.”
“If I’d a been there, we’d of got that stallion back. Well, at least in the end, we stopped Pardee, just like we’ve stopped anybody who tried to take what’s ours.”
On that note, the three Lancers began to pick up the pace, anticipating a return to the ranch for a hot meal when Johnny stopped as he suddenly realized that Scott was mounted on Firecracker. “Well, well, that riding school in Boston must be damn good if they can teach you to ride a horse like Firecracker. He looks a little restless to me. Whattya say you ‘n me have a little race—brother against brother?”
“Johnny, I don’t think that’s. . . .”
Scott held up a protesting hand. “It’s all right, Sir. Johnny is right. Firecracker does need a good run. Shall we go?”
With that the chestnut burst forth in long strides heading along the open range, rejoicing in his sudden freedom. Behind him flew the golden palomino and his own rider. Barranca had already been tested on the earlier ride, but his great heart did not falter as the long legs gained their rhythm in the effort to catch up to the red.
Much farther behind, Murdoch cursed under his breath. He knew that both young men were excellent riders, but something unexpected could always happen.
The unexpected did happen shortly under a mile later. Due to treacherous ground fencing had been placed around some rocks and trees and extended to another area of fencing where a gate had been placed. During a recent storm one of the trees had fallen taking a portion of the fencing with it so the tree continued to act as natural fencing. As such the overworked hands had not taken the time to remove the fallen tree and replace it.
Coming upon the barrier, Scott barely hesitated but sent his magnificent mount sailing over the tree with inches to spare. Landing gracefully, the horse circled and then was brought to halt as Scott watched the golden horse also take the leap without hesitation. Both young men stayed in place so that their horses could rest their heaving sides while they waited for Murdoch to catch up to them. When he did, they could see that he was not pleased with their antics, but he said nothing for the moment.
Riding back to Lancer at a more sedate pace, Johnny glanced over at the blond once more. “Didn’t know riding schools taught jumping like that.”
Innocently, Scott replied, “Of course, they do. You never know when an irate father will be after you and you’ll have to flee for your life!”
“Hey, really? You know that almost happened to me one time. I just kissed this girl and her daddy came out ‘n. . . .”
“John Lancer! When did this happen? Is that why Daniel Winston won’t speak to me anymore?”
Johnny gave his father a sick grin. “Uh, well, she asked me to kiss her ‘n I didn’t know her daddy was home!”
The two younger Lancer could almost see the steam coming out of the older man’s ears.
“We will not discuss this now, John, but after dinner. . . .”
“Uh, sure, Murdoch, uh, I can hear the dinner bell. I’m gonna ride ahead and let Teresa know we’re comin’.” Once again the palomino was put in motion.
Watching Johnny make his escape, Scott questioned the man on the other horse. “Excuse me for asking, but isn’t Lancer too far away to hear the dinner bell?”
“Johnny can hear the dinner bell at fifty miles.”
That succinct observation sent both men into paroxysms of laughter.
As the four people took their places for dinner that evening, Scott glanced at the large platter which graced the middle of the table. On it was a great slab of roasted beef, accompanied by caramelized onions and carrots, browned potatoes and sweet parsnips. It smelled wonderful to the hungry men who devoured it with their eyes. Dishing up, Teresa handed over full plates to Murdoch and Johnny who dug in immediately.
Handing another full plate to Scott, Teresa gave him a shy smile which seemed to implore that he would find favor with the simple dish. After taking a small taste of the meat, Scott looked the girl in the face and simply said, “Moo.”
Since the brown-haired girl knew her cooking talents, she had been expecting a “Well done” or other praise, but this comment floored her until she looked over at Murdoch who could barely keep himself from laughing.
Stiffening a bit, Teresa remarked, “It would seem that someone at this table has been telling tales out of school.”
The cool blue eyes of Scott Lancer met Teresa’s brown before he apologized. “Please forgive me if you thought I was impertinent. This dinner is excellent, but I know it must be difficult to vary your menu at times.”
The young woman relaxed slightly as she agreed. “I do get rather tired of cooking so much beef. Sometimes, I wish Murdoch would buy a flock of sheep so I could try lamb!”
The gasps of horror from the end of the table brought a look of glee on Teresa’s pretty face. “Teresa, I’m gonna wash your mouth out with soap for that one!”
“Just you try it, Johnny Lancer! Thank goodness we have pigs and chickens around here or I suspect you’d be the one mooing with all you eat!”
The younger son’s face took on a grin. “Can I help it if I’m a growin’ boy? ‘Sides every time I eat a slab of beef, I’m makin’ business for us!”
“Hahmm! Actually, you’re not, Son, since you’re consuming it without paying for it.”
“Well, if you wanta put it that way, but I think I’ve earned my share all these years.”
“I’m not denying that. Without you, Teresa, and the hands, Lancer would be just a shadow of what it is today.”
Taking another large bite of meat, a mollified Johnny Lancer took advantage of his father’s comment to remark, “I’ve been thinkin’ of ways we can improve our cows and I was thinkin’ that maybe you and I can go up north and visit that place where they’re raisin’ those Brahma bulls. It’d be a nice little trip for the two of us. We never get a chance to do somethin’ together anymore what with all the work.”
Murdoch stared into the intense face of his son. “I suppose that’s a possibility, but it will have to wait for awhile. Maybe in a month or so, I’ll think about it. Teresa, maybe you could come with us? Then, you could do some shopping while we’re looking at the bulls.”
“I think I’d prefer to go over to the Hendersons while the two of you go to Sacramento. I rarely have a chance to see Mary and Martha anymore.”
The teasing sapphire eyes focused on Teresa. “You mean you want to go make goo-goo eyes at Stephen!”
Realizing that Scott had not said a word in awhile, Teresa hurried to explain to the easterner. “Johnny’s just joking. I’ve known Stephen Henderson and his two sisters all my life. They live on the Double H which is about a half-day ride from here. Mary and I go shopping together sometimes. Mr. Johnny Lancer over there has his eye on Mary, but she won’t give him a tumble.” Teresa flashed the dark-haired man a knowing smile.
“That’s not true, Teresa. The last time I was over there, she was real friendly, if you know what I mean, not like that bluestocking sister of hers.”
“Johnny, Martha is not a blue-stocking! She enjoys reading and learning. There’s nothing wrong with that,” protested the girl.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed as he faced his son. “Teresa’s right. I’m glad Matthew was able to send Martha to San Francisco for her education. She’s a lovely, talented woman.”
“Aw, okay, so she’s not so bad, but I still say she’s stuffy, not like Mary.”
Turning back to Scott, Teresa informed him that he would probably meet Mary and Martha at the dance the next day—and maybe Stephen.
“I’m sure I’ll enjoy meeting your friends. I must say that most of the people I’ve met on my trip have been friendly and helpful.”
After that, the four people concentrated on eating their delicious repast. When everyone finished, Scott helped Teresa clear away, following her into the kitchen and began to put the dishes into soak. “Scott, you don’t have to help me. I have plenty of time to do them.”
“I like doing this, Miss O’Brien. It brings back some happy memories.”
Teresa arched one brown eye at the man. “I can’t imagine that you ever had to wash dishes to earn your dinner.”
Laughing, Scott soaped up a greasy dish. “No, I certainly didn’t, but the woman who took care of me when I was younger encouraged me to help with the clean up. She didn’t believe in it being woman’s work only.”
“She sounds like a woman I’d enjoy meeting.”
“I’m sure she’d like you too. She no longer lives in Boston. SPIN found it. . .difficult there. She now lives near San Francisco.”
“Is that why you’re going there?”
“One of them. . . .Miss O’Brien, could I ask a favor of you?”
“Of course, but you have to call me Teresa or I won’t even consider it.”
“All right, Teresa, what I would like is for you to tell me about Mr. Lancer and Johnny.”
“Well, after you told me that there was another Lancer besides Murdoch, I rather hoped that Johnny might tell me a little bit about Mr. Lancer—I mean about the years after my mother died. But somehow, well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to ask him. And, also you can tell me about Johnny. I. . .I just never imagined that I had a half-brother.”
“Johnny’s easy. You just have to remember that he’s a strong man, and yet still an impetuous boy. He drives me crazy at times and yet he’s been very supportive of Murdoch in all that he wants to do with Lancer.”
“Mr. Lancer is very important to you, isn’t he?”
Teresa nodded as she unconsciously twirled a lock of brown hair. “I think I understand Murdoch better than anyone—except maybe Johnny—and yet there are things about him that still puzzle me. Maybe over the next few days we can talk about them, if you’d like.”
“I certainly would. Now, I’d better head to bed. Johnny informed me that he and his friends always go hunting at the crack of dawn.”
“Scott, be careful.”
“What do you mean?”
“Johnny and Wes are high-spirited. They feed off each other’s exuberance and sometimes they do things that are reckless.”
The blond gave her a warm smile. “I’ll be careful. After all, I don’t think one of them is going to shoot me in the back!”
At the horrified look on Teresa’s face, Scott quickly explained, “I. . .I shouldn’t have said that. I know Johnny doesn’t like me, but he’s not the type of man to be a back shooter.”
“No, he isn’t. I’ll have the coffee on the stove when you get up.”
Realizing that he had been dismissed, Scott ruefully dropped the sponge into the pan of water before heading to his room. As he moved down the hall, he could hear the faint voices of Johnny and Murdoch through the slightly ajar French doors. Shamefully, he stopped to listen when he heard his name mentioned. “Johnny, I expect you to remember your promise about Scott tomorrow!”
“I gave you my word, didn’t I? We’re just goin’ huntin’ and then to the dance. Your precious son will be safe.”
“All right, I accept that. He’ll be leaving in less than a week so you only have to be polite awhile longer. I just don’t want any more tricks like with the tree!”
Johnny flushed slightly. “He rides a lot better than I thought he would.”
“Yes, he does which is fortunate since if he had been injured, he might be here longer than a week.”
“Hadn’t thought of that.”
“That’s your problem, Son, you kiss a pretty girl or challenge a man to a race without considering the consequences. When Lancer belongs to you, you’ll have to think of the consequences of each and everything you do!”
Not wanting to hear anymore, Scott closed his door and sat down to write in his journal.
His second day at Lancer was over.
The next morning Johnny on Barranca and Scott on Firecracker, along with Wes and Tom headed for the mountains to start their hunting. Unfortunately, the day was windy and raw with a cold drizzle. As they cantered along, Wes turned back to the blond Lancer, “Not quite the sunny California you came out here for, is it?”
“Not exactly but I have heard that northern California is much different than the area near the border.”
“You’ve got that right . . .Scott. Me and Johnny have visited some of the border towns and it’s always sunny and dry—in fact it’s damned near all desert.”
Moving on into the tree line, the four men dismounted and began to spread out. Unfortunately, the drizzle had decided to turn into a downpour so in a very short time all the men were wet and shivering. Even the ponchos they had carried along in their saddlebags didn’t help much.
“Say, Johnny, what say we leave the huntin’ for another day? I don’t wanta go to the dance tonight lookin’ like one of them drowned rats.”
“Aw, Wes, I was countin’ on getting’ some fresh game so Teresa’d stop complainin’ about beef.”
“Well, no fool deer or rabbit or whatever is gonna stick his head out in this stuff. Why don’t we find some shelter and wait it out? Mebbe it’ll let up.”
Thinking it over, Johnny grudgingly agreed. “But where are we gonna find shelter? The nearest line shack is miles away?”
The dark-haired cowboy grinned broadly at his friend. “Well now, me and Tom just might have an answer to that. The last time we were up this way, we came across this old mine shaft. It’s plenty big for the horses and we can build a fire and warm up. I just happened to bring along a canteen of whiskey to keep our bones from freezin’.”
Johnny Lancer’s face lit up with pleasure. “You sure do think of everythin’. Lead on and the rest of us will follow you. I could do with some liquid refreshment.”
Five minutes later the four men found themselves at the mouth of a wide shaft. As promised it was more than big enough for the men and their horses. Taking advantage of some of the fallen timbers, Tom soon had a nice fire going and the flask of whiskey was passed around.
Staring out into the dreary wet of the surrounding area, Johnny sighed dramatically. “This sure ain’t what I had planned for today, but I suppose getting’ back to Lancer early would be a good idea. I’ve got plans to take a bath and get all spruced up to take Carlita to the dance.”
Wes punched Johnny’s arm. “Good thing you’re plannin’ to take that bath, Friend, or Carlita wouldn’t have anythin’ to do with you. You smell worse ‘n a polecat.”
“You don’t smell much better yourself, Wes. In fact, none of us do, except maybe Scott here.”
Scott, who had been watching the two friends taunt each other with amusement, offered an explanation. “I used a French talc this morning after shaving.”
“Ooh la la! French huh? You ever met one of them mamselles, Mr. Lancer?”
Scott smiled at Tom. “As a matter of fact, yes. The Parisian nightlife can be quite. . .stimulating.”
“I’ll just bet,” replied Wes. “Seems like you’d be kinda bored out here. . .Scott. ‘Course we do have our hotspots here too.” Nudging Johnny, Wes suggested, “Get Johnny here to take you over to Old Maude’s at Green River. Now there is one wild place.”
“I appreciate the suggestion, but I don’t think I’ll be here long enough to do that.”
“Not stayin’ long?”
Scott made a point of looking over at Johnny before replying, “I’m going onto San Francisco, but I must say I like this area so who knows—maybe one day I’ll return.”
There were no further comments for a minute or two until Wes stood up, stretching. “Whaddya say we explore this shaft? It ‘ppears to go back quite aways. It’s better ‘n just sittin’ here waitin’ on the rain to stop.”
Johnny, ever restless, also popped up. “Good idea. Since this mine is on Lancer property, it might be a good idea to find out if there’s any ore left. How about you, Tom?”
“Sure, let’s go.”
All three men looked down at Scott who continued to sit by the fire. Glancing up at the others, Scott merely remarked, “I’ll just stay here and make sure the fire doesn’t go out. Go ahead and explore.”
Shaking his head at Scott’s recalcitrance, Johnny walked over to a torch still attached to one timber. Lighting it in the fire, he led the three men into the interior of the old mine.
The lean-figured man watched them make their way into the darkness before he started to search around for some more dry wood to create a bigger fire. Blackness had begun to encroach on his space as the flames began to die. Shivering in the chill and shadows, Scott wrapped his jacket about himself, staring into the flickering light as a lifeline against memories that had seemingly been forgotten in the safety of Boston.
In the recesses of the mine he could hear voices, surely those of his companions, but as the shaft’s walls became closer, Scott thought that the voices seemed to be in pain, to be crying for help. Shuddering with fear, he forced himself to his feet. Maybe there had been some kind of cave-in. Maybe they were trapped. Mind racing with terror, the blond tried to move his body forward, but his feet would not obey. He had to do something but his whole body felt heavier than lead. Sinking to his knees, great sobs broke forth from the slim man. He had to help and couldn’t!
In his despair, he did not notice the small flame moving towards him out of the murk. Soon, Johnny, Wes and Tom were at his side, astounded to see the easterner on his knees, shaking with cold. Bringing the torch close to Scott’s face, West inquired, “You okay there, Scott?”
Pulling himself together, Scott awkwardly rose to his feet, wiping the moisture from his face. “Uh, I’m fine. I guess I got a little dizzy from. . .from the altitude. Not used to it yet.”
The man nodded, although it was fairly obvious that he didn’t believe him. “Sure, that happens to a lot a easterners. You ’bout ready to head back? Looks like the rain’s stoppin’. Gotta give ol’ Johnny plenty of time to clean up so he can dazzle Carlita.”
Swiveling around, Scott could see that the cowhand was right. “Certainly. Let’s go back to Lancer by all means.”
The four men mounted their horses under the canopy of the trees as the drips spattered against them. Tom and Wes led the way with the two brothers behind. From time to time, Johnny would look over at the pale face of the stranger from Boston. “You sure you’re okay?
Scott merely nodded, giving the younger man a reassuring smile.
By the time the quartet had returned to Lancer, Scott’s equilibrium had returned. Even more helpful was the hot bath and dry clothes that awaited him.
Later that evening, the rancher watched with pride as Teresa, Johnny and Scott left for the dance. While waiting for the other two to dress, Johnny had informed the tall man that he had found a girl for Scott to dance with in case he felt shy. Relieved that things seemed to be going well, Murdoch gratefully took out the book he hoped to finish that night, poured himself a brandy and began to read.
The Lancer party entered the dance where the music had already begun. Johnny immediately headed for a lovely young woman with black hair who was talking with Wes and Tom. Teresa too spotted some friends making for the two women and young man, who was standing near them. From his position, Scott perused the crowd. In return, he was under consideration by many of the people in attendance, especially the single females.
Deciding to just watch for a time, Scott walked over to the punch table and took some of the beverage. Over the rim of the cup, the easterner smiled at the happy faces of those who were dancing. It had been a long time since he had attended a dance. His grandfather had encouraged him to attend social events after his return from the War, but somehow their allure had faded after a time. He had been seeking something, but had not been sure what it was. Then as his grandfather’s health had begun to fail, Scott had faced a loneliness he had never thought possible, not even in solitary confinement. There had been times when the blond and his white-haired grandfather had been at odds for days, but usually they had found a way to compromise so that neither man’s pride had suffered too deeply. The respect and affection between the two men, forged in twenty-five of togetherness and caring, was stronger than the pettiness of their actions. On the last day of Harlan Garrett’s life, Scott had found a renewed strength in his promise to the old man. He would summon all of his courage, not the kind that allowed a man to face canister at twenty yards, but the audacity to find and face the man who was his father. He had just never expected there to be a complication like the determined man named Johnny.
“Scott? I’d like you to meet my friends, the Hendersons. This is Martha, her younger sister Mary, and their older brother Stephen.”
The blond politely nodded, adding “How do you do? I’m delighted to meet some of Teresa’s friends.”
Stephen, who was nearly as tall as Murdoch, replied, “Teresa told us that you’re from Boston. That’s a lovely city. I’ve been there several times.”
“Stephen, you can talk to Scott about Boston later. I came here to dance!”
“Of course, Teresa. If you’ll excuse us, everyone?” The Henderson scion looked at Scott, rolling his eyes.
Mary Henderson chuckled as she watched her tall brother and the short Teresa head to the dance floor. “That Teresa usually gets what she wants!”
“I suspect she has to be assertive, considering the two men she lives with.” Glancing over at Scott, Martha colored. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, I forgot that they’re your father and brother.”
Scott hurriedly put the woman at ease. “Believe me, Miss Henderson, I am the first one to admire Teresa’s tenacity in dealing with Murdoch and Johnny. But I would appreciate if you called me Scott.”
The rather-tall fair-haired woman smiled graciously. “Of course. Are you enjoying your visit to California?”
“Yes, I am. After I leave Lancer, I’m planning to go to San Francisco. I understand that you went to school there?”
For the next few minutes the three young people conversed until Mary was claimed for a dance by Tom. Scott then led Martha out onto the floor for a Virginia Reel. After that, Scott lost sight of the two girls as they were claimed by several different partners.
Returning to the punch table for a cooling drink, Scott was startled by someone tapping him on the shoulder and asking, “You, Scott Lancer?”
Turning, he was surprised to see a woman with bright red hair standing in front of him. She was only about 5′ in height, but her hair had been arranged in an upswept manner to add inches. Her face and figure were quite nice, but the dress she wore revealed too much cleavage to be suitable for such an occasion as was the heavy make-up. Hesitating for a moment, Scott took a closer look. The make-up made the girl look much older than her years. She could not possibly be more than twenty. “Yes, I’m Scott Lancer. Could I help you in some way?”
The girl gave a mocking laugh. “I’m here to help you. Johnny said you needed a dance partner. So here I am. Sorry, I’m late. The dress I was gonna wear got ripped so I had to use this.”
“Well, you look lovely in it.”
“You really think so? I use it mainly for work, but I didn’t have anything else to bring.”
Smiling into the girl’s astonishing green eyes, Scott suggested, “Well, since Johnny arranged for us to dance together, shall we?”
The musicians started to play a waltz as Scott Lancer swept the diminutive woman into his arms for the dance. It was soon obvious that she was a graceful dancer and the blond began to enjoy himself. In fact, several people on the sidelines watched the pair as they twirled about the room. When that dance ended, a similar lilting air was struck up so once again Scott and his partner lost themselves in the beautiful strains of music. When the second waltz ended, there was a smattering of applause from onlookers who had appreciated seeing the beautiful dance the way it should be done.
The girl’s face blushed almost as vibrantly as her hair so she whispered to her tall partner, “Could we sit down please? My feet hurt.”
Acceding to her wishes, Scott found a quiet spot for the two of them. “Well, now that we’ve danced together, maybe you’ll tell me your name?”
“Oh, gosh, I forgot to do that, didn’t I? It’s Tillie Burton. Well, my mama named me Matilda, but I ask you now, do I look like a Matilda?”
Scott shook his head in amusement. “No, you don’t but you are an excellent dancer. I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in years.”
“Yeah, I was always good at dancin’, in fact that’s how I make my livin’.”
“I work over at Old Maude’s dancin’ emporium in Green River. Johnny mentioned that he knew somebody who needed a partner so he paid my way over and bought me a dress. I hope he ain’t too mad ’cause it got ripped.”
“Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that. Johnny’s very generous.”
“Yeah, he is at that. He’s always treatin’ us girls to dinner and he even bought Sindy a new bonnet. “Course, he’s kinda sweet on her.”
“Well, that may be true, but I am delighted that he chose you to be my partner.”
“Well, ain’t that nice of you. You’re a swell dancer yourself, but I don’t understand why you needed Johnny to get you a partner. You’re real nice lookin’.”
“Thank you, Tillie, but I’m a stranger around here and I guess Johnny wanted to make sure I felt comfortable.”
“Say, my feet ain’t hurtin’ so much now. Could we dance again?”
“Of course. All the waltzes are ours.”
And there were many waltzes. In fact, most of the townspeople could not remember a dance where so many waltzes were played. As promised, the blond and the girl with the startling red hair took to the floor, dazzling the onlookers with their skill. When the last dance had been played, Scott escorted Tillie to the boarding house where she was putting up for the night before returning to Green River. Before meeting Teresa for the ride back to Lancer, Scott promised Tillie that he would stop by Old Maude’s and take her out to dinner before he left the area.
Teresa was already waiting for Scott in the carriage when he returned. With a smirk in her voice, she informed him that Johnny would not be returning with them as he had plans and intended to stay in town. The older son had only nodded and put the carriage in motion.
Although Teresa said nothing for some miles, she was bursting at the seams to ask the easterner about his dance partner. Finally, she could take it no more. “Tell me about the girl you were dancing with! I wish Stephen could dance as well as you do. Is her hair color natural? How’d you meet. . . .?”
“Whoa, Teresa. Let me get a word in.”
“Sorry. What’s her name and how’d you meet her?”
“Her name is Matilda Burton. She lives in Green River and no, I don’t think that’s her natural hair color.”
“I didn’t know you’d been to Green River.”
“I haven’t, but Johnny arranged for her to attend as my partner.”
“Johnny! Well, that explains everything. Just wait ’til I tell Murdoch.”
Scott halted the carriage and then turned to the brown-haired girl beside him. “Teresa, I would appreciate it if you didn’t say anything to Mr. Lancer. I suspect Johnny intended this as a little trick, but Tillie is a wonderful girl and I enjoyed her company immensely so in a way, Johnny did me a favor. Can we leave it at that?”
Teresa looked at him doubtfully. “Are you sure you want to be so. . .forgiving?”
In the moonlight, the girl could see the intense look on Scott’s face. “Teresa. . .I know Johnny doesn’t want me here. I’d probably feel the same if I were in his position.”
“But maybe you could change his mind if you stayed longer?”
“Don’t you see, if I stay longer then he’ll be sure that all I came here for was to claim a share of Lancer? If I leave on Thursday, then maybe he’ll see that I can be trusted. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to return and he’ll see my presence in a different light.”
“I suppose you have a point, but what about Murdoch? I think he’d like you to stay. . .longer.”
Scott signaled the horse to start up again. “Teresa, I will not come between Murdoch and . . .his son.”
“But you’re his son too!”
“Am I? He has seen me once in twenty-five years. I know there is a blood tie, but that isn’t everything. For whatever reason he let me stay in Boston all those years and didn’t even let me know that I had a brother. When I was young, I asked my grandfather to. . .to buy me a brother. He just patted me on the head and then told me that it wasn’t possible. When I got bigger, I realized just how stupid the request had been. I had quite a few friends in school and even in the Army, but I never lost that desire to have a brother.”
“Give Johnny and Murdoch some time. They’ve had a shock too.”
“I know, but truthfully, Teresa, I think my leaving is best for all of us. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have just shown up the way I did. Frankly, I was scared that if I notified Murdoch that I was coming, he’d tell me not to come. I’m. . .I’m not sure I could have handled that. Now, I’d better get you home before Murdoch thinks we were waylaid by highwaymen.”
“Oh dear, I just remembered tomorrow is Sunday. He and I usually go to church early, but maybe I can talk him into going to a later service.”
With a wry smile, Scott observed, “I suspect you can talk him into almost anything.”
“I wish! But you’re right, he does tend to indulge me for the most part.”
The rest of the trip home was spent in conversation about the dance and the Hendersons.
Letting Teresa out in front of the hacienda, Scott put the horse into its stall before heading to his own bed. It took some time for him to settle down as memories of the incident in the mine swam through his over-stimulated brain. Finally though, he sank into sleep. Scott’s third day at Lancer was over.
On Sunday morning Scott rose later than usual to find his father sitting in the great room with a cup of coffee. “Ah, Scott, you’re the first one up. I assume you all had a good time at the dance.”
“Yes, Sir. We did get in rather late so I believe Teresa might have needed to sleep in.”
“I assumed that might be the case so I planned to go to a later church service. You’re welcome to come with us,” Murdoch informed the blond.
“If you don’t mind, I thought perhaps that I would take a ride out to look over the ranch by myself. I know you don’t have much time and it really is beautiful.”
“Of course. I’m glad you appreciate it so much. Just try to be back by 4:00 since Teresa always makes wonderful Sunday dinners.”
“I will.” As the blond headed for the stable, Murdoch stopped him.
“Since Johnny’s bed hasn’t been slept in, I’m assuming he stayed in town?”
“I believe so. At least, he told Teresa that.”
“I see. Well, he never goes to church with us anyway. Uh, before you go, are you still determined to leave on Wednesday?”
The steel blue eyes carefully surveyed the older man’s face. “Is there any reason I shouldn’t?”
“Uh, no I suppose not, but you are welcome to stay if you want to.”
“I think it would be best if I stick to my plans. Now, I’m sure Firecracker is looking forward to a run. I’ll be back by 4:00.”
The rancher sat there watching his older son head to the stable. A part of him wanted to ask the slender blond to stay longer, but there was a niggling fear in his brain that Johnny would resent such a move on his father’s part. Murdoch was the master of Lancer, but Johnny’s feelings had to be considered. He had earned that right many times.
But perhaps there was still time to sound out his younger son before Wednesday.
Scott Lancer rode along at a canter across the miles that were Lancer. At first, he had intended to do as he had told his father–to continue to take in the majesty and beauty of the great ranch, but soon he realized where the long legs of the chestnut horse were taking him. Somehow Firecracker had sensed what was in his rider’s mind or perhaps, it had simply been that the slender hands on the reins had made it seem so. Whichever it was, the blond man continued up into the hills and trees to once again find the opening to the mine shaft. He had decided that it was time to exorcise the demon which had caused his humiliation in front of his brother and his friends the day before.
After tying his mount to a tree and taking a deep breath, Scott stepped into the waiting darkness. Striking a match, he lit one of the torches that lay on the dirt. At first, he dared go no farther than a few feet from the opening which provided some additional light, but then he stiffened his resolve and moved in so that soon the only light was that of the torch in his hand.
In his head he could almost hear the terse voice of Harlan Garrett encouraging him, urging him on with the simple words, “I know you can do it, Scotty.”
His grandfather had used those very same words many times in the twenty-five years they had spent together. When Scott had been small, it had been for simple things like tying his shoelaces or eating a new and strange food. Then, as the years had passed and the boy had approached young manhood, the words had been there for his schoolwork or physical activities or other challenges that seemed sometimes beyond the Garrett heir’s capacity.
Perhaps, the most memorable use had come on Scott’s sixteenth birthday. Garrett had informed his grandson that he planned to take the young man on a trip to Europe in the coming summer after school was out. Naturally, Scott had been delighted when Harlan had informed him that one of their main stops would be the small village of Waterloo in Belgium. That cold December night, Scott had gone to bed with delightful plans and ideas swirling around in his head. He would finally be able to see all the wonderful places that he had only read about. Promising himself that he would buckle down on his study of French before the trip, the young man lay there too excited to sleep.
Then, like a trickle becomes a deluge in a storm, the happy thoughts of his trip faded as his mind shifted to what the day also represented, besides his birthday. Sixteen years before, Catherine Garrett Lancer had given him life, even in death. This somber fact had haunted him for many years, but of course he had never spoken of it to his grandfather. He knew his grandfather had been grief-stricken at the loss of his daughter so he had taken pains to ask Garrett little about the blonde-haired woman in the painting that so proudly graced the Garrett study. There had been times in his young life when he would have given anything to have had five minutes with his mother… to see her smile, to hear her laugh, but of course, men did not speak of such things–even if they felt them and while Scott Lancer was not yet a man, he was no longer a child.
That night the boy/man couldn’t hold back the tears of loneliness and regret so in the solitude of his bedroom, the healing drops flowed down the pale cheeks. Ashamed of his weakness, he put one fat pillow over his head to muffle the sound, but to his surprise it was snatched from him. “Scotty, what’s the matter? Are you ill?” The familiar baritone of his grandfather’s voice sent a chill through the distraught youngster.
“I’m. . .I’m fine, Sir, I. . .” Scott didn’t know what to say to the old man. He was just grateful that his grandfather had not turned on
a lamp. But even that solace was denied him when the white-haired man did just that.
“Please, Grandfather, I’m all right. It was just. . .just a nightmare.”
Harlan Garrett sat down by his grandson’s side, placing the damp pillow at the foot of the bed. “Scotty, I would appreciate it if you would not lie to me. If there is something wrong, I hope you know that you can confide in me.”
“Ye-es, Sir, but I don’t want to make you sad too.”
Harlan Garrett flinched slightly. “I don’t understand, Scotty.”
“Today’s not just my birthday. It’s the day Mother died.”
The proud man sat there silently for a long while before he replied, “That is true, Scotty, but I have always preferred to remember this day for what I gained, not what I lost.”
“Me, you mean?”
“Of course, how many other grandsons do I have that were born this day?” Garrett teased.
Somberly, Scott looked up into the old man’s face. “Do you ever wish. . .wish that it had been Mother who survived?”
“Scott Lancer! How can you ask me something like that?” Garrett’s voice took on a menacing tone.
Shivering, Scott put his hand on his grandfather’s arm. “Please, Sir, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said. . .asked. . . .”
Harlan put one large hand on top of the smaller one. “Scotty, you are the most important person in the world to me. I loved your mother very much, but I would never have wanted to trade your life for hers. Can you understand that?”
The boy nodded. “Could I. . .could I ask you something else?”
“Sometimes. . .sometimes I wonder what it would be like to have grown up with my mother. . .and father. I know you told me that he’s that tall man who came to visit on my fifth birthday, but the image isn’t very clear after all this time.”
Garrett didn’t say anything. He was afraid he knew what was coming.
But Scott surprised him. “I used to wonder why my father didn’t write to me or as I got older, invite me to visit him.”
“Scotty. . . .”
“I know what you told me, Grandfather, about threatening to take him to court, but what I guess I really want to know is why you called me Scott Lancer? Why didn’t you call me Scott Garrett and just say my father was dead? That way I could have mourned, but put him behind me.”
Garrett stood up, putting his hands into his pockets as he tried to explain why he had never hidden the fact that Murdoch Lancer was
alive. “Scotty, I’m not sure this will make sense to you, but I cherish all that you are–Garrett, Preston and Lancer. I may not have
been too happy that your mother married Murdoch Lancer, but I cannot deny that part of you. When I brought you east with me, I was
determined to do all that I could to give you the life I believed your mother would have wanted you to have. Perhaps, I’m just a selfish old man who wants to keep you at his side, but I know that one day you will make your own decisions about what you want to do with your life. You have your mother’s looks and determination and my stubbornness so I know you will give me many battles, but in challenging you I believe that you will strive to do what you truly want to do. Perhaps, that is the reason, I threatened your father all those years ago. I wanted to see if he was willing to fight for you as I would have been in his position.”
“If I want to go visit my father someday, you won’t stop me?”
“I can’t promise that I’ll like it, but you will be a man and you will have to make your own decisions.”
“I. . .I’m not sure I could do it. What if he doesn’t want me?”
“I know you can do it, Scotty. You just have to decide if you truly want to.”
Stepping further into the darkness, Scott Lancer murmured to himself, “I want to do this, Grandfather, and I will, just like I came to Lancer.” As he stepped forward a chill ran down his spine when he heard a footstep behind him. Before he could whirl around, a blow struck him down into a true abyss of blackness.
Head aching in pain, Scott struggled to open his eyes, but to no avail. He had been blindfolded and tied up at the ankles and wrists. Lips cracking with dryness, the prone man tried to speak. “Any. . .anyone there?”
His only reply was the echo of his own voice in the shaft. He continued to try, seeking out the unknown attacker with the only means left to him. Finally, he had to acknowledge that he was alone. Scott tried to adjust his position since his back felt like he had landed on a small rock which rubbed at his sensitive flesh. It took minutes of effort to scoot just far enough so that he was up against a wall. Struggling to sit upright cost him more minutes, but to his confused mind it was worth it. Anything was better than lying alone in the black recesses of the shaft–waiting. Waiting for the voices to come again, screaming in their torment as the escape tunnel collapsed, burying men in the dirt and debris. It had happened all
too often in their desperate attempt to escape from the hell of the prison camp.
Trying not to let the voices, the memories take over, Scott rubbed his wrists raw trying to undo the knots which held him prisoner. An almost hysterical laugh filled the air at just the thought. A prisoner once again! He had dug with a ferocity of effort, just like any other man who wanted his freedom. He had ripped his fingers raw since he had no other tools, then just when the promised day had come, his men had emerged from their prison only to be slaughtered by their guards–all but him. Feverish from a bullet wound, the blond had remained indifferent to his fate, even when the Commandant had ordered him to solitary. As the trickle of blood dripped down his fingers, the agony of those horrifying days claimed him once again. So many men dead, his mother dead, why was he still alive?
Desperately trying not to give into the terror that threatened to overwhelm him, Scott conjured up the memory of sitting in bed as SPIN read him a story. He could almost hear her beautiful voice giving life to tales of adventure–the kind of adventure any boy might dream about. But now, he might never have the chance to hear that voice again. SPIN would surely mourn when she found out what had happened, but no one else. Scott knew that Murdoch would certainly give him a proper burial–if the missing man was ever found, but mourn? And Johnny? Would his much longed-for brother be sad at all or would he rejoice that he need no longer fear the interloper from Boston?
Sobs of despair filled the mine shaft so that the distraught man did not hear the footsteps which stopped beside him until the odor of a whiskey-flavored mouth bent near his ear, spewing forth its message, “Take this as a warnin’. You ain’t wanted here.”
Startled into silence, Scott felt the tug of a knife as it sliced through the knots which secured his hands. Jerking the last threads apart, he grasped at the blindfold, pulling it down, only to be still held in darkness. Instinctively, he knew that he was once more alone. Pulling a match from his pocket, he was just able to discern the torch he had dropped earlier. Scooting across the rough ground on his knees, he was able to light the torch which gave him sufficient light to work on the knots which bound his ankles. By the time he was finally free, he felt as drained as he had after a battle.
Standing upright, Scott swayed with dizziness, but gritted his teeth and with the aid of the flickering light made for the mine opening. To his
amazement Firecracker was still tied to the tree and it was still light out. His seemingly endless ordeal had actually lasted only a few hours. With effort the blond pulled himself into the saddle to head towards the white hacienda.
“Murdoch, it’s 4:30. Scott must have been delayed. Why can’t we eat?”
Murdoch Lancer glanced over at his younger son, who had only arrived home minutes before. “I know you’re hungry, Johnny, but I think we
should wait awhile longer. I told him 4:00 so he should be here anytime. After all, we waited for you.”
Defensively, the brunet proclaimed, “He’s probably out counting every one of the 100,000 acres!”
“Dammit, Johnny! I’ve had enough of this. Scott has not given one indication that he came here to do anything more than to get to know his
“You mean get to know you! He didn’t even know I existed.”
The tall rancher gazed into his son’s angry face. “I know I should have told you about Scott before now, but I can’t change the past. Couldn’t you give him the benefit of the doubt?”
The handsome face softened slightly. “I. . .I thought we were partners, but you must not trust me much.”
“That’s not true! Of course, I trust you. It’s just that I assumed that Scott would never come to Lancer.”
“And I ‘spose you think if my mother had kept me all those years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted to get to know you either?”
“Thank goodness, that didn’t happen. I need you here. Lancer needs you here.”
“And you didn’t need Scott?”
“Johnny, I don’t think this is the time for this conversation. Why don’t you go tell Teresa that we’re ready to eat?”
The dark-haired man gave his father an inscrutable look, but even before he could leave the room, he stopped as the wooden door opened slightly.
Swiveling to face the newcomer, Johnny started to comment, “So you made it. . . .”
Stopping, he got a good look at the ripped clothes, hair matted with dirt and shards of stone, wrists and head etched with dried blood, and above all the eyes of Scott Lancer. There was no word to describe those eyes. They were the eyes of a man who had lost his soul.
The slender blond stood just inside the great room looking, with unfocused eyes, at the dark-haired man in front of him. “I. . .the red. . .I have to go take care. . .of him.”
The tall rancher stepped forward swiftly. “Johnny will go look after him, won’t you, Son?”
“Uh, sure. I’ll do it right now.”
As Johnny stepped past the easterner, Scott murmured, “Th-thanks,” before taking a step towards the room where he had been staying. Seeing Teresa standing by in the door to the kitchen, the blond hesitated before apologizing. “S-sorry I’m. . .late.”
“It’s all right, Scott. Johnny was late too,” replied the girl.
Scott only nodded, but did not move any further.
Touching his arm, Murdoch suggested, “Maybe you’d like to clean up before eating?”
Scott did not reply but he did continue on into the room with his father following behind. “Teresa, could you bring me some hot water and a cloth? Scott might need some help getting cleaned up.”
“Of course, I’ll be right in.”
By the time Murdoch entered the room, Scott was sitting on the edge of the bed, trying unsuccessfully to unbutton the shirt he wore since his hands were trembling with fatigue. Without a word, the tall man bent over and undid the buttons just like what one might do for a child. Wincing as he saw the bruises and the bloodied wrists, he removed the shirt before wrapping a blanket around the slim shoulders. As soon as Teresa entered with the pan and cloth, Murdoch began to carefully clean the scrapes. Scott’s face did not even register the pain. As soon as the rancher finished doing the injured wrists, he began to clean the gash high up on the back of Scott’s head. The blond hair was matted with dried blood and dirt. This time Scott tried to push away the large hand that held the wet cloth.
“Easy, Scott, I know it hurts, but you’ve got quite a bump there. It needs to be taken care of.”
Scott squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block the pain and tears, but one slipped down his increasingly pale face. Swaying under his father’s ministrations, he slipped over onto his good side as the trembling in his body became more pronounced.
“Murdoch, I don’t think he can take much more.”
“I know, Teresa. I think I’ve got the worst of it. Let’s let him sleep and maybe he’ll feel better in a few hours.” Between the two of them, they managed to get the blond under the blankets, turning him onto the uninjured side. “If he’s not better when he wakes up, we’ll get the doctor out here.”
“How is he?”
Murdoch looked up to see his younger son in the doorway. “I’m not really sure. He’s got quite a bump on his head and his wrists are in bad shape, but other than that he doesn’t seem to be wounded.”
“What do you suppose happened to him?”
“I have no idea. Let’s hope he’ll tell us when he wakes up. Now, why don’t we go eat Teresa’s dinner? I have a feeling we might have a long night ahead of us.”
As soon as dinner was over, Murdoch returned to Scott’s room, but the young man was still asleep. Leaving the door to the bedroom open, Murdoch returned to the great room where he found Johnny sprawled on the couch. “Son, I hate to ask you this, but I have to ride up to talk to George Young tomorrow. Would you be able to stay around the house in case Scott needs help?”
“Why are you gonna go see that. . .scoundrel?”
“Because I want to make sure that he’s not planning to shut down the right-of-way to the railhead. Our agreement officially comes to an end in a few weeks and I want to talk to him about it.”
“There are other ways to get to the railhead.”
“Of course there are, but the one through his property is the closest and it’s tough enough getting a herd to market without going out of our way.”
“Yeah, I suppose you gotta point there. How long you gonna be gone?”
“I just don’t know, but I will be back by Wednesday.”
“You still think. . .Scott’s gonna leave then?”
“He may not be able to, but he is Harlan Garrett’s grandson!”
“Johnny, I know you think I’m stubborn, but I’m nothing compared to that old man.”
“So, you don’t think he’s gonna use this as an excuse to stay longer?”
The rancher sat there silently for a moment. “You’re not saying that you think he did this on purpose, are you?”
“Hell, I don’t know what to think, but you don’t have to worry. I’ll stay around the place ’til you get back.”
“Thank you. Now, why don’t we get out the checkerboard and play a game before bedtime. I plan to get an early start.”
“Oh, and if he’s not better in the morning, maybe you’d better get the doctor in for him.”
The game proceeded at a quick pace as both men seemed not to have their minds on its outcome and simply wanted to get it over. For one of the few times in recent memory Johnny won by a handy margin then the two men headed to bed after Murdoch once again checked on his injured son who had not moved an inch.
At one in the morning a solitary figure entered Scott’s bedroom, taking a seat in the chair beside the bed where the even breaths of the blond seemed to indicate that he still was soundly asleep. After a half-hour the man stood and started to leave when a breathless voice emerged from the cracked lips of Scott Lancer, “Pl-lease, don’t. . .don’t leave again. D-dark.”
Johnny Lancer moved to turn up the lamp until a warm glow filled the room. “Is that better?”
“Yeah, it’s me. Who’d you think it was?”
“Don’t. . .don’t know.”
“Want some water?”
Johnny held a cup to the pale lips so that the other man could take a small drink. “That’s enough. Too much ‘n you’ll be sick.”
“You’d better go back to sleep now.”
“Will. . .will you leave the lamp on?”
“Sure. Just don’t knock it over.”
“I. . .I won’t.”
As soon as Johnny left the room, Scott eased his body up on the pillows then reached into the drawer of the side table to take out his journal. Slipping out the pen he kept with it, he wrote a few lines. The pain from his injured wrist raised beads of sweat, but he kept at it until it was completed. Returning the book to its original place, Scott pulled up the warm blanket over his chilled body and tried to go back to sleep. The pain in his head made that difficult, but finally the exhaustion of his ordeal overwhelmed even the jagged ache.
In the morning just after dawn, Murdoch Lancer quietly opened the door to Scott’s room. Since his older son was clearly asleep, the rancher decided not to bother him, but did turn the lamp down. Johnny would take care of the injured man and the sooner he was on the road north the better. He had every intention of returning before Scott’s departure on Wednesday—if the young man was in any shape to travel.
An hour later Johnny emerged from the kitchen munching on a slice of bacon and holding a mug of coffee in his hand. Making his way to the guestroom, Johnny sat down to wait. It wasn’t long before the cerulean eyes opened to see the dark-haired man looking at him. “Coffee. . .coffee smells good.”
“I’ll get you a cup.” Without another word, Johnny went into the kitchen to grab a buttered biscuit and a cup of coffee for the blond.
After helping Scott sit up, the brunet sat down once again. “Do you feel like tellin’ me what happened?”
“I. . .I fell.”
“I was. . .in some rocks and I fell.”
“Then why do your wrists look like you were tied up?”
“I FELL and that’s all I’m going to say.”
Johnny’s sapphire eyes glittered with anger. “Fine! I don’t really care. I was just bein’ polite anyway.”
“Because you promised your father?”
“What do you know about that?”
Gingerly the blond rubbed at his head near the spot where the blow had fallen before answering. “Johnny, I know you don’t want to have me around here so could we call a truce?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ll be leaving on Wednesday so maybe you can just pretend I don’t exist until then.”
Johnny snickered. “Riiight. You’re in no shape to go anywhere and you know it!”
“I intend to go into Green River on Wednesday, “Scott took a deep breath, “and I would like you to go with me.”
“What? Why would I want to do that?”
“Because I want you to come with me to see a lawyer. I intend to sign a statement swearing that I will never make a claim on any part of Lancer. You can witness it and then maybe you’ll realize I came here for only one reason.”
The sapphire eyes filled with bewilderment. “Why would you do that? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Johnny, I don’t need Lancer land. My grandfather was a very wealthy man and he left it all to me as the last Garrett. So, will you come with me?”
The brunet nodded. “I’ll come.”
“Good. Would it be all right with you if I rode in on Firecracker? That way. . .you could bring him back.”
“Sure, sure. Uh, you sure do know how to handle him.”
“Thanks. He’s got the same kind of spirit of a horse I had during the War.”
“I was in the cavalry. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go back to sleep now.”
Seeing the blue eyes close, Johnny turned to head outside. He had promised Murdoch to stay around, but he didn’t have to stay inside. Walking over to the corral, he could hear the cheers and groans as the ranch hands watched some of the men breaking the horses. Standing by one side were his friends Wes and Tom. “Hey, Johnny, we heard somethin’ strange about Scott. Somebody said he came ridin’ in here last night, lookin’ like he took on Pardee by hisself!”
“Yeah, he’s banged up some, but he says it’s from a fall.”
Wes nudged Tom. “Mebbe he got dizzy again.” Tom only snickered in reply.
“Well, it won’t matter after Wednesday. He says he’s headin’ out then.”
“Bet you’re glad about that!”
“Yeah, yeah, sure I am,” Johnny replied with some doubt in his voice.
“You’re not getting’ soft on him, are ya?”
“Hell, no, it’s just I can’t help but wonder how I’d be feelin’ if I was the one who just showed up here and Scott’d lived here all his life.”
The usually quiet Tom interjected, “He’s got other kin, don’t he?”
“I don’t think so, but he says he’s got lots of money so that should keep him company.”
“That ‘n one of Maude’s dancin’ girls would sure keep me warm!” teased Wes.
“As if one of ’em would give you a tumble!”
“Hey now, if the son of the owner of this ranch could see his way clear to givin’ me a raise, I just might find me a wife and settle down!”
That brought bellows of laughter from Johnny and Tom. There was no way Wes would ever settle down!
The rest of the day was quiet with Johnny doing some chores around the ranch before wandering in to check on Scott before heading into the kitchen to snitch some cookies from the newly-baked batch that Teresa had cooling on racks. When Teresa entered through the back door, she watched silently as Johnny carefully picked up on cookie, peered at it, shook his head and replaced it on the rack. He did this once or twice before finally picking one up and biting into it. “Find one you like, Johnny?”
The young man jumped as the crumbs slid into his throat, causing him to choke. Grabbing a glass of water he swallowed it before rasping out, “Don’t do that!”
“Oh, sorry. Next time I’ll stomp loudly before entering my kitchen!”
Sheepishly Johnny remarked, “I was just, uh, checkin’ for the fattest ones. They’re the tastiest.”
“I see. Well, just make sure you don’t all of the tastiest ones before Murdoch returns tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I sure hope he works somethin’ out with Young. I was kinda getting’ used to the quiet ’round here.”
“How’s Scott? I was in there earlier and he drank some broth. I wonder if he’d like some cookies.”
“I looked in on him a minute ago. He seems to be sleepin’.”
“Did he say what happened to him?”
“Just told me he fell.”
“Hey, if that’s what the man says, I ain’t gonna argue. What are you makin’ for dinner? I’m mighty hungry.”
“Just leftovers since it’s only the three of us.”
The brunet moaned.
The brown-haired girl stood there glaring at the young man. “You’ll survive, Johnny Lancer. Now out of my kitchen! I have work to do.”
That night after dinner, Johnny wandered into Scott’s room. It was obvious from the color in the easterner’s face that he was feeling better. “Say, Scott, you feel like playin’ checkers or somethin’?
“You don’t have to keep me entertained, Johnny. Why don’t you go into Morro Coyo with Wes and Tom?”
“Aw, they left already. I just thought. . .’course mebbe an easterner like you don’t play checkers.”
“As a matter of fact, my grandfather taught me how to play.”
Rubbing his hands together, Johnny gleefully asked, “Well, how about it then?”
The match went on for some time until finally Johnny claimed Scott’s last piece. The young man crowed with delight. “Hey, you’re not too bad for an easterner. You wanta go agin?”
“If. . .if you don’t mind, I’m rather tired. Maybe tomorrow night? Oh, that’s right your father will be back. You’ll want to play with him.”
“Don’t know about that. If this deal with George Young didn’t go well, I plan to lay low.”
“He holds some land on our northern border. The trail to the railhead goes right through it so Murdoch pays him money for the right-of-way.”
“I see. Ranching is a complicated business, isn’t it?”
“You can say that again. If it’s not rustlers or weather or ornery beeves, it’s pigheaded scoundrels like Young. I think you’re smart for not wantin’ to get involved.”
“And yet you wouldn’t be anywhere else, would you?”
The handsome brunet gazed at the blond. “You got that right. There ain’t many things worth dyin’ for, but Lancer’s one of them.”
Scott nodded. “Good night, Johnny. Uh, I know Murdoch asked you to watch out for me, but I’m much better so why don’t you go out on the range or do whatever it is you need to do tomorrow. I assume Teresa will be here if I should need help.”
Johnny itched to take him up on the offer. He hated being cooped up at the house. “You mean it? I do have somethin’ that’d only take part of the day. I’d be back before Murdoch gets here.”
“Go ahead then. I promise you that I won’t try to take the chestnut out jumping!”
Johnny chortled. “That was a sight seein’ you take that tree! Well, if you’re sure, I think I’ll go. Teresa says I drive her crazy when I ain’t got enough to do.”
“Enjoy your ride then and maybe you could give Firecracker a lump of sugar for me?”
“Will do. Barranca’s got kind of a sweet tooth too. Can’t figure where he gets it from.”
Johnny ambled into the kitchen to find Teresa cutting out a dress pattern on the kitchen table. “Say, Teresa, I’m gonna head to the north range tomorrow so we can get that tree taken care of and new fencin’ put in. Can you keep an eye on Scott while I’m gone? Murdoch’ll probably be late afternoon.”
“Of course, if I can handle you, I can handle him.”
“Now, just wait a minute there. You don’t handle me!”
“Oh, I don’t? Fine then, I have decided to give up cooking for a few days. You can make your own food.”
“Hey, that’s no fair. I work hard. A man’s gotta eat!”
“Does he?” Picking up the material, Teresa started out the door before turning to the dark-haired man. “Goodnight, Mr. Lancer.”
The indignant Lancer son grumbled and gritted his teeth. Well, he was just as stubborn as any O’Brien. He could get his own meals!”
Bright and early Tuesday morning, Teresa O’Brien walked into the Lancer kitchen to prepare some hot tea for Scott. Sitting at the table holding a small bunch of wildflowers was Johnny Lancer. “Mornin’ Teresa. I, uh, well, I’d like to forget about our little wrangle yesterday.”
“Really? And would that be because Murdoch is due back today and he’ll be upset if there’s no food ready for him?”
“Dammit, Teresa, you’re just too suspicious!”
“I just know you.”
“Did you say something, Johnny?”
“Please, Teresa, Murdoch will have my head if you don’t cook. I even went out and picked these flowers.”
The girl smiled at the Johnny. “All right, I’ll make dinner. I was going to anyway since this will be Scott’s last night with us.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.”
“I wish. . .I wish he wasn’t leaving so soon. He still seems weak.”
“He’s got a hard head, Teresa.”
“Then, he really must be your brother. Now, why don’t you go out and take care of that tree so you’ll be back before Murdoch gets here.”
Johnny Lancer frowned at her words, but did just that. It felt wonderful to be out on Barranca again. Even a few days around the house gave him the fidgets. In just a few hours, he and some of the hands had the tree pulled aside and new fencing in place. After that, he took a food break with Wes and Tom who told him about the goings-on in town the night before.
Back at Lancer, Teresa checked on the patient, making sure that he had some hot tea and breakfast before starting the preparations for dinner. Since Murdoch enjoyed angel food cake she had already decided to prepare one for him as a surprise, but that meant visiting the hen house to collect a dozen eggs. With the yolks she would make noodles, which Johnny loved. As she coaxed the hens to let her purloin their fruit, it struck her that Scott had never expressed any preferences in food. He had complimented her on her cooking and certainly devoured everything, but had never mentioned any particular favorites. And now, it was too late to find out.
Inside the white hacienda, Scott stirred restlessly on the bed. He definitely felt better than he had when he had returned on Sunday, but his head still ached and the raw scrapes now itched abominably. After eating, he had tried to write in his journal, but there seemed to be no words to express his thoughts. So he had tried reading, only to fall into a doze once more.
“You shoulda gone when ya had the chance, Mister.”
The voice of the mine shaft pierced the haze of sleep. The blue-gray eyes flew open, expecting to see someone there, but he was alone in the room. Pushing himself out of bed, he wandered into the great room which was also empty. Swaying slightly, he moved into the kitchen only to encounter Teresa returning from the hen house.
“Scott, you shouldn’t be out of bed!”
“Teresa, did. . .did you see someone in the house?”
“I was outside, sorry.”
“That’s. . .that’s okay. Maybe I was dreaming.”
“Maybe. Would you like some cookies?”
The blond gave her a shaky smile. “I certainly would. You make cookies almost as well as SPIN does. Could. . .could I take some with me tomorrow?”
“Of course. Scott, do you really have to go tomorrow? I think you need to rest some more.”
“Teresa, I made a promise and it’s necessary that I keep it. Maybe. . .maybe I’ll visit again someday.”
Teresa gave him a warm smile. “I hope so because I think this ranch is big enough even for three stubborn Lancers.”
Scott laughed but there was a wistful look in his eyes as he bit into one of Teresa’s sugar cookies.
Murdoch Lancer entered his white hacienda. The ride back from George Young’s ranch had taken some hours, but at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that the irascible old man had tentatively agreed to a renewal of their right-of-way agreement—at a raise in the rates of course. There was no one more frugal with the nickel than George Young. In the valley it was said that he had never married because he was sure that a wife would spend his fortune. As a result, his sister Miriam presided over the ranch, cooking, cleaning and ruling with a rod of iron, but on a stringent budget. Any unwary guest who might reasonably expect a cup of coffee, perhaps a cookie on a visit would definitely not have their expectations met. In fact, Murdoch Lancer, who had spent the night, was ravenously hungry because the Young’s had offered a dinner consisting of one small portion of beef, one potato, and a cooked carrot. For dessert, Miriam had made cookies so he finished off the meal with one cookie and a cup of weak coffee. Not one of his more memorable meals. In the morning, the Lancer patriarch again had weak coffee and a biscuit—one biscuit. Needless, to say the tall rancher could hardly wait to devour one of Teresa’s meals.
When her guardian entered the kitchen, Teresa immediately handed him a mug of hot coffee and a handful of her sugar cookies. Shoving a couple of the sweet delights into his mouth and washing them down with a sip of the hot brew, Murdoch sighed with pleasure at the delectable taste. “Thanks, Teresa. That hit the spot!”
“I knew you’d need something since you were at the Young’s.”
Murdoch flashed her a knowing smile. “How’s Scott doing?”
“Much better. He was out here just awhile ago, but he went back to his room.”
“I think I’ll go see him. By the way, where’s Johnny?”
“Since Scott was feeling better, Johnny rode up to the north range to take care of that fallen tree,” Teresa informed him.
“Good. That should have been done weeks ago. Uh, what are we having for dinner?”
“Fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, noodles, string beans, biscuits and angel food cake.”
Rubbing his hands together, Murdoch practically licked his lips. “Now, I know I’m home. Any chance dinner will be early this evening?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she assured him.
Still munching on his cookies, the tall rancher headed to the guest bedroom where he found his older son packing. “Scott, Teresa seems to think that you’re feeling better?”
The blond looked up at his father’s entrance. “She’s right. I’ve spent most of the time in bed.”
“Good. Uh, could I ask you how you were injured? I didn’t want to say anything before, but with those marks on your arms. . . .”
Softly, the blond replied, “I fell while I was exploring in some rocks.”
The tall man set his mug down on the nearby chest before walking over to the young man. Grasping one arm carefully, he revealed the bandaged wrists. “You did not get these in a fall.”
The cerulean eyes looked up cautiously into the lined face. “Mr. Lancer, it doesn’t matter. I’m leaving tomorrow and then you won’t need to be concerned about me.”
“Scott, no matter what you think of me, you are a guest in my house. I would appreciate your telling me the truth.”
Sighing with frustration, the blond replied, “I’m not sure I know what the truth is. I decided. . . to explore that old mine shaft where the four of us stopped the other day. Someone hit me on the head. When I woke up, I was tied up and blindfolded. They left me there for a couple of hours and then let me go.”
“But that doesn’t make sense! Did they say anything or threaten you?”
“Only that I wasn’t wanted here.” After that admission, Scott walked over to the armoire to take out the final pieces of clothing so that his bag was full, except for the clothes that he planned to wear into Green River.
Murdoch Lancer stood there in stunned silence, until finally he uttered, “Did. . .did you recognize the voice?”
“It just doesn’t make sense. No one from the ranch would. . . .”
“Mr. Lancer, as I said it doesn’t matter. Someone obviously felt threatened for some reason, but when they see that I have left then that should be the end of it.”
“Dammit! You’re my son. You have every right to be here!”
“Obviously, someone doesn’t agree with you, but there’s no point in talking about it anymore. I’d just like to enjoy my last evening at Lancer. I understand Teresa is planning to make an angel food cake.”
Distracted by the idea that someone had deliberately attacked his older son, Murdoch at first didn’t respond. “Huh, oh yes. She knows I’m very fond of it.”
“I haven’t had one in years so I’m anxious to try it.”
Murdoch’s face revealed his tension. “Scott, I want the truth. Do you think. . .do you think Johnny had anything to do with what happened to you?”
There was no hesitation in Scott’s answer. “No. I understand that he doesn’t like or trust me, but that isn’t his style. Even knowing him for only a few days, I can tell that.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, the tall man agreed. “I didn’t want to think so, but he. . .he is very possessive about the ranch. He once told me he remembered being away from Lancer when his mother took him. I. . .I don’t think that’s really true because he was too young, but I think he has convinced himself that he remembers it. Perhaps, deep down he still feels he could lose everything.”
The blond nodded. “I can understand that. Sometimes an incident simmers away for years, just waiting to boil over, however, I don’t think that’s what happened here.”
“I’m glad to hear you say so. I’d like to think I know my son better than that.”
The blond’s slender shoulders slumped slightly. “If you don’t mind, I’m rather tired. I believe that I will rest until dinner time.”
“Oh, yes of course. Just take it easy. I’m glad I was able to return early so we can all have dinner together.”
“Speaking of that, Johnny said that you were having some trouble with a man named Young.”
“He’s right about that, but I think Young and I have reached a compromise.”
“Good. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Moving into his room, the rancher decided to indulge in a hot bath before dinnertime. The long ride and the discomfort of the Young ranch had left the tall man feeling soiled.
An hour later, Johnny Lancer and the other men returned to Lancer. Seeing his father’s horse in the stable, Johnny walked in expecting to find the older man at his desk. And so he was. “Hey, Murdoch, we finally got that tree taken care of.”
“So Teresa told me. Glad to hear it. Any problems while I was gone?”
“Nope, I did beat Scott at checkers though.”
“Hmm, you’re running up an impressive record. Maybe we can play after dinner?”
“You are a glutton for punishment, Old Man!”
Murdoch started to protest, but then saw the twinkle in the sapphire eyes. “You may be right you, young whippersnapper, but we’ll see who has the last laugh later.”
“You got a deal. How about a friendly little bet?”
“Bet? I thought your wages were gone already?”
“Well, maybe I can talk the boss into advancin’ me some credit.”
“Not a chance, Young Man.”
Johnny’s lower lip stuck out. “Okay, okay, here’s what the bet will be. When you and I go up to see those Brahma bulls, who ever loses has to pay for the meals and the liquor!”
“Wait a minute! The way you eat, I’ll have to take out a bank loan if I lose!”
That set the younger man to laughing. “Not much confidence in yourself, Old Man!”
“All right, all right! Loser buys the food and liquor, but if I win, you’d had better take all your wages! Now, let me tell you about the deal I made with Young.”
For the rest of the afternoon Murdoch and Johnny talked about Lancer business. The brunet told his father about his plans to go into Green River with Scott so that he could bring the chestnut back. They also discussed the right-of-way situation. The dark-haired young man chortled when he heard about the colorless dinner that his father had been offered at the Young ranch since he had heard rumors about the parsimonious fare at the Young table.
Fortunately, there was no such niggardliness at the Lancer table. Scott, Johnny, and Murdoch devoured the delicious food that Teresa had prepared. In fact, it was the brown-haired girl’s belief that Johnny had achieved a new personal best in the eating of noodles. As for the cake, it had turned out to be light and golden brown. Because of its airiness, all three men were able to indulge in a slice.
Then, after dinner, the epic battle of checkers began. Scott and Teresa made an enthusiastic audience as the great struggle went back and forth. Finally, age prevailed to the dismay of the younger participant who immediately demanded a rematch. Murdoch Lancer, knowing he had the upper hand, only murmured one word, “Maybe.” Let his son sweat this one out. It would do him good!
After the splendid endeavor, the inhabitants of the household slowly made their way to their beds since Johnny and Scott intended to get an early start for Green River in the morning. Teresa had already assured them that she would be up plenty of time to make breakfast. Murdoch also intended to take one last opportunity to say goodbye to his older son.
At breakfast the next day the four people sat down to the hearty meal which Teresa had prepared. It did not escape the attention of the young woman that their visitor ate very little although the same could not be said of his sibling or father. Days spent on the range took a great deal of energy so both men liked to stoke up early, knowing that sometimes they would not have the opportunity to eat again until dinner time. After breakfast, Scott went to his room to pick up the bag with his clothes. Fortunately, it was not too big so he was able to attach it to Firecracker’s saddle. Before he mounted the horse, Teresa gave him a kiss on the cheek and Murdoch shook his hand. In a low voice, the tall man assured him that he was welcome to visit again at any time.
Waving goodbye to the two young men, Teresa and Murdoch watched them ride out with a hint of sadness. The patriarch had already told Johnny that he could stay overnight in Green River since it was a long ride there and back.
Near the corral, two other people also watched the departure of the man from Boston.
The shorter of the two men placed his hand on the shoulder of the other. “Hemos ganado, mi amigo. Johnny es seguro.”
The taller man nodded. “Only did what I had to, amigo.”
“Gracias. I. . .I . . .Estoy en su deuda.”
Johnny and Scott Lancer took the long ride at a fairly steady pace. Scott wanted to make sure that they had the opportunity to talk to the lawyer that day since his stage was supposed to leave on Thursday.
When they arrived at Green River, Johnny started to head towards Old Maude’s for a cold beer, but the blond insisted that they should visit the Lancer lawyer first. Needless to say, the attorney was surprised at the request made by the stranger, but he agreed to make up two copies for Scott to sign. Frederick Thomas asked them to return an hour later for the signing.
With an hour to kill, Johnny headed to Old Maude’s for his beer and a chance to see Sindy. Scott, on the other hand, made his way back to the stable. He intended to give Firecracker another brushing and a lump of sugar. The soothing motion of brushing and rubbing the beautiful red coat helped to calm the young man’s nerves. This trip had started out with such hopes and now it was over—and it didn’t seem likely that he would ever return to the great ranch.
At the end of the hour, Scott once again entered the attorney’s office, followed by Johnny a few minutes later. Also present were two other men who were there to act as witnesses to Scott’s signature. As soon as he had signed the two sheets of paper, Scott handed one to Johnny, then folded the other and put it in his breast pocket. After paying the lawyer for his services, Scott started towards the hotel to find a room for the night since the stage would not leave until midday. “Scott?”
The blond turned. He hadn’t realized that Johnny was still behind him. He had expected the young man to return to Old Maude’s or leave immediately for Lancer. “Yes?”
“Do you want me to tell Murdoch about this paper you signed?’
“It’s up to you, but I’d prefer that you didn’t.”
“I. . .I don’t think he’d understand any man turning down a chance at being a land owner.”
“What difference does it make to you?”
The older son looked around as if for inspiration in his answer. “I can’t explain. I. . .I guess maybe it’s that I don’t like disappointing people. All of my life I’ve tried to do what was expected of me. I realize it’s crazy, but knowing how important Lancer is to you and your father, I. . .well, I’ll leave it up to you. Tell him whatever you want. Now, I’m going to go over to the hotel. Thanks. . .thanks for coming in with me. Take care of Firecracker, will you? He’s a real beauty.”
Johnny watched thoughtfully as the other man headed to the hotel before he once again returned to Old Maude’s.
Some time later Johnny and Sindy were still enjoying their casual dalliance with interludes of dancing, talking and an occasional drink. Maude Gallagher, the owner of the establishment, had a soft spot for the Lancer scion so she usually allowed Sindy to spend more time with the brunet than she would with other patrons. In fact, Maude would occasionally take the time to sit at a table with Johnny and Sindy. Even though the name of the dancing emporium was Old Maude’s, in actuality the petite dark-haired woman was not much more than thirty. With a head for business and a pleasing personality, the frugal woman had taken a chance on creating her dancing emporium as a step-up from the usual saloon. It had quickly caught on as a place where a man could relax, have a cold beer, and watch some pretty girls dance or even dance with them. In addition, she had taken care to hire girls who had respect for themselves, even as she did.
The establishment was not a brothel and if any girl tried to solicit business other than dancing she was immediately fired. Maude definitely did not want irate wives pounding on her door looking for their wayward husbands—although she did have to admit that quite a few men spent their time at the emporium instead of at home with their own paragons of virtue. Still, Maude was realistic enough to know that men needed a place to let off steam and enjoy themselves—and as a result she could make a tidy profit.
An hour later a slim blond-haired man entered the emporium, walked over to the bar and asked the barkeep a question. The barkeep just shook his head, but the blond persisted.
Maude, who kept a close eye on everything in her place, walked over and casually asked, “Need some help, Stranger?”
“Yes, I’m looking for Tillie. The barkeep told me she’s not working right now.”
That’s right. She doesn’t start dancin’ until nine or so.”
“I see. I promised that I would take her to dinner before I left town and I was hoping to find her here.”
“Well, she’s probably over at the boarding house where she lives. Since she works late hours, she sleeps during the day.”
“That makes sense. Would you mind telling me which boarding house she’s at?”
Maude hesitated for a moment. The man certainly looked respectable enough, but she did have a responsibility for her girls. “Tell you what. I’ll just walk over there with you and tell her you want to see her. Then if she wants to see you, I’ll skedaddle. Okay?”
“That’s fine. I admire you for your concern.”
“Well, Tillie’s one of my favorite girls. She kinda reminds me of myself some years back. She wants to make somethin’ better of herself.”
“Yeah, she’s already told me that when she gets enough money together she’s gonna go to San Francisco and work for one of them dancin’ schools.”
“A dancin’ school?”
“That girl purely does love to dance and one of the girls who used to work here, married this fellow who had money. He kinda spoiled her and let her set up this dancin’ school so she wrote to me askin’ if any of the girls who worked here might be interested in joinin’ them. I told Tillie about it and she was real excited, but she needs a stake ta get goin’. I’d give it to her myself, but she’s kinda proud.”
“I hope she’s able to realize her dream.”
“Me too. You wanta go over there now?”
Over on the other side of the large room, Johnny and Sindy had just finished a dance when they watched the blond and Maude depart through the swinging doors. “Well, I’ll be!” murmured the dark-haired man.
“You know that man with Maude, Johnny?”
“He’s. . .he’s my half-brother.”
“Didn’t even know you had a brother.”
“I didn’t either until a week ago.”
“Your pa don’t seem the type to indulge in somethin’ like that.”
“What? Oh, it’s not what you’re thinkin’. My father was married to a woman who died in childbirth. Scott survived.”
“Well, I’ll be. So how come he don’t live at Lancer?”
“He grew up with his mother’s family. Now, if you don’t mind I’d rather not talk about him anymore. Let’s dance again.”
Sindy giggled. “You sure are a bundle of energy today, Johnny, but who am I to complain?”
At the boarding house, Maude went to the room that Sindy and Tillie shared. There she found the young woman who had just finished dressing. After explaining about Scott who was waiting for her in the parlor, Tillie quickly changed into a more sedate dress and hurriedly followed Maude into the parlor. As she had promised, the emporium proprietor left the two young people to themselves.
“Scott, I never thought I’d see you agin.”
“But I told you I would take you out for dinner before I left?”
Tillie’s pretty mouth made a small moue. “You’re a leavin’?”
“Tomorrow but I would like to take you to dinner. What’s the best restaurant in town?”
Tillie’s eyebrows knitted together. “Well, I suppose that’d be Toro’s. I never been there, but people say it’s good. Kinda expensive though.”
The blue-gray eyes smiled at the young woman. “I think I can handle it. May I have the honor?” Scott held out his arm which Tillie daintily took.
The food at Toro’s was excellent and it gave Scott a great deal of gratification at seeing her unaffected pleasure at the food. Perhaps Toro’s was not the same caliber of fine dining in Boston, but Scott did enjoy the dishes and particularly the company. For dessert the two shared a rich, creamy slice of cake. It was apparent that Tillie had rarely enjoyed anything so decadent so Scott carefully made sure that she had the bigger share.
After dinner, the two took a walk around town with Tillie acting as tour guide before she had to return to the boarding house and change into her work dress. Scott waited for her in the parlor once again before escorting her over to Old Maude’s. As soon as they entered, Scott immediately spotted Johnny at a table with an attractive young lady, but he elected to take a table nearer the dance floor. For a time, he was content to watch Tillie dance with some of the other patrons, but after awhile he walked over to the three musicians who were playing the tunes, which were not always in tune.
Discreetly, Scott handed the lead musician some money and whispered a request before he walked over to Tillie’s side. Tillie beamed up at the her partner when the music started up. It was a waltz and so were the next two dances. For a few minutes the two young people recreated the beauty of their Saturday night together. At the end of the three dances, there was a silence for a time until the natural exuberance of the emporium took over once again.
At their table across the room, Sindy nudged Johnny. “That brother of yours sure can dance! Wish he’d ask me!”
“Hey, I’m not exactly flat-footed when it comes to dancin’!”
“Silly boy, of course, you’re not. It’s just, well, I guess they remind me of those grand balls you hear about back east with all the fine ladies in their beautiful gowns and the gentlemen in evenin’ clothes.”
“Never get me into one of those monkey suits.”
Sindy trilled with laughter. “I guess you would look kind of funny, but a girl can dream, can’t she?”
“I s’pose I’ll allow you that, just as long as you don’t dream it with somebody else!”
“Why, Johnny Lancer, I don’t see your ring on my finger so I s’pect I can dance with whoever I please.”
The sapphire eyes narrowed, but then a grin broke out on the handsome face. “No wonder your ma named you Sindy. She knew what she was doin’. Come on, they’re playin’ a polka. I feel like dancin’.”
On the other side of the room, Scott Lancer sat at his table watching Tillie dance with some of the other men in the room. It was obvious that the diminutive girl was quite popular. He had been sitting there awhile when Maude sat down at the table. “You sure do dance well, Mister. It was real pretty seein’ you out there with Tillie.”
“Thank you. By the way, my name’s Scott Lancer.”
Maude glanced over at Johnny’s table. “You relation to Johnny over there?”
“Yes, he’s my half-brother.”
“Strange, he’s never mentioned you.”
“It’s a long story. Anyway, I’m leaving for San Francisco tomorrow.”
“Well, I’m sure glad you stopped by to see Tillie. Haven’t seen her this happy in a long time.”
“It was my pleasure.”
The two talked together for quite some time before Maude once again began to circulate around the room. Stopping at Johnny’s table, she complimented him on the liveliness of his polka. Sindy had once again taken up her duties on the dance floor so the two watched her for some minutes before she continued on her way.
When Johnny glanced over at the table Scott had been sitting at, he realized that the blond must have left the establishment. Since it was not that late, Johnny was slightly puzzled, but shrugged it off. Maybe Scott just wanted to get a good night’s sleep before his stage ride the next day. Johnny went back to watching his girl dance.
Sometime after midnight, Johnny too headed to the hotel where he had already procured a room for the night. Frequently, he would stay longer at Old Maude’s but he knew that Murdoch expected him back the next day so he had decided to get some sleep and head back right after dawn.
He had not been asleep long when a piercing scream filled the night. Naturally, in a barely-civilized western town such sounds were not unusual, but still it sent chills through the spines of those who heard it. Grabbing his gun, he peered out into the hallway. He was not the only one as several newly-awakened slumberers also poked their heads out. When another shriek rent the air, Johnny bounded down the hall to the door where the noise seemed to be coming from. Imagining murder and mayhem inside, the young man pounded on the door. To his relief the door finally opened a crack to reveal the disheveled sight of Scott Lancer inside. Pushing his way in, Johnny lowered his gun, rounding on the other man for an answer to the goings-on.
“What the hell is the matter with you? You woke up everybody in the hotel.”
“I’m. . .I’m sorry. It was a. . .nightmare.”
“Nightmare? I thought it was one of them banshees Murdoch told me about.”
“I have them sometimes when I’m overtired or. . .or stressed.”
“Well, this one musta been somethin'”
Scott nodded. “The usual. The War, the cave-in, my friends dying.”
“You all right, now?”
“Sure. You can go back to your room. Sorry, I bothered you.”
“You know, the cave-in?”
“I was in a prisoner of war prison. We tried to escape in a tunnel which had a bad habit of collapsing. Not everybody could be rescued. I keep hearing them scream for help.”
“Still not as bad as when I hear those bullets hitting them and smell the blood.”
“When we finally managed to get out the tunnel, the guards shot. . .shot us down. I was the. . .the only one who wasn’t killed.” Scott walked over to the bed before slumping down on it. “Sometimes. . .sometimes I wish I had been. I thought the nightmares had gone, but being up in that mine shaft has brought them back, I guess.”
“That’s why you were so. . .upset?”
The crystalline eyes looked up into those of sapphire. “Didn’t want you to know. You, and Wes and Tom would never understand how scared a man can be.”
Johnny just stood there for a long moment. “I’ve been scared, lots of times. I thought Murdoch was gonna die when Pardee ambushed him and many’s the time I thought we might lose all we worked for. All it’d take is one bullet.”
Scott nodded. “Yeah. I saw so many die in the War. One minute they were there and the next just gone. There were so many, you just couldn’t care about all of them. At least you and your father have each other and Teresa. He. . . loves you a great deal.”
Johnny blushed in the half-darkness. Men didn’t usually talk about stuff like that. “‘S’pose he does. He means a lot to me too.”
“Good. I. . .I only had my grandfather and I tried to tell him how much he meant to me, but it wasn’t always easy.”
“Know what you mean.”
“Well, I suppose I’d better try to get back to sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
“You goin’ to see someone in San Francisco?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. She’s very dear to me and I think it’s time I tell her so.”
“Not the way you mean although I did propose to her once.”
“Well, good luck. I. . .I guess I haven’t always been as welcomin’ as I coulda been, but I hope you find what you’re lookin’ for.”
“Thanks, Johnny. At least some of my questions have been answered and who knows maybe I find the rest of the answers real soon.”
“Night, Johnny. Take care of Teresa, Murdoch—and yourself.”
“You can count on it.”
The next morning right after dawn, Johnny Lancer rode out with the chestnut trailing behind Barranca. At noon, Scott Lancer climbed aboard the stage to start his journey to San Francisco. His week at Lancer was over.
In the weeks after Scott Lancer left the white hacienda, life at the great ranch returned to its normal routine—the selling and buying of cattle and horses. During the breaking of some of the new horses, one particular equine creature planted his hoof on Johnny’s instep so the young man had been unable to able to comfortably move around for a short period of time. As a result, he had to endure a period of inactivity which sorely tried all of the inhabitants of the household.
Teresa, in particular, had been at her wit’s end when the brunet had decided to supervise the cooking in kitchen. Luckily, for the young man’s continued good health (except for his foot) Murdoch had made a point of involving his son in the bookwork of the ranch. For the most part, Johnny had always avoided that part of ranching, but a few choice words from the patriarch had enlightened him as to its necessity. Still, all breathed a sigh of relief, when ten days later, the Lancer scion was finally able to accompany Tom and Wes to Old Maude’s at Green River.
Sindy was delighted to see her sometime-beau who was more than willing to display his return to mobility by leading her out on the dance floor. After several polkas and a waltz, the two young people sat at a table drinking cold beers. Dancing could be thirsty work.
It was then that Sindy informed Johnny that she had a new roommate since Tillie had left for San Francisco three days before. Unfortunately, her new roommate was not as accommodating as Tillie had been so Sindy gently hinted that it would be so nice to have a place of her own. Johnny did not take the hint. He was not about to give up his precious freedom—for any woman and happily, Murdoch had not mentioned the issue of grandchildren—too often.
Weeks later, Johnny would remember that pleasant interlude in Green River as the last moment of calm before trouble was once again unleashed on Lancer. Its first indication was just a day or two after the trip to Maude’s dancing emporium when Johnny, Cipriano and some of the other hands endeavored to cross the Young property to take their cattle to the railhead. Shots rang out forcing the beeves and men to stop. When Johnny had confronted the man who had fired upon them, he was told, in no uncertain terms, that the agreement between Lancer and Young had expired and it would not be renewed.
While Cipriano and the others reversed the direction of the cattle, Johnny rode back to Lancer to inform his father of the latest duel with the Standing Y. Cursing under his breath, Murdoch Lancer had made a hurried journey to see Young, but to no avail. No amount of talk or money would change the miser’s position. The Lancer patriarch could only assume that Young had an agenda, not favorable to Lancer interests.
The next weeks saw an increase in the tension between the two ranches when several hands were fired upon when they merely rode near the boundary line between the two properties. Since no one was hurt, there was little that could be done, and no one wanted to escalate the problem since there was still access to the railhead by a long detour.
One evening a month after the right-of-way had been lost due to Young’s intransigence, Johnny and Murdoch sat in the great room at Lancer talking about their options. Waiting and doing nothing certainly did not sit well with the volatile young man. Despite his preference for action, he had supported his father’s decision to wait since no one wanted an all-out range war. Just that day the older Lancer had returned from town after consulting with lawyers and other officials about using the law to find a way out of their difficult position. No one had been optimistic about their chances. As a result, it had been a discouraged Murdoch Lancer who had returned to his home to impart the bad news. Teresa had tried to comfort her guardian, but there was a notable lack of enthusiasm for dinner that night.
During dinner, Murdoch remembered the letter he had picked up at the post office with the other Lancer mail. It was postmarked San Francisco and addressed to Teresa. The girl had opened it hurriedly, only to discover that it was from Scott. He had found SPIN and the two of them were exploring the city together. He ended it with thanks for Teresa’s wonderful cooking and kind concern. It did not escape the notice of the two Lancers that no one else had been mentioned in the letter.
As Murdoch and Johnny talked together, it was obvious that there was more than just the Young situation on the tall rancher’s mind. “Uh, Murdoch, you still worried about Scott?”
“What? No, no, it sounds like he doing fine.”
“So why do you look like a polecat spent the night under your bed?”
The tall man gave his son a penetrating gaze. “Before Scott left, he told me the truth about how he was injured.”
“And that would be?”
“Someone hit him over the head, tied him and left him in that old mine shaft. Then they let him go.”
“That doesn’t make sense!”
“That’s what I said, but he also told me that the man made a point of telling him he wasn’t wanted at Lancer.”
The sapphire eyes in the young face shuttered over. “So what is it you’re saying? He thinks I had somethin’ to do with it and you’re wonderin’ too?”
“On the contrary, he believes that you didn’t have anything to do with what happened, but I can’t help but wonder if George Young might have had a part in it.”
“What could he have to gain by chasin’ Scott away?”
Murdoch rubbed his hand across his tired eyes, “I know. I was just thinking. . .hoping that it was an outsider—not someone who’s a part of Lancer. I’ve known some of these men since you were a boy. I. . .I thought I knew them.”
“Murdoch, even if one of the hands did what Scott said, it’s not your fault. You aren’t responsible for how the men think.”
“Maybe you’re right, but Scott was the victim of this prejudice—and I don’t like it. He came here to find his family and instead he’s humiliated and injured. Or do you still think he only came here to claim a share of the ranch?”
Johnny glanced away before murmuring, “Uh, no, I concede I was wrong about that. I’m convinced he came here to see you.”
“Why are you so sure? You were pretty adamant about his motives before.”
“Because he signed a paper in front of me and a lawyer, givin’ up any rights to Lancer.”
“Johnny, did you. . . ?”
“It was his idea! I just watched him do it!”
The tall man walked over to the brandy decanter to pour himself a large measure. Shaking his head in sadness and frustration, he walked back to sit down next to his son.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have suggested. . . .How could this all have turned into such a nightmare? I was so happy when Catherine said we were going to have a baby and then. . .and then it all went so horribly wrong.” Turning slightly to face the blue-eyed man, Murdoch continued, “I thought I had been given a second chance when you were born and then it happened all over again. There were nights when I thought I’d go mad wondering where you and your mother were. Then, I got you back and I was determined that I would never lose you again. I put everything I had into you and Lancer—all my dreams and hopes in one package. I did think about Scott in Boston, but I knew he was safe and I guess I wasn’t sure how he would fit in here. Maybe I should have done more, but in the end I did nothing. I wonder if he hates me for that?”
Johnny sat there in silence. His father’s rambling confession echoed in his brain. The bond between the two Lancers had been forged, not just of blood but fear and pride– pride in their land and fear at what they had so nearly lost. The bond had made them strong and yet, in its own way it had a flaw—a flaw which had not allowed them to reach out so that the bond could grow to include another. Teresa had been allowed to create her own little niche, but when a slim, blond man had appeared seeking a family, his quest had been denied, just as George Young had denied the Lancers right-of-way.
“I guess you ‘n me made some mistakes, didn’t we?” asked Johnny.
“Johnny, I’m not blaming you. Naturally, you were confused and scared. I should have told you about Scott a long time ago, but I was afraid you’d be angry that I didn’t tell you that you had a brother. I guess I’m a selfish old man, but it wasn’t easy to think about sharing you.”
“Mebbe all that’s true, but I coulda given him a chance. He looked so. . . lonely that night he told me about his nightmares. He wasn’t askin’ all that much.”
“No, he wasn’t and I think, if you’re willing, we should take a little trip up to San Francisco as soon as we deal with George Young. Or would you still prefer to go investigate the Brahma bulls instead?”
“Well, I s’pect havin’ a brother might be more interestin’ than havin’ one of them bulls around here. I s’pose we could give it a try.”
“Thanks, Son. I’m glad you’re willing to try. I know it’s not easy to admit to a mistake, but I hope Scott will give both of us another chance.”
Unhappily, George Young did not seem to be inclined to play his part in the possible reunion of the Lancer Family as the situation over the right-of-way took a down-turn with the wounding of a Lancer hand who had taken exception to some of the epithets thrown at him by one of the Young ranch hands. In an effort to prevent any further occurrences of violence, Murdoch Lancer strictly forbade any hand to approach within a mile of the disputed area. For the next two weeks, the great ranch seemed to hold its breath whether that edict would allow some kind of peace to be established.
Just as the dust seemed to have finally settled, there occurred an event which was to have startling ramifications for those at Lancer. On a sleepy Sunday afternoon just after the finish of dinner, a carriage pulled up in front of the hacienda. Gliding out was a rather tall, heavy-set man wearing a fine charcoal-colored suit with pinstripes. Knocking on the wooden door, he presented himself as Thaddeus W. Parson, Attorney-at-Law. To the astonishment of Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa, he announced that he was there on behalf of the new owners of the Standing Y Ranch who had been informed of the right-of-way problem and had decided to offer a new agreement to Murdoch Lancer for a nominal rate.
Needless to say, Murdoch and Johnny were skeptical of the offer, but when the proper papers were produced—already signed by the new owner, they had to admit that the lawyer seemed to be a man of his word. After Murdoch signed both sheets of paper, Parson went on his cheerful way. As soon as he had left, Johnny and his father again went over every word in the agreement, but all was as it was supposed to be, including the signature—D. Cassidy.
The next morning the two Lancers determined to test the validity of the agreement by pushing through a small herd of cattle toward the railhead. To the relief of the two men, there was no opposition at all. In fact, one of the hands on the other side actually waved at them! So, once again Lancer had regained its outlet to the railhead—without any more blood being shed.
In the following days, Johnny would frequently ride Barranca up to the northern Lancer border, hoping to catch a glimpse of the new owner. All he did see was a new sign announcing that the land was now the property of D. Cassidy and was called, Fortune’s Escape. Finally, after riding that way for the third straight day, Johnny spotted a chestnut horse galloping across the range with a rider on his back. The dark-haired man sat there for a time as the horse came closer with a now-familiar figure mounted on him.
“Scott! What the hell are you doing here and is that Firecracker you’re on?”
The blond patted the sweating mount. “Good morning, Johnny. Beautiful day for a ride, isn’t it?”
On the other side of the fence, the brunet spluttered, “Don’t give me that! What are you doing here? I. . .we thought you were in San Francisco?”
“I was, but my friend Dan Cassidy bought this ranch, however, he has no desire to run it personally so he asked me to take charge of it. I guess you could call me the foreman.”
“Well, I may not be an expert at ranching, but I think I can learn.”
“Uh, well, sure, I suppose. But how’d you get Firecracker?”
“I didn’t want to take money from Dan since he’s a friend so when he asked me what I wanted, I said that I’d need a good horse and I knew just where there was one. Your father sold Firecracker to Dan a few weeks ago.”
“Well, I’ll be. I knew Murdoch had sold him, but he never told me who to.”
The blond gave the other man a shy smile. “I must admit I asked Dan not to tell your father who the horse was for.”
“So you mean, you’re gonna be around here from now on?”
“It looks like it, unless I’m a failure as a foreman.”
“Uh, if you need any. . .advice, I’d be glad to help you.”
“Thank you, Johnny, I appreciate that.”
“You’re welcome. Uh, mebbe you’d like to come to dinner some night? Teresa, and Murdoch’d be pleased to see you.”
The cerulean eyes gazed at the other man for an instant. “Are you sure you wouldn’t mind? I don’t want to interfere.”
“Hey, it’d be fine with me. Mebbe I could beat you at checkers again!”
“I wouldn’t count on it. I’ve been practicing my skills with SPIN.”
“She’s the housekeeper for Fortune’s Escape. She’s one tough lady.”
“Good to hear that. You need somebody to keep you in line!”
“Me? I’ll have you know, I’m perfect!”
That set both Lancers chuckling. “Well, I’d better get back. I promised to help SPIN move some things around. We’re still getting unpacked.”
“Glad to see you, Scott. Uh, how you been doin’ with them nightmares?”
“Better. Having a home and someone to care about has helped a great deal.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear that. Murdoch told me what really happened up in that mine shaft. I’m sure sorry.”
“Thanks. It wasn’t pleasant, but I’ll survive. Now, you’d better go. I can hear Teresa ringing the dinner bell.”
Johnny’s head swiveled around dramatically. “What?” Then it struck him that it was only 11:00 AM He gave his brother a big grin. “You scared me. You know how I am about eatin’.”
“I do indeed. Take care, Johnny. Stop by anytime. You’re always welcome.”
“You too, Scott. Maybe we can go into Old Maude’s together sometime. Oh, Tillie’s not there anymore.”
“Yes, I know. She sent me an invitation to see her at the dancing school. She seems very happy.”
“Well, I’d better go. You know Murdoch. He’ll probably dock my pay if I don’t get my work done.”
“Wouldn’t want that. See you soon.” The blond waved and then rode off on the great red horse while the man on the palomino went the opposite way.
After Scott put Firecracker into the newly renovated stable, he went inside the rather small ranch house where he found SPIN baking a cherry pie. “Scott dear, did you have a good ride?”
“I certainly did and I met one of our neighbors.”
“Murdoch or Johnny?”
“Johnny. He. . .I. . . would you mind if I invited Murdoch, Johnny, and Teresa over for dinner some evening?”
“Of course not. I’d be delighted to meet Johnny and Teresa,” remarked the rather austere woman.
“I know you don’t think too much of Murdoch, but. . . .”
“Scott, I admit I’m not too fond of him, but he is your father and I know you need a chance to get to know him.”
“Thanks, SPIN. At least, this way we can start on some kind of level playing field since we’re both ranch owners.”
“But I thought he believed that Dan Cassidy is the owner of this ranch?”
“He does and I intend to keep it that way, but it gives me a feeling of equality. Does that sound strange?”
“I’m sure he is a most formidable man, but you have had practice in dealing with such men.”
“That’s the truth, but at least now I have the time to hopefully develop some kind of relationship with all three of them.”
“Speaking of relationships, I received a letter from Tillie. She wants to know when you’re going to visit her again.”
“SPIN, I do not need a matchmaker! I like Tillie, but she deserves time to have her dream. You know how much she loves to dance.”
“Yes, she does and now that I’ve persuaded her to cut down on the amount of henna rinse she uses, I’m sure there will be many young men wanting to make her their partner.”
“If you’re trying to make me jealous. . . .”
“No, Scott, I just want you to be happy. Whoever you want to share your life with is fine with me.”
“Well, Miss Nicholson, at this moment in time, I am very happy to be sharing my life with you. Grandfather wanted me to find a place that I could call home and I believe I’ve found it—and maybe if I’m very lucky, one day two gentlemen of my immediate acquaintance will want to share their lives with me.”
“No, Scott dear, take it from me, they’ll be the lucky ones.”
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