Departures by S.

#1 in a duology, followed by The Box

If anyone is interested in reading about the bet which Nick and Scott refer to, it is contained in the story The Bet x-over with The Big Valley.

Word count: 14,267

Scott Lancer rode slowly down the dusty road from Stockton. He had just spent the last few days at the Barkley ranch, just outside the California town. Although Victoria and Audra Barkley had not been present, due to an extended shopping trip to San Francisco; Scott had enjoyed talking to Nick, Heath, and Jarrod Barkley. Jarrod had only been present for one of the days because of a court case he had to present in Modesto, but since it was really Nick who was Scott’s friend, the blond had been pleased when the dark-haired man had agreed to take some time off so that the two could talk.

Not that Nick Barkley really took time off. He had the running of the ranch firmly in an iron grip and everyone knew that he had an eagle eye on what was going on. From the months that Scott had been at Lancer, he could appreciate what a monumental task the running of a huge ranch was so he hadn’t expected Nick to invite him to go fishing at one of the more remote lakes on the ranch. Scott had never thought of Nick as a fisherman, but he had to admit that Nick had proven to be as capable with the fishing pole as he was with an ornery cow.

After cooking the fish they had caught over an open fire, the two men had talked about the trick that Scott had played on his younger brother the last time the two Lancers had visited the Barkleys. With the help of Jarrod, Nick and Heath, Johnny had been convinced that he would have to marry Audra Barkley–at the barrel of a shotgun if need be–because he had “besmirched” her honor. To this day, Johnny had not discovered that the Barkleys had been in on the bet, but Scott’s plot had worked because Johnny had stopped growling about how Nick liked Scott better and that the Barkleys wanted Scott for a brother-in-law. Truthfully, the blond wasn’t interested in marrying anyone–even though he did

enjoy Audra’s company.

“It was nice of Heath to volunteer to handle things while we’re here fishing.” remarked Scott.

“Well, he thought we deserved sometime together. It’s been awhile since you’ve been here. Things must be busy at Lancer?”

“That’s for sure. Murdoch has us going from morning ’til night.”

“How are things between you and Murdoch?” Nick was one of the few people to which Scott had confessed his concerns about living at Lancer.

“Not too bad. I think he’s still suspicious of me, but hopefully that will fade with time.”

Nick’s heavy eyebrows narrowed in a question. “What do you mean?” asked the older man.

“He’s still not sure if I’m Harlan Garrett’s grandson or Murdoch Lancer’s son.”

“Why can’t you be both?”

“My grandfather’s recent visit to the ranch didn’t go…too well. I think it brought back a lot of bad feelings.”

“Scott, don’t let them put you in the middle. You’re a strong man and you have to make your own decisions.”

“I know. I just wish they could put aside their animosities.”

Trying to change the subject, Nick inquired about Johnny. “Did Johnny pay off on the bet?”

“Well, he started to, but then he needed the money because he wanted to buy this girl a new bonnet.”

“Sounds like Heath. That boy has more girlfriends than Casanova.”

“He can’t have more than Johnny. I think that’s why he was so sure you would force him to marry Audra. He falls in love almost every week. I’m surprised that some father or brother hasn’t tried to get him to the altar before.”

“But you’re mighty fond of him aren’t you?”

“Of course. I just can’t believe we spent all those years apart. I wish…well, you understand how I feel. Look at you and Heath.”

A sad look came over Nick Barkley’s darkly handsome face. “Yeah, I gave him a rough time at first, but now…sometimes I feel almost closer to him than Jarrod.”

Scott nodded in understanding. “We’re two lucky men, Nick. We made it through the war and now we have our families and a chance to build for the future.”

The older man gave Scott an appraising look. “I guess you’re right. When I think about all the men who didn’t make it back, I’m very grateful–even if it seems that I’m working eighteen hours a day to keep this ranch going.”

“But you wouldn’t change your life for anything, would you?”

“No, of course not. When I was lying there in my tent the night before a battle, all I could think about was returning home.”

“Same with me, but of course then it was Boston. Now, Lancer is home.”

Thinking back to that talk with Nick, Scott realized how true that statement was. Certainly, there was still some tension between Murdoch Lancer and his sons, but still the blond thought of the white hacienda as home and now that the turn-off to Morro Coyo was only a few miles away, he decided to pick up the pace so that he could sleep in his own bed that night.

Stopping to pull out his canteen for a quick swallow, Scott heard a woman’s scream from just ahead. At this point in the road, it took a great curve behind some boulders so the young man was not able to see what was happening.

Recapping his water, he kneed his horse into a gallop to check out the situation. To his surprise, as he rounded the bend, he found a small dark-haired woman standing by an overturned carriage. A trickle of blood was at her temple and she was crying and screaming in near hysteria. Dismounting, the blond hurried over to the woman. For a moment she seemed to cower in fear from his approach. Trying to calm her down, he backed off and tried a new tack. “Please, Miss, I won’t hurt you. What happened? Are you alone?”

Quiet whimpering was the only answer.

“Miss, my name is Scott Lancer. I live nearby. I can take you to our ranch, if you’d like.”

The huge brown eyes looked at her rescuer. Biting her lip, the young woman inquired in a shrill voice, “You’re Scott Lancer?”

Relieved that the unfortunate woman’s hysteria seemed to be over, Scott only nodded. “Let me get some water. I’ll clean up that bump on your head.”

“Thank you.”

Turning to take down the canteen, Scott Lancer grimaced in pain as the small projectile from the young woman’s derringer entered his back. Turning slightly in astonishment, he saw a look of triumph in the brown eyes as he sank to the ground and into oblivion.

Johnny Madrid Lancer rode into Morro Coyo on a hot Saturday morning. Normally, Saturday was the day that he and his brother, Scott, would come into town to pick up needed supplies at the general store, and then stop at the saloon for a few cold beers before heading back to the ranch.

Today, however, Johnny had no need to pick up supplies since Murdoch and Teresa had already acquired them two days before when they had visited Reverend Baker at the Orphanage.

The dark-haired man had just felt restless at the great ranch so he had decided a ride might relieve that feeling. Perhaps, Susanna or Juanita or Jane or one of the other young ladies he had been known to squire around town would be available for a short dalliance.

Hitching his horse to the rail in front of the general store, the gunfighter had gone in to see if Susanna might be working that day. To his dismay, he discovered that Susanna had eloped two days before with some cowboy from Texas.

Next, he tried the cantina, only to told that Juanita had left town to find work elsewhere.

From there, he strolled down the dusty street to the house where Jane Thompson lived with her parents. Jedediah Thompson opened the door, but as soon as Johnny had announced his desire to see Jane, the dour father had informed the younger Lancer that Jane had been sent to San Francisco for a visit with her aunt. The censorious tone of Mr. Thompson seemed to indicate that this sudden removal was the result of the marked attentions paid by the gunfighter to his virtuous daughter. Johnny had politely tipped his hat and wished Mr. Thompson a good day.

Discouraged by his lack of success of finding feminine companionship, the dark-haired man decided to stop at the saloon for some liquid refreshment. It was still a bit early, but his throat was extremely dry from the ride into Morro Coyo. And, he had to admit, he was bored.

Johnny acknowledged to himself that if his brother hadn’t headed north to visit with the Barkleys, the two of them might be engaged in some interesting pursuits together. Scott was always up for some fun at Old Maude’s or at one of the other establishments that the two men favored. No, the blond had had to go visit Nick Barkley–a Nick Barkley who virtually growled at Johnny everytime he saw him. Johnny couldn’t help but feel slightly jealous of the friendship that Nick and Scott had. Johnny realized that it was only natural for the two men to be friendly because of their service in the Union Army, but he wished that he had been invited to go along. At least, Heath didn’t growl at him–although he also hadn’t objected when the Barkleys had tried to insist that Johnny marry Audra! The gunfighter still shuddered with fear when he thought about how close that had been.

As he approached the saloon, one of the horses out front caught his eye. Cautiously moving over to the beast, he could see the Lancer brand on one hip. To his joy, he realized that this was Scott’s horse. His brother must have returned and had stopped in Morro Coyo for a beer before heading to Lancer.

The dark-haired man grinned with delight. Perhaps he could make use of this knowledge since he was pretty sure Scott would prefer that his father not find out about the detour. Murdoch had not been too happy about Scott’s departure for Stockton, saying that there was too much work for the blond to be leaving at that particular time.

Surreptitiously entering the drinking facility, Johnny Lancer glanced around for his brother, but to his surprise there were only three or four strangers inside.

Pulling down his hat over his face, Johnny sauntered over to the bar for his beer. Perhaps Scott had left the horse at the saloon, gone somewhere else and would return shortly. But that proved not to be the case. After waiting nearly an hour, Lancer had seen neither hide nor hair of the blond when the oldest of the strangers suddenly quit the bar and headed out the door.

To Johnny’s astonishment, the old man mounted Scott’s horse and headed out of town.

Running across the street, Johnny climbed aboard Barranca to follow the man.

It didn’t take long for him to catch up since the white-haired man seemed none to comfortable on top of his spirited mount. As soon as Johnny shouted at the other man to stop, the old fellow started trembling and held up his hands. “Don’t shoot, Mister. I ain’t got nothin’ worth stealin’,” he pleaded.

“You got that horse,” replied Johnny.

“This here nag? He’s swaybacked and probably on his last legs.”

“Just where did you get this prize animal?”

“Well, uh, truth to tell, I kinda borrowed him.”

“Borrowed him or stole him?”

“Now, Mister, you can’t steal from a dead man, can ya?”

Johnny’s head whipped up. “What do you mean–dead?”

“Well, ya see I was riding along ‘n I came upon this horse. Nearby I found a body. I gave him a Christian burial and since he didn’t need this here horse, I borrowed him.”

“What did this…body look like?”

“Twas a young feller. Had light hair and was tall and kinda skinny. Had a bullet in his back.”

Johnny gulped back his dismay. “Could you…could you show me where you buried him?”

“S’pose I could, but I twern’t really headin’ that way.”

“I’ll pay you.”

“How much?”

Johnny flipped a coin at the man who caught it with dexterity. After biting it, he slipped it into his pocket. “Alrighty, young feller, let’s go. It’s not too far.”

The two men rode along at a good clip for sometime until they came to a bend in the road. “The grave’s right around this curve if’n I ‘member right. Didn’t have no shovel so I piled some rocks on him.”

Sure enough as they rounded the bend, a pile of stones in a rectangular shape loomed on one side of the road. Johnny hurriedly jumped down to start removing the rocks on the end marked by a larger stone on top of which was a hat–Scott’s hat.

As the stones tumbled down the mound, a terrible odor was evident–decomposition had certainly begun in the heat. Johnny shut his mind to the smell and continued to dig until a familiar sight met his eyes–a thatch of blond hair. Reeling back in horror, Johnny started to rise when he was struck from behind. Since he had thrown back his hat in his desperate attempt to get to the body, the blow instantly knocked him into unconsciousness.

Hosea Dexter looked down at the young man. “You’re a lucky man, young feller. I may be a horse thief, but I ain’t a killer. By the time, you wake up, I’ll be long gone. That palomino of your’n will be great for Felicity.” Bending over, Dexter proceeded to take the rest of the money that the unconscious man carried, after securely tying him up Then, he mounted the gelding and leading the palomino, he went on his way.

Hosea Dexter rode up to the shack where his daughter, Felicity, waited for him. Entering the ramshackle cabin, he found her contemplating her visage in the broken piece of mirror which she had salvaged from the once-splendid chest which her mother had brought west with her. “Oh, your’re back, Papa? I wasn’t sure how long it would take you to dispose of the body.”

“Uh, he’s taken care of, Felicity. Did ya happen to make some vittles? Burying folks is hungry business.”

The piercing eyes batted their long lashes at the white-haired man. “Ohh, I am sorry. I got caught up in thinking about what we’re going to do with all that money he was carrying. I…I well, I was just looking at myself in this here mirror, imaginin’ how much nicer I’d look with a new bonnet and a dress that was made for me, not Mama.”

“Now, Felicity, your Mama brought that dress with her when she came out from Alabama.”

“Papa, that was before I was born!”

The stooped-over man tried to straighten himself. “‘Course it was, Child, you and your sister were born in wedlock! Your Mama was a lady. She didn’t hold with no foolin’ around.”

“Sorry, Papa. I know you and Mama raised Rachel and me to be fine young ladies. It’s just too bad my sister had to take up with that Scott Lancer. He turned her head with all those pretty phrases. She’d be alive today if it wasn’t for him.”

“Now, Daughter, what you say might be true, but I don’t hold with speakin’ ill of the dead. You did what you had to avenge your sister; now let her lie in peace.”

“Peace? How could she be at peace? He sweet talked her and when he went on his way after getting what he wanted, she…she……” A mournful wail filled the cabin.

The thin white-haired man moved forward to touch his daughter’s arm. He felt extremely uncomfortable about Felicity’s distress. It had always been his wife, Beulah, who had raised the girls, but she had taken sick some years before and died without even the benefit of a doctor or preacher. Now, Felicity was all he had left.

“I…I got some good news, Felicity.”

The wet brown eyes glanced up. “What is it, Papa?”

“How’d you like to go to San Francisco and buy some purty new clothes?”

“San Francisco? Did that Lancer fellow have that much money on him?”

“He had a sight more ‘n you and I figured so we can go ‘n stay for a month or more. ‘Course we can’t stay at one of them fancy hotels. We’ll have to find us a boardin’ house, but you can get yourself rigged out real fancy.”

The short woman flung her arms around her father. “Oh, Papa, thank you. It doesn’t matter if we don’t stay in a hotel. I just can’t believe I’ll be able to get some new dresses and a bonnet, and a…..”

“Now, Daughter, we can’t spend all the money. Eventually, we’ll come back here and I’ll use the some ta buy seed ‘n stuff.”

Once again, Felicity, dimpled and batted her eyes at the old man. In a cooing voice, she hinted, “Who knows, Papa? Maybe I’ll find me some fine young man who’ll want to marry me and he’ll let you live with us in one of them big houses.”

Hosea gave a small smile. “That surely would be nice, but we can’t count on it so we have to save some money for your dowry.”

“Papa, could we leave right away? I can pack in ten minutes and we could leave now!”

“I don’t s’pose we should leave ’til tomorrow. We’ll take the buggy and then get the train. I almost forgot, we’ll have to get rid of that gelding we took from that Lancer feller. Closer to San Francisco they might not recognize the brand.”

Felicity bit her lip. “You’re right, Papa. We wouldn’t want to be caught just because of that horse. Besides, when I’m married to some wealthy man, we’ll have all the horses we need.”

“‘Course. Now, let’s rustle up some food and get to bed. Tomorrow we’ll get an early start.”

Felicity demurely acquiesced as she pulled out a loaf of bread and some beef that had seen better days.

Hosea Dexter frowned, but then shook off his distaste. With any luck at all, the money he had taken from Scott Lancer added to that he had taken from the stranger, would tide them over for quite awhile. It was just too bad that the uppity palomino had broken loose before he had gone too far. That horse would have brought a pretty penny, but Felicity might have asked awkward questions.

As it was, he was just happy that his headstrong daughter had accepted his word that she had killed the Lancer fellow. His stomach had roiled a bit at thought of leaving the man alongside the road, but Hosea Dexter was not a killer. If the blond man had had the bad luck to bleed to death, that was the Lord’s will and had nothing to do with him.

Johnny Madrid awoke to a thundering in his head. Struggling to sit up, he found his hands were bound together in front of him. Since the sun was much lower in the sky, the gunfighter quickly realized that he had been unconscious for some time.

As he struggled to free himself, the rope scraped against his wrists but he persevered. He had only one thought in his aching head–to determine whether the person with the blond hair in the stone-piled grave was his brother, Scott.

By the time, the knot finally gave up the struggle, Johnny felt like he had wrestled three steers into submission. Dropping the rope onto the ground, he once again cautiously approached the grave. Flies had begun to circle the small opening which he had created. This time, Johnny tied his bandana around his nose and mouth. It helped only slightly.

Tentatively, he removed one, then two stones. More of the blond hair was revealed, but to his horror, the face was partially missing. Squelching the queasiness in his stomach, he thrust aside some of the stones lower on the corpse. Immediately, it was obvious that this slim figure was not his brother but a woman.

Saddened at the sight of the dead woman, Johnny’s heart leapt with gladness that it was not Scott. Repiling the stones carefully, Johnny climbed to his feet. For a minute dizziness overtook him, but then with determination he decided that his only course was to head for Lancer. If he could reach home, then some of the ranch hands could help him track down the man who had stolen the Lancer horses, and he might find out the truth about his missing sibling.

Striding off purposefully towards the low hills which were the shortest way to Lancer, Johnny stopped and went back for a moment to pick up Scott’s hat from the nearby rock. He did not understand how his brother’s hat had found its way to the head of the grave, but Johnny hoped that his older brother would need it again soon.

It took two hours of steady walking in the late afternoon sun to reach a point where he could see the road below him. By this time, his boot-shod feet were killing him. He was not used to tramping among boulders and had slipped several times, so he decided to take a short break before making the tricky descent down the rocky mounds. His mouth teased him with the thought of the cooling draught of beer he had consumed in Morro Coyo. His tongue felt as thick as a piece of jerky. Knowing that he dared not sit too long or he would be making the rest of the walk in the dark, he rose to his aching feet which shouted their

defiance, but he put the pain out of his mind. He had to reach Lancer.

Stumbling as he began the maneuvers to reach the bottom of the hill, Johnny Madrid grabbed onto a rock which unfortunately came way under his weight.

Hurtling down the hillside, he rolled himself into a ball, coming to a stop against some tree limbs which appeared to have fallen in a storm. Sitting up, the gunfighter took stock. Other than some scratches and bruises. His precipitate fall had caused no harm and now he was nearly at the bottom of the hillside.

Continuing his descent, the dark-haired Lancer breathed a sigh of relief when his boots made their first imprint in the dust. At least now, it was straight walking, and there was always the possibility that someone might come along to give him a lift in their wagon.

The young man had advanced not quite a half a mile when the hair on the back of his neck tingled. Years of watching his back had sharpened his awareness of approaching trouble so he slipped off to the side of the road behind a tree. Since he no longer had a gun, he felt that it was smarter to find out who might be coming his way.

Not daring to look out, lest he be seen prematurely, Johnny let the rider move adjacent to his position. After the horse and its rider had moved a few feet forward, Johnny moved out onto the road.

To his amazement, the horse stopped and turned his head around towards him. A familiar whinny and a bobbing of the golden head told the rest of the story.

Unfortunately, the young man had no time to reflect on how Barranca managed to be on the road to Lancer because the slumped-over rider started to slip off the back of the horse. Moving quickly forward, Johnny Lancer caught his brother in his arms just as the blond slid to the ground.

Scott Lancer sat at the table with the shot glass of whiskey in front of him. The one sip that he had taken had burned his throat with its rawness, but it had helped to keep the darkness away. He knew that he could not give in yet. He had to wait for the return of the undertaker, then he could return to Lancer, although at that moment he didn’t think he could walk to the swinging doors, let alone make it back to the white hacienda.

At least he was now inside and away from the sun’s scorching rays, but sweat still trickled down under the bandage letting its salty content irritate the just-stitched wound. Echoing the pain was the throbbing in his head. He knew he was just kidding himself that he would be able to make it back to Lancer by himself. He had to lie down for awhile, then maybe he could go back and face his family.

Not that he expected anyone to be at Lancer, except for Teresa. Johnny

was an excellent tracker and he was sure to find clues to the whereabouts of the man who had stolen Barranca. Scott tried to puzzle out the connection between the man and Rachel Dexter, but his head felt too heavy and the swirling lights which danced before his eyes seemed to make it impossible to think clearly. It just seemed easier to let his head fall forward onto his arms and rest a minute.

Closing his eyes did chase away some of the lights and even the cacophony of sounds seemed to lessen until two newcomers entered through the swinging doors, making their presence known.

“Nick, get me a beer willya. I’ll get us a table.”

Heath Barkley strolled over to the empty table next to Scott’s. He paid little attention to the man with his head down, assuming he was just another man who had had too much. All he could think about was gulping down the cold beer to wash away the dust from the road.

Glancing around to see what was taking his brother, Nick, so long, the youngest Barkley’s eye rested on the man at the next table. There did seem to be something familiar about him, however, his attention was diverted when the dark-haired Barkley showed up with two beers each.

“Nick, you’re a mind reader!”

“Yeah, well, drink your beers and then we have to get on the road. I want to pick up that mare today.”

“Aw, Nick, why don’t we just stay here tonight? It’s too hot out there.”

“Heath, we have to get the mare and get back to Stockton. You know that.”

“Yeah, but…..”

A low moan emerged from the man at the next table. Immediately, the eyes of both of the Barkley brothers focused on the source of the sound. To Heath’s astonishment, Nick quickly jumped up and went over to shake the man’s arm. The only response was another moan.

Nick turned to the barkeep who was watching their activities with interest. “Mister, have you got a room we can take him to?”

“Sure, you can use one of the ones upstairs. Is somethin’ the matter with Scott? I thought he was just sleepin’.”

“Considering that he’s burning up, I think it’s more than that. Heath, help me get him upstairs and then bring up some water. We’ve got to cool him off,”

It took both men to get the nearly unconscious Lancer son up the stairs to one of the small rooms where travelers would sometimes stay. As soon as Scott was lying on one of the beds, Heath hurried downstairs for a pitcher of water. Inquiring if there was a doctor in town, he was dismayed by the negative answer.

Returning to the small room, Heath offered the pitcher of water and a cloth to Nick who proceeded to wipe off the flushed face and neck. “I can’t understand how he got like this. And why is he here alone?”

“Don’t know but I checked and there’s no doctor.”

“Damn! Then I guess it’s up to us to get that fever down and then get him back to Lancer.”

“Do you want me to ride out to Lancer now? I can bring back help.”

“No, I might need you here. Let’s give it a couple of hours. If he doesn’t get better, then you can get help. Do you suppose somebody in this town might have ice?”

“Maybe, let me go ask the barkeep.”

“Good idea. If you can find some, it might do the trick.”

Acknowledging his brother’s request, Heath rapidly moved down the stairs, talked to the barkeep and hurried off. Just as he arrived at the undertaking parlor, he was surprised to see a balding, thin man drive up in a buckboard. The man certainly looked like an undertaker. “Say there, are you Herbert Wilson?”

“Yes, I am. May I be of comfort to you in your hour of sorrow?”

“No, no, nobody’s dead–yet. The barkeep over at the saloon said you sometimes have supplies of ice for your…work.”

“As a matter of fact, I do. Summer is a difficult time for my duties and sometimes ice is essential.”

“Well, can I buy some from you?”

“Oh dear, do you need much? I had an emergency with this dear departed lady,” pointing to the pine box in the back of his buckboard. “I am rather short at the moment.”

“I’ll take whatever you’ve got. Scott needs it.”

“Scott Lancer?”

“Yeah, why?”

“But I am doing a job for Mr. Lancer. I was to meet him at the saloon so we could finish the arrangements for Miss Dexter’s burial.”

“I don’t know anything about that, but I’ll take the ice–now!”

“Of course, follow me.”

Within fifteen minutes, Scott Lancer was wrapped in as much ice as the undertaker could spare. Neither of the Barkleys wanted to contemplate what would happen if it was not enough.

As the hours wore on and the ice melted, Nick was forced to remove the wet clothing that the blond had on. It was then that he discovered the bandage and wounded back Seeing that the bandage was soaked through from the ice and a seepage of blood, Heath once more headed out to the general store to acquire some medical supplies.

As evening approached, Heath again ventured the idea of going out to Lancer to bring back help. Nick agreed, however, he asked his brother to bring up some food first as the two of them had not had anything since early morning.

When the fair-haired Barkley returned with a tray full of food, his older brother informed him that Scott’s fever had finally broken so they decided that there was no reason for Heath to make the long ride in the dark.

The tall Barkley breathed a sigh of relief. He was exhausted and hadn’t been looking forward to the ride in strange country. So, after eating their meal and making sure that their friend was comfortable for the night, the two Barkleys bunked down in the extra bed and went to sleep.

In the morning, the men from Stockton were pleased to see that Scott was awake. He seemed puzzled but pleased to see the Barkleys. After offering him some water, Nick encouraged him to go back to sleep, assuring him that they would make sure that he got safely home.

This time it was Heath who was left to keep an eye on the invalid while Nick procured a buckboard to escort the injured man back to Lancer. Within an hour, the Lancer scion was safely tucked up in a mound of blankets in the back of the wagon.

Heath Barkley watched as the buckboard pulled out of Morro Coyo with his brother at the reins. The two men had agreed that Heath would go on, pick up the mare, and then meet his brother at Lancer before they both returned to Stockton.

About two hours after the time that the dark-haired Barkley hitched up the buckboard’s reins to set out for the white hacienda, Johnny and Murdoch Lancer rode under the great gate. They had been gone for twenty-four hours on a fruitless quest to find the man who had hit Johnny over the head and stolen Barranca. Climbing stiffly down from their mounts, they entered the house, anxious for a cup of hot coffee and breakfast.

Hearing their boots on the polished floor, Teresa quickly emerged from the kitchen. Her face fell in disappointment as she noticed there were only two of them. “Isn’t Scott with you?”

“Scott? But we left him in bed,” Johnny reminded her.

“I know, but yesterday morning while I was in the kitchen getting him something to eat, he slipped out. I figured he had caught up to you.”

“Why would he do that?,” inquired the patriarch.

“I thought he wanted you to know that it wasn’t that man who shot him. He said it was a woman.”

“A woman? Are you sure?”

“That’s what he said.”

Murdoch walked over to his desk to sit down. “I just don’t understand this. If a woman shot Scott then how did that man get Scott’s horse?”

“Dammit, I don’t care. He shouldn’t be out there by himself. I’m going to go find him,” blazed the gunfighter.

“Now, just you wait a minute, young man. There’s no need to go off half-cocked. You have no idea where he went. Teresa, did he say anything else?”

“Well, when I told him about the grave, he did say he might know who the woman was.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch. “Then that’s where he must have gone. I’m on my way.”

The tall rancher grabbed his son by the arm. “Johnny, you need to get something to eat first. We’ve been on the road for hours. Fifteen minutes won’t make that much difference.”

For a moment the sapphire-eyed man hesitated then he walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table, after pouring himself a cup of coffee.

Murdoch wearily followed him into the room. “I just don’t understand why he went off like that. He should have stayed here and let us handle it.”

Cerulean eyes opened slightly against the stream of sunlight which entered the nearby window. Carefully moving his head, Scott Lancer recognized that he had returned to the safety of his room at Lancer. Shifting his weight as he tried to sit up, he was relieved that he felt only some minor twinges from the wound hidden by the snow-white bandages, wrapped around his bare chest.

Still, the lightheadness he felt as he gained an upright position gave him pause, but after some moments the dizziness passed as he prepared to stand up.

“Scott Lancer, what are you doing sitting up? Now, you just lie down again before you rip out those stitches that Jelly put in you!” The brown-haired spitfire stood there in the doorway, hands on hips, daring the injured man to defy her.

“Teresa, I’m fine. I’m just wobbly.”

“On the contrary, you’re going to lie down. I’ll go get you some broth. You need something to help you get your strength back.”

“Uh, I’m not sure I feel like eating now… maybe later. Did you say that Jelly fixed me up?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. He was surprised that such a small wound could bleed so much, but I know he wouldn’t appreciate your ripping out his stitches.”

“No, I don’t suppose he would. All right, I’ll lie down, but only if you tell me how I got back to Lancer.”

Teresa moved into the room and took the chair near the bed. “You mean you don’t remember?”

“I remember being shot and lying there for what seemed like hours then I heard a horse coming, but after that things get fuzzy.”

“Well, from what Johnny said he found you out on the road from Morro Coyo, slumped over on Barranca’s back.”

“Barranca? How could that be?”

“Some man lured Johnny out of town and then hit him over the head and took Barranca. Johnny figures Barranca broke loose and somehow you and he connected.”

The blond man rubbed his aching left shoulder. “I guess it could be. I’m just not sure.”

“It doesn’t really matter. I’m sure after you get some rest, you’ll start to remember things.”

“Maybe so. By the way, where is Johnny?”

“Oh, after Jelly got the bullet out of you, Johnny and Murdoch headed out to see if they could track the man who stole Barranca and your horse since he must be the man who shot you.”

Pain jolted through the slender man as he once more tried to sit up. “But Teresa, it wasn’t a man who shot me, it was a woman!”

“What? But then how did this man get your horse? That’s how he lured Johnny out of town. He said he had found your…body and then took your horse.”

“Johnny thought I was dead?”

Teresa nodded. “This old man even took him to a grave a few miles out of Morro Coyo, but before Johnny could confirm it was you, the scoundrel hit him over the head and took off. Johnny had to walk back to Lancer. That’s when he met up with you and Barranca.”

“But Johnny must have realized that the grave was a fake?”

“Oh no, it was a real grave. Johnny…checked. It was some poor woman with blond hair. He said it was almost the same color as…yours.”

Scott’s already pale face turned even whiter. “Did…did he say anything about what she was wearing?”

“I think he said a blue dress. Why? Do you know who she was?”

“I…I might. Uh, when Johnny gets back, will you ask him to come see me? I think I will try to get some sleep now.”

“Good. You look like you need it. I’ll be out in the kitchen if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Teresa.” Scott turned over and closed his eyes as the young woman left the room.

Lying there for some moments, Scott debated his next move. Icicles of fear tingled at his spine. Rachel Dexter had had blond hair and had worn a blue dress the last time he had seen her. Still, that brief description could fit many women, so how could he be sure? There seemed to be only one way.

Taking a clean shirt from his armoire, he dressed slowly. His wound ached but it was not unbearable. With any kind of luck, he could find the grave and return to Lancer before Johnny and Murdoch returned. From Teresa’s account, it would seem that the grave was not too far from the Dexter cabin.

Not thinking any further ahead than the need to determine the identity of the body, Scott Lancer quietly moved out to the stables and procured a horse.

Since it was still early, the sun had not reached its usual intensity for which the blond was extremely grateful, especially since he also did not have his hat. Riding along, he kept to a walk since that put less strain on his wound.

Finally, after an hour and a half, the older Lancer came upon the ramshackle cabin he remembered visiting not long before. His horse had lost a shoe while on the way to Stockton so he had stopped at the cabin to ask for help.

Rachel Dexter, a petite girl of about 19, had apologized for her lack of knowledge about her father’s tools which were in the stable/barn where they kept the buggy and horse. Scott had been pleased to find the necessary tools and had managed to get the new shoe in place rather quickly.

When he had tried to pay the young woman, she had shyly suggested that no payment was necessary, but that she would appreciate it if he would stay for lunch. She rarely had any company and would welcome the chance to talk with a gentleman.

Flattered by her obvious attraction to him, Scott had stayed for lunch. The two young people had talked about various things, including their families. Rachel had vaguely heard of Lancer, but since they were relatively new to the area, neither she or her sister, Felicity, had had the chance to meet many people.

Knowing that Teresa would welcome two young women to the valley, he mentioned that perhaps they could visit Lancer after his return from Stockton. He had also mentioned the various dances and church activities sponsored by Reverend Baker and his wife. After an hour or two, Scott had left Rachel, promising that he would bring Teresa over to visit upon his return. Now, there was a chance that the lovely, lonely young woman in the blue dress was dead.

After searching the deserted cabin, Scott decided to follow the road towards Morro Coyo. If Teresa was right, the grave should not be too far.

It wasn’t. After going only a few hundred yards, he saw the mound of stones. It was obvious from the plethora of horse tracks, that others had been there too, but the grave had not been disturbed. The gray and black stones presented a solitary reminder of the life that had once existed and was no more.

Dismounting from his horse brought new dizziness to the young man. He was forced to hold on to the mount for a moment until it passed. Then he cautiously knelt by the grave and began to remove the stones.

As before, the stench was appalling. Seeing the mutilated face and blond hair, his stomach revolted but he forced back his revulsion as he done during the war when he had come upon men cut down by a blast of canister. One needed to be hardened to such things during wartime or madness seemed to be the only alternative.

But this, this was not wartime. His whole being cringed in sorrow as he realized that this was indeed Rachel Dexter. Despite his horror, he took the time to carefully replace the stones so that no animals would have access to the body. She had suffered enough humiliation.

Returning to his horse, the young blond man shuddered with coldness despite the heat. He wanted to understand what had happened to Rachel, but first of all he knew that something had to be done about her body. She couldn’t be left under those uncaring stones.

Mounting his bay, he decided to ride into Morro Coyo and arrange for the undertaker to come out and retrieve the body for a proper burial. He couldn’t understand why her family hadn’t done so; but since they had disappeared, he felt it was up to him–at least Rachel Dexter would have one person who cared.

Riding into Morro Coyo under the now-blazing sun was an ordeal that the easterner did not want to repeat. He could feel the sweat trickling down his back. At least, he hoped it was sweat, not blood. The pain of his wound had intensified as the heat from the sun had, but the Lancer scion was determined to see the undertaker before allowing himself to rest.

Fortunately, Herbert Wilson, the local undertaker was more than willing to make the trip to the grave and recover Rachel’s body. Of course, that was mostly due to the generous payment that Scott offered him. Still, with the condition of the body, Scott felt that the man deserved his payment. After assuring Scott that he could find the grave without the blond’s assistance, the rather skeletal man headed out with his buckboard and a pine box.

Gratefully, Scott retreated to the saloon for a much needed drink while he waited for Wilson’s return. After that, they would arrange the burial and then Scott could return to Lancer–and Teresa’s wrath.

“You know Boston. He’s as stubborn as they come.”

“Or maybe the girl was someone special to him?” suggested Teresa.

“But I’ve never even heard of her!” protested the younger man.

“Perhaps your brother doesn’t tell you everything, Johnny,” remarked Murdoch.

Johnny Madrid jumped up, ready to stomp out and get his horse when he heard a wagon pull up in front of the house.

Hurrying out, his mouth dropped open when he caught sight of Nick Barkley climbing down from the seat. “Johnny, glad to see you’re home. Give me a hand with Scott, will you?”

Jerking himself from his frozen state, Johnny Madrid reached the back of the buckboard, only to see his brother wrapped in a coccoon of blankets. The blond’s pain-filled blue eyes opened slowly, now that the bumpy ride had ended. Seeing the gunfighter standing there, Scott whispered, “Hi Johnny. Are you going to yell at me?”

Sapphire eyes locked onto cerulean for a long heartbeat, then Johnny Madrid broke the contact as his father stepped out to shake hands with Nick Barkley.

While the older Lancer spoke briefly to the Stockton rancher, the youngest Lancer swiftly moved away from the wagon, aiming for the stable where Barranca awaited him.

Murdoch Lancer motioned to some of the ranch hands to help carry his older son into Scott’s bedroom. Nick followed the five men inside, stopping at the door to the bedroom.

After making sure that Scott was comfortably arranged in bed, the tall rancher returned to Nick’s side. “Jelly, will take care of Scott. Why don’t we sit down and you can tell me where you ran into my obstinate son?”

Nick sank down into one of the chairs, briefly looking around the great room. Like his own home, the Lancer hacienda had a comfortable feel to it. “Well, you see, Sir, Heath and I stopped at the saloon in Morro Coyo for a cold beer. We were on our way to a ranch about ten miles south of there to pick up a mare that we had purchased as a present for Audra.”

“Scott was in the saloon?”

“It seems he was waiting for the undertaker to return. I only know that because Heath told me. Scott was nearly unconscious when we found him.”

“But the bullet wound wasn’t all that bad, Jelly said.”

“I think it was more the heat than anything. You saw how sunburned his face is. It took a lot of ice to get his fever down.”

“Well, I’m very grateful to you for taking care of him. I do hope you plan to stay for awhile. I don’t get to see as much of you and your family as I’d like.”

“Well, actually, I told Heath to pick up the mare and then meet me here before we return to Stockton, if that’s all right with you?”

“Of course. Now, why don’t you go into the kitchen and get some lemonade? I know Teresa just made some and I believe she might have some cookies too. I guess I’d better go see if Jelly needs any help.”

“Lemonade does sound good right now. That was a dusty ride.”

With that the dark-haired Barkley casually strolled into the large kitchen where he found a brown-haired young woman pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes while stirring something in a pot on the stove. “Excuse me, er uh, Teresa. Mr. Lancer mentioned that you might have some lemonade handy?”

Teresa looked up at the man she knew only by reputation. “Of course, Mr. Barkley. Sit down and I’ll bring you some. Would you like to try some of the oatmeal cookies I just made?”

“I would indeed and by the way my name is Nick. There are too many of us Barkleys to use Mister.”

“All right…Nick. How is Scott doing?”

“I’m sure he’ll be fine in a few days. He just needs some rest.” Nick took a large bite out of one of the saucer-sized cookies. “Umm, these are good, although I don’t know why I should be surprised. Scott told me that you were a good cook. In fact, he’s mentioned more than once that you take care of all the Lancers.”

Teresa frowned in displeasure, but said nothing.

“Uh, did I say something wrong? I was just repeating what Scott said.”

“I didn’t take very good care of Scott this time, did I? I let him walk out right under my nose.”

The middle Barkley hesitated, then spoke up. “I’m sure you did your best, Teresa. It’s hard to keep a man from doing what he wants to do, unless you’re prepared to shoot him in the leg.”

“I wouldn’t do anything like that!” she gasped.

“Of course you wouldn’t, so how do you think you could have kept Scott here? And speaking of that, how was he wounded in the first place?”

“We’re…we’re not sure. Johnny came upon him out on the road. He had a bullet in his back. When Scott woke up, he said some woman had done it.”

“A woman? Heath said something about the undertaker having this woman in his buckboard. He said Scott was paying for her burial.”

Teresa moved over to sit across from Nick. “He must have found her then. I…I told him about Johnny finding a grave. He had this strange look like he knew who might be in it.”

“I guess so. I’m sure you’ll find out the truth when he wakes up.”

“I hope so. Mr. Barkley…I mean Nick, did Scott mention anything to you about a woman he met with blond hair?”

“No but then we don’t talk all that much about his private life. He usually tells me about Lancer and sometimes his grandfather, but I’ve learned not to pry. If he wants me to know, he’ll tell me.”

Teresa nodded. “I know what you mean. Scott, Johnny and Murdoch act like I’m some delicate little flower that they have to protect. The house could be burning down around our ears and all they’d say is ‘Everything’s all right, Teresa!'”

Nick smiled at her plaintive remark. “I guess most men try to protect their womenfolk. I know Jarrod, Heath and I do with Audra.”

Teresa’s eyes narrowed in a question. “But not with your mother?”

The Stockton rancher shook his head adamantly. “Somehow my mother always knows when we’re keeping something from her. She’s the strongest person I know, man or woman.”

“I’d love to meet her sometime. I love Murdoch, Johnny and Scott, but it would be nice to have some women to talk to one in awhile.”

“Well, I’ll see what I can do. I’m sure Mother and Audra would love for you to come to visit. Believe me, having a household of men around is no picnic for them!”

“You’re telling me–just look what I have to put up with!”

Entering the kitchen to procure some bandages, Murdoch Lancer was astonished to find Nick Barkley and Teresa O’Brien bellowing wih laughter. “Uh, excuse me, Teresa, but Jelly needs some help with Scott so I need a few things. Do we have any lint for bandages?”

“Of course, I’ll go get it and take it in. I’d like to see the prodigal son for myself.”

“Thanks, I think I’ll just sit down for a minute and talk to Nick.”

“You do that. Be back in awhile.” As she started into the other room, the brown-haired girl stopped and then turned to face her guardian, “Murdoch, is Johnny in with Scott? I haven’t seen him for awhile.”

“No, Teresa, now that you mention it, I think I saw him head for the stables right after Nick pulled up with Scott.”

Consternation flooded the young woman’s face, but she only replied, “Oh, I see,” as she headed for the blond’s bedroom.

Nick Barkley watched as the patriarch moved slowly over to the cookie jar where Teresa kept the baked treats. He took a few and then poured himself some lemonade. Focusing on the other man, the rancher inquired about Victoria Barkley. “How is your mother? It has been quite awhile since I’ve seen her.”

“She’s fine. She took Audra into San Francisco on a buying trip as a birthday present.”

“She’s a very lucky woman to have a daughter and two sons who are so devoted to her.”

“Three sons.”

“What? Oh, of course–Heath. Sorry, I didn’t mean….”

“No need to apologize. It took some getting used to when Heath first showed up. At the time, I was afraid it might destroy our family.”

“But obviously things worked out well?”

“True, but it could easily have gone the opposite way.”

“What do you mean?”

“My father’s betrayal struck us hard, and Heath being around was a constant reminder of that fact. I didn’t behave very well towards him at first.”

“Well, that’s understandable. I must admit I was shocked when I heard the news.”

“I suppose, but it’s fortunate that I realized that it wasn’t Heath’s fault. He only wanted a home and family after he lost his mother. You must understand that–look at Johnny and Scott.”

“Well, of course, it was different with us.”

“How? You mean because you were married to their mothers?”

“Not just that. Scott and Johnny were taken from me.”

“I suppose someone might say that Heath’s mother did much the same.”

“But she had a good reason!”

“I’m sure she thought so but it cost Heath a lot of years. Anyway, I’m just grateful that Heath is a part of our family. We’d have missed a great deal had we never met.”

The tall rancher leaned awkwardly back in the chair. “That I definitely do understand. I missed a major part of my sons’ lives.”

Nick hesitated, then commented, “But I understood that was your choice?”

A crumb of cookie exploded from the rancher’s mouth. “No, it was not my choice! I told you that they were taken from me! My first wife’s father took Scott when he was born and Johnny’s mother took him away when he was two.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer, I realize that must have been painful for you, but it’s just that…it’s just that if it had been my mother in that position, she wouldn’t have let anything or anyone keep her away from her children.”

“But she’s a woman! She didn’t have to worry about running a ranch or struggling just to keep going when there were men who just wanted to steal her land.”

“My mother and father were equal partners in everything, Mr. Lancer. I’ve always thought that’s what married life was meant to be. Maybe they both made mistakes, but I have never doubted that Jarrod, Audra, and I were the most important part of their lives–and now Heath is too. I just wish Tom Barkley was still alive to be proud of all of his family.”

Murdoch Lancer sat still for a moment then he stood. “Since you’re planning to stay the night, I’ll show you to the guest room.”

“Thank you, Sir. I realize you’re not too happy with my remarks. I guess I’m an outspoken man, but I recognize that you do care about Johnny and Scott and that’s what counts. Scott has told me how much it means to him to be at Lancer.”

The fierce grimace on Murdoch’s face softened as he took in the dark man’s serious countenance. “All right, I’ll accept that. You know, I just realized that Victoria has her hands full just as much as I do. . . . Now, let me show you to your room so you can wash up. I expect Teresa will be putting dinner on the table in another couple of hours.”

After Murdoch Lancer had shown Nick Barkley to his room, he returned to the great room, only to be stopped by Jelly Hoskins. “Uh, Boss, I’ve taken care of Scott’s wound and put some stuff on his sunburn so he should feel better mighty soon. He’s awake right now; did ya wanta talk to ‘im?”

The tall rancher straightened and in a deep voice informed the bewhiskered man, “I certainly do. Thanks.”

“No problem, Boss, but I c’aint promise ya he’s gonna be awake long.”

“This won’t take me long.”

Hoskins, shaking his head, watched as the ranch owner moved purposefully into the younger Lancer’s room, before deliberately heading in the opposite direction. He could guess what was going to happen–and he wasn’t wrong.

The Scot’s loud voice penetrated the sturdy walls as the rancher made his displeasure known about the blond’s escapade into town. Words such as irresponsible, stupid, and childish filled the air and that was only the beginning. From there, the patriarch hit his stride as he accused the injured man of being selfish in not considering Lancer’s welfare in the matter. There was too much work to be done for one of the owners to go gallivanting around the countryside and then worst of all having to be rescued by the Barkleys. The gray-haired man shuddered with the humiliation of Victoria Barkley knowing that he, Murdoch, could not control one of his sons. Finally, after the tirade had collapsed of its own weight, the righteous ranch owner burst out of the room, slamming the door behind him, and like his younger son some hours before, mounted his horse and rode away.

Quiet reigned in the white hacienda for some time until Teresa tentatively made her way to the bedroom door, opened it and peeked in to see Scott lying on his side, with his back to her. Not wanting to wake him, she withdrew and bumped into Nick Barkley.

“Sorry,…Nick, I just wanted to see if Scott was…allright.”

“I understand.”

Looking into Nick’s dark eyes, she saw something that said he did understand her concern. “Would you…would you like a cup of coffee?”

“Sure would and do you suppose you might have a few more of those cookies left?”

“I made two batches. They’re Mr. Lancer’s favorites.”

Nick sat down at the table, sipping at the dark, hot beverage in his cup. Teresa brought over a plate of the oatmeal cookies and put them down in front of him. “Will you tell me about your family and your ranch? I’ve…I’ve never been away from Lancer very much. Is it as big?”

“Pretty close. We live in a white house with pillars out front. You’ll get to meet Heath when he comes by with Audra’s mare. Audra’s quite a bit younger than me and is kind of spoiled, but for a girl she’s pretty level-headed.”

Hoping to get a rise from the rather pale young woman opposite him, Nick was disappointed with her reply. “In what way?”

“Audra doesn’t really have to worry much about running the household. Mother still takes care of most of that. I worry some that one day she’ll fall in love with the wrong kind of man, but so far we haven’t had too much problem with that. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Jarrod, Heath, and I want to protect her, but sometimes I think she’s too protected, if you know what I mean.”

The brown-haired girl nodded. “I certainly do. My father and Mr. Lancer let me believe that my mother was dead until she turned up here one day. She…she’s an entertainer.”

“Did you like her?”

The lovely eyes flashed up in surprise. “Like her? She tried to take me away from Lancer!”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. Why?”

“Money. She thought Mr. Lancer would pay to get me back.”

“Did he?”

“No, he got some kind of legal document. Scott came after me and we…we were able to make it back to California.”

“What happened to your mother?”

“I…I don’t know. Except I think she stayed in Nevada.” Tears welled up in Teresa’s eyes but didn’t fall. “I thought she didn’t really want me with her, but sometimes at night I’ll lie in bed and wish I could talk to her–just the two of us–without any men around. Maybe then she’d tell me the truth.”

“Maybe she wishes the same thing?”

“She knows where I am. She could write to me.”

“Sometimes people know where someone else is, but because of pride or something, they never reach out.”

Teresa looked down at her hands, rubbing them together. “It’s the not knowing that hurts so much. When I didn’t know she was alive, I could grieve at that gravesite. Now, I know she’s out there and…and it seems she doesn’t care.”

“Have you talked to Murdoch about this?”

She shook her head vehemently. “He hates her for what she did to my father and me. It must have been a replay of Maria and Johnny.”

“Except for one thing.”

“You’re right. She didn’t care enough about me to take me with her,” the girl sighed.

“I suppose it could have been that or maybe she just knew she couldn’t handle the job and your father could. . . . Teresa, I’m afraid I can’t be much help to you, but my brother Jarrod is a lawyer. He might be able to trace her–if you really want him to,”

Two bright red spots blossomed on Teresa’s pale cheeks. “Do you really think he could?”

“He might. I tell you what. I’ll mention it to him when I get home. Hopefully, by the time you come to visit us, maybe he’ll have news.”

“Oh, oh that would be wonderful. I don’t know much about her, but she goes by the name Angel Day and she performs in…in saloons and dance halls.”

“All right, I’ll see what Jarrod can do. He’s got a lot of learning–kind of like Scott.”

“Did he serve in the war too?”

“No and I’m glad neither Jarrod or Heath did.”

“Scott’s always saying the same thing about Johnny.”

“I can understand that. Now, what do you say we go outside and you can show me around Lancer a bit? I might want to steal some ideas for our place!”

A giggle emerged from the young woman as she formally took Nick’s proffered arm and they began their stroll.

The next two hours passed pleasantly as Nick was introduced to Jelly, Dewdrop, as well as some of the ranch hands who were not out working on the range. Since Nick made a point of acknowledging Dewdrop as a superior goose, Jelly Hoskins condescended to give the middle Barkley some points on raising geese and brahma bulls. The Stockton rancher had heard of them, but had never seen one so he was quite interested in Jelly’s tale of, at one time, having one of his own.

Seeing that Nick was in good hands, Teresa returned to the house to check once again on Scott and make sure that dinner preparations had begun.

Her foresight had its reward when Murdoch Lancer returned abruptly after his ride into town. A scowl crossed the lined face when Nick informed him, in answer to his question, that the youngest Lancer had not yet made an appearance.

Grumbling that the whole ranch would soon disappear from under his nose, the tall man walked into his bedroom to clean up and then hopefully to manage a peaceful hour of reading before dinner.

Just as the living room clock chimed the dinner hour, Johnny walked in to find Murdoch, Teresa, Nick and Jelly sitting down to eat. Taking in the tense air at the table, Johnny quietly apologized for almost being late, excused himself to go to his room to do a fast clean-up and then returned to sit down next to Nick.

After everyone was served, the only sounds were the clinking of glasses and clink of silverware until Nick broke the silence by politely complimenting Teresa on her cooking. He then proceeded to tell some amusing stories about Heath who had been rather startled the first couple of times when he had sat down at a formal Barkley dinner to find numerous types of unknown utensils in front of him.

Even more amusing had been the fair-haired man’s reaction to some of the rather exotic food which had been served. Nick could hardly keep from laughing when he thought about the look on Heath’s face the night they had had lobster.

A grim looking Johnny sat there patiently before jumping in with, “You sure don’t mind laughing at your brother’s expense, do you, Nick? I mean what does a man need all them fancy forks and spoons for?”

An unusually calm Nick Barkley looked straight into the gunfighter’s blue eyes. “He doesn’t, Johnny, but the point is that Heath quickly learned which fork went with what–just like Audra, Jarrod and I did when we were young. He also learned to try different foods–some he hated, some he liked, but the point again is that he was willing to learn.”

“I’ll bet he never learned to like Echos.”


“That’s what Johnny calls snails,” announced Teresa.

“Oh, you’re right. He still hates ’em. I don’t like ’em much myself. I ate too many slimey things while in the army.”

That brought a ripple of laughter from the dark-haired Lancer.

Jelly then interjected, “Well, there are some people around this ranch who have been known to eat geese!”

Nick sobered immediately. “I can assure you Mr. Hoskins, that goose has never been served at the Barkley table.”

Jelly beamed. “Good to hear. Maybe others”, casting a glance at the head of the table, “should feel the same way.”

That same head of the table then remarked, “Well, I’m not ready to give up Christmas goose, but I agree with you, Nick. We should be willing to try different foods. I’ve been trying to persuade Teresa to make haggis and she refuses.”

A groan was heard table-wide. “Uh, well, no offense, Mr. Lancer, but I don’t think you could pay me to eat it either.”

The tall rancher’s eyes narrowed. “I am in the midst of barbarians.”

Trying not to chuckle at her guardian’s announcement, Teresa jumped up and sweetly asked who was ready for dessert.

Twenty minutes later, with the table cleared, Murdoch and Nick sat down to an after-dinner brandy and smoke. Although Johnny was invited to join them, he informed the two men that he wanted to check on Scott first.

After opening the door, Johnny Madrid entered to find Scott sitting up in bed, struggling to write in his journal. “How are you feeling, Boston?”

“I’m fine, Johnny.”

Silence filled the room until Scott inquired if his brother wanted anything in particular.

“Uh, yeah, well, I brought you something.”

Quizzical blue eyes carefully perused the dark face. “You brought me something?”

“Yeah, hang on a minute and I’ll go get it.”

Laying the journal down, Scott Lancer was mystified. He hadn’t been sure what to expect since his brother had left so abruptly, earlier that day. Normally, by now Johnny would have ripped his sibling to pieces for the blond’s taking off to Morro Coyo. He was not Murdoch Lancer’s son for nothing.

Johnny walked in carrying a battered hat.

“My hat! Where did you get it? It came off when….”

“I know. I found it near the grave where I thought…you were buried.”

“What was it doing there?”

“Don’t know, but I brought it with me, only when I fell down that hillside, I lost hold of it. I forgot all about it until I saw your face this morning.”

“My face?”

“Brother, you sure do look like one of them lobsters Nick was talking about.”

“Oh, I suppose I do. It was…hot out there.”

Johnny moved closer to the bed and sat down in the chair. “You know you should have stayed in bed, don’t you?”

Scott nodded. “I just had to know, Johnny. She was a nice girl. I couldn’t believe….”

“Yeah, I can see that. It shook me some and I didn’t even know her.”

“You can yell at me if you want.”

“Nah, I’m not gonna do that. Maybe you should have known better, but I’m not one of those hippos.”

The cerulean eyes fogged with consternation. “Johnny, I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”

“You know–a man who tells ya not to do something and then does it himself.”

“Oh, a hypocrite?”

“That’s it. I’ve gone off half-cocked a few times myself so I guess I can afford to let you off the hook for this one. But DON’T do it again! Please. I’m not like Nick with spare brothers just ahangin’ around.”

“It’s a deal and thanks for bringing my hat back.”

“You’re welcome. I figure you’re gonna need it in a coupla days when you feel better.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I just figured you’d like ta go with me when I try ta figure out why some female would put a bullet in your stubborn hide.”

Scott’s face lit up. “You mean you’re not going to make me stay here?”

“‘Course not. You know what she looks like. I don’t.”

“I also know her name, I think. Rachel had a sister named Felicity and I suspect it was their father who hit you.”

“Well, that’s a place to start then. Now, I’m gonna go get you some food and then you’re gonna get some more sleep so you don’t fall out of the saddle.”

“I guess I am kind of hungry. What did Teresa make for dinner?”

“Haggis.” Johnny Madrid swallowed his chuckle of delight as green tinged his brother’s previously sunburned face, then he went to get the young man a bowl of soup and two biscuits.

Nick Barkley had allowed himself the luxury of sleeping late that morning. Normally, his duties at the Barkley ranch precluded any such indulgence, but since he was still waiting for his brother, Heath, to put in an appearance, the dark-haired man felt more comfortable with just turning over and going back to sleep. Still, a glimmer of guilt nudged at him as he could vaguely hear the sounds of a busy ranch beginning to stir. Resolutely, he closed off the guilt by pulling the soft pillow over his head.

Two hours later, the thoroughly refreshed man stretched lazily before getting up to shave and dress. As he did so, Nick realized that he felt more relaxed than he had, since his younger brother had suggested that Nick needed to take some time off. Running a huge ranch was a never-ending job and the brunet was not one to shirk his responsibilities.

Walking into the kitchen, the middle Barkley was happy to see that Teresa had left a pot of coffee on the stove. Pouring himself a cup, he started towards Scott’s bedroom to see how his friend was doing when he heard some raucous yells outside. Detouring, Nick made his way out the door to find some of the ranch hands standing outside the corral watching one of their colleagues trying to break in a horse for use on the ranch. Much of the encouragement was shouted in Spanish as well as one or two other languages.

One of those yelling the loudest was Johnny Lancer. Nick slipped in beside the younger man and pointedly inquired, “How come that’s not you on that horse?”

The gunfighter slowly turned his blue eyes on the other man, hesitated, and then remarked, “I’ll take my turn in awhile. Mebbe you’d like to take a turn too?”

With a wry smile, Barkley stared back. “Well, I’m not sure that Heath would appreciate me hauling my ancient carcass up on that bone breaker! He’d probably put up a fuss about doing my work.”

“You’re not so long in the tooth. Scott said you’re only about ten years older than him.”

Nick sighed, took off his hat and mopped the sweat from his face. It was already becoming a hot day. “Maybe I’m not so old in actual years, but sometimes I feel as old as those mountains out there.”

“Why’s that?”

“Don’t know for sure. Seems like when I came home from the war, I felt old and it’s been the same since.”

“Sounds reasonable. I grew up fast havin’ ta draw down on a man.”

“No doubt. It’s just that there were so many young men out on those fields trying to kill each other. I know you’ve been in lots of fights, but you just can’t imagine standing there watching this gray wave coming towards you-and all of them wanting nothing more than to see you dead. There they were in huge lines, marching to the sound of drums, carried by boys of nine or ten. Even when a shell would hit a file and take out a half-dozen or more, they’d keep coming. It was just amazing. Of course, our men did the same against their lines more ‘n once. Then if you were lucky to survive without some hideous wound, you’d go back to your camp and know you’d have to do the same the next day or the next or the next.”

“I guess a war like that would change a man.”

“It sure put things in focus. I know people talked about fighting for the Union or to free the slaves, and I suppose that’s true in a way, but after awhile, I didn’t even think about that. I was just fighting so I could get home and that as many of my men as possible could get home too. The thought of letting my men down terrified me. You know what I mean?”

Johnny looked at the other man carefully. “Yeah, I think I do. Before I came to Lancer, I only had me to worry about, but now, well, yeah I do know what you mean.”

Before Nick could say another word, Ramon came over to tell the youngest Lancer that it was his turn to break the next bronco. Settling his hat securely on his head, the dark-haired young man mounted the horse. As soon as one of the vaqueros let loose of the horse, the tempestuous animal began his campaign to unseat his rider. In fact, it didn’t take long for the gunfighter to find himself dusting the ground with his butt.

Standing up stiffly, Johnny waited until the horse was again restrained before trying again. This time he stayed on longer but in the end, the result was the same.

By the time Johnny had mounted for the third time, the whole corral was quiet as the duel continued. After much heaving, bucking and bashing against the fence, the horse finally capitulated, exhausted from its fight for freedom, even as the ranch hands clapped and cheered. As Johnny walked the horse slowly around the corral, Nick heard a familiar voice behind him. “Bet he’ll be sore tomorrow.”

Nick turned to face Scott Lancer. “Hey Scott, how are you feeling?”

“Much better. I heard all the noise out here and knew that Johnny must be in the center of it.”

Seeing his brother standing next to Nick, the sapphire-eyed gunfighter rode over and in a small boy’s voice asked if Scott had seen his triumph.

For a second the blond only shook his head no, but when Johnny scowled in disappointment, Scott admitted that he had seen Johnny’s effort. Of course, the youngest Lancer’s delight was punctured when Scott also casually asked if his brother might need a bottle of liniment to get him through the day’s work.

The stunned look on Johnny’s face faded when he saw the amused twinkle in the cerulean eyes. “Actually, Boston, I plan to drink my medicinal alcohol, not rub it on my butt!”

All three men laughed as they started towards the ranch house to procure a welcome cup of coffee and snitch the last of the oatmeal cookies. However, before they could do so, they were stopped by a yell from the rider coming into sight, leading a beautiful chestnut horse behind him.

“Heath!” Nick started towards his brother with Johnny and Scott following. Soon the four young men were heading towards the cookie jar after one of the ranch hands had agreed to stable the chestnut and Heath’s horse.

A startled Teresa O’Brien suddenly found her kitchen filled with the young ranchers. Nick quickly introduced the fair-haired Barkley to her, making sure that he praised her cooking.

As all five sat down to partake in the food, Heath started to tell them about his travails in securing the equine present. By the time, the cookies had been consumed the Lancer kitchen rang with laughter since Heath did an excellent job of mimicking the horse’s owner who had tried to stiff the Barkleys by wanting more than the agreed on price. Seeing Nick’s scowl, Heath had patted his brother on the shoulder and assured him that he had stood firm on the price. “In fact, I even got him to take a couple of dollars less.”

“And just how did you do that, Brother?” inquired the middle Barkley.

“I promised him that you’d ride down that way next month and take his older daughter to a dance!”

The dark-haired hothead jumped from his seat. “You did what? You think I’d ride all that way just to take a girl to a dance?”

“She’s not bad looking. ‘Course her sister’s prettier.”

Winking as he glanced over at Scott and Johnny, Nick tersely inquired, “And just who is taking the pretty one to the dance?”

“Uh, me.”

Sighing deeply, Nick just shrugged. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Aw come on, Nick, we’ll have a good time.”

“We’ll talk about this later, Heath,” growled the dark-haired man.

“Gentlemen, I have work to do so why don’t you show Heath to his room so he can clean up if he wants. You are planning to stay until tomorrow, aren’t you?”

Four pairs of eyes stared at Nick Barkley. Knowing when he was licked, the Stockton rancher gave in. “Okay, I suppose we can stay one more day, but just so the chestnut can have a rest! We leave first thing in the morning, Heath!”

“All right, but how about I get a tour of Lancer before we leave?”

Teresa quickly interjected, “That’s a great idea. You four go see the ranch so I can get something done!”

“Aw, Teresa, we don’t want to leave you here,” replied Johnny.

“That’s nice of you to say, Johnny, but I’m always glad to have some peace and quiet. However, if you truly want to stay here, I have lots of windows that need washing.”

“Last one to his horse is a mangy polecat,” shouted the whirlwind as he flew out of the kitchen.

The other three proceeded at a more leisurely pace with Heath expressing concern about Scott’s health. The older Lancer quickly reassured his friend that he was well on his way to recovery, but he made a point of stopping by his room to collect his battered hat.

To Teresa’s intense relief, the rambunctious quartet managed to stay away from the house for most of the day. Murdoch Lancer, on the other hand, returned early in the afternoon to find his sons and their guests out. Grumbling slightly over the lack of work that had been performed in the last couple of days, the rancher took some comfort in the cup of coffee and piece of angel food cake that Teresa miraculously produced before his blood pressure hit new highs. She also helped to avert a potential upheaval by reminding the patriarch that Heath and Nick were guests as well as friends. Finally, the tall man allowed himself to be persuaded not to make an issue of it since the Barkleys would be leaving the next day.

Arriving in plenty of time for dinner, the four men cleaned up and then took their places at the table. Scott and Johnny were pleasantly surprised when their father made no mention of their earlier absence. In fact, the dinner went surprisingly well–even though haggis was not on the menu.

After dinner, Murdoch invited his two guests and his sons to join him for a glass of brandy and some talk. The talk soon turned to the horse that Nick and Heath had purchased. Murdoch praised their selection informing them that he soon hoped to expand his own herd of horses and was looking into better breeding stock. After a few minutes, Scott excused himself to head to his bedroom.

But it was not until the chiming of the clock in the great room at 10:00 reminded the remaining men that they had to arise early in the morning that they too headed to their rooms.

Just after dawn, Murdoch, Teresa, and Johnny waved as Nick and Heath started on their way north. Scott had decided to ride part way with them so that he could go out to the north range to supervise the surveying party. Just before the three men departed, Heath made a point of loudly thanking Scott for the crates of champagne that he had sent the Barkleys the year before. Johnny’s ears had perked up immediately, but before he could ask his sibling about the incident, the three were gone.

As soon as they were out under the great gate, Scott complained to Heath about his remark. “If Johnny figures out that I rigged that bet, I’ll be shotgun fodder!”

After a few miles the trio split up with the Barkleys going their way and Scott heading west, not towards the surveying area. He had decided that he needed to take one more look at the deserted cabin that the Dexters had lived in. Somehow, he knew there had to be a clue and he really didn’t want Johnny to have to go along. Even though the blond was not back to full strength, he knew that he could handle this.

By the time he arrived at the cabin and began his search it was mid-morning, however, just as before he found nothing but a few sticks of furniture and very few personal belongings. It did seem that the Dexters intended to return, but who knew when.

While perusing through some items on one shelf, Scott was startled to hear the door open behind him. Looking up, he was startled to see Johnny Madrid Lancer standing in the doorway. “Johnny, what are you doing here?”

“I might say the same to you, Boston. I thought you were out surveying?”

“I…I just, well, I wanted to look around once more. I thought there might be a clue to where they had gone.”

“I thought we were going to do that together?”

“It doesn’t matter anyway. They’re obviously gone and maybe they won’t be coming back.”

 “It matters to me.”

“Why? You got Barranca back and Rachel Dexter is decently buried. It’s over.”

“Are you so sure about that? What if this Felicity comes back and finds out you’re still alive? She just might decide to use a bigger caliber gun this time!!”

“Please, Brother, I just want to forget all of this. Let’s go home. There’s a lot of work to do and Murdoch won’t appreciate us gallivanting around.”

Johnny saw the fear and pleading in his brother’s eyes and reluctantly agreed. “All right, Brother, if that’s what you want. But I want you to know that I intend to keep an eye on this place so if they do return, I can find out the truth about what happened.”

Scott nodded. “All right, if you want to, but let’s get out of here. I’m cold.”

Johnny watched as his brother quickly pushed his way out of the cabin, then followed him. **Dammit Boston, what are you so scared of?**



Felicity and Hosea Dexter had just returned to the boarding house where they had been staying for nearly two weeks. They had spent the day looking around the great city so that Felicity could show off the beautiful new clothes that she had purchased. “Oh Papa, I do wish we could stay here and not have to go back to that dingy cabin!”

“Now, now, Daughter, you promised.”

“I know, but I hate being out there with no one to talk to and no place to go except Morro Coyo.”

“You know we went there for a purpose.”

“I know, but we don’t have to hide anymore. Couldn’t we move closer to San Francisco?”

Thinking it over for a moment, the old man came to a decision, “Well, mebbe, but we still have to go back ‘n collect our horse and buggy.”

“Let’s just buy a new horse and buggy!”

“We don’t have that kind of money. And, I wanna give Rachel a proper grave. You know we didn’t have time afore.”

“What difference does it make? She is still just as dead!”

“Felicity! Don’t talk like that. She’s gonna be buried and words said over her. They don’t have to know how she died. ‘Sides you know I didn’t bring the box with me.”

Felicity’s brown eyes opened wide. “You didn’t?”

“‘Course not, we couldn’t traipse around with that. Don’t worry, it’s under the floorboards in the cabin, nice ‘n safe.”

“Well, then I guess we do have to go back.”

“Sure and on the way, we’ll just look for some out of the way, empty place to live.”

The girl’s mouth began to pout. “But there aren’t that many places like that near San Francisco.”

“Then, Darlin’, you can just use that derringer of yours to get us one.”

Felicity threw herself into her father’s arms. “Oh, Papa, I do love you!”



To The Box —->


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