Word count: 30,646
Johnny Madrid Lancer was not a patient man. He had tried his best for the past two weeks to exercise restraint with his father and brother, but now his need to know what had happened between the two men in the aftermath of the fiery loss of the sawmill, had begun to gnaw at his insides. Whatever had been said between father and son the day after the fire had not been imparted to Johnny When the younger man had finally awoke, he had discovered his brother propped up on his bed working on the sawmill ledger. Johnny’s mouth had dropped open to see the blond calmly adding figures when just the day before Scott had been nearly incoherent from the pain of burns on his left arm and hand. When questioned, the older man had merely remarked that he was feeling much better and that there was work to be done.
For the two next days Scott had worked on the blueprints for the new mill. With Murdoch’s approval, some of the hands had been detailed to help in the building under Scott’s supervision. Every day, Scott, Ramon, Luis and several others would head out and not return until late so Johnny had had very little opportunity to see, let alone discuss, anything with his brother.
At night the exhausted blond would return home, eat dinner, retire to his room to write in his journal, and then go to sleep. This was repeated day after day. Even when Johnny had made an effort to cajole Scott into joining him at Old Maude’s for an evening of music and dance, the blond had refused. Annoyed, the brunet had gone into Green River, drank too much, had a fight with Sindy and returned home with a hangover. In short, he was neither a happy nor patient man and did not intend for the situation to continue as it was.
Unfortunately, the evening that he had chosen to make his displeasure known was denied to him since Scott was not present for dinner. Scott, Ramon and Luis had gone into the cantina at Morro Coyo . Even the fact that Teresa had made a chocolate cake for dessert did not curb the young man’s anger. He hated being left out. He did not understand why his father and brother did not trust him. What could have they have discussed that Johnny could not hear? Feeling the knot of fear churning in his stomach, Johnny decided to tackle the problem from the other side so as soon as Murdoch took his customary place at his desk, Johnny approached him.
“Uh, Murdoch, could I talk to you for a minute?”
The older man removed his glasses to look his younger son straight in the face. “Of course, is there a problem? I thought you said that the fencing was nearly completed?”
“Sure, that’s nearly done. In fact, we should be able to finish tomorrow.”
“Then, what is it?”
“Scott? I don’t understand. He told me his burn was almost healed.”
“I. . .I’m not talking about the burn. He, , ,well, he’s been real quiet since the mill burnt down and we got him back here. He’s barely even talked to me.”
“Well, now, that you mention it, he hasn’t said much to me either. He’s been working so hard to get the mill completed. We’re really losing business until he can get it running again.”
“Yeah, that may be true, but didn’t you talk to him some when he woke up that mornin’ after the fire?”
Murdoch closed the ledger he had been checking. “We did talk some, but he was in pain so I didn’t think it wise to push him for answers.”
“Are you talkin’ about the mill or what Armstrong told you?”
“Mostly the mill. I told him I was quite pleased about how the sawmill is making a profit and that I thought he would make a valuable contribution to the ranch.”
“And that’s it?”
“Well, no, I did say that Armstrong had told us certain things, but that I could wait for an explanation.”
“So you mean he hasn’t told you anymore about what happened in Mississippi or Virginia?”
“Johnny, it’s not really our business! I’ve tried not to push you about your past. Why does Scott merit less respect for his privacy?”
The gunfighter flushed slightly. “I don’t wanna know all about his past, just durin’ the war. It just don’t sound like him.”
“I agree, but Cornelius made a good point. Scott was quite young during the War and maybe. . .maybe he did some things that he’d rather forget now. Surely, you of all people should understand that.”
The sapphire eyes narrowed. “You mean just ’cause I was a gunslinger, a killer?”
“No! That is not what I meant! Why do you jump on everything I say? You were like that even as a boy.”
“You. . .you remember me as a little boy?”
“Of course. I remember how you used to pout whenever your mother didn’t give you something you wanted. Of course, you couldn’t say much more than a word or two, but you were imperious even then. I guess that’s one of the reasons you and I have our differences of opinions now—we’re too much alike.”
“Not like Scott—huh?”
The tall man’s eyes flickered. “Why. . .why did you say that?”
“Well, you’ve got to admit that Scott’s not real sociable at times. ‘Course mebbe he thinks we’re kinda wild out here.”
“I suppose he is more reserved, but his grandfather is not very demonstrative and. . . .”
“And you are?” Johnny’s eyes gleamed with a touch of sarcasm.
“Well, maybe you have a point, but I think Scott feels out of place here. Not that he doesn’t try hard, but well, I probably shouldn’t say this but I think he’s jealous of you.”
The dark-haired man’s mouth opened, shut then opened again. “Jealous?”
“He. . .he called you a hero—the man who saved Lancer from Pardee.”
“And just what did you say to that?”
“I said that I didn’t expect him to be you. He followed orders and we were fortunate that Pardee followed you into the trap,” the patriarch remarked.
Johnny stood up to pace around some before turning to ask, “Did you really tell him that you consider me your right arm?”
“How’d you know about that?”
“He told me that you two talked just before we left for Armstrong’s. Is it true?”
“Yes, yes, I did say that. I think once you and I settle our differences, our partnership should go smoothly.”
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
Murdoch smiled. “Oh, I know you have to show your independence in rebellion, moodiness, and just plain stubbornness, but I’m prepared to wait.”
“Why go to all that trouble?”
“Perhaps because I do remember those two years you were with me. The bond forged then has stretched thin, but I do not intend to let it break.”
The gunfighter moved over to the decanter to pour himself a drink. “And Scott?”
Sighing, Murdoch rubbed his hand through his hair. “Unfortunately, I never had the chance to build any kind of bond with him. I just thought I could show up in Boston and suddenly, I would have my son again. Talk about being a fool!”
“Well, you were his father!”
Murdoch leaned forward in his chair, a solemn look on his face. “Johnny, let me ask you something. Suppose. . .just suppose your mother had left you here and then had come back after a few years and demanded to take you with her?”
“I don’t see what you’re getting’ at.”
“Do you think I’d have let her take you? Don’t you think I’d have done anything within my power to keep you with me?”
“I. . .I s’pose.”
“So why did I think that Harlan Garrett would ever have consented to let Scott leave? I was criminally naive—and even though it hurts to admit it, I don’t blame him for wanting to keep his grandson with him.”
“But that don’t make it right!”
“Johnny, was it right that my first wife died out there in the middle of nowhere? Was it right that Paul O’Brien was killed for a stallion? Was it right that your mother felt she needed you more than I did? Sorry, Son. I don’t like talking about this. We’ve all been hurt by the events of twenty years ago. I’m just not sure what is right anymore. That’s why I haven’t asked Scott about Armstrong. How can I judge him for something he did all those years ago—in the midst of war?”
This time Johnny poured two glasses of brandy which both men drank down in one gulp.
“So you think we should give him time to tell us about Armstrong’s accusations?”
Murdoch nodded. “It’s hard for me to believe a son of mine could do such a thing, but there might be some kind of extenuating circumstances. Something that might have made him. . .forget his duty. We just need to be patient.”
“Mebbe you’re right. He’s real set on getting’ that mill built. I s’pect after that he’ll be more willin’ to talk. Now whattya say we play checkers? Your right arm is ready to whomp you good!”
“I wouldn’t count on it, Young Man, but get out the board. I always enjoy teaching the young a lesson!”
“Whoooee! You’re in for it now, Old Man!”
When Teresa entered the great room, she found both Lancers in an intense battle. “Would either of you care for a piece of cake?”
Johnny growled, “Teresa, can’t you see we’re playin’ checkers here?”
“Oh sorry, I thought it was tiddly-winks!”
Both Lancers glared up at the girl then shook their heads. Women—they never understood! An hour later the game ended in a stalemate, after which Johnny and Murdoch went out to the kitchen to indulge in slabs of cake. While they were sitting at the table, Scott walked through great room to enter the kitchen.
“Boston, how about some cake? I might just let you have a little piece.”
Scott smiled wanly. “No thanks, Johnny. I’m. . .I’m kind of tired.” As he stood there, the blond rubbed at his left arm. “Guess I’ll go to bed. Dawn comes early. Shouldn’t be much longer and the mill will be done.”
“Good. Uh, Scott is your arm giving you trouble?” the tall man inquired.
“A little. The itching is driving me crazy. I guess that’ll go away soon. Night, Johnny, Murdoch.”
The two men watched the third Lancer exit the kitchen. “Murdoch, think I’ll ride in to town tomorrow and see Doc Atkins.”
“Why? Are you sick?”
“No, I just gotta find out if he’s got somethin’ to give me patience!”
Murdoch burst into laughter. “Better get a bottle big enough for both of us.
When Johnny awoke early the next morning, he almost decided to just turn over and go back to sleep, but knowing the stern taskmaster who ran Lancer, he decided it would not suit his dignity to be rousted out of bed by the Scot. Dressing, he ambled into the kitchen to find Murdoch sitting there, cup of coffee in hand. “Up early aren’t you, Murdoch?”
“I have to ride into town. There’s some kind of mistake in the Lancer accounts so I want to talk to the banker.”
“Mebbe I’ll go take a cup of coffee into Scott. He could probably use one.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“Why not? Did you take him one already?”
“When I got to the kitchen, he had just finished a cup and left not long afterwards. I saw Ramon and Luis waiting for him outside so I guess they were heading up to the mill.”
Johnny let out a noisy breath. “He sure is determined to get that thing done fast. I wonder why?”
“Son, we lose money if the mill is idle. Scott’s just being a good businessman.”
“Guess so, but mebbe he’s just runnin’ from somethin’.”
“Johnny, it does no good to speculate. Be sure you get the fencing done today. I probably won’t be back until this evening.”
“Sure. See you at dinner.”
The dark-haired man sat quietly for a few minutes, drinking his coffee and munching on the biscuits that Teresa had left for them. Perhaps it was time to check out the progress on the sawmill. Maybe he could even talk Scott into going into town with him on Saturday to get supplies—and afterwards they could raise a bit of ruckus. After talking to Scott, he could meet Cipriano at the south range to see if the fencing had been completed.
Saddling Barranca, Johnny rode the shortest route to the spot where the mill had once stood. During the ride, he couldn’t help but remember the anguished look in his brother’s blue eyes as they had crossed the bumpy earth with the wagon. It had certainly been fortunate that the burns, while painful, had not been more serious. Scott had insisted on getting back to work immediately, even while his left arm had been incapacitated..
At least, with the blueprints to finalize, he had been content to stay at Lancer, but as soon as the required lumber was delivered, the blond had flatly refused to stay at the hacienda.
As Johnny approached the building site, he could see that a great deal had been accomplished on the new mill. Scott was right, the building was progressing rapidly. Of course, the necessary equipment would have to be added when the mill was completed.
Scott and Ramon turned when they heard a voice yelling in their direction. “It’s Johnny! I wonder what he’s doing all the way out here?”
Ramon’s dark eyes flickered. “I do not know, Senor Scott, but you will want to talk with him. I will check on Luis and the others.”
“Thanks, Ramon. I’m sure he won’t be long and then I’ll join you.”
Johnny practically jumped from Barranca’s back to land beside his sibling. “Hey, Scott, you missed your callin’. You shoulda been one of them builders. The mill’s lookin’ real good.”
“Thanks, Johnny, but I thought you were going to be down on the south range today?”
“Just headed that way now, but Murdoch told me whatta good job you were doin’ so I thought I’d check it out.”
“That’s strange. Murdoch hasn’t even been out here to see it.”
“Uh, well, seems like Cipriano rode out this way t’other day and said it was lookin’ mighty fine.”
“I see. Well, I’m happy to have his approval.”
Sapphire eyes narrowed. “He was just interested. No reason to get touchy.”
“I’m not touchy. I know Cipriano likes to keep an eye on his ranch, but perhaps you can reassure him that I did ask Tim Barton, who’s a fine carpenter, to come out and give us a hand so that I wouldn’t make any mistakes.”
“Didn’t say you made any mistakes!”
“Johnny, there’s really a great deal to finish today so if you don’t mind. . . .”
“Yeah, well, I’ve got stuff to do too. Just wondered if you might wanna go into town with me on Saturday. Thought we could collect supplies and have a cold beer or somethin’.”
“That’s fine with me, if you don’t mind waiting for me while I talk to Mr. Morgan?”
“The man at the bank? Murdoch’s in seein’ him today.”
Scott paled slightly. “He is, why?”
“Somethin’ wrong about the accounts. ‘S’pect he’ll take care of it.”
“I see, well, I need to talk to him about my personal account. I’m sure you can visit with one of your lady friends while I’m doing that.”
Johnny grinned, “Sure, you know how sociable I can be. Well, I’d better get going. Those fences are just waitin’ for my magic touch!”
Scott smiled in reply. “I’m sure they are, Little Brother. See you later.”
As soon as Johnny rode off, Scott joined Ramon and Luis.
“Luis, you did make sure the equipment we need for the mill was ordered, didn’t you?” Scott inquired.
“Si, Senor Scott. I took the list and the check you gave me. I was assured that it would be here not long after the mill is completed.”
“Good. I was just concerned. It’s really important to my father that the mill is up and running as soon as possible.”
“Of course. Senor Lancer is fortunate to have you in charge of the building.”
“Thanks, Luis. Now, why don’t you and the men take a break and have something to eat?”
“Gracias, Senor. It has been awhile since the cock made his voice heard.”
“Ramon, I’m going to go over there where they’re repairing that foundation. You go ahead and eat with Luis.”
“I will go with you, Senor Scott. I too noticed there was a problem.” As the two men walked the short distance to the rocky area which had been incorporated into the foundation of the previous mill, Ramon started to say something but then bit off his words.
“Ramon, is there something you want to say? If I’ve made a mistake somewhere, please feel free to tell me.”
“That is not it, Senor Scott. I believe you and Senor Barton have done a fine job.”
“Oh, so there’s something else? Let’s go sit down on that rock and you can tell me what it is.”
“I. . .I do not think it is my place. You and Senor Johnny are the owners of this ranch and brothers.”
Scott’s eyes opened wider. “I don’t understand.”
“Senor, please, let us just forget my words. I can tell your . .your brother is important to you.”
“Yes, he is, but that doesn’t mean I think he’s perfect.”
Ramon took a deep breath. “None of us is perfect. We are only men. It is just that I once knew a boy who was much like Senor Johnny. His mother died when he was young and his father was not. . .not a good man.”
“So you know about why Johnny didn’t grow up at Lancer?”
“Si, all of the vaqueros knew how desperately Senor Lancer needed his sons to come to help against that devil Pardee. We had all heard of Johnny Madrid. You. . .you were the one who worried us.”
“Senor, I had not traveled far from my small village until I came to Lancer so the thought of a man from Boston was. . .extrano. Cipriano told us that you would possibly walk about with your nose looking down upon us.”
Scott grinned at the idea. “I’d probably have tripped over my shoes!”
“Nothing. Go on.”
“I for one was most happy to see that you were not—what is the word—a snob? When Pardee was defeated, Luis and I were pleased to know that you would be staying.”
“I appreciate your telling me that. I know Johnny fit right in with his speaking Spanish and all.”
“That is true, but Luis and I thought he might leave anyway.”
“Senor, as I said, the boy who I knew so long ago died in a gunfight on his twenty-second birthday. He lived with my family from the time he was ten until he was fifteen. My mother loved him as another son, but even her great love could not dampen the restlessness of his soul. Once he could handle a gun, it became his way to leave the injustice of his life behind. After he left our house, he would come to visit from time to time. My mother begged him not to take up the gun again, to stay with us and learn a trade. Once he did try, but then a man came to challenge him. Ricardo could not say no. He went off and we never saw him again. When my mother heard of his. . .his death, her heart was broken. She blamed herself for not being able to save him.”
Scott reached his hand out to put it on the other young man’s shoulder. “I can understand why that must have hurt your whole family, but. . .but Johnny really wants to stay here at Lancer. He wants to leave Johnny Madrid behind.”
“I. . .I am sure you believe that is so, and perhaps he does wish it. I am just concerned for you and your family. There are men who need the gun as a man will need the bottle.”
“I’m not going to pretend that my father and I aren’t concerned that sometime in the future Johnny might choose to leave, but I truly believe that he has found his place here.”
“I hope so, Senor. Please do not be offended that I said these things to you. Luis and I consider Lancer to be our home and we wish all to be happy.”
“Ramon, friends should be honest with each other and I consider you and Luis to be my friends so don’t be concerned that I will pass on anything you have said.”
“Gracias, and I am honored that you consider us to be amigos.”
“That goes for me too, but since the men seem to be done with their food, I suppose we had better get back to work,” Scott remarked.
“Si, we would not want su padre to find us taking a siesta.”
“No, I suppose not, although I wouldn’t mind a short nap right now.”
Ramon looked carefully at the pale-faced young rancher. “Senor Scott, you could go back to Lancer if you are tired. Luis and I would make sure everyone keeps at their work.”
“No, no, I was just joking. I. . .I had a nightmare or two last night.”
“I do not find that surprising. Any man might have a nightmare after touching the flames. Soon, it will be better.”
“I. . .it took years the last time.” Rubbing at his aching head, Scott brought his left arm in close to his body.”
“Your hand is stiff, Senor?”
“I keep trying to flex it, but it hurts so I don’t do it as much as I should.”
“Perhaps, you need to rest more? There is no shame in letting your body heal.”
“I’m fine, Ramon, really. I just need to get this mill done, then well then, maybe I can focus on other concerns.”
The younger man stood there hesitantly for a moment. “Senor, if you ever need help of any kind, Luis and I would stand at your side.”
Stunned by the vaquero’s words, Scott could only stammer a thank you. “I hope I don’t ever need to call upon you in that way, but your trust means a great deal to me.”
“You are most welcome. Now, should we join the others?”
“Let’s go. I think we can get a lot done before it’s time to go back to Lancer.” Scott started to whistle, “The Girl I Left Behind Me” as he and Ramon headed towards the growing framework of wood and stone. Pitching in to help the others, the blond realized his headache had disappeared.
Murdoch and Johnny Lancer arrived at the white hacienda almost at the same, however, Murdoch merely handed his horse over to a hand while Johnny took care of Barranca himself. When the dark-haired man entered the house, he found his father already pouring over the books—with a ferocious scowl on his face.
“Hey, Murdoch, we got that fencing all done.”
The gray-haired man looked up at his son. “What? Oh, fine. Johnny, if you don’t mind I really need to concentrate on these for awhile. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Did you get some bad news at the bank?”
Pursing his lips together, Murdoch hesitated before replying. “The expenses for the mill have been much more than I had anticipated so Morgan wanted me to confirm the checks that have been written on the account. I. . .I gave Scott free rein, but well, I think he may have let the expenses get out of hand.”
“Well, if we start cutting back now, it shouldn’t be too injurious. I suppose in a way this is my fault. I should have kept an eye on him. . .on the expenses more closely. Cipriano seemed to think everything was going well, but he did mention that the building seemed more elaborate than the blueprints called for.”
“You mean Cipriano was up there at your orders?”
“Well, I said something about Cipriano takin’ an interest in the mill and Scott got a might touchy.”
“Damn! I was hoping I could talk to him about this, but if he’s already got his back up. . . .”
Before Johnny could reply, the sound of several riders coming into the courtyard reached their ears. A moment later Scott entered the great room.
Johnny straightened up to face his brother. “Hey there, Boston, you quit early, didn’t you? Not used to seein’ you home before dusk.”
The blond gave his sibling a lop-sided smile of apology. “Guess you’re right, but the men did a lot today so I thought they deserved a break. If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go take a bath. I feel like I’m covered in sawdust.”
The tall man at the desk cleared his throat and then remarked, “Uh, Scott before you do that, could I speak with you for a moment?”
Murdoch glanced up at Johnny who stood there with a look of consternation on his face. “Johnny, if you have something else you’d rather do. . . .”
“Uh, no, I think I’ll stay.”
“Very well,” the rancher said in resignation. “Scott, I talked to George Morgan at the bank today. He was a bit concerned about the amount of checks being written to handle the mill expenses.”
The older son shifted his weight slightly from one foot to the other. “Yes, Sir, I was going to speak to you about that. When I hired Tim Barton, he recommended taking certain steps which would increase the safety and efficiency factors at the mill. They’ve proven to be somewhat more expensive than we anticipated.”
“Safety factors?” Johnny chimed in.
Scott turned around to look his brother squarely in the eye. “Yes, you see I believe we were most fortunate this time. We only lost the building. Had there been workers present, who knows what might have happened? Essentially a mill is a tinderbox, but Tim had an idea that we could take certain steps to eliminate some of the problems, plus make the working conditions more pleasant for the men.”
“I see. Well, I suppose you have a point, but would it possible to do just the minimum?”
Scott looked at his father. “I don’t think I understand.”
Exasperated, Murdoch stood up. “Scott, Lancer’s finances are a bit tight right now with the loss of income from the mill and some expenses that still have to be met from the period when Pardee was trying to take over the ranch. I. . .I appreciate your efforts to. . .modernize the mill, but I do think you should have talked it over with me before you committed this ranch to such efforts. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes Sir. I’ll take care of it.”
“Good. I was sure you’d see my point. Maybe in another year or two we can talk again.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to take that bath.”
After watching the blond head into his room, Murdoch remarked to his younger son. “Well, that went well. I was afraid he might take offense or something.”
“Uh, yeah, well I’m gonna go see if Teresa might be willin’ to part with some cookies.”
“Johnny! Dinner will be ready in an hour!”
“Man could starve in an hour.”
“Well, I suppose you have worked hard today. You did say the fences were done?”
“Sure are and they are perfect. Your right arm made sure of that!”
Murdoch chortled. “Not sure it’s a good idea that I let you know about that phrase.”
“Then why did you tell Scott if you didn’t want me to know?”
“Well, I suppose a smidgeon of praise won’t turn your head too much. I’m not a man who believes in giving praise for doing the job you’re expected to do, but you’ve earned it and I’m happy that you’ve decided to stay at Lancer.”
“Well, I’m kinda happy ’bout it myself and since I’m in such a charitable mood, I’ll give you a chance to beat me at checkers tonight.”
“You’re just asking for it, aren’t you, Young Man?”
“Murdoch, you should know by now that I never back down from a challenge.”
“Well then, as soon as dinner is over, be prepared for the whomping of your life!”
The snort which emerged from Johnny’s lips was heard even in the kitchen. Teresa came running into the room. “What was that?”
“I thought a moose had got loose in here!”
Johnny turned two shades of red and one of white. “I. . .I. . . “
The brunet could say no more as he fled to his room with the sound of laughter echoing in his ears.
As soon as dinner was over, the titanic struggle over the white and red pieces began. Declaring that she could not stand the sight of blood, Teresa fled to her bedroom as did Scott who took the opportunity to fill pages of his journal. After completing his thoughts for that day, Scott tiptoed out into the great room. The combatants were still at it. They did not even notice the blond slip past and out the door into the star-filled night.
Scott stood there on the porch for some time, just gazing up at the points of shimmering light. Men had been using those tiny specks for centuries to guide themselves across land and sea for. Their constancy and beauty offered a measure of comfort here in this new land. After a time, he decided to take a walk to the stable. To his surprise, he found Ramon there putting some kind of poultice on the leg of one of the horses.
“Senor Scott, are you going out this evening? I can saddle your horse?”
“No thanks, Ramon, I was just restless and thought I’d walk around.”
“I can understand that. There are times when I remember the freedom of being able to go where I pleased. After my mother died, I stayed for awhile to take care of my younger sister, but she was taken in by an uncle so I was free to be on my own. Not long after I left my village, I met up with Luis. He became my family.”
“Luis doesn’t seem as comfortable around the other hands as you are.”
“My mother always said I should be one of those politicos in Mexico City because I talk so much. But you are right about Luis. He. . .he has been much abused in his life.”
“By his parents?”
“He was always small and could not work as hard as his brothers. Finally, he could not take their cruel remarks and he fled. Fortunately, I came upon him and we became compadres.”
“I’m glad that you found each other. Everybody needs someone they can trust and feel comfortable with.”
“Si, like you and Senor Johnny.”
“It’s strange that you should say that. When I was growing up in Boston, I always imagined what it would be like to have a brother. I guess I thought I wouldn’t be lonely anymore.”
“You lived with your grandfather, yes?”
“That’s right. Don’t get me wrong, I love my grandfather very much, but he was frequently busy and he was, well, old! When I was little, I thought he had to be at least 100!”
Ramon laughed. “I understand, Senor. My own grandfather died when I was quite young. He had a great long gray beard and hair. I thought of him as ancient even though in our Bible it was written that he was about the age of Senor Lancer. He had two sons and a daughter by the time he was twenty-one.”
“It sounds like you have some good memories of your family, Ramon.”
“Si. Of course, there were times of anger, but I think about my sister. She must be nearly a woman by now.”
“You haven’t seen her since you left?”
“No, perhaps one day I will seek her out.”
“If you need some time off to do that, please tell me. I’m. . .well, I can speak to Murdoch about it.”
“Gracias. I will let you know. For right now, I am content to be here at Lancer. Luis and I are saving our wages to buy a small place of our own, but I fear we will be as ancient as my grandfather before that becomes true, however, I would not be at all sad to stay here at Lancer for the rest of my days.”
“You and Luis are both good men so I hope your dream comes true. It’s important to have dreams or life is unbearable.”
The young vaquero paused for a moment. “And you, Senor Scott, have you a dream? Or perhaps you have already found it here at Lancer?”
“Lancer is my father’s dream. He worked hard to bring it to fruition and I respect him for that. Now, I’d better return to the house. Dawn comes too early and we have much to do tomorrow, including some changes.”
“Yes. I’ll tell you about them tomorrow. Goodnight, Ramon. See you in the morning.”
Ramon watched his friend return to the white hacienda.
The next day was one of rain and wind. Scott, along with Ramon, Luis and the others tried to work on the sawmill, but due to the Murdoch’s orders, it was apparent that Scott would have to consult with Tim Barton once again so that changes could be made as economically as possible. By early afternoon, thunderclouds had rolled in bringing torrents of rain as well as lightning. The tension among those who had fought the earlier fire could be felt as the jagged streaks darted about the skies. Finally, Scott ordered everyone back to the safety of Lancer. Since he intended to go into Spanish Wells with Johnny the next day, the blond would take the opportunity to consult with Barton and then they could make a fresh start on Monday.
The drenched men made their way back to the hacienda, quite grateful to see the buildings which represented the warmth of a hot meal, a reasonably soft bed and friends.
Entering the great room to the sound of the chiming clock, Scott was not surprised to see Murdoch sitting at his desk although he did not attempt to talk to his father. Chilled by the rain, he started to open the door to his room when he heard the authoritative voice behind him. “Scott, could you come here a moment?”
“I don’t suppose you were able to accomplish much today?”
“No Sir. I intend to talk to Tim Barton tomorrow so we can make some changes to minimize the expenses.”
“Ah good. I’m not too familiar with Barton. Is he trustworthy?”
The blond stiffened slightly. “Yes Sir. He came highly recommended.”
“Well, all right. I still think we could just have used the old plans, but I suppose since that mill was built over fifteen years ago, it might need a few changes. Uh, Johnny has informed me that the two of you plan to go into town tomorrow?”
“Yes. I have some business to take care of and I’ll also talk to Barton.”
“Fine. I may not be here when you get back. Matthew Henderson has invited me to the Double H to see some new stock he’s invested in. We might also do a spot of fishing. I just hope this rain lets up.”
“Enjoy your visit.” The slender figure shivered as he turned once again towards his room.
“Thanks. I will. Sometime, I’d like you to go over to the Double H with me. Matthew’s son could give you some good advice on construction. Stephen is excellent at that kind of thing.”
“I’m sure he is. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Fifteen minutes later Johnny entered, shaking the rain from his poncho like a dog. “Whooee, it is wet out there!”
“Don’t just stand there dripping all over. Go put on some dry clothes. We can’t afford for anyone to get sick right now.”
“Hey, I’m too ornery to get sick.”
“Speaking of ornery, I expect you to behave when you’re in town tomorrow.”
“Aw, Murdoch, I’m not the one who causes trouble.”
“Maybe not, but you never walk away from it either. Just go in and get the supplies and come back here. As I said to Scott, I’m going to ride over to the Double H. I’ll probably be back by Monday.”
“Scott’s here already?”
“There wasn’t much to be done at the mill in this downpour.”
“Yeah, I ‘spose. It was tough tryin’ to keep an eye on them beeves. They don’t like that lightnin’.”
“Well, why don’t you go change your clothes and then join me for a cup of coffee in the kitchen. I have a couple of things I want you to do for me in town tomorrow.”
“Well, I was plannin’ on spendin’ some time with Gladys.”
“Gladys? Which one is she?”
“She’s new to town.”
“You work fast, don’t you?”
“Gotta be fast in my business.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows arched. “Well, try to control your business, will you? I’d just as soon not see my son end up on the wrong end of a shotgun!”
Johnny chuckled. “No chance of that! Ain’t no girl smart enough to trap Johnny Madrid Lancer!”
“Fine. Have it your own way. I know you won’t listen to any wise counsel, no matter what. Now, go change those clothes and meet me in the kitchen!”
“Yes Sir.” Johnny saluted while clicking his heels together and then ramrod straight, marched into his bedroom.
Dawn broke over Lancer’s mountains. Thousands of tiny rainbows formed in the droplets of rain that remained after the storm of the day before. Slowly, Lancer stirred to life as hands forced themselves out of their warm bunks to head out to pump cold water to make their morning coffee.
In the white hacienda, Scott Lancer was in the kitchen, making a pot of coffee for the family. The evening before Scott had promised Teresa O’Brien that he would make sure that there would plenty of coffee for his father and brother before they moved onto their plans for the day. It was Murdoch’s intention to get an early start for the long ride to the Double H. Johnny and Scott intended to ride into Spanish Wells so that Scott could attend to business and the weekly supplies could be procured. As a result, the blond had assured Teresa that the men of the family could take care of themselves so she should feel free to take the day for herself. In accordance with that, the brown-haired girl decided to sleep in until the unheard-of-hour of 9:00 AM. Even the thought of it gave the young woman a guilty pleasure.
The easterner whirled around to see his father standing there. “Yes, Sir?”
“I would like to meet this Tim Barton if possible. Could you ask him to visit the ranch on Tuesday?”
“I was planning to ask him to come out and work with me on the plans Monday so we wouldn’t lose too much time.”
“I’m not sure what time I’ll be back on Monday so perhaps you could ask him to come out here on Tuesday? I’m sure Johnny can find something for you and the hands to do around here on Monday .”
“But. . .but I thought you wanted to get this done as fast as possible since you’re losing money?”
“That’s true, but perhaps we rushed into this too fast. A little extra time now and perhaps we can prevent anymore mistakes.”
“Of course. It’s your decision. I’ll ask Tim to be here first thing in the morning on Tuesday.”
“Excellent. Now, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and then be on my way. I really want to catch a few fish while I’m there.”
Steel blue eyes flashed. “Good luck with your fishing. I know how much you enjoy it.”
For the next ten minutes Murdoch Lancer regaled his son with tales of fish that he had caught—and lost. After two mugs of the strongly brewed coffee, Murdoch took his leave of his older son, his mind already on the fish he intended to catch.
Fifteen minutes later Johnny joined his brother in the kitchen. “All ready to go into Spanish Wells?’
“I guess so,” replied the brunet. “Once we get the supplies ordered then I can go see Gladys, right?”
“Certainly. I expect to be at the bank for awhile and then I’ll go talk to Tim Barton. Murdoch wants to talk to him on Tuesday.”
“Tuesday? I thought he was going to be here Monday so you could start workin’ on the different plans?”
“Well, that was my intention, but Murdoch said he wanted to talk to Tim on Tuesday. I. . .I think he doesn’t trust the man.”
Johnny clapped the older man on the shoulder. “Don’t suppose one day will make all that much difference. Now lead me to the coffee and then we’ll get on the road.”
Twenty minutes later the two Lancers headed out under the great gate. Moving along at a good clip, the young men made good time in the buckboard , especially since neither man seemed inclined to talk. Johnny, who held the reins, had debated with himself about trying to discuss the situation with his older brother, but in the end he had decided to abide by Murdoch’s edict to wait. Scott had enough on his plate with getting the mill up and running so Johnny had clamped down hard on his natural inclination to question Scott about Armstrong.
As soon as they arrived at Spanish Wells, Scott dropped off the shopping list with the general store while Johnny strolled down the street to the house where Gladys Fenton was currently residing with her aunt and uncle.
Stopping by Tim Barton’s place, Scott informed him of Murdoch’s request to visit on Tuesday. Barton’s eyes opened in surprise at the message. He had assumed that there would be no snags in the building of the sawmill, but after all, Murdoch Lancer was paying the bills so he was prepared to accommodate the man.
As soon as Scott finished there, he walked down the street to the bank. As usual, George Morgan was happy to see one of his best customers. Quietly, the blond explained to the banker about why he needed his help. Morgan’s eyes opened wide when he heard about the money involved. Fortunately, Morgan’s bank was more than capable of handling such a transfer of funds—although it would take a short amount of time. Scott just smiled and thanked the man. Harlan Garrett’s heir was used to dealing with large amounts of money and obsequious bankers.
Since it was still fairly early in the day, Scott knew that Johnny would not be interested in leaving Gladys for at least another few hours so he decided he would head over to the post office to pick up the Lancer mail and then stop by the saloon for a cold beer. It had been a long, difficult week and the blond was looking forward to a few hours of relaxation before collecting the supplies—and his brother.
Walking into the small post office, Scott greeted Mrs. Logan who had been the postmistress practically since statehood had been accomplished. She had taken it upon herself to check out Murdoch Lancer’s newly-arrived sons. Unfortunately, neither son had made a favorable impression upon the elderly woman since they did indulge in the terrible sin of drinking. Mrs. Logan’s two husbands had died as a result of being too fond of the bottle so she had made it her mission in life to save others from demon rum! Johnny had just flirted with the woman, charming her into believing his unlikely story that he would indeed give up spirits. As a result, he usually let his brother pick up the mail so that he would not meet up with the formidable woman with liquor on his breath.
For his part, Scott always made sure that he visited the post office before heading to the saloon, but if by some chance he did run into the lady after partaking in a beer, he would manfully own up to his weakness. At first, Mrs. Logan had ranted at him, but after awhile she had decided that it was probably due to the laxness of morals in the East. Mrs.Logan had never visited the East, but she had heard rumors about the things that went on in the big cities there. Still, she had to admit that Murdoch Lancer’s older son was an exceedingly polite young man—even if he was destroying his body!
“Good morning, Mrs. Logan. Is your lumbago any better?”
Prunella Logan blushed. The fact that this young man dared to mention her condition was still embarrassing. “I’m just fine, Scott. I haven’t seen you in awhile, young man. I understand you were injured in a fire?”
“Uh, that’s right, but it’s much better.”
“Dangerous things those burns. My second husband almost burned down the house when he was in his cups. Perhaps it was a mercy the good Lord took him before he did even worse.”
“Yes, M’am. Do we have any mail?”
“You certainly do. Most of it is for your father, but there are two letters for you as well.”
“Well, thank you. Take care of your lumbago.”
“I will, Scott. You take care of that burn. A putrefying burn can cause a great deal of grief.”
Gulping at the idea, Scott nodded and said goodbye.
By the time, the blond arrived at the saloon, his mouth was extremely dry and had an unappealing taste. Perhaps it was the mention of a putrefying wound, but hopefully a beer would wash both away. Sitting down at one of the tables, Scott glanced over the mail for the other inhabitants of Lancer before tackling his own letters.
The first letter was from his grandfather. He had sent it practically the minute that Scott had departed from Boston. Scott had sent him a telegram announcing his safe arrival, but it wasn’t likely that Scott’s own letter would have reached Boston yet. The familiar handwriting made the blond slightly homesick. After reading through the letter twice, Scott folded it and put it into his pocket. Then he took up the other letter.
Scott’s jaw clenched tightly as he read the brief missive. His right hand shook as he read it through again before crushing it into a small ball. Gulping down his beer, the young man walked over to order a double whiskey which he also downed with precision. Then he retook his seat to wait for the return of his brother. He didn’t have long to wait.
Johnny, with a very pretty redhead on his arm, stood outside the swinging doors of the saloon. “Scott! Hey Scott! Come out here a minute!”
The blond stood up cautiously and headed for his brother. “You ready to go Johnny? I assume the supplies are assembled.”
“Uh, well, Gladys here has invited me to stay to dinner so do you s’pose you could take the supplies back to Lancer?”
Scott glanced at the redhead. “Well, I’m sure you’ll enjoy your. . .dinner, and I’m sure I can handle the supplies, but how are you going to get back to Lancer?”
“You let me worry about that, Boston. I’ll be back later tonight or mebbe tomorrow.” Johnny gave him one of his most charming grins.
“Fine. Just be sure you’re back before Murdoch gets home. Goodbye, Miss Fenton. Take good care of Johnny.”
The redhead just purred, “You can count on me, Mr. Lancer.”
Scott Lancer crossed the street. Sure enough the buckboard was filled and ready to go. Waving at the shopkeeper, the Lancer scion headed back towards to the ranch.
When he arrived in front of the hacienda, Ramon and Luis offered to help Scott unload the supplies. With all three of them working, the buckboard was soon emptied although it was clear to Scott that his two friends had made a point of unloading the heavier items since the blond had a problem grasping anything with his left hand. Since neither of the two vaqueros mentioned it, neither did Scott.
After thanking the two young men, Scott walked inside the white building to his room where he began to pack his saddlebags. After that, he took out a piece of writing paper, wrote a few lines and sealed the note in an envelope. Leaving the bag near the door, Scott searched for Teresa O’Brien, who was out near the henhouse. Looking up from collecting the eggs, the girl smiled at Scott. “Did you get the supplies?”
“Yes, but Johnny decided to stay in town.”
“I’m not surprised. I’ve heard rumors about Gladys Fenton.”
“Yes, well, when I got to town there was a telegram waiting for me from a friend. There’s been a tragedy in the family and they’ve asked me to come at once. If I leave now, I can be there tomorrow so will you tell Johnny that I’ll be back in a few days?”
“But Scott—what’s this person’s name? Murdoch will want to know.”
“Uh, the name’s Slocum. I knew him during the war. Like I said, I should be back in a few days. Barton won’t be here until Tuesday and Ramon can handle anything dealing with the mill. So will you tell them that?”
“Of course. Take care of yourself.”
“I will, Teresa. Bye.”
Stopping to get his bag, Scott Lancer then proceeded to the stable to get his horse. Before doing so, he spotted Ramon standing by the corral. Making his way to the vaquero’s side, he spoke quietly to him for a few minutes then handed him the note in its envelope. “Thanks, Ramon. I appreciate your help.” The easterner continued into the stable, saddled his horse then mounted and headed out. As he passed Ramon and Luis, he waved to the two men.
As he watched the blond ride by, Ramon whispered, “Vaya con Dios, mi amigo.”
Sunday morning came and went. Normally, Teresa O’Brien would attend church with Murdoch Lancer, but with her guardian off visiting friends, the young woman felt free to once again sleep late. Unfortunately, her concern for Scott dimmed that pleasure to some extent. After Scott left, it had occurred to the young woman that the blond had never mentioned having a friend in the immediate area, especially one with whom he had served during the war.
California had been so far from the carnage of war that, truthfully, Teresa had not thought much about the raging storm that had torn the East apart. Still, names like Cold Harbor, Vicksburg, and Shiloh had found their way west with soldiers who had fought in such remote sites. Many of the former soldiers had worked for a time at Lancer, earning enough to move on somewhere else, but one or two had stayed on, finding the routine of herding cattle a soothing way to forget the terror of their wartime service. Naturally, Teresa’s father had not looked too favorably upon his daughter getting to know some of the hardbitten men who had work for a few dollars, but Paul O’Brien had been a busy man and could not keep an eye on the girl all the time.
In early 1866 Hiram Townsend and Lucas Block had ridden up to Lancer asking for jobs. Hiram still wore part of his private’s uniform as did Block, only his had once carried corporal’s stripes. Teresa, who was in her early teens, had asked her father about the two hands, but he had shrugged off her questions, saying that she should stay away from the two men.
Hiram, who might have been all of twenty, seemed to be too young to be in the company of the gruff, profane Block. The girl was no prude but her ears had burned when Block had exercised his right of speech in the presence of a horse which needed to be broken for riding. To her amazement the taller Townsend had walked over to the horse, climbed on his back and seemingly within moments, had the bay trotting around the corral. Afterwards, Block had clapped his friend on the back and then the two had gone over to the bunkhouse together. Teresa suspected it was so they could share a drink of whiskey, but of course she had no proof of that.
One day not long after, Teresa had had the opportunity to talk to Hiram Townsend who was working in the stable. She had taken a bucket of cold water out to him since it was a hot day. Shyly, the young man had thanked her for her kindness. Summoning her courage, Teresa had inquired about the young man’s family. In a halting voice he had told her that he’d been raised in an orphanage, back in Minnesota. When the war had begun, he had run off to join the army. In those days no one looked too carefully at the tall young man with broad shoulders so he had joined the First Minnesota Volunteers. Green and scared, he and his mates had gone off to four years of war. It was during his service that he had met up with Lucas, who, although more than fifteen years his senior, had taken a liking to the young man. Throughout many a horrendous battle—including the worst of all– Gettysburg—Block had made it his mission in life to make sure that Hiram survived the worst that the Rebs could throw at them. When the war had finally ended, the two men had stayed together, but had decided to settle somewhere warm instead of returning to Minnesota which had undergone its own mini-war in 1862.
There had been very few opportunities for Teresa to talk to Hiram during the four months the two men had stayed at Lancer, but the young man had continued to share his wartime experiences with her. He had been reluctant at first, but with the aid of some oatmeal cookies, he had finally opened up to the adolescent girl. Once he had begun to talk, there was no need to coax. Memories of the sights, sounds, and feelings spilled out of the young man like a dam which had broken under the onslaught of too much rain. Teresa had been sickened—and fascinated to hear his stories. Violence was no stranger at Lancer, but the sheer magnitude of the recent war dwarfed all that she could ever imagine. When Hiram’s words finally sputtered to a close, the boy had apologized for offending a lady, but Teresa had reassured him that she had not been offended. She had needed to know, and more important he had needed to tell.
Two months later Townsend and Block had ridden off to find what they were still seeking, but Teresa had never forgotten the young man who had opened her eyes to what war could truly mean—to a country as well as personally to those who fought in it. While sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea, it wasn’t too hard for Teresa to imagine what Scott’s own stories might be like—not that she believed he would ever confide in her. Men were so perplexing—and none more so than the ones named Lancer.
Not long after, one of the puzzles rode into the courtyard on a sorry nag borrowed from the livery stable in town. Johnny quickly took the horse into the stable so that neither Scott nor Teresa would see him. Hopefully, he could get one of the hands to return the horse to Spanish Wells without anyone knowing. He was even a bit concerned that Barranca would be able to pick up the scent of the foreign horse and be less than welcoming! However, nothing was more important than filling his stomach so he headed immediately to the kitchen to see if Teresa might have some food prepared.
To his amazement, the girl was sipping a cup of tea and looking at a pattern book.
“Teresa, haven’t you started making Sunday dinner yet?”
Brown eyes looked up into sapphire. “Since Scott and Murdoch are gone, I thought I’d just serve leftovers for the two of us—unless you want to cook something, Mr. Madrid!” she announced frostily.
“Whattya mean Scott’s gone? Didn’t he bring the supplies back here yesterday?”
“Yes, but he left soon after—something about a friend named Slocum needing his help. He said he should be back in a few days.”
“Well, I’ll be damned. He didn’t say anything to me about it.”
“I guess he got some kind of telegram. Perhaps, he knew you were busy—with Gladys.”
The gunfighter grinned. “Well, yeah, I was at that. I sure hope he gets back before Murdoch gets here. The old man’s not gonna be too happy if that mill ain’t finished soon.”
“I don’t think he plans to be away too long, but I, uh, was wondering—has he ever mentioned someone named Slocum who he served with in the Army?”
“Nope. Armstrong’s the only one I’ve heard about and I don’t think Scott would go help him!”
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait. By the way, Mr. Madrid, would you mind going to the bath house and indulging in a long soak?”
“Hey, what are you talkin’ about? I ain’t sweat that much.”
“Oh, I don’t mind a little sweat from honest labor, but that cheap eau de cologne that your girlfriend uses makes my nose twitch!”
Johnny grinned. “Ooops, I guess I’d better return that bottle of it I bought to give you for your next birthday.”
“That’s for sure or there is one aroma you will NOT be smelling around here and that is chocolate cake!”
“Teresa!” Johnny exclaimed in shocked horror. “I’ll take it back, I’ll take it back, don’t worry– and I’ll go take a bath right now!”
Teresa shook her head as she watched the fleeing young man. Heaven help her if Johnny ever stopped liking chocolate cake.
That evening Johnny was sitting in the great room looking at the newspaper he had brought with him from town. He knew that Murdoch liked to keep abreast of the news—even if the papers were frequently outdated. The rancher continually proclaimed that it was the duty of citizens to know what was going on—even if most of it was taking place 3000 miles away. Johnny still smiled whenever Murdoch began to mutter about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, just two years before. He had never imagined that his taciturn father would become so demonstrative over the fate of a man he didn’t even know! But one evening not long after Scott and Johnny’s arrival, the blond had made some remark about the former Tennessee politician and that had lit the fire between father and son. Fortunately, Teresa had diverted her guardian’s attention to Reverend Baker’s plea for aid to the orphanage so the dispute had died rather quickly. Johnny had remained generally silent, a bit bewildered by Murdoch’s diatribe, but he had inadvertently fanned the flames when he had tossed in the idea that Murdoch should have gone into politics. Seeing that the tall man was about to get his second wind, Teresa had stepped in with her question about how much Lancer would contribute to the orphanage.
Johnny had just about decided to head to the kitchen to make a raid on the cookie jar when he heard a knock at the door. Opening it, he found Ramon and Luis standing there.
“Senor Johnny, could we talk with you for a moment?”
“Uh, sure. If it’s about the mill, Scott’s now here right now.”
The two men moved slightly into the room. “Si Senor, we are aware that he has gone. In fact, that is why we are here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Before he left, he gave me a letter for you.”
“A letter? What kind of letter?”
“I am not sure, Senor. He just said to give it to you.” Ramon handed over the envelope.
Johnny ripped open the letter then moved closer to the lamplight.
The note was short, but not too informative.
I have decided to stop Armstrong’s lies about me, once and for all. I should be back in a few days. If I don’t return, my deed to Lancer is with the lawyer in Green River. It goes to you. Take care of everybody.
“What the hell! What’s he intending to do?”
“We do not know, but Senor, if you intend to go after him, we would like to go with you.”
Johnny stared for a moment at the two intense men, neither very big in stature. “Why would you want to do that?”
“He is our friend. I have told him that we would be honored to stand by his side. I regret that we did not ride out with him, but I could see in his face that he believed that only he could handle whatever troubles his soul.”
“So, why do you think I should go after him then?”
“Senor Johnny, he is your brother. While I do not know what the letter says to you, I. . .I looked into his eyes. He believes he will not be returning to Lancer.”
Johnny looked down at the simple words on the paper then back up at the two vaqueros. “I think you might be right about that, but the three of us ain’t gonna let that happen. Go get your horses and saddle Barranca. I’ll go tell Teresa where we’re goin’.”
“Gracias, Senor. We shall do as you say.”
Fifteen minutes later the three young men headed out under the moonlight which shone down on Lancer. None of the riders said much; they were too intent on crossing as many miles of Lancer property as possible. Finally though, it became necessary to stop as the horses and their riders needed a break. After building a small fire, Johnny passed around a canteen filled with tequila then they lay down on their bedrolls until just the pink edge of dawn appeared on the horizon. Not even stopping for breakfast, they were content to munch on jerky as the miles passed under the pounding hooves.
As they closed in on the Ambling A, Ramon signaled to the others to stop. “Senor Johnny, do you have a plan? I am not sure that Senor Scott would . . .be happy to see us walk in on him.”
“Yeah, I s’pose you gotta point. Can’t just barge into a man’s home without a good reason. Guess we’ll just have to play it by ear. Just hope Scott ain’t gone off half-cocked and done somethin’ stupid.”
“Your brother is not a stupid man, Senor.”
Johnny stared into the intense brown eyes. “No, he ain’t, but any man can be pushed too far.”
“Es veridad so perhaps we should go?” the vaquero suggested.
There were no more stops before the Ambling A appeared in the distance. As soon as they hitched their horses to the rail in front of the house, Johnny bolted for the door, but stopped when he realized that Ramon and Luis had not dismounted. “Go along, Senor Johnny. Perhaps one man would be better at this time.”
The brunet nodded then knocked on the door. The boy answered as before. “Hey there, Maurice, is my brother here?”
Speechless, the boy just pointed towards the study door which was slightly ajar. Quietly, Johnny moved down the hallway to stand in front of the door from which loud voices emanated. “Slocum, this is your last chance. Sign the paper and this won’t go any further!”
“Or you’ll do what, Lt. Lancer? Kill me? Are you prepared to hang just to get your revenge?”
“Revenge is that what you think this is all about?”
“Well, what else am I to think when you’re standing there with a gun in your hand?”
The blond turned his body slightly towards the dark-haired man who barged in the door. As he did so, Cornelius Armstrong pulled a small gun from his pocket, aiming at the distracted blond. From the corner of his eye, Scott saw the movement and shifted the barrel of his gun towards the pudgy man. Before the easterner could fire, Johnny launched himself at his brother, trying to grab the gun. For one long moment both Lancers had their hands on the weapon until it exploded, hurling a lead projectile into the chest of Scott Lancer.
As the slender body slumped to the floor, Johnny watched in horrified silence as the red blood stained Scott’s blue shirt and the oriental rug underneath his body.
The tall figure on the cream-colored horse rode slowly under the great gate. Murdoch Lancer had enjoyed his brief interlude at the Double H, especially since he had managed to catch a brace of fish. The visit had also offered him the opportunity to talk to Matthew Henderson about problems with the saw mill. Henderson had lived in the valley even before the Scot had arrived with his new wife so Murdoch had known him for many years.
In the early days the tall rancher had found it difficult to talk to the aristocratic Henderson, but after Catherine’s death, the older man had approached Murdoch offering his condolences. That had been the beginning of what had become Murdoch’s most enduring friendship. The trust between the two men was extraordinary considering the differences in their backgrounds and personalities.
Matthew Henderson had settled in California a few years before the advent of the Gold Rush, however, it had not been a golden treasure he had been seeking. No, it had been the land itself which had called to him—land to tame, land to build on, land for his growing family and finally to pass on to his son, Stephen.
In the aftermath of Maria’s departure Murdoch had cut back on his visits to the Double H. He had thrown himself into building his empire, relying on Paul O’Brien for whatever friendship he would allow himself. That had gone on for sometime until one day Henderson had ridden up to the door of Lancer for an unexpected confrontation. Harsh words had been exchanged between the two friends, but in the end, the thirty-six year old aristocrat from Philadelphia had talked some sense into the thirty-four year old refugee from Scotland. The relationship between the two men had become closer—with one exception—Murdoch would not discuss his sons with Matthew. When Henderson had tried to encourage the rancher to contact his boys, the tall man’s face had closed over into granite. Reluctantly, the master of the Double H had given up speaking about Scott or Johnny.
For that reason, Matthew Henderson had been astonished when, after twenty-some years, Murdoch had finally made the effort to find his sons. Of course, it had only been the dire circumstance of Pardee’s raids that had forced the big man to put aside his pride and ask for help. True to his stubborn personality, it had become a business deal—their services in return for a share in Lancer. Still, Matthew Henderson had great hopes that his close friend would finally find it within himself to admit his need for his sons.
The owner of the Double H had met both Johnny and Scott briefly when he had brought his family to Lancer. The young people had seemed to get along well, especially Johnny and Mary, but he was also pleased to see that Scott and Stephen had much to talk about since both had gone to school in the East. Stephen had later confided to his father that he thought he had met the elder Lancer son while attending a party in Boston.
Naturally, since both men had great ranches to run, Matthew and Murdoch were not able to see each other very often so Henderson had been rather surprised when the Lancer owner had hinted that he would like to visit his friend and perhaps go fishing. Immediately, the invitation had been issued and accepted. After an hour of quiet fishing, the taciturn Scot had confessed the reason for his visit. He had wanted his friend’s opinion about the saw mill. After listening carefully to the basic facts, Matthew Henderson had asked a few questions before venturing his comments. “Just what is it that concerns you? The cost overrun or the fact you personally are not in charge of the project?”
The lined face took on a sheepish smile. “I guess both. I know the new mill will cost money, but Scott wants to add all of these things and right now, I’m just not sure that we can afford them.”
“I see. It sounds like the two of you needed to talk more before this project was started.”
Murdoch nodded. “I thought it would be a good way for him to feel useful—after his injury. I guess he’s so used to having unlimited money that he got careless. And we still have equipment to buy! Anyway, this Barton fellow is coming to talk with me on Tuesday so maybe we can get it straightened out. I’m afraid that he may have talked Scott into experimenting with fancy new things—using my money!”
“Is that Tim Barton?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“Stephen does. He has a fine reputation as far as I am aware. Perhaps you should let him have his say before you change any of the plans.”
“You really think so? The old blueprints were fine for the output we had before the fire. Scott mentioned something about safety factors in the new ones.”
“Murdoch, those old blueprints were drawn up two decades ago. I’m sure that improvements could be made.”
“Maybe, but I wish they didn’t have to involve so much money. After all, cattle are the life’s blood of Lancer, not lumber.”
“Then, why not just tell Scott you don’t want to rebuild?”
The rancher sighed. “I. . .I’ve thought about that, but before the fire, the mill had really started to make a profit and well, truthfully, that does come in handy in lean months.”
Henderson chuckled. “Murdoch, for a man who owns 100,000 acres, you’re still one frugal Scot at heart. What happened to the man who crossed the ocean, defied Harlan Garrett and tamed a good part of this valley a quarter of a century ago?”
The Lancer patriarch hesitated for a second and then admitted, “The bullets that almost killed me and did kill Paul O’Brien opened my eyes to how easy it would be to lose everything I’ve worked for. When I woke up and saw the tears and grief on Teresa’s face, I knew that I had to insure that Lancer would go on—with or without me. That’s why I paid the Pinkertons to find Johnny and contact Scott. I wasn’t sure either one would stay, but I needed to take that chance. Even though it’s only been two months, I think my decision has paid off.”
The green eyes of Matthew Henderson carefully surveyed his friend’s face. “Well, old friend, I hope that all four of you find what you’re looking for together. My only advice is patience and compromise. Talk to Barton and Scott, maybe some of those improvements will justify their cost.”
“I hope so. At least now I understand my ambivalence about contacting the boys. There’s so much that can go wrong.”
Matthew Henderson’s distinguished face broke into a smile, “But don’t forget how much can be right—when there’s trust and affection.”
Those words had echoed in the rancher’s mind during the ride back to his beloved ranch. Matthew had been right. He needed to talk to Scott before Barton arrived. Perhaps, some of the improvements in the mill might still be salvaged.
After handing over his mount to a hand, Murdoch strolled into the kitchen for a cup of reviving hot coffee. Long hours on a horse still caused his leg to stiffen up.
Looking up, Teresa O’Brien gave her guardian a bright smile. “Murdoch, you’re back! How many fish did you catch?”
“Not so many, but they were huge!”
“Really? I’m sure Mary enjoyed cooking them for you.”
“Actually, Mary wasn’t there. She and Stephen went up to Sacramento to visit Martha and her husband.”
“So you and Mr. Henderson took care of yourselves? I’d love to have seen that!”
The dark eyes narrowed. “Just what does that mean, Young Lady?”
“Oh nothing. Do you want to take a bath before dinner?”
“I think I’ll just sit here for awhile and enjoy some of your cookies. I don’t suppose Scott or Johnny is around? I’d really like to talk to Scott before Barton comes tomorrow.”
Teresa’s brown eyes dropped. “No, they aren’t around.”
“Well, I didn’t actually expect them to be. I guess I’ll just wait until after dinner.”
“Murdoch. . . .”
“You know, maybe I will go take a hot bath, it might help my leg. Good thing they don’t shoot old men when their legs give out on them!”
“Sorry, honey, it’s just that the last year has been tough on these old bones.”
Teresa started to open her mouth and then shut it tightly. “Enjoy your bath. I’ll have dinner on the table early.”
“Thanks, Sweetheart. I could eat a cow! Matthew’s pretty good at grilling fish, but he’s not all that good on beef—for a cattleman!”
Teresa watched as the tall man headed towards the bath house. He might as well enjoy his bath before being told about his missing sons.
An hour later, a freshly shaved and bathed Murdoch Lancer walked into the kitchen once again, sniffing at the delicious smell coming from the pot on the stove. “Beef stew! Are you going to make dumplings too?”
“Of course. I know how much you like them.”
“Johnny’s mighty fond of them too. He’ll be pleased.”
“Murdoch, I, uh, well Johnny’s not here.”
“Did he go into town to see that Gladys again?”
“No, he went after Scott.”
“Scott! What are you talking about? Where’s Scott?”
“I don’t know all of the facts, but Scott told me he had received a telegram from a friend named Slocum who needed his help, but evidently that wasn’t exactly true because he left a note for Johnny saying that he was going to go see Cornelius Armstrong and have it out with him. Johnny was worried so he, Ramon and Luis went after him.”
“Damn, damn, damn!” Murdoch Lancer was not a profane man so his repeated epithets startled his ward. “I can’t believe he would be so stupid as to go out to Armstrong’s again! Can’t he leave well enough alone? We can’t afford to lose the Ambling A’s business too!”
“Murdoch, I’m sure Scott had a good reason and if Johnny’s there, that should help!”
“Oh really? And just what makes you think that Johnny would be any kind of calming influence on him?”
“I. . .I’m not sure. He can be impetuous I suppose.”
“That is an understatement! Those two have turned this ranch upside-down in the last two months. When they get back, the three of us are going to have a serious talk about what they can and cannot do around here.”
“That’s a good idea. After all, they’re new to ranching, especially Scott.”
“I know, but I always assumed Harlan Garrett’s grandson would have more common sense than he’s shown.”
“Murdoch, please, give them a chance. You can’t expect them to become model ranchers overnight.”
Glancing down into Teresa’s concerned face, Murdoch softened slightly. “I guess you’ve got a point, honey. Matthew Henderson said I needed patience—he just didn’t tell me I’d need this much. I’ll have to talk to Barton myself tomorrow. Maybe he can ride out with me to the mill site. It’s probably a good idea for me to see it first hand.”
“I agree, now, the dumplings will be ready in twenty minutes so why don’t you go look at the newspaper Johnny brought back with him from town and then dinner will be ready.”
“Thanks, Teresa. It’s a good thing two members of this family are level-headed!”
The brown-haired girl shook her head sadly as she watched the tall man disappear into the great room.
True to his promise, Tim Barton appeared at Lancer early the next morning. After a cup of coffee, he and Murdoch took the now beaten-down track to the sawmill site. Murdoch was impressed by how much had been accomplished. He sincerely hoped that the cutbacks would not cause any problems. After carefully examining the partially built mill, the two men returned to Lancer for lunch and a frank talk. Tim Barton’s heart had sunk when the Lancer patriarch had first spoken of the need to cutback on some of the improvements, but after some judicious negotiation, the two had finally come to an agreement that would allow most of the present building to be used as built. By the time, Barton was ready to leave for Spanish Wells, Murdoch had decided that Scott had made an excellent choice in selecting the young man. As he walked out with him, Murdoch made a parting comment. “I appreciate your being so willing to accommodate my point of view. I can see that some of these improvements will be good for business. I only wish there was sufficient money to do more. After all, the equipment still needs to be ordered and paid for.”
The stocky carpenter blinked. “Excuse me, but I understood that the equipment had already been ordered and paid for.”
“You must be mistaken. When I examined the accounts, there was no mention of any equipment.”
“Nevertheless, Scott told me that it had all been taken care of so that the equipment would arrive not long after the mill is finished,” Barton reassured the other man.
“Well, I’ll take it up with him when he returns. I. . .I’m sure there’s an explanation. Oh, one more thing. Do you intend to submit your expenses when the building is done or as soon as the blueprints are completed?”
“Mr. Lancer, I’ve already been paid—and quite adequately. Scott wrote me a check when he hired my services.”
“Why. . .why would he do that?”
“He seemed to think that this was his responsibility. He was aware of my interest in building facilities that would be safer for its workers and yet still maximize the output of the product. You see, like him, I have seen the terrible conditions that many workers toil under in the big cities of the East. Hopefully, one day owners will realize that it is good business to make the workplace safe and more tolerable for their laborers. Now, I will say goodbye, Sir. I will be back in two days. Hopefully, Scott will be back and we’ll be able to get back to work.”
Murdoch Lancer returned inside to his desk. Once again, he took out the familiar books. Searching them carefully, he could not find any mention of a payment for equipment. Bewildered by Barton’s assertion about the equipment payment, Murdoch rubbed his aching temples. For twenty-five years he had handled the books by himself—and now in just two months, nothing made sense. The patriarch could hardly contain himself in his anger and frustration. When his elder son returned, he would have a lot of explaining to do!
As the afternoon progressed into evening, Teresa entered the great room to turn up the lamps. Finding her guardian sitting in near darkness, she approached him cautiously. “Murdoch, are you all right?”
“Just a. . .headache and I’ve been doing some serious thinking.”
“About what has to be done around here if this is going to work.”
“I don’t understand.”
“When I asked Scott. . .and Johnny to come to Lancer, I didn’t really think through what it might mean in the long term. All I could see was the need to rid ourselves of Pardee.”
“You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
“It wouldn’t make any difference if I did. I signed my name to a contract and I will keep my word.”
“Murdoch, they’re your sons!”
“I am well aware of the blood connection, but I’m not just not sure it’s enough. Basically we are strangers who just happen to live in the same house.”
“Don’t. . .don’t you feel anything for them?”
Murdoch’s eyes flashed. “Of course, I do. I can’t forget that little boy I carried in my arms. Sometimes I can still see him in Johnny. Those are the times when I truly believe he wants to be Johnny Lancer and give up his old life and yet, there’s a look in his eyes that says he’ll only break my heart in the years to come.”
Teresa sighed then sat down on the floor near his chair. “I don’t see anything there, but a desire to be part of this family.”
“I hope you’re right. Sweetheart. If I thought you were right about that, then the pain would be worth it.”
Teresa raised her head to look him full in the face. “Just give him time to prove you can trust him to stay. Give them both time. Trust has to be built—just like a saw mill.”
The rancher grimaced. “I wish I had never heard of that damned sawmill.”
The two continued to sit quietly for a few minutes when their solitude was punctuated by the sound of a horseman outside. A rapid pounding on the door sent Murdoch to open the wooden door. “Luis! Come in. What is it? I thought you had gone with Johnny?”
“Si Senor, but something has happened.”
“No, to Senor Scott. He has been shot while at the Armstrong ranch. It. . .it is bad. Senor Johnny sent me to get you.”
The two men walked further into the great room. “Sit down, Luis, you must be exhausted. Teresa, go get Luis a drink so he can tell us what happened.”
“Gracias, Senor. It was a hard ride, but I did not wish to stop for long.”
“Johnny got a doctor for his brother, didn’t he?”
“Senor Armstrong sent one of his hands into the nearby town. I left before he arrived. Senora Armstrong had taken charge of Senor Scott by that time.”
Teresa returned to the room carrying a glass of tequila. Luis drained it before continuing.
“Gracias, Senorita. That was most welcome.”
“Luis, how did Scott get shot?”
“I. . .I do not know for sure. Senor Johnny went inside to see. . .to see that Senor Scott did not harm Senor Armstrong. Then we heard a pistol shot. Ramon and I ran inside to find your son on the floor with Senor Johnny holding him. When Senora Armstrong entered the room, she was magnifico. She brought the bandages to stop the blood and made him easy. Senor Johnny said little until Ramon asked if he wished me to ride back to Lancer and ask you to come back with me. He only nodded.”
“All right. I understand. It’s too late to start out now. I’ll lie down for a few hours and then at dawn I’ll leave. Teresa, could you pack my saddlebags so I don’t have to make many stops?”
“Of course, Murdoch.” The girl hurried off to the kitchen.
“I would like to return with you, Senor.”
“No, Luis, I can do this on my own. You’ve earned your rest. Thank you for efforts.”
“De nada. Senor Scott is my friend. I hope he will soon be well.”
“We all do. Now, go on over to the bunkhouse and get some sleep.”
As soon as Luis left, Murdoch went into the kitchen to find Teresa. She had already packed food and drink into the bag, and a change of clothing. The older man smiled at his ward. “Thanks. I’m going to lie down for a few hours then I’ll leave. I don’t know what I’ll find when I get there, but somehow I’ll send a telegram letting you know about Scott’s condition.”
“Do that. Uh, Murdoch, what do you think Luis meant when he said that Johnny was trying to stop Scott from hurting Armstrong?”
Rubbing at his temple once again, Murdoch admitted, “I just don’t know. There was bad blood between the two of them, but I just can’t believe that Scott went there to. . .to kill the man.”
“Of course he didn’t!” Teresa reassured him.
“But then why did he seek him out and why was Scott shot? This makes no sense at all.”
Teresa gently touched her guardian’s arm. “As long as Scott stays alive, this can all be straightened out. Just don’t lose faith in that.”
Murdoch gave her a wan smile. “I hope so, Teresa. There’s so much I don’t understand about him.”
“It can’t be resolved tonight so I want you to eat some of the leftover stew and then get some sleep. You won’t do anyone any good if you fall asleep in the saddle.”
Murdoch did manage to consume a small bowl of the delicious fare and then headed for his bedroom where he fell into a restless sleep. Just before dawn he rose quietly, dressed and picked up his packed bags. Walking carefully out to the stable, he was met by Luis who had two horses saddled and ready to go. Murdoch’s lips twisted into a wry smile. “All right, Luis, since you seem to be so determined, let’s ride.”
The small man only nodded and leapt into the saddle with his employer following along. It would be a long ride to the Ambling A.
Johnny Madrid Lancer sat in the leather chair across from Cornelius Armstrong’s desk. In his hand was a snifter of brandy which had been provided to him by his host, just after his brother Scott had been taken to the small bedroom down the hall from the study.
Madrid had just stood silently watching when Dorinda Armstrong and Ramon had taken over the care of the wounded blond. Finally, the petite woman had suggested that since the room was so small, it would be better for the brunet to return to the study and wait. The gunfighter had only nodded. At that moment, he knew that he could trust Scott’s care to these people and truthfully, his hands were shaking too much to be of help.
Armstrong was sitting at his desk working on some papers when the young man entered. Seeing his pale face, the heavy-set man had handed him the snifter, but the younger man had only taken a sip. “How is your brother?” Armstrong inquired.
“I think your wife got the bleeding stopped. She. . .she seems to know what she’s doing.”
Ah yes, my wife has many talents. One would never recognize her as the same spoiled girl I married a decade ago. I suppose being on her own with a child while I was at war helped her grow up.”
Not hearing most of Armstrong’s comment, Johnny looked carefully at the man. “Uh, do you think your man will be back with the Doc soon?”
“Unfortunately, the doctor here has many patients so he may not be in town when Joe gets there. I’m sure he’ll wait for him and bring him back as soon as possible.”
The dark head nodded.
“Johnny, I want you to know that I bear Scott no malice. He was obviously. . .upset.”
“Mr. Armstrong, I don’t understand any of this. Why would Scott come all this way to. . .to hurt you? I heard him mention some kind of paper. Can you tell me what that’s about?”
Armstrong sighed deeply. “Uh, perhaps your father told you that Scott and I had a couple of run-ins during the War? Well, he seems to think that I. . .I intend to make the facts known and ruin his reputation. I assure you that I have no desire to do any such thing. He was very young then, and as much as I hate to say this to you, I fear seeing me has preyed on his mind and now he sees me as the enemy. I believe the paper he wants me to sign is some kind of admission that he was not at fault or something like that.”
“So. . .so you’re not gonna send for the Sheriff or anything?”
“Johnny! He’s the son of my friend, Murdoch Lancer, and I think he’s needs understanding, not condemnation. You would have thought his grandfather would have paid for him to receive medical help after the war.”
“I. . .I just hope he’ll be all right. He’s lost so much blood.”
“Johnny, it’s amazing how much the human body can suffer and still survive, but realistically he may not make it. For your sake, I hope he does—it must be terrible knowing that it was your bullet which struck him down!”
Sapphire eyes peered at the man with a ferocious intensity. “I didn’t mean to hurt him!”
In a soothing tone, the plump man reassured, “Of course, you didn’t. You were just trying to stop him from making a terrible mistake. When your father gets here, I’m sure he’ll understand.”
Johnny gave the man a quick glance with just a touch of fear in it. “I sure hope so. I kinda just rode out and didn’t tell Teresa much.”
“Well, I’ve always found Murdoch Lancer to be a most understanding man so I’m sure he won’t blame you, especially since you’re obviously his favorite.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Come now, Johnny. No need to be modest. You’re the kind of son every man would like to have. I only hope that Maurice will be like you one day.”
“But I made my livin’ with a gun! Murdoch always seems to be on my back ’bout somethin’.”
“That’s because he cares so much about you. He feels. . .guilty for not being a better parent to you and well, he can’t show it so he gets. . .annoyed. And from what I’ve seen, you go out of your way to rebel against his archaic attitudes, don’t you? Not that I blame you, but you’re like two stallions fighting over a mare and neither of you wants to give in!”
“I s’pose that’s true. We do seem to butt heads a lot.”
“Like I say, he loves you a great deal; but being the man he is, he can’t just tell you that.”
“He sure has a strange way of showin’ it at times.”
Cornelius chuckled. “I’m sure you’re right. I’ve had a chance to talk with him a couple of times, not since you came to live at Lancer, but before and I was always impressed with his. . .obsession for Lancer and his devotion to what he believes in. I guess that’s why he’s been so frustrated with Scott.”
A blank look entered the sapphire eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Johnny, I admire your loyalty, but you must have noticed what a disappointment Scott has been to your father. I suppose with the situation as it is between Murdoch and Harlan Garrett, it’s only natural that some of his distrust for Garrett would have been transferred to the old man’s grandson.”
“But he does care about Scott!”
“I’m sure he does in some ways, but Scott has none of your attributes to compensate for his weaknesses. Surely, you can see that! I guess he rides well enough after being in the cavalry, but really what else can he offer—except for knowing the correct fork to use and all the latest eastern fashions?”
“Stop it! He’s good at figures and he’s tried really hard to be a rancher. He. . .he even got burned saving the sawmill ledger!”
“Oh yes, his hand. I did notice that. Perhaps the pain has added to his feeling of inadequacy. Of course, a man who has limited use of one hand might find it. . .difficult to compete with a superb figure of a man such as yourself.”
Johnny jumped to his feet. “I don’t want to hear anymore of this. Maybe Scott does have some things in his past which aren’t too good, but so do I and he’s accepted my past so I reckon I oughta wait and see what he has to say.”
“Of course. I wasn’t trying to undermine your confidence in him, but you and I are men of the world. We know that having money doesn’t vouch for a man’s character. Just look at you. I daresay until Murdoch presented you with one-third of Lancer, you didn’t have two centavos to rub together—and yet your father has seen fit to give you his trust and affection because it is obvious to him that you are of value to Lancer and what it stands for.”
Before Johnny could make a reply, there was a subdued knock at the door. Opening it, Ramon peered in. “Senor Johnny, the Senora Armstrong would like to see you, por favor.”
“I’ll be right there.”
As Johnny departed for the small bedroom, Armstrong stopped Ramon from following. “Ah,. . .Ramon, I have asked my foreman to find you a place in the bunkhouse for tonight. I assume you will be returning to Lancer tomorrow?”
“Thank you, Senor, but I would like to stay until Senor Scott is permitted to travel.”
“And Murdoch Lancer has agreed? He is a most generous employer. But then he has so many hands, what’s one—more or less. Anyway, I’m sure my ranch hands will make you comfortable.”
“Gracias Senor, but it is Senor Scott I am most concerned about.”
“Oh of course—and you should be. I just hope Johnny won’t be too depressed if Scott dies. After all, killing your brother is frowned upon by most people—even if it is in the Bible.”
The young vaquero clenched his jaw. “I am sure the Senora Armstrong will do all that she can to help him. Now, I must return to the other room,”
“Of course, of course. Perhaps, you might say a few prayers for all of us to get through this trying time.”
When Ramon entered Scott’s room, he found Johnny alone with his brother. “Senora Armstrong is not here?”
“She said she needed to get dinner ready and for me to stay with Scott. From what she said, I think the bullet went all the way through. I just wish the doctor would get here.”
“Su hermano is very strong, Senor. He has not let his arm prevent him from his labor.”
“Armstrong mentioned something about Scott’s arm too. Scott said it was getting better.”
Ramon gave a boyish grin. “Ah Senor, your brother says many thing, but not all are true. His hand seems to be. . .stiff and he finds it difficult to close it or lift heavy items. He has found ways to. . .to make up for it, but I do not know how long it will be before he will be as before. I believe he does not find it easy to show weakness in front of men such as you and your father.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed in the twilight. “Men such as Murdoch and me? What does that mean?”
“Your pardon, Senor. I meant no disrespect. All of us know of your courage against the enemies of su padre. It is just that I believe he fears that one day he will. . .fail either you or his father. He fears nothing more than that, not even death.”
“Ramon, I don’t, well I’m not sayin’ you’re lyin’, but how can you know so much about him?’
“The evening Luis, Senor Scott and I went into Morro Coyo, we shared a bottle of tequila. Sometimes a man will say things when the liquor loosens the tongue. He told of how much the saw mill means to him—not as a building, but as a chance to prove that he is part of Lancer—as you are. He admires you greatly and understands why your father needs you there. I will never forget the pain in his eyes when he told us that you had earned your place, but that he had not yet.”
“Dammit! That’s not like him. He’s always seemed so sure of himself.”
“Si, that is true, but he confessed that meeting his family has frightened him as much as any battle.”
“Perhaps that is not the right word. That night we talked about my sister and my desire to find her one day. He urged me to do so and then he. . .he whispered in such a low voice that I could almost not hear, that he regretted not even knowing of you for so long, Senor Johnny. To be alone for so long and then to discover a brother makes him afraid. Now, there is so much more to lose. Comprende?”
Johnny nodded. “When you got nothin’, you can’t lose it.”
“Es la verdad. There is one other thing. I believe he worries that Senor Armstrong is a danger to what he cares about. That is why he came here to make sure that this man does not threaten him.”
“Did he. . .did he tell you what he intended to do?”
“No. I regret that Luis and I did not come with him. Perhaps we might have done something.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Ramon. Scott did a good job of making us all see what he wanted us to, but when he wakes up, we’re gonna find out the truth.”
“I believe you, Senor, but now I believe I will go see if Senora Armstrong needs any help.”
“Do that. If. . .if the doctor doesn’t come soon, could you ride into town and see what’s happening”
“Of course. Anything I can do, will be done. You have my word.”
Sometime later, Dorinda Armstrong appeared at the door. “Johnny, dinner is on the table. My husband is waiting for you in the dining room.”
“Uh, could I just have somethin’ up here?”
“No. You are going to go eat. I’ll stay here with Scott. Has there been any change?”
“No, he hasn’t moved a muscle.”
“I do wish the doctor would arrive. I’ve done what I can, but he needs better medical knowledge than I have.”
“Ramon said he’d go into town to see why the doctor hasn’t come.”
“That’s a good idea. He seems to be a fine young man. He was telling me about some of the dishes his mother prepared when he was young. They sounded delicious but did seem to have quite a few chile peppers in them.”
“My mother was the same way. Always thought most dishes didn’t have much taste without them. I guess I kinda shocked Teresa when I chopped up one and put it on my flapjacks!”
“And did you eat it that way?”
Johnny grinned, “You’re pretty smart! As soon as she wasn’t lookin’, I took most of ’em off but I sure did smack my lips and tell her they were delicious!”
“Well, I hope you you won’t be too disappointed with my dinner. I didn’t have any chiles to put in with the rabbit.”
“That’s okay. I. . .I been tryin’ to get used to eatin’ different stuff. Scott keeps tellin’ me about all kinds of things he’s tried and while I’m not sure I’d like all those sauces, I gotta admit some do sound kinda good.”
In a whisper, Dorinda asked, “Do you think you might mention to Maurice that you like to try different foods? He seems to think beef is the only meat there is. I guess it’s because Cornelius pushes it at him so much. When I was growing up in Providence, we had seafood, lamb, and many different items. I do miss the variety.”
“You’re from the East? So’s Scott—Boston in fact.”
Unexpectedly the small woman gave a shudder. “Yes, I. . .I did know that. Boston is a beautiful city. It’s been many years since I was there. But, no more talk. Go eat. Cold rabbit is not very palatable.”
Johnny entered the dining room to find Maurice and Cornelius waiting for him. “Ah Johnny, there you are. I was beginning to worry. Fill your plate. Dorinda makes excellent roasted rabbit.”
“Sure does look good. Teresa is a terrific cook too, just like your wife. She makes all kinds of things for the three of us. I sure like trying new things.” Johnny gulped over the small fib. At least he had done as Dorinda had asked.
“Mr. Lancer,” Maurice inquired in a timid voice, “have you ever eaten anything with sticks like your brother?”
“Maurice, don’t bother Johnny here with your foolishness. Nobody eats with sticks!”
The small boy brushed a lock of hair from his eyes before answering, “Scott said they did. He said people from China eat with sticks. He said it’s not too hard so I just wondered if Johnny. . .I mean Mr. Lancer had tried them.”
“Maurice, why don’t you just call me Johnny, and no I ain’t tried eatin’ with sticks, but I did eat snake a coupla times when I was in the desert.”
The small boy’s green eyes opened wide. “Snake? Really?”
“Sure did. Used his fangs for a fork!”
Maurice burst out with a giggle. It was the first time Johnny had heard the boy laugh. “I think you’re joking, Mr. Lancer. . . Johnny.”
“Well, just a might. But say, when did you have a chance to talk to Scott?”
Maurice glanced over at his father who seemed to be concentrating on his filled plate. “Scott arrived here last night, but Papa had gone into town so Mama gave him a room. After dinner, he heard me practicing on the piano so he came up and we started talking. He tried to play the piano for me, but his hand hurt so Mama played some.”
“Scott plays the piano?”
“Not as good as Mama he said, but he said he’s kinda rusty since there’s no piano at Lancer.”
“Maurice.” Cornelius Armstrong’s face was a black as a thundercloud. “I do not believe our guest is interested in your prattle. Now, if you are done, please go to your room.”
“Yes, Papa.” The small boy slipped from his place and hurried out.
“Sorry about the boy, Johnny. I should never have let my wife encourage him in this piano playing. She even insisted we bring her piano with us from Rhode Island. I was hoping the damned instrument would be thrown overboard, coming around the Horn. Now, what do you say, we go into the study for another brandy?”
“No thanks. I think I’ll go sit with Scott awhile. Tomorrow if the Doc hasn’t come, I think Ramon might go into town and see if anything’s wrong.”
“Certainly. I know how. . .anxious you must be. I’m sure your presence will be a comfort to your brother.”
Through the night, Ramon, Johnny and Dorinda took turns watching over the unconscious man. Ramon stayed only a few hours since he intended to leave at dawn for the small town of Blossom to find the doctor. As a result, Johnny got some sleep while first Ramon and then Mrs. Armstrong had the vigil. Tiptoeing in at 2 AM, Johnny took over. Thankfully, Dorinda had left a pot of hot coffee for him.
In the silent hours before dawn, Johnny watched the blond man on the bed. He couldn’t help but think about some of the things that Cornelius had said to him, especially the idea that Scott believed that he still had to earn his share of Lancer. Did his older brother truly believe that or was he jealous—as Murdoch had said—because of Johnny’s greater skill with a gun? Johnny didn’t believe in false modesty. He knew his worth and that he had played a significant part in the saving of Lancer, but to a stranger. his dramatic ride and wounding might have been seen as showing off. Scott had certainly never said anything, but. . . just another question to ask when the young blond awoke.
Not long after dawn Johnny decided to head to the kitchen to hopefully find something to keep him awake. To his surprise, he found Dorinda Armstrong there making biscuits and ham and coffee.
“Didn’t get much sleep, did you, Mrs. Armstrong?”
“Cornelius likes his breakfast to be prompt. After he’s fed, Maurice and I eat and then we work on lessons together. He’s a very good student.”
“I’ll bet he is.”
“By the way, he told me about your eating snake. Thank you for making such a big impression on him. I was afraid he was going to ask me to go out and catch one!”
“He’s a fine boy. He mentioned somethin’ about Scott arriving last night?”
“Yes. He. . .he wanted to talk to my husband then, but Cornelius has a regular. . .poker game once a week. Of course, I invited Scott to stay over. Maurice played the piano for him. I told him that I would like to send Maurice to school in San Francisco in another year or two. Perhaps, he’ll be able to study piano at that time.”
“Do you think your husband will let him do that?”
“I. . .I don’t know, but I hope he’ll have his chance. Please, don’t think badly of me, Mr. Lancer. There’s nothing wrong with being a rancher, if that’s what you want. I just want my boy to be happy so that one day he won’t regret what he’s done with his life.”
“Guess that’s what most folks want, Mrs. Armstrong. Uh, I sure would like to clean up and shave. Would that be possible?”
“Of course, I’ll make sure there’s a pitcher of hot water in your room. Oh, by the way, Ramon stopped in to say that he was leaving and that he would be back with the doctor as soon as possible.”
“Glad to hear it. You’ve done a fine job, but well,. . . .”
“I understand. You just want to make sure that you do all that you can to make sure he gets well.”
“I know he’d do the same for me.”
“I’m sure he would. Now eat and then go shave. I’ll look in on him just as soon as I put Cornelius’ plate on the table.”
With a full stomach, the stubble removed from his face, and a clean shirt on Johnny felt ready to face the day. On his way to his brother’s room, he was called into the dining room by Cornelius Armstrong who dined alone in royal splendor. “Come have another cup of coffee with me, Johnny, before you go take up your vigil. I understand that Ramon went off to Blossom early?”
“Yeah, I just figured somethin’ mighta happened and I don’t want to take chances.”
Cornelius laughed out loud. “Johnny Madrid afraid to take chances? Come now! I don’t believe that.”
“It’s one thing to take a chance with my life and another when it’s someone I care about.”
“Oh surely but I suppose you believe Scott feels the same about you?”
“I. . .we’ve never talked much about stuff like that. He was worried when I got shot by Pardee.”
“Hmm, I do believe he mentioned something about how you single handedly saved Lancer from the scoundrel hordes. He did sound a tad jealous as I recall, but then it must be so difficult to live in your shadow.”
“He don’t live in my shadow.”
“Maybe you don’t think so, but does he?”
Johnny’s throat tightened up, but before he could say anything there was a knock at the door. Maurice ran down the steps to answer and in just a moment they could hear the deep tones of Murdoch Lancer who quickly appeared at the door to the dining room.
“Murdoch old friend, you must be exhausted. Come in and join Johnny and me in a cup of coffee.”
Murdoch nodded his thanks to Cornelius and then turned on the dark-haired Lancer. “All right, Son, I want the truth. Why did Scott come here and how did he get himself shot?”
“Murdoch! I think you should sit down and have some coffee, perhaps some breakfast. Johnny here will tell you what he knows, but truthfully I’m not sure how much he does know. Isn’t that true, Johnny?”
The tall imposing rancher looked down his nose at the man with the smudge of red-eye gravy lurking near his chin. “Cornelius, I know you mean well, but this is something between my son and me.”
“Oh really? And here I thought it also concerned me considering that Lt. Lancer came to kill me!”
That answer immediately brought the attention of both Lancers to the portly rancher. “Wait a minute. You told me that Scott just wanted you to sign some paper!” exclaimed Johnny.
“That is true, but. . .he did mention that if I chose not to sign it, he intended to kill me. I wasn’t going to say anything since it is obvious that he’s a very sick young man.”
“Cornelius, I think that you and I should go talk about this. Maybe you should go sit with your brother awhile, Johnny.”
“No, dammit! I want to hear what he has to say. Mrs. Armstrong is with Scott right now.”
As the pudgy man stood up to lead his guests to the study, he snickered, “Of course she would be. She has always welcomed the chance to be alone with a fine-looking young man, hasn’t she, Johnny?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Please, this false modesty is not becoming. My wife spent time with you, just as she spent time with Lt. Lancer when he arrived the other night while I was away.”
Johnny glanced at Murdoch who returned his puzzled look as they took their seats in the leather chairs. Cornelius again sat behind his desk.
Cornelius lit up a cigar, blew out a stream of smoke while he watched the two Lancers. “I can see that you gentlemen are reluctant to discuss such a delicate subject. Have no fear. I’ve always known what type of woman I married. Dorinda used to be quite. . .attractive so many men enjoyed her favors. Of course, I did not find that out until after we were married. I suppose we were happy for a time, but she was used to being the belle of the ball and I was working from morning until night, trying to make a go of my business. She persisted in attending fashionable soirees and spending my hard-earned money.
“Cornelius, Johnny and I do not want to hear about the problems between you and your wife. I came here to find out why Scott was shot.”
“Oh, I’m getting to that, Old Friend, but are you telling me that you don’t know that Johnny shot his brother?’
The tall man turned to stare at this son. “Johnny?”
“It was an accident. I thought he was going to kill Armstrong so I jumped him and the gun went off.”
“So, it is true that Scott was going to kill him?”
Doubt flickered in the sapphire eyes. “I. . .I don’t know. He hasn’t been able to tell me why he came here.”
“No, but I can tell you!” Armstrong smirked.
“All right, Armstrong, let’s hear what you have to say, and then Scott can tell us his version.”
A ripple of laughter filled the air. “You actually think that yellow deserter would tell you the truth?”
Johnny started to spring for the fat man, but Murdoch grabbed him. “Johnny, sit down! I said we would listen and that’s exactly what I meant.”
“Always the gentleman, Murdoch, You may have come from dirt farmers, but you have become the aristocratic rancher, haven’t you? So generous with your advice to the stranger from the East, so condescending. It’s not hard to believe Lt. Lancer is your son and Garrett’s grandson. The three of you are cut out of the same mold—selfish bastards who don’t care about anything but yourselves.”
“Cornelius, I don’t understand why you’re talking like this, but I think it would be better if we take Scott from here so we don’t trouble you anymore.”
“So I was right! You do want to get rid of him. I figured you did. He’s an embarrassment, isn’t he? Strange how you roll the dice and get one son you can be proud of and the other’s nothing more than a seducer of married women and a traitor to his country.”
Johnny jerked upright again. “That does it! I don’t know what Scott did, but I’m not gonna let this weasel talk about him that way!”
“Oh yes, you will,” Cornelius remarked as he took a six-shooter from his desk and aimed it at Johnny’s heart. “Now, sit down. I want to enjoy telling you all about Lt. Lancer’s crimes. And don’t try anything, Johnny. You may be good, but I kept myself alive for four years against tougher men than you and while I’d hate to shoot, I certainly will.”
His attention then shifted slightly to the Scot. “Although I must admit it would give me great pleasure to kill the great Murdoch Lancer so you two. . .gentlemen just remain seated—after you hand over your guns.”
The two Lancers looked at each other and then passed over their weapons. Smiling with undisguised glee, Armstrong put the two guns in a desk drawer. “Good. Now, where was I? Oh yes, telling you about how your son seduced my wife. For a time, I even believed he was Maurice’s true father. I was almost relieved when the War came so I didn’t have to look at the boy’s face. So, you can understand how furious I was when I encountered the lieutenant at Vicksburg or should I say, when I didn’t encounter him? He was supposed to be on picket duty, but he left his post—to take up with another girl—contraband this time. Really—Harlan Garrett’s grandson! Anyway, he wiggled out of that one—with Garrett’s help I suppose. Then in the blazing woods of the Wilderness near Chancellorsville, we met up again.
“We were tracking down Rebel sympathizers, and he tried to stop us. ‘S’pect he was sleepin’ with the girl who lived there. Well, we made sure he didn’t stop us from doin’ our duty. Never was quite sure what happened to him after we took off. Wouldn’t be surprised if he deserted. He’s just the type—a gutless wonder who lives off his family’s money. So now you know. Aren’t you real proud he’s your spawn?”
“Cornelius, I think you are a very troubled man. Why don’t you put down that gun and let us see Scott? The doctor can tell us if it’s safe to take him away and then he can help you.”
A maniacal scream emerged from the thick lips. “Me? You think I’m crazy and you’d excuse that man who made me into a cuckold. I shoulda killed him when I had the chance, but Johnny Madrid almost did the job for me. After all, he could still die and with a little help from me, he will.”
When Johnny made a slight shift, Cornelius raised the gun to point it in the middle of the sapphire eyes. “Just sit there, Madrid. I’ve already told you I’d enjoy killing your old man so don’t try anything.”
For an overweight man, Armstrong moved quite quickly to the door, slipped out, slamming the door behind him and locking it. “Murdoch, he’s gone to kill Scott!”
The two men threw their weight at the door but they only bounced off. The gunfighter headed to the window which was nailed shut. Intending to crash through the window, Johnny stopped when there was the sound of a gunshot from down the hall.
The two Lancers stood there frozen for a fraction of time and then the key turned in the lock. Murdoch tugged at the door which opened. Standing there in the doorway was Dorinda Armstrong, holding a gun, the barrel still hot from its killing shot. Her pale eyes looked at the two men. “It’s all right. Scott’s safe. Cornelius is dead. I killed him.”
Handing the gun to Murdoch, she whispered, “I have to find Maurice. The gunshot must have frightened him.” She then continued on up the stairs towards her boy’s room.
Murdoch and Johnny walked down the hall to the small room where Scott lay in bed. On the floor was the dead body of Cornelius Armstrong. Ignoring the body, Johnny walked over to his brother’s bedside. The cerulean eyes were open. “Scott? Can you hear me?”
“Sh-she k-killed him to-to save m-me.” A single tear slipped down his pale face. “D-didn’t want d-dead, j-just truth.”
“It’s all right, Boston. As soon as you’re feeling up to it, you can tell us the truth. Now, I’m gonna get you some water and then you’re gonna go back to sleep. That’s an order!”
A tiny smile fluttered about the pale lips. “Yes-s, S-sir, Gen-general M-madrid.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Johnny stayed with Scott who awoke for only brief periods. Even the visit from the doctor roused him for only a short time. After the doctor’s exam, Ramon took Murdoch aside to tell him that Joe, the ranch hand, had been found in the saloon. He had been ordered by Armstrong to only go into Blossom, but not actually contact the doctor for another 24 hours. Armstrong had evidently intended either to kill Scott or even more likely assumed his wife would not be able to save the young man.
Some of the hands removed the body of their employer to the Blossom cemetery where he was interred without ceremony.
As soon as the house began to settle down, Murdoch knocked on the door to Dorinda Armstrong’s door. When the woman opened it, it was quite obvious that she had been crying. “Oh, Mr. Lancer, I. . .would you meet me down in the parlor in a few minutes. We should talk.”
“Of course, Mrs. Armstrong, take your time,” was the tall man’s reply.
Exactly five minutes later, the widow of Cornelius Armstrong appeared. “Thank you for arranging the. . .removal of my husband’s body. I didn’t want Maurice to. . .to see him. Would you know if. . .if the Sheriff will be coming out here or do I need to go into town?”
“Mrs. Armstrong, with your permission, I will go into Blossom and explain the circumstances of your husband’s death.”
The petite woman stood there silently. “That would be most kind of you, but I’d prefer that you call me Mrs. Slocum.”
“Cornelius was born Cornelius Armstrong Slocum. He dropped off the last name when we moved west. He thought his creditors wouldn’t be able to find him. Ironically, he was successful at ranching almost immediately so he could have paid off those to whom he owed money, but by then he had come to think of himself as Cornelius Armstrong, the prosperous rancher.”
“I see. Uh, Mrs. . . .Slocum, this is probably not the time, but I was wondering what you plan to do now?”
“Sell the ranch. I want to take Maurice to San Francisco so he can be educated and perhaps take music lessons. Hopefully, there will be money to do that and maybe one day buy a small ranch if Maurice decides he does want to be a rancher. I cannot stay here.”
“I certainly can understand that and I would be pleased to buy the ranch from you at a fair price.”
Dorinda’s cold eyes didn’t blink. “Thank you for the offer, but I will wait.”
“I assure you I’ll give you the market value.”
“It’s not the money which concerns me as long as I can give Maurice his chance at life.”
“Well then, please think it over. Perhaps when you’re calmer. . . .”
“I do. . .appreciate the offer, but I must go see to dinner. I’m sure you are all hungry and I need to make some broth for Scott. I am pleased that he seems better.”
“We all are.”
The woman swept out of the room before he could say another word. Feeling restless and at a loss after the day’s events, Murdoch decided to take a walk around the ranch. Perhaps, he could offer some suggestions to Mrs. Slocum so that she could get a better price.
As he walked by the stable, he heard a small wistful voice from inside. Heading in, the rancher found Maurice sitting on one of the stall railings, talking to Barranca.”
“Maurice, what are you doing up there?”
The small boy jumped down immediately. “I’m sorry, Sir. I wasn’t hurting him. He needed someone to talk to.”
“Yes, Sir. He told me that he understood that I was scared of horses, but that he thought that maybe one day when I’m big I’d find a horse of my very own to ride—like him– and then I wouldn’t be afraid.”
Murdoch’s eyes softened. “Well, palominos are pretty smart so maybe he’s right.”
The boy nodded. “He’s easy to talk to, kind of like Scott.”
“I told him how much I like sitting at the piano, touching the cool black and white keys. And then you touch them and this wonderful music comes out. It’s like magic.”
“I never thought of it that way, but I guess you’re right. I heard you and your mother play and you do have talent.”
“Thank you, Sir. I wish I could have heard Scott play. He tried but it’s not easy with one hand.”
“I. . .I didn’t realize Scott could play.”
“He said his grandpa paid for lessons a long time ago. Sometimes, he skipped them to go sledding or something like that, but I could tell he liked the piano from the way he touched it.”
“Well, maybe one day he’ll play for you.”
“I hope so. He promised, well, he told me that he’d make sure I got to take lessons. Do you think he will?”
“I think so. When Scott puts his mind to something, he usually does it.”
“Just like Papa.” A stray tear ran down one thin cheek. “I know my Papa hurt Mama sometimes, but she wouldn’t let him hit me. He just said things—things that hurt. He wanted me to be like him, but I’m not him, am I, Mr. Lancer?”
Murdoch put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “No, you’re not. One day you’ll grow up into a fine man and you’ll decide what you want from life. Now, we’d better get inside. It’s time for you to go to bed.”
Dorinda had been watching out the upstairs window so she met them at the door. “Maurice, it’s time for you to go to bed, but I’ll let you read for awhile first. Then I’ll come in to hear your prayers.”
The boy turned to the tall man. “Good night, Mr. Lancer. Will you tell Scott good night for me—and Johnny too?”
“Yes, I will. Maybe tomorrow, Barranca will ask Johnny if the two of you can take another ride.”
“Do you think he might?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“That would be nice and then I can play the piano for Scott. If I play loud enough, he can hear from downstairs.”
“I’m sure he’ll enjoy it. Good night, Maurice.”
Murdoch watched as the two ascended the staircase then he went to say goodnight to his own sons.
Murdoch Lancer carried two steaming bowls of soup into Scott’s bedroom, one of which he handed to Johnny, along with a spoon. “Dorinda made some vegetable soup for us. I’m sure you’re as hungry as I am.”
The dark-haired man took a huge mouthful and then mumbled, “This is good. Maybe Teresa should make it sometime.”
“Too bad Scott’s not awake to have some of the broth.”
“Yeah, he’s just been wakin’ up, drinkin’ a little water and then goin’ back to sleep,” Johnny added.
After another spoonful, Murdoch inquired, “He didn’t say anything about Armstrong?”
“Just that first time when he said that Mrs. Armstrong saved him.”
The gray-haired man shook his head. “I just don’t understand all of this. Cornelius always seemed to welcome my advice and yet you heard what he said. He. . .he hated me and for what?”
“Murdoch, the man was crazy. He just got some notions in his head and took ’em out on you and Scott.”
“I suppose you’re right. Jealousy can destroy a man’s soul. He obviously thought Dorinda had betrayed him, but I can’t understand how Scott ties in with that. He must have been only about sixteen or seventeen when Maurice was born!”
“Mebbe Scott can tell us a whole lot when he finally does wake up.”
“Johnny, I don’t think it will be possible to move Scott for awhile so I suggest that you and I go back to Lancer and let Ramon and Luis stay here to take care of him. Barton has agreed to the changes for the mill and I want you to take over that project since we can’t waste more time.”
“I don’t know anythin’ about buildin’ that kind of thing. That’s Scott’s job.”
“Johnny, Scott is not going to be able to handle anything so strenuous for some time and we need to get the mill up and running. Barton seems to know what he’s doing so you can rely on his help—and I’ll be there too if there’s a problem. I know you feel a responsibility for your brother, but I’m sure he would want you to complete the building of the mill. The equipment has been ordered so as soon as it arrives and the site is done, we’ll be in business. Perhaps, you might even take over the running of it for a time.”
“Murdoch, I’m not the business type.”
“Nonsense! You may not have Scott’s education, but you can learn about such things. Do you think I knew all about ranching when I came out here? I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, but I didn’t give up and now look what we have!”
“All right, I’ll think about it. I know Scott’s not gonna be on his feet for awhile.”
“That’s right. Now, why don’t you go up and get some sleep. I’ll sit with Scott.”
“Okay. I’ll be down in a few hours and then you can sleep.”
“Fine. Oh, by the way, Barranca wants to know if you’ll take Maurice for a ride on him tomorrow.”
Sapphire eyes gazed at the older man in bewilderment. “Uh, Murdoch, you didn’t put some brandy in that soup, did you?”
Murdoch chuckled before telling his son about his conversation with Maurice. Johnny nodded in understanding. “Poor Maurice. He musta been scared to do anything around here. Hope he and his ma can find a better life someplace else.”
“I offered to buy the ranch from Dorinda, but I think she wants to hold out for a better price. Cornelius may have been crazy, but he was a good rancher. It’s too bad she couldn’t hold on to it for Maurice one day.”
“Yeah well, maybe it’s worth it to her to leave the memories behind,” observed the younger man.
“I suppose, but to let such fine land go. . . Anyway, I’ll expect you back here in a few hours.”
Murdoch Lancer sat down by the blond’s bedside for awhile, but then stood up to head to the room that he shared with Johnny. Moving quietly, he could see that his younger son was already asleep. Walking over to the saddlebags that Teresa had packed for him, he found the book he had slipped in. This would be a good chance to read it. Returning downstairs, he took his seat once again.
Around an hour later, Scott stirred and opened his eyes. “M-murdoch?”
“Easy there, would you like some water?”
The blond nodded. “Th-thanks.”
“Maybe in the morning you’ll feel like eating some of the broth Mrs. Slocum made.”
The cerulean eyes flickered. “She. . .she told you?”
“Yes, she mentioned that Cornelius dropped his last name when they came west. I feel sorry for her. She must have had to put up with a lot.”
“Slocum. . .mad.”
“I know. He ranted at Johnny and me just before he tried to get to you. Do you know why Dorinda had a gun with her?”
“N-no, heard door, he. . .he yelled then shot.”
“Well, don’t worry about it anymore. I’m going to ride into Blossom in the morning and talk to the Sheriff. Johnny’s going to take Maurice for a ride on Barranca and then the two of us are going to head back to Lancer. Ramon and Luis will stay here to see to your needs and as soon as you’re fit they’ll bring you back to Lancer.”
“You don’t have to concern yourself about that either. I talked with Tim Barton on Tuesday. He and I have reconciled the improvements to the expenses so we’ll be able to go ahead. I’ve asked Johnny to supervise the project. I’m sure you understand that we can’t afford to waste any more time.”
“Time. . .money.”
“Exactly. Now, you go back to sleep. I’ll be here until Johnny comes down.”
Obediently, Scott Lancer closed his eyes.
Early in the morning, Johnny did return to his brother’s room, to find his father’s head bent over in sleep. Shaking the shoulder of the older man, he told the rancher to go upstairs and catch a few winks. Sleepily, Murdoch agreed after mentioning that Scott had awakened briefly and knew that they would be leaving later that day.
Johnny took his father’s place, slightly dismayed at the older man’s words. He had intended on being the one to tell Scott about the decision to return to Lancer. Still, it probably didn’t matter.
A few hours later, the door opened as Dorinda Slocum entered. “I brought you some coffee and biscuits, Mr. Lancer. How is Scott doing?”
“Thanks, he woke up a couple of times to drink some water.”
“Good. I think he may be over the worst part, as long as he doesn’t develop a fever.”
“You did a real good job with him. I s’pect you saved his life.”
“It seemed the least I could do, considering.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Mr. Lancer, I. . .knew of Cornelius’ hatred for Scott, but I truly never thought he would . . .he would try to kill him. It was just fortunate that I was carrying that gun in my pocket.”
“Well, I sure do appreciate what you did. I know it musta been difficult to do.”
“On the contrary, it was easy. Now, I’ll let you eat. I shall return in an hour to sit with Scott while you give Maurice his ride.”
“You know about that?”
The small woman smiled. “Mr. Lancer, during his prayers last night, Maurice made a special point of praying for his friend, Barranca, and a special plea that God would allow him to have another ride. I would hope that the Almighty would not let a small boy down.”
“Well, I ain’t the Almighty, but I sure would be pleased to give him that ride.”
“Thank you. I’ll bring him down in about an hour or so. He asked if he might see Scott and I didn’t think it would hurt.”
“No, M’am and it just might help.”
Sure enough, one hour later there was a small tap at the door and Maurice appeared. “Mr. Lancer, Mama said she’d be down in a bit. She said I could talk to Scott?”
“He’s asleep right now, but go on over.”
The boy moved slowly to the injured man’s bedside. After standing there quietly for a moment, Maurice put his small hand into Scott’s injured left one. “Scott, I sure would like it if you played for me sometime. Maybe when I get bigger and I’m not scared of horses, I could ride over to Lancer? Maybe you’ll have a piano by then.”
When there was no reply, Maurice looked over at Johnny. “I guess he couldn’t hear me. He must be real tired.”
“He is, but don’t worry, he’ll be better soon and then you’ll be able to talk to him. He’s not leavin’ for awhile.”
“Good. I still want to play for him.”
Just then the door opened for Dorinda. “Well, gentlemen, isn’t it time for your ride? I’ll take good care of Scott while you’re gone.”
“Yes, M’am. Me and Maurice’ll be on our way. Barranca told me he’s real anxious to do some runnin’.”
Maurice’s eyes opened wide with some fear, but then he smiled. “You can’t scare me, Mr. Lancer. I know Barranca would never hurt a friend.”
Johnny tousled the boy’s hair. “You’re getting’ too smart for me, Maurice. Now, let’s go give him his run.”
“I have a lump of sugar for him. Do you think he likes sugar?”
“He surely does. Come on and I’ll tell you about the time that he ate a whole bag of sugar!”
“All you have to do is run your finger across his side, and you can almost feel the little sparkly pieces.”
“Didn’t he get a bellyache?”
“Lord, yes, but the worst part is that none of the mares would leave him alone. He was just plain irresistible—kinda like his owner.”
Maurice stuck his tongue part way out. “Yeech! I don’t like girls, although I suppose girl horses are different.”
A slightly pink Dorinda Slocum quickly stepped in. “Maurice, you and Mr. Lancer had better go for your ride. I’ll have lunch ready when you get back.”
“Your mama’s right, Maurice. Don’t wanna keep Barranca waitin’. M’am, I believe Murdoch intends to go into Blossom when he gets down here.”
“Yes, he told me that. I’ll. . .I’ll be relieved when that’s all taken care of.”
“Okay, Young Maurice, time to take our ride!”
Dorinda sat down beside Scott for a moment. Putting her hand to his head, she looked carefully at the young man. “You can open your eyes now, Scott. They’ve gone.”
The cerulean fluttered open and the blond gave her a telling grin. “Didn’t. . .didn’t want to ruin Johnny’s sweet story.”
“So, how are you feeling?”
“B-better. Try not to move much.”
“That’s a good idea. I know the doctor put stitches in, but you don’t want to rip anything loose. I’m going to get you some broth to help build up your strength then if you feel like it, I think we need to talk.”
The blond said nothing as he watched the woman leave the room. When the door opened again, he was surprised to see the tall figure of Murdoch Lancer. “Scott? Did Johnny go outside with Maurice?”
“Well, I’m going to ride into Blossom and take care of that business. After I get back, Johnny and I will leave. If we get going by early afternoon, we should make Lancer tomorrow evening.”
“Have a good trip.”
“Thanks. I hope you’ll be able to come back to Lancer in a week or so, but Ramon can handle the arrangements.”
“I know. Good luck in Blossom.”
When Dorinda returned, she found her patient with his eyes closed. “Scott, are you all right?”
“Just. . .tired. Bullets take. . . a lot of you.”
“Well, just drink some of this and then I’ll let you sleep.”
“No. You said. . .you said you wanted to talk.”
The slender man did manage to consume a partial cup of liquid, but then it became too much to make the effort. After a long hesitation, Dorinda asked, “Do you want me to go so you can sleep?”
“No. Get. . .get it over with.”
“All right. I’m sorry that you became involved in this sordid affair. I. . .I had no idea that when I met you all those years ago that it would be anything more than a dance between a dashing young man and an eager young girl.”
“Not. . .not your fault.”
“Maybe not directly, but I was flattered by your attention even if you were younger than me. I just never should have mentioned your name to Cornelius. There was an item about your grandfather in one of the papers and I innocently said that I had once danced with his grandson. At first I was flattered by his jealousy, but from then on, he scoured the papers for any mention of you or your grandfather. I guess I should have realized then that. . .that he had problems, but I was young and naïve. I didn’t think I’d ever see you again and certainly didn’t think he’d ever meet you.
“Cornelius and I had been married such a short time when he went away to war and I was lonely so when a friend asked me to visit her in Boston, I was eager to go. And then, there you were at the party she gave. I was so surprised that you remembered me that I guess I flirted too much.”
“Dorinda, you behaved like a lady. I was just excited to see you again. You made me feel so sophisticated, holding you in my arms while we danced around the room.”
“That was a wonderful night until somehow Cornelius found out about it. When he came home on leave, before going west and I told him we were going to have a child, he. . .he was furious. He accused me of. . . . I tried to make him see that Maurice was his son, and I thought I had until. . .until he met you at Vicksburg. His letters changed. They were constantly filled with rages against you. I was so relieved when you went east because he seemed to calm down again.”
“Exactly. He never told me what happened there, except that he saw you again. When the War was over he came home and for awhile things seemed to happy between us until the money problems started. He would mutter under his breath about how unfair it was that some men had all kinds of money and could get away with anything. So, when he insisted we move to California, I agreed. I thought maybe he would find some peace out here. Then one day, Murdoch Lancer rode up to the ranch. From that moment on it was just a question of time.”
“I’m. . .I’m sorry that it happened this way.”
“It wasn’t your fault. He created his own hell. I know I should never have stayed with him, but I had no other family—and sometimes he could be kind. He even came to care for Maurice in some ways.”
“Could. . .would you do me a favor?”
“Anything. You’ve suffered so much just because I mentioned your name ten years ago.”
“S-sell your ranch to me?”
“What? Why would you need this place?”
“Not. . .not for me. Partners with R-ramon and Luis. Will give you f-fair money.”
“Ssh, you just rest. You’re exhausted. We can talk later.”
“No! Want you to have life. . .life in San Francisco. Take Maurice and forget Cornelius Slocum. Ramon and Luis will find dream here.”
Sweat had broken out on the blond’s face from the continued exertion of his speech. Dorinda quietly wiped his face dry with a handkerchief. “If that’s what you want, Scott, then I will sell to you. It’s not the money. I’d give this place away if I could, but Maurice needs schooling and we have to live.”
“Good. Have lawyer come here after Murdoch leaves. I’ll sign papers.”
“Your father’s leaving?”
“Johnny too. Today. Don’t. . .tell them. Ask lawyer to come tomorrow.”
This time Scott’s eyes closed and did not open. Dorinda sat there for a time, thinking about what it would mean for her son to be able to go to San Francisco and what it would mean to Ramon and Luis to be part owners of this ranch. Surely, they would not be haunted by a jealous man’s ghost.
Not long afterwards, Maurice and Johnny came back in. The nine-year old flooded his mother’s ears with his stories about Barranca running like the wind, but, he whispered to the woman, he had rubbed one finger along Barranca’s side and it was not sweet!
After lunch, Maurice and Dorinda went upstairs to do their lessons while Johnny once again went to sit with Scott. As soon as the brunet entered, he took his place by the side of the bed. “Good l-lunch?”
“Yeah, Mrs. Slocum is a real good cook. I don’t know who’s better Teresa or her.”
“Well, if you have any d-doubts, don’t tell T-Teresa.”
“That’s for damn sure. She’d cut off my chocolate cake supply!”
“Johnny, don’t worry about the mill. Barton will help you and some of the hands have experience.”
“I ain’t worried too much, but you’re sure you’re not mad.”
“Business is business. It. . .it needs to be done. Tell Murdoch the receipts for the equipment are in a metal box in my armoire.”
“Will do. Uh, I’ll be glad when you can get back to Lancer.”
“It. . .it might be awhile. Ramon and Luis will take good. . .good care of me.”
“They both seem real fond of you. Told me some things you talked about.”
Steel blue eyes focused on his brother’s face. “I wish. . .they hadn’t. It’s not important.”
“Then what is important?”
“You, Teresa, Murdoch, Lancer, and my grandfather.”
“You miss your grandpa?”
“I know that surprises you, but I do. We understand each other.”
“And you don’t understand Murdoch?”
Johnny grinned. “Don’t s’pose anybody does but mebbe Teresa.”
“Exactly. Johnny, I’m. . .I’m tired. Could we wait to talk until I get back to Lancer?”
Seeing the pale face against the stark-white pillow, Johnny bit his lip. “Sure, Boston. You do look like a bucket of warm milk.”
“You certainly do know how to compliment someone, Little Brother.”
“Had lots of practice, ‘course more of ’em were for pretty girls. Now, you go to sleep. I’ll make sure to say goodbye before we leave.”
“Good luck with the mill.”
“Won’t need luck—just my good looks and Murdoch to keep the books.”
The door which had been slightly ajar opened. “Ahem! I heard that, young man, I believe it is high time that you began to learn how to balance the books. Who knows? One day I might trust you with some of the money.”
“Better not. The last time I had two centavos I rubbed them together.”
The tall man stood there staring at his son. “Johnny, have you been drinking?”
The brunet burst into laughter while the blond gave a weak grin.
“Seriously, Johnny, I’m going to have a quick lunch and then we had better get on the road. I want to return to Lancer by tomorrow night.”
“I’m ready. Just say the word.”
Fifteen minutes later, Dorinda and Maurice walked outside with Murdoch and Johnny. As the two Lancers rode by, Barranca gave a distinct whinny as he passed Maurice. The boy laughed in delight. “Mama, Barranca said he’d miss me!”
“I’m sure he will, now, why don’t you go in and see if Scott is asleep. If he’s not, maybe you can play some music for him?”
Quickly, the boy broke into a run. Popping into Scott’s room, he found the young man awake. “Scott, can I play some music for you now?”
“Of course, Maurice, I’ll be listening.”
Soon the tender strains of “Home, Sweet, Home,” filled the late afternoon air.
Four weeks after Murdoch and Johnny Lancer departed the Armstrong ranch, a young man rode into the courtyard of the great hacienda. After stopping by the bunkhouse, Luis Perez spotted the tall Scot near the stable, talking to Cipriano. Walking slowly over to the rancher’s side, he respectfully waited until Murdoch turned towards him. “Luis, good to see you here. We were beginning to wonder when you would get here with Scott.”
“Senor Scott did not come with me. I came to pick up the possessions for Ramon and I. We are leaving Lancer to live at a place of our own.”
“You bought a ranch?”
“Well, I wish you well. Both of you are excellent hands.”
“Gracias, I also came to tell you about Senor Scott. The day after you and Senor Johnny left he became most ill again. For a time la Senora Slocum feared for his life. We brought in the doctor and, Gracias esta al Dios, he survived. However, he is so weak that will not be able to travel for some time.”
“I see. That is unfortunate. But Mrs. Armstrong is taking care of him?”
“Si. She has not left yet for San Francisco because he is so sick. Ramon also watches over him.”
“Mrs. Armstrong is going to San Francisco?”
“The good senora has sold the ranch and will leave with her son as soon as Senor Scott no longer needs her care.”
“Thank you for coming to tell me about this. I’ll go get your wages.”
“That is not necessary. We have been paid.”
Before Murdoch could say another word, the slight young man vaulted into the saddle of his horse and rode off to return to Los Tres Amigos.
The tall rancher stood silently, hands on hips, watching the trail of dust which followed the rider before turning to head inside the ranch house. The past four weeks had been a time of disaster. Bad weather, illness on the part of the workers, mistakes in the construction materials had all plagued the saw mill site. In fact, at one point Johnny and his father had almost come to blows over a misunderstanding about what was to be done concerning one of the improvements. In the end, to save time, the improvement had been abandoned so now it appeared that within a week the mill would be done and soon after that the first boards would be rumbling their way to completion. It would be a proud moment for Murdoch and Johnny Lancer. The younger man had already made plans to save the first board and have an appropriate phrase carved into it. It would then act as a marker.
Sitting at his desk, Murdoch shivered slightly. For a time the whole project had seemed almost cursed, but now the way was clear. He would let nothing prevent its completion. The mill represented more than just income; it proved that he and Johnny could work through their differences. So hopefully that knowledge could be applied to other circumstances. When the hotheaded young man had stalked off two weeks before, Murdoch had believed it was the end of his fantasy to have a family around him now and to carry on after. But then, Johnny had backed down, returning to work with a new vigor. It had delighted the older Lancer to see the determination in the sapphire eyes. That look was mirrored in his own—the look of possession, of a desire to build and create. Once Johnny felt that need, that stimulus, then Murdoch Lancer would not have to worry about losing his son.
Taking up his familiar ledgers, he once again tallied up the figures. What he saw pleased him greatly. Once the expenses for the actual construction had been brought into line, there had been no more worries on the financial end. In fact, once the mill started its output and, if it remained at the level before the fire, there should still be a tidy profit for the year. Dreams of what to do with that money had already begun to fill his head.
Lost in those thoughts, Murdoch did not hear the rider coming into courtyard, until Johnny strolled into the great room. “Hey, Murdoch. I think we’re gonna be done right on time and then as soon as we get the equipment installed, we’ll be putting out those boards faster than Teresa can do that knittin’ of hers.”
“Good, but let’s not talk about it now. I don’t want anything to jinx it.”
Johnny guffawed. “Never would have taken you for the superstitious type.”
In a slightly cool tone, the rancher replied, “I don’t think you know everything about me yet.”
“S’pose that’s true. Uh, by the way, I think I got an idea what to put on that first board. Wanna hear?”
“Okay. Right in the middle will be ‘LANCER SAW MILL – 1870’ and then under that in small letters will be ‘Built by J. and M. Lancer.’ Don’t that sound classy?”
“It does indeed. I think that will do nicely.”
“Good. Now, I just gotta figure out who can carve good.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry for a week or so.”
“Yeah, I guess, but I want it to be perfect. This here building might be still standin’ when I got grandkids and I want ’em to see what I did.”
“Speaking of grandchildren. . . .”
“Ooops, I gotta go do somethin’. See you at dinner.”
Nine days later all was in readiness for the ceremony to be held the next day to start the mill’s production line. Many of the hands would be in attendance as well as a few of Murdoch’s more influential friends. That evening after dinner Johnny, Murdoch, and Teresa sat in the great room talking about the ceremony and the small party that was to be held afterwards at the hacienda. The brown-haired girl sat with her knitting in her hands listening to the two discussing which one of them should do the actual speech opening the mill. In the midst of their discussion, Teresa stopped all conversation by interjecting, “It’s too bad Scott couldn’t be here to see the mill completed.”
Murdoch flushed slightly. “Teresa, you know I told you that Luis said that he was better, but it still might be awhile before he could make that long ride.”
“I know, but you said he was doing fine when you left. You don’t think something happened, do you?”
“Yeah, you never did tell us much about what Luis said or why he and Ramon left.” Johnny added.
In an annoyed voice, the rancher countered, “Luis didn’t tell me anything, just that Scott didn’t feel that he should be traveling yet. If you ask me, he liked having all that attention from Dorinda and Maurice.”
“Murdoch! You’re not saying that Scott is interested in Mrs. Armstrong, are you? She was just widowed!”
“Teresa, I’m not saying anything like that, but I got the feeling that they had met before so maybe he thought they could get reacquainted.”
“Well, maybe,” the girl conceded. “I just wish he could be here, that’s all.”
After another hour, Teresa decided that with the big day ahead she would go to bed early so she put away her knitting, said goodnight and headed to her bedroom.
“How about you, Son, why don’t you try to make an early night of it? There’s going to be a lot going on tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I know. Guess I’m too. . .too excited to sleep for awhile yet. I just hope nothin’ goes wrong.”
“Johnny, it will be fine. You did an excellent job even with all the problems we had.”
“Thanks. Gotta admit I’d rather draw down on a man than go through that again.”
“Nonsense. It was just that you didn’t have any experience doing something like that. Next time, you’ll won’t be nervous at all.”
The sapphire eyes looked at the other man with a question in them. “Just how many mills you plannin’ on buildin’?
“It doesn’t have to be a mill. Some of the line shacks need to be replaced, the earthen dam needs to be looked at. I’m counting on you to take a real interest in this ranch. You are an owner, after all.”
“I know, but . . . .”
“No buts, Johnny. A rancher has to know all about his land, his livestock, his people and anything that might affect them.”
Johnny hesitated. “Is. . .is that how you talked to Slocum?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that if you did, mebbe that’s why he didn’t fancy it.”
In a frosty tone, the patriarch reiterated. “He asked for advice and I gave it. I had no idea that he resented it so much. You have to remember the man was. . .troubled.”
The dark-haired man walked over to the decanter of brandy to pour himself a drink before turning to his father. “He might have been off in the head, but he did say some things that got me thinkin’.”
“You sure you wanna hear this?”
“He said I was your favorite, that you felt guilty for not bein’ a good father and that you got annoyed for not bein’ able to show you care about me.”
Murdoch cleared his throat then did so again. “Well, I guess you’re right after all. He wasn’t totally out of touch with reality.”
“So it’s true?”
“Johnny, I’ve never been a demonstrative man and I admit I’ve become set in my ways so perhaps I do get annoyed at times when I want to say something and can’t. In fact, I don’t think I can say the words even now, but you are the most important person in my life. I know we’ll have many arguments, but when we do, please try to remember that. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but I have waited two decades to have my little boy back and I don’t want to lose him now—even if he is a hothead at times.”
Shining blue eyes focused on the lined face. “From what I’ve seen around here, I’m not the only one.”
“I’ll give you that one, but I am trying—and that’s all I ask of you.”
Huskily, Johnny remarked, “I’m willing to give it a shot, but there’s one other thing I gotta know. Ramon told me that Scott feels that he hasn’t earned his place here, but I have. Do you see it that way too?”
“Of course, you’ve earned your place here! I. . .I know I questioned your methods with Pardee, but I am very proud of you. Maybe I don’t always say it in the right way, but it is true. And as we get to know each other better, I hope it will be easier for us to talk honestly with each other.”
That brought forth a huge grin on the young man’s face. “I never been much for talkin’ ’bout what I’m thinkin’. Always figured it was nobody’s business but my own, but I ‘spect it might be time to start trustin’ you—and Scott not to turn your backs on me.”
The rancher blinked, then rubbed his hands together. “Johnny, I don’t want to say anything about Scott because I know he’s important to you, but I have a feeling that this situation with Slocum might have affected his desire to live at Lancer.”
“What are you getting’ at?”
“Now, that he realizes we know about what happened during the War, he might be. . .embarrassed to be around us.”
“But you said Slocum was crazy. He hated Scott so why would he tell the truth!”
“I’m sure he did exaggerate, but there must be something there or Scott would have categorically denied it! Why did he go to Armstrong’s ranch looking for trouble? He should just have stayed away from there. Now, a man is dead and a family is in ruins.”
“That wasn’t Scott’s fault.”
“You can’t deny if Scott had ignored Slocum, the man would be alive now! I just cannot understand what got into him.” Murdoch paused and then in a low voice added, “I had such hopes for him when he arrived here. Maybe being free of Garrett’s control has gone to his head.”
The brunet stood there gazing intently at his father. “Slocum was right, wasn’t he? He said that you were disappointed with Scott. It’s no wonder my brother thinks he hasn’t earned his place here.”
“I never said that! He did what I asked of him against Pardee. I signed the contract giving him one-third of Lancer, just as I did with you.”
“You said. . .you said you wanted us to be honest with each other so I wanna know, do you care about Scott?”
“Of course, I do. He is my son– but I’m not going to lie to you. I do not feel the same. . .affection and closeness to him that I do for you. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but those two years we had together made a bond between us that I will never feel for him. I look at him and I can see the wheels turning in his head. I never know what he’s thinking, what he’s hiding.”
The gunfighter took another drink of brandy but said nothing.
“Are you angry?”
“I asked for the truth. Can’t blame you for tellin’ it to me,” Johnny conceded.
“But nothin’. Can’t make a man feel somethin’ he don’t. Learned that a long time ago. The question now is what happens next?”
“In a couple of weeks Scott will return to Lancer and I’ll ask him if he wants to take over the management of the mill. There will be many more opportunities for you to become acquainted with the details of ranch management, but I can see for the time being you would prefer a more active lifestyle. That is fine with me. This way everyone benefits.”
“You’ve got it all planned out, don’t you?”
“Son, I came west with a new bride, very little money, and a dream. Not all my plans worked out—to my sorrow, but we have a second chance. Are you willing to see that go to waste?”
Taking a deep breath, Johnny could only reply, “No.”
“Good. Perhaps in time, Scott and I will come to understand each other better, but we must have time to do that. With your help, we’ll have that time. Now, you’d better get some sleep. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”
“I ‘spect you’re right. Night, Murdoch.”
The brunet went to bed, but did not fall asleep for some time.
In the morning, the ceremony and Murdoch’s speech went as planned and by the end of the day, the first plank had been produced. It was immediately turned over to Tim Barton who did the required carving to perfection. Two days Johnny and Murdoch jointly attached the board to one corner of the mill.
Ten days later on a rainy Friday morning, an earthquake rumbled beneath California’s soil some fifty miles away from the great white hacienda. Although it was only a minor event, the tremor set into motion a small avalanche of rocks which tumbled down the hill side towards the saw mill. Two or three of the largest boulders hammered the sides of the wooden mill, scattering some of the lamps which gave the workers light. A few of the lamps broke sending flames throughout the wood chips, shavings and sawdust. In a very short time, the fire spread out of control, trapping two workers who died from smoke inhalation. By evening on Friday, all that was left of the Lancer Saw Mill was part of the stone foundation. Fortunately for Lancer, Murdoch and Johnny had taken the day off—to go fishing.
The blackened trees near the former site of the Lancer Saw Mill loomed out of the mist. Some of the same trees had survived the first fire, but had now succumbed to the flames caused by shattering lamps. Equally depressing was the scorched area around the stone foundation. Only a portion of one board had seemingly escaped destruction. It had obviously fallen off when the building had collapsed, allowing it to escape the fate of its wooden fellows.
The dark-haired young man wandered among the ruins for a few moments before spotting the board which had slid in the mud, coming to rest under some brush. Taking the board in hand, he carefully perused the words before walking slowly over to the mounted rider who waited nearby. Silently handing over the wooden remainder to the man on the horse, the brunet walked over to his own horse and mounted. Then the two men started down the hill side towards the great white hacienda. Just outside the great gate, the men stopped. “Here I will take my leave of you, Scott.”
“Thank you for coming with me, Ramon. You have a long ride home.”
“It is also your home whenever you wish, mi amigo. Luis and I would be happy to welcome our partner at any time.”
“I know and I appreciate that, but there are things that need to be. . .settled.”
“Gracias, mi amigo. I will see you soon.”
“Vaya con Dios” With that the former vaquero rode off towards the ranch called Los Tres Amigos.
Riding into the courtyard, Scott Lancer was surprised to see that there were very few ranch hands about. Usually, the great ranch was a beehive of activity, but not this day.
Dismounting with difficulty, Scott led his horse into the stable, removed the saddle, and nudged the mount into a stall before awkwardly carrying his wooden burden into the ranch house.
By the time he was half-way through the great room, his strength had begun to fade rapidly. It was only a few more steps to the room he had once considered his so he forced himself to keep going. Thankfully, the door opened easily and the carefully made-up bed beckoned. Using the last of his strength, the blond removed his boots before allowing Morpheus to wrap him in peace.
Some hours later, three somber figures entered the house. Teresa, dressed in black, removed the hat she had worn while Johnny and Murdoch took off the armbands that had been de rigeur for the funeral which they had attended. The two Lancer workers had been laid to rest at the old cemetery just north of Lancer. The hands who could be spared had attended as well. Lurking in their minds was the thought that this ceremony was a far cry from the jubilant one of two weeks before.
There had been no immediate family members present, since the departed had been alone in the world. Reverend Baker had spoken of their hard work and sacrifice, but truthfully very little had been known about them as they had been at Lancer only a short time.
As soon as Teresa left the room, Murdoch walked over to the brandy decanter to pour stiff drink for him and his son. Handing one of the glasses to the brunet, Murdoch rubbed his other hand over his tired face. Sleep in the white hacienda had been most erratic since that terrible Friday when the two Lancers had returned, fish in hand, to discover the destruction of the newly erected saw mill and the two bodies entombed within.
Since that moment, the older Lancer had dressed, worked, eaten, and slept almost automatically. What had to be done was done, but the talk had been little. Even Murdoch’s beloved ledgers had seemingly lost their appeal.
The tall man stared down at his son as he sipped fine liquor. “Well John, what do we now?”
Surprise flooded the sapphire eyes and handsome face. Murdoch Lancer had never asked him such a question. “What. . .I don’t understand what you mean.”
Annoyance crossed the craggy face. “Do we rebuild or do we just write it off?” he asked impatiently.
“Murdoch, I don’t think this is the time for this conversation. It’s. . .it’s only been a few days since. . . .”
“John, a ranch doesn’t take time off to mourn. I. . .I regret the loss of those two men, but ranching is not easy. Men do die—just like Paul O’Brien did, but the ranch had to go on, even when I was laid up. The vaqueros did their jobs just the way they have for years. Surely, you can understand what I’m saying?”
“I. . .I understand that cattle and horses gotta be taken care of. I ain’t sayin’ that life’s gotta stand still, but we don’t need to talk about a mill now. I just wanna go get some sleep. The past few days have been a nightmare.”
Murdoch nodded. “You’re right. Why don’t you go get some sleep? We can talk tomorrow.”
Without a further glance, Johnny headed off to his room while Murdoch walked over to his desk. After putting on his glasses, the rancher took out the slightly scorched saw mill ledger. The meticulous figures represented a neat, orderly world, a world now lost to ashes. The figures, or at least most of them, also represented the effort that Murdoch’s older son had displayed in his time at Lancer. Musing on that situation, the patriarch realized that Scott had now been gone almost as long as he had been at Lancer. In some ways it was almost as if he had never been there. Sighing deeply, Murdoch stood up to move over to the brandy decanter once more. As he did so, his foot caught on something peeking out from under the table. Leaning his tall body down caused aching muscles to protest, but he could not tell what it was that he had nearly tripped over. Tugging at the object, he found, to his amazement, that it was the board which Tim Barton had carved for the saw mill. How it had found its way to under the table bewildered him. He had assumed that it would have been destroyed in the fire.
Walking to Johnny’s door, Murdoch knocked, only to hear a sleepy voice telling him to enter. The brunet had not even bothered to climb under the covers but had only removed his boots before flinging himself onto the bed.
“Johnny, I. . .I’m sorry to wake you, but did you bring this here?”
Sapphire eyes tried vainly to focus on the sign. Finally, recognition dawned on the dark face. “How’d. . .where did that come from?”
“I have no idea. It was under the table. Who could have put it there?”
Before Johnny could venture an opinion, the two men heard a woman’s shriek from the next room. Immediately, Murdoch, followed by Johnny hurried to see what had happened to Teresa. They found her standing in the slightly ajar door, trembling.
“Teresa, what’s the matter?’
In a whisper, Teresa replied, “He’s here! Scott’s here! I opened up his door because I. . .I thought I’d see what needed to be done to make his room ready for his return and there he was on the bed asleep.”
Johnny pushed open the door quietly. Sure enough, the blond lay there oblivious to the presence of the three Lancer inhabitants.
Murdoch reached over to shut the door even before Johnny had the opportunity to push it wide open and enter. “I don’t think we should disturb him right now. He obviously needs sleep. When he wakes up, we’ll find out how he got here.”
“But. . . .”
“No arguments, Johnny. Now that he’s back there’ll be time for you to talk with him.”
Knowing how tired he was, the dark-haired son agreed. “Maybe you’re right. Not sure I can think too clearly right now.”
“Fine. Now I suggest we all get some sleep and in the morning we’ll tackle this problem together.”
“Don’t you want me fix something to eat first, Murdoch?”
“I’m not hungry, Sweetheart. Maybe you can fix an extra large breakfast tomorrow?”
“That’s a good idea. A welcome home breakfast for Scott. I guess we’re all kind of on edge after the last couple of days.”
In the end though it took several hours for the Lancer household to completely settle down, but finally all was silent in the darkness. Then a scream, followed by a pounding noise split the night air. Lost in sleep, Johnny took a few moments to orient himself as did Murdoch who had to locate the bathrobe he usually kept at the end of his bed. By the time the two men were out in the hallway, the door to Scott’s room was open and the room empty.
It was that point that Teresa, hair up in twists and in a robe also, appeared asking what had happened. Since neither man knew the answer, they all decided to search the house for the missing man. Fortunately, Teresa immediately noticed the French door which was ajar. “Johnny, I think he might have gone out. Since you’re the only one who’s dressed, why don’t you go look?”
Picking up a lamp, Johnny moved out into the night. At first he saw nothing until he saw a huddled figure out near the corral. Walking over, he saw it was indeed his brother. “Scott?” The man didn’t even look at him. He tried again, shaking him this time.
A flailing right arm almost caught the brunet in the nose, but he backed away just in time as the blond struggled to his feet, determined to flee. Instead, Johnny caught him by the shoulders to prevent his escape. A great sob shook his slender frame as Scott slumped to his knees. “I. . .I can’t. Don’t do this,” whispered the frightened man.
“Just wanna get you inside. It’s none too warm out. Come on, Scott. Just take my arm.”
From his knees Scott looked up into Johnny’s face. “Is. . .is the fire out? I woke up and there were flames everywhere. I had to get out.”
Startled by his brother’s question, Johnny improvised. “Yeah, it’s safe to go back in. It’s over.”
Shuddering, Scott got to his feet, heading for the door where two others waited. As soon as Johnny and Scott were inside, Teresa poured them each a small glass of brandy, insisting they sit down and drink them. Scott grimaced as the raw alcohol poured down his throat, but soon there was some color in his face and the dullness of the blue eyes had faded. Looking around the familiar room and into the concerned faces, the blond hung his head and in barely audible words, said, “I. . . I’m sorry. I thought I was trapped in the fire again.”
“You mean the one at the saw mill?” Teresa asked.
Head still down, he replied, “No, the one. . .the one in Virginia. I thought that nightmare had gone away.”
“Scott, you’re obviously quite upset. Why don’t you go back to bed and we can talk about this in the morning?” Murdoch suggested to his older son. The young man made no reply but continued to rub his gloved left hand. “Scott! Are you listening to me?”
This time the cerulean eyes looked up into his father’s face. “He told you I was a coward and deserted my post, didn’t he? He told you what you wanted to hear and I. . .I couldn’t stop him. Dorinda had to do it. If she hadn’t had that gun, I’d be dead and then you wouldn’t have to share Lancer with me!” Pushing himself to his feet, Scott wobbled over to stand in front of his father. Lowering his voice, he whispered. “You don’t have to worry, I won’t stay. I just came to tell Johnny the truth. I couldn’t. . .didn’t want him to hate me too.” Turning, he headed towards his room, stiffening his slim figure until he was inside and could close out the prying eyes.
The three people stood there silently until the dark-haired man went over to the door to push it open. Still sitting on the edge of the bed, Scott ignored his brother until the brunet insisted, “What do you want to tell me, Boston? I’m here to listen.”
From behind him came another voice, “I’d like to hear too, if you don’t mind?” Teresa asked.
“If you want.”
“I do, but why don’t you lie down? You’ll be more uncomfortable.”
Silently, the blond did as asked. The soft pillow did seem to lessen the pain in his head.
Haltingly, the young started to confess his misdeeds. “I was on picket duty outside. . . Vicksburg because Grant was worried about Johnston raising the siege. One. . .one night it was raining and I heard this girl’s voice calling for help. She must have been twelve or so. I guess she was one of the. . . contrabands who followed the army. Anyway, she said her mother was having a baby and there was something wrong. She begged. . . begged me to help save her mother. I took her up on my horse and we went to one of the surgeons I knew was an abolitionist, figuring he would help her. I left her there and went back to my post. Guess that’s when Slocum came around and. . . reported me. They didn’t do too much then, but I could see the looks on some of the officers’ faces. Funny thing is I don’t even know if the woman and baby survived. I hope so.”
“But Scott, the Army shouldn’t have punished you for saving a life.”
“Teresa, you don’t understand. I did. . . desert my post. If Forrest or Johnston had attacked that night, we could have lost our toehold on Vicksburg! I was fortunate that General McPherson wasn’t a by-the-book man. He just told me that he trusted that I would remember my duty from then on. I tried, please believe me, I tried.” The blond turned onto his side away from the listeners and said nothing more.
Johnny touched Teresa’s shoulder, nudging her to her feet and past Murdoch who was standing at the door.
“Teresa, I know he’s got more to tell us, but I think he needs to rest for awhile.”
“All right, Johnny, if you think that’s best.”
“Yeah, I do.” Closing the door, the brunet walked out into the great room to face his father. “I’m gonna go sit in there with him for awhile, just in case the nightmare starts again.”
“He thinks I hate him.”
“Yeah, I s’pose he does.
“I. . .I didn’t want that to happen.”
“Don’t tell me. You’re the one who needs to talk with him. Night, Murdoch.”
Johnny had been sitting by his brother’s bedside for a few minutes when the blond started talking, “You should be in bed. I’m fine. . . it was just the nightmare.”
“Hey, I haven’t seen you in almost two months. I can spare a night’s sleep.”
“What. . .what happened to the mill?”
Johnny sighed. “Not quite sure. One of the men said there was some kind of rumbling and the lamps broke. Fire did the rest. Two men died.”
Scott sucked in his breath. “Who?”
“Two fairly new men—Carter and Emerson.”
“I’m sorry. They were good men. I talked with them after. . . the fire. Both served with the Army of the Tennessee.”
“We buried ’em today out at the old cemetery.”
“Murdoch. . .Murdoch must be taking it hard.”
Johnny nodded. “He had all kinds of plans. Was gonna ask you to manage it after you got back.”
“Johnny, it wouldn’t have made any difference since I’m not staying.”
“I heard you say that to him before and I thought I hadda be wrong. This is your home; you belong here.”
Shifting uncomfortably, Scott tried to sit up so he could see his brother’s face better in the lamp’s dim light. “I’m not sure I agree with you.”
“Can’t be this stuff that happened at Vicksburg and in Virginia?”
“Slocum told you about Virginia?”
“Said somethin’ about Rebel sympathizers.”
“Johnny, those Rebel sympathizers were an old couple who had one pig and a few chickens. Their only true possessions were an old musket the man tried to protect his house with and a photograph of their son who was killed at Williamsburg. Slocum and his men decided that they had to confiscate all their possessions. I tried to stop them, but one of his men hit me on the head and torched the house. I woke up with flames all around me. Before I could get out. . .part of the roof collapsed. I don’t remember much after that, but somehow I got out and wandered around. But I was one of the lucky ones since most of the wounded men from the battle were caught in the brush fires and died. My punishment for surviving was to be captured, half out of my mind with pain, and then to be sent to Libby Prison for the rest of the War!”
Stunned by the onslaught of Scott’s words, Johnny just sat there for a moment. Then he asked a question he had sworn to himself that he’d never ask. “Didya go there to kill him?”
Scott closed his eyes; his head was pounding but he knew the question had to be answered. “I just wanted him to admit he had lied. Then he started in on his wife, asking if she. . .she was good in bed. He said she’d bedded the wrong Lancer, that it should have been you, then Maurice would have grown up to be a man, not. . .not. . . like me.”
“Scott, he was a sick man, sick with jealousy and hate. His lies didn’t have nothin’ to do with you.”
“They weren’t all lies—I failed in my duty, didn’t I?”
“S’pose you did accordin’ to the Army, but what about the duty to yourself? I’ve never been much of a man worryin’ ’bout duty. You do what you have to keep goin’ one more day—just like my mother.”
“I don’t understand. I thought you. . .you heard what Teresa said.”
“Yeah, and I also know the woman who made sure I had food and sang me songs at night, and loved me. I ain’t sayin’ she made the best decision, but when you’re not happy you tend to do things that ain’t always the smartest. A woman who was content with her life wouldn’t have taken off—even with a smooth-tongued gambler. I suppose she shoulda left me with Murdoch, but I think she loved me too much to do that. And mebbe in some ways she did me a favor ’cause I found out what kind of man I was.”
“A strong man?”
“‘Xactly. I kinda forgot that when I got to Lancer. Bein’ part of this ranch, havin’ a family kinda seduced me. I thought I needed Murdoch’s approval and affection. I don’t need nothin’ but his respect—what any man needs.”
“So you don’t want to be his right arm?”
“Hell no, I don’t wanna be part of somebody else. I’m me and I know what I’m worth and if he don’t that’s his problem. He don’t have to flatter me or give me pretty words. I work hard and I’ve earned his respect.”
“You certainly have and I’m proud to be your brother.”
“You ain’t jealous ’cause he told you all those things?”
“I’m not going to lie to you. I guess I was at first, not because I thought you didn’t deserve his praise, but I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. I know I’m not as good with a gun or have your other ranching talents, but I’ve tried to do my duty to Lancer.”
“There ya go with that word again. I gotta ask you this and don’t take offense. Why did you come to Lancer? Can’t a been the money!”
A small smile crossed the pale face. “No, it wasn’t the money. The trust fund my grandmother left for me plus my grandfather’s generosity has made me fairly independent. I guess the most accurate reason would be that I was curious to see what kind of man Murdoch was. Growing up, I had this image of a tall, stern man who I saw that one time. Once in awhile I’d mention him to Grandfather, but he would just growl and say, ‘I will not discuss that man.'”
The brunet chuckled. “Sounds like he’s a real jolly feller.”
Scott nodded. “He has his moments. Johnny, my grandfather made mistakes, just like your mother, but more significantly I know that I’m the most important person in his life and that he loves me. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him come out here and try to get me to return to Boston.”
“You’re not thinkin’ of going back east then?”
“Johnny, I intend to stay out here for awhile. Maybe I’m not needed at Lancer, but I do want to get to know you better. We’ve never had the chance to be brothers and I don’t intend to let Harlan Garrett or Murdoch Lancer keep us apart any longer.”
“Sounds like I ain’t the only strong one around here.”
Now, it was Scott’s turn to chuckle. “Well, I guess that strength has been tested in the last couple of months, but I’ve survived a couple kinds of hell and I expect I’ll be able to do it again—with a little help.”
“Well, rest easy on that score ’cause you got mine, Boston.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that and you’ll always have mine whenever you need it. Now, I think we should both get some sleep. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow, but it’s got to be faced and then I’ll tell you a secret.”
The sapphire eyes lit up. “A secret? What kind of secret?”
“Patience, Little Brother. Now, go get some sleep. I hurt all over and need some sleep myself. See you in the morning.”
“‘Night, Scott. I’m glad you came back.”
“Me too. For awhile, I thought maybe I wouldn’t, but I just couldn’t do that. I’ve waited twenty-five years for a brother and I’m not going to give him up after just a couple of months.”
To Phoenix Rising —->
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