Phoenix Rising by S.

Third in a trilogy. Preceded by Ashes and Flames.

Word count: 7,162

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.”

“Thanks 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 kow and I appreciate that, but there are things that need to be . . . settled.”

“Entiendo.”

“Gracias, mi amigo. I will see you soon.”

“Vaya con Dios.” With that the former vaquero rode off towards the ranch called 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 bonnet 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 a 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 oldest 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 do 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. “I suppose 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 the situation, the patricarch 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 to 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 was 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.”

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 comfortable.”

Silently, the blond did as asked. The soft pillow did seem to lessen the pain in his head. Haltingly, the young man 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 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 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 hurt 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 a while 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 rest 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.”


Early the next morning Scott Lancer walked into the kitchen to gratefully take a cup of coffee from Teresa O’Brien. “Thanks, Teresa. I haven’t had a decent cup since Dorinda left the ranch.”

“Johnny did mention that she was a good cook.”

“I just hope she’ll find some happiness for the two of them. Maurice told me he was really looking forward to taking piano lessons.”

“Did he. . .did he say anything about what his mother did?”

The blond nodded sadly. “One night just before they left he came in to see me after playing a few tunes on the piano. He had tears in his eyes and when I asked why he said that he would miss the piano that his mother had brought with her from Rhode Island.”

“You mean she didn’t take it with her?”

“Well, truthfully, it wasn’t in that good of shape and with the money from the sale of the ranch, Dorinda decided that she would buy a new one in San Francisco.”

“I suppose that makes sense.”

“Yes, it does,” agreed Scott, “but I think Maurice saw that piano as his friend, almost like Barranca, so it was hard for him to part with it. I told him that I had decided to keep it so perhaps one of these days, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to play again. That seemed to help somewhat, but then he said something about. . .losing other things.”

“Like his father?”

“Exactly. I know he was frightened of Slocum in some ways, but I think Maurice did love his father. Dorinda told me that there were times that they got along reasonably well so I guess it’s not surprising that the boy is confused and afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“Not of Dorinda, but of losing her. She’s all he has and that’s a frightening prospect to put all your happiness in one person.”

The brown-haired girl’s filled with tears. “That’s the way I felt about my father and then I lost him, but fortunately, I had Murdoch to help me.”

“I’m glad you did. I know how much he loves you.”

“I suppose it’s easier for him to show it with me,” added Teresa.

The blond young man paused for a moment before remarking, “Teresa, I suspect that you are referring to Murdoch’s relationship with Johnny and me, but I would prefer not to discuss that right now.”

The brown-haired reached out one hand to place it on Scott’s arm. “All I’m asking is that you give him a chance.”

Smiling, Scott nodded. “I can promise you that.”

“Good. Now, I believe I hear the rampaging horde coming.”

Scott looked up and there was Johnny standing in the doorway, his nose sniffing the air. “Smells mighty good in here and I could eat a small cow all by myself.”

“Only a small one, Little Brother?”

Johnny grinned in reply. “For now. Might need a bigger one later.”

“Well, sit down then, Johnny, because Murdoch will be out soon.”

“He’s here now and he is hungry so could I have a plate of that food?” the rancher inquired.

Teresa smiled at her guardian. “You certainly can. Now, all three of you eat up. I made plenty.”

Two of the Lancers did just that. In just a few minutes the platters were cleared of food while one of the three finished his meal by licking the syrup from his plate. “All right, you three, out of my kitchen. I have work to do in here.”

“Uh, Teresa, would you mind coming into the other room with us? I have something that I want to tell all of you. Johnny knows this already, but I owe you and Murdoch an explanation.”

“Of course, Scott. I’ll do the dishes later.”

As soon as all were seated, Scott began to impart what had happened that day in May of 1864. When he finished, Teresa, with tears in her eyes, asked if he knew what had happened to the old couple.

In an almost whisper, Scott replied, “No, I don’t. When I came to, I. . .I didn’t see anybody besides me. The fire was fierce and all I wanted to do was get out. I still. . .dream about those flames sometimes.”

“But you went into the fire at the saw mill.”

Scott’s steel blue eyes looked into his father’s unflinchingly. “It was my duty.”

“I see. I would never question a man doing his duty.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t, Sir. Uh, there is one other thing. I have decided that I will not be staying here at Lancer. Ramon and Luis have asked if I would help them at their ranch so I won’t be too far away.”

The quiet in the great room lasted for some seconds before Murdoch Lancer turned to his younger son. “Johnny, would you take Teresa into town to get supplies? With the. . .problems of the last week, we are getting low on a few things.”

Johnny glanced over at Scott who just nodded at him. “Uh, sure, let’s get going, Teresa.”

“I’ll just get my bonnet.” When Murdoch Lancer got that grim, determined look on his face, even the dishes could wait.

Fifteen minutes later Teresa and Johnny headed out with the buckboard, leaving the two remaining Lancers standing on the porch. As soon as the buckboard was out of sight, Murdoch turned to his older son. “Let’s take a walk. There are some things I want to say to you.”

The two walked behind the house where they found a bench. Scott sat down reluctantly even though he felt it put him at a disadvantage. His legs still felt like jelly and it certainly wouldn’t do to collapse in front of the other man.

“I take it from what you said yesterday that you feel that I hate you and there is no place for you here at the ranch?”

The blond took a deep breath before admitting, “Perhaps, I chose the wrong words I should have said that I believe you’re indifferent to me and as a result my being here is irrelevant.”

“You are my son. Don’t you think blood counts for something?”

“Usually it does, but after twenty-five years I think the blood connection has thinned almost to nonexistence.”

The craggy face twitched slightly. “And of course, your grandfather made sure of that, didn’t he?”

“My grandfather rarely spoke of you, but I will admit that when he did it was with contempt.” Murdoch started to interrupt but the young man would not let him. “However, I think it is about time that you realize that I make my own decisions. That is the main reason I decided to come to Lancer. I wanted to see what kind of man you are.”

“And?”

“I think you are an extremely selfish man who is mostly concerned with what is best for his ranch.”

“And you find that surprising?”

“No. Lancer has been your life for so long that naturally it comes first.”

“Well, since we’re being honest with each other. You’re right. Lancer is number one in my life and I’m not going to deny it. I have worked and bled for it while you were safe in Boston with that bastard. How dare you come out here and judge me? I kept my part of the bargain and you now own one-third of the finest ranch in this area.”

“I’m prepared to rip up the agreement if that’s what you want.”

“That’s easy to say, but I can’t see Harlan Garrett’s heir giving up a fortune!”

“But then you don’t know me at all, do you? You look at me and see only my grandfather. Well, I am not Harlan Garrett!”

“So just what is it you want from me? You didn’t come 3000 miles just because you were curious.”

“Nothing that belongs to you.”

“Not even Johnny?” the tall man smirked.

“Johnny doesn’t belong to you!”

“Maybe not right this second, but give him a couple more years. He’s already started to become more interested in using his brains rather than just his gun. I know how to handle him. Johnny needs to have his moments of rebellion because he’s like a wild horse that needs taming. He needs patience and just the right words to make him think he’s in control.”

“Like the ones you used with Dorinda Slocum?’

“What the hell are you talking about?” the tall man leaned over towards Scott as if to catch every single word of the accusation.

“While Dorinda was taking care of me, she. . .she told me of the times you visited her while Cornelius was gone.”

“She was lying. I may have gone to visit once or twice, but I thought Cornelius would be there.”

“But then why did you go to visit on the day he had his weekly poker game? Of course, it wasn’t poker, was it? He needed to head to the local bordello for his fun and games. Dorinda knew all about it and when she became lonely and wanted someone to be with, it was convenient for you to stay the night. I wonder if Slocum suspected what was going on back at the house? Is that the real reason he hated you?”

“You’d believe that jezebel over your own father?”

“You believed Cornelius rather than me.”

“But that was different, how was I supposed to know that he lied? He was a rotten husband, but I didn’t think he’d just out and out lie about something like that. You admitted you left your post.”

The blond head nodded. “And I’ll probably never forgive myself for doing so, but I can live with it. Just as you have to live with the things you have done.”

“Don’t patronize me! I. . .she was lonely and I’m not that old. Do you think I don’t have needs too?”

“But then she wanted it to end.”

The tall man nodded. “She was afraid Armstrong would find out and he had such a temper. That’s when I gave her that gun. She always carried it, just in case. And, she was always worried about Maurice, even though she was careful to send him to stay at a nearby ranch. Finally, we agreed to not see each other or ever discuss it again. I rarely went over there after that. I wonder. . .I suppose that’s why she didn’t want to sell me the ranch. But I don’t understand. Why. . .why she would tell you now?”

“I believe she felt she owed me something for what Cornelius tried to do and I think she wanted me to see that it wasn’t my fault.”

“So, now you’re saying that this is all my fault? I haven’t been involved with her in years. Whatever Cornelius thought, it had nothing to do with me!”

An overwhelming sense of fatigue and pain flooded the young man’s slender body. Right then all he wanted to do was sleep for a week and wake to find himself in his bed in Boston and his whole visit to Lancer had only been a nightmare.

“Murdoch, I see no point in discussing this any longer. I will tear up the agreement as I said, but I hope you won’t make it difficult. . .difficult for me to see Johnny and Teresa from time to time.”

“Difficult? I won’t make it any more difficult than Garrett made it for me. He expected me to beg to see you, but I wouldn’t do that. I can just see him sitting there at his desk, expecting a letter from me so that he could tear it up. But I never gave him that satisfaction,” the gray-haired man proclaimed proudly.

“And you didn’t try to contact me either, did you?”

“What if I didn’t? He would just have thrown any letters away.”

“So are you saying that you don’t want me to contact Johnny?”

“No, I am not saying that. I don’t have to. Give him a couple of months and he’ll do it himself.”

“That’s not true! Just last night we talked. He wants us to be close, to depend on each other.”

The rancher laughed in derision. “You have a lot to learn, my boy. Johnny Lancer is all a façade. He wants what I want, but he just won’t admit to himself yet. He still prefers to wallow in how hard his life was before he came to Lancer and all that prejudice he’s had to face. Truthfully, the Mexicans were tougher on him for his white skin than anybody else. That’s one of the reasons he was in front of that firing squad. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame him for wanting me to feel guilty. It’s a good bargaining technique and every time he gets shot or injured, it ups the ante, but I’ll string him along with just enough responsibility and affection until one day he’ll be hooked, just like with his mother. She had all these notions about undying love when I only wanted an heir. When she took off, I couldn’t have people think I couldn’t hold onto my wife so I spread rumors about a gambler. That way, everyone blamed her. Johnny’s got his head in the clouds too, but that won’t last much longer and then he’ll be exactly what I want in a son.”

“You’d like to believe that, wouldn’t you? That’s why you let him build the saw mill and then you put that inscription on it.”

The rancher chortled. “Is that what you think? Just like it was your idea to pay for the equipment, I let him come up with the inscription. He put his name and mine on that board—and left yours off!”

“That’s not possible!”

“Oh, it’s more than possible. I’d have thought Garrett would have taught you the facts of life. For right now I don’t care that Johnny is only looking out for himself. One day his number one concern will be Lancer and that’s just as it should be. He’ll be strong enough to protect what we’ve built.”

“And what happens if I tell him what you’ve just told me?”

“Go ahead. He may or may not believe you, but it doesn’t matter because deep down he knows his future is here. Men die and molder into dust and ash, but land goes on forever. He’s not going to give that up, just because you’re not the man he is.”

In that instant all reason fled from Scott Lancer’s head as he launched himself at the tall man. Slamming his fist into his father’s face, once and then again, Scott’s brain echoed with the memory of Slocum’s taunts. Shuddering, he stopped his attack as his stomach roiled with disgust. Backing off, he stood up and headed to the stable where he saddled his horse and rode off.

Before the dust even settled, Murdoch Lancer stood up and headed in to clean off his face. He knew he couldn’t hide the cut lip and bruised face, but it could be explained. Fortunately, none of the hands had seen the altercation so it would be easy to make up a story which is just what he did upon the return of Johnny and Teresa.

Murdoch downplayed what had happened, merely saying that perhaps he had not been too tactful when discussing Cornelius Slocum with Scott. He hadn’t really considered his older son’s reaction to the rancher’s question about Maurice’s paternity and the blond young man had lost control of his emotions. It was unfortunate, but Murdoch reassured the two young people that he knew Scott would return and apologize. Although bewildered by Scott’s irrational behavior, Johnny and Teresa were prepared to wait for Scott’s return to find out exactly what had occurred.

During that week at Los Tres Amigos, the blond Lancer ran the scene with his father over and over in his mind. At first, he had wanted to believe that he had misunderstood what the older man had said, especially the part about Johnny. It was almost impossible for him to believe that the brunet had been faking that night they had talked about supporting each other—and yet he had known his sibling for such a short time. Could Johnny have been just stringing him along, telling him what he wanted to hear? Memories of the inscription on the board haunted him at night until he had almost given up going to sleep.

Finally, on a beautiful morning some ten days later, Scott took his leave of his two friends before setting out on the road to Lancer. There was only one thing to be done and this time he would not fail in his duty.

.

Epilogue

When Scott rode into the courtyard of the white hacienda, he was relieved to find Johnny standing out by the corral watching one of the vaqueros working with a horse. As soon as the sapphire-eyed man saw his brother, he approached, seemingly with caution.

“Good to see you, Scott, wasn’t sure you were comin’ back.”

The blond smiled before replying, “I didn’t come to stay. I just wanted to give you something.”

“What? Murdoch said the two of you had a fight over something he said about Maurice.”

“Maurice?” Scott questioned.

“Yeah, somethin’ about you bein’ his pa.”

“Johnny, I am not Maurice’s father. I danced with Dorinda exactly twice in my life and that is all. Cornelius was his father.”

“Okay, okay, so what is it you want to give me?”

“This,” Scott held out a sheet of paper. “It transfers my one-third share of Lancer to you. This gives you control of the ranch so that if there’s any dispute about how the ranch is to be run, you’ll have the final say-so.”

The younger man’s mouth dropped open. “But why. . . why would you want to do that?”

“Because of some things that you and I discussed together that one night. I believed what you told me and this is my way of showing that I trust you to do what’s right for everyone at Lancer—including Murdoch.”

Johnny looked down at the paper in his hands. “Just exactly what did happen between the two of you? He’s said very little.”

“I’m not surprised.” admitted the blond. “It wasn’t a pretty scene and I’m ashamed of myself for losing my temper, but a man can be pushed only so far.”

“Tell me what he said. I’m listening.”

Scott retold the story, leaving out the part about Murdoch’s dalliance with Dorinda. By the end, Johnny just stood there silently trying to reconcile Scott’s words in his thoughts.

“Johnny, I don’t expect you to believe or understand all of this immediately. I’m going to return to Los Tres Amigos. That’s another thing I wanted to tell you. I’m a one-third partner in that ranch and so I will be around if you want to see me and talk some more. You’ll always be welcome there. I know I can count on you to break this to Teresa in the right way. She loves Murdoch dearly and I’m sure he does love her, and I would do nothing to hurt their relationship.”

The brunet nodded as if his mind was in a daze. “Sure, uh, I’ll tell her something.”

“Good. I just want to say one more thing. I meant everything I said that night before I left. I need you in my life and I hope you feel the same, but if that’s not what you want—tell me. Two weeks from today I’ll be at Old Maude’s. If you want to give us a chance, be there about 6:00 PM and we’ll go from there, otherwise. . . .”

“Two weeks—Old Maude’s?”

“That’s right and don’t worry, whatever you decide I’m glad I came out here from Boston and had the chance to meet my brother. Take care of yourself, Teresa, and Murdoch.”

Scott walked back to his horse, mounted, and rode away from Lancer.

.

-end-

.

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