#2 in a duology, preceded by Departures
Word count: 4,959
Over three weeks had passed since Scott and Johnny Lancer had returned empty-handed from the Dexter cabin. Johnny had kept his word by visiting the ramshackle home several time since then, but just as before, it remained alone in its solitude.
As the days passed, Johnny had continued trying to convince his brother that it was time to make a trip to town to find a little comfort at the soft hands of a willing female. Scott appreciated Johnny’s efforts but had instead urged the dark-haired young man to make the trip on his own. In a stentorian voice, the older brother had proclaimed that he did not need a babysitter!
Grinning at the thought of his reserved brother in diapers, Johnny had gleefully ridden into Morro Coyo where he had made several young ladies very happy. Very happy that is until one of them decided that three females were two too many. This had resulted in a tense situation where various medieval tortures were discussed in reference to the gunfighter, who had fortunately escaped from town with himself intact. As a result, the sapphire-eyed Lancer seemed content–for the time being–to remain at Lancer. Of course, work still did not occupy all of his time due to various excuses that did not fool Murdoch, Scott or Teresa, although they were prepared to indulge him to a certain extent because of Johnny’s restless nature.
Just when that restless nature threatened to get out of hand, a telegram arrived which was met with delight by the youngest Lancer, dismay by the oldest, and dispassion by the middle Lancer. The telegram contained a request from Heath Barkley for Johnny to join Nick and Heath in their journey to the Bent J Ranch. Just the month before, Heath had met two of the fair daughters who inhabited that ranch, and had undertaken to promise that he and his older brother would squire Adela and Bella Johnson to a dance–in return for the lowering of the price on a chestnut mare. Now it turned out that there was another daughter, Louella, who needed an escort. Heath and Nick had immediately thought of Johnny. Wiring back that he would be delighted to ride into Morro Coyo to meet the Barkley Brothers and then accompany them to the Bent J, Johnny had hurriedly rushed over to the General Store to acquire several accoutrements to his wardrobe. He certainly did not want the Barkleys to outshine a Lancer.
While riding back to the white hacienda, the impulsive young man had begun to have misgivings about the forthcoming sojourn at the Bent J. He could not understand why Scott had not been invited to go along. When Johnny had tentatively suggested that perhaps the blond might like to go instead, Scott had immediately shot down that idea, saying that Nick and Heath had invited Johnny and it would not be polite to make a substitution. The dark-haired son had not been convinced until Scott had practically pushed him out the door, telling him to have a good time.
That night at dinner Murdoch brought up the subject of the Barkley’s invitation to Johnny. Scott professed not to know the reason for the request, but had reassured his father that he was sure that Johnny would conduct himself with finesse and moderation. Teresa snorted, but then tactfully turned it into a cough when the patriarch’s formidable scowl turned itself upon the brown-haired girl. After they finished eating, Scott offered to help Teresa with the dishes. That was an offer she would never refuse.
Glancing at the blond who was meticulously wiping the dishes dry, Teresa whispered, “So what’s the real story? Is this Louella ugly or does she have warts or what?”
Cerulean eyes opened wide. “What are you talking about, Teresa? As far as I know Louella Johnson is as good-looking as her sisters and Heath said they were lovely.”
“Come now, Scott Lancer, I wasn’t born yesterday. You’re always pulling some joke on Johnny–not that he doesn’t deserve it, of course!”
Scott’s lower lip emerged in a pout. “Teresa, I am hurt by your suspicions. I want Johnny to have a good time. Since he’s persona non grata in Morro Coyo right now, I think it’s wonderful of Heath and Nick to help out.”
A very unladylike grunt erupted from the young woman, followed by skeptical laughter. “All right, Scott, you stick to your story, but if Johnny comes back and fills you full of bullet holes, I am not going to patch you up!”
With that remark, Scott Lancer carefully folded up the cloth he had in his hand and walked, with dignity, to his room.
Early the next morning the former cavalryman got up early to head to the kitchen for a quick cup of coffee. Upon entering the kitchen, he found Murdoch and Teresa already there eating some bacon and biscuits along with their coffee. “Good to see you up early, Scott. There’s lots of work to be done–since one of us decided to go partying instead of putting in some work.”
Scott winked at Teresa as he tried to smooth the rancher’s ruffled feathers. “You know, Murdoch, it might be a good thing that Johnny went to the Bent J. Old man Johnson might be so taken with your son that he’ll want to buy some cattle from him!”
The gray-haired rancher tilted his head slightly. Could Scott be right? “You mean Johnny might be able to sell him some of our cattle?”
“You know what a silver tongue he has!”
Teresa couldn’t resist interrupting with, “Sure, with the ladies.”
The two Lancer men gave her intimidating looks which she just ignored.
“Well, you might have something there, Scott. After all, the Johnson Ranch is practically a neighbor. Maybe it is time we started doing some business.”
“Exactly! Now, I’d better go saddle up. I want to get a great deal accomplished today.”
“Now, that’s what I like to hear. Have a good day, Scott, Teresa. I’ll see you both this evening.”
Ten minutes later, Scott rode out under the gate towards the north range where, as usual, fencing needed to be mended. It was hard work and the scar from his bullet wound still pulled at times, but it still felt good to be out in the clear, morning air of Lancer.
The blond had spent most of his life in the city of Boston where he had become used to living with smoke and dirt so he continued to delight in his new life in California. It had taken some time to adjust to his new environment, but he had made a sincere effort to fit in. Added to the difference in the lifestyle, was the discovery that he had a brother. In many ways, the two men were direct opposites, but that had not stopped them from creating a strong bond. Scott still had strong ties to Boston, in the person of his grandfather, a stern man, but one who sincerely loved his grandson.
Scott knew that Johnny and Murdoch had barely tolerated the presence of Harlan Garrett during his visit, and perhaps they had good reason for their dislike; but those two men did not have his memories, his understanding of the gruff man who had been everything to him for twenty-five years. No–there was no way Murdoch or Johnny Lancer could understand Harlan Garrett–not like Scott did. He would let no one, not his father or brother, demonize the man who been the center of his world for so long.
Riding toward the north range, Scott remembered how he had ridden over to the Dexter cabin a few weeks before, only to discover that Johnny had figured out his brother’s ploy and had also shown up. Of course, there had really been nothing to see and Scott could only hope that the Dexters were well and truly gone. Rachel Dexter had been such a lovely and gentle woman, unlike her sister, Felicity. A shiver ran down Scott’s spine just thinking about the woman who had so coldly shot him in the back. Johnny had urged him to find out the true reason for her act, but with the Dexters’ disappearance, Scott had only wanted to forget. It had seemed to be the best thing to do at the time, but now a slight doubt had crept into his certainty. Disturbing dreams had interfered with his sleep from time to time. Perhaps, it would be better to make one more effort to defeat his demons–if at all possible. With Johnny safely out of the way, Scott could do it on his own terms, and not hide behind his brother’s gun. Decision made, Scott turned his horse toward the Dexter cabin.
As Scott Lancer descended the slight incline that led to the Dexter cabin, he stopped hastily. Because of the positioning of the shack, he was not able to tell if anyone was on the other side of the building. That someone was there had been obvious from the road as there was a wispy trail of smoke rising from the chimney pipe on the roof. As a result, the blond had left his horse a safe distance away and had proceeded on foot. There was always the chance that an errant traveler had come upon the cabin and had decided to make use of it and its stove, but it seemed much more likely that at least one of the Dexters had returned.
Removing his gun from the holster on his hip, the blond Lancer moved stealthily towards the door. From the closer angle, it was apparent that the horse and buggy, which Rachel had said were kept in the small stable, were not there so perhaps he would have to contend with only one Dexter. Heart thudding, Scott opened the door which creaked with all the malevolence of a scorched cat. Hearing the sound, Felicity Dexter turned to see the supposedly-dead Scott Lacer standing there. For one instant she contemplated hurling the cast-iron lever, which she held in her hand, at the intruder, but the cold command, “Don’t try it!” stopped her momentum.
“Why, Mr. Lancer, y’all must have nine lives.”
“Save it, Felicity. Just put that little item down–slowly. I don’t fancy it making a crease in my skull.”
Felicity glanced down at the black piece. “This? Why I was just makin’ a little fire to heat up some coffee. Might I offer you some?”
“Where’s your father?”
“Papa? He’s gone to town to see what happened to poor Rachel. You know it’s the strangest thing. We got back here yesterday and Papa went to see Rachel’s grave and she was gone! Now, what do you suppose happened to her?”
“I arranged for her burial in Morro Coyo.”
The petite woman took a step towards the Lancer son. “Stop right there and put that down! I don’t want to kill you, but I will!”
“Just like you killed poor Rachel?”
That notion stunned the blue-eyed man. “What the hell are you talking about? I only met your sister once!”
“My, you must have been truly devastatin’ to her then. You were all she could talk about for days. She just kept sayin’ how polite you were and so good lookin’. Poor thing, I guess you can’t really blame her. Not many presentable men show up in a place like this.”
“Felicity, how did Rachel die?”
“I don’t remember givin’ you permission to call me that. My Mama always told Rachel and me not to let a gentlemen get too familiar until you had a ring on your finger. Too bad Rachel forgot that!”
“Just tell me how she died, . . Miss Dexter.”
Felicity gave him a dimpled smile. “Oh, that’s much better. She did say you had beautiful manners.”
“All right, if you don’t want to talk to me then let’s just take a little ride over to Spanish Wells so you can talk to the law. After all, you did try to kill me!”
A grimace of hatred crossed the girl’s face. “Too bad, I didn’t aim for your head, but I’ll do better next time.”
“That was a mistake on your part, but I do not intend to give you another chance so just put that skull-breaker down and go sit quietly in the chair.”
“Gettin’ mighty uppity, aren’t you? This place belongs to Pa and me. You’re trespassin’.”
“I’ll make a deal with you. You can tell the sheriff about my trespassing and I’ll tell him about the bullet you put in my back. Now, go sit down and we’ll just wait for your father to come home and then we’ll take a little trip.”
Felicity Dexter delicately placed the lever on the top of the stove, then walked placidly to the indicated chair, taking care not to muss the sprigged green dress she was wearing as she sat down.
Batting her brown eyes at Scott, she sweetly inquired, “Do you like my new dress? Papa bought it for me in San Francisco.”
The blond ignored her words as he was trying to listen for the approach of a horse and buggy.
Annoyed by his attitude, Felicity again remarked, “I said, do you like my dress? After all t’was mostly your money what paid for it. I’ll bet a feller like you knows all about women’s clothes and all. I can hardly wait ’til Pa and I move to San Francisco ‘n I can have all kinds of pretty things. Rachel was happy to make do, but not me!”
Scott’s blue eyes shifted to the brown-haired girl. “Rachel and you didn’t have much in common, did you?”
Smiling slyly, the young woman, admitted, “More’n you think, Mr. High ‘n Mighty Lancer. You just saw the sweet, smilin’ Rachel. She could be a real shrew, if you know what I mean?”
“I don’t believe I do.”
“Now, just why do you think we moved out here in the middle of nowhere? Pa was afraid for Rachel. He figured we’d be safe out here. Now that she’s gone, we can move to a big city so I can find me a husband and take care of Pa just like he’s been takin’ care of us since Mama died.”
“Was Rachel in some kind of danger?”
A trilling laugh rang out. “One of your kind was a lookin’ to do her harm.”
“Pa said it had somethin’ to do with what’s in that box. He wouldn’t tell me everythin’. You think you know it all so just go look ‘n see.”
Keeping his gun leveled at Felicity, Scott did move over to the metal box. It seemed to be stuffed with yellowing pieces of newspaper and other sheets of paper.
“What’s all this?” inquired the ranch owner.
For an instant, Felicity’s brown eyes clouded with tears. “My life and Rachel’s. Our inheritance. Mama’s gift to us.”
“I. . .I don’t understand.”
As tears dripped down her cheeks, Felicity looked up at Scott with now-defiant eyes. “How could you understand? Rachel and I were damned from the minute we were born. ‘Course, Rachel found some peace, but I ain’t been so lucky. Unless you’d like to help a lady out?”
“What. . . .?”
But Scott did not get the chance to finish his question as Felicity slipped her hand into the pocket of her gown and pulled out her derringer. Bringing it up, she started to pull the trigger, only to gasp in surprise as the bullet from Scott’s gun entered her body with a force that slammed her from the chair and onto the dirty floor.
For a frozen minute, Scott stood there watching the red blood flow from the wound, staining the new green dress. Hurrying over, he cautiously picked up the now-limp figure of Felicity Dexter. He tried to staunch the blood with the hem of her dress, but it quickly soaked his fingers. “Felicity, I. . .I didn’t mean. . .”
Brown eyes in a pale face opened to look at the man who had shot her. Giving a small smile, she whispered , “Thanks,” then the tawny eyes closed forever.
Scott Lancer sat, holding the body in his arms, for nearly a half-hour before the door opened to admit Hosea Dexter. Taking in the horrifying sight, Hosea rushed over to grab the body away from the young man. Unceasing sobs filled the air until it seemed that the old man could cry no more. Wiping at his lined face with a filthy piece of cloth, Dexter glanced around to see Scott sitting on the chair where Felicity had sat just an hour before.
“Why’d ya kill her? She was all I had left!”
“I. . .She drew that derringer on me. I. . .I just reacted. I didn’t want to kill her. I meant to turn her over to the law.”
Hosea’s blurry eyes wept a few more tears. “Ya told her that!”
“I was waiting for you to return. I wanted to take both of you into Spanish Wells and turn you in.”
The white-haired man nodded. “No wonder she pulled the gun then. She was mortal afeared of goin’ ta jail, jest like Rachel.”
“Mr. Dexter, Felicity wouldn’t tell me how Rachel died. I’d appreciate knowing.”
“S’pose I might as well. C’aint hurt either one of ’em now.” Still holding on to his daughter’s body, he began his story. “My wife Beulah was always what ya might call high strung. It t’weren’t so bad when we first got married, but after the girls came, it seemed ta get worse. She’d get real sad ‘n cry. Lord, that woman could cry. Then, she seemed ta get better after she found out she was acarryin’ again. She wanted a boy somethin’ fierce. Didn’t matter ta me, but it sure did ta her. The boy lived only a coupla days. We buried him and moved on ’cause she couldn’t stand being near his grave.”
“I’m sorry. She must have been hurting real bad.”
“Ya got that right young feller. And it got worse when we got word that two of Beulah’s brothers were killed durin’ the War. She just stopped takin’ an interest in anythin’, even Rachel and Felicity. Then one night, after the girls were asleepin’, she came over ta me and handed me that there box you see on the table.”
“Felicity said something about it pertaining to Rachel’s and her life.”
“That’s just about what it is–and Beulah’s too. Ya see Beulah’s family had a lot of people who weren’t exactly right in the head. Her own ma ended up in one of them asylums. And the one brother she had what didn’t get killed in the fightin’ was kept home ’cause he kept havin’ fits. Anyways,we sat there on the bed and Beulah took out some faded photographs of her kin. One or two of ’em had been hanged for killin’ their wives. Then she started crying. She kept tellin’ me how sorry she was that she married me. She had awanted children so bad, even though she was scared what might happen. I couldn’t say nothin’ ta help her.”
“That must have been terrible for you as well.”
“Mister Lancer, I never been a good Christian, but right then I knew what them sinners in hell must feel like. I tried my best ta comfort her, but what could I do? She got worse and worse and I was so afeared for the girls. I thought she might hurt ’em. But, the good Lord was merciful and took her with a fever so she never had to be locked up.”
“What about Rachel?”
“She was always quiet, but then it seemed to get worse after her ma died. She started goin’ out at night and comin’ home early in the mornin’. When I tried ta talk ta her, she got real violent. You kin imagine what I thought. Anyway, I decided ta get her out of town thinkin’ it’d be safer, but it was too late. Turns out she was awhorin’ around and one night she slit the throat of one her men. She came home ta Felicity and me and begged us ta help her so we took off. Felicity always had a blind spot about her little sister so she thought that Rachel had been attacked by some bigwig politician and I just let her think that. It seemed kinder, but I was wrong. That’s what almost got you killed.”
“Mr. Dexter, I didn’t touch Rachel.”
“I know. She told us about your visit. She said ya wuz real friendly and all. She’d been better since we settled here, almost like she was afore Beulah died. She kept talkin’ about how maybe you’d come back ‘n marry her and all. Felicity didn’t like that. She said you were probably like that feller in town who had hurt Rachel. That set my little girl off. She just screamed at Felicity saying all kinds of mean, ugly things. I tried to settle her down, but she kept sayin’ Felicity was jealous ’cause she was the pretty one ‘n younger. She grabbed my old huntin’ rifle that I kept in the corner and aimed it at Felicity. I tried ta get her ta put it down, but it went off–in her face. It hadn’t been taken care of in a long while and I guess it just. . . .anyways, my girl was dead.”
“So you put her in the grave under the rocks?”
“Yessir, I wanted to give her a proper burial, but I had to take care of Felicity. When she saw Rachel’s face, she screamed and screamed for hours. When she finally stopped, I could see her mama’s sickness in her eyes.”
“But why did she want to kill me? She knew I didn’t kill Rachel.”
“I guess in her mind, it was acause of you that Rachel took up that rifle. She thought you were like the man I made up. It were purely my fault, but I’d already lost one child. I couldn’t take losin’ another so I didn’t stop her.”
“So you were ready to let her kill me just because you didn’t want to admit to a lie?”
“T’weren’t quite as bad as that! I gave her that derringer, knowin’ it probably wouldn’t kill ya!”
The blond laughed mirthlessly. “Good thing she didn’t aim at my head!”
“Oh, she’d never shot a gun afore so I told her ta aim at yur back so she wouldn’t miss. Then, I made sure she didn’t take another shot.”
Sarcastically, the blond murmured, “Well, thank you for that.”
“I spect ya wanna take me ta jail now, but could ya wait awhile so I can bury Felicity?”
Scott nodded. “Just one more thing. When. . .after I shot her, she told me ‘Thank you.’ Why?”
“Don’t reckon I know fer sure, but Felicity seemed to know that somethin’ in her head wasn’t right. When we were in San Francisco, she came ta me one night, sobbin’. She said she was scared. She had these nightmares of bein’ locked up. Maybe she wanted ta die rather than be put away. Like I say, don’t know fer sure.”
Scott Lancer helped Hosea Dexter wrap up Felicity’s body in a threadbare blanket and loaded it into the buggy. The two men rode into Morro Coyo where Dexter arranged for his older daughter to be buried next to her sister. The undertaker was happy to accommodate the Lancer scion, even if it meant arranging for a gravedigger at the last minute. By 2:00, Felicity Dexter was safely interred next to Rachel. Hosea did not insist that words be said over the two graves, but he did put flowers on each.
Straightening his hunched shoulders, Hosea Dexter looked Scott straight in the eyes. “I’m ready ta go ta jail now. Thank ya for letting me take care of Felicity.”
“Mr. Dexter, I want you to take your horse and buggy and leave town. Go wherever you want, but I never want to see you again.”
A craggy smile lit the man’s face. “Rachel was sure right. You are a gentleman, but I gotta stop by the cabin and get the box.”
The blond grabbed the man’s thin arm. “No! I’ll take care of that box. You let its contents destroy two lives and I think it’s time for you to leave those memories behind.”
The dark eyes of Hosea Dexter backed down under the steady blue gaze. “Mebbe you’re right. I don’t need that stuff no more.”
“Good. Goodbye, Mr. Dexter.”
An hour later found the older Lancer son back at the cabin. As he took each piece of paper out of the box, he examined it with sadness. They told the tale of lives destroyed or maimed by sickness. At the bottom of the box, he found a gun which he recognized as the one Johnny had carried the day Barranca was stolen. At least, the box had contained one salvageable item. The rest he threw in the dying embers of the stove. Then, he walked out the door, mounted his horse and headed back to Lancer.
Johnny Madrid Lancer burst into the hacienda’s kitchen, picked up Teresa and swung her around.
“Johnny, put me down. I’m getting dizzy!”
“From this display, I take it that you enjoyed the dance?”
“Yeah, it was great! I danced with Louella about ten times. She sure is pretty. She’s even prettier than Adela and Bella. And she invited me to come back in a couple of weeks because it’s going to be her birthday.”
“Well, that’s great. Did Heath and Nick have a good time?”
“Whooee, did they! And Nick didn’t growl at me once–even when I said I might be the one to take you to visit the Barkleys at Stockton!”
“I knew you just had to get to know him better.”
“Anyway, where’s Boston? I want to tell him all about the party. He sure missed a good time.”
“He went out to mend fences on the north range. I expect him back anytime.”
“Well, I think I’ll go get cleaned up and have a little something to eat while I’m waiting for him to come home.”
“Johnny, dinner will be ready in an hour or so.”
“So? I’m a growing boy!”
“Oh, there’s a package that was delivered for you earlier today. It’s in your room.”
The dark-haired Lancer’s face lit up. He loved presents. Running into his room, he found a large crate which he speedily pried open. Inside was a magnificent saddle with the Lancer brand on one side and his initials on the other. Running his fingers across the fine leather, the gunfighter tried to figure out who might have sent him the gift.
Hearing a voice out in the great room, Johnny hurried out to find his father standing there. In a jumble of words, the younger man described the saddle, the party, and Louella’s charms to the tall man who could barely understand what was being said in all the excitement. In fact the litany of words continue right into dinner when, between mouthfuls of food, Johnny went on and on about Louella’s beauty and the perfection of his new saddle. Many an amused glance was shared by Murdoch and Teresa due to Johnny’s unending commentary. Finally though, the adrenaline wore off and quiet settled over the table. “Say Teresa, I thought you said Boston would be back soon.”
“I did too, but he did say he wanted to get a great deal done today.”
The gray-haired rancher echoed that sentiment. “It always pleases me when one of my sons accomplishes a great deal of work.”
“Well, I think he’s overdoing this working business. He’s just trying to show me up.”
Fortunately, Johnny missed Teresa’s mutter, “He doesn’t have to try too hard.”
Just as the great room clock chimed 8:00, Scott Lancer walked through the door to find his family sitting in the great room. “Sorry, I’m late. I wanted to get the fencing all done.”
Johnny practically pounced on his older brother. “Boston, wait ’til I tell you about Louella. I sure am glad that Heath wanted me to go. And, just wait until you see what I got as a present!”
“Present? It’s not your birthday.”
In a low, confiding voice, Johnny whispered, “I think it’s from a secret admirer!”
Scott’s eyebrows arched. “Secret? I thought your females were falling all over themselves to get to you?”
“Well, normally that’s true, but maybe she’s shy?”
“A saddle is a pretty expensive gift. Are you sure you should keep it?”
“Scott! I wouldn’t want to insult her by refusing to use it!”
“Oh no, you wouldn’t want to do that!”
“Glad you see it my way!”
“Well, I’m glad you had a good time at the party and like your present, but I’m kind of tired so I think I’ll go to bed.”
“But Scott,” Teresa protested, “you should eat something.”
“Not hungry, Teresa, but thanks. Oh, before I forget, Johnny, I believe this is yours?” as he handed over the reclaimed gun.
“Yeah, it is, but where did you get it?”
“Oh, I just came upon it, now, I’ll say goodnight.”
“‘Night, Boston. Say do you want to ride with me over to check out the Dexter place tomorrow? It’s been awhile since we did.”
“You don’t have to worry about that anymore, Johnny. Pandora’s Box is dead and buried.” The slender blond continued into his room and shut the door, tightly.
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