Word count: 3,644
“Damn!” the tall rancher mumbled to himself as he rode along the faint trail through the forest. It had not been a good day for Murdoch Lancer. He had had to make a detour from the main road back to his ranch due to the blockage of rocks and debris. That along with the fact that he had been delayed because the manager of the bank in Green River had not had sufficient funds at hand for the payroll had left the formidable man with a headache and the desire to go over to Old Maude’s for a fortifying glass of brandy. Maude had put in a supply of Murdoch’s favorite liquor for the infrequent times when the patriarch presented himself at the bar. Usually, it was in the company of his younger son who urged his father to stop at the Dancing Emporium so that he could see one of the pretty dancers, Sindy, for a few minutes.
However, since it was already late in the day, Murdoch decided to forego the visit to Maude’s and head back to Lancer. He had enough money to pay off most of the hands, but a few would have to wait—including Scott and Johnny. His younger son had volunteered to go into Green River with him so that the older man would not have to make the long ride by himself, but his father knew that the real reason was to see Sindy. While he didn’t usually mind Johnny’s flirtations with the girls of the valley, he just did not have the time for the young man’s dalliances that day. There was work to be done and naturally his hands expected to be paid on time. They worked hard and those with families needed their money.
As a diversion, Murdoch had sent Johnny to a ranch just south of Morro Coyo to look at a bull that the rancher, Mort Williams, wanted to sell. Actually, Lancer did not need any more bulls for breeding purposes but the financially strapped Williams was offering the animal at a reasonable price.
Scott was also on a business trip to Modesto for his father and was expected back any day. The tall man had to admit that he was grateful that both of his sons could be trusted to handle Lancer business. Although not old by any means, Muedoch had tired of traveling around from ranch to ranch trying to handle business by himself before the two young men had returned to Lancer some two years before. Finally, he had the opportunity to enjoy the empire he had built over the past twenty-five plus years and the chance to be with his new family.
Teresa O’Brien continued to be a source of joy for the tall rancher. No man could have had a better daughter and now that much of his concern about having his sons with him had dissipated, Murdoch Lancer was an almost contented man. No rancher at the mercy of weather, disease, and rustlers could ever truly lose his concern, but hopefully the coming years would be happy ones at Lancer.
As the sun began to set in the sky, Murdoch pushed his horse into more speed. He wanted to be out of the darkened trees and rocks. Once he was in the clear area, he could return to the road and make good time so that he still might arrive at Lancer for a late dinner. Even as he thought about Teresa’s good cooking, his stomach rumbled. “Damn!” He murmured to himself again. “I should have had a meal before leaving.”
Negotiating a particularly treacherous part of the trail, Murdoch almost lost control of his horse when a rifle shot rang out, clacking off a nearby boulder. Turning around, Murdoch made an effort to find a safe place to dismount. On his horse he was a sitting target. Dismounting but still maintaining a grip on the reins, the tall rancher removed the rifle from its holster and patiently waited for another shot so he would have a point to aim at. He didn’t have to wait long. Two more shots rang out. Darting from behind the tree where he had sheltered, he took aim and fired, only to be met with another volley of gunfire. This time the gray-haired man thought he spotted the gleam of metal in the dying light of day so he fired again three times in rapid succession. A satisfying scream, coming from behind the overhead rocks, met his ears, followed by an almost unearthly silence.
Taking a deep breath, Murdoch stepped out from behind his protective tree. Nothing. Moving out even more there still was no rain of bullets to cut him down. Evidently that last fusillade had taken out his foe. Debating whether to check out whether the shooter was actually dead or only wounded, the rancher decided not to waste the time. The sun was rapidly setting and he did not want to be caught out in the growing darkness with many miles still to go.
Mounting his horse, Lancer pushed his horse towards the comfort of home. Hours later he gratefully rode under the great gate to the stable where a vaquero took the reins of his horse. Murdoch murmured, “Gracias,” and continued into the house where he found Teresa in the kitchen.
“I’m so glad to see you. I was getting worried when it got late. Did you get the money?”
Reassuring his ward that he was fine, Murdoch sat down at the table to eat a warmed up plate of stew and drink down a couple mugs of coffee. He explained about the delay at the bank, but decided not to mention the incident of the shooting. Teresa tended to be very protective as it was and he did not want to add to her concern. After an hour the Scot conceded that he was tired so he took to his bed after putting the money into the metal box he kept in his desk. He was definitely grateful to be home.
At midday Johnny Lancer rode up to the courtyard of Lancer, also glad to be home. The trip had been successful in that he had reached an agreement for Williams to deliver the bull in a weeks’ time. He had even talked the man into taking $50 less. Still he felt tired and dirty from the dusty roads and boring trip. Williams was a bachelor so the food served at the ranch was certainly not up to Teresa’s standards, but he had spent some time talking with the older rancher who had told him of the difficulties that a small ranch entailed. Johnny found the talk rather boring, but since the nearest town was miles away, he had little option but to stay for the night and head back the next day. Now, he could enjoy his time off, maybe he could even find the time to go into Green River to see Sindy.
As Johnny emerged from the stable, Murdoch joined him. “Have any problems, Son?”
“No, and I got him to take $50 less. The bull will be delivered in about a week.”
“Excellent. I must say you had more success than I did. The bank didn’t have enough to cover the whole payroll so I’m afraid you and Scott and a couple of the hands are going to have to wait to be paid.”
“Damn! I was really lookin’ forward to goin’ into Green River in a couple of days.”
“Well, maybe you can go in and stop by the bank to pick up the rest of the money?”
“Good idea then I can treat Sindy to a good time. Say, speakin’ of banks, did you hear about all those bank robberies south of Morro Coyo?”
“No, how’d you hear about that?”
“Old man Williams told me. He said some gang, headed by a man named Parsons, seems to be movin’ this way.”
“Parsons? Once had a run-in with a Zeke Parson, but it’s not likely to be the same man. Well, I hope the Green River bank takes precautions. I would hate to see all our money lost.” Murdoch commented.
“You can say that again! Well, I’m going to go see if Teresa’s got somethin’ I can eat.”
“Wait one minute, Son. Uh, if you go into Green River, I want you to be careful. I was ambushed in that area where there’s that S bend in the road, a few miles out.”
“Someone fired at me, but I must have winged them at least because the firing stopped.”
“Didn’t you check it out?” Johnny inquired.
“It was already getting dark and I didn’t want to be even more vulnerable than I was so I just rode home.”
“Well, the main thing is that you’re all right.”
“Yes, now what do you say we go see what kind of food Teresa has for two hungry men?”
The following days passed routinely at the great ranch—plenty of work, a few problems and Teresa’s good food to look forward to. On Friday Johnny finally had his chance to go into Green River to get the rest of the money for the Lancer payroll and as a by-product spend some time with the lovely Sindy. The two danced and drank together for a few hours, but Johnny knew he couldn’t spend the night since Murdoch wanted to hand over the money to the hands the next day. Just as he was getting ready to leave Maude’s the slim girl wrapped her arms around the young man, whispering in his ear, “Wish you could stay over tonight.”
The young man gave her a smile, “Me too, Sweetheart, but I gotta get back. Too bad Scott didn’t come with me. He coulda taken the money back and I could have stayed.”
“Is Scott sick?”
“Nah, he’s on a trip. I guess he’ll be home tomorrow or the next day. Be glad when he gets here. I’m getting’ tired of doin’ double chores.”
“Now, he does them for you when you’re gone,” she protested.
“Yeah mebbe, but he ain’t got nothin’ else to do and I do!” The brunet waggled his eyebrows at her.
“I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Aw, Sindy, you know I like you the best!”
The dancer gave a sweet trill. “Johnny Lancer, I don’t believe a word you say, but you do have a pretty way of talkin’!”
Giving the girl one more kiss, Johnny Madrid Lancer headed to the livery stable to pick up Barranca for the trip back to Lancer. After several hours, it was a relief to reach the white hacienda. To his surprise, Teresa was there alone. She told him that a message had arrived and her guardian had immediately ridden out without telling her where he was going.
“What kinda message?”
“I’m really not sure. I heard a horse ride up and went to see if it might be Scott, but Murdoch was standing there holding this note. He said he had to leave and not to wait dinner if he didn’t return until late.”
“That does seem strange,” the young man remarked. “He didn’t tell you what was in the message?”
“No, and he put into his pocket so I assume he took it with him.”
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait until he gets back. Now, what’s for dinner?”
Teresa shook her head, giving him a rueful smile. “Don’t you think of anything but your stomach?”
“What else is there ‘sides girls?”
“You are incorrigible!” announced the brown-haired girl.
“Hey, I don’t take no bribes—well maybe just a small one, like chocolate cake!”
“Oh, just come into the kitchen. I’ll see what I can make for you.”
The dark-haired man gave her a smile. “Always can count on you, Teresa.”
“Save your flattery for Sindy!”
“Yeah, I s’pose you’re right. She does seem to need a lot of it!”
As the day moved on into evening, the two young people became more concerned about the absence of Lancer’s owner. It was just not like the man to ride off without telling them where and how long he would be.
Finally, as the clock chimed the hour of nine, there was the sound of a horse coming to a halt in front of the house, followed by the entrance of Murdoch Lancer. Entering the great room slowly, the tall man tried to smile at the two people there to welcome him. “Sorry, I’m so late. It was a long ride.”
Teresa walked over to her guardian. “Let me go get you something to eat. You must be starved.”
“Thanks, honey. My stomach does feel like it’s up against my backbone. Then, I. . .I have something to tell the both of you.”
Murdoch did not even look at his dark-haired son as he sat down at his familiar desk.
“Murdoch, what is it?”
“Johnny, I’ll tell you when Teresa get in here,” the rancher replied impatiently
“All right. Guess I can wait.”
Five minutes later Murdoch was wolfing down the thick sandwich and hot coffee that his ward had provided. When the last bite had been consumed, he looked up at the two young people. “I. . .I received a note from a man I used to know, name of Parsons. He. . .well, maybe it’d be easier if you read it yourselves.” The disheveled man handed over a small piece of paper to Johnny who began to read.
Told ya I’d get back at ya for yur cheatin’ ways sumday. How’s it feel to kill yur own boy? It wuz him what screemed that day. Just wanted ya ta know that I always pay my debts. No use lookin’ fer me. I’ll be long gone by the time ya git this
The sapphire eyes darkened. “My God! Murdoch, did he. . .is this true? Is Scott dead?”
“That’s where I went. Back to the place where the ambush took place. I looked for. . .for evidence.”
In a hushed voice Teresa asked, “Did you find anything?”
“Blood, lots of blood like an animal had. . .I also found these.”
Murdoch reached out to show a battered wallet. “Catherine’s picture is in it, just like the one Scott carried. That’s it, except for this.” The older man held up a gun belt and holster which had been gnawed nearly through. On the side was SPL.
“That’s. . .that’s the one I gave him last December,” Johnny whispered.
“I know. Parsons probably grabbed him on his way back from Modesto. I found some ropes. He must have used. . .Scott as a shield.”
“But you didn’t find a body! So mebbe, he’s still alive.”
“I’d like to think so, but we have to face the fact that I may have killed him.”
Teresa walked over to hug her guardian. “But it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have known!”
The tall rancher wrapped his arms around the girl. “Thank you, darling. I just never thought Parsons would wait so long to get his revenge.”
“Just what happened between the two of you?”
Sighing deeply, Murdoch walked over for a glass of brandy. After swallowing it all in one gulp, the patriarch turned to face the two of them. “In 1861 lots of the men in the area wanted to head back east to fight. Zeke Parsons owned a small spread on our northern border so he came to see me. He wanted to head back to North Carolina so he said. . .he begged me to buy the land. This was right after 1st Manassas and he had the idea that he might miss all the fighting. I’d wanted that land for a long time so I offered him some money. He thought it wasn’t enough, but I held out and he finally took the offer. I knew he wasn’t happy about it, but truthfully, I wasn’t too pleased about financing a southerner to fight against the Union. After we signed the papers, he made some threats, but since he left for the East that day, I didn’t think anymore about him—until you mentioned the bank robberies.”
“So what do we do now?” Johnny inquired of his father.
“What can we do, except go over the ambush area again and see if there are any tracks or other clues?” the older man replied.
“We’ll get some men together and go out tomorrow. I just hope there’s something to find—besides a body.”
“We all do, Son.”
Early the next morning Murdoch and Johnny Lancer led a party of eight men to the spot where the ambush occurred. Only a few pieces of ripped clothing were found plus more blood, and some tracks which led in many directions. Sending the hands out to follow all the more likely paths, Johnny and Murdoch continued their look around the rocky incline.
In less than an hour all the hands reported back, saying that the trails led nowhere. It was with heavy hearts that the ten men returned to the great ranch.
As soon as Teresa O’Brien saw the grim faces on the two Lancers, she burst into tears. Murdoch took her into his arms to comfort her. “Teresa, don’t cry. We just have to have faith that he’s still alive and will return to us.”
In a watery voice, the girl replied, “I. . .I know. We need him here.”
But Scott Lancer did not return.
Scott Lancer quietly opened the door to the great hacienda. It had been more than three months since he had been inside the white building, but this visit would last only a few minutes. Making his way to what had once been his bedroom, he was momentarily disconcerted to see that the room had been completely rearranged and stripped of all his personal possessions.
The skinny blond turned to face Teresa O’Brien who was standing there, her face deathly pale. “We. . .we thought you were dead! It’s. . .it’s been three months.”
“I know. I couldn’t get here before now. I’m sorry that you had to go through that.”
“Murdoch thinks he killed you!”
“He almost did. Parker set us both up, but I. . .I survived.”
“Tell me what happened. We’d given up hope.”
“Teresa, it really doesn’t matter. Tell Murdoch I’m okay. I just came back to pick up some personal stuff. Where did you put the picture of my mother and the other things I had in my armoire?”
“I boxed them up and put them on one shelf, but I don’t understand. Do you mean you’re not staying?”
“No, my grandfather is waiting for me in Modesto. We’re going to return to Boston together.”
“Boston? But your home is here!”
“That was an illusion. I’m going back to Boston where I belong.”
Teresa grabbed at the blond’s arm. “No! You’ve got to stay here. Talk to Murdoch and Johnny. They’ve been so concerned and. . . .”
Tugging his arm loose, Scott gently placed his hand on Teresa’s shoulder. “I’m sorry you’ve been hurt by this, but neither of them need me here. Murdoch didn’t even care enough to check if I was dead!”
“He didn’t know it was you!”
“Didn’t he tell you I screamed out my name when the bullets struck me?”
“No, he just said there was a scream.”
“I see. Parker just left me there to bleed to death, but I didn’t die. When he came back the next day, he decided to make some money off me so he sent my grandfather a ransom demand. He figured that way he’d get his revenge on Murdoch and make some money.”
The slender blond limped towards the armoire, took out the box and then carefully placed the contents in the saddlebags he was carrying. “You can keep the clothes. I’ll get more in Boston.”
“One of Murdoch’s bullets fractured my leg. Parker stopped the bleeding but didn’t worry much about setting it properly. I was out of my head with fever for quite awhile. I’m still not sure how I made it.”
“Did your grandfather pay the ransom?”
“He. . he did. He also brought the law with him since he didn’t trust Parker not to kill both of us. I don’t remember much about what happened, but I woke up at a doctor’s office in Modesto. Grandfather told me that Parker and most of his gang were either killed or taken prisoner so now I’m free to go east.”
“But Scott, you can still stay here. I know you’re grateful to your grandfather, but you don’t have to go live with him.”
“Don’t you understand, Teresa? Murdoch and Johnny don’t need me. They didn’t even look for me. I kept thinking they’d come after me, but they never did!”
“They didn’t know where to look. They thought you were dead!”
“I’m sure they wanted to believe that. It made things much easier. I stopped by the lawyer at Green River on my way here. Less than one week after I was shot, they had the lawyer make out a new ownership agreement—Lancer is now divided only two ways!”
“I don’t believe it!”
“You don’t have to. I never got around to making a will so they just wrote me out of the picture so now I’m writing them out of my picture. I. . .I’m sorry if this hurts you, but I can’t stay here.”
A grim look crossed the young woman’s face. “What do you want me to tell Murdoch and Johnny?”
“Just tell them I’m alive and they can keep my share of Lancer. Take care of yourself, Teresa.” On that note Scott shuffled out of the great room, awkwardly mounted his horse and rode off.
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