#5 in the Another series
Word count: 42,915
After Murdoch’s pronouncement, he and Aggie were engulfed in well-wishers. Scott rose almost unsteadily to his feet and retreated from the courtyard. Feigning a headache, he made his way back to the house.
Johnny watched his brother leave. He’d purposely kept his eyes on Scott as Murdoch announced the engagement. The reaction hadn’t been happy. He was tempted to run after him so they could talk it out, but then he figured he’d just let him be. He’d had over two months to watch his father grow closer to Aggie as he helped her determine how to handle Addison’s death and his estate. Two months to get used to thinking of Aggie as a stepmother. It hadn’t been too difficult. He had a lot of respect and affection for her before. She’d always tried to mother him even when he didn’t need it. He figured their relationship wouldn’t change much just because she was living at the hacienda. But Scott…that was a different matter altogether.
Scott stomped back into his room. What was going on? Murdoch and Aggie engaged? It was only a little over three months since Addison’s death. Before that, his father had never shown any romantic interest in Aggie nor she in him. How could Murdoch take her away from him? He’d just started feeling like he and Aggie could repair the damage done by Addison and now this! Aggie was his refuge from Murdoch; now they were aligned. She’d change her primary allegiance from him to his father. He felt he’d been abandoned again. The child within him was devastated. He wanted Aggie to himself, not share her with Murdoch! And the thought of them being intimate with one another made his gut roil.
Scott took a few deep breaths and tried to collect himself. He was a grown man and shouldn’t be throwing a tantrum. His mind went back to his last night with Aunt Cora. He’d complained about needing the jack of hearts and Aunt Cora said, “You have to learn to play the hand you’re dealt, dear.”
“Words to live by,” Mr. Cummings had intoned. “Words to live by.”
“I learned that quickly after my George died.” She patted his leg. “You’re young, Scott, but not too young to learn it. You have to stop wishing for what could have been or what might be and play the hand you’ve got. Wishing doesn’t get you anywhere.”
He’d frowned at her then. His idle musing hadn’t warranted a lecture on life, he thought at the time. Now he pondered it. The hand he was dealt was that Murdoch and Aggie were going to be husband and wife. They were both adults. They had known each other as good friends for over a quarter of a century. This was no whirlwind romance like Addison’s was. Scott grinned ruefully. Aggie had said women her age didn’t often get second chances. Well, this was a third.
What changes would this new marriage create? What would happen to the Double C? Would it become part of Lancer? Would Johnny and he inherit it? Were they to be one-third owners of it now? What would happen to the main house at her ranch if she moved into the hacienda? He realized he wouldn’t be able to talk to her as frankly he had before. Many of their conversations had centered around his frustrations with Murdoch. She would always counsel patience and compromise. He wished Henry were still alive. Henry wasn’t afraid of confrontation and argument. ‘Play the hand you’re dealt.’ He was wishing again. But if he were ever granted wishes, his first one would be to restore his Pa to him. He thought he needed Henry when he was younger. He did, but he needed him even more as he grew older.
He was exhausted; that was the problem. This trip home had taken more out of him than he liked to admit even with the private coach Aunt Cora had provided for him. He’d rest tonight and things would look better in the morning. He’d keep his feelings to himself. They did him no credit, he knew. He’d sound like a petulant toddler. “Aggie is mine!” Besides, when did his father ever care about his feelings anyway?
Johnny burst into Scott’s room the next morning. He’d left Scott alone last night, but this morning he was eager to find out what his brother thought about Murdoch’s and Aggie’s engagement. Scott turned at the sound of someone entering his room, relieved to find it was Johnny. Sometimes Teresa would simply enter without knocking. He had seriously considered putting a lock on his door.
“Not regrowing the beard, huh?” Johnny said, seeing Scott’s half lathered face.
“Aunt Cora hated it. She made me shave it off as a condition of my staying with her.”
“Yes, Grandfather’s sister.”
Johnny shuddered at the thought of a female Harlan Garrett even though he’d never met the man. Murdoch had told him and Aggie briefly what happened in Boston. The man shot his own grandson! What kind of pendejo would do that? But then Murdoch had smashed the man’s head on the mantle and killed him, so Johnny thought he’d gotten his comeuppance. Not knowing what to say, he blurted out, “I’m sorry about your grandfather.”
Scott finished dragging his razor across his face and wiped the remaining lather off. “I’m not! As far as I’m concerned, he got what he deserved. He’s the one who put the bounty on your head.” He didn’t mention that his grandfather had also put a bounty on his head as well.
“How did you know it was him?”
“Addison told me before he died in the mine.”
“Why didn’t you tell Murdoch that?”
“Because he would have tried to stop me from going to Boston. I guess he figured it out or he wouldn’t have shown up there.”
Johnny nodded. “Between the two of us we sussed it out. You shouldn’t have told us different stories.” He grinned at Scott’s disconcerted face. “So the man you went to Boston to get was your own abuelo?”
Scott nodded. “Now you can understand why I’m not mourning his death. He was a bitter, vindictive man. He’s been behind everything bad that’s happened here, even for your mother leaving and taking you with her.”
“What?” Now it was Johnny’s turn to be disturbed. “How’d he manage that?”
“Money. You can get anyone to do anything for the right price,” Scott said bitterly. “He paid some gambler to lure your mother away. She was unhappy here. She and Murdoch had just had a bad fight.” He didn’t want his brother to know the fight had been about him. “I‘m sure the man waved money around and told her she could have anything she wanted. Remember, the hacienda didn’t always look like this. When I came, half of it was basically rubble. Murdoch worked from sunup to sundown. I don’t think your mother liked that either. Anyway, that’s how Grandfather did it, may he rot in his grave!” He thought he had discovered the entry in the ledger. Two thousand dollars. Two thousand dollars to ruin a child’s life.
Johnny was stunned by Scott’s response. His brother had struck him as always the polite and gracious son. He was the cold-hearted, spiteful one. Somehow the thought that Scott could harbor some malice in him made Johnny like him even more. “He can’t hurt us none anymore. The Old Man saw to that.”
“I made sure the word got out that the bounty would not be paid, so hopefully no one will be shooting at you anymore.”
“How’d you do that?”
“I confronted the man Grandfather paid for that.”
Johnny’s admiration increased. “Shit, Scott! You really confronted him—face to face?”
Scott nodded. “It’s why I stayed an extra day in Sacramento. I didn’t miss my connection.” He stuck and arm through his shirt.
“I wondered about that. You’re not one to miss a connection. Who was it?”
“Crocker. Charles Crocker.” The other arm went into a sleeve.
“The railroad guy?”
“Of course, he denied it, but it’s in Grandfather’s ledger. He gave a lot of money to Crocker and the Acme Land Company. He could make them dance to his tune.” He started to button the shirt up. It amused Johnny that he started from the bottom and worked his way up.
Johnny thought for a bit. “Pardee?”
“Grandfather confessed that he was behind that, too, but I haven’t been able to find any entries in the ledger for it. He must not have paid Pardee directly nor through the Acme Land Company.”
“Shit,” Johnny said again, more quietly this time. The enormity of Garrett’s treachery was sinking in.
“And the Old Man knows everything?”
Teresa stuck her head in the door. “C’mon to breakfast, you two.”
“Teresa!” Both Scott and Johnny chastised her. It didn’t seem to affect her.
She pinned Scott with a look. “Didn’t see you much last night.”
Scott just shrugged and continued to put on his boots.
She continued down the hall, so Johnny took up her cause. “Yeah, you took off after Murdoch’s big announcement.”
“Yes, well, I was very tired from my trip,” Scott said unconvincingly. He’d hoped the start of the new day would bring a new attitude toward the situation. It hadn’t. “By the way, thanks for giving me the heads up about it.”
“Aw, don’t get mad at me. It was Aggie’s and Teresa’s idea to surprise you.”
“I hate surprises.”
“I know! Me and the Old Man tried to talk them out of it, but they wouldn’t listen. Hoowhee, when them two get together…” Johnny shook his head, “…they come up with all sorts of schemes. They’ll keep us on our toes.”
“Schemes. Hell, before Murdoch knows it, they’ll be running the ranch instead of him.”
“Instead of the three of us,” Scott corrected. After all, he and Johnny were equal partners.
Scott had to laugh at that. Then he sobered. “What happened, Johnny? When I left, Aggie could barely talk, she was so devastated from Addison’s death. Now she’s engaged again? To Murdoch? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Yeah, I can see that, you being away for so long and all.”
“Three months! It was only three months, and he was in Boston with me for one of them!” Scott said exasperated.
“Well, a lot can happen in that time.”
“What do you make of it?”
Johnny blew out a long breath. “It just sorta happened. It don’t seem so weird to me as it does you ‘cause it just seemed to come about naturally. You went to Boston, Murdoch followed you, and when he came back, he went over to Aggie’s to see how she was doing. I guess he told her everything that happened there and that happened here—the dam, the Mendoza fence, buying up all the supplies, the loan denial—everything. Seems she didn’t know anything about all that. Well, that stopped any grieving she was going through and straight away, she tries to make things right. She got rid of all them Acme workers, ‘though most of them had pulled out already. Anyway, the dam’s gone, thanks to you going to Sacramento, and the fence across Mendoza’s road is gone. The property is up for sale. Things are pretty much back to normal here. ‘Course, Murdoch helped her with doing all that. He was always over there or she over here. Guess they just kinda decided to make it a permanent arrangement.” Johnny finished his story and shrugged. Scott had a tightness to his mouth all through the telling of it. “So how come you’re all twisted up over it?”
Scott finished his morning routine with a brush through his hair while Johnny relayed his story. Sometimes he hated Johnny’s perceptiveness—well, he only hated it when it applied to him. He hadn’t meant to show his disapproval. He certainly wasn’t going to tell him all his petty concerns. They were petty, he kept trying to convince himself. “It just seems awfully quick after Addison’s death.” He hadn’t told anyone that Addison hadn’t died instantly in the rockfall. Maybe next time he and Johnny were very drunk, he’d tell his brother how he tricked Addison into telling him his grandfather was behind everything. He started cleaning up his washstand, so he wouldn’t have to look at Johnny. He knew his eyes would betray him.
“Well, they were only married for three months or so, so maybe that’s all the grieving time she needs to do about it,” Johnny said light-heartedly. “I know she feels real bad about being taken in by that pendejo. I know you and she had words about him. If she acts kinda strange around you, I think that’s why.”
“I tried to warn her.”
“I know.” And then, softer, “She knows.” Then he perked up. “You know, I think Murdoch and her are thinking you’ll be right pleased that they’re getting hitched. Now Aggie’ll be your real mama, well, stepmama. She said she always wanted to be your mama and now she gets to be.”
Scott didn’t know what to say. He, too, had always thought of her as his mama, so why was he so upset about this wedding? Was because it was to Murdoch? Murdoch, the father who acted like he didn’t want Scott as his son, who had ignored him, dismissed him, barely tolerated him? What if Aggie began to see him through Murdoch’s eyes? He wouldn’t be able to escape Murdoch by going to Aggie now. Scott sighed audibly. He hated change. But Aunt Cora’s words came unbidden into his mind: play the hand you’re dealt. He’d play it, but did that mean he had to like it? He picked up Teresa’s birthday present and headed for breakfast, a curious Johnny at his heels.
Murdoch was disgruntled by the time they made it to the kitchen. He was almost finished with his meal. “’Bout time you boys made it down,” he grumbled.
“Aw, keep your pants on, Old Man. We were just catching up on things afore the day starts,” Johnny said.
Murdoch glared at him but said nothing. Scott wondered what tongue lashing he would have gotten for saying anything nearly as insolent as that to their father. Johnny got away with murder, as far as he was concerned.
Murdoch turned his attention to Scott. “Aggie said she couldn’t find you last night.”
“I’m sorry. The journey proved too much for me. I retired early.” Scott held out his hand. “Congratulations on your engagement, sir. You’re a lucky man.”
Mollified, Murdoch shook Scott’s proffered hand. “Thank you, Scott. I think so.”
“Have you set a date?”
Johnny almost winced at Scott’s formal tone and stiff-backed posture. Didn’t the Old Man notice how tightly wound Scott was? How unnatural? He never seemed to detect how different Scott was to him than to others. Maybe this was how Scott spoke to Murdoch their entire lives. If so, it was more than sad.
Teresa put the brothers’ plates in front of them and sat down. “Isn’t it exciting? A wedding here at Lancer! I’m going to be the maid of honor and Johnny’s the best man!”
Of course, he is, Scott thought resentfully. No need to include your first-born.
“Sometime in the Spring,” Murdoch said, answering Scott’s question before Teresa’s interruption. “I think Aggie wants some time to pass after Addison’s death, a more proper mourning period.”
Scott nodded his agreement, his mouth full of eggs ranchero. God, he’d missed Maria’s cooking even with Aunt Cora’s French-trained cook. The spices were perfect. “Maria…” he moaned in pleasure. She came over and gave him a kiss on the top of his head. Everyone laughed, and Scott suddenly realized that maybe not all of Maria’s kisses were because she had mistaken him for Johnny. After all, she had snuck him kisses throughout the years after Johnny had been taken away.
“Think you can walk Aggie down the aisle to me?” Murdoch asked him archly. He saw Scott’s carefully cultivated façade crack the tiniest bit when Teresa had said Johnny was to be his best man. For years he’d been trying to bust down that façade. He was beginning to think he never would.
Oh. Aggie must have told him about their conversation about Addison, Scott thought. Conversations between them were no longer private, just as Scott predicted. He would remember that. He would remember that very well. He swallowed and said, “I think I can manage that.”
“Good,” Murdoch said pleased. “I wouldn’t want to think you thought of me in the same vein as Buck Addison!”
No, Scott thought, but he wasn’t his first choice for Aggie, either. “No, sir.” Time to get the conversation going in a different direction. He placed his present for Teresa beside her plate. “Happy belated birthday, Teresa.”
“Ooh!” she squealed in delight. “For me?” She undid the string around the box that was covered in an exquisitely embroidered French terry cloth towel for her washstand. She held up the towel so everyone could admire it. Then she rubbed it against her cheek. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s so soft,” she purred.
“And absorbent,” Scott added. “It’s called terry cloth.”
“Terry cloth for Terry O’Brien,” she joked. That hadn’t occurred to Scott. Next she attacked the box. When she managed to open it, she squealed again. “Oh, they’re beautiful! Just beautiful!”
“Que?” Maria asked.
Teresa began to lay the contents of the box on the table: a hairbrush, comb, and hand mirror all in gleaming silver. The silver on the backs of the hairbrush and mirror were engraved with designs of baby roses. Everyone made appreciative sounds. She ran around the table and gave Scott a big kiss on the cheek. “I love them, but you shouldn’t have!”
“Yes, I should have,” Scott replied grinning from ear to ear. “You only turn sixteen once in your life, you know!”
She slapped him playfully on the arm for echoing her words the day before back to her. Then she gathered up her presents and raced from the room.
Murdoch took a sip of coffee and said, “A bit extravagant, don’t you think?”
Scott’s good mood vanished. “No, not for a sweet sixteen present.”
Johnny moaned inwardly. What was the Old Man doing? Why couldn’t he just leave things alone with Scott? Why was he always finding fault with him?
“I don’t want her getting her hopes up too high.”
“Why not? Why shouldn’t she expect nice things in her life?” Scott challenged.
Johnny silently rooted for his brother. What had happened in Boston? Scott wasn’t one to talk back to Murdoch. He usually ignored the nit-picking and then went on to do what he wanted. He liked that Scott was standing his ground.
“Because life out here isn’t like Boston. Fancy things are out of place.”
“All the more reason for me to have gotten them for her.” Scott glared at Murdoch.
Murdoch glared back. “I just don’t want her to get expectations. What will she expect next year from you? From all of us?”
“Is that what you’re worried about? Is this a competition for you?” Scott remembered the numbers in his bankbook. He’d win every time up against the frugality of the Scotsman. He decided to rub it in since he wasn’t feeling particularly friendly toward his father today. “I’ll get her anything she wants. Maybe from France next year.”
Murdoch slammed his fist down on the table. “Damn it, Scott!” He was fed up with his first-born’s impertinence.
Scott smiled to himself. Just the reaction he expected and wanted.
Anything more was cut off as Teresa ran back into the kitchen. “I love it!” she exclaimed breathlessly as she twirled for them all to see. Her ponytail was gone. Instead, her hair was neatly brushed and a ribbon adorned her head.
“Very pretty, darling,” Murdoch told her while giving Scott one last glare.
Scott rose and gave her a one-armed hug and a kiss on top of her ribbon. “I’m glad you like it. I knew there was a pretty girl lurking in there.”
“Oh, you!” she said, pushing him away but blushing and grinning all the while.
Scott grabbed a couple of extra biscuits and walked out the door. Johnny joined him a few minutes later in the stable. He wanted to say something to Scott about the Old Man’s stupid remarks, but he didn’t know quite how to bring it up. Scott was still scowling even as he tried to reconnect with Sugar after three months away.
“That was a real nice present you got her,” Johnny said, getting an acknowledging nod from Scott. “Can’t wait to see what you get me. After all, I’ll be turning twenty-one. I’ll only turn twenty-one once, ya know!” That elicited a full-blown laugh out of his brother, and they started their workday in a lighter mood.
Scott looked at the remains of the fence that used to cross Mariposa Creek. Johnny had said there was a fence, but he honestly hadn’t noticed it the last time he was up here. He had been too worried about his wounded brother. Now all that remained of the fence was some barbed wire and a downed fencepost. He started the ride home. Johnny’s custom of a meditative ride on Sunday mornings suited him.
He followed the stream down to Rainbow Lake, surprised to see Johnny seated among some rocks. Scott knew he wasn’t fishing, even though the lake was so named for the rainbow trout in it. Johnny seemed intent on writing something.
“Mind if I join you or would you rather I keep on going?” Scott asked as he neared Johnny’s spot. Johnny had picked a good one: the foothills on one side, the meadow on the other, the deep blue lake with a copse of trees providing shade among the rocks.
Johnny looked up and smiled. “Sit a spell if you’ve a mind to,” Johnny invited.
Scott dismounted, and Sugar walked over to Barranca, who shook his mane and danced away from her, making Johnny laugh.
“What are you writing?” Scott asked, finding a fairly flat rock and sitting down next to his brother.
“Not writing,” Johnny responded, closing the journal. At Scott’s questioning eyebrows, he said, “Just drawing.”
“Drawing!” This was news to Scott. “May I see?”
Johnny’s first impulse was to say no, but he realized that would result only in being teased and pestered relentlessly. Wordlessly, he handed his sketchbook to Scott, who took his own sweet time flipping through the pages. He waited tensely for his brother’s assessment, bracing himself for the criticism.
“These are wonderful!” Scott enthused. “I didn’t know you could draw at all, much less that you’re so talented!” Most of the drawings were of Barranca, but there were some of the hacienda, cattle, and one of what he presumed was him draped over the corral fence. It was of his back so he couldn’t be sure, but he was in his favorite spot. His brother’s eye for detail was impressive.
Johnny let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Think so?”
“I do! Seriously, you could publish these.”
Johnny gave a skeptical snort. “Aw, now I know you’re kidding.”
“I’m not.” A sudden, brilliant idea came to Scott. “Johnny, what do you think of helping me write another book?”
“I’m no good at writing…”
“No, I’ll do the writing. You’ll be my expert advisor and illustrator.”
“You draw the pictures.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My publisher wants another book from me. I want to write one about a gunfighter, and I have a brother who used to be one. You could tell me what it’s like and where I get things wrong.” He gave Johnny a wicked smile. “Or I could just write the biography of Johnny Madrid if you want.”
“I don’t write,” Johnny reiterated. He didn’t know what a biography was, but it didn’t sound good. “Seriously, Scott, you start writing about me and you’ll be sorry.” He gave Scott a fearsome glare.
“All right,” Scott promised, chuckling to himself. “I’ll invent a gunfighter.”
“He’d better not be half-Mex and have blue eyes neither.”
Scott didn’t think Johnny would get so upset about it. It was amusing in its own way. “You got it. I’ll make him an American to pander to Eastern readers, who don’t know anything about the West and might not be too interested in a Mexican protagonist. He’ll be a brunet with dark brown eyes that will flash black when he’s angry,” Scott said, starting to get excited about the possibilities.
Johnny rolled his eyes.
“Now we need to give him a name.” Scott sat silently for a few minutes. “What are the names of some border towns with Mexico?”
“Hey, you stole the best city name with Madrid. Or I could go with other Spanish cities: Toledo, Granada, Barcelona. Tony Toledo.” Scott saw Johnny shake his head. “All right, give me names of other towns.”
Johnny considered. “Well, there’s Tijuana, San Luis Rey, El Paso…” Scott was shaking his head at each option. “San Diego, Ensenada, Yuma…”
Scott’s eyes widened in delight. “That’s it! Yuma! Now for a first name.”
“Scott,” Johnny teased.
“Not fearsome enough,” Scott said. It was clear that he’d missed that Johnny wasn’t serious.
“It can’t be Johnny.”
“No, I understand that.”
“Murdoch?” Johnny smirked.
“Murdoch Yuma? That’s preposterous.”
“Johnny! I’m serious here!”
Johnny just laughed.
God, he loved Johnny’s laugh, but he was on a serious mission here. “What are some of the other gunfighter’s first names?” Scott asked.
“Hmmm,” Johnny thought. “There’s Wes, Phineas, Boone, and the Thompson brothers, Ben and Billy.”
Scott snapped his fingers. “Billy! That’s it. Billy Yuma. He’s our main character, brown-haired, brown-eyed Billy.”
Johnny started to get caught up in Scott enthusiasm. “And what’s he gonna do?”
“I don’t know. Can you tell me some of the things you did as a gunfighter? Maybe I can fictionalize one of your Madrid escapades.”
“Maybe I could add some things or subtract some details that would be something you did, but no one would be able to tell it was an actual event.”
“Hmmm.” Johnny was still skeptical about the whole thing. Was this some way for Scott to get him to spill about his past life?
Scott could sense Johnny’s reticence. They had an understanding about not digging into each other’s pasts. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll start writing, and then you can tell me whether I’ve got it right or horribly wrong.”
Johnny eyed Scott skeptically. “What do you know about gunfighting?”
“Absolutely nothing. Just what I’ve read in Johnny Madrid: Guns of Death.” He knew that would get Johnny’s attention.
Johnny exploded. “You didn’t!”
“I did! I found an old copy when I was stuck in Laramie. It certainly helped pass the time. Imagine finding out I had such a fearsome brother with ‘blue eyes cold as ice.’”
Johnny turned his best icy stare at Scott, who started laughing. It was so rare to hear Scott laugh, especially this deep, hearty laugh, that Johnny started laughing, too. When they were done, Johnny said, “Well, then, you’re gonna get a whole lot wrong.”
“Good thing I have an expert advisor,” Scott said. “You’ll be my co-author and share in the royalties.”
“Presents?” Johnny guessed.
“Money,” Scott clarified. “We’ll get a percentage of every book that’s sold.”
“What kind of money are we talking about?”
“Several hundreds, at least, I would think.”
Scott chuckled. “Now I know your price for cooperation.”
“A couple hundred for just advising? Why not?”
“Advising and illustrating,” Scott reminded him.
“You really think my drawings are good?”
“I do.” Johnny blushed, which Scott was amazed at and charmed by. Johnny was sensitive about his sketching. Scott wouldn’t tease him about it, just as Johnny, for the most part, didn’t tease him about his poetry. “It’s not just me. Anyone would say these are excellent.”
“Yeah. Aggie said she thought they were good, too, but I didn’t really believe her. You know how she is about liking anything we do.”
“You showed these to Aggie?” Scott was a bit disappointed that he wasn’t the first to have seen them.
“She caught me drawing in the barn a couple of weeks ago,” Johnny explained, catching Scott’s frown. Time to change the subject. “You getting used to her being our stepmama?”
Scott sighed. “I thought we were talking about your drawings.”
“We were. Now we’re talking about you and Aggie.” Scott’s silence told Johnny a lot. “What’re you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” Scott said quickly. He’d hesitated when Johnny asked about Aggie because he knew his brother wouldn’t understand all the worries his nine-year-old self had. He knew they were petty and irrational. He wouldn’t lose Aggie; he’d have her closer than ever. Teresa had already announced her intention to call Aggie “Mama,” which to his younger self wasn’t welcome. Aggie was his Mama and he didn’t want to share. But poor Teresa had never known her mother. How could he deny her Aggie? He knew Teresa and Aggie were quite fond of each other. He hated how often his younger self rose to the surface these days. It was fairly easy to dismiss his nine-year-old thoughts but much harder to dismiss the emotions that went with them. Johnny was still waiting for a response, and Scott knew his younger brother would press and press until he said something. “I used to go to Aggie and the Double C to get away from Murdoch. I won’t be able to do that anymore.”
Johnny nodded. He knew the Double C was Scott’s refuge from a father who constantly chipped away at him. The Double C would still be there as a getaway, but there’d be no Aggie to confide in. “And you won’t have Aggie to listen to your tales of woe.” Johnny got a punch in the arm for that. “But look at it this way: she’ll be at the house herself to see how the Old Man harps at you. Or better yet, maybe he’ll let up on you knowing his wife is there to hear and bring judgment down on his head.”
Scott hadn’t thought of that. Thank you, Johnny Lancer! Time to turn the tables. “Teresa said she’s going to call Aggie ‘Mama.’ Are you going to jump on our train?”
Johnny shook his head. “Nah. Already got me a Mama; don’t need another one. I’ll call her Aggie like I’ve always done.”
Scott understood that. Johnny had only one person he thought of as his mama just as he had only one person he thought of as his pa. He gave Johnny back his sketchbook. “I’ll see you back at the house.”
Scott caught Sugar, which wasn’t hard to do as she was lazily grazing under Barranca’s distant but watchful eye, and began the ride home, eager and hopeful for the future. He was going to write another book and Johnny was going to help him. Aggie might be such a positive influence on his father that he wouldn’t need the Double C as a retreat from Murdoch. He felt his childish self recede into the depths of his soul. After all, these were the cards he was dealt, and he was a human chameleon able to adapt to any situation. If he could do it at Libby, this would be a snap, wouldn’t it?
Murdoch threw down his pencil in frustration. He was trying to calculate next year’s profits and he couldn’t remember the projected market price for corn. It had been in last week’s newspaper, but he couldn’t find the paper. He was sure he’d left it right on his desk.
He got up and stretched his back, irritated that he had to go look for it. Scott had probably taken it; Johnny rarely read the paper. He opened Scott’s bedroom door. The room was immaculate: bed made, everything put away. Murdoch preferred Johnny’s mess. At least the room looked lived in. Scott’s room looked like the guest rooms. There was not one personal item on display. So unlike his room at the Double C that had been littered with mementos. A slightly rumpled but folded towel on the washstand was the only indication that a person might have been there.
He pulled out the bedside table’s drawer. It contained the book by Emerson that Cora had sent him a couple of weeks ago but no newspaper. He went over to the writing desk and lowered the writing surface that closed over the top of the desk. There on the blotter lay an unfinished poem. Murdoch picked it up. It was about wild horses being compared to tumbleweeds or some such nonsense. This was the reason he wasn’t fond of poetry. He preferred straightforward writing.
Scott’s handwriting had changed after he went to Harvard. It was more legible now with more rounded letters and looping y’s and g’s. More effeminate? Addison’s insinuation flared again and Murdoch couldn’t dislodge it. Addison had cited Scott’s poetry as one indication that he was a sodomite. God, if it were true, what was he going to do with the boy? He couldn’t abide him staying at the ranch. Scott would have to change or be sent away. With those thoughts swirling through his head, he quickly searched the desktop and the drawers for his newspaper, but it was not to be found. He returned to the great room and its desk cluttered with papers. Maybe the newspaper had been there all along and he’d missed it.
Tired of paperwork, Murdoch rode out to check on the work crews after lunch. Almost all the men were out at the branding site. He found it easily enough from the noise and the stench. Branding was hard, filthy work dealing with protesting calves. He found Johnny wielding the branding iron.
“How’s it going?” Murdoch shouted at his younger son.
“Not too bad,” Johnny shouted back. “Charlie burned his hand. Not too bad, though.”
Murdoch looked around. “Where’s Scott?” Maybe his elder son could tell him where the newspaper was. A thorough investigation of his desk had not turned it up.
Johnny shrugged. “Dunno. He don’t help with the branding.”
This was news to Murdoch. “What do you mean he doesn’t help with the branding?”
Johnny shrugged again. “Never has since I came back here.”
Murdoch was stunned. “Why not?”
“Hell, I don’t know!” Johnny pressed the hot iron hard on the calf’s rump. “Watch out for that leg, Frank!”
Murdoch swore and set off to Cipriano. Johnny thought he didn’t want to be Scott tonight.
Murdoch was seething. Who did Scott think he was? When he gave the work assignments, he expected them to be obeyed. He couldn’t have the hands deciding on their own what to do. He knew branding was hard work and not a favorite activity among some of the hands. Did Scott not want to get his hands dirty? His suspicions about Scott’s sexuality flooded his mind for a second time today. Did castrating the bull calves hit a little too close to home for his first-born? He spied Cipriano up ahead expertly cutting out another calf from its mama.
“Patrόn,” the vaquero said when he spotted Murdoch.
“You’re doing a great job,” Murdoch praised his Segundo. “I’m looking for Scott.”
“He is working with Diego, checking the southern fence line and repairing any breaks,” Cipriano told him.
“Why isn’t he branding with the rest of the men?”
The Segundo shrugged. “He prefers to be elsewhere when there is branding to be done.” He wasn’t going to contradict Señor Scott, the boy who Maria had treated so poorly, who had killed the pendejo Pardee, and, most importantly, who was one third owner of the ranch. He did as Señor Scott asked…until El Patrόn said otherwise.
“I don’t care about his preferences. See to it that he’s with the branding crew tomorrow.”
Murdoch nodded. He didn’t feel like riding all the way down to the southern boundary. He’d see Scott tonight at dinner and set the boy straight then. He thanked Cipriano and headed back to the house. Dear God, he sighed, Addison may have been right.
“What did you do with the newspaper?” Murdoch asked Scott at breakfast. He had forgotten to ask about it last night, too distracted by the branding problem. The boy looked up at him in confusion. “It has the projected corn prices. I couldn’t find it yesterday. I wasted a good half hour looking for it and I still didn’t find it.”
“Nothing,” Scott answered. “I haven’t touched it, although I would like to read it after you’re done with it.”
Murdoch eyed him suspiciously. “You’re telling me you didn’t take it?”
“What?! Do you think I’m that gullible? Maybe it was Johnny, or Teresa, or Maria here!” Murdoch’s voice rose with each name.
Johnny rolled his eyes and Maria started muttering to herself. Johnny had to smile at the words she was using. He hoped Murdoch was too far away to hear them.
Scott didn’t know what to say. He’d told his father the truth and was still getting yelled at. This was just his typical life at Lancer, he reminded himself, even though it angered him whenever Murdoch wouldn’t believe him.
Suddenly Teresa appeared and placed the supposedly purloined newspaper by Murdoch’s elbow. “There was an article about the latest fashions in Europe,” she explained as she plopped down beside Johnny, who snickered loudly as his father turned red.
Murdoch tried to regain his composure and his control over the situation. “I want you helping with the branding today, Scott,” Murdoch instructed.
Johnny groaned softly. Not again. He thought they’d put this to rest last night at dinner. Murdoch had ridden by the branding site yesterday afternoon and was incensed that Scott wasn’t there. He’d demanded that Scott account for his whereabouts. Scott complied and Murdoch exploded. The branding was much more important than the southern fence line. Scott had pointed out that they had all the hands they needed at the branding site and his presence wouldn’t have helped make the branding go smoother or quicker. Murdoch had told him he didn’t know a damn about what would make the branding go smoother or quicker. Teresa had interrupted at that point with a totally made-up problem with the tomato plants and asked for Murdoch’s expertise. She knew he was a rancher and not a farmer, but she hated it when the Lancer men were arguing. Johnny thought that had been the end of it, but now the Old Man was dredging it up again.
“I’d prefer to finish mending the fence line,” Scott said mildly, forcing himself to sound calm. Why was this such a big problem all of a sudden?
“Well, I’m telling you to do the branding,” Murdoch persisted. “There’s no good reason why you can’t.”
Scott set his mouth in a grim line. No good reason was there? Then he wouldn’t tell Murdoch what his reason was. But he wasn’t going to help with the branding. He was certain of that. The last time he had tried had been an awful experience. It was a good thing it happened at the Double C. Jake and the boys had been understanding as he vomited so violently he’d pulled an abdominal muscle.
Johnny was glad the subject was dropped for the remainder of the meal. He went up to his room to get his hat and run a comb through his mop of hair that always seemed to have a mind of its own. When he came back down to the great room, Scott and Murdoch were at each other again.
“…want from me?” Scott was saying. He was clearly upset and frustrated.
“I want your arms and your legs and your guts, if you have any,” Murdoch replied angrily.
Johnny couldn’t believe what Murdoch was implying. As far as he was concerned, Scott had showed plenty of guts over the last three years. Where had Murdoch been during that time? Johnny would have punched the man in the face if he’d said those words to him.
It looked for a moment that Scott was going to do just that. He took a menacing step toward Murdoch, his hands clenching into fists. But then he hesitated and spun away, stomping out the front door.
Murdoch stared after him in anger and then…what? Disappointment?
“He’s got the guts, Old Man,” Johnny drawled from the interior doorway.
That startled Murdoch, but he recovered quickly. “You think so? If he did, he would have told me that himself instead of you. Instead he just walks away like a coward.”
“Coward?” Johnny said incredulously. “All I saw was a man with more self-control than I’ve ever seen.”
“Self-control,” Murdoch scoffed. He was convinced of Scott’s cowardice.
“Just let him be about the branding,” Johnny said, a hint of warning in his tone. “He ain’t needed.”
“I expect you boys to do anything and everything on this ranch. It sets a good example for the hands,” Murdoch explained. Why did he need to explain these things? He’d told that to the boys often enough.
“Aw, they don’t care,” Johnny told him. “You’re the only one that does.”
“I have to care. I run this ranch.”
So much for the equal partnership, Johnny thought sourly. He followed his brother out the front door.
Murdoch felt dejected. He’d been baiting Scott for days, hoping to see some fire in the boy, hoping the boy would fight back. Addison had been right about that, too. Scott didn’t fight back. He didn’t stand up for himself. He walked away like the coward Addison had described. His heart sank.
Johnny found Scott in the stables saddling Sugar. “You don’t have to help with the branding,” he told his brother.
“Thanks for your permission,” Scott hotly retorted. Johnny wasn’t the one with whom he was angry, he reminded himself. “How long do you think it’s going to take?” he asked much more politely.
“Three more days, I reckon,” Johnny said as he scratched Barranca’s nose. He knew his brother’s mad had nothing to do with him.
“See you Friday, then,” Scott said as he finished tightening the cinch.
“You’re off to Aggie’s then?”
“I reckon…after Diego and I finish the fence line today.” Scott led Sugar out of the stall and mounted up.
“Say hello to everyone there for me,” Johnny called after him.
Scott gave an acknowledging wave and rode out of the back of the stables. Once he was clear of the corrals, he spurred Sugar into a gallop. He knew he couldn’t run her full out for long at her age, but he had to get the mad out of him. Bloodlust! That’s what he had felt at his father’s insinuation that he had no guts. Bloodlust…against his own father! For a moment, he was going to attack the man and kill him with his bare hands. Another useful skill that the War had taught him. Then a sliver of reason had slid into his brain and he had walked away. He’d walked away from patricide and he would always be grateful to that sliver. But it hadn’t expunged his anger. He slowed Sugar down to a walk. By the time he reached the southern fence line, he’d be fit for human company again. Then he’d have to invent a story for Diego as to why he hadn’t waited for him to ride down together.
Later in the day Murdoch rode to the branding site and again found that Scott wasn’t there. “Where’s Scott?” he demanded from Johnny, who was hazing cattle instead of using the branding iron today. Johnny answered that he’d told Scott to finish the fencing. Murdoch was working up to a boiling point when Johnny added, “You let him be about it, Old Man, or you’ll be dealing with both of us.” His younger son gave him a look along with the threat that sent a shiver down his spine. He realized he was looking into the face of Johnny Madrid. His constant fear that Johnny would leave and take up gunfighting again swelled his heart. He’d do anything to stop that from happening. He’d leave Scott be.
The wedding day grew nearer, and Murdoch still felt the tension between him and Scott, even though he hadn’t scolded Scott for not helping with the branding and staying at the Double C during it. He found his older son in the stables grooming Sugar. “Scott, could I talk to you a moment?”
Scott’s stomach flopped. What was his father going to criticize him for now? Was he finally going to lay into him for the branding? That had been weeks ago. He’d been surprised Murdoch hadn’t tongue-lashed him for it. He’d asked Johnny what he’d said to him, but Johnny just shrugged like he usually did when he didn’t want to talk about something. “Of course,” he replied to his father, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.
“I’ve been wondering…” Murdoch cleared his voice and tried again. “You don’t seem very happy about the wedding.”
Scott frowned. Really? This was what Murdoch wanted to nag him about today? Was he supposed to be turning cartwheels like Teresa? “I don’t? I’m sorry.”
“Aggie and I, we’d hoped you’d be pleased.”
“I am pleased.” He meant it, too. As Johnny had predicted, he’d learned to accept it in the intervening months since the fiesta. It hadn’t come easily. The frightened, abused nine-year-old kept reappearing at strange intervals. His final salvation had arrived with a package from Boston. Aunt Cora had sent him Emerson’s latest book, a compilation of essays and poems. He’d hidden away from everyone and read it cover to cover that first night. And there was one poem that had struck a chord deep with him. What is Success?1 Now every day he read it before going down to breakfast. He’d read it to Johnny, who didn’t seem as impressed with it. He had joked that the poem was wrong because it didn’t have drinking tequila in it. That hadn’t deterred Scott from memorizing it as quickly as he could. He loved it. It changed his perspective about life. And just as Johnny had suggested, Murdoch seemed more congenial and less judgmental toward him when Aggie was with him. “If you two are happy, I’m happy for you.”
“Good, good.” Murdoch could hear the sincerity in Scott’s voice. It gave him the courage to press on. “I’ve been wondering if you could do something for me, then…as a wedding gift perhaps.”
Scott was surprised. He and Johnny and Teresa had already arranged Murdoch’s and Aggie’s wedding gift. The San Francisco hotel where they’d be honeymooning was very accommodating to their requests. He raised his eyebrows in a silent “what?”
Murdoch cleared his voice again. Why had he let Aggie talk him into this? “I thought it might be nice, I mean, I’d appreciate it if you could call me ‘Pa’ from now on. You call Aggie ‘Mama,’ so I thought maybe…”
Scott was shocked. What was Murdoch doing? He knew very well why Scott didn’t call him “Pa.” And now he was going to make him say it out loud to his face? Very well. He asked for it. “There’s only one man I think of as ‘Pa’ and that’s Henry Conway.”
“But Henry isn’t here anymore, and I am,” Murdoch continued to press. Oh, to hear Scott call him “Pa.” He’d been waiting seventeen years for it. “I was hoping you’d do it as a favor to me.”
Scott took a deep breath. He didn’t believe he owed Murdoch any favors. “Henry…” He searched for the right word, “…deserved to be called ‘Pa.’”
“Deserved it? And I don’t? I’m your natural father.”
“Yes, you are, but Henry acted like my father,” Scott explained. He had thought about how Henry had been with him a lot in the years since Henry’s death. The man was the role model that Scott wanted to emulate with his own children. In response to Murdoch’s disapproving look, he explained further, “He supported me, encouraged me. He listened to me as if I had something worthwhile to say. He made me feel like he was glad to be with me.”
The implication was clear, and Murdoch took umbrage at it. “What do you mean?” he sputtered. “I do all those things!”
“Yes, you do,” Scott acknowledged, “just not to me.” He walked out of the barn leaving a speechless father behind.
Scott waited patiently while Aggie fiddled with her hair one last time. The musicians must be getting tired, he thought, as they played while waiting for the bride to appear. Teresa was holding the bouquet and bouncing up and down from nervous energy.
“You look so beautiful!” she told Aggie for the tenth or more time.
“Thank you, dear.” She gave her soon-to-be daughter-in-law a kiss on the cheek. “Could you give Scott and me a minute?” she asked.
Teresa nodded and slipped out the door.
“I know how disappointed Murdoch was with his talk with you,” she began.
Scott inwardly groaned. Not this again.
“You know how much he would love for you to call him ‘Pa.’ You and Johnny both.”
Scott knew his brother had gotten the same request. Johnny related that he said, “I already got you your wedding gift, Old Man,” and that had been the end of it. Why hadn’t he thought of that witty retort instead of sticking a knife in his father’s heart and twisting it? “I know. We talked about it.”
“He knows Henry is ‘Pa’ to me, Mama.”
“Henry wouldn’t mind you calling Murdoch ‘Pa,’” Aggie assured him.
Scott wasn’t so sure. He’d always sensed a subtle rivalry between the two men. “I can’t call Murdoch ‘Pa.’ He knows why.”
“Not even on his wedding day?” Aggie pouted.
“No,” Scott said decisively.
“Johnny said the same thing.” She sighed and hit him playfully on the arm. “Oh, you men…!” she said exasperated.
“Yes, we men!” Scott laughed. “Now are you ready to walk down the aisle? Your groom must be apoplectic by now after waiting so long.”
“Do I look ready?” she asked, tucking in a stray tendril behind her ear and taking a last look in the mirror.
“You have never looked lovelier,” Scott said sincerely and held out his arm.
She took it. “I know I’ll never be Catherine, but to be any semblance of your mother…well, I had dreams about it when you were little.”
“I did, too,” he admitted. He’d never known his natural mother except inside the womb. He had no memories of her to compare Aggie to. He’d always thought of Aggie as his mother. “I guess dreams can come true…for both of us.” The only difference was that in his dream, Henry would have been his pa, too.
The moment Johnny had been dreading was upon him. The speech. He’d known for months that giving a toast to the happy couple was part of his duties as the best man. Nevertheless, he hadn’t written anything down or rehearsed for it. Scott clinked his fork against his glass and nudged Johnny.
Johnny glared at Scott but nevertheless stood up. There were so many people here, as many as had been at the fiesta when Murdoch had announced the engagement. They were all looking expectantly at him. A sea of eyes. He shifted back and forth on his feet. “I ain’t good at this kinda thing,” he started.
“We can’t hear you!” someone toward the back shouted.
Johnny cleared his throat and started again with more volume. “I ain’t good at this kind thing, but I just want to say that we’re all real happy that my Old Man came to his senses and asked Mizz Agatha to be his wife. Scott and me are hoping that she’ll take some of the grump out of ‘im.” That spurred much laughter and clapping. Johnny blushed. He guessed he was doing all right. He thought about saying how nice it would be to have a woman in the house, but he thought Teresa might get upset about that. Then he thought of saying something about Aggie’s fine cooking, but that would get Maria angry, so he decided to quit while he was ahead and just ended the whole ordeal by saying, “So please raise your glasses to salute the new Mr. and Mrs. Murdoch Lancer. May they have many happy years together!”
There were many “hear, hear’s” and everyone took a sip of their champagne. Then Johnny got an evil look in his eye. Two could play at this game. He turned to his brother. “Scott?” he said loud enough for most to hear.
Scott’s eyes widened in surprise. Once invited to speak, Scott could hardly refuse. He rose slowly, gave Johnny a matching glare, and cleared his voice.
Johnny couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Scott was reciting poetry. Something about “the marriage of true minds.”2. The words were quite fancy and Johnny couldn’t understand most of it, but there were a lot of folks grinning and nodding their heads as Scott droned on. It wasn’t too long a poem, but Johnny was impressed that his brother could rattle it off at a moment’s notice. Then Scott raised his glass. “Welcome to the Lancer clan, Agatha. I hope you and Father stay as happy as you are today.”
Johnny sat there stunned as everyone took another sip to honor the married couple. Had he heard right? Did Scott just call Murdoch “Father”?
Later as they were tying tin cans to the end of the carriage that would take the newlyweds into town, Johnny questioned Scott. “Since when did you start calling the Old Man ‘Father’?” he challenged.
“Just for the speech.” Scott had already wrestled Johnny into an ungainly headlock earlier for springing that surprise on him. “It seemed like such a little thing to make him happy on his wedding day. I don’t think he even noticed, though.”
“Aggie did,” Johnny said. “She looked real happy.”
“Well, she won’t be real happy when she finds out it was a one-time thing.”
“Oh, good,” Johnny was relieved. “I don’t want to be the only one who calls him ‘Murdoch.’” He slapped Scott affectionately on the back.
As best man, Johnny drove the carriage to Green River. The couple would take the stage to San José and then the train to San Francisco. Johnny wished that he and Scott and Teresa would see their faces when they saw what greeted them there: flowers and more champagne and tickets to the opera. It had been Scott’s idea: flowers from Teresa, champagne from Johnny and the opera tickets from Scott. Johnny thought it was a great idea and let him off the hook about figuring out what to get them. He watched Murdoch help Aggie down from the carriage and into the hotel. As he dropped their luggage off inside the door, he said, “Have a good time, Aggie, Pa.”
The look of surprise and joy on his father’s face was priceless. Scott was right. Such a little thing. It made him smile all the way back to the ranch. A little thing for his wedding day, Johnny thought. No way was it permanent.
Agatha brought a pot of coffee into the great room. She shook her head in exasperation. Scott was working late again tonight. She poured the coffee into the cup at his left hand, and said, ”I don’t know why I’m giving you coffee. That will only encourage you to stay up longer.”
“Thanks,” Scott said distractedly. He had a ledger open on his lap and another two strewn across the sofa.
“Scott, you’re working yourself too hard. I know you want to impress Murdoch and Johnny when they come home from Sacramento tomorrow. But with all you’ve accomplished in the last two weeks, I promise you, they’ll be impressed.” She set the pot on a trivet on the side table. Then she put her hands on her hips. That should signal to Scott that she meant business. “You won’t impress them if they see you exhausted. You need to look bright and bushy-tailed, so they’ll think all this work was a snap for you.”
Scott chuckled. “You might be right about that. I’ll tell you what. I’ll finish registering the invoices for last month and then I’ll turn in. I can finish the rest before they ride in.”
“You’d better!” She wagged her finger at him. “I’m going up now.” She grabbed the sides of his face with both hands, pulled his face down, and kissed the top of his head. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He was already engrossed in the ledger and simply waved his hand at her.
“You promised me!” she called out to him over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs. “And sit in better lighting or you’ll ruin your eyes!”
Scott grinned at her mothering. He didn’t know why her nagging never bothered him. It was different with Teresa. Even when they were saying the same thing, Teresa’s harping grated on his nerves. What Aggie said sprang from genuine concern; Teresa just liked being bossy. And he didn’t like being bossed around by a sixteen-year-old girl.
The changes he feared would come to Lancer once Aggie moved in hadn’t come to pass. If anything, her presence in the house had made his life easier. Murdoch seemed much happier and less likely to judge him harshly. Johnny had rudely joked that it was because the Old Man was finally getting some. Scott had good-naturedly scolded him for that, but privately, he thought that might be a big reason for his father’s improved attitude. Also, having a wife usually made a man sit up and behave better lest he be judged and found wanting. Aggie had moved in smoothly and found her place among them all seamlessly. An extra hand helping keep the place clean and running smoothly was welcomed.
Aggie had brought only a few mementos from the Double C. She said that she had always loved the hacienda just as it was and didn’t want to change its masculine character. Most of the things she brought with her wound up in her and Murdoch’s bedroom, but Scott noticed a few more pillows on the sofa.
Aggie’s foreman, Jake, finally asked his long-time and long-suffering girl, Millie, to marry him. They moved into the Conway house three weeks ago. Yes, things had changed, but Scott had to admit, as much as he hated change, sometimes there were changes for the better. He moved over to the wing-backed chair, which had better lighting. It did make reading the fine print or Baldemero’s messy numbers easier to read.
Scott looked up, startled. He didn’t recognize the voice. There in the foyer was a man in a calvary hat pointing a gun at him. He rose to his feet. The hat helped him place the man. “Jed Lewis, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” Lewis said, seeming pleased Scott remembered him. “It’s been a long time since Vicksburg.”
Scott wasn’t so pleased. The only reason he remembered the man was because Jed’s brother had died in Libby, with Scott having a front row seat. “What the devil are you doing here? What’s that gun for?”
“I’m here to take you to an old friend by the name of…Cassidy. He’s waiting just outside of town.”
Cassidy! Scott tried to keep his face neutral, but something must have given him away.
“That’s right, Lieutenant Cassidy,” Jed repeated. “Shall we go?”
If there was one thing that Scott didn’t want to do, it was meeting Cassidy. It was time to make a move, gun or no gun. He stepped toward the desk, but another man came through the French doors. He, too, held a gun.
“You remember Rick Hardy, don’t ya?” Lewis said. “Now come on, nice and easy. No shouting to wake the womenfolk. That won’t work out good for you or them. Let’s go.”
Scott recognized where they were headed: Morro Coyo. He wished he wasn’t so exhausted, but there was nothing to be done about that. Play the cards you’re dealt, he told himself. As he could see it, he had two real choices: try to get away now while there were two of them rather than three or wait until they entered Morro Coyo and raise such a ruckus that people would be awakened and maybe come to his aid. The latter alternative seemed riskier. There were too many variables out of his control. Option One it was. He had two things going for him. The first was that these men thought they were dealing with Lieutenant Lancer, who, despite his rashness on the battlefield, was a polite and shy teenager back in camp. Scott was six years older now and a lot had happened in between. The last three years consisted of manual labor and instruction from Johnny Madrid. The second advantage was that because the first misapprehension had led them to believe that he would go with them meekly, they hadn’t tied his hands. A big advantage, indeed. All he had to do was wait for the right moment.
Then it came. Hardy rode too close to Scott. Scott put his fists together and drove them with all his strength up under Hardy’s chin. The man fell backwards off his horse. Then Scott tackled Lewis before he could clear his gun from its holster. Both he and Lewis and the horse fell sideways to the ground. Scott gave Lewis a punch to the face and then leapt on the back of the horse as it was trying to rise. He kicked it into a gallop and sped away.
It had worked! He had just congratulated himself on the execution of his plan when he heard the gunfire and felt a bullet slam into his left shoulder. Damn! Now he would have to rethink his getaway. He was too far from Lancer to turn around and try to find his way back while avoiding Lewis and Hardy. But he knew this area much better than they did. He’d head for Hanson’s Creek, walk a ways in the water, and get out close to the Wilson homestead. Hopefully, they’d lose his trail or at least buy him enough time to find help at the Wilson’s.
Teresa ran out of the hacienda as soon as she spotted her Uncle Murdoch and Johnny. “Uncle Murdoch,” she yelled as he entered the courtyard in front of the house.
“What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked. The girl was clearly upset. He dismounted and Teresa flew into his arms.
“I’m so glad you’re home!”
“Scott’s gone! He disappeared! His bed hasn’t been slept in. His horse is still here, but nobody’s seen him. Nobody!” She was so distressed.
“Take it easy,” Johnny said. She took a deep breath.
“Where’s Aggie?” Murdoch asked her. After hearing what happened, he assumed his wife would be here wringing her hands along with Teresa.
“She went with Miguel and some of the men to help look for him,” Teresa said. “They left about an hour ago. They were headed to Oak Ridge and then they’d fan out south from there.”
Murdoch scowled. Of course, Aggie would want to be part of the search party. He turned to Johnny. “Take the rest of the men and meet us up there. I’ve got an errant wife to find.” He turned back to Teresa. “You go back to the house in case Scott comes back.” Joe provided him with a fresh horse. Wearily, he mounted up again. The ride back from Sacramento had been long, and he wasn’t getting any younger and the pain from Pardee’s bullet was a constant dull throb for the last ten miles. They had gotten up just before dawn for this last leg of the trip, and he knew Johnny had taken it more slowly than he would have normally. All he was thinking about this morning was a long soak in a hot tub and his bed—preferably with Aggie in it with him. Damn Scott!
It didn’t take Murdoch long to reach Oak Ridge. Miguel was there, trying to coordinate the search.
“Any luck, Miguel?”
“Which way did she go?”
Miguel pointed to his right.
Murdoch sighed. “Didn’t any of you try to talk her out of it?”
“Sí, Patrόn, but she would not listen to us.”
That sounded like his Aggie. Murdoch tipped his hat to Miguel and trotted off to his right. By God, he’d get Aggie to listen to him when he caught up to her. It didn’t take him too long. He could hear her calling Scott’s name as loudly as she could. “Aggie!” he yelled several times until she finally heard him and turned his way. “What in the devil’s name do you think you’re doing out here?”
“Helping to look for Scott!” she said, her eyes defiant. “You don’t think I’d just sit idly by while he’s missing, do you? He could be hurt!”
Did she think he didn’t know that? “I want you to go back to the house now, darling.”
“Why? An extra pair of eyes and hands is just what you need!”
He knew this wasn’t going to be easy. He brought out his ace in the hole. “I don’t need to worry about you when I’m already worried about Scott. Teresa’s beside herself. She needs you to keep her calm.”
Aggie wasn’t happy about it but nodded. “All right. For Teresa.”
“Come on,” Murdoch said, as he swung his horse around. They headed back to Oak Ridge and Miguel.
Johnny was just riding up with extra men as they reached Miguel.
“Here are your extra eyes and hands,” Murdoch told Aggie. She nodded.
“Why are we headed this way?” Johnny asked Miguel.
“Frank thought he saw some hoofprints in this direction,” Miguel answered.
Frank was a pretty good tracker. Johnny would follow his lead for the moment, although there was nothing down south of here, not even a line shack. He couldn’t think of a reason why Scott would ride this way on a horse that wasn’t Sugar. It just didn’t make sense. He looked over to Murdoch and Aggie. She looked frantic while he looked exhausted. “You two go back to the house,” he told them. “Miguel and me can handle the search.”
Murdoch wanted to protest being dismissed by his younger son, but the pain in his back was starting to really ache. He acquiesced, pain etched into his face.
Aggie noticed her husband’s infirmity. “I’ll take care of him,” she told Johnny. She didn’t want to stop searching for Scott, but it was clear her husband needed her just as much if not more. Her duty was to her husband, even as her heart ached for her stepson.
“Thanks, ma’am. It was a long ride.” Johnny gave her an encouraging smile. “We’ll find him and everything will be all right.”
She returned a hopeful but unconvincing smile.
Scott woke up suddenly. Too suddenly. It made the wound in his shoulder scream. Instinctively, he brought up his hand to touch it. That made it hurt worse. What had awakened him? Then he heard it. Horses. He slowly raised his head. There were three of them. Lewis, Hardy, and Cassidy! And he’d be seen in a minute if he didn’t move now. He was in a tangle of large boulders and fallen trees. It had been a good hiding place. But his horse had wandered over to the water’s edge and was clearly visible.
He crawled over to his horse. Luckily, the horse stayed quiet as he led it behind the rocks where the threesome would have trouble seeing him. He leaned against his horse to calm it and waited to find out what Cassidy would do, steeling himself for a possible horse chase. He’d made it to the river last night but no further. He’d fallen off the horse and decided he’d rest for a while. Exhaustion had claimed him and he’d slept until now.
He saw the three men ride up to the banks of the river and wait. Scott prayed his mount would continue to be quiet and not give away his position. It shifted its weight but otherwise remained still. It was eerily quiet, not even a bird singing. Scott heard Cassidy say, “Just falling rocks. Let’s go.” That voice! He’d never forget Dan’s voice. The three turned their horses around and headed back the way they’d come. Scott waited until they were out of sight before he mounted his horse and rode in a different direction.
Johnny heard a knock on the front door as he was coming into the great room after lunch. He’d brought all the men back to the ranch for some food before they’d head out again in a different direction. He opened the door and saw a striking blonde woman standing there.
“I’d like to talk to Mr. Lancer,” she said determinedly.
“I’m Mr. Lancer,” Johnny said.
She frowned. “You’re not Scott’s father.”
Johnny chuckled. “No, I’m his brother.”
She still looked a bit puzzled. “I need to speak to Scott’s father.”
Johnny invited her into the great room, where Aggie was trying to distract herself from her worry with a book. She rose as she saw the woman. “Who…?”
“My name is Sarah Cassidy and I’ve come to talk to you about Scott.”
“Scott!” Aggie exclaimed. “Do you know where he is?”
“No, I don’t. I’d prefer to talk to his father, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll get him.” As Aggie moved to the bedroom wing, she said to Johnny, “Please tell Maria to bring some tea.”
Johnny did as he was told and then came into the great room to glare at their guest. She hadn’t bothered to sit down and paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. Johnny realized no one had invited her to sit down. He decided he didn’t want to either. Something told him this woman was trouble, big time trouble.
Aggie shook Murdoch’s shoulder gently. She hated to wake him, but she sensed the woman downstairs wouldn’t talk to anyone but him.
Murdoch woke slowly and reluctantly; he’d been deeply asleep. “Wha…?”
“Wake up. There’s a woman downstairs who wants to talk to you about Scott. Hurry and get dressed.”
“She said she’s Sarah Cassidy. Do you know her?”
“Never heard of her. What’s she here for?”
Aggie helped him pull a clean shirt on. “I don’t know, but if she can help us find Scott, then we’ll listen to her.”
Murdoch reached for his pants and Aggie brought his boots over. “Hurry!” she hissed.
Sarah was still pacing and Johnny was still staring at her when Murdoch and Aggie came into the room. A tea service with cups sat untouched on the edge of the desk. Teresa sat anxiously on the sofa. Aggie joined her there.
Sarah took a step toward Murdoch, saying, “Mr. Lancer?”
“I’m Murdoch Lancer. And you are?”
“Sarah Cassidy. Mrs. Dan Cassidy?” she said as if her married name might ring a bell.
Murdoch looked over at Johnny in case he recognized the name. Johnny gave him an “I don’t know” shrug. He’d never heard of it either.
“Why are you here, Mrs. Cassidy?”
“To warn you. My husband has come here to kill Scott. You have to find him first so that doesn’t happen.”
Aggie had let out a gasp at Sarah’s pronouncement. “Kill him!”
“If you don’t find him, he’s dead! Don’t you understand that?” Sarah said, her voice rising.
“You’ve made that very clear, Mrs. Cassidy,” Murdoch said calmly and then with a little more intensity, “now I want to know why. What’s your husband got against Scott?”
“Scott never mentioned him…the name Cassidy? The war?” Sarah prompted.
“It means nothing to me.” Again he looked over to Johnny, who shook his head. “My son…he doesn’t talk about the war.”
“Well, maybe I can tell you why he doesn’t, Mr. Lancer,” Sarah snapped. “My husband and your son spent a year together in a Confederate prison camp.”
“No!” came Aggie’s anguished cry. Teresa let out a sob and pressed her handkerchief to her face.
“My husband planned an escape,” Sarah continued. “Scott was to be second in command. The night before they were to go, my husband fell sick, and…Scott led the escape. My husband could hear the gunfire from his bed in the hospital. Even so hot with fever, he heard the shots.”
“Oh, Scott, poor Scott,” Aggie said, tears in her eyes. She, too, grabbed a handkerchief out from her left sleeve and dabbed at an eye.
“An hour later the camp commandant brought him the report: sixteen men, every last man except your son, had been killed before they even reached the wall. It wasn’t until months later, on the day the War ended, that Dan found out your son survived. He was still in the hospital, more dead than alive. He saw Scott there, sick as well, and warned him then that he’d come after him.”
“He believes Scott sold out the escape,” Murdoch said flatly. Was Scott capable of that? Sadly, he didn’t think he knew Scott well enough to answer that question.
“He’s believed that every minute of the last five years. I think that’s the only thing that kept him alive during those first few months, when the doctors said he wouldn’t make it. He means it when he says he’s going to make Scott pay for every one of those lives,” Sarah warned.
“Well, Scott’ll give him a fight,” Johnny said.
“Dan has help, at least one other man that I know of: Jed Lewis. He was in my husband’s company before they were captured. And then after the war, he looked up Dan again. His brother was one of the men who was killed in the escape. There may be others; I don’t know. Dan wrote some letters before we came out here. Don’t you see? You’ve got to find him! You’ve got to find him before they do. Get him out of here! Anywhere but here!”
“Assuming he’s all right, where do you suggest I send him where your husband won’t find him?”
Johnny was amazed at how placid Murdoch’s voice sounded. He knew his father had to be angry. He was very angry and very worried. If these men had Scott…He didn’t know how this Cassidy guy would make Scott pay for sixteen men, but it was sure to be slow and painful.
“I don’t care what you do with him,” Sarah said, not endearing herself to anyone else in the room. “I came here for Dan. I didn’t come to save your son. I don’t want to see Dan end up at the end of the rope.”
“Or facing our guns?” Johnny added menacingly.
Sarah didn’t back down. “Or facing your guns,” she agreed. “I don’t know where Dan is, and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. I’m not trading his life for anybody’s.” She took a couple of steps toward the door. “I’m going now.” Then she turned to face Murdoch again. “Take my advice, Mr. Lancer.” She glanced around the room. “You obviously have money. Use it to send Scott away—across the world if you have to. I don’t care. Maybe someday Dan will forget.” She strode back toward the door again when Murdoch’s voice stopped her.
“Someday is a long time, Mrs. Cassidy. Too long. If you want to do something for your husband, tell him to get out of this territory before it’s too late…for all of us.” He didn’t like this Cassidy fellow threatening Scott. Lancer could be just as threatening; Lancer took care of its own.
That sounded more like his father. Johnny opened the door for the woman. As she stepped through, he said, “Anything happens to Scott, and I’ll kill your husband. Won’t be no place on Earth he could hide, I promise you that.”
Mrs. Cassidy glared at him and he gave her his iciest stare back. He practically slammed the door after her.
There was a flurry of speech after Mrs. Cassidy left. People were talking over each other. “We’re not sending Scott away,” Aggie was saying. “Scott couldn’t be a traitor!” Teresa cried. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this Dan Cassidy kill Scott,” Murdoch vowed.
“We need to send the men out again,” Johnny said, not wanting to get caught up in a debate over Scott’s innocence or guilt. “If we find Scott and bring him back here, then he’ll be safe from this Cassidy fellow.”
Murdoch appreciated his younger son’s practicality. “I’ll organize the search parties.”
Johnny nodded. “Send them out north this time.”
“You have a hunch?” Murdoch asked.
“Yeah. Ain’t nothing south of here. We were trying to track a single horse. Now we know there’s more than that. If they were taking Scott to Cassidy, they’d go north, probably toward Morro Coyo.” He put his hat on and started for the door.
“Where are you going?” Murdoch demanded.
“I got my own search party planned. Another hunch,” he told his father. While the others concentrated on finding Scott, he had another target in mind—Dan Cassidy.
Scott avoided the main street of Morro Coyo as he entered the town. He knew if he didn’t get medical help soon, his fever would spike. It was Thursday; Dr. Jenkins would be in Spanish Wells today. He headed for Doc Hildenbrand’s office. The veterinarian would have to do. He slid off the horse and fell into a barrel when his legs wouldn’t hold him.
Doc Hildenbrand3 emerged from his office and crouched next to Scott.
“Sorry, Doc, but…” Scott started to apologize.
Hildenbrand cut him off. “You can talk later. It’s a bullet, isn’t it?” He tried to see the damage, but Scott kept a protective hand over the wound. “Well, you know I’m no doctor, Scott, but I’ll do what I can.”
“Hide my horse first,” Scott pleaded. “There are some men after me. If they see it…”
“Sorry, your horse is gonna have to wait,” Hildenbrand said as he helped Scott up. The big man practically carried Scott inside the office. Once inside, he took him to the back bedroom and laid him down. Scott was rapidly losing consciousness. It would make it easier to inspect the bullet wound. “Hope this wasn’t over something trivial.”
Scott shook his head. “My horse. I’ll be fine until you get back.”
Hildenbrand went back outside. He spotted Harry Thomas and paid him a dollar to take the horse back to his folks’ place. The boy grinned over the coin and readily agreed.
Hildenbrand went back inside. “I’ve taken care of your horse,” he told Scott, which reduced Scott’s anxiety noticeably. “I’ve got to clean out that wound. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
That wasn’t news to Scott. He nodded his understanding.
Hildenbrand disappeared into the front office and returned with a vial and a hypodermic needle.
“Don’t put me out, Doc,” Scott begged. Lewis and Hardy were still after him. He needed at least some of his wits about him.
“Just enough to take the edge off,” Hildenbrand promised, “but I’m not touching you without it.”
Scott nodded and Hildenbrand administered the shot. There was enough morphine to take the edge off and then some to ensure Scott got some rest. The boy looked ragged. He put a wad of cloth between Scott’s teeth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue and then began to sterilize the wound. Scott’s screams into the cloth sent Hildenbrand’s teeth on edge. Thankfully, the boy lost consciousness, and he was able to finish the ministrations in quiet. He bandaged the shoulder as well as he was able and left Scott to sleep.
It was only an hour later when two men burst in the door to Hildenbrand’s office. He didn’t recognize either of them, but their manner was intimidating.
“How ya doing?” the one in the cavalry hat said congenially. “They tell us you do the doctoring around here. You wouldn’t by any chance be treating a wounded man, would ya?”
Despite the congenial tone, the stranger struck Hildenbrand as menacing. He knew Scott Lancer and thought him a fine boy. He didn’t know these yahoos. These must be the men Scott warned him about. Scott was asleep in the bedroom. The best he could do was hustle these people out of his office. “Mister, I treat horses, cows, and pigs. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
“You don’t mind if we take a look around, do ya?”
“I certainly do mind! I have work to do!” Hildenbrand answered loudly. “I told you, there’s nobody here.”
“Hardy, check the place.”
Hildenbrand took a step toward the shorter man, but the cavalry hat man drew his gun, stopping him. He said a silent prayer for Lancer. One of these men was probably responsible for shooting him. He had to get out of here. He started for the door. Maybe he could get some help.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Cavalry Hat moved to block his way.
“Look, I don’t know who you think you are, mister, barging in here like this…”
Cavalry Hat waved his gun. “Aw, shut up.” He looked toward the doorway his partner had gone through. “Hardy! Hardy!” Then he looked back to him. “Look, mister, if you’re telling the truth, then you have my apologies.”
Hardy came striding into the room. “Save ‘em, Jed. Lancer was here all right. Bed all messed up, blood on the spread. He was here.”
Cavalry Hat—Jed—turned his attention to the vet. “How long ago? Where’d he go?”
Hildenbrand couldn’t believe it. How did Scott get away? How had he evaded these men in the condition he was in? Where was he hiding?
“C’mon, old man, talk, if you want to come out of this in one piece,” Jed threatened.
Then Hardy drew his gun, too. “One second, mister…”
Hildenbrand found his voice. “I don’t know! I swear, I don’t know!” He was desperate to save his life. It wasn’t a lie. He had no idea what happened to Scott Lancer. Jed must have heard the sincerity and fear in his answer because after he peered closely at him, he backed off, putting his gun away.
“All right.” Jed turned to Hardy. “He couldn’t have gotten far in his shape. C’mon, let’s go.” They moved to the door, and Jed turned around at the last second. “Not a word about this to nobody or we’ll be back to finish the job,” he threatened. Finally, they left.
Hildenbrand waited until he could no longer hear their horses’ hoofbeats. Then he went in search of his patient. He rushed into the bedroom and cautiously called Scott’s name. There. The window wasn’t quite shut. He opened it wider and stuck his head out. “Scott?” he whispered.
“Here,” came the quiet reply from the bushes.
“They’ve gone. I’ll open the back door for you.”
Hildenbrand quickly ushered Scott back into the bedroom and sat him on the bed.
“Help me get into my shirt,” Scott requested.
“I shouldn’t,” Hildenbrand answered. “You need to get some more rest.”
“I’ll rest when I get my shirt on. I want to be ready to leave if they come back. And if you have a gun, I’d be obliged if you could loan it to me.”
Hildenbrand nodded. “What’s going on, Scott? What do those men want with you?” He carefully put Scott’s left arm in the sleeve of the shirt.
“A misunderstanding from six years ago.”
“It must be some misunderstanding!”
“It is,” Scott said as he got his right arm in the sleeve and shrugged into his shirt. That move was a mistake and he hissed in pain. “I intend to rectify it soon.”
Hildenbrand swung Scott’s legs onto the bed. “All right, but rest first. You can’t rectify anything flat on your face.”
Scott nodded. He was so tired and the morphine didn’t help. “For just a few minutes…”
Johnny hitched Barranca to the post outside Valdez’ cantina. Whenever he needed information, the cantina was the place to go. There were always several men inside and out who were content just to sit there all day and observe the goings on in Morro Coyo. He went inside and ordered a shot of tequila.
Pedro, the bartender, slapped the glass down on the bar and filled it to the brim. There was always just a little extra for Johnny Madrid. He asked Johnny how he was doing.
Johnny ignored the shot glass for the moment. “I’m looking for a man. Gringo. Name’s Dan Cassidy.”
“No gringos in here for a few days.” Pedro frowned, “Haven’t seen Scott for a while either.”
“Scott’s been stuck at the ranch,” Johnny explained. “The Old Man and me were in Sacramento for a while.”
“Sacramento!” Pedro seemed impressed.
“Some cattlemen’s meeting. Boring as hell. The Old Man shoulda dragged Scott to that and left me here.” Johnny downed the shot in one swallow and slammed the glass back down on the bar. “You haven’t heard the name Cassidy around here?”
Pedro shook his head. “But I don’t get out from behind this bar much. Ask Jorge. If anyone knows, he will.”
Johnny thanked him and left two bits behind.
Jorge Mendez was a fixture at Cantina Valdez. He’d capture a chair outside the drinking establishment early in the morning and stay all day, moving inside when the sun went down. No one knew where he slept. Friends would spring for drinks and a meal to listen to his stories. He’d also get paid for information. Johnny got his money ready.
“Jorge!” he greeted the man heartily.
“Mi amigo, Juanito! Como estás?”
They exchanged pleasantries and then Johnny got down to business. He inquired whether Jorge had seen a gringo by the name of Cassidy. To his delight, Jorge had. His inquiry had attracted a number of the cantina regulars. They were always excited when Johnny Madrid came to town. They stood around and listened to the exchange. Johnny asked Jorge to describe him if he could.
He could. Average height, brunette with a mustache. A fairly natty dresser. One of the other bystanders pointed the fellow out as he left the hotel. Johnny tapped his arm in thanks, handed Jorge a ten piece, and mounted Barranca. Jorge was right: an average-looking man. He didn’t seem like a man filled with revenge. Cassidy mounted a horse and rode down the street at a walk. Johnny got on Barranca and went after him.
Johnny cut ahead of the man and wheeled Barranca around to block his path. Cassidy pulled the reins to a stop.
“Mr. Cassidy?” Johnny drawled.
Cassidy flinched slightly at this stranger knowing his name.
“My name’s Johnny…Johnny Lancer.” Oh, how he wanted to say his name was Johnny Madrid! But he thought this oblivious Easterner wouldn’t recognize the name or know the reputation. Cassidy moved his hand to his gun. “I wouldn’t do that,” Johnny warned.
Cassidy wisely moved his hand back to the pommel. “My business isn’t with you, boy.”
“Well, that must mean you haven’t found Scott yet.”
Cassidy looked like he was debating whether he’d respond. Finally he admitted, “Not yet.”
Johnny gave him his Madrid stare. “Well, you never will, Mr. Cassidy, ‘cause you and me are gonna take a little trip to the railroad depot at Cross Creek. We’re gonna stop the train, put you on it, and ship you back East.”
Cassidy smiled a little bit. “You’re fooling yourself, boy, ‘cause even if you do get me on that train…”
“You’ll come back?” Johnny smiled a deadly smile. “You do, and it’ll be the last trip you’ll ever make. Let’s go.”
“My wife’s here…” Cassidy began.
“Sarah?” Again Cassidy flinched slightly upon hearing his wife’s given name from this Mexican’s mouth. “She’ll just have to catch up to you later.”
They started to slowly walk down the street. As they rounded a corner, a man pulled his gun out. Johnny veered Barranca around to go back the way they came, but another man rode up behind them. Barranca stuttered to a stop, and Cassidy reached over to snatch Johnny’s gun out of his holster. Johnny swore.
“Where’s Scott?” Cassidy demanded of his cohorts.
“That’s how come we came back to get you,” the guy in a cavalry hat answered.
“We almost had him. Some fool vet lied his head off long enough for him to get away,” the other guy explained.
Johnny listened for any clue as to where Scott was. He’d been at Doc Hildenbrand’s but now was gone. Still, he must be in the vicinity. Why did he go to the vet’s? Was he hurt? He didn’t think he was going to get any more useful information. It was time for action. He’d kidnap Cassidy later. Right now he had to get out of this trap so he could regroup his efforts. He backhanded Cassidy and rode toward Cavalry Hat. Instead of the horse moving out of the way as he expected, it reared up, losing its rider, but scaring Barranca. Barranca backed up, and Cassidy was able to hit him from behind. Johnny felt himself falling, hitting the ground hard, momentarily stunned. He heard the cock of a gun from the direction of Cavalry Hat. Johnny waited for the inevitable bullet.
“No! He’ll keep just as he is. I said no killing except for Scott Lancer.” It was Cassidy’s voice. “All right, let’s get back.”
“No!” Cavalry Hat protested. “You take Hardy with you. I’m gonna keep looking for Scott.”
Cassidy’s voice took on almost a paternal tone. “Now, Jed, how long ‘til you fall over from exhaustion? Now, come on. We gotta…”
Jed cut him off. “No, you gotta…but not me. I don’t quit ‘til I pay him back for what he did to my brother!”
Johnny stayed motionless until all of them rode away. Then he felt some hands on his shoulder. “Mr. Lancer? You all right?” in Spanish.
He looked over his shoulder into the kind face of Señora Cortez. He let her help him up and said, “I’m fine, Señora. Gracias.” He went to collect Barranca. What was he going to do now? Scott wasn’t at the veterinarian’s, that much he’d found out. He’d check the saloon and talk to Abbie. If she couldn’t tell him anything, he’d have to ride back to the ranch.
Scott woke up in a panic and then settled himself as he took in his surroundings. He was in a strange bedroom. His mind cast back to how he got there: Cassidy, bullet wound, Doc Hildenbrand. He was at the vet’s. He calmed his racing heart. He was safe for the moment. By the slant of the sunlight coming through the window, he hadn’t been asleep for too long. He found his boots and put them on.
Hildenbrand stood in the doorway. “Thought I heard some noise in here.”
“Thanks, Gabe, for everything,” Scott said sincerely.
“You fixing to go someplace?”
“I’m fixing on settling this once and for all.”
“I see that you’re determined, Scott, but I would recommend you spend the rest of the day in this room resting. I’ll have Mable bring us over some food.”
Scott shook his head. “I can’t wait that long, and I don’t want Lewis and Hardy coming back to threaten you again or worse.”
“You gonna take those two on yourself in your condition?” Hildenbrand asked incredulously.
“No. I plan to take on the leader of this mess,” Scott said. “Mind if I borrow your gun?”
Hildenbrand hesitated. “See here, Scott, I don’t want you to go off shooting anyone.”
“I won’t kill anyone,” Scott promised, “but I need it for ‘persuasion.’ He won’t listen to me otherwise.”
“I’ve known you as a man of your word, Scott Lancer. If you say you won’t kill anyone with my gun, I believe you.” Hildenbrand took the gun off the dresser and handed it to Scott. “But heed my words: you need to rest.”
“I will, right after I fix this.”
“Your horse is at the Thomases. I told young Harry to take it.”
Scott didn’t need the horse yet. He nodded. “Thanks.”
Scott scooted out the back door and made his way to the hotel. He just needed to talk to Dan. Alone. One on one without the presence of Lewis or Hardy. Then they could both get down to the bottom of this. There had to be a rational explanation about what happened that awful night. He tried to look as healthy as he could to the hotel manager as he inquired as to which room Dan Cassidy was in. Despite giving him a dubious look, the manager told him room nine. Scott found the right door but climbing the stairs had been almost too much for him. He paused to catch his breath. Taking the gun out of his waistband, he opened the door, a little surprised it was unlocked.
There was a woman inside the room that Scott assumed was Cassidy’s wife, Sarah. Dan was right—she was very beautiful. Strangely enough, she didn’t seem too frightened by him. He waved his gun at her to move away from the interior door, and she did. He pressed a finger to his lips for her to remain quiet. Then he swung the door open and pointed the gun inside.
Sarah finally spoke. “He’s not in there either. Scott Lancer, I presume?”
Scott nodded. “Where is he? When is he coming back?”
“You think I’d tell you?” she asked, eyeing the gun.
Scott purposefully held the gun barrel away from her. “I didn’t come here to kill him. I just want to talk to him.”
She gave a skeptical snort. “You just want to talk.”
“Look, I know what he probably told you, but I’m not a traitor,” Scott implored.
“It doesn’t matter what you are or why you came here. The point is, he’ll kill you on sight. I should think that bullet hole in your shoulder would be proof enough.”
“Lewis or Hardy did that. I can’t believe Dan would do that to me without giving me a chance to explain first.” He was panting now. It was difficult to get enough air in his lungs. “Lady—Mrs. Cassidy, Sarah, isn’t it?—Dan and I are going to face this head on once and for all. Now tell me when he’s coming back.”
Seeing the door to the hallway open for anyone to see in, she closed it. Maybe Scott Lancer was right. Maybe the two of them should talk it out. The problem was that Dan wasn’t thinking straight these days. His obsession with Lancer had changed him, hardened him in a way that made him unrecognizable to her. He would kill Lancer before he could open his mouth to talk, and she couldn’t let that happen. “I don’t know when he’s coming back.” At Lancer’s skeptical look, she added. “I don’t.” Maybe she could get him to leave. “Look, Mr. Lancer, get this through your head: there is nothing you can say, nothing you can do that will change his mind. I know; I’ve tried. Now, if you stay here, one of you is going to die and I don’t want it to be Dan. If you go now, I promise I won’t say anything.”
“Even if I trusted you…” he started to say but his head was aching so. He only needed a moment, a minute of rest. Where was he? “Even if I trusted you, I don’t think I could make it to the lobby.” He saw the upholstered chair and dropped gratefully if inelegantly into it. “So it looks like I’ll be staying for a while.” His hand fluttered to his left shoulder, as if touching his wound would miraculously make it feel better. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her move toward the door. He couldn’t let her get help. He found some energy and intercepted her. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I was going downstairs to get some whiskey and fresh bandages.”
He didn’t believe that for a minute. “Oh, you’re very kind,” he almost sneered, “but I said I was staying and I’m not going to be tricked out…or…or dragged out…” His vision grayed out and he staggered. Arms caught him and deposited him back in the chair. A glass of water was put in his hands. He gulped it down. It was just what he needed.
Her voice was near his ear as she said, “If it weren’t for you, if you’d never existed, I’d have a life today. Now you take five minutes, and you get out! You understand? You have five minutes!”
Scott wasn’t sure he understood. His mind was fixated on the words “if you never existed.” He almost hadn’t existed, being born early and not expected to live. He wondered how many people’s lives would have been better if he hadn’t existed. Dan’s and Sarah’s, his mother’s, his grandfather’s, Murdoch’s, Johnny’s, all the people he’d killed in the War…It was a long list. The familiar wave of sadness washed over him, but he couldn’t let it overwhelm him. He needed to stay aware.
A minute later the doorknob rattled.
“Get in the bedroom!” Mrs. Cassidy hissed. “Let me see what mood Dan is in…” She helped him up.
They made it as far as the bedroom door when the hall door blew open from a vicious kick. Cassidy and Hardy stood in the doorway. Cassidy strode into the room. “New friend of yours, Sarah?” he said, giving her an extra menacing glare as she was leading Lancer into their bedroom. “Looks like you saved me a lot of trouble.”
Scott had no idea where his gun was. Then he spotted it on the floor by the chair. It wouldn’t do him any good over there. Cassidy’s gun was already aimed at him.
“Take him, Rick,” Cassidy ordered.
Hardy walked over to Scott and grabbed his left arm, sending waves of pain through his arm and shoulder. Scott knocked the hand away, but Hardy grabbed it again and marched Scott to the door.
“No! Let him go!” The voice was Sarah’s. It was authoritative enough to stop Hardy at the door.
“I’ll talk to you later, Sarah,” Cassidy said as he moved to join the Hardy. “I’ll be looking forward to hearing you explain…”
She cut him off. “Don’t you do it, Dan! Don’t you dare do it!”
“It’s done,” he barked at her.
She grabbed her husband’s arm, halting his steps. “If you kill him, you’re killing an innocent man!”
“Of course, he’d say he’s innocent…”
“He is. It was you. You were the one who betrayed the escape, do you understand me? It was you!” The anguish of telling him was clear in her voice, her face.
Cassidy’s face turned red with anger. He grabbed her hair and pulled her head back. “What are you saying?”
She let out a little grunt of pain. “I didn’t want to tell you.”
“Do you know what you’re saying?”
She closed her eyes. “I never wanted to tell you. I was afraid of what it would do to you.”
“Is that what he told you to get you to help him?” Cassidy accused.
She shook her head as much as could with him clutching her hair. “No, Dan.”
“He told you a bunch of lies and…”
Sarah cut him off. “No, Dan! He didn’t tell me anything! You were sick, delirious, the night before the escape.”
“I don’t want to hear his lies!” He gripped her hair tighter, but at her yelp of pain, he released her.
She moved a few steps away from him but kept her eyes on him. “You couldn’t help it, Dan. You couldn’t help it! You didn’t know what you were saying…A hospital orderly overheard you…”
“Lies! All lies!” Cassidy repeated. He paced the room and then said, “How would you know all this besides him lying to you?”
“Because the army told me. I have the letter back home. If I’d’ve known you were coming out here to go after him, I would have shown it to you. I can show it to you when we get home, or you can ask the army yourself. They knew you weren’t responsible, so they closed the book on it to protect you. Just like I’ve tried to protect you all these years. Dan, I never wanted to tell you. I was afraid of what it would do to you.” Sarah watched her husband continue pacing. “I thought you’d forget about Scott. I thought we could start a new life for ourselves without the War following us, always being there for you.”
“That’s what you thought, eh?” Cassidy said sarcastically.
Sarah took a conciliatory step toward her husband. “I was wrong, so wrong. If I had told you, none of this would have happened. Please, Dan, forgive me.”
“Forgive you?” He thrust a hand out toward Scott. “I could have killed him!”
“But you didn’t and everything is all right now,” she said, more as a plea than a fact.
“All right,” Cassidy repeated morosely and fell into the chair by the table.
Seeing his distress, Scott told Sarah to get some whiskey.
“I don’t need a drink,” Cassidy said. He tried to hold his head in both his hands, but he realized he was still holding his gun. He tossed it away violently. “I’m sorry, Scott, so sorry. I should have known you’d never betray us, but… My God.” He looked up suddenly. “Jed…” He turned to the doorway, but Hardy was nowhere to be seen. “Hardy!” he shouted. He ran to the doorway. “Hardy!” he shouted down the hall. That brought him face to face with Scott.
“I don’t think we have to guess where Rick’s gone,” Scott said quietly. Without Hardy holding him up, he was ready to fall down. “He’s gone to tell Jed, and now Jed will come after you.”
“Will he? Maybe not,” Cassidy said hopefully.
Scott snorted in disbelief. “No? You know Solomon was everything to him—all he had in this world. They were devoted to each other. Jed wants revenge for his brother before he can rest. He’ll come after you and then you’ll know what it feels like to be hunted.”
“I can understand you finding pleasure in that.”
Scott sighed. “I take no pleasure in that, but you have to get out of here.”
“I was going to leave on the four o’clock stage,” Sarah said. “Now we’ll both go.”
Scott started to slide down the doorframe, so Cassidy helped him over to the chair. “If you wait for the stage, you’re liable to wait too long,” Scott wheezed. “The only place safe for you is Lancer. We can protect you there.”
“Scott…” Cassidy started to protest.
“Hurry!” Scott insisted.
Sarah tugged at her husband’s arm. It sounded like a good option to her. “Come on. I’m already packed. It’ll just take a minute to pack your things.” As he went with her, she added, “We need to get Scott home. We owe him that at least.” That got a compliant nod from Dan.
Dan paid for the hotel room and they left out the back way for the livery barn. Dan paid for the wagon rental. Tom, the livery owner, gave Scott a concerned look but didn’t say anything. Soon the three of them were on their way. Scott gave directions for getting to the ranch from the back way and struggled to keep conscious. Lancer would be a safe haven for the Cassidys, but it might not be for him once Murdoch and Johnny got ahold of him.
Aggie was beside herself with worry. Murdoch was still out looking for Scott, but Johnny had returned home with distressing news. Scott had been shot. Apparently, he was still alive but nowhere to be found. She wanted to be out there looking for him herself. Teresa had been distraught, yes, they all were, but not to the point where Aggie needed to be here. She sighed. Murdoch wanted her to wait, so she would wait.
The sound of a group of galloping horses shook her from her thoughts. By the time she got through the French doors, the hands had ridden past and Murdoch was reining in his horse.
“Anything?” Aggie asked.
Murdoch dismounted and shook his head. He put his arm around her waist and they went inside.
“You must be starving,” Aggie said. “Would you like something to eat? Johnny’s in the kitchen having a bite.”
“No. No thank you, darling.”
There were sounds of shouting outside. Murdoch walked over to the French door and looked out. There was a buckboard riding up. There, in the back… He burst out of the door. “Scott!”
Aggie quickly followed him. It was indeed her Scott, arm in a makeshift sling, in the back of the wagon. A strange man was helping him off. Several hands ran up to the wagon to help.
“We need to get him into the house,” Murdoch directed Diego and Walt.
They took up positions on either side of Scott, but he paused. “You’d better set up some lookouts. Some men might be coming for him,” Scott said as he nodded toward the stranger. Diego and Walt continued to get him inside with Aggie quickly skirting around them to prepare Scott’s bed.
The stranger faced Murdoch squarely. “Name’s Cassidy, Mr. Lancer. Dan Cassidy.”
So this was the man. Why had Scott brought him here? “Cassidy? Why, you’re the one…”
“…who traveled three thousand miles to kill your son for something I did,” Cassidy said, seeing Scott’s father’s confusion. “That’s right, Mr. Lancer, I was the one who betrayed the escape. And it’s me the others will be coming for now.”
“He didn’t mean to,” Sarah Cassidy interjected, trying to make Scott’s father understand.
Courtesy demanded that Murdoch usher them inside. He was grateful for the demands of etiquette in these circumstances. It gave him time to gather his thoughts. The group ran into a concerned and curious Teresa.
“Teresa, could you show the Cassidys to one of the guest rooms, please?”
“Of course! Right this way, please,” she said as if this were an everyday occurrence and she’d been doing it all her life. Murdoch loved her like a daughter. He’d offered to adopt her years ago, but she wanted to keep her father’s name. Murdoch couldn’t blame her; Paul had been a fine man. But at times like these, he couldn’t help but think she was of his own flesh. She was practical and resilient as well as loving and kind, sometimes too kind. Speaking of being too kind, he headed for Scott’s room.
The hands were just leaving as he entered Scott’s bedroom. Aggie was fussing over him and Murdoch thought he saw a pleading look for rescue from his son. “I’ll take it from here, darling,” Murdoch offered as Aggie tried to unbutton Scott’s shirt. He wasn’t making it easy for her. The sling and his boots were already off. She reluctantly stopped and, giving Scott a kiss on his temple, left the room.
“Thanks,” Scott said. He let his father finish unbuttoning his shirt and helping him off with it, carefully avoiding his wound. The bandage was spotted with blood. Scott scooted under the covers.
“Just what were you thinking?” Murdoch asked after Scott had settled beneath the linens.
Scott didn’t need to ask him to what he was referring. “That we could post some extra guards—dissuade Jed and Rick from going after Dan. That all right with you?”
There was something about Scott using everyone’s first names that was disconcerting to Murdoch. It sounded too friendly, too intimate, to call people who wanted to kill him by their given names. Scott seemed anxious, on edge, and exhausted. “I’ll post the guards,” he promised, hoping that would ease Scott’s worry enough for him to get some sleep. “You rest.”
Downstairs in the great room he found Johnny pacing in front of the fireplace. There was no sign of Aggie or Teresa, but with two more mouths to feed for dinner, he guessed they were in the kitchen helping Maria. Murdoch headed for the liquor bottles. He could tell Johnny was working up his mad, and he might as well be fortified. It had been a ghastly day and it wasn’t over yet.
“You going to say what’s on your mind, son, or just walk it out?”
That actually made Johnny smile a little. “Look, I know what Scott’s trying to do, but if Cassidy stays here, there’s gonna be trouble.”
“What do you suggest I do? Kick him out? Let him be gunned down?”
“Scott’s safe. This ain’t our fight anymore, Murdoch,” Johnny argued.
Murdoch took another sip of scotch, relishing the burn in his throat as it slid down. “Your brother thinks it is.”
“Scott’s got a hole in his shoulder and I nearly got the same.” Johnny ignored Murdoch’s surprised look at that statement. “You’re asking a lot if you want me to forget about it.”
“I’m not asking you to forget about it, just tolerate it until they leave. For your brother’s sake.” Murdoch knew his younger son would do practically anything for his older brother.
“Tell me something. Would you have let them stay if Scott hadn’t’ve talked you into it?” Johnny probed.
Murdoch thought about it for a second and said, “I’d like to think I have as much compassion as my elder son.”
“Pfft!” Johnny scoffed. “Nobody’s got as much compassion as Scott.”
Murdoch raised his glass in acknowledgement of that remark.
“But you’re not sure,” Johnny pressed. “Are you?”
Murdoch looked away. Every so often it seemed Johnny liked to remind him of how perceptive he was.
“Maybe Scott’s right and you’re right,” Johnny continued.” I hope so because those men out there on watch out on the perimeter, they’re friends of mine, and I don’t want to see ‘em get hurt or killed…” Johnny looked up to see Cassidy standing meekly in the interior doorway. His presence wasn’t going to stop Johnny from making his point. “…especially for some no-account guy who has a vendetta against my brother.” Giving Cassidy a glare, he grabbed his hat and went out the front door. Its heavy oak always made a satisfying noise when it was slammed shut.
Cassidy shuffled into the room. “I take it that was about me.”
Murdoch nodded without glancing at the man.
“I’d feel the same way if I were him,” Cassidy said. “So much so, Mr. Lancer, that I’ve decided to go.”
Murdoch closed his eyes. He was so tired. Didn’t this man know how extraordinary Scott’s offer had been? And now he was throwing it away? “Go where, Cassidy? Where could you go that…”
Cassidy cut him off. “I didn’t come to argue with you, just to ask you whether my wife could stay on here until it’s safe. Look, when I agreed to come here, I was in a panic. I wasn’t thinking straight. Now I am.”
Murdoch sighed mightily. “Mr. Cassidy, it’s been a long day for all of us. Dinner will be in an hour. Why don’t you go upstairs and freshen up or have a drink or…something? If you want to discuss this further, it can wait until after dinner. Then I suggest you take up the matter with Scott. You’re his guest, not mine.”
Cassidy looked like he wanted to say something but thought better of it. He turned and walked out. Murdoch refreshed his scotch.
Johnny walked off his mad by going around to the hands stationed closest to the house and thanking them for their loyalty. He made it clear to each of them to defend themselves at all costs. Most of them didn’t seem to mind too much that they weren’t relaxing in the bunkhouse playing poker for matchsticks. Johnny reckoned they weren’t going to complain to one of the ranch’s owners, though. He finally settled down enough that he could go back inside the hacienda and wash up for dinner.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Even Teresa couldn’t pretend to be happy at having these guests at the table. She couldn’t muster up her usual chatter about nothing. Aggie had politely asked about the Cassidys’ life back East, but that topic had generated only a few minutes of conversation. At least Cassidy hadn’t brought up the subject of leaving again. For that Murdoch had been very grateful. He didn’t need an argument at the table.
After dinner, everyone scattered to their rooms. Murdoch was relishing lying down in his own bed, when he saw light shining out from under Scott’s door. Too much light if Scott were to get any deep sleep. He carefully opened the door.
Scott’s eyes were closed, but they fluttered open as Murdoch stepped through the doorway. Murdoch silently kicked himself for waking him. “I’m sorry, Scott. I didn’t mean to wake you. How are you feeling?”
“A little stiff,” Scott admitted. “I’m all right.”
Murdoch frowned. Yes, this boy was always fine. Actually, both his sons were. Johnny, too, would say he was fine or that he’d “had worse” when he was sick or injured. Why couldn’t his sons just tell him how badly they were hurting? Did they think they’d lose his respect if they were anything less than fine?
“I heard some riders before,” Scott was saying, “some talk. What was that all about?”
Murdoch didn’t want to tell him because he knew it would worry the boy. He blew out the bedside lamp. “Nothing for you to concern yourself with. Go back to sleep.”
Scott felt his anger rise. Nothing for him to worry his pretty little head about, was it? He hated being dismissed out of hand. “I asked you a question.”
There was no getting around it. Scott was a stubborn man. “Well, a hand came back who said he saw a couple of riders over at the south range,” Murdoch answered, blowing out another lamp. Now the room was suitably dark.
“Jed Lewis?” Scott asked. “I had to bring Dan here. You understand that, don’t you? I couldn’t just…”
“…let him be slaughtered? There’s nothing to be ashamed of there.”
Slaughtered. Why had his father used that word? It took him straight back to that awful night in Libby: the screams of dying men, the smell of gunpowder and blood. The most awful night of his life. An actual slaughter. Sixteen good men, friends, dead. Tears sprang to his eyes.
There was still enough light coming through the window that Murdoch could see the moisture in Scott’s eyes as it slowly gathered and then made its way down his face. He looked away, embarrassed and ashamed for his son. He was so sensitive, this one. His eye caught a feminine figure outside the window headed for the corral. Sarah Cassidy. Now what was she up to? He quickly left the room so he could catch her before she rode out.
Scott noticed Murdoch’s embarrassment at his tears. He apparently had been so ashamed of him that he’d rushed out of the room without saying another word. Scott knew he was too easily given to tears. No wonder his father liked Johnny better.
Sarah Cassidy was already mounted and about to ride out by the time Murdoch reached the corral. He closed the gate on her. “Can I guess? You’re going to Jed Lewis. It won’t do you any good, just as it didn’t with me this morning.” God, was it only this morning that she had barged into their lives and turned them upside down? “There are times when talk…”
“Get out of my way!” Sarah ordered, not bothering to listen.
Murdoch sighed. “Mrs. Cassidy…”
She interrupted him again. “What? What am I supposed to do? Just sit here and wait for them to come and kill him?”
“He’s safer here than anywhere else.”
“For how long? A week? A month? Or are we going to be your permanent houseguests?” She calmed herself and began again. “I know Jed Lewis. I can talk to him, make him see…”
“The only thing you’ll be giving him is a hostage, the lever he needs to force your husband out into the open.” He could see she hadn’t thought of that.
“I’ve got to try,” she persisted. This trouble was her fault. She had to make it right. “I owe it to Dan, to everybody. If it wasn’t for me…”
“Well, maybe that’s a lot of the problem, Mrs. Cassidy, maybe you’ve done too much for him.” He motioned for her to dismount. “Now come on down.”
She did, and Murdoch opened the gate for her to pass. As she reached him, she said, “What did you mean by that—that I’ve done too much?”
Murdoch closed the gate behind her, and they headed back to the house. “Sometimes a woman in trying to help too much actually destroys everything she loves in a man and leaves him with nothing.”
“I just wanted to protect him.”
“To protect him from what? From himself because you didn’t have enough faith in him to believe he could face the truth?” And now Scott was paying the price for her protection. “Now here you are, ready to go off and do it again.”
“I just want to make things right. It’s for his own good,” Sarah explained.
“For his own good,” Murdoch muttered. Had anything he said penetrated her brain? “Mrs. Cassidy, I’m not going to let you go out there under any circumstances. But I can’t believe that you would want to, that you would want to cripple him further, at least until he had a chance to stop punishing himself, to stand on his own two feet.” He searched her face for any sign that she understood what he was saying. Not seeing any, he added, “I guess it all boils down to one thing: how much do you love him?”
“Very much,” she said quietly.
“Then let him be a man and fight this battle himself.”
Johnny set the tray down on Scott’s dresser and lit the lamps. He hadn’t wanted to disturb his brother, but Aggie insisted. “Aggie made up this little gem for you, Scott. She swears it’ll cure you of any kind of croup you got, bullet wounds, nastiness…”
Scott raised himself up on the pillows. “I think I’ve had this before. If I remember correctly, the cure is worse than the disease.”
Johnny laughed and removed the cover from the broth bowl. He picked it up with its handles and carefully transported it over to the bed. Sitting on the edge of it, he handed the bowl over to Scott.
“What’s happening out there?” Scott asked, wanting to prolong the time before he had to drink the foul concoction.
“Well, if Lewis and Hardy are still around by morning, we’ll find ‘em.”
“And that will be the end of it?” Scott finally took a sip. Yes, it was just as vile as he remembered. He handed the bowl back to Johnny.
“Probably not, but it’s a good start.” Curious as to why Scott made the face he did after he drank, Johnny took a sip himself…and wished he hadn’t. He tasted the horrid willow bark, but it seemed like that was one of the less noxious flavors. No wonder this killed everything.
The door opened and Murdoch peeked in. He seemed surprised to see his sons together. “I thought Dan Cassidy might be in here,” he explained. He looked at Johnny. “Have you seen him?”
“Not for the last half hour or so.”
Murdoch sighed in frustration. “Johnny, could I see you for a moment?”
Johnny gave the broth bowl back to Scott and went around the bed to the door.
“What’s the matter?” Scott asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Murdoch murmured. As Johnny left the room, Murdoch closed the door behind them.
Scott’s temper rose. Again, Murdoch dismissed him! He put the bowl on the bedside table. Something was the matter, and he was going to find out what.
Murdoch was explaining the situation as he and Johnny walked outside. There was Mrs. Cassidy looking very worried. Murdoch finished by saying, “Well, if he was there, he heard everything we said.”
“You think he went after Jed Lewis,” Johnny said as a statement rather than a question.
Sarah Cassidy stepped forward. “But why? What could he prove?”
Murdoch answered, “Prove he could stand by himself. Maybe in a funny way that he loved you…”
“What do you want to do now?” Johnny asked.
“The two of us go after him,” Murdoch replied.
“The three of us.” It was Scott’s voice. There he was, dressed and armed.
“Oh, now, Scott,” Murdoch protested. “You’re not strong enough.”
“No,” Scott insisted. “I’ve been in the middle of all this since the beginning, and now, one way or the other, I’m going to be in on the end of it.” He marched to the barn with his father and brother following him. He couldn’t see their exchange of worried glances.
Murdoch had Cipriano’s son, Mateo, saddle Scott’s horse for him. While he understood Scott’s stubbornness, he was concerned that having Scott with them would slow them down. He didn’t say anything because Johnny seemed to support Scott’s decision, probably because it was the same one he would have made. Murdoch shook his head. Sometimes his sons were too stubborn for their own good.
They started out at a trot with Murdoch leading, but he soon slowed down when he saw the gait taking a toll on Scott. As they slowed down to a walk, Scott said, “Please, if there’s any way, please don’t kill any of them. Lewis and Hardy are just…misguided. They’ll see things straight once they’ve had time to think about it.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Johnny said sarcastically. “Why be so kind to this Jed guy? He was the one who plugged you, I’ll bet.”
“I understand how he’s thinking,” Scott explained. “All he can think about right now is revenge.”
“You understand how he’s thinking…” Johnny was disbelieving.
“He’s thinking like I would be thinking if you were killed wrongly.”
“You’d be out for revenge, Boston?” Johnny challenged. “I thought you liked to do things lawfully.”
“I do, when the law works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Thinking about the law-abiding Scott Lancer avenging his death made Johnny feel all warm inside. Yes, Boston had his back. “And this Cassidy fellow. What’s he to you that you’re willing to stick your neck out, all our necks out, for him?”
There were several long seconds of silence before Scott said, “He gave me hope when I had none. I would have done anything for him. You ever have someone in your life that saved your soul?”
Johnny had. His name was Val Crawford.
“He was like a brother to me,” Scott continued.
Johnny was hoping Scott wasn’t going to say that. Scott had only one brother and he was riding by his side. “Yeah, well, your real brother didn’t try to kill you!”
Scott smiled inwardly. What a treasure he had found in Johnny. He kicked Sugar into a trot.
It wasn’t long afterwards that they saw the clearing and some horses. They pulled up and got off their mounts, preferring to go on foot the rest of the way. They could hear Lewis’ voice saying, “Don’t be a fool! You didn’t come out here just to get yourself killed! Now, you think about it, Lieutenant. You just say the word, and everything will be like it was.”
“It’s too late,” Cassidy replied. “Even if what you say is true, which it’s not, I couldn’t. I’ve run with the hunted now; I can’t go back with the hunters.”
Lewis pointed his gun and cocked it. “Last chance, Lieutenant.”
“Jed, no!” Scott shouted.
Lewis’ gun swung toward Scott and there was a shot. Lewis fell backwards to the ground, his gun dropped, and his left hand moved toward the hole in his right arm.
Johnny, thought Scott. Johnny had to have made that shot. He silently thanked his brother for not killing Jed.
“You got off lucky this time, Lewis. Next time they’ll hang you,” Murdoch said menacingly.
No, this wasn’t right. This wasn’t going to help the situation. Scott moved forward. “Jed, listen to me. Losing Sol…losing Sol was an accident. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy, but it was an accident. I didn’t betray the escape. And Dan wasn’t responsible either. He didn’t knowingly or willingly betray it; he was delirious with fever. Solomon doesn’t want your revenge. He’d want you to move on to a better life. Terrible things happen during war that are nobody’s fault. Don’t you be another casualty of that terrible night.” Scott’s voice was pleading at Lewis. He didn’t know if any of what he said made it through to Jed because the man just laid there with Hardy hovering over him.
“Now get off our land,” Murdoch thundered at them.
Hardy helped Lewis up and over to his horse. Soon both of them rode away. Murdoch and Johnny left to round up their horses. Scott approached Dan, who seemed in a daze, gazing at the spot where Lewis and Hardy had left.
“Are you all right?” Scott asked.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Here was Scott again offering to help him. How could he have ever thought this gentle, unselfish man could betray them? “Thank you, no, Scott. I don’t think I need anyone’s help anymore,” Cassidy said, thinking of Sarah and what her “help” had wrought. “What you said to Jed, I want to thank you for that.”
“It was the truth, Dan.” Then he got a gleam in his eyes. “If the army absolved you of any responsibility, then that’s good enough for me. You know how they like to hang junior officers like us out to dry.”
Cassidy laughed and lightly slapped Scott on his good arm. “My horse is around here somewhere…”
Right on cue, Murdoch and Johnny appeared on their horses, each leading another. Cassidy helped Scott mount and then he did. They made their way slowly back to the house. Somewhere in the distance a coyote howled. It went unanswered but made the frogs go silent. The moon was on the rise, three-quarters full, and the slight breeze sent a chill into the air. A perfect night for a ride, but none of the riders took heed of that fact.
Johnny watched the three men ahead of him. Murdoch led the way, taking the journey at a walk. Johnny was so tired; he couldn’t imagine how the Old Man was feeling, being two decades older and dealing with that bullet still in his back. He knew his father couldn’t ride faster than a walk, although he’d deny it and say it was for Scott’s sake.
Scott and Cassidy rode side by side talking quietly. Johnny was too far away to hear what they were saying. He was riding drag. Every so often he would break away and take a long loop behind them, making sure they weren’t being followed. Jed Lewis didn’t look like he was ready to wreak any more havoc, but he couldn’t be sure. Johnny’s aim had been true: he’d hit Jed’s arm in a spot that would render the arm useless until it healed. Then it would be functional, mostly, but it would hurt like hell in the meantime.
Halfway back, Scott and his like-a-brother friend stopped talking and Johnny could see the worry written on Cassidy’s face. Scott was slumped over in his saddle, and Johnny knew his brother was barely clinging on. He was half tempted to double ride, but Scott would probably be too stubborn to want to be seen like that in front of Cassidy. He’d hang on, but Johnny would be there when they reached the hacienda. At this point, he was considering the odds between who would collapse first, his brother or his father. Confident they weren’t being followed, Johnny rode up even to his father.
“You gonna make it, Old Man?”
Murdoch grunted at him but sat a little straighter, just as Johnny had hoped.
“Seems like a week ago that we were just getting back here from Sacramento rather than this morning,” Johnny mused.
Murdoch chuckled. “That it does, that it does. How are you holding up?”
“I’ll make it…easier than you.”
Murdoch changed the subject. He didn’t need either of his sons to think he was weak. “What’s this about Lewis almost killing you?”
“I went to find Cassidy and muscle him out of town,” Johnny said. “I found him, but I found them other two, too. I think it was Cassidy that hit me over the head.”
Murdoch growled. “I should kick him out of the house for that.”
“Don’t bother. That Lewis fellow wanted to kill me, and Cassidy stopped him. Guess that’s good enough for a one-night stay.”
“One night,” Murdoch agreed. “How’s Scott?”
“Still in the saddle but not for long. He’ll reach the house, though, out of sheer cussedness.”
Murdoch grunted at that, too, not convinced that Scott possessed cussedness, but the house was coming into view, and everyone moved just a tad quicker to get there.
As they rode up, Agatha and Sarah rushed out of the French doors. They looked worried but didn’t say anything while the men dismounted. Both Johnny and Cassidy rushed to help Scott, while Mateo rushed up to collect their horses.
“I’ll get him,” Johnny said determinedly, shouldering Cassidy out of the way. “He’s my brother. Go help Murdoch.”
Cassidy moved to do just that, but Aggie had beaten him to it. Murdoch leaned heavily on her as he slid out of the saddle.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Johnny told Scott, who could only nod.
Sarah rushed over to her husband, but Johnny saw him wave her off. “I don’t need your help, Sarah,” he said, and Johnny wondered what he was referring to. It could be several things.
Aggie did her best to help Murdoch to their bedroom. Her husband was a big man and heavy. She managed to get him upstairs and to their room where he collapsed on the bed.
“Did you find those men? Is everything all right now?” she asked as she pulled off his boots.
Murdoch’s arm was thrown over his face, but she could see him nod. “Yes, and I’m going to sleep for a week.”
“You poor dear! Can I sleep for a week with you?” she asked seductively.
She saw the smile underneath the arm. “As long as you don’t wake me.”
“What’s the fun in that?”
The smile got bigger. “I’m at least sleeping in tomorrow morning!” he declared.
Johnny set Scott down on his bed. “Need help with that?” he asked pointing to the sling.
“I’ve got it,” Scott said and simply pulled the knot of the sling over his head. Then he shucked out of his boots. “I might need help with my shirt.”
Johnny helped him and noticed his bandage had a bigger and brighter splotch of red on it. There were bloodstains on his shirt, too. “I’m sorry, Scott.”
Scott settled himself under the covers. “For what?”
“For saying I never tried to kill you,” Johnny admitted. “I remember now that I did. Sorry.”
“No reason to be sorry,” Scott said. “I found it rather nice that you’d forgotten.”
“But you haven’t, have you?”
“Honestly? I never think about it unless something happens to remind me. I’ve moved on, Johnny, I really have. I trust you more than anyone alive,” Scott said sincerely.
That brought a grin to Johnny’s face. “Backatcha.” He extinguished the light beside Scott’s bed. “Sleep, brother. You’ve earned it.” He thought Scott was asleep before he shut the door.
Scott awoke to a pounding on the door.
“What?” he shouted out grumpily. He’d been sound asleep.
“Your friends are leaving in a few minutes!”
“Thank you,” he hollered back. Wearily, he threw back the covers and started to get dressed. It was awkward with his left arm so stiff and sore. It was only right that he should see the Cassidys off rather than make everyone else do it. The horses were hitched and the wagon packed by the time he made it out the French doors.
“Scott! You shouldn’t be up,” Aggie admonished. Everyone seemed alarmed.
“I’m fine,” he said, which made his father frown for some reason.
“Who the hell told him they were leaving?” Johnny muttered.
“I did,” Teresa chirped merrily. At Johnny’s glare, she said, “Well, they’re his friends. He’d naturally want to see them off,” she defended herself.
“You shouldn’t have bothered him,” Murdoch chastised her.
“Sorry!” she said angrily. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She marched off to the barn.
Cassidy helped his wife onto the wagon and then turned to shake Scott’s hand. “Scott, thank you for everything. Your generosity knows no limits.”
“I’m glad everything turned out as well as it did,” Scott said.
“When Sarah and I settle, I’ll send you a picture of the 83rd as it was in the beginning before we fought.”
“Please, don’t,” Scott murmured. “I’m trying to put the War behind me.”
Cassidy climbed up next to his wife. “Mr. and Mrs. Lancer, thank you for your hospitality.”
“Walt and José will ride along with you. They’ll see you get on the train safely and then take the wagon back to Morro Coyo,” Murdoch said.
Everyone shouted their good-byes and the wagon sped away. Scott watched it for a few seconds, its departure welcome and wearying. Dan’s appearance in his life had brought his worst memories to the surface. He’d woken up twice last night from nightmares. He walked back into the great room and poured himself a drink. His hand was shaking, whether from fatigue or emotion, he couldn’t tell. The rest of the family filed in behind him and arranged themselves around the room. He didn’t want to face them. He didn’t want to answer the questions he knew they were dying to ask.
Aggie cleared her throat and said, “Mrs. Cassidy said you’d been in a prison camp for a year.”
Wasn’t it just like Aggie to jump into the heart of the matter? “A year and eleven days,” Scott said quietly, bitterly, into his brandy. Why did Sarah need to tell his family that?
And that’s why he stopped writing, Aggie thought. At the time she was afraid he’d died. She was so happy to discover he was alive, it never occurred to her to ask him about the gap.
“And you never thought to tell us that? You’ve been here three years and you never once said anything about it!” Murdoch said, his voice rising with the sting of accusation.
Johnny groaned. Now was not the time to attack Scott. Why couldn’t Murdoch just leave him the hell alone? Why did he always pick at him?
“Why?” Scott shot back just as accusatory. “Why would I have told you? ‘The past is dead and gone.’ Isn’t that your motto? No need to talk about it?”
Aggie felt the need to intervene before harsher words were spoken that couldn’t be taken back. “A burden shared is a burden halved,” she said as if it were a time-worn phrase.
Scott had never heard of such a saying. It wasn’t true as far as he was concerned. “A burden shared is a burden doubled,” he countered sourly.
Murdoch tried again, this time in a softer tone. “Maybe we could have helped. You should have told us.”
“Why?” Scott said again, this time in anguish. “Why would I burden you, the people I love, with what happened to me in the War? How could you have helped with any of that?” It was already too late. It became too late when Cassidy showed up for his vengeance. He had kept his War experiences away from Lancer. Now their looks at him would always hold some pity in them. Pity for the prisoner. Poor Scott. It’s why he never talked about the War. People never looked at him the same after they found out what he’d gone through. He downed the last of the brandy. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m very tired. I’m going to lie down.” He strode as steadily as he could from the room with Aggie’s “Of course, dear” following him.
The great room was engulfed in silence for a while as each of them contemplated Scott’s incarceration. Finally, Johnny drawled, “Well, I guess he’s got the guts, Old Man, if he survived a year in prison.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Aggie asked, ready to defend her husband.
“Well, it seems Murdoch here was questioning whether Scott had any guts when he didn’t want to do the branding last time around,” Johnny explained.
“Of course, he didn’t,” Aggie said matter-of-factly. “He doesn’t help with the branding at the Double C either. Said the smell reminded him of the War.”
Johnny saw Murdoch’s eyes go wide with that statement and then his father’s head dipped in shame.
“At the time I didn’t think anything about it really,” Aggie continued, looking at her hands and not seeing the anguish in her husband’s face, “but now…” she shuddered. “The smell of burning flesh. He knows the smell of burning flesh…” She got up abruptly off the couch and walked out of the room.
Johnny looked accusingly at his father.
“Why? Why didn’t he tell me that?” Murdoch said defensively.
“’Cause you weren’t in a listening kind of mood, as I recall,” Johnny answered.
“All he had to do was tell me,” Murdoch repeated. “I would have understood.”
Johnny straightened up from leaning against the mantle. “Would you? Or would you have told him to show some guts and be a man and do the branding? I bet Scott didn’t want to get into it with you about it.” He, too, left the room, leaving Murdoch alone to wonder, once again, where he had gone wrong with Scott.
Sam Jenkins came out to the ranch that afternoon. Doc Hildenbrand had told him about Scott’s bullet wound, and Sam wanted to check on it himself. He found Scott lying listlessly in bed.
“How’re you feeling, Scott?”
Scott shrugged his good shoulder.
“Well, let’s see if Gabe is as good with people as he is with horses.” Sam examined the wound and applied a fresh bandage. “Well, he did all right,” Sam said when he was done, “but don’t tell him I said so; I might lose all my patients to him.”
Scott didn’t even smile at the jest.
“You want to talk about it, son?” Sam asked kindly.
Scott shook his head.
“Gabe said your horse is still at the Thomases. They want to know what you want them to do with it.”
Scott considered. It wasn’t really his horse. “Have them check with the livery. If it’s not Dave’s, they can keep it.”
“Keep it!” Sam exclaimed. “That’s mighty generous of you.”
“They can use it more than I can. It’s not a Lancer horse. It’s what…they…forced me to ride.”
“Sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
Scott shook his head again.
Sam changed tactics. “Something you do want to talk about?”
Yes, there was. “Sam, are there days that you just don’t want to get out of bed?”
Sam chuckled. “More and more as I get older.” Still no smile.
“Sometimes I get so sad. And it lasts for days.”
“Melancholia,” Sam diagnosed. “Murdoch told me a little about what happened with this Cassidy fellow. I’m not surprised that you might have it after all you’ve been through. If you’re feeling it now, I can tell everyone you’re to be on bedrest for the next couple of days if that will help you get through it.”
Scott sighed deeply and nodded.
“Now you’ve got a pair of bullet wounds on each shoulder. This one and the one that Barker fellow put in you.”
“Strictly speaking, it was his prisoner, Evans, who shot me,” Scott corrected. He had to give the right man his dubious due.
“Regardless, you’ve got bullet holes like bookends in your shoulders. No wonder you have melancholia.”
Sam didn’t know the half of it, Scott thought. He had many more reasons to want to just fade away. “How do I get rid of it?”
“Fresh air and sunshine. You’ve got plenty of that out here. Oh, and do some work that will make you feel like you’ve accomplished something worthwhile. No hazing cattle, mind you, until another couple of weeks. Don’t want you lifting anything heavier than a few pounds, either, for that amount of time.” He patted Scott on the leg. “You’ll be all right, son. Just rest easy for a few days, don’t push it, and thank your lucky stars you’re still alive.” Sam’s eye caught sight of a star-shaped medal on Scott’s bedside table. He recognized what it was immediately. “You have a Medal of Honor?”
Scott nodded. He didn’t know why he’d brought it out last night. Maybe, deep down, he knew the War was always going to be a part of him. He couldn’t run away from it. Maybe he needed to be reminded that not everything he did then was atrocious. Aunt Cora wanted it to remind him to be strong. He didn’t feel too strong right now. He waited for Sam to ask the inevitable question.
“What did you do to earn it?”
Scott took a deep breath. “Snuck behind enemy lines and captured a Confederate colonel. He surrendered his regiment, flag and all.”4
Sam let out a low, appreciative whistle. “That’s damned impressive.”
“Was it? They were almost out of ammunition. That colonel knew his men would be killed by the Union troops right behind me. He saved them all by surrendering. He’s the damn hero, not me.”
“Nevertheless, that was a brave thing you did,” Sam said.
“You think so? I tried the same thing the next month and wound up getting captured and sent to Libby. When I was there I wondered if I shouldn’t have let them be killed rather than send them all to a Union prison camp. I heard afterwards that our camps were no better than Confederate ones. What had I sent those men to? What horrors did they have to endure because of me?” Scott let out a derisive snort. “Am I a brave man or an incredibly stupid one?”
“Don’t,” Sam said quietly. “Don’t dismiss your courage the first time just because it didn’t work a second time. You gave those men a chance. You survived. Maybe they did, too.” He patted Scott’s leg again. “I’m off to see patients who really need me. Take care, Scott.” He opened the bedroom door. “And don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re human like the rest of us.” The door closed behind him.
Scott clutched the medal and rolled on his good side, away from the door. Doctor Jenkins had given him permission to indulge in his self-pity for two days. He was going to take them. He had indulged in his despondency for months at Libby until a Lieutenant Cassidy had given seventeen men a glimmer of hope with a plan for an escape. All his family here could see was the Dan Cassidy bent on revenge. They’d never know the Dan Cassidy who had brought him back from the brink of despair and given him a reason to live.
Johnny was beginning to regret letting Scott come along with him as he practiced his draw. Scott said he needed to come along as research for the book. The book! Why had he agreed to that, he asked himself sourly. Sometimes they spent the entire evening up in Scott’s room working on it. If he wasn’t in such a sour mood, Johnny would admit that it was rather fun to work with his brother on it. Scott’s writing was good, even if he didn’t understand all the words he used. But he didn’t know a damn thing about gunfighting. It made Johnny feel like an equal partner in this project to set him straight on a bunch of things.
“What are you thinking about when you go to draw?” Scott asked, his pencil poised above his notebook.
“Nothing,” Johnny said. “I’d be a dead man if I started thinking about anything. It’s just a reaction. You see the guy make his move and then you shoot.”
“How do you know he’s making his move? Do you wait for it?”
Johnny sighed. “You’re dead if you wait for it. You gotta anticipate it.”
“How do you do that?”
“You just do. It’s an instinct.” No way was Johnny going to divulge the secret of his fast draw to Scott. He didn’t want it in a book where other people could pick up on it. It was what gave him the edge in shootouts. It was in his rival’s eyes. They’d flick or slide away right before the guy reached for his gun. Johnny would be drawing at the moment of that flick and he would be faster because his custom-made gun was an inch shorter than the standard Colt. Not so much of a difference that people would notice, but a big difference in how quickly the gun cleared the leather. No way he was telling Scott that, either.
“Johnny…” Scott said in frustration. It seemed Johnny was doing his best to thwart his questions. He wouldn’t say precisely how his fast draw worked. Scott had tried to make him slow the motion down bit by bit until Johnny had scolded him for ruining it by making him think about it. After that, he ignored Scott’s questions about the mechanics of the fast draw.
“Scott…” Johnny whined back. “I tell you true that it just comes natural after so much practice. There’s no thinking or planning or being scared. Nothing. You watch for the other guy’s move and then you aim to kill. Sometimes just to maim him, but mostly to kill or else he’s gonna kill you. Now go get the cans.” He had to admit that it was convenient that he didn’t have to walk over a pick the cans back up and place them on the fallen log. Scott was handy in that way.
Scott replaced the cans for the tenth time, but that didn’t stop his questions. “So when would you decide to maim rather than kill them?”
Johnny sighed. Scott was so single-minded! “If they’re young’uns who don’t know any better. They think it would be great to be famous and all. I try to give them a second chance.”
“Like Little Al?” Scott had been dismayed upon hearing of Little Al’s attempt to collect the bounty on Johnny. The boy had been the first one through to him after the earthquake. He’d seemed like an angel to him then. Scott sat back down under the tree.
“Yep.” Johnny hit six more cans and then joined Scott. They weren’t too far from where Addison’s foreman had tried to kill him by Mariposa Creek. But it was a distant part of the ranch where no one could hear him practice. He knew Murdoch would be fit to be tied if he found out Johnny was practicing his fast draw. Murdoch never wanted to hear anything related to Johnny Madrid. “Now I get to ask some questions about your life.”
Scott frowned. “Why? We’re not writing a book about my life.”
“Maybe we should,” Johnny said lightly. “Seriously, if I have to spill my guts about what it’s like to be a gunhawk, you need to spill some guts, too. Only fair.” After the mess with the Cassidys, he was beginning to think Scott’s life might be just as “colorful” as his own. He wanted to find out.
“Or I could just stop being your advisor.”
“No royalties…” Scott sing-songed.
“Don’t care about no royalties. Lived a good life without ‘em before, so there’s nothing to miss.”
Scott slumped in defeat. “All right,” he said warily.
Johnny didn’t know how to ask all around a question like Scott did, so he just asked directly. “How did you survive a year in prison?”
Scott glared at him. “I don’t know,” Scott answered. This had been Johnny’s phrase when he asked about Madrid’s fast draw, but he wasn’t mocking his brother. “Honestly, I don’t. There were plenty of nights when I went to sleep praying I wouldn’t wake up in the morning…but I always did.”
“What was it like?”
Scott shook his head. “Horrible. We were housed in this warehouse on the second and third floors. It was overcrowded. We weren’t allowed to be near the windows. They had no panes of glass in them. They had bars over them but nothing else. It was so cold in the winter.” His eyes had a far-away look in them, like what he was thinking about lay in the distance. “And the smell, the stench of the place, I’ll never forget it…”
Scott stopped talking then but the far-away look continued. Johnny kept quiet and waited for Scott to go on.
The smell, the smell…he was smelling it again: a combination of unwashed bodies and human waste. It was in his nostrils now. It had hit him so hard when he was marched up the stairs into the large room teeming with men who looked as scared and miserable as he felt. He could see their sunken and desolate faces right in front of him. He was so scared. So scared. His heart was racing. He didn’t know what to expect, but this was more awful, more horrible, than anything his imagination had dreamt up, and he was to stay here for who knew how many days, weeks, months. He was eighteen years old and convinced he’d never see nineteen. A sense of hopelessness descended upon him like a dense fog. He was lost, so lost, and nobody would ever find him or know what happened to him. He’d cried then, and he wasn’t the only new captive who did. The other prisoners gave him some room and just let him curl up and weep until there were no tears left.
Johnny was surprised by the tears that formed in Scott’s eyes and then started to fall. “Scott?” he said softly and laid what he thought was a sympathetic hand on his forearm. Scott flung it off and started to weep in earnest, great gut-wrenching sobs, as he fell over on his side and curled into himself. Johnny didn’t know what to do. He’d never seen his brother like this. “Scott!” he called, thinking maybe he could wake him up from this trance or something. Scott cried on, seemingly heedless of his surroundings. Johnny watched for a while, appalled and frightened, until he walked over to Barranca and retrieved his jacket and maneuvered it under Scott’s head.
Eventually, Scott’s hard, deep weeping turned into more quiet sobs. Then, apparently spent, he fell asleep. Johnny didn’t think he should wake him. He didn’t know what had happened to Scott, but it had been disturbing to witness. Had he known this would be Scott’s reaction to his question, he never would have asked it. He’d let Scott be but keep an eye on him. He grabbed his sketchbook out of his saddlebags and walked over to a cluster of wildflowers to pass the time.
Johnny figured a couple of hours had elapsed before Scott stirred and awakened. “I fell asleep?” he asked blearily.
“Just a little siesta,” Johnny replied. “Guess you needed it.”
“I don’t remember,” Scott said, putting his hand to his head.
Johnny didn’t know what to do. If Scott didn’t remember, maybe that was a good thing. He wasn’t going to remind him. “Come on, let’s head home,” he suggested, hoping that would be the end of it. It was. The brothers rode in silence back to the house.
After a quiet dinner, Scott immediately excused himself and retreated to his room. Teresa left to help Maria with the dishes and Aggie pounced on Johnny. “What happened to Scott this afternoon?”
Murdoch was puzzled. “Something happened to Scott?”
“He’s obviously been crying. His eyes are all puffy and red,” Aggie answered.
Of course, Aggie would notice. “I think we all need a drink for this,” Johnny said, walking over to the liquor tray and pouring himself a shot of tequila. He tossed it back and then poured Murdoch his scotch and Aggie a brandy and refilled his glass.
“Now you’re scaring me, Johnny Lancer,” Aggie said, as she settled on the couch. Murdoch joined her there. Johnny stood by the fireplace.
“I don’t mean to, but I don’t know what to make of it,” Johnny confessed. “Me and Scott were in up near Semple’s old place this afternoon…”
“What the devil were you doing way out there?” Murdoch groused. “You were supposed to be clearing that stream.”
“We did. Then we rode up to check on the rest of it,” Johnny said, hoping his explanation would make him and Scott look like the conscientious young ranch owners they were, rather than the sneaky ranch owners they also were. He wanted everyone to be focused on Scott right now. “We were just sitting there jawing, and I asked Scott about the War, what the prison was like.”
“Oh, no,” Aggie sighed.
Johnny ignored her. “Anyway, he started to tell me, normal like, like you would tell anyone about something that happened to you, and then he got this look like he was seeing something real far away. Then he stopped talking and started crying, like crying his heart out. I guess I saw what they mean by that. It’s not something I wanna see again. He cried and cried and then fell asleep.”
“Oh, no, poor dear,” Aggie said. She turned toward Murdoch. “Darling, you need to talk to him.”
“No, wait,” Johnny said. “See, the really strange thing is that when Scott woke up, he didn’t remember him crying.”
“Not remember!” Murdoch exclaimed. This was hard to believe.
“No, and I’m thinking we should just leave it at that,” Johnny advised. “If it turns out that later he remembers, he’s probably not gonna want to talk about it anyway. Scott’s got too much pride for that. And if he never remembers, well, that’s all right, too. The thing is, why I wanted to tell you this is that I don’t think we should ask Scott about the War ever. If he brings it up, that’s something different, but only if he brings it up.”
Johnny watched Murdoch and Aggie consider his words. Long seconds passed.
“If you think that’s best, Johnny,” Aggie said, “But my heart just goes out to him, my poor boy.”
Johnny had never felt so happy that Aggie was his stepmother. She believed him so completely and only wanted the best for his brother. “Yeah, so, don’t go bothering him about his eyes.” He turned to his father. “What about you?”
Murdoch reluctantly nodded. He’d do as Johnny suggested, but it was disturbing news about Scott. Scott, his overly sensitive son. He was twenty-five years old, for God’s sake. He shouldn’t be blubbering like a child at his age. Scott might not be man enough to run the ranch regardless of his sexual proclivities. Yes, Scott had survived the Confederate prison, but had he come out of that ordeal unscathed or had it left him a shell of man?
Johnny burst into Scott’s room the next morning, as he usually did, anxious to see how his brother was faring. Scott was just pulling on his shirt and Johnny caught another glimpse of his scarred back. Now they all knew where he’d gotten those stripes. Johnny didn’t want to bring up the events of yesterday, but maybe Scott remembered. He’d follow Scott’s lead.
“Good morning, Johnny,” Scott greeted as he shrugged into his shirt. He wasn’t quite sure what happened yesterday or that he wanted to know. He’d follow Johnny’s lead.
“Morning,” Johnny said. “You might wanna put on a darker shirt. I think Murdoch’s sending us to the western pasture, which means we’ll be pulling them stupid cows outta mud holes.”
“I’m just about to throw this one into the burn barrel anyway, so no worries,” Scott responded. Johnny seemed to be scrutinizing him more than usual today.
“Hey! I got an idea for a new picture for your book. I’ll draw the inside of a saloon, show them Easterners what a Western bar looks like.”
So…Johnny wasn’t going to bring up yesterday then. That was fine with him. “That’s a great idea, Johnny! And it’s our book, not mine.” He started to mix his shaving soap up in the tin and slather it on his face. “We could put in near the end when Billy faces Snake. Could you put those characters in the illustration, too?”
“Sure,” Johnny said, grateful that Scott didn’t seem to want to press him about what happened yesterday. Yes, they were Lancers, willing to sweep the past under the rug and never speak of it again, just like the Old Man. He watched his brother deftly move the sharp blade across his face with a steady hand. That was good to see. He waited until Scott was almost finished and said, “I’ve been thinking…”
“Now, just a minute. Hear me out. I’ve been thinking you should change Snake’s name.”
“Why? It’s quite descriptive.”
“That’s just it. Gunhawks don’t have names like that.”
Scott’s mind was moving a mile a minute. “But we can’t give him a place name. We already have that with our hero, Billy Yuma. You have any suggestions?”
“I was thinking ‘Gentleman Jim.’”
“’Gentleman Jim’? That’s the opposite of what this character is.”
Johnny just shrugged. “Just sounded good to me.”
But already Scott was thinking of what he could do with that name. It held such irony. “Wait! He’s called Gentleman Jim because…”
“Because he always says ‘sir’?” Johnny suggested cheekily.
Scott was thinking so hard about the name change, Johnny’s dig at his habit went unnoticed. “Because he always ushers his prey out the saloon door before him? ‘After you, Billy Yuma.’” He pulled on his boots.
“Yeah, Scott! I like that,” Johnny agreed.
“I’ll have to rewrite a lot in these last chapters, but I could give our antagonist more depth of character with more backstory. That’s a great idea, Johnny!” Scott slapped his younger brother on the back and they headed down to breakfast.
Johnny didn’t know what the hell Scott was talking about, but he was glad he could put Scott in a good mood.
Murdoch heard Johnny say, “After you,” and his sons entered the kitchen laughing for some reason. He saw Aggie give him a relieved smile. Aggie and Teresa put plates in front of the boys and they all sat down for breakfast. Murdoch never tired of the sight. There had been years when he and Teresa were the only two occupants of the house. Now they were five, and although it had been a long and torturous road to get here, he wasn’t going to take it for granted.
“Now that the drive is over, can Scott and Johnny and me go to San Francisco?” Teresa asked, putting on her most angelic face.
“Scott and Johnny and I, dear,” Aggie corrected.
Another benefit of Aggie marrying Murdoch, Scott thought, I don’t have to be the one correcting Teresa’s hideous grammar all the time. He waited for Murdoch’s inevitable refusal. Last time it had been because he and Johnny were needed for the cattle drive, although he had to admit that had been a good reason.
“Can we?” Teresa persisted.
“Who put this San Francisco idea in your head?” Murdoch groused.
“Scott did when he came back from Boston. I told you that already,” Teresa huffed. Why did she have to go over this again and again. Why didn’t he just pay attention to her the first time, or the second, or the third?
Scott groaned inwardly. His father’s wrath was just about to fall on him again. He should get yelled at only once for making the suggestion, not each time Teresa brought it up.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” Aggie chimed in.
Again, Scott was thankful that Aggie was living with them now. He almost couldn’t remember why he was so opposed to the marriage, except that, of course, he did.
‘I’ll not have you go to San Francisco with just your brothers. It wouldn’t be proper,” Murdoch said in a tone that meant he was through discussing the matter.
Aggie always ignored that tone. “Why don’t we all go, then?” she suggested. “It would be delightful to have a Lancer family outing!”
Scott and Johnny exchanged frantic looks. The whole purpose of the trip was to get away from Murdoch.
Murdoch’s voice took on a patronizing tone. “Because the Lancers own a big ranch, darling, and we have to be here to run it!”
“Then you stay here and run it, dear. We wouldn’t want your grumpiness to ruin our trip anyway!” All this was said with a bright smile.
Scott glanced over to Johnny and saw the same look he had—surprise.
Murdoch looked at the four expectant faces around the table. They were waiting for his pronouncement. The boys had worked hard on the drive, and he knew Teresa more than deserved a trip like this. “I’ll think about it,” he said.
Teresa let out a happy squeal. “Thank you, Papa!” Since she had decided to call Aggie ‘Mama,’ a few weeks ago she stopped calling her guardian ‘Uncle Murdoch’ and started calling him ‘Papa.’ ‘Pa’ was already taken by her natural father. This change had made Murdoch even more indulgent with her.
Once breakfast was finished and the females were over at the sink, Murdoch gave Scott a glare that suggested death.
Scott shrugged. He knew Aggie was his advocate and wouldn’t allow any repercussions to be too severe. Yes, this marriage was working in his favor, just as Johnny had predicted.
Scott and Johnny finally finagled a trip into town to pick up supplies, just the two of them. Beside Scott on the wagon seat was the finished book all tied up in a box along with a passel of poems. They were bound for Boston and Scott’s publishing house. Johnny was surprised at how excited he felt about sending it off. He hoped Scott’s editor liked his pictures. Scott assured him he would, but Johnny would believe it when he saw them in print. What would the editor think of their book? Scott told him that it would either get printed, be rejected and sent back, or be sent back with revisions to be made.
Manuscript sent, supplies loaded, they decided to stop into the saloon for a beer before heading back to the ranch. Johnny did his usual scan of the dark interior before he walked in. Satisfied with what he saw, he headed straight for his favorite chair in the back of the saloon. Scott smiled and ordered two beers. One of these days he was going to get Johnny to pay just for the novelty of it.
Having delivered the beers to the table and toasting to their good fortune with the book, Scott sat back and relished this time with his brother away from the ranch. Some afternoon delight with Abbie would perfect the scenario, but he didn’t see her. He and Johnny sat in comfortable silence and Scott inspected the worn and carved up tabletop. He set his beer down on the initials LK and wondered who they stood for. He couldn’t think of any man in the valley who had those initials. Maybe he should add his initials to those that covered the table but esses were so hard to manage without squaring them off. He was just about to ask Johnny if he ever carved his initials into a cantina table when he saw Johnny stiffen and slouch down in his chair.
“What’s wrong?” Scott asked. He looked toward the bar and saw a man ordering a beer. “Do you know that man?”
“And is he trouble?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Like I told you before: stay out of it.”
“I won’t sit back and let him hurt you.”
“Like I said: stay out of it. Don’t need to be worrying about you, too, on top of everything else.”
The man paid for his beer and then turned to survey the saloon. Scott thought he didn’t see Johnny in the darkness, but a second pass lingered on their table. He downed the rest of his beer in one long swallow, wiped his sleeve over his mouth, and came their way.
“Madrid!” he said, and the way he said it left Scott unsure whether he was friend or foe.
“Cooley,” Johnny said mildly.
“Hell, I heard you died in that Tucson ruckus.”
Johnny merely shrugged. Here he was in the Morro Coyo saloon, obviously alive. He took a sip of his beer, his hand steady. “Thought the same about you in El Paso.”
“Yeah, El Paso. Got a score to settle with you fer that. What say we dance?” Cooley said. “Let’s settle it right here and now. Fer me and fer killin’ Amos.”
Hadn’t Scott used a very similar phrase about “dancing” in the book they just sent off? Here was the final scene playing itself out in front of his eyes. All he could do was sit by in shock and see how it played out. How quickly everything had changed.
“Ah, Cooley, you don’t wanna die on a beautiful day like today. Why don’t you just ride on through to wherever you’re headed?” Johnny suggested, his voice still calm and low. Scott didn’t know how he managed it.
“What?! The great Johnny Madrid too scared ta dance with me?” Cooley sneered.
“Naw, just see it as a waste of my time. Easy pickings and all…” He gave Cooley his cheekiest smile.
Scott saw Cooley’s jaw clench at that jab and he moved his hand slowly toward his gun. Scott’s hand moved gunward, too.
“You stay outta this, blondie,” Cooley threatened Scott. Then he looked at Johnny. “You got other people doin’ your business for ya now?”
“He won’t be no trouble, will you?” Johnny’s eyes never left Cooley.
His brother wouldn’t see his nod, so Scott said, “No.”
“We gonna do this or am I gonna take you out sittin’ in that chair?”
Johnny pushed back his chair and slowly got to his feet. “You’re making a mistake, Cooley,” he warned.
They warily moved to the doorway, never taking their eyes off each other until they were at the batwing doors. “After you, Cooley,” Johnny said, winking at Scott. Scott couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Sometimes Johnny’s humor was so ill-timed! He and the rest of the customers in the bar followed the two gunmen out of the saloon.
Johnny and Cooley were jockeying for the more favorable position, but it didn’t matter. The street was north-south, so the nearly noonday sun was equally blinding for both of them. Scott knew Johnny liked to have the sun at his back. That wasn’t going to happen today. As they took up their positions, Scott crossed the street behind Johnny. He noticed Johnny had positioned himself about the same distance as he had been from the tin cans the day he practiced.
Johnny sensed Scott’s movement. What was his brother doing? Was he purposely trying to distract him? Johnny had no time to contemplate Scott’s movements or motives. He kept his eyes on his opponent and slipped easily back into his Madrid persona. “Last chance to walk away and keep on living,” he called. Cooley just smirked and Johnny watched for that telltale twitch of Cooley’s eyes that meant he was going to draw.
It was all over in a matter of seconds. Cooley lay dead in the street and Johnny walked over to kick the gun away and make sure the man was dead. Satisfied, he found Scott standing on the sidewalk. “Let’s go.”
“Just like that?”
Johnny said nothing but walked over to their wagon with Barranca tied beside it. Without another word, he mounted up and walked the horse down the street. He never left a gunfight in a hurry. It was always at a walk just to make it clear to the townsfolk that it was just business. That’s all. And it was all legal.
Scott tore his eyes away from the dead man in the middle of the street and scurried to catch up. He vaulted up onto the wagon seat and turned the team to follow his brother, still shaken to his core about the entire event. He’d seen his first gunfight! He hoped he’d seen his last. He caught up with Johnny, mostly, as they left the town. He could tell Johnny was upset. He didn’t know whether to say something or not, so he didn’t.
Finally, Johnny said, “What the hell did you think you were doing?”
So, Johnny being upset was actually Johnny being angry at him. “I didn’t do anything, just like you told me to!” Scott defended himself.
“You distracted me!” Johnny lashed out.
“When you walked behind me to the other side of the street. Why do that just as we’re getting set to dance?”
“I couldn’t get a good angle on Baldemoro’s sign,” Scott explained.
“What the hell?”
“I was looking for a second shooter. I had a good angle at the hiding places on the left side of the street and no one was there, but I couldn’t tell if there was someone hiding behind Baldemoro’s sign without going across the street, so I crossed the street.” It was only collaborating with Johnny on the book that Scott had been aware that sometimes gunslingers had friends hiding in the alleyways or up on the rooftops ready to complete the job if their friend didn’t draw fast enough. He didn’t want that happening to his brother.
Johnny’s anger dissipated the second he realized Scott had literally had his back. “Thanks for having my back.”
“Always,” Scott said sincerely. “Sorry I distracted you. I didn’t think you were set yet, so I had time to cross.”
Johnny shrugged away Scott’s apology. He hadn’t had someone there to watch his back since Val left to become a lawman. It was comforting to know his brother was willing to fill in.
“Who was this Cooley fellow anyway?” Scott asked. “I noticed you decided not to maim him.”
“Cooley? Naw. If I let him live, he’d just come after me again. Would probably bushwhack me shooting left-handed.” They rode on for a ways in silence. Then Johnny said, “Me and Cooley were on opposite sides of a range war down El Paso way. I killed his brother, Amos, and got him real good, too. I was surprised when he showed up here.”
“I could tell.”
“Yeah? Must be losing my touch.” They rode in silence again. Again, Johnny broke it. “Just a good thing we look nothing alike. He would’ve shot you dead on sight for being my brother in revenge for Amos.”
“Good thing we’re only half-brothers, then.”
Johnny ruminated on that for a while. “I just think of you as my brother.”
“Me, too. You’re not half-anything to me,” Scott chuckled.
Johnny liked that and knew that it was true. Scott didn’t think of him as a half-brother or a half-Mex or half-Madrid. To Scott, he was just Johnny. Yep, he sure liked that.
“So you think this Cooley fellow wasn’t after Grandfather’s bounty money?” It had been over half a year since his confrontation with Crocker. Scott knew he had let his guard down already.
“Naw. Cooley had a gripe against me for five years now. He was just itching to get even.”
For some reason that made Scott feel better.
“You know better than to tell the Old Man or Aggie about this, right?” Johnny cautioned.
With that, Johnny wheeled Barranca away from the wagon and took off across the meadow.
“Hey!” Scott shouted after him. “I’m not unloading this wagon by myself!” But Johnny was already too far away for his words to be heard. Scott swore softly. He watched Johnny become smaller and smaller until he went over a slight knoll and Scott lost sight of him completely. He understood. Johnny needed some time and space to just run off the aftereffects of the shootout. Hell, he wished he could run off the aftereffects of the shootout. His body was shot through with nervous energy. His brother had been a sight to behold. His gun hand had been nothing but a blur and the accuracy of the shot…it had been breath-taking. Literally. By the time he’d gotten his breath and spit back, Johnny was already strolling over to the body lying in the dirt. Cooley had died before he’d ever gotten his shot off. Scott had just had a front row seat to the drama that was Johnny Madrid’s life. Johnny—his brother—was Johnny Madrid. The magnitude of that finally hit him. How did Johnny cope with his reputation and his past? It was too big a burden for anyone to bear, much less his young brother. And yet Johnny lived his life with a joie de vivre that Scott couldn’t hope to match and was quite envious of. As he made his slow way home, Scott couldn’t help thinking over and over of what he’d just witnessed…and of how he would rewrite the final scene in their book now that he had seen a gunfight with his own eyes.
“Boys!” Murdoch thundered as he heard them greeting Aggie and Maria in the kitchen. Johnny seemed to be teasing Maria, as he often did. His good mood would soon be over, Murdoch thought. His sons shuffled into the great room. Aggie lingered just outside the doorway.
“Coulda heard you in Green River, Old Man” Johnny said as they walked over to the desk.
“Sit down!” he ordered them in no mood for Johnny’s insolence. After they were seated, he said, “Just when were you going to tell me about the shootout last week?”
“I wasn’t never gonna tell you,” Johnny admitted.
Murdoch turned his glare on Scott. “And what’s your excuse?”
“Don’t lay into him. I told him not to tell you,” Johnny interjected.
Murdoch continued to scowl at Scott. “You do everything your brother tells you to do?”
Scott shrugged. “It seemed sensible at the time.”
“Sensible!” Murdoch bellowed again. “And I have to find out from Baldemoro that my son was almost killed?”
Johnny’s voice remained calm just like it did that morning in the saloon. “Didn’t want you to get all dusted up about it like you’re doing now.”
Murdoch was still concentrating on Scott. “Why didn’t you stop it?”
“Would you have rather had him shot in his seat?” Scott asked, anger creeping into his voice. How did this become his fault all of a sudden?
“Quit hollering at Scott,” Johnny said. “He did what I told him to do, which was to stay out of it.”
Murdoch continued to ignore Johnny. “With all your fancy way with words you couldn’t talk this Cooley fellow out of shooting at your brother?”
Scott had enough and stood up. “You weren’t there. You don’t know what happened. Johnny tried his best to talk him out of it,” Scott explained. “I did what I could.” He started to walk away.
“Which was nothing!” Murdoch shouted after him.
“I told you to lay offa Scott,” Johnny said, matching Murdoch’s ire. “Wasn’t nothing he could’ve done. Cooley was set on dancing with me, his hate went way back. Anyway, what’re you so upset about? Here I am without a scratch on me.” He looked outside the French doors and saw Scott at his favorite spot by the corral. It’s where his brother ended up whenever he was upset or worried or just thinking about life or bored. Aggie was hurrying up behind him.
Murdoch scrubbed his face with his hand. “Good God, John, you could have been killed! We could have lost you!” His greatest fear, that Johnny’s past would catch up with him and kill him, had almost come true. He wouldn’t be able to bear that.
“Naw, I can take guys like Cooley any day of the week,” Johnny scoffed, hoping to diffuse the anguish he heard in his father’s voice. It was a nice feeling to know your father gave a damn about you. He stood and grabbed some nuts from the bowl on Murdoch’s desk and popped some in his mouth. “Wasn’t much of a contest.” He, too, started to walk away but then turned back. “You know how you’re gonna lose me? You keep picking at Scott. You push him away and I’m gonna go with him.”
Murdoch took that as an empty threat. Lancer was deep in Johnny’s blood. He wouldn’t leave if Scott did, knowing Lancer was his legacy. Losing Scott wouldn’t affect the ranch much; losing Johnny would be devastating. Nevertheless, he needed to have the final word. “Next time, tell me yourself, so I don’t have to hear it from the townsfolk!”
Johnny gave him a casual, acknowledging wave and went out to talk to Scott. Aggie saw him coming and left to go back to her baking. As they passed, she said, “His bark is worse than his bite, Johnny.”
“I see you survived the Old Man’s wrath,” Scott said dryly when his brother joined him.
“Ah, he was just scared,” Johnny said dismissively.
“I can’t blame him,” Scott said. “I was scared for you, too, that day.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s hard for the folks who can’t do nothing about it. Me, I knew I was gonna come out on top.” Johnny’s bravado was in full force after the fact. “The Old Man had no right lighting into you, though. Like I said before, you did right that day.”
Scott nodded, his head hanging low.
Johnny slapped him on the back. “Told the Old Man if you left Lancer, I’d be going with you.”
Johnny chuckled at Scott’s incredulity. “I did. Come on, help me comb out Barranca’s mane or see to Sugar’s. She’s all matted up.” He grabbed Scott’s arm and they headed for the barn.
Scott couldn’t speak, he was so touched that Johnny would say that to Murdoch. No, Johnny wasn’t half-anything—he was a whole diamond. And next time, when Johnny wanted to leave Lancer, he wouldn’t talk him out of it like he did before. He’d be riding out alongside of him.
Some weeks later, Murdoch threw a large envelope at Scott. “This came in the mail for you.”
Scott recognized the return address immediately. “C’mon, Johnny! This is what we’ve been waiting for!” They scurried up the stairs.
“Dinner in half an hour!” Aggie called after them. She gave Murdoch a questioning look. “Who was that from?”
“Don’t know. It said ‘Houghton and Hurd’ on it. It’s from Boston, though. Maybe the lawyers for Garrett’s estate?”
Aggie smiled. She recognized the name of Scott’s publishing house. She was surprised Murdoch didn’t. Then she frowned as she realized the probable reason why. Maybe she’d quiz him on East Meets West tonight to see if he even read Scott’s book.
Scott was already tearing the envelope open as Johnny closed his bedroom door. Johnny was worried. The envelope wouldn’t be that thick if it was just an acceptance letter.
Scott was mumbling to himself as he read the cover letter. Johnny tried to read it over his brother’s shoulder but gave up when he didn’t understand some of the words. He’d let Scott sum it up for him. “What’s it say?”
Scott got to the end of the cover letter, flipped through the other pages, and then answered Johnny’s urgent plea. “It says that they like the book, but they want to change the ending. They’ve enclosed the standard contract for us to sign and the alternate ending they want. We can edit the ending but not change its basic premise.”
“Which is?” Johnny asked warily. He liked their original ending with Billy Yuma looking up at the gorgeous California sky as he died.
“They don’t want Billy to die,” Scott said.
“That’s the whole point of the book,” Johnny exclaimed. “Gunfighting’s a bad life. It’ll only get you killed.”
“Unless you’re as fast as Johnny Madrid,” Scott teased.
“Who are these ‘they’ anyway?”
“My editor, Stearns, and the people who run Houghton and Hurd,” Scott explained. “They love the book so much and our Billy Yuma character that they want to make a series out of it. Can’t do that if we kill off our hero in the end.”
“Yes, a whole set of books of Billy Yuma’s adventures. And we’ll get paid for every one!”
Johnny couldn’t muster up Scott’s enthusiasm. “That’d mean we’d have to write more books, right?”
“Right! We could make a small fortune out of this. Support ourselves by writing instead of ranching. Isn’t it exciting?”
Johnny wasn’t sure. Sure, it had been some fun working with Scott on the novel, but he didn’t want to make a career out of it. He’d been rather reluctant to give up his free time for the project. He’d rather be playing poker with the boys in the bunkhouse, training Barranca, or just plain doing nothing than pouring over Scott’s writings, even if he had to admit that Scott’s writings were pretty good. But he didn’t want to hurt Scott’s enthusiasm. “I don’t mind ranching,” he finally said.
“And they want to change the title,” Scott said as if he hadn’t heard Johnny’s quiet pronouncement.
“I told you they wouldn’t like your title,” Johnny sing-songed.
“Well, it wasn’t going to be Ants Crawling Across his Eyeballs!”
“Hey! It would’ve gotten folks’ attention!” Johnny defended his choice.
“They’re suggesting Gunslinger with an exclamation point.”
Johnny frowned. “Guess it’s better than your Billy Yuma. Folks ain’t gonna be bored to death by it.”
Scott wasn’t listening to Johnny’s gibe. He was already reading over Stearns’ rewrite. It wasn’t bad; it just had Billy surviving the shootout with Gentleman Jim instead of being killed by him. But, he realized, this gave him the opportunity to rewrite the shootout and make it better and more realistic. Yes, this was a good thing. Johnny didn’t sound as excited as he was about this turn of events. “Look, Johnny, I think I have a better understanding of this gunslinger lifestyle now. I wouldn’t pester you as much to help me. Would that be better? Maybe just read it over when I’m done and answer one or two questions along the way. And they’ll expect you to illustrate it again.”
“That might be all right,” Johnny conceded. “I don’t think I’ll have as much time to give you this time.”
“Because of Sally Mae?” Scott teased.
“Her and some others,” Johnny replied with a cheeky smile.
“I understand completely,” Scott said trying to keep a straight face.
“Hey, did they say anything about my pictures?”
“Yes.” Scott picked up the cover letter and showed Johnny the line. “See? They say they’re perfect. I told you so!”
Teresa called them to dinner by yelling down the hallway.
Scott thought that even though she no longer looked like a child, she still could act like one on occasion. “Let’s look over the contract and the revision after dinner,” he suggested. He was eager to get the meal over with so he could begin writing. He had so many new ideas!
Johnny agreed even though it meant another evening stolen away from him. He had to admit, it was kind of exciting to maybe see his name on the cover of a book. He suddenly had an idea for how that cover should look. He’d sketch it out tonight.
Murdoch looked at the small crate Walt left by his desk after he got the mail today. It was rather heavy and had the return address of Houghton and Hurd, which Murdoch now knew, after an embarrassing interrogation from Aggie, was the name of Scott’s publisher. Was this why the boy had spent every spare minute up in his room? And what did Johnny have to do with it? If Scott had gotten Johnny to start writing poetry, he didn’t know if he could hold his tongue.
Johnny burst through the door as he usually did and proceeded to tell him about how stupid the steers on the northern pastures were, which had Murdoch smiling and chuckling until Johnny came to the punch line and he laughed loudly along with his son. Johnny could sure spin a tale. And Cipriano would never live the moment down as long as Johnny was around to remind him of it. His younger son was such a joy to have around.
Johnny spied the box. “What’s this?” He looked at the return address. Excited, he said, “Let’s open it!”
“Hold on!” Murdoch stopped him. “It’s addressed to Scott and only Scott.”
“So it’s a federal offense to open another person’s mail.” At Johnny’s confused face, he added, “There’s a federal law against it.”
That Johnny understood. During his time as Johnny Madrid, he’d quickly learned the differences among federal, state, and local laws. It didn’t deter him. “Scott won’t mind,” he told Murdoch. Apparently, his father was intent on having federal laws obeyed. Dejected, he left to clean up for dinner.
What a day for Scott to be late for dinner, Johnny thought. He was itching to get that crate open and see the books he suspected were inside. Scott wanted them to be a surprise for Murdoch and Aggie, a bit of a payback for the one they had given him when they announced their engagement. They were just sitting down to the meal when Scott finally arrived. Bedraggled and dirty, he excused his lateness and went upstairs to clean up.
“We’re starting without you,” Murdoch called behind him.
“Don’t be hard on him, dear. It looks like he’s had a rough day,” Aggie soothed.
The Old Man made a grumbly noise, and Johnny was once again grateful that Aggie was living with them. He knew the Old Man would have lit into Scott for being late had she not been here. He lit into Scott for any little thing.
Scott slithered into his chair during another one of Teresa’s gossipy stories. His hair was still damp but neatly combed.
“What happened to you?” Murdoch asked when Teresa was finished.
“Miller’s stream overflowed and created another pond area, which was really more of another mudhole, and it seemed like half the herd got stuck in it,” Scott replied as he helped himself to the refried beans. Surely, Murdoch wouldn’t complain about him being late. Cows didn’t know what time it was. Cipriano had told him to leave before the last steer had been rescued, knowing Murdoch’s rule about dinner at six. Cipriano was a good man, Scott thought, not for the first time nor for the hundredth.
Murdoch looked like he was about to say something unkind when Teresa stepped in. “There’s a package for you,” she told Scott. “And we’re all dying to know what’s in it.”
Scott looked at his brother, “Did it finally come?”
Johnny nodded grinning. “Murdoch wouldn’t let me open it.”
“It was addressed to only you,” Murdoch explained. “Everyone finish your dinner first,” he commanded. He had to admit, he was very curious, too.
After dinner they all hurried over to the package. Johnny produced a small knife from his boot, and Scott started popping off the thin wooden slats. Tossing the packing paper aside, he revealed the prize.
“Another book!” Aggie crowed and gave Scott a warm hug.
“Not just me,” Scott said, handing copies out to everyone.
Murdoch harumphed at the title but then noticed the authors names: SG and JM Lancer. “Who is JM Lancer?”
“Me, Old Man,” Johnny said, a little hurt by Murdoch’s remark until he saw the gleam in his father’s eye.
“Your middle name doesn’t start with an ‘M.’”
“’M’ for ‘Madrid,’” Johnny explained.
“That’s not what your birth certificate says,” Murdoch said.
“Indeed, not,” Aggie agreed. “Johnny, don’t you know what your middle name is?”
Johnny turned red. “No.”
They all turned expectantly to Murdoch. “It was your mother who named you. Juan Carlos Lancer. It was a family name on her side, I think. I agreed as long as I could call you the English version, John, which she agreed to. Of course, two minutes after I held you in my arms and looked into your round little face, ‘John’ turned into ‘Johnny.’”
“That’s so cute!” Teresa exclaimed.
Juan Carlos, Johnny repeated over and over in his head. He liked it. Why hadn’t Mama ever told him that? He realized everyone was looking at him waiting for his reaction. “Wish someone would’ve told me that!” He needed to direct their attention elsewhere. “And who named Scott?”
“I think it was your mother, Scott,” Aggie said after an uncomfortable silence that had Scott looking down at his feet uncomfortably. “Right, darling?”
Murdoch tore his mind away from remembering that evening when he and Catherine had discussed baby names. She didn’t even consider girls’ names, adamant that they were going to have a son. That had been such a wonderful evening with lots of laughter and kisses. God, he missed her so much. He dimly heard Aggie’s “right, dear?” “What? Oh, as I recall, it was a mutual decision.”
“She wanted to name him ‘Scott’ to honor your heritage,” Aggie prompted.
Murdoch chuckled. “Is that what she told you? She wanted to name him ‘Marlowe’ after her favorite English writer. English! As a Scotsman, I couldn’t allow that!”
“Then where did ‘Scott’ come from?” Aggie persisted.
“We were both in the middle of reading Ivanhoe to each other,” Murdoch explained, “and I didn’t like the name ‘Walter.’”
“Thank you for choosing ‘Scott’ instead,’” Scott said sincerely. Marlowe? Walter? Ugh! But the thought of his mother and Murdoch reading to each other made him smile.
Aggie noticed Scott’s frown was gone and he was looking at Murdoch straight on, his eyes alight. Why didn’t Murdoch tell his sons more about their heritage? She was going to have to push him gently to do so.
Murdoch nodded and continued, “After your mother agreed with ‘Scott,’ I felt it only proper that she could pick the middle name. I could hardly deny her request that it be ‘Garrett.’”
Scott smiled inwardly. He wouldn’t tell his father that until he was enrolled in the boarding school, he’d thought “Garrett’ was his last name.
“Marlowe Walter Lancer!” Johnny teased.
“Shut up, Juan Carlos,” Scott retorted, wearing a wide grin.
Johnny’s and Scott’s grins turned into laughter, and Murdoch was astonished at the sound. How long had it been since he heard Scott laugh? Too, too long. Their laughter was infectious and soon all five of them were sharing it.
Teresa’s hand caressed the cover. “Billy Yuma: Gun For Hire. I can’t wait to read it!”
“That’s Johnny’s artwork on the cover and throughout the book,” Scott told her.
That produced more sounds of appreciation. Aggie was flipping through the pages and stopping at the illustrations. “Oh, they’re marvelous!”
“I thought they were gonna name it Gunslinger!” Johnny griped. “Now it’s back to your boring title.”
“I told them that you didn’t like Gunslinger!, that people in the trade didn’t think of themselves like that. I guess they took that to heart and came up with this title. I didn’t suggest it,” Scott said.
“It’s not boring; it’s wonderful,” Aggie gushed, “just wonderful! Murdoch, you have two published authors in your house! It’s extraordinary!”
Murdoch was already perusing the Acknowledgements page searching for his name. There it was this time. He was so pleased.
“What’s this?” Teresa asked. She’d been rooting around in the crate and held up another, slimmer book.
Aggie snatched it from her hand. “Wild Horses,” she read. “Please tell me this is more of your poetry, Scott.” His blush was all the confirmation she needed.
Murdoch’s happy mood fled. Another book of poetry from his fey son. What had he and Catherine produced? No, it had to have been Harlan who had twisted Scott into this abomination. Yes, it was Harlan’s doing. How to undo it was the problem.
The following night at dinner had Teresa dominating the conversation because there was to be a barn dance in Green River in two weeks. Johnny’s eyes lit up, but Scott just groaned inwardly. Another awkward dance. It wasn’t just the girls who would fawn all over him; their mothers were worse, always recounting their daughters’ attributes in the hopes of selling him on them. It was embarrassing and reminded him of Boston society’s unnatural fascination with him until his engagement to Julie had ended their speculation of who was winning his affection. It hadn’t started up again too much this last time in Boston because the newspapers did indeed discover that he was not the heir to the Garrett fortune, which had dimmed female interest in him considerably, much to his and Aunt Cora’s delight.
For the next ten minutes the banter swirled around which girl Johnny would escort to the dance. He wouldn’t commit to one, finally saying, “Maybe I’ll just go stag, like Scott,” which shifted the focus onto him.
“Penelope Hogg told me to give her regards to you,” Teresa relayed. “She’s always asking about you. You should take her to the dance. I’m sure she’d love to go with you.”
Scott heard Johnny’s snicker, which prompted Aggie to come to the girl’s defense. “She’s a nice girl.”
A nice girl who had cornered Scott one afternoon outside the general store and proceeded to talk without end about women’s hats. No, he wouldn’t spend an evening with Penelope Hogg, even though it would be chivalrous to marry her just to change her unfortunate last name. “No, I don’t think so, Teresa.”
“Then who?” she persisted. “I get pestered so by all my friends about you.”
“How about I take you?” Scott asked. This should end the discussion. He was surprised when she said, “Absolutely not!”
“I like that suggestion,” Murdoch finally weighed in.
“I have enough trouble getting boys to notice me with Johnny Madrid as my brother,” Teresa pouted. “I’m hoping Steven will ask me.”
Johnny perked up at that. “Steven? Steve Howe?” His face turned into a scowl. “He’s a lazy, no-good…”
“He is not!” Teresa objected. “He’s very nice.”
“And good looking,” Scott added, glad that the focus was off him for the moment.
The merits or lack of them of Steven Howe were discussed for a few more minutes, until Teresa was fed up with Johnny’s unkind observations and turned back on him. Who Johnny might take occupied the remainder of the meal. Johnny played it close to the vest with many lecherous smirks thrown into the conversation. They learned only that Sally Mae was no longer in the running.
After dinner, Scott wandered out to his favorite spot by the corral and draped himself over the fence. It was a beautiful evening to enjoy and commune with the horses. Barranca was out tonight and came over to greet him. He petted his nose in response and told the palomino he had no carrots for him. Someone came up behind him. He hoped it was Johnny.
“Fine night tonight.” Murdoch.
Scott straightened up stiffly, “Yes, sir.”
After some minutes of silence, Murdoch said casually, “You might reconsider taking a girl to the dance.”
“I have no intention of taking a girl to the dance,” Scott reiterated. “I have no interest in any of them.”
And there it was! The confirmation Murdoch needed. Nevertheless, he would try to press Scott into at least giving the semblance of being a real man. “People are beginning to talk, Scott.”
“I don’t care!” Scott spat back. He’d been the subject of many society page articles about the most eligible bachelors in Boston. Everywhere he went and everyone he danced with, talked to, ate lunch with were fodder for the papers, especially once his exploits on the battlefield became public knowledge. Dashing Scott Lancer! His privacy was constantly violated. He wondered now whether that pressure had led him to prematurely ask Julie to marry him. It was obvious that she was throwing herself at him and Grandfather had enthusiastically endorsed her. If he’d only known then what he knew now. His grandfather’s endorsement would have meant something entirely different. In any event, he had no desire for a repeat of that unhappy time. None of the girls he’d met in the surrounding area had captured his interest. There were plenty of very nice girls, good, sturdy stock, who would make a good rancher’s wife, but none who interested him intellectually. He wanted a wife he could talk to about more than just beef prices and the vegetable patch. Someone like Agatha Conway Lancer, who was well-read besides being a savvy businesswoman. Someone on whose good sense he could rely. There was no girl like that around his age that he’d met in California. If he took a girl to the dance, tongues would wag. Now Murdoch was telling him tongues would wag if he didn’t. Damned if he did; damned if he didn’t.
“Well, you should, if not for yourself, then for your family name,” Murdoch persisted.
Family name? “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you not bringing shame upon the Lancer name.”
Scott was confused. “I’m shaming the Lancer name by not taking a girl to a dance?” That didn’t make sense.
“By not being interested in girls,” Murdoch explained.
“Who says I’m not interested in girls?” Scott’s mind shot to Abbie and the many delicious nights he’d spent with her. The female body was a constant source of delight. Sometimes just seeing a curl on the nape of an exposed neck made him hard.
“You just did!” Murdoch informed him.
Scott didn’t remember saying he had no interest in girls in general, just none who he would take to the dance. “I…I didn’t,” he protested weakly, confused at the turn this conversation was taking. Murdoch wasn’t making any sense at all.
“What are you, Scott?” Murdoch asked, his voice low and searching.
‘What are you,’ not ‘who are you.’ Scott finally understood what his father was insinuating. He couldn’t believe it. Now many things made sense: Murdoch’s disdain for his poetry, his worry over how many baths he was taking, asking Johnny about saloon girls. Well, he certainly wasn’t going to give his father the answer he was expecting. He searched his mind for a response that would shock Murdoch as much as his father’s question had shocked him. “I’m that thing that killed my mother,” Scott said. He was beyond hurt by Murdoch’s implication. No wonder his father disliked him if that’s what he thought of him.
Murdoch took a step backward. He’d heard! The boy had heard Harlan say those cruel words. “You heard him?”
“I heard everything,” Scott replied bitterly. “Why do you think I moved when I did? I knew his tirade was winding down and he was about to shoot. I hoped I could distract him.”
“You did; you did.” Scott had saved his life. When Garrett had looked over at Scott, Murdoch had leapt at the gun. He should have known Scott had heard his grandfather when the police had released him and the judge had ruled Garrett’s death an accident. Scott was the only other person in the study. He took a step toward him and awkwardly raised his hand to touch the boy, but Scott flinched, as usual, and he dropped it.
“It’s all right. You don’t have to…” Scott mumbled. He began to turn away.
This time Murdoch did touch him. He grabbed Scott’s arm to stop him from leaving. “I don’t have to what?”
Scott looked away and tried to shrug out of his father’s grasp. “Nothing…”
“No,” Murdoch demanded, keeping his grasp tight. “Tonight, I’m not going to settle for that. Finish the sentence, Scott. For once, tell me what you’re thinking. After all these years, I’m tired of guessing.”
Scott looked at his father’s face expecting to find anger. It wasn’t there. Only concern was there. Did he dare tell him what he was really thinking? Did he have the guts? His father didn’t think so. But he did. He did. “You don’t have to…pretend you like me…or love me. I’m sorry I’m not the son you want me to be. I’m sorry I’m not Johnny.” He waited a few seconds for the firestorm to commence or maybe an angry denial, but the only thing that happened was that Murdoch’s face turned sad and he loosened his grip on his arm, and Scott was able to free himself from his grasp. He stomped off toward the barn.
Murdoch stood there in shock. Had his son really said those words to him? Had he really just apologized that he wasn’t Johnny? He loved Johnny so fiercely. But he loved Scott, too, in his own way, didn’t he? It was only more quiet, more reserved, like the boy himself. But if what Addison had implied was true…could he still love him? Scott hadn’t come right out and denied his accusation.
A few minutes later, Scott emerged from the barn on Sugar and galloped past. “Scott,” Murdoch called, but his son ignored him and rode north. In earlier days, Murdoch would have known exactly where Scott was going—southeast to the Double C. But Henry Conway was dead and Aggie lived here at Lancer now. Scott’s sanctuary was gone. He had no idea where his elder son was going.
Johnny came out of the French doors. “That Scott?” he asked, looking at the cloud of dust Scott had left behind.
Murdoch only nodded, unable to find his voice.
“He musta been mad, riding out like that, knowing it’s against your rules and all,” Johnny said cheekily, hoping it would provoke Murdoch to tell him what they had been discussing so seriously.
Murdoch found his voice. “He had his reasons” was all he said and walked back to the house.
Johnny raised his eyebrows at Murdoch but didn’t pursue the matter any further. He’d get it out of Scott once he rode his mad off…maybe…probably.
Later that night in bed with Aggie, Murdoch recounted a highly edited version of the conversation, omitting the part where he implied Scott was a homosexual. He ended his story with a shocked, “How could he think that I don’t love him?”
Aggie raised up on her elbows to look him in the eyes with a bewildered face.
Good, Murdoch thought, she’s as confused as I am.
“Good Lord, Murdoch, everyone knows you don’t love Scott like you do Johnny,” she said. “Even Maria. Why do you think she’s extra affectionate to him?” The cook was always sneaking in a chaste kiss or a warm hug for Scott.
He hadn’t been expecting that. “That’s not true!”
“You’ve never treated Scott the way you do Johnny,” she insisted. “You twist yourself in a knot to accommodate Johnny. You barely tolerate Scott.”
“I don’t want Johnny to leave and go back to hiring out his gun. My God, when I heard he was in that shootout…I’m so afraid he’s going to die.”
Agatha threw her arms around him. “I know how scared you were, how scared you are. I was scared, too.”
Murdoch gulped back the tears that were threatening to form. “Johnny is the future of Lancer.”
Aggie frowned. “And Scott isn’t?”
“Not the way Johnny is. He’s just…different.” Murdoch didn’t want to tell her just how different. He was still debating with himself over whether to throw Scott off the ranch.
“I think he senses that.” Aggie said. She knew Scott sensed it. He’d sensed it ever since he arrived at Lancer. She and Henry had tried to convince him that his father loved him, but after seeing firsthand how Murdoch treated him, she understood why Scott felt the way he did. It was made even more apparent in comparison to the way Murdoch treated Johnny. “He needs to feel loved by you.” There. She’d finally said it. Now she waited for Murdoch’s response.
Murdoch knew he had to tread lightly here. Aggie loved Scott as deeply as he loved Johnny. He didn’t understand it. Johnny was so much more endearing. Johnny was warm and energetic. Scott was cold, aloof, and resentful. How could Scott be resentful after all he had given him through the years? He picked his words carefully. “He’s my son. Of course, I love him.”
Aggie was dismayed at the unloving tone in which that declaration had been made. She pressed again. “But does he know that? The real question here is not whether you love Scott but whether Scott thinks you love him. I think he doesn’t,” Aggie said quietly, not wanting Murdoch to close off completely and end this important discussion.
“Did he tell you that?” The irritation was plain to hear.
Aggie nodded. “A while ago—before Addison. We don’t talk as much as we used to now that I’ve married you.”
Murdoch snorted. “He probably thinks you tell me everything.”
Aggie nodded more seriously. “And he’d be right, but I miss talking to him like we used to do. He’s been different since he came home from Boston. How could he not be after being shot by his own grandfather? And now you tell me he heard all of his hateful words! How could Harlan be so cruel?”
“He was a cruel man. A cruel and bitter old man. He only loved one person in his life other than himself: Catherine.”
“What about Miriam?” Aggie asked, thinking of Harlan’s wife and Catherine’s mother.
“Everyone knew he married her only for her money and standing. He treated her well enough. If he didn’t, the whole Prescott clan would have had his hide.” Murdoch gathered his wife into his arms.
Aggie could sense his pensive mood. “You miss Catherine like I do, too, don’t you?”
“Every damn day, but now I have you, my dear. You remind me of her sometimes.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It was meant to be.” After they laid happily together for a few minutes, he said, “You know, Catherine once told me that she only married me because she thought I could get her away from Harlan.”
“She did,” Aggie agreed. “She told me that, too. But then she said she had grown to love you very much. She took one look at your imposing figure and discovered your stubbornness and knew you were the one to free her from her life in Boston.”
“I did intimidate the man,” Murdoch chuckled at the memory. “Catherine was so beautiful and refined. I thought I was marrying a meek, little lamb who needed my protection. The day we stepped on the boat to California, she just bloomed, and I found myself falling in love with the new, confident Catherine even more deeply, the Catherine you and Henry met here.”
“She was so in love with you, Murdoch,” Aggie whispered. “Never doubt that.”
“And I her,” he replied.
Aggie wasn’t a bit jealous. She and Catherine had become such close friends. She knew Catherine was his first and truest love. Maria was young and beautiful and a distraction from his grief over his first love. And then there was Johnny. Maria had given him a son and he would always be grateful to the woman for that. But the depth of love wasn’t there with Maria, at least, it hadn’t been apparent to her. And she was no young maiden herself. She knew their love was based solidly on their friendship. His love for her, too, wasn’t as deep as his love for Catherine. Hers wasn’t as deep for him as her love for Henry. They both knew what they were getting into with this marriage, and it suited them both just fine.
“Then why can’t you love her son just as much?” she asked.
She expected his mood to immediately turn sour and surly, but instead he thought about it. She was hopeful she might finally get a real answer to the question she’d asked herself for years.
Finally, Murdoch said, “He looks so much like Catherine, but he doesn’t act like her. There’s no fire in him, no passion. He keeps everything inside. Right from the start, it seemed like he was keeping secrets.”
“Secrets?! He was eight. What kinds of secrets could he have that young?”
“I don’t know,” Murdoch admitted, “but he had them. He was always so quiet, always watching. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to Johnny, so full of life. You always knew what Johnny was thinking and feeling. He told you or his eyes…his eyes told you everything, didn’t they?”
Aggie laughed a little. “They certainly did. They still do.”
Murdoch chuckled with her. Then he grew serious again. “But Scott’s eyes don’t tell me anything.” He sighed. “To be honest, all I see when I look at him is that skinny, scared, nine-year-old boy with bruises all over him.”
Agatha knew what he meant. She, too, would never forget the sight of Scott so abused. But she didn’t carry guilt over it like her husband obviously still did.
“His eyes always look so sad.”
“Well, they weren’t always sad, I can tell you that,” she told Murdoch. She cast her mind back to the two glorious years she and Henry had with Scott, when she felt like they were a family and Scott was really her son. “When he lived with us, his eyes sparkled just as bright as Johnny’s. And he laughed; oh, how he laughed so free and often. It was when he came back from Boston that first time and then after this trip, too, that he changed. Now I know it was because of the War. I never thought about it because he never wanted to talk about it. He said everything was in the poems. Dear God, what he must have gone through! And now you tell me he heard Garrett’s spiteful words. No wonder he’s quiet and his eyes are sad.”
“He’s always been quiet.”
“No, he hasn’t. He talked all the time when he lived with us. Gracious, the boy could talk! Henry said the boy probably talked in his sleep!” She smiled at the memory.
“He wasn’t like that with me,” Murdoch groused.
“Yes, I know.”
“Do you know why?”
“Some, I think. Not all.” She stalled, not knowing whether she should divulge some of the things she knew a young Scott had told her in confidence. But things would not get better between the two men if she didn’t tell Murdoch what she thought. He was her husband now, and she shouldn’t keep secrets from her husband. “Murdoch, you just said that Catherine married you because of your imposing figure.” He nodded. “Well, what do think you look like to an eight-year-old boy? Scott was scared of you at first, very scared of you. He was very worried he’d make you angry with him and you’d hit him, beat him. He didn’t know anything about life in California, so he kept out of your way as much as he could and watched so he could learn. He tried to keep out of Maria’s way as well, but we both know what happened there. With that beginning to his life here, how can you blame him for not being so open and carefree as Johnny was? He was keeping secrets from you. He was keeping what Maria did to him from you.”
Maria. It always came back to Maria and her torment of Scott. “I don’t blame him for that, but how am I supposed to get to know him if he never says anything to me except “yes, sir”? I expected him to be as bold and full of life as Catherine was. He isn’t anything like her.”
“Yes, he is. He’s got her curiosity and love of learning, although I’m sure you contributed to that a little, too. He’s certainly got your stubbornness and your sense of right and wrong. But when he was younger, before he went off to the War, he had the same kind of innocent delight in the smallest of things as Catherine did. I saw a lot of her in him.”
Murdoch remembered the flat stone on the bedside table at the Double C. “Like skipping stones?”
“Like skipping stones.” Aggie smiled and snuggled more closely. “Remember when you and Henry tried to teach Catherine and me how to skip stones?”
He did. It was one of the happiest days of his life. Catherine had told him only the day before that she was pregnant. They had gone over to the Double C to tell their best friends the news and had spent the day picnicking by the lake. Henry and he had tried to teach their wives how to skip stones, but the women were woefully inept at it. They had all collapsed in laughter and joking. It had been a perfect day. And now Henry had taught Scott and not him because he was too busy with other things to pay attention to his own son. Again, jealousy arose in the pit of his stomach because of Henry Conway’s close relationship with Scott, a relationship he should have had with him.
“Scott was terrible at it at first, just like Catherine. But he kept at it, kept practicing in secret, and the next time we had lunch at the lake, he beat Henry at it. That was like Catherine, too, and you, keeping at something until you got it right. She did that with cooking, though, rather than skipping stones or raising cattle.”
“She was a terrible cook!” Murdoch laughed. “Thank God, I found Juanita, or we would have starved to death!”
Aggie laughed with him. “At first, yes, but she kept at it and was pretty good before Haney came along.”
They both sobered at the mention of that name. “Garrett,” Murdoch whispered. “Garrett was behind Haney and the raids, and Catherine died because of his hatred for me! Then he stole my son! Even though he hated Scott, he stole him from me to torment me.” He rolled away from Aggie, trying to contain his rage and his grief.
Aggie rolled over with him, draping herself across his back. “And you’ve suffered a long time because of that. But Scott has, too. Don’t hold the fact that he didn’t grow up here for the first eight years of his life against him. Don’t punish him for not having your love during those first years. Do you know what those first years were like for him, growing up in Boston?”
Aggie shook her head. Sometimes Murdoch’s pride and stubbornness were difficult to deal with. “Didn’t you ever ask him?”
“No. Did you?”
“Henry did, but Scott didn’t like to talk about it. One night at dinner Henry asked about what dinner was like in Boston. That’s when we learned that he never ate with his grandfather. He ate in the kitchen before his grandfather dined in the formal dining room. Oh, Murdoch, with the way that Harlan felt about him, it couldn’t have been a happy childhood. He told us he was confined to the house and yard. He wasn’t allowed in most of the rooms of the house, but he snuck into them anyway. He was very proud of that accomplishment since he was hardly ever out of his nanny’s sight. That reminded me of Catherine, too. She could be sneaky.”
He rolled back over on his back. “Catherine was not sneaky!”
“Oh, Murdoch,” Aggie laughed. “That you never knew just shows you how good at it she was!”
“What was she sneaky about?” Murdoch pouted.
“Your records books, for one.”
“I wasn’t trying to keep them from her. She just didn’t need to worry about them. She had other responsibilities,” he huffed.
“She wanted to be your equal partner in the ranch,” Aggie scolded him.
“She was,” Murdoch murmured. “She was, but money is a man’s business.”
That made Aggie chuckle. “She was the daughter of an accountant, dear. She could probably have kept the books much better than you.”
“That never occurred to me…”
Of course, it didn’t, Aggie mused. Sometimes men could be so infuriating when it came to women and their abilities. “Harlan sent Scott away to boarding school when he was six. Did you know that?”
“Now we know why. While you were thinking the man was clinging to Scott because he loved him so, he really wanted nothing to do with him. Scott must have sensed that.”
“Did I ever tell you that I paid some men to keep watch on Garrett’s house when the judge ruled in my favor? I was afraid the man was going to run away with Scott in the middle of the night rather than turn him over to me. Now I know that was foolish.”
“Maybe not. He might have sent Scott far away, hoping to prolong your suffering. That was money well spent, I think.”
Murdoch yawned. “We need to get to sleep. Dawn comes early.”
“Oh, I know,” Aggie assured him. After they had kissed and nestled down to sleep, she said, “What are you going to do about Scott?”
“I don’t know.”
“You need to make him believe you love him,” Aggie suggested.
And how was he to accomplish that? He didn’t know. Truly, he didn’t because deep in his heart, very deep down in his heart, he didn’t know whether he did love the boy. He knew the real reason for the problem, the reason he was too cowardly to tell Aggie or anyone. He deeply resented Scott. And over the years, the resentment grew deeper and deeper. The boy’s birth had killed his beloved Catherine. His presence on the ranch had destroyed his happy home with Maria and Johnny. He called Henry Conway ‘Pa.’ He liked working at the Double C better than at Lancer. He was more than likely a sodomite. And now Johnny would choose him over his own father. It didn’t matter that Scott wasn’t responsible for some of it; the resentment lingered and clouded Murdoch’s thoughts and actions whenever he was with his elder son. Until he could eliminate the resentment, his relationship with Scott was never going to improve. But the resentment ran so deep, any hope of having a real relationship with Scott seemed hopeless.
Scott didn’t come back to the hacienda for two days. On the third day, Murdoch rode out to the bridge he was helping to fix.
“Are we going to see you at dinner tonight?” he asked gruffly.
“I was planning to,” Scott answered just as tersely.
“Good, good.” Murdoch muttered and rode away.
Scott knew that was it. That was as much of an apology or whatever it was as he was going to get. They wouldn’t speak of what was said between them again. Scott sighed. On the one hand, it spared them both any further embarrassment, but on the other hand, nothing had been resolved, and his sadness and resentment toward his father still festered.
After he’d accused Murdoch of not liking him, much less loving him, he’d rode into town, deciding to spend the night at the hotel. That first night he’d gotten quite drunk. The second night he’d spent with Abbie until his body was exhausted. Neither attempted escape had worked. He didn’t know what to do about his father.
Johnny, of course, found the whole thing quite humorous. “I would’ve punched him right in the face if he thought I was a fancy boy!” he declared.
Scott wished he had thought of that. Resorting to physical violence wasn’t in his nature as it was in Johnny’s. It probably would have been effective with Murdoch, though.
“Guess you should introduce him to Abbie. She’d set him straight!” Johnny suggested.
“Perhaps I should ride her on the dining room table to convince him,” Scott suggested.
“Eww, no, not the table! We eat on that!” Johnny objected, but picturing Scott doing that was going to entertain him for a spell. “Make it the couch.”
Scott’s eyes took on an evil glow. “His desk!”
They both dissolved into laughter.
Johnny couldn’t look Murdoch in the face without seeing Scott’s imagery springing into his mind. He spent the next two days chuckling or smirking whenever he saw his father until Murdoch had had enough of it and sent him off with Diego to restock the farthest line shacks on the ranch. They would be gone the better part of a week.
Because of it, he missed the letter that arrived for Scott from Boston. Murdoch was mildly curious about it. The return address said, “C. Hancock,” but the handwriting was masculine, not Cora Hancock’s flowing script. Scott had taken it upstairs to his room before opening it, leaving Aggie and him to speculate.
“I think she has a son named Charles,” Murdoch said. Wasn’t that the man he had met when he’d gotten out of jail and moved in with Cora?
“That doesn’t bode well,” Aggie said. “Why would he be writing to Scott?”
“Something about Garrett’s estate?” Murdoch ventured.
They waited for ten minutes for Scott to reemerge, then Aggie couldn’t stand it anymore and strode up the stairs to satisfy her curiosity. Murdoch waited another fifteen minutes and was tempted to follow his wife when she came back into the great room.
“His Aunt Cora died,” she told her husband. “Scott seems quite upset. I gather they were close?”
“She seemed quite fond of him when we were there.” He remembered her singing Scott’s praises as highly as Aggie did and fussing over his son. Scott could certainly wrap older women around his little finger.
“Go up and comfort him,” Aggie prodded. “He needs his father now.”
Murdoch knew he would have no peace unless he did as she asked. He didn’t know what he would say to Scott; he was as shocked to learn of Cora’s death as his son was. He knocked quietly on Scott’s door and opened it slowly. Scott sat on the edge of his bed, swiping at his eyes. He’d obviously been crying. “May I come in?”
Murdoch noticed the letter in Scott’s hand. The envelope and another sheet of paper lay on the floor by his feet. He sat down beside his son. “Aggie said that Cora died.”
Scott nodded again. He was afraid to speak, afraid he’d start crying in earnest like he had with Mama. Scott sat up straighter. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Sorry? For what?”
“I know you can’t abide tears…” Scott’s voice broke.
Murdoch’s heart went out to the boy. “At times like these, I find them more than appropriate, son. Your Aunt Cora was an extraordinary woman.”
Scott just nodded again, not able to trust his voice.
Murdoch gestured to the paper in Scott’s hand. “What does Charles have to say?”
“It’s not from Charles,” Scott mumbled. “Aunt Cora wrote to me before she passed.”
“May I read it or is it too personal?”
Scott handed the letter to his father.
My Dearest Scott,
Words cannot convey the joy that you brought into my life ever since I held you in my arms as a babe. We had some times together, didn’t we, boy? I cherished our last evening together, even though you’re a terrible card-player. Please promise me you won’t take that up for a living.
Forgive me for not finding the courage to tell you about my illness before you left. I didn’t want it to overshadow our last days together. I have no regrets about that. I do regret not meeting your brother, the charming and infamous Johnny Madrid. I am happy you have one such as him in your life. I wish I had been as close to my brother, but it was not to be. Maybe if I had been, your childhood would not have been so difficult. As for your reservations about your father, I can only say that I thought him to care for you more than you believe. I sensed a real concern for you when you were injured. He loved your mother so that I believe he must love you just as much even if he finds it difficult to demonstrate it.
If there is a heaven and I am granted residency there, know that I will always watch over you. I must see what you are up to! You have been as close if not closer to my heart than any of my grandchildren. I hope that perhaps I was for you the grandmother you never knew. Miriam would have adored you. You are a remarkable man, Scott. Let that medal remind you of your courage as you move on with your life. I am sorry I will not be there in person to see all that you accomplish. And please, practice Emerson’s first criterion of success. I think you will benefit greatly from it.
I remain quite fondly your Aunt Cora
P.S. I am bequeathing you the writing desk of which you are so fond. I’ve thought of it as yours ever since you took up residence in that room while you attended Harvard. Charles will see to it that it gets to you. Please use it. You have a gift with words, my boy, and you need to share them with the world.
Tears sprang to Murdoch’s eyes as he remembered the woman who had always been so kind to him and Catherine. Catherine had adored her aunt.
Scott watched Murdoch’s face go through a myriad of expressions, ending up in tears. Maybe he shouldn’t have given Aunt Cora’s letter to him. He’d never seen his father cry. Never.
Murdoch let the tears spill over. “I can’t abide tears, can I?” He smiled weakly.
Scott didn’t know what to say or do, so he just sat there and let tears well up in his eyes, too, at seeing them in his father’s.
Cora clearly knew more about Scott than he did, Murdoch thought. Didn’t everybody? Maybe that needed to end. “What’s this medal she’s talking about?”
“It’s nothing,” Scott demurred.
“I’d like to know,” Murdoch persisted, deciding not to let it go like he usually did when Scott put him off. “Can you humor me?”
Wordlessly, Scott pulled open the drawer to his bedside table, reached under a book, and held out a medal.
“What is it?” Murdoch took it in his hand. It looked like an upside-down star.
Scott shrugged as if it was nothing. “A Medal of Honor.”
Murdoch turned it over. There was Scott’s name. “For Valor” was inscribed on it. “How did you get it?”
Scott shrugged dismissively again. “Captured an enemy flag” was all he said. Murdoch handed the star back to him and he quickly put it back in the drawer.
“Does everyone know about this except me?” There was a touch of hurt in Murdoch’s voice.
“No, no one,” Scott said, “Except Sam. I’d prefer it if it was kept that way.”
“Why? Why don’t you want us to know you’re a hero?” Good God, if he’d have known that, he never would have implied that Scott didn’t have the guts for Lancer. How had the boy had the presence of mind to simply walk away from him?
How could Scott explain it to Murdoch so that his father would understand? Aunt Cora said he had a gift with words. He was finding none now. If people looked at him pityingly after finding out he was a prisoner of war, the other extreme was just as bad. People stopping him on the street wanting to touch him, shake his hand, tell others that they’d met him…he’d had just as rough a time with that notoriety as with their sympathy. “I just want to put the War behind me. Believe me, I’m no hero. Didn’t you find that out when the Cassidys were here?”
“They said nothing that would make me believe you weren’t a hero.”
“They told you sixteen men died and I lived! I lived. Didn’t you wonder how?”
“I did, but I didn’t want to ask,” Murdoch admitted.
“It was because of Jed Lewis’ brother, Solomon. He was as big as you are. I was right behind him and when he was shot, he fell backwards onto me, knocking me silly and shielding me with his body. And I just laid there, too stunned and scared to move, feeling his life bleed away from him. I was too cowardly to tell Jed that, afraid he’d shoot me for sure. Some hero! I’m a damn coward!” Scott started to tremble and his tears fell. Suddenly, his father’s arms wrapped around him and he melted into them like he had when he was ten.
Oh, God, what horrors had his boy experienced? Murdoch wanted to hold him tight and take all the pain away. He again vowed to himself never to tell Scott that Cipriano and Frank had caught Lewis and Hardy on Lancer land a few months ago. The duo had made the fatal choice to draw on the Lancer hands and were killed for their poor sense. They were now buried in the lower foothills. He’d thoroughly approved of Cipriano’s and Frank’s actions, proud of their decision to protect his first-born son, his and Catherine’s son. He’d given them bonuses. Yes, Lancer took care of its own. Years of resentment faded away as a fierce protectiveness asserted itself, bringing with it the certainty that he loved Scott. He’d do anything to safeguard this boy who had lived through so much sorrow.
“You did what anyone would do in that situation, son. You were just a teenager.” How young Scott was when he fought in the War hit home. When he’d returned home afterwards, he was twenty-two and looked so mature. No doubt the War had aged him beyond his years, but he’d enlisted when he was seventeen. Dear God, seventeen!
“I’m sorry,” Scott repeated into his father’s shirt now wet with his tears, “for not being the son you want.”
“No, I’m sorry, Scott,” he said as he tried to comfort him. “I’m sorry for not being the father you wanted and needed all through the years.”
“It’s all right. I know…” Scott swallowed hard.
“That I’m not Johnny.”
Again, the implication of those words struck him like an arrow through his heart, they hit so true. “No. you’re not, and I should never have compared you with him. He was all I knew before I claimed you. I thought you’d be the same as he was. When you weren’t, I didn’t know what to do, how I should treat you. And then there was Maria, damn Maria!”
“You didn’t know!” Scott whispered fiercely, wanting to ease the anguish he heard in his father’s voice.
“That doesn’t absolve me. I should have known. You should have felt safe enough with me to tell me.” Murdoch’s guilt rose like a tidal wave over him.
Scott tried to ease his father’s pain again. It hadn’t been his father’s fault. “She told me she would hurt me worse if I told you.”
“No…” What kind of woman would tell a boy that? Murdoch felt an ache deep in his heart.
“She told me that you would never believe me. She was right. You never believed me.” His nine-year-old self demanded recognition.
Dear God, it was true. He always took his wife’s side. It never occurred to him that Maria would lie to him. Damn the woman! He reined in his anger. This was about Scott and him, not Johnny’s mother and her mistaken idea that Scott would steal Johnny’s inheritance. “That was only the first of a lifetime of mistakes I made with you. Thank God you found the Conways. I was so jealous of them, of your happiness with them. I took that out on you, too.”
Scott shook his head. It was hard to hear Murdoch’s voice so guilt-ridden, yet oddly comforting at the same time, confirming his childhood perceptions. He tried not to move. For years he’d imagined being held in his father’s arms again. Now they encircled him with Murdoch’s cheek on the top of his head. Now it didn’t matter that Murdoch never told him he loved him; he felt the love in this embrace. How often had he clung to the memories of being hugged by Murdoch and Henry while in Libby? He’d had only a handful from Murdoch and countless more from Henry, but those memories had kept him sane.
“Scott, I am so proud and deeply humbled that I am your father. You survived so much: your grandfather’s hate, Maria’s abuse, and even war. Cora was right: you are a remarkable young man. Forgive your father for his foolish ideas about you, his inattention to what you needed. Please forgive me.”
Could he forgive his father for seventeen years of indifference? He didn’t know, but tonight was a start. There were other times when Murdoch had promised to change, but it didn’t last. Too many emotions were swirling around his head and heart. He’d already lost his self-control when he’d allowed his tears for Aunt Cora to fall. Now here was his father’s embrace and confession. It was overwhelming. A shudder went through him.
Murdoch held Scott’s trembling body tighter. “Do you remember after Johnny was mauled by the bear, I asked you whether we could start all over again?”
“I want to ask that of you again. Can we start over again? Or maybe not start over but have me offer a pledge. I promise to be the best father I can be to you, Scott, from this day forward. But you need to tell me how to do that. You have to tell me when I fail you. You need to talk to me, son. Can you do that? Lord knows, I’ll make mistakes, but I want you to talk to me, really talk to me. I’ll listen. I swear I’ll listen as closely as Henry did.”
“He talked, too,” Scott said.
“Henry didn’t just listen. He talked to me, too. He told me about his hopes and dreams as much as I told him about mine. We talked to each other.”
“And I only talk about the ranch.” Murdoch thought Scott nodded, but it was difficult to tell in such a tight embrace. Could he talk about other things to Scott? Yes, of course, he could and would. “Your Aunt Cora made it possible for me to marry your mother. You can imagine how opposed to the union your grandfather was. We were married in the courthouse with Cora and her husband, George, as witnesses. Not the grand wedding affair your mother had envisioned for herself, but she never complained. Cora and George saw us off on the dock, too, when we sailed to California. Without their support…” he trailed off. He took a deep breath. “Without their support, you would never have been born.”
“Maybe that would have been better for everyone.”
Murdoch was shocked. “No!” he said vehemently. “Don’t ever say that!” Scott was his living connection to Catherine, he realized. The hard shell of resentment that covered his heart toward the boy cracked wide open.
“You would have been happy here, just you, Maria, and Johnny,” Scott persisted. And hadn’t Sarah Cassidy said that she would have had a life if not for him being alive? All the heartache he had caused…the guilt was unbearable.
Murdoch swallowed hard. Hadn’t he thought the same throughout the years? How different his life would have been without Scott? How happier it would have been with just Maria and Johnny and any other children they would have had if his first-born had died along with his mother? He tossed those daydreams away. Harlan Garrett would have still been there wreaking vengeance on him for taking Catherine away from him. And then there would be no Scott to kill Pardee or thwart Addison and Crocker. There would have been no Scott to rescue Johnny from the bear, to pull him out of the line of fire during Pardee’s raid, to save Johnny from the bounty hunters. “But then I wouldn’t have you, Scott, and I wouldn’t give you up for anything.” He gave him one last squeeze and released him. Scott sat back up and swiped his eyes again. “Can we start a new chapter in the book that’s your life?” Murdoch asked with a gleam in his eye.
“I’ll try, sir.” Scott didn’t know what Murdoch was proposing.
“Your trying is more than good enough for me.” He gave Scott his handkerchief. “And could you also try not to call me ‘sir’? It makes me feel like your commanding officer rather than your father. ‘Murdoch’ is bad enough…”
“I’ll try,” he said softly, and this time he really would. Now was not the time for him to voice that Murdoch often seemed more like a commanding officer than a father.
Murdoch slung an arm across Scott’s shoulders. This time the boy didn’t flinch away. “I love you, son. I always have, but I never seemed to be able to show it to you. I don’t know why. Through the years I convinced myself that you didn’t want me to show it.”
“I wanted you to,” Scott whispered.
“Then why would you cringe when I went to touch you?”
“I don’t know.” Aggie had made the same observation a few months ago, how he would flinch from physical contact except from her. He thought about it for a minute. “Because it looked…I never knew…it was what my nannies and she did before they hit me.”
Murdoch didn’t need to ask whom Scott was referring to: Maria, his second wife, La Señora to Scott.
“Well, now I know.” He gave him a one-armed hug. “I love you, Scott, not just because I’m your father, but because you’re you: Scott.” He released Scott’s body and stood up. “Oh, and one more thing to satisfy my curiosity. Emerson’s first criterion of success?”
Scott remained hunched over but opened his bedside drawer again and took out Emerson’s book, opening it to the well-worn, bookmarked page.
Murdoch read through the brief work. “I agree with Cora,” he said, handing the book back to Scott. “You should laugh more. I’ll make it a priority of mine to see that you do.” He put a caring hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Take as much time as you need to grieve. Cora Hancock deserves a proper mourning period.”
Scott nodded and managed to eke out a “Thank you, Father.”
Murdoch’s heart soared.
Johnny immediately noticed a change at the hacienda when he and Diego returned to Lancer. The subtle tension was gone, especially between Murdoch and Scott. What had happened while he was away? He couldn’t wait to get Scott alone so he could grill him about it. He cornered his brother in the stables. “Aggie told me that your Tia Cora died,” Johnny said, picking up a thin piece of straw and cleaning between his teeth with it.
“Yes, she wrote a letter to me before she died. Apparently, her one regret in life was not meeting you,” Scott said wryly.
“That might be a regret I have about her, too, if she was all you said she was.”
“She was. Murdoch shared some stories about her, too. She was as kind as Harlan was malicious.”
“Murdoch shared some stories, huh?”
Scott nodded. “We cleared some air.”
“He doesn’t think you fancy boys then?” Johnny grinned. “I swear, brother, I never heard anything so funny in my life when you told me that!” He started laughing. delighted when Scott joined in. He hoped his brother and father had cleared a lot of air. The Old Man was touching Scott now, a hand on his shoulder or arm just like he did with him, and Scott was letting him. That was different—a good different.
“I’m helping out Jake at the Double C today,” Scott said. “Want to join me?”
“Horses beat beeves any day!” Johnny answered.
On the way to Aggie’s ranch, Scott told Johnny what had happened the night he learned of his Aunt Cora’s death and how they were both trying to forge a new relationship. Murdoch had even taken a day off a few days ago and they had gone fishing. It had been awkward for both of them at first, until Scott had asked the inspired question: Why did you leave Scotland? Learning all about his relatives in Scotland, living and dead, had been fascinating. He wanted to travel the world more than ever. Wouldn’t that be a Christmas present to Murdoch—a trip back to his homeland. He could easily afford to take all of them. The more he thought about it, the better it sounded. That question had opened the door to more meaningful conversations. Murdoch seemed to really listen to him.
“I may call him ‘Father’ more,” Scott warned, “if he treats me like a father more. We’ll see how long this lasts.” Sometimes old habits could overcome the best of intentions. He knew he was having a hard time remembering to not say “sir” to Murdoch, it was such a deeply ingrained practice. His father had tried to change before and pretty quickly retreated back into his old ways. This time felt different though. Only time would tell, but they were both trying hard.
Johnny nodded. He understood. He might be tempted to call his father “pa” if he started treating Scott right. He was surprised how quickly his anger and hatred for Murdoch, stoked by his mother’s lies, had dissipated once he decided to stay at Lancer and get to know his father. He knew the Old Man genuinely cared for him and he had found the family he’d desperately craved for growing up on his own.
“Wait ‘til you see this writing desk Aunt Cora left me. Louis the Fourteenth design. It’s beautiful.”
Johnny had no idea what kind of design it was, but rather than be angry that Scott kept bringing up things he should know Johnny was ignorant of, Johnny felt kind of flattered that his brother assumed he did know all this worthless stuff. He’d know soon enough what it looked like when it arrived. “She leave you anything else?”
Scott nodded, not wanting to tell Johnny about the increase to his bank account. Charles’ letter had informed him that his great aunt had died peacefully with her children and grandchildren surrounding her. He had also included the amount that she had placed into his trust fund. Scott could travel to Scotland and the rest of the world and live quite comfortably for the remainder of his life without ever having to do a lick of work again. That was a heady feeling.
Scott nodded again.
“Johnny, it’s impolite to ask such things,” Scott scolded.
“Who says I’m polite?” Johnny teased. “Enough to make your wallet fat?”
“Enough to make your saddlebags fat?” That got a blush out of his brother. Johnny whistled appreciatively. “Guess you’re buying the beer Saturday night!”
Scott laughed. If only his brother knew how many saddlebags that money would fill, he wouldn’t stop at a beer. He slapped Johnny on the arm and said, “You got it!” and kicked Sugar into a gallop. He might not sing in exultation, another of Emerson’s criteria for success, but he could ride in exultation.
Johnny whooped and sent Barranca flying after him. When he caught up to Scott, he grinned impishly at him, having enjoyed the chase.
Scott laughed again, almost jealous of his brother. Johnny lived in exultation.
In the end, Scott didn’t attend the dance at all, Johnny got slapped in the face by two different girls, and Teresa had dissolved into tears because Steve Howe had danced only one dance with her and four with Millicent Johnson. As fraught with drama as the night had been, Murdoch couldn’t be more content with his life right now. Agatha was a wonderful wife, supportive and loving as he knew she would be. His boys were here with him as he had once only dreamed they would be, and Teresa couldn’t be more of a daughter to him if she had been born of Catherine or Maria. He was glad she wasn’t involved in a serious relationship. She was still too young. If she was worried about a boy getting past Johnny Madrid, she should be more worried about him getting past her guardian. He knew of no boy in the valley who was worthy of his ward. He chuckled as he got into bed.
“What’s got you in such a good mood?” Aggie asked as she cuddled next to him.
This was the time of day he most cherished, talking with Aggie before they went to sleep. They’d solved many a problem in the time between crawling into bed and drifting off to sleep. Catherine and he had done this; Maria was more interested in physical activities. “Just thinking about how good my life is right now with you, the boys, and Teresa.”
“Well, it’s about time you recognized that, Murdoch Lancer.” She molded herself to his side and laid her head on his shoulder.
“And you, Aggie, are you happy, too?”
“I couldn’t be happier,” she told him truthfully. “Especially since you’ve been kinder to Scott.” She hadn’t been able to pry from either of them what went on when Murdoch went into Scott’s room after he’d received the letter about Cora’s death, but both men seemed more settled and content. She had noticed Murdoch’s puffy eyes that evening. It had been a good sign. It must wear on the man to have to appear so strong every day. She had pushed him into taking Scott fishing by promising to make Cullen Skink from the fish they caught. Murdoch had quickly agreed, and she learned that making a traditional Scottish dish was the way to get her husband to agree to anything. She drew the line at haggis, though.
“Hmmm,” Murdoch grumbled. “You don’t know how many young ladies at the dance asked me where he was.”
Aggie laughed. “Not half as many who asked me, not to mention their mothers!”
“I worry about him, what he’s going to do with his life.”
“Not work at Lancer beside Johnny? Get married and have many children?”
Murdoch sighed. “I don’t think Scott has the same kind of fire in his belly about Lancer that Johnny does. Lancer is in Johnny’s blood. You can see it. It’s not in Scott’s.” He waited for Aggie to rise to Scott’s defense. She always did.
After a few seconds, she said, “I think you’re right. Scott’s destined for greater things.”
Murdoch was stunned that his wife didn’t contradict him. “Greater things? This is the largest ranch in the state! What greater things?”
She twirled one of his chest hairs around her finger. Should she share her dream for Scott? “The governorship.”
“Governor!” Murdoch scoffed.
Aggie continued as if she hadn’t heard his derision. “Then to Washington as a Senator. Then…President Lancer!”
Murdoch batted her hand away and rolled toward her, flinging an arm over her waist. “You can’t be serious!” he laughed.
Aggie loved to hear Murdoch laugh. He didn’t do it often enough. She laughed with him. “Why not? But first we have to get him settled down with a family to make him an even more appealing candidate to the voters.”
“Good luck with that. I’m starting to wonder if he even likes girls.” He knew he had to tread carefully here. If Aggie even got a whiff that he’d seriously questioned Scott’s sexuality, she’d divorce him, no doubt. No, she’d shoot him!
Aggie laughed at that. “Well, that would be news to Abbie!”
“Scott’s preferred salon girl.”
“How do you know these things?” Murdoch sputtered.
“I have my sources!” Aggie said, delighted that she had flustered her husband. “Suffice it to say that the Women’s Bible Study doesn’t always discuss the Bible for the entire hour. Abbie’s hopelessly in love with Scott, of course, but she knows there’s no hope for her, poor thing. He needs a more…respectable…wife.”
“And who has the Bible group picked out for him?”
“Don’t think we haven’t discussed it! Your sons have been the topic of conversation quite a few times. But every girl mentioned is unsuitable from my point of view.”
Murdoch gave his wife a squeeze. She’d never know how she had eased his mind, as the last tiny wisp of Addison’s insinuation about Scott’s sexuality evaporated. Why had he taken it as seriously as he had? He’d been wrong, so wrong. No time for regrets. It was time to look forward: Scott with a wife and the possibility of grandchildren! “What the devil is he waiting for? I was married to Maria by his age, and she was pregnant with Johnny,” Murdoch grumbled.
“He’s waiting for the right girl,” Aggie replied. “She has to be very special to attract his attention. No farm or ranch girl is going to captivate him. Scott is a very intelligent and accomplished young man. He needs to find a girl who can understand that and appreciate his many talents and challenge him to even greater heights.”
“Where’s he going to find all that out here? Between his working and his writing, he hardly has time to get off the ranch.” And apparently when he did get into town, he spent his time with a prostitute.
Aggie smiled wickedly. “I’ve found her. Her name is Elizabeth Clark. She’s the new schoolteacher. You know we haven’t been able to keep anyone competent since Ambrose Witherspoon moved on to Stockton. She’d recently arrived in Stockton when the committee contacted him to see if he had any recommendations. He did: Elizabeth Clark. It’s like it’s written in the stars!”
“A schoolmarm?” Murdoch was still skeptical.
“Yes. Why do you think I keep volunteering for the school hiring committee? She’s perfect: educated in Philadelphia and a little younger than Scott.”
“There has to be some attraction there…”
“You’ve seen her?”
“I’ve met her. It’s only proper, seeing how I was the head of the committee,” Aggie explained. “She’s absolutely perfect for Scott.”
“Does he have any say in this?” Murdoch teased.
She slapped him lightly on the arm. “Of course, he does, but he won’t be able to resist her. And she’ll fall head over heels for him, too, especially when she finds out he has a Harvard degree and is an author.”
“How’s she going to find out about that?” That question earned him another slap from his wife.
“Don’t underestimate my skills, Murdoch Lancer. I’ll slip it into the conversation very subtly when she comes to dinner Saturday.”
“She’s coming here for dinner?”
“Yes, of course. A welcome-to-our-valley dinner. It’s all very innocent and proper…”
“…because you were head of the committee.”
Aggie smiled wickedly. “Ah, you’re starting to understand. We’ll have Scott escort her here, of course. She’ll take one look at him, and, oh, Murdoch, they’ll be engaged by the end of the year!”
Murdoch was always amazed and amused by the female preoccupation of matchmaking. Even the usually level-headed Agatha was not immune to it.
“Of course, we’ll have to send Johnny to the Double C that evening…” she mused aloud.
That got his dander up. “Send Johnny away? Why?” Was she ashamed of Johnny? Afraid that he didn’t have the proper manners? Agatha Lancer was about to have a fight on her hands.
“Oh, Murdoch, you really are at sea when it comes to these sorts of things,” she sighed.
“Johnny’s not good enough to be in her presence?”
She cut him off quickly. “No, of course not! It would just be better to introduce him to Elizabeth after she and Scott are definitely a couple.”
Murdoch was at sea by all of this. “Why?”
She sighed again. She’d have to guide him carefully through this entire romance for Scott. “Because you have two very handsome and charming sons and we’re grooming Elizabeth for Scott. Johnny has no trouble finding his own girls. In fact, he finds them a little too easily.”
Murdoch frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means he makes no distinction between saints and whores,” she explained.
Aggie laughed at his faux outrage. “Well, it’s true and you know it! Any and all women are fair game for his roguish wiles. Why do you think he got those slaps tonight?”
“He told me they were flirting with him and when he tried to follow through…” Murdoch chuckled. “Takes after his papa.”
Aggie laughed again. “Oh, please. You were done with Catherine.”
“Yes, I thought I was.” He gave her another squeeze.
“As a matter of fact, you strike me as being particularly picky and fussy.”
“I picked you.”
This man could certainly make her laugh. “Yes, you did, after I hit you over the head with the idea! It was getting to the point where I thought I’d have to propose to you! Now don’t change the subject. We’re talking about what we’re going to do with Scott.”
“We? So now you’ve roped me into this little scheme of yours?”
“Of course, you’re my husband,” she said matter-of-factly. “We’re a pair, and you’d better not ruin it for Scott. I’ve worked very hard to find him the perfect wife.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He gave her a resounding kiss.
They snuggled down together to drift off to sleep. “President Lancer…” Aggie breathed quietly, and Murdoch just had to smile.
Scott escorted Elizabeth Clark to her door. His reluctance to “pick up the new schoolmarm” had quickly vanished once he saw her. Now having spent the rest of the day with her, he didn’t want to say goodbye. He hadn’t felt this way since Julie. Beth was intelligent, witty, warm, and utterly charming. She also had an adventurous spirit as revealed by her description of her solo journey westward. He definitely wanted to get to know her better.
“Oh, Scott, I had the most pleasant day with you and your family,” she purred. She had never dared to dream she would meet a man like Scott Lancer in this rural place. She’d run away to California to forget her ruinous engagement. It was forgotten the moment she saw Scott’s handsome face. And Harvard educated! She wouldn’t let this one get away. He was utterly charming.
“I’m eager to show you the ranch tomorrow,” he said, picking up her hand and giving the back of it a light kiss. To his delight, she kept hold of his hand.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep tonight just thinking about it.” She looked up at him seductively through her lashes.
“I know I won’t.” He meant it, too, after that coy glance. Her light brown eyes were mesmerizing, with flecks of green sprinkled in among the different browns.
She gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “Until tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow.” He squeezed back, and then she slipped behind her door. Scott nearly skipped back to the buggy. He leapt in and shook the reins. As the horses headed for home, he found himself humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Life was good.
1 “What is Success?”
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
And the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics
And endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one’s self;
To leave the world a bit better,
Whether by a healthy child, a garden patch,
Or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm
And sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier
Because you have lived—
This is success.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
2. Scott recited Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare.
3. The closing credits have the veterinarian’s name as Hildenbrand, but the sign above his office is missing the ‘r.’
4 This feat was actually accomplished by George W. Hooker, who was singlehandedly responsible for the surrender of an entire regiment of 116 Confederate soldiers, their colonel, and their flag. (!)
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8 thoughts on “Another Escape by RonD”
I enjoyed this story so much that I’m going back to reread the series from the beginning. Your writing is superb. The alternate Lancer you’ve created is very satisfying; I love the Scott and Johnny relationship. It happened in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back way, but you write it well.
I love this series! It seems you’ve come to a wrap with it, but I would love to read an epilogue, maybe 10 years down the road. Thanks for sharing your stories!
I’m so enjoying this series. You are a master of weaving canon into your stories. I can’t wait till the next installment to see if Scott really gets a better half. You are an amazing writer, please never stop writing!
Thank you for telling me you enjoyed my series. If I were to continue it, I would have to torment Scott some more (that’s my thing in this series). So we can leave it here with the prospect of Scott being happy, or I’d continue and make him miserable again. I’ll have to think about it…
Another wonderful story. Thank you.
Thank you so much for this new wonderful story ! I like the way Johnny comes up for Scott when Murdoch is picking on him.
Love it .it had a great ending. Thank for writing it.
Thanks, Helen, Caterina, and Rita. Sorry for the late reply, but I just got back from Egypt, and I didn’t have access to my computer until this week. So glad you liked my story.