Word Count 18,643
#3 in the Another series
“Aggie!” Scott greeted Agatha Conway as she stepped off the stagecoach. He swiftly made his way to her and gave her an enthusiastic hug.
“Scott!” she exclaimed, clearly delighted to see him. “I thought Jake was going to take me back to the ranch.”
“I arm wrestled him for it.”
“And you lost?” she teased.
He grinned at her. “Let me get your bags.”
Once the bags were stowed away, they headed out for the Double C. “You’re in a very good mood. The meeting went well?” Scott asked.
“Very well, but I’m happy to be back home again. I see it’s still hot as blazes here.”
“It hasn’t let up while you were gone,” Scott said. “Some of the smaller ponds have dried up.”
“Oh, Lordy,” she sighed. “It happens here every so often.” Then she brightened. “Take my mind off this heat: tell me what’s been happening while I’ve been gone.”
“Ruby had her foal, a handsome colt that Johnny’s named Cobalt.”
“Good Lord, is it blue?”
Scott laughed. “No, Johnny just liked the sound of the name, especially since its mama was named after something red. There might have been a hint of a blue tinge when he emerged, though. Being the owner, I’m sure you can name it anything you’d like.”
“No, if Johnny named him Cobalt, then that shall be his name. He knows more about horses than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“Oh, and he’s fallen in love twice since you left.”
“What? I was only gone two weeks! That boy goes through girlfriends quicker than you go through bars of soap.”
“Only my heart isn’t broken when the soap disintegrates,” Scott laughed. “Tell me what you did in San Francisco.”
“That town is growing bigger every day. It’s really a good-sized city now. There are plays, music, even opera.”
“Opera?” Scott was surprised. The San Francisco he remembered from when he was eight hadn’t been very impressive, especially after having come from Boston.
“Yes, a touring company was performing La Boheme.”
“Did you see it?”
“Oh, yes! It was divine! Have you seen it?”
“Yes, when I was at Harvard.” He wouldn’t tell her he was less enthusiastic about it. The music was excellent, but the libretto wasn’t very good, in his opinion. “Boston has quite the active music scene. There was talk about creating their own symphony orchestra in the near future.”
They rode along in silence for a while until Aggie began to hum. Scott was able to discern it as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. He had heard it many times while in the army, never quite as off-key as Aggie’s rendition. He knew she was tone deaf the first time he had sat next to her in church and she started singing the first hymn. He often wondered why she couldn’t tell she was singing off-key. Everyone else surely could.
“What is deserving of ‘glory, glory, hallelujah’? Certainly not La Boheme.”
She roused herself out of her reverie. “Hmmm? No, just thinking of something.”
“Something or someone?” He couldn’t imagine her going to the opera alone.
She blushed furiously. “Someone.”
Scott’s stomach lurched. The thought of Aggie having a gentleman caller made him uneasy. A new man in Aggie’s life would mean change. Scott didn’t do well with change. Everything was going smoothly right now. A new man would only bring complications to his life.
“Oh, Scott,” she continued, her voice taking on a dreamy edge. “I met the most wonderful man in San Francisco. We had dinner after the first meeting was over. He sent me flowers the next day! And every day after that! They were so beautiful. He took me to all the loveliest of places. I felt like a schoolgirl again. I haven’t felt that way since I met Henry.”
Oh, no. She was comparing this man to Henry. “So it’s serious then?”
She giggled, the sound incongruous with her age. “He asked me to marry him,” she confided.
Scott was appalled. After less than two weeks? “You didn’t say ‘yes,’ did you?”
She slapped his arm. “No, silly. I told him I’d have to know him better.”
Scott sighed in relief. “That’s sensible of you.” Some distance and time might cool any flames of infatuation. The gritty reality of ranch life might not be the man’s cup of tea if he was used to the cultural arts of San Francisco. Then again, Aggie might sell the ranch and move to San Francisco. He didn’t want to think of that possibility. Without the safe haven of the Double C, dealing with Murdoch would become unbearable.
“He said he’d come to the Double C soon. If all goes well, I’ll give him my answer before he leaves.”
Scott swallowed hard. She sounded ready to say “yes” right now. “Does this man have a name?”
“It’s Buck. Buck Addison,” she said dreamily.
Scott didn’t know that name, but he was already hating him.
The following night at dinner, Scott let the normal dinner conversation run its course and then asked his father, “Have you heard of a man named Buck Addison?”
“Buck Addison…” Murdoch frowned as he tried to remember. “Heard of the name; never met him.”
Aha. Maybe Scott could get some more information about the man that wasn’t from Aggie’s biased viewpoint. “What do you know about him?”
“Not much. I think he has something to do with the railroad. Why do you ask?”
Scott took a deep breath and said, “He’s asked Aggie to marry him.”
“What!!” Murdoch bellowed.
Scott was taken with the magnitude of the roar. Did Murdoch “protest too much”? “They met while she was in San Francisco and they apparently spent every day together. He even sent her flowers every day.”
“That’s so romantic!” Teresa said delightedly. “Flowers every day…”
Scott sighed. “It seems Aggie feels the same way.”
Teresa perked up. “Did she say ‘yes’? Are they going to be married? Will there be a wedding soon? I’d love to go to a wedding!”
“Hold on,” Scott told the girl. “She hasn’t given him an answer yet. He’s supposedly coming out this way to visit her before she’ll give him her answer. But from what I heard in her voice yesterday, she’ll say ‘yes.’ She extolled his virtues all through dinner last night.”
Teresa squealed excitedly, while the Lancer men exchanged wary looks.
“Looks like our days at the Double C will be over,” Johnny said, giving voice to Scott’s fears.
Murdoch took a sip of wine, hoping that the glass would hide his smile. Maybe something good would come of this after all and his boys would stay put at Lancer where they belonged.
Scott and Aggie were having their Monday night dinner in her kitchen when they heard a knock at the door. Aggie rose. “I’ll get it.”
Scott heard her open the door and then there was a joyful cry. He quickly finished his bite of food. Aggie didn’t have many visitors, especially at this hour, and not ones that would make her shriek. He rose and walked through the dining room to get a peek.
Aggie had her arms flung around a man’s neck. He was a bit taller than Scott, around Murdoch’s age, with streaks of gray in his dark, wavy hair. Buck Addison, no doubt. He exuded an air of confidence, perhaps overconfidence, if his smug smile was any indication. He and Aggie exchanged a passionate kiss, and Scott faded back into the kitchen, his appetite ruined.
A minute later, Aggie hurried into the kitchen. “Oh, Scott! Buck has arrived already!” She sounded breathless.
“I’ll just leave then,” Scott suggested.
“No, no! I want you to meet him,” Aggie said. “Can you help me move everything out to the dining room and set an extra plate?”
“Of course,” Scott replied, even though he wanted to escape to the bunkhouse. Despite his curiosity about the man, he wasn’t quite prepared to meet Addison. He helped move the food into the dining room while Aggie set the table. Then she grabbed his hand and led him into the parlor.
Buck Addison rose from the couch when they entered.
“Buck, this is Scott Lancer, the one I’ve been telling you about. Scott, this is Mister Buck Addison,” Aggie introduced them as they shook hands. Scott thought the man gripped his hand extra firmly. It was an aggressive move in Scott’s opinion. So the man saw him as a rival and wanted to assert dominance. Two could play at that game. He tightened his grip and said, “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Addison.”
Addison managed not to grimace as he returned the pleasantry. They squeezed each other’s hands ruthlessly until Addison finally loosened his grip. Youth over age, Scott thought unkindly.
Aggie invited Addison to have supper with them, which he accepted immediately. And so commenced the most uncomfortable dinner Scott had experienced. Each man prodded the other in the most polite ways. Scott asked about Addison’s occupation; Addison asked about Scott’s family. Neither man would divulge any useful information at all. Aggie tried to break the tension by talking about the Double C. She suggested Scott take Buck on a tour the following day, but he declined, stating that Mr. Addison would probably much prefer that she do the honors, to which Addison quickly agreed. Scott finished his dinner as quickly as manners would allow and then excused himself from the table. He was already wary of the man and his motives before he’d met him. After this meal, he was sure Aggie was headed for heartbreak. The man just looked untrustworthy, and when he opened his mouth, the words were too quick and polished to be sincere. Scott knew he was perceiving Addison through biased eyes. He wouldn’t say anything to Aggie until he could justify his mistrust of the man. Hopefully, as they spent more time together, Aggie would see through Addison’s obvious affectations.
The next day, Scott emerged from his bedroom after changing his shirt. Toomey had cut his hand on some wire and Scott had helped him, getting a good amount of blood on his shirt as well as ripping his sleeve off to make a temporary bandage. He found Buck Addison in the parlor. Oh, yes. He was here for Aggie’s tour around the ranch. Thank God, today was Tuesday and he’d be headed back to Lancer this afternoon, avoiding another dreadful dinner.
Addison bypassed any pleasantries. “What are you doing coming from that side of the house?” he demanded.
At first, Scott was tempted to say, “none of your business,” but the truth might be more interesting. “That’s where my room is,” Scott explained mildly. That would get the man’s goat, no doubt.
“What do you mean? You have a bedroom in Agatha’s house?”
“This is my home. I live here for part of the week,” Scott said. The shock on Addison’s face was satisfying. “Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He sidled past Addison and headed for the back door smiling to himself.
Scott was debating whether to engage in his usual routine and head over to Aggie’s after church. The last thing he wanted was another dinner with Buck Addison. Addison had stayed in the area for a handful of days and then disappeared again, saying he’d be back but not saying when. Scott crossed his fingers and headed for the Double C.
Sunday and Monday were fine. Addison hadn’t shown his face and, except for Aggie’s incessant talk about the man, life at the Double C returned to normal. But Addison returned on Tuesday. Scott and Aggie were just finishing breakfast when he arrived. Addison could barely contain his disdain when he saw Scott. He asked to speak to Lancer alone, so Aggie went to the barn.
Scott matched Addison’s glare. “Get it said,” he told the man.
“All right. We’ll leave the pleasantries aside. I want you out, Lancer. Out of Agatha’s house and out of her life.”
Scott was prepared for this kind of remark. “Aggie should be the judge of that, don’t you think?”
“She’s going to be my wife,” Addison said confidently, although Scott knew he hadn’t asked Aggie for her hand yet.
“And she was like a mother to me since I was nine years old,” Scott countered. “I‘ve known her much longer than you have, Addison. Don’t try to push me out. You’ll lose.”
“Will I?” Addison then dropped his threatening tone to a more conciliatory one. “Did you ever stop to think for one minute about what you’re doing to her life, her reputation?”
Scott wasn’t prepared for that line. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re a grown man living with a widowed woman. The townspeople are having quite a time with it. Tongues are wagging, I can assure you.”
Scott wasn’t going to rise to the bait. “Anyone who’s lived in this valley for any length of time knows our history, knows that we have as close a mother and son relationship as possible, given that she’s not my real mother.” He gave Addison another glare. “If any tongues are wagging, it’s because of your meddling.”
Addison smiled slyly. “It doesn’t take much meddling to get them wondering what you do here at night.”
Scott stepped forward and took a swing at the vile man for his vile accusation, but Addison blocked it and countered with his own punch to Scott’s midsection, which knocked him to the floor. Addison towered over him. “I’ll say it again, Lancer. I want you out of this house and out of Agatha’s life.” He turned and walked out of the room.
“You’ll lose!” Scott called after him once he got his breath back. Surely, Aggie wouldn’t let Addison dictate whether Scott could be in her life. Thankfully, Jake had already saddled Sugar for him and he didn’t have to go into the barn and deal with the happy couple. He needed to compose himself and think some things through before he confronted Addison again.
He asked Jake his impressions of Addison as they rode out to the east pasture. Henry had hired Jake on when Jake was nineteen, homeless, and hungry. That had been a year before Scott had run away from home to the Conway ranch. He’d known Jake practically his whole life and valued his opinion.
Jake was understandably reluctant to say anything negative about the man courting his boss. Scott asked Jake whether he thought it was improper that Scott had a bedroom in the house. After all, Johnny slept in the bunkhouse with the rest of the hands. Should Scott do so, too? Jake admitted he never thought about it, never thought it was strange. Scott had always stayed in the main house. Scott felt better after their talk. Addison would lose in his bid to turn Scott out. Aggie was his Mama. That’s all there was to it.
The following Sunday Addison was still around. For the first time since Scott had come home from Harvard, Aggie didn’t sit with him at church. Instead, Addison pranced her down the aisle to the front pew on the opposite side of the church like he was showing off a prize bull. Aggie had turned back and given an apologetic smile over her shoulder to the Lancer clan and Scott had returned it with a bewildered frown. After services, Aggie was swamped by the rest of the congregation wanting her to introduce them to Buck Addison. Scott was unwilling to wait for her and ride back with Addison, so for the first time in a couple of years, he rode back with Murdoch and Teresa. Thankfully, his father didn’t mention it. In fact, Murdoch didn’t say one word about Addison’s presence at all, for which Scott was very grateful.
Scott was wary of riding out to the Double C the next morning, but he knew Jake was counting on his help rounding up some of the herd in the southern pasture. Jake was already out in the corral when he rode up. Normally, he would have gone into the house to greet Aggie and let her know he was there, but he didn’t want to encounter Addison if he were around. Jake mounted up and they rode out.
Late that afternoon, Scott was knocking the dust off his hat on his pant leg as he entered the kitchen after a full day’s work. It was evident that Aggie had started dinner preparations, but she wasn’t around. He walked through the dining room into the parlor.
Aggie quickly backed away from Addison. It was clear that she and Buck had been kissing. Scott’s heart sank.
“Scott!” she exclaimed, flustered.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Scott said and pointed toward the bedroom wing with his hat, indicating that he was on the way to his bedroom.
“Just a minute, Lancer,” Addison ordered.
Scott turned to face the man.
“Agatha and I have discussed it and we feel it’s best if you clear out your things. We don’t want you staying in the house anymore.”
Scott’s cheeks burned red. He looked at Aggie. “Is that true, Mama?” He could tell calling her “Mama” had hit her hard. If Addison was going to play dirty, he could, too.
Aggie’s embarrassed face turned stricken. “Scott…” She started to take a step toward him, but Addison held her back.
“Did he put you up to this?” Scott asked, nodding at Addison.
“Oh, Scott,” Aggie stuttered. “I…we…think it’s for the best.” Her eyes slid away from him. Addison pulled her closer to his side.
Scott saw his triumphant smirk spread across his face. He wouldn’t have believed it. He’d been so sure Aggie would always stand by him. So sure he’d always be first in her heart since Henry’s death. In a choice between him and Addison, he would always win, wouldn’t he? Her betrayal cut him deeply. He didn’t know what to do, what to say. Finally, he was simply overcome with anger. “Fine,” he said as he turned to his bedroom. “I’ll get my things and be gone.”
He’d gotten the duffel bag out from the bottom of the wardrobe and was starting to stuff his clothes into it when Aggie rushed into his room.
“Oh, Scott!” She clutched at his arm. “You’ve got to understand. Buck and I are engaged. He asked me to marry him last night and I said ‘yes.’ It…it just wouldn’t be proper for you to live here at the house anymore.”
When had she ever cared so much about propriety? This was about their relationship. “It would if he saw me the way you do—like a son.”
“Oh! I…er…I didn’t think of that,” she stammered. “I..I…don’t know…what to say.”
He continued to pack his clothes in silence. Then he turned to her and said, “Do you love him?”
Tears were streaming freely down her cheeks. “Yes.”
He knew he shouldn’t ask the question because he wouldn’t like the answer, but he asked it anyway. “More than you love me?”
She let out a sob. “Don’t ask that,” she choked out. “Don’t ask that of me. I’ve been alone since Henry died. A woman my age…we don’t get many second chances in life.”
He closed the duffel and hoisted it onto his shoulder. “You were never alone here, Mama,” he lashed out. He knew his words to her were cruel, but he needed to let the pain out somehow. He started to walk out the door.
“Wait,” Aggie cried, and his heart lifted for a moment. Was she going to come to her senses and choose him after all? Would she send Addison packing instead? When he turned back to her, she had Henry’s jacket in her hands. “You’ll take Henry’s jacket, won’t you? You know he’d want you to have it.”
Scott’s heart shattered completely. For a brief moment, he thought about refusing it, but he might regret that in years to come. If only Henry hadn’t died. If only. He yanked the coat out of her hands and strode out of the room and the house.
Addison was holding Sugar’s reins. “Don’t come between me and Agatha again,” Addison warned. “You want to fight me? You’ll lose every time, boy. I get my way…every time,” he boasted.
Scott finished tying the duffel onto his saddle and gave Addison a scowl as he mounted up. “We’ll see. This isn’t over, Addison.” He kicked Sugar hard and turned her into the man, so Addison had to jump back out of the way. Aggie was coming out of the house and walking toward her fiancé. Scott rode away and didn’t look back.
He made it to Lancer just as they were finishing dinner. Maria was surprised to see him but scrounged up enough leftovers to make him a plate. Teresa rushed to set an extra place setting.
“Didn’t expect to see you on a Monday night,” Johnny drawled, sopping up the last of his gravy with a piece of bread.
“I’ve been officially tossed out on my ear at the Double C,” Scott huffed.
Everyone sat there slightly stunned until Murdoch said, “Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.” He poured some wine into Scott’s glass.
Scott frowned at his father’s philosophical attitude. “They’re now officially engaged.”
“Ooh!” Teresa squealed. “A wedding! There’s going to be a wedding!”
“Now settle down, young lady. We don’t know that yet.” Murdoch looked at Scott. “Do we?”
“I didn’t stick around for the particulars,” Scott said, viciously stabbing some carrots.
They all watched him eat for a few minutes.
“It’s natural for man not to want his future wife living with a single man,” Murdoch mused.
“I wouldn’t mind so much,” Scott said around a mouthful of beef, “if Addison wasn’t such a…” He thought of Teresa. “A…pendejo.”
“I know what pendejo means,” Teresa said, affronted that they would think she didn’t know Spanish slang well enough to understand.
“Sorry,” Scott apologized.
“What’s wrong with him?” Johnny asked, digging into the pie Maria had placed on the table.
“He’s a snake, that’s all. He’s smug and cocky, and I always get the feeling he’s got something up his sleeve—an ulterior motive.”
“Some sneaky plan he’s hiding behind the obvious one,” Murdoch explained for Scott, who had just stuck another forkful of dinner in his mouth. “You think he doesn’t love Aggie?”
Scott sighed. “Maybe he does. She’s certainly smitten with him. But I can’t help but feel he’s more interested in getting his hands on the Double C…”
“…than getting his hands on Aggie,” Johnny quipped.
“Precisely,” Scott agreed as he cut himself a very generous portion of pie, hoping the sweetness would improve his mood.
“You going back there then?” Johnny asked. Murdoch held his breath waiting for Scott’s answer.
“I don’t think so. Addison made it very clear I was persona non grata there.”
“Dios, brother. Speak English!” Johnny complained.
“He made it clear I wasn’t welcome in their life,” Scott said, a lump forming in his throat at saying the words out loud.
Murdoch smiled to himself. That was exactly what he wanted to hear.
“Does that mean we’re not invited to the wedding?” Teresa whined.
After dinner, Johnny found Scott leaning on the corral fence. He often did that to mull over the day or problems. Sometimes Johnny let him be, but not tonight. “Mind some company?”
Scott shook his head.
Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. “Dios, this heat spell’s never gonna end.”
Scott grunted in assent.
They watched the horses for a while until Johnny said, “I’m sorry about Aggie.”
Scott let out a derisive snort. “I thought I was like a son to her, but it was just my hubris.”
“Hubris: arrogance, overweening pride. I thought too much of myself.”
“T’weren’t pride on your part. Everyone at the Double C knows how special you are to her,” Johnny consoled. He knew Scott had to be hurting big time.
“Not anymore, it seems.” He silently cursed Buck Addison for the hundredth time.
“Think I’m person non grotto, too?”
Scott smiled. His brother was such a treasure. “I don’t know. You don’t live in the main house.”
They watched the horses meander in the corral for a while longer, and then Johnny said, “I won’t go over there if you don’t want me to. Brothers got to stick together.”
Scott’s heart surged with gratitude at Johnny’s loyalty. “I appreciate the support, Johnny, but, actually, I think I’d rather have you continue to work there. I’d like your opinion of the man. I think I started hating him the minute Aggie mentioned him. Maybe it clouded my thinking.” He sighed. “It’d be nice if you kept an eye on Aggie as well. I don’t trust Addison one whit.”
Johnny thought about Scott’s words for a bit. “I think I’ll wait a week or more before I go. Don’t want to seem too eager.”
Scott slapped him on the back. “You’re a wise man, brother.” Spirits somewhat lightened, Scott walked back to the house with Johnny.
Scott was coming out of the barn, picking hay off his clothes, when he saw Aggie pull up in front of the hacienda. He was tempted to go back inside. Murdoch was already out of the French doors and greeting her. They exchanged a few words and then Murdoch pointed in his direction. She saw him and moved the buggy forward until it was in front of him.
“Scott, we have to talk,” she said with no preamble.
Scott motioned behind him. “In the barn?”
“No, not here. Get in,” she ordered.
He obeyed. She drove them to a pleasant little spot not too far from the house. A majestic California oak tree sat on a small knoll. Scott knew the place. The tree had a bench under it and flowers blooming in the Spring. He’d been told his mother had coerced his father into building the bench for her. She’d planted the flowers that were now wilting in the blazing heat. A strategic move on Aggie’s part, choosing this spot. She must feel guilty over what happened yesterday, Scott thought.
“Your mother loved this spot,” Aggie commented, when they had settled themselves on the bench.
“So I’ve been told,” Scott responded flatly.
“I know you must be upset about yesterday.”
“Upset” didn’t quite describe his devastation. “I thought the Double C was my home, too,” Scott said, aiming for the jugular.
“Oh, it is, it is…er…just not in the main house,” Aggie stuttered. He knew she was upset when she started to stutter. He stayed silent, a tactic he’d picked up from Johnny. People would jump in and say anything to fill the void, usually something unexpected and truthful. “Well, you can understand his position, can’t you? We’re going to be married. It’s going to be his house as much as it is mine. I’m sure you’d find it…awkward.” She wasn’t used to seeing Scott so stone-faced. Murdoch, yes, and often, but not her Scott.
“That’s what Murdoch said.” He knew she was trying to get him to reveal his feelings. He didn’t know if he was ready to do that yet. He still hurt too much. There were still the remnants of his nine-year-old self within him who wanted nothing more than to crawl into her lap and feel her loving arms around him. He craved affection then. He still did. But he didn’t want to reveal his pain to her. It wouldn’t change anything—the betrayal ran too deep. He didn’t want to say something he’d regret. His Harvard education had honed a sharp tongue on him, and he could wield it quite cruelly when he wished. Addison, on the other hand, he couldn’t wait to verbally cut to shreds.
Aggie hung her head. “It just ended so quickly and badly yesterday, I just had to come out this morning and try to make things right.”
Did he hear her correctly? “What can you do to make things right?” The only thing she could do at this point was to kick Addison’s ass back to San Francisco and let everything go back to the way it used to be.
She cleared her voice. “Well, your not staying at the house doesn’t mean anything else has to change. You can still come home with us on Sunday and stay at the ranch until Tuesday evening like you always do. You can stay in the bunkhouse like Johnny does with the rest of the hands. They all like you so much. It would be more fun for you than staying with me.”
Scott shook his head. “I’m not staying in the bunkhouse.” He wouldn’t be able to bear staying in the bunkhouse, which would be a very vivid reminder that she no longer thought of him as her son.
“We could still have dinner together at the house,” she rambled on as if she hadn’t heard his reply. “It’s just the sleeping…” She stopped, his response finally registering in her brain. “It’s not just the sleeping arrangements, is it?”
He shook his head. “Addison made it very plain that I wasn’t welcome at the Double C at all.”
“He didn’t say anything of the kind yesterday,” she said defensively.
“Yes, he did. We exchanged words in the morning, when you were out in the barn. He made his position very clear.”
“Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”
“He meant it.”
She took a deep breath and let the air out slowly. “You don’t like him, do you?”
Scott didn’t know how he could avoid answering this question. Perhaps he should just meet it straight on. Aggie was a strong woman. But she was totally taken in by this snake oil salesman. He couldn’t live with himself if he kept quiet and let her ruin her life. He mustered all his diplomatic tact. “He’s not the right man for you, Mama. He’s not…”
“…Henry? Oh, Scott, I know that! There’ll never be another Henry for me. In a way, I think it’s better that he’s not anything like Henry. But he’s so loving and kind. I know he’ll make a good husband.”
Scott wanted to be sick. Loving and kind? Nothing was further from the truth! She wasn’t going to listen to him if he simply refuted her perceptions of the man. He tried a different tack. “Are you sure he’s marrying you for you?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Double C is an impressive ranch…”
“You think he’s marrying me for my ranch?” she asked incredulously. She laughed a little. “Oh, Scott, he has so much money that the ranch would be like a drop of rain in the rain barrel.”
Scott wasn’t going to be deterred. “There’s money, and then there’s land, Aggie. Land can be much more valuable, more prestigious.”
She looked at him as if he had two heads. “You don’t really believe he’s marrying me for the ranch, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” he said emphatically.
She gaped at him. “Well, I don’t know what to say to that. Just that I know he isn’t.”
The opening he was waiting for. “Then let him prove it.”
Scott took one of her hands in his. “There’s a new law that California just passed. It allows you to keep any property you own before you’re married once you’re married. It doesn’t go to the husband as a matter of course. But you’d have to register your intent to keep possession of the Double C in your own name. You can do that at any courthouse in the state,” he explained, praying she would see the sense in this.
“I don’t know…” Aggie hedged. “I don’t know whether Addison would like that…”
“I’m sure he won’t,” Scott said tersely, “and that will tell you everything you need to know.” He softened his tone. She needed to hear him, really listen, and barking at her wouldn’t help his cause. “I’ve seen Addison’s type before. He wants to control you. He’ll try to isolate you from your friends. Throwing me off the ranch is just the beginning. He’ll fire Jake and Big Al and everyone and bring in his own hands, telling you they know the way he works better than Jake does. He’ll make sure the only news you’ll ever hear is from him, and he’ll tell only what he wants you to hear and to think. He’s dangerous, Aggie. I’m worried for you. He’ll pressure you to turn over the ranch to him, I know it. And once he’s got it, there’s no telling how he’ll treat you.”
Aggie was flabbergasted. Where was Scott getting all this? He barely knew Buck. That made her a bit indignant. “I didn’t realize you were so against him, Scott.”
Scott tried again. He had to make her see Addison the way he saw him. “Aggie, I want you to be happy. I would love for you to find true love again. You have so many years ahead of you and such love in your heart to share. But not Buck Addison, Aggie. Not him. He’ll break your heart.”
She stood and paced in front of him. “Well,” she giggled self-consciously, “I was going to ask you to walk me down the aisle, but I guess I won’t now.”
“I won’t walk you down the aisle to Buck Addison. On the contrary, I want to talk you out of marrying him. I want to stop this marriage any way I can,” he told her earnestly.
She jutted out her chin toward him. It reminded him of Julie, and he knew Aggie was going to contradict him, just as Julie stuck out her chin when she was going to disagree with him. “I’m a grown woman, Scott, and I know my own mind. I’m going to marry Buck Addison and we’ll be very happy.”
Scott felt his heart break even more. “I hope so, for your sake. But when he makes you miserable, as I’m convinced he will, know that I will always be here for you, Mama.”
She nodded, tears forming in her eyes as they almost always did when he called her “Mama” these days and quickly headed toward the buggy. Not waiting for him, she hastily climbed in and urged the horses forward. And left him sitting under Catherine’s tree.
Aggie drove the team home angrily. She’d never seen Scott so unemotional toward her. He was acting like a child, a spoiled child. Clearly, he was jealous of Buck and there was no need to be. Really, suggesting that Buck didn’t really love her, that all he wanted was the ranch! It would be laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. And to think part of why she had gone to Lancer was to ask him to walk her down the aisle! Well, she’d just walk herself down the aisle. It wasn’t like this was her first wedding.
Buck came out of the barn as she stopped the horses in front of the house. He helped her down and kissed her passionately. It always disoriented her when he did that out in the open where the hands could see.
“And where did you go on this beautiful morning, darling?” he asked once he had released her lips.
“I went over to Lancer to talk to Scott,” she said. “I didn’t like the way we left things yesterday.” She could see his mood darken.
Nevertheless, he asked pleasantly, “Did you get everything straightened out?”
“No, I daresay things are worse now than they were.”
He kissed the hair by her ear. “He’s a grown man now. He’ll get over it. Besides, there’s better uses for that bedroom.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“I could use it as my office, if you get rid of the things in it.” He smiled that disarming smile and her anger at Scott for thinking that this man didn’t really love her flared anew.
“I’m going to do that right now,” she declared. She could be just as cold-hearted as Scott.
“That’s my girl,” Buck encouraged. “I love you, darling.”
They kissed again and Buck led the buggy to the barn while she went inside.
Scott’s room looked exactly like it had since he’d returned from Boston, except with Henry’s jacket missing from the shelf. She had to practically beg him to take it! That had hurt her feelings so much. He hadn’t taken any of the mementos of his life there with him, not even the little, misshapen nail. He had spent half a day with Big Al at the forge learning how it worked. It had taken him some time, but he managed to create the crude nail by himself. How old had he been? Ten? Scott had been so proud of himself. Now it sat forlornly on the bedside table. But wait. The skipping stone that usually sat with the nail was gone. Scott had taken something to remind himself of his childhood at the Double C. Somehow that thought soothed her.
She began to strip the bed. If Scott wanted nothing more to do with the ranch, then so be it. It was his decision. She had told him he was welcome to resume any of his other activities, even having Sunday dinner with her and Buck. He was the one who rejected that offer. Well, that was just fine with her. She had Buck now. If Scott rejected her, Buck would help her get over the pain. She grabbed the bottom sheet corner by the bedside table, intending to rip it off. The toe of her shoe struck something that clattered away. She bent down to see what it was. She grasped it and sat down on the partially stripped bed. In her hand was the little skipping stone. She began to cry.
At church on Sunday, the minister announced the impending marriage of Agatha Conway to Buck Addison to be held the following Sunday after services. The entire congregation was invited to attend. There would be a grand reception at the community hall after the ceremony. Teresa was thrilled that she would be going to a wedding. Scott could only sit there fuming. So soon. They were going to get married so soon.
Scott decided not to go to services the following Sunday. Johnny went for a leisurely ride on Barranca, which is what he apparently did on Sundays when the rest of them were at church. Scott was tempted to ride out with him but opted not to. Why subject Johnny to his miserable mood? There were so many emotions churning inside him, but the most prevalent one was a sense of dread. How could he save his mama’s life when she didn’t want to be saved, who would think his saving her was what would ruin her life? After pacing around the great room for a while, he finally went to the stable to saddle Sugar.
He stood under a tree a fair distance from the door of the church. It finally flew open to let out the congregation. He could faintly hear the piano pounding out Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. The newly married couple finally appeared in the doorway as the rest of the attendees applauded them. Aggie looked resplendent in a soft pink skirt and jacket. Addison wore a black suit, impeccably tailored. They made a very handsome couple. Teresa was clapping madly away, Murdoch’s arm around her shoulders. He was grinning as well.
Scott didn’t know why he was torturing himself like this. He’d thought about bursting into the church just as the minister was intoning “if anyone knows just cause why these two people should not be joined, let him speak now…” Yes, Scott would come busting in waving an arrest warrant and watch Addison be handcuffed and led away. It had been a tantalizing fantasy, but he didn’t have a warrant or any other document that would damn Addison. So he stood there, impotent, while the woman he thought of as his mother ruined her life. It would be so hard to stand by and watch her suffer, but he wouldn’t interfere with her life anymore. She knew his feelings. But, as he had told her, he would be there to pick up the pieces. He watched for a minute and then mounted up for the ride back to Lancer.
Aggie glimpsed Scott from her perch on the top step of the church stoop. For a moment, she thought he may have come for the reception, deciding to celebrate with her, until she saw him get up on Sugar and ride off. She stood next to her husband waving gaily at her wedding guests as her heart sank. In marrying Buck, she had severed ties with the person she thought of as a son. But it had been his decision, she kept telling herself.
Buck Addison also saw Scott Lancer standing on the periphery of the church property looking forlorn. He smiled in victory. The boy had been so cocksure that Agatha would choose him. The first part of his plan worked perfectly, and now that he was married to Agatha and had gotten rid of Lancer, he could start to implement the second phase. When all was said and done, the Lancers would be sent packing, and the entire valley would be his—well, his and his investors’.
It was another Saturday night and Johnny was winning big at poker at the Green River saloon. It always seemed his winning streaks corresponded to Scott’s losing streaks, but his brother never complained about his losing nights. He claimed that five or six dollars were worth an evening’s entertainment spent with friends. Johnny said he should just hand over five dollars to him to begin with and be done with it. That comment had earned him an affectionate chuff to the back of his head. Johnny was still surprised that it had only been a couple of years since that same gesture would have landed Scott a bullet between his eyes. The feeling of connection he had with his brother kept growing deeper. He wouldn’t have believed it when he’d first ridden to Lancer.
Agatha’s Jake and Big Al came in and headed straight to their table. “Mind if we join in?” Big Al asked as they sat down.
“Ain’t gonna say no to you, big as you are,” Johnny said amiably as he put his nickel in.
Big Al chuckled, anted, and they began to play. Johnny was happy to take their money, too. Having Scott at the table made the conversation stilted. No one wanted to talk about the Double C, knowing it was a sore subject with him. So it was a surprise when he brought it up himself.
“Heard there were some new hires at your place, Jake,” Scott said.
Jake swore. “The bunkhouse is so full, we have a hard time squeezing Johnny here in there, skinny as he is.”
Johnny had said something similar the last time he’d come home from working at the Double C. He’d kept Scott up to date with all the goings on at Aggie’s ranch, and there seemed to be many changes in the works. Scott hoped she had taken his advice and that it was still Aggie’s ranch, and she hadn’t handed it over to Addison.
“Weird thing is, these new fellas don’t help with the ranch work none,” Jake went on. “Don’t know what they’re doing. They go riding off every which way each morning and don’t come back ‘til dinnertime.”
“They don’t tell you what they’re doing?” Scott prompted.
“Some of ‘em go up to the old mine,” Big Al chimed in.
That was unusual. “The gold mine? That’s been tapped out since before you were hired, Jake,” Scott said.
Jake nodded. “I know, but Addison’s got a bee in his bonnet about it. Probably thinks he can still get something out of it.” He looked at his hand with the addition of the new card dealt. “Fold,” he said, throwing his cards down disgustedly. “I tell you, Scott, it’s just not the same working at the place anymore.”
“You boys have a job at Lancer any time you want,” Johnny said. “I’ll raise it a quarter.” The rest of the table groaned. Two players folded at Johnny’s pronouncement.
“It’d be nice to have you as our ferrier,” Scott told Big Al. “It would save us all from Murdoch’s warped horseshoes. Call.”
Johnny laughed. “He’s been pounding iron for twenty-five years, Scott. He’d be deeply offended by you preferring Big Al. You in or out, big fella?”
Al put more money in the pot. “These new guys, they’re messing everything up. They prance around like they own the place and we’re nothing. Lancer looks mighty attractive right now.”
“We pay better, too,” Johnny reminded them.
“You’d have to to make me give up horses for cattle,” Jake said.
“We got horses, too,” Johnny reminded him. He looked at the final card dealt. “Quarter,” he bet, and the table groaned again.
“Too expensive for me,” Big Al complained and folded.
“Now, see, if you worked for Lancer, you could afford that bet,” Johnny teased.
“I’ll keep you honest,” Scott said, throwing in a quarter.
“Three queens,” Johnny said proudly, laying the three ladies on the table.
“Beats me,” Scott said, too embarrassed to lay his two nines in front of everyone. He threw his cards face down on the discarded pile. So, Johnny didn’t always bluff. Abbie showed up at that moment and wrapped her arms around him. What she whispered in his ear sounded much more enticing than poker. Well, gentlemen, duty calls,” he said rising from the table.
“Duty?” Johnny smirked knowingly. “What duty are you talking about?”
“The duty to satisfy my pleasure, gents,” Scott explained. He plucked some coins from Johnny’s ample winnings and started upstairs.
“You gonna let him get away with that?” Jake asked. He’d heard of Madrid’s reputation. It was hard to reconcile that hardened gunslinger reputation with the affable man he knew.
Johnny shrugged nonchalantly. “Aw, most of it’s his money anyway. I’ll just win it back next week,” he laughed. “Now tell me more about this mine. I ain’t heard the story.”
The following morning, Scott decided to go with Johnny on his Sunday morning ride. Johnny didn’t mind too much. Scott was mostly silent and didn’t interfere with Johnny’s quiet meditation and appreciation of the beauty of the land. Johnny had asked about his change of routine. Scott said he’d gone to church to be with Aggie. Now that she was sitting with Addison and not him, he didn’t see the point. Johnny could understand. Aggie had chosen Addison over Scott, and Scott didn’t need to be reminded of that every Sunday.
Johnny shared Scott’s initial impression of Addison. Johnny thought him shady and untrustworthy. His fawning over Aggie was a little too exaggerated and, since many times it was in full view of the hired help, too obvious about showing them his authority and influence over her. Aggie would giggle like a schoolgirl and was clearly oblivious to his manipulations, agreeing quickly to anything he proposed about the running of the ranch. Jake had been right—the atmosphere at the Double C wasn’t as easy-going and jovial as it had been.
“Would love to get Jake, Big Al, and Toomey to work for us,” Johnny said, as they headed to check out Beaver Pond. It was down to a mudhole these days.
“I told Aggie he’d bring in his own people,” Scott said. He wasn’t happy he’d been right.
“It’s interesting he’s going after the mine,” Johnny mused. “Do you think that’s why he wanted the Double C in the first place?”
Scott shrugged. “I doubt it. He didn’t even know of its existence until Aggie showed it to him.”
“Still, it gives one pause. What if there really is more gold in it?”
“Henry said there wasn’t. He had the same Scottish blood as Murdoch. I’m sure he would have gone after every last nugget. It yielded enough that they never had to worry about money again. If Henry said it was tapped out, I believe him,” Scott said.
Johnny made that ‘pfft’ sound. “Aw, you believe everything that man told you.”
“That’s true,” Scott agreed, ignoring Johnny’s teasing. “Henry never lied to me.”
The implication was clear. “I don’t think Murdoch lies to us either,” Johnny defended his father.
“No,” Scott agreed, “but he keeps a lot to himself. That feels like lying.”
They reached Beaver Pond and Johnny swore. Even the mud had turned to dust. “This heat is drying everything out. We gotta get water for the herd.”
“There’s still two streams that should be all right. We’ll have to check on them this week.”
“We’ve got that drive coming up,” Johnny said, wiping his sleeve over his perspiring forehead. “Damn, this heat wave’s gotta break soon! I don’t wanna ride drag in this heat.”
“Amen to that, brother, amen.”
Murdoch walked out of the bank wanting to hit something or someone and knowing he couldn’t. He spotted his sons driving the large wagon toward him. They stopped a few feet away. The wagon bed was conspicuously empty, which soured his mood even more.
“Where’s the load of grain?” he demanded.
“There isn’t any left,” Scott replied. “Seems Acme Land has bought every last sack.”
“Don’t matter,” Johnny said, adjusting his hat. “We’ll get some up in Modesto when we go.”
“You’re not going to Modesto,” Murdoch practically spat. “Not at the moment anyway.”
“What?” Scott was perplexed. They needed to get to Modesto to buy a lot of things that Morro Coyo and Green River had suddenly run out of courtesy of the Acme Land Company.
“We didn’t get the loan. Apparently, Lancer is no longer a sound financial investment.”
This time it was Johnny who said, “What? What’s Jim Pierpoint think he’s doing?”
“It’s not Jim’s fault. He gets his orders from the main office in San Francisco. It all comes from the Board of Directors,” Murdoch explained.
“They can’t do that,” Johnny protested.
“Well, they can and they did.”
“Don’t tell me—Addison is on the Board,” Johnny said.
Murdoch shrugged. “For all I know, he could be. It doesn’t matter. We didn’t get the loan and that’s it.”
“Then what do we do?” Scott asked, more than a bit concerned. He was beginning to panic about the way things were going against them.
“We do what we’ve always done: we make do, we get by. I’ll be damned if I let Acme Land Company drive me off my land.” This wasn’t the first time Lancer had faced hardship, but Murdoch preferred Pardee’s overt frontal attack to these underhanded ways.
Three wagons with ‘Acme Land co.’ painted on their sides trundled past them filled with Chinese men and mining supplies. Murdoch scowled at the procession. Damn that company! It was isolating Lancer, cutting it off from all its neighbors. It had taken him years to cultivate the kind of friendships that allowed the valley to share its resources so that all prospered. In just a few months, Acme Land Company had destroyed that cooperative model. He hadn’t told the boys about the offer to buy them out. He knew what their response would be. Just like his, it would be a resounding no. Now there was little option but to sell some cattle. With the drought, many ranchers were selling their beef. The market was glutted and the cattle wouldn’t fetch a good price, but it was better than nothing at this point.
“Boys, I’d like you to ride over to the Mendoza ranch today,” Murdoch said as he finished the last of his bacon.
Johnny groaned. “Why? I wanted to help José break in his new mare.”
“Not today,” Murdoch declared. “We’ve got that drive coming up and I want to make sure we still have access through his road and meadow.”
“I thought we always had access,” Scott said. He didn’t want to ride all the way to the Mendoza ranch any more than Johnny did.
“I know, but it never hurts to continue to ask. Reestablish friendships, courtesy, and such,” Murdoch continued. “Besides, I heard Elena has been sick. See if you can help them—perhaps do some odd jobs. I think Jake has his hands full with that place.”
Johnny and Scott exchanged long-suffering looks.
Scott nodded, a piece of biscuit occupying his mouth.
Johnny sighed. “Yeah, all right.”
“Good, good,” Murdoch smiled. “Teresa baked some cookies for you to take over to them. Who knows? Maybe they’ll feel like sharing.”
“Now that’s a reason to go,” Johnny exclaimed, winking at Scott.
The Lancer brothers were just about to the Mendoza ranch when they heard hammering. Concerned, they rode around the bend and were confronted with a barbed wire fence being strung across the road that connected the Lancer and Mendoza ranches.
“What’re you doing?” Johnny demanded to the man who looked in charge of the operation.
The man took his time in answering. He looked Johnny up and down before he lazily said, “It appears to me like we’re building a fence.” He smiled menacingly at them.
Johnny looked like he was about to jump out of his saddle, but Scott quickly said, “Across a public road?”
Now the boss man looked Scott over. “Not that I know of. I was told this was private property.”
“Lancer has been driving cattle through here for years, mister,” Johnny told him, trying to rein in his temper. There were only two of them and five or six men working on the fence. All but one of them stopped working and hooked their thumbs on their holsters. If there was any gunplay, Johnny knew he and Scott would be on the losing end. Johnny Madrid was good but not that good, and Scott would be dead before his gun cleared leather.
“Looks like you won’t be able to do that no more,” the boss man informed them, “unless they can climb under this here fence.” His boot cheekily lifted the lowest strand of barbed wire.
Johnny could feel Scott tense up beside him. His brother knew better than to start something with the odds stacked against them, didn’t he?
“Scott! Johnny!” Jake Mendoza’s voice rang through the air.
Scott relaxed a little. “Now Jake, you know that Lancer drives cattle through here in a few days. Why are you trying to build a fence across this road?”
Mendoza looked contrite. “I spoke to them about it, also to these people.”
Johnny was confused. Nothing about this made sense. “What do you mean? It’s your land. Who do you have to speak to?”
Mendoza sighed. “No it ain’t, Johnny. Not no more. I sold out,” he told them.
Scott was undeterred. “Jake, Lancer’s always had the right of way through this road.”
“You know, I never went to school,” Mendoza admitted. He’d always been intimidated by Scott’s Harvard degree. “But this here land, I sold it to Acme.”
“Well, well, well, it’s Acme Land again,” Johnny said disgustedly. He should have known. Acme Land had been buying up quite a bit of land in the San Joaquin Valley.
The boss man squinted up at Johnny. “That’s the outfit I work for, mister. The head office said that there might be some…argument…about it.”
“Yeah, there’s going to be more than just an argument about this, mister,” Johnny threatened.
“Then you take it to Acme’s lawyers. If they tell me to take down these posts, then I will. But until they tell me, let’s not have no trouble,” boss man said, his tone just as threatening. The workers’ hands moved toward their guns.
Scott slapped Johnny’s arm. “Forget it.”
“You know Acme, he pay me top dollar and with my wife ailing and all…” Mendoza tried to explain.
“Sure, Jake, we understand,” Scott said sympathetically. He looked over at Johnny, who was seething. There was nothing they could do. “Let’s go, Johnny.” He turned Sugar away from the Acme men, relieved to see Johnny follow him. Whenever he was in one of these situations with Johnny, he was worried Johnny Madrid would make an appearance and do something rash that was going to get them both killed. Johnny had shown real restraint in this instance. Scott had been ready to start a brawl about it…but not a shootout.
“That’s the fourth ranch in a row to sell out,” Johnny said as they headed back to the ranch.
“Yeah, I guess that Acme firm is set on surrounding Lancer. They’re buying up all the land,” Scott agreed.
“Oh, I’m gonna hate to tell Murdoch…” Johnny grumbled.
Scott was glad that Johnny was volunteering to tell Murdoch. Their father would be furious. “Yeah, I know what you mean. If Aggie sold out, Lancer would be completely cut off. I hope she didn’t sign the Double C over to Addison. He’d sell the Double C to Acme Land in a minute. I told her not to. I only hope she listened.”
Murdoch stormed into the Conway house without knocking. “Agatha?” he bellowed.
“Murdoch Lancer, I’ll not have you walking into my house without knocking first!” Addison chided.
Murdoch ignored the chastisement. “It’s you I want to see anyway.”
Addison narrowed his eyes at the man but motioned to a chair.
Murdoch continued to stand and dove right in. “What’s this nonsense about fencing across the road to the Mendoza place? Lancer has always had access to that road for our cattle drives.”
“Not anymore. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been some changes in the valley. And it’s not the Mendoza place anymore. It’s owned by Acme Land Company, which has decided to fence it off.”
“But why? Why fence it off? It doesn’t make sense.” Murdoch tried to compose himself. After all, he was going to ask a favor of the man. “Johnny said you might have some pull with this Acme Land Company.”
Addison’s face looked particularly smug. “I am Acme Land Company, Lancer.”
Murdoch didn’t look shocked; he’d suspected as much. “So you’ve been buying up all the ranches around here. What for? What’s in it for you?”
“That’s my business, Lancer,” Addison sneered. “Oh, and if I were you, I’d take that last offer we made to you. You know it’s five thousand dollars more than the land is worth.”
Murdoch scowled at the man. “I’m not selling Lancer, so get that through your head. Not at any price. It’s my life’s work and my sons’ legacy.”
“Legacy…” Addison scoffed. “They’ll never be able to hold onto it once I own the rest of the valley.” A glint came into the man’s eye. “You think Scott has what it takes to keep the place going?”
Murdoch was puzzled. “What do you mean? Scott’s able.”
“Come on, man! You can’t be that naïve,” Addison snickered. “Harvard educated, fancy rich boy? All manners and airs? Writes poetry? Never asks a girl to a dance? I knocked him to the floor, and he didn’t even fight back. You know what cowards those sodom…”
Addison never finished the sentence. He found himself on the rug, the victim of a vicious roundhouse blow. He watched as Lancer stormed out of the house as vehemently as he had stormed in. He rubbed the left side of his face back to sensation. It throbbed mightily. Murdoch Lancer knew how to pack a punch. It didn’t matter. The look on the man’s face just before he hit him was worth it. He’d planted the seed about Scott and couldn’t wait to see how it grew.
He sat there on the floor smirking when Aggie came into the parlor. She rushed to his side.
“What happened?” She tried to help him up and he let her.
“That was courtesy of your best friend,” he said once on his feet again.
“One and the same.”
She helped him over to a chair. “But what did you say to him?” she asked and it irked Addison that she assumed he had provoked the violence, even though it was true.
“I wouldn’t take down a fence he objected to.”
“And he hit you?” she asked incredulously.
“He hit me,” he affirmed as he sat down heavily in the chair.
Aggie was incensed. “Well, I’m going right over there and give him a piece of my mind!”
“No!” He grabbed her arm. “He has quite a temper, darling. It’s best that you stay clear of him. I don’t want you to go over there again!”
“But Buck, he’d never hurt me,” she assured him.
“No, I tell you!” He shook her arm in emphasis. “Promise me! Promise me you won’t go to Lancer again!”
“All right. I…I promise,” Aggie stuttered. She looked bereft. Not ride over to Lancer again? It seemed unthinkable. But if Murdoch had struck Buck, then she’d have to stand by her husband, just as she had when he’d insisted Scott had to go.
Addison smiled in victory. “Thank you, darling.” He grabbed her hand and kissed the back of it.
Murdoch rode home in a fury. The nerve of Addison implying that Scott wasn’t really a man! As his anger waned, he realized that if he were honest with himself, he’d acknowledge that he had had similar thoughts about Scott through the years. The boy had been so sensitive. Even now he’d tear up at the strangest of times. He’d been relieved to find his elder son engaged when he returned from Harvard. Then the engagement had ended, broken off by Miss Dennison. Scott stated that any reconciliation was impossible but wouldn’t say why. Had she discovered his preference for men? Addison was right: Scott never asked a girl to the dance. Johnny would spend days deciding which lass would grace his arm. When pressed, Scott claimed he didn’t want to get any girl’s hopes up. Was that true or just a diversion? Scott’s quiet, courtly countenance did seem at odds with life on a demanding and grueling California ranch. But he’d comported himself well during that Pardee mess, and he never shunned from any task given him. Scott’s poetry was about war, not flowers or butterflies. Still, he needed to pay more attention to Scott’s demeanor. If his elder son did have a predilection for men, he’d beat it out of him. He’d be damned if any son of his would sully the Lancer name!
Johnny took off his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his forearm. Dios! Would this hot spell ever break? It had been months since the last rain and now the unseasonably hot weather. Watering holes were drying up and the once lush, green grass in the pastures was now brown and dying. He took a long swig from his canteen, feeling a little guilty that the cattle he and Scott were driving northeast were desperate to drink as well. They had broken off a few dozen head to check out the situation with Mariposa Creek. It was usually a reliable source of water even in times of drought. They were hoping it might supply enough water for the entire eastern herd. The small river should be less than a mile ahead.
Johnny swore when the dry riverbed appeared. There wasn’t a drop of water and it looked like it had been dry for some time. He slid off Barranca to get a better look.
Scott rode up. “What happened?”
Johnny made a pfft sound and threw some dirt into the air.
“I mean we had all that winter rain last year,” Scott continued bewildered.
Johnny blew out a frustrated breath while he thought about the situation. “Somebody built a dam farther up, probably around the old Semple place.”
“But we’ve always had the water rights,” Scott protested.
“I know,” Johnny said. “Why don’t you go back to the ranch and tell Murdoch? Then get some help. We’ve got to get the cattle moved further on.”
“What about you?”
“I’m gonna take a little ride farther upstream see what I can find out,” Johnny told him.
Scott laughed skeptically. “Oh, I have a feeling that I ought to go with you.”
Johnny didn’t want the added responsibility of looking after his brother if there was trouble farther upstream. He wanted to do this himself. “Look these people know what they’re doing. I promise you I won’t get into trouble, all right? I mean that’s probably what they’d like me to do, right?”
Scott still glared at him disdainfully but finally relented. They shouldn’t leave the cattle alone. “Help me get these critters turned around and headed back.”
Johnny nodded. It took a bit of doing, but they got the cattle moving back the way they’d come. “You gonna be all right the rest of the way by yourself?”
Scott gave him another glare. “I can handle it.” He pointed a warning finger at his brother. “No trouble, Johnny. You promised.”
“I know, I know.” He threw Scott a half-hearted salute and then went back to where the Mariposa Creek should have been.
Johnny steadily made his way up the dry stream bed. It made his heart ache to see the dust where there should have been ample water. The foliage on either side was withered and brown. At the boundary of the old Semple property there was another barbed wire fence suspiciously similar to the one built across Mendoza’s road. Sure enough, there was a sign with the words “Acme Land Co. NO TRESPASSING” printed on it.
Johnny dismounted and walked up to the sign. He’d suspected as much. He grabbed the sign and started to pull it down when a bullet shattered the top of the fence post the sign was nailed to. Then another bullet slammed into his shoulder. It was high up, so it didn’t stop Johnny from jumping behind a log for cover. Several other bullets whizzed by him. Shit! There were a bunch of them!
“I just wanna talk!” Johnny yelled. Another barrage of bullets rang out. He knew he was in deep shit. Why had he refused Scott’s help?
Scott definitely didn’t want to leave Johnny alone for too long. His brother had a short temper and could be “impetuous,” even though he’d promised he’d behave. It was a relief to catch up to Frank, José, and Diego about a half hour later. Happy to rid himself of the cattle, Scott raced back toward Mariposa Creek. He was just about to the border of the Semple place when he heard gunfire. There was a pistol, probably Johnny, and multiple rifles. Scott wasn’t going to gallop straight into the melee. He headed off to his right into the stand of trees on a slight rise. It should provide a good vantage point to assess the situation. He slid off Sugar and grabbed his Henry rifle.
The situation wasn’t good. Johnny was pinned down behind a rotting tree trunk taking pot shots at his assailants. Scott counted four men with rifles, one of whom was the boss man at the Mendoza place. He wasn’t surprised at that revelation. They should have known Addison was right in the middle of it. He took aim. Not knowing exactly what was going on, he only winged two of them before the other two lowered their rifles per his orders. As any good sniper did, he had changed his position after every time he shot. They had no good idea where he was hiding.
“Ride out!” Scott shouted. He saw the boss man say something to the other unharmed man and the two of them helped the two wounded men back into the woods and presumably to their horses. Scott waited until he heard hoofbeats retreating before he made his way down to Johnny.
Johnny had never been so happy to hear the beautiful sound of his brother’s rifle. He reloaded his Colt while Scott made his way down to him. Scott called out to warn Johnny of his approach.
“Am I glad to see you!” Johnny shouted back.
“I thought you promised me that you wouldn’t start something!” Scott groused as he neared Johnny’s position.
“I didn’t start it, but I wasn’t gonna let them finish it!” Johnny groaned as he tried to sit up.
Scott finally crashed through the remaining scrub brush to get his first good look at his brother. He almost groaned when he saw him. Johnny had a bullet wound high on his shoulder and another one on his leg. Seeing what meager cover he had, it was a miracle he had only two wounds.
“Jesus, Johnny!” Scott said as he lowered himself beside Johnny and fumbled with his bandana to press it into the shoulder wound.
“I’ve had worse,” Johnny said, gritting his teeth to fight off a moan.
“Of course, you have. We’ve got to get out of here in case they come back,” Scott said. “Here, put pressure on that.”
“Not gonna drop my gun,” Johnny told him emphatically.
Scott sighed in frustration. He looked around for Barranca but couldn’t see the palomino. Johnny figured out what he was looking for and gave a shrill whistle. Barranca magically appeared. Scott shook his head in defeat and admiration and helped Johnny onto his horse. “Wish you could teach me that trick.”
“Aw, Sugar’s not as smart as Barranca,” Johnny smirked.
Scott led them up to where Sugar was idly grazing, and they made their way slowly back to Lancer. “What happened?” he asked Johnny.
“I was making my way up the dry streambed until I hit the fence,” Johnny explained.
“Yeah, didn’t you notice it?”
Scott hadn’t, he’d been so focused on the shooters and then Johnny.
“There was a sign that said ‘Acme Land Co.’”
“Addison again!” Scott said, venom dripping from each syllable.
“Guess they bought up the Semple place, too.”
“The only good thing about that place was the Mariposa and we own the water rights,” Scott said. The ground was too rocky and hilly to farm or raise cattle at the Semple place.
“Yeah, well, that don’t do us much good right now. I tried to rip down the sign and that’s when they started shooting. Only it wasn’t to warn me off. It was to kill me. Got me in the shoulder before I was able to get my gun out.” He flexed his right hand. Dr. Jenkins had done a miraculous job of mending his broken hand, but it was still too stiff for his liking. “Damn, Pardee.”
“You did just fine, Johnny, holding them off until I could rescue you.”
Johnny swore at him, then returned to his story. “Well, most of the time we were just yelling at each other about water rights. Then they got tired of arguing with me and started shooting again. Right glad to hear your Henry, though.”
It was going to take a long time to get back to the hacienda at this pace. They’d never make it before dark, and Scott could see that Johnny was flagging despite the brave face he was trying to project. Scott made the decision to head for the eastern line shack.
Of course, Johnny noticed the change of direction immediately. “You want to tell me where we’re going?”
“Eastern line shack.”
“Scott!” Johnny protested. “Just get me home.”
“We’d never make it before dark and with you in the saddle. Your shoulder’s still bleeding.”
“I’ll make it,” Johnny said, even as he leaned precariously to his left.
“Just make it to the line shack,” Scott said as he grabbed his brother to right him in the saddle again.
After that Johnny went silent. It took all his concentration to remain upright. Finally, the line shack came into view. Scott had been right about not making it to the hacienda, but he wasn’t going to admit it. Scott was right about a great many things. His brother would never know what comfort it was to have him riding by his side. Johnny had been a loner since his mama died. Having Scott with him again was like a soothing balm on sunbaked skin. And to think he almost killed him two years ago. The bond they now shared was strong and growing stronger.
Scott dismounted and checked the interior of the cabin. Everything seemed as it should be. Then he went back outside and helped Johnny off Barranca. He half carried his brother into the shack and deposited him on one of the bunks.
Johnny was semi-conscious. Scott untied the bandana from Johnny’s neck and again tried to push it into the wound to stop the bleeding. He could tell it was clotting but he wanted it stopped.
“Here,” he said, taking Johnny’s opposite hand and placing it over the cloth, “keep your hand over this.” He could tell Johnny was too weak to press down on the wound, but he kept his hand there, for which Scott was grateful. Then Scott left to take care of the horses.
The next thing Johnny knew was Scott trying to get him to drink some water. He did, thirstily.
“I need to clean out those wounds,” Scott said.
“Tequila…” Johnny started, his throat feeling dry despite the water.
“I found it,” Scott soothed. He wrapped his tequila-soaked bandana around a stick, and Johnny bit down on it. The alcohol’s fire matched the one in his shoulder, but the bandana would keep him from biting his tongue off and help him deal with the pain.
Scott inspected the shoulder wound. It wasn’t pretty. The edges were swollen and red. Blood had finally stopped seeping out of it, and he was sorry that his ministrations would aggravate it into bleeding some more. It couldn’t be helped. He poured the tequila into the wound.
Johnny’s scream was muffled by the bandana in his mouth. Scott worked as quickly as he could, but there wasn’t much he could do for Johnny’s shoulder. The bullet was in too deep for him too fish out, so he cleaned the wound as best he could and bandaged it. Johnny had lost consciousness somewhere along the way. Cleaning out the calf wound went smoother. The bullet had gone clean through. After dousing the calf with tequila, he put in a few stitches in both entrance and exit wounds and bandaged that as well.
Johnny’s saddlebags were a treasure trove. Not only did they have the tequila and an impressive store of medical supplies, but Scott found the lunch Teresa had packed. He ate most of the sandwich and cookies, saving the rest for Johnny, should he awaken. Then he hunkered down with his freshly loaded rifle. It was going to be a long night. He didn’t trust anyone from the Acme Land Company, especially Addison’s boss man. It would be just their style to ambush them here, and Johnny was in no shape for another shootout.
It was dark when Johnny opened his eyes again. Where was he? Oh, yes. The throbbing in his shoulder brought everything back.
“Here” came the immediate answer somewhere to Johnny’s right. A cup of water was again pressed to his lips. He drank his fill and then asked, “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Just waiting until dawn and we’ll head back to Lancer.” Scott kept his voice low.
“You watching my back?”
Johnny snorted. “You’re so full of it!”
“Just making sure those Acme fellows don’t come to finish the job.”
Johnny’s head started to throb in tandem with his shoulder. “You think they’d come all the way out here on Lancer land?”
“I’m just making sure.”
Johnny’s hand groped around the cot. “Give me my gun and I’ll wait with you.”
“It’s down by your right thigh,” Scott told him, “but you need to sleep so you can ride tomorrow.”
“I’ll ride tomorrow, don’t worry.”
“Then get some sleep.” Scott’s voice sounded frustrated. “I don’t need Murdoch coming down on me any harder than he already is. If he found out you were awake all night, he’d have my hide.”
There was a long silence and Scott thought Johnny had fallen asleep, but then his brother said, “Why’s Murdoch so hard on you all of a sudden? You don’t do nothing to deserve it.”
Scott was glad to hear that Johnny didn’t think he deserved it any more than he did. “I don’t know. I thought we were in a pretty good place when we signed the ownership papers, but now he’s started up at me again.”
“He’s been asking some weird-ass questions about you, too.”
“Like how you get along with the men, if I’ve seen you in any bar fights or visiting a cat house. Stuff like that.”
Scott was flummoxed. “Why in the world would he be asking you that?” A moment later he added, “And what did you tell him?”
“I asked him why he wanted to know and he got all angry and told me to just answer the question. I told him if he wanted an answer, he should ask you.” Johnny particularly remembered Murdoch asking about the cat house. It had amused him that his father couldn’t bring himself to say “whore house” like everyone else. “That reminds me, Abbie says she’s getting mighty lonely.”
Scott smiled, remembering his last evening spent with the young lady’s lovely charms. But he was more charmed by Johnny’s loyalty to him. “Thanks, Johnny.”
“Did he? Ask you, I mean?”
“No, not so far. He did start riding me again about how many baths I take,” Scott said. “Sometimes lately I think he wants to hit me.”
“You do take a lot of baths,” Johnny teased.
“Yes, I do,” Scott agreed matter-of-factly. He wasn’t going to apologize for it or explain it. A year in Libby prison infested with all kinds of vermin had caused him to be quite fastidious about keeping his body clean. Lice, fleas, ticks—it had been unbearable in that hellhole. How had he borne it? It made him shudder even now, five years gone.
Johnny knew there was a story there, but he doubted he’d ever get it out of his brother. It probably had something to do with the war, the one thing Scott would never talk about. That and what Mama had done to him. “I thought maybe he was fishing for stuff to get angry at you about. I wasn’t gonna help him do that.” He sighed and tried to get in a better position to ease the pain in his shoulder. It was impossible. “I don’t get you and Murdoch. You lived at Lancer ever since you were a kid. You think he’d know you better, but he acts like he don’t know you at all, like you’re a stranger living at the house.”
Scott was constantly amazed at how perceptive Johnny was. He gave off this air of not listening and not caring, but he took in everything that happened at the ranch. Scott trusted his judgment more than his own. Yes, that was exactly right: Murdoch did treat him like a stranger. He treated him like he was a guest in the house. And didn’t he treat Murdoch like he’d treat a host? Johnny had described it perfectly. “I didn’t always live at Lancer. Remember, I lived at the Double C for a while.” He’d been so happy there. “I know Murdoch didn’t like that, although I don’t know why. I only lived there when he was away. Anyway, there’s a lot of bad blood between us from my childhood. Lots of little things happened over the years, and I think he still blames me for your disappearance.”
“Shit.” Johnny’s tone was incredulous. “That was all Mama. What does he think you did?”
“I…tattled on her.” What else could he say? He didn’t want to get into the entire story of his running away from home and why. Johnny didn’t need to be burdened with what his mother had done. Johnny didn’t need or want to know how awful she was.
Johnny remembered overhearing the conversation between Scott and Murdoch when Scott first arrived from Boston with Julie. Scott had accused his father of blaming him for his disappearance then. Murdoch hadn’t actually denied it. “What did my mother do to you, Scott?” he asked quietly and not for the first time.
“I told you to leave it alone.” Anger crept into Scott’s voice. “I’m not telling you.”
“It’s like you and the Old Man are keeping a secret from me. I don’t like it.” Johnny let his anger and frustration over it be known.
Scott knew that Johnny was upset with his keeping silent. Johnny had always been a curious boy. He was still a curious young man, but the dreadful things that his mother had unleashed on a newly arrived Scott would remain unspoken. “Sorry. It’s just the way it is.” He knew Murdoch would never say anything to Johnny about it, either. “And the Old Man doesn’t even know the half of it.” Maybe he could stop Johnny from pestering Murdoch about it, too.
Johnny was frustrated. His curiosity had been killing him for all these months. Maybe he could get it out of Scott another way. “Did she hit you?”
Scott didn’t answer.
Johnny frowned. Sometimes having a smart brother was a pain in the ass. Smart and stubborn was a tough combination. “She hit me. Plenty when I got older. Seems having a mestizo kid held her back from whatever it was she wanted. She didn’t want me.”
Scott knew how it felt not to be wanted. “I’m sorry, Johnny.”
“I’m sorry, too, Scott.” He waited some more, but Scott didn’t seem to feel like talking about it further. “She do more than hit you?” When Scott still didn’t reply, he added, “Betcha she did.”
“Johnny…” The exasperation in Scott’s voice was plain to hear. “Get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.”
“Sure you will,” Johnny said skeptically. He heard Scott move closer to the bunk. Then he felt Scott’s hand close around his wrist. His hand found Scott’s wrist.
“Trust me, brother?” Scott asked quietly, knowing all the meaning their clasped wrists relayed.
“I trust you,” Johnny answered, his words slurred by pain and fatigue but full of sincerity.
And Johnny closed his eyes.
He was awakened by a light tap on his foot. His right hand groped for his gun. It was there by his thigh, as Scott said it was.
“Company,” Scott whispered, barely audible.
Johnny nodded. He very carefully got off the bunk and found a better vantage point of the door. Scott moved to the other side of the shack. There was silence for a while, and Johnny was beginning to think that Scott had only imagined the intruders. He blinked again and again, his eyes adjusting to the dim moonlight that filtered through the window next to the door. Only a half moon out tonight.
Scott had turned the table over and was crouched behind it, his rifle pointed at the door. Johnny positioned himself almost under the opposite bunk, his gun also aimed at the door. Then, weirdly, there were noises on the roof headed for Johnny’s side of the cabin. Scott hoisted his rifle toward him and he nodded. The rifle came sailing over. Johnny caught it and calculated the trespasser’s next step.
The rifle sounded like an explosion in the still of the night, but they heard an agonized cry and what sounded like a body rolling off the roof. Almost immediately after, the door crashed open. Johnny didn’t have time to swing the rifle around, but Scott’s handgun was spitting fire. The man grabbed his chest as he fell to the floor.
Then there was silence. Was that it? Were there only two of them? Scott motioned that he was going outside. Johnny nodded. He didn’t like it, but they had to know if the guy on the roof was dead. Scott retrieved his rifle, waited a few minutes, and when they still didn’t hear anything, he slithered over the dead man’s prone body and crawled out the door.
A few seconds later, there was a burst of gunfire followed by Scott’s answering rounds. Johnny heard Scott’s retreating footsteps. He squirmed out of his hiding place and rushed toward the door, only to trip over something and land hard on the floor. He felt the gush of blood flow into the bandage on his shoulder. Dios, that hurt! His vision blurred and he fought to stay conscious. There was more gunfire outside. He couldn’t discern which was Scott’s rifle. He fought to rise, but he was too dizzy to make it to his knees. He flopped back on the floor, never feeling so helpless in his life. Scott! There was one more burst of rifle shots and then an eerie silence, broken by Sugar’s frightened neigh. Barranca nickered in response. Again, Johnny tried to keep the darkness threatening to overtake him at bay. He lay panting on the floor for what seemed like an eternity until he could manage to prop himself up to where he could shoot. If the bastard had killed Scott, he’d be coming for him, and Johnny vowed to send him to hell.
Then there were screams a ways off in the woods. Terrible, agonized screams that Johnny couldn’t tell were Scott’s or not. Then they abruptly stopped. He made two more unsuccessful attempts to get up before he gave up on that idea. Johnny couldn’t hear anything, although the blood pounding in his brain dulled his senses. He continued to peer at the door, his vision flickering in and out, determined to stay aware enough to save his life. He’d been in this kind of situation before but not with the emotion of the loss of a brother to cloud his reflexes.
How much time had passed? It seemed like hours. Still there was no sound of human life outside the cabin. Had they both killed each other? Was Scott lying out there badly wounded and needing help? Then Johnny would be forced to move, and the thought of moving was too much to ask of him. Finally, he heard the sound of footfalls outside the door. He raised his arm and took aim.
“Johnny, it’s me.”
Johnny sagged in relief. Scott’s voice was never more welcome. His brother walked through the door and knelt by his side.
“What took you so long?” Johnny said crossly.
“Had to do a perimeter check to make sure we got them all, and it’s dark out, so it took me a while,” Scott said, noting the wet, dark stain on Johnny’s shirt. “You’re bleeding again. Think you can ride?”
“I can ride.”
“We’ll ride double,” Scott suggested.
“Shit, no!” Johnny protested, but he collapsed onto the bunk when Scott helped him off the floor and around his boots. They had been what he tripped over, he realized.
“Rest a bit while I saddle the horses.” Scott got another cup of water for him. “You hungry? There’s part of a day-old sandwich…”
“I’m not hungry.” Johnny drank the water gratefully.
“Gotta get going…”
“I know. Rest some so we can.”
Johnny didn’t mean to close his eyes, but then Scott was waking him and rousting him out of bed, then coaxing him onto Sugar. “No, Barranca,” Johnny protested. Dawn was just breaking.
“I can handle Sugar easier,” Scott admitted, which elicited a sly smile from his brother. He swung up behind Johnny, got a good grip on him, and gently urged Sugar forward. If the bay got too tired, which was likely given the distance they had to travel, then he’d switch to the palomino.
Belatedly, Johnny realized he hadn’t even asked after Scott. There’d been blood on his clothing when he came into the cabin after his perimeter check. It hadn’t registered in his brain until now. “You all right?”
“Yes.” Scott switched the reins to the hand that was holding Johnny and touched his ear. The bleeding had stopped. That bullet had been much too close for his liking. He switched the reins back.
“How many were there?” Johnny asked, now that he’d gathered more of his wits about him.
“Three. The same three who were shooting at you with Addison’s foreman, I think.” Two of them had arm wounds consistent with his winging of them.
Johnny took in that information for a while. “Why’d they want to kill us?”
“Not us. You. They wanted to kill you.”
Johnny frowned. “Why? I’ve never done nothing to any of them.”
Scott sighed. “Because, dear brother, there seems to be a bounty on your head.”
“Yeah?” Scott could hear the smile in Johnny’s voice even though he couldn’t see his face. It sounded like his brother was proud of the fact. “How much?”
“Five hundred dollars.”
“For Johnny Madrid? That don’t sound like much.” Johnny sounded decidedly disappointed.
“It’s enough,” Scott said grimly. When he had finally located and shot the third assailant hiding at the edge of the tree line, he’d found him still alive but not long for this world. He wasn’t too forthcoming, either, about what was going on. Scott had gotten “creative” with his knife, eliciting the information that there was a bounty posting for Johnny and the amount from the man. He’d died before divulging anything further. Scott had desperately wanted to know who had posted the reward money. Perhaps he had gotten a little too creative with his knife.
Scott smiled ruefully. Everyone would quiver in fear when Johnny Madrid made an appearance. Scott conceded that Madrid was fearsome, but he thought Lieutenant Lancer was just as, if not more, frightening. To say that the War had toughened him up was definitely an understatement. Johnny probably had never done half the horrific things that Lieutenant Lancer was ordered to do. And sometimes he didn’t even need orders. He shuddered when he remembered the depth and intensity of his anger that had bubbled up to the surface from inside him. That anger could be acted upon in war.
Scott closed his eyes and pushed those memories back down into the depths of his soul. The army thought he was such a hero. The truth was he was just mad as hell and didn’t care if he died. That had carried him through many a battle. What did Aristotle call it? Bloodlust. Yes, he had bloodlust and that would disqualify him from being courageous, according to the ancient Greek philosopher. One had to have the proper amount of fear and then overcome it to be courageous. Men fighting from bloodlust didn’t have fear. Aristotle was right. He didn’t have fear out on the battlefield, just a brutish desire to kill. It was as if by killing others, he would kill his own anger and pain. Of course, it didn’t work that way. He was ashamed of his actions in the war, but they were usually necessary. He knew his bloodlust would always be there, lurking underneath the surface, waiting to be called upon whenever needed like at the line shack. Sometimes he thought it was only his rigid self-control that kept it at bay. The nightmares of the war would return tonight, no doubt.
They finally ran into a work crew not too far from their destination. A man was sent for the doctor. A debate broke out as to whether they should wait for a wagon in which to place Johnny. Through it all, Scott kept hold of his brother and continued the slow walk toward the hacienda. One of the hands rode ahead to tell Murdoch, so Maria could get the medical supplies and Johnny’s room ready.
Once at the house and released from his burden, Scott almost fell off Barranca. He followed the procession upstairs to Johnny’s room, watching as they tucked his brother into bed. He’d done it; he’d gotten Johnny home alive.
Murdoch turned on him. “What the hell happened?”
Scott stiffened at the anger in Murdoch’s voice and then decided it was more worry over Johnny than ire at him. He related the events as succinctly as he could. Murdoch ordered a crew to be sent to the line shack to retrieve the bodies and horses. The bodies would be turned over to Sheriff Crawford; Lancer would claim the horses if they were any good. Then he sat down beside Johnny’s bed to hold vigil until Sam Jenkins arrived.
“I’m going to Sacramento,” Scott declared.
Murdoch looked up at his son’s exhausted face. “Get some sleep first.”
Scott shook his head. “There’s still enough daylight to make it to Green River today. It’s Tuesday. I’ll sleep in the hotel tonight and catch the stage north tomorrow morning. Otherwise, we’re delayed by three days until the next coach comes through. We have to get that legal injunction against Acme Land as soon as possible. We’ve got to get that dam dismantled and gain access to the Mariposa. We’re losing cattle every day.”
Murdoch thought about it, then nodded. “Get something to eat at least.”
Finally, his father was listening to reason. “I will. Are the water rights papers in the safe?”
Murdoch noticed the scab on Scott’s ear. How had he missed the blood down his neck until now? The boy hadn’t said anything about it, so he wasn’t going to bring it up, but maybe Scott was hurting a bit, too. “Maybe I should go,” he suggested, although he was reluctant to leave Johnny.
“It’ll be a rough journey. That bullet in your back won’t let you. Stay here. Johnny needs you, especially now that there’s a bounty out for him. I’m the logical one to go,” Scott insisted.
“The logical one…” Murdoch muttered but his head nodded in agreement. “I’ll get them. You change, get that blood off your neck, and meet me in the kitchen.”
Scott went across the hall to change clothes and pack his traveling clothes. He’d need to look presentable once up in Sacramento in front of the judge. He washed off the blood and grime of the past twenty-four hours as best he could. Somewhat refreshed, he made his way to the kitchen with his valise.
Teresa and Murdoch were there to greet him. Teresa had made a sandwich for him, and Murdoch had the legal documents and more than enough cash.
“There’s a horse saddled for you outside,” Murdoch said as Scott finished his meal and washed it down with the last of his coffee. “Be careful, Scott.”
Scott gave him a wan smile, grateful for the concerned words. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
Murdoch watched Scott leave with a frown, trying to quell the doubts as to whether his older son was up to the task.
Scott sat sipping his tea in the restaurant of the Union Hotel. It had been a satisfying day; the court order decreeing that Acme’s dam be removed rested safely in his suit jacket next to his heart. He wasn’t going to let it out of his grasp until he could flaunt it in front of Addison’s nose. The meal had been excellent, and Scott didn’t mind that the cost was more than Murdoch would have been willing to pay. He had gotten some of his own money from the Green River bank, so he could well afford it.
The beds here also seemed far superior to the Green River Hotel. He’d managed to get some sleep on the thin mattress in Green River before he was subjected to the two-day torture that was the stagecoach ride. He had gotten into Sacramento mid-morning, had met the Cattleman’s Association’s lawyer, who had already set up a meeting with Judge Morrison. Scott presented his documents, and the matter was settled quickly. The injunction against the dam was issued soon after, and Scott would have one blissful evening in the comfort of the Union Hotel before heading home tomorrow. He’d sent a telegram to Murdoch telling him of their success.
Scott was trying to make his tea last as long as he could. The room was well-appointed and pleasant. It wasn’t elegant by Eastern standards, Great Aunt Cora would be appalled, but by Western tastes, it was grand. More than that, it seemed to be the center of social life in Sacramento. Scott sat in the far corner, compliments of training by Johnny Madrid, taking everything and everyone in. Many times, he thought Johnny’s habits were too paranoid to be practical, but his insistence on sitting in the far corner of any room had its merits—one could see easily without easily being seen.
His eyes flitted outside the room and rested on a man dressed in a nondescript brown suit—not too shabby or sharp. But it was the hat that Scott recognized—a dark brown bowler. He’d seen that hat before. It was in the hallway at the courthouse, first outside the judge’s chambers and then outside the records office. In the time waiting for Judge Morrison to draw up the injunction, Scott decided to do some research on one Bucknell Addison. He was very good at research; Harvard had taught him well. And he’d found out two very interesting facts: Charles Crocker* was the main investor in the Acme Land Company, and he was on the board of the bank that had denied them their loan. All the land grabbing that Addison was engaged in was most probably for the railroad. Crocker was already building a railway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now it seemed he was interested in having one run down the eastern side of the Central Valley from Sacramento to Bakersfield. And Lancer and the Double C were right in the path. Murdoch would be very interested in this new information. There was already widespread talk of improper land acquisition when it came to Crocker and the Southern Pacific Railroad. If Scott could link Crocker and Addison with Pardee, he could launch a criminal investigation into the Acme Land Company. Yes, it had been a very fruitful afternoon for Scott Lancer. He deserved his coq au vin.
But the man in the bowler nagged at him. The man was always in the periphery, right at the edge of Scott’s sight. Second, he never seemed to be acting with any purpose, rather just loitering in places. Was the man in the bowler hat following him? Spying on him? Had someone tipped off Addison or Crocker that he was in Sacramento? If so, Scott’s long anticipated sleep on a comfortable mattress wouldn’t happen.
There were two loud gunshots that shattered the stillness of the night. Scott hadn’t meant to fall asleep, Johnny never would have, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. The room was so dark, he wouldn’t have seen the shooter anyway. Now he had only a few precious seconds to get his boots on, grab his hat, and race out the door before the hotel guests and proprietor would gather outside his door to see what the matter was. He rushed out the door just as light was starting to spill out of the other guests’ rooms.
He went down the back stairs and through the kitchen. There he stopped and waited for long minutes. The shooter wouldn’t have gone out the front door. He’d have gone out the back way, too, and Scott didn’t want to encounter him. He wanted the guy to believe he’d killed Scott. Scott smiled at that thought. One night camping out on the range, Johnny told him about how he’d escaped numerous ambushes by sleeping under the bed. He’d gather up pillows and blankets and such and arrange them to look like there was a body in the bed. Then the assassin would shoot up the linens and Johnny would escape unscathed.
It had worked brilliantly. There were two neat holes in his bed’s padding, which included his suit, and he was whole and hale. When he thought sufficient time had passed by, he snuck out the back door and made his way to the edges of the city. There he found an unlocked barn with an acceptable horse and saddle. Leaving enough money to buy two horses and saddles, Scott made his way south. By the time the sheriff discovered the ruse, Scott would be well on his way to Lancer, the court order safely in his breast pocket.
Scott made good time back to the San Joaquin valley, primarily by not taking too much time to sleep or eat. He decided to ride directly to the Double C. That dam needed to be broken as soon as possible. If Addison wouldn’t do it after reading the injunction, he’d let Val handle it, but he hoped to speed things up by confronting Addison directly.
Scott pounded on the door of Aggie’s house, his former home, as he entered. It felt strange to be knocking on the door that he used to simply open, but he hadn’t been back to the Double C since the day Aggie had told him to leave. “Addison?!”
Aggie came rushing in from the kitchen. “Scott!” Her face was alight in pleasure.
“Where’s Addison?” Scott had no time for pleasantries. He was bone weary, dusty, sore, and hungry. But everything could wait until after he confronted Addison.
Aggie’s face fell. “Up at the mine, I think.”
Scott turned and left without a word.
“Scott!” Aggie followed him out the door. “What’s this all about?”
“There’s no time to explain,” he said as he mounted and rode off, leaving a bewildered Aggie Addison behind him.
He didn’t see Addison when he rode into the mining camp. There were many men, mostly all Chinese, milling about. It looked like everyone was taking a lunch break. Scott slid off his horse and asked about Addison’s whereabouts. A couple of them pointed into the mine. Scott nodded his thanks. He stopped at the entrance, found one of the lanterns with plenty of oil, lit it, and made his way into the mine.
He didn’t like dark places. They reminded him too much of Libby and solitary confinement. He hoped Addison wasn’t too deep into the mine. When Henry had first shown him the abandoned mine, he’d been eleven, and it had seemed like a grand adventure to explore inside. Many of the tunnels had been blocked off, so it was hard to get lost inside. Now Addison had apparently opened many of the side tunnels. Scott was becoming disoriented. Luckily, the man he sought was in the main shaft but farther down than Scott would have liked. “Addison,” Scott hollered.
If the man was surprised at Scott’s appearance, he didn’t show it. “What are you doing here, Lancer? I thought I told you that you weren’t welcome on my land.”
For a moment Scott wondered whether Aggie had ignored his advice and had signed her property over to her husband. But there were greater concerns. He took the injunction out of his coat pocket and waved it in front of Addison’s face. “I have a court order requiring you to take down the dam on Semple’s property.”
“You mean my property, Lancer,” Addison sneered, trying to snatch the paper from Scott’s hand.
Scott drew it away. “Not so fast.” He was fairly certain Addison would tear it up if he got his hands on it. “You and I are going to ride to the sheriff’s office and make sure this is all done nice and legal. Now.”
Addison laughed. “I’ll just appeal the decision.”
“I thought of that,” Scott sneered back. “This says that the dam comes down regardless of any appeals you may file. If we lose, you can put it back up.”
Addison’s smirk fled his face. “I’m not going anywhere with you. Now get off my property before I have you shot for trespassing.”
Scott wasn’t fazed by the idle threat. Aggie would divorce him in a heartbeat if he hurt him. Probably. Most likely. He put the paper safely back in his jacket. “Fine! The sheriff will be out to see you early tomorrow!”
Scott hadn’t gotten the entire last word out of his mouth when he heard an ominous rumble. Addison seemed to know what it was immediately. He pushed Scott down and ran past him toward the mine entrance. Scott got to his feet as quickly as possible. Earthquake! It was a big one. Scott followed Addison up the tunnel as best as he could with the dirt floor moving beneath his feet. He’d almost reached him when the wood supporting the shaft began to splinter and fall. A beam caught him on the shoulder and head, and that was the last thing he felt.
Scott regained consciousness slowly. It was pitch black. Was he blind? The air was full of dust, making him cough harshly. Where was he? Oh, yes. The mine shaft. The earthquake. The cave-in. He tried to move. He was hunched over in a seated position. When he tried to sit up, he was stopped by what felt like a beam across his back. His left forearm was pinned beneath some rock. His sleeve and part of his forearm were held fast by the rocks and his arm throbbed painfully. Perhaps it was broken.
Addison! The bastard had tried to push him farther into the mine as the quake hit. Scott didn’t think he could have gotten too far ahead of him before the mine fell in on itself. “Addison?” Scott called, although his voice came out as a croak. He tried again. “Addison?” There was no answer. Did anyone know they were in here? He recalled some men working outside the mine. Would they try to dig him out or think him a lost cause? His family didn’t know he was even back from Sacramento, much less in the Conway mine. A wave of despair swept over him. This was worse than solitary in Libby prison. His head began to pound dreadfully. He closed his eyes and drifted off.
Scott was drawn out of his sleep by a desperate voice.
“Water,” it said again pleadingly.
“Are you all right? I’m sorry, there’s no water.”
Now that he was repeating the word, Addison was making Scott thirsty. He willed himself away from that thought, that sensation. He’d done it many times in Libby. Yes, he knew how to survive without food and clean water longer than most men. “Can you help me? My arm is pinned and I can’t get it loose.” There was no answer, just harsh breathing. “Addison?”
Finally, Addison wheezed, “Dying.”
The man was to his right, Scott determined. He reached out with his right hand as far as it would go. It struck something cold, metallic. The lantern! It took him long minutes of stretching as far as he could to finally get a fingerhold on it. Carefully, he reeled it in until it was by his side. Now to find a match. Although he always carried matches with him, they could move from pocket to pocket daily. He prayed that they were in his right pants pocket today.
What luck! The sense of relief when his fingers wrapped around the small tin was palpable. Maneuvering the lantern around in the dark was difficult, but he’d lit so many in his life that it was second nature to him. The lit match found its target and the space filled with light. Scott moved the lantern so he could see Addison.
The man lay about five feet from him, and Scott fought to keep from throwing up. Addison lay crushed beneath the rock. The only visible part of him was his head and the right side of his chest down to his waist. His right arm was flung out toward Scott, but pinned as he was, Scott wasn’t able to grasp it. Addison was a dying man. In fact, Scott was surprised he hadn’t already passed.
Addison looked at him through dull eyes. “Water,” he repeated.
Scott looked at the man he’d come to hate. He was the only one who knew the answer to his question, the question he was desperate to have answered. He made a horrible decision, but Addison was going to die. Johnny had his whole life ahead of him. “I’ll give you water if you tell me who put the bounty out on Johnny.”
Addison frowned. “Johnny?”
“Yes, my brother. Who offered the reward money for killing Johnny? Was it Crocker?” Scott demanded.
Addison’s head lolled, and Scott feared the man was too close to death to tell what he knew. But then Addison said, “No. Back East. An investor.”
“Which one? Who wanted Johnny dead?” Please, dear God, let him know, Scott prayed.
“Go to hell, Lancer.” Even gasping for breath, Addison’s hate for him came through clearly.
“I’ll be following you. Neither one of us is getting out of here alive. You know that, Addison. There’s no point in not telling me.” Scott waited a moment. When Addison remained quiet, he added, “Do you want the water or not?”
“Give me the water and I’ll tell you,” Addison wheezed.
So he knew the answer! Scott laughed mirthlessly. “Not on your life!”
There was another lengthy silence. Addison’s eyes were closed, and Scott feared the man had already died on him. There was a tortured whisper. “Garrett. Aitch Garrett.”
Scott could hardly breathe. No, it couldn’t be! “Harlan? Harlan Garrett?”
“Just H,” he breathed out.
Scott extinguished the light. It was taking much needed oxygen from their small space. Plus, he didn’t want to see the look of betrayal on Addison’s face when no water appeared. Scott waited for the accusation. It never came.
He sat in the dark cursing his impotency and raging against his grandfather. He would die here along with Addison and no one would ever know of Harlan’s treachery. And just as bad, no one would find the court order restoring the river to Lancer pastureland. They could always get another court order, but meanwhile more cattle would die of thirst. And would Addison’s and his death stop the bounty out for Johnny? Only stopping his grandfather would do that, Scott feared, and who would know to stop him?
Again, Scott tried desperately to free his arm with no success. In the end, he realized it didn’t matter anyway. He wouldn’t be able to remove the wall of rock that blocked the entrance to the mine and fresh air. The air was already turning stale. He would fall asleep and eventually die of air poisoning. There were worse ways to go. But he wouldn’t be able to save the ranch or Johnny. That pain gnawed at him relentlessly. He was so close. The mystery had been solved, but there would be no victory. He fought to stay awake, to try to hear the sound of a pickax on the stone, but the air was too heavy. His eyes slowly closed and he drifted off to his fate.
~ TBC ~
*Charles Crocker was one of California’s Big Four railroad tycoons (also known as Robber Barons). The other three were Collis Huntington (of the famous Huntington Library in San Marino, established by his nephew and widow after his death), Leland Stanford (who established a university in Palo Alto named after his son), and Mark Hopkins.
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14 thoughts on “Another Rival by RonD”
Wow. Just wow. More, please!
Great continuation of this series. Love the way this has developed,with new twists thrown in. Usually do not enjoy “Scott stories” so much but this series has me hooked because it is so different from canon.
Thanks for the enjoyment and eagerly anticipating the next one!
Please don’t let this hang too long. Just as things were at the boiling point!!
Great story full of action and intrigues.
And that’s a cliffhanger.
Thank you for sharing.
Love it. Love all the twist and turn. Thank you for writing it.
Desperate to read the next chapter, it’s a great story.
Can’t wait to read the next story! Well done.
Amazing story. Thank you. Please hurry with the next installment.
What a great series. I was completely hooked and couldn’t stop reading. Anticipation building for the next instalment!
Thank you all for your enthusiasm. I am working hard on the next chapter! I will complete the series, I promise.
Your series is great! I’ve enjoyed every part of it except, the cliffhanger endings.
You’re quite a good storyteller. More soon, please.
I’m.looking forward to the next installment. I don’t always enjoy stories that change the back stories of the family but this one has just enough mention of things that happen in the series and is so well written that it is very enjoyable .
I love all the twists and turns and seeing a different—yet very compelling—side of Scott. Fabulous brother moments, interesting tension with Murdoch. Very much looking forward to the next installment.
Great series……love all the twists and turns, really looking forward to the next one.