Word count: 56,520
She fell in love the second she saw him.
He was the most handsome man she had ever seen—kind, blue eyes and hesitant, bewitching smile. He was tall, although not as tall as Murdoch, but then who was? And when he spoke, it was like warm molasses pouring all over her and dripping down her sides.
“Pleased to meet you,” he had said and brought her hand up to his lips to bestow a light kiss on her fingers. She felt her knees weaken. He smiled a half-smile. And she was sure her face looked adoringly back at him.
She wanted this man more than she ever wanted anything or anyone in her whole life.
Too bad she was already engaged to his father.
“Can anyone take me into town today? Connie wants me to help her with her wedding dress,” Teresa said.
Murdoch considered. “Scott, maybe you should take her. You haven’t had a chance to meet Connie, since you were in Boston.”
“Yes, it seems a lot happened here while I was gone.”
“Hope that teaches ya not to go away again,” Johnny teased. “You never know what changes will be made while you’re gone. Maybe next time, you’ll lose your third of the ranch.”
Scott wanted to stick out his tongue at his younger brother, but, of course, he was far too mature to stoop to that sort of gesture. Instead, he scrunched up his face at him.
Johnny just laughed. “I’d rather be wranglin’ cows than puttin’ up with women makin’ weddin’ plans. I feel for you, brother.”
Truth be told, Scott was rather curious about the woman who had stolen Murdoch’s fancy while he was away. Apparently, his father had met her the day he saw Scott off to Boston, and now, after only a little over a month, they were engaged. All Johnny would say was that she seemed “nice enough” and was “kinda young.” That had set his imagination into a gallop. “I’ll be happy to take you, Teresa,” he told her. “Maybe Sam will be in and we can play some checkers while you’re helping Mrs. Turner.”
“There’ll be no time for games,” Murdoch said. “I need you go to the bank, the lawyer, the feed store…”
Scott sighed. So much for his pleasant, relaxing day.
“But we’ll have lunch in town with Connie, can’t we, Murdoch?”
Teresa’s excitement was infectious. “Of course, darling.”
Teresa sat back contentedly. “This is going to be such a wonderful day!”
Johnny sent Scott a “you’re a sucker” smirk, and Scott was immature enough to roll his eyes.
It was a little after mid-morning when they arrived in Green River with Teresa chatting non-stop at his side. She was enamored with Murdoch’s whirlwind love affair and seemed quite taken with Mrs. Turner, who was a widow from Virginia. Scott had winced at that. His memories of his stay in Virginia haunted him still. But, of course, he wouldn’t let his imprisonment at Libby color his interactions with Mrs. Turner. It was another matter if she was a staunch defender of the Stars and Bars.
Scott stopped in front of the seamstress’ shop and helped Teresa down.
“You’re coming in with me, aren’t you?” she pouted.
“Not with the number of tasks I have to complete.” He took the sheet of paper from his pocket and unfolded it so she could see the length of the list. “I’ll meet you here for lunch. You’ll still be here, won’t you?”
“Of course, we will, silly!” Teresa giggled, “but if you come a little early, we won’t mind.” She stood on tiptoes and gave him a peck on his cheek.
Scott smiled and drove the wagon toward the feed store.
Just before noon, Scott returned to the dressmaker’s shop. He spied Teresa near the back of the store. The woman near her had to be Constance Turner.
“Oh, there you are! Finally!” Teresa said as he made his way back to the ladies. “Scott, I finally get to introduce you to Mrs. Turner, Constance Turner.”
Light brown hair and lovely hazel eyes turned his way. Half a head taller than Teresa, she was neither slender nor heavy—statuesque came to Scott’s mind. Her smile was warm and genuine. He could see why Murdoch was smitten with her. And she had an impossible-to-miss ample bosom. She held out her hand and he took it up to his lips. “Pleased to meet you.”
The woman let out something akin to a giggle. “Oh, my! Such manners!” she exclaimed in that slightly Southern drawl that wasn’t as pronounced as the more southern states but still affected Scott on some visceral level. A Virginia accent. He hoped Mrs. Turner’s accent wouldn’t be a constant reminder of his year in prison. That might be unendurable.
“Can you take us to lunch, please?” Teresa begged. “We’re starving.”
“As you command,” he chided her and cocked his arm so that Mrs. Turner could take it. Teresa pouted, but once outside the narrow shop, he proffered his other arm to her. “I am the envy of every man in Green River, with two such lovely ladies on my arms.” The women beamed.
Lunch was a pleasant enough affair. Mrs. Turner, who instructed him to call her Connie, was very interested in his visit to Boston. His favorite cousin, Daniel, had invited him to his wedding, and, of course, the women wanted to hear every detail, so they could get inspired from the high society affair. They were very disappointed that he hadn’t noticed every detail of sashes and buttons. He reminded them that he was unaware that his father was engaged at the time. Of course, he had stayed with his grandfather while he was there. There had also been friends, relatives, parties, dances, and the theater and such to occupy his time. His social life had never been so full. Grandfather had complained about never seeing him. Mrs. Turner hung on his every word. His efforts to inquire about her time in Virginia were brushed aside in favor of his “more interesting” life. He discreetly omitted his time in Virginia, but Teresa brought it up.
“Scott’s been to Virginia,” she blurted out.
“Oh? And how did you find my fair state?” Connie asked.
Did she just bat her eyes at him? “I’m not sure any state is fair during times of war, ma’am.” Scott glared at Teresa. She seemed to recognize her blunder and sent him a look of contrition.
“Oh, dear. ‘Ma’am.’ I don’t want you to think that I qualify as a ‘ma’am.’ It makes me feel old. Teresa, wouldn’t you be offended at being called ‘ma’am’? I much prefer ‘miss,’ don’t you?”
Teresa nodded. “I like ‘miss’ better, too.”
Etiquette forbade Scott from contradicting the lady, even though, as a widow, she could hardly be classified as a “miss” anymore. Teresa was just emerging from girlhood and was clearly a “miss.” However, the senseless prattle had the desirous effect of changing the subject off his experiences in Virginia. He steered the conversation in the direction of the wedding preparations, which occupied the women for the rest of the lunch.
Johnny was right: Mrs. Turner was “kinda young” for Murdoch, in age as well as temperament. Maybe that was what was appealing about her to his father. A woman like that would make Murdoch feel young again, too. Scott judged Mrs. Turner to be in her mid-to-late thirties, somewhere in between his and his father’s ages. Murdoch wasn’t robbing the cradle, but she still seemed a bit too young for him. Maybe it was her manner that was throwing him off. She seemed to be quite the coy coquette. She wasn’t a classic beauty, but she had a way about her that was appealing. He pushed his concerns aside. If she made Murdoch happy, that was all that mattered.
He escorted the women back to the seamstress’ shop. Teresa told him to pick her up at the general store when he was ready to go back to the ranch. Mrs. Turner would be having Sunday dinner with them after services.
He bowed slightly to Mrs. Turner. “I look forward to Sunday, then.”
“Oh, I do, too, Scott,” she enthused. “I do, too.”
Scott walked to the lumber yard with a slight frown on his face. He couldn’t wait to return to Lancer and have a serious discussion with Johnny about one Mrs. Turner. He could have used a bit more description before meeting her.
Back in the dress shop, Connie couldn’t wait to engage Teresa in a conversation about Scott. “Scott and Johnny seem as different as night and day,” Connie commented.
Teresa laughed. “Everyone says that at first because they do look so different. I guess I’ve been around them so long, I don’t see it anymore. They certainly act like brothers.”
“Do they? I haven’t encountered manners like Scott’s since I left Virginia. Johnny seems to lack them.”
“I know. Johnny’s trying to break him of that now that he’s out West.”
“Oh, no! That would be terrible, wouldn’t it, Millie?”
The seamstress nodded. “Too bad the rest of the men aren’t taking lessons. It’d be a whole lot nicer here if they all had Scott Lancer’s manners.”
“I think Johnny is winning that war, Millie,” Teresa said.
“They must fight an awful lot being so different,” Connie mused.
“No, they don’t. Hardly at all. You’d think they’d grown up together rather than have known each other for just over two years.”
That comment pricked up Connie’s ears. “They didn’t grow up together?” Then she settled in while Teresa told her the whole sad story. She could understand why Murdoch had never brought it up.
Scott was in the barn soaping his saddle when Johnny rode in. His brother started his usual doting routine on his palomino. If reincarnation was true, Scott wanted to be reborn as Barranca.
“How’s the herd?” Scott asked when Johnny was mostly through his pampering ritual and ready to focus on something other than his horse.
“Pretty good. Not too many strays today. A real pretty day to just enjoy the ride.”
Scott knew that was directed at him, stuck in town with two wedding-crazed females. “My day was also very pleasant.” He knew that would pique Johnny’s curiosity.
Johnny started to untangle Barranca’s mane. Scott started wiping off his saddle. It would come if he was patient.
“So what’d you think of ‘er?”
And there it was.
“Nice enough and kinda young.”
Johnny grinned and finally gave Scott his full attention. “Now, I wasn’t gonna spoil your big surprise.”
“They’re quite a pair, ain’t they, brother?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Scott said with a straight face.
“Then you are blind, brother!” Johnny laughed. “Ain’t too hard to figure out why the Old Man’s taken with ‘er with them things juttin’ out at ‘im. Jesus, Scott, he’s been whistlin’ and prancin’ all over the place. Kickin’ up his heels like a newborn colt. Now’s the time to raise some Cain; it’s impossible to get ‘im mad.”
“No doubt you’ve tried.”
“Hell, yes! You can’t waste these kinds of opportunities!”
“I’m afraid to ask what you did.”
“A few things. Bought that sweet little mare from Aggie. Got her in the south pasture for now.”
“You didn’t!” Murdoch had been nixing that move for three months. “Aggie Conway let that horse go? She must have not been feeling well.”
Johnny continued grinning. “Talked her down a few dollars, too.”
Scott crossed over to Barranca’s stall and shook his brother’s hand. “Congratulations. I wonder what Murdoch will do when he hears this!”
“Aw, Scott, he knows already. Bought ‘er a couple of weeks ago. You can’t be gone that long and think everythin’s gonna be the same when you get back. Life goes on at Lancer.”
“I’m learning that lesson at every turn, it appears. And Murdoch’s reaction when he found out about your purchase?”
“Said it was a smart buy and that I shoulda done it sooner.”
“You can’t be talking about our father!”
“I’m tellin’ ya, now’s the time to ask ‘im for somethin’. He can’t say ‘no.’”
Scott let his smile fade as he changed the subject. “Seriously, Johnny, how did Mrs. Turner strike you when you first met her?”
“I told ya! She was real nice. Seemed real eager to please. Treated the Old Man like he was a little kid that had to be fussed over. Called ‘im ‘Darling’ all the time. I tell you, Murdoch was about to bust his buttons havin’ ‘er fussin’ all over ‘im, always makin’ sure he was happy.”
Constance Turner had fussed all over him at lunch as well. Maybe she was just that kind of woman—always going out of her way to fret over a man. All her attentions had made Scott uncomfortable, but it appeared his father was charmed by them. Don’t judge too quickly, he told himself.
Sunday dinner had been almost unbearable for Scott. He had driven the carriage home after church. They had picked up Connie after services and she and Murdoch had sat in the back, cooing like a couple of lovesick teenagers. It was very disconcerting. As they sat down at the table, Scott discovered that while he’d been gone, his spot at Murdoch’s left hand had been usurped by Mrs. Turner. Now he was seated directly across from Johnny, who had smirked at him for his momentary confusion about the seating arrangement. His brother never missed anything. If they all were conspiring to ensure he’d never go back to Boston again, they were doing a damned good job of it.
It seemed to Scott that Mrs. Turner’s southern accent was more pronounced at dinner than it had been during lunch. It was as if she thought Murdoch would be more taken with her if she acted more Southern. Teresa remarked that Southern ladies were reported to be most gracious and charming. Scott’s experience with them had been otherwise, but then they’d been on the losing side of the War. He had politely asked about her past. She’d revealed she’d grown up on a horse farm a few miles from Richmond and that disclosure had raised more painful memories of Libby for Scott. Murdoch mercifully had changed the subject, and Scott sent him a grateful nod.
Then the woman started telling his father all about his visit to Boston. That had irritated him on two levels. One, did she not think that he had already told his family of his visit? Two, he hadn’t told his family of his visit. Murdoch didn’t want to hear about his grandfather and relations. They were the ones who wanted to thwart his marriage to Scott’s mother. Johnny had no interest in anything back East. Only Teresa had a genuine interest in his life back there, and he had already told her what he was willing to tell. Scott felt his face flush in embarrassment and Johnny smirked at him again!
But the biggest irritation was that she kept touching him on the arm. It was the kind of touch one would give to an old and trusted friend—intimate. He barely knew the woman. It had been surprising and…invasive.
After dinner, Mrs. Turner insisted on helping Teresa clean up, which allowed Scott to pour a well-earned brandy and escape to the veranda, away from Murdoch’s lovesick and Johnny’s smirking faces. He was fervently hoping Murdoch would never ask him what he thought about his fiancé.
Johnny didn’t let him brood too long. And, again, he was spot on about what Scott was brooding about.
“She’s somethin’, ain’t she?”
“Something…” Scott murmured.
“You upset she stole your spot at the table?”
“What? No. I guess if she’s going to be our stepmother, there’ll be some changes around here. I can abide with that that one.”
“Any you can’t abide with?”
“I don’t know. It’s just going to be so strange. Am I supposed to treat her like a mother? I don’t even know how to do that, never having had one. She’s too young to feel like a mother to me. Am I supposed to allow her to mother me? I’m a grown man, for God’s sake!” He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know how to act around her.”
“Just act normal. She’s just another female in the house. Just tune ‘er out, like ya do Teresa.”
Scott looked affronted. “I don’t tune Teresa out.”
Johnny shot him a “you don’t? You’re crazy if you don’t” look.
“I don’t know how to act normal anymore. Should I allow her to keep touching me like she did at dinner?”
“Not if it makes you feel uncomfortable.”
“Very uncomfortable. But Murdoch looks so happy. I’ll just keep it to myself for now. Why wasn’t she touching Murdoch? He’s the one she’s engaged to.”
“Pro’bly because she’s right-handed.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“She was holding her fork with her right hand. Maybe you think she shoulda stabbed him a few times. Woulda made you feel better.”
Scott scowled at him. Clearly, Johnny thought he was making too much out of the situation. He probably was. Still, there was something unsettling about this woman. If Johnny’s handedness explanation was correct, maybe he could ask Teresa to change places with her. Then the woman could touch Murdoch all she wanted.
Johnny laughed softly and touched Scott’s forearm. “Whatever happens, she’s got no sway over you and me, brother. We’re good, right?” Johnny held up his glass.
Scott knew the touch on his arm was a provocative move, but his brother was a trusted friend as well as a brother. The touch brought comfort rather than the expected irritation. Scott clinked Johnny’s glass with his own. “Right.”
As if on cue, Murdoch called from the door. “Boys, if you don’t mind.”
When they reentered the great room, the women were on the couch, Teresa grinning from ear to ear.
“Scott, Connie and I have something to ask you. Darling?”
“Scott, I want to ask you if you’d be willing to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day.”
Scott was stunned. He expected to be Murdoch’s best man, but that honor had apparently gone to Johnny. Another pitfall of his visit to Boston. Why were they having an old-fashioned wedding anyway? They’d both been married before. Why not just get Mayor Higgs to marry them off?
“I think it’s a wonderful idea!” Teresa beamed.
Scott’s hesitation in answering her question made Connie start to fidget. Why didn’t he say “yes” right away? She needed to suggest something that would sway him her way.
“Scott?” Murdoch prompted.
“You could walk me down the aisle and then stand with your father. I’m sensing he’s going to need all the help he can get to make it through the ceremony. He might be too much for Johnny to handle alone,” Connie teased. That seemed to do it. Scott blushed a delightful shade of pink and told her he’d be honored.
“Oh, thank you, Scott!” She rose from the couch and gave him a kiss on the cheek, her hand on his arm again. “Now my wedding will be perfect,” she chirped.
The week leading up to the wedding was difficult for Scott. Murdoch had invited Connie to stay at the hacienda rather than coming in from town every day to help oversee the preparations. Teresa’s and Connie’s fussing became more and more detail oriented and trivial. They fussed about flower placement and color, seating arrangements, food, and decorations. It seemed to Johnny and him that Murdoch had invited the entire valley, so accommodations for guests had to be determined and arranged. Murdoch lined up some teenaged girls to help with serving the food, so Maria could enjoy the ceremony and fiesta. No one could dissuade Maria from doing most of the cooking, not for El Patrόn’s wedding. The serving girls had been Johnny’s idea, and once made, he declared it to be his sole suggestion and declined to have anything else to do with the wedding plans. Sometimes Scott was so envious of his brother’s cleverness.
Scott was not as fortunate. He was always being dragged into the middle of the women’s planning. Teresa said it was because of his high society upbringing and innate taste, but he was afraid it was something more. Connie always had some question that would detain him for a few minutes. It was getting to be that he couldn’t walk through the great room without being called over. She seemed extra perky when he was around and pouty when he was walking away. He started taking the back staircase and exiting through the kitchen. Johnny was terribly amused by Scott’s discomfort and had told him to get over himself: Constance Turner’s world did not revolve around Scott Lancer.
Scott Lancer was becoming Connie’s whole world. It just was a better, happier world when he was in the same room talking with her. True, it didn’t happen as much as she would like, but that would all change once she became Mrs. Murdoch Lancer. Once she was firmly ensconced in the hacienda, Scott couldn’t avoid her like he seemed to be doing now. She told herself it was just the wedding preparations he was avoiding; everything would settle down after the wedding was over. Then she could gaze upon her embodiment of male perfection every day. It would be heaven!
Connie continued looking at herself in the mirror as she waited for the knock on the door. The rest of the women helping her had left to find their seats out on the front lawn where the wedding was being held. They couldn’t have done a better job in getting her ready for her walk down the aisle. If only that aisle were a mile long! Then she could be on Scott’s arm for a long time, just walking close to his side, breathing in his scent. Her hair was swept up off her shoulders and loosely pinned on top of her head. Wispy tendrils were already escaping the pins, which she thought gave her a very soft appearance. She was wearing white, let the gossips be damned, and Millie had fitted the dress perfectly to her form, which was no small feat. She was wearing the lace sling Millie had made, too. They didn’t know what else to call it. It was a length of cloth that went around her neck and was gathered at each end. She placed each breast into a gathering, and her neck kept her breasts propped up. And they didn’t jiggle as much, but she would have to remember to stand up straight. There was a considerable weight around her neck. With her bosom raised, she thought she looked ten years younger—the perfect age for Scott. Surely, his breath would be stolen away when he saw her.
The light rap on the door finally came.
“Come in,” she said, pretending she was just putting a few of the errant tendrils back under a pin. With her hands above her head, her breasts would be raised even more.
He opened the door and stepped in, pausing as he saw her.
“My God, you’re beautiful!” he exclaimed.
“Do you like it?” she asked, making a little twirl, so the skirt would swish just so.
In two long strides he was next to her, taking her into his arms. She looked up into his handsome face, his beautiful blue-gray eyes, and he bent down to kiss her passionately. When the kiss ended, they were both panting for air.
He crushed her to his chest. “My God, I can’t…I can’t let you marry him, not when I love you so!”
She clung to him, tears springing to her eyes. “I didn’t know you felt the same. I love you with all my heart. You’re the one I want to marry, Scott. Take me away from here and marry me!”
“I will, darling, I will! We’ll never be apart from this moment on.”
He opened the door and stepped in, pausing when he saw her.
“Are you ready? It’s time.”
She looked at his polite face. There was no passion there.
“Do I look all right?” she prodded, giving that little twirl that made her skirt swish just so.
“Very pretty, ma’am.”
Damn! There was that “ma’am” again! She wasn’t going to get anywhere with him if he didn’t start seeing her as a sensual, sexual woman. It was clear her fantasy wasn’t going to come true today. She plastered on her sweetest smile and took his proffered arm with a “thank you, kind sir.” At least for the next few minutes she could imagine herself walking down the aisle on the arm of her handsome groom.
Eulalia Hargis bent down to pick up a plate left on the patio stones, clucking to herself. Who had such poor manners as to leave dishware on the ground? Suddenly, there was a hand at her elbow helping her rise. She didn’t even have to look to know who it was: Scott Lancer, the ever-polite elder son of the groom. Johnny was driving the newly-weds into town. They would spend the night there and catch the morning stagecoach on the way to San Francisco.
“Please. You don’t have to help clean up. You’re a guest,” he chided gently.
“Nonsense!” she scolded back. “Most of those serving girls have left. Bessie and I will help pick up at least. We’ll leave it to you to clean everything.”
He smiled that beautiful smile. “Then at least let me escort you and Bessie back to town.”
“Bessie and me have been driving that buggy back and forth between here and town long before you came into the picture, Scott Lancer. You just sit back and relax. It must have been a long day for you, having to dance for both you and your brother.”
He laughed. “Johnny is averse to dancing, I’m afraid.”
“But you dance beautifully, and I thank you for it.” The boy had coaxed her onto the dance floor partway through that slow folk tune that she and her Benjamin danced to at their wedding. They never did find out the name of it. Scott Lancer wouldn’t have known that the song was so sentimental to her, but it had felt so wonderful dancing to it again. Ben’s dancing was almost comical and many times painful to her toes, so to be swept beautifully around the dance floor in Scott’s confident arms and sure steps had brought her to tears. She had kept her face averted as she thanked him for the dance. She hoped he didn’t see her wipe her eyes as he escorted her back to the edge of the dance floor. He’d bowed courteously as he left her, and she had headed to the veranda to take a handkerchief to her face. How could she have believed any of the lies that Zee girl had spread about him? He was the consummate gentleman. She was glad it was she who had gathered the townspeople together to save him from that Mangrum scoundrel. It was honorable that Scott would stand up for his principles, but he couldn’t stand up for them if he were dead. She hoped she had redeemed herself in his eyes, if only a little bit.
“It was my pleasure, I assure you. I hope I didn’t cause you any distress, ma’am.”
He had seen her tears! “No, Scott, no, you did not. They were tears of happiness. You gave this old woman some joy today.” She squeezed his forearm, afraid she would tear up again if she said any more. Should she tell him? Should she tell him of her fears?
That woman, his new stepmother—she was a piece of work. That first day she was in town, Eulalia had come out of her shop at the commotion outside, and there she was: Constance Turner. Some men had been teasing her, presumably about the size of her chest. Eulalia was just about to chase them off with her broom when Murdoch Lancer came storming over to her rescue. And no one in his right mind would take on an angry Murdoch Lancer. The men had quickly backed off with apologies. And that’s when the performance began. At least it seemed that way to Eulalia. Women know about womanly wiles and how to use them. How to recognize them in other women, too. Men never could see it for some reason. They fell for them every time. Constance took one look at Murdoch and the seduction started.
The woman had come into the shop not long after clearly fishing for information about him. Was he unmarried? She’d heard he was rich, was that so? Did he really own the largest ranch around? Eulalia would have none of it. She told that woman right off she was no gossip, tried to get some information of her own from her, which the woman didn’t spare, and ran off to tell Bessie Sue all about it. Bessie agreed the woman was trouble.
And now she was married to poor Murdoch. It would be interesting to see how this drama played out. She was only sorry Johnny and Scott were tied up in it. They had turned out to be fine, upstanding young men. Maybe she’d be proved wrong. Maybe they would have a happy life together, but she’d bet against it. Not after seeing what she saw on that dance floor. It had been downright scandalous!
Of course, the Lancer sons would be expected to dance with their new stepmother after the bride and groom had shared their first dance. When Scott walked over to take his turn, the hussy had practically flung herself at him. Scandalous! There was no distance between them. Scott stepped back, trying to gain a proper distance, but she stepped forward, touching him again. Of course, touching him had been easy with her bosom jutting out to kingdom come. They had waltzed that way, with her crushing herself against him, and Eulalia thought she could see him struggling mightily to maintain his composure in front of everybody. After the music ended, she had thrown her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. Red-faced, he escorted her over to Johnny.
Eulalia thought the young man was going to run away, but the former Johnny Madrid was no coward. Eulalia didn’t know why he was so shy about dancing. The boy had an easy grace on the dance floor, not as polished as his older brother, but smooth, nevertheless. The tune was livelier than Scott’s waltz, and Constance had maintained a proper distance. When the music was over, he bowed respectfully to his new stepmother. Eulalia saw the bride make a move to kiss him, too, but he was more adroit than Scott and avoided the contact. He had evidently learned from his brother’s turn. The entire scene had left her disturbed, but more worrisome, it had left her very concerned for Scott Lancer.
Should she tell him of her fears—that Constance Turner’s affections and actions toward his father weren’t genuine, that perhaps she had set her sights on a younger Lancer? She’d hold her tongue for now. But Scott Lancer was not going to escort her and Bessie Sue home. They wouldn’t be able to gossip about the wedding if he did.
The newly-weds didn’t stay in San Francisco long, despite being urged to continue their honeymoon by Scott and Johnny. They were back in a week’s time and Connie Lancer settled into the hacienda. Adaptations, exceptions, adjustments had to be made. Connie locked any door that could be locked in any room she was in. Murdoch tried to assure her that she was completely safe at the hacienda, but it was a habit, she explained. And she was going to keep doing it. She told Teresa that she should start doing it, too. One could never know when a ranch hand would try to have his way with her. Theresa had just looked at her stunned.
Connie also didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn and fix breakfast. They had indulged her late mornings while she had been a guest, but as the mistress of Lancer, they expected her to pitch in like everyone else. She had thought being the mistress of Lancer meant she’d manage the household staff, but apparently here things were quite different from Virginia. After much discussion, it was agreed that Maria and Teresa would make breakfast. Connie would make her own breakfast when she woke up and clean up the kitchen after she was finished eating. Connie and Teresa would make lunch, giving Maria a well-deserved midday break, and Maria and Connie would make dinner while Teresa would have her break. Teresa and Connie would clean up after dinner, allowing Maria to go home earlier. The faithful cook wasn’t getting any younger. After a shaky first few days, the situation settled down nicely. Teresa was thrilled to have the late afternoon to herself and come down to dinner with her “brothers” as if she were their real sister. Even Maria admitted having a siesta in the middle of the day was refreshing.
They also discovered that Connie had her “issues.” She didn’t seem that steady on her feet and seemed to lose her balance at times, especially when Scott was helping her down from the wagon or out of the buggy. The first time she leaned into him and grabbed him around the waist had surprised him. A touch of vertigo, she had said. She stayed that way for several seconds before she straightened up and assured him she was fine. She seemed more sure-footed with the other men. When Scott had mentioned the random nature of her vertigo attacks with Johnny, his younger brother had cheekily replied it was just because of her large bosom throwing her center of gravity off. Scott dropped the subject. Connie was also prone to terrible headaches. Murdoch had dragged her against her will to Sam Jenkins’ office, but after a complete examination, the doctor had informed him that migraines were real, awful, and no one knew what caused them. There was nothing medicine could do for them, either. The patient needed to wait them out, preferably in a quiet and dark room. Connie was a true victim of them during her first marriage, although not as much anymore, but she wasn’t above feigning one when she just couldn’t face working for the day. However, she knew she couldn’t play that card too often.
Connie thought she was making plenty of allowances herself. Most annoyingly, she had to endure that Hoskins fellow. He was insufferable, always giving her the eye, not in lust but in judgment. She might have to tell Murdoch that he was ogling her to get rid of him. That might do the trick. Jelly. What mother in her right mind would name a child that? She couldn’t even bring herself to say it out loud, it sounded so ridiculous. Instead, he was “that Hoskins man” to her. She tried to steer clear of him if possible, which was difficult when he ate dinner with them and then stayed for the evening. That was when she would hide behind her mending and watch and listen. Hoskins seemed mighty full of himself and for the life of her, she did not know why. He had no attributes to be proud of that she could see. She had asked Murdoch about him and he had said Johnny was fond of the man. Of course, it was Johnny. Scott was obviously a better judge of character. She noticed he gave Hoskins a wide berth as well, as did Hoskins of Scott. She would follow her dearest’s lead on that.
She’d also learned how to wear pants. Teresa seemed fond of them, and she had to admit they gave her more freedom of movement without the petticoats to get in her way. She hadn’t been able to borrow Teresa’s. Goodness, did that girl have the tiniest waist! Teresa had gone shopping with her and shown her what to buy. A bit of alteration and she had pants. Murdoch wasn’t too pleased with them and had asked her to wear them sparingly. She would try to please him. Truth be told, they weren’t as easy to use in the privy. She had to unbutton them and push them down her legs. How much easier it was to simply lift her skirts and let the slit in her pantaloons give way to her needs. But the pants were heaven in which to ride. Yes, she liked wearing pants.
One evening after finishing the dinner dishes with Teresa, Connie gave her husband a kiss on the cheek before settling on the couch beside Teresa. They were in their usual configuration: she and Teresa on the huge sofa, Murdoch behind his desk, Johnny and that horrid Hoskins man playing chess, and her beautiful Scott sitting in the farthest recess next to the lamp reading. Sometimes, when that Hoskins man didn’t join them for dinner (blessedly), Murdoch and Johnny would be at the checkers or chess board.
Teresa brought out her embroidery that Connie was helping her with, when Scott closed his book and bade everyone good night. They all absent-mindedly murmured it back to him and he went upstairs to his room. Connie had had enough. It was as if everyone ignored Scott. Scott! The most perfect man in the world! She let Teresa work on her French knots alone and said, “Why do y’all ignore Scott?”
Murdoch looked up from the newspaper. “What, darling?”
“Scott. No one ever pays any attention to him.”
“Yes, we do.” Teresa said defensively.
“No, you don’t,” Connie chastised. “He goes to bed early every night because not one of you shows any interest in him.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Johnny corrected her. “He may go upstairs, but he doesn’t go to bed.”
“What does he do up there? He can read down here just as well.”
“He doesn’t read, darling,” Murdoch placated her.
She would have none of it. “You never ask him to play chess with you. Not one of you, ever.”
Johnny groaned and Hoskins rolled his eyes.
“Don’t you want to play chess with him?”
“No!” Johnny said. “He wins every time.”
That was her Scott. Brilliant as he was beautiful. “Are you all such poor sports, shunning him because he wins?” she chided.
“It ain’t that, ma’am. It’s the way he wins,” Johnny explained.
“I don’t understand. He doesn’t strike me as a man who would gloat about winning.” She looked to her husband for confirmation. Instead, it was that Hoskins man who started talking.
“He’s gotta tell you why you lost,” the man said. He blew out a sigh.
“He thinks he’s being helpful, Jelly. He thinks he’s teaching you about the game.”
“That’s just it, Murdoch, it’s a game! Scott takes all the fun out of it,” Johnny complained. “He starts talking about all them moves…gambits…or whatever. He has all the squares numbered and memorized. ‘Queen to king’s bishop three.’ What the hell is that? I don’t wanna learn all that shit. Sorry, ma’am, Teresa. I wanna relax after dinner, not go into battle with Lieutenant Lancer.”
“Lieutenant Lancer?” Connie asked baffled.
“Scott was a Lieutenant in the War,” Murdoch told her. “I must admit Johnny’s right. Scott’s intensity while playing any game makes me tense, too.”
A military man! An officer! Scott Lancer just got more and more transcendent every day. She tucked that tidbit of information away for use at another time.
“Still, it must hurt his feelings to be ignored this way,” she persisted.
“Oh, we told ‘im why,” Johnny said turning back to the chessboard. “He knows and he agrees with us. He doesn’t want to play with anyone who, quote, doesn’t take the game seriously.” He grinned at Hoskins. “Checkmate in three moves, Jelly.”
Hoskins harrumphed in that way of his and said, “We’ll see, young’un.”
Connie turned to Teresa. “But what does he do upstairs if he doesn’t read or go to sleep?”
“He writes his letters,” Teresa said. “Surely, you’ve seen the number of letters he receives in the mail. Puts us all to shame. It looks like he knows everyone in Boston. Then there are the ones from Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco. To get that much mail, you have to write back to everyone.”
“Oh, thank you, dear.” She tried to concentrate on Teresa’s embroidery, but all she could think about was whether any of those letters were from women. And if they were, what kind of letters did Scott write back to them? Were any of them filled with romantic longing? Would some Boston hussy come all the way out to California to lure Scott away from her? She wouldn’t let that happen.
That night after locking the door, she slipped into bed beside Murdoch and brought the subject up again. “I still think y’all ignore Scott. He must feel awfully neglected.”
Murdoch was bewildered. “Scott doesn’t feel neglected,” he tried to assure her.
“Doesn’t he? Teresa and Maria dote on Johnny, not him. Teresa’s always making Johnny’s favorite desserts. What’s Scott’s? Does she even know? Johnny calls Maria ‘Mamacita’ and you allow it. She treats him like a son, as if she’s not an employee. Even that Hoskins fellow doesn’t pay Scott much mind.”
“Well, he and Scott didn’t start out on the best of terms, and Jelly helped Johnny recover from an injury, so naturally he feels more at ease with Johnny.”
“See what I mean? Even you don’t try with him as much as you do with Johnny.”
Murdoch chuckled indulgently at her. “I don’t have to ‘try’ with Scott. He’s a level-headed, responsible, and dependable man. It’s Johnny who’ll take off on an impulse. He needs more attention.”
“Well, there you go. You’ve just confirmed what I’ve been saying.”
He reached over and gave her a kiss while fondling her right breast. No man could ever resist touching her breasts if she let him. She let him play with her for several seconds and then said, “If the rest of you are going to ignore him, then I’m going to make it my job to pay attention to him.”
“Whatever you say, darling,” he murmured as he went to kiss her more passionately.
She let him, smiling. He would think the smile was a result of his foreplay. But she was smiling because she had just planted the seed that would allow her to focus more intently on Scott without causing Murdoch to become suspicious. She closed her eyes and imagined it was Scott’s hands and lips on her body as she let her husband have his way with her.
Scott wanted to object to Murdoch and Johnny going to Tulare to look at some livestock after the new year. He had asked to go along, but Murdoch said he was needed to run the ranch in their absence. He offered to take Murdoch’s place, but his father said he wanted this time alone with Johnny. His brother had run into some bigotry in Spanish Wells, and Murdoch believed some time away from the ranch and this area would do the boy good. What was the problem?
His wife was the problem. Connie Lancer had started doting on Scott for the past few months, and he found it very uncomfortable. He no longer told Johnny of his unease around her because Johnny would smirk and tell him he was glad it wasn’t him or it was all in his head. Johnny seemed amused at his annoyance with Connie. So he bore his discomfort alone and in silence. Without Murdoch and Johnny as buffers, he didn’t know whether he could stand it. And they would be gone almost two weeks!
The first week, Scott was able to avoid his stepmother under the pretense of work, but it was difficult. Winter was a notoriously slow time for the ranch. A number of hands had gone their own ways after the Fall drive and weren’t replaced because there wasn’t enough work to keep everyone busy. Scott knew that, and, unfortunately, so did Connie. The second week saw a heat wave hit the valley. Scott had experienced it before, but it still amazed him that there could be this hot spell in what in Boston was one of the coldest months of the year.
Now Connie was pestering him about taking her on a picnic. He was running out of excuses. He hoped Murdoch and Johnny would come home early. All he had wanted was another cup of coffee after completing his morning chores and there she was. Up earlier than usual. Sitting at the kitchen table listening to Connie pout about not having her picnic was giving him a headache and the day hadn’t even really started.
Teresa breezed in with some laundry under her arm. “It’s a beautiful day for a picnic, Scott.” Obviously, she had heard Connie’s whining.
He scowled. Teresa wasn’t helping. “I was going to check the fencing in the west pastures.”
“That can wait until tomorrow, surely,” Teresa said. “Connie hasn’t gotten out of the house much lately. I’ll help her make a lovely picnic basket, and you can go back to work after lunch.”
“Why don’t you join us, Teresa? You haven’t gotten out of the house much either,” Scott said, pleased with his quick thinking.
“I can’t. Jelly and I are going over to Aggie’s. We’ll be leaving soon.”
He nodded, resigned to a picnic in his near future.
Connie was absolutely delighted to be riding in the small buggy beside her handsome swain. The sumptuously packed picnic basket was perched on her knees. She was almost giddy in anticipation. She hadn’t worn her chemise or corset today. She was wearing only a blouse and that made her feel cooler and sexier on this warm day. She hadn’t worn her sling either, so her breasts were held in only by her thin blouse, her nipples prominently outlined. Every rut and root the buggy went over made her bosom wiggle and jiggle with only the small buttons on her blouse to contain it. The button between her breasts was particularly tenuous. One wrong, or perhaps right, move and it would pop open. She needed to wait for the right moment.
Scott found a spot by a small lake not too far from the hacienda. Connie would have preferred a more distant place, but at this point, she was going to accept wherever Scott seemed willing to take her. They spread the blanket on the grass under a tree and commenced with small talk while she unpacked the food.
“Do you miss Boston?” she asked him halfway through their meal.
The question made him pause. “Sometimes,” he acknowledged.
“I’ve never been to Boston, but my father had. He made it sound so beautiful,” she said wistfully.
“It can be. In the Spring and Fall especially. Even in winter, if there’s a sunny day after a snowfall. Then the snow on the trees sparkles.”
“It must be hard living here, then. There are no real seasons here, just the rainy period.”
“The summers are just as hot in Boston and you have to deal with the humidity, too. At least the heat is dry out here. What about you? Missing Virginia?”
“Some. It just gets so hot here.” She fanned herself with a limp napkin and unbuttoned the top two buttons of her blouse. Her cleavage should be on full display. The next button down was the one between her breasts, battling hard to remain closed. “Daddy saw a play in Boston and heard an ‘orchiddra’?” She purposefully mispronounced the word.
“Orchestra,” Scott corrected as she knew he would.
“I’d like to hear an orchestra,” Connie said, again wistfully. “And I’m never going to hear one here.”
“Didn’t San Francisco have one?”
Damn! She hadn’t thought of that! “Oh, I’m afraid I didn’t even think of that!” She giggled. “My attention was on other activities.”
Scott caught the batting of her eyelashes at him. He grinned at her salaciously. “And what activities diverted you?”
He was flirting with her! “It’s hard to say, I was on my back so much,” she smiled demurely and batted her eyes more earnestly. “I think there are some cookies for dessert.” She torqued her body just so as she leaned over the picnic basket. She took a deep breath and expanded her ribcage and the button between her breasts lost its battle. Now her right breast was almost bare, the edge of her blouse snagged on her nipple. She looked at him under her lashes and smiled encouragingly at him.
She could tell Scott had never seen such a sight as that perfectly shaped breast. Its size beckoned him to touch it. He looked shyly at her. Was it all right to touch?
Again, she smiled encouragingly at him, and he raised a tentative hand to sweep away the rest of her blouse and reveal his prize. “Yes,” she moaned as his hand cupped her full breast, his thumb rubbing against her nipple.
He moved closer to her and kissed her as he continued to fondle her breast. She quickly unbuttoned the last three buttons of her blouse and exposed her entire bosom to him. No man could resist her breasts. They were magnificent. They would get kissed and suckled, with sex inevitably following.
He moaned then and pushed her down on the blanket, kissing her everywhere. Her passionate sighs and moans encouraged his every touch. Finally, he threw her skirt up to her waist and pushed her knees up and out.
They both groaned in ecstasy when he entered her, his lovemaking passionate but languid. She could tell he wanted it to last as long as she did. And when they had finally had enough of each other, they took a quick dip in the lake. She marveled at his perfect body—long and lean and tanned. Afterwards, he had taken her again out in the open on the blanket while they had both been completely naked. She didn’t care if anyone saw them. She’d divorce Murdoch and go away with Scott, perhaps back to his Boston. That would be wonderful. They’d make love endlessly in their private train coach, his thrusts in perfect rhythm with the swaying of the coach.
His stamina was amazing, and she wondered whether they could spend an entire day entwined in this way. It would be heaven to have him inside her always. He was the first and only man to treat her body reverentially. How she adored him! Perhaps on the way back in the buggy, she could return all his fondling and sucking in kind. All she had to do was unbutton his pants…such a wicked, wicked thought! She grinned.
“My attention was on other activities.”
Scott caught the batting of her eyelashes at him. He frowned at her crassness. This conversation was going down a path he didn’t want to travel. He looked away from her and concentrated on his sandwich.
Connie was hoping to fill his mind with images of her engaging in sex, but with the other member being his father, maybe that hadn’t been a wise move. Now he had closed himself off from her. She’d have to turn to another topic.
“I think Richmond had an orchestra. We couldn’t get away from the farm too often. It took us half a day just to get there, but it was worth it. Richmond was so beautiful…at least ‘til the Yankees burned it down.”
Scott took a deep, calming breath but said nothing. It wouldn’t accomplish anything to inform her that the citizens of Richmond had burned down their own city as they evacuated it so that nothing would be left for the Union army. He remembered hearing about the burning of Richmond after he had been transferred from Libby to Georgia—true justice for that hellhole that had been his torment for months. The capitol of the Confederacy immolating itself: nothing could be sweeter than that. He supposed it was too much to hope for that Connie would be against the Confederacy. Born and raised in Virginia, she had to be a Confederate sympathizer. But the War was over now some seven years or so. It was time to forget those hostilities. If only his nightmares would let him forget.
“Thank our God that they didn’t burn down the farm, although the horses were long gone. The army took every last one of them. But we had to do our best for General Lee, didn’t we?”
Scott took that as a rhetorical question. Surely, the woman wasn’t thinking he’d served under Lee or anyone else in the Confederacy. She knew he was from Boston.
Connie sighed. Scott still wasn’t responding to her, and they had started off so well. She looked around. Her eyes landed on the lake. “Scott, let’s go swimming! That will cool us off.” She fanned herself with the napkin again.
Scott’s eyes widened in horror. The last thing he would ever do is go swimming with this woman under any circumstance, much less with the ugly scars on his back. She’d want to know what they were, how he got them. He’d explain he got them in her beautiful Richmond and perhaps be wickedly tempted to tell her that he lit the first match that torched it. “If you’d like to go for a swim, ma’am, I’ll go for a walk.”
That “ma’am” again! She knew how to take care of that. “No, no. We probably don’t have the time for it anyway. Although I think there’s more cookies, and there’s always time for cookies!” She torqued he body just so as she leaned over the picnic basket. She took a deep breath, expanded her ribcage, and the button between her breasts popped open. Now her right breast was almost bare, her blouse snagged on her nipple. She looked at him under her lashes and smiled encouragingly at him.
Again, Scott’s eyes widened in horror. “Umm…ma’am…your blouse…” He pointed at her chest and then averted his eyes.
Shocked, she quickly turned away from him and buttoned up. She was genuinely shocked—shocked that he hadn’t tried to touch her breast hanging there as a gaping invitation to him. No man had ever resisted her breasts before. Never! She had badly miscalculated and underestimated this man. Now she would have to rescue this disastrous turn of events. She had to make him believe the undoing of her blouse had been a complete and utter surprise to her.
“Oh, dear! I don’t know how that happened! Oh, Scott, I’m so embarrassed!”
“Perhaps it’s time to go. I still have work to do today.”
“Yes, yes, of course!” She quickly began to stuff the picnic basket with the remains of their lunch. “Scott, I’m so sorry!”
I bet you are, Scott thought, appalled at his stepmother’s obvious and crude ploy. They rode the way home in silence except for a further admission of mortification from Connie and a plea for his discretion. He gave it knowing that some Saturday night when he got too drunk in the saloon with Johnny, he’d probably let it slip. Knowing his brother, Johnny wouldn’t pay one iota of attention to the impropriety but would want a full and detailed description of the body parts in question. One thing was certain: for his father’s sake, he was going to keep a sharp eye on his stepmother.
Connie was in a panic. She was humiliated! Her darling Scott hadn’t responded to her breasts like any other red-blooded male. Of course, he hadn’t! He wasn’t like any run-of-the-mill, red-blooded male. He was superior to all of them. He was too honorable a man to be seduced that quickly and artlessly. What was she thinking? She hadn’t laid the proper foundation for her seduction. It had been too soon, too rash. He needed to be slowly and carefully led astray. Now she was worse off than when she began this quest. She’d have to make amends. She’d have to severely curtail her attentions to him, almost avoid him totally, if she was going to convince him that her undoing, so to speak, was completely accidental. Not paying attention to Scott would be extremely difficult, but she would do it to reach her goal. Her dreams of him making passionate love to her would come true. This next time she would do things right.
Scott was surprised but pleased in the ensuing days. First, he found Teresa sitting on his side of the dinner table. Teresa said that Connie had requested the change. No more touches on his arm! Teresa kept her hands to herself. He noticed that Connie tapped Murdoch’s arm as much if not more than she had touched him. Maybe he had read too much into it. Second, he could now walk through the great room without her detaining him by asking pointless questions. Third, she no longer came into the barn to pester him while he was unsaddling Remmie. Like Johnny, he found tending to his horse at the end of the day to be a relaxing time of retrospection. Her incessant prattle destroyed that reverie and annoyed him. Then she had stopped giving him and Johnny disapproving looks and disparaging remarks when they went into town for a night of drinks, poker, and fun. Lastly, she had quit asking him to teach her chess. He had put her off and told her repeatedly that Murdoch could teach her just as well as he could. “But I want to learn from the best, and that’s you,” she had whined. Now it was amusing to watch Murdoch try to rein in his impatience with her. Even when she remembered how the pieces could be moved, there was no rhyme or reason to her play. Scott wondered if she simply wanted Murdoch to win easily so she could again tell him how smart he was. His father preened under the compliments. There was no doubt he was completely under his wife’s spell, but he seemed happy and content. In one wedding ceremony he had shed his gruffness and irascibility. Johnny had remarked about how relaxed and accommodating Murdoch was now.
The only drawback was the number of times they exchanged “darling”s had increased. It got so irksome, Johnny and he had called each other “darling” one day as they fixed a footbridge just to mock the couple. That had been a day when the work went by quickly amid their laughter. At dinner that night, Johnny had looked at him and said straight-faced, “Pass the salt, darling.” Scott was sure he hadn’t even noticed the slip. Scott’s hand paused over the shaker as his eyes scanned the table. Maybe no one noticed? Murdoch looked taken aback for a second and Scott was ready for the inevitable tongue lashing to ensue. Instead, his father started laughing, big belly-shaking laughter. The newly-weds cut back on their endearments afterwards and normalcy began to reign. As the days went by, Scott was becoming more persuaded that the incident at the lake might have been a genuine accident on her part. Nevertheless, it never hurt to be on one’s guard.
Scott looked over at Miguel and Tomás and tried to check his temper. It was nearly lunch time, and they hadn’t gotten as far with clearing the stream as they should have been. The two men, usually good, dependable hands, were working at a snail’s pace. They should have been done with the task by now and riding back to the ranch before the rain clouds that were threatening reached them.
Scott wrestled with a large branch, finally winning. He threw it to the side and sat down to rest. “Let’s stop for lunch.”
The men immediately stopped what they were doing and went to their saddlebags. Scott did likewise. They ate in silence, which was strange. Miguel was a talkative one but not today. After eating, they rested for a spell. Scott had adapted to the Mexican siesta since the first day he’d heard of it, although usually in a shorter form. It was good to let the noonday meal digest a bit before resuming work. He closed his eyes and was wondering how to motivate his workmates when the unmistakable sound of retching came from his right. Miguel was losing the lunch he just ingested.
“Miguel, are you all right?” Scott arose and went over to the man.
“No, Señor. I have felt bad all morning.”
Tomás started talking in Spanish too rapidly for Scott to follow. He looked at Miguel to translate.
“Tomás says he feels bad, too, Señor.”
Tomás had obviously said more than that, but Scott didn’t press. “Both of you get back to the bunkhouse and rest. I’ll finish up here.”
Miguel relayed Scott’s message to Tomás and they both bowed slightly and said, “Grácias, Señor.”
He watched them leave while returning to the blocked stream. If he were lucky, he could clear it by himself before the rain fell.
Scott slogged into the courtyard cold and miserable, leading the lame horse behind him. Rain fell steadily, turning the ground into a muddy mess. He was late for dinner, but he would be even later. The horse needed to be taken care of. Jelly was probably in the house dining with the rest of the family and would be of no immediate help. Everyone else had the sense to be out of the rain. Scott shivered and started drying off the horse. All he could think about was getting warm and dry, but first he’d check in on Miguel and Tomás.
Connie was just serving dessert when Scott finally entered the great room.
“Scott!” Murdoch’s voice rose above the others. “Sit down! Get some warm food in you.”
Scott looked at Jelly. “Trinidad’s got some swelling on his right foreleg.”
“I’ll see to it,” Jelly promised him.
He looked at their concerned faces. He knew he must look a fright. “I’ll just change into some dry clothes…” He wearily started to climb the stairs to his room. “Oh, and Miguel and Tomás came down with something. They’ll probably be too sick to work for a few days.” Murdoch nodded in acknowledgement.
They waited a good amount of time for him to return until Connie begged Johnny to see what was keeping him. Johnny knocked and then peeked into his brother’s room. Scott’s boots were off, but he was wrapped in a quilt fast asleep on top of his bed. Johnny didn’t think Scott should be in his wet clothes, but he didn’t have the heart to wake him. He went downstairs and reported his findings to the rest of the family. They weren’t surprised; Scott had looked so tired and miserable. After dessert Murdoch and Johnny went to Scott’s room and tucked him into his warm, dry bed with only a minimal effort on Scott’s part to help.
When he didn’t appear for breakfast the next morning, Murdoch checked on him. His son definitely had a fever. Cipriano informed him Miguel and Tomás did, too. They sent for the doctor. Sam said it was some kind of influenza that was making the rounds. Miguel and Tomás needed to be isolated in the sick room of the bunkhouse, and Scott stayed in his room. There wasn’t anything Sam could do for them, but he reminded them all that anybody who tended to the sick needed to wash their hands. Thoroughly. Before and after. Other doctors might laugh at him, but Sam Jenkins was convinced that the only reason he stayed healthy in his profession was his near obsession with washing his hands. He washed his equipment, everything, sometimes with rubbing alcohol. The fact that he avoided all the illnesses he had to deal with only strengthened his theory that washing was the key. After three days, the cowboys had recovered enough to do light chores.
And Scott’s fever was raging.
Why was Johnny able to avoid every illness and Scott got it ten times worse? It baffled Murdoch. Scott couldn’t hold anything down, and his sleep was marred by nightmares and sometimes hallucinations. They had covered his entire body with cold towels to bring his temperature down. Then they immersed him in a tub of cold water. At those times when she couldn’t be tending Scott because of modesty etiquette, Connie was beside herself. She wanted to do battle for Scott every minute. She would not lose Scott! She couldn’t! Murdoch admired her perseverance in caring for his son seemingly every moment she was awake. He was so proud of her. He couldn’t have married a woman more devoted to his family.
Finally, Scott’s temperature plateaued. It was still high but not dangerously so. They thought he was starting to turn the corner on this illness, but it was still too early to say for sure. Murdoch persuaded his wife to get some rest. Connie tried to, but her mind was racing. What if Scott died? All her dreams and fantasies would die with him. She couldn’t let that happen before she had him for her own. She lay there in the dark devising plan after plan to have Scott before he died. She would have him. She would!
Connie closed the door and locked it. The object of her desire lay with his back toward her, sheet pulled to his waist, and the damn nightshirt on. She would have loved to see his broad, naked shoulders. She found a clean towel by the washstand, wetted it, and tried to place it on his forehead. As she had hoped, he turned toward her so that he was on his back. She placed the towel more securely on his forehead, letting part of it cover his eyes, and waited. He didn’t wake up.
She flung the sheet off of him and slowly, gently pushed his nightshirt toward his armpits, his naked body revealed in inches. When she was done, she sat back and simply marveled at the sight. That long, lean body unclothed, mostly, at last! He was just as beautiful as she imagined him to be, perhaps more so. She stroked her hands down his body, always alert for any signs of wakefulness from him. She even mustered the nerve to rub her hands over the nubs of his nipples and then down his chest and inner thighs. That made him moan and try to turn onto his side again, but she prevented it. He mumbled something but settled again. She waited a little while to make sure he hadn’t awakened. It was so difficult to be patient!
Then he started to move restlessly. She removed the towel so she could see his face better. His eyes were still closed, but he seemed to be in the midst of another nightmare. What luck! She bent down and lightly licked the closest nipple. He moaned again but seemed to be still within his dream. She replaced the towel over his eyes and began to fondle him gently. He responded to her ministrations. Slowly he became erect and she was wet in anticipation.
When he became fully erect, she sat back and admired the view. His manhood was brilliantly proportional to the rest of him. She quickly straddled him and guided him through her split pantaloons and into her, impaling herself on him until he was as deep as he could go. He felt so magnificent in her! She waited a few seconds to adjust to his size and then slowly began to pleasure herself on him. His hands moved feebly to push her away, push her off him, but she easily swiped them away as she cooed and whispered softly to him, assuring him everything was all right. Finally, she held his forearms in place. In his fevered and weakened state, it wasn’t hard to do.
“No,” he said, tossing his head back and forth a little. The towel stayed mostly in place as she increased the speed of her rocking. She wanted to remember every second of this coupling, but her constant worry that someone would come to the door or that he would awaken to find her on him kept her from enjoying herself completely. She wished that he was on top instead of her.
In her latest fantasy, he would seduce her by the lake where he had taken her on their picnic. There they would flirt shamelessly with each other until he placed one of her ankles across his lap. Slowly, he would unlace her shoe, first one and then the other would come off. Then his hands would roam up her thighs until one of them caressed her womanhood. Driving her nearly insane, he would stop and again slowly and carefully undo the buttons on her blouse and the ribbons on her bodice until he could slide one strap of her chemise down her arm, exposing one of her large breasts. She would arch her back, offering it up to him as a gift. He would admire its beauty, its size, and finally bend toward it and suckle it gently, sending waves of pleasure through her. Then she would sit up, the one breast hanging free and enticingly in the summer air, and unbutton his trousers, slowly and seductively, one button at a time, as he had done with her blouse. She would feel his manhood lengthen even more at her not so accidental touches. When she finally released it from its imprisonment, she would moan and lick its tip as he gasped.
And then he would be on top of her, lustfully entering her wetness and driving into her with a need that had to be fulfilled at all costs. She would arch her back again to have her exposed breast rub against him even more, taking every thrust of his body, wrapping her legs around his lean waist. They would make love passionately, joyously, until they were both spent. He would collapse on top of her, and they would both lie there until their panting subsided. Then he would raise up a little and attack her breast again with his lips until she removed the strap from her other shoulder and offer the neglected breast to his hungry mouth. He would eagerly comply, kissing, licking, suckling, and nibbling her until he was stiff again and they could resume their lovemaking.
Yes, that’s how her fantasy played out. For now, she would have to be content mounting him fully clothed and riding him as surreptitiously as she could. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do. She knew now he was too honorable a man to willingly cuckold his father. She rode him as long as she dared, but eventually he arched and moaned, and she felt him begin to soften and almost slip out of her. She released his arms, reluctant to dismount him. She ran her hands down his body one last time, pulled his nightshirt back down, and unwillingly got off him and the bed.
She heard another quiet “no,” and he rolled away from her. She didn’t care. She had gotten her prize. She didn’t know if he had climaxed; she hoped he had. She hadn’t, with her preoccupation with not getting caught. Reaching under her skirts, she felt herself. Her fingers came away wet, but she was unsure whether it was her wetness or his. She hoped it was his seed and prayed it would take root within her womb. He would have to marry her if she were pregnant with his child. After arranging her clothes in place again, she pulled the sheet up to his waist. She took the towel off his face and put it around his neck. She picked up her embroidery, but her hands were shaking too much to do needlework. She had done it! Nothing could take the memory of it away from her. She would savor it the rest of her life.
A short time later there was a soft knock at the door startled her. She unlocked it peeked out. To her surprise, it was Johnny. What was he doing here in the middle of the morning? Everyone was supposed to be gone.
“I thought you were out on the range today,” she said trying to hide her fluster.
“Came back for a pickaxe. Thought I’d see how he was doin’.”
She opened the door so he could see for himself. “He’s still awfully feverish.”
Johnny came into the bedroom and put his hand on Scott’s forehead. It was awkward because Scott was faced away from him.
Scott flinched at the touch and groaned. He rolled over and squinted at his brother. “Johnny?”
“I’m here, brother. How’re you doin’?”
Connie hurried to pour him a glass of fresh water. She held his head up so he could drink it. “You just had a terrible nightmare,” she told him.
“Dream? It was a dream?” Scott was clearly disoriented.
“Yes, yes,” Connie assured him. “It was all a dream. Everything.”
Johnny thought that was a peculiar thing to say, especially saying it so nervous like. After all these months, she still acted skittish around him. “Do you remember it?” he asked Scott.
Scott seemed to think on it a few seconds. Connie thought she was going to faint. Finally, he said, “no.”
Johnny got the impression his brother did remember it, but he wasn’t going to press him on it, not with Connie in the room.
The three of them shared an awkward silence for several minutes. It seemed an eternity to Connie.
“Well, I’d better get back to work. Somebody’s got to do it when you’re lazin’ about in bed.”
Scott gave him a weak smile. “Sorry. I’m so tired.”
“You just rest now, Boston, and get rid of that fever. I’ve got you covered.”
Scott was already closing his eyes and succumbing to sleep again.
“At least we got some water into him,” Connie said. Johnny looked at her, worry etched in his face. Was there a bit of suspicion there, too? “I’m doing the best that I can,” she told him, feeling the need to defend herself for some reason. She usually felt the need to do that with this stepson.
“I know you are, ma’am…er, Connie.” He walked out of the room and closed the door.
She listened to his retreating footsteps, then locked the door again.
Scott’s fever broke the next day. Her goal attained, Connie let the others spend the majority of time tending to her lover. She had to admit, the entire experience had left her feeling drained. Murdoch persuaded her to take a trip into town and do some shopping, perhaps have lunch with Millie. It did sound like a good idea. She and Teresa were going through a bit of a rough patch. It was usually Teresa who tended to the sick and injured Lancers, so to have Connie usurp her place had left the girl a bit upset. Now she was glued to Scott’s side and could not be persuaded to go into town with Connie. Connie didn’t mind. A day away from all the Lancers might be just what she needed to refresh her spirit. The only downside was that Hoskins man would be driving the wagon. She certainly hoped he didn’t think he’d be having lunch with her and Millie. The very thought! She was relieved when he dropped her off and proceeded off to the Feed and Seed store.
After perusing Baldemoro’s general store, she was making her way to Millie’s shop when she was grabbed from behind and hustled into an alley. The man had her firmly around her waist and one hand covered her mouth. Suddenly, the hand that was on her waist was now holding a knife to her throat.
“Don’t make a sound or I’ll slit your throat,” the man hissed.
Connie knew that voice, although she thought she would never hear it again. If only she were the type that could faint, but he knew she wasn’t that type. It wouldn’t fool Jeff.
He turned her around and pushed her up against the wall, the knife still at her throat. She’d hoped to never see his ugly face again in her lifetime, but here he was leering at her as he’d done countless times before.
“Bet you thought you’d never see me again, huh? Stabbing me and leaving me for dead. But guess what? Here I am and ready to get me my due.”
Connie just stared at him with terrified eyes.
“You think you can outrun me? Seems a gal like you is easy to remember what with these.” The hand without the knife grabbed her right breast. “Yeah, I’ve missed these. They made it easy to track you.” He squeezed the breast painfully, smiling at her distress. “I’ve been doing my reconnaissance like a good soldier. You’ve got a sweet deal at the Lancer ranch, don’t you? All that land and money. So, here’s what you’re going to do for your loving husband. Don’t worry, I don’t want a whore like you back. In fact, I had thought about simply killing you when I found you. Payback, pure and simple. But now I’ve got a better idea. You get me five thousand dollars and I’ll ride out of your life.”
Her eyes widened further in fright. “I can’t get ahold of that kind of money!” she said in hushed tones.
“Your old man is rich, isn’t he?”
“But even he can’t get that much in cash quickly. It would take time.” She had no idea whether that was true or not, but she knew she needed time.
“How much time?”
“Days. A week or maybe two.”
‘I’m not sticking around this shithole any longer than I have to. You have one week.”
“One week! You’re asking too much!”
“I don’t think so. Five grand to walk away from attempted murder, theft, and infidelity? Almost sounds like too little.”
Well, when he put it that way. “All right. You win. And how do I get it to you?” she whispered.
“I’ve got a little place on the Lancer ranch. A nice little cabin, well stocked, too, but the food’ll only last about one more week. It’s a bit out of the way, but there’s a nice little stream running behind it and a huge tree to the right of the front door. Know where I’m talking about?”
“I’ll find it.”
“Good girl. See that you do or maybe your new hubby will find a hole in his head.”
“No,” she whimpered.
“No? Then maybe one of his sons.”
Her heart raced even more. Not Scott! He’d do it, too. He’d kill Scott as easily as say good morning to him. “No,” she whimpered again.
“Then have the money for me next Friday.” He put the knife down and slapped her hard on her left cheek. She knew better than to cry out. “That’s for old time’s sake, bitch!”
And then he was gone, leaving her breathless and her face stinging. She couldn’t walk into Millie’s shop like this. She sat down on an overturned crate and fought back tears. Now what was she going to do?
“You’ve been awfully quiet today,” Murdoch said as he observed his wife lock their bedroom door. He wished she felt safe enough not to have to do that. She snuggled in next to him, and he welcomed her closeness. She hadn’t been very affectionate since Scott’s illness. At first he’d thought it was simply fatigue from taking care of Scott, but lately he was thinking it might be something else. “Did something happen in town?”
“No, nothing,” she said unconvincingly. What could she say? Yes, my husband, whom I presumed dead after I stabbed him, showed up and is now wanting money from me to keep quiet and let me continue to be your wife. I need five thousand dollars. Would you be a dear and give me the money?
Murdoch gave her a squeeze. “You know you can tell me anything.”
Not this, Connie thought. But he had given her an opening. “Millie was just talking nonsense. She thinks I should know the combination of the safe in case of an emergency.”
“The combination! There’s no reason for you to trouble yourself about that.”
“But you’re the only one who knows it. What if something happened to you?”
He chuckled condescendingly. “The boys know it as well.”
Connie’s brain was working hard. “But what if all three of you are in danger or can’t be reached?”
“That’s unlikely to happen.”
“But it could.” She thought some more. “Does Teresa know the combination?”
“Of course not. She’s not a partner in the ranch. The boys wouldn’t know it if they weren’t partners.”
Partners. “So being married to a partner isn’t enough?”
“Oh, darling,” Murdoch murmured, bringing his wife into his embrace. “Is this what all your worrying is about? What might happen to you if I die because you’re not a partner?”
No, it was not. Far from it. Even if she killed him now, she wouldn’t be able to get her hands on his estate money in time to pay off Jeff. “No, I hadn’t even thought of that,” she muttered as much to herself as to her husband—her unlawful husband. “I was thinking about if some bad people, like those land pirates you told me about. Supposing they came back, and you and the boys were gone, and Teresa’s and my lives depended on me opening the safe? I wouldn’t be able to, and we’d be dead!”
Murdoch clucked at her indulgently. “That would never happen, darling.”
“Yes, it could. They’d want all this money, and we wouldn’t be able to give it to them.”
Murdoch clucked again. “Well, they’d be disappointed anyway. There’s usually very little cash in the safe.”
“Really.” He started to fondle one of her breasts and she pushed his hand away and sat up.
“I’d think with a ranch this big you’d have to keep a lot of cash on hand.”
He started stroking the inside of her thigh. “The bank is safer. The only time we have money in the safe is payday plus a little extra for emergencies.”
Payday was on Friday, too late to get the money and get it to Jeff. But she’d ride this lie out to the end. “How much money does it take to pay the men?”
Murdoch sighed. Instead of diverting her mind to more pleasurable matters, she continued to ask these questions in which women shouldn’t be interested. Catherine and he had handled the money together, but then there wasn’t much of it and as Harlan Garrett’s daughter, she was as savvy as they came about managing money. Maria had shown absolutely no interest in the financial side of Lancer. He’d indulge Connie once more, but then he’d put an end to this discussion.
“Around nine hundred dollars. Are you planning to waylay Johnny and whoever else he has with him when he comes home from the bank?” he said with humor in his tone. Sometimes Johnny’s Madrid reputation was very useful. Any sane man wouldn’t try his luck waylaying Johnny Madrid, who didn’t ride alone when fetching the payroll. Not that Connie knew of Johnny’s past—at least not from him.
Not for nine hundred dollars, Connie thought. Damn! Jeff had set her an impossible task unless she told Murdoch the truth. She had no idea what he would think learning his supposed wife was not a widow when they met and was still legally married to another man. There would be questions, uncomfortable questions. She certainly couldn’t tell them she had stabbed her first husband and left him for dead. Surely there was a warrant for her arrest in Virginia. She sat in bed pouting, immune to Murdoch’s caresses.
Murdoch stilled his hand and sat up next to her. “What is it, darling? Do you need money?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“How much? You know all you have to do is ask.”
A gift! Landing right in her lap! “I couldn’t. It’s not really for me.” She started to stroke the inside of his thigh. “It’s for my aunt back in Virginia. She’s afraid she’ll lose the farm if she doesn’t get five thousand dollars. You know how those Yankees can be to Southerners. All carpetbaggers, every one! They know she can’t pay that kind of money in taxes and they’ll take her farm. It’s been in the family forever.”
“Five thousand!” Murdoch exclaimed. “That’s quite a lot.”
“I know, darling, I know. Damn Yankees! That’s why I didn’t think I could come to you with it. But it’s been weighing on my mind so.”
They sat in silence for a while, Connie’s hand still moving on his thigh.
Finally, Murdoch said, “Maybe I can get the money.”
“Oh, darling! That would be wonderful!” She flung her arms around his neck, mashing her breasts against his naked chest. She could feel his arousal on her thigh. “If you could give me the money on Thursday, I could send it to her Friday. That should get it to her soon enough to save the farm.”
Murdoch disentangled her arms from his neck. He was having a bit of trouble breathing, she clung to him so tightly. “Give you the money? I’ll just go to the Wells Fargo company and have them handle it all. You’ll need to telegraph her and tell her to check with the nearest Wells Fargo station. Or maybe I’ll try the new Western Union company Scott was telling me about.”
“Why can’t you just give it to me and I’ll mail it to my aunt?”
Murdoch chuckled again and kissed the top of her head. “You don’t send money, especially that kind of money, in the mail anymore, darling.” This is why women had no business thinking about finances. They didn’t have the brains for it. “I’ll have to get the boys’ approval on it. Five thousand is practically our entire contingency fund.”
“You don’t have to involve the boys, do you? I’d feel better if just you and I know about it. I come from a proud Virginia family.”
“I have to tell them, darling. They’re equal partners in the ranch. But I’m sure I can get them to agree. You can telegraph your aunt tomorrow.”
Damn! She was stymied again. There was no sense asking the boys. She needed the money in her hands, not wired. Now she would have to lie her way out of her lie about her fictitious aunt and think of another plan. “I’ll telegraph her tomorrow. Don’t say anything to the boys yet. My aunt’s circumstances may have changed in the past two weeks. I’ll see if she still needs the money.” She blew out a breath in frustration and sat there stewing.
Murdoch, sensing the shift in his wife’s mood, sank back down beneath the covers and turned away from her.
The following evening, Murdoch caught her staring at the large map of Lancer ranch that hung on the wall beside his desk. “What has you so fascinated with this map?”
Murdoch really was a dear. He seemed to always give her the opening she needed without her trying to figure out a lie to segue into it.
“I heard one of the hands talking about a cabin with a big tree outside the front door. He said it was the biggest and most beautiful tree he’d ever seen on the ranch. I was looking at the map to see where it might be. He said there was a stream behind it.”
“That would be the northwest line shack. Here.” Murdoch pointed to a dot on the map. It was some distance away from the house but not as far as most of the other dots.
“Are all these dots line shacks?”
“Yes. They save the vaqueros and horses time and energy when they’re working in the farther pastures. To ride all the way back to the bunkhouse and then back out the next day is a waste of manpower.”
Her man was Scottish to the core. “And how long would it take me to ride to this giant tree?” She batted her lashes at him.
“Actually, not all that long for that one. Under two hours, I would think.” He put his arm around her shoulder and drew her into him. “But you don’t have to go there alone. I’ll drive you in the buggy. We’ll make a picnic of it.”
“That sounds lovely when the weather gets warmer, darling,” she said, trying to memorize the map. She had a few more days to commit it to memory.
She didn’t have as long as she thought because Mother Nature decided to aid her in her alternate plan by providing a fierce storm the day before. Knowing that all the ranch hands would be gone assessing the damage done, Connie took it as a sign from God to go forward with her scheme. She had done a masterful performance convincing Teresa and Maria that she was suffering from another migraine and would be recuperating from it for the rest of the day. Now she stole out of her room and hurried to Scott’s.
She loved being in her beloved’s room. It was always so neat and smelled of the intoxicating tonic he put on after he shaved. It was orderly and lovely, just like its owner. There was no chance of Scott catching her here. Three days ago, Murdoch had sent him on some chore that would take him about a week to accomplish. Nearly a whole week without her Scott’s beautiful face to gaze upon. That was so mean of Murdoch! She gazed upon the neatly made bed, the bed where she had attained such rapture. Not only had she made love to Scott in it, but for months she had also slipped in between the sheets and pleasured herself when she was supposed to be sweeping his floor. Laying her head upon Scott’s pillow, inhaling his scent, would always awaken her sexual desires.
There was no time for such gratification today. She gathered the things she would need. There was a blue shirt in the laundry basket. She loved Scott wearing blue shirts that brought out the blue in his eyes. They looked more gray in the beige shirts. In the back of his wardrobe, she found the boots he had complained about shrinking when they had gotten wet. Apparently, the shoemaker had not stretched the leather properly and Scott had paid good money for them. Even shrunken they were still too large for her feet. She found a drawer full of socks and took several of them. She also needed a hat to hide her pinned up hair. Scott’s array of hats was puzzling. There was a bowler, a top hat, and one with a weird feather in it, all unsuitable for her needs. Then she found it way in the back—a weathered and stained tan hat that had nothing distinctive about it. She might have to wear her cloche underneath it to have it stay put, but it would do. One last thing. She pulled out the drawer of his bedside table and took out the gun. It looked like the cylinder had bullets in it. She would have to make a small hole in her pants’ pocket in order to fit it in her trousers. Then she padded back to her room to begin her transformation.
Again, God had been kind, she thought as she entered the barn. She hadn’t encountered anyone as she snuck out of the house and strode to the barn. In February, there weren’t many ranch hands employed at Lancer, and after the bad rain, everyone, including Murdoch, had left to assess the damage. The day was still cold and drizzly, so no women were out doing the laundry or tending the gardens. She let her eyes adjust to the dimmer light of the barn. Even the young, Mexican stable boy—Tonio?—was absent. Only one horse was there. It was Remmie, her beloved’s horse! She walked over and he nickered in greeting. Of course, she had Scott’s scent on her! She found a discarded serape to keep the drizzle off her and a bridle in the tack room. She didn’t think she could take the time to saddle him, so she just slipped the bridle on Remmie, found a bale of hay she could mount from, and rode bareback out of the back of the barn.
Yes, sometimes it was helpful to have been the daughter of a horse trainer. She knew she had purposefully misled the Lancers into thinking her family owned a horse farm in Virginia, but in truth her father worked for the farm as a one of the horse trainers. They didn’t have much money growing up, but her father had let her give some of the horses their morning workouts when she was old enough, which earned her a few bits. She could ride with the best of men. Her lovely Scott had trained his horse well. He was quite responsive to her directions. What she was most worried about was losing a boot. She had stuffed the toes with Scott’s socks, and even with four pairs on her feet, they were still a bit loose. She looped around the back of the house, keeping quite a distance between it and her. She didn’t dare go under the arch. When she passed the first mapped landmark on the way to the line shack, she breathed a sigh of relief. She was on the right path.
Jefferson Turnbull was cold and bored. He had a small fire going in the pot-bellied stove, but it didn’t heat up the place all that much. As usual during the past week and a half, except for the previous day, he had gone to his spot to spy on the Lancer spread. Hunkering down in the wet and cold at pre-dawn had been miserable this morning. When it was clear Sadie wasn’t going anywhere today, he had returned to the shack. The deadline was only two days away. His wife was a clever girl; she’d get the money. And then he would be on easy street for the rest of his life, and when the money ran out, he could always come back here and get more. Sadie and the Lancer’s would keep him in dough forever. He sat by the stove and dealt a new hand of solitaire. The bullet caught him by surprise.
Connie hadn’t realized the gun would jump in her hand that much when she shot Jeff through the window. She saw him fall over from his chair, but this time she wasn’t taking any chances. She had thought he was dead before only to have him show up in Morro Coyo. She snuck into the cabin toward Jeff’s body. The bullet had caught him in the neck, and he was frantically trying to staunch the blood with his hands. She had been aiming for his body.
“You!” he hissed at her thickly, blood gurgling from his mouth.
“I come to finish the job, you mangy dog!” She held the gun steady with both hands and fired point blank at his heart. His hands stilled. Not satisfied, she pressed the gun against his forehead and pulled the trigger a third time. Her heart was beating nearly out of her chest, but she felt a strange elation, too. Never again would he beat her, bully her, rent her out to other men. It wasn’t supposed to be rape when it was sex between husband and wife, but many times it had felt that way. It was angry, drunken sex. He had been so sweet courting her, but after the marriage the drinking began, then the gambling and the money problems. She had hoped he would be killed in the War, but by some miracle, he had been assigned a job away from the front lines. She’d finally had enough and stabbed him when he had passed out from too much drink. She thought she had stabbed him in the heart and killed him, but he had miraculously survived. She had fled Virginia and changed her name, living on her sewing skills or her seductive skills. Married men who slept with her were easy marks. Who would they tell that a whore robbed them? A couple of times she had been caught taking their money clips and beaten, but thanks to her husband, she knew what to do to minimize the damage. And when she had enough money, she would move west, ever west to California, hoping to make a new life there.
When she arrived in Green River, she thought she might have found the ideal small, out-of-the-way spot in which to open a small dress shop, where any of the men she’d wronged wouldn’t find her. Having to alter all of her clothes since puberty had made her an excellent seamstress, her stitches small, neat, and even. Women paid good money for quality work. What she had found was a mountain of man in Murdoch Lancer, kind and rich. But the true prize had been his elder son. Johnny was sweet and funny in a rascally kind of way, but sometimes he could turn quite cold and mean. Nobody in the house ever remarked on it. Murdoch had dismissed her observations when she had asked him about it, but that mean streak had made her wary of Johnny. It reminded her of Jeff, and that scared her. Johnny unnerved her even on his best behavior. But Scott. Scott! The most handsome, intelligent, polite, and wonderful man she had ever met. He was her gift from God, and she intended to make the most of her gift.
There seemed to be more people about as she neared the hacienda from the usually less populated south side. She put Remmie in the corral farthest from the house and ditched the bridle and serape in another pen. She scaled the half wall of the vegetable garden behind the hacienda and crouched forever behind the large aloe plants by the kitchen. Would Maria never leave? Finally, the woman walked out toward the great room and she was able to take the back stairs to her bedroom. She slipped back into the room and locked the door behind her. She had done it! She felt free for the first time in her adult life. It would be an easy task to replace Scott’s things before supper, while Murdoch and Johnny would be having their pre-dinner drink. She quickly shucked out of Scott’s clothes and her trousers and donned her nightgown. Sinking into the giant, soft bed, she gave thanks to God, who had made this day possible and her plan successful.
Connie smiled to herself as she continued sewing the new dress for Teresa to wear at the dance next month. It had been over three weeks since she’d killed Jeff, and nothing had been said about finding a body at the northern line shack. By now the body was probably devoured by wild animals. She was in the clear and free to live out her life at Lancer, the devoted stepmother to Murdoch’s two sons. Of course, there would be extra devotion toward Scott.
Scott. He was probably going to the dance, too. Johnny was already teasing him about which girl he would ask to it. Scott was noncommittal so far, but it had sent her into a worry. Connie didn’t want Scott to get interested in a girl. He was hers. But what girl wouldn’t be interested in Scott? Just seeing him dance with another female was going to drive her crazy. Maybe she would start a rumor that he was impotent. That would keep all the local country bumpkins at bay. Scott would be hers alone until the end of time. Of course, there were other obstacles in her way.
She idly wondered what would happen if Murdoch were out of the picture. Scott would never trespass on his father’s territory, so to speak, so Murdoch would have to go eventually. It really wasn’t his fault; in fact, he was a dear. He just wasn’t Scott. No man was. Scott was unique, ideal, resplendent. Utterly perfect. With Murdoch out of the way, she would play the grieving widow perfectly, needing Scott to comfort her. She would cling to him for strength and guidance. He was too mannerly not to console her in her time of grief. Yes, that might be a possible scenario to get Scott to fall in love with her. She would have to walk a thin line—courageous enough in her grief to win his admiration while heartbroken enough to need his comforting embrace. Seducing Scott would be a difficult challenge, to be sure, but that was one of the many reasons she loved him so. He was definitely worth the extra effort.
The object of her desire was in his usual chair tonight, but he wasn’t reading. Instead, he was sipping an after-dinner brandy and staring out the huge window. Murdoch, Johnny, and Jelly were in the barn fretting over a mare just about to foal. Scott had gone with them at first, only to be turned away as the “one too many” person.
“A penny for your thoughts,” she said to her unknowing lover.
“They’re not worth that much, I’m afraid,” he answered.
“You’ve been brooding too much lately, Scott,” she lightly scolded him.
Teresa took up Connie’s case. “Yes, you have. What can we do to put a smile on your face?”
Scott gulped down the rest of his brandy and rose. “Nothing, I’m afraid, ladies. I’ll wish you a good night and do my brooding in the privacy of my room.”
“Oh, Scott,” Teresa pouted. Connie admired her technique. “Don’t go up so early. Tell us a story while we sew.”
Scott was in no mood to tell a tale. Still, it was difficult to refuse Teresa. She worked so hard and cared so much for them. Maybe he could summarize a plot from a book.
Teresa saved him the trouble. “Tell us about one of your favorite memories when you were a child.”
Many of his favorite memories involved him and his best friend, Will, pulling pranks on unsuspecting old ladies or young schoolmates. He quickly cast those aside. Instead, he told them about his fifth birthday party, about the clown and monkey and balloons and all his friends being there. There were even children he didn’t know in attendance. It had been a surprise party for him. As it turned out, it was the only party of his childhood. It wasn’t until he was older that he discovered his birthday was actually a day of mourning for his grandfather. One of the maids had let that slip when he turned nine. He always wondered why his fifth birthday had been an exception. It was so singular, it stayed in his memories. So, he regaled the ladies with the antics of the monkey and the magic that the clown performed and soon after was able to retreat to his room. He couldn’t shake the feeling that something awful was about to happen, and he didn’t want to alarm Teresa or Connie.
The next morning at breakfast, Murdoch told him that the foal had been born stillborn. Scott knew Johnny was heartbroken. He’d had high hopes for the offspring of this particular sire and mare. Although sorry for Johnny, Scott was a bit relieved. Maybe this had been the bad event he had been dreading for the last few days.
After dinner, however, the real bad news arrived. The body of an unknown man had been found in the northern line shack. That had been awful enough, but then Johnny started grilling Scott on his whereabouts. When had he last been at that line shack? In truth, Scott couldn’t remember when he had been there last and had vehemently denied being there recently, which had somehow set Johnny off. Soon all three men’s voices were raised in anger.
Connie and Teresa came running in from the kitchen wanting to know why everyone was so upset. Murdoch told them the unfortunate news, leaving out the discovery of Scott’s horse’s hoofprint being found there.
Connie felt her heart leap near out of her chest. Jeff’s body had finally been discovered. She knew it would have been found eventually, but still it affected her. She silently prayed that Jeff would be buried in boot hill and that would be the end of it. Everyone went to bed out of sorts that night.
Murdoch and she were in the great room the next afternoon, he going through the books and she still sewing the bodice of Teresa’s dress. She wanted to get the darts just right to emphasize Teresa’s much more modest bustline. The poor girl needed all the help she could get. It was peaceful sitting in her husband’s quiet presence.
She heard the horse first. “Who can that be?”
Murdoch looked up from the ledgers. “What?”
“A rider.” By then he could hear the hoofbeats, too.
They walked outside and greeted Sheriff Crawford. Connie was surprised and terrified at his arrival; Murdoch seemed to expect it.
Crawford dismounted and they ushered him inside. Ever playing the perfect hostess, Connie offered the sheriff some coffee, which he accepted.
“You know why I’ve come,” she heard Crawford say as she left the room to get the refreshment. How could she handle the tray coming back? Her hands were shaking badly.
Luckily, Murdoch relieved her of the tray as she returned. Crawford thanked her for the cup and then they all sat in the most uncomfortable silence Connie had ever experienced. Finally, she said, “What brings you out here today, Sheriff?”
Crawford and Murdoch exchanged meaningful looks. “Just need to talk to Scott some, ma’am.”
“He won’t be back for a while,” she said lamely, her mind racing as to why the sheriff would want to talk to Scott. She lapsed back into silence.
Crawford set his coffee down and stood up. “Mind if I take a look at Scott’s room?”
Murdoch was already studying his books again. He waved his hand in the direction of the stairs. “Go ahead, Val. Lancer has nothing to hide.”
Connie watched Crawford walk up the stairs and out of sight, her heart and mind still racing. She had to calm herself. She needed to pretend she knew nothing about that body in the shack. “Darling?” she asked as innocently as she could. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing that concerns you, dear.”
She thought he was probably quite wrong about that. “Perhaps I should go up there…”
“No need. The sheriff knows what he’s doing.”
That’s what she was afraid of. The sheriff came downstairs a half an hour later looking grim. She cast a worried look at Murdoch, who closed his ledgers and glared at the man. “What’s wrong, sheriff?” he asked.
“I think I’m gonna wait ‘til Scott gets here to say anythin’,” Val said, and the hairs on the back of Connie’s neck pricked up.
They didn’t have too long to wait. Scott came riding in alone less than twenty minutes later. He strode into the great room and started to inform Murdoch about an unstable bridge before Murdoch pointed Crawford out to him. They exchanged greetings.
“The sheriff wants to speak with you,” Murdoch informed his elder son. Scott didn’t miss that Murdoch had used Val’s title rather than his first name. This wasn’t a social call then.
“Darling, will you excuse us?” Murdoch said to her.
No, she would not excuse them! She needed desperately to hear what was going on. She smiled and went to the kitchen, only to turn right around and sit around the corner from the great room. Teresa had told her of the spot early on, saying it was the only way she ever learned what was happening at the ranch and among the three men. Connie was terribly grateful to Teresa at the moment.
She heard the top of a crystal decanter being replaced. Scott had apparently served himself some liquor. “What’s going on, Val?”
“A man was found dead up in your north line shack.”
“Yes, Johnny and Murdoch told me last night.”
“They also tell you we found a hoofprint that belongs to your horse?”
“Yes, but I haven’t been up there in quite a while. I’ve been mostly working in the southern pastures lately.”
“So, you deny bein’ at the northern shack?”
“I do indeed.”
Someone walked away and Connie heard Scott say, “He doesn’t think I killed him, does he?”
“I don’t know what he thinks,” Murdoch replied.
The sheriff walked back into the room. “These yours?” she heard him ask.
“Yes, but I haven’t worn them in months.”
The boots! Why hadn’t she just thrown them away? Scott would never have missed them.
“What about this?”
“Yes, that’s mine.”
Connie wasn’t sure to what the sheriff was referring.
“Can you explain why there’s three bullets missin’?”
The gun! Why hadn’t she thrown it away, too? She’d been tempted to up at the line shack.
“What? I’ve never used that gun since I put it in my drawer. It should be fully loaded.”
“Then you never shot with it? Maybe at some rattler or somethin’?”
“Val, I swear to you, I’ve never used that gun since Johnny and I did some target practice when I first bought it. It was fully loaded when I put it in that drawer, and I haven’t taken it out since.”
There was a period of silence, and then Crawford said somewhat sadly, “Scott, I have to arrest you for the murder of Jefferson Turnbull.”
Scott and Murdoch in unison: “What?”
“You can’t mean that!” Murdoch objected.
“I don’t know of any Jefferson Turnbull,” Scott protested at the same time.
“Nevertheless, you’re our best suspect, Scott, and I gotta take ya in. It’s my job. You comin’ quiet or in these?”
Connie imagined he was holding up handcuffs. She rushed into the room. “No! You can’t arrest Scott! He would never murder anyone!”
“Ma’am,” Crawford said in his most tolerant but annoyed tone.
“Connie,” Murdoch said holding out his right arm. She scurried to his side to be enveloped in the solace of his massive arm. She molded herself to his side. Why wasn’t her husband more upset?
“Scott?” Crawford’s voice, insistent.
Scott nodded at the sheriff, his friend, and dutifully walked out with him. Both men’s horses were still saddled and tethered outside the front door. Val stuffed Scott’s boots and gun in his saddlebags. Then he stuffed the handcuffs in them, too.
“No!” Connie cried in disbelief. Murdoch held her tighter. This couldn’t be happening! Her precious Scott arrested for Jeff’s murder! Never in her wildest imaginings did she envision this.
She and Murdoch watched the two men ride away, Scott’s back as straight and proud in the saddle as always. What was she going to do? She needed to save Scott, short of confessing her own sin. “What are we going to do?” she wailed.
Murdoch gave her a squeeze. “We let the law handle it, darling. Scott didn’t murder anyone, and we’ll prove it in court.”
“But what do we do in the meantime?”
“Give him all the support we can and pray.”
Pray! Connie wasn’t convinced that would do any good. The only way to prove Scott innocent would be to find the real killer, and she was determined not to let that happen. Maybe the sheriff wouldn’t find enough evidence to convict Scott. She would pray for that.
Predictably, Johnny went berserk when he discovered Val had arrested Scott. Teresa merely sat and wept. Johnny was out the door in an instant, and everyone had no doubt as to where he was going. Murdoch almost pitied Val Crawford.
Johnny burst into Val’s office like he was on fire. “How could you!” he accused the sheriff with no preamble.
“Now hold on, amigo. I got more’n his horse’s shoe against ‘im.” Val filled Johnny in on his search of Scott’s room.
Johnny sat down deflated. Why had he told Val about the hoofprint? He was responsible for setting Val on Scott’s trail. He had to admit, with the evidence Val had, his friend was forced to arrest Scott.
“Can I see ‘im?”
Val nodded and grabbed the key to the cellblock door.
Scott was just finishing up his dinner when Johnny entered the area.
“You better keep my brother fed right,” Johnny warned Val, hoping his voice carried the right amount of levity.
“Bessie Sue will see to that. She and Eulalia have already thrashed my ear harshly about lockin’ ‘im up in the first place. They’ve made it their mission to see to his well-bein’. Well, I’ll leave you boys alone.” Val took Scott’s dinner tray and left the cell block.
Scott and Johnny met at the bars of the cell.
“Johnny, what’s going on? I’m going crazy being locked up for something I didn’t do.” Scott looked at his brother penetratingly. “You do believe I’m innocent, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do.” Johnny cursed himself for waiting a couple of seconds before answering. “Don’t worry, I’ll get ya outta this.” Especially since I got you into it, Johnny thought.
“I won’t be of any help being in here,” Scott said frustrated.
Johnny told him everything he knew about the past two days and Jefferson Turnbull, which wasn’t all that much.
Scott ran a hand through his hair. He had to admit that Val had little choice but to arrest him. “There are other guns that take a .44,” he said, “and how did he know Remmie was there?”
Johnny hated what he was going to say next. “Cuz I told Manuel to put some notches in one of his shoes.”
“When did you do that?”
“Been doin’ it for more’n two years now,” Johnny admitted.
Johnny shrugged nonchalantly and mumbled something.
“So I wouldn’t lose track of ya,” Johnny said a bit louder, “so I could find ya easier if somethin’ happened to ya.”
Scott was touched. Johnny rarely expressed sentimental words…at least not to other men. It warmed his heart. Then he realized that for Val to have known it was Remmie’s hoofprint, Johnny would have had to tell him.
Johnny caught the realization on his brother’s face. “When I told ‘im it was Remmie’s print, I never thought it would help get you arrested. I swear it, Scott!”
Scott nodded resignedly. He knew Johnny would never intentionally harm him. They tried to figure out what was really going on, but neither of them could think of an alternate explanation. A bit later Val came in with a pack of cards and they played poker until Val had to make his rounds for the night. He shooed Johnny out of the building. Johnny reluctantly checked into the hotel. He didn’t want to leave Scott alone in that cell, yet he wanted to be right there with Val as he continued the investigation.
The next morning Johnny and Val had breakfast with Scott. Scott asked Johnny to send a telegram to his grandfather. Johnny sighed. The last thing any of the rest of them needed was Harlan Garrett’s involvement. But at this point he couldn’t deny Scott’s wishes. He sent the wire telling of Scott’s arrest and asking for any help the rich, old man could give. Johnny was hoping the old coot could pay for the craftiest lawyer in the state. Then he and Val took Scott’s and Turnbull’s boots and rode out to the line shack. Val wanted to check the boot prints again.
Val had been careful about preserving as many of the boot prints before they arrived on the scene as he could. There was a swath of overlapping and indistinguishable prints where they had entered the cabin and taken out the body, but the ones around that path were presumably there around the time of the murder. Val took Scott’s and Turnbull’s boots out and he and Johnny commenced trying to place them in the prints. Scott’s were easy to discern. His costly and fancy boots had grooves cut into the soles. Scott said it was supposed to give the boots more grip or some such nonsense. Johnny had to admit he’d been tickled when the boots shrank, and Scott had to confess he could no longer wear them. All that boasting about how superior his boots were to Johnny’s only to have them ruined with a little water! Yeah, that had made Johnny laugh. But he wasn’t laughing now. They were sealing Scott’s fate. Several of the boot prints showed some of the lines in the soles. They found some other prints that looked like they fit Turnbull’s boots. Val found a third set that neither boots matched. Perhaps they were from Walt or the undertaker’s or one of the other men who had been up here that day. Val thought everyone had been careful about where they put their feet, but mistakes might happen anyway.
“You see anythin’ peculiar about Scott’s prints?” Val asked as they were just about to leave.
“Like none of ‘em were full prints? None of ‘em had toe prints? Yeah, I noticed.”
They went back and re-examined the prints supposedly from Scott’s boots just to be sure.
“They stop halfway up, every one of ‘em,” Val mused. “Odd…”
“Well, there’s not that many of ‘em,” Johnny said. “Maybe some that were covered up by everyone else stompin’ around here had the complete print.”
Val didn’t look convinced. “Maybe someone else had the same kinda boots as Scott.”
Johnny doubted it, but he appreciated that Val was trying to come up with any other explanation than it was Scott’s boot print. Scott had special ordered the boots from a catalogue and it had taken months for them to arrive. Johnny didn’t know of anyone else in the valley who was as concerned about his clothing and appearance as Scott seemed to be. It was the way Scott had been raised—to be conscious of the clothes he wore. There was still plenty of Boston in ol’ Boston. But he didn’t want to tell Val that nobody else would own a pair of the fancy boots. He didn’t want to make more trouble for his brother. “Yeah, maybe someone else did.”
They rode back to town in silence, each one knowing that things didn’t look too good for Scott. Val took Scott’s boots to Sam Jenkins’ office. There were stains on the boots that looked like bloodstains. Val needed them identified.
Johnny found Jelly, Connie, and Teresa visiting with Scott. His cell was now decorated with Scott’s pillow and quilt and an assortment of books. Scott’s lap desk lay on the cot next to the pillow, a deck of cards on top and a stack of clean shirts and pants on one side. His shaving gear sat on Connie’s lap.
“The deputy wouldn’t allow me to give it to him,” she pouted when Johnny commented on it. “You know how Scott likes to be clean shaven.”
Johnny caught Scott rolling his eyes. Thing was, he knew his brother did insist on being clean shaven even on the trail. It had something to do with the War. But Scott didn’t need his stepmother mentioning it.
“Guess he just doesn’t want the prisoner to have hold of a straight-edged razor, Connie,” Johnny said wryly. Did this woman have an ounce of sense in her?
She looked hurt from his mild rebuke. “Everyone knows Scott’s innocent except that awful sheriff, who doesn’t seem to be a very good judge of character.”
Johnny didn’t feel up to coming to Val’s defense, especially to this mooncalf. He saw Scott’s long-suffering look. “Jelly, why don’t you take the women shoppin’ or somethin’?”
“We don’t want to shop! We want to stay right here and keep Scott company,” Connie insisted.
“Well, me and Scott’s got some talkin’ to do, if you don’t mind.” Johnny shot Jelly a look that said “get these women out of here.”
Connie looked like she did mind very much, but Jelly was able to roust both females out of the cellblock with Scott adding his thanks for their thoughtfulness.
Scott sighed heavily as the cellblock door closed behind the trio. “Thank you, brother. I thought I was going to be crushed under the weight of their pity.”
“They mean well.”
“That’s what makes it tougher.” Scott got up by the bars. “What happened out at the cabin this morning?”
Johnny shook his head sadly. “It’s bad, Boston. Those fancy boots of yours have those lines on the bottom.”
“Well, they matched up near perfect with some of the prints at the shack.”
Scott groaned and sat back down on his bed. “What’s going on? First my horse and now my boots.”
Johnny had thought a lot about it on the ride back to town. “Maybe you oughta start thinkin’ about who hates you enough to want to frame you for murder.”
Scott looked up at him shocked and then slowly nodded.
It had been three days since Johnny had sent the telegram to Scott’s grandfather. There had been no response from Boston. Scott was growing more and more agitated every day. It didn’t help that the circuit judge wouldn’t arrive in town to hear the case for nearly two weeks. In the meantime, family, friends, acquaintances, and just plain busy-bodies had been visiting Scott in jail. Scott was embarrassed to be seen behind bars and tired of making small talk with everybody, but he appreciated their kind intentions. He engaged pleasantly and politely with every visitor, but Johnny could see the effort draining him. Val and his deputy, Dex Harper, were just as tired of the seemingly constant line of people tromping in and out of the cellblock. The trial couldn’t happen soon enough.
Johnny could tell Scott wasn’t getting much sleep.
“I’m worried about Grandfather,” Scott told him as he brought Scott’s breakfast tray into him. Bessie Sue had made enough for both of them. “Have you checked the telegraph office today?”
Johnny nodded. “Still nothing.”
“Then I want you to send another telegram.”
Johnny groaned around a bite of biscuit.
“Not to Grandfather. I think he may be ill or something. Can you send one to my cousin, Daniel?”
After breakfast Scott wrote down what he wanted Daniel’s telegram to say and gave Johnny the address. Johnny was surprised to see that Scott simply asked about Harlan’s health due to the fact that he hadn’t responded to a telegram and didn’t say a word about his own difficulties. Johnny sent the telegram and then reluctantly rode back to Lancer. Not only was there work to be done, but he and Murdoch hadn’t questioned everyone at the ranch as to their whereabouts during the last week of February, which is when Dr. Jenkins had determined the murder took place. It felt like he was abandoning his brother.
Murdoch, Cipriano, and he tried to piece together what was happening on what days of that last week of the previous month. It was easy to recall the Tuesday of that week: there had been a thunderstorm of mythic proportions that day. Once the animals around the house and barn were taken care of, everyone had hunkered down and rode the wind, rain, and lightning out. Johnny recalled being worried about Scott and how he was faring. The storm dictated the activities of the remainder of the week: assessing and repairing the damage done by the storm. There had been more flooding than normal and an apparent lightning strike had scared some of the herd to stampede through several fences. There were bridges to repair and streams to clear.
Next they had asked each cowboy and vaquero where he had been and on what crew he was assigned. That was trying to piece together a giant puzzle. They asked the hands not only about their own activities but who they were with. Murdoch made a huge chart with each day and each worker, which they slowly filled in. Johnny was watching for any signs of lying, but he didn’t detect any. All the hands seemed willing and eager to help Scott. In the end, each ranch hand’s activities had been accounted for and had a witness or two who could vouch for his whereabouts the entire week. Except for Scott, who was off by himself in the southern region, or so he claimed. Johnny didn’t like the seed of doubt that was planting itself inside his brain. If Scott said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it, Johnny reminded himself.
It was too bad that they hadn’t asked young Tonio to account for all his time that week. They had asked him about Scott returning Remmie, which the boy had remembered. But Scott had told him about the horse’s fetlock, and Tonio, being twelve and easily distracted, had forgotten to tell Jelly about the problem. He had told them Scott had taken Tobago in Remmie’s place, but then he didn’t volunteer any more information. He didn’t want to tell them he had stayed home the day after the storm. Everyone had gone to work, even Jelly, who usually had his eye on him, and Remmie was the only horse in the barn, after he had turned out all the other horses. Once he had done that, he saw no reason to stay in the barn to muck out the stalls. He’d gone home and lazed around, telling his mother he had a bellyache. He was ashamed of not doing his job, so he didn’t tell them of the odd thing about finding Remmie out in an outer corral. He had just snagged the horse and led him back into the barn before the Patrόn and Jelly had returned from work.
Nor did they ask little Lupe, who had gotten tired of being inside the house two days in a row. She had snuck out of her house and was playing with her doll when she saw the small man sneak around the back of the hacienda and climb over the garden wall. She was going to follow the man, but her mama had discovered her absence and had dragged her back inside the house. No, the men hadn’t thought to ask the children about anything strange happening the last week of February, so the puzzle that they now thought was complete hadn’t brought them any closer to helping Scott.
Johnny rode back to Green River the following day, finding Scott despondent in his cell. His brother showed him a telegram. It was from Cousin Daniel saying Harlan was in good health but in the middle of delicate business negotiations and couldn’t be disturbed at this time.
“At least he’s not ill,” Scott said, trying hard to salvage something positive about the wire. Johnny had given him a skeptical glare. The old goat had chosen business over his own grandson. Had he washed his hands of Scott when his brother decided to stay at Lancer after Harlan’s disastrous visit last year? Scott leaned against the bars and added, “Although I think I would have felt better if he had been.”
Johnny marched over to the telegraph office and sent another telegram to Cousin Daniel. “SCOTT ARRESTED FOR MURDER<STOP>NEEDS HARLANS HELP NOW<STOP> He couldn’t wait to see what response that message would elicit. Both he and Val tried to raise Scott’s spirits or a least distract him, but Scott was in too deep a well of self-pity to be pulled out.
Johnny asked Val to show him the papers that had been found on the body. Many of them were bloodstained. There were bills of sale and a rental agreement from the Morro Coyo livery stable for one horse. One now dead horse, Johnny thought sadly. The thought of the creature suffering so for over three weeks made Johnny sick. The one piece of correspondence that was of any interest was a letter signed by ‘C.’ It was obviously written by a woman’s hand. Turnbull was addressed as “Jeff,” and it was clear that they were well acquainted with each other. Most of the letter was about a woman named “Sadie.” It sounded like Turnbull was looking for her. Other than that, it didn’t make much sense to Johnny or Val. Johnny noticed a Virginia return address.
“Think Turnbull coulda been from Virginia?” Johnny asked.
“Could be,” Val acknowledged. “Turnbull stayed at the hotel in Morro Coyo for a few days. Dex rode over and found that out. That and the fact he had to rent a horse tells me he weren’t from around here.”
“I’m gonna ask Murdoch to sic the Pinks on him in Virginia, then.”
After that Johnny and Val played checkers in the office while Scott wallowed in his misery in his cell. Val told Johnny that Sam had identified the stains on Scott’s boots as human bloodstains. Johnny told Val that all of Lancer’s ranch hands were accounted for by multiple witnesses during the week in question. Val just sighed and shook his head.
If Scott said he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it, Johnny reminded himself.
Murdoch rode into town the next morning looking for his errant son and found him on his way to the telegraph office. Cousin Daniel was prompt in his replies. HARLAN IN ENGLAND<STOP>HAVE FUNDS AVAILABLE TO HELP SCOTT<STOP>PLEASE ADVISE. Johnny let out a sigh of relief. There was no way Garrett was going to get to California in time for Scott’s trial. One less thing to worry about.
Murdoch was less than pleased at the response. “The Garrett way: throw enough money at the problem until it goes away.”
“Well, we might need that money, Old Man. Scott needs a lawyer and a damned good one.”
“That was one of my tasks today, Johnny. Let’s go.”
Mr. Randall’s office was the same as Johnny remembered it when they signed the partnership agreement. He offered his sincere condolences to them regarding Scott’s arrest.
“That’s why we’re here to see you, Tom. I’d like you to represent Scott.”
Thomas Randall pulled out a handkerchief and mopped at his suddenly perspiring face. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Murdoch,” he stammered.
“Why not? You’re my lawyer,” Murdoch said, his voice rising. “Do I need to replace you with another one?”
“No, of course not,” Randall continued to stammer. “I’m happy to be your lawyer, Murdoch. We’ve done well together. But my specialty is business law, contracts, property and such. Scott needs a criminal lawyer.”
“The way I see it, a lawyer is a lawyer,” Johnny said, his tone making Randall sweat more.
“Yes, that’s true,” Randall said taking another swipe around his face. “I am certified to be Scott’s lawyer.” He turned to address Murdoch solely. “You must understand. Whoever the prosecutor turns out to be will be very experienced in criminal law. I wouldn’t stand a chance against his expertise. I don’t want to fail Scott. I find him to be a most honest and honorable young man.”
“That’s cuz he is, Randall.”
Murdoch motioned Johnny to rein himself in. “Do you know of any expert criminal lawyers in this state? Money is no object,” Murdoch said, grateful to Daniel Lowell’s generous offer.
“I’ll look into it,” Randall promised, relieved to be off the hook himself.
Murdoch and Johnny walked back to the telegraph office. They wired Daniel to send funds and recommend a criminal lawyer if anyone in Boston knew of one living in California. Next Murdoch sent a telegram to Jarrod Barkley. Victoria Barkley’s eldest son was a lawyer and he was as close as Stockton. The last telegram was sent to the Pinkerton Agency asking them to find out any information on a Jefferson Turnbull, presumed to be from Virginia.
Then Johnny and Murdoch parted ways. Johnny wanted another look around the northwestern line shack and Murdoch wanted to spend some time with Scott.
“Tell ‘im ol’ Harlan is out of the country,” Johnny told his father. “That might set his mind at ease a bit.”
They met up again for dinner at Bessie Sue’s. She clucked over them and had no kind words for the sheriff locking Scott up. Poor Val, Johnny thought, doing his job and incurring everyone’s wrath for it. Murdoch had already received a response from Jarrod Barkley. The man was too busy to take Scott’s case himself, but he recommended one Arthur Reynolds as an excellent criminal attorney, one that Jarrod would hire himself if he needed one. The man practiced in San José, so it wouldn’t be too long of a journey to get to Green River.
Johnny told Murdoch that he had found nothing more at the line shack. The smell was still extremely strong and they discussed burning it down once Val said they could. “How did Scott seem?”
Murdoch sighed. “Frustrated, impatient, angry.”
“Did ya tell ‘im about Harlan? Did that ease his mind any?”
“It seemed to, but then he seemed to grow anxious because Harlan wouldn’t be able to help him.”
“Hey, Lancer takes care of its own, or did you forget to tell ‘im that?”
Murdoch finished his stew, wiped his mouth, and set the napkin down before he spoke. “Johnny, your brother’s grandfather took care of him for the first twenty-four years of his life. It was Harlan who dealt with all of Scott’s hurts and problems, Harlan who brought him back from the brink of death after the War. Scott naturally turns to him when he’s in trouble. We might not like it or understand it, but that’s the way it is, and we have to accept it.”
Johnny hung his head and nodded. “But he’s got us now.”
“Yes, he does,” Murdoch affirmed, “but it doesn’t hurt to get help from wherever you can find it.”
Johnny nodded again. “I’d like to stay with ‘im, Murdoch. I know we’re a bit short-handed, but I just feel the need to be with ‘im.”
“Actually, I was going to suggest that. You’re the one he trusts the most. You seem to know the right things to say to him. He needs you here more than I need you at Lancer. Just so you know, Connie and Teresa want to visit him as much as possible.”
Johnny groaned. “Their mother-hennin’ drives ‘im crazy. I know you can’t keep ‘em away forever, but could ya hold ‘em off as much as you can?”
Murdoch chuckled. “I’ll try, but you know what’s it like when those two put their minds to something.”
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, I do, but do it anyway. For Scott.”
Murdoch held up his wineglass as if making a toast. “For Scott.”
Arthur Reynolds agreed to be Scott’s lawyer after accepting a fee that was fifty percent higher than usual. He had some business to wrap up but would be in Green River about a week before the trial. That task being done, Johnny spent most of his days helping Scott deal with all the well-wishers who came by the jail. He shouldn’t have been surprised at the number of people Scott had befriended. His brother was a likeable fellow, always ready to help where he could. He’d procured books for the schoolhouses in both Morro Coyo and Green River. Half of the books for Morro Coyo had thoughtfully been in Spanish. He’d had all his books from Boston sent out West and started a lending library in Green River. He’d helped rebuild the saloon in Spanish Wells when it had burned down. Well, all the men had helped rebuild it and quickly, but Scott had pitched in, too. He’d paid for Widow Hargis’ store window that had been broken during Zee’s robbery.
One day Johnny and Val rode over to Morro Coyo to ask some more people there about Jefferson Turnbull. They hadn’t gotten any more helpful information, but it had been a very pleasant day spent with Val. Johnny loved being in the saddle on such glorious sunny days. It only made him sad that Scott was stuck in a dreary jail cell day after beautiful day.
Connie sat outside Scott’s cell knitting to keep her hands busy. Teresa had gone on some errand, so it was just she and her handsome Scott in the cell block. Deputy Harper stuck his head in the room, and she asked whether she could be inside the cell with Scott. He shrugged and unlocked the cell and then locked it again after her. She sat on the cot and gathered her love in her arms. His melancholy head rested on her right breast. She fervently wished she could just open her bodice and let him suckle her breast. Her breasts ached to feel his lips on them. But they were in a public place, so that couldn’t happen. Instead, she petted his head and cooed soft, consoling words to him. They sat there like that for some time before Scott raised his head and stared soulfully into her eyes. She lowered her face to his and their lips joined for a sweet kiss. Then they joined again for a more passionate one. Again and again they kissed, each one more passionate than the last. His hand snaked between her thighs, and she widened them in invitation. A finger entered her womanhood and found her dripping wet. Another finger found its way in and soon waves of pleasure overcame her as his fingers penetrated her over and over and rubbed against her special, sensitive spot. She clutched him and held his head between her breasts as he sent her over the edge into ecstasy. After she had recovered, he gave her one last, passionate kiss before they separated, hearing Teresa speaking to the deputy in the office.
Dex stuck his head into the cellblock to see if Scott needed anything. Mrs. Lancer was sitting in a chair knitting outside the cell. She smiled sweetly and asked whether she could be let into the cell with Scott. He caught the brief look of horror on Scott’s face at the request.
“No, ma’am. I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” Dex answered. He thought Scott sighed in relief. Mrs. Lancer looked put out. She asked again, a bit more forcefully, but Dex held firm. It was the least he could do for Scott. He and Scott had passed pleasant evenings playing poker and Scott had bought a round of drinks for him and his friends the day Val had offered him the job of deputy.
Not long after, pretty Teresa O’Brien had come back in, and he let her into the cellblock to join the still knitting Mrs. Lancer.
Marshal Matthew Decker was tired of being jostled around in the stagecoach. He was more irritated than usual because his traveling companion, one Mr. Harold Mortimer, Esq., attorney at law, was again prattling on about one of his cases that he thought was similar to Scott Lancer’s. Most of his stories ended with accounts of how brilliant he’d been in bringing the accused to justice. Normally, the lawman would just tune him out, but Mortimer’s grating voice just cut through all his attempts to ignore the man. He’d been asked by the Lt. Governor to go down to this backwater town and see to it that everything was done by the book. Murdoch Lancer was an important man in the state and a case against his son needed to be handled perfectly. Why that included the pompous ass Mortimer, Decker couldn’t fathom, but if the state wanted everything to be by the book, he was their man. Decker prided himself on his knowledge of procedure of criminal cases at least from the incarceration standpoint, which was probably a lot more than the local sheriff…Crawford?…did. Mortimer finally stopped talking, so Decker gave him a slight nod, pulled the brim of his hat over his face, and pretended to go to sleep.
Harold Mortimer finished relating his story and looked at the marshal for some kind of reaction to it. The man just pulled his hat over his face. Really! All he was trying to do was make the time pass more quickly in this god-forsaken conveyance. The marshal looked like he wanted nothing to do with him. Well, getting paired with this giant of a taciturn man was no picnic for him either. Decker was all business and very little else. Life was sure to get better when they reached Green River and met up with Judge Elmont and his bailiff as the circuit judge made his rounds of the smaller towns in the valley. Actually, there was very little that could deter him from his happiness at being assigned the Lancer case to prosecute. A victory in the Lancer trial would be a pivotal stepping-stone in his run for governor. Everyone in Sacramento knew of the ties between Lancer and the Lt. Governor. Bringing Lancer down would open the door to bringing the Governor and Lt. Governor down with him, and he was just the man to walk through that open door.
Everyone in the capital had such respect for Murdoch Lancer. Well, this trial should topple the rancher from his pedestal. Maybe not topple him but make him very tipsy. Murdoch wasn’t directly responsible for the actions of his son, but the son’s transgressions would have ramifications to the Lancer name. That was always the fear of parents of their children, wasn’t it—that they would tarnish the family name? He’d let Scott Lancer have his day in court and then bury him.
Mortimer smiled to himself. He couldn’t wait to get to Green River and see the evidence against the young man. Then he’d set in motion the wheels that got him many a conviction. It was good to have a detective in the family. His sister marrying Sam Winston had become such a blessing. His brother-in-law had created a business after the War that was genius. He offered to find out what happened to families’ soldiers. Sam loved a mystery and was quite adept at ferreting out information about fallen heroes on both sides of the conflict. He’d gotten quite a reputation, even when most of the conclusions were sad. The reunions between those misplaced soldiers he was able to locate had garnered quite a lot of publicity, so even when the demand to find War soldiers dwindled, he took on any other kind of missing persons assignments. To his surprise, it became a thriving business, and Sam now had many contacts throughout the eastern seaboard. Every so often, Mortimer’s cases involved someone or something back East. Sam would track the information down and wire it back in time to use in court. The look on the defendants’ faces when he presented facts that the guilty party thought would never be uncovered was priceless. It never failed to excite him. He had a feeling the Lancer case would need his brother-in-law’s expertise. Scott Lancer had arrived in California from Boston just a few years earlier. Surely the man had skeletons buried there. Yes, he had a feeling he was going to need to contact Sam shortly.
Upon arriving in Green River, Mortimer headed for the hotel while Marshal Decker immediately found the sheriff’s office. Inside he met a scruffy-looking middle-aged man and a younger looking man who looked too wet behind the ears for law enforcement. Well, everyone had to start somewhere.
“Crawford?” he addressed the older man. “I’m Matthew Decker, Federal Marshal.”
Val stood up and stretched out his hand. “Val Crawford, Marshal. Got a wire you were comin’. This here’s my deputy, Dexter Harper.”
Decker shook hands with the deputy and then walked around the office. It was clear where the door to the cells was. He opened another one and found a small room with a bed in it and little else. Crawford apparently travelled light. The last door led to a small storage closet.
“I’d like to move into your spot, Sheriff, if you don’t mind. As you know, I’m now in charge of the prisoner, and I like to be on the premises should anything happen.”
“Nothing’s gonna happen. Ain’t no more of a model prisoner than Scott Lancer, but I can bunk at the boarding house for the duration.”
Decker nodded and plunked his valise down on Val’s bed.
“I’d like to see the prisoner now.”
Decker rankled Val, the way he came bursting in like he owned the place, like he and Dex were some ignorant yahoos who didn’t know nothing. Val unlocked the door to the cellblock and ushered Decker in.
There were three people in the cellblock besides the prisoner: two women and another scruffy-looking man, a half-breed by the looks of him.
“Johnny, this here’s the marshal who’s been sent from Sacramento, Mr. Matthew Decker,” Val said.
“And who might you be?” Decker asked.
Johnny stuck out his hand. “Johnny Lancer, Scott’s brother. And this is Scott’s sister and stepmother.”
Decker tipped his hat to the women but ignored Lancer’s outstretched hand. Then turned to look at the prisoner. What he saw enraged him. The prisoner was surrounded in luxury. There were books, clothes, even a colorful quilt on the cot. “What’s he doing with all these things in his cell?” he demanded.
It was the stepmother who answered. “Just some things from the ranch to ease his time here.”
“Well, get them out immediately! This is a jail cell, not a hotel!” Decker glared at Val.
“Now, hold on, Marshal. There ain’t no reason why Scott can’t have these things. There’s no harm in it.” Johnny protested.
Before Decker could respond, the prisoner said, “It’s all right, Johnny. If the marshal wants them gone, I’ll get rid of them.” Giving his brother a placating look, he started to collect the books.
Decker was surprised at the man’s voice. It was soft and well-mannered and definitely not originating from California.
Val sighed and went to scrounge up a box. He’d dealt with these types before—by-the-book lawmen who thought their badges gave them the right to be as mean and pig—headed as they wanted. Decker had the added advantage of being an imposing man. He was around Murdoch’s age and just as tall if not as broad as Murdoch. Val knew with one look there was no humor in the man. He was a hard one, and Val pitied Scott and himself for having to deal with him for the next week and a half. He found a good-sized box he thought would do.
When he walked back to Scott’s cell, he found two teary-eyed women and Johnny Madrid. Scott had gathered all his things and handed them through the bars to Val. He picked up his quilt last.
“Oh, no, Marshal,” Connie wailed. “Not the quilt! He needs that.”
“Please don’t make him give that up. It gets cold at night without a proper blanket,” Teresa added.
Decker looked at the two tearful women and the belligerent brother. “That so?” he asked Crawford.
The sheriff nodded. “The heat from the office don’t get in this room. It can get cold at night this time of year.”
“All right, the quilt can stay.” Everyone thanked him, the stepmother profusely. “But no more things from the ranch. And from now on visiting hours will be limited.” Decker turned and walked out before they could get him to accede to anything more.
“I’m sorry, Scott,” Val said softly. “Decker’s in charge now, and it looks like he’s gonna be one mean son-of-a-bitch about it, too.”
“That’s all right, Val. I understand. These are deluxe accommodations compared to what I’ve had before. I’ll be fine,” Scott said, the last sentence directed at Johnny and the women.
“Don’t worry, Scott,” Connie said with more bravado than she felt. “We won’t let that man stop us. We’ll be here as often as we can.”
“Perhaps you should go now,” Val suggested. “We’ll wanna stay on the good side of ‘im.”
The women nodded and walked out.
“Need help with the box?” Johnny asked.
Val handed the box over to Johnny. “Don’t you stay too long either.”
“I’ll be right along,” Johnny promised. “Well, we didn’t win no prize windin’ up with him,” Johnny said of Decker.
Scott smiled ruefully. “No, we didn’t. The best I can do from now on is behave myself. You need to, too.”
“Now, you know that don’t come easy to me, brother.”
Scott laughed. “Then do it for my sake. I don’t want him spitting in my food.”
Johnny laughed, too. “I’ll give it my best shot but only for you.”
Johnny and Murdoch met the stage that was supposedly carrying Arthur Reynolds. Scott’s lawyer turned out to be a balding, middle-aged man who carried more weight around his middle than he should. But there was something in his manner that struck Johnny the right way as they exchanged pleasantries. They’d made the right choice hiring this man to represent Scott.
Johnny grabbed the man’s travelling bag and Murdoch started to direct them to the hotel, but Reynolds wasn’t having any of it.
“I’d like to see Scott first, if you don’t mind.”
They didn’t. Walking into the sheriff’s office, they were greeted by Marshal Decker. Reynolds introduced himself and asked to see his client. Decker nodded but balked when Murdoch and Johnny started to follow. “Just the lawyer,” he said.
Reynolds stopped and glared at the lawman, who stood over a head taller. “These men are with me and they’ll come with me. If I need to, I’ll make them part of my defense team. Have I made myself clear, Marshal?”
Johnny hid his grin. Damn, he liked this man, and he had met him only a few minutes ago. He followed Reynolds into the cellblock and found Scott already standing.
Scott looked terrible. Decker had forbidden the barber to shave Scott. Scott had been paying for that service since he’d been jailed. That and having a bath once a week. Decker had stopped that, too. After the incident with Dan Cassidy, Scott had explained that keeping himself clean and shaven was a priority, a luxury he indulged in to help wipe away the memory of his imprisonment during the War. Johnny had thought of shaving as a chore. He’d tried growing a beard but didn’t like the way it felt or looked. Besides, the girls liked him clean-shaven. But he understood Scott’s view of it. Now his brother looked nowhere near his well-groomed state. Nevertheless, Scott stood tall and tried to look as presentable as he could with his start of a straggly beard and his rumpled clothes.
Murdoch had sent the lawyer the basic facts of the case as they knew it. Reynolds seemed more interested in getting to know Scott than discussing the case. That impressed Johnny as well. After about forty-five minutes, Reynolds was ready to leave for the hotel. On the way out, he exchanged more words with Decker, getting some ground rules set. Satisfied, the three men walked back to the hotel. Murdoch had reserved a group of rooms there as soon as Scott had been arrested. He and Connie had one, Johnny had one, and there were a few others that could house Reynolds, Teresa, and Jelly, and Harlan, if he’d been able to make the trip.
At dinner that night, Reynolds told them that he had done some quick research on Decker once he knew which marshal had been assigned to Scott’s case. Decker was strictly by the book but not inherently mean or abusive of his power. Reynolds already knew of Harold Mortimer. The man was ambitious, which made him dangerous. He was given to using theatrics in court and, in Reynolds’ view, exaggerating just shy of lying to win his cases. This was going to be a difficult task, Reynolds told them, but after meeting Scott, he was determined to see that Scott was acquitted.
Johnny felt more hopeful after meeting Reynolds. Still, it was a long week to the trial, with Decker giving Johnny limited access to Scott. They settled into an uneasy routine: Reynolds was with Scott in the morning, Johnny and any other visitors in the afternoon, and then Scott was on his own after dinner. Val said working with Decker was like beating his head against a stone wall. It was almost a relief when the circuit judge finally showed up.
Since Green River had no formal courthouse, the meeting hall next to the church was taken over and set up as a makeshift courtroom. There was a table up front where the judge sat, and two tables down away from the judge that served the prosecution on the left and the defense on the right. A chair had been set by the judge’s table to be the witness chair. Up against the far left wall sat twelve chairs for the jury. Then there was an empty space and the rest of the room had been filled with chairs for the people who wanted to watch the trial. Val had reserved seats behind Scott’s chair for his family. Johnny preferred to lean against the back wall. He was too fidgety to sit still, and he wanted to see what everybody else was doing. The room was filling up quickly as the time of the trial neared.
Suddenly, everyone seemed to turn as one to see Scott Lancer being dragged in by the U.S. Marshal. Scott’s wrists and ankles were encircled in shackles with a chain linking the wrist chains to the ankle chains. The chain connecting the hands to the feet were too short for a man of Scott’s height, so he was bent over and shuffled awkwardly to meet Decker’s long strides. He already looked guilty. Decker deposited Scott in a chair at the defense table and began the drawn-out task of undoing all the metal. Johnny thought the marshal was being a bit too showy about it, but Val’s hand on his arm settled him. It wouldn’t do Scott any good for him to take a swing at Decker. But, oh, he wanted to!
Reynolds strenuously objected to Scott being brought in shackled and chained. He argued it was prejudicing the jury.
“The man is accused of cold-blooded murder,” Judge Elmont said. “I find Marshal Decker’s cautions completely justified.”
And Johnny could see how this trial was going to go—against his brother. At least they had managed to get Scott bathed, shaved, and in clean clothes, albeit under Decker’s close scrutiny. When the marshal saw Scott’s scarred back, Johnny was glad to see at least a ripple of humanity cross the man’s face. Reynolds had been present, too, along with Murdoch and Johnny to ensure Scott wasn’t mistreated. Johnny knew bathing in front of strangers had to have mortified Scott. Nevertheless, once the chains were off, Scott sat up straight and proud. Again, Johnny felt so humbled and blessed to have a brother of Scott’s caliber and fortitude.
The morning of the first day of Scott’s trial was spent in selecting the jury and swearing them in. Johnny knew five of the men, knew of four more, and three were completely unknown to him; however, they looked like real respectable fellas. He didn’t think any of them held a grudge against his brother. He knew only a handful of men who might hold a grudge against Scott, and as far as he knew, none of those boys were still around the area. All of them had been envious of his brother’s looks and breeding. He did make it difficult for the plainer gentlemen trying to court a girl and having how handsome, charming, smart, and mannerly Scott Lancer was thrown in their faces. Unknowingly, Scott Lancer had set a bar for the local ladies few cowboys could reach without a college degree. Johnny found it terribly amusing. Of course, Scott couldn’t hold a candle to the “dangerous” Johnny Madrid. That reputation had the girls swooning for him before he even opened his mouth.
He and Val tried to look casual as they lounged in back of the meeting hall. Val had told Johnny to look for strangers attending the trial. Lots of times the guilty party would show up to watch the trial, getting a sick pleasure at seeing someone innocent be convicted for a crime he committed. Johnny spotted a number of guys he’d never seen before.
Both attorneys gave their opening speeches. Reynolds had been right about Mortimer’s style. It was short and to the point: all evidence would conclusively prove that Scott Lancer was guilty. Reynolds countered with Scott being an upright citizen and lacking the opportunity and the motive to kill Jefferson Turnbull. Reynolds had explained to Johnny that having a motive to commit the crime was real important. Mortimer would have to provide one, and Reynolds didn’t think he could do that. It was Scott’s ticket to an acquittal. Johnny prayed he was right.
After lunch, the judge called on Mr. Mortimer to call his first witness. That had been the hotel manager in Morro Coyo. He testified that a Jefferson Turnbull had registered as a guest on the sixteenth and seventeenth of February. Then he had checked out and had not left a forwarding address. Next, Mortimer called Lancer’s ranch hand, Walt.
“You discovered the body?” Mortimer asked after Walt was sworn in.
“Please tell the court about that.”
“Well, Mister Lancer told me…”
“Excuse me, Mr. Phillips, but there are several Mr. Lancers here today. Would you please specify to which Mr. Lancer you are referring?”
“Yes, sir. The Boss, Murdoch Lancer.”
“Well, Mr. Murdoch Lancer told me to make the rounds of some of the line shacks and see what needed to be done. You know, any repairs that needed doing or supplies that needed to be restocked. I was at the second one, the one farthest north, and that’s where he was.”
“’He’ refers the deceased, Mr. Turnbull?”
“Yeah, but I didn’t know his name at the time. I rode up to the cabin and I could tell right away something was wrong. The door was open and…and it smelled real bad. I got my rifle in case it was a wounded animal or something and put my bandana over my nose ‘cause of the smell.”
“What happened next?”
“I saw him lying on the floor by the table. You could tell he’d been there a while. He was kinda bloated up and there were all sorts of insects on him and buzzing around. Looked like he might have been chewed on by some animal, too.”
“What did you do then?”
“I rode right back to the hacienda to tell the boss, er…Mister Lancer, Murdoch Lancer. He sent Frank to the sheriff’s office and then rode back with me to the line shack. He made sure we were real careful about where we stepped and where we tied our horses up. He didn’t want to mess up any evidence before the sheriff got there. Then we just waited. Took about two hours before Sheriff Crawford arrived with Johnny and the undertaker.”
“Anything else you remember that might be pertinent to this case?”
Walt shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“Well?” Mortimer pressed.
Mortimer realized the cowhand didn’t know what he was asking. “Do you have anything to add that you think the jury might need to hear?”
“Just that Scott didn’t do it. No how. Not Mr. Scott.”
“Judge?” Mortimer said exasperated.
“The jury will disregard that last remark,” the judge stated. “Are you through with this witness?” he asked Mortimer. At the attorney’s nod, he said, “Cross-examine, Mr. Reynolds?”
Reynolds shook his head. “No, your honor.”
“You can leave the witness chair, Mr. Phillips,” Mortimer said dismissively, and Walt sprang from his chair as if it had burned him. He gave Scott a sympathetic look as he passed him.
“I call Sheriff Valentine Crawford to the stand,” Mortimer bellowed.
Val sauntered up to the stand and took his oath, trying not to seethe at the prosecutor’s use of his full name.
“Sheriff, how long have you been sheriff of Green River?” Mortimer asked as Val sat down.
“Two years or thereabouts.”
“And how long have you known the defendant?”
“Scott Lancer was here when I took the job, so two years or thereabouts,” Val answered coolly. “Scott Lancer is the most honorable, law-abidin’ citizen I ever did meet.”
Mortimer glared at the sheriff. He knew better! “Please keep your opinions to yourself and just answer my questions,” Mortimer sneered. “Now describe for the jury what happened on March twenty-first after the Lancer ranch hand informed you of the death at the line shack.”
“Well, one of the Lancer hands, Frank, came in and told me about the dead man, and seein’ how Johnny Lancer was right there, he said he’d come out with me, since he knew a shortcut to where the place was. We grabbed the undertaker and all four of us went to the line shack and met up with Murdoch Lancer and Walt.”
“And what did you discover?”
Val let out a sigh. All he had done was to pause to get some spit back into his mouth and this popinjay just had to pop in. The man must love to hear himself talk.
“Murdoch and Walt were trying to save the man’s horse, which was tied up in the lean-to and dyin’ from thirst. We tried all we could to save it, but we couldn’t. Then I sent Johnny to look for any tracks around the cabin and told everyone else to back up and let me do my job. The body was lyin’ on the floor. It was obvious some critters had gotten in there; the corpse was pretty chewed up. It was also obvious that the man had been shot in the head. It wasn’t until Earl…”
“Earl Stubbs, the undertaker. Wasn’t until later in the day when he got to cleanin’ ‘im up the best he could that we found out he’d been shot in the chest, too. I checked his pockets to see if there was any identification…”
“…And did you find any?”
Val sighed. This man was really getting on his nerves. “There was an opened letter addressed to Jefferson Turnbull, so that’s who I figured was dead. There were a couple of other papers that had that name on ‘em, too. Both of the front pockets were turned out. I figured someone went through his pockets. There wasn’t any money on ’im, so I figured the killer robbed ‘im. That should let Scott off the hook. He don’t need any money, seein’ how he’s got more money than all of us here put together.”
Scott ducked his head in embarrassment. He was never one to bring up his fortunate financial situation.
“Simply tell us what you saw, Sheriff. We’ll make our own conclusions as to what it means,” Mortimer chastised.
Val glared at the prosecutor for a few seconds and then continued. “Oh, and his boots were off. Then I went out to look for tracks and talk to Johnny. We found three sets of boot prints besides Walt’s plain as day right around the cabin. One set looked like they belonged to the dead guy…er…Turnbull and we matched it up pretty good. The other two we couldn’t figure out and assumed one was the killer’s. Johnny had found some hoofprints farther back. Found one spent cartridge outside the cabin window and two by the body. That was all the evidence we could find there at that time, so we got everybody else to help us load Turnbull into Earl’s wagon.”
“What did you do next?”
Val shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, it was what Johnny did. He told me the hoofprints were from Scott’s horse. Seems when the horse was shod, Johnny had special nicks put into the shoe, so you could identify it.”
“Why did he do that?”
“Well, you’d have to ask him that.”
“I certainly will.”
“Well, that put Scott Lancer as the lead suspect in the case.”
“So you arrested him.”
“Not right away, no.”
“Well, first of all, Murdoch Lancer said he wasn’t at the ranch. He was out on the range, and I weren’t gonna ride all over creation lookin’ for ‘im.”
Mortimer interrupted him again. “Why not? Scott Lancer could have been running away to Mexico!”
Val looked stunned. “Scott? He wouldn’t do that.” He had to admit to himself that, foolishly, the idea had never crossed his mind.
“How do you know he wouldn’t, especially if he’d murdered someone?”
“Because I know Scott Lancer.” Val looked at the jury. “Most all of you know Scott, too. You know he wouldn’ta run away from somethin’ like this.” He was pleased to see the majority of the jury nod in agreement. “’Sides, if he’d wanted to run, he’d a done it right after he’d shot the guy. The body had been there for a while.”
Mortimer was starting to sputter, but Val just kept on talking. “Second of all, I wanted to help Earl with the dead guy and get the doc to take a look at ‘’im, and finally, I wanted to make sure of the casings—what gun they came outta.”
Mortimer had recovered his calm but intense demeanor. “What gun did they come out of?”
“Any gun that took a .44 bullet.”
“And did you know of anyone who owned a gun that took those bullets?”
“The only one I knew of right off was Scott Lancer. Knew he bought a Smith and Wesson last year. He showed it to me real proud like. Weird though, I never saw ‘im wearin’ it. But a Colt takes a .44, too.”
“When did you arrest Scott Lancer?” This sheriff seemed to enjoy adding his opinions to everything, Mortimer thought. If he kept doing it, Mortimer would have to remind him again to just answer the questions without embellishment.
“The next day. I went out to see if he’d come back in. He hadn’t, but Murdoch let me search his room. There I found the Smith and Wesson in the table by his bed. Three rounds were missin’.
“And what caliber bullet does a Smith and Wesson take?”
Val shifted uncomfortably. “Like I said, a .44.”
“Go on. What else did you find?”
“Then I found a pair of muddy boots in his closet.”
“Where in his closet?”
“Way in the back.”
“Like he was trying to hide them?”
“I don’t know ‘bout that. Coulda been they was right where they belonged.”
“And did the boots match the boot prints at the crime scene?”
“Yes and no.”
“Yes and no? Please explain, Sheriff.”
“Well, when I took ‘em out to the shack, the bootheels matched and there were some ridges that matched some ridges in the boots. But it was a funny thing: there were no prints that included the toe.”
“Could they have been erased by the rain we’d had around that time?”
“I’d say no. In fact, the weather conditions were perfect for preservin’ the boot prints and hoofprints, just baked ‘em right in after that bad rain.”
“What else did you find regarding the boots?”
“Well, it looked like they had some blood on ‘em. Doc said later it was blood on ‘em.”
“So, based on all the evidence, you arrested Scott Lancer.”
“Yeah. I waited at the ranch ‘til he come back and arrested ‘im.”
“Did he resist arrest?”
“Well, he was real surprised and asked why and all, but he didn’t physically resist me.”
“Because he knew of his guilt.”
“Objection!” Reynolds shouted.
“Sustained. Confine yourself to questions rather than speculations, Counselor,” Elmont ordered.
“My apologies, Judge,” Mortimer murmured. Looking at Crawford, he said, “I have no further questions for the sheriff.”
Reynolds rose. “Yes, your honor. I have a few questions. “What do you think caused only the partial boot prints?”
“Objection, your honor,” Mortimer said. “Calls for speculation.”
“But given he’s a lawman, he’s the closest thing we’ve got to an expert in these matters. Surely, he’s allowed to speculate if anyone is.” Reynolds countered.
“Objection overruled. You may answer the question, Sheriff.”
“I don’t know, unless Scott walked only on his heels there. I don’t see ‘im doin’ that.”
“Secondly, you say there was blood on the boots and the doctor confirmed it. Are you certain it was human blood? Scott Lancer works at a cattle ranch. He could have gotten animal blood on his boots by any number of animals—cows, horses, dogs…”
“Doc Jenkins said it was human blood.”
“Even then, the blood stains could have been the defendant’s own blood.”
“I reckon it could.”
“Finally, you say you asked Murdoch Lancer if you could search Scott’s room. Why didn’t you wait and ask the defendant himself when he came back? After all, it was his room and his possessions you wanted to search.”
“Just thought I’d do it while I was waitin’. Wasn’t nothing else to do.”
“I maintain you engaged in unlawful search and seizure, Sheriff. Scott Lancer is an adult, and as such, his father’s assent does not substitute for his own. The proper procedure would have been to wait for the defendant to appear and then ask him directly. Did you even have a search warrant with you, Mr. Crawford?”
“Well, no. That’s not how we do things out here.”
“You don’t follow Constitutional law, the Fourth Amendment?”
Val’s spine stiffened. “Not when there’s no judge in the area. That could take weeks to find a judge. We hafta wait until one decides to come around, ain’t that right, judge?”
Elmont was surprised by the question. He wasn’t used to that.
Reynolds saved him the trouble of answering. “I move that all the ‘evidence’ collected from the defendant’s room be inadmissible.” That would remove the most damning evidence—the bloody boots and the gun.
The statement caused quite a stir in the courtroom. Elmont banged his gavel several times. “I’m going to continue to allow it.” He and Reynolds glared at each other for a few seconds before Reynolds said, “No more questions, Sheriff.”
“You may step down,” Elmont said to Val and then looked at Mortimer. “Next witness?”
“The prosecution calls Johnny Lancer to the stand.”
Amid murmurs from the spectators, Johnny straightened from the back wall he was leaning on and took his own sweet time about getting to the witness stand. He was sworn in and sat down heavily. He gave Scott a wink.
“Judge, I would like to designate Mr. Johnny Lancer as a hostile witness.”
Judge Elmont turned to Johnny. “Are you opposed to the prosecution calling you as a witness, Mr. Lancer?”
“I’m opposed to anything that might hurt my brother, Judge.”
Elmont turned back to Mortimer. “So designated, Mr. Mortimer.”
Johnny was irritated. Hostile witness indeed! Well, as long as he was tagged as one, he might as well play the part. He gave Mortimer his iciest stare.
Mortimer swallowed hard. “Er, Mr. Lancer, could you tell the jury how you identified the hoofprints near the line cabin as your brother’s?”
Johnny waited a few seconds. Then he drawled, “Yeah, I could.”
There were titters in the crowd, and Johnny saw Scott dip his head so the jury wouldn’t see him smile.
Mortimer was flustered. “Will you tell the jury how you identified the hoofprints as belonging to your brother’s horse?”
Again, Johnny waited some seconds. It must have felt like minutes to Mortimer.
“Answer the question, Mr. Lancer,” Elmont said, “or I’ll hold you in contempt of court.”
Scott gave Johnny an encouraging nod.
“I put a special double notch in the right foreleg shoe, so I’d know it was Rembrandt.”
“That’s the funny name Scott gave his horse.”
There were more chuckles, loud enough that Elmont banged his gavel and told everyone to be quiet or he’d have the room cleared.
“Why did you do that to Rembrandt’s shoe?”
“To make it easier for me to track Scott,” Johnny patiently explained, making it clear that he thought Mortimer was an idiot for not figuring that out.
“Do you need to track Scott Lancer?”
“I sure do.”
“Because he gets ‘imself in all kinds of trouble and I hafta get ‘im outta it.” Johnny saw Scott hang his head, whether it was from amusement or embarrassment, he couldn’t tell. Murdoch was scowling. Johnny knew his father was finding out about it for the first time.
Mortimer seemed intrigued. “And what sorts of trouble does Scott Lancer get himself into?”
“Objection!” Reynolds called out. “This bears no relevance to this case.”
“It’s relevant to Scott Lancer’s character, Judge,” Mortimer countered.
“I’ll allow it. Answer the question, Mr. Lancer,” Elmont instructed Johnny.
“Well,” Johnny leaned back casually, “let’s see. Mostly it’s just him gettin’ lost. He’ll escort some pretty gal back to her place bein’ such a gentleman and all, like them white knights in the stories he reads, and then not know how to get back to the ranch from there. He’s not from around here, ya know. Back where he comes from, they give their streets names so folks can figure out where they are. Imagine that! But all this space out here with no names, he gets lost pretty easy even after all this time, and then who knows where he’ll end up. And I’m expected to find ‘im. So I had his horse’s shoe notched so I could pick up his trail easy. You can’t imagine some of the weird-ass places I’ve found ‘im.”
The spectators couldn’t keep from laughing, and the judge had to pound his gavel many times before the crowd settled down. Elmont didn’t clear the room; he was having a hard time keeping from laughing himself. Johnny gave Scott another wink and Scott half-smiled back at him. Even Murdoch seemed amused. Connie never wavered from her worried look.
“One more question, Mr. Lancer. Do you agree with Sheriff Crawford about the partial boot prints found near the cabin?” Mortimer asked.
“I agree they were partial—only the heel parts and halfway up to the toe.”
“Do you have an explanation for that?”
This time Johnny didn’t hesitate. “I do.”
“What is your theory?”
“Don’t know if it’s a theory. I just think someone with a smaller foot was wearin’ Scott’s boots.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
Johnny practically gaped at the man. He turned to the jury and said, “To make it look like my brother did it, when all of you sittin’ there know Scott wouldn’t kill a man in cold blood. He’s been set up!”
“Judge…” Mortimer pleaded.
“Jury will disregard that last statement,” Elmont ordered.
“No more questions for this witness, your honor.” Mortimer said, relief evident in his voice.
“Cross-examination?” Elmont asked Reynolds and again Scott’s lawyer declined. Johnny had done an excellent job of putting a seed of doubt into the jury’s mind. Reynolds thought it best to let it just sit there and develop roots.
Mortimer called both the undertaker and Doctor Samuel Jenkins to establish cause of death and the appalling condition of the corpse, confident the grizzliness crime would warrant the death penalty after such vivid and horrific descriptions. The doctor also confirmed the bloodstains on the boots were human blood. Whether they were from Jefferson Turnbull or Scott or some other person, he couldn’t say. When Mortimer said the prosecution was resting, Judge Elmont called a halt to the proceedings. The defense would start tomorrow, but Mortimer retained the right to call additional witnesses if need be.
Johnny walked with Val and Decker as they escorted Scott back to his cell. Decker refused to let Johnny or any of the Lancers into the building. After a few minutes, Val came outside. Johnny was waiting for him.
“What’s he got up his ass?” Johnny asked.
“Decker? He thinks you’re going to try to spring Scott outta jail.”
“All we wanna do is be with Scott durin’ this.”
“I know. I tried to convince Decker of that, but he’s not having any of it. Once he found out you used to be Johnny Madrid, he’s become even more hard-assed.”
“Who told ‘im that?”
Johnny made a dismissive noise. “’Sides, I don’t need to be inside the jail to bust Scott outta it.”
“I know that, too, but Decker’s a federal marshal and he’s got jurisdiction. That means he’s in charge and I gotta do things his way.”
“Does that mean I can’t buy ya a drink?”
“Not sure that would look good, amigo. I don’t want to do anything to hurt Scott’s case.”
“’Preciate that, but I wanted to go over my observations with you.”
“Yeah, me, too. How ‘bout you sit on the bench in front of the emporium, and I’ll join you in a spell, all above board and innocent in plain view of everyone.”
Johnny nodded and sauntered over to the bench.
“Your murderin’ brother’s gonna hang, Madrid!”
Johnny looked over toward where the shout had originated. Mel Stookey. No surprise there except for the fact that the coward had mustered up enough nerve to say anything. “You wanna come over and say that to me face to face, Stookey?”
“He’s gonnna hang!” Stookey yelled again and then ran back into an alley.
A couple of minutes later, a man spit at his boots. Then another right after. Johnny glared at them. “I’m rememberin’, gents, and I got a long memory,” he called after them.
Finally, Val came over and sat down beside him.
“’Bout time,” Johnny groused. “I could shine my boots with all the spit thrown my way waitin’ for you.”
“Just seein’ to Scott. That all right with you?” Val groused back. “I can’t stay too long. I’m ‘sposed to be gettin’ Scott’s dinner in a bit.”
Johnny nodded. “I got six strangers in court today.”
“I got four.”
They compared notes and Johnny eliminated two of them. They were new residents to the town whom Val recognized but he didn’t. Of the four remaining, they eliminated the small, balding man with the bow tie who was frantically writing down everything in a notepad. Val figured he was a reporter. That left three men: two who looked like any other cowhand in the territory and an old codger who looked like he had just cleaned himself up. His clothes had the creases of a newly bought shirt and pair of pants, his hair looked too recently cut, his face ruddy from being unused to having a razor run across it.
Johnny volunteered to get information on them, but Val nixed the idea. “I’ll do it. You sniffin’ around will cause ‘em to run. As sheriff of this town, I got more of a right to inquire into their business. If they’re in the saloon tonight, I’ll talk to ‘em.”
“Then I’ll see you there.”
“No, mi amigo, you will not. You’ll be with your family tonight.”
Johnny was about to protest vehemently, but Val cut him off. “Do you trust me, Madrid?”
Val hadn’t called him “Madrid” in a long while. Johnny hung his head. “With my life, you know that. But this is Scott’s life we’re talkin’ about.”
“So it’s even more reason to trust me. Let me handle this tonight. I’ll come by the hotel tonight and tell you everything I find out.”
Johnny looked at him and Val could see the despair in his friend’s eyes. It was the pain born from feeling helpless at solving a loved one’s predicament, from being unable to do anything. Johnny was a man of action and asking him to wait, to do nothing, was taking a toll on him.
Finally, Johnny nodded and walked toward the hotel, and Val went to get Scott’s dinner from Bessie Sue, the boarding house owner.
It was nearly midnight when Johnny heard the soft rap on his door. He let Val in and turned up the lamp.
“What did ya find out?” Johnny asked.
“Not much,” Val admitted. “I was right about the bald one. He’s a reporter from the Sacramento paper. The other three say they’re just passin’ through and were curious about the big trial.”
“Did you get their names?”
“The old guy’s name is Yarnell. The other two are Collins and Montrose. Collins is the blond.”
“What do you think?”
“I think Montrose is harmless. He seems too dumb to plan a scheme as complicated as this. But Collins and Yarnell rubbed me the wrong way. Just somethin’ about ‘em set my hackles off. Collins’ eyes kept shiftin’ when I was talkin’ to ‘im, and Yarnell acts like he ain’t been in human company for years.”
Johnny nodded. “I’ll keep my eye out for ’em, then.”
“Decker’s watchin’ me like a hawk. He prob’ly thinks I’m gonna help you spring Scott.”
“Well, you will, won’t ya?”
Val frowned. “Don’t you even kid about that, boy. Decker will lock you up in a heartbeat if he thought you were plannin’ somethin’.”
“At least I’d be close to Scott. How’s he doin’?”
“Not too good. Decker seems hell-bent on makin’ Scott’s life as miserable as he can. Why, I don’t know. But he’s succeedin’. Scott’s got nothin’ else to do but brood about his situation. He’s off his feed and his sleep. He lays on that cot with his eyes closed, but he ain’t sleepin’ none.”
“Scott’s tough. He survived the War; he’ll survive this.”
Val rose and stopped at the door. “Don’t give up hope, amigo. Reynolds seems like he knows what he’s doin’.”
Johnny just nodded as Val left. He was off his feed and sleep, too.
The next morning the defense began its case. Reynolds called several witnesses to establish Scott’s character, but he didn’t call Murdoch or Johnny, as the jury would find their testimony understandably biased. Reynolds did call Jelly, Teresa, and even Eulalia Hargis, who recalled Scott’s principled and almost heroic actions against Tom Mangrum. Scott had been willing to die to uphold the law against a notoriously ruthless outlaw. The woman scolded the judge for presiding over “this nonsense.” Reynolds thought her testimony was priceless. Everyone wanted these preliminaries to be over. They were all waiting for the main event.
“The defense calls Scott Lancer to the stand,” Reynolds intoned. It seemed everyone in the courtroom shifted in their seats, either from nerves or excitement.
Johnny had begged Scott to get a good night’s sleep, but he knew it was a futile request. His brother looked haggard and drawn. He looked guilty already. Johnny tried to give him an encouraging nod. Besides, a motive had yet to be presented, and Reynolds was counting on that glaring gap in the prosecution’s case to win Scott’s freedom. Johnny fervently prayed the lawyer was right.
Reynolds went painstakingly slow through Scott’s service in the army, asking for detailed explanations of Scott’s medals. When Mortimer objected on the grounds of irrelevance, Reynolds was quick to say it had bearing on Scott’s character. Mortimer thought it was all right for him to ask questions about Scott’s character, so it should be all right for Reynolds to ask those sorts of questions, too. Johnny cringed at hearing the battle scenes and what Scott was ordered to do. That his brother had ridden between the lines to deliver messages to the other Union divisions and lived to tell the tale left Johnny horrified and proud at the same time. He couldn’t see Murdoch’s face, but he knew he must be feeling the same way. Scott didn’t like to talk about what he did in the War. Now he knew why—it would have given them nightmares for a month, and, Lord knows, they each had their share of their own nightmares without adding the others’ to them.
Then Reynolds had emphasized Scott’s Harvard education, noting that Scott had received an A in his Ethics course. He walked Scott more quickly through his encounters with Polly Foley and Zee “Mangrum,” stressing Scott’s high moral actions each time. Then the real questioning began.
“Scott, can you please tell the court where you were during the last week in February of this year?”
“Yes, sir. I was down in the southeast quadrant of the ranch, assessing what repairs were needed there before we moved to main herd to the southeast pasture.”
“Was anyone else with you at that time?”
“No, I was alone.”
“Is that unusual?”
“No, I didn’t think so at the time. It’s not a difficult task. One man can easily handle it.”
“Do you remember the bad storm that week?”
“Very much so. It put me a day behind my schedule.”
“Where were you during the storm?”
“At one of our line shacks. All I could do was wait the storm out.”
“What did you do during the storm?”
Scott looked confused.
“You didn’t venture out to the northwest line shack?”
“No! I read my book.”
Reynolds acted astonished. He knew many in the courtroom would be surprised. “Do you always have a book with you while doing your chores?”
That answer caused some murmurs. These men were ranchers and farmers. There was little time for books in their lives. Reynolds wondered how many of them even knew how to read.
“I like to read during my breaks and such. And it passes the time when stuck in a cabin during a thunderstorm.” Scott gave a small half-smile.
“And what book passed the time for you then?”
“Emerson’s The Conduct of Life.”
Mortimer yawned theatrically. “Judge? Relevance?”
“Yes, yes. Move on, Mr. Reynolds. I think the jury has heard enough about Mr. Lancer’s character.”
“Of course, Judge,” Reynolds said, smiling. He was boring them all to death with Scott’s noble nature. He was thrilled to have gotten the name of the book into the conversation before Mortimer had objected. It was further evidence of Scott Lancer being a mild-mannered scholar rather than a low-down, cold-blooded murderer.
“And after the storm? What did you do then?”
“What I was supposed to do: check the fence lines, bridges, streams, and such.”
“How long did that take you?”
“Another four days after the storm.”
“Did you at any time ride to the northwest quadrant of the property?”
“Now let’s address some the so-called evidence produced against you. First, the evidence of your horse being at the scene of the crime. How do you explain that?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t even riding Rembrandt. After a day out, he started having trouble with his left hind leg. I checked for a stone but couldn’t find one. His fetlock seemed swollen, so I got him back to the ranch as quickly as I could without causing further damage and found another mount. For most of my time down in the southeast corner, I was on a different horse.”
“So anyone at Lancer could have ridden your horse out to the line shack and killed Jefferson Turnbull.”
“I suppose so.” He frowned. He wished he knew who had ridden his lame horse. He would show him what for!
“Did you know your brother had marked the horseshoe?”
“No, I was unaware of that fact until after I was arrested.”
“Now, about your gun. Do you carry the Smith and Wesson on your person?”
“No, I keep it in the drawer of my bedside table.”
“Why keep a firearm in your bedroom?”
“It was on the advice of my brother. I thought it was very sound advice at the time.”
“Because my home was invaded by bandits last year.” He fought back the memories of his torture from Drago and his gang. Now was not the moment to relive that awful night. The sound of the gatling gun came unbidden into his mind. “The very next week I bought the Smith and Wesson.”
“You yourself were taken prisoner then, is that right?”
“Yes sir. My father won’t allow us to wear guns inside the house. The bandits confiscated the ones by the front door. It seemed prudent after that to have a few in other spots around the house.” Scott glanced at Murdoch and saw a nod of approval.
“No doubt your brother has a gun in his room.”
“Yes, probably more than one. I’m sure he’s hidden them throughout the house.” Scott smiled slightly at Johnny’s smirking face.
“And yours was fully loaded?”
“Did you ever have an occasion to shoot it three times?”
“No. As far as I knew, there were no bullets missing.”
“So it was a shock to learn from the sheriff that three bullets were missing?”
“Very much so.”
“Who besides yourself has access to your bedroom?”
“Anyone at Lancer. My door is usually open.”
“And who else besides you knew that you kept a gun there?”
“Johnny, certainly, and there may have been others. I think my father may have known also.”
“So, basically, anyone at the ranch could have had access to your gun, used it, and put it back in your drawer.”
“Finally, your boots. Do you wear them often?”
“No. In fact I’d forgotten I owned them. I paid good money for them, but they got wet, and the leather shrank from poor craftmanship. I don’t know why I didn’t throw them away. They didn’t fit anymore. I just threw them in the back of the armoire and forgot about them. They’re too small for my feet now.”
There was a bit of commotion among the jurors. The bailiff went over to see what the matter was. “Judge? The jury wants to know what an armor is.”
“Armoire,” Elmont corrected the pronunciation. “It’s a wardrobe.” He turned to Scott. “Please keep your language in English, Mr. Lancer.”
Scott’s cheeks reddened. All the people he knew in Boston referred to that piece of furniture as an armoire. He thought he was speaking English.
“So it couldn’t have been you in those boots around the northwest line shack.”
“But like your gun, anyone could have had access to them.”
“Scott, have you ever known a man named Jefferson Turnbull?”
“Never met him?”
“Never had dealings with him?”
“Never even heard of him?”
“So, there is no reason why you would want to do him harm?”
“So, you had no motive to kill Turnbull and no opportunity to do so, given that you were on the complete opposite side of the ranch.”
Reynolds smiled at Scott and looked at Elmont. “That’s all I have for this witness today, Judge.”
Elmont took out his pocket watch. “Court is adjourned for today. The prosecution can begin its questioning of this witness tomorrow morning at ten.” He smacked his gavel.
“All rise,” the bailiff intoned, and Scott Lancer wearily left the witness stand.
Johnny, Murdoch, and Connie waited while Decker restrained Scott again in shackles. Reynolds continued to protest their use, but it did no good. The family followed him out as Scott shuffled from the makeshift courtroom in chains.
Later that evening as the non-incarcerated Lancers had dinner with Reynolds at the hotel, they couldn’t help but be buoyed by the lawyer’s assessment of how Scott’s testimony had gone. Even Decker refusing to let them see Scott after dinner couldn’t dim the hope they had for his eventual release.
Harold Mortimer entered the courtroom slightly before ten o’clock. There was a lightness to his step. He had to fight to keep the grin off his face. Finding a man guilty of murder was serious business and he needed to look serious. The source of his joy was neatly tucked inside his vest pocket. The arrival of the telegram couldn’t have been more timely. He knew exactly how to play this new information. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on Scott Lancer.
All the usual spectators were in their usual places. The Lancers were right behind the suspect except for Johnny Lancer, who had a penchant for standing behind everyone by the door like a sentinel, his eyes constantly surveying the courtroom searching for…damned if Mortimer knew what he was searching for.
Now the defendant scuffed in, trying to look as dignified as possible, which was nearly impossible with the shackles and chains confining him. He was paying Decker twenty dollars out of his own pocket to have Lancer come in and out of the courtroom in chains. It helped the jurors see him as a criminal. Reynolds’s protests were music to his ears. He waited patiently as Decker removed Lancer’s bindings and sat the man next to Reynolds. Lancer’s face was red with shame at having been paraded bound in front of the town. Mortimer had heard the hoots and jeers directed at Lancer from the street as he entered the courtroom. Scott Lancer deserved the scorn. The man was guilty of murder and today he would prove it.
Elmont was only a few minutes late, but he bustled onto the bench after they all rose, rapped his gavel, and started the proceedings.
Scott Lancer resumed his seat on the witness chair and was reminded that he was still under oath.
“You may begin your cross-examination, Mr. Mortimer.”
“Thank you, your honor.” He rose and addressed the defendant from behind his table. “We were all very impressed with your service record, Mr. Lancer.”
Scott just stared at him, but Mortimer could sense no fear behind the gaze, only mild confusion. The man had not anticipated that he would start with this topic. But Scott Lancer should be very fearful. His fate would be sealed in just a few minutes.
“What your attorney failed to mention was your time spent as a prisoner of war.” Mortimer was pleased by the hushed gasps of the crowd. Scott Lancer’s gaze held steady, and for that, he gave the man some credit. “You were a prisoner of war, were you not?”
“Yes, sir.” The voice was soft, respectful, the gaze still steady.
This was a man to be reckoned with, seemingly impossible to rattle. Mortimer had rarely encountered a guilty man who could stay so self-composed. He decided that he would tread carefully. The War had been a terrible time for the entire country, and he didn’t want to be perceived by the jurors as bullying a war hero. “How long were you held a prisoner?”
Lancer swallowed hard. “One year, eleven days.”
Again, there were audible sounds from the spectators, mostly of commiseration.
“And where were you held?”
There was a clear “no,” and Mortimer turned to see who had spoken. It was Lancer’s stepmother. She was clutching her husband in obvious distress.
“Libby is where?”
“It was in Richmond, Virginia.”
“And your time there was unpleasant?”
Reynolds objected. “Where is this heading, your honor? We already know about Scott Lancer’s exemplary military career.”
“That’s a very good question. Mr. Mortimer, I assume you’ve got a point to make?”
“I do, your honor. If you would just indulge me a bit longer, I intend to make a very important, very crucial point.”
“Then you are overruled, Mr. Reynolds. You may continue, Mr. Mortimer, but please try not to take too long to make your point.”
“Thank you, your honor.” Then he went back to addressing the witness. “Were you beaten and starved?”
“Yes,” Scott answered through gritted teeth.
“Mr. Lancer, would you please take off your shirt and show the court your back?”
Reynolds leapt to his feet and, amid the gasps and murmurs from the crowd, cried, “Objection! Objection, your honor!”
Elmont gaveled the room quiet and then commanded the lawyers to approach his table.
“This is highly irregular, Judge!” Reynolds protested.
Elmont eyed Mortimer. He’d heard of this attorney’s dramatics. “He already admitted to being whipped,” he told the prosecutor.
Mortimer pressed his argument. “It’s crucial to the state’s case, your honor. I need the jury to actually see the damage done, not just try to imagine it.”
“Please, your honor, Scott Lancer is a modest and proud man. To turn the man’s scars into a spectacle like this…it’s indecent!” Reynolds objected.
Elmont shooed the two men away. For many seconds there was complete silence. Then Elmont said, “Bailiff, clear the room except for the jury, lawyers, and sheriffs.”
There was a great rumble of protest throughout the room, but finally the spectators were cleared. The last to leave was Johnny, who had not broken eye contact with Scott since the judge had spoken. The panic on Scott’s face was heartbreaking. Finally, Val nudged Johnny out of the room.
Outside, Johnny looked around for his father. He was always easy to spot in a crowd, usually a head taller than everyone else. Johnny walked over to him and found Connie clinging to him in near hysterics. Tears were streaming down her face as she uttered “Libby” over and over. Murdoch was trying his best to calm her down.
Connie was beside herself. Her beloved Scott a prisoner at Libby! It was too horrible to even imagine! No wonder he had closed himself off from her when she’d prattled on about Richmond while on the picnic. What a silly little ninny she’d been, thinking he was on her side, the right side, the Confederate side, during the War. She hadn’t really considered it could be otherwise. In her fantasies, he’d been a handsome officer fighting bravely for General Lee. Her fantasies wouldn’t allow her to think he was a Union soldier. But, of course, he was from Boston, in the very heart of the Union. She was a fool! He’d been just a half a day’s ride from her for over a year suffering horribly. She turned her face into Murdoch’s side and wept.
Murdoch put his arms around his wife and looked helplessly at Johnny over her head. Johnny just shrugged, looking unconcerned at Connie’s grief. Johnny never seemed too concerned with Connie’s outbursts good or bad. He sauntered back to the meeting hall’s door. All Murdoch could do was console his wife as well as he was able, which didn’t seem like much. The eyes of everyone in town seemed upon them. Thankfully, the bailiff called them back in fairly quickly. Connie collected herself admirably, and Johnny, who had made sure to re-enter first, saw Scott tuck in the last of his shirt and sit down, his embarrassed face a mask of misery. Johnny looked over at the jury. Stunned sorrow was clear on almost every face; some looked sickened. The judge and Val looked downright grim. Johnny had seen Scott’s back several times before. It was one horrendous mass of scars. He couldn’t understand it. Why would Mortimer want to make the jury even more sympathetic toward Scott?
The courtroom returned to silence quickly by Elmont’s gavel. “Proceed, Mr. Mortimer, and the reason for this last display of theatrics better be made plain.”
“Yes, of course, your honor.” Mortimer wiped his face with his handkerchief. He had never seen such vengeance wreaked upon a man’s back. This was supposed to be his moment of triumph. Instead, he felt overwhelming sorrow for Scott Lancer and what he was about to do to him. “Now, Mr. Lancer, you claim not to know Jefferson Turnbull, is that right?”
“I never heard of the man until I was arrested.”
“Oh, but I think you have. In fact, I think you knew him and quite well for over a year.”
Scott again just stared at him, perplexed at where the man was going with this line of questioning.
Mortimer walked up and stared back at Scott, trying to unnerve him. “You see, I’ve just received information this morning that Jefferson Turnbull also served in the War. But he was a Confederate soldier and was stationed…as a guard at Libby.”
The courtroom erupted in noise as he had anticipated. He heard Mrs. Lancer’s anguished “no,” but he couldn’t afford to take his eyes off the defendant. There it was: the look he had imagined in his daydreams: Scott Lancer as a frightened animal who had just been caught! Scott Lancer was rattled. Mortimer thought it was his finest moment as a lawyer. The governorship of the great state of California was in his grasp. “Do you still maintain you have no knowledge of Jefferson Turnbull?” he demanded once the room had been brought to order.
Reynolds strenuously objected before Lancer could answer. He accused Mortimer of purposefully withholding evidence from the defense. Mortimer explained the telegram had arrived only minutes before the court came in session. Elmont looked at the prosecutor skeptically. He ordered that Mortimer hand the telegram over to the court so the defense could read it and called a halt to the proceedings until two o’clock in the afternoon, so the defense could address the new information.
The courtroom emptied again, and Decker took his time shackling Scott. The marshal gave Scott a “you’re a dead man” smirk when he was done and led him from the building. Johnny was right outside and paced beside his brother.
“Don’t you worry, Scott. We’ll get to the bottom of this,” he told his brother, but even Decker could hear the uncertainty, the desperation in the former gunslinger’s voice.
Scott Lancer said nothing as he was dragged back to the jail, his head down, his feet trying desperately to keep up with Decker’s pace. The marshal knew a beaten man when he saw him. He didn’t like Mortimer all that much, but he had to hand it to the guy—he knew how to work a jury.
Decker knew he couldn’t keep Reynolds away from his prisoner, but he limited the number of people allowed to see Scott to his lawyer and his father. He could see Johnny Lancer seething at his exclusion, and that gave him no small bit of satisfaction. Damned if he was going to let Johnny Madrid intimidate him!
Murdoch sat with Reynolds outside Scott’s cell on chairs that Val had thoughtfully provided. Reynolds closed the door to the cellblock and talked in hushed tones. None of them trusted Marshal Decker. He seemed to be in cahoots with Mortimer.
“You’re sure you don’t know this Turnbull fellow?” Reynolds asked Scott again.
Scott sat on his cot, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. “Not by name. We only knew the guards’ names if one of the other guards called to them.”
“But you might have remembered his face had you seen it?”
“Maybe. Probably. The guards were there day after day like we were.”
“How bad is this?” Murdoch asked.
“Mr. Lancer, it’s hard to say…”
“You don’t have to spare my feelings, Arthur. I know it’s bad,” Scott said. He got up and started pacing in the cramped space. Suddenly he stopped. “But how would I have seen his face unless he came to the ranch?”
“What do you mean?”
“That week, the last week in February was the first time I’d left the house or barn. I’d been sick before then.”
Reynolds looked to Murdoch for confirmation.
The big rancher nodded. “Scott had been quite ill with influenza in mid-February. He almost died.”
“What day did he become ill?”
Scott and Murdoch looked at each other.
“The ninth?” Scott asked.
Murdoch nodded. “The evening of the eighth, I’d say. It took him almost a week to break the fever and another week to recover,” he told Reynolds. Then he looked at his son. “I told you that you were pushing too hard, too soon.”
“That’s why I wanted an easy task,” Scott countered.
“You asked to be in the southern pastures?”
Scott nodded at Reynolds’s question. “I asked for something I could do alone for a few days.”
“It was at your request, then, that you were separated from everyone?”
“Yes, and I was very grateful that Murdoch gave me that task. I had some thinking to do.”
“Well, let’s just hope Mortimer doesn’t hear about that,” Reynolds said.
“Why?” Scott asked.
Reynolds nearly shook his head at Scott’s naïve question. Surely, this man must be innocent to ask why so ingenuously. He was more determined than ever to clear this man of the charges.
“Because Mortimer could twist it around and say you were plotting to kill Turnbull then,” Murdoch explained. “You were setting up a convenient alibi.” Scott turned his head away, and Murdoch knew he was trying to hide his embarrassment at not having figured that out immediately. His Harvard-educated son wasn’t thinking clearly, that was certain. Lack of sleep did that to a person. Murdoch didn’t know how much more stress Scott could take.
“Let’s get back to the part about you not having left the ranch for most of February,” Reynolds suggested.
“All of February,” Scott corrected.
Murdoch again confirmed Scott’s statement. His son hadn’t gone to town since January. They spent the rest of their time getting a precise timeline of Scott’s actions for the last two months. Then Murdoch announced that Scott needed his lunch and rest and hustled Reynolds out of the jail. They would continue to strategize over lunch with Johnny’s insights, but Scott didn’t need any more strain. Murdoch would protect his boy as much as he could for as long as he could.
Matt Decker again took his own sweet time shackling Scott Lancer’s wrists and ankles, relishing the sound of the chains rattling between them. Decker had encountered this type before: rich boys who thought their money could get them out of anything. Lancer didn’t seem as arrogant as most of them, but appearances could be deceiving. The man still talked fancy and had that straight-backed, “I’m better than you” bearing.
Speaking of arrogance, Harold Mortimer exuded it like sweat. Decker could barely tolerate the man, so it pleased him that he was taking twenty dollars off him for something he would have done anyway. He was proud to be in law enforcement. It was a noble calling. It gave him a real sense of accomplishment and pride to see that justice had been done and that he’d played a part in making that happen. He knew a lot of marshals and sheriffs who were quite casual when it came to following the letter of the law, like this Crawford fellow. Decker was not one of them. He conducted his business strictly professionally.
To discover the sheriff of Green River was actually friends with the notorious Johnny Madrid had raised his hackles. There were more hackles to be raised. Johnny Madrid turned out to be the suspect’s brother. He had found Scott Lancer surrounded by luxuries. He’d dealt with that quickly. So now he had three people to keep an eye on—Madrid, Crawford, and the defendant. That irritated him, and he didn’t mind showing it.
He gave Lancer and extra hard shove out of the jail. The man almost fell and righted himself awkwardly. He didn’t say anything; guess he’d learned something from that year in Libby. The taunts and curses thrown Lancer’s way by some of the townspeople were welcome and warranted in Decker’s view. Mortimer had found a motive for Turnbull’s murder and a good one. What man could forget or forgive the man who had scarred his back so? But Lancer would still lie and vow he didn’t do it. He’d lie under oath, and that disrespect for the Bible and all it stood for infuriated Decker. He would enjoy seeing Lancer swing.
Johnny observed that the meeting hall was just as crowded today as the previous ones. Jelly and Teresa were present; Montrose was not. That knocked him of the suspect list, but Collins and Yarnell were still on it. They were sitting not too far away from one another. Johnny wondered whether they might be in cahoots. But why would either of them want to pin it on Scott? Could this be a vendetta left over from the War? Another Dan Cassidy out for revenge for something a teenager did nine years ago?
Scott was again seated in the witness chair and reminded that he was still under oath.
“Do you still claim you have no knowledge of Jefferson Turnbull, sir?” Mortimer asked.
“Without seeing his face, yes,” Scott said.
“I find that hard to believe,” Mortimer said disgustedly.
“Your honor…?” Reynolds objected wearily.
“Mr. Mortimer…” Elmont chastised just as wearily. “Jury will disregard the last statement.”
“Having established a motive for Scott Lancer to murder Jefferson Turnbull, I have no other questions.”
Elmont looked like he wanted to strangle the prosecutor for his unnecessary remarks, but he turned to Reynolds. “Cross?”
Reynolds nodded and stood up. “Scott, were you ever in town or near the line shack in February?”
“I was very ill for most of the month.”
“When did you become ill?”
“The evening of the eighth.”
“And how long did your illness last?”
“A little over two weeks. It hit me very hard, I’m afraid.”
“So you couldn’t have seen or met with Jefferson Turnbull when he was staying at the hotel on the sixteenth or the seventeenth?”
“No, sir. I was still in my sickbed and confined to my room.”
Reynolds turned to Mortimer. “I have a handful of witnesses who will testify to how long his sickness lasted. Do I need to call them?”
Mortimer shook his head no. “Prosecution will accede that was the case.”
“So there was no time that you could have seen Jefferson Turnbull during February unless he physically came to the house and went inside your bedroom himself.”
“Scott, you are a man of honor. As an officer in the calvary, you were sworn to tell the truth and uphold the Constitution. You’ve sworn on the Bible that the testimony you give is the truth. So, I’m asking you, keeping your oaths in mind, did you kill Jefferson Turnbull?”
“No, I did not.”
“The defense rests.”
Mortimer took the first closing argument. He stood over by the jury and seemingly spoke only to them. Of course, he emphasized the hoofprint, gun, and boot print. He asked the twelve men to imagine how they would feel if they encountered the man who had inflicted as much damage to their backs as Scott Lancer had on his. Wouldn’t they want to kill the bastard no matter how God-fearing and law-abiding they usually were? He reminded them that Scott Lancer had no alibi. No one had seen him the entire week. How convenient. Then he floated a couple of pretty far-fetched ways that Turnbull could have been at the line shack per Scott’s request, including having Johnny act as intermediary. Johnny shook his head and chuckled to himself at that one. Finally, Mortimer asked the jury to focus on the physical evidence. If they did, they would find Scott Lancer guilty.
Reynolds’ closing argument stressed Scott Lancer’s character—his honor and integrity. He was a War hero and an upstanding member of the community. He didn’t have the opportunity to encounter Jefferson Turnbull because of his illness. As to the physical evidence, anyone at the estancia would have had access to Scott’s boots, gun, and horse. The evidence was wholly circumstantial. There was more than reasonable doubt to find Scott Lancer innocent.
It was difficult to tell what the men on the jury thought as they were led out of the meeting hall and into the church to do their deliberations. Johnny was grateful that Reynolds and the Lancer clan were distracting Scott with quiet talk. Every so often, a friend would tap Murdoch on the shoulder and offer supportive words. Scott thanked Widow Hargis for her testimony. The Collins fellow got up and left. That surprised Johnny. If Val was right about the guilty getting a kick out of watching the innocent suffer in their place, Collins should have been riveted to the spot. That left Yarnell, who looked eager to find out the verdict.
In less than an hour, the jury returned stone-faced. None of them looked at Scott, and Val had told Johnny that was a real bad sign. It looked like Scott knew it, too.
“Have you reached a verdict?” Elmont asked.
The foreman stood up and answered, “We have, your honor.”
Elmont asked Scott to rise. Reynolds rose with him. “How do you find the defendant, Scott Lancer, in the murder of Jefferson Turnbull? Guilty or not guilty?”
The foreman swallowed hard and keeping his eyes on the judge said, “Guilty.”
Johnny didn’t know how his legs managed to hold him up. The rest of his body was numb, his breath suspended in time. The meeting hall erupted in shouting, some shouts of anger and protest at the verdict, others shouts of derision and contempt at Scott.
Elmont banged his gavel sharply until order was restored. Given how he felt, Johnny couldn’t imagine how Scott had managed to remain standing through the chaos. Reynolds had a reassuring hand on his back.
“Let’s see,” the judge was murmuring half to himself, “today is Friday. They’ll need a day to build the gallows, then it’s Sunday. Can’t hang a man on the Sabbath…” He looked straight at Scott. “Scott Lancer, as the jury has found you guilty of the murder of one Jefferson Turnbull, this court sentences you to hang by the neck until you are dead on Monday, April 14 at noon. Court is adjourned.”
Elmont almost ran out of the room, which again erupted in noise and confusion. Scott turned around to face the room, searching for one face. Where was Johnny? He couldn’t see him among all the bodies rushing around. Murdoch was hunched over Connie, who had evidently fainted when the sentence was pronounced. Jelly was consoling an anguished Teresa.
It was only Reynolds who heard Scott’s unbelieving, plaintive, “But I’m innocent!”
Connie awoke to find Teresa watching over her. Where was she? Then she remembered everything and groaned. Her Scott! Her beautiful Scott sentenced to hang! It wouldn’t happen! She’d find some way to stop that from happening. Of course, she could confess to murdering Jeff, but she didn’t want to go to prison. Perhaps she could break Scott out of jail. She would get two saddled horses, tie a rope around the bars and to the horses, and set the horses running. The bars would be pulled out as well as half the wall, and Scott would see her standing there. His savior. They would ride away never to return to Lancer again, fugitives from the law. Side by side they would roam the countryside each committed to the other for support and comfort. She wouldn’t care as long as they could be together always. Scott would love her unconditionally for saving his life. He would be hers forever.
“Connie, are you all right?” Teresa asked.
Connie still felt sleepy, but the sun was shining through the window at such an angle that she should have awoken hours ago. “What time is it? What happened?”
Teresa rose to get her a glass of water. “It’s mid-morning. Murdoch put a sleeping draught in your tea last night. He wanted to be sure you got some sleep.”
“Scott!” She rose from the bed in haste.
“Slow down. That horrid marshal won’t let anyone see Scott except his lawyer.”
“But he left for Sacramento yesterday right after the sentencing.”
“Yes, and he wired us that he made it to Stockton and was catching the morning train to Sacramento. He should be able to present his appeal to the appellate judge this afternoon. Murdoch and Johnny are waiting by the telegraph office for any news.”
Connie nodded and began to dress more slowly. Teresa kept her company while she ate breakfast. Murdoch checked in on her, and she assured him she was fine, although a bit put out because he had drugged her. He told her he didn’t want to worry about two loved ones, and she kissed him on the cheek right there in the hotel restaurant to show him she forgave him. They walked down toward the telegraph office, but Murdoch veered left and headed to the undertaker’s place. Connie knew arrangements had to be made, but she didn’t want to hear them. She left Murdoch there and took a walk.
Finally out of her husband’s prying eyes, Connie made it to the back of the jail. She stood there for a few seconds trying to see how easily she could get a rope on the bars.
“Hiya, Mrs. Lancer!” a young male voice said.
Startled, she looked around for its source. There was a teenaged boy in the tree.
“Timmy? Timmy Jackson, is that you?”
“What’re you doing in that tree?”
“Watchin’ the back of the jail for Marshal Decker. He’s payin’ me, too.”
“I hope it’s good money. That’s an important job.”
“The marshal thinks Johnny’s gonna try to bust Scott outta jail,” Timmy explained. “What’re you doin’ here, Mrs. Lancer?”
“Me?” She was figuring out how she could bust Scott out of jail. “Oh, I’m just out for a walk. It’s a lot quieter back here. It’s hard to walk out in front with all the people looking at you. Some of them say such unkind things. It’s peaceful back here.”
“I know what you mean. You’re the first person I’ve seen.”
“You’re supposed to be here all the time? What about eating and sleeping?”
“Oh, me and Bobby Whittaker spell each other. I ain’t here all day.”
“Well, that’s good. Otherwise, I’d have to have a chat with Marshal Decker about exploiting child labor.”
“Aw, I ain’t no child, ma’am. I’m fourteen!”
“Fourteen already! Well, give my regards to your family, Timmy.”
“I will, ma’am, and I sure am sorry ‘bout Mr. Scott.”
Connie just nodded and walked away. Thwarted in her plan to spring Scott from his cell, her mind was working furiously to formulate another scheme. Again, she cursed Jefferson Turnbull for ruining her almost perfect life at Lancer.
Scott laid on his cot wrapped up in his quilt and self-pity. In a way, he was glad that Decker had refused to allow him any visitors except Reynolds, who, ironically, wasn’t even in town. He didn’t have to put on a brave face and endure their pity. He had more than enough pity for himself. He was dying for a murder he didn’t commit. The injustice of it ate at his head and heart. He had staked his life on the courts finding him innocent. They hadn’t. Now he was going to die for nothing. Nothing!
When he’d enlisted in the Calvary, he had imagined dying gallantly on the battlefield after he had turned a defeat into a victory for the Union. That had been youthful nonsense, but dying on the battlefield in any form was better than hanging. He’d seen men hanged for deserting. The lucky ones had their necks snapped cleanly from the fall. The unlucky ones died from strangulation, their feet in search of something solid on which to stand and relieve the pressure against their windpipes. Scott prayed he’d be lucky Monday. Dying on the battlefield, gallantly or not, would have been preferable to his current state. At least there had been some grand purpose to the War. His death the day after tomorrow would be meaningless.
Being alone with his thoughts, good and bad, hadn’t been too awful until the hammering started mid-morning. Scott knew it was his gallows being built. Each nail driven in felt like a nail being driven into his coffin. Worse was the occasional laughter from the men building it. Yes, building the means of Scott Lancer’s death was amusing activity. Later in the afternoon he’d heard the unmistakable sound of the trap door being tested and more laughter. The day dragged on interminably.
He alternated between fervently praying to God for his deliverance from his fate and doubting God’s existence altogether. How could an all-good God allow this injustice? He had such plans for his life! He wanted his time on Earth to meaning something. He remembered telling Johnny that if he returned to gunfighting, he wouldn’t leave a ripple in the world. What hubris! It was he who wasn’t going to leave a ripple in the world.
Unable to stand the boredom and his self-pity any longer, he’d asked for some paper and envelopes. Widow Hargis delivered a box of stationery personally along with pencils and a stern ear thrashing for Marshal Decker for isolating the poor boy from his family and friends just when he needed them most. Scott didn’t know why she seemed so devoted to him. He thought she took him for a fool after all the ruckus with Zee.
Dex had sat by the door watching as Scott sat on the floor and wrote his letters to his loved ones on the stationery box that was sitting on his cot cum desk. Scott didn’t know why Harper was there. To make sure he didn’t stab himself in the neck with a pencil and deny the good folks of Green River their hanging? The result would be the same: Scott Lancer dead. He sat with his back to the deputy and wrote to Murdoch, Teresa, Grandfather, and Daniel and a few dear friends. Every so often he would ask Dex to sharpen a pencil, which the deputy did without rancor. The hardest one was to Johnny, so he kept it for last. He couldn’t decide whether to keep it short or not. As he stared at the blank page, he decided he wanted to write out all he wanted to say, from the first moment in the stagecoach to Morro Coyo to the last days of support here in the jail. He wrote until his hand cramped, hoping Johnny would understand how he felt, what it meant to have him as his brother. It was easier to write it than to say it.
Hours later, Val came in with his dinner. Scott had no appetite. He hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch.
Val locked the cell door behind him and set the tray down on the cot. “Now, Bessie Sue was real disappointed that she got her trays back with food still on ‘em,” Val drawled, sitting down on the other side of the tray. “If I come back with dinner still on it, she’s gonna thrash me somethin’ good. ’Sides, this tray’s got my dinner on it, too, and I ain’t eatin’ unless you do. You don’t want me to starve, do ya?”
Scott couldn’t repress a smile at Val’s obvious ploy. He picked up a fork. “I’m only doing this for you, Val.”
“I know that,” Val said as he happily stuffed a forkful of chicken in his mouth. “You’re a good friend, Scott.”
Scott paused from moving some food around with his fork. “No, you’re the good friend, Val. I haven’t thanked you yet for going the extra mile for me, trying to find some evidence to clear me.”
“No need to thank me, Scott.”
“I know you did it mostly for Johnny’s sake, but I hope maybe a little was for my sake, too. I’ve come to like and respect you very much.”
Val looked away. “Hell, Scott, don’t go all sappy on me now. I know you’re innocent. I just don’t know how to prove it.”
“Me either.” Scott laid his fork down and stared at his plate for a long while.
“Ya gotta eat, Scott.”
“Why?” Scott said angrily. “So I can grow up big and strong? Who cares if I eat or not? What difference does it make now?” He got up and started pacing.
Val continued eating. Truth be told, he was rather glad to see Scott finally get angry. The man had been far too stoic in accepting his plight.
“Damn it! I’m being hanged for a crime I didn’t commit!” He paced around some more and then slowed down. “Who did this to me? Who’s getting away with murder?” Scott sunk back down on the cot. “Who the hell hates me so much?”
Val considered. He and Johnny had gone over every single inhabitant of the San Joaquin Valley they knew and couldn’t think of anyone who would want to implicate Scott. “Anyone in Boston hate you that much?”
Scott looked up sharply. Boston!
Val knew greed was a powerful motivating factor in murder. “Who stands to gain from your grandfather’s estate if you die?”
“I don’t know. It would be easy enough to find out from Grandfather, but it wouldn’t be in time.” Scott sat and thought for a few minutes. “Probably his estate would go to my cousin, Daniel. But Daniel and I are close. He’s always been like a brother to me. He wouldn’t want me dead.”
“How much is your grandfather’s estate worth?”
“I don’t know that either. Hundreds of thousands of dollars at least. Maybe even a million.” Scott shook his head. He remembered the lavish wedding he’d gone back to Boston for. Dan had included him in the wedding party when he found out Scott would be there. They were so close. “Dan already has a sizable fortune from his own family’s side. He doesn’t need the money.”
“Some people can’t have too much money,” Val observed.
Scott thought about that but ultimately rejected it. He knew his cousin’s affection for him was real. But maybe another Bostonian? “Even if someone in Boston did want me dead, they’d still have to have someone here to pull it off.”
Val nodded. “There are a lot of poor folks around here.”
“But that person would have to have had access to the house and my room.”
Val nodded again. “True, and all the hands have been accounted for during the entire week,” he pointed out. “That leaves women and children. Who of them would have access to your room without ‘rousin’ suspicion?”
“The women who help with the cooking and gardening, the laundresses, Tonio.” Scott looked up in horror. “It can’t be a twelve-year-old boy!”
“Ease your mind, Scott. Johnny said he asked after Tonio. His ma said he’d never left the hacienda or the barn that whole week. Even spent a day sick in bed.”
Scott let out a sigh of relief. “It all comes back to someone being able to be in my room and take my horse without arousing suspicion, and everyone who could do that has an alibi.” Scott looked at Val. “It’s hopeless, isn’t it?” he said forlornly.
“I don’t know. Reynolds’s in Sacramento already, prob’ly appealin’ your case right now. Murdoch’s paying Jacob extra to be available all night tonight and all day tomorrow.”
“Damn straight. Doesn’t want no late telegram to doom ya.”
Their conversation was interrupted by a commotion in the office. The next second, Decker was hustling a very loudly objecting Johnny into the cell block. He threw Johnny into the cell next to Scott’s and locked the door, as Johnny cursed him in Spanish and English.
“You shut up and stay put, Madrid!” Decker stomped out of the cellblock.
“Welcome to my world, brother,” Scott said mildly.
“God damn it, he’s got no right to lock me up!” Johnny continued to fume.
“Why’d he arrest ya?” Val asked.
“He says ‘loiterin’,’ but it’s a lie!” Johnny yelled the last part so the men in the office could hear him.
“I told ya not to get too close to them gallows,” Val chided.
“I was just lookin’,” Johnny pouted.
“Decker’s too smart to let ya burn that down,” Val told him.
Scott was flabbergasted. “You’d commit arson for me?”
Johnny pushed his cot over until it was up against their common bars; Scott did likewise. They sat as shoulder to shoulder as they could. “Aw, Hell, brother. I was gonna spring ya while they were busy puttin’ out the flames.”
“I told you before I didn’t want you to do that. I don’t want to be a fugitive and you belong at Lancer.”
Johnny mumbled something and when Scott asked him to repeat it, he said, “I don’t wanna be at Lancer without you.”
“I appreciate the sentiment, brother, but Lancer’s your legacy now.” He smiled ruefully. “It really is a one-man deal now.”
Johnny, remembering when he had said those stinging words to Scott their first morning at the ranch, smiled back and then sobered. “Funny thing is, I don’t want that anymore. Kinda got used to the idea of sharin’ all that back breakin’ work with you.”
Val cleared his voice. “Well, I’ll leave you two to it.”
The brothers protested. Val sat back down and finished the last of his supper. Then Scott put the tray between him and Johnny and offered him his dinner. Val shot Johnny a dark look, so Johnny said he’d split the meal with Scott. That satisfied Val. He regaled the Lancer brothers with a tall tale from his days in Texas while Scott managed to eat his half. Val took the empty tray away, and the brothers were left alone. Johnny magically produced a deck of cards and challenged Scott to a game of War. It was a distracting game but not taxing. Scott looked like he only had an ounce of brain still working.
Four games on, the cellblock door flung open. Murdoch stood in the doorway, a distraught Connie at his elbow. Johnny rushed to the bars. Scott slumped back on the bed. He could tell by his father’s grief-stricken face why he was here.
“The appeal was denied,” Scott said, his voice flat.
I’m sorry, son,” Murdoch said as he stood before Scott’s cell. “The court ruled that since I was the owner of the house and I gave my permission, the search was Constitutional. I’m so sorry I gave Val my consent, Scott.”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything. I would have given my consent. I had nothing to hide.” He turned his face away from them. “At least, I thought I didn’t.”
“What do we do now, Murdoch?” Johnny asked above Connie’s weeping.
“I don’t know,” Murdoch said absently. Then he took another look at his younger son. “What in blazes are you in jail for?”
Scott answered. “Loitering.”
“What in God’s name…”
“Decker thinks he’s going to try to spring me somehow. He took the offensive,” Scott explained.
“What were you going to do?”
Johnny grinned mischievously. “Burn down the gallows, then bust Scott out while everyone was tryin’ to put out the flames.”
“Damned fool plan, boy!”
Johnny shrugged. “I dunno. If nothing else, it would’ve delayed the hangin’ until they could build a new one.”
“It would have at that,” Murdoch conceded thoughtfully.
“So now it’s up to you to spring us both,” Johnny challenged. “You got a match?”
Decker stormed in and ordered Murdoch and Connie out of the cellblock saying, “You’ve had your two minutes.”
“Oh, Scott,” Connie wept. She thrust her hand into Scott’s cell. “If I could just touch you…”
Reluctantly, he got up and clasped her hand.
“I love…we love you so much, so very much,” she sobbed.
Johnny noticed Scott’s hand shaking as he reached out to Connie. Scott was wrung out. The last thing he needed was a woman weeping all over him. He shot Murdoch a “get her out of here” look and Murdoch led an unwilling Connie out the door. Johnny heard the lock of the door behind them. Damn Decker and his heartlessness.
Scott slumped on his cot again.
“I’m sorry, brother,” Johnny whispered.
“I guess I shouldn’t have hoped,” Scott whispered back. “Arthur said it was a longshot.” He sighed heavily. “But I’d hoped anyway…” He curled into a ball and laid down facing away from Johnny.
Feeling helpless, Johnny did the one thing he could do—keep watch over his brother.
Some time passed and then Johnny heard a quiet, “Johnny?”
Scott sat up and resumed his position of touching Johnny’s shoulder with his own. “Can I ask you a favor?”
“Tell me about your friendship with Val. How did you meet? What adventures did you have? Why are you so close?”
Johnny balked. Scott had asked him about his friendship with Val before. So had Murdoch and even Teresa. He always refused to tell them. It was a part of his life he wanted to keep private. Val wouldn’t say a word about it to anyone else either. It was an unspoken pact between them that they wouldn’t share their history with anyone else.
In the silence, Scott said, “I promise I’ll take it to my grave.”
Johnny cursed Scott’s macabre humor. Gallows humor. “Damn you, Scott!” He couldn’t keep the emotion out of his voice. Scott didn’t need his tears, too.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Scott said sadly, contritely. “I shouldn’t have asked. I’m sorry.”
Another long silence stretched between them. Then Johnny said, “I was about twelve, I guess, when I met Val…”
The next morning the brothers awoke to Murdoch and Connie entering with their breakfast. Connie gave her tray to Scott, Murdoch’s to Johnny.
“Looks like we get to have visitors today, Scott. Val musta said somethin’ to the marshal last night.”
Scott just nodded glumly.
“You goin’ to church today?” Johnny asked as he dug into his pancakes.
“We don’t feel like it today,” Murdoch said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like it again.”
“It’s your last chance to pray for a miracle for me,” Scott said. Connie was happy to see him pick up a biscuit.
“Son, we’ve been doing that ever since you were arrested. I don’t need a church to do that.”
“Yeah, but you’re missin’ your chance to tell everyone what ass…” Johnny gave a glance at Connie, “…idiots they are for thinkin’ Scott’s guilty.”
Murdoch looked at Scott, who was tearing up his biscuit into small bits. “You need to eat something, son.”
Scott threw the last of the biscuit down and turned the tray over in a fit of pique. “Why is everyone so interested in my eating habits lately? I’m not hungry. Can you understand that?”
Decker came in to see what the commotion was about. “Clean that up, boy. You’re not getting another tray before lunch.”
Scott knelt down to clean up his mess. “Good!” He finished picking up the remnants of his meal and passed his tray to Decker, who left after giving Scott a glare.
Scott slumped back down on his cot, drawing his legs up and crossing his chest with his arms. He looked like a small boy having a snit. No one said anything for a long time. Connie wanted to say something just to ease the tension, but Murdoch had told her earlier to let Scott take the lead on what he wanted to talk about today. For a long time, he didn’t want to talk about anything. Finally, he said, “I suppose we should discuss where to bury me.”
Connie gave a slight gasp. “Oh, no, we shouldn’t talk about that.”
Murdoch put a quieting hand on her arm and said, “Where do you want to be buried, son?”
“You mean you’re gonna let him rest wherever he wants?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch nodded. “Wherever you want, Scott.”
“I have half a mind to be buried in Carterville,” Scott mused. “I shouldn’t have survived Mother’s death. Perhaps I should be buried next to her.”
“Hell, no, Scott,” Johnny objected while ignoring Murdoch’s glare for his cursing. “You gotta be buried on Lancer land. Me and Barranca wanna come visit you a lot. We’ll bring Remmie sometimes, too. He’s gonna miss ya somethin’ terrible.”
“I know he’ll be fine in your hands. You’ll see to him right,” Scott told his brother. “Where would you like to visit me, Johnny?”
That started the conversation in earnest about where the most beautiful places on Lancer were. There were many contenders. By mid-morning Jelly and Teresa joined them and offered their choices. Connie thought the entire conversation was ghastly. She wanted to suggest the spot Scott had chosen for their picnic, although things hadn’t gone as she’d planned. She kept that suggestion to herself. It didn’t matter anyway. Scott wasn’t going to die.
Connie had thought long and hard over what she could do to save Scott from the gallows. As she discarded plan after plan, she was left with only one: confess and flee. Tonight she would write out her confession. She hoped that if she described how awful a man Jeff was that people would understand he deserved to die. She would get very detailed, so if she got caught, it might form part of her defense. And wouldn’t people think kindly toward her that she was willing to sacrifice her freedom for Scott? Wouldn’t they sympathize with her and let her off?
It was the best plan she could think of. All she needed was for Murdoch to leave her alone for a while, something he seemed incapable of doing since she’d fainted. His spousal devotion would have been laudable if she didn’t need to save Scott. Tonight, tonight she would find some time away from him. She’d say she was tired. Surely, Murdoch would want to spend the night before the hanging with Scott. Tonight she’d write her confession and ride away into the darkness, becoming a fugitive for the life of her beloved. It was a noble sacrifice.
The conversation about a burial plot soon turned into sharing stories about each suggested place. Some were poignant, others humorous, and even Scott was able to shake off some of his gloomy demeanor for a little while.
Then the deluge hit. Church had let out and many of the congregation decided to pay their respects to Scott afterward. They could hear Decker’s booming voice, but it was no match for Eulalia Hargis’ scolding. Murdoch got up and looked through the peephole in the cellblock door. What he saw amazed him. Led by the widow, there was a large crowd of people trying to barge into the sheriff’s office. Decker was trying to hold them at bay, but after denying them the day before, they were not to be deterred.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Decker admitted after Val had convinced him that it was in his best interest to let the townspeople have their way.
“That’s because you don’t know Scott Lancer. He’s earned the respect of everyone in the Valley, or weren’t you listenin’ durin’ the trial? He’s a good, good man, and he doesn’t deserve to hang.”
“The jury saw it otherwise, Crawford.”
“They did,” Val conceded, “and it’ll haunt them for the rest of their days. It’s my intention that Scott will get to see his friends and family until noon tomorrow.” The look on his face dared Decker to disagree.
Decker nodded. He’d never seen the depth and breadth of affection toward a convicted murderer in all his days as a lawman. He was a man of no exceptions, but he was making an exception for Scott Lancer. He didn’t want to feel haunted for the rest of his days. He’d thought Lancer was guilty when Mortimer linked him to Turnbull, but when he’d heard Lancer hadn’t been off the ranch for over a month, he thought there was reasonable doubt. Why would either man have reason to contact the other? He’d have hung that jury if he’d been on it.
In the cellblock, the entire afternoon was spent in receiving those who wanted to pay their respects to Scott. He bore up as well as could be expected, his family doing their best to not let things get too maudlin. Finally, Decker’s patience ran out and he threw everyone except family out of the jail. There was a limit on exceptions. Bessie Sue, Eulalia, and Val brought the family their last dinner with Scott. It was a somber meal. Scott took a few bites but that was all. No one commented on it.
By early evening, Jelly and Teresa said good-bye. They planned on heading back to Lancer, under strict orders from Murdoch, after breakfast the next morning. Connie held on as long as she could. She knew she had to write the confession, but she also knew this would be the last time she would see her beloved’s face. She memorized every pore of it. She memorized his long body that once stood so tall and proud. It would do so again, thanks to her. While the men rambled on about nothing, she took the time to relive every second of their lovemaking. Even wracked with fever, Scott had performed impressively. How could she ride away and leave him? How could she not?
Johnny nodded to his father. “You better take her back to the hotel. She ain’t gonna make it through the night.”
Murdoch agreed. He’d put his wife to bed and come back to be with his boys. He looked at them, so different in appearance, so alike in heart, sitting shoulder to shoulder and saw the look on both their faces. They wanted to be alone with each other on this last night. “In the morning then?”
They both nodded.
Murdoch bundled up a half-asleep Connie and escorted her back to the hotel and helped her dress for bed.
“I’m fine, Murdoch. You go and be with Scott.”
“I got the message that the boys wanted to be alone tonight.”
Curses! This wasn’t going to plan! “They need you, darling, whether they know it or not. You need to be with them.”
“I need to be where you are right now, darling,” he said as he began to get ready for bed, and she could have easily shot him for his devotion to her. Couldn’t he leave her alone for one minute? She’d pretend to go to sleep and then when Murdoch was happily snoring away, she’d slip out of the room and put her plan into action.
He paused to pour them a small amount of scotch. He hoped she didn’t notice the extra powder he added to hers. Truth was, he did want some time alone with just his boys. He’d get that in the morning.
Johnny was emotionally exhausted, and if he felt ridden hard and put away wet, he couldn’t imagine what Scott was going through. He must be a hundred times worse. “You gonna get some shut eye?”
“My last night on Earth? I wasn’t planning on it, but I know I can’t stay up the whole night. I’m tired but too wound up to sleep at the moment.”
Johnny didn’t know what to say. This was their last night together. What could he say? He had told Scott about Val last night. Maybe it was his brother’s turn tonight. “Tell me about the War, Scott. You never talk about it.”
“Hell, no!” was Scott’s instant reply.
“Why not? I told you about me and Val.”
“I was hoping that wouldn’t dredge up your most horrific memories! I don’t want to spend my last hours thinking about the War and all its gore and grisly suffering.”
Johnny cursed himself for thinking only of his own curiosity. “Lo siento mucho, hermano,” he apologized quietly. He sat there for a while trying to think of a way to rectify his blunder. Then he smiled. “Scott?”
“Yes, Johnny?” It was clear from the emotion in Scott’s voice that he bore no ill will toward Johnny for his misstep. Johnny heard the love in the way Scott spoke his name.
“Tell me about Julie. How’d you meet her? What adventures did you have? Why didn’t you marry her?”
Scott chuckled softly. “Now that, brother, is a long story.”
“We’ve got all night,” Johnny whispered back.
He stepped out into the street and looked at his watch. 8:30. He squinted up at the California sun, dazzling as ever. A beautiful April day—too beautiful for a hanging. The morning was slipping away. He didn’t know how much longer he should wait. Two days had passed, and everything was still the same except that the gallows had been built and tested. At noon, Scott Lancer would be hanged for the murder of Jefferson Turnbull. He had waited long enough.
The sheriff’s office was eerily quiet even with three people in the room: the sheriff, the marshal, and the deputy.
“Sheriff?” he said, looking at Crawford.
The sheriff eyed him up and down. “Yarnell, ain’t it?”
“What can I help you with?”
“I think it’s what I can help you with,” Yarnell said. “I know who killed Jefferson Turnbull, and it wasn’t Scott Lancer.”
Suddenly the noise level increased dramatically, the three lawmen talking over one another. Marshal Decker got up and pushed him into his vacated chair. “What’re you saying? You sat there through the whole trial knowing all along who the murderer was?”
He shifted uncomfortably. He hadn’t thought about that. He thought they’d treat him like a hero, not asking him questions like he was a criminal himself. “Now, hold on here. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong! I didn’t kill nobody!”
Sheriff Crawford held up his hands to calm everyone down. “How do you know who killed Turnbull?”
“Cuz I was there. Saw it with my own two eyes.”
Decker wouldn’t let it go. “Then why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“I was gonna, I surely was, but I didn’t know who it was. But then the killer came in and just sat there all through the trial. Couldn’t believe it. So I jest sat there, too, seein’ if they’d save him after they found ‘im guilty and sentenced ‘im to hangin’. Been waitin’ all this time for the killer to come forward and admit it, but I guess she won’t.”
“She?” All of them said as one.
“Yup. That pretty little thing sittin’ next to the big ‘un, the father. The one who fainted when the judge sentenced ‘im.”
Val was the first one who recovered his wits. “You’re talking about Murdoch’s wife, Connie Lancer?”
“That’s the one.”
And the interrogation began.
“First of all, what day are we talking about when the murder took place?” Decker asked.
“Last Wednesday of February. The day after that bad rain.”
“What were you doing out there?” Val asked.
He looked down at his boots. This wasn‘t going as he thought it would. He thought he’d just tell them what he saw, they would shake his hand, maybe give him a reward, and that would be the end of it. He didn’t think they’d ask him any questions. “I was livin’ there for a bit in that shack.”
“Livin’ there!” Val exclaimed. The third set of boot prints undoubtably belonged to this yahoo.
“Found a little cabin all stocked with vittles…”
“And that didn’t tell ya that someone might be livin’ there first?” Val was starting to get angry.
“Sheriff,” Decker interceded, “just let the man tell his story. Then we can ask questions.”
Val marched to the other side of the office and folded his arms across his chest.
“Go on, Mr. Yarnell,” Decker prodded.
“Well, I was cautious about it, but nobody came by after a coupla days, so I jest sorta made myself at home there. Then he came along—Turnbull. I was out trying to catch me some game and when I came back, he was there, sittin’ pretty like he owned the place, ‘cept I knew he didn’t. Jest something about ‘im…” He scratched his chin. “Jest didn’t have the look about ‘im as someone who’d be stayin’, so I stuck around pretty close so I could go back livin’ there when he was gone. Say, you couldn’t spare a cup of coffee now, could ya?”
Decker got him a cup. He took a swig and nearly gagged. Worst coffee he ever tasted. Wet his whistle, though, and he had enough spit to continue on.
“So the next day, I followed ‘im. Curious about what he was up to, ya know? As far as I could figure out, he was spyin’ on that big white house down there in the valley. Had ‘im one of those double long glasses used for spyin’.”
“Field glasses?” Crawford asked.
“Binoculars.” Decker corrected.
“Yeah, them things. Spied on ‘em for a number of days, ‘though sometimes he rode toward town. Then after that bad rainy day we had, well, that’s when she showed up. I was fishin’ in the stream nearby when I heard the first shot. Well, I took off runnin’ to the cabin right away. Didn’t know what was goin’ on. Then there’s two more shots. By then I was outside the place hidin’ behind some bushes and I seen her come out of the cabin. Looked like she was thinkin’ of throwin’ the gun away, but then she stuck it in her pocket.”
“And you’re sure it was Connie Lancer?”
“Ain’t no doubt about it. Not with those bubbies, ya know what I mean? Even dressed like a man with a man’s shirt and that Mexican thing she was wearin’, it couldn’t hide ‘em.”
“Serape?” Decker asked.
“Yep, that’s the thing. That shirt was stretched tight across her bosoms.”
“There are other women in the area with large breasts,” Val commented.
He thought about it. “Yeah, but they have big bellies and butts to go with ‘em. It was the Lancer woman, I’m sure. Got me a good look a ‘er face, too, when she paused by the door. She was all dressed like a man, but you could still tell it was a woman with them boobs.”
“Then she shoved the gun in her pocket and walked away fast as she could, which wasn’t too fast on account of her boots bein’ too big for ‘er. I didn’t see her none after that. That’s all there was to it.”
Val walked back over toward Yarnell and laid his hands on the desk. Leaning over toward Yarnell, he snarled, “No, that ain’t all there was to it!”
Decker moved next to Crawford, ready to stop any violence. “Why didn’t you come to the sheriff’s office right away and tell him what happened?” the marshal asked.
Yarnell didn’t say anything. He kept staring at Crawford, readying to defend himself against the angry man.
“’Cause instead he went in and picked the corpse clean, didn’t ya, Yarnell?” Crawford said with a sneer. This opportunist was why Turnbull’s pockets were turned out and his boots were off.
Yarnell swallowed hard and nodded.
“How much did ya get?”
“Now, Sheriff, that don’t matter,” Yarnell protested. “I’m doin’ my civic duty now. I was curious when y’all would find the body. And I’m here today savin’ that innocent boy’s life.”
“Yeah, you’re a real upstandin’ citizen, ain’t ya? You been watchin’ the trial the whole time, seein’ Scott Lancer suffer,” Val sneered.
“I didn’t know who that gal was! Not until she come waltzin’ in on the arm of Murdoch Lancer. Surprised the hell out of me, I can tell you!”
“Ya coulda said somethin’ then!” Val almost shouted, but he didn’t want the Lancers to hear in the other room.
“Once I figured out who everyone was and their relations, I wanted to see how it played out, whether she’d let that poor boy hang. It was a mighty good play, jest like that old English feller wrote. What is she, anyway? She ain’t old enough to be his mama.”
Neither Crawford nor Decker answered his question.
“Anyhow, I reckoned somethin’ would happen over the weekend. That she’d come forward and save that boy. When she didn’t, I stepped up. I ain’t gonna let that boy hang for somethin’ he didn’t do. You should be thankin’ me.”
Val and Decker exchanged disgusted looks. Then they grilled Yarnell for another twenty minutes about the details trying to catch him in a lie. He didn’t trip up once.
Finally, Decker gestured to Crawford to meet him outside. Once there, he said, “What do you think?”
“Good enough to check it out,” Val answered.
“Call off the hanging.”
“Not just yet.”
Val let out an exasperated sigh. This marshal was one tough case. “And Yarnell?”
“It’s your call, sheriff.”
In the end, despite Val wanting to lock him in a cell and throw away the key, he sequestered Yarnell at the boarding house. Johnny would want this witness to be a happy fellow when he talked to the judge.
Marshal Decker walked back to Scott’s cell. Crawford had allowed all of them to be locked in the prisoner’s cell. The three Lancer men looked bowed in prayer. He cleared his throat. “Mr. Lancer, could I speak with you, please?”
The two Lancer sons looked at him, the younger with hate in his eyes, the elder with haunted eyes devoid of hope. Decker tried not to give anything away with his face. Murdoch Lancer got up and moved out of the cellblock.
“Sheriff?” Murdoch asked when he was in the main office.
“Murdoch, some new information has come to light about Scott’s case,” Val started to explain. “A man has come forward with additional information.”
“Will it help Scott?” Murdoch was desperate at this point.
“Can you account for your wife’s whereabouts during the week in question?” Decker asked.
“What? Connie? Why?”
“Murdoch, just answer the question,” Val advised.
“She was at the house.”
“And there were people who saw her there all during the day every day?” Decker pressed.
“Well, I would think so.”
“Did you, yourself, see her throughout the day during the week?”
“I don’t know if I can say that with complete honesty. I’m in and out of the house most days.
Teresa would know better than I would. She’s usually in or around the house all day. What’s this have to do with Connie?”
Val sent Harper out to see if Teresa was still at the hotel. No one answered Murdoch’s question, and no one spoke until the deputy returned with Teresa. Decker warned Murdoch not to say anything.
Teresa entered looking nervous and understandably upset. “What’s wrong? What’s happened to Scott?” She started to panic.
“Nothing’s happened to Scott,” Val assured her. The ‘yet’ hung in the air among them all. “The marshal just wants to ask you a question.”
She looked at Decker.
“Can you tell me whether Mrs. Lancer was at the house every day all day during the week we think Turnbull died?”
“Connie? Yes, of course, she was!” Teresa answered.
“You saw her all through the day each day.” Val clarified.
That made Teresa stop to think back on it for several seconds. “Yes, except for that one day.”
“What day was that?”
Crawford and Decker exchanged looks.
“But she was at the house,” Teresa continued. She looked at Murdoch. “She had one of those bad headaches, remember? She was in her bedroom all day and didn’t come down until dinner.”
Murdoch nodded. “You’re right. I remember now.”
“I checked on her a few times, but the door was always locked like it is with her. I thought she was asleep.” She looked at Murdoch for comfort. Was she saying something wrong?
“Thank you, Miss O’Brien,” Decker said. “That’s all we wanted to know.”
She nodded and cast a worried glance at Murdoch.
“You and Jelly be on your way home now, Teresa,” Murdoch told her.
“But we wanted to see Scott before we left,” Teresa objected.
“It’s best you go now, darling. Scott is not in a good mind to receive visitors.”
“But we’re family!” Teresa protested.
“Teresa, please, do as I ask,” Murdoch said more forcefully and forlornly.
She nodded, tears in her eyes. “Tell him we love him.” The tears spilled over onto her cheeks. “Tell him we love him so very much.”
Murdoch hugged her and kissed the top of her head. “I will, darling, I will, but he knows already, and he loves you back.”
Teresa swiped at her tears and allowed Deputy Harper to escort her back to the hotel.
Val looked at Decker. “It fits,” he said.
“One more thing,” Decker replied. “Mr. Lancer, I assume you can lock that bedroom door from the outside as well as from the inside?”
Feeling sick inside, Murdoch answered, “Yes, of course.” And with that one phrase, he felt that he was sentencing Connie to something terrible, but he didn’t want to know what.
Val raised his eyebrows at Decker. “I think we definitely need to bring the proceedings to a halt, Marshal.”
The marshal sighed heavily “I concur.”
“Where is the judge now?” Val asked.
“Spanish Wells. How far?”
“A good four hours ride each way.”
Decker hung his head. Eight hours—more since the judge and bailiff would be in a slow-moving buggy coming back.
“Will somebody tell me what’s going on here?” Murdoch demanded, his patience gone.
Val smiled at him. “What’s goin’ on is that Scott’s just got a reprieve.”
Murdoch sat down heavily in a chair. Scott saved! Thank God! But another thought was dawning. “Why all the questions about Connie?” he asked, dreading the answer.
“We’ve got an eyewitness who says it was your wife who killed Jefferson Turnbull,” Decker said bluntly, and Murdoch buried his head in his hands.
“He’s wrong!” Murdoch said between his fingers. “Connie—she could never kill anyone.” He looked up at the sheriff. “You know that, Crawford!”
Val walked over to where Murdoch slouched. “He’s a good witness, Murdoch.” There was anguish in the man’s eyes. Val couldn’t imagine what pain Murdoch Lancer was in—his son saved at the expense of his wife.
“What happens now?” the rancher asked, more steadily than Val would have been able to do it.
“Why don’t we tell Scott the good news?” Val suggested gently. “Then you can accompany Matt when he goes to talk to your wife.”
The two men walked back to Scott’s cell. Johnny had his arm slung around Scott’s shoulder and the older man slumped against him. They were reminiscing about something. Val thought he heard the name ‘Julie.’
There was accusation in Johnny’s eyes when he looked at him. Well, that would be replaced with joy soon enough. He turned to Murdoch. “You wanna tell ‘im?”
Murdoch was almost undone when Scott lifted his face to him. There was nothing there but hopelessness and despair. He was resigned to his fate. “Scott,” Murdoch managed to rasp out, “there’s been a change of circumstances. You’ll not be hanged…”
Johnny jumped up and whooped in sheer joy. “Finally! We knew you didn’t do it!”
Scott just looked numb. He had reconciled himself to his senseless death for the past two days. He couldn’t bring himself to believe it wasn’t going to happen.
“What happened?” Johnny asked.
Val saved Murdoch from answering. “Seems there was an eye-witness. He swears it wasn’t Scott.”
Johnny whooped again. “Let’s get out of here, brother!”
“Whoa! Hold on there, compadre. Not just yet. There’s a lot of legal things that have to happen before I can let you out, Scott. But I, we, just wanted to tell you, there’ll be no hangin’ today. But I can let you out,” he told Johnny.
Johnny turned to Scott, seeing his brother’s exhausted face. “Get some sleep, Scott. You can rest easy now.”
“You, too,” Scott said. “You stayed up all night with me.” He was beyond words at how much that had meant to him.
“I will, I promise,” Johnny said as Val unlocked the cell and let Johnny out. Johnny slung his arm around his father’s shoulders…as much as he could. “C’mon, Old Man, let’s go celebrate!”
“Scott, you rest now, son,” Murdoch murmured as Johnny led him away.
Once they got into the office, Johnny dropped his arm. “What’s going on that you’re not telling me?”
“If you’ll come with me, Mr. Lancer?” Decker said.
Murdoch nodded solemnly and the two walked out the door and headed for the hotel.
Johnny watched them go and turned to Val.
Val kicked a chair at him. “Sit down. This is one cockamamie story.”
Connie sat in the desk chair, a blank piece of paper in front of her. She silently cursed again. Why had she slept so late? She cursed her habit of sleeping late in the mornings. Then she cursed Murdoch for staying with her after he walked her over from the jail. Now she’d be unable to slip away into the night. But she had to slip away somehow. She just needed time to think! Teresa had finally awakened her to inquire whether she wanted to have breakfast with her and Jelly. They were expected to leave before the hanging. Scott! But there’d be no hanging. Connie would write her confession. She would. She’d save her beloved and get away from here somehow.
But now that the paper sat right in front of her, it was so difficult to write anything, much less condemn herself to the life of a fugitive. She had done that before, not too long ago, and hated it. Murdoch Lancer had saved her from continuing it. And Scott had been the bonus. Then Jeff had to show up and ruin everything, like he always did! How stupid of her not to have made sure he was dead the first time. How could he have survived? There’d been so much blood. No one could have survived that.
There was a soft rap on the door and Murdoch’s voice saying, “Connie?” She unlocked the door and her husband walked in with the marshal. Something in the pit of her stomach felt heavy. She walked back to the desk but didn’t sit down. “Darling?” She swallowed hard. “What’s the marshal doing here?”
The men had followed her in, and they stood standing near the middle of the room.
“He just wants to ask you a few questions, darling.”
“All right,” she stuttered. She backed up to the desk chair and sat down.
The marshal cleared his throat. “Mrs. Lancer, I’d like to know your whereabouts on Wednesday, February twenty-sixth.”
“The twenty-sixth? Hmm, let me think.” Her mind was reeling. They knew it! They knew the day! What had happened to pin it down like that? And if they knew the day, what else did they know? How was she going to get away now?
The men waited patiently. She looked at Murdoch. “Wasn’t that the day I was sick?”
Murdoch nodded encouragingly.
“Sick with what?” the marshal asked.
“Oh, my, that’s very personal, Marshal,” she said with all the affrontery she could muster.
“Just answer the question, darling. It’s all right,” Murdoch assured her.
She didn’t feel assured. Anything but! “I had a terrible headache.”
“She gets them now and then,” Murdoch added. “She becomes very sensitive to light and noise. Dr. Jenkins calls it a migraine.”
She knew he was trying to support her. But to support her meant destroying Scott. Nevertheless, she had to defend herself. Maybe both Scott and she could get out of this mess alive and get back to living their lives at Lancer. “The pain is terrible and I get sick to my stomach if I move. I’m afraid all I’m good for is lying in bed and sleeping.”
“So you were in your bedroom the entire day?”
She nodded at the marshal. “All day, I’m afraid.” She looked at Murdoch. “What’s this all about, darling?” she asked him again.
But before he could speak, Decker said, “Thank you, Mrs. Lancer.” He left.
She turned to her husband. “Murdoch, what’s going on?”
“Damned if I know! But the hanging’s been put off. Scott’s not being hanged today.”
She stood and put her hand to her heart. “Oh, that’s…that’s…wonderful!” She swayed slightly. Scott being rescued from the frying pan meant she would probably be thrown in it.
Murdoch opened the window and steered her to the bed. “Maybe some fresh air and rest will help, darling.”
“You need to tell Scott the wonderful news! Go, right now!” If he would just leave her alone for a bit, she could write her confession and run away!
“He knows already. I’m hoping he’s asleep.”
“But you need to be there when he wakes up. He’ll need his father. He loves you so.” Get out of my sight for a while!
“And what about you?”
“I love you, too, and I’ll be right here, resting like you said I should.”
Murdoch kissed her on the forehead. He loved this woman who thought more for his sons than for herself. Whatever was going on, he knew that Connie was as innocent as Scott was in all of this. She made shooing motions with her hands, and the last Murdoch saw of her as he closed the door was Connie making herself comfortable on the bed.
Connie flew into a panic. They knew or at least suspected. She had no time! She wouldn’t be able to write her long confession that detailed all of Jeff’s sins and crimes. She had no time! She grabbed a sheet of paper and pencil out of the desk and wrote ‘I killed Jefferson Turnbull’ and signed it. Then she grabbed her valise. She had only a few minutes to gather what she needed together. She had to get away! As she opened the door, it created a gust of wind in the room. She was already out the door when the confession blew off the desk and glided gracefully under the bed.
It was one cockamamie story, Johnny thought. But why would Constance Lancer want to kill Jefferson Turnbull? And why would she want to implicate Scott? Johnny could see that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Connie and save Scott just yet. But he was determined to find it.
“We’ve got to connect her to Turnbull,” Johnny said. “You still have that telegram to Mortimer?”
Val brought the box with the evidence in it over to the desk. Johnny recognized Scott’s Smith and Wesson and his boots. Val fished around and brought the telegram out. He laid it out on the desk and Johnny read it and reread it. Whoever this Sam Winston was, he was a good sight faster and more informative than the Pinkertons, whom they still hadn’t heard from.
In a telegram’s punctuation-less style, it basically said: Jefferson Wainwright Turnbull: Born 1832, age 41. Brown hair, brown eyes. Occupation: no current occupation known. Formerly a scratch farmer, gambler. Married Sadie Kronowski, 1856, no children. Joined Confederate Army, 1862. Posted as a guard at Libby Prison for the duration of the war. Nearly died September 1866 from stabbing. Warrant outstanding for Sadie Kronowski Turnbull, last seen in Richmond, Virginia. J Turnbull has no known living relatives. S Turnbull has one sister, Constance Kronowski Simmons, three children.
Johnny looked at Val with a smile. “We got ‘er.” Crawford looked perplexed. “She took her sister’s first name and it ain’t hard to turn ‘Turnbull’ into ‘Turner.’”
Val smiled back. “You may be on to somethin’, boy. But how can we prove Connie Lancer is Sadie Kronowski?”
Decker came in and told them that Connie said she’d been in her bedroom all day. That wasn’t surprising. They filled the marshal in on their thoughts.
“I’ll send a wire to this Sam Winston to see if he can locate Constance Simmons. Maybe she’ll know if her sister has any identifying marks,” Decker offered.
“That’ll take time,” Val said.
“So?” Johnny asked.
“So, I can’t let Scott outta jail until we got enough to arrest her,” Val explained.
Murdoch entered and their discussion came to an abrupt halt. “Mind if I sit with Scott?” he asked Crawford, but it was Decker who answered.
“You have my permission, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch went into the cell area, and the other three men began talking in hushed tones.
‘What if we can get her to admit she’s Sadie sooner?”
“What’ve you got in mind, Johnny?”
“Don’t rightly know the details yet, Val. I’m gonna have to think on it a spell.” He turned to Decker. “If I can get her to answer to Sadie, would that be enough to get my brother out of that jail cell?”
Decker nodded. “Yeah, it might be, but I’d still want him in Green River until Elmont gets back here and officially clears him. Detained at the hotel would suit me, though.”
“That would suit me, too,” Johnny said. He went over and stuck his head into the cell block. Murdoch was sitting in one of the chairs outside of Scott’s cell, just staring blankly as his older son slept fitfully. They nodded at one another and Johnny closed the door again. “I think I’ll just keep an eye on my lovin’ stepmother,” he informed the others and walked out the door.
He paused outside the door to put his hat back on, and that pause gave him the opportunity to scan the street and see the back of what looked like Connie Lancer rushing toward the livery stable. Intrigued, Johnny followed her. He missed the first part of the conversation, but Clyde, the liveryman, was saying that he didn’t think he should saddle up Remmie without Scott’s permission.
Johnny stepped into the stable. “You leavin’?” He eyed his stepmother suspiciously.
She clasped her small valise to her chest, obviously startled by Johnny’s appearance. “Oh, Johnny! I…I…Murdoch said I should leave before the hanging.”
Johnny had to admire her; she was fairly quick-witted. “Scott’s not bein’ hanged today, or didn’t Murdoch tell you?”
“He isn’t? Oh, that’s so wonderful!” She didn’t sound sincere even to her own ears. “No, Murdoch didn’t tell me,” she lied.
“So, there’s no reason to leave. We want you to stay and join the celebration.” Johnny saw her mind casting about to invent a reason to be on her way, her anxiety rising. She always seemed flustered around him.
“Well, I’ll go back to the house and help Teresa and Maria prepare for the fiesta we’ll have for him. Oh, this is such wonderful news!”
“No, please stay,” Johnny insisted. “We’ll have a big dinner tonight at the hotel, just the Lancers.”
Connie knew when she was beaten. She wasn’t going to be able to leave Green River any time soon. Johnny thought he saw her sag before his very eyes.
“All right, if you want me to stay…”
“I do! We all do! Wouldn’t be a proper celebration without you!”
She let Johnny steer her out of the livery stable and back toward the hotel. She could see people starting to gather beneath the gallows, setting up chairs or spreading blankets on the ground on which to place their picnic baskets. They were going to enjoy this spectacle. There was excited chatter and laughter.
Johnny got Connie or Sadie or whoever the hell she was situated back at the hotel and walked back to Val’s office. He told them of Connie’s attempt to leave, and Val told Harper to discreetly watch her hotel door. Then he went out into the street and cleared the morbid spectators out, telling them that there was not going to be a hanging today. There seemed to be much disappointment in the crowd gathered there. When was the new date and time they wanted to know? Val just growled at them and told them to get gone and be quick about it, waiting until the final family packed up and moved their picnic elsewhere.
Back in the office, Val found Johnny, Decker, and Murdoch deep in conversation.
Johnny looked up as he heard Val enter. “I think I’m gonna try my luck at getting’ ‘er to admit she’s Sadie. She’s already shook that I caught ‘er tryin’ to hightail it outta here.”
“You think you can just trick ‘er like that? She’s been Connie Turner for some years. You must feel mighty confident of your charms,” Val said, sarcasm dripping from his last words.
“I ain’t gonna use my charms on ‘er. I’m plannin’ to sic Madrid on ‘er. What I wanna be sure of before I try is that if I get her to answer to ‘Sadie,’ that I have your word that it will be enough for you to get Scott outta this jail.”
Val looked at Decker. He was the marshal and in charge of this whole mess. Decker stroked his chin in thought and finally acceded. “What do you have in mind, Johnny? You think she’s gonna slip with all of us in the room with you?”
“No. That wouldn’t work. I’ll leave the door open, and you gents will be in the hallway out of eyesight but not earshot. Will that do?”
The lawmen agreed.
“I want to be there, too,” Murdoch said.
Johnny groaned. “You’re too big to be hidden away, Old Man. ‘Sides, I’m not sure you’re ready to hear what she might say. Or what I might say. This ain’t gonna be pretty, Murdoch. I aim to make ‘er plenty scared, and I don’t want you rushin’ in tryin’ to stop me.”
“If anyone deserves to be there, it’s me,” Murdoch persisted. “She is my wife.”
“Not anymore,” Johnny said softly.
“What do you mean by that, boy?” Murdoch’s face grew red with anger.
Val stepped in. “Mr. Lancer, if we’re right and your wife is really Sadie Turnbull, then she can’t legally be your wife. She never divorced Jefferson Turnbull. You married an already married woman.”
Murdoch sat down hard and scrubbed his face. How could his world be falling apart around him? Connie…all the months of happiness with her…all a lie. “I still want to be there. If you’re right or wrong, I still want to be there.”
They all looked at Decker.
“All right, but you need to promise to let this play out with no interference from you,” he told Murdoch.
He nodded. “I promise.”
Val, Decker, Harper, and Murdoch arranged themselves on either side of the hotel room door where they couldn’t be seen as Johnny busted through the locked door.
Connie was resting on the bed, but she sat up in alarm when the door flew open and let out a shriek.
Johnny was in pure Madrid mode. “No reason to yell, Connie. It’s just me, your everlovin’ stepson come to pay you a visit.”
“Oh, Johnny. You…you frightened me,” she stammered, rising to her feet.
“Yeah? Well, I’m about to get a whole lot more frightenin’, bitch!”
“Don’t come any closer or I’ll scream. I’m warning you…” She stepped back.
Johnny let out an icy laugh. “You’re warnin’ me. That’s a laugh.” He pointed toward the open door. “See? It’s properly open. Everythin’ right and proper, except you, bitch.”
“Stop calling me that! I’ll tell Murdoch!”
Madrid sneered at that. “Go ahead. You think he’ll mind after knowin’ what you did?”
Connie could hardly recognize Johnny Lancer anymore. He had that look that scared her half to death. What was he doing here? Why was he so angry with her? How could she get away from him? She couldn’t run; he was blocking her path to the door. She had to think. Think! But he wasn’t giving her any time to figure out a plan. Her confession had been gone when Johnny had brought her back from the stables. No one had read it. She decided to play innocent. “What do you mean what I’ve done? I haven’t done anything!”
“Haven’t you, leaving Scott to hang for somethin’ you did?”
“I told you, I haven’t done anything. I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“I think you do. When I told you Scott wasn’t gonna hang today, you acted all glad, but you never asked me why he wasn’t to be hanged. That struck me as kinda peculiar.”
“I don’t care why he was saved, just that he was saved.”
“Well, I’ll tell you why. Some man saw who did it and said it wasn’t Scott.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful news!”
She was a good liar. Johnny almost laughed. “Said it was you.”
Connie’s face turned white at that revelation. Oh, dear God, what was she going to do now? If what he said was true…if someone saw…but nobody had been around the cabin. She had been alone. She knew it.
“You’re lying! You just made that up to frighten me. I don’t know why you’re trying so hard to scare me. I’ve been a very good stepmother to you.”
“Stop this shit!” Johnny didn’t have to feign his anger. This woman was infuriating him. “The man identified you. Said your boobs were too big to be missed.”
By Connie’s stricken face, that had hit home. Her arms immediately crossed her chest, squeezing her breasts in tight. Her breasts, her beautiful breasts! She hadn’t thought to bind them. Now they might be her undoing.
“It wasn’t me! I swear it!”
“You swear it, huh? Well, the man got a good look at your face, too.”
“I don’t believe you! ‘Some man’ saw me. You’re making this up.” She turned away from him, and in two long strides he caught her and turned her back around. “Let go of me!” She tried to fight him off to no avail. His hands pressed cruelly around her biceps.
Nose to nose, Johnny said, “I will, but I gotta know somethin’ first. I gotta know why you tried to pin the murder on Scott. What’s he ever done to you but treat you with respect? Why do you hate ‘im so much?”
Staring into his cold eyes, Connie shivered in fear. “I…I don’t hate him. I love him.” She saw his eyes turn to slits. He was going to figure out her secret. No! “Like…like I love all of you…Teresa…and you. Like you’re all my children.”
Madrid threw her away from him. But he had seen the look in her eyes when she’d said she loved Scott. He knew that look. It was the look of someone truly in love and not in a motherly way. Now all of Scott’s complaints about her came rushing to the fore. He hadn’t paid them any mind at the time. He’d teased Scott about them. Her touching Scott, pestering him, being coy and flirtatious with him… “Then why his gun, his boots, his horse?”
She couldn’t tell this version of Johnny Lancer that it was because she adored Scott, not because she hated him. She wanted to be in his clothes, touch his things, be as close as she could be to everything that was his. This version of Johnny Lancer would never understand that. No one else could, except maybe another woman so besotted by a man.
Johnny filled in the void created by her silence. He grabbed her again and brought her up close. “Then you know what I think? I think you wanted my brother and when he didn’t want you, you decided to punish him for that. Death? Death by hangin’? You thinkin’ that’s a proper punishment for rejectin’ the likes of you?” He started to shake her. “Well?”
“Stop,” she sobbed. “Just stop. I don’t hate Scott. I could never hate Scott or punish him.” She was shaking with her sobs. “I love him! I do!”
“You disgust me!” Johnny threw her down on the bed as she continued to weep loudly. He strode to the door and stopped. “And Sadie?” He paused.
She looked at him, gasping from her sobs. “Yes? What?” she asked miserably through her tears.
“Don’t you ever go near my brother again or I’ll kill you.”
That sent her into more weeping and some wailing, too.
Johnny closed the door as well as it could be closed and took a deep breath. Even as Madrid he didn’t usually manhandle women. He looked at the lawmen and said, “You heard it?”
“Yeah, we did, Johnny,” Val said softly, knowing what it took out of his friend to act so harshly with a female. But this was for Scott’s life, and Val now knew what lengths Johnny would go to in order to save his brother.
Johnny couldn’t bring himself to look at his father. He just turned and walked down the hallway.
Val sent Harper to babysit Yarnell. Decker knocked on the door and then entered, finding Sadie Turnbull lying on the bed and crying into a pillow she had crushed to her face. “Ma’am. I’m here to arrest you for the murder of Jefferson Turnbull.”
Sadie continued to wail into her pillow until she had mostly cried herself out. Finally, she looked up at the three men standing in her room. “What?” she asked blearily. She could hardly understand what the marshal was saying. All she could think about was never seeing Scott again. That cut her to the core. Her Scott! To never again see his beautiful face or hear his cultured voice! Every time she thought about it, it set her on a new wave of weeping.
Decker looked at Murdoch. “Sir, I’ll let you decide where you want her.”
Murdoch appeared to be in shock, but he shook himself out of it and said, “I want my son out of that jail cell and her in one.”
Nodding, Decker and Val got on either side of the woman and pulled her off the bed. As she passed Murdoch, she paused and said in bewildered and hushed tones, “What’s happening, darling?”
“You’re being arrested for murder.”
“But why? I haven’t done anything! I swear, Murdoch! I haven’t killed anyone! You’ve got no proof! Don’t let them take me!” He turned from her gaze. “I love you, darling,” she said as the lawmen led her away.
Johnny was outside Scott’s cell when Decker brought Sadie in.
“Scott!” she cried. “Don’t believe a word he says!”
Scott looked at her with confused eyes. “Connie? What are you doing here? What’s happening, Marshal?”
“You’re out and she’s in,” Johnny said almost gleefully.
Decker pushed Sadie inside the cell next to Scott’s and locked it behind her. She rushed to the bars that the two cells shared. “Scott, you’ve got to believe me that I never wanted any of this to happen!”
“Connie? Are you all right?” he asked her. He was clearly perplexed.
But she also saw his concern. He was concerned for her; that meant he cared for her. He still had feelings for her. He still loved her. She knew it. “I love you, too, Scott.”
Scott stared at her even more perplexed.
Decker unlocked Scott’s cell. “You’ve been remanded to the hotel, Lancer. You’re to stay in your room there until the judge returns and makes a new ruling on your case. Do I have your word you’ll stay there?”
“You have it!” Johnny eagerly answered for him as he pulled Scott out of the cell. Scott paused and went back for his quilt and his letters. Then he gratefully let Johnny guide him out of the cellblock.
Val was waiting in the outer office. “Glad to see you out from behind them bars, Scott. Johnny, you keep your promise to the marshal and keep an eye on ‘im.”
Scott could muster only a wan “Thank you,” but Johnny was quick to assure the sheriff that he intended not to let Scott out of his sight. That made Scott feel a bit uneasy, but he was so glad to be out of that cell, his spirits were lifted nonetheless. Johnny told Crawford to give someone named Yarnell anything he wanted and put it on the Lancers’ bill. Nothing was making any sense to Scott. Then Johnny slapped his back, and they took their time sauntering over to the hotel, Scott relishing being in the open air unshackled.
“Marshal,” Sadie Turnbull called before Decker was out the cellblock door.
He turned expectantly.
“Do you think you could put me in that cell?” She pointed to the one Scott Lancer had just vacated.
Decker just shook his head in disbelief and walked out. He had a long ride to Spanish Wells ahead of him.
Johnny deposited his brother in his hotel room. “Guess you’re stuck here with me until that judge gets back.”
“When will that be, do you know?” Scott placed the quilt on a bed and sat down. He placed the letters on top.
Johnny shrugged. “Decker’s gotta go get ‘im in Spanish Wells. Until then, this is your castle.” He saw Scott slump on the bed. His brother looked shrunken, sunk in on himself, depressed. He hadn’t been himself since his sickness, Johnny thought. Even when he’d rejoined the work crews, Scott seemed withdrawn and distant. Johnny put it down to Scott being still recovering from his sickness. “What’re those?” he asked pointing to the letters.
“Letters I wrote Saturday to everyone. My last thoughts for each of you.”
“Is one of those mine?”
Scott pulled out an envelope much fatter than the others.
Johnny was impressed.
Then Scott pulled another from the pile.
“Both of those mine?” Johnny asked doubly impressed. He held out his hands for them, but Scott clutched them to his chest.
“These were for you if I’d hanged. I’m going to keep them until the judge says I can go free.”
“Then I’ll burn them.”
Johnny looked crestfallen. “That’s just plain mean, Scott.”
Wearily, Scott said, “Well, it seems to me I’m still in a cell.”
“Yeah, but it’s an upgrade and you get me as a roommate!” Johnny grinned, hoping Scott would grin back at him. He didn’t.
“Roommate or jailer?”
Scott seemed close to tears. “Johnny, that you stayed with me the past two nights…I can’t tell you what that meant to me, means to me.”
Johnny didn’t remind him that Decker had locked him up as well. He would have stayed by Scott’s side regardless. “Wouldn’t have been anywhere else, brother.”
They sat in heavy silence for a few minutes until Scott said, “Well, roommate, will you tell me what the hell is going on? Why am I out of jail and Connie is in jail? And where is Murdoch?”
Johnny sat down on the opposite bed. “Well, you better get comfortable, brother, this is one long, cockamamie story and it ain’t over yet.”
Scott knew he should be livid after hearing about Connie/Sadie’s actions and deceptions, but instead he just felt empty and disconnected. Nothing felt real to him anymore. It seemed like he was some minor character in a play and the main plot was unfolding all around him and without him. After finishing his story, Johnny was staring at him expectantly. What could he say? There was nothing he could say. “How’s Murdoch?”
Scott rose unsteadily to his feet. “Let’s find him. He can’t be having an easy time of it.”
“All he cares about is havin’ you alive and with us, brother.”
“Still,” Scott said as he walked to the door, “we should find him. He needs our support.”
Johnny wanted to tell his brother to scream and stomp around and throw things at the injustice that had been done to him. He wanted to tell him to stop worrying about other people and start healing himself. Instead, he followed Scott out. He walked up the hallway and paused by Murdoch’s door. It was definitely worse for wear after his boot had kicked it open earlier. Johnny knocked as he opened it. No more locked doors anymore.
Murdoch was inside looking out the window with a glass of scotch by his elbow. Johnny went over and looked at the view. It was of the gallows built for Scott. Murdoch didn’t acknowledge their arrival—never even twitched.
“Murdoch?” Scott was standing hesitantly by the door, his hand on its knob, as if he were afraid to enter. His voice was soft, tentative. He cleared his throat. “Father?” His voice cracked on the word.
Murdoch shot up and out of his chair and rushed to his older son. He enveloped Scott into a bear hug and muttered “Thank God” over and over again.
“Come on back to our room, Old Man,” Johnny suggested. Their room had a view out the back of the hotel. The view of the privy wasn’t as nice as the opposite side, but it didn’t have a view of the gallows, which was more important right now. He snagged Murdoch’s liquor bottle and glass, and they went back down the hall.
Murdoch sat Scott down on the bed and sat himself down in the desk chair. Johnny grabbed two more glasses from the washstand and they toasted to Scott’s eventual freedom.
“How are you doing, sir?” Scott asked after he’d downed his drink in one gulp.
Murdoch inspected the liquid in his glass like he was expecting to find a fly in it. “I don’t even know.” He put the glass down and scrubbed his face. “I loved her. I thought I knew her…” He looked at Scott’s face and saw the worry etched around the circles under his eyes. Scott didn’t need to be worrying about him; he needed to recover from this nightmare. “I’ll be all right.”
Johnny jumped up from his perch on the side of the desk. “The ranch! Everybody there is thinkin’ Scott’s been hanged! We gotta let ‘em know!” He rushed out of the room.
“Johnny, don’t…” The door slammed shut. “…go.” Scott looked like his last tether to the world had been severed. He and Murdoch sat in silence until Scott said, “I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
“Sorry! What have you got to be sorry for?”
“I’m sorry for what’s happened, how she hurt you. She made you happy and now…”
“Now we go back to being the family we were before she came into our lives.”
“Can we? Is it that easy to forget all this like it never happened?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway.” He was hoping that haunted look in Scott’s eyes would disappear. The boy looked on the edge of collapse. “You need to rest,” he told him.
Scott got up instead and started pacing. “All I’ve been doing these last weeks is lying around. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine, Scott. You may have been lying on that cot, but you haven’t been getting any sleep,” Murdoch said quietly. Scott continued to pace, making every nerve in Murdoch’s body twang to the breaking point, but he wasn’t going to ask him to stop. Whatever Scott needed to do or say, Murdoch was going to allow it.
Finally, Johnny returned and Scott seemed to relax. He sat back down on his bed.
“I got Travis to ride out to the ranch. I told him to tell Teresa I said he could stay overnight. He seemed real pleased to help us.”
Murdoch snorted. “How much did you pay him?”
“Five dollars. That’s a lot for a sixteen-year-old. That and Maria’s cookin’ should have ‘im more than satisfied. Clyde said he could go.” Johnny grinned and winked at Scott, who simply stared blankly back at him. “Oh, and we got a response from the Pinks. Ain’t worth the paper it’s written on.” He handed the telegram to Murdoch.
Murdoch took it and crumpled it up without reading it. He took a good, hard look at Johnny and thought his younger son looked much like his older one. “Johnny, you’ve been up for two days. Get some sleep. There’s nothing left to do right now.”
“Think I will.” He stretched out on his bed and put his hat over his face. “Will you join me, brother?”
Scott sighed heavily. He had no fight left in him to defy both of them. He stretched out on his own bed determined to remain awake should his father need him.
Murdoch was surprised at how quickly Johnny succumbed to sleep. Scott fought it some, but soon he, too, was fast asleep. Murdoch gazed at his sons, so different, yet so alike. Both proud, stubborn, honorable men, and he thanked God they were both here with him and whole. He watched them as he reminisced about his years without them, how determined he had been to retrieve them and bring them to Lancer. “Lancer takes care of its own” he had told them several times. He prayed that would always be the case for many years in the future. But right now, he had a task to do. He spread Scott’s quilt over his elder son and a hotel blanket over Johnny. Then he took Scott’s hotel blanket and walked out the door, locking it behind him to make Sheriff Crawford happy.
Murdoch found Val lightly dozing with his boots up on his desk as he entered. The sheriff didn’t stir as he closed the door behind him, but he straightened up when Murdoch cleared his throat rather loudly.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Lancer?” the man asked as he planted his feet back on the floor.
“I’d like to see her, if you don’t mind, and give her this.” He raised the blanket toward Val.
The sheriff nodded and put his boots back on the desk. “She’s in Scott’s former cell. Insisted on it,” Val said shaking his head. “Go on back. It ain’t locked right now,” he said motioning at the door.
“Sheriff,” Murdoch began hesitantly, “I’d like for you to listen in on our conversation.”
“You want me in there with you?”
“No, no. I’d like you to be out here, just by the door where you can hear.”
Val shrugged. “Sure, if that’s what you want.”
Murdoch nodded and headed for the cell block. As the sheriff had said, Connie was in Scott’s former cell.
Connie looked up as somebody entered. It was Murdoch. Too bad it wasn’t Scott. Her secret lover was the only man she wanted to see right now. She just stared at her husband as he made his way to her. She tried to make herself look as miserable as she could to make him pity her.
“Connie? I’ve brought you this to keep you warm.” He was surprised at how much emotion she brought out of him. He had told himself over and over that he was through with her, that he didn’t love her anymore. One look from her and his heart was hers again.
“Not the quilt? You should have brought Scott’s quilt.” She would have loved to curl up in Scott’s quilt, smell his smell all around her.
“He’s using it at the moment.”
She nodded in acquiescence. Slowly she pushed herself off Scott’s cot and gathered in the blanket. “Are you going to get me out of here, darling?” She gave him her best pleading, lost puppy look while hugging the blanket to her.
“No, this is where you belong.”
“How can you say that? I didn’t even know that Jeff fellow!”
The fact that the diminutive of Jefferson’s name rolled so easily off her tongue wasn’t lost on him. She knew him. “I think you knew him, that you were married to him.”
“I was not! I was married to Asa Turner, and we had a horse…”
“Stop lying!” Murdoch hollered, and she didn’t say another word. “We know you’re Sadie Kronowski. We know you were married to Turnbull. We know you stabbed him in Virginia and shot him three times here.”
Sadie couldn’t keep the look of horror off her face. He knew! He’d used her maiden name. She hadn’t heard that in decades, not since she’d married Jeff. She hung her head.
“What I want to know now is why,” Murdoch continued. “Why did you kill him? It was about money, wasn’t it? Perhaps five thousand dollars?” He had come to that conclusion upstairs in the hotel room in the hour he’d spent going over their time together. There had been that desperate plea for money for her aunt, which had quickly and miraculously been resolved by a Virginia judge, who’d deemed the taxes unfair. Murdoch had thought no more about it. He’d had no reason to doubt his wife then.
Oh, why couldn’t you have just given me the money, Sadie thought. Then this whole nightmare wouldn’t have happened! But she wasn’t going to admit to anything. She needed to maintain her innocence. No jury would believe a lovely woman like her would murder a man. Scott would be freed because of this mysterious witness, and she would get off, too, and everyone could resume their former lives again. She just needed a good lawyer to get her acquitted. “Are you going to have Mr. Reynolds represent me?”
“You can choose anyone you’d like to represent you. I’ll not pay for it.”
That made her angry. She pressed up to the bars. “I’m your wife, Murdoch!”
“No. you’re not! You’re the widow of Jefferson Turnbull. We were married while you were still legally his wife. I intend to have our marriage dissolved as soon as possible.”
“But you can’t!” she wailed. “You married Constance Turner, and that’s me. I don’t know of this Sadie Kronski woman. We’re still husband and wife. You can’t tie me to Turnbull.”
It occurred to him that she still hadn’t realized the mistake she’d made with Johnny—answering to Sadie. Maybe they didn’t have conclusive proof yet that she was Sadie Kronowski, but if this Sam Winston Agency could track down her sister, he was sure she’d remember the fairly large, brown mole a few inches above her sister’s left shoulder blade. It was roughly the shape of Scotland. They had laughed about that on their honeymoon. Now it would surely identify her. “We will,” he told her confidently.
“And you can just stand there and pretend you don’t love me, that we weren’t everything to each other? You still love me, darling, and I love you.”
Murdoch was having none of it. There was one very important piece of the tragedy that was unsaid. “You were going to let Scott hang,” he accused her.
“There was nothing I could do about it! I couldn’t save him! I had nothing to do with any of this!”
She was good. Murdoch half believed her even when he knew better.
“There’s an eyewitness, Connie,” he reminded her.
“No, there isn’t! Johnny’s lying to hurt me. He’s never liked me. He’ll do anything to save Scott.”
“He’s not lying,” Murdoch persisted.
“Yes, he is. There wasn’t anybody around!”
Murdoch almost gasped at her gaffe. Again, she didn’t seem to realize her mistake. He wasn’t going to tell her so she could spin some lie to explain it, although it might be interesting to hear her try. “He was hiding in the bushes. He saw you leave the line shack.”
Could that have been possible? She cast her mind back. After she’d shot Jeff in the head, she didn’t remember much—just riding Remmie back to the hacienda, making plans about how she could sneak back into the house.
“I didn’t do it. I swear, Murdoch! Please believe me, darling. You’re my only hope.”
Murdoch was astounded about how smoothly and convincingly she lied. She’d been lying since the first day he’d met her and she was lying now. Johnny had caught her at the livery trying to ride away, trying to flee and letting Scott hang. Letting Scott hang. He’d never forgive her for that. Never. He never wanted to see her face again, although he knew that wasn’t going to be possible. The only comfort he found was that she wasn’t his wife anymore. Scott was saved by Yarnell and the only cost was his heart. It was a price he was willing to pay.
“I don’t believe you. You were willing to let Scott hang for something you did. I’ll never forget that or forgive you for it, but I’ll let the court decide your fate. You’ll get no support from me.” He walked away, closing the door behind him, trying to close his love for her like the door. But love wasn’t like a door, and, God help him, he knew he still loved her even now. With time it would ebb, but at the moment, the heartache was deep and real.
Sadie flopped back down on the cot. How could she tell him she had planned to write a long confession to clear her beloved and run away, heroically saving his life and sacrificing her love for him? But Murdoch had ruined that plan by insisting on staying with her last night instead of going back to comfort Scott. She had fallen asleep against her best intentions. It was all his fault! And she had written a short confession. Where was that now? Who would find it and seal her fate? Worst of all, if Scott believed as his father did, that she was willing to let him hang, Scott must think she didn’t love him. That was the cruelest pain of all to bear.
Murdoch stepped into Val’s office and found himself echoing Johnny’s words earlier. “You heard that?”
Val almost chuckled. “Yeah. I’d be interested to know how she knew nobody was around.”
“Dear God, I know she’s guilty, but I still half believed her when she said she was innocent.”
“Yeah,” Val commiserated. “She’s one of the best liars I’ve heard in a while. Must have had plenty of practice at it.” Val put a hand on Murdoch’s arm. “Don’t let that eat ya up. Any man would fall for her shit.”
Murdoch nodded. He shook hands with the sheriff. “Thanks for all your help in this, Val. Thanks for being such a good friend to my boys.” Crawford nodded. “And make sure Yarnell is happy. Lancer will pay for anything he needs.”
Val wondered if the man knew how alike he and Johnny thought. He knew neither Murdoch nor Johnny saw it even if the rest of the world did.
The widow, Eulalia Hargis, walked back to the cell where Murdoch Lancer’s former wife sat. She was saddened to find her dire prediction at the Lancer wedding had come to pass with Scott Lancer bearing the brunt of the misery. She remembered dancing with him at the wedding and it still made her wistful and feeling like a schoolgirl. Sheriff Crawford had asked her to speak to Constance Lancer or Connie Turner, or Sadie Turnbull, or whoever she was to see if the woman needed anything special, being she was a female.
“What are you doing here?” the woman asked sullenly.
“The sheriff asked me to come by to see if you need anything,” Eulalia explained.
“Need anything?” Sadie asked incredulously. “Like what? A good lawyer? A new life?”
“No, I’m sure he was thinking about whether you need any supplies while you’re here,” Eulalia said as evenly as she could. She wanted to throttle the woman for what she had put Scott Lancer through. Scott Lancer was a fine man.
Was the woman daft? She’d have to spell it out for her then. “You know, supplies…for your monthly.”
“Oh, that!” Sadie almost cackled. “No, I don’t need any of those kinds of supplies.” She rose from the bed and grabbed the bars where she was nose to nose with the old biddy Hargis. She looked right and left to make sure no one was around to hear her, and then said conspiratorially, “I’m pregnant.”
Eulalia scoffed. “At your age, woman? I hardly think so!”
“Long as I have my monthlies, I can still bear children,” Sadie said. “Don’t you want to hear who the father is?”
“You don’t need to tell me, and Murdoch Lancer is too old to want a newborn in the house.”
Sadie laughed. “It’s not Murdoch’s. It’s Scott’s.”
If there hadn’t been bars between them, Eulalia would have slapped the woman’s face for such slander. The nerve of her! “No one in a hundred miles would believe such a lie!” she told the hussy.
“It’s true. Scott loves me and I love him. It was love at first sight. I’m going to marry him and have his child.”
Eulalia had heard enough. The woman really was daft. She picked up her skirts and almost ran out of the cell block.
Val came in soon after, curious as to what got the widow so ruffled.
“Sheriff, could you please tell Scott to come see me?” Sadie asked as sweetly as she could.
“Ma’am,” and he practically choked on using that title for her, “there’s no way I’m gonna ask Scott to see ya. You’ve done ‘im enough sorrow, don’t ya think?”
Sadie’s sweet demeanor turned instantly sour. “I don’t care what you think. I need to see Scott and he needs to hear what I have to say. It’s urgent.”
“Yeah, well, what’s urgent to you ain’t necessarily urgent to him.”
“Will you do as I ask?” She gave him a glare that might have been rather fearsome if she wasn’t behind bars.
“I’ll think on it,” Val said and walked away amidst her curses at him.
Later that day, Johnny walked into the office, hoping Val could give him a much need diversion. Maybe there’d be some games of checkers and Johnny could recoup some of his dimes he owed Val for losing.
“What’re you doing here?” Val asked. He was surprised to see his friend away from his brother’s side.
“Just needed to get away from that room for a bit. Don’t worry, Murdoch’s keeping an eye on Scott, so he won’t make a run for it.” Johnny grinned his charming smile.
Val grunted. “Yeah, like Scott would ever make a run for it. Now you, on the other hand…”
Johnny and Val were halfway through their first game of checkers when Johnny asked, “So what’s happenin’ here?”
“Nothin’,” Val replied, “’Cept old Sadie there wants to see Scott. Said she’s got somethin’ real important to say to ‘im. Urgent, in fact.”
“No way in Hell she’s seein’ Scott…ever!”
“I understand, amigo. It’s your move.” Val knew this game would go unfinished.
Johnny sat there for a few seconds, jiggling his legs nervously until he said, “Maybe I oughta make that real clear to Mrs. Turnbull.”
“I thought you might,” Val said, pulling out the keys to the cell block door.
Sadie jumped up as she heard the cellblock door being unlocked. Maybe the sheriff had told Scott and he was coming to see her! How heavenly it would be to see his beautiful face again! Even as pale and drawn as he’d been in the early hours of Monday morning, he was still the most handsome man she had ever seen. What she saw was the red shirt of Johnny Lancer and her hopes disappeared. “What’re you doing here?” she asked bitterly. “I asked to see Scott.”
“Well, ya see, Sadie, that’s why I’m here—to tell you it’ll be a cold day in Hell before me or Murdoch ever let you see Scott again.”
“I have to talk to him!”
“Well, he don’t want to talk to you…ever.” Johnny kept his voice low and his stare icy.
“That’s not true! Scott loves me and I love him. We’re in love!”
Johnny rolled his eyes at her. “You’re crazy! Scott don’t love you; he never did. He don’t even wanna see your face again.”
“He does and he will be with me once I tell him what I have to say.”
“And what’s that?”
“None of your business. It’s just between Scott and me.”
“Ain’t nothin’ between Scott and you! Get that through your head!” He started to walk away.
“No, no!” she begged. “Don’t walk away!”
Johnny didn’t obey her. He just kept walking. He strode past a curious Val and headed for the hotel.
After dinner, Johnny managed to get Murdoch alone. He told him of his conversation with Sadie. Murdoch was unhappy and reinforced Johnny’s belief that Scott shouldn’t go near the woman. However, Johnny said he was curious about what she had to say. Knowing that she wasn’t going to see Scott, she might tell him what was so important. Murdoch agreed. Shunning her was good on principle, but if she really had some crucial information, they’d be fools not to learn of it.
Johnny popped back into the sheriff’s office early the next morning. Deputy Harper was there; Val must have been getting some well-earned rest. Harper opened the door to the cells and left Johnny alone with the woman once Johnny had handed over his gun.
Sadie looked more and more haggard each time Johnny saw her. He felt no sympathy for her, not after what she had put Scott through.
“What do you want now?” she said irritably.
“Murdoch and me both decided that Scott’s not gonna see you.”
“Did you even tell him that I wanted to?”
“He’s a grown man. You should let him make his own decisions.”
“Yeah? Well, he’s not thinking too clearly right now. Hasn’t slept for a while. That’s what happens to a man when he almost hangs for somethin’ he didn’t do, somethin’ his supposedly lovin’ stepmother did. That’s why we’re thinkin’ for ‘im.”
She gave a snort of derision. “Even not thinking clearly, he can think circles around you,” she spat.
Johnny didn’t rise to the taunt. “You’re prob’ly right about that, but we still won’t let ‘im see ya.”
“What I’ve got to say will change his whole life.”
“Well, then, we definitely won’t let ‘im see ya.”
With a growl, she slumped down on her cot and crossed her arms. Johnny thought she might curl her lower lip, too.
“Tell you what: You tell me and I promise I’ll tell Scott.”
She peered at him through slitted eyes. “Promise?”
“On your mother’s grave?”
Díos, he hated this woman! “I promise.”
“Once you tell him, Scott will want to see me.”
“Well, if we can’t talk ‘im out of it, he won’t be comin’ alone.”
She sighed heavily and gave him a sideways, skeptical look. When she kept silent for a while, Johnny turned and started to walk away.
Johnny stopped but didn’t turn around.
“Tell him I’m sorry. So sorry.”
“That’s all?” he said over his shoulder. “That’s what was so urgent and life-changin’?”
“And…and…I’m pregnant…with his child.”
That made Johnny turn around. “You must be outta your head if you think anybody’s gonna believe that,” he hissed.
She smiled a wicked smile. “Scott will. He’ll know it’s the truth. Deep down, he’ll know.”
“You liar!” Johnny was desperate to defend Scott.
“My monthly bleed didn’t come. I’m always right on time. Just ask Murdoch if you don’t believe me. He knows that much about me. And I haven’t been with anyone since Scott made beautiful love to me. I’m with child and the baby’s his.”
Johnny stuck his head inside his hotel room and motioned to Murdoch to see him outside. Scott was sitting at the desk, apparently absorbed in some legal document.
Outside the closed door, Johnny told Murdoch of Sadie’s accusation, hoping to get his counsel on how to proceed. He knew he had sworn on his mother’s grave to tell Scott, but he thought Maria wouldn’t object to him breaking this vow. She had broken plenty during her own lifetime.
Instead of discussing whether they should tell Scott, Murdoch flew into a fit. “What? That’s impossible!” He stormed back into the hotel room and caught Scott’s shirt as he was rising from the desk at hearing his father’s bellow. “Did you sleep with my wife?”
“What? No!” Scott denied.
“She’s saying she’s pregnant with your child. Did you have sex with her?” Murdoch demanded.
Johnny saw the shock of Murdoch’s accusation cross Scott’s face. Then there was something else—the confusion, as if he were trying to remember something. He looked at Murdoch, stricken.
The hesitation was all Murdoch needed as confirmation of Sadie’s allegation. “Damn you, boy!” He hit Scott. Hard. Hard enough to send him crashing against some furniture and land on the floor. In two strides Murdoch was on him again, sending several blows to Scott’s face and body. “I want you out of my life, do you hear me, boy? I never want to see your face again!” Murdoch felt Johnny’s hands on him, trying to tear him away from his assault on Scott.
Murdoch let go of his elder son and stomped out of the room muttering “disgusting!” Johnny sat down next to his brother and saw the blood on his face. Already the soft tissues were starting to swell. He got up and poured some water onto a towel. Sitting down again, Johnny tried to mop up the blood on Scott’s face, hoping the cool cloth would also stem the swelling.
“Talk to me, brother. Tell me what’s goin’ through your mind. I know you didn’t willingly sleep with that bitch.”
“I…I don’t know what I’m thinking.” Scott took the cloth from Johnny and started dabbing at his own face. He moved his jaw around, trying to figure out if it was broken. It seemed all right, but it sure ached like it was broken. He sat there on the floor trying to gather his wits about him. Could he tell Johnny about the fear that had been plaguing him for the last month? He had to. He had to tell someone or he’d burst. “Johnny, did you ever have a dream so real, so vivid you couldn’t tell whether it was a dream or not?”
Johnny leaned his head back and thought. “Yeah, once when I was real sick with fever. Val was there and said I got so hot he didn’t think I would make it. I was reliving Mama’s death, and it felt like it was really happening again. I could hear the voices, the yelling, and smell the burning frijoles and the blood. I even thought I was touching her. I could feel her arm, the knife. It seemed so real. It was kinda scary having all my senses going as real as when I was awake. That’s why I thought it wasn’t a dream; that it was really happenin’. Never had that before or since. Before, I just saw stuff. But that time, it was more’n just seein’. It was seein’ and smellin’ and touchin’. I can still remember that dream.”
“Then you know what it’s like. In my dream I was in Libby trying to help Captain Ames. He had a little scratch on his thumb, just a shallow scratch, but it was infected. You know, you can die from an infection, even a little one. He was so scared. I was trying to help him, but there wasn’t much I could do. There wasn’t any clean water by then. And it turned out he didn’t make it. He was such a good man. I cried when he died.”
Johnny let Scott ramble on. It must be something near impossible for Scott to talk about because his brother didn’t usually stray from a topic.
Scott wasn’t sure he could speak of that night to anyone, but he had to, if Johnny was to understand. “Then suddenly I was…it was that night…” He stopped and swallowed hard. He couldn’t spit the words out.
“It’s all right, brother. You can tell me. Dreams don’t mean nothin’. They’re not real. They can’t hurt ya.”
“That’s just it. It isn’t just a dream; it’s a memory. It really happened. It was winter, February, I think. I was in this group. There were five of us. Dan Cassidy was one of us. You remember Dan…”
How could I forget, Johnny thought? That had been one of the longest days in his life at Lancer, first trying to find Scott and then trying to keep him and everyone else at Lancer safe from Hardy and Lewis.
“…well, we would all sleep together for protection and warmth. We trusted one another to keep each other safe. That night was my turn to be on one of the outside spots—on the outside of our group. There was no real outside. There were so many of us crammed into that place. And when it got so cold, we needed the warmth of each other to stay alive. That night…there was this man…I never did find out who it was…he got up real close to my back. I could feel his erection.” Scott stopped, too ashamed to go on.
Johnny was terrified as to where this nightmare was heading. “Did he hurt you?”
“No,” Scott said quickly. “He didn’t…rape me. Just…rubbed himself on me. It still felt dirty and…awful. That’s where my nightmare went that day, but then it switched again, and Barbara was there, and we were having sex.”
“Yes, I thought it was Barbara, this girl I knew in Boston. She was the only girl I knew who liked to be…you know…on top. She liked to be in charge.”
“I like that in a gal. You just lie back and enjoy the ride.”
“Something like that. But it was weird for her to be there in the prison camp.”
“Dreams don’t make sense most times, even good ones.”
“No, you’re right. They don’t. Only there was something, just something, that didn’t make it seem like a dream. I couldn’t figure it out. It ran around and around in my mind and I couldn’t get my wits around it, especially with Teresa, Connie, and Maria hovering over me. They made me uneasy all of a sudden. I asked Murdoch for a chore that would allow me to be by myself for a while. I needed to work through what I was feeling. That’s why he sent me checking the southeast pasture.”
“You think Connie…er…Sadie was really having sex with you then?”
“Maybe.” Scott held his head in his hands. He had a headache that wouldn’t quit. “Oh, I don’t know! How could that happen and me not know it? That’s what I can’t figure out!”
“You did have a high fever, Scott. We were afraid you were gonna die, just like Val was with me.” Johnny searched his brain. “Wait a minute! I think I know when she did it. I was there!”
Scott groaned at that revelation.
“No! I mean, I think I came in on ‘er after she did it. I came back to the house ‘cause I needed somethin’ and I went to check on you. She was in there alone with you and looked all flushed and acted all flustery, well, more flustery than usual. It was weird. I bet that was when she did it.”
Scott looked away, embarrassed. “But wouldn’t that have awakened me—what she’d have to do to get me hard?”
“Would it? If you thought it was Barbara and part of your dream…Connie said you’d had a nightmare.”
“Well, it’s sure turned into one. I still don’t think she could use me that way without me knowing it. At least that was the conclusion I came to after thinking hard on it.” He groaned in frustration. “I wish I were dead.”
“Don’t say that! After all we’re doin’ to keep you alive…”
Scott hung his head in shame and mumbled an apology.
“You stay here. I’m gonna talk to the doc.”
“I don’t need a doctor.”
“I’m just gonna talk to ‘im, I said.” Johnny got up and paused at the door. “What happened to you…well, it’s disgustin’.” He opened the door and said on his way out, “Wait here. I’ll be back.”
Johnny left and Scott felt bereft, alone in the world. He’d been violated, used while he was sick. Even so, he should have been man enough to resist the assault. He should have woken up and stopped her. He felt so worthless. Even his father and brother thought he was disgusting. All the people who he thought loved him unconditionally—Grandfather, Murdoch, Johnny—had abandoned him. He spied Johnny’s saddlebags. If he knew his brother, there would be something in them he could use. He rummaged around in the first bag and found the letters he’d written to his brother. He didn’t remove them; Johnny would need them. He found what he was searching for in the other bag.
Johnny knocked on Sam’s door. The doctor opened it with a napkin tucked into his shirt.
“Johnny! I was just finishing breakfast. Is everything all right? Is Scott all right?”
“No, Scott ain’t all right. That’s why I’m here, but I just wanna talk to ya.”
Sam opened the door wider, so Johnny could enter. After offering Johnny breakfast, which was declined, he poured two fresh cups of coffee, motioning for Johnny to begin.
“Doc, that bitch, Sadie Turnbull, she’s claiming she’s carryin’ Scott’s child…”
“That’s preposterous!” Sam interrupted. “Scott wouldn’t do that! He wouldn’t betray Murdoch’s trust.”
“Yeah, we all know that, but the thing is…” Johnny didn’t know how to go on. He didn’t know how to make Sam understand. “Doc, can a man have sex and not even know it?”
“Johnny, you’re going to have to be more specific than that before I can give you an honest answer. What’s happened?”
Johnny told him about Scott’s nightmare and his own encounter with Sadie. Sam knew Scott’s fever had been dangerously high for several days. He’d witnessed Scott in the throes of delirium himself. Hallucinations weren’t uncommon. But this…this was so base, so indecent of the woman, Sam was struck speechless. If Johnny was right about his speculations, Scott had been raped while fighting for his very life.
Sam set his coffee mug down. He was trying hard to keep his breakfast down. If Sadie Turnbull had raped Scott, dear God, she was certainly capable of cold-blooded murder. “It’s possible, Johnny. It’s possible she could have done it while he was in the midst of a nightmare or a hallucination.”
Johnny swore softly. “Then it might be true? She might be pregnant with Scott’s baby?”
“She might be, although she’s a bit old to become pregnant. She’ll be forty in a couple of years.”
“Knowin’ Scott’s luck recently, she prob’ly is. But that’s not all of it, Doc.” Johnny proceeded to tell the doctor about Murdoch’s reaction.
Sam became angered and anguished at the same time—anguish for Scott and angry with Murdoch. As usual, the Lancer patriarch had let his emotions jump in before his reason did.
“You gotta explain it to ‘im, Sam. You gotta make ‘im see that it’s not Scott’s fault. It’s all her fault. I wanna kill ‘er with my bare hands.”
“I’m sure you’d have to stand in line for that, Johnny. But first we have to find Murdoch and talk some sense into him. Where is he now?”
Johnny shrugged. He and Sam looked at each other and then as one said, “Saloon.”
They found the man there nursing a whiskey, a half-empty bottle by his elbow.
“A little early in the day to be drinking, isn’t it?” Sam asked, disapproval plain in his voice.
“I’ve got reason to drink,” Murdoch answered just as sourly. “What are you both doing here?”
“We’re here to knock a little sense into you, Old Man,” Johnny said. “You need to listen to the doc, here, before you pour yourself another glass.” He grabbed the bottle and placed it away from his father.
“Where’s Scott now?” Sam asked, after he and Johnny had explained the situation the best they could to an angry, half-drunk Murdoch.
“I left ‘im in the hotel room when I came to see you,” Johnny said.
“You left him alone?” Sam said alarmed.
“What’s the matter?” Murdoch demanded. “He’s a grown man. He can be left alone in a hotel room. He knows he’s supposed to stay there.” He still hadn’t completely figured out Sam’s explanation of what happened between Scott and Connie, no, Sadie. Connie Turner was a fiction. He’d married a fiction. How could he have been so easily duped? How vain was he to think that a woman her age would be interested in him? The questions kept haunting him. He didn’t know how to make them stop. Sam’s voice broke into his brooding.
“I wouldn’t advise leaving Scott alone in his state.”
“For God’s sake, man! Scott is still recovering from a very serious illness, during which he was raped. Then he was accused of murder and dragged through the streets in chains like a common thug. He was practically abandoned by his grandfather and almost hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. Now Johnny tells me you hit him because your so-called wife said she was pregnant with his child. What state of mind would you be in?”
“Plus, Val says he hasn’t slept hardly at all since he’s been jailed,” Johnny told Sam. Then he turned to his father. “You told ‘im you never wanted to see his face again.”
“I did? I don’t remember, I was so angry.”
“Dear God, this just gets worse and worse,” Sam despaired.
“I’ll go stay with ‘im,” Johnny said. He left the saloon, Murdoch on his heels.
“I’m sorry, Johnny.”
“Not me you should be apologizin’ to,” Johnny said sharply, then he relented. “Aw, none of us is thinkin’ too clearly right now, Old Man, but least of all Scott.”
They checked both hotel rooms, but Scott wasn’t there. “Let’s check out the restaurant. Maybe he’s gettin’ breakfast,” Johnny suggested, but Scott wasn’t there, either. Walking out to the sidewalk, Johnny said, “You go right, I’ll go left. We meet back here if we can’t find ‘im.”
Murdoch nodded and strode out to his right. Johnny went left, sticking his head into every establishment and asking about Scott. No one had seen his brother. Finally, he made it to the livery stable, kicking himself for not going there first to see if Remmie was there. Yes, none of the Lancers were thinking too clearly at the moment. To his relief, the horse was still in his stall.
“What’s the matter?” the liveryman asked, seeing Johnny’s agitation.
“Just lookin’ for Scott, Clyde,” Johnny explained. “You seen ‘im today?”
“Just a little while ago. Came in and looked to be wantin’ to saddle up and then he jes’ sorta wandered out again.”
“How’d he seem?”
“Not good, Johnny. Seemed confused, sad. Usually him and me talk a bit. He’s real friendly that way. But today he didn’t wanna talk. Guess that trial done took it out of ‘im. I sure was sorry to hear of his troubles.”
“Yeah, well, do you know which way he went when he left?”
“Sorry, Johnny, guess I wasn’t payin’ too much attention to ‘im. I got work to do and all that.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks, Clyde. I’ll find ‘im.”
Having had no luck with the front of the street, Johnny headed to the back. He didn’t have to look far. Scott was sitting on the ground just around the corner in back of the stable clutching a gun. Johnny recognized it as the spare he kept in his saddlebags. He raced back to Clyde. Flipping a silver dollar at him, he ordered the man to find Murdoch as quickly as he could and bring him around back. Then he ran back to Scott.
Scott sat cross-legged staring with unseeing eyes at the gun in his lap. Johnny approached him very slowly and carefully. He knelt by Scott’s side, but his brother didn’t look at him.
They stayed that way for a bit, Johnny’s mind in a panic, searching for something to say. “Thanks for takin’ good care of my gun, brother,” Johnny finally said softly. He noticed the hammer was cocked and Scott’s finger was on the trigger. There was no way he could grab the gun from Scott’s hand without it going off. “You wanna give me my gun now, brother?” Johnny suggested soothingly.
Scott slowly looked up at him, his face filled with so much despair and hopelessness, Johnny felt physically gut punched. “I couldn’t do it,” Scott whispered at last.
Johnny knew Scott was talking about taking his own life. He looked at Scott’s battered, swollen face and blew out a long breath. His brother was exhausted in body, mind, and spirit. He didn’t know what to say. In the end, he mumbled the very inadequate, “Well, I’m kinda glad you couldn’t, brother.” Johnny was going to keep reminding Scott that he was his brother and that he had a brother who cared about him. He prayed that strategy would work.
“You’re the only one,” Scott said morosely, hanging his head again.
Johnny saw Murdoch hurry around the corner. He held up his hand to stop his father from coming any farther. In Scott’s dangerous state of mind, seeing the father who had hit him and told him he never wanted to see his face again might set him off. Murdoch sat down just around the corner from where Scott sat, where his first-born couldn’t see him, but he could hear his sons.
“Now, that’s not true, brother. Lots of folks would be upset if you committed suicide.” Johnny could see Murdoch cringe, but he wanted his father to know quickly just how dire the situation was.
“Maybe you…and Teresa,” Scott scoffed.
“More’n that. Since you can’t do it, why don’t you give the gun to me, brother?”
Murdoch’s heart sank. This was Scott, his level-headed son, who had been brought to such despondency! And he had helped his son sink to such depths. It filled him with so much remorse, he couldn’t even fathom it. Thank God, Johnny and Sam had found him and set him straight.
Johnny’s plea only made Scott clutch the gun tight to his chest. “Not just yet.”
Johnny was nearly frantic. “Don’t let ‘er win, Scott. Don’t let that bitch take my brother away from me. You know I’ve borne a lot of troubles in my time, but losin’ you…I wouldn’t be able to bear that. Don’t make me bear that cross, brother.”
Scott laughed a short, heart-breaking laugh. “That bitch…it’s because of her that I can’t do it, that I’m such a coward.”
“You’re no coward, brother. You’re one brave hombre.” Johnny inwardly cursed at his feeble words. They wouldn’t make his brother come to his senses. Scott was sunk deep in his misery.
“I’m so tired of trying to be strong,” Scott mumbled.
“You don’t have to be any longer. You can lean on me, brother.”
Scott continued as if he didn’t hear Johnny. “I had this under my chin.” He held the pistol, hammer still cocked, under his chin to demonstrate, his finger still on the trigger.
Johnny had been frightened many times in his life, especially before he’d honed his craft and gotten his deadly reputation, but he had never been as scared as he was right now. To see Scott intentionally put a bullet in his head right in front of him—that scared Johnny down to his core.
“Put the gun down, brother. You don’t need to show me. I know what you mean,” Johnny said very gently. He desperately wanted to grab that gun out of Scott’s hand, but it just wasn’t possible. He glanced at Murdoch, who gave him an encouraging, though grim, nod. “But then you stopped,” Johnny continued. “You had a reason to stop.”
Scott let out a maniacal snort of a laugh. “Oh, I had a reason, brother. That bitch…that bitch was the reason.” He finally lowered the gun and gently released the hammer; however, his finger was still on the trigger.
Johnny was flooded with some relief. “I don’t get it, Scott. You shouldn’t be thinkin’ about ‘er at all. Just let ‘er go to prison like she deserves and never think on ‘er again.”
“But I can’t. What if she is carrying my child?”
“So what? They won’t let ‘er keep it, bein’ she’s in prison. It won’t grow up under her evil spell.”
“But what happens to the child? My child? I can’t turn my back on my child. I won’t let him grow up without a father like I did. I wouldn’t put that on a child, knowing that pain.”
Johnny didn’t dare glance at Murdoch, knowing Scott’s words were stabbing him in the heart. Why did his father think his sons could just forget the past and move forward like it never happened? They both still had deep, open wounds. He’d believed Scott had dealt with his pain much better than he had. He’d been wrong. Scott had only been much better at hiding it. “You’d take ‘im? Raise ‘im?”
“And love him. Yes, I would. The child’s innocent in all of this.” Scott sighed heavily and Johnny thought his brother was on the verge of tears. He’d never seen Scott cry. He was sure Harlan would never have allowed such a display of emotion in his proper Boston house. “I’m empty inside,” Scott continued, “I’m broken and not fit to be a father. I wasn’t even man enough to stop her from…from… You’re right, I’m disgusting.”
Johnny frowned. When had he said Scott was disgusting? He would never think that of Scott.
They sat there for what seemed like an eternity to Johnny. It was clear Scott was thinking hard or trying to. “I’m so lost,” he whispered at last, and Johnny thought he’d never heard such a sorrowful voice.
“No, you’re not, brother. I’ve found you. I’ll help you find your way.”
At last, with a sigh, Scott handed the gun over to Johnny. “Will you help me? Will you help me raise my child?” he whispered.
“I’ll do anything I can to help you, brother, you know that. And you’re not disgustin’. Don’t know where you got the notion I thought you were disgustin’. You’re the best man I know, Scott Lancer. Any child’ll be lucky to have you as a Pa,” Johnny said, relieved the gun was finally in his hands.
Murdoch could sit still no longer. He rushed to his son’s side and clutched Scott to his chest. “You’re innocent in all this too, son! I should’ve seen that, known that. I’m so sorry I hit you, hurt you. I’ll never do that again, I swear it!”
Scott grabbed onto Murdoch’s shirt like a man in quicksand grabs onto a rope. “Murdoch, I couldn’t…I would never…”
“I know, son, I know. I should have known it all along. Please, please, forgive me.”
Johnny saw the tears streaming from his father’s eyes. He hadn’t seen his father cry since he’d been shot by Pardee. Scott was crying, too, pouring out all the anguish of the past two months, the terrible strain finally breaking down his reserved upbringing.
Murdoch’s free hand reached out and squeezed Johnny’s arm. “My boys, I love you both so much. I’m so proud of you both.”
The three of them stayed that way for a bit, until Scott, regaining some of his composure, asked softly, “What do we do now?”
“We go home,” Murdoch declared decisively. “Johnny, explain it to Val. Tell him we’ll be back for the hearing or anything else he needs and then saddle the horses. We’re going home to Lancer and its beauty will heal us. I know. Works every time.”
Johnny grinned at Murdoch and shot up to obey him but not before he heard his father’s heartfelt, “Thank you, John, for saving him.”
When Johnny left, Scott tried to pull away, but Murdoch held him fast, relishing the feeling of holding his elder son. To have his strong, proud, independent first-born reduced to this state of fragility shredded his heart, and all because he’d brought that damned woman into their home. “Not bringing you home from Boston is one of the biggest regrets of my life, Scott. The other is not finding your brother before he had to live by his gun. I can’t change that. I’ll always have to live with that guilt, but I can do better from here on out. I promise you that I will do better, Scott. You’ll see. All I hope for is your forgiveness, your forgiveness for a lifetime of my wrongs.” Murdoch clung to his child until Scott finally relaxed into his embrace. For twenty-six years he had longed to hold his first-born son like this, to show him all the love he had for him. He prayed Scott felt it, accepted it, and maybe in time would return it. At last, the pain from Pardee’s bullet in his back was too great to ignore. Murdoch arose, bringing Scott up with him. “Time to go home, son.”
Inside the jail, Sadie Kronowski Turnbull woke up late from an exquisitely sweet dream. She was out of prison early on good behavior and the still incredibly handsome Scott Lancer was introducing her to their young son, who looked just like Scott. Her son rushed into her arms, hugging her, and begging her to stay and never leave him. And Scott, so moved by the boy’s affection toward her, forgave her everything.
Then that awful deputy had banged on her cell bars and roused her, the monster. She had taken her own sweet time to fully wake up just to spite him. Now as she rose from the cot, an all-too-familiar feeling came over her.
Rushing to the bars, she yelled for the deputy. “Get me Widow Hargis fast!” she pleaded desperately. “Fast!”
Harper stuck his face around the door. “I need Widow Hargis! Now!” Something in her voice or face must have convinced him to heed her. He hurried out.
Sadie hung onto the bars and started to weep as she felt the thin trickle of blood slowly make its way down her inner left thigh.
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