Word Count 26,340
For those of you who wanted more of the “Because of a Galloping Horse” storyline. Your wish is my command. Thanks for reading my stories.
“I wish you were my father.”
Johnny Lancer tensed immediately. He’d been nearly asleep leaning back on a sturdy oak after a pleasant morning and lunch with his eldest nephew, Ian Thomas. The boy was laying on his back by Johnny’s side, his head resting in his hands and the rest of his long body stretched out contentedly beneath the tree. The tension in his jaw belied his relaxed pose. Johnny realized the courage it had taken for Ian to say what he did. How Johnny responded would strengthen or break their relationship. Johnny loved Scott’s oldest like he was his own. He didn’t want to ruin their bond.
He chuckled a little. “You might want to talk to Robbie before you say somethin’ like that.”
Ian rolled over toward his uncle and propped up his head with his hand. “No, really. I mean it.”
“Why’d you ever want an old cowhand like me when you’ve got a perfectly good father as it is?” Johnny almost said “perfect father” because just like with everything else in his life, Scott Lancer excelled at fatherhood—loving, patient, and kind with his children, yet uncompromising when it came to their manners and education.
“’Cause you can do things.”
Johnny chuckled again. “Your father knows how to do everything I can and much more.”
“He can’t do what we did today.” Ian had spent all morning with Uncle Johnny, who was teaching him how to work cattle. It was the most fun he’d had since he couldn’t remember when. “He can’t ride ‘cept at a walk and not very far, and he can’t haze or rope a steer or do anything.” Ian flopped back down onto his back again, this time with one of his arms flung dramatically across his eyes.
“You know why he can’t do them things anymore,” Johnny chastised gently. A surge of guilt washed over him again. It was because of him that Scott couldn’t ranch anymore. It was because he sent him away to Sacramento that Scott had gotten hurt saving the life of the governor.
“I know, I know,” Ian sighed tiredly. “Mama never lets us forget.”
Johnny knew Ian was rolling his eyes underneath his forearm. “Well, you shouldn’t forget. Your Pa’s one of the bravest men I’ve ever known.”
“Yeah, yeah.” His uncle didn’t get it. He shouldn’t have said anything. He knew he should have kept his big mouth shut. Now Uncle Johnny would say something to Da, and it would all turn out awful.
Johnny got up. “C’mon.” He brushed the dirt and leaves off his pants. “I got somethin’ to show you, sobrino.”
Ian Thomas loved it when Uncle johnny called him “nephew” in Spanish. Why couldn’t this confident yet playful and extremely capable man have been his father rather than his formal, bookish, and crippled father? Why had he gotten the wrong son of Murdoch Lancer as a father? He followed his uncle out to the range heading northeast.
Johnny didn’t speak to Ian as they rode to the windmill. He knew the boy was stewing about what he’d said about Scott. Johnny was content to let him stew. He’d keep Ian’s words to himself because he knew how hurtful they’d be to his brother. Plus, he had certain responsibilities as an uncle and one of them was to be a sounding board for his nephew, especially about things that Ian felt he couldn’t say to his father. His own uncle, Cipriano, had been exemplary. How many times had he talked to him about things, mainly Murdoch? Cipriano always listened. But he wasn’t above giving him a tongue-lashing when Johnny deserved it.
Ian Thomas saw the windmill rise in the distance. Was this why they had ridden all this way to see—a stupid windmill?
Johnny stopped at the base of the structure. “What do ya think of this?”
“It’s a windmill.” Ian said blandly.
Johnny dismounted and sat at the base of the structure. “Your father built it almost single-handedly. I gave ‘im a hard time about it, said it was stupid. But it’s been pumpin’ water to that lake down there when before, it was just a mud puddle. We have to grease it every so often and replace a blade every now and then, but it’s been working for close to twenty years.” Johnny looked at the structure with appreciation. “I don’t know how to build one, but your Pa does.” Johnny patted the space by his side.
Ian dismounted and sat by his uncle. “But that was before. Bet he can’t build one now.”
Johnny ducked his head and then looked Ian in the eye. “Yeah, it was before, but if he had to build one again, he’d do it. He still knows how to hammer a nail. Ian, there’s nothing your Pa can’t do when he sets his mind to it. Fact is, your Pa’s the first man I’d pick to have my back in times of trouble.”
“Why? He can’t do much.”
Johnny sighed. “Ian Thomas, you just don’t know about your Pa. Why, I still remember the first time I saw ‘im, straight from Boston and all dandied up.”
“Da’s told us about that. He said you were wearing a pink shirt.”
“It was red! I keep tellin’ ‘im that!” Johnny laughed. “Anyway, I didn’t know what to make of ‘im, but I should’ve figured he was a man to be reckoned with, travelin’ all that way to start a whole new life out here. Takes some grit to do that, boy. He was so full of piss and vinegar.”
“Yes, your Da! Oh, I could tell you some stories of the adventures we had…”
“Tell me, Uncle Johnny! Please?”
Johnny thought. “Well, there was this one time, we were in this town waitin’ for the stage and your Grampa, and this beautiful woman passes by, and your Pa decides to ask her to a dance they were havin’ that night. Next thing you know, your Pa’s in jail.
“Jail! Da?” Ian couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“Seems he looked like some bank robber, and that pretty girl was the robber’s sister. There were some bounty hunters intent on takin’ ‘im in for the reward money. Luckily, the sheriff was a decent sort and gave me enough time to hunt down the real bank robber. I found ‘im, but we had a fight and he fell into a river and drowned. Anyway, I was still able to rescue my brother from his doomed fate.”
“I convinced that pretty girl to tell ‘em your Pa wasn’t her brother. She’d lied at first and said he was in order to save her real brother from them bounty hunters. But once her brother was gone, there wasn’t no reason for her to lie anymore.”
“How’d you convince her?”
“Let’s just say your uncle’s got his charmin’ ways,” Johnny grinned. “’Course, I’m not as smooth as your Pa. He had a real smooth way with the ladies.”
Ian shook his head. He couldn’t imagine that. He couldn’t imagine his father with any other woman than Mama.
“See, your Pa was young like you were once. He had a whole life before you came along. Once you young’uns come along, a man’s gotta settle down and behave himself. But before then, hoo-boy!”
“I can’t imagine Da being young,” Ian admitted. “I thought he was always so serious all through his life.”
“Hell, no,” Johnny said, laughing. “You should’ve seen ‘im then. Nothing he couldn’t do. We had us some times. But we’re older now. He’s got responsibilities, big responsibilities now.”
“So do you. You have Lancer.”
Johnny nodded. Just like Scott with Garrett Enterprises, he had employees to manage and profits to make.
“I want to help you run the ranch, Uncle Johnny,” Ian said sincerely. “I want to live at Lancer and be a rancher like you and Robbie!”
“Have you told your Pa that?”
“I…I started to, but he said I had to go to university first.”
“Would that be so bad, learnin’ all that stuff? Might come in handy sometime.”
“No, I don’t want to go to more school! You didn’t go to university and you’re the best rancher in the world!”
Johnny chuckled at that. He loved this boy.
“I don’t even want to go back to San Francisco,” Ian continued. “I want to stay here and help you with the ranch. I love it here. I know this is how I want to live the rest of my life. Can I, Uncle Johnny? Can I stay here with you and Aunt Bella and Robbie and Essie?” Ian gave his uncle his best pleading look that used to always make Mama give in to him. Now that he was older, it didn’t work quite as well.
“Have you told your Ma and Pa this?”
Ian shook his head. “Not yet, but it would be easier if I could tell them you said yes to me staying.”
“I’m not getting in the middle of this. You talk to your parents first. If they say you can stay here, then we’ll talk.”
Ian groaned. “They’ll never say yes. They never let me do what I want to do.”
Johnny smiled inwardly. He bet Roberto would say the same thing about him and Bella. “Ian Thomas, you listen to me. Your Pa is the most reasonable man I ever did meet. He’ll listen to ya. Just because he might not give ya the answer ya want, don’t mean he didn’t listen to ya. You gotta learn what your Pa calls ‘the art of compromise.’ He learned it playin’ politics. You give some and the other guy gives some and it all works out. ‘Sides, what if your Uncle Nick wants you at his ranch?”
Ian shook his head. “It’s not the same. It’s not Lancer, and this is where I feel at home.”
What had Teresa said that first day? The most beautiful place on Earth. Johnny thought so, too. “I know that feeling. Guess we should head back if we’re gonna make it in time for dinner. We’re about two hours out now.”
“Uncle Johnny? Think I could ride Fiero back?”
Johnny smiled. He saw so much of himself in his namesake. Maybe it was a Lancer thing. He wondered if Murdoch was similar when he was Ian’s age. “Hmmm, don’t know about that. Fiero’s mighty particular about who rides ‘im. He might be too much for you to handle.”
“I can handle him! Please, Uncle Johnny?”
Johnny capitulated. “Alright, but only because I’ll be right beside ya. Okay? No runnin’ off with my horse, ya promise?” It was more likely the half-wild horse would run away with his nephew.
Ian eagerly agreed and they exchanged mounts. While his Shadow was a dependable horse, Fiero felt all energy, all pent-up power ready to explode. It was going to be so exciting to ride him. They walked the horses homeward until Johnny said with a cheeky grin, “You ready?” and took off at a run. Ian had never loved his uncle more than he did at that moment.
Scott was sitting on the veranda when his brother and eldest son rode in. He rose, grabbed his cane, and moved out into the courtyard to greet them. Both of them had that ruddy look that told him they had run the horses. And Ian was on Fiero. What was Johnny thinking?
Ian leapt off of the saddle. “You should have seen me, Da! I beat Uncle Johnny in a race!” The boy was nearly breathless with excitement.
“The trick is to do that when he’s on Fiero, son.” Scott smiled.
Ian’s face fell. “I’ll take care of the horses, Uncle.”
Johnny let him. “Ian Thomas is becoming a fine rider, brother,” Johnny said, slapping Scott on his good arm. “’Course, he uses too much rein. Musta been taught by his Papa.”
Scott mock glared at him. Johnny had always scolded him about reining Remmie in too tightly. “Don’t know if I’d have let Ian ride Fiero yet.” The horse was aptly named—he was still far too wild for Scott’s taste. But it had been some years before Johnny had found a horse he loved nearly as much as Barranca. The black stallion with the white blaze on his forehead and white stockings had stolen Johnny’s heart the minute he saw him.
Ian managed to hear that last remark before he entered the barn with the horses. No, his father wouldn’t have let him ride Fiero. He wouldn’t let him do anything. He was always too worried he would get hurt. But Uncle Johnny had let him ride and nothing had happened. And they had rode fast! There were a few seconds when he thought Fiero might run away with him, but he had regained control and everything was fine. Da always treated him like a little kid. He hated it! Again, he wished that he could stay here when the rest of his family left for home…no, San Francisco. Lancer was his home now. He was determined more than ever to stay at the estancia.
“You reinin’ in Ian Thomas like you do Remmie? Ya gotta loosen them reins, Scott. He’s fifteen already.” Johnny ignored Scott’s real glare and walked into the house.
Scott sat back down on the veranda bench. That was the real problem, wasn’t it? His first-born was fifteen, already as tall as he was and still growing. And fighting to break free of the confines of his family and find his place in the world. Scott remembered the feeling. He hadn’t acted upon it until two years later when he enlisted in the Union army, but he remembered feeling that the staid, elite Boston society was not what he wanted for his future. God, that seemed a lifetime ago! He felt as if he were the same man as he was when he had first held Ian Thomas in his arms over fifteen years ago, but he wasn’t. He was fifteen years older. He was nearly forty-five years old already! If he didn’t have children to remind him, he wouldn’t have noticed the passing of time.
Johnny was right about having to let go of Ian so he could find his own way in life. But it was so hard! He now had a greater appreciation of his grandfather’s attempts to keep him in Boston. If he raised them right, all his children would leave him and Audra. What would they do when adorable little seven-year-old Andrew Scott grew up and left to make his mark on the world? Their house would seem so empty. He pondered that for many minutes. The house without their children seemed impossible to imagine in one sense and all too easy to imagine in another. In either sense, it made him feel sad.
Scott heard Johnny being greeted by the girls, their high-pitched squeals shrill enough to break glass. He was glad Essie had taken so quickly to her cousin, even though they saw each other only one or two months out of the year. But now, eleven-year-old Esperanza had started noticing boys, which Johnny had despaired about when they’d had their “brother time” in the cabin a few weeks ago. Scott didn’t know if he wanted his ten-year-old Catherine Victoria to start that nonsense quite yet. He had said so to Audra, who had patted his cheek patronizingly and said it was only a matter of time. As it was, not one week after they’d arrived at Lancer this year, Catherine had informed everyone that she no longer wanted to be called Katie Vee. It was just Katie from now on, and he had seen Essie’s approving nod. He told Audra that she would have to explain that one to her mother. He didn’t want to be in the same room when she told Victoria Barkley that her granddaughter was dropping the reference to her name. Audra had just laughed that light, gay laugh he loved so much and told him that Katie Vee would probably change her name several more times before she settled on one for good. He shook his head. There were some things about females he would never understand. Besides, Audra had said, Jordan would always be Jordan, which was her mother’s maiden name. Victoria would be duly revered.
Scott’s ruminations were interrupted by Ian emerging from the barn and stomping toward the house. He looked over to where Scott was sitting, but instead of coming over, he stomped even more resolutely to the front door and entered. Scott was sure that if he could have, Ian would have slammed the door shut. As it was, there had been a resounding thud, just shy of disrespectful. He sighed. Again, his eldest seemed angry at him and he didn’t have a clue as to why.
Dinner had been excellent. Once Scott’s brood descended upon Lancer, the children ate in the kitchen while the adults ate in relative peace and quiet at the great room dining table. Scott informed everyone about the vineyard and its promising yield this year. He and Audra had just returned from spending several days in the northern part of the ranch that housed the winery. Expanding into the wine industry had been Scott’s idea and he felt unduly responsible for its success. He had toured the vineyards with the vintner he’d hired more than ten years ago, tasting the grapes bursting with flavor. But the vintner had said he’d wait another month before harvesting. The grapes were just shy of their peak. The area that housed the winery and vineyards was one of the most beautiful spots on Lancer, in Scott’s opinion, and Audra seemed more relaxed there than at the hacienda.
Usually, all of his family would travel with him there, but this year Katie couldn’t bear to be separated from Essie and Ian had firmly stated his desire to remain at the hacienda and help Johnny. Scott was again reminded how attached Ian was to his uncle. At times, it made him a little jealous. Plus, Ian and Roberto, Johnny’s son, were as thick as thieves as Katie and Essie, although to voice that observation would have been met with quick and vehement denials by both boys. Watching them together made Scott long for a different childhood where he and Johnny had grown up together at the estancia. Then he would scold himself about such idle and sentimental thoughts. The past was the past, as Murdoch liked to say. No good could come from daydreaming about “what ifs.”
Now everyone was seated around the massive fireplace. Even unlit on this warm summer’s evening, it was the center of attention in the room. Essie and Katie were playing with their dolls on the rug in front of it. Johnny and Isabella occupied one side of the couch, while Andy and Audra occupied the other end. Andy was sprawled across the cushions, his mop of red hair in sharp contrast to Audra’s white blouse. He and Audra had been shocked to see the hair color, expecting another blond, but Murdoch had been inordinately pleased. Apparently, there were many redheads in the Lancer family tree. He spoiled Andy rotten, as only Grampa’s were allowed to do. At one time, Scott had been afraid that Murdoch’s doting on Andy would make the other children resentful, but they spoiled Andy as well, so the problem hadn’t developed. And Scott had to admit that seven-year-old Andy, with his deep blue eyes, freckled nose, and resemblance to Audra, was too adorable not to spoil. Luckily for them all, Andy had the sweetest disposition he had ever seen in a child.
Ian and Robbie were in a fierce but completely illogical battle of chess in front of the leather chair where Teresa used to do her sewing. It was now occupied by Jordan, his nose buried in the book Scott had given him for his birthday just weeks ago. Murdoch was in his usual place behind the desk, and Scott found himself odd man out. He could squeeze himself in between Bella and Andy on the couch, but that would have made everyone on it cramped and uncomfortable. He sat on one of the dining room chairs behind them all.
Scott was cleaning some smudges off his spectacles when Murdoch closed the ledger he was working on. “Who’s ready for a story?”
Everyone voiced their approval and readiness, except Jordan, who hunkered down with his book.
“Jordan,” Audra gently prodded.
“I can listen and read,” Jordan protested.
“Jordan Garrett,” Audra quietly chastened, and the use of his middle name made Jordan put the book down with a pout.
Scott hoped it would be a tale from Murdoch’s childhood in Scotland. He loved to hear about his heritage. No such luck tonight.
“Let me tell you about when Johnny was a lad and got into the chicken coop.”
Scott sighed. He had heard this story a time or ten throughout the years. He waited until Murdoch was well into the story and then quietly stole away.
Jordan watched his father silently leave the room, wanting nothing more than to follow him. He wanted to read his book! Da had given him Treasure Island for his birthday and after muddling through the first few chapters, it was getting more and more interesting. Besides, he thought he had heard this story about Uncle Johnny before.
Grampa had all these stories about Uncle Johnny, but he never told one about Da. Da had seemed happy at the wine-maker’s house; he was quiet again when they had returned, Jordan observed. Grampa was nice and Jordan loved him, but he seemed different when he was around Da—not as friendly.
“I assure you, baby Johnny needed quite a bath after that escapade!” Grampa was laughing. Everyone laughed with him.
“Now tell us a story when Da was a baby,” Jordan demanded.
The room went silent.
“Jordan,” Mama said softly in that tone that meant for him to be quiet. “You know Grampa doesn’t have such stories.”
“Why not?” Jordan persisted loudly, even though he knew full well why there were no such stories.
“Because your Da was in Boston when he was a baby,” Mama said, clearly struggling not to be angry in front of everyone.
“Why?” Jordan’s question hung in the air as an accusation. He knew the answer—that his father was safer in Boston than in California at that time. Everyone knew that was the answer, but he had felt a keen desire to remind everyone of his father’s unfortunate circumstances. In a strange way, he felt like he was defending his father.
Mama gave up her struggle. “Go to your room, young man!” She said it kind of quiet, but there was thunder behind her words.
“Very well,” Jordan huffed. He grabbed his book and walked to the downstairs hallway with measured strides. When he turned the corner, he broke into a run. He had done it! He was free!
He tapped on his father’s door, and opened it after the muffled “Yes?” Poking his head in, he asked, “Can I read with you, Da?”
“Certainly, son,” Da said and scooted on the bed, making a place for him. Jordan went around the bed and snuggled up under his father’s good arm, laying his head on his father’s chest like so many times before. This was where home was. This was where he felt safe and most loved.
“Are you liking the book?” Da asked.
Jordan nodded. “It’s starting to get real good.”
“’Really good,’” Da corrected him.
“Really good,” Jordan amended. “The pirates are looking for a chest filled with gold.”
“That does sound good,” Da said. “Maybe you’ll let me borrow it when you’re done.”
“We could read it together,” Jordan suggested.
“Out loud?” It sounded like Da didn’t think that was such a good idea.
Jordan considered. “How about, after I get to the next chapter, I give it to you. You read it to where I stopped, and then give it back to me. I give it to you after I finish each chapter and you give it back to me when you catch up.”
Da thought about it. “That sounds like an excellent idea. That way we can discuss it as we read through it.”
Jordan grinned. “Okay!” Then he thought about how it would work out. “But Da? Don’t take too long to catch up to me.”
“I promise,” Da said solemnly.
“What are you reading? Maybe we could do the same thing with your book.”
Da showed him the cover. Les Trois Mousquetaires.
Da nodded. “I’m already having more trouble translating it than I used to. If you don’t keep practicing, you lose a language very quickly, I’m afraid.”
“I could learn French, so I could read with you.”
Da kind of chuckled at that. “I think you’d better stick with Spanish. You’ll use that more often out here.”
“Can you read to me from your book, Dada?”
“You won’t understand it.”
“I know. I just like the way it sounds.”
Jordan let Da’s soothing voice sweep over him. He loved that his father knew how to speak this strange, beautiful language that no one else here did. He was so lucky to have Da as his father.
Audra walked into the bedroom from the adjoining bedroom’s door. Scott put a finger to his lips to preemptively silence her and pointed to the son fast asleep under his arm.
“What about saying good night to Andy and Katie?” she whispered.
Scott shrugged as much as his bad shoulder would allow and gave her a helpless look.
She returned a knowing one. “I’ll be back soon enough for that one after I put Katie to bed.”
He gave her a kiss motion with his lips. She returned it and swept from the room. He looked down on his second-born child blissfully asleep on his chest. If not for the slightly more rounded nose, Jordan was the spitting image of him at thirteen. The boy also had inherited his temperament and interests. Jordan loved literature and poetry. He had an aptitude for languages and was a keen observer of people. He never got upset with his younger siblings and was just starting to stand up for himself with Ian Thomas. He was pulling away from his older brother’s influence and finding his own path. His connection with Jordan was so naturally strong that he had to consciously fight against giving in to the boy every time over his brothers and sister. All of his children had wonderful, unique talents and personalities. He loved all his children fiercely. But when you look at your child and see yourself looking back…how could you not feel something a little extra-special?
Two chapters later, Audra came in to claim Jordan.
“Night, Dada,” he said drowsily, as he gave Scott an awkward kiss on the cheek.
“Night, son. I enjoyed reading to you.”
Audra took the boy across the hall to the bathroom for nightly ablutions. Gifting the hacienda with indoor plumbing had been one of Scott’s better ideas. When she came back, she took Jordan’s place under her husband’s arm.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Scott warned, “there’s still one more to corral to bed.”
“Ian Thomas is on his own tonight.”
Scott raised his eyebrows in question.
Audra sighed. “He’s told me he’s too old to be put to bed by his mother.”
“Sorry, Sunshine.” Scott commiserated as she snuggled even closer to him. “On the other hand, Jordan forgot and called me ‘Dada’ twice tonight.” Scott had been sad when Ian decided to drop the second syllable off ‘Dada.” Jordan had quickly followed his brother’s lead, as usual. At least Katie and Andy still called him “Dada.” And “Da” was preferable to “Pa” for Scott. Robbie called Johnny “Pa,” and Scott was dreading the day when Ian would apply that appellation to him. Scott didn’t see himself as a “Pa,” but he thought “Father” was too formal. “Fathers” didn’t play with their children as Scott had done and still did with Andy. Ian had called him “Dada” when he was first learning to talk, and it had just stuck and had been carried down through the siblings. Murdoch had told him that the Scots preferred to be called Da, and since Ian was the Scottish version of “John,” it was only fitting that Ian called him that. It was in the blood, Murdoch had joked, and it was the first laugh they’d both shared in a very long time.
“He’s just trying to butter you up.”
“Oh, wait until you hear what he did after you snuck away.” She told him of his son’s impudence.
Scott was amused. So that’s why Jordan had ended up reading with him. He couldn’t blame the boy. After all, he hadn’t waited politely while Murdoch retold that story.
“I suppose that silly smile on your face means you’re not going to discipline him.”
Scott tried to wipe the smile off his face but failed. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll sleep on it. Now you get dressed for bed. Better yet, just get undressed.”
Johnny joined his brother out on the veranda after dinner, twirling an unlit cigar in his fingers.
“I hope you’re not going to smoke that around me,” Scott warned.
Johnny hadn’t forgotten that his brother hated the smell of a lit cigar. “Nah, just my excuse for comin’ outside.”
“You need an excuse to go outside your own home?” Scott jibed.
“You need an excuse to get away from that tribe of hellions these days. Don’t know how you get away with it.”
“It helps to be perceived as the solitary, brooding type,” Scott explained. “At any rate, you escaped, so pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.”
“Something on your mind?” Scott asked after Johnny was quiet for a while.
“Yeah, there is,” Johnny answered, “but I don’t think you’re gonna like it.”
Scott sighed. Nothing good could follow that pronouncement. “Let’s hear it.”
“I’m thinkin’ about teaching Roberto how to use a rifle.” Johnny waited for Scott’s reaction.
Scott didn’t disappoint. “He’s only fourteen.”
“Yeah, I know, but I knew how to shoot a rifle by eleven.”
Scott laughed derisively. “Oh, is that your yardstick—what you were doing at fourteen? Hell, if that’s the case, Essie would’ve been packing for a couple of years now.”
Johnny laughed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, but hear me out, brother. Robbie’s goin’ out with some of the work crews now…”
“So he’s safe with them.”
“Now hear me out, I said, Scott. You never know when there may be a time when he’ll need to defend himself or one of the other hands. I…I just think it’s time.”
“And what does Bella think?”
“Aw, she leaves this kinda stuff to me.”
“Meaning she doesn’t even want to think about it.”
Johnny chuckled. “Prob’ly.”
“Well, it’s not my decision, Johnny. You raise Robbie the way you see fit. If you think he’s mature enough to handle a rifle, then go ahead. At least he’ll be taught by the best.”
“Well, that’s the thing—I’m not the best,” Johnny drawled. “You can best me with a rifle.” Johnny watched the look of horror form on his brother’s face as he began to understand what Johnny was asking of him.
“You want me to teach him?”
“Yeah, him…and Ian.”
Johnny expected Scott to start yelling. Instead, his brother just sat there in stunned silence. It was just as frightening. He decided to fill the void. “I thought we could take ‘em to the cabin for a day or so, teach ‘em how to handle a rifle, maybe fish some, and head back. It would be nice to have some time with just our two boys.”
“Ian’s too young to learn to shoot.”
“No, he ain’t, Scott, and you know it. He’s been ridin’ with me these past weeks. He’s practically grown up. He handles himself real well, makes smart decisions. He ain’t too young, not for out here. ‘Sides, I think you need to spend some time with ‘im, just you, away from all the others.”
Scott hung his head, considering Johnny’s words. He knew his brother. Maybe not as well as he would have if he’d have stayed living at the ranch, but he knew him, nevertheless. This was Johnny-code for telling him Ian needed him and he needed to spend some one-on-one time with Ian. He guessed something was wrong with his eldest son and Johnny probably knew what. Whatever it was, Johnny was willing to go through it with him together. He loved this man who was his brother. He trusted him with his life and with his children’s lives.
“I thought only we could step inside that cabin.”
Johnny inwardly sighed with relief. Scott realized he was trying to help him. He was thankful he had such an insightful brother. It was at times like this that he greatly regretted the events that led Scott to Sacramento that fateful day and tore him away from a life at Lancer.
“They know that, too. That’s what makes this whole adventure more special.”
Scott sighed. “Alright. I hope you know what you’re doing.”
Johnny slapped him on his good leg. “I always know what I’m doin’!” And with that declaration, he went back inside.
Scott just sat there. What had he agreed to? And what was he going to tell Audra?
“Do you want to join them?” Scott asked Johnny as he watched the boys lope around them. They would shoot out for a half mile or so and then circle around back to their fathers.
“If I did, I would. Just let it be.” Johnny knew Scott always felt self-conscious about having to ride at a walk.
They watched the boys make their turn to circle back to them.
“Wanna race, Uncle Johnny?” Ian asked when they’d caught up again.
“There’ll be no racing,” Scott declared.
Ian’s face, which had been flush with excitement, fell. “Why not?”
“Because I said so!” Visions of Johnny being thrown from a galloping Barranca invaded his mind. His fright that his brother had been killed, putting down Barranca, Johnny’s anger afterwards—it all came back to him so easily and vividly. He had never been able to put that horrible day out of his mind. He always had a nightmare or two about it while staying at the ranch.
“It’s Uncle Johnny’s decision,” Ian challenged.
No, it’s not,” Scott said sternly, “And mind your tone when you speak to me, boy. If Johnny wants to race with Robbie, it’s his decision, but you’re not racing.”
Ian glared at his father.
“Besides, I thought you had established last week that Shadow can’t outrun Fiero.” Scott returned Ian’s scowl with a slightly amused look, hoping to diffuse his son’s ire.
It didn’t. Ian took off again at a canter, and Robbie, a little confused at his cousin’s and uncle’s exchange, took a few seconds before he spurred his horse to catch up to his cousin.
Johnny waited a bit before he said, “What brought that on?” He was surprised when Scott answered, “You did. You and Barranca.”
They rode silent for a ways. Then Scott said softly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I didn’t mean to dredge everything up again. I only meant that when I saw you that day, when you were thrown from Barranca, I…I thought you were dead. I thought you had broken your neck or at the very least your back. If I saw that happen to Ian…” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t be able to bear…”
Johnny heard the pain in Scott’s voice. “You know if I could, I would take all your pain away from that day,” Johnny said quietly.
“I know. We’ve talked all through this before, Johnny. I don’t need or want to discuss it any further. I didn’t bring it up to make you feel guilty. You know I don’t blame you. But you asked why I wouldn’t let Ian race, and that’s the answer.” Scott’s first impulse was to ride away, but his ruined knee wouldn’t allow that. Remmie was too old for it as well, so he maintained the slow walk. He was surprised Johnny remained calmly by his side.
“But Ian doesn’t know about that day, does he?”
“No,” Scott admitted. “I saw no reason to tell my children about it.”
“So all he sees is a father who won’t let ‘im race, who treats ‘im like a little kid. He doesn’t know about your fear.”
“No.” Scott sighed. “I’ve already spoiled our outing, haven’t I?”
Johnny chuckled. “Once they start shootin’ them rifles, all will be forgiven.”
Scott smiled. “I think you’re right about that. We can only hope Audra and Bella will be able to forgive us for teaching them.”
“Mamas don’t like to see their baby boys grow into men.”
“Papas don’t either.”
Johnny gave out a short laugh. “Guess you’re right about that, brother, but they do, whether we like it or not.”
The small cabin finally came into sight. The boys’ horses were tied out front, but Ian and Robbie were nowhere to be seen. Johnny and Scott put Fiero and Remmie into the lean-to and stowed their tack. They were just finishing grooming their mounts when the boys came running up.
“’Bout time you showed up, Pa!” Robbie said. “We didn’t think you’d ever get here!”
“And yet we got the best spots to stable our horses,” Johnny responded. “Yours will have to brave the elements. It looks like everything I’ve told you runs outta your brain when your cousin is around.”
“Aw, Pa, it’s August. Ain’t no ‘elements’ in August,” Robbie said.
“Ian knows better, too,” Scott added.
“Aw, Da, we were going to put the horses away once we got through exploring the place,” Ian defended himself.
Johnny looked at the boys shaking his head. He stroked his chin thoughtfully and said, “I don’t know if these young’uns are responsible enough to learn how to shoot a rifle, brother.”
Scott feigned somber reflection. “Hmm, you might be right. Maybe we should just turn around and ride back, seeing how their mamas don’t want them handling rifles in the first place.”
The boys started protesting vigorously.
Johnny held up his hands to quiet them. “Alright. Seeing how we’re already out here, we’ll stay, but you boys are cookin’ dinner tonight.”
Ian looked at his cousin. “Do you know how to cook?”
“Sorta,” Robbie answered. He’d say anything that would get him holding his father’s rifle.
“You two take care of your horses like you’ve been taught to,” Johnny ordered.
“Then can we shoot the rifles?” Robbie asked.
“I thought we were going fishing,” Scott interjected.
“We don’t want to fish, Da!” Ian told him.
“Then what are you cooking for dinner? I was set on having trout,” Scott said, slapping his son on the arm. He could no longer ruffle the boy’s hair. Ian was too tall for him to do that affectionate gesture anymore. It was strange not to look down when talking to his son. Ian was at eye level now, which he found somewhat disconcerting. He couldn’t imagine how Johnny felt looking up to talk to his fifteen-year-old nephew. It wouldn’t be long before he would be looking up to speak to Ian, too.
Scott and Johnny walked into the cabin with their gear. They had left it spotless a few weeks ago, so the interior awaiting them was clean.
“I thought we were going to fish this afternoon and wait until tomorrow to teach them how to shoot,” Scott said as he threw his bedroll onto his mattress. Almost every year, Johnny would add something new to the cabin: a front porch, a back porch, rocking chairs, curtains. The year he changed the cots to feather beds had been heavenly. Scott preferred this mattress to the one at the hacienda.
“I don’t think we can hold ‘em off that long. Tell you what, we let ‘em shoot a little now and tomorrow we teach ‘em all the rules and how to clean ‘em.”
“I truly was hoping for fish for dinner,” Scott pouted.
“If we don’t spend too much time shootin’, we can do both.”
They hiked a ways from the cabin, Ian toting a sack of tin cans, Robbie carrying a sack of ammunition and other things, and Johnny toting the rifles. They came to a clearing that already had tin cans scattered around a fallen log. Every time the men came to the cabin, they enjoyed some target practice. Johnny might have lost a little speed on the draw over the years, but he was still deadly accurate. Scott knew his brother’s children didn’t know about his past life as a gun-for-hire. If or when Ian needed to learn how to use a handgun, his uncle would be the best teacher in the country.
Ian caught on right away. “I guess this isn’t the first time for practicing here, huh?”
“Your Pa and I have been known to partake in a little shootin’ practice from time to time out here,” Johnny said with a wink, while he collected some of the strewn cans that didn’t have too many holes in them.
Ian shot his father a look—half stunned, half admiration.
Scott smiled back. Oh, that look on Ian’s face! It was worth the trek out there. He started measuring out the distance from where they would start shooting.
Johnny set some of the tins up across the log. “Now, y’all listen real good to Boston, here, and we’ll get you goin’ with learnin’ how to shoot.”
Scott went over some of the mechanics of the rifle with the boys listening half-heartedly. They didn’t want to learn that stuff; they wanted to shoot! Johnny handed him his rifle and he showed the boys where to place it on the shoulder and how to sight it. Then, with the boys well away, he fired a couple of rounds, relishing the pings of the struck cans.
The boys whistled and clapped in appreciation.
“Come on, Ian,” Scott said. Johnny threw him the smaller rifle and he checked that it was loaded with two rounds. He caught the towel Johnny threw that had been in the ammunition sack and wadded it up several times.
“What’s that for?” Ian asked.
“You don’t have one for your shoulder,” Ian objected.
Scott chuckled. “What’s Newton’s third law?”
“Aw, Da.” Ian hated it when his father quizzed him. And now it was in front of Uncle Johnny and Robbie. “I don’t know.”
Scott frowned. What was that school teaching students these days? “C’mon!”
“Things at rest stay resting?” Ian guessed.
“Well, that’s one of Newton’s laws,” Scott conceded. He noticed Ian’s embarrassed face and decided to be merciful. “How about for every action, there is an equal reaction.”
“Alright, so what happens when you shoot a rifle?”
“Um, the bullet comes out?”
“Right! That’s an action, yes?”
Ian nodded again.
“So, what’s the reaction?”
Ian shrugged. “Da…” he whined. He hated all these questions. He just wanted to shoot the rifle!
“The rifle recoils. Do you know what that means?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Robbie raise his hand to indicate he knew the answer. Scott kept his attention on Ian.
“It means the rifle kicks back when the bullet goes forward. And where is the rifle if you’re holding it properly?”
“Right here, tucked next to my shoulder.”
“So, when it recoils…” Scott let the sentence fade away as he pushed the towel inside Ian’s shirt. When he was sure everything was in place, he said, “When you’re ready, squeeze…”
Scott hadn’t even finished his sentence before Ian pulled the trigger. There was no ping of a struck can, and Ian almost fell down.
“Whoa,” Scott said as he steadied his son. “You have another shot. Here let me help you.”
Ian accepted the help. This was harder than it looked. His father wrapped himself around him, repositioned the towel, and helped him sight the log. “Now you know how bad the recoil is, you can expect it. If you can, lean into it. And don’t yank at the trigger, squeeze it really easy,” his father whispered into his ear. Ian squeezed the trigger. The bullet didn’t hit a can, but it took out a chunk of wood right next to one. He felt Da’s hand pat his shoulder, along with his quiet “better.”
Then it was Robbie’s turn for two shots. He did fall down from the recoil after his first attempt. Johnny was content to let Scott handle his son. Scott was patient and encouraging. By the end of this first session, both boys had hit a tin can. They had begged Scott to shoot again, so they could watch how he did it through more attentive eyes. He obliged them and even gave in to Johnny’s challenge that he hit one of the shot cans a second time while it was still in motion. He tried, but only caught one in three attempts. He sighed, remembering the show he had put on in front of Colonel Andrews and Kansas Bill Sharpe in Onyx. But that was many years ago, and there was no reason to use his skill with a rifle in San Francisco. He was definitely not a sharpshooter anymore. The boys, though, seemed suitably impressed that he could manage it even once, so he was pleased.
They hiked back down to the cabin, the boys racing in front of them. Oh, to be so young and full of energy! Johnny noticed how heavily Scott was leaning on his cane. Scott had spent a whole day riding, hiking, and standing. His knee had to be paining him. Once back at the cabin, Johnny instructed the boys to get out the fishing poles. When they were outside, he turned to Scott. “You rest that knee before suppertime.”
“It can rest it while we’re fishing,” Scott protested.
“Scott…” Johnny said exasperated. “Just listen to your younger and smarter brother for a change and rest that knee.”
Scott looked at Johnny and saw the concern and the frustration there. “Alright,” he said, as he sat down on his bed and started to remove his boots. His knee was throbbing terribly. “I’m counting on some good-sized trout. Don’t let me down.”
“We won’t,” Johnny promised. He walked out of the back door and onto the back porch, noticing the boys’ bedrolls were already neatly laid out. They were down by the lake, untangling the lines of the four poles.
“Isn’t Da coming?”
“No, he’s takin’ a rest. He deserves it after puttin’ up with you two deadeyes, don’t ya think?”
Robbie laughed but Ian sighed. Yet again, his father was too weak to do much of anything. On the other hand, it was going to be so much fun fishing with Uncle Johnny and Robbie without his father’s critical eye on him.
Johnny sat next to Ian, and, to his surprise, Robbie sat close by, too. “Ian Thomas, I know you were upset when your Pa didn’t let you race me today.”
Ian just shrugged. With Robbie there, he didn’t want to complain about his father the way he would have if it had been just him and Uncle Johnny.
“But he had good reason. I think you’re old enough to know what happened to your Pa and how he got hurt in Sacramento.”
“I know how he got hurt in Sacramento…” Ian said, as if the story bored him.
“Son, you don’t know the half of it,” Johnny said harshly, cutting Ian off from saying anything further. “It all started before he got to Sacramento. Weeks and weeks before that. It all started when I decided to race my horse.”
“Barranca?” Robbie interrupted. He’d heard his Pa tell stories of the stallion for as long as he could remember.
“Yep. Barranca. Best horse I ever knew. Best horse I ever rode. And your Pa, Ian, your Pa had to put ‘im down because I was an idiot, runnin’ ‘im over that chewed up field and getting’ ‘im hurt. About near broke your Pa’s heart to do it, too. He knew how much I loved that horse.” Johnny looked at the sadness in the boys’ faces. Then he began to tell the story, not sparing himself in the retelling. It had been his immaturity that had sent Scott away from his home and set up the series of events that culminated in Scott’s injuries. By the end of the story, both boys were near tears.
Johnny put his arm around his nephew’s shoulder and pulled him in tight. “Of course, that’s how your Pa met your Mama, so that made it better ‘cuz if he hadn’t a met her, you wouldn’t be here.”
All three fishermen were quiet for a time before Johnny said, “You understand now why he didn’t want you to race? He don’t want you hurt like I was. He don’t want to see that.”
Ian nodded, tears gathering in his eyes.
“Your Pa loves this ranch. He was on his way to bein’ a real good rancher. But I ended that for ‘im. It was my fault he had to turn to somethin’ else. But your Pa, he’s smart. Made a name for ‘imself by helpin’ people, first in San Francisco and then for the whole state. All he wanted was to stay here with me at Lancer, but I took all that away from ‘im. And he’s forgiven me for it, too. What kind of man does it take to forgive somethin’ like that?”
“He loves you, Pa,” Robbie whispered, and Johnny felt tears forming in his own eyes. He summoned a bit of anger to suppress them. “So don’t tell me you don’t want to be his son, Ian Thomas Lancer. Don’t tell me about all the things your Pa can’t do and forget about all the things he can. He had to start a whole new life because of me. Me. So don’t you tell me how great I am when I know different. Your Pa is the finest man I ever met or ever will meet, and you should be proud to be his son.”
Ian was crying openly now, and to Johnny’s surprise, so was Robbie.
Johnny hugged Ian again, then let him go. “You boys just keep that story to yourselves. I thought you both were old enough to know the whole truth of it. Are you old enough to keep it just between the two of you? Think you can?”
They nodded, wiping their eyes and noses with their shirtsleeves.
Johnny thought Cipriano would be proud of him. It was a good “uncle moment.” “Now let’s catch us some fish, boys. My brother’s hungry and hankerin’ for trout. We don’t want to let him down now, do we?”
Scott rolled over in bed. He was feeling very pleasant. Johnny and the boys had caught a fine line of trout. With some cooking instructions for the boys, they’d shared a hearty meal, and after cleaning up, he and Johnny had taught them some poker. That passed the time enjoyably, and Ian seemed much less sullen around him. It had been amusing to listen to the boys talk and giggle outside on the back porch before they fell asleep. Johnny seemed to nod off immediately, but Scott had listened to the boys until he couldn’t hear them anymore. He envied his brother’s ability to fall asleep at odd times and in strange places. He remembered that first morning at Lancer when Johnny had proclaimed that he always slept well. The months that followed belied that statement, but Scott had seen him drop off seemingly at will. Whether he stayed asleep or whether nightmares invaded it was another matter.
Scott heard his brother get up at dawn and sneak out the door, presumably to the privy. He gave him a minute, then rose to get dressed and follow him. He grabbed his shirt and put that on first as was his habit of many years; his children had never seen his scarred back. Then he pulled on his pants and boots. There was a thud on the roof.
Scott sighed. Johnny had proposed pulling a prank on the boys before their time at the cabin was through. What was his boy-at-heart brother plotting now? He walked out the front door and off the front porch at an angle so he could see what Johnny was up to on the roof.
“Stop!” A desperate, whispered hiss.
Scott saw Johnny a few feet from the outhouse standing perfectly still. He was shirtless and bootless and looking up to the roof. There crouched a mountain lion ready to spring.
“I’ll get my rifle,” Scott said low and evenly. He’d left it by the door before he went to bed.
“No! Don’t move!” Johnny hissed again. He was afraid any movement might set the cat off.
But Johnny’s words or tone or something set the cat off anyway. It leapt off the roof at him. Johnny brought his arms up, tried to roll to his right, and waited for the blow. It never came. Instead, he saw his brother rush the animal and catch it in mid-leap to push it away from him. The force of the impact sent Scott to his knees.
The cat was hurled at a ninety-degree angle away from Johnny, but quick as lightning, it turned and leapt on its attacker.
Johnny grabbed a good-sized branch from the woodpile and tried to whack the mountain lion off Scott’s back. On the second swipe, Johnny thought he might have poked its eye good. It had the desired effect: it sprung off Scott…but onto its tormentor.
Scott got to his feet and saw the boys teetering on the edge of the porch, terror on their faces as they watched in horror as Johnny wrestled with the big cat. “Get my rifle!” he yelled at them. He could barely stand after having been driven to his knees. Ian ran back to the door, but Robbie stood transfixed by the horrible sight before him.
Ian came back with the rifle, and at his father’s gesture, threw it at him. It seemed to Ian that his father caught the rifle, sighted it, and fired in one fluid motion. The cougar lay unmoving on top of Johnny.
“Ian, get our jackets.” Scott was pleased his son again responded swiftly to his order. He walked over to Robbie, being careful not to show the boy his own torn shirt.
“Robbie, you need to listen to me,” he began. His nephew didn’t look at him or bat an eye. He simply continued to stare at his father. “¡Roberto, escúchame!” That got Robbie’s attention. Scott had rarely addressed him in Spanish, but it had done the trick. Robbie was looking at him now and listening, so he continued in Spanish: “Get your horse and go fast to the house. Tell them to get Uncle Nathan fast. Go fast.” Robbie nodded but just stood there. “¡Ahora, chico!” Scott’s Spanish wasn’t eloquent, but it was enough for Robbie to get the message and run to saddle his horse.
Ian came back with the jackets and his father shrugged into his quickly. He had never heard his father speak so much Spanish at one time. It was strange to hear the language spoken by Da’s tongue.
“Get this piece of shit off me!” Johnny moaned from underneath the cat.
Scott looked at his first-born son, who was trying so hard to be a man at fifteen. “Do you think you can help me get that cat off your uncle?”
“Yes, sir!” Ian responded immediately.
They carefully extracted the animal’s claws from Johnny’s skin before they threw it to one side.
“Gracias, Díos,” Johnny sighed. He tried to rise, but Scott held him down gently and told him to lie still while he put Johnny’s jacket folded inside out under his head.
“Don’t be givin’ me orders, Lieutenant Lancer,” Johnny mumbled, and Scott chuckled.
Ian heard his father say, “Just listen to your older and wiser brother for a change and just lie there.” That made Uncle Johnny laugh for some reason.
Scott heard Robbie gallop away and was glad the boy was gone from the ghastly scene. But Ian Thomas was still here. “Ian, I want you to gather all the linens and blankets and bring them here.”
“Yes.” Scott started evaluating the damage to Johnny’s body. It looked horrific. He didn’t understand how Johnny could still be conscious, it looked so bad. He checked Johnny for broken bones and thankfully couldn’t find any of those, but then, his hands weren’t those of a doctor.
“How bad?” Johnny croaked.
“Very bad, so just stay still until we can get you fixed up enough to get you back to the house.”
Ian returned with the blankets and sheets.
“Son, listen to me. I want you to saddle Shadow with my saddle and Fiero with yours.”
“Really, Da? What about Remmie?”
“Yes really. We can’t take Remmie with us. He’s too old.” Scott started tearing one of the sheets into strips. “But first, get me the pail of water on the stove and the bottle of whiskey. It’s on…”
“I know where it is, Da!” Ian raced back inside the cabin.
“How does he know where we stash the whiskey?” he asked Johnny, trying to take his brother’s mind off of what must feel like a fire on his back.
“Dunno,” Johnny slurred. Adrenaline spent, he was trying hard not to give in to the darkness threatening to overtake him.
Ian brought the items to his father and then headed to the lean-to where the horses were tethered. He tried not to look at his uncle’s back too closely. It was all shredded and bloody. It was so awful! Horrible! He was glad Robbie hadn’t seen it. He could hear Da talking calmly and soothingly to Uncle Johnny. His father was so calm! Always so calm! A giant cat mauling his brother didn’t seem to upset him. How did he know just what to do, what to say? Ian wanted to start screaming and never stop.
Then he heard Uncle Johnny scream, and he hoped he’d never hear anything so terrifying again. He knew what his father was doing—he was washing the wounds with the whiskey. The screams came again, and Ian walked over to a pile of hay and lost last night’s dinner. He wanted to just stay there and hold his hands over his ears, but Da had given him a job to do. He swiped at his mouth and went back to saddling the horses. When he finished, he walked back over to his father. He could tell Uncle Johnny wasn’t awake anymore. “Horses saddled, Da,” he announced.
“Good man,” Da said again. A warmth swept through Ian. “Think you can help me bind the wounds? You don’t have to, but it would be easier on me if you did.”
He wasn’t going to let his father down. “I can help, Dada.”
In the long run, instead of trying to bandage each wound, they just folded up some sheets and placed them whole on Johnny’s chest and back, wrapped another sheet around them to hold them in place, and then tied the strips of linen around the whole bundle. They got Johnny’s good arm…or better arm…into that sleeve of his jacket and buttoned it over the other arm to keep it tight to the body.
Ian brought the horses around, and between the two of them, they managed to get a semi-conscious Johnny in Scott’s saddle with an extra blanket around him. Scott was worried about Johnny going into shock. The lessons in field medicine from the war were never forgotten—keep the wounded man warm!
What a blessing that Ian was with him, Scott thought. With his damaged left shoulder joint, he couldn’t imagine trying to lift Johnny onto the horse when he could only raise one arm properly. What a nightmare that would have been had he been alone. He was so scared for his brother. He wanted to start screaming and never stop.
Ian helped his father onto Shadow and then mounted Fiero.
“Let Shadow take the lead. I don’t want Fiero to goad her into a gallop,” Scott instructed.
“Yes, sir,” Ian acknowledged, and to his amazement, his father spurred Shadow forward and quickly got her into a canter. Ian knew he would have his hands full keeping Fiero from wanting to quicken that gait into a full gallop. It took him more time than he’d admit to anyone to get the stallion into a canter. It also took him a bit to figure out why his father had chosen that gait—it was much easier on the body than a trot or gallop.
Johnny held a death grip on the pommel. His brother’s arm was holding him firm and steady as they sped home. What was Scott doing? He knew his knee couldn’t take such speed. He wanted to tell him to slow down, take it at a walk, but he couldn’t get the words out. The pain in his back, chest and arm was incredible. He couldn’t bear it. Occasionally, he would catch some words from Scott, telling him that everything would be alright once they got to the house, once Nathan had tended to him. Telling him to fight for his family, for Bella, Robbie, and Essie. For Murdoch and Lancer. For his brother. Johnny slipped away with those comforting words, trusting Scott to see him safely home.
Scott felt Johnny pass out again and tried to hold him more securely. It was getting harder and harder to do so. His knee was protesting vehemently, and his left arm was becoming numb with pain. Not to mention his own wounds where the cat had gotten him were making themselves known. He didn’t think he had as many claw marks as Johnny, but the mountain lion had gotten a good hold on him with its teeth. That bite was on his left shoulder as well, making the spot a well of misery.
Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore. He reined Shadow down to his customary walk. He hated his weakness! He shifted Johnny from his left to his right arm. At a walk, the horse could take them home without much guidance.
“You okay, Da?” Ian asked as he pulled Fiero into a walk beside his father.
“Sorry, I just can’t ride that fast anymore right now.” Scott tried not to gasp too much from the pain.
“You want me to take him?”
“No, I’ve got him.” The thought of transferring Johnny over to Ian seemed to be more pain and trouble than it was worth. Already some of his scabs were breaking open; he felt a warm trickle of blood wend its way down his back. Plus, he didn’t trust Fiero to behave himself with Ian riding him. But mainly, he just didn’t want to let go of his brother.
“You did real well. We’re over halfway home already,” Ian praised. He could see the strain lines in his father’s face. Why couldn’t he trust him to take Uncle Johnny back to the house? After all, Da had said “good man” to him twice. He was just as big as Da, if not bigger. He could handle Uncle Johnny and Fiero.
Minutes later, they could hear and then see two riders headed for them. It was Murdoch and Mateo, Cipriano’s son and now Segundo of the ranch. Scott reined Shadow to a stop. Ian did, too, making Fiero dance a bit. The horse obviously wanted to run.
Murdoch demanded Scott give Johnny over to him, and Scott was in too much pain to argue with his glowering father. Maybe it wasn’t a glower; maybe it was just worry. Among the four of them, they managed to get Johnny transferred into Murdoch’s arms with a minimal effort from Scott. Once Johnny was secured in his father’s lap, Murdoch and Mateo turned and galloped toward the hacienda at a pace Scott’s knee never would have allowed. Ian helped his father get situated onto Shadow’s saddle properly and they started the walk toward the house again. Scott could see the wistful glances Ian gave to the retreating horses.
“Go on, Ian. I know you’re wanting to run that horse.”
Ian had the decency to say, “I can stay with you, if you really want me to.”
Scott was so proud of his first-born. He had coped admirably with the gory and tragic events of the morning. He was well on his way to becoming a man. “Go help Grampa with Uncle Johnny.”
That was all Ian needed to hear. He and Fiero took off running, leaving Scott to bear his pain alone.
The courtyard was quiet when Scott rode in. The chaos that must have erupted when Murdoch had brought Johnny in was absent. There was only his beautiful wife looking anxiously in his direction. As he neared, she rushed to him.
“Scott! Thank God! Are you alright?”
“Good morning, Sunshine. I’ll be alright.”
Audra didn’t miss the verb tense. “What’s wrong?”
“Help me get off this horse.”
She went around to the right side of Shadow and helped get his foot out of the stirrup and his leg over Shadow’s rump.
Scott slid off the saddle and just clung to the pommel for a few seconds, trying to control the pain. It was then that he noticed the empty scabbard. No rifle, but more importantly, no cane.
Now what was he going to do? He leaned heavily against Shadow, grateful the horse didn’t shy away and let him fall. He patted the mare and silently thanked her for bringing him home.
“Scott?” Audra’s worried voice roused him.
“My cane. It’s back at the cabin, along with the rifles, my eye-glasses, and Remmie.”
“We’ll send someone for those things. Until then, I’ll be your cane.”
God, did he love this woman! “My knee is bad. You won’t be able to take my full weight.”
Scott closed his eyes in thanks. Jordan to the rescue.
“Son, can you help your mother get me to our bedroom?”
“Sure!” Jordan said willingly. Everyone else was in Uncle Johnny’s room. Well, except for his sister and Essie. They were outside his door in the hallway, wailing and crying as girls do. Who knew where Andy was. He was glad he could be of some help to someone.
Scott put a hand on each of their shoulders to steady him and hopped to his bedroom. He practically fell onto the bed. “Thanks, son. You look after Andy and Katie for your mother and me for a while. Can you do that?”
“Good man,” Scott said and saw his son’s face light up at being called a man. Scott wouldn’t tell him that when he was in Lieutenant Lancer mode, that’s what he said to any man under his command who instantly obeyed him.
Jordan left and Audra took off Scott’s boots. As she rose from the floor, He grabbed her hand. “Get an oilskin for the mattress and start making some willow bark tea with plenty of sugar. And close the door.” He knew he was going into shock.
Audra left and he almost said “good man” after her. He carefully shucked his pants off of his swollen knee. It protested keenly.
Audra came back quickly with the oilskin and the tea. “Conchita already had the tea steeping for Johnny,” she explained as she set the cup on the side table. She looked at her husband’s knee. It was twice its normal size. “Oh, my Lord!”
They arranged the oilskin on the bed. “I’ll get the cold water and towels for your knee,” Audra said, turning toward the door.
Scott grabbed her hand again. “Not yet. Help me off with my jacket.”
She did and nearly fainted. But she had grown up on a ranch and had seen her brothers through all kinds of injuries, and she faced them head on. But this was Scott—her gentle and loving husband and father of her children—with the bloody and torn back. She took deep breaths to steady herself.
“There was no time to clean or bandage it,” Scott explained. “I didn’t want the boys to see it.”
Audra went to the dry pantry to fetch the basket of bandages, but it was gone. Of course, it had been taken to Johnny’s room. As concerned as she was for Scott, Bella must be out of her mind with worry for Johnny. She heard voices in the great room and ran to see Murdoch usher Nathan and Teresa into the house. She caught Teresa as she trailed the others. “Tell Nathan he needs to see Scott after he tends to Johnny.”
Teresa nodded and hurried to catch up with her husband.
Dr. Nathan Parker trudged up the stairs to his adopted “brother-in-law’s” room. He knew his wife thought all of the Lancers as her family, so it was extra worrisome for them both whenever they were called out to the ranch. It had been a while since the call was for Johnny. All the vaquero had said was that the man was attacked by a mountain lion. The wounds could be mild or severe or anywhere in between. He passed his crying “nieces” and entered the bedroom.
It seemed like the entire household was there. All cheeks were tear-stained. After greeting everyone, Nathan rolled up his sleeves. He walked to the washstand and began washing his hands. “I’ll need some more soap and water, Conchita.” She nodded and left quickly. With the indoor plumbing, those items were not far away.
When he inherited the practice from Sam Jenkins, Nathan had promised to practice medicine Jenkins’ way: sterilizing instruments and washing hands and so forth. It jibed with his notion of how things should be done, so he’d readily agreed. Sam’s doctoring was legendary in these parts, and the man was adamant that it was because of the precautions he took with his patients.
Johnny was lying prone on the bed, a wad of bloody sheets over his back. Nathan picked up one corner of the wad and peered under it. It looked bad. “Anyone see what happened?”
“The boys did,” Murdoch said. “Tell him, boys.”
Ian and Robbie were huddled together in the far corner of the room, trying to draw strength from one another. Ian spoke, not wanting Robbie to do it and knowing he knew more about what his father had done for Uncle Johnny than Robbie did. He told what he knew: a mountain lion had attacked Johnny; his Da had shot it. Then his Da washed the wounds and poured alcohol in them. Everyone had gasped at that and tears commenced again. Ian told his Uncle Nathan how they had wrapped Uncle Johnny with the sheets, jacket, and blanket, and cantered back to the house as fast as they could.
Nathan frowned. “Your father rode at a canter?”
“Yes,” Ian whispered.
Nathan and Teresa exchanged knowing looks. Scott’s knee would need some tending to as well, no doubt.
“Audra said to come to their room after you’re done here,” Teresa told him.
Nathan nodded. Conchita was back with the water, and Nathan ordered everyone but Teresa and Conchita out of the room. He gave Johnny a shot of morphine and then poured some water on the bloodied sheets to help loosen them from Johnny’s back. “Ladies, I think we have a lot of sewing ahead of us.”
Downstairs in the great room everyone gathered around Isabella. She was so distraught. She had not grown up on a ranch but in a very nice part of Los Angeles, the daughter of a wealthy banker. She wasn’t used to seeing the kinds of injuries that occurred on the range. Everyone knew she had little constitution for dealing with open wounds and broken bones. They all tried to distract her and themselves from thinking about what was going on upstairs.
Audra sat with her husband. She wished she could help allay Bella’s fears, but she couldn’t leave Scott’s side. He had finally fallen asleep with the help of some laudanum she had found. Everyone knew Johnny refused to take laudanum. All other medicines helpful to his condition had presumably been spirited up to Johnny’s room. Scott had told her Johnny was badly off. She laid another towel soaked in cold water on Scott’s swollen knee. What was taking Nathan so long? Maybe Teresa hadn’t told him that Scott needed him, too. Finally, she left to see what was keeping him.
It was strange to see the great room filled with so many people and yet so still. Murdoch was reading aloud from the Bible, and every so often a quiet sob could be heard. Audra wanted to skirt around the group up to Johnny’s room, when she saw Nathan coming down the stairs.
Everyone leapt to their feet when he entered the great room. He motioned for them to sit back down. ‘I’m happy to report that Johnny’s injuries were not as bad as they looked. None of his bones are broken, but he’s going to have a lot of bruises popping up in the next few days. And of course, there are the lacerations. He has quite a few of those, but Scott did a great job of cleaning most of them, especially the deepest ones, and I expect Johnny to make a full recovery. Of course, we’ll have to keep an eye out for infection, as always, but eventually Johnny will be his usual self. Until then, he’ll be in great pain, and we’ll have to help him manage that. He has stitches on his chest, arm, and back, so getting him in a comfortable position is going to be a challenge. He needs rest and plenty of fluids to replace the blood loss, but I know I can count on all of you to give him the care he needs. I don’t want you to think his injuries aren’t that serious, they are, but it could have been so much worse.”
Nathan fielded some questions from Murdoch and Isabella and then turned to Audra. “Now let’s take a look at Scott’s knee.”
Audra nodded and as they headed toward the bedroom, she warned, “It’s not just his knee.”
Scott’s back was the first thing Nathan saw when he walked in the room and looked at the bed. What he saw stole his breath away. “No one told me he’d been attacked, too.” Why hadn’t Ian Thomas told him?
“I don’t think the boys knew. He said he’d tried to keep it from them. I couldn’t do too much. The carbolic acid is upstairs with Johnny. All I could do was dab it with soap and water.”
Nathan could hear the rising panic in Audra’s voice. “You did fine, Audra, but go up to Johnny’s room and get Teresa. Tell her I need her here and to bring the bandages, sutures, and the carbolic.”
Audra nodded and rushed from the room.
This was only the second time Nathan had seen Scott’s scarred back and the first time had been merely a glimpse. Now he could study all the lash marks up close. It was heart-rending. Nathan didn’t know Scott as well as Johnny, but he knew, thanks to Teresa, that Scott had gotten the marks in a Confederate prison. He tore his gaze away from the scars and concentrated on examining the fresh wounds. What he found was even more concerning than Johnny’s back.
It was clear that the wounds high on Scott’s left shoulder were from the cat’s teeth. There were claw marks on his left side, but they were deep spots where the claws had dug in and not the slashing wounds Johnny sustained and that were down low on Scott’s right side. Clearly, the cougar had pinned Scott down with his mouth and left paw, while his right paw took a swipe. Luckily, Johnny didn’t have a bite mark. Scott did, and Nathan prayed the mountain lion hadn’t been sick. Mountain lions usually didn’t attack people unless there was something wrong with them. He looked under the towel at Scott’s knee and was dismayed with what he found there, too. Scott wouldn’t be walking on it anytime soon. But at this moment, an irritated and swollen knee was the least of his problems.
Nathan walked across the hall to again wash his hands. He heard the women in the hallway as he was finishing up.
Teresa looked anxiously at him. “I don’t know if we have enough sutures or bandages, if Scott is as bad as Johnny.”
“He’s not, but it’s bad enough. I’m more worried about running out of carbolic. You may have to get some alcohol.”
Audra ushered them into the bedroom, and Nathan saw the shock and the sadness on his wife’s face as she saw Scott’s wounds.
“Oh, Scott,” Teresa whispered sorrowfully. Nathan knew that try as hard as she might, she couldn’t remove the last tiny sliver of resentment toward Johnny for blaming Scott for Barranca’s death. It had culminated in Scott being unable to do ranch work and his decision to start a new life in San Francisco. Essentially, she had lost one of her “brothers,” and her ideal of them all being a Lancer family had been shattered. It had made her exceptionally sympathetic toward Scott.
“I’ll need to debride these wounds before I can cleanse them. Can you get some extra towels, Audra?”
She nodded and left to go across the hall.
“I don’t think she should be here while I do this,” Nathan told Teresa.
“I’ll think of something,” Teresa promised.
Scott started to rouse under Nathan’s ministrations. “Scott, I’m going to give you some morphine.”
“No!” Scott protested.
Audra reentered. “What’s wrong?” She went to the other side of the bed where Scott was facing and held his hand.
“No morphine,” Scott gritted out.
Audra looked at Nathan’s and Teresa’s concerned faces. “You trust Nathan, don’t you, darling?”
Scott grimaced in pain and nodded.
“Then trust him now. We all want only the best for you.”
“Alright,” he whispered. He didn’t want to upset Audra.
“I can give you the morphine?” Nathan asked. He knew Scott’s aversion to the opiate had something to do with the War.
Scott nodded and was soon unconscious.
“Audra, perhaps you should look in on the children while we work here?” Teresa suggested.
“I…I don’t want to leave him,” Audra said tearing up and grasping Scott’s limp hand even harder.
Teresa put her arm around her. “We’ll take good care of him, I promise.”
Audra found her children in the kitchen getting ready to sit down to dinner, which was being cooked by Murdoch, to her surprise. Conchita must be still up with Johnny. Bella wasn’t around, nor Robbie, but Essie was being comforted by Katie.
“How’s Da?” Ian asked.
“Uncle Nathan is with him now. He thinks he’ll be alright.” Audra said. Not a lie, but hardly the whole truth. The children were already upset about Johnny. There was no reason to add to it right now.
“He shouldn’t have ridden Shadow so hard. I didn’t even know he could ride that fast,” Ian told his mama.
“His concern for his brother made him ride so fast,” Murdoch said as he started ladling the stew into bowls.
“No,” Audra contradicted, “he did that out of love for his brother.” She perversely liked to use the word “love” whenever she could around her father-in-law. Murdoch’s inability to say it to Scott hurt her husband deeply, she knew.
Murdoch’s grunt of assent meant he conceded the point.
“But now he’s hurt,” Jordan said unhappily, sipping some of his milk. “Can we see him after supper, Mama?”
Audra dithered. She didn’t want to tell the children how badly hurt Scott was, especially since Nathan hadn’t told her the extent of the injuries yet. But she knew it was serious. “Let’s see what Uncle Nathan has to say, shall we?”
“Today is the worst day ever!” Katie declared, and she and Essie started crying again.
Audra managed to situate herself in between the girls and put an arm around each of them to draw them in close. They turned to be able the cry on her shoulders and then started to weep in earnest. Sadly, she thought that this wasn’t even close to being the worst day of her husband’s life.
It was chaotic in the Lancer household for the next few days. Johnny had developed a low-grade fever, and there was much concern over that. He had awakened from his dose of morphine confused and in pain, but he couldn’t be mollified until he found out about Robbie, Ian, and Scott. Were they alright? Robbie and Ian were quickly ushered into the room to certify their fitness. Scott was another matter. Johnny’s near desperate pleas about his brother finally made his family realize that Scott was suffering from more than a swollen knee. When the morphine had finally been cleared from his brain, he was able to tell them coherently that the mountain lion had attacked Scott first.
That sent Murdoch barreling down to Scott’s room to see how badly Scott was faring and to demand an explanation as to why his wounds had been kept from him. Scott told him Johnny’s wounds were far worse than his and he should focus his attention on his younger son. That seemed to placate Murdoch, but it incensed Audra. Her husband’s wounds were serious also, but Scott said he’d prefer that his father not hover over his bed. Again, she wondered what had happened between them to estrange them so badly. It was more than Murdoch’s failure to come to Sacramento after Scott had been shot. She found Scott uncommonly forgiving of others’ transgressions, so whatever occurred had to have been truly inexcusable.
Nathan kept both men on pain medication, as much as either would allow. He knew of Johnny’s addiction to laudanum when he was barely a teen and why he refused to take any as an adult. He would accept low doses of morphine, and his injuries demanded it if the man was to get any rest at all. Scott was just the opposite. He tolerated some laudanum but disliked morphine. Nathan wished he knew what had happened during the War to make Scott so wary of it. At any rate, it was difficult for him to manage the men’s pain. Their wives could coax them into taking the proper amount but only once in a while. Tears were their weapon of choice. Nathan was tempted to shed tears as well, even though he knew they would not have to same effect.
After the first few hectic days, a routine was established. Murdoch and Isabella took care of Johnny; Audra tended Scott. Teresa would float between the two. Nathan needed to tend to his other patients, but he returned every evening to the hacienda. Maria came out of her self-imposed retirement to help Johnny so that Conchita could go back to cooking and running the household. Ian and Robbie kept the younger children in hand. A pall had descended over the hacienda. Voices were hushed; movements kept to a minimum. Conchita kept pots of broth and willow bark tea constantly on the fire. Everyone was on edge with worry. Would either of the men get worse?
In the end, surprisingly, it was Scott.
“Why does he call you ‘Sunshine’?” Teresa asked Audra. She had walked into the bedroom to relieve Audra from tending to Scott and had heard him feverishly call his wife’s pet name.
Audra blushed a little. “It’s from a poem he wrote me. In it he said I was his source of light and warmth—his sunshine.” She smiled at the memory. “It’s one of my favorite poems he’s written me.”
Teresa was intrigued. She never knew Scott wrote poems. “How many has he written you?”
Audra reapplied the cold cloth around Scott’s neck. “Oh, I don’t know really—scores and scores. At first, I thought he only wrote them because I told him I loved poetry and he was trying to woo me, but he’s kept on ever since. There’s always one on my birthday and our wedding anniversary, but he writes them other times, too. Sometimes he hides them. I’ll find one tucked away in drawer or inside a book. One time he hid one away in the book I was reading, but I decided not to finish it. Years later I lent it to a friend and she found the poem, much to my chagrin. Scott had forgotten he’d even written it!” She laughed. “He’s quite a good poet, even if I’m a bit biased. The children get one on their birthdays, too, but I think Ian is starting to think he’s too old for such things now. I don’t know. Does anyone grow too old for poetry?”
“Never,” Teresa affirmed, “but I’m not male.”
They both laughed and then Audra left to check on her children and then rest.
Teresa sighed and for the third time in her life, she felt jealous of Audra Lancer. The woman was beautiful, poised, and got to be the wife of Scott Garrett Lancer and mother to four adorable children and was the recipient of love poems from her husband. For the umpteenth time, she mourned the fact that she and Nathan would always be childless. Being very involved at the orphanage brought a little comfort, but it couldn’t replace having children of her own. They had discussed adoption but had ultimately decided against it. Even with two more doctors in the area, there were far too many cases to keep them all busy. There were more doctors, but there were also more people in the towns and surrounding areas. She and Nathan had their hands full most days.
Nathan was devoted to his patients; Sam Jenkins had made a wise choice to give his practice over to the young doctor. But that devotion took its toll in other areas. If Teresa hadn’t become his de facto nurse, she wondered how much she would see of her husband. As it was, they worked seamlessly together, and their bond was strong. Where did her being at home with a newborn fit into the picture? She was reconciled to her childless fate now, but seeing Scott’s adorable brood each summer usually renewed that little pang of jealousy. At least his children called her Aunt Teresa and loved her.
Scott shifted uneasily in his feverish state and murmured something unintelligible. She wiped his forehead with another cool cloth. He was still a handsome man, even if he wasn’t quite as slim as when he first arrived. His face had rounded out a little as well, and she thought his glasses made him look even more distinguished. She hadn’t given him much attention when he first arrived at Lancer so many years ago. Johnny had captured her attention and her heart. He had captured everyone’s attention and hearts. Murdoch had been terrified that Johnny would leave or get killed or get someone else killed, so he focused much more of his attention upon his younger son. But Johnny had stayed and revealed a boyish and shy charm beneath the hardened gunfighter exterior. She had always felt more sympathy for him, forced to survive for himself at a young age, than for Scott, who grew up safe and sheltered by a rich grandfather.
When they had arrived, Teresa had been just a little frightened of Johnny, but that was part of why she was drawn to him. However, he was always courteous and kind to her, bringing her wildflowers or a pretty rock he had discovered in a stream. Scott seemed so formal and reserved next to his younger brother. He was overly polite and rather stiff. Of course, he treated her with the utmost respect, but even as his stiffness was eroded by Western ways and a devilish brother, she hadn’t felt the draw to him as she had to Johnny. He was, she had thought initially, too old for her. For a while, she had flirted shamelessly with Johnny, but then he had gone down to Los Angeles on business, had rescued Isabella from a runaway wagon, and, as they both reported, it was love at first sight. Teresa had been a little heartbroken at that. She knew Murdoch had told his sons that she was off-limits to them and they were to treat her as a sister, but they didn’t have to take it to heart as strongly as they did!
Now as she wiped the cool cloth over Scott’s arms, she wondered if it had been just romantic flights of fancy that she was drawn to the “bad boy” Johnny Madrid rather than to the responsible and reliable Scott Lancer. After San Francisco, after that fairy tale two weeks in San Francisco, she sometimes kicked herself for overlooking the tall blond in her own backyard. Nathan was only a couple of years younger than Scott, and despite his education in Philadelphia, he lacked the certain something that defined a rich, elite Bostonian man. There was just something in Scott’s bearing that set him apart from Nathan. More poised? More polished? More regal? The difference had been obvious during their honeymoon in San Francisco. They had spent the first week at the Occidental Hotel and the second week as houseguests of Scott and Audra.
What a time Scott had shown them that second week! The symphony, the opera, and then, after convincing them to stay on two extra days, the ballet. Oh, the ballet! She had never heard such music or seen such dancing! What a magical night that had been! Audra had loaned her a dress and she had worn silk! Audra had just gotten her figure back after Ian Thomas’ birth and was also eager to be out on the town wearing her best. Nathan had worn his wedding suit and Scott had worn his tails. His cane was black ebony wood topped off with a silver head of a wolf. She had never seen him in such splendor, and he acted as if it were an everyday occurrence for him. She had never seen such a dashing man as Scott Lancer was that night. It seemed the entire city knew him. At intermission, he was accosted by one couple or another, all seeking to speak to him about some urgent matter or just to be seen with him. Ever the gentleman, he had introduced them all to Teresa and Nathan. Audra would murmur in her ear who the people were: the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, numerous, very important businessmen, lawyers, and doctors, and even the mayor himself.
As the mayor’s special adjunct, Scott met all kinds of people from all walks of life. They could not walk down the street or go into a shop without a handful of people greeting him by name and wanting a few moments of his time. It was as if San Francisco was his baby and Papa was proud to show it off to the newly-weds. For the first time she saw Scott truly in his element. She and Nathan had followed him around the city one day when he needed to work. He was attentive and sympathetic to those who needed his help, administrative and efficient with his staff, and held his own intellectually and wittily with the most elite of the San Francisco elite. And unfailingly kind to and at ease with all of them.
With the beautiful and charming Audra Barkley Lancer by his side, they made an enviable couple. That was the second time she had been jealous of Audra and imagined herself in her stead. But could she have managed everything with the grace that Audra did as hostess, juggling a toddler, house guests, house staff, and being Scott’s wife? Audra had flawlessly hosted two elaborate dinner parties for Teresa and Nathan while they were staying with them in their gorgeous home. She was a marvel, and Teresa felt pale in comparison. And that was before Scott’s two terms in the California senate. Many people had urged him to run for governor, but he had sold their house in Sacramento and returned to his San Francisco home to devote his attention to Garrett Enterprises and his family. He had joked he had to leave politics to save his soul. She wasn’t so sure it had been a joke.
Scott moaned and turned on his side, exposing his scarred back. It made her think of the time he was kidnapped by Dan Cassidy’s men. She hadn’t known until then that part of his war service had been spent in a Confederate prison. All of them had reevaluated Scott’s grit and perseverance in light of that information. No wonder he stuck to learning ranching with a grim determination she had rarely seen before. She was used to ranch hands quitting fairly regularly because of the hard work, making those who stayed more like family. Everyone had bet that Scott would leave within six months of arriving. He had proved a lot of people wrong about a lot of assumptions made about him. But after seeing him in San Francisco, she was glad he wasn’t at Lancer anymore. It would have been such a waste of so many of his talents, one of which, apparently, was writing poetry. She sighed. Nathan was a good man. She was happy with him. But he would never write her a poem or bring her flowers just because. He was too practical-minded for such fancy. She sighed more deeply.
Scott thrashed around some and rolled over to his other side, but that was his left side where the bite mark was, so he quickly moved back onto his stomach with a low moan. Teresa rose from her chair and felt his forehead. It was very hot. She needed Nathan’s precious thermometer.
She opened the door and found Jordan sitting in the hallway reading his book. “Go to your Uncle Johnny’s room and fetch the thermometer quick,” she ordered him. He rose, leaving the book on the floor, and sped down the hallway. Again, Teresa was reminded of how much the boy looked like Scott and how devoted he was to his father. Aside from that first night when all the children had been ushered in to see their father as he lay sleeping from the morphine, Audra had kept the children out of the sickroom. She knew of Scott’s absolute dread of any of the children accidentally seeing the whip marks and the bullet hole scars that marred his back.
Teresa was surprised to see Murdoch bring the thermometer to her. He had stayed with Johnny for the most part with occasional inquiries about Scott’s health.
“What’s wrong?” he asked as he handed her the box with the thermometer.
“I think Scott’s temperature is getting too high,” she told him, “but we’ll see. Do you think you can put this under his tongue and hold it there for three minutes?”
Murdoch put the device under Scott’s tongue and fended off his son’s weak attempts to dislodge it. Scott finally just accepted it. After Teresa finished counting out the minutes, she looked at the reading and was shocked at what she saw. She peered at it two more times.
“You’d better send for Nathan,” she told Murdoch.
“Is it bad?”
She nodded. “104 degrees. It’s bad.”
Murdoch left and she tried unsuccessfully to get a semi-conscious Scott to drink some water. The only thing to do now was to wait for Nathan. She placed another cold cloth around Scott’s neck, as she had seen her husband do to patients with a high fever. She was worried.
Johnny was frustrated. He couldn’t seem to shake this low-grade fever, but what was most annoying was that he couldn’t find a comfortable spot to rest. With wounds to both his chest and back, he was usually propped up on his left side, but he could only endure that position for so long.
Another annoyance was the amount of people fussing over him. He had finally convinced Maria to go home. Mateo’s children needed their grandmother, and Cipriano needed his wife to nurse him. With all the people hovering around him, no one would tell him how Scott was faring. Why not? He heard Jordan ask for the thermometer and Murdoch left with it. What was going on? Scott needed the thermometer, which could only mean he had a temperature. While he appreciated everyone’s efforts to keep him entertained, he’d had enough. Robbie and Ian were playing poker with him, and after Robbie won the hand, he asked everyone to leave except Ian. He was concerned over his nephew’s lackluster countenance and figured the boy would know about his father’s condition. Bella looked quizzically at him, but he had given her his most charming smile when he asked her to take a break and see to Essie, so she relented.
“How about some Black Jack, just you and me?”
Ian nodded. “You may have to remind me about some of the rules again, though.”
Johnny smiled. “You just have to know how to add up to twenty-one. Is that so hard for you? Maybe your Pa is right that you need more schoolin’,” he joked.
Ian ducked his head in embarrassment but not before Johnny had caught the dark, uncomfortable look that had crossed his face when his Pa was mentioned.
Johnny started dealing. “I have eighteen. Hit or stay?”
Johnny dealt him a face card that had to have put the boy over twenty-one. Ian threw his cards down in disgust.
“You want to tell me what’s on your mind?”
“I’ve got fourteen. Hit or stay?”
“Hit,” Ian said. Johnny dealt him another face card, and again Ian threw his cards at his uncle.
“What’re doin’, boy? I had fourteen; if you’d’ve stayed, that face card would have been mine, and you woulda won. I thought we taught you better than that at the cabin.”
Ian almost winced and shrugged again.
Johnny put the cards aside. “You wanna tell me why you’re sittin’ here with me all the time and not with your Pa?”
“Mama won’t let us see him.”
“I get the feelin’ it wouldn’t matter if she did. You’d still be avoidin’ him.” Johnny could see his nephew fighting tears. “C’mon.” He lifted his arm and Ian slipped underneath it. “Ain’t no cause to be ashamed to cry, sobrino, especially after what’s happened. You cry and then tell ol’ Uncle Johnny what’s got you in tears.”
Ian cried for just a little bit. Then he said, “I thought you were gonna die.”
“I know, son, I know. But I’m gonna be fine, thanks to you and your Pa.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Robbie said you got the rifle. Can’t thank you enough for that.” Johnny rubbed Ian’s back soothingly. “Your Pa’s one hell of a shot with that rifle, ain’t he? One bullet in the head of that cat. Hell of a shot. Glad he got that practicin’ in the day before, huh?”
That brought another round of tears, although Johnny didn’t know why. Ian sat up and blew his nose on his bandana. Johnny let him fret for a bit.
When he’d composed himself, Ian said quietly, “I thought you were going to die. I…I left him to ride after you. No, that’s not even the truth. I left him so I could run Fiero after Grampa. Da was hurt and I left him.”
That was the reason for the fresh tears. “Didya know he was hurt?”
“No, I didn’t know about the mountain lion getting him, but I knew he’d hurt his knee bad trying to get you back here as quick as he could. And still I left him.”
Johnny reached out as far as his stitches would allow and touched Ian’s knee. “You didn’t know how bad he was hurt. He’s done that to me sometimes, not lettin’ on. Made me mad as hell when he did that. He’s sneaky like that. Don’t let it make you feel bad.”
“Da needed me and I wasn’t there for him,” Ian persisted. He gazed out the window at some far away spot. “I never saw him like that before. He was so calm about everything. You were bleeding real bad, and it was like he wasn’t even bothered by it.”
“He was Lieutenant Lancer then,” Johnny explained. “You know he was in the war, right?”
“Uh huh. He’s got pictures and everything in his study.”
“Well, they made ‘im a lieutenant right there in the field cuz he kept his head in battle, even though he was young, just a little bit older than you. Did it scare you, him actin’ like that?”
Ian shook his head. “No, not scared me.” Ian couldn’t imagine being scared of his father. Not Da. “Just surprised me and…”
“Amazed you?” Johnny finished for him, and Ian nodded. “Did that to me the first time I saw ‘im change into the Lieutenant. Now you know why I want ‘im to back me up. A quick mind and a cool head, that’s what you need when you’re in trouble. Coulda used ‘im more than once out here since he left.”
Ian nodded, his shoulders still slumped.
“Say the rest of it,” Johnny said. “We might not have too long before someone comes through that door.”
“It’s just that…” Ian shrugged. “It’s just that before…what I said before…about wanting you to be my Da…”
“You rethinkin’ that?” Johnny smiled to himself. The poor boy must be feeling mighty guilty about that statement. He rubbed Ian’s knee. “Don’t you be frettin’ about that, sobrino mio. That was between just you and me and I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ about it to nobody. But I’m real glad you see the error of your thinkin’. My brother’s a real fine man. You’re lucky to have ‘im as your Pa, and he’s real lucky to have a son like you.”
Fresh tears erupted from Ian and he slipped back under his uncle’s arm until the tears were spent.
Later, Bella found them both asleep when she quietly checked in on her husband.
Nathan was worried. He wasn’t sure what was going on with Scott. The ranch hand who’d collected the horse and other items left at the cabin had said that the mountain lion looked starved but showed no frothing around the mouth. That didn’t automatically rule out rabies, but it was a hopeful sign. Nathan still thought the cougar must be diseased in some way. If the big cat was just hungry, there were 15,000 head of cattle to choose from. No, healthy cats did not attack humans. There must have been some disease that got transmitted through its saliva into Scott. Nathan was a modern doctor; he believed in the germ theory of infections, rather than miasma or the pleomorphic theory. Germs were causing the fever. Johnny, too, must have gotten some of them. That would explain his lingering fever. But Scott had the deep bite mark, so more of the germs got into him. His body was trying to kill the germs with heat. The last time he checked Scott’s temperature, it was just below 105 degrees. Despite the cold compresses, Scott’s fever was still rising. They needed to do something soon, or Nathan was afraid that Scott would start having seizures. He looked over at Teresa and they exchanged concerned looks.
“It’s not going down, is it?” Teresa asked of Scott’s temperature.
“No, it’s rising again. We need to think about submerging his whole body in cool water.”
“But what about his stitches and the bandages? Aren’t they supposed to stay dry?” Audra was on the other side of the bed holding Scott’s lax hand.
“Ordinarily, yes,” Nathan conceded, “but bringing his temperature down needs to take priority now.” What good are dry stitches to a dead man, Nathan thought. Looking at his wife, he said, “Run a bath with tepid water. I don’t want to shock his system and tepid water will still feel cold to him.” Looking at Audra, he said, “We’ll need to move him into the bathroom when Teresa’s done. We’ll probably need Murdoch’s help.”
Stepping outside the room, Audra told Teresa, “I’ll run the bath; you get Murdoch.” She didn’t want to deal with her father-in-law right now. Not when he was the source of her husband’s hurt inside.
Seeing Jordan in the hallway, Teresa said, “We’ll both run the bath. Send Jordan for Murdoch and make him feel useful. He’s so upset about Scott.”
Audra agreed and Jordan set off to find his Grampa.
Murdoch entered Scott’s room tucking his shirt into his pants. “I was trying to get a few minutes rest after tending to Johnny today. I’m not getting any younger,” he groused.
“You’ve got another son who needs you now,” Nathan told him.
They were figuring out the logistics of how to get Scott into the bathtub when Scott’s body began to convulse. Nathan swore and moved the items off the bedside table.
“What the hell is happening?” Murdoch bellowed.
That brought Audra in from across the hall. She gasped when she saw Scott thrashing around on the bed.
“Febrile seizure,” Nathan said, trying to time it.
“What do we do?” Murdoch asked.
“Nothing we can do but make sure Scott doesn’t hurt himself.”
Murdoch tried to restrain his son.
“No!” Nathan commanded. “Just let him ride it out.”
Audra was terrified by her husband’s condition. It seemed to go on for a long time, but Nathan said, “One minute, eighteen seconds,” after Scott finally went limp. He had lost consciousness and would be of no help when they moved him.
“What the hell is going on here?” Murdoch demanded.
Nathan lost all patience with the Lancer patriarch. “Scott is dying! Now help me get him across the hall!”
That shut the old man up quickly. Murdoch grabbed Scott underneath the armpits and Nathan had Scott’s knees, and they carried him into the bathroom and plopped him in the tub.
Audra stood there stunned, tears still streaming down her face, and then, in some sort of daze, she began to collect the soiled sheets. If Scott regained consciousness, he’d appreciate clean, dry ones. But all she could really think about was Nathan’s proclamation that Scott was dying replaying itself over and over in her head.
Across the hall, Nathan and Teresa made sure Scott’s head didn’t slip into the water. Nathan placed more cooling towels around Scott’s neck. Murdoch sat on the lid of the commode and carded his fingers through his hair. Scott was dying? Why hadn’t he been told? He’d been told there was more to Scott’s injuries than just his knee, that the cougar had attacked him as well but not that he was this sick. He’d underestimated how badly off Scott was, focusing his efforts on Johnny as Scott had requested. Johnny had lost so much blood, and Scott had seemed fine when he’d ridden up and snatched his younger son from his elder one.
After some time, Teresa placed her hand on Scott’s forehead. “He feels cooler,” she said, hopeful that it wasn’t just wishful thinking on her part.
Nathan took Scott’s temperature again. After three minutes, he read it and sighed. “Just under 103 degrees. Better. We’re not out of the woods yet, but it’s better.”
He and Murdoch placed Scott back in his sickbed, and Nathan thanked his “father-in-law” for his help.
“I’d like to stay…” Murdoch ventured, none too convincingly.
Nathan caught Audra’s murderous look, and said, “No, you’re right—you need to get your rest. Maybe tomorrow.”
Audra looked relieved as Murdoch left. Nathan didn’t understand all the dynamics of this family, but Murdoch hadn’t seemed too interested in Scott’s condition before this, and he thought Audra’s preferences should be followed at the moment. People could work out their anger and frustration once Scott was on the mend. Until this damned fever broke, Scott was in serious straits. It was time to start praying for a miracle.
Scott’s miracle came in the form of his mother-in-law. Victoria Barkley swept into the hacienda with Heath in tow and began ordering everyone around like she owned the place. Murdoch let her. He was exhausted from worry and little sleep, so he welcomed someone else picking up the reins. She told him to go to his room and get some rest; Heath would be in charge of the day-to-day ranching needs. Then she went in search of her daughter.
Audra nearly collapsed into her mother’s arms when Victoria rushed into the bedroom. “Thank God you’re here!”
Victoria looked down at her son-in-law. He looked as bad as when she had tended to his wounds and fever in Sacramento all those years ago. She had fallen into maternal love with the man then, and it had only grown deeper in the intervening years as she saw what kind of husband and father he became. “Tell me about Scott,” she demanded of her daughter.
“He and Johnny were attacked by a cougar. Scott was bitten and Nathan thinks that something called germs got into him and are making him have a very high fever. It was so high, Scott started to convulse. It was horrible! We were able to get it down some since then, but it’s still too high. We can’t get him to drink enough water. He throws up anything we try to put in him. He seems to have nightmares, terrible nightmares. Sometimes he doesn’t even recognize us or know where he is. He just keeps getting weaker and weaker. He’s dying, Mother!”
“Nonsense. Audra!” Victoria shushed. “He won’t die on our watch, will he?”
Audra tried to stifle her sobs. “No, no, he won’t.”
“That’s my girl! Now go get me some colder water.”
Victoria watched Audra leave while rolling up her sleeves. She sat on the bed next to Scott and drew back the sheet covering his wounded back. It looked awful, but there were no signs of infection in the wounds. “Alright, Mr. Lancer, we’ve been through this before,” she said. “Too bad we don’t have Silas anymore to help this time, but by God, I’m going to get you through this. You hear me? Now, fight, son, fight for me, for Audra, and for those children of yours. Don’t you leave them without their father!”
Audra was awakened by voices in the adjoining room. She had been resting in the boys’ bedroom, but, as usual, she couldn’t sleep for long knowing Scott was so sick. She donned her robe and sat down behind the half-open door between the rooms. Clearly, her mother and Murdoch were having words and she didn’t want to interrupt them.
“…ever going to tell that boy how you feel about him?” her mother was saying.
“It’s hard.” Murdoch almost sounded like he was whining. Audra never had heard him sound like that. “I see the hurt in his eyes, the hurt I put there, and I can’t get past that.”
“He’s going to go to his grave without knowing that his father loves him! You do, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course, I do!” Now the voice sounded angry. Audra was used to hearing that tone. “I’ve told him that I’m proud of him. Several times!”
“It’s not the same thing, Murdoch, and you know it! Now sit down here and tend to your son. Tell him how you feel now, or would you rather tell him over his grave?” The bedroom door opened and shut. Audra assumed her mother had left. She really shouldn’t be hiding behind the door eavesdropping on her father-in-law, but she couldn’t seem to move. Would Murdoch finally talk to Scott? She sat there for a good while, almost nodding off again, when Murdoch began to speak.
“Scott…son…I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to start to tell you. That night in San Francisco…you don’t know how much I regret what I said to you there.”
Audra pressed closer to the door. Scott had never told her the entire story of the estrangement between his father and himself. Maybe she could learn about it now.
“I don’t know what I was thinking. No, you deserve the truth. If you pass…Dear God, forbid it!…but if you pass before I can tell you, I’ll never forgive myself. I was in such a terrible state of mind.
“I think it all started after your grandfather’s visit. God, his blackmailing of you nearly cost you your life! I hated him even more for that. But instead of being grateful that you survived the ambush, I resented the way you seemed to forgive him so easily for his attempted extortion of you. You didn’t seem that angry with him for everything he did to harm our family. Then I started to notice similarities between the two of you. Just little things at first—the cant of your head while explaining your position, the stiffness in your posture, the way you said, ‘The way I see it,’ which was a favorite saying of his. And, of course, how you continued to call me ‘sir’ after living here almost three years. It seemed like you were purposefully trying to keep me at a distance.
“I know now that I had a big hand in creating that distance. After you asked that question when Harlan was here—about why I never claimed you—and I didn’t answer you, I felt something change in our relationship. I didn’t explain when I should have. At the time I thought I was honoring an agreement I had with Harlan. I should have known better than to think he would honor it as well. Anyway, after that visit, all I could see when I looked into your eyes was your hurt…and your accusation. I couldn’t bear it, but I was too proud and bull-headed to think I was in the wrong…about anything. I was sure that if I told you the whole truth, you wouldn’t believe me, or you’d think me a coward, so I said nothing. Nothing! As if that wouldn’t hurt you just as much. I was a fool! The more I interacted with you, the more I was reminded of Harlan, and the anger would rise again and again.
“After San Francisco, I was so ashamed of myself, son, so ashamed. I knew, when you wouldn’t see me before we left, I knew I had severed any feelings you may have had for me. You know I’ve apologized for that night, or tried to, many times since, but I never knew whether you accepted my apology. If you couldn’t, I want you to know I don’t blame you for that. I don’t blame you for anything. It was all me. All me and my anger and resentment toward your grandfather.
“It started before you were born, you know. When your mother and I fell in love, your grandfather did everything he could to stop us from marrying. But your mother, Scott, dear Catherine, didn’t let him stop us. God, I wish you could have known her, son! I wish you could have grown up here in her love! What a life we would have had! But she died, and he took you away. He kidnapped you and wouldn’t let you go. He threatened all kinds of legal action against me, that he would drag you, too, through the courts. So, I gave up, God, forgive me, I gave up. I’m so ashamed to tell you. I gave up and spent all my money trying to find your brother until I sent the Pinkertons to contact you and told them it had to be away from the house and Harlan’s influence.
“And you came. You don’t know how happy I was that you came, even with that damn Pardee breathing down my neck. I was happy but also scared. What must you think of me? I was ashamed that I hadn’t called you home to Lancer sooner. Harlan hadn’t even informed me of your enlistment. The Pinkerton report told me of your service but not of your imprisonment. All those years of sending you letters and small gifts…I know now you never received them because of that bastard! You see? Even after all these years and the man in his grave, I still hate him. My hatred toward your grandfather just grew and grew. And when I started seeing him in you, it placed me at a distance from you. How could you not have similar mannerisms, growing up in his house? It was completely unjustified of me, I know now. I was getting closer and closer to Johnny but not to you. Somehow, it felt safer to keep you at arm’s length.
“After Johnny got injured and you had to put Barranca down, things just spun out of control. He got pneumonia, I got very sick, and when we followed you to San Francisco, it was all too much. Believe me or not, I was very concerned about you being shot, son. I regret I couldn’t be there for you in Sacramento. If there’d been any way I could have gone, I would have, believe me. My shame at not being there for you erupted in anger. Your mother always chided me about that. I think I got better about it, but after Maria left with Johnny, I must have fallen back into my old ways.
“All I can tell you now is that I deplore the words I said to you in anger that night. I hope that someday you can forgive me. I love you, Scott. I love you with all my heart, all my being, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to you. So don’t you die on us. Don’t you die on me before I can make it up to you.”
Audra waited a few minutes, but it didn’t seem like Murdoch was going to say anything more. She rose and walked into Scott’s room, tightening the sash on her robe as if she’d just awakened and put it on.
“Tis a pity you can’t tell him that when he’s awake,” she told her father-in-law.
“Tell him what?” Murdoch wanted to know how much she’d heard.
“That you love him. He’s been waiting to hear that all his life.”
“He knows I love him.”
“Does he? The way you act around him, it looks like you barely tolerate him,” Audra scolded.
“This is between me and Scott,” Murdoch warned.
“You think it doesn’t affect the rest of us? That I don’t see the anguish in my husband’s soul because of you? That the children don’t notice that you treat Scott differently from Johnny? It’s not just between you and Scott.”
Murdoch grunted noncommittally and left.
Audra petted Scott’s head affectionately. “I tried, my love, I tried.”
Was that a slight smile on Scott’s face?
Isabella Garcia Lancer brushed her husband’s dark hair off his forehead. She had softly sung Spanish lullabies to him and carded her hand through his hair until he fell into a restless sleep. He was worried about his brother. She didn’t tell him how badly Scott was doing for fear Johnny would get out of bed to see him, and the doctor had said that Johnny needed to stay in bed to heal properly. So far, the stitches were still in place and the wounds were healing well.
She didn’t understand her husband’s relationship with his brother. It bordered on adoration; however, she could see that the feeling was mutual. She couldn’t understand what this “thing” was between them. Whatever it was, it excluded everyone else. The first time she had met Scott was at her wedding where he was Johnny’s best man. Johnny had been so excited when he learned that Scott had agreed to stand with him. His excitement was infectious, so she had been very excited and curious to meet him. Johnny’s brother was the Hero of Sacramento! She couldn’t wait to meet the man. From the newspaper’s description of him, she imagined a daring and dashing figure of a man with her husband’s passionate nature or her father-in-law’s bold bravado. Who she met was a reserved, stand-offish man, very polite but, in relation to Johnny, quite cool. It was difficult to image him being the Hero of Sacramento whom she had read about. He was already married, but his wife could not attend the wedding because she was very pregnant with their first child. What kind of man would leave his wife alone in her eighth month? A very selfish one! Isabella couldn’t imagine who would marry such a dull and passionless man.
Audra Lancer turned out to be a gracious and lovely woman. She had been quick to tell her that she in no way wanted to intrude on the routines Bella had set at Lancer and that she would like to help in whatever way she could. Mostly what Audra did during the summer visits was to corral her ever growing band of children. Her niece and nephews were adorable, and Robbie and Essie loved them as much as Johnny did. She enjoyed their visits, but she had never warmed up to Scott.
Perhaps there was a little jealousy involved. Johnny was never more animated than in the couple of weeks before Scott’s arrival. He would fuss over the cabin he had specially built for Scott for days, wanting everything to be perfect. It was ridiculous. Then there were the days when the men would disappear to that cabin, leaving her and Audra to manage the hacienda without them. She thought that was rather rude of them. Add to that the looks, smirks, and half-smiles that seemed to be a whole language in themselves and one in which she and Audra were not fluent, and it culminated in her being very irritated with them both, but especially with Scott. Johnny never acted like that when Scott was gone. Over the years, she became more and more perplexed about her husband’s relationship with his tedious older brother. Johnny had so much more personality and many more talents. What was Scott’s hold over him?
She had learned of the events leading up to Scott being shot in Sacramento one night when Johnny was away on a business trip. Murdoch had been rather tipsy that night and had told her the whole, sad story. She thought it might be guilt that was driving Johnny’s irrational attachment to Scott and said so to Murdoch, but he denied it. Whatever bond connected them had occurred a good two years before that, her father-in-law assured her. He had admitted being jealous of it, too, at first but had learned to just accept it. His advice to her was to accept it as well. As tragic as the story of Scott’s injuries was, the brothers’ bond had held tight. If that ordeal hadn’t driven them apart, nothing would. She would only alienate Johnny if she tried to weaken or break it. Murdoch’s advice had been sound, but she was almost tempted to see if she could win a competition between her and Scott for Johnny’s affections. In the end, she’d settled for sharing her darling’s bed every night and tolerating his brother for one or two months out of the year.
The Scott Lancer clan would descend upon them like a whirlwind, disrupting everything. They would arrive bearing gifts for everyone, spoiling Robbie and Essie shamelessly. Johnny would strut around whistling for weeks before and after their visit. Scott and Audra would take everyone to town for dinner. They would include Teresa and Nathan when they weren’t busy doctoring. They even took the Ramirez’ into town for a sit-down, restaurant dinner when Cipriano’s back wasn’t paining him too much. And not just Cipriano and Maria, but Mateo and his children, too. Johnny thought it was nice of Scott; she thought it was throwing their wealth into Johnny’s face. Yes, they liked to flaunt their good fortune. When they had learned of her second pregnancy, they had insisted upon gifting the hacienda with indoor plumbing, passing it off as their gift to the expected baby. Johnny and Murdoch had fawned themselves all over Scott, but she had seen through him. Now every time that they had to use the facilities, they’d be reminded of his largesse. It was humiliating.
Yes, everyone would grow excited when Scott Lancer came visiting, except for Murdoch, who would grow moody and withdrawn. She knew something had happened among them that no one would tell her. Even a drunken Murdoch wouldn’t reveal it. But it all centered around the crippling of the very staid and proper Scott Lancer. Everyone seemed so sorry for him, but she wasn’t. He was far richer than she and Johnny. He could afford a manservant, a cook, and even a nanny. He’d held power in California politics and foolishly walked away from it. No, she wasn’t as impressed with the great Scott Lancer as the others were. As far as she was concerned, he was the cause of her husband’s current serious condition. Johnny would never have been at the cabin if it weren’t for Scott. Johnny kept asking about him, and she kept telling him he was fine, and she would continue to do so. Johnny needed to stop fussing about his brother and concentrate on getting himself well.
And now Audra’s mother had arrived, and the old woman had started bossing everyone around. Perhaps that was why Audra was so meek and mild, growing up with a mother like that. It was getting to be too much. She needed to get away. Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would take the children into town. They needed to get away from the hacienda and its sickrooms as well. Yes, getting away was a good idea. She would tell Johnny of her plans after dinner. He would understand. He always did.
The next morning found Johnny be tended to by Robbie. “Where’s your Ma?” he asked his son, as Robbie stood in the doorway holding the breakfast tray.
“She’s getting everything ready. She’s taking all of us kids to Green River today.”
Bella had informed Johnny of her decision the night before. He didn’t think that meant she wasn’t going to be with him at breakfast. In any case, Robbie should have been more excited about that excursion. Instead, his usually exuberant boy seemed subdued, almost on the verge of tears.
“Set that tray down and tell me what’s got you in such a state.”
“I’m not in any state,” Robbie said, but the tray in his hands began to shake.
“You’re in a state if I say you’re in a state,” Johnny told him. “Now set the tray down before you spill everything on it.”
Robbie set the tray beside his father. “I’m not supposed to say,” he whispered.
“Well, now you’d better say it, boy!”
Robbie stuck his bottom lip out as the tears began to flow.
“C’mon, hijo, sit here with me and tell me why you’re so upset.” Johnny moved the tray and patted the empty spot next to him.
Robbie climbed onto the bed and slipped under his father’s arm.
“I won’t tell anyone what you’re not supposed to tell me,” Johnny promised.
“Ian said,” Robbie’s voice faltered. When he’d regained his voice, he whispered, “Ian told me, he thinks his Pa is dying. I don’t want Uncle Scott to die!” The tears came harder.
Johnny was confused. Everyone told him Scott was doing fine. “Do you know what’s wrong with Uncle Scott?”
Robbie shook his head. “Don’t know, but it’s real bad. No one will say anything, ‘cept Uncle Nathan and Aunt Teresa are in there a lot. Now that Mrs. Barkley has come, too.”
Johnny let that information sink in. It had to be bad if Victoria had come all the way from Stockton at her age. Why hadn’t Bella told him? Why had she lied about how Scott was doing?
“With all them people helpin’ ‘im, your uncle’s gonna be okay.” Johnny gently jostled his son. “Believe me?”
“Good. Now you run along and help your Mama see to your cousins, okay?”
Robbie nodded and reluctantly got out of his father’s embrace.
“But wipe your face and blow your nose first,” Johnny yelled after him.
Johnny didn’t let on to Bella that he knew about Scott’s condition when she came in to see if he needed anything before giving him a goodbye kiss. He waited until he heard the carriage pull away from the hacienda before he slowly and carefully got out of bed in search of his pants and shirt. Getting dressed was awkward and pulled at some of his stitches, but he had a plan and, Lord knows, he was going to accomplish it before Conchita finished cleaning the breakfast dishes and came up to sit with him. Hearing Victoria’s and Audra’s voices coming from the great room, he snuck down the back staircase to Scott’s room. When he opened the door, he found only Teresa tending his brother. Johnny smiled to himself. Perfect. He could handle Teresa.
The room was dark and smelled of sickness, laudanum, and willow bark tea. Teresa was placing a wet towel on Scott’s forehead. She looked up and frowned at him.
“Johnny Lancer, what are you doing out of bed?” she scolded.
“Seein’ for myself how my brother’s doin’, seein’ how my own family’s been lyin’ to me about ‘im.”
She had the decency to blush, Johnny noted.
“We didn’t want to upset you. You needed your rest; you still do.”
Johnny looked at his brother and was shocked at what he saw. It was evident that the man was barely clinging to life. “And if he died while I was upstairs restin,’ would you even tell me? What’s wrong with ‘im? Tell me true, sister.” He knew what calling her “sister” did to her.
Teresa sighed. She loved it when Johnny called her “sister.” It was a rare event. She couldn’t resist doing whatever he wanted when he called her that. “He’s got a high fever that won’t quit. That’s the main thing. He’s already had one seizure because of it, and Nathan’s afraid he’ll have more. Seizures could damage his brain. The high fever can affect other things like straining his kidneys and his heart. He’s so weak. He’s not getting enough liquids in him. He throws up anything we give him.”
“Is one of his wounds infected?”
“We can’t find it if one is. Nathan thinks Scott got something infectious from the cougar’s mouth when he bit him.”
“Yeah, it got ‘im good on his shoulder. Had a hell of a time getting’ it off of ‘im.”
“And look what happened when you did.”
“Don’t try to make me feel bad about that, Teresa. You sayin’ you wouldn’t try to help Nathan if a cat got him?”
Teresa shook her head.
“I want to be alone with ‘im, please. Just give me some brother time with ‘im.”
“I don’t know,” she hesitated. “I don’t think Nathan would like it.”
“Well, Nathan ain’t here and I am! And tell Conchita not to bother me today. She has enough to do without having to tend to me, too.”
They glared at each other for some seconds before she capitulated. Johnny thought it was getting harder to manipulate her as she grew older.
“Don’t overdo, Johnny,” she cautioned him as she quietly let herself out of the room.
“We’re a pair now, aren’t we, brother?” Johnny said as he wet the cloth again and placed it back on Scott’s forehead. “But I’m getting better, so you have to, too, cuz I expect to have you in my life for many more years, you hear me? Now let me tell you how poorly your eldest is at cards. Kinda takes after his papa like that…”
Victoria was keeping vigil in Scott’s room. She was almost happy. Both Johnny and Scott were sleeping peacefully in the bed. Scott was on his right side, mostly on his stomach, with his left hand out toward Johnny. Johnny was mirroring Scott’s position, his right hand grasping his brother’s left. Victoria hadn’t seen Scott sleeping so deeply or serenely since she had arrived. Again, she was struck by how close these men were to one another. When she had snuck back into the room and found them like this, she was deeply touched. It was especially surprising because they hadn’t grown up together.
She was just about to nod off herself, when the door flew open and Isabella walked in. She looked down at the two sleeping men and a very deep frown appeared on her face. She looked disturbed to see them in such a position.
“They’re both resting very comfortably and have been for some time,” Victoria said softly.
“He needs to be in his own bed,” Bella said firmly. She walked around the bed and shook Johnny’s shoulder.
Victoria desperately wanted to tell her to stop, but Bella’s demeanor stopped her.
“Johnny! Wake up!”
As Johnny began to stir, Bella held forth with a stream of Spanish that clearly was a scolding.
Johnny reluctantly let go of Scott’s hand and climbed out of bed. He was only half awake and a bit disoriented, having been roused from such a sound sleep.
Bella continued her tirade as they headed for the door. Victoria intercepted them.
“Thank you, Johnny, for getting Scott to drink half a glass,” she said, nodding to the glass of water sitting by the bed.
Johnny grinned. “That’s his second glass. Got ‘im to drink a whole glass and a half.”
“And it stayed down?”
“God bless you, boy,” Victoria said as Johnny was hustled out of the room by his angry wife. God bless you, and save you from your wife, she thought wickedly. She didn’t know why Mexicans thought she didn’t know Spanish, but that little secret had served her well over the years. She knew exactly what Bella was saying and pitied poor Johnny, whose only crime was to love his brother. Bella wasn’t pleased that Johnny was in the same bed as Scott and she let him know it four different ways. What kind of man lies in the same bed with another man, she had ranted. That he was in Scott’s room seemed a worse infraction than his being out of his own. “He had a nightmare,” Johnny tried to explain as his wife marched him down the hall and out of Victoria’s earshot.
Audra wandered in from the adjoining room, where she had been resting. “Is everything alright?” she asked drowsily.
“Yes, dear. Scott’s sleeping soundly.”
Audra walked over to the bed and put her hand on Scott’s forehead. Her face slowly lit up. “His fever’s down, Mother!” she whispered.
Victoria rushed over to place her own hand on her son-in-law. “It feels almost normal,” Victoria whispered back. “Go get Teresa and the thermometer.”
Before Audra and Teresa returned, Scott slowly opened his eyes. “Mother?”
“How are you feeling, son?” Victoria asked.
Scott smiled a wan smile. “I’m hungry.”
Freshly bathed, shaved, and in a clean nightshirt, Scott tried to look as healthy and alert as he could. He didn’t want to worry the children. They filed in quietly and solemnly. Audra must have said something to them about being on their best behavior.
“Hello, my little ones! I’ve missed you,” Scott said as cheerily as he could. That seemed to relieve some of the tension.
“We’ve missed you, too, Dada,” Andy said as he crawled onto the bed and cuddled against his father.
Scott threw a protective arm around him. “So, what have you been doing while your Dada’s been a slug-a-bed?” he asked his youngest.
“Some chickens escaped from the coop today and Juanita and I chased them all over the place until we could get them back into their home. And Rascal had her puppies, and I’ve been playing with them and watching out for them. Mateo says bad things can happen to puppies in a barn. A horse could step on them or something.”
“I’m sure Rascal appreciates the help, little one.” Scott ruffled the beautiful red hair.
Jordan looked on in envy. He wished he were young enough to be the one on the bed with Da right now. It was strange. Most days he wanted to be older than Ian, but sometimes he wished he were seven like Andy again. He half listened as Katie Vee showed Da her doll with the new dress that she had sewn herself. Da complimented her on her fine sewing skills, even though Jordan thought the dress looked pretty raggedy.
Then Da was looking at him expectantly. “Did you finish Treasure Island yet? Did the pirates find the gold?”
Jordan shook his head. Didn’t Da remember they were going to read it together? “I started another book. I want to read Treasure Island with you, remember?”
Scott smiled at him. “I remember. What book are you reading now?”
“The Three Musketeers. Grampa had it in his library. ‘Course, it’s in English.”
“Are you liking it?”
“Most parts. Sometimes I’m not quite sure what’s going on.”
“Well, as soon as I get a little better, we’ll talk about it and see where you’re stuck. There are a lot of characters and it’s easy to get confused.”
There was some time in silence. Jordan thought Ian must know he was next to tell Da about what he was up to, but his older brother just stood there at the end of the bed, apart from everyone else, with a stupid look on his face.
“Ian?” Mama prompted.
“I just been helpin’ out around the ranch, around the house.” Ian’s voice was flat.
Scott cringed at Ian’s speech. He was picking up Johnny’s ways of talking. This wasn’t the time to correct his eldest’s grammar, though. He didn’t have the energy for managing an angry Ian.
“That’s a lie, Ian Thomas, and you know it,” Katie scolded. “He’s always up in Uncle Johnny’s room playing cards or off with Robbie,” she tattled.
“Catherine Victoria!” Audra admonished.
Scott smiled. This was more like normal with his children. He sighed. The effort to appear cheerful and on the mend was taking its toll. How could just taking a bath and shaving be so enervating?
Audra noticed. “Alright, everyone, you’ve seen your father, so let’s let him rest some more.”
Reluctantly the younger three of the brood started toward the door. Jordan surreptitiously laid a note on his father’s bedside table.
As the rest of the children left, Scott stuck out his hand and stopped Ian. “Son, I just want to thank you for all you did at the cabin. You should be so proud of the way you handled yourself there. You’re turning into a fine young man.”
Ian slumped and then wrenched his arm out of his father’s weak grasp. He didn’t want to cry in front of Da, not when he wanted Da to think of him as grown up enough to stay at Lancer all by himself. He quickly strode from the room. He wasn’t proud of himself, not when he had asked Uncle Johnny to be his Da. He couldn’t look at his father. Surely his betrayal was written all over his face. He brushed brusquely past his mother and left the house. He needed to go for a ride.
Scott was baffled. Would he ever begin to understand Ian again? How had he upset him by thanking him and saying he was growing up to be a fine young man? Why should Ian be unhappy with him for that?
He spied a piece of paper on the bedside table that hadn’t been there before.
Audra walked back into the bedroom and found Scott reading a note. “What’s that?” she asked, sitting on the bed next to her husband. She wiped a lock of hair off his forehead.
“It’s a poem,” he said delightedly. “Jordan left it for me.” He handed it to her.
My father’s arms
When he holds me tight
“It’s lovely. Not your typical poem,” Audra commented.
“We’ve been learning about different kinds of poetry. I think he’s trying his hand at a Japanese kind called haiku. It’s not strictly to form, but I love it anyway.”
“You love anything that boy writes,” she chided him gently.
“True. I need to encourage him,” Scott defended himself. “How else is he going to win the heart of the most beautiful girl in California like his father did without poetry?” He kissed Audra’s hand.
Audra laughed, the first laugh she’d had since Scott had been injured. She bent down to kiss his lips when her mother burst through the door.
“Well, I see you must be feeling better, Scott!” Victoria exclaimed, a wry smile on her face.
“Go away, Mother!” Audra and Scott said at the same time.
Victoria Barkley discreetly retreated.
The hacienda was returning to its usual busy pace. Victoria and Heath left for Stockton a week ago, leaving very grateful Lancers in their wake. Nathan pronounced both Johnny and Scott well enough to leave their rooms but forbade them to do any work whatsoever for another few days. That was fine with Scott, although Johnny chafed at the restriction. Nathan had taken a weary Teresa back to town with him, not intending to come back unless called on. Now Scott and Johnny sat recuperating in the shade of the veranda, Johnny’s constantly busy hands braiding leather strips into a bridle for Esperanza. Scott was content to do nothing but slowly nurse his tall glass of lemonade. They were deep in discussion about the future of the ranch. Scott was making a case for reducing the number of cattle to ten thousand, thus freeing up more land that could be used for cash crops rather than for alfalfa and grazing.
Johnny rolled his eyes. They already took a bunch of land for the vineyard and the orchards. They were hiring more farmers than cowboys these days.
“Face it, Johnny. With land as fertile as this, farming is going to be the wave of the future,” Scott persisted.
“No way I’m turnin’ Lancer into a farm! This is a cattle and horse breedin’ ranch and always will be!”
“Oh, my God, Johnny! You sound just like Murdoch!”
The two men looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“I guess Hell just froze over,” Johnny sputtered. He looked out toward the arch. “The boys are back.”
The healthier of the two men, Johnny rose and walked into the courtyard to greet their sons. Scott’s knee was still paining him some and he still tired very easily. Ian and Robbie looked relaxed and happy. Scott wished Ian could look that way more often. Johnny talked to them briefly, then they dismounted and led their mounts into the barn.
“Where’d they go?”
“They were helping Too Tall with the herd. Came back to eat.”
“Didn’t we take our lunches with us?” Scott asked archly.
“Yeah, but we were all grown up and knew better when we came out here,” Johnny explained. “Plus, it looked like Robbie fell in a mudhole. He’ll need to change if Bella sees ‘im like that.”
“How’d Ian look?”
“Clean enough for Sunday services, which means he prob’ly didn’t do a lick of work,” Johnny joked.
Scott laughed. “I leave it to you to interrogate him about that.”
“Aw, I ain’t gonna do that. Ian’s a real fine worker, Scott,” Johnny said earnestly. “You should know that about ‘im.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“Your boy loves this ranch,” Johnny said quietly, wanting to see Scott’s reaction. Would Ian be staying here when the rest of the family went back to San Francisco?
“I know. It wouldn’t surprise me if he moved in with you and Bella.”
Johnny smiled. His brother didn’t miss much. “I don’t think I’d mind, brother.”
A while later, the boys emerged from the barn. Johnny intercepted them on their way to the house. He detained Ian for a few seconds and then grabbed Robbie affectionately around the neck and dragged the boy into the hacienda.
Scott was surprised to see Ian head toward him. Lately, his son went in the other direction.
“Have a seat,” Scott offered. When Ian sat, he said, “Sip of lemonade?” He offered Ian his half full glass. Ian took a big gulp. They sat in silence for a while, but Scott could tell the boy was working up to something. He tried to sit as patiently as he could.
“Can I talk to you about something?”
“You can talk to me about anything, son.”
Ian started to fidget. “Well, I was wondering…um, about…um…”
“Just say it, Ian. I won’t bite.”
“Yes, you will, when I tell you.”
Now Scott was even more apprehensive. “Spit it out, boy!”
“Um…I don’t want to go back to San Francisco with you and Mama. I want to stay here and be a rancher at Lancer.”
Well, there it was out in the open, what Scott had suspected. He took a deep breath to remain calm. His first-born wanting to leave the nest already! “What does your uncle say about that plan?”
“He said to ask you first.”
So, Ian had already discussed this with Johnny! Of course, he had! Scott didn’t know how to feel about that. He pushed that to the side to concentrate on his son. Ian must be serious about it if he felt strong enough to bother his uncle with it. Is this what his sullen mood had been about? “I see. You know I expect you to go to the University of California after you graduate next year.”
“I know, Da, but I don’t want to. I’m not good with all that reading and writing like you and Jordan. I don’t care about literature and history and such.”
“Cal is a land grant university, not liberal arts like Harvard. You could study things that would be very useful here, like animal husbandry or agriculture or economics.”
Ian sighed heavily. “I knew you weren’t going to understand.”
“Then explain it to me.”
Ian hemmed and hawed. “I can’t. I just know it’s what I want to do.”
“You know I only want what’s best for you…”
“No, you don’t!” Ian interrupted. “If you did, you’d let me stay here and be a rancher with Uncle Johnny and Robbie. It’s what I really want to do. I want to spend the rest of my life here. I know it, Da. Lancer is home for me. You need to understand that.”
Scott was surprised at the intensity in his son’s voice. It was actually rather refreshing to hear his usually laconic boy so passionate. He hadn’t heard Ian string together that many words to him for some time. But he did understand how Ian felt. He had fallen in love with the place as soon as he’d seen it twenty years ago when Teresa had stopped the carriage and proclaimed it the most beautiful place on Earth. After he and Johnny had defeated Pardee, he’d wanted nothing more than to stay at Lancer and be a rancher next to his brother. But life had thrown that dream into the burn barrel, and that was what his son didn’t understand. Fifteen. Didn’t boys feel invincible and immortal at that age? There would be no Civil War for Ian to discover how fragile and vulnerable humans are at any age.
“I understand that more than you know, Ian,” Scott said just as passionately. “That was my dream, too, and you see how well that turned out. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to, but I had a college education to fall back on and that served me well. All I’m asking is that you consider that. Lancer will be here for you after college.”
“I told Uncle Johnny that you wouldn’t understand.” Anger crept into Ian’s voice for the first time. “I’m not a little kid anymore, Da.”
“But you’ve not come of age yet either, so it’s not your decision to make,” Scott retorted just as sharply. Then he calmed himself. “You’ve sprung this on me suddenly, son. Give me some time to think on it.”
“Da, I’m really serious about this. I’m intent on it,” said Ian with an almost threatening tone. Then he rose, but his father’s hand pulled him back down.
“I’m thinking on it,” Scott said, and Ian tried to wait without fidgeting. He was trying to act like an adult, so he needed to wait without tapping his feet or shifting around in his seat.
Just before he thought he would die from the waiting, Da said, “This is how it will be,” and Ian knew that all wheedling, negotiating, pleading, and pouting were done. This was what Da always said when he’d made a decision from which he wouldn’t budge. From this moment forward, the discussion was closed.
“You will come home to San Francisco with us and finish your last year at Boy’s High.” Scott saw Ian’s face fall. “Then next summer, your aunt and uncle willing, we’ll leave you here after our visit to start learning the ropes, as it were, at the ranch.”
Ian had gone from the depths of despair to the highest elation at his father’s words.
“Let me tell you how I made the decision, Ian. I couldn’t be happier that you want to make Lancer your home. When I die, my share of the ranch will pass on to you; however, I don’t want that bequeathal to make you stay here if, after a time, you decide ranching is not what you want or if circumstances cause you to be unable to stay, as was the case with me. If you want to do something else, I’ll divide my share of the ranch among all of you children. As to going to university, Cal will always be there as an option for you if you decide you need further education. There’s no age limit to who can attend classes, so there’s no reason you have to go right out of high school.”
Ian sat there a bit stunned. Da was going to let him be a rancher! He could wait a year for it to happen. So this was what Uncle Johnny meant by “the art of compromise.” He’d give in by going back and finishing high school and Da gave in about insisting that he go to university right away. This was a compromise he could live with. What had Uncle Johnny said? His father was a reasonable man. Yes, his father was a reasonable man; he had reasons for why he acted the way he did and believed the things he believed. It was a trait worth emulating. He needed to act and think more like Da. “Thank you, Da.”
“Then it’s settled.” Scott was surprised Ian hadn’t tried to get his own way again. Maybe the boy had grown into a young man during this stressful summer.
“Yes, sir,” Ian agreed enthusiastically. “But what will Mama say?”
“I’ll take care of your mother. She’ll see it my way,” Scott said confidently.
Ian had no doubt that in the end his mother would agree; Da made the final decisions on things like this. But he knew it wasn’t always an easy road to get Mama to see things Da’s way.
Scott thought Ian would jump up and run into the house, but he sat there quietly for a few minutes. He was working up his courage to say something again. Scott didn’t know whether he was ready to hear it.
Scott looked into his eldest son’s light blue eyes. “Hmm?”
Ian looked back at his father’s calm face. Always so calm! Uncle Johnny had called him one of the bravest men he’d ever met, and Ian thought he was, too. He had medals from his time in the War, he was the Hero of Sacramento, and he had saved Uncle Johnny’s life at the cabin with one steady shot. “I just want to say, I mean, what I want to say is, well…I’m so proud to be your son.”
Scott smiled. He was definitely ready to hear those words from this boy, the first of four infants he had held in his arms and fallen irrevocably in love with. “I love you, Ian Thomas.”
Ian didn’t care that he was fifteen years old and basically a man. He reached over and flung his arms around his father’s neck and whispered, “I love you, too, Dada.”
Scott finished securing the luggage while Murdoch got Audra and the children into the carriage. Murdoch kissed and hugged all his grandchildren goodbye and then turned toward Scott.
“Thank you again for all your hospitality,” Scott said formally. It was what he said after all their visits to the estancia. He’d almost added the “sir” he was so indoctrinated into saying. He still had to catch himself even after all these years, unable to totally break himself of that habit with his father.
Murdoch heard it anyway in his head, but somehow it didn’t irk him the way it did those many years ago. He looked at his elder son, still a bit peaked from his ordeal, and saw Catherine’s eyes, as he always did. But this time they didn’t remind him of his beloved’s death or Harlan’s visage. This time, they reminded him that his first-born son was alive, very much alive after nearly dying. He grabbed Scott into a tight hug. “You take care of yourself, Scott. I love you, son. I love you more than God’s green Earth. I always have and I always will,” he whispered.
Scott was stunned that his father said the words out loud. “I…I love you, too, Father,” he whispered back.
Murdoch pushed away and gripped Scott’s biceps, his eyes moist with tears. “Can you ever forgive me, son? I can’t tell you how much I regret those awful words I said. If I could take them back, I would in a heartbeat. Can you ever forgive a foolish, stubborn old man like me?”
“Yes,” Scott said simply. “Don’t feel ashamed anymore. Let’s move forward from here.”
Murdoch realized that Scott had heard his bedside confession and had forgiven him for everything. Just like that! Forgiven! He was his mother’s son: he had Catherine’s merciful nature. Why hadn’t he seen that so many years ago before he said those vicious things to this gentle man? He pulled Scott into another crushing hug. “God bless ye. God bless ye, son, and Godspeed ye to a safe journey home.” Murdoch’s voice cracked on the last words. He released Scott and abruptly walked away, a hand swiping at his eyes.
The emergence of his father’s Scottish burr made the words sound even more heartfelt. Scott stood there for a few seconds until Johnny said, “Get a move on, brother, or we’re gonna be late for that train!”
Scott turned to the carriage. “Ian, you ride up with your Uncle Johnny while I sit next to your mother.”
“Yes, sir!” Ian jumped out happily and scrambled up to sit next to his uncle, while Scott clumsily seated himself next to his beautiful wife. Andy clambered onto his lap and snuggled into his chest.
“How do you feel?” Audra asked him. She was almost in tears from her father-in-law’s uncharacteristic show of affection toward her husband.
“I’m fine,” Scott said quickly, thinking she was only inquiring about his knee with Andy in his lap. He held his youngest tight to him and kissed the top of his head. He looked across at his precious daughter, still grasping Essie’s hand and promising to write. He looked over at Jordan, who gazed back at him somberly, Treasure Island on his lap. Apparently, this son had kept vigil outside his room while he was sick. The devotion humbled him. Jordan’s poem was safely tucked into the inside pocket of his jacket, close to his heart. Scott smiled and gave the quiet boy a wink. Jordan grinned back. He saw Ian’s strong, straight back and broad shoulders sitting next to his brother, his extraordinary brother. His bond with Johnny had grown even stronger this summer.
Johnny threw him a wicked glance and handed the reins over to Ian. As the carriage lurched forward, everyone shouted their goodbyes. Scott could hear Johnny giving Ian instructions on how to handle the team of horses laughingly, lovingly. Audra slipped her arm through his and he found himself grinning like a lunatic. How did he feel?
Very, very blessed…and loved.
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or Email Ron directly.