Light Rain by Ronnie

Word Count – 40,040

Light Rain – Chapter 1 – Who Stands Out

Johnny stretched, decided too late it wasn’t a good idea as the stitches pulled in his back.  The pillows helped to chase the irritation, plus the lemonade although it could use a shot of tequila.  He wasn’t much of a cookie man, but managed to toss at least a half dozen down in the last 15 minutes.  Maybe, just maybe, he’d stick around.  For a while anyway.  See how the old man shook out.  Johnny figured more than gruff and prickle was underneath that stone face.  He’d seen it.  Quick, but it was there.

His brother walked across the yard to the barn.  Walked, hell.  With those long legs it was more of a – what were those horses called that raced with gaits that stretched and landed before you knew it?  Walkers?  The first name had a hint of the South like Kentucky or Carolina.  Tennessee.  That was it.  Smooth they were, like a hot summer-day river.  A bit out of place in the grungy border towns but still something to see.  Just like Scott mucking in cow crap and stinkin’ creeks.

It was bone color, the horse he’d seen.  Some rich bastardo of a Frenchman bragged it could beat any animal that dared run against it.  Mexicali was a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is kind of dirt hole, and the Frenchy took it all.  Damn, but that animal could run.  Mane caught up with the wind and trailed white silk, hooves barely touched the ground.  It was a hard truth that left mustangs, Arabs, Quarters and every other mix of nag following its flowing tail.

Johnny took another look.  Was his brother like that?  That was a jam, this brother thing.  Especially something like the frilly dude that dirt wouldn’t dare cling to.  Even now, as grimy as Scott was, he looked neat.

“You need anything, Johnny?”

Jumping didn’t help the twist in his back. Stitches definitely needed to come out.  They were more of a problem now than the wound itself.  He looked up at his father.  Now that was a new word to play with.  For a big man, the old guy could sure move quick.

“No Murdoch.  Unless you got a bottle of Mexican worm in your pocket, I’m fine.”

“I could probably dig up something a bit stronger than lemonade if you want.  But no tequila, I’m afraid.  Or mezcal.  I’ll, uh, pick some up the next time I’m in town.”

Murdoch rubbed the side of his nose and Johnny wondered if he was embarrassed at not having the booze requested.

“Don’t bother.  I’m sure one of the vaqueros has some packed away if I asked.”

“No need.  I think I can manage to supply you with anything you need.”

 “They wouldn’t mind.”

“I would.”

Johnny tilted his head to this giant of a man.  A chasm sliced across the rock of his mouth.  Damn, he was proud, no arguing that.  Obviously he didn’t want his son mooching off the hired help.

“You sending soldier boy somewhere?”  Scott was talking to Cipriano while a nice looking sorrel picked at his shoulder.   Scott stepped away and gave the animal a light swat.  It snorted, pulled back on the reins and shook its head.

“He’s going to Green River.  We haven’t been able to get the mail for weeks.”

“All alone?”  Johnny wasn’t sure why that bothered him.

“He’ll run right into it from the east road.  He won’t get lost.”

It wasn’t any of his business what the old man did with the eastern boy.  Why did he even care?

“You have something to say about that?”  Murdoch’s tone was edgy.  Didn’t take much to rankle the old guy.

“Hmm.  Just thinking if all of Pardee’s men are out of the area.  Might be some looking for … a reason to make a few bucks.  Or revenge.”

“How could they make a few bucks?”

Johnny snorted.  “Come on, Murdoch.  You never heard of a snatch and swap?”

“A what?”

“Snatch someone worth a few bucks to someone and swap for … whatever.  Usually money.  Anything of value.”

“That doesn’t happen here.”

“Does where I come from.”  Johnny let that information sink in.  “Hell, they’d kill for a rooster to cook down Sonora way.  I’d say old golden boy there would be worth a few old birds.”

The granite jaw worked a bit, eyes squinted like he was going to get a headache just thinking about it.

Enjoying egging his father on, Johnny couldn’t help himself.  “Hell, Murdoch.  Look at him.  No way he looks like a ranch hand that’s been carrying a month of stink.  Even dirty.  Once he opens his mouth and starts spouting words bigger than the state of California, someone’s gonna figure he’s worth something.”

It wouldn’t take much more, just a bit of a nudge.  Johnny bet Murdoch couldn’t see anything through the hard slit of his eyes.  “Someone might try to squash him just because … he’s different.  You know,” Johnny turned full to Murdoch, “Pardee has a brother somewhere.”  Johnny figured that would do it, and it did.

“Scott!”

Johnny jumped at the bellow.  He could have sworn Scott’s horse did too.  He’d have to admit Scott was pretty cool and calm as he turned Murdoch’s way.  With a hard thrust of that strong arm Murdoch motioned to Scott.

Scott took his sweet time coming, finished a few words with Cip, then curled his long fingers around the reins and strolled over.  Didn’t seem like he was willing to be ordered around like a dog.

“Sir.  I was just about to leave for Green River.”

“Take someone with you.  Isidro.”

Well, good to see this know-it-all eastern fancy could be puzzled.  Johnny thought the wrinkle between his eyes even looked like the old man’s.

“You gave me excellent directions.  I should be able to find it without any problems.”

“I don’t want you going alone.”

What would Scott say to that?  Johnny stared at his brother, trying to hold back a grin.

“I’m perfectly capable …”

“It was agreed I call the tune,” Murdoch clipped.  “Take Isidro.”

A little war grumbled across Scott’s face.  Would he or wouldn’t he follow orders?   Johnny didn’t know him well enough so had no idea what he would do.

“May I ask why?”  Even in a dirty work shirt with a splotch of brown-who-knows-what smeared across his cheek, he looked all spit and polish.  Dang.  How did he do it?

Murdoch sucked in a deep breath.  Johnny could see a vein pulse just a bit more on the side of his neck.

“We don’t know if all of Pardee’s men have left the area.  I think it wise that no one works alone for the next few weeks.”

“I see.  And yet just at breakfast you didn’t seem to think it was a problem.  Has something developed?”

“Your brother mentioned something to me that makes sense.”

Damn, his father was giving him up.  Scott turned grey eyes at him, colder than a dead sky in winter.  “And what was that?”

“Just that.  Some of Pardee’s gang may still be around.”

Scott bowed his head, seemed to be studying the dirt like he’d not seen it before, then shot a glare at his father sharp enough to be a bullet.  “Cipriano just left for the Conway Ranch — alone.”

Now what?  Would Murdoch explode, explain, what?  Johnny didn’t want to care one way or the other what Scott thought, and was irritated that he did.

“Until you get used to the area, know our neighbors, are familiar with the people, I prefer for now that you take someone with you.  You’re not used to the … environment.  And they are not used to you.”

Scott pursed his lips, nodded slightly, and looked from one man to the other.  The wheels were churning, that was for sure.  “In other words, I am an evident green horn who does not belong.”

“Well, Boston.  You have to admit you stand out from the normal cow hand.  Know what I mean?”

“Said the man in the pink shirt with the embroidered flowers.”

The snort got away from him.  Johnny gave it up to a laugh and shrugged his shoulders.  “Difference is, people know better than to bother me.”

Scott’s lips curled into a snarky smile.  “Your reputation?  Or is it the glamour of your … pretty pink wardrobe?”

If Johnny could have, he would have paid back the solid crack to his jaw that Scott had given him days ago.

“Regardless,” Murdoch snapped, poking a hole in Johnny’s revenge – for the moment.  “Take Isidro with you.  No arguments.”  Murdoch spied Isidro and bellowed his name.  “Go to town with Scott.”

“Si, Patron.”  He mounted his horse, ready to do whatever Murdoch told him.

“Why not Teresa?”  Scott moved his chilly eyes to Murdoch.  “She was my escort the first time I went to Moro Coyo.  I handled three members of the welcoming committee then without problems.”  His eyes slid to Johnny.  “Or without help.”

Dang it the man had guts.  Or stupid.  He stood his ground though, not backing down from the mad that was plastered all over Murdoch’s mug.   Johnny didn’t think Murdoch would take a swing, but who knew?

“Teresa went without my knowledge.  You know the agreement,” Murdoch ground out.  Johnny swore he could hear teeth gnashing.  “Your choice to honor it.”

Honor.  That probably sliced sharp into a nerve or two.  Isn’t that what soldiering was all about? At least to the man who photographed well.  Scott swallowed – hard, but kept his mouth shut.

Murdoch glanced down at Johnny.  “I’ll be back in an hour to help you back in the house.”

“I don’t need …”  Murdoch didn’t give Johnny time to disagree.  Damn, all he needed was the stitches out.  He’d do it himself if he could reach.  Johnny huffed and sank back into his chair.

“It appears the tune caller has called – to both of us.”

Johnny wouldn’t have minded giving that smirk something to unsmirk about.  All he could manage was a dirty look.

“Well.  I’d best get my baby sitter.  I must say, I prefer mine over yours.”

“You’re funny, Scott.  But.”  Johnny relaxed his face and grinned.  “I bet he’d let me go to Green River alone.”

“And I suspect I have you to thank for that.”  Scott looked to his left where Isidro waited.  “Another time, little brother.  Another time.”  He slapped his fine leather gloves against his leg, mounted his horse and rode with Isidro out of the compound.

Little brother.  That was a dig, for sure.  He’d get big brother back for that remark.  Soon.  Brother.  He thought on that a while.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.  Give the old man a few weeks, this brother thing too.  See how it worked out.  Hell, Scott had pulled him into cover, killed Pardee.  Yeah, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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Light Rain – Chapter 2 –Discovery

The rhythmic sway of his mount tempered his irritation.  Plus the heat of the day nudged it to something less important.  Sweat trickled down his neck, soaked a narrow line down his shirt, past his belt and into his back end.  How could a man sweat in that area of his body?  Something just wasn’t right about that.  Not even the heat of a Southern campaign or imprisonment seemed as … wet.  But then, he had been half dead in prison and unaware of a lot of things.

 Isidro rode beside him, quiet, maybe sensing his mood.  Scott sighed, realized there was no reason to give Isidro the silent treatment.  Wasn’t his fault his father decided to pull the I-call-the-tune card.  His father – now that was another bleak road to wander down – something Scott decided to push away for now.

“How long have you worked at Lancer, Isidro?”  No reason not to talk, Scott decided.  Besides, maybe he could learn something about the man many of the workers appeared so loyal to.

“Ten years, no eleven.  My Angelina was carrying little Carmelita.  And we had two little boys by the hand.  Your papa, I think he felt sorry for us.”

“Why do you think that?  You’re a very capable man.”

Isidro swung his head at Scott and smiled.  “Your papa did not need another hand.  He saw two little boys and another child on the way.  No.  He did not need us.”

“So, there was no work?”

“It was November!  Cold, rainy.  The cattle had been sold that needed to be, no crops to harvest or ground to turn.  There were plenty of men on the ranchero to get through the winter.”

Shaking his head and sweeping his eyes across the August-brown hills, he said, “No work for a vaquero.  That is my trabajo; what my papa did and my abuelo.   So he gave me a paintbrush and I whitewashed the outhouse, the chicken coop, anything wood.  Even the trusses in the attic.  Who paints attics?”

“You did not find the work  … demeaning?”  Even the short time Scott had been at Lancer he knew the pride cowhands took in their work.  Skill was needed to control a horse and maneuver stock to where you wanted them to go.  He was just learning how hard it was to push a wayward cow in a certain direction when they were determined to go the opposite way.

Laughter sprung from Isidro and wrinkled the corners of his eyes.  “Not with a wife, two little ones and another on the way.  A man must first provide for his family, whatever the work may be.  And your father,” Isidro shook a finger at Scott as if to make the point stronger, “your father did not need wood painted.  No.”

“Is that why you stayed when so many others left?”

“Si.  One of the reasons.  Senor Lancer is a fair man, pays well but expects a good day’s work.  And I made sure he would never be disappointed in hiring me.”

No question about that in Scott’s mind.  Isidro’s loyalty had been more than proved with Day Pardee and his men.

An angry buzz distracted Scott as he swapped at a huge flying insect.  Did all things grow larger in California?  He thought of his father – no, can’t be California.  Maybe Scotsmen were naturally big.  As Scott contemplated the size of his father, his horse lurched when the giant bug landed on one of the sensitive ears, almost unseating him.  Isidro’s hand reached out to catch the reins but Scott quickly had the animal under control.

“You are a good horseman.  With that jump many would have tumbled to the ground.”

“My grandfather made sure I could handle a horse.  I was in competition as a boy.  Won a few equestrian trophies.”  Scott was relieved at the change in subject.  He found it damn difficult to contemplate the charity of his father going to a stranger when he hadn’t bothered to contact his own son.  Not willing at this point to forgive the neglect, he wasn’t prepared for the shame of begrudging the kindness extended to a poor vaquero and his family.

“Ah, what is equestrian, Senor Scott?”

“It’s a competition of horsemanship, Isidro.  You’re judged on how well you manage the horse through various obstacles like water, bridges, or jumps.  The saddle is English, much smaller than those used here in the West.  Very different, but regardless the point is to handle the horse with grace and confidence.”

“I see, as you did Johnny’s animal when you jumped the fence.”

“Well, yes, but I will admit that it wasn’t the smartest thing to do.  Not knowing the animal, its strengths and abilities, I could have just as well landed on my ass.  I’m afraid I’d never have lived that down, aside from the fact I could have cracked my head open.”

“Then why?”

Scott almost chuckled at the perplexed look on Isidro’s face.  Why indeed.  “I guess I had something to prove.”

“Ah, I was a young man also senor.  Young men are not always wise, especially if their machismo is challenged.”

“Machismo?”

“Si.  Your strength, your manhood.”  Isidro threw his arms wide as if that was the most important thing in the world.  “But,” he said as if ready to contradict what he had just announced, “you learn as you grow older it is not so important to prove to others.  You know it in your heart.  Hey?”

Scott shrugged his shoulders, and felt his face blush warm.  “My brother’s attitude, his cockiness, maybe his machismo as you call it, was more than I could accept.   I don’t know.  I had the distinct feeling he thought me … frivolous.”

“I don’t understand frivolous.”

“Someone who has no comprehension of what he is getting himself into, more of a detriment than asset.  Now, I might not have knowledge of western customs, but he could have given me the benefit of the doubt.”

“Ah, I don’t think your brother gives much benefit to anyone until he knows who you are.  But you proved him wrong, Senor.  Your plan was a good one to distract the bandidos.  You and your brother do not think alike.”

“That is an understatement, Isidro.”  Scott chuckled at the obvious.  “So,” he ventured, “have you ever heard of my brother?  I mean, of Johnny Madrid?”

“No, and yes.  Senor Johnny lived around the border towns between our two countries.  I was from much farther south, the state of Colima.  But others on the estancia have heard of your brother and his reputation.  And, of course, your papa would sometimes go away for weeks at a time to look for him. Then Senor O’Brien was in charge.   We all knew why the Patron was gone.”

That was information Scott hadn’t heard before.  From what he knew, Johnny’s life had not been an easy one so didn’t fault the effort his father took in trying to find him.  Still, he had a son waiting for him in Boston.  Why hadn’t he made any attempt to bring him to Lancer?

Feelings came back that Scott thought were long dead.  He had willed his hatred for his father into indifference but was surprised how easily it resurfaced at that disastrous first meeting.  If he hadn’t been so stubborn, he would have taken the $1,000, given it to charity, and boarded the first train back to Boston.  But there was nothing in Boston except women and wine.  Well, he had to admit that wasn’t all bad, except he couldn’t lose himself in that for the rest of his life.  He smiled at how everything became so complicated, the biggest one being Johnny.  He wondered if his grandfather knew of his brother’s existence.    

“But, perhaps I say too much.  Your papa should be the one to tell you about your hermano.”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll say nothing about our conversation to my father.”  The muffled clump of the horses’ hooves on the dry road was almost soothing, making Scott feel easy and strangely, wanting to share.  In the short time they’d been together, he trusted Isidro, felt comfortable with the man.   “But you must understand why I am so curious,” Scott said, “I didn’t know my brother existed.”

“Yes, yes.  That is so unfortunate.  In my culture, family is importante.”  Isidro looked over at him, understanding and sympathy on his face.  “Your papa is pleased you are here, comprende?”

“Really?”  He didn’t know what else to say.  Did his father truly care that much after his sons gave them their guts and defeated Pardee?  Granted, it was plain that when Johnny tumbled from his horse with Pardee’s bullet, Murdoch had mustered what seemed to be genuine concern.  For one moment the preposterous thought that his giant father may be afraid of them, of showing that he cared, popped into his mind.  And just as quickly he dismissed it.  His father didn’t seem to be afraid of anything.

“Oh, si.  But both at the same time?”  Isidro shook his head several times.  “That was a surprise.  But you saw how we cheered your arrival.  The sons, the sons!  Now things would be better.  I can almost see the smile on your papa’s face when you entered the estancia.  Yes?”

Scott was beyond speechless.  “Uhm.  No smile Isidro, but he did offer us a drink.”  He gave the man an encouraging grin hoping to stop any further discussion of the first time he met his father.  After all, I was born, left with my mother’s family, and Murdoch admitted to being daft.  With Johnny’s drinking only with people he knew and telling his old man to get to the point, it had been all so very … interesting.

Isidro nodded as if understanding.  And maybe he did.  “Your papa can seem very hard at times, but he’s had to be.  He did not build this ranchero by, how you say, softness?  But he is a man of great fuerza, strength.”

“He certainly is that.  He is a large man physically.”

“Ah.  But he is more than that.  He is strong in his – backbone.  Valor.  Sometimes my English is not so good.”

“Your English is very good.  And you know him much better than I do.”  It was obvious that Isidro had much faith in and respect for Murdoch Lancer.   And that was one reason why Scott didn’t leave.  If a humble man, who had worked hard all of his life to provide first for his family and remained at Lancer’s side endangering his own life, than there was a part of his father he desperately wanted to know.  Was there honor in a man who would abandon his child?  Scott had to find out.

“But, back to my brother.  Do you know anything about him?  I must admit the only thing I know about gunfighters is from penny dreadfuls I read as a child.”

“What is a penny dread?”

“Pure fiction, Isidro.  Stories, fantasies really, that writers make up to inspire eager boys and titillate naive maids about the romance of the west and its perilous characters.  They sell well though, making fortunes for their creators.”

“I don’t know about such things.  But they are dangerous men, these hombres who make a living with their guns.”

Scott turned an eye on Isidro and softly asked, “You think my brother dangerous?”

Scott sensed Isidro’s reluctance to confirm the question.  For some reason, Scott didn’t want to believe his brother was a cold-blooded killer.  He wanted Johnny to be more than that.  Unexplainably he was drawn to him despite the fact his brother thought him ‘frivolous’.   The easy sway, rough charm and confidence that Johnny presented without pretense.  He was who he was without apology.  Besides, they had a father to conquer and could possibly accomplish it – together.

After several moments Isidro finally spoke.  “I think your brother a very dangerous man.”

“You don’t have to be afraid of what you tell me Isidro.  I know, or at least I think I know what he is capable of.”

Isidro appeared reluctant to say more.  Finally, he continued.  “There are people with black hearts, pistoleros you walk around, never meet their eyes.  You make sure your women do not leave their homes when these men are about.  They are without mercy.   But, some of your papa’s vaqueros, they say your brother also helped the peasants, almost died for them.  You must decide what he is, senor.  He is your hermano.  Si?  But Senor Johnny is also a man of courage, as are you.”

Scott thought about Isidro’s words.  Which one was his brother?  People can be both good and bad, but a black heart that offers pity?  Scott didn’t believe it.  He’d seen too many in the war on both sides that relished the gore and cruelty.  Johnny didn’t ride down that hill on the day of Pardee’s attack out of greed for the ranch.  He was an easy target and must have realized he could be killed.  Possessing a whole nation doesn’t do a dead man any good.  No, he came back for something that maybe Johnny didn’t even understand.  Scott would definitely have to think on the quandary of a callous killer who was willing to die for poor peasants and a tall old man he didn’t even know.

Before them lay Green River, a mass of shimmering heat in the valley, so talk turned to where the coldest beer was served, and how long they could extend collecting the mail before returning to Lancer.

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*****

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“Hey handsome, what dream did you spring from?”                             

The dark-haired woman was definitely beautiful, in a rough sort of way, and Scott tipped his hat to the balcony full of femininity.  “Ladies.”

“Oh, Lucille, he’s a gentleman on top of good looking.  What’s your name cowboy?  We’ve time to find out if you have.”

The other women laughed and flirted, one almost pushing her breasts entirely out of her well-filled dress.  Scott felt his body respond to the soft, voluptuous sight and hoped no one noticed.  He squeezed his thighs together as much as possible given he was straddling a saddle, and looked away.

“Isidro!   Who’s the shy boy?”

“Yes, Isidro.  Tell him we won’t hurt him.  We love golden-haired men.”

They giggled, a rainbow of blondes, brunettes and red heads, their teasing both embarrassing and flattering.

“Pay them no mind, Senor.”

Still, Isidro’s hand came up in gentle acknowledgement as they continued past the saloon.  The sound of their laughter trailed after them, lilting with boredom in the hot afternoon.

Scott cleared his throat as he felt his body relax.  “Quite a collection of ladies.  And how do they seem to know you?”  Scott couldn’t resist teasing the serious man, but surmised there was a good reason they knew his name, and not because Isidro was a customer.

If a man could blush like a young girl, Isidro proved it.  “Ah.  My son.  I had to drag him out of the house of the women by his ear.  He thought he was old enough.  His mama.  She made the memory not a good one when I got him home.”

Scott could only imagine.  He’d met Angelina and if she had been born a man, would have made a formidable drill sergeant.  It wasn’t so long ago that Scott couldn’t remember those yearnings of a growing young boy.  But then, he still had them so what was a man, or a boy, to do?  The only plus is that maturity brought self control – most of the time.  There were moments, as he had just experienced with the sight of the buxomly young woman, when the body took over.

“They followed Pardee to Moro Coyo.  Came to Green River after the bandidos were defeated.  Now I’m not sure what they will do that his men are gone.”

“Hmm.  Not enough business to go around in Moro Coyo?”

“Si, partly.  The single Mexican vaqueros go on Saturday nights to the cantina, but not enough money to support all of the women.  Most of the gringos, er, white hands come here.”

“And what is the other part of the reason?”

“Now that Pardee is gone, the town will settle down.  The more respectable people will come out of hiding and want changes.”  Isidro shifted his shoulders.  “You can’t blame them.  There are children and … well, there was great fear, now there will be order.”

Scott understood.  He, of all people, acknowledged the need for order.  He respected stability and organization, harmony and peace.  But wondered at the oldest profession, how they survived night after night, routing with drunken cowboys and mean-spirited men.  Even Boston, for all its perceived civilization, could spew out a beaten or murdered prostitute now and then.  They were easily forgotten, slipped into the black, warm earth with a welcome the world had long withheld.  Ah, he was being maudlin.  He couldn’t change their world, could hardly manage the one he had now fallen into.

“The mail is collected here, Senor.”  Isidro pointed to a non-descript lean-to tucked next to the stage depot.  “The stage unloads it here to be sorted by Senora Harkness.”

They dismounted and tied their mounts to the nearest post.  There was no boardwalk, just a packed piece of earth with a couple of large, flat rocks stepping to the doorway of the post office.  One dust-streaked window allowed the only light into the cluttered room.  A couple of lanterns hung sightless on the hooks close to the banks of small, open cubby holes that spilled with catalogues and newspapers.  A large woman didn’t stop sorting more of the same from a stained, canvas bag.  Scott coughed, the woman threw them an annoyed glance, then straightened with curiosity.

“Yah?”

“I’ve come for the Lancer mail.”  Scott took off his hat and scuffed a hand through his sweat soaked hair.

“And who might you be?”

“I’m Scott Lancer.  My father asked that I pick up any mail he may have.”

She cocked her head as if scanning him for some sort of disease.

“Senora,” Isidro said as he stepped out from behind Scott.  “This is Mr. Lancer’s hijo.”

“Humph.”  She moved closer, running her eyes slowly from the top of his head down to his boots.  “He the fancy one?”

“I beg your pardon?”  Scott stepped back worried that she might bump her ample bosom into his chest.

“Yup.  I guess he be the fancy one.”  Her smile was big and welcoming as she held out her hand.  “Howdy, young man.  Can’t be too careful on who I give the United States mail to, now can I?”

“No ma’am.”  He relaxed as he took her hand in his.

“I’m Miz Luella Harkness.  Here most days, rain or shine, earthquake or windstorm.  Pleased to meet you.”  She pumped his hand with great enthusiasm.

“And you Mrs. Harkness.”

“You daddy was sure looking forward to your coming.  I run the telegraph office too, and he was here a parcel of times looking for your reply.  Oh, he didn’t say so, but when a man asks for any messages from Boston, you figure things out on your own.  Yup, son, I know most things about most people hereabouts, good, bad or middlin.”

Scott thought she could bring water out of a well with her handshake, but she was so appealing he couldn’t pull his hand away.  “I’m sure my father is appreciative of all your efforts.”

She threw back her head and laughed, eyeing Isidro.  “You can tell he sure the hell ain’t from around here, not with them high sounding words.  But you don’t have an uppity look about you boy.”  She glanced around at the piles of paper.  “Well, I’d best get your daddy’s mail together.  Let’s see, he’s got a bunch.”

Two arms full of letters and assorted papers later, she presented the mail.  “You got anything to haul ‘em in?”

“Uhm.”  Damn, Scott hadn’t realized there’d be that much.  He glanced at Isidro and could tell by the look on his face that he was also surprised at the amount.

“Never mind, boy.  I can loan you a bag, but be sure you bring it back.  Its United States government property and I’ve got to keep count of it.”

“I appreciate that ma’am.  I’ll certainly return it the next time I’m in town.”

“Here.”

She shoved the assorted catalogues, correspondence and what seemed like months’ worth of Sacramento newspapers into his arms.  He grappled with the load as Isidro retrieved what had fallen to the floor.  A dark corner of the little shack swallowed her up and except for curses and a couple of rotting sacks that flew through the air, Scott could have sworn she’d disappeared.  She came out triumphant waiving a stained canvass victoriously in the air.

“Here ya go.”  What had been a neat, tidy bun was in disarray and small brown curls clung to the sweat running down her face.

“Thank you.”  Scott dropped the mail into the gaping canvas held in her arms, and then Isidro dumped his few pieces.  She pulled the dirty drawstring and pushed it at Isidro.

“Gracias, senora.”

“No problem, Isidro. Always ready to help.”  She swept an arm across her forehead and tried to pull the loose strands of hair back into the bun.

Scott realized that she wasn’t as old as he originally thought; maybe closer to forty than the initial fifty at first impression.  Age was hard to ascertain in these parts.  It seemed the wind, sun and toil aged people beyond their years.

“Give your pa my regards.  Hope to see more of him now that things are settling down.  Look forward to meeting his other son as well.  Oh, and tell Teresa that my Mary asks after her.  They’re the same age and young gals need their own company.  Tell your pa to send her my way for a few days.  I’ll take care of her.”

“Yes ma’am.  I’ll relay that information.”  She was formidable in a very pleasant way and Scott found himself liking her very much.

“Oh.  One more thing, I won’t be forgetting that Murdoch Lancer owes the United States government two bits for insufficient postage on these here newspapers.  But I’ll carry the debt seeing as how he owns a cow or two.”  At this she slapped her hands together and roared with laughter.

It was hard not to laugh with her.  Chuckling, Scott dug into his pocket and pulled out a silver dollar.  “I think this should cover it.”

“More than enough, son.  And I’ll credit his account and keep track.  Every now and then them sending out that newspaper shorts for postage.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Harkness.  I’ll pass all of your greetings along to my father.”

“You do that.  Come again, Scott.  You’ll be always welcome.”

“Luella!  Another bag of mail for you.”

Scott hadn’t heard the stage pull in and jumped when a driver half the size of the bag he tossed threw it in the door.  A large, faded United States Mail was stamped on the side.

“Thank you, Harley.  I’ll get right to it.”  True to her word, she delved into the depth of the canvas and started sorting.

The day hadn’t cooled as they threw the satchel of mail across Isidro’s horse.  Green River was as quiet as when they rode in.  A few more dogs scrounged for scraps, a couple more cowboys leaned on the post in front of the saloon where the ladies had appeared earlier.  They were gone; Scott surmised getting ready for the evening still a few hours away.

“Well, Isidro.  A cold beer sounds like a satisfactory reimbursement for our day’s labor.  What do you think?”

“I know a cool little cantina just a couple of streets over.  It is quiet and the tamales are excelente.”

“Spicy?”

“Only if you add the peppers.”

“Sounds good.  Isidro, lead the way.”

.

*****

.

The cantina had been a good choice.  Even though the tamales were a bit spicy for Scott, they were excellent as Isidro said.  At least his tongue didn’t feel pickled.  And the beer was the coldest Scott had tasted since leaving Massachusetts.    It was a good thing they’d included food with the beer as it was evident by the time they returned to Lancer it would be well past supper.  Scott smiled at the thought of his impatient father grousing over a late son.  Payback takes on all sorts of forms.

A south wind had picked up and although warm, the touch of the breeze made the scorching afternoon bearable.  All in all, except for the short confrontation with his father that morning, the day had been almost – restful.  His back didn’t ache from lifting lumber to repair buildings, nor was his butt numb from bouncing in the saddle all day chasing hundreds of stray cattle scattered by Pardee and his gang.  Isidro had been good company and the ladies a pleasant sight, even if brief.

He took advantage of the time to study his father’s land.  The grass was dry but he understood that soon autumn rains would green the hills.  He was amazed at the diversity.  Meadows, mountains, rivers and creeks encompassed the more than 100,000 acres of Lancer and he’d seen just a small part of it.  The road they traveled was through flat country with a solitary oak sprouting against the prairie sky.  It reminded Scott of his travel through the Great Plains when coming west.  Its great nothingness left him feeling lonely and insignificant; fearful at the immensity like a man floating on a great ocean praying for an impossible rescue.

“Isidro, what is that?”  He pointed to a brown looking bulge that was out of place in the monotony.  It was several hundred yards to the east, something he hadn’t noticed when they came through earlier in the day.

“I see nothing, Senor Scott.”

“There.  It looks like a banner or something is blowing above it.  Maybe a piece of clothing?”  He twisted his neck to Isidro.  He must see it

Isidro narrowed his eyes and nodded.  “Si.  There is something.  But I can’t …  I’m not sure.  Maybe a rock or dead bush?”

With a light kick to his horse, Scott headed towards the mysterious object, Isidro right behind him.  The lump moved, or was it just the wind stirring a tattered flag?  But it wasn’t a flag, or a rock or a dying bush.

“My God.  Isidro.”  He stumbled from his horse and couldn’t believe what lay before him.  “It’s a …”

“No Senor!  You must not touch it.  Leave it!  Leave it!  We must get your papa.”

Scott was shocked at Isidro’s fear and stared as the vaquero crossed himself over and over again.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 3 – The Guest

Beef was his livelihood but he sure the hell didn’t like tasting it twice.  Or three times, or four.  After the last belch he made his way to the kitchen to see if Maria had herbs that would take care of his tumbling stomach.  What had she put in the roast?  Or maybe the wine had gone sour.  Whatever the case he was not feeling well at all.

Maria gave him a puzzled glance as the last burp exploded at the entrance of the kitchen.

“Excuse me, Maria.  My stomach is bothering me some.  Do you have anything that will settle it down?”

“Si, Patron.  I have peppermint tea.  It will help in the meantime.”

“What do you mean in the meantime?”

“Until your son comes home.”

“What makes you think Scott has anything to do with my upset stomach?”  He snapped without meaning to but just the mention of Scott’s name made his stomach roll.  She smiled in that unnerving way she had as if knowing what was wrong before he did.

“It is certainly not my cooking,” she announced without question.  “Senor Johnny is grooming horses in the paddock.  Senorita Teresa is reading in her room.  So Senor Scott is the only one of your children missing.”

“He certainly is not a child.  If he were I could excuse his inability to perform a simple task of picking up the mail and being home in time for supper.”  By the time he finished the sentence he was almost shouting.

Maria just smiled, scattered dried peppermint into a cup and poured hot water over it.  “The leaves will settle in a few minutes and it will be cool enough to drink.  Add brandy and your stomach will feel better, also your mood.  Now go, I have to clean up the kitchen before I can go home.”  She turned her back and started tidying as if he had already left the room.

Good grief, he was losing control in his own house.  Johnny was disrespectful at best, Scott was insufferable and aloof, Teresa kissed him on the cheek and did what she wanted, and Maria shooed him away like a child.  Besides, where the hell was Scott?  And Isidro?  Was it possible that some of Pardee’s men were still in the area and seeking revenge?

He hadn’t been fooled by Johnny’s maneuver; Scott could have managed perfectly well to pick up the mail without an escort.  Johnny took delight in not only irritating his brother, but also his father.  Especially his father.  His son had been successful in getting under his skin this morning, causing him to doubt and worry.  Still, regardless how he tried to hide it, Murdoch sensed Johnny’s concern about sending Scott alone to Green River.  Scott wasn’t familiar with the customs of the west, the dangers a man alone could face.  And Johnny knew how Pardee and his men thought.  Hadn’t he been one of them?

As that realization punched him, again, he barely registered the burn of his mouth as he gulped the tea.  The floor quivered as he stomped to the liquor cart and splashed a good portion of brandy into the now half-empty cup.  Warmth wormed down his throat and he took a deep breath.  Oh, that was good.  A tip of the bottle filled the porcelain cup to the brim.  Maria was right, bless her.  The tea was already doing its work.

From the French Doors he could see Johnny in the paddock.  His upper arms rested on the top rail of the fence, and a broad smile played across his face.  He yelled something to the horseman lunging a young paint mare.  Laughing at the reply from the cowboy, Johnny looked relaxed and content.  Murdoch hoped he was.  After years of searching and losing, his son was home.  Why couldn’t he tell him how pleased he was, why couldn’t he show how much he needed Johnny to stay?  Well, that wasn’t his way so no reason to brood on it.

He recognized he should be more thankful, especially with his sons now home, instead of trying to control everything and everyone. Indeed, Johnny could be disrespectful but despite the instances of sass and anger, he was trying to settle.  Scott had made attempts to meet him halfway, regardless of the occasional snide remark and cold look.  And Teresa was no longer a little girl.  She was a young woman who loved him with all of her heart, and understandably trying for a bit of independence.

Finishing the tea, he set the cup on his desk and walked out to the yard to join his son.  The cicadas trumpeted in the early dusk, their twirling, harsh notes somehow comforting.  High summer was at its most beautiful.  The gardens were heavy with tomatoes, squash, onions and more herbs and fruits than the ranchero could use.  They’d be pickled, canned and dried, the excess given to the area missions for distribution to those who were not as fortunate.  Murdoch had always tried to be generous and appreciative for what his land produced.

As he made his way to the paddock, he glanced towards the mountains.  A bank of purple thunderheads rolled over the peaks and lightening flickered high above the tree line.  He could smell the drift of the rain, wishing it would drop on the prairies and meadows of Lancer, but knew it was too far away.  But the rains would come, soon, in a rush of storms and violence.

“Hey.”

Johnny’s soft greeting drew him away from the mountain tops.   Surprised that his son seemed to welcome his approach, Murdoch tiptoed to respond.   “Hey yourself.”  He nodded towards the young animal.  “She’s a pretty one.”

“She is, and smart.  Acilino is very good.  Slow and gentle.”

“Most of the time we have to break these animals quick and rough.  But with this mare I could tell that method would ruin her.”

Johnny rested his head on his arm and stared at him.  “How could you tell that?  Or have the time to see one horse with the hundreds that come through this ranch?

“I see every animal that runs this land, son, and passes under that arch.”

“Like each blade of grass, huh?”

Murdoch chuckled at the recalled words.  “Something like that.”  He rested his arms across the top of the railing and watched the vaquero work the horse.  He barely breathed when Johnny didn’t move away when their arms touched.

“You, ah, seemed a bit edgier than usual at supper.”

The statement was spoken with hesitation as if Johnny wasn’t sure what type of reaction he’d get. 

“Edgy, huh?”

“Hmm.  Yeah.  A bit.”

“Well.  Maybe.  A bit.  I was wondering where your brother and Isidro were.  They should have been home in time for supper.”

Johnny shrugged his shoulder, removing the physical contact of his arm.  “I expect they stopped for a beer or two.  Hot day, Murdoch.”

“I know.  I don’t begrudge them a bit of relaxation.”  And he didn’t, there was just that worry in the back of his mind.  This father thing would take some getting used to.

“Ah, you know that comment I made this morning about Scott being a soldier boy?”  Johnny rubbed the side of his nose.  “I didn’t mean he couldn’t take care of himself.  I guess I was feeling a bit edgy myself.  Sitting around too much.”

Murdoch could only imagine, given Johnny’s past, how restless he probably was.  The Pinkerton reports, never too long in one place, the rumors, some true, of killing.  Murdoch shuddered, needing to purge it from his thoughts.  “You’ll be wrangling cattle and fixing fence lines in no time.  Then you’ll wish you could sit around.”

 “I suppose so.”  Johnny bowed his head, a small smile flickering across his face.  “I reckon old Boston might have run into a pretty gal or two.”

Murdoch couldn’t hold back a deep chuckle.  “So that’s the rub, is it?”

“Hmm, maybe.  Mighty tired looking at your face all day.  No offense.”

“None taken.”  Murdoch levered his elbow on the fence and twisted to Johnny.  “There will be pretty girls returning to Lancer soon.  Most of them were sent away when the Pardee trouble started.”

“Daughters of the hands?  Nah.  Never mix business with pleasure, Murdoch.  Besides, they’re probably kids.”

Murdoch looked back at the mare, pleased at Johnny’s answer.  He didn’t want his son causing trouble with the loyal hands who had stuck by him through the dangers of Pardee.  He’d learned long ago fathers were not kind to young men whom they perceived played with the affections of their daughters.

Johnny swatted at a buzzing horsefly and continued watching Acilino putting the horse through its paces.

“Patron!  She is a good one, yes?”  The young man had a bright smile on his face and presented the horse as a skilled performer.

“Yes, she is Acilino.  And you are doing a fine job.  Will she make a good cowpony?  Mares can be flighty.”

“She is quick on her feet.  If she doesn’t run from the steers she will do well.”   Acilino laughed at his own remark.  “Enough work for now.”  He rubbed his hand along the well-muscled neck and led the horse to the barn.

It was awkward.  Johnny stared at the empty paddock; Murdoch cleared his throat and rubbed his hands together.  “She’s a good horse,” Murdoch finally said.  It was a lame remark, embarrassing that he couldn’t have a simple conversation with his own son.

“Yes, she is a good horse,” Johnny agreed, levered a half grin at his father as if picking up on his unease.

 He would not stoop to talking about the weather.  “How’s your wound?”

“It’s coming along.  I think I can start working soon.”

“As soon as the doctor gives the ok, Johnny.  And then I expect you’ll need to take it slow for a few days.”

By the way Johnny’s jaw hardened, it probably wasn’t the right thing to say.  He was quiet again for several moments, then fisted his hands together.  “I’m no kid, Murdoch.  Ain’t been for a long time.  I know when I can work and when I can’t.”

Murdoch almost barked that he’d work when he was told he could, but remembered his own thoughts from just a short time ago.  He couldn’t control everyone and everything.  “I know you’ve been on your own for a long time,” he said, trying to rein in his son from a different angle.  “But things are different now.  There’s no one waiting to take you down, only people here to help and support   …  If you’ll let them.”

At least the muscle in his jaw relaxed.  Murdoch thought the ‘if you’ll let them’ was the right thing to say, for once.  With a big sigh, Johnny turned to Murdoch.  “Seeing as how you don’t have any tequila, is there anything else decent to drink in that big old house?”

“I think I can find a bottle or two of something that will do.”

“Good.  Let’s go get it … or two.”

Murdoch almost threw his arm across Johnny’s shoulders as they headed back to the house but thought it would be too much too soon.  He was about to open the French Doors when the man in the watchtower shouted and pointed to the hill.  Two horsemen had just crested the rise and were making their way slowly down the road.

“Looks like your brother is finally home.”  Murdoch felt his belly release the last of its tension.

“Man, when was the last time you went for the mail?”

“It’s been a month or so.”

 “Looks like they’re packing more like a few months.”

Murdoch tried to focus as the men drew closer and indeed, it appeared that each one carried a large brown sack in front of them.  “I don’t understand.  There shouldn’t be that much.”

They waited, watched the men as they drew closer.  Johnny stepped forward and shaded his eyes with his hands against the lowering sun.  “Damn, Murdoch, the bag Scott has looks like it’s got ..”  He took a couple more steps.  “Yup, that bag has feet.”

“What!”

“There’s a pair of moccasins sticking out on one end.  Small though.  Must be a kid.”

“Are you sure?”  Where would Scott and Isidro find a child?  There were no homesteads between Lancer and Green River.  Only Lancer land.

“We’ll find out soon enough.”

It seemed to take forever for the men to get to the courtyard of the hacienda but there was no mistake.  Scott held in front of him a small bundle dressed in deerskin with two feet in shabby moccasins.  But it wasn’t a child.  Against Scott’s chest rested a small person with long, stringy grey hair hiding the face.

“We need to get the doctor, Murdoch.  She seems in pretty bad shape.”    Scott motioned to Johnny to help, and he lowered the individual into Johnny’s arms.  The hair slipped aside revealing the face of an Indian woman wrinkled with age.

“Not much to hold here, Boston.  Where’d you find her?”

“Out in the middle of nowhere.  Halfway between here and Green River.  She was just lying on the prairie.”

“Good Lord, Scott.  How did she get there?”  It was obvious the unconscious woman didn’t have the ability to put one foot in front of the other, let alone walk several miles.

“I have no idea, Murdoch.  We found her on our way back from Green River.”  Scott jumped off his horse and passed the animal to one of the nearby hands.  It seemed their arrival had caused a stir and curiosity had driven the men from the bunkhouse and more from the nearby homes.

“Pardon, Patron.”

Murdoch hadn’t paid much attention to Isidro, but now noticed he seemed almost frightened.  Pushing the sack of mail to the ground, Isidro backed his horse away several feet.  The animal snorted and jumped, as if sensing the vaqueros’ anxiety.

“Thank you, Isidro.  Is everything all right?”

Isidro snatched a glance to Scott, seemed to want to say something, but shook his head.

“Isidro wanted me to leave her,” Scott said, obviously appalled by the man’s reaction.

“No Patron.  I thought you should know first, that is all.  In case…”

“In case what, Isidro?  In case Murdoch said to let her die out there?”  Scott took the woman from Johnny’s arms and nestled her head against his shoulder.

“Senor.”  Isidro dismounted and approached Murdoch.  “You know the ways of these people.  It is not good to interfere.  I just …”  He scrubbed a hand across his chin, worry creasing the lines on his sun-weathered face.

Murdoch rested a hand on Isidro’s shoulder.  “It’s all right.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“But, but Senor Scott does not understand!  He thinks me cruel that I would leave an old woman.”

“You have to admit it’s not the kindest thing to do.”  Scott was understandably angry and Murdoch couldn’t fault him for that.

“Scott, you don’t understand.”

“No Murdoch.  I don’t understand.  If you do, then please tell me.”

“Scott.  We’ll talk about it inside.”  With a look of pure disgust Scott turned his back and headed for the house, the pathetic little moccasins the only thing Murdoch could see of the frail old woman.

“He does not know, Patron.  It is not good to meddle in their ways.  It is bad luck, Senor.”

Trying again to ease Isidro’s alarm, Murdoch squeezed his shoulder.  “Get your horse put away and get some supper.  We’ll sort this out.  Everything will be fine.”

Isidro nodded, but it was evident he was anything but assured.  “I think Senor Scott is very upset with me.”

“I’ll explain everything to him.  He’s a reasonable man, Isidro.  He’ll listen.”

“Si.  You explain why.”

“I will.”  Murdoch motioned to the rest of the hands and workers that had gathered.  “The rest of you, please, go about your business.  The sun will be up before you know it and we’ve got a full day tomorrow.  Best start thinking about sleep.”

As the men and women slowly disbursed to the bunkhouse and their homes, Murdoch could see unease in some of their eyes.  Isidro started to lead his horse to be bedded down for the evening.

“Isidro.”

He turned his troubled face to Murdoch.

“Scott couldn’t have left her; you know that, don’t you?  He did the right thing.  He couldn’t, we couldn’t leave her out there to die.”

He appeared so sad and troubled Murdoch didn’t know if he’d agree.  “Si, Patron.  And maybe because he does not know their ways, he will be forgiven.”

“There is nothing to forgive, my friend.”

Murdoch realized that Isidro believed the old ways; hard fallacies and erroneous beliefs were hard to overcome, especially when it was almost a religion.  Without realizing it, however, Scott may have brought something to the ranch that may affect not only the security of the older Mexican vaqueros and their families but also his own safety.

Sighing he looked towards the black swirling mountain tops, wishing he was there fighting the lightening and raging thunder.  He hoped the advice he gave Isidro that Scott was a reasonable man, was true, as he was about to test it.  His stomach rolled as a great pressure hit his belly and he belched a puff of brandy and peppermint.  Damn, what a way to end the day.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 4 – Without Malice

The Great Room was empty.  Murdoch eyed the half empty bottle of brandy.  Tempting, so tempting.  He could hide it in the tea cup that was still sitting on his desk.  On second thought, why would he have to hide the fact he had a drink?  Still he grabbed the cup and filled it, feeling foolish at the deception.

“Got an extra glass there, Murdoch?”        

He whirled at the soft entrance.  “Depends on what you’re looking for.”

Johnny quirked a mild grin, stepped up to him and sniffed the cup.  “Same thing you’re looking for, except it appears you’ve found it.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re cheeky?”

“If that means smart ass, yeah, a couple of times.”  He shrugged, with that same smug smile on his face.  “That doesn’t answer my question though.”

Murdoch pointed the tea cup towards glasses on the liquor cart.  “Take your pick.  The brandy is very good, there’s also rye and Glenlivet.”

“Well, guess I’ll take a try at old Glen.”

“Ah, you might want to go easy on that, son,” Murdoch said, blanching at the amount of whisky Johnny poured into the tall glass.  “It’s smooth, but powerful.”

“Yeah?   I’ve been called that a couple times in my life.”

Murdoch knew Johnny was trying to lighten the somber situation and chuckled despite himself.   “Definitely cheeky.  Where’s your brother?”

“Teresa’s trying to get rid of him.  He’s hovering.  Must take after you.”  Johnny chuckled and took a sip of the liquor.  He seemed to like it as he took a large gulp.  “Oh, that is smooth.  Where’s this come from?”

“Scotland.”

“Ah.  Your home country.”  He took another drink, rolling his tongue across his lips.  “I expect Boston will be along soon.   Between Teresa and Maria they’ll manage to kick him out of the room.”

“I thought Maria had gone home.”

“Almost.  She heard the commotion outside and decided she might be needed.”

A door shut down the hallway and, as predicted, Scott lumbered in looking less than happy.

“How is she?” Murdoch asked.

“The same.  They’re getting her cleaned up and comfortable.”

Scott looked exhausted and Murdoch felt sorry for him.  It would have been a long ride with a gloomy Isidro close behind, probably mumbling prayers all the way home.

“You didn’t drink it all, did you little brother?”

Johnny huffed.  “I ain’t no little brother.”

“You are mine. If you have difficulty accepting that, it’s too late to do anything about it?”  Scott filled his glass to the brim.  It appeared Murdoch’s very expensive Scotch would be gone by the end of the night.  He’d have to stash away the rest of the case or he’d be out before the next shipment was due to arrive.

“There is if you keep calling me that.”

Scott turned to him, obviously irritated by … everything.  “Tell you what, you stop calling me soldier boy or tin soldier and I might be obliged to call you’ little’ in a more respectful tone.”

“There ain’t nothing respectable about little.”

“It’s all in the delivery.  Besides, I am the first born.”

“But not the biggest.”

“The tallest.”

“You want to find out who’s the strongest?”

“Boys.”  Murdoch interrupted before it got out of hand.  “If you want strong, I’ve got you both whipped.”  He turned to Scott.  “If you’ve got a problem, there is no reason to take it out on your brother.”

“The problem, as you call it, is a human being.”  Scott gritted his teeth, his eyes sharp and angry.  “Do you want to tell me why a man like Isidro, who I thought was … I don’t know, incapable of leaving a helpless woman to die on a burnt yellow prairie on one of the hottest days I’ve ever experienced.  I’d really like to understand?”

“Scott,” Murdoch replied, “you need to calm down.”

“You weren’t there, Murdoch.  He was ready to leave her!  How is that in anyway a reason to calm down?”

“Because, I’m asking you to.  Now. –  Sit.  – Down.”  Murdoch had never used his father voice before, but it seemed to be effective.  Scott glared at him, but flopped with reluctance into the closest chair.  He definitely had to keep that in mind for future use.

Johnny brought the half empty bottle and filled Murdoch’s tea cup.  He tipped the bottle Scott’s way, Scott held up his glass and Johnny poured.  When everyone, mainly Scott, seemed to settle somewhat, Murdoch started the explanation.

“Some of the vaqueros and their families have very strong beliefs about legends of the native people.  Especially the older hands.”

“What kind of legends could possibly justify leaving a woman to die?”

“Scott, if you’d let me, I am trying to explain.  It might be difficult for you to comprehend, but this is not Boston.  The ways and attitudes of the west are different.”

“So I’ve noticed.”  Scott sat back in his chair and threw Murdoch a very impertinent glare.  “And?”  He held up his hands, palms up, and Murdoch felt like popping him on the head.  But he plowed ahead, indulging Scott’s lack of understanding.

“There are tribes far up in the mountains, including on Lancer, that were here long before the Spanish.  Their ways, their culture isn’t like ours and can be difficult to comprehend.  But for the most part, we leave them alone and they don’t bother us.  Besides, it’s a high, rough wilderness on those peaks, hard to get to and almost impossible to find their villages.  There are very few of them left.”

Murdoch glanced at Johnny, wondering if he was familiar with the stories of the mountain people.  He didn’t give any indication that he knew one way or the other, but Murdoch suspected he’d heard of them.  To the Mexican population they were a fact of life.

“It is said that these people have a great respect for their elders.”

“Is that why they leave them to die in the middle of nowhere?”

Murdoch took a deep breath and decided to ignore Scott’s snippy remark.  “Many times the elderly decide that it’s time to die.  Some will stay in their villages and refuse to eat or drink; they just waste away.  Others don’t want to bring pain to their families so they leave the village and go off to die alone.  It’s their custom, son, their way of life.”

“So what does that mean, Murdoch?  Do you want me to take her back?”

“Of course not!  Young man, I do not appreciate your tone.  I’m just telling you the way some live, and die, whether you agree with it or not.  This is a big country with as many ways of life as there are people.”

“Ok, Ok, I’m sorry.”  Scott filtered fingers through his hair and rested his forehead on his palm.  “I understand respecting a way of life, but I don’t understand how Isidro could just walk away from a dying woman?”

“Cowboys are a superstitious bunch, Scott,” Johnny said.  “Especially the old vaqueros .  Bringing a woman like that into your house, disrespecting the way of her people, is like inviting a curse.”

“A curse?  What kind of curse?”  Scott asked, clearly dismissive of such an idea.

“You’ve heard of these people, son?”

“Oh yeah.  Not so much about walking away to die, but plenty of other things the old Mexican’s believe.  The Chupagabra, skinwalkers, vinagaroons.  Although vinagaroons are real and have a nasty bite.  And ugly!  Man are they ugly.”

“But monsters aren’t real and superstitions are just that.  And a curse is ridiculous.  It’s only your own mental state that can hurt you.”

“Well brother, that could be.  But try to tell that to someone who believes in them with all their heart.  It’s like wishing that old woman young again.  It ain’t gonna happen.”

“There’s another problem that is very real, Scott.  And one we need to take seriously.”

“And that is, sir?”

“When these people go off to die, there is someone, usually a young brave, who will watch over them to make sure they aren’t attacked by animals, or people.  Once they pass away the body is taken back to the tribe and the proper rituals are performed to make sure they go peacefully into the next life.”

“So, where was this – guardian when she was dying?  There was no one else around.”

“I would guess he was somewhere not too far away.  That is why Isidro was so frightened.  He still is and fears for his family.”

“But Murdoch,” Scott said, opening his arms wide.  “We were in the middle of flat country, nothing but prairie for miles.  We would have seen someone.”

“Maybe.  But I can’t imagine that no one from her village would insure that her spirit was appeased by their death ceremony.”

“What are you saying?  That someone watched us, followed us to Lancer and is waiting to do what?  To take her back to the lump of grass where we found her?”

“I’m saying that we need to be aware and careful.”

“Careful.  Of what?  Of invisible men or ghosts waiting to take revenge on me for helping an old woman?  I don’t believe in ghosts or curses or tall tales of … monsters.”   He threw his arms up and pushed off from the chair.

“And neither do I.  But I do believe that woman has relatives who will want her back.”

He was digging in, Murdoch could see that.  Just as stubborn as his mother – and maybe father.

“Brother, for a smart man you can sure be a knuckle head.”

Murdoch agreed with Johnny but wouldn’t have put it in those exact words.

“I didn’t ask your opinion,” Scott snapped.

“Nope, but you’re getting’ it anyway.  Your way of being civilized isn’t theirs.  Isidro, Juan, Philippi and others, hell, maybe even Cip.  They set store by it.  It goes back to their papa, and his papa before him.  It’s real, Scott, it’s real.  And you can laugh or scoff all you want but that won’t make it go away.  You can bet until that woman is gone they’ll be as jumpy as when Pardee was shooting at ‘em.  On top of that, there may be some outraged Indian out there waiting to cut your throat cuz you took his mama or tia or abuela away from some sacred passage or trip or whatever the hell it is they believe in.”

“Johnny.”

“No!”  Johnny whirled on Murdoch, stabbing the air with his finger.  “Pussyfooting around ain’t no way to get it said.  Scott’s in danger.  He took her, he carried her, he brought her and you can bet her kin’s around.  It’s a matter of honor to them.  You should know honor, Scott.  Isn’t that what you fought a war for?  You think their honor is any less just because you don’t understand it?”

“Of course not!  It’s just …”

“No.  It’s not just.  Listen to the old man.  It’s serious, Scott.  More serious than you know.”

Murdoch was taken aback at Johnny’s passion but at least it seemed to have gotten through to his brother.  Scott was quiet, stared at Johnny as if shocked by his outburst.  He swallowed hard, took a few steps, and then faced his father.

“Believe it or not, I understand culture.  But sometimes it’s wrong.”  He looked at Johnny.  “You say I fought in a war, and it’s true.  But the reason was to overturn an institution, a culture that was brutal and cruel and dehumanizing.  Not all culture is good, Johnny.”

There was a softening in the lines of Johnny’s face and maybe a new respect?  Murdoch wasn’t sure.  Whatever his son was thinking, he hoped it would help to strengthen the relationship between them.  He knew they were struggling to find their own connection as brothers and Murdoch hoped friends.  His fears were alleviated with Johnny’s reply.

“This is different, Scott,” he said softly.  “I know about wrong and those who want to make you feel like you just crawled out of a pit full of crap.  She had the choice, it was hers to make.  And I believe what Murdoch said.  She wasn’t abandoned.  She was cared for and guarded.  And he’s here.” 

Hands on hips, Scott studied his brother, then nodded before turning to Murdoch.  “What do you want me to do?  I don’t want anyone hurt.”

“We watch.  I’ll send someone to Doc Jenkins in the morning and we’ll see what he has to say about her condition.  Don’t be surprised, Scott, if he confirms she is dying.  That’s her wish and there is nothing we can do about it.”

“And what about when she does die?  What then?”

“Then I think we need to take her back to where you found her.”

A distasteful look formed across Scott’s face and he turned away.  “It’s the only way, son.  Not only for your safety and the safety of all on this ranch, but out of respect for her people and their beliefs.”

Scott sighed and nodded in agreement.  “I couldn’t just leave her, Murdoch.  I just couldn’t.”

Murdoch’s heart went out to his son.  His whole countenance was stricken with pain and confusion.  “I know that.  I would have done the same thing. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Patron?”

In the hallway leading to the kitchen Isidro’s wife stood, her hands clasped, eyes direct.  “Senora Tomas.  Is everything all right?  Isidro …

“He is fine Patron.  Shaken but we talked.”

“Well, come in Senora.   Please.”  Murdoch motioned to a chair.

She shook her head.  “I’ve come to relieve Maria.  She’s not been home to her family all day and someone should sit with the woman.  If she should awaken in the night a man may only frighten her and Teresa is too young.”

“Thank you, Senora.  Yes.  She shouldn’t be alone.”

“Si.”  She hesitated, looked at Scott, and twisted her hands.

“Is there something else Senora?  Angelina?”

“It is Senor Scott.  My husband …”

“It’s all right, Senora.  I’m not angry.  My father explained the situation.  I should be apologizing to your husband.”

“No.  No.  Your papa.  He took us in when we had nowhere else to go.  My husband has great respect for him.  We owe him much, that is why he thought your father should know first.  About the woman.”

“It’s all right, Senora.”

“Senor Scott,” she whispered, her tone soft,  with a trace of pity.  “You are a young man.  Kind as my Isidro.  But he is a man of great … myths.  He believes in them, ghosts, evil omens.  But ah, that is all they are, myths.  This woman though, this woman of the mountains has an avenging angel guarding her.  And he will not leave without her.  I have seen her and she will die.  Until then, be careful where you go.  Si?”

Scott smiled.  “Si, Senora Tomas.  I will be careful.”

She reached for his hands and held them tight.  “Promisa?”

“Yes.  I promise.”

“Bueno.  Good.”  She wiped her hands down the front of her dress.  “I will see to the woman.  Good night senores.”

“Good night Angelina.  I, we appreciate your help.”

“Patron,” she acknowledged and slipped into the darkness of the east hall.

“Boys, we’d best try to get some sleep.  I’ll ask Cip to post a couple of guards on the house.  I imagine most of the men in the bunkhouse will be on alert as it is.”

“Yup.  Night Murdoch.”

“Good night, sir.  And I am sorry for any trouble I may have caused.”

“No need for apologies, Scott.  But I don’t want you working alone.”

“But Murdoch.  I can take care …”

“No arguments.  I am still in charge.”

Scott twisted his mouth like he wanted to challenge that, until Johnny punched him in the arm and motioned to the stairway.  After drinking the remaining Scotch left in his glass, Scott set it down, clipped a stiff nod to Murdoch and headed for the stairs.  With a smile on his face, Johnny mouthed ‘dumb ass’ to Murdoch, and followed his brother up the stairs.

He felt like a rag that had just passed through one of the wringers used by the ladies for washing clothes.  No, many wringers.  What a long, long day and unfortunately, it wouldn’t be safe to rest until the old lady died and she could be retrieved by her family.

With every bone in his body he knew someone lurked, watched, waited to see what they would do with her.  He didn’t think anything would happen to Scott, or Isidro, until she passed away.  Then, and quickly, they would have to take her to the meadow where they found her and hope it would be enough; that the young shadow who blended into the sky and prairie would be satisfied that their interference was without malice.

He swallowed what was left in his tea cup, capped the Scotch bottle and burped all the way to his room.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 5 – Cursed?

He brought his hands to both sides of his forehead and squeezed.  The last time his head pounded like this had been in time to the off-key trumpet blast of his last charge.  That had led him right into the arms of the Confederate army.  Good God, he shouldn’t have consumed all of that Scotch on a near empty stomach.  Scott groaned, dared to slit his eyes, and snapped them shut.

A commotion in the yard made its way through the window.  He should get up, check it out.  Come on, Scotty, move your butt, but it was easier said than done.  Until he heard his father’s voice and he groaned louder.

Ever so slowly he rose up in bed.  The room didn’t tumble, much.  He ventured a leg to the side, then the other, until his feet were planted on the floor.  The rough thread of the carpet tickled his toes; funny the way a hangover made everything so sensitive.  In fact, every part of his body seemed more sensitive this morning.  He ached all over and felt hot.  How could only a couple glasses of Scotch cause all this misery?  He wondered what time it was.  The sun seemed bright for 6:00 a.m.  But then, maybe it was later than he thought.

Johnny burst through the door with a boisterous “Hey, Boston.”

Scott cringed at the too-loud greeting.  “I’m going to get a padlock for that door.  I swear.”

“You don’t look so good.”

“Shut up and get out.”

“It’s after 9:00 a.m.”

He jerked up, regretted immediately the sudden movement that felt like his head would roll off his neck and bounce on the floor.  “Ouch.”  He sucked in a breath.  “Damn.”  Count, Scott.  Just count to ten – or twenty – or thirty.

“Can’t hold your liquor, huh?”  Johnny bent down and peered at him.  “You need a hair of the dog?”  Johnny produced a flask from his back pocket and jammed it in front of Scott’s face.

His stomach recoiled and he pushed Johnny’s arm away.  “I don’t do dog.  But.  Coffee would help.”

“Well, you know what Scott?  That’s just what’s in here.  If you’re polite, I’ll give it to you.”

Scott extended his hand.  “Give it to me.”

“You could say please.”

“Give it to me and I won’t whip you from one end of Lancer to the other.”

“Hmm.  Seeing as I’m a sensitive type, I’ll give it to you anyway.”  He settled next to Scott and gave him the flask.  “But, we’ll do that whipping thing another time, and it won’t be my ass getting the tour.”

“Good grief.  Why didn’t someone wake me up?”  He took a big gulp of the hot coffee hoping it would make the pain miraculously disappear.  Miracles did happen.  After all, he was here in California so it wasn’t impossible – with a new brother no less.  The coffee didn’t work.

“Murdoch felt sorry for you.”

“I don’t believe you.  Murdoch doesn’t feel sorry for anyone – ever.”

“Ah.  You know that ain’t true.  You’re just feeling lousy.  Come on, Scott.  Get up.”  Johnny went to the dresser and threw a pair of trousers and a shirt at him.  “Doc Jenkins is here.”

“Already?”

“I guess Frank went to get him from town but ran into him on his way back from the Conway ranch.”

He was afraid to ask.  “Is she still alive?”  She’d looked so bad the night before he wasn’t sure what the answer would be.

“Yeah.  Guess she didn’t stir once.”

“Well, at least she’s alive.”  He took another drink from the flask, handed it to Johnny and grabbed his trousers.  “Excuse me.”

“Why?  What’d you do?”

He inhaled, understanding how sometimes Johnny drove his father to drink.  “I’d like to get dressed.”

“I ain’t stopping you.”

“Have you ever heard of the term privacy?”

“Hell, Scott.  Whatever you’ve got I’ve seen before.  Don’t be so bashful.”

If that’s the way Johnny wanted it, Scott would go along.  He stood up and dropped the sheet.

“Damn, Scott.  You ain’t got nothing on!”

“Ah, I know that.  I’m the one not wearing it.  And you’re the one who wanted to stay and watch.”

“That sounds … “

“Perverted?  It is.”

“If you didn’t look like hell, you’d get that whupping before you got downstairs.”

Scott wasn’t in the mood to argue.  Or maybe that was the problem, he was.  All he knew was that he felt horrible and could care less about what Johnny saw.  He grabbed his trousers and stuck his leg in.

“Well.  I’ll be damned.”

“What?”  Scott pulled up his trousers, buttoned his fly and shook out the shirt.

“Lookie there.  The man from Boston does put his pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.”

Scott had just about had it with Johnny’s continual reference to where he was brought up.  It wasn’t so much what he said, but the way he said it.

“Hey!”  Johnny ducked when Scott tried to pop him on the head.

“Damn it.  Where are my boots?” Scott rammed his toe into the bed post and, hissing in pain, grabbed his foot.  Between his pounding head and throbbing toe he felt like crawling back into bed.

“Come on, brother.  Take it easy.  Here.”  Johnny retrieved the boots from the floor at the end of the bed.  “Get some more coffee and breakfast and you’ll feel better.”

Was that sympathy he heard in Johnny’s voice?  Maybe.  His face didn’t have that smart-as-hell look it normally did.  Scott reached for the boots and immediately buckled to the floor.  Dazed, he felt Johnny’s hand on his arm.  “Did you push me?  Why’d you push me?”

“I didn’t.  Come on, get up.”

Johnny managed to hoist him up on the bed and Scott immediately tumbled back.  “I don’t feel so good,” he muttered.

A gentle something touched his forehead.  “You’re kinda hot.”

Scott closed his eyes and focused on each breath he took.  Sometimes that helped to block out the misery – a lesson he’d learned at Sorghum.  At least he didn’t have to deal with the stink of the prison camp.  Just the thought of that was enough to make him ill.

“Hey.  You okay?” Johnny asked softly.

When he didn’t reply, Scott sensed Johnny move closer.  “What the hell you do yesterday afternoon?  I didn’t think you drank that much last night.”

“I didn’t either.”  He swallowed back coffee that threatened to come up.  “Give me a minute.”

“I’ll get Murdoch.”

“NO!”  He clutched Johnny’s arm.  The last thing he needed was his father’s disapproving glare that he drank so much last night he couldn’t put in a day’s work.  A few minutes to gather his resolve, that’s all he needed.

A soft knock interrupted his concentration and he opened his eyes.  His father stood in the doorway with Sam Jenkins right behind him.  He made an attempt to sit up but his body was dead weight.  He followed his father’s approach to the bedside and noticed the knot of worry in the middle of his forehead, so tight it resembled a third eye.

“Son.  How are you feeling this morning?”

“Uhm.”  He swallowed more billowing coffee.  “I think I had too much Scotch last night.”

“Mmm.  I don’t think that’s the problem.  Mind if Sam takes a look at you?”

Yes, he minded.  Why the fuss for a hangover, although he was surprised his father didn’t appear angry about it.  “I’ll be all right, Murdoch.”

“He collapsed just before you came in.”

Good old Johnny.  Why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut?  He was probably getting back at him for tattling to Murdoch when Johnny planned to ride much too soon after he was shot.  Ride hell, the man could barely walk down the stairs.  Scott wasn’t about to allow him to do something that stupid.

“I must have stumbled.  I rammed my toe into the bed post is all.”

“Son.  Isidro is sick.”

“What?”

“He’s feverish, can’t move, and complains of aching all over.  Sam just checked on him.”

“Will he be okay?”

Sam loomed into view.  “I hope so.  I expect he picked something up in town yesterday.  Maybe you did as well.  So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to check if you have the same symptoms just to confirm.  If there’s something going around, I’d like to know sooner rather than later.”

Without waiting for permission, Sam set his bag on the floor and settled beside Scott on the bed.  He grabbed Scott’s wrist and pulled out his timepiece.  Scott didn’t protest when he checked his eyes or slapped a palm across his forehead.  Even the poking on his chest was tolerated, but when he started to unbutton his fly, Scott managed to pull away.

“Scott.  I’m not done.”

“Yes, you are.  I’ll be fine.  It’s just a hangover.  Leave me alone.”

“You’ve got a fever, your eyes are glassy and your pulse high.  It’s more than a hangover.  I need to make sure your belly isn’t hard.”

“It’s not.”  Scott closed his eyes and focused once more on his breathing.  As far as he was concerned, there were two more men than needed in the room.  Maybe propriety was different in California, but he hadn’t come to accept that aspect of this wild culture.  Was that so impossible to understand?

“Murdoch, Johnny, please leave.”

Perhaps Sam did understand.  Maybe even Johnny as he left without complaint.  Murdoch was a different matter as he mumbled something about sons, sick hands and dying women.

“We don’t need an audience, Murdoch.”

“He’s my son.”

“And he’s my patient.”

Fortunately, Sam won.  A large, gruff harruff followed by hard footsteps told Scott his father had left.  He just wished he hadn’t slammed the door so hard.  Well, at least he was pleased his father acknowledged he had a son after 24 years.

“All right.  May I get on with the examination?”

Didn’t the man ever wait for a yes or no?  With each poke Scott felt sicker.  How many times could his hard fingers feel the same spot?  “Sam, Dr. Jenkins, please.”

The fingers stilled, and withdrew.  “Sorry, Scott.  I’ll make sure you get something to settle that stomach.”

There was a movement on the bed and a soft click.  Scott dared to open his eyes and there was only kindness on the face of the man looking down on him.

“I’m not sure what’s going on, but you and Isidro have the same symptoms.  I understand the only thing you did was go to the Post Office and a Green River cantina yesterday.  Is that correct?”

Scott nodded his head.  “And the woman.”

“Ah, yes.  The woman.”  Sam went to the dresser.  “Where do you keep your nightshirts?”

“Third drawer.”

As Jenkins rummaged through the drawer Scott wondered about the woman.  Was she ill? She hadn’t been hot to the touch.  He prayed he hadn’t brought some disease to everyone on Lancer.

“What about her, Sam?” he asked when the doctor started to help him into the nightshirt.  “Did she, is she sick?  Did I bring a sickness to Lancer?”

Sam’s strong arms lifted him up, pulled the nightshirt down over his head, across his shoulders and pushed him down.  “Raise your hips.”  With precision and years of experience, the doctor had Scott’s trousers off and he was settled between the bed linens.

“Sam?”

“I can’t find anything wrong with her, Scott, other than the fact that she’s extremely malnourished and dehydrated.  Amazingly her heart is strong.  She has no fever or any other sign of disease or illness.  Whatever you and Isidro have, I don’t think you got it from her.”

“Then what is it?”

“An infection of some kind but not severe.  Your temperature isn’t drastically high and neither is Isidro’s.  I don’t suspect cholera or you’d be living in the outhouse.  I’m recommending you rest and get plenty of fluids.  I suspect it will clear up in a couple of days.  I plan to check on Luella as well as the folks at the cantina to make sure they’re not feeling sick.

“What can we do for her?  Will she live?”

Sam bowed his head before replying.  “Scott, she doesn’t want to.”

“How can you not want to live?”

Grabbing his medical bag he opened it and stuffed the stethoscope into it.  “There is nothing that can be done.  That is her wish and the custom of her people.”

“But, what if she had a reason?”

With a huge sigh, Dr. Jenkins snapped his bag shut.  “She doesn’t.  You need to accept that, Scott.  I wish things were different, but she is dying.  I would suspect that at her age she has something that is killing her.  Cancer, a failing organ.”  He stepped over to the bed and rested his hand on his shoulder.  “Get some rest.  Drink the tea.  You’ll be fine and so will Isidro.”  With a final sympathetic glance at Scott, Dr. Jenkins stepped out of the room.

If he lay just so, eyes closed and concentrated on the sound of the curtains moving in the breeze, Scott could tolerate the queasy stomach.  Even the pain in his head seemed to lighten.  He was dozing when the door clicked open.

Johnny stood in the doorway, cup in hand, and a small grin on his face.  “Hey.  I’ve got some god-awful smelling tea here that’s supposed to make you feel better.  I’m not too sure about that, but orders from the old man.”

Scott smiled in spite of himself.  “You make it sound so appealing.”

“Well, hey, I try my best.  What are brothers for?”

“Not sure.  Never had one before.”  Scott gingerly sat forward, rested on his elbows, and waited for the nausea to subside.

“Here.”  Johnny set the cup on the nightstand and plied pillows behind Scott’s back.  “Lay back.  You should be up high enough to drink this.”

“Thanks.”  Scott took a sip, wrinkled his forehead at the bitter taste and handed it back to Johnny.  “That’s worse than the disease.”

Johnny sniffed the cup and backed away.  “Must be that willow bark or some other shit Teresa plied me with.”  He shrugged.  “It works though.  Here.  Buck up and take it like a man.”

With that challenge Scott could hardly refuse.  If he held his breath as it was going down it didn’t taste so awful.  After a few swallows he had to admit his stomach seemed not so bad.

“How’s Isidro?  Have you seen him?”

“Yup.  Other than the fact he thinks he’s dying under some curse, I think he’ll live.”

“Oh no.  He doesn’t really believe …?”

“I told you Scott.  These old vaqueros put a lot of store into the old legends.”

“Do you believe in them?”

“Hell, do I look like someone who believes a curse or a ghost is gonna draw on you?  Never saw one with a gun belt on his hip.”

Scott settled back on the pillows and studied Johnny.   He’d learned during the war that ghosts didn’t have to have guns to haunt you; they didn’t even have to be real.  How many chased his brother?

“What?”

“Hmm?”

“You were looking at me funny.”

“Sorry.  I was just thinking.”

“Of what?”

Scott smiled, took another sip of the tea and set it back on the night stand.  “Ghosts.”

“You believe in them.”

He shook his head.  “No.  Only memories.”

Johnny tilted his head as he stared at Scott.  “Yeah,” he murmured.  “I’ve got a few of those myself.”  A sad, crooked smile lingered, then disappeared.  “By the way, Doc Jenkins said the Conway ranch was broken into last night.”

“Was Mrs. Conway hurt?”  Scott had only met her once but liked her right away.  She laughed at his father, and was able to get him to laugh as well.  It had been pleasing to see that light-heartedness in Murdoch.

“No, she’s okay.  One of the hands broke a leg chasing after thieves in the dark.  Guess he’ll be fine.”

“Was there more than one, thief I mean?”

“Well.  I assumed there was but not sure.  Doc’s telling as many as he sees to make sure they’re aware of anyone lurking around.”

“Great.  One more worry.”

“Ah, Lancer’s too guarded.  No one will get through the back door, let alone the front.”

He hoped Johnny was right.  “Johnny, were there any other break ins, before last night I mean?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Not that I’ve heard.”

“You think it could be … someone from the mountains?”

“Hell, Scott.  It could be anyone.  But, I get your drift.”  Johnny drew the window curtain aside.  “Doc Jenkins turned me lose today.”

“Congratulations.  Any plans?”

“Yup.  I’m gonna get my saddle and my horse and help some fellas in the East Meadow bring in cattle.  Murdoch wants a head count on how many we can market this fall.”

“Wish I could join you.”

“You will.  Enough dumb critters to go around for everybody.”

“I think I’ll try to get some sleep.”  Scott pulled a couple pillows from behind his back and threw them on the foot of the bed.

“Sure, Boston.”  Johnny picked up the tea cup.  “You do that.  I’ll, ah, tell Murdoch you’re feeling better.  Okay?”

“Yeah.  I am.  You tell him that.”  A pocket of air floated up his throat and out his mouth.  His stomach did seem to be settling.  “Thanks for the tea.”

“I’ll pass it along to Teresa.”

He lay back, listened to the silver ring of Johnny’s spurs as they receded down the hallway, the song of a too-late robin singing his heart out for a mate that would never come and the peace of his own room.  Isidro would be the first to visit, try to convince the poor man that they weren’t cursed.  Then the woman.  They’d have to think of something other than ‘the woman’ to call her.  After all, every one deserved a name.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 6 – Convinced?

“Did you check on Scott?”

“Yup.”  Johnny slid into the chair opposite his father and grabbed the last slice of bacon off the serving platter.  “He should be down in a few minutes.”

“It was only yesterday he couldn’t even crawl out of bed.”

“I know, but tell that to old knucklehead.”  He glanced at Maria as she carried a platter of eggs and bacon to the table in one hand, a coffee mug in the other.  “Maria, you might want to serve up some toast.  Dry.  Not sure Scott’s ready for the hard stuff yet.”

“Some is browning on the stove now.”  She set the mug in front of him.

“Gracias,senora.  How is la anciana this morning?”

“She has not moved.  Mrs. Andresen is sitting with her.  But, eh, it does not matter.  There will be no change.”

She spooned apples fried in cinnamon and butter onto a plate and set them next to the bacon and eggs.  “These should hold you till lunchtime, eh, Juanito?”

“Si.  Maybe.”  He threw her the best smile he could muster and forked several apple slices onto his plate.

“Where do you put it boy?”

“Just being appreciative of Maria, Murdoch.  Eating what Scott won’t.”  He twisted in his chair.  “And speak of the devil.  Hey, soldier boy.  Got eggs just the way you like them, scrambled, a little runny, with hot sauce.”

Scott put his arm in front of his stomach as if protecting it.  “No thanks, little brother, I’ll just have toast.”

“I was respectful when I said soldier boy.”

“And I wasn’t derogatory when I said little brother.”

Johnny laughed, knowing the term, regardless how he said it, would irk Scott.  “Here.  There’s a plate of nice, dry toast.  Though if you ask me, not a very manly breakfast.”

“I don’t have to prove my manhood by what I eat,” Scott said as he nodded thanks when Maria brought him coffee and a butter dish.

Johnny almost snorted an apple up his nose with that remark.  Murdoch pounded on his back to ease the coughing.  Johnny never could understand how beating on someone could stop a cough.  He held up a hand to ward off his father’s pretty good smack.

“Dios, Murdoch.  You know how powerful that arm of yours is?”

“I do.  And use it sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.”

There was a glint in Murdoch’s eye when he said it.  It almost made Johnny think he took delight in making an excuse to whack him a few times.

“You look a bit pale yet Scott.  You sure you should be up?”

“I’m fine, Murdoch.”

From the wrinkle on Murdoch’s mug, Johnny didn’t think he was convinced.  For that matter, Johnny wasn’t either, but his brother was walking; for the time being anyway.

“You still want to see Isidro?”

“Yes.”  Scott took a bite of toast, followed it with a sip of coffee.  “Do you know how he’s feeling?”

“Nope.”  Johnny could guess though.

“I was over to his home earlier.  He looks pretty good, although you’ll need to convince him of that.”

“Does he still think he’s cursed, Murdoch?”

“Yes, Scott, he thinks you both are.  The only way to get him out of that frame of mine is to get him up and working.”

Leave it to the old man to believe work fixed everything.  But for him, maybe it did.  Johnny studied his father, wondered, like he’d wondered a thousand times before, what went on in that old grey head.  He could never find a weakness, or anything close to soft, except Teresa.   And that was the puzzle.  There were moments when Johnny couldn’t put a name on what he saw in his father’s eyes when he looked at Scott.  Hell, he’d even caught him staring at him the same sad way.  Was it loss or even … love?  It was then he felt an old loneliness of want so hard in his throat, he thought a big old fist would just come tearing out.

“Johnny.  Everything okay?”

He swallowed, not realizing how far he had drifted down that hollow, ugly hole.  “Yeah.  I was just thinking, Murdoch.”

“You seemed to be thinking pretty hard, brother.”

His coffee had grown cold and he went to the stove to get the coffee pot.  It was a good diversion, helped him to shake off those long, dark years when nothing but hate and proving he was better than a white man’s half-breed kid drove him on.  “Oh.  I was just thinking about Isidro and … how to get him out of his slump.”

Murdoch slid his cup across the table when Johnny offered a refill.  He topped off Scott’s as well, then set the banged up old pot back on the stove.

“So, brother, how do you fight a curse?”

Was Scott mocking him?  There were times when Johnny thought he was, but then realized he was just being Scott.  He’d give him the benefit of the doubt this time.  Lord knows he hadn’t credited him with much when they first met.  Falling into all those crisp ruffles on a dust-choked road was as unexpected as a whore propositioning a priest.  So was the hard right Scott delivered by the lake.  Damn, the man could be hard to figure out.

“In Isidro’s mind, that may be tough.  But I might be able to convince him better than you that it’s all a coincidence,” Johnny said.

Scott leaned back in the chair.  “Why do you say that?  I can try to reason with him …”

“And that would be your first mistake,” Johnny replied, interrupting his brother.  “Your type of reasoning is based on books and learning.  If Isidro went much past two to three years of schooling I’d be surprised.”

“That doesn’t make him a stupid man.”

“I’m not saying he’s stupid.  I’m saying the palaces of Boston and the dirt shacks of Mexico are as far apart as … well, you might as well have come from the moon.  That’s all, Scott.”

“I didn’t grow up in a palace.”

“You know what I mean.”  He turned to his father.  “Murdoch, you know what I mean.  I know; I’ve lived Isidro.  Scott has no understanding of what that is.”

Murdoch pursed his lips and nodded.  “You know, Scott.  It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take Johnny with you.  There are times when I even feel like the outsider, and I’ve lived here for over 25 years.”

Scott looked from his father to his brother.  Maria was puttering in the background, cleaning up the breakfast pans and dishes.  “Maria?  Do you agree?”

Johnny knew she would the minute she turned around with a smile on her face.

“It isn’t my place to interfere.”

Hell, as far as Johnny could tell, Maria interfered in everything.  But he had to give her credit; she knew how to play the game of servant to lord.  Another thing Scott wouldn’t understand in a world of peasants and dons.

“Please.”

That was all it took.  “I think Senor Johnny knows how Isidro thinks, much more than you.  Eh, probably more than the Patron.  Excuse Patron, but your son is part of Mexico, he knows what it is like to be mejicano.”

Johnny snuck a peek through his eyelashes at his father.  Yup, the old man could sure get a sour look on his face.  Kind of like when Scott went on about Boston and his abuelo.  Murdoch didn’t like to be reminded of the past.  Maybe that’s why he clamped tighter than one of them alligator snappers their first day in the Great Room when he said the past is the past; it didn’t matter.  But Johnny thought the past mattered a whole lot more to Murdoch than he let on.

“Okay then.  Whenever you’re ready, Johnny.”  Scott quirked that right eyebrow clear into his bangs.  Johnny figured he’d never make a good poker player the way his face gave everything away.   He’d have to take him under his wings.  But not till after he’d taken a few silver dollars off him.

“What are you two ready for?”  Teresa bounced in, all cheery and fresh.  Johnny hadn’t felt that way since – hmm.  Had he ever felt that way?

“Johnny and I are going to see Isidro.  By the way Teresa, Luella Harkness sends you her greetings as well as her daughter’s.  She’s invited you to spend some time with them.  If it’s all right with Murdoch that is.”

“Oh, Murdoch.  Could I?  I haven’t seen Mary for ages, since May for sure.  Could I please?”

She had him wrapped around her little finger, Johnny could see that, and for all his bluster about ‘we’ll see,’ he knew Murdoch would give in.  The softness that betrayed him.  A little more large soft eyes and the big man tumbled.  “Well, not today, Teresa.  Maybe tomorrow.”

As far as Teresa was concerned, it was as good as done.  She bent over and kissed him on the cheek, then sat down in the chair nearest his, so excited she squirmed and twitted like a little girl.  Come to think of it, those little girl years weren’t all that long ago.

Scott cleared his throat and turned his eyes on Johnny, a smart-ass grin plastered all over his face.  “She also said she’d like to meet the ‘other’ son.   I refrained from telling her she had already met the best of our father’s prodigy.  There was no point disappointing her as she said she looked forward to meeting you.”

“That right?”

“Indeed.”  His grin couldn’t get any bigger and Johnny had a hard time holding back his own.  Old Boston sure could pull out the charm when he wanted, Johnny would give him that.

“Well, it’s a good thing his first prodigy already met the lady, as he won’t be looking too good once I finish with him.”

“Even at my worst, little brother, there is no comparison.”

“You ain’t seen my charming best, soldier boy.  Not even close.”

The smile dimmed but the spark in his eyes didn’t.  “Don’t push too much.  I’ll start calling you baby brother.”

“If you do, you won’t come away walking.”  Johnny wasn’t kidding entirely.  How would it sound if one of the hands heard him called ‘baby’.  Or, dios, a former compadre.  He’d never live it down.

Scott threw back his head and laughed.  “Come on, Johnny.  Let’s go see Isidro.”

Shit, what had just happened?  Just like that Scott took no account of the threat.   His brother would have to take him more seriously.  And other than actually shooting him, which his old man would definitely not approve of, how could he make Scott see that he wasn’t a kid brother, especially the kid part.  The brother part, he hadn’t given up on that entirely.

His hat settled on his head with a gentle tap.  Scott was already at the door before Johnny realized his brother had put it there.  Scott opened the door, and with an “if you please” bowed from the waist.  Johnny glanced at the others – Murdoch had a newspaper in front of his face.  Teresa was studying an apple slice like she thought it might start growing.  Maria – did she wink?  It was so quick Johnny wasn’t sure.

“Johnny?” 

“You call me baby, and you’re a dead man,” Johnny mumbled as he walked by Scott and out the door.

Out of nowhere an arm clamped around his neck and caught him in a headlock.  Johnny squirmed, trying to get free, but couldn’t loosen the hold.   Truth be told, there were ways he could break out.  Give a man a hard fist to the kidney and he’d buckle to the ground; probably piss blood for a week or two.  He’d broken a man’s rib by squeezing until it cracked like a nut in a vice.  Or the way to drop him the quickest, crush his balls so hard you’d swear you could feel them burst in your hand.  But those men had wanted to cause Johnny more than hurt.  Scott didn’t though Johnny’s first instinct almost kicked in; he checked it.  No way could he do any of that to Scott, so he hung on until he grabbed onto those boney ribs and realized Scott was ticklish.  Scott screeched like a girl, but didn’t let go until he started coughing.  His arm loosened and Johnny tripped him.  Scott lay in the grass, hacking then laughing then hacking.  Johnny wasn’t sure what was causing what and started to worry that it wouldn’t stop.

Finally, Scott sprawled against the yellow grass, pale and exhausted, with a damn smug smile on his face.  “You’re damn dangerous with those fingers, boy.”

“I’m damn dangerous with more than my fingers, Scott.”  Damn, why didn’t Scott realize that?

The smile left his face, and Scott quieted, studying him as if it was the saddest thing he had ever discovered.  “I know you are, Johnny.  I know you are.”

Maybe Scott did know after all.  And why the hell did Johnny care?  He looked down on his brother, a man he hardly knew, who sure the hell had a way of pushing him farther than anyone dared.  But he let him push and Johnny didn’t know how to stop it.  What had worked on others he couldn’t, wouldn’t use on Scott.

He offered his hand.  “Come on, shit head.  We’ve got a sick man to see.”

Scott chuckled.  “I think I prefer soldier boy.”  He lifted his hand and grabbed onto Johnny like an anchor.

His brother fussed all the way to Isidro’s, brushing his butt, the sleeves of his jacket, his trousers.

“You missed a spot,” Johnny said as he flicked a wilted blade of grass from Scott’s shoulder.  “Why are you so damn picky?”

He lifted his shoulders in a shrug.  “An instilled habit from my grandfather.  I couldn’t leave the house unless everything was neat and in place from head to toe.”

“All the time?”  Couldn’t the kid ever get dirty!

“Not all the time.  Just for social affairs, going to school, church, visiting friends and neighbors.”  Scott smiled.  “I guess pretty much all the time.”

Isidro’s house sat several hundred yards to the east of the main hacienda.  It was evident that a feminine hand was responsible for the bright flowers in the pathway and the flower boxes at the windows.   Filmy curtains fluttered through the open glass, floating with the hot summer wind.

 Scott knocked on the door and in a few moments a girl of about ten opened it.

“Miranda, is your papa home?”

“Si, Senor Johnny.  But he is not feeling well.”

“Do you think we can come in and talk to him?  Just for a few minutes?”

“Carmelita, who is it?”

“It is Senor Johnny and Senor Scott papa.”

“Ah.”  He sounded tired.  “Let them in my angel.”

Carmelita pushed the door open and stepped aside.  “Papa is in his bed.”  She pointed to one of two rooms off of the main living area.  Again, there was a definite hand of a woman in the neat appearance and tidy comfort of the modest room.   A small kitchen was to the right with a large pot bubbling with something on the stove.

“Where is your mother, little one?”  Johnny bent to her level.

“She is with Senora Adams, preparing bread.”

“Are you taking care of your papa?”

“Si.  And watching the soup.”  She pointed to the stove.

“Could you do me a favor?  There’s a litter of kittens in the barn that could use some little girl love.  Do you think you could give it to them, help them to not be afraid of people?”

A grin brightened her face, all the way to her eyes.  “Si,” she said, nodding her head, obviously very willing and happy to play with the kittens.

“Okay.  We’ll come get you when we leave and then you can come back and care for …”

She was out the door before he could finish the sentence.

“Kittens and children, a good idea, Johnny.”

“Always works.”

Isidro was in bed, although he didn’t look like he needed to be.  There was a day’s old beard on his face, but his color was ruddy and healthy.  An empty plate of smeared eggs, bacon bits and bread crumbs was on the small table next to the bed.   He’d obviously consumed a good breakfast and Johnny figured he was in a lot better shape than Scott.  But he couldn’t deny the fear and near panic in his eyes.  Nor the pistol that lay next to the empty breakfast plate.

“Hey Isidro.  Thought we’d come by and see how you are?”

“It was here,” he whispered, and pointed to the open window.  The only thing Johnny could see was a bunch of violets trailing down the wall.  The wind must have pushed them in from the window box.

Johnny stepped over to the window and peaked out.  “There’s nothing there, Isidro.”

“But it was.  I could hear it, last night, at the window.”

“What did you hear?”

“Footfalls, and breathing, Senor Scott.  The grass is dry.  I could hear him as he moved.”

“Did you see anything?” Johnny asked, inspecting the window sill for any signs of entrance.  He brushed aside the violets looking for scratches on the sill.  But there was nothing, not even dust disturbed.

“No, but I could feel him.  He does not have to speak.”

Johnny looked at Scott and Scott looked at Johnny.  Now what?

“Did Mrs. Tomas hear anything?”

“Ah, Johnny,” he said, sweeping the idea aside with a flick of his hand.  “She sleeps like a stone.  The only thing that would wake her is an earthquake.  And maybe it would bury her before she awoke.”

“How about the children?”

“Carmelita is like her mother; nothing wakes her.  The boys are in the north, by Blue Creek.”

“Well, if it helps, I’m feeling much better.  Doctor Jenkins thinks we must have picked up something in town, possibly at the cantina.”  Scott tried to sound cheery, but Johnny didn’t think he’d convince the old vaquero.

Isidro didn’t buy it.  “You don’t look so good, Senor Scott.  You are pale, and thin.”

“Hell, Isidro.  My brother is always pale.”  He ignored the scowl Scott gave him.  “And skinny,” he went on, thinking to pay him back for the ‘baby’ crack.  “Hell, a stick broom is heavier than Scott.”

“Other than that, Isidro,” Scott said, the scowl still there.  “I am feeling much better.  Especially since I’ve been up and about.  Maybe you need to do the same thing?  Get up, go to work, think of …”

Scott waived a silent signal to Johnny, asking for … help?  “Oh yeah, Isidro.  It’s a beautiful day and my father…”  Johnny remembered Isidro would do anything for his father.  “Ah, my father thought you might be able to help your boys check that fence line.  That’s what they’re doing, right?”  It was a guess, but not much up in that area of Lancer needed work except the ever-limping fence.

He was considering it.  His forehead wrinkled, and unwrinkled.  He looked towards the window, back at Johnny, then Scott.

“What about my wife?  I would not want to leave her alone in this house.  And my daughter?”

“We’ve got plenty of room at the house.  Besides, your wife is helping Maria and a couple other ladies care for …  Ouch!”  Why the hell did Scott kick him?

“They’re helping Maria care for the house.  Teresa will be going to visit a friend in town tomorrow and you know, that’s a big house for one person to take care of.  Right, Johnny?”

“Oh yes, definitely.”

Johnny almost messed that one up.  Don’t want to bring up the dying woman.  That was the reason Isidro thought he was cursed.  “That’s a big old house to care for.  So, just pack a couple of shirts, supplies for the day and you should be there before the sun sets.”  Johnny hoped his smile was encouraging but it sure felt phony.

Finally, finally Isidro nodded.  “If that is what your papa wants, I will do so.”  He flung back the sheets and jumped out of bed, all signs of the sickness gone.  Whatever illness Scott and Isidro had, it was evident that Isidro’s was mild.  Scott still looked like shit.

They left the small house, Johnny confident that Isidro would be gone before the hour.  Johnny would find Mrs. Tomas and tell her what was going on.  She would collect her daughter and move into the main house for a few nights.  And Scott would go back to bed.  Although he didn’t know that yet.  By the way he listed to the right, then left, Johnny didn’t think he would take much convincing.  There was just one last thing Johnny needed to check out.

Scott started towards the house, then stopped when Johnny didn’t follow. “Johnny, aren’t you coming?”

“No.  You go on, Scott.  I’ll be there in a few minutes.  I need to check on … the kittens.”

“I didn’t expect you to be a kitten man.”  He stood with hands on his hips, not believing a word.

“I’ve got all sorts of surprises, brother.  You need help getting to the house?”  Cuz he thought he just might.  But that old Yankee stubborn kicked in.

“No.  I can make it.”

“Then.  What’s keeping you?”

 Scott stood his ground, until Murdoch appeared at the door.

“Everything all right boys?”

“Yup, Murdoch.  Except Scott might need tucking in.”  Johnny grinned ear to ear when Scott silently mouthed ‘ass.’  But it got him turned around, back to the house.

Johnny waited till they were both inside, then traced his steps to Isidro’s.  He walked through the dry grass to Isidro’s bedroom window.  He booted aside the dead weeds and wilted flowers.  Kneeling down in the dirt he whispered a soft ‘damn’ when he spotted the faint outline of a footprint.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 7 – The Matter of the Window

Scott tried to pass Murdoch without a lot of chit chat.  He wasn’t feeling well, didn’t want to be questioned by his father about his health, and sure the hell didn’t want to explain that Johnny was going to play with kittens.  He lost on all points.

“How are you doing Scott?”

He managed to stay polite and presented what he hoped was a healthy smile.  “Just fine, Murdoch.”  Did his father have the same lift of the eyebrow he did when skeptical?  It appeared so.  Surprises seemed never ending in discovering family traits.  Fortunately, Murdoch changed the subject.

“How is Isidro?”

“He’s leaving.”

“What?”

“No.”  Given Murdoch’s shocked reaction, there was a definite misunderstanding.  “Not forever.  He’s joining his sons at Blue Creek.  Fixing fence I presume.  We’ll have two guests.  Senora Tomas and Carmelita.  We didn’t think you’d mind.”

“Of course not.  Angelina has been here all night anyway.  Carmelita can stay in Teresa’s room.  She’s going to be with the Harkness family in Green River for a few days.”

“Ah.  You gave in to her charms?”

Murdoch twisted his lip.  “I thought it best she visit friends.”

“She wore you down.”  Scott couldn’t help but grin at his father’s puckered face.

“We were talking about Isidro.”

A harsh stare told Scott it was best to drop Teresa getting her way.  “Were we?  Oh yes.  Johnny tried to convince him there was nothing to fear.  Not sure he bought it but he seemed relieved to be getting out of here.  As long as his wife and daughter are taken care of.”

“Well.  That’s one less worry anyway.  Where is Johnny?”

That was an excellent question and he was almost positive Murdoch wouldn’t believe it anymore than he did.  “He is checking on … kittens.”  Scott managed a sloppy something he hoped was a smile, certain it appeared as stupid as he felt.  By the look on Murdoch’s face, he was accurate.

“Kittens?”

“Yes, sir.  That is what he told me.”

Scott hadn’t seen his father open mouthed before and decided it wasn’t very attractive.  “Although I’m not entirely sure that is what he is actually doing.  In fact, I would guess, not.”

“Hmm.  I would agree with your guess.”  Murdoch scratched his cheek and harrumphed in a flat sort of way.  “Well, I’m sure he is doing something … constructive.” 

Before his father exhibited more funny faces, Scott thought it would be best if he moved along.   Besides, he felt like he could wilt into the floor anytime and his patience was ebbing – and he was, grumpy.   “If there’s nothing more, sir, I thought I’d try to catch up on letter writing.  Unless you’ve got a steer to brand or a creek to clear.  Or need an arm, leg, gut.”

By the way Murdoch put his hands on his hips and glared, Scott figured he may have pushed just a little too far.

“You do have a sarcastic bent, and at times it can be amusing, even tolerated.  But not always, especially when said in a tone of disrespect.  Do I make myself clear?”

Scott didn’t need a fever to tell him his face was hot red.  How did he let himself stumble into this mess?  Oh yes, the same way he’d done a hundred times before in his life time.  He opened his mouth and spewed exactly what he thought, not always tactful but certainly always clever.  His father obviously had had enough.

“I do apologize, Murdoch.  I was not brought up that way.”  Even as it left his mouth he knew it was the wrong thing to say.  “I’m sorry,” he fumbled.  “I know you don’t like my grandfather.  I didn’t mean …”

“Take it easy, Scott.  I accept your apology, but not for the way you were brought up.  You’re a fine young man except for that damnable habit of being derisive and mocking.  If you weren’t my son I’d be inclined …  But since you are my son I would definitely be more apt to … Well, let’s just say I’d appreciate less of the sarcasm.”

“Yes, sir.”  Scott decided it wasn’t wise to question his father as to what he’d be more apt to do, although the urge was there to ask.  He was in fact truly embarrassed.  This man was his father, regardless of a twenty-four year absence.  In the short time he’d been at Lancer, he’d found him to be only fair and hard working.  And loyal.  That was the rub, not loyal enough to collect a son who waited for him year after year after year.   He’d felt a craving for answers when he met his father for the first time and the physical ache still remained.

A large hand touched his shoulder and he flinched.  It squeezed harder as he tried to pull away.  When he looked up, Murdoch’s anger was gone, replaced by what appeared to be understanding and maybe sadness.

“Go write some letters, Scott.  There’s nothing that can’t be done tomorrow.”

Nodding his head, he felt like a chastised child.  He struggled to come back with a witty reply, respectful or otherwise, but was too empty to try.  And what was the point?  The headache that had been with him since yesterday morning pounded with each beat of his heart.  With a gentle nudge, his father directed him to the stairs and he complied.

*****

“Murdoch, I just saw Teresa leaving with Walt.”

Murdoch frowned at his son, and his smirk.  There was one thing about Johnny that was disquieting, well, one thing of many.  He seemed able to read every motive and judge every move as to why someone did what they did.  As hard as Murdoch tried to hide his feelings, he had the suspicion they were open to Johnny.  It was damned irritating.

The recent exchange with Scott had drained him, left him raw like a new cut.  He was edgy and knew it.  Scott had gone quietly to his room obviously unwell, and Murdoch couldn’t stop the guilt that he had somehow made everything worse.

“She’s going to Green River, spend some time with Luella and her family.”

“Oh.”  The grin got bigger.  “I thought you said tomorrow.”

“I did.”  He cringed at his own bark.  “She’s been cooped up here for months,” he said, his tone much milder, not wanting to fight with another son.  “She needed to see some friends her own age.”

Thankfully, Johnny only nodded his head and seemed to let it drop.  Was that his insight again?

“Something smells good.”

“Maria is making tamales and beans.”

“Oh?  One of my favorites.”

Murdoch chuckled.  “You seem to have many favorites, Johnny.  Anything you don’t like.”

Johnny pursed his lips and looked at the ceiling.  “Hmm.  Maybe ….  Huitlacoche.  Yes, definitely huitlacoche.  You ever heard of it?”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve eaten it.”

“Yeah?  And, what did you think?”

“Not to my taste.”  Murdoch settled into a side chair.  “The sheriff from Green River stopped by.  Wanted to let me know there was another break-in last night.”

“Where?”

“The Parson ranch.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “No.  But gold candle sticks and Mrs. Parson’s good silver were taken.”

“They have any idea who’s doing it?  See anything at all?”

“The sheriff seems to think it’s more than one person, but he has no basis for that.  Whoever it is, they are very quiet.  Mrs. Parson is a light sleeper and she didn’t hear a thing.”

Johnny skimmed his fingers across Murdoch’s desk, head down, apparently deep in thought.

“Something bothering you?”  There was disquiet in the way he moved.  “Johnny?”

“At Isidro’s.”

“What about Isidro?  Scott said he was going up to the Blue Creek fence line, with his boys.”

“Yeah.  He is, or probably on his way.  But, ah, he claims someone was at his window last night.  I went back to his house, checked around.  There was a footprint in the dust.”

Murdoch leaned back in the chair.  “What kind of print?  Lots of wind the last few days, Johnny.  Could you be mistaken?”

“No.  It was there, right next to the loose dirt by the window.  It wasn’t a boot though.  Looked more like a soft shoe of some type.”  He circled in front of Murdoch’s chair, stopped and hooked his hands in his belt.  “Do the Tomas’s have anything of value?”

“Mrs. Tomas has some jewelry she inherited from her mother a few years ago.  But if there was someone at that window, it wasn’t thieves.”

“How do you figure?”

“Think, Johnny.  The Parsons live on the other side of Green River.  The thieves couldn’t hit them and Lancer in the same night.”

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Murdoch.   But Isidro swears there was someone at his window last night.  And, by the looks of it, there was.”

Murdoch ran his finger along his lips, more than guessing who left that print.  “Does Scott know?”

“I didn’t find it till after Scott came in.  Where is he anyway?”

“He said he had some letters to answer, went to his room.  Last time I looked in on him he was sleeping.”  Never showing weakness, or trying to.  Murdoch knew the letters were an excuse.  Knew it the moment he saw Scott needing to lean on something to stand.  But he’d allow him his pride, overlook the lie.

Johnny fiddled with a beaded bracelet and Murdoch watched him.  “Son, there’s nothing we can do until the old woman dies.  You know that?”

“Yup.  Guess we’ll just have to be extra careful.  But damn, I sure hate waiting around.  Not my style.”

He didn’t have to tell Murdoch that, although he guessed there were times when Johnny did nothing but wait.  “At least I don’t have to worry about Teresa,” Murdoch said as he hauled himself out of the chair.  “I need to check some bills.  Clean yourself up and take it easy for a while.  Dinner will be ready in an hour or so.”

“Ah.  Tamales and beans.  With plenty of chilis.”

“On the side.”  No way could Murdoch eat the red and green chilies that Johnny did, or most of the vaqueros for that matter.  Some of the hands liked spicy but usually not as hot as the Mexicans.

Johnny started for the stairs.  “Ah, Murdoch?”  he said, stopping at the first step.  “Have you seen her?”

“Yes.  No change.  If anything, her breathing has slowed.  I don’t think she’ll last till the end of the week.”

“For a small old lady, she sure holds on.”

Murdoch almost said ‘too long’, and was immediately ashamed.

“The hands are talking Murdoch.  Some of them think Isidro and Scott got sick because of the woman.  And that Scott’s still sick because he’s the one who brought her here.”

“That’s ridiculous, Johnny.”

“I know, I know.  But if you have any ideas on how to change their mind, I’m open.”

“I don’t,” Murdoch sighed.  The brandy bottle was looking very appealing.   Not that it would solve the problems, but the way it numbed the worry was, at this point, more attractive than a prize bull.

“Are any thinking of leaving?”  That’s the last thing Lancer needed.  They were just getting back to a full crew after Pardee’s death.

“Oh, there’s grumblings, big talk but basically bullshit.  That’s mostly from the newer hands who want more money.  Some of the older Mexicans, though, that might be a different story if they start thinking every bad thing that happens is a curse.

“Cip?”

“He’s the one who told me.  I just talked to him before coming in.  Cip ain’t going anywhere.”

“Good, good.  Oh, Johnny how are the kittens?”  Murdoch couldn’t resist.

A huge grin swept across his face and he chuckled.  “Cute as …. Kittens.”

“That’s good to hear, anyway. They’re valuable stock.  Keep the mice and rats down.”

The picking at the bracelet started again.  “It’ll work out, Johnny,” Murdoch said, trying to reassure.  “It always has.”

“Yup.  But has it always ended the way you wanted?”

Two wives and two little boys, gone.  No, it hadn’t always ended the way he wanted.  He scrubbed a hand across his forehead, the brandy glittering like a diamond ring.

“We’ll talk more at dinner,” Murdoch said, resigned and sad that the only solution was the passing of a small stranger dying just down the hall. 

The creek of the stairs told him Johnny had reached the top.  Stretching his back, he fingered the bones of his spine wondering if he was close to the bullet.  Some days it was more painful than others.  Brandy was sure to help.

*****

He popped his eyes open.  What the hell was going on?  He rubbed his palms against his eyes, trying to clear the fog.  The noise in the hallway wasn’t a dream.  Where the hell were his pants?  He grabbed his trousers, and thought of Scott, one leg at a time.  Fumbled with buttons on his fly.  Damn it, his boots.  Where did he throw them when he took them off?

Hell with it.  He flung open the door and into his father’s great big hand across his mouth.  “Be quiet, Johnny,” Murdoch whispered.  “Angelina thinks there’s someone in the house.”

Senora Tomas was behind his father, wide-eyed but composed.  Scott stood at the head of the stairway, barefoot with trousers on and an open shirt, a pistol gripped in his hand.  Johnny ducked back into his room, reached for the gun belt on the headboard and scrambled back into the hall.  Scott was already halfway down the stairs, Murdoch close behind.

“Senora,” he said pulling her into his room.  “You’ll be safe.  Stay here.”

“No.  I must see to Carmelita in Miss Teresa’s room.”

“All right, but stay there until someone comes for you, comprende?”

“Si.”

He made sure she was headed down the hallway, then turned to the stairs.  Remembering the third step creaked because of a loose nail, he grabbed the banister and stepped to the fourth.  Murdoch and Scott were nowhere in sight and he figured they had split up, but which way?  He decided to check the Great Room and his father’s den as they were the closest.  The moon was at three-quarters, it was a clear night so at least a small amount of light came through the windows and doors.

The Great Room was empty, the French Doors still bolted as when he’d checked them earlier.  The drapes were undisturbed, nothing and no one behind any of the chairs or couch.  He was steadily making his way to the den when he heard a scraping sound on the other side of the door.  He licked his lips, put his finger on the trigger, turned the doorknob and someone fell into his arms.  With a grunt he pulled the man’s arms behind his back and held on.

“Don’t you move.”

“It’s me, Johnny.  Get off.”

“Jesus, Scott.  I could have shot you!”  His heart thundered with that reality.

“Let me up.”

“Boys, what is the racket?  If anyone was here, they’re gone now.”  There was a lengthy pause.  “Johnny, why are you sitting on your brother?”

“Because I thought he was the thief.”

“Well I’m not.”  Scott squirmed under his weight.

“Hell.”  Johnny got off and watched as Scott hoisted himself up.  He was so danged mad he felt like hitting something.  “Next time wait for me so I know where the hell you’re going.  Okay?”

“Yes, it would seem that would have been the best tactic,” Scott said acting pissed as hell.  He swept his hair out of his eyes.  “Anything Murdoch?”

“Not in the west wing.  All of the windows and doors are locked.  I haven’t checked the east yet but I think if someone was here, they’re not any longer.”

“Sorry, Murdoch.  I’d be laughing if it weren’t so damn stupid.”  Johnny was so disgusted with himself he could have yelled.

“It’s no one’s fault.  I think the minute Senora Tomas came to get me whoever it was, if anyone, was alerted.  Let’s get a lantern; at least we don’t have to stumble around in the dark.”

Within a minute two lanterns were lit.  “Let’s check the east wing.  We can make sure Anciana is all right at the same time.”

“Anciana, Murdoch?”

“Yes, Scott.  That’s what the ladies have been calling her.  It’s means the old one, or old lady in Spanish.”

“Much nicer than old woman.”

“Scott, would you please get Mrs. Tomas while Johnny and I check the east wing.  I’d like to talk to her about exactly what she saw, or heard.”

“Sure, Murdoch.”  Scott strode towards the stairway while Johnny and Murdoch went to check the east wing of the house.  There was no sign of anyone.  The windows and doors were locked as they had been when Johnny checked them before going to bed.  Murdoch quietly opened the bedroom door to make sure Anciana was resting.  Johnny could see a the glow of a dim light in the corner of the room near a rocking chair and assumed that’s where the ladies sat as they watched the old woman.  He could only see a small bump in the coverlet, but not her face.

By the time they returned to the Great Room, Scott was there with Senora Tomas.

“Senora,” Murdoch went down on one knee beside the chair she was in and took her hand.  “Angelina, can you tell us what you heard or saw?”

“Oh, Patron.  Maybe I’ve been living too long with my husband.  He is muy superstitious so now I jump too.  I thought I heard someone outside of the window.  A shadow moved when I turned to look, and maybe that’s all it was.  A shadow of a tree or bush or something blown by the wind.”  She accepted the brandy that Scott gave her and sipped it.  “Gracias.”

Johnny could see she was shook up and thought she shouldn’t be left alone.  “Murdoch, do you want to me to get Maria or someone to sit with her.”

“Oh, Johnny.  It’s in the middle of the night.  I don’t want to upset anyone now.”  He turned to the Senora.  “Angelina, why don’t you stay in Teresa’s room with your daughter for the rest of the night?  The old woman won’t wake up if she hasn’t by now.”  He patted her hand, Johnny marveling at the tenderness of his gruff old man.

“Gracias, Patron.  I will.  I am sorry for the fuss.”

“No, no.  Don’t apologize.  It’s all right.  There are thieves that have been hitting some of the area ranches and I’m grateful you woke us up.  You go on now.  Go to bed.”  Murdoch pulled her up and led her to the stairway, his big old arm resting gently across her small shoulders.  Johnny could hardly admit it to himself, but he wanted that tenderness, wondered what it felt like.

As he walked back to them, Murdoch tightened the belt on his robe and stuffed his hands in the pockets.  “Would you two take a look around outside?  Try to be quiet about it.  I’ve got a man in the watchtower.  Ask him if he’s seen or heard anything.  I think in the day light we’ll have a better chance of finding signs if someone’s been around.”

“Sure, Murdoch.  Come on, Scott.  There’s some old workboots just outside the kitchen door.”

It didn’t take long.  Johnny went right and Scott went left.  Nothing.  Scott talked to the watchman.  Other than the fact he was lonely and bored and talked Scott’s ear off, he had nothing to report.

“Come on, Boston.  Let’s go to bed.  We’ll check it out more in the morning.”

“Yeah.  If we can go back to sleep.”

“I can.”

Scott chuckled, then swung an arm across Johnny’s shoulders.  It was nice, maybe almost as good as if it was his old man’s arm.

*****

They checked the next morning with the same results.  The hundreds of shoe and boot prints left by the people of Lancer made it impossible to determine if a stranger had been on the grounds.  Mrs. Tomas’s explanation that perhaps she had heard something in the wind or a branch might have tapped against the window seemed plausible.  Except for three things.  Neither Scott, Johnny or Murdoch believed it.  There had been no wind the night before nor was there a tree branch close enough to the window to hit it.  And then there was the matter of the window.  When they had gone through the house checking for intruders the night before, all of the windows and doors had been secured.  The next morning the bedroom window where the old woman lay dying was wide open.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 8 – The Pearls

Scott hadn’t seen the old woman since he’d been chased from the bedroom the night he brought her home.  He’d been afraid he might infect her with whatever sickness he carried.  However, this was the third morning and he’d consigned himself to the fact that it didn’t matter even if he had leprosy, she was not going to wake up.

He touched his forehead, felt the warmth of a lingering fever.  At least his head didn’t boom like a bouncing cannon ball.  The image in the mirror appeared – not so deathly pale, and that was about the best he could say.  He tried to focus his eyes.  How the hell could a man have such dark purple shadows? He was reminded of a drawing he’d seen in a horror story written by a man named Poe.   He was tempted to rummage through Teresa’s room for any rice powder she may have, dab it on the dark circles.  All of the ladies in Boston used it, but then recalled this wasn’t Boston and Teresa was beautiful without it.  There was the alternative of digging into the flour bin but in the end just thought that would make it worse.  The hands certainly didn’t need to see him whiter than the ghosts they believed in.

The clock in the hallway chimed ten; another morning he had returned to bed.  At least he’d managed to check the grounds at sunrise with Johnny.  He couldn’t remember the excuse he gave but Murdoch accepted it without reproach or question.  He was grateful for the added rest, but felt guilty.  There was a ranch out there, with cattle and horses and all sorts of needed maintenance and repairs.  But regardless of how hard he would try, he knew he’d likely be the one needing repairs at the end of the day.

Could it be?  For just a moment the thought crept into his mind that perhaps he was cursed.  He shook his head, physically thrusting aside such a ridiculous notion.  Isidro was fine and in fact, right now pulling wire and straightening fence posts with his sheer strength.  For some reason, Scott had been affected more by the illness.  The doctors had warned him on his release from the hospital that his health may have been compromised as a result of his year-long confinement in the prisoner of war camp.  It was stupid to think some other-worldly evil eye was responsible.

He tucked his shirt in his pants, slipped into his boots and headed for the kitchen.  A hot cup of black coffee, maybe a light breakfast, then he’d check on the woman.  What did they call her?  Anciana.  Old lady sounded much more beautiful in Spanish than English.

His father wasn’t in the Great Room but he could hear the sound of iron being pounded.  Murdoch must be at the forge, what to him was relaxation.  Johnny?  Who knew?  Kittens?  Scott smiled but unlikely.  Even though Scott knew Johnny was fond of animals, that didn’t make him any less apt to coldly make a decision that a man needed to die.  Of that Scott had no doubt, and hoped the reason was always justified.  But whose justice?  Scott felt his headache returning, dismissed Johnny and focused back on that black cup of coffee.

Mrs. Wallace was in the kitchen.  At least once a week she came in to help with the cooking and cleaning to give Maria a day off.  Murdoch had told him she also helped during special celebrations as well as lending a hand when the garden produce was ready for canning.  She had a young son, Ben, who seemed like a nice enough kid.  Her home was on the outskirts of Green River, she took in sewing, and Scott thought she may also be the baker for the local hotel.  That was all he knew about her.  She was quiet, reserved and very pleasant.  There was something more that he couldn’t put his finger on, but he sensed a wariness about her.  That’s why he cleared his throat, just to let her know he was there.  Still, she jumped slightly but smiled when she saw him.

“Mr. Lancer.  May I help you with something?  Breakfast perhaps?”

“Thank you, yes.  Uhm, I’d start with a hot cup of coffee if it’s convenient.”

“Of course, please, sit down and I’ll get it for you.”

The coffee smelled wonderful as the steam from the cup drifted up to his nose.

“What would you like for breakfast?”

“Whatever is handy, Mrs. Wallace.”

“Your father and brother had pancakes and there’s some batter left.  It will only take a couple of minutes to make them.”

“That would be fine.  And most agreeable for my stomach.  I’ve been wrestling with some sort of … disruption.”  He put his hand on his stomach, grateful pancakes were available.

She laughed and brushed a lock of loose hair from her face with the back of her hand.  “I’ve never heard an upset stomach called a disruption before, Mr. Lancer.”

Scott thought she looked quite fetching with the blush on her cheeks and gentle smile.  “You may call me, Scott, please.  And yes, I find I’ve caused quite a bit of laughter with some of the words I use.”

“All right, Scott, then call me Laura.  I would imagine many of the hands don’t know what to make of you, being from the east and all.  Most of them are a good lot and any laughter would be in fun.”

“Yes, well, there are times I wonder, but I manage to get my point across.”  She was older than he was, he surmised at least ten years.   With a son, she must be married.  Then again, maybe that’s why Murdoch told him to mind his own business when Scott asked about her.  He learned quickly his father could be very direct.

A plate of fluffy pancakes followed by butter and syrup were set before him.  He didn’t realize how hungry he was and dove into the pancakes with relish while watching her knead bread.

“Have you seen Anciana?” he asked between bites of the cakes.  He understood that she had helped the ladies in caring for the old woman.

“For a short time this morning.  It is so sad, poor woman.  There’s nothing to her.  I’m afraid she’ll die soon.  It must have been shocking to find her out in the middle of nowhere.”

“Shocking would be an understatement, Laura.  Living out here has certainly been a learning experience.  I had no idea people did such things.  I mean, walked off to die.”

“They are an ancient people, and few left.  I’ve only heard of them and their stories.  Before Anciana I’d not seen any from her tribe.”

The pancakes made him feel much better and he enjoyed watching the graceful movement of her hands as she worked the dough.  Once in a while she’d bring a floured hand to her face, leaving a smudge of white.  When he felt his body start to react to the beautiful movement of her hands, he knew he had to leave.  Damn, it was hard when even the smallest attraction caused an involuntary reaction.  He’d been a cad the last couple of years in Boston, hopping from bed to bed, trying to forget … everything that he didn’t want to think about now.  It didn’t make him feel any better about himself and hoped to have left that behind when he came west.  But the gentle movement of a woman’s hand was lovely and he wouldn’t be ashamed or think any less of it or himself for responding.

“Thank you, Laura, for the breakfast.”

“You’re welcome Scott.  I hope you have a good day and that you’re feeling better soon.  You still look a bit peaked.”

“I’m feeling much better after your pancakes.  I think I’ll stop to see Anciana.”

“She is alone now.  But I’ll check on her before I start lunch.”

Anciana’s room was a short walk down the hall of the east wing from the kitchen.  There were several rooms that served to accommodate overnight guests, as well as a small store room for bedding and towels.  A large room with round tables and chairs was at the far end of the hall closest to the Great Room.  It reminded Scott of a gentlemen’s club and wondered if his father had hosted poker games before the Pardee raids.  If so, perhaps he would again institute the practice once the valley was back to normal.  Scott always enjoyed a good poker game and although many told him his face gave his hand away, he still managed to win a majority of the time.  You just had to have the knack.

The door was ajar and he nudged it aside, closing it when he walked through.  A soft breeze drifted across his face and he noted the open window.  He frowned, remembering this morning’s discovery.  It had been locked when Johnny checked it the night before, no question.

There was only the shallow up and down of her breathing.  He’d seen men die before.  On the battlefield it was usually quick.  In the hospitals it could go on for days.  Each breath came farther and farther apart until it just didn’t come anymore.  Some struggled, gasped each time they tried to draw in a breath.  Others just slipped away like it was a natural part of everyday life.   It had always amazed him that one moment they were alive and another moment gone.  Where did they go, these people of war?

He moved the rocking chair from the corner to the side of the bed and sat down.  Her hands were leathery, fingers long for such a small body.  The women, Maria and the others, had brushed her hair and it fanned against the white pillow, almost the same color as the linen.  Touching it, he imagined it would have been black when she was a young woman.  Long and black and silky.  Had her life been hard?  Would children mourn?  How could she want to die, when so many who wanted to live died every day?

The war had changed him, to say the least.  Life was easy to lose, so easy.  He’d not seen more cruelty or compassion as on the battlefields of the Rebellion.  It was a choice, to be kind … or not.  He had made a mental decision of kindness, in a selfish sort of way.  It wasn’t the inconvenience, but the work it took to ignore the cruelty, not to allow it to make him jaded or cynical.  Although he had to admit his sarcasm, as his father so thoughtfully pointed out to him, contained aspects of ‘smart-ass’.   Regardless, his father was a kind man, despite his mistakes.  Johnny was as well, although careful who he gave his kindness to.  Scott hoped he was.

He picked up her hand, felt the roughness and delicacy at the same time. It was cold.  He wrapped his fingers around hers, trying to warm them, knowing it was futile.  He didn’t fully understand why she’d become so important.  Maybe he felt responsible, like a kid picking up a stray puppy who was hungry and alone.  Or maybe because he’d fought so hard to live when so many died around him.  He’d been incredibly ill after prison, each day a struggle just to wake up, and he didn’t understand how she could let it go so easily.  Well, she wasn’t a stray puppy, maybe just a tired, sick old woman.   An unexpected lump caught in his throat.  Should he pray?  He should do something.  The prayer was simple –  ‘Please don’t let her be afraid.  Whoever you are, wherever she is, please, please don’t let her be afraid.’

The soft click on the door startled him and he dropped her hand.  He was surprised to feel tears on his cheeks.  Mortified, he looked down not wanting anyone to see them.

“Scott.”

His father’s voice, in the morning’s softness, called to him.  Something he had dreamed of all his life, until he didn’t anymore.

“Is everything all right?”

He could only nod, not look his father in the eye.  He held still, letting the tears dry for if he brushed them away Murdoch would know.  He’d vowed as a forgotten child that his father would never see him cry.

What was he going to do?  ‘Please leave,’ he begged silently.  ‘Please.  Leave.’  His father was quiet beside him.  He could smell the heat of the iron forge and his father’s sweat and, strangely, it was reassuring.  Scott cleared his throat, hoping when he spoke Murdoch wouldn’t hear the scratch in his voice.

“She’s very still.”

“Yes, she is.”  A large hand touched his shoulder, brushed across the nap of his neck and rested there.  Murdoch’s thumb tracked along his hairline, his calloused finger gentle.  He squeezed him lightly, then stepped away and left the room.

Scott bowed his head and stroked the comforter, amazed at the gentleness of his father’s touch.    His father’s touch – desired still after all these years.  He smoothed the soft fabric, embroidery and quilting attesting to many hours of skillful work.  Sitting back in the chair, he started rocking, back and forth, and didn’t move until Laura came in two hours later.

*****

“Man, am I hungry.”  Johnny dropped into the chair and scooted up to the table, the epitome of good health and youth.

“You’re always hungry.”  Scott tucked a napkin on his lap, a crooked smile on his lips.

“I’ve been working my arse off, brother.  Damn, Murdoch, I’ve never seen so many head of ornery critters in one place.  They’re so dumb, wonder how they manage to have babies.”

“Those are called calves, Johnny.  And I don’t think it takes many brains to, ah, perform.”  Murdoch didn’t realize Mrs. Wallace had come in and leaned back as she offered him a tureen of soup.  “I apologize for my remark of, ah, well, on the performance, Laura.”

“There is no need to apologize, Mr. Lancer.  This is a working cattle ranch and,” she glanced over at Johnny, “babies do happen.”

Chuckling, Johnny didn’t seem uncomfortable at all.

“Thank you, Laura, for your understanding.  And the soup looks delicious.”  He took a healthy portion and bent over his bowl, savoring the aroma of chicken.

“Thank you.  I hope you enjoy it.  Johnny?”

“Oh, chicken soup.  My favorite.”  Johnny ladled several spoonfuls into his bowl.

Scott quirked a knowing eye at Murdoch.  “Everything is his favorite.”

“Yes.  I recall I just mentioned that to him yesterday.”

Johnny shrugged and continued eating.  “Enjoy everything to the fullest, that’s my motto,” he said between mouthfuls.

“I’ll bring in the main course in a few moments.”  Laura set the tureen on the table and left the room.

“How was your first full day at work, Johnny?  Everything go all right?”

“Yup.  Except for the damn dumb cows that kept wanting to go the way we didn’t want ‘em to.  Stupid cows.”  He took another spoonful of soup.

“They are our livelihood son.  Stupid or not.  But you might want to try outsmarting them.”

Johnny glared up at him and swallowed his soup.  “Are you sayin’ they’re smarter than I am?”

“Well, son.  It seems they’ve given you quite a day.”

Scott laughed, Johnny gave his brother a dirty look, then grinned, and Murdoch smiled at both of them.  At least for now, everything was tranquil and Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief.  Johnny had put in a full day’s work after Dr. Jenkins’ okay and seemed fine.  The sun was shining, the day was warm and there had been no reports of thieves or strangers lurking about.

The incident earlier in the day with Scott had shocked and pained Murdoch.  He had stumbled into something he had no idea how to handle.  Murdoch could see the tears even though Scott tried to hide them.  He didn’t want to leave him alone, but at the same time had no desire to embarrass him.  The only comfort he could offer was a calloused thumb and a rough caress, brief as it was.

Once more he sadly acknowledged how little he knew his sons.  That his independent, sometimes aloof son could cry over a stranger was unexpected.  He knew Scott had a kind heart, but didn’t realize how deep that tenderness went.   Well, now he did.

The rest of the dinner was served.  There was easy conversation and Murdoch couldn’t have been more content.  Scott seemed happy and quick to laugh at his brother.  What’s more, even though he was pale, his appetite was good.  Murdoch could see a fever lingered, and those damnable shadows made him look haunted, but he was obviously feeling better.

 “Laura, your dinner was excellent.  Thank you.”  Murdoch pushed away from the table as Laura removed his plate.

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer.  I hope everyone was pleased with it.”

“I’m sure very much.  How is Ben?”

“He is good, thank you.  He always enjoys coming with me when I am at Lancer, but today he is with a friend.”

“You tell him he’s always welcome here.”

“I will do that.  Do you need anything else?”

“No.  What are your plans for tonight?  If you’re going to Green River, you should leave now, get home before it’s dark.”

“I planned to stay with Anciana.  Ben is cared for.  I’ll leave early in the morning.”

“Well, have a good night.  And Laura, don’t feel you have to sit with her all night.  I don’t think she’ll be waking up.  You can use one of the bedrooms in the east wing.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lancer.  I may do that.”

She was clearing away the leftover food and dirty dishes when they went into the Great Room.  “You got anymore of that Gil or Glen or whatever it’s called Murdoch?”

“I’ll have to get you some tequila the next time someone goes to town for supplies, Johnny.  I should have had Scott pick you up some, but he’d already left.  It’s much easier to obtain.”  Murdoch didn’t mention it was also much cheaper.

“Oh, I think I could get used to this stuff.  Never had anything like it before.”

“I think our father is trying to conserve the quantity he has left.”  Scott quirked an eye and smiled at Murdoch.  “If I’m not mistaken, I would guess that it takes a while to get a delivery.  Is that correct, sir?”

“Well, I don’t want to seem stingy, but, yes.  It takes months to get a shipment.  You add breakage and pilferage into that and sometimes what I receive is much less than I ordered.”

Johnny laughed, filled his glass and lifted in salute at his father.  “I guess I’d better get it while I can.”

Cheeky once again came to mind, but Murdoch would have given Johnny all the Scotch he wanted to ensure he stayed.

The sun was starting to set and Murdoch stretched his legs.  Scott was on the couch, head back, arms relaxed and almost asleep.  Johnny was flipping through an old newspaper he’d found somewhere.

“Hey Murdoch.  There’s a story here about a string of thefts up near Sacramento.  You think it could be the same guys robbing around here?”

“How long ago, Johnny?”

Johnny flipped to the front page.  “Looks to be last winter.”

“It’s possible but there’s never been a scarcity of thieves.  These seem a bit more clever than most though.  Did the article say if they were ever caught?”

“They were not.  Hmm.”  Johnny lowered the paper.  “All sorts used to come down by the border towns peddling stolen property.  Stupid though.  No one in the border towns had any money to buy, except the bandits who probably stole enough of that shit on their own.”

At least Johnny had toned down his cursing from when he first arrived and Murdoch was grateful for that.  His language had been as bad if not worse than the sailors Murdoch worked with while paying his way to America.  To a naïve youngster from the Highlands he thought the hand of God would surely crush the ship and scatter it like splinters across the ocean.  It appeared God was more merciful than Murdoch was lead to believe, a fact that immediately lightened his outlook on life – and his creator.

“There’s a whole market in Boston, and the east coast for stolen property.  Very underground but flourishing and hard to control,” Scott said never opening his eyes.

“Yeah?”  Johnny winked at Murdoch, obviously up to something.  “Is that how your abuelo got gold candlesticks and china?”

A slow smile spread across Scott’s face but he didn’t open his eyes.  “My grandfather always knew a good deal when he came across one.”

“He’d buy stolen goods?”  Johnny sounded surprised.

Scott raised his head and shrugged.  “If he wanted it bad enough, I wouldn’t be shocked.  He can be very single-minded once he’s focused on obtaining something.  Let’s just say he wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to benefit from someone else’s loss and leave it at that.”

“Why, the old bastardo.”

“Johnny.”  Murdoch had a few harsher terms for Harlan Garrett.  He knew what the man was capable of stealing and it was a lot more valuable than someone’s set of China.  Still, he didn’t think it appropriate to call him names in front of Scott.  There was one interesting point – Scott obviously realized that his grandfather could be less than honorable.

“It’s all right, Murdoch.  I’ve witnessed my grandfather’s business dealings.  He tried to instill in me that business is business, a rather damn-the-consequences and nothing personal outlook.  I guess I didn’t have the same viewpoint.”

“I’ll be damned,” Johnny said.  “I knew men could be greedy, rich or poor.”  There was a question lingering on his face.  “You sure the hell don’t seem cut from the same cloth.”

 The same cheeky expression Johnny could display spread across Scott’s face.  “How do you know?”

Johnny studied his brother before answering, his manner not as flippant as it had been.  “I can read people pretty good, Boston.  One of my many talents.  You got any to share?”

Murdoch wasn’t sure where the conversation was going or if he should step in.  There had been a definite turn from amusing to serious.  He was reluctant to stop them as in just a few minutes a picture of his sons’ past had opened ever so slightly.  However, he didn’t want anything to get out of hand.  Perhaps they were just two young men feeling one another out, establishing a relationship with posturing and bluster.  After all, how well did they really know one another?  They’d only been together a few weeks.

“I do have a certain way with the ladies,” Scott replied with pure aplomb.

Johnny’s explosion of laughter and Scott’s wide grin eased Murdoch’s tension.  He’d over-reacted, not his sons.  Still, an undercurrent had appeared if only for a moment, of that he had no doubt.

“Well, boys,” Murdoch said, relieved that he could go to bed and relax, “I think I’ll head upstairs and unwind with a good book.”   He was getting ready to do just that when there was a soft knock at the French Doors.  Frank was on the other side holding a large bulging burlap bag.

“What in the world.”  Murdoch hauled himself out of the chair and opened the glass doors.  “Frank.  Is there a problem?”  At this hour, he hoped not.

“I thought you ought to know what a couple of the hands found at the Lorelei Mr. Lancer.”

“Well, come in.”  Murdoch stepped aside and motioned Frank to come in.

“Johnny, Scott,” Frank clipped an acknowledgement.

“Hey, Frank.”  Johnny dropped the paper.  Scott sat forward on the couch and nodded at Frank.

“What is it Frank?”

“Pete and Simon decided they’d had enough beef and wanted to catch some fish for the fellas, for a fish fry.  You know that fishing pond, up by the Lorelei?  The one called Dawson’s Pond?”

“Yes, Frank.  I know the pond.  Is that what you’re bringing us, a bag full of fish?”

Frank smiled and shook his head, then became serious.  “No sir.  But the fellas thought the mine didn’t look right.  It’s been abandoned for so long, but there were signs that someone had been there.  Hoof prints, lots of ‘em.  The boards at the entrance had been taken down.  So anyway, they went down to have a look around.  Someone’s been there all right.”

As he set the bag on the floor the contents shifted and clanged.   Frank bent down and pulled out a jewelry box, a gem laden candy dish, two gold candlesticks as well as several other Items of value.

“These are the things that were reported stolen!”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Lancer.  I’m thinking the thieves stashed the goods in the old mine.  Pete and Simon said there was bedding and such inside, a cold campfire, tins of food, both opened and unopened.  They must be living in there.”

“Probably won’t be for long.  When they find these things gone, they’ll high tail it out of the county.  But, at least we have the stolen items.  Would you go to Green River right away in the morning, let the sheriff know?”

“Yes, sir.  I will Mr. Lancer.”  Frank turned to go then dug inside his vest.  “Oh.  One more thing.  They also found this.”

A chill went down Murdoch’s spine.  ‘”What in the world?”

“What is it Murdoch?”  Scott rose from the couch and stepped beside his father.

“I saw Miss Teresa wearing them the last dance you put on.  It’s been a while but she looked so grown up with ‘em on.  I knew right away they were hers.”

He reached for the item in Frank’s hand and rubbed his fingers across the worn leather.  He opened the case and resting on the satin lining were Teresa’s pearls.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 9 – The Tune Caller

It was a long night of tossing and turning, wondering how the hell someone had gotten in and stolen Teresa’s pearls right under their noses.  If Pardee and thirty some men couldn’t take them down, how could one lone intruder disrupt their lives to such an extent?  Never mind the old lady’s family, or whoever may be watching them on her account.  Could they be one and the same?  Murdoch dismissed the thought.  What use had an Indian for gold candlesticks and silver forks?

Johnny stumbled in looking bleary eyed and hair going this way and that.  He definitely needed it cut.  Murdoch wondered if Johnny would let the bunkhouse cook cut it.  Old Ned not only had a talent at cutting up meat, chicken and potatoes but had also proved a darn good barber.

Scott trudged in shortly after, wide awake and actually appearing almost recovered – except for a slight smudge under his eyes.  “Sir.  Johnny.  Good morning.”

He was always so polite, even when he didn’t want to be.  At least Johnny didn’t hide behind propriety and decorum.   He got said what needed to be said, then let it go.  Murdoch sighed, at this point tired, and tired.  He slumped as his neck disappeared between his shoulders.  He had reason to be discouraged; Pardee, the homecoming of his sons, their differences and animosity, the superstitions of his vaqueros and now, Teresa’s pearls.  Not to mention a dying stranger in his house who probably had an avenging angel ready to cut someone’s throat if a wrong step was taken.  Just because the tribe preferred to be left alone, didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous if their beliefs were not respected.  And why the hell couldn’t someone find a trace of this man?  After all, he wasn’t invisible.

Then, he lifted up his head as a pair of hands skillfully manipulated the rigid muscles of his neck.  Johnny was on the other side of the table so it couldn’t be him.

“You’re muscles are very tight, sir.  Understandable with all that’s going on.”

At first Murdoch was extremely uncomfortable.  He should be the one extending assistance, relieving pain.  After all, he was the father.  Scott’s instruction to ‘try to relax’ almost made him pull away.  When he glanced at Johnny, his head was tilted and he had a gosh-awful stupid grin on his face like he was enjoying Murdoch’s discomfort.

Scott kept at it until Murdoch felt the tension in his shoulders ease.  The tight ache released as he shifted his head from left to right.  “You do that very well, Scott.”

“Something I learned when I was in,” he hesitated.  “When I was in the war.  If I could offer my comrades nothing else, it was my long fingers.”

He continued the massage, going deeper and deeper until Murdoch almost cried for him to stop.  Then Scott eased back, his fingers gentle and nimble, and Murdoch remembered Catherine.  She would do that for his tired muscles at the end of a hard day.  Tears stung behind his eyes and he blinked them away.  After a few more minutes, Scott stopped.

“Feel better?” he asked.

Murdoch rolled his shoulders.  He glanced up as Scott reached for the coffee pot.  His face was smooth and youthful, free of reproof or question. There was only kindness in his demeanor and thoughtfulness in his smile.  “Thank you, Scott.  I am feeling much better.”

“You’re welcome, Murdoch.”  He turned to Johnny with a wicked grin.  “Do you have need for a manipulation?”

Johnny hitched back in his chair as if daring Scott to touch him.  “Damn, Scott.  If I had need for any manipulatin’ I’d be looking for someone with a lot longer hair then you’ve got.  But I’ll keep it in mind.”

“You do that.  It’s one of my talents.”

“You’re full of more shit than Murdoch’s prize bull, you know that?”

“Yes.”  His wicked smile got bigger.  “But I hide it well.”

Murdoch started off with a light chuckle, then before too long he dissolved into full-blown laughter.  Tears dribbled out the corners of his eyes.  He tried to stop, but Johnny’s stare of dismay and Scott’s quizzical gaze only made him laugh the more.   For the first time since their arrival home Murdoch felt completely relaxed in the company of his sons, both of them.

“Sorry boys,” he said when he finally gained control.  “It’s just something you … well, sorry.”

“It’s good to hear your laughter, sir,” Scott said, obviously meaning it.

“Yeah, Murdoch.  You ain’t such a grump after all.”

“Thank you, I think, Johnny.  I’ll remember that.”  Chuckling again at Johnny’s remark, he only shook his head.  Indeed, these two were a handful.  But he was happier than he’d been in a long, long time.  They sat chatting over coffee, the conversation light, until the question was broached of how Teresa’s pearls ended up at the Lorelei.

“I’ve been thinking the wine cellar.”

“What about the wine cellar, Murdoch?”  Johnny asked.

“That’s where they, or him, the thief, was hiding when we searched the house.  Did anyone check it?”

“I didn’t.  I was too busy pinning Scott to the floor.”

“And I was too busy trying to get unpinned.  After that I went to get Senora Tomas while you and Johnny checked the east wing.  The thief couldn’t have snuck by us when we were in the Great Room talking to the Senora.”

“Couldn’t he Scott?  We were so busy, so engrossed in trying to find out what Angelina had seen or heard that we weren’t paying attention to the staircase.  Someone could have slipped up there and stolen the pearls then.”

“But what about Carmelita?  Wouldn’t the thief have woken her up?” Scott asked

“Nope.”

“You sound pretty sure of that Johnny,” Murdoch said

“According to Isidro that little girl is just like her mother.  She could sleep through an earthquake.  If the thief could get by four of us not all that far from the staircase without being seen, or heard, I’m betting he could slip into and get out of Teresa’s bedroom without Carmelita waking up.”

“What if …” Scott said, setting his coffee cup on the table.  “What if he was already gone before we talked to the Senora, before she woke us up?”  Scott sat forward, rested his arms on the table.  “We were all sleeping.  He could have snuck up the stairs without anyone hearing him.  Snatched the pearls, made some sort of noise that alerted Senora Tomas.  She wasn’t sleeping, she was watching Anciana.  And by the time she came to get us, he had already slipped out.”

“But she said she saw something at the window before she came to get us?  If the thief was already in the house, he couldn’t be at the window too.”

“And she admitted, Johnny, she might have been mistaken.  Living with Isidro, his insisting someone was lurking outside their window, it could make anyone imagine things that aren’t there.”

“Well, anything is possible.  Whatever the circumstances, it would appear it didn’t take him long to get in and out.”  Murdoch scratched the side of his nose.  “I wonder if he knew exactly what he was looking for.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, Scott, that in each case the thief, or thieves, didn’t stay too long in the homes they robbed.  They didn’t ransack rooms and only took a couple items.  Maybe they knew what they wanted and where it was kept?”

“What are you saying, Murdoch?  That it’s an inside job?”

“Exactly, Johnny.  We get hands drifting through here all the time looking for work.  They stay a few weeks, maybe a couple months and move on.  It could be these men work at a ranch or farm for a while, see if there’s anything worth stealing, then come back and steal it.  Oh, maybe not right away, but later.  Even a good while later.  People forget who they are, don’t even remember their names.  Then they come back, hide out in an out-of-the way place like the Lorelei, take what they want then just ride away. No one is any the wiser for it, except they’ve been robbed.”

“You know, Frank mentioned that he remembered seeing Teresa wearing the pearls a while back at a gathering you threw.  How long ago was that?”  Scott asked.

“Before Pardee.  I’d say,” Murdoch scrubbed at his cheek, trying to remember.  “Last fall.  A lot of men moved on after that.  Not much work to do, they want to head south before winter.  Could have been then.”  He nodded, thinking about the possibility.  “Yes, it sounds plausible to me.”

“How’d they get in here in the first place?  I checked.  All the doors and windows were locked up tight.  We had a man in the watchtower, and a couple keeping watch on the ground.”

Murdoch thought about Johnny’s question, then considered what he had mentioned before.  “There’s a set of windows in the wine cellar. I hadn’t even given them a thought.  Did you happen to check them?”

“Hell, Murdoch.  I didn’t even know they were there,” Johnny answered.

“That must be the way they came in.”

“But what about Anciana’s window, Murdoch?  I checked it after we searched the house.  It was closed and locked.”

“I don’t know, Johnny.”  Murdoch couldn’t figure that one out.  “There has to be a rational explanation for it but I don’t know what it is.”  He felt the tightness come back into his neck and watched Scott’s long fingers trace along the rim of his cup.

“Well, shit.  Oh Maria,” Johnny fumbled.  “Excuse my language.  I didn’t know you were there.”

Murdoch had been so engrossed in the subject of the thieves he hadn’t noticed Maria at the entrance to the kitchen.  She didn’t come back with her usual frown at Johnny’s slip nor scold him for it.  In fact, she appeared sad and distressed.

“Maria.  What’s wrong?”  If there was another problem Murdoch would pay Scott for a neck rub.

“Patron.  I think you’d better come.  The old one.  I think she has passed.”

For a few seconds there was absolute silence.  Murdoch finally found his tongue.  “Yes, Maria.  I think I’d better come.”

Murdoch slipped from his chair and followed Maria down the hallway, Scott and Johnny close behind.  For a few moments there had been a connection in the kitchen of camaraderie and focus on solving a problem, as a family.  And before that, laughter and tease between brothers, as there should be.  Saddened that light-hearted atmosphere was gone too soon, he delighted in the fact it happened.  There was hope after all.

The woman looked the same as she had the night Scott brought her home.  The ladies had tried to make her comfortable with a warm nightgown, a comfortable bed and fresh linens.   Murdoch was certain she hadn’t moved since those few nights ago.  How many?  Was it possible this was only the fourth morning?  It seemed much more time had passed; certainly a lot had happened since then.

He stepped close to the bed, noted the deep lines in her face, the white, white hair and wasted body.  There was one difference; there was no up and down movement of her chest.  He picked up her wrist, trying to find a pulse.  Her hand was cold, but not rigid.  She had not been dead long.

“Well.  She is gone.”  He tucked her hand next to her body and turned to Scott.   He was quiet, hands stuffed into his pockets, and staring at Murdoch as if asking for the impossible.  “I’m sorry, son.  But it was expected.  At least, if she was suffering, she isn’t anymore.”

“I don’t think she was in pain, Patron.  There was no sign of discomfort.  I would have seen it.”  Maria dabbed her apron at her eyes, drying tears.

“I’m sorry, Maria.”  Murdoch didn’t know what else to say.  He was surprised at Maria’s reaction, until he remembered for all her bluster and practicality, she was a woman of great compassion.

“Ah.  No need Patron.  It was only … well, she was cared for.”  She smoothed her apron and collected herself.  “How do you wish the body prepared?”

“What?”  He was taken off guard by her question.  She would be returned to the spot where Scott found her, a hard enough task abandoning a dead person.  Regardless of her background, he found it damned difficult not to have a proper burial.  He hadn’t thought farther ahead than that.

“Did you want us to put her in the clothes she was wearing?  They are clean but patched.  She should have something better.  Si?”

“Yes, ah, no Maria.  I mean, yes, if you can find something appropriate.  But we will not be burying her.”

“What!  Then, what, Patron?”

“Maria, calm down.  She needs to go back to her people.”  He realized it would be considered unholy to Maria not to bury the body.  But had she forgotten so soon the fears of Isidro and perhaps her own husband?

She sighed and looked intently at the woman in the bed.  “I understand.  But she will have something fine.  I will not see her leave this house in patches.”  She lifted her chin, practically daring Murdoch to disagree.

“That’s fine, Maria.  Get her prepared.”  He turned to Scott, wondering what impact this conversation might have had on him.  He only nodded.

“I’ll get the buggy.  And blankets.  At least we can cover her properly.  But if no one comes for her, I’m not leaving her out there to rot.”

“I agree, Scott.  If no one comes, we will bury her in the Lancer cemetery plot.”

“All right.”  Scott took another look at her and nodded his head.  “All right.  Maria, let me know when she’s ready and I’ll carry her out.”

“In the meantime, I’m going to whip up some eggs.  It’s a long ride into Green River,” Murdoch said when Scott started to protest.  “And there is no need to hurry.  It won’t make any difference to her, son.  Might as well get some breakfast.”

“I would like to let the other ladies know, Patron.  Mrs. Andresen, Senora Tomas.  Will you let Mrs. Wallace know, if you see her in Green River?  She also took care of Anciana.”

“Yes I will.  Come on, boys,” he said, indicating they leave the room.  “Maria needs to do her job.”  He felt like he was herding strays.  Scott turned to the stairway until Murdoch grabbed his arm and pointed to the kitchen.  “Breakfast,” was all he said.

Johnny said he wasn’t real hungry.  Maybe he’d saddle Barranca and get a start on the day’s chores.  Murdoch grabbed him by the arm as well and dragged both of them to the table.  “I may not be the best cook, but I can do a good fried egg.  I expect you to eat what I put in front of you.”  He dug out last night’s left over buns, some strawberry jam and sweet butter.  “You can start on these.”

And they did.  Scott picked, Johnny grumbled and Murdoch cooked.  Although the meal wasn’t up to Maria’s, it was satisfying and would keep them going until Green River.   When they were finished eating, Murdoch laid out the plan.

“I think the best thing to do is take her to where you found her, Scott, then continue onto Green River.  By the time we come back, we’ll know if someone will claim her.  If not, we will.  Agreed?”

Both signaled agreement.  “I don’t think you need me, Murdoch.  You and Scott can do this alone.”

“That’s fine, Johnny.  Scott?”

“There’s no need for Johnny to go.  In fact, you don’t need to come either, Murdoch.  I can handle it.”

“No.”  As far as Murdoch was concerned, it wasn’t a topic for discussion.

“But sir …”

“No,” Murdoch stated once more.  He pushed away from the chair.  “I’m going to check if Maria is ready.  Scott, I’ll meet you out front.  Johnny, I’ll see you later this afternoon.”  He wasn’t going to stick around for protests and arguments.  He was still the tune-caller and was going to make damned sure that was not in question.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 10 – The Prairie

Maria and the ladies had done a fine job in preparing the body and Murdoch was touched by their generosity.  Anciana was clothed in a simple white cotton dress and wrapped in a beautiful linen coverlet of pale blue.  The covering was hand-woven, obviously well used but still in excellent condition.  It was given from the heart and Murdoch was humbled.  It was easy for him from a distance with his ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I understand,’ and ‘it’s all for the best.’  But these women had bathed her, combed her hair, made her as comfortable as they could and perhaps even hummed a childhood melody not caring if she heard.  It was a personal loss, just as it was for his son.

“Thank you, ladies,” he said, hoping it didn’t sound like another empty platitude, because he sincerely appreciated their efforts.  They were all lined up to say goodbye: Maria, Mrs. Andresen, and Senora Tomas.  Senora Tomas stepped up to the back of the carriage where Scott had laid the body and placed a lacey white veil across the face.  She patted the coverlet, then turned and walked away.  Maria mouthed a silent prayer, crossed herself and with Mrs. Andresen at her arm, went back into the main house.

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch settled in the carriage next to Scott.  He hoped Scott wasn’t going to start arguing with him about going along, but he was quiet.  In fact, after the first half hour of silence Murdoch was almost hoping for a disgruntled remark or quip.  So he was surprised when Scott’s first comment was very mild.

“You’ve a most beautiful country, Murdoch.  New England can be picturesque, but nothing like this big, wild country.”

“It’s our country son.”

A blush warmed Scott’s complexion as he bowed his head and smiled.  Murdoch could indeed see how his son might be good with the ladies.  He speculated Scott used that shy smile to his advantage.  At least, the reports from Boston indicated he enjoyed a less than modest social life.  So far since coming to Lancer he’d behaved himself in that respect.  Murdoch hoped it would continue.

“You’ve never seen anything like it when spring comes.  Everything is blooming and green.  There is such freshness it takes your breath away.  Calves, oh my goodness, the calves run and play like any young animal.  It’s so alive.  I thought I’d settled in Paradise.”

Scott fingered up the brim of his hat and stared at Murdoch.  “You sound like you’re in love.”

Murdoch chuckled.  “I was and still am.”  Dare he, dare he?  What the hell, he dared and rested his arm lightly around Scott’s shoulders.  He was encouraged when Scott didn’t pull away; a definite stiffness and surprise, though, possibly just as Murdoch felt earlier when Scott massaged his neck.  He couldn’t consider it payback though as he was enjoying the contact.  Taking pity on his son, Murdoch withdrew his arm when he noticed the grip Scott had on the reins.  It was still a step in the right direction.

“The rise is just up ahead, Murdoch,” Scott pointed out.  “Where I found her.”

In the spring and early summer it would have been dazzling in a rainbow of wildflowers and green, billowing grasses.  Now there were only brittle yellow stalks and the occasional wilted blossom.  The grasses crinkled underneath as Scott lifted the body from the back of the carriage and carried it to a small dip in the prairie.

“Do you think someone will really come?” Scott asked as he knelt beside the small woman.

What Murdoch had been sure of four days ago, he wasn’t so sure of today.  There’d not been a single identifiable sign that someone, other than the thieves, had been around.  And if Teresa’s pearls hadn’t been discovered in the mine, they wouldn’t have realized they’d been stolen until Teresa wanted to wear them.  Were the myths and stories told around campfires just that?  But Isidro and others certainly believed and Murdoch knew the mountain people existed.  He’d seen their long abandoned settlements in the foothills of Lancer as they moved to the higher elevations, retreating from the ever-encroaching populations of first the Spanish and then the Europeans.

“At this point, I don’t know son.  By the time we come back through, we’ll have our answer.  It will only be a couple of hours.”

“What about predators?”

“Well, cover her up as best you can.  I don’t think we need to worry yet, by nightfall maybe but one way or another she’ll not be here then.”

As Scott retrieved blankets from the carriage, Murdoch looked to a small ravine several hundred yards to the east.  Sparse bushes popped here and there along the depression, hard to hide a man but not impossible.  To the east of that he spied the tops of leafy branches that indicated a tree line.  It was a good distance, but a possibility.  The prairie could be tricky; even though the horizon seemed flat, there were dips and hollows everywhere.

“Come on, son,” Murdoch encouraged as Scott’s reluctance to leave her was plain.  “It won’t be long and we can get Johnny his tequila in Green River.”

That brought a small smile to his face.  “And save your Glenlivet?”

“Maybe that too.”

Scott’s reluctance to leave was apparent.  If Murdoch hadn’t held his arm and gently pulled him to the carriage, he doubted if Scott would have left.   But they’d be back within a short time.

As typical in mid-week and mid-day, Green River wasn’t bustling.  Except for the ladies who called to them from the balcony of the saloon.

“Hey girls,” a very buxomly young woman teased.  “It seems our golden-haired cowboy is back.  Is that your daddy, handsome?  He’s welcome too.”  Her comments sent out a round of laughter from the women.

“Quite a colorful bunch, Scott.  They seem to know you.”

One thing Murdoch had learned of Scott, when his fair-haired son blushed there was no way he could hide it.  Murdoch was amused but managed to hold back a laugh at Scott’s embarrassment.

“Uhm, when Isidro and I came to town they … greeted us.”

“Hmm.  I see.  Are they one of the reasons you were late in getting back to Lancer.”

“No!”  Scott protested.  Then said in a more subdued tone, “no.  We didn’t stop there.”

Trying to hide a grin, Murdoch pulled his gloved hand across his mouth.  “Well, as long as we’re here we might as well stop at the post office.  See if any mail has arrived and make sure Teresa is still welcome?”

“Well, of course she is,” exclaimed Luella when Murdoch asked after ducking through the door of the post office.  “Her and my Mary giggled all night long that first night, half the second, but were too tired to do anything but sleep the third.  She’s a good girl, Murdoch.  You ain’t here to get her already!”

“No Luella.  Scott and I are in town on … business.  Any mail for me?”

“You about cleaned me out the last time.  But I think there’s a piece or two.”

From one of the open cubbies she pulled out an envelope and a newspaper.  “I’ll credit postage due to that silver dollar you gave me, young man.  Murdoch, you need to complain to those fellas at the newspaper in Sacramento.  They don’t put enough postage on their mailings.  A sneaky way to up their subscriptions if you ask me.”

“I’ll do that Luella.  Thank you.  Tell Teresa we’ll come to fetch her in a week if that’s all right with you.”

“She can stay as long as she wants, Murdoch.  She’s a pleasure, sure as my Mary is.  Nothing better than a couple young girls to cheer up a hard day.”

“Well, she does that.  Good day.”  Murdoch tipped his hat and followed Scott out of the small building.  “I need to stop at the bank.  I’d like to introduce you to Jim Fellows who handles our accounts.  Then on to the general store.  They keep a nice supply of tequila in the back room.”

Introductions made and liquor purchased, lunch was next on the agenda.  Scott had no desire to go to the cantina again so Murdoch suggested the hotel.  The stew was a little chewy and Murdoch teased the owner that it obviously wasn’t Lancer beef.  The owner, a man as wide as he was tall, flustered an apology and offered the lunch free of charge.  Murdoch wouldn’t hear of it and slapped down a healthy tip for the young waitress who had served them.

“Is Laura around?”

“Yes, she is in the kitchen baking.”

“If you don’t mind, Lew, I’d like to speak with her for just a few moments.  Scott, would you mind waiting here?”

“No, sir.  I’ll read the newspaper.”

Laura took the death of Anciana with silence.  “I’m sorry, Murdoch.  How is Scott taking it?  He seemed very …  concerned about her.”

“I think he felt a responsibility to her.  More like a rescue that failed, I’m afraid.  But he’ll be all right.”

When Murdoch returned to the lobby he was surprised to find a boxed peach pie waiting for him.  “For the stew,” was all the proprietor said.  “It isn’t necessary, but thanks Lew.  We’ll have it for dessert tonight.”

As they passed the saloon on their way out of town, Murdoch noticed Scott stared straight ahead.  The ladies weren’t there, probably preparing for their evening customers.  He surmised Scott would make their company sooner or later on a Saturday night.

Long before they neared the spot where they left the body, they were both quiet.  It was obvious she was the only thing on their mind.  Would she still be there?  Murdoch tried to see in the distance the swell of a colored blanket against the dry grass.  As they drew closer to the spot, he squinted, trying to focus on the small mound of her body.  The metal trappings of the tack, rumble of wheels and lazy snort of the horse seemed unnaturally loud as the depression came into view.  Murdoch could see yellow and red; the design in the brown blankets.  They were still there.

He groaned inwardly, it was all for nothing.  Leaving a poor dead woman alone in this vast meadow because he believed the fancies and superstitions of a few old men was ridiculous.  He was angry and disgusted with himself for not only acting a fool, but for exposing his son to a hurt that could have been avoided.  He didn’t dare look at Scott as he jumped out of the carriage and walked to the ravine.

“Murdoch.”

Scott turned to him, eyes wide, wondering.  “Murdoch, you need to see this.”

Well, he deserved any recrimination Scott may have in store.  He vowed he’d keep his mouth shut through whatever Scott may say to him.  He stepped off the carriage and walked the few feet to his son.

He looked, then looked again to be sure of what he was seeing.  There, in the rumbled long grasses, were two blankets folded neatly and placed one on top of the other.  The woman was gone.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 11 – Touchy

Sitting in the afternoon sun atop his horse, Johnny recognized he was irritated but damned if he could figure out why.  These last weeks, dang, could almost count them months now, had been the longest he’d stayed in one place since his mama died.  But it was one-third his, so why not.  Stay, that is.  And he had to admit, Murdoch might be one reason.  He sure wasn’t what Johnny expected.  That first day was a spit-in-your face kind of meeting, but his father did a quick turn-around when Johnny took that bullet.  Almost seemed like he cared.  Turns out he did.

Maybe he was pissed because of Scott.  He tried to offer his moping brother a few words of consolation.  It was hard for him, a man who learned early that compassion could be thought weakness.  But all he got was a … actually, he got nothing from him.  Murdoch’s advice was to let it go, Scott needed to work it out.  But Scott was always running after him to offer help.  He couldn’t accept it?  This family stuff worked two ways or was supposed to.  Maybe Mr. Proper-from-Boston with a napkin placed just so on his lap thought he was a tad above everyone else.  Johnny figured he was doing good to tuck the napkin under his neck.  Made more sense anyway.  That way if you dribbled, the napkin would catch it and not your shirt.

At the same time he knew he wasn’t being fair.  Sure, Scott could be a pain in the ass, but he’d stuck by him, risked his life beating off Pardee.  Not too many people in his lifetime who would do that for him.  He found himself liking the man, and maybe that’s what was bothering him.  Friendship in the past had been based on who hired your gun.  Another time, another side and who had been enemies could be your drinking buddies.  Don’t get too close cuz you might be aiming your gun at them the next range war.  It was a whole other problem when you cared about someone, really cared.  And he cared about Scott.

It must be the thief.  The more he thought about it, the more he was sure that was the source of his anger.  More for himself than the man who crept down the hall right by his door, into the quiet of a little girl’s sleep, and stole pearls.  Had he let down his guard so much that he hadn’t heard a footstep in the dark?   In the past it would have gotten him killed.  He shivered, recalled his finger tight on the trigger that could have killed Scott.  He would have pulled it without much thought not that long ago.

That someone had been lurking around the hacienda till the old lady died was just another sticker in his side.  He halfway believed the fears of the old vaqueros and some of their wives.  Senora Tomas wasn’t one to put much stock in the old stories, but something had disturbed her in the night.  It could have been the thief but that damned open window in the morning – he’d checked it the night before.  Someone had been in the house after they all returned to bed.  Ghosts or evil spirits didn’t need a window to get out of a room.  And why, with all the empty rooms in the hacienda, did he pick the one where the old lady was?

His thoughts turned back to Scott.  He knew his brother wondered about his past; the gun, selling it to the man with the most money.  Oh, Scott didn’t come right out and ask.  Would have been better if he did.  Then it would be out in the open where you could stomp it.  Scott had a way of digging that was all polite and pretty.  But damn, Johnny knew it was more than looking down that fine nose and judging.   Maybe Scott just wanted to know about him, like he wanted to know about Scott.  Just too chicken shit to come out and ask.  Hell, thinking too much was giving him a headache.

He looked over the range at the half dozen strays still left to drive into the main herd a couple miles away.  Well, they sure the hell wouldn’t move with him dilly dallying.  Unless prodded they’d be content to munch away so he nudged his horse forward and chased a couple hiding in some dry shrub.  He needed a good cattle dog.  That would get them moving in the right direction and wondered why Murdoch didn’t have any.   He’d have to ask.  They were sure something to see nipping at the heels of those big old beasts.

The ears of his mount perked forward and whinnied a soft greeting as a rider approached.  Through the haze of the stirred up dust he recognized the high gait of Scott’s horse.  He’d purposely volunteered to hunt out strays to be alone, work off his mad.  Guess it wasn’t gonna happen.  Deciding he couldn’t run away, he’d have to buck up and be nice.

“Scott, didn’t expect to see you out here today.”

“I’ve been sitting around too long.  Thought I’d better earn my keep or Murdoch would send me back to Boston.”

“Hell, not much chance of that happening unless you sell your third out from under him.  Seems like the old man has gotten used to having us around.”

“Maybe.  There are moments, however, when I wonder if we stretch his patience.”

“No wondering about that.  He gets any stretchier we’ll need a ladder to talk to him.  You’re looking pretty good.  Did you lose the croup, or whatever the heck you had?”

“Entirely gone.  I woke up this morning a new man.”  He spread his arms wide and plastered a big, happy smile all over his face.

Johnny chuckled.  Damn, it was hard not liking him.  “Some of the hands are sure your cure happened when the old lady died.  Ah, don’t mean to be insensitive.  Just passing on what a few of these yahoos that work for us think.”

“I know, Johnny.  But I wasn’t sick because of a curse or whatever they believe it was.”

“Isidro got over it pretty quick.  They figure you didn’t cuz you brought her to Lancer.”

“Well, I surmise it was the after affects of the war.  I was very sick at one time.”

“Is that right?”

“It is.”

Johnny wanted Scott to explain, but he didn’t.  Shot Johnny’s mad up a bit as Scott was doing it again.  Always wanting answers from Johnny when Scott wasn’t willing to share some of his own.  And why the hell did he even care?  That was the puzzle, he did.  He took a deep breath and changed the subject.

“Ready to round up some ornery critters?”

Twisting in the saddle, Scott looked at the few head remaining.  “I’ll take the left three if you want to take the right three.”

Johnny nodded agreement and started work although the horse did most of it.  Within a few minutes they had the group headed towards the herd when Frank and a couple other hands rode up from that direction.

“We can take them off your hands if you’d like.”

“Yeah?”  Johnny leaned back wondering what they were up to.  It didn’t take long to find out.

“Sure.  Since you’ve got the best cowpony around thought you might want to put him to work in those hills up a ways.”

“That right, Frank?  Well, I’d be obliged if it weren’t for the fact that those hills have boulders the size of a house those critters can run around and hide behind.”

“You’ve still got the best mount, Johnny.”

“He’s right, Johnny.  None better,” Scott said, his grin just egging Johnny on.

Scott seemed pretty relaxed in the saddle.  All jaunty like and Johnny felt the urge to see how jaunty he’d look on the ground.  That burn came back, out of nowhere.  Why was he so pissed at Scott?

“Okay,” Johnny snapped.  He smiled, hoping Frank hadn’t notice his touchiness.  “Come on, brother.”

“Whoa.  Frank didn’t say anything about my horse.”

“I’m volunteering you.  You said you wanted to earn your keep.  Well, do it.”  Johnny heard the challenge in his voice.  It appeared Scott did too as there was a hesitation in his eyes.  And maybe even a question.  Well, hell, Scott seemed always full of questions so why stop now.

“Lead the way, little brother.”

There was that damn little brother again and Johnny hadn’t even called him soldier boy.  Why’d he have to go and say that, especially in front of Frank and the fellas?

Johnny’s mind was all jumbled.  Women had certain times of the month that made them crazy, though men tried to stay as far away from them as possible then.  Some guys snickered and made jokes, but those were the assholes.  He wondered if men ever had times like that …  No, not ever, he decided, dismissing the thought quicker than he got it.

“Everything all right?” Scott asked as he pulled up alongside him.

“You asking?”

“I don’t see anyone else around, do you?”

“You’re always ready to ask a question, Scott.  How come you don’t want to answer any?”  Johnny tried to keep his voice level, held in but it wasn’t easy.  He could be cool as hell when on a job, but he wasn’t on a job now.  At least not the kind that required his gun.

“What are you talking about?”

Johnny stopped his horse and glared.  “I’m talking about you.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny, but you’ve lost me.  If you’d be kind enough to allow me the why, I might be able to tell you the what.”

He wanted to drop it, he could feel it getting away from him and he didn’t want to fight with his brother.  Because if he did, if it started, he knew he’d say something he’d regret and couldn’t take back.  But Scott had that superior tone in his voice now.  Or was it just his imagination?

“Well.  Are you going to let me in on your little secret?  Or as it apparently concerns me, our little secret?”  Scott asked, a twisted know-it-all grin on his face.

“Don’t be a smart ass, Scott.  Not today.”

“Not today huh?  Come on, baby brother …”

Johnny dove from his horse tackling Scott to the ground.  As they rolled and scuffled, Johnny could tell Scott was only half trying.  And Johnny couldn’t do it.  He wanted to hit him so bad, but he couldn’t bring himself to land that first punch.  He broke away and they came to their feet in the dust of that brittle, yellow pasture, with hands fisted and legs ready to spring.

“What in the hell is wrong with you?” Scott spit out.

“You’re always digging at me, asking questions and you don’t want to answer mine.  How come?”

“Is that what this is about? What questions?”

“Like why were you sick, Scott?  What happened in the war?”

“Lots of things happened in the war.  Things I don’t want, I don’t like to talk about.”

“But you’re always pushing, questioning my past.  Like you’re trying to right some wrong I’ve done.  And I’ve done a lot of ‘em but I sure the hell don’t need some ruffled shirt from Boston trying to justify what I was.”

“I do not …”

Johnny licked his lips, quieted and didn’t move his eyes away from Scott.  “Yes you do.  Sometimes when you look at me it’s like you’re wondering why I could do the things I did.  Then you start to prod, going round and round like you’re trying to hit a target by coming at it from the side.”

“And maybe you’re just feeling guilty about what you did.  And what’s wrong with me trying to understand?”

“Everything, because I don’t need to justify what I was and I sure the hell don’t want your pity.  It was a job and I did it well.”

“Well,” Scott straightened and uncurled his fists.  “I’m not your judge, never wanted to be.  But my mistake if I thought you were more than just a hired gun.”

Scott picked up his hat, hit it against his thigh and mounted his horse.  He looked down at Johnny and gave him as cold a look as a man had ever given him.  “And for your information, I’m more than a ruffled shirt from Boston.”  He turned his horse and kicked it, galloping off in the direction of the hacienda.

Johnny leaned over, hands on knees, and just stared at the ground.  He’d done the exact thing he’d been afraid of, said things he knew he’d regret.

“Shit.”

He looked up at the sky.  “Shit, shit, shit, SHIT, SHIT!!!!”  A horse snorted.  Johnny went for his pistol as he twisted around and looked up into the face of Frank.  How long had he been there?

“Whoa, Johnny.  I’m not the enemy.”  Frank held his hands far away from his gun belt.

Johnny slid the half-drawn gun back into the holster, his heart thumping with how closehe came to shooting.   “Sorry.  I guess it’s just a reflex.” 

“You’re pretty fast with that.”

“Yes.  I am.  But I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger.”  Damn lame, Johnny boy.  He didn’t want the crew thinking he’d shoot them just because they topped a hill.  Frank seemed pretty calm about the whole thing but then, you couldn’t see pale on a black man’s face.

“That’s good to know.”  Frank relaxed back in the saddle.  “You, ah, okay?”

“Could be better.”  Never mind he’d just bellowed shit to the heavens a couple dozen times and almost pulled a gun on a good man – almost.

Frank turned his head, Scott barely visible in the distance.  “Sometimes it’s hard to settle into new things.”

“Yup.   Sometimes.”  That was an understatement, but Johnny didn’t want to talk about his feelings for his brother.

“I had a sister.  About five years older than me.”  The saddle creaked as he moved.  “I was ten, she was about fifteen when they sold her back in Mississippi.  I tried to find her.  I’d give just about anything to see her again.”

“Sorry to hear that.”  Seems he was up on lame today.  “You in the war, Frank?”

A crooked sad smile flitted across his face.  “Hell, I was born in the war, Johnny.  It was called slavery.”

Silence.  For a long time, silence.  Frank broke it.

“I came back to see if you needed help.”

“Ah.  Yeah.  I guess so.  I haven’t checked those rocky hills for strays.”  Johnny wiped a drip of sweat off his chin, not knowing what else to say.

“Tell you what, I’ll check it out.  If it’s more than a one man job, I’ll get one of the guys from the main herd.  It’s not that far away.”

“Sounds good.”  This was one of the strangest conversations Johnny could remember.  Frank had just shared a good part of his life in a few words like it was an everyday thing.  And he got the message across to Johnny on top of it.

“He’s a decent man, your brother.”

“I know he is.”  Johnny nodded, rolled his shoulders.  “I know he is.”

Frank tipped his hat and headed towards the hills.  Johnny watched him for a long time.  It had never occurred to him that Frank had been a slave.  Damn.  A sister.  How could you replace that?  Another shit.

He picked up the reins of his horse, patted him on the side of the neck and gazed in the direction of the hacienda.  “Well, I’d best see if I can find my decent, nosey, dumb ass brother.”  He mounted and nudged the animal toward home.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 12 – Consulting and Conversing

He found his father roofing a small tack shed near the barn.

“Murdoch,” his voice catching in his throat.  “What’re you doing up there?”

“What’s it look like.  I’m repairing a roof.”  He took a nail out of his tool belt and banged a new shingle into place.

“Well, hell.  Can’t you get someone else to do that?”

His father’s glare didn’t need words, but he said them anyway.  “I’m perfectly capable of repairing a roof.”  And he pounded another nail.

Johnny just needed to tone down his concern, make his father see reason.  A man his age shouldn’t be up that high.  What if he fell down and broke a hip or something?  Or his neck!

“I ain’t saying you don’t know how, Murdoch.  It’s just …”

The hammer pointed at him stopped what he was going to say.

“I just had this same discussion with your brother.  I don’t need one with you.  Understand?”

Boy, he sure did.  Yup.  Wouldn’t want to disagree with the old man when he’s clutching a hammer and spitting nails.

“Okay, Murdoch.  Okay.  I just thought …”  The scowl again.  “Well, it sure looks like you’re doing a good job there.”  Johnny hoped his best smile along with a thumbs up could temper the flame.

Murdoch growled out something that sounded like ‘dang sons’ and pounded another nail into the roof.  Johnny waited a few more seconds, making sure his father was settled, at least a bit.

“You saw Scott?”

As he reached for another nail he glanced at Johnny.  “I did.”

“Where’d he go?”

“His horse had worked up quite a sweat.  He rubbed it down, then said he was going to check the windows in the wine cellar.  Make sure the locks aren’t broken.”

A shingle slid from the roof and Johnny caught it.  He worried again about his father sliding just like the shingle, but kept his mouth shut.  He’d learned a bit of wisdom in his years about when to push and when not to.

“He, ah, say anything?  I mean … was he okay?”

“Seemed all right to me, son.  Didn’t want to talk accept to remind me of my age, which I made sure he regretted.”  Murdoch gave him a searching look.  “Said you wanted to work alone today.”

Johnny nodded and chewed on his lip.  “Yeah.  I did.  Ah, could I talk to you.”

His full attention now on Johnny, Murdoch let the hammer dangle from his hand.  “I’m listening, son.”

“Well, if you don’t mind.  Can you come down?  I get a nosebleed peering up at you when we’re on the same level.  I’d get a real pain in the neck looking up at you at that height.”

Murdoch grinned, the kind that softened his hard old face and made Johnny suddenly glad he was his father.  “You saying I give you a pain in the neck?”

“Maybe.  Sometimes.  But this ain’t one of ‘em.”

“I’ll be down in a minute.”  He pounded one more nail and hitched the hammer into a loop of the belt.  His legs were so long he passed half the rungs climbing down.  Johnny wondered if that bullet still in his back set up a twinge or two by the time he reached the ground.

He pointed to a canteen hanging next to Johnny and Johnny tossed it to him.  Murdoch took a long drink and wiped his arm across his mouth.  “Still good and cold.  It’s hot work up there.”

“What do you want to do it for?  I mean, you’ve got plenty of hands.”

“Because I can.  And if you got me down to talk about that …”

“No, no.  I didn’t.  I wanted to ask you something about, well,”  He hadn’t had a serious talk with his father.  Oh, little observations here and there, small talk mostly.  Nothing about the why’s of his mother or what made a man a man, or anything that deep.

“What son?  Believe it or not, I won’t bite.”

Johnny snorted at that.  “Well, sometimes I wonder Murdoch.  Your bark can make a man think twice about going up against you.”

“That depends on the matter at hand.  I have no problem with challenges, if there’s a good reason for discussion.”  He overturned a couple of five-gallon wooden buckets and sat down.  “Have a seat, Johnny, and tell me what’s bothering you.”

He sat next to his father, the hard ridges of the bucket pocking into his butt.  He shifted till he found a comfortable spot.  “You ever notice, about Scott I mean.  That he can be kind of …”  Johnny wanted to say pain in the ass but didn’t think Murdoch would appreciate it.  He almost toppled off the bucket when his father took it up.

“Pain in the butt?  Yes, I’ve noticed that aspect of your brother.  He seems to have tempered down on that a bit over the last few weeks.  Of course, I had to take him to task.”

“That’s a nice way of putting it,” Johnny said with a smile.  “Taking to task.  Kind of like when you told me to shut the hell up, stop my complaining and listen to Doc Jenkins?”

“Well,” Murdoch chuckled.  “I don’t think those were the exact words I used, but yes, very similar.”

“Yeah.  Or when you told me I needed to get rid of the damn chip on my shoulder.  Or adjust to ranch life or get out.”

“I never told you that!  Nor have I ever sworn at you.”

Johnny laughed so hard he thought he’d fall off the bucket.  He sure got the old man’s tail that time.  When he could see that Murdoch’s face also had a half-way grin, he thought it was safe to talk.

“Well, maybe not in those exact words, but I got the message.”

“If you ever misunderstand a message that you think means leave, don’t.  I don’t ever want that to happen, Johnny.  That’s not to say I wouldn’t drag you out of bed to get you up and working, but I never want you to leave. Not unless I thought it was for your own good.”

“Ah, it’s okay Murdoch.  I was just fun’n you.”  Johnny was pleased and embarrassed at the same time.  Murdoch wanted him, gunfighter and all.  Come to think of it, Murdoch never asked about his past.  Did he already know how really ugly it was?  A Pinkerton had found him, asked for Johnny Madrid, not Lancer.  Maybe what Teresa said was true.  That Murdoch never stopped looking for him.  Had to be something there if he knew he’d changed his name.

“How did you take Scott to task?”  Maybe he could get some tips.

“Now, Johnny.  I’ve never given details to anyone about the issues we’ve had.  I don’t think it would be fair to share those discussions between me and Scott, do you?”

He had to hand it to his old man, he could sure talk a circle around a straight question.  Maybe that’s where Scott got his talent.

“Did you two have a fight?”

“Kind of, yeah.  He pushes some, you know?”

“Well, yes he can, son.  At times.  But I tend to push back.  Not sure I always win, but may leave him wondering at times what happened.”

Johnny grunted.  “You’re too damn big for one thing, Murdoch.”  He threw a side-ways glance at his father.  Did he dare say anything else?  “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have questions,” he said softly.

A large hand moved to the back of his neck and squeezed.  “I’m sure he does.  As you probably do.  But I can answer more of his than I can of yours.  Not necessarily things he’d want to hear about his grandfather, but that is something between me and Scott.  As far as your mother, Johnny …”  Murdoch shook his head.  “After all these years I still don’t know what happened, or why.”

He looked so damn sad Johnny wanted to pat him on the back and tell him it was all right instead of the other way around.  His mother loved him, of that he had no doubt.  She went hungry to make sure he didn’t.  She wasn’t perfect, but he was always cared for.  It wasn’t until she died that everything started to fall apart.  But the lies about his father, he didn’t know if he could ever forgive her for that.

“What has Scott done?”

Johnny was grateful Murdoch didn’t want to talk about his mother right now.  He didn’t have the answers either and just wasn’t ready to try to understand a decision made over twenty years ago by a woman he loved with all of his heart.

“Oh, not so much what he’s done as what I’ve done.”  Johnny pulled up a long weed and started tearing it apart.  “I picked a fight with him.  Don’t know why.  Guess I got tired of him always after me about what I was, why, trying to make me feel bad.”

“I don’t think Scott wants you to feel bad about yourself, Johnny.  I think he’s trying to understand who you are, apart from your past … occupation.”

“Hmm.  Murdoch, you can sure make gunfighter seem almost upstanding.  I like that – occupation.”

“I don’t mean to make light of it, John.”

He’d twitched a nerve there, but Johnny knew, as far as Murdoch was concerned, the past was indeed the past.

“It’s okay.  Neither do I.  But why does Scott seem to always bring it up?”

“Does he?  Or do you just focus in on the few times the subject comes up, and not on the many other times that it doesn’t?”

“Huh?”

“Listen.  Scott can be a bull dog.  He focuses on answers to problems, wants to solve them, to understand and that in itself isn’t bad.  But sometimes that focus can be too much and you just have to tell him to back off.”

“Oh, I did that real good today.  So much I doubt he’d ever want to talk about it again.  Hell, even if he wants to talk about anything again.”  Johnny threw the weed away, not getting the answers he thought his father could give him.

“He’s a kind man, son.  And forgiving or he wouldn’t be here.  But you have to let go of your resentment as well and stop thinking he’s being critical.  You can’t change the things you’ve done, and there are some people who’ll not let you forget, will judge you on it.  But I can tell you, your brother is not one of those people.”

“You think?”

“Oh, Johnny.”  Murdoch put his arms on his knees and clasped his hands together.  “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life is to hold on to the people you care about because you never know when they’ll be gone from your life.  I’ve been so very fortunate to get you and your brother back.  You are decent young men, regardless of the mistakes you’ve made; both of you.  Scott can sometimes try my patience to the point that I just want to shake him, but he’s proved he’d do just about anything for me, and for you Johnny.  You know that.”

“Scott tries your patience, huh?  I thought I was the only one.”

It was a good thing Murdoch was on the ground instead of the roof.  By the way he was laughing he sure the hell would have fallen off, probably broken a hip at his age.  Johnny heard people got more breakable as they grew older.  He didn’t want the old man to break now, just when he was starting to get to know him.

“Go talk to your brother.  He was grumbling when I talked to him.  I knew something was bothering him.  Don’t let the sun set on mad, Johnny.  It only festers.  Now, I have a roof to shingle.”

“Well, don’t fall off.”

“I’ve shingled more roofs in my lifetime than you can count, and I don’t need lectures from smart-aleck youngsters.”

“Well, as long as that doesn’t include smart ass, I’m guessing I’m still okay.”  Johnny didn’t wait to hear his father’s response.  He figured he was probably laughing it off anyway.  Dang, his father was a good sort.  He knew his brother was as well.  He just hoped he didn’t quirk that old eyebrow at him.  That was almost worse than words.

*****

He found Scott halfway in and halfway out of a wine cellar window.

“What the hell you doing, Scott?”

“I think I’ve discovered how the thief got in,” he grunted.  “Pull me out, will you?”

Johnny took hold of his legs and pulled.  A grungy Scott turned over and sat in the dirt.  Dust was smeared across his clothes and face and a huge cobweb hung from his ear.  He swiped the web away and brushed through his hair.

“It seems I’ve displaced a tenant.”

“How long you been hanging there?”

“Not long.  I figured if someone didn’t come soon and pull me out, I’d have to go head first into the cellar.  Fortunately, there’s a nice layer of straw on the floor Murdoch probably uses to cushion bottles of …” he flipped his arm “…whatever.  I’d aim for that.  Thanks by the way.”

“You’re welcome.  Usually you plan better.”

“I will agree.  I wasn’t thinking at the moment.  And we’ll just leave it at that.”

Johnny could only imagine what he’d been thinking about.  There was a mark high on Scott’s cheekbone, swollen and ready to purple.  “Where’d you get that?”  Johnny swiped a finger across the bruise and Scott jerked away.

“Someone pushed me off a horse.”  The eyebrow went up.

“Oh.”  That wasn’t good.  “Sorry.”

“How’s it look?”  Scott patted the area with a gloved hand.

“I reckon it’ll be a pretty color.”

Scott held out his hand and Johnny pulled him up.  “Come on.  I want to show you something.”

He pointed close to the windows where deep impressions had been left by at least two sets of boots.  It was a protected area where the wind didn’t reach.  Because of that, it wasn’t as dry as the rest of the yard.  “See here,” Scott pointed.  “This print is much smaller than the other.  What’s it look like to you?”

“A woman?”

“That’s what I thought.  Maybe a man lowered her down from here.  She’s small, doesn’t make a lot of noise when she walks.  There wasn’t any dust on the sill on the window next to the one I was in.  There’s one other window but the dust was undisturbed.  So they probably used the same window to get her in and out.”

“If she’s a small woman, how’d she get out?  That’s a pretty high window.”

“There’s a stool in under the window I think she used, then the man just pulled her up.”

“But you got stuck.”

“No, I didn’t.  I could get through the window.  But it would have been easier if someone was lowered down from this side, and then pulled up.  And a small woman wouldn’t have any problem going through the window.”

“Did you check the locks?”

“One’s broken and it’s rusty.  Looks like it’s been that way for a while.”

“Damn.  That’s how they did it and we didn’t even think of it.”

“We didn’t know, Johnny.  These windows are in the back of the house.  Look over there.”  Scott pointed to a grove of fruit trees to the west.

“Good cover.”  Johnny looked closer.  “There’s a busted branch on that apple tree.  Do you see it?”

They walked over to the grove and inspected the tree.  The branch was cracked but not completely broken off.  Most of the apples weren’t ready to be picked, but the ground was littered under this tree with half ripe apples.

“That’s funny.”  Johnny toed the dirt, stepped back and circled the tree.

“What?”

“There are no boot prints here.”  Johnny walked a few yards to the left.  “But there are here.”

Two sets of prints, one large and one small, were made both to and from the house.

“How the hell does that work?  A broken branch but no prints around the tree.  But plenty of them in a straight line to the cellar windows yards away.”  Johnny couldn’t figure it out.

“Could they have climbed the tree and not left prints?”

“But why?  It’s plain they weren’t trying to cover their tracks.  Like Murdoch said, strike and get the hell out.  I’d bet they had horses further back in the orchard.  By the time they reach the pastures around the house, there’s so damn many animal prints you couldn’t tell one from the other.”

“Then why the broken branch?”

“Hell, Scott, I don’t know.”

It was obvious Scott didn’t know either.  The only people who came to the orchard this time of year were Teresa, Maria and maybe a couple of the other ladies to gather windfalls for apple sauce and check to see how the apples were coming.  In a few weeks the orchard would be full of everyone who was available to pick the apples, pears and peaches.  The few lemon and lime trees would be picked later in the fall.

“At least we know how they gained entrance.  We’ll have to fix that lock.  I’ll let Murdoch know what we found.”

“What you found, Scott.”

“It doesn’t matter who found what, Johnny.  We’re one and the same.”

“What?”  That took Johnny by surprise.  Wasn’t it a world where you always needed to be on top, to be first, to take what credit you could grab?

“We’re partners.  What happens to one happens to the other.”

Was he kidding?  His brother acted as if nothing had happened; that he’d not been dragged off a horse, given a hell of a black eye, and told that he was nothing but ruffles and attitude.  But from the look on his face, Scott meant every word.  Maybe what Murdoch said was true, that Scott was just trying to understand, not judge.  Murdoch had said one other thing – get over the mad.  Probably not in those words, but Johnny understood.

“About this afternoon, I’m, ah, sorry for what I said.”

“Forget about it, Johnny.”

“No.  I said some things I didn’t mean.  I was in a shitty mood and took it out on you.”

“It’s all right.  I probably had it coming.  As Murdoch has so diplomatically made me aware, there are times when I can be somewhat – biting.  I will admit I’ve aimed a few barbs at our father.  You were not an intended target but it’s hard to break a bad habit.  I apologize.”

“I guess I’ve noticed a bite a time or two.  I’ve got to say, though, if it was anyone other than Murdoch, you’d probably get away with it.  You can be pretty smooth about it.”

“I’ll consider that a compliment from the man who said you’d only drink with someone when you ‘know the man you’re drinking with.’”

Johnny smiled.  “Ah, Mr. Will I, you’re not the only one with a good memory.”

“It was all very interesting.  I thought he’d have us for supper if we didn’t agree to his plan.  A rather frosty reception to say the least.”

“He’s not the only one who can throw out cold.”

It was the first time Johnny saw stupid on Scott’s mug.  “This afternoon.  The look you gave me almost froze my nose.  Made me think of Murdoch.”

“Now you’re going too far, Johnny.  Although, I must confess a comparison with our father is not necessarily bad.”

The smile plastered across his face was real and Johnny wondered why he’d been so aggravated earlier in the day.  He could ask Scott, but he’d look at the ground, think some, cross his arms, and give various answers and opinions.   Or probably he’d just shrug and say ‘hell, Johnny, because you are an ass.’

“Uhm,” Johnny said, hoping he didn’t sound sappy.  “If you ever want to talk about the war, or anything, well, I can be a pretty good listener.  And I won’t push.”

“Well, thank you.  Same here, whatever your wars may have been.  And, ah, if I come across like an inquisitor, I’m just trying to understand.    As far as I’m concerned, as Murdoch said, it’s in the past.  Let’s leave it there.”

They shuffled around in the dirt, Johnny figuring Scott was feeling as awkward as he was.  This sharing stuff would sure take some getting used to.  Women talked and there was nothing wrong with that.  Hell, they probably lived longer and slept better than men for the talking.  Man spat in the dirt, scratched, made jokes and solved the world’s problems with bluster and little else.  Women kept it turning.

“You ever wonder …?”  Johnny wasn’t sure exactly how to put into words what he was thinking.

“What, Johnny?  Ever wonder what?”

“Oh,” Johnny exhaled.  “Lots of things I guess.  Men.  Women.”  He quirked his head to Scott.  “You think Murdoch is an important man?”

Scott seemed surprised by the question, then looked towards the front of the house.  The pounding of Murdoch’s hammer as he hit another nail into the roof shattered the still afternoon.  “I guess he is … to the hands and their families.  To the town of Green River.  Maybe even to the state of California.”

“Is he important to you?”

He swung his eyes to Johnny and took a deep breath.  “He is.”

“You think he’s more important than that old woman you brought home?”  He had to know why.  Johnny needed to know why she had been so important to his brother.  There was something buried so deep in Scott’s heart that maybe he didn’t even know how to dig it out.

“I think.”  Scott stopped and lowered his head.  When he glanced up at Johnny, a light ghost of wet blinked across his eyes.  “I think we’re all important, regardless of how much land we own or who we know, or how we came to be born into the family of men.  She was important because she lived.  Nothing else matters.”

It was a simple answer for all the complications in the world Johnny knew and had been brought up in.  Maybe he and Scott weren’t so different after all because for Johnny, and the ugliness, if the small one wasn’t worthy, what good was his life.  And why couldn’t he have met this man before now?  It was obvious to Johnny that Scott meant every word he just said.  A stitch pulled in Johnny’s belly and a sudden realization that if anyone tried to hurt Scott, he’d make sure they’d regret it.

“Hey,” Scott said, breaking the mood and wiping an arm across his eyes.  “I found where Murdoch hid his stock of Glenlivet.  It’s in the straw by the window.  What say we sample a bottle, make sure it’s not gone sour.”

“I didn’t think whiskey could sour,” Johnny said, relief in the easy request to steal Murdoch’s liquor.

“Well.  You can never be too sure in this world.  Can you?”

Johnny threw an arm around his shoulders and Scott had to bend just a little to accommodate him.  “Brother, that’s one thing I’m sure about in this life; you can never be too sure.”  He almost added, ‘except you.  I think I can be sure of you.’  Maybe someday he would tell him just that.

.

Light Rain – Chapter 13 – Light Rain

His father had named him Stoneman because he was born in a cave of the mountain.  His wife came into the world sheltered under a forest of Cedars.  She was a small baby so they named her Little Cedar.  She hadn’t stayed small though, especially after giving him five children.  With each birth she had grown rounder until he could hardly get his arms around her.  But he still managed.  He loved her, big or small.

Little Cedar was a good wife, the oldest child of her mother.  Her mother had born no sons, so it had become Stoneman’s responsibility to care for his mother-in-law after the death of her husband.  He had brought her into his home without protest.  It was the way of his people and she was a kind and gentle woman.

She had been sick for a long time so no one was surprised when she announced she would die before the next winter.   Eating little food, she slowly wasted away.   It was a sad time for Little Cedar, their children and the people of the village, but life was not forever.

Born far to the east, her people had been driven to the mountains by the Sioux, a tribe almost as fierce as the white man.  She had married a man of the hill people.  He’d seen her, traded horses for her, and she was agreeable to remain.  So he had taken her to the top of the world where the tree tops hid the sky and the tall grasses of the never-ending plains.  Now it was her wish to see the prairie once more.  She hadn’t seen the big sky since a young girl and longed to see its endless blue, the rippling grasses and colored flowers of the flatlands.

But her country was too far, so Stoneman bundled her up, left his village in the mountains and rode down to the meadows of the valley.  He knew white men had settled there, claimed the land as theirs.  He didn’t understand how a man could own the sky or the flowing rivers or the wind that blows through the mountains and over the grasslands.  But it didn’t matter what he thought.  They were a strong race, much stronger than his people.

When he lay her down on the little knoll she was still alert.  He could see she was happy.  She patted his arm, whispered thank you, and told him to leave her.  He had sheltered in a bush-filled gully not far from where she lay.  For a day he waited, and when he checked on her later, she did not respond or open her eyes to his touch.  He didn’t know how long she would last, but he would wait.

He thought they were safe, that no one would come near.  But it had been years since he’d been this far from his mountain and hadn’t realized how the numbers of the white man had grown.  The grass of late summer was dry and bent by the wind.  If it had been green and straight, he would have noticed the worn track not far from his mother-in-law. 

His deerskin bag of water was empty.  There was a stream not too far away so he left the gulley to refill the bag.   When he returned, she was gone.  There were signs on the dry ground that others had been there.  At least two horses with riders, but where had they come from and most important, where were they going?  He had to find the woman, he had no choice.  She had been entrusted to him by his Little Cedar and he loved both women.  He searched the ground with care until he found signs of where they passed, ran to his horse staked in a copse of trees far from the gulley, and followed their trail.

He caught up with them just as they descended into the valley of the large white house.  Two men, one an old mexicano, the other, the one who carried his mother-in-law, was yellow haired and young.  Leaving his horse in a line of trees, it took time as he crept down the hill.  He saw the mexicano go into a tiny village of several adobe homes not far from the white house.  But the other man was nowhere to be seen.   Did he have the old one?  What were they going to do with her?  He did not know the ways of the whites other than they were a savage race.  But the young man seemed to have carried her like a child, with care.

Waiting until nightfall, he had crept down to the old man’s house and peered in the window.  The old mexicano and a woman lay sleeping.  Stoneman knew how to move like a stalking cat, but the man had been disturbed and reached for a gun by the bed.  He had retreated to a spot behind the large house that had many, many trees.  The grass was not broken in this area, so he knew few came to the orchard. His moccasins were soft and left very little trace of his footsteps.  This is where he would watch and wait.  If the woman was not in the small house, she was in the large one.

All of the lights had gone out one by one, except for a small flicker in a downstairs window.  Oh what a fat house.  How many rooms does a man need, he thought?  Only one is needed to keep out the rain and the wind and the snow.   A warm fire in the middle with a cooking pot, children sleeping on their mats and a wife to love was more than enough for one person.

Before the sun rose, he returned to his horse, cared for it, refilled his water skins and snuck back to the orchard.  He tried to count the number of people but there were too many and all moved so quickly.  When he grew tired he slept.  When he was hungry he ate the dry deer meat Little Cedar had prepared and scavenged half ripe fruit.  And at night he watched the small flicker of light in the room downstairs.

In the darkness, when the big house was sleeping, he heard their noise long before he saw them.  Hoping the branch would hold him, he climbed a large apple tree.  The grass crackled under their feet and their whispers were louder than a screeching owl.  One large and one small, a man and a woman, they hurried to the windows that sat low on the side of the house.  The small one entered into the black hole as the other waited in the dirt.  The North Star had moved a short distance in the sky when the one who remained reached into the window and pulled out the woman.  They hurried away disturbing the dust and the grass and were gobbled up by the night.  The large house remained dark, undisturbed, except for the light in the small window.

Could he enter into the same space?  First, he had to make sure the old one was in the flickering room.  His foot slipped on the fork of the tree and as he fell the branch cracked.  He had seen men guarding close to the front of the house, so he waited to make sure the sound had not been heard.  When no one came, he hurried to the window.  He saw his mother-in-law in the bed as well as a woman in the room with her.  That was all he needed.

The window that sat low to the earth on the side of the house was small but he managed to squeeze through.  He was glad that a soft bed of straw was on the floor as he landed.  There was more noise above him than he expected.  Had they heard the two who had crept in?  His eyes, used to the darkness, found the steps that would take him upstairs and he waited until the house grew quiet again.

Feeling along the wall, he came to the room where the light slipped under the door.  He would overpower and tie up the woman and take his mother-in-law.  They would be out of the house and gone in the night before anyone knew.  He would have to be quick to keep the woman from calling out, so he held his breath, rushed into the room and found only the old one in the bed.

Her hair had been brushed and fell around her head like moonshine.  Touching the sleeve of her clothing, he realized someone had cleaned and dressed her.  The bed was soft for her old bones, and the bedding she rested on smelled of fresh breezes.  She did not flinch when he pinched her hand.  Her chest barely moved; she would die soon.  There was no reason to take her now.

He knew the customs of these people who buried their dead so their spirit could not fly.  If they did this to the old one, he would dig her up and take her back to the mountains.  He slid the metal up that held the window tight and slipped out.

The orchard was no longer safe and he could only see the back of the house.  He heard the light crunch of rocks, held as still as a viper that had found its prey, and melted into the shadows when the guard passed by.   He could have easily slit the man’s throat without a whisper, but there was no need.  These people lay the old one on clouds of white and sunshine; he would do them no harm.  A tree line bordered the crest of the hill.  No one would see him there but he could see the entire ranchero.

The sun came, then the moon.   When the sun rose again the yellow-haired man drove a small wagon with a fringed roof to the door.  He went into the house and when he came out, he carried something wrapped in a long blue blanket.  A tall old man that Stoneman had seen many times during his watch followed the young man as well as three women.  The bundle was placed gently into the back of the wagon.  One of the women placed a filmy white cloth on the cover and turned towards the small group of houses.  The largest woman made a sign with her hands, touching her forehead and each shoulder, and then the two women went arm in arm to the house.

As the two men climbed onto the seat, Stoneman knew the wagon held the body of his mother-in-law.  Were they going to bury her as was their custom?  It was repulsive to him that her body would be eaten by worms.  His steps were long as he ran to his horse, his breath hard as he mounted.  A younger man would be able to run faster and not tire, but they would not be as wise or cunning as Stoneman.

It wasn’t long before he realized where they were going.  They were on the same worn path that he had followed from the small knoll on the prairie.  Would they bury her there?  He had nothing to dig her up with but his bare hands.

When they came to the flatland he could not follow them too close or they would spot him.  He hugged the tree line as far as he could and was surprised when he saw them stop at the same spot his mother-in-law had rested.  He tethered his horse, then like a hunted mouse, crawled across the grass, barely causing a rustle.

The young one lay her on the ground, straightened her legs and smoothed the cloth.  He said something to the grey haired giant, then went to the wagon, brought blankets to the body and covered her.  Stoneman could tell he didn’t want to leave, but the grey hair took him by the arm, said something and the young man nodded.  As they left he looked one more time over his shoulder at the body on the ground.

It seemed they had purposely left her there for him.  How did they know of his presence?  He had been so careful, not even he could see where he passed.  Those who were here before the white man, the mexicanos, knew of the mountain people and their ways.  Was it fear or respect that made them leave the old woman?  Perhaps a little of both.  Whatever the reason, he didn’t know how much time he would have to claim the body.

His horse was well rested.  It would not take him long to return to his village and his Little Cedar.  She would cry, but be glad that her mother was no longer sick and in pain.  He folded the rough blankets that had covered the old one and stacked them on the ground – a sign of respect for the young golden haired man.  The deerskin his wife had prepared for her mother’s funeral dress was beautiful and he wrapped it around the body.

He made it back to his home before the sun rose.  There were few people left in his village but they all gave something: small cakes, dried meat, fine leather belts and thanksgiving for a life well lived.  They had also prepared the funeral wood, stacking it high so when the wind blew through the mountain, it would take the life force of the woman up to the sky and it would float until her spirit found a resting place. The logs were stacked and stuffed with kindling and small branches.  Everything was dry so it wouldn’t take much to start the fire and keep it going.  He laid the old woman on top with the white cotton dress and blue cover, all draped with the soft deerskin. 

When his wife prepared her body for the ceremony, she had asked about the dress and blue cloth.  Stoneman told her what had happened.  He did not try to lie or make excuses.  She fingered the dress and fine blue cloth as he talked and her face softened.  “She was not afraid?”

“No, Little Cedar.  She had no fear.”

“Then I have none for her.”

His wife cuddled next to him as they said the prayers for her mother’s peaceful passing into the land of the spirits. Stoneman then touched the torch to the kindling and the dry bark sparked, burned up through the little twigs that burned up to the smaller branches that burned up to the huge logs that exploded with red.  Within minutes, the fire had consumed the small body.  Sparks popped in the stillness of the mountain, then a wind from the treetops drew up the burning ashes.  Embers swirled up and up in a funnel of air.  The higher they went, the faster they spun, until the wind seemed to suck everything into a huge ball.  The ball hung, hesitated, then like a war arrow shot down the side of the mountain, above the trees, down to the foot hills and across the prairie’s and meadows.

On the mountain top thunderheads rolled in.  Lightning glinted and sputtered, silver throbbed against the black sky.  The air carried the smell of rain before it fell.  Stoneman and Little Cedar drew close, smiled as the rain started.  It was a soft rain, gentle as the old woman had been.   It followed the same path down the mountain as the wind that carried the ashes.   It fell in Green River first, swept onto the flatlands of Lancer, across the pastures and creeks and rivers to the hacienda and far beyond.   The land, dry, yellow and starved for water soaked up the rainfall.  Within a week flowers would bloom and the grass would green on the knoll.

She had been born on the prairie, under the big sky, the tepee resting on the long grasses.  As she drew her first breath the rain had started, soft and fresh, a light rain.  They had named her Light Rain and a light rain now followed her spirit to wherever it would find rest.

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Light Rain – Chapter 14 – Dreams Do Come True

Murdoch leaned his head back against the couch, stretched his legs so his stocking clad feet rested on the coffee table and closed his eyes.  He was finally feeling totally relaxed.  The last few days had been stressful to say the least.  The crew and their families had quickly calmed once the woman was gone, poor thing.  Whoever had taken her was appeased.  Strange though.  No one but Scott and Isidro had been stricken, a fact that confirmed the truth of superstitions and myths to some of the hands.

Since his sons had come home it had been a challenge beyond anything he could have imagined.  Battling Pardee and at the same time getting to know these two young men had been almost as difficult as leaving his family and the green of his Highlands.  He’d been appalled when Johnny had been shot by Pardee.  He tried to hide his worry and fret, but found it impossible.  When Scott came down with an inexplicable illness that lasted for days, he found himself again wandering this fearful new land called fatherhood.  These two gave him more grey hairs than any blade of grass on Lancer.  But now, now all seemed peaceful.

“I thought we couldn’t put our feet on the table.  How come you can?”

“Because I’m bigger than you are.”  He smiled, didn’t open his eyes and could only imagine the look Johnny was giving him.  When there was no response, he twisted his head and squinted at Johnny.  His imagination would have fallen short.

“If you remember, you had your boots on.”

“So if I take off my boots I can put my feet on the table?”

“Murdoch, watch what you say,” Scott put in.  “His feet stink.”

“They do not!”

“Yes, Johnny, assuming you’ve washed appropriately, you may rest your stocking feet on the table.”  Murdoch realized Johnny had cleaned up after his day on the range.  He knew that meant at the very least a bucket of warm water, a bar of soap and a wash cloth.  Work boots were left at the kitchen door and filthy socks were one of the first items of clothing removed.

“My boots are clean.”

“That may be, but they’ll scratch the wood.”

Again silence.  “Never had to worry before about scratching wood,” Johnny said finally.

“Life changes, son.”  Murdoch thought in this case for the better, but kept it to himself.

“Ain’t that the truth,” Johnny snorted.  “Think I’ll keep my boots on.  Never know when you have to run quick outside for something.”

“Are you having digestive problems, Johnny?”  Scott obviously had something in mind.

“No.  Why?”  By the tone of his voice, it seemed Johnny thought Scott had a motive as well.

“Well, why else would you have to run outside unless you had to rush to the outhouse?  Must be those hot peppers you eat and belch all night long.  You do trail a rather interesting,” Scott waved his hand in the air, “aroma at times.”

Johnny grinned, eyes bright with mischief.  “Tell you what, Boston,” he said as pushed out of the side chair and approached a lounging Scott.  “I’ll show you who’s running, how about that?”

Scott moved, but not fast enough.  Johnny dug his fingers into Scott’s shoulders and squeezed.  Scott raised his legs, struggling to get away, almost knocking over a lamp.

“Boys, you break anything it’s coming out of your pay.”

“Murdoch,” Scott croaked, scrunching down in the chair “he’s killing me.”

“I’m sure you’re exaggerating.  Johnny, are you killing your brother?”

“Not yet.  Want me to?”

“Well.  I’ve grown rather used to having him around.  Besides, that would double your chores.”

“Well hell,” Johnny said, pushing Scott farther down in the chair, “you’ve been saved.”  He let go and, laughing, jumped out of reach.

“Damn it, Johnny,” Scott said, rubbing his shoulders.  “Where’d you learn to do that?”

“A kid showed me.  Told me it would come in handy if I wanted to torture someone who was being mean.”

“Really?  Would you like me to show you how I was taught to torture someone who was being mean?” Scott got up from the chair and started towards Johnny.

“No, I would not,” Murdoch interrupted.  “I’d like the furnishings in one piece.”

“I can take him outside.”

“And both sons in one piece, as well.  Now, behave yourselves.”  He tried to sound severe but knew it fell flat.  But they both retreated to their former positions – Scott reading a book and Johnny scanning the latest edition of the Green River Gazette.  Murdoch wondered why Johnny seemed so enthralled with the Gazette.  It contained mostly who visited who, who wore what, and what the next sermon at the church was about.  Once in a while an article appeared regarding auctions, the occasional squabble over water rights and, during elections, charges leveled at one candidate against another.  But maybe Johnny preferred ‘soft’ news; a contrast to his former lifestyle. 

Murdoch watched the movement of Johnny’s eyes as he read over the newsprint.  When he first saw the shore line of America all those many years ago, he’d been so full of youth, hope and elation he could barely contain his joy.   Watching his sons he felt that same sense of joy.  More than that, he acknowledged he loved them, but better yet, he had learned to like the people they were.

“I saw the sheriff was here earlier from Green River, Murdoch.  Anyone else robbed?” Scott asked, jogging Murdoch away from a new America, joy and sons.

“As a matter of fact, yes.  I was going to tell you about it, but it slipped my mind.  It seems the sheriff in the next county over caught a couple breaking into a house.  The owners had gone for a few days and the sheriff was extra cautious as he’d heard of the thefts in our area.”

“Really?  Did the sheriff think they were the same thieves who struck here?”  Johnny peeked over the edge of his newspaper.

“It seems so.  It was a man and a woman.  The sheriff gave me their names and the woman had been in the area a few months ago.  She worked at the Parsons for a short time as well as at the Conway ranch.  In fact, she was at the shindig I threw last fall.”

“Do you know her?”

Murdoch shook his head.  “Not really, Johnny.  I remember hearing the name but that’s about it and I know what she looks like.  They’re a team, no doubt about that.  The sheriff thinks she scouts out the homes and they both come back and take what they want.  Just like we were talking about a couple days ago.  It appears they didn’t get out of the country after all.”

“Do you think Teresa told her where she kept the pearls?” Scott asked.

“The thief must have somehow figured out where Teresa’s room was or Teresa innocently told this young woman.  Did you know the first place many thieves look for valuables is a lady’s bedroom?  Makes sense.  That’s usually where any jewelry is kept.”

“By the way Murdoch,” Johnny said.  “You know that belt of trees to the east of the main road just before you come down into the valley?  The one that’s so woody it’s hard to get a horse through?  Someone did.”

“Why would anyone do that?  There’s so much bramble in that patch and nothing but a gulley that’s mud even in the driest season.”

“A good spot though to watch the house, and no one can see you.  I saw signs a horse was tethered there.  The little bit of grass was eaten down and lots of manure.  Also, the animal wasn’t shod.”

Murdoch frowned, realizing exactly what Johnny was saying.  “Indian’s don’t shoe their ponies.”

 Johnny stared back at Murdoch, and nodded.  “I know.”

That was a damned uncomfortable feeling, knowing that someone was that close to the main house for days and not discovered.  Murdoch had men search the area, and thought every corner had been explored.  Apparently not. 

“You gonna tell Teresa?  About her pearls, I mean,” Johnny asked.

He leaned back in the couch once more and contemplated the ceiling.  Just thinking about his little ward made him want her home.  Teresa hadn’t been away since all of this started with Pardee and the death of her father.  She had struggled through his passing as well as helping to care for him.  What a strong little girl, actually, almost woman she was.

“I suppose I need to but I’m not going to tell her right away.  I want to enjoy her company for a bit before breaking the news.”  

“It will be nice to have her home.”

“Yes, it will be.”  Murdoch raised his head, noting Scott was sincere in his statement.  Although the topic of Teresa wouldn’t give Murdoch to suspect otherwise, he sometimes never knew what was behind those grey blue eyes.  After a couple of rather pointed conversations with his son, Scott had toned down his snappish attitude.  Not that Murdoch didn’t understand it, at least towards him, but he couldn’t tolerate disrespect, especially in front of the men.  One of these days, yes one of these days he’d have to reveal to his son why he hadn’t raised him.  It would probably take a few drinks of courage, however, not only to bolster his own nerve but to temper what would undoubtedly be painful for Scott to hear.

“Yeah, she is kind of nice to have around,” Johnny agreed, interrupting Murdoch’s thoughts of Scott.

They all looked at the empty chair by the fireplace with a basket full of mending and needlepoint beside it on the floor.  “She’d be going to bed about this time.”  Murdoch was suddenly feeling very melancholy.  He’d have to really cut back on the brandy.  The Glenlivet didn’t give him such an emotional response, but someone had found his last bottle.  He thought two someones had disposed of it, but had no proof.  He’d store the next case in his room, and there’d be hell to pay if any turned up missing.

“Well, sir, if you miss her good night kiss on the cheek, perhaps Johnny can substitute.  His hair is almost as long as Teresa’s.”

“What?  I ain’t kissing no man on the cheek but I’ll plant another kind of kiss on Scott.”

Leave it to his sons to break a gloomy mood and make him laugh.  They both grinned at him, seemingly forgetting Johnny’s threat to plant some kind of kiss on Scott.  Murdoch didn’t think it would have been gentle.

“Ah, Johnny, talking about long hair, you think yours might need a trim?”

Johnny ran a hand through his hair, then two.  “Well, it might be a tad long but it keeps me warm when the weather turns.”

“It’s August, son.”

“Well, I know, I know.  But, you know how time flies, Murdoch?”

“Yes, son.  It surely does.”  No one knew that better than Murdoch.  Some twenty-four years for one son, twenty for the other.  “Doesn’t mean you don’t need a haircut.”

Johnny made some kind of noise, cleared his throat and buried his head in the newspaper.

Murdoch wasn’t going to give up that easy. “You know, John, Ned is pretty handy when it comes to cutting hair.”

The paper dropped.  “Ned!  The bunkhouse cook?  You ever see him chop beefsteak?  He barely looks at what he’s chopping.  Amazing he hasn’t lost a finger yet.”

“He cuts my hair.”

Johnny slid him a crooked grin.  “It shows, Murdoch.  No offense.”

Cheeky.  An adjective that always came back to Murdoch’s mind to describe his son.  Maybe he could persuade him from another angle.

“Scott.  You’ve got quite a shiner there.  How’d you get it?”  Murdoch had noticed the swollen eye.  Hard to miss along with the dark purple bruise high on his cheekbone.  He’d asked Scott about it before, but his son had conveniently said he’d talk later, something about checking the windows in the wine cellar.

“Uhm, I don’t remember off hand.  You know how easily accidents happen ranching.  All sorts of things you can run into.”

“Yes I do, son.  But an eye like that, I’m surprised you don’t recall.  Looks bad enough that maybe Sam …”

“You know what, Murdoch,” Johnny piped in.  “I might just ask Ned if he’s got a few minutes to give me a bit of a trim.  Nothing drastic, you know, but I suppose I could stand a light clip.”

Murdoch knew Johnny had something to do with the black eye.  He also knew Scott wouldn’t give him up.  He’d try to get as much mileage out of that fact as he could.

“Good Johnny.  I’ll talk to him in the morning.”

“Well, see Murdoch, I’ve got to run over to check the fence near Platte’s Bluff.  You’ve been after me to do that.”

“No, I haven’t been after you to do that.  I think it can wait on a haircut.”  Murdoch had another ace up his sleeve.  “Ah, have you boys seen my last bottle of Glenlivet?  I had it put away but darn if I can find it.  Scott, when you were down in the wine cellar, did you come across it?”

Scott gave him an innocent look and spread his fingers in a loose wave.  “Lots of bottles down there, Murdoch.  Hard to tell one from the other.”

“Hmm.”  He almost said bullshit.  “What about you, Johnny?”

“I’ll get a haircut tomorrow morning.”

Murdoch smiled and nestled his head back against the couch.  “If it’s what you want, son.  Don’t want to push.”

“Shit.”

“What’s that?  Did you say something, Johnny?”

“No, Murdoch.  I didn’t say anything.”

Murdoch tucked further into the soft leather of the couch.  There was more than one way to conquer a son … or two.

Dust particles spitting against the French Doors caught his attention.  He lifted his head and noticed the wind had picked up.

“Looks like we might be in for a storm, boys.”  He lumbered up from the couch and opened the French Doors.  There was a strong scent of rain on the wind.

“Murdoch, I thought I saw a flash of fire high up on that small peak.  Are forest fires a problem?” Scott asked, joining him on the patio.  His arm brushed against Murdoch as he pointed towards the mountains.  Murdoch didn’t think he would ever grow tired of the slightest physical touch of his children.

“Once in a while, Scott, but usually after a long drought.  Not a short dry spell like we’ve had.  It was most likely just a lightning flash you saw.”  Or was it?  There had been a bright red flash but it was gone now.

“You’re probably right,” Scott said.  “It appears we might be getting some rain soon.  Look at those thunderheads.”

“I hope so.  A little early in the season, but I’ll not complain.”  Masses of dark green clouds boiled over the mountains and appeared to already be dropping rain far below the tree line.  He could see the black shadow of the storm roll down the mountain side.  It was the fastest moving storm Murdoch had seen in a long time.  He figured Green River was getting hit about now and it would be at Lancer in a few minutes.

“We’d best get in.  It looks like it could be a soaker.”  Murdoch hoped so anyway.  It wouldn’t take much rain to get the pastures green again.

“I love the smell of rain.  What’s a little wet?” Johnny said, joining them on the cool patio.  He bumped Scott with his hip as he passed and Scott laughed, batting Johnny lightly on the back of his head. 

Johnny was right; there was no reason to go in.  It was the first time since his sons had come home that they could share something without doubt, recriminations or smoldering questions.  They’d come a long way in the short time they’d been together.  A little bit of rain shouldn’t dampen the feelings they’d all come to share in the land – their land.

When it came, it wasn’t as hard or violent as Murdoch expected.  The wind gusted, tossed dirt in strange, small funnels of grit, then leveled into a straight-line breeze.  There were a few drops at first, splattering the dry compound here and there with fat beads of moisture.  Murdoch inhaled the sweet smell of the earth, damp and black and musky.  The drizzle started, soft, barely there as he lifted his head to receive it.  Then it came, and he didn’t care that his feet were getting wet or his hair was dripping.  All he cared was that he was sharing with his sons for the first time in his life a dream come true – something as gentle as a light rain.

End
January 2021

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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 Ronnie directly.

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28 thoughts on “Light Rain by Ronnie

  1. hi Ronnie, I spent my best time in my place of heart reading your stories, and of course this last one is on the level of your high quality writing. I am amazed your ideas and inspiration to create these stories. Not only because your hero is my hero too, but how nicely you connect him with his family, how important he is in the Lancer World and how well you catch the spirit of Scott Lancer. You know, I am always wishing to find a new story of yours. I may only say a THANK YOU for all the great moments you have given me.
    Adriana

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    1. Hi Adriana. How nice to hear from you. Thanks so much for the lovely words. Our favorite character is a prince without armor. As you know my preference is writing the whole family and I like everyone to have equal parts and explore each character. It is fun and challenging. I hope you are well and able to avoid stress and illness although that can be challenging. Take care. Ronnie

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  2. Hi Ronnie…I love, love, love this story. So well written, so authentic and entertaining. I was so happy to see it show up in the updates – I had really enjoyed it through the Lancerwriters group and wanted to read it again (but I couldn’t find it there given my rather embarrassing lack of tech ability) so now I can go back whenever I want. Thank you for another amazing story.

    Sue L

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    1. Sue. I’m not that techie either. I downloaded three chapters to the files at LW and I’m not sure where they are. I used to download at the yahoo site but obviously need retraining. Thank you so much for taking the time to give feedback. I am pleased that you enjoyed the story. The Lancer characters are always so fun to write. Thanks again Sue and take care. Ronnie

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  3. I’m so glad you write about all those awkward first months of their relationship – would loved to have seen more of that during the show. And that you let them spend time together. Although I always enjoyed the “Scott episodes,” I loved the ones where the family spent more time together. Thank you for sharing another wonderful Lancer story!

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    1. The show should have delved into those first months of the characters getting to know each other. It seemed the second episode and all was well. I loved the Scott episodes. Not nearly enough. I’m so pleased you liked this story and thanks for letting me know. I appreciate it. Ronnie

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    2. Thank you for a good story. I like how you portray the feelings of the characters. I hope you continue to post.

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  4. Thank you Val. I’m so pleased you liked the story and for letting me know. I appreciate it very much. Ronnie

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    1. Caterina. What a beautiful name you have. Its musical. And thank you for letting me know you liked the story and for commenting. I really appreciate your taking the time to do that. Ronnie

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    1. Thank you! I’m always delighted when others get enjoyment out of a story. Thanks so much for letting me know. Ronnie

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  5. Ronnie,
    I really enjoyed your story. I felt very connected to the characters via your writing. It was so nice to dwell more on Scott’s journey to connect with his new family. I too miss the fact the series didn’t spend much time developing the family connections. Such a missed opportunity.

    I loved the Light Rain story as a focus for the story. Scott’s reaction to the old women’s circumstances and the superstitions of the vaquaros seemed to fit very well. Johnny and Scott’s interactions were also well done. I enjoyed the playfulness of the boys.

    Your story was very interesting and enjoyable to read. Thank you for the entertainment.

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    1. Hi Jane. You’ve left such a nice comment for this story. Scott is my favorite Lancer but I prefer writing about the whole family. Their interactions and how you relate to them are so fun to explore and imagine. How the strong react to the vulnerable tells much about a person’s character. I’m so glad that part of the story worked for you. Thank you so much! Ronnie

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  6. Thank you for writing such a wonderful story. I enjoyed reading your work, now I better get back to what I should be doing.

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  7. Really loved this story so much that after reading it once I went back and read it over again! So nice the way you got into their thoughts and feelings. Than you

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    1. Hey Carol. So glad to hear you liked this story. I love getting into their minds. They are certainly interesting characters. Thanks much.

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  8. This was a wonderful version of the beginning months and how the relationships developed. You captured the personalities of the characters so well that I could hear the actors voices .Thank you so much for bringing Lancer alive for me again.
    Cheryl

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    1. Hi Cheryl. Thanks so much for your kind words. So glad you think I’ve captured their personalities. Each character is such a strong individual and so fun to write. I’m pleased you liked the story and appreciate your taking the time to comment. Ronnie

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  9. There is much to commend in this well-written and finely crafted story. At its foundation it is a “day in the life of ..”, or in this case, a “week in the life of Lancer” story. I love its unhurried pace. The story never falters or strays yet time is given for real conversations to take place between many different characters. The conversations go beyond dialogue and each one reveals new insights about the characters to the reader. Scott, Johnny, and Murdoch are given equal time and their characterizations are spot on for the post-Pardee setting. They are still feeling their way with each other. Each has a yearning to develop a relationship with the others but is still dealing with feelings of distrust, anger, and resentment. They push one another knowing they may go too far and sometimes they do. Ronnie writes these scenes with a light but believable hand. No heavy angst – just honest emotions, reactions and a desire to set things right. Who among us has not experienced Johnny’s “Shit, shit, shit, shit!” moment when we are angry at ourselves for the hurt we caused? Tension is built but then diffused with an emotional release or with humor. I welcomed the closure at the end of the story though I blubbered all through Light Rain’s life story. The robbery mystery was solved and it ended with the Lancers on good footing with each other. The “light rain” analogy at the close of the story was very fitting. Thank you Ronnie for writing and sharing this gem with all of us.

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    1. Sheila. Thank you so much for your very nice reply to this story. Your comments make me want to start working on another story! They are so appreciated. These three characters are so memorable and I love to write about their relationships, how they came to the point of caring for one another so much while tackling the challenges of their past. I’m so pleased you found them human, believable, and the timing of the story what you imagine those first days would have been like. Light Rain was a vulnerable individual who dealt with life as it came to her. She was courageous and humble. I find myself weaving individuals like her into my stories and I’m glad you liked her. Again, thank you for your kind words.

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