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A New Year’s Resolution by Suzanne

Word Count 39,966

Chapter One

Scott walked across to the barn, blowing out wispy clouds with each breath. The look on his face must have been enough of a warning for the chickens because they clucked and scattered as soon as he came near. 

It had been damnably hard to leave the warmth of the kitchen and if Johnny hadn’t been annoyingly bright no doubt he’d still be there, smothering butter on another biscuit. At least he hadn’t had to fight anyone else for the privilege of filling his stomach.

Damn it was cold.

What he should be doing is lounging in front of the fire, finishing one of the books Murdoch had bought him for Christmas.

The barn side door was open so he went in that way, pausing in the doorway to put on his gloves.

And sure enough, the first thing he heard was the usual muttering that always seemed to accompany Jelly.

The old man was lugging a sack of oats across to the feed bins–and making far more work of it than he had to. Naturally. How was it that every time Jelly tipped up the sack to fill the bin, piles of oats went everywhere and accumulated outside the bin, rather than inside it?

Scott rubbed his hand over his forehead. Sure enough, his brows were drawn down low over his eyes; and he could probably rub his forehead for a week and still not remove the nagging ache.

A hand on his shoulder made him half-glance around but he knew who it was in any case. Johnny gave him a smile, laced with bits of carrot between his teeth. That brother of his would never be invited to a Boston dinner. “I heard you coming. Did anyone ever tell you you’re the noisiest eater?”

“Nope.” Johnny took another bite and chewed some more then eased his way past Scott. But he’d only gone a few steps when he turned around. “You planning on standing there all day?”

“Maybe I am. Have you got a problem with that?”

All the good humour on Johnny’s face drained away. “Boy, Scott, what’s got into you lately? You’ve been like a bear with a sore head the last couple of days.”

And that was because the last couple of days he’d spent a great deal of his time wanting to kick the wall or throw something—anything— that would smash into a thousand pieces with a very loud crash. He’d considered both options any number of times. Mind you, it had never worked for him when he was a child, no matter how sweet that moment of release when he’d let his anger fly. “Go on. Off to bed without supper. Mules don’t get rewarded for bad manners.” Although he doubted very much if Grandfather knew a thing about mules. “Perhaps you’d prefer to live in the stables like a farmer?” And farming was about as low as it got according to Grandfather. He’d sort of punch the word out as if even forming the letters with his lips was thoroughly distasteful. So of course Scott said he wanted no such thing.  It wasn’t until he was older that he realised farmers mostly lived in houses—and many of them comfortable, if not grand.

Perhaps Grandfather equated farming with Murdoch?

Johnny hadn’t waited for an answer, which was just as well because Scott didn’t have one to give him. Scott could hear him in Barranca’s stall.

Of Jelly, there was no sign. Just the piles of oats around the feed bins to show where he’d been.

Scott walked into the gloom. Damn it was cold.

Johnny was murmuring who-knew-what to his horse while he checked Barranca’s feet. Scott paused at the entrance to the stall. Johnny was good with horses. Especially this one. Scott took the bridle off the hook then leaned against the partition, watching Johnny go about his business. “That horse won’t be happy with you.”

“Why’s that?” Johnny grunted, from his bent position.

“You ate his horse treats before you even got to the barn.”

Johnny straightened, appraising Scott with one of those intent looks of his.

Scott held out the bridle.

Johnny looked at it. “Is this a piece offering?”

Scott shrugged, letting the beginnings of a smile pull the side of his mouth. It was the closest he could get to an apology right now. And none of this was even Johnny’s fault but that’s how it was when he felt surly with the world.

Anyway, he’d make it up to Johnny later. The morning’s work should blow the sour away.

Once Johnny had taken the bridle, Scott left him and went to the stall across the way to saddle his own mount, earning a friendly nudge to his chest from the bay as a greeting. Just like Johnny, he’d had this horse since he’d arrived at Lancer. It was a good work horse; strong boned, well- proportioned with a good energy.  Johnny said the gelding had a pair of kind eyes but then Johnny was a romanticist where horses were concerned.

He was almost done saddling when Johnny’s voice carried through the barn. “Jelly. Jelly?”

The sound of shuffling feet told him Jelly must have heard his name being called.

“Jelly, have you seen that new scabbard of mine? It should be on my saddle.”

“Nope. T’aint no business of mine what you have on yer saddle. Just what are you trying to say?”

If ever a man was less like ‘jelly’ it was Jellifer Hoskins. ‘Bristles’ would have been more apt as a moniker.

“I’m not ‘saying’ anything.” Johnny’s reply sounded careful. “I was just wondering if you’d seen it anywhere.”

“Well, I ain’t.”

“That’s okay. I must have left it inside. See yah, Jelly.”

“Goodbye, Jelly.” Scott led his horse out behind Barranca as Jelly stomped back to the tack room.

He probably stole Johnny’s new scabbard—just like he stole Teresa’s pearls.

Scott stopped in his tracks.

Dammit, could he be right?

It was odd the way the thought seemed to wrap itself around his head. Someone could have whispered the words in his ear, they were so clear. If he didn’t know better, he would have looked around to see if Johnny had heard them as well.

But Johnny had stopped to pick up his old scabbard from against the wall. He looked up the once—and caught Scott’s eye—but his expression was noncommittal. There wasn’t even the slightest hint on his face that he was thinking what Scott was thinking. Once the scabbard was attached, he led Barranca out, for all the world like someone not the least bit put out by the fact his most treasured Christmas present seemed to have disappeared. At least that’s what Scott assumed it had been by the look on Johnny’s face when Murdoch gave it to him.

“Are you ready?”

“Sure. Our first workday of 1871.” Scott did his best to put some cheer in his voice now that they were out of the barn. It was silly for him to feel…relief?  At least some early January sunlight had forced its way through the mist. Perhaps the day would improve?

Johnny was giving him one of his ‘what-are-you-on-about’ looks. “Is that meant to mean something, brother?”

Scott lifted his stirrup to check the girth. “No. I suppose not. Unless you’re in the habit of making a new year’s resolution.”

Johnny checked, his foot in the stirrup. “Res-ie-what?”

Girth tightened, Scott swung into the saddle. “Resolution. It simply means being resolute, setting your mind on doing something. And this time of year, it’s usually about choosing to improve yourself in some way or deciding to finish a task you’ve been working on forever.”

Johnny grinned as he settled himself in the saddle. “Well, I’m resoluting to beat that nag of yours to the south pasture.”

Barranca needed little urging and Scott wasted no time in following. The bay had a beautiful gait. Ordinarily a race with Johnny would have been the perfect start to the day.


Scott followed but honestly, his heart wasn’t in it. Nor was his head.

Maybe it was having to work after the holidays of the past week? Or because the gaiety of Christmas had come and gone and unlike the round of parties in Boston this time of year, he’d be facing a long winter rescuing cows from bogs and standing waist-deep in freezing water, clearing streams?

Johnny was four lengths in front but by the way Barranca’s tail was streaming behind him, Johnny had clearly decided to give him his head. Hmm, so his brother meant business.

But Johnny didn’t know Scott and Hank had spent a day clearing the creek bed of the old tree that had fallen down years ago. And to think Scott had been annoyed about having to do that while Johnny had been in Sacramento with Murdoch. Well, now was the time to recoup.

“Come on, boy. Let’s show that brother of mine what we’re made of.” The bay lifted his pace and Scott could almost hear the wind rushing beneath them as the bay stretched his neck and all four legs worked their mastery. Something inside him seemed to have taken flight as they left the ground then thudded down onto the wet grass in the next stride. Johnny was following the path they usually took but Scott took off down the hill. The bay ran with complete assurance, taking the shallow stream in two strides, head bobbing like a piston, then up the hill to where victory waited for either him or Johnny.


Scott got low in the saddle, spied Johnny coming up on his left. Barranca was fast. Powerful. Johnny’s face was set. Determined.

Four more full strides to the top.


Johnny was even with him…




The bay got to the top of the hill with a final burst of speed, like he knew exactly what was wanted of him.

They slowed their mounts down to a canter then a walk on the grassy hill. Scott gave the bay a pat on the neck then realised his cheeks were aching. Well, surprise, surprise, it must’ve been from the grin he’d been wearing for who knew how long.

“Well done.” Johnny leaned across, hand outstretched.

Scott slapped at it. “You almost had me.”

“That was a sneaky move, brother.”

Scott laughed. “No more than you getting a head start.” The bay tossed his head just then, looking pleased with himself. “This one would have made a prime cavalry horse.”

Johnny started grinning. “You’ll be sneaking him treats soon. A little sugar in your pockets…maybe a sweet, juicy apple.”

“Hah! No, I’ll leave all that to my little brother.”

They walked the horses on further. Down below in the south pasture, the herd was bellowing at the intruders.

“You must have really looked like something…”

Scott looked across at Johnny, brows raised.

“I mean with you all decked out in your cavalry doodads. I bet the old man would’ve been real proud.”

“For your information, it’s called a uniform—and why do you think I photographed so well?” That smile he’d been wearing was spreading a warmth inside him as well. At times like this he knew he’d made the right decision to come to Lancer. So what if he missed the round of Boston—.

For no particular reason, his eyes fell on the old rifle scabbard Johnny was using, instead of the tooled leather one Murdoch had specially ordered from a friend of his in Mexico.

Even stranger, for no particular reason, the sun went in—or a gust of wind blew down from the mountains up north, straight off the snow.

Just for a few moments there he’d been feeling less surly. He really was.

Johnny had most likely left his new one in the great room; that was the most obvious answer. And they should have gone inside and checked because then this nagging doubt would have been dealt with once and for all.

Dammit, Murdoch trusted the man didn’t he! The suspicion that Jelly had taken the scabbard wasn’t a thought Scott wanted to have. It wasn’t as if he’d asked for it.

But he had it all the same.

And like that itch on your back that you can’t quite reach, it wasn’t going away.

Chapter Two

Scott thought they had it made when Hank suggested he and the other hands round up the herd over in the trees. That left Scott and Johnny to work with a half-dozen steers near the creek.

The sun was shining and Jelly and everything that annoyed him about Jelly, felt like a million miles away. And for once, when he was working with those ‘ornery steer’ as everyone out here called them, it seemed like he just had to wave his hand and every steer was happy to head off in the direction Scott wanted it to go.

That was until they encountered a steer who’d clearly enjoyed his summer of munching on Lancer’s green grass. It wasn’t just his size that made him stand out from the bunch, but the pattern of brown spots on his white face.

“There’s one in every bunch,” Johnny had commented, somewhat ominously, when they saw the first signs of a stubborn streak.

It quickly became apparent that Freckle-Face didn’t like bushes and he didn’t like the wind and he didn’t like the flock of geese that beat their wings and rose up from the creek and into the sky—and he definitely didn’t like the idea of leaving the pasture that had been his home for the past few months.

Johnny had been masterful. Confident. “You circle left, Scott. I’ll take the right. We’ll teach this hombre a lesson.”

Well, they circled and they circled and they circled again but Freckle-Face was having none of it, showing his displeasure by bawling loudly every time he so much as sniffed something that made him nervous. Murdoch would have something to say if they worked off all that beef weight he’d gained in summer because of his shenanigans.

After an hour of correcting Freckle-Face’s every move, which seemed to consist of ten steps forward and five steps back— or maybe it was the other way around—Johnny and he finally stopped and stared down at the steer who was unconcernedly chomping on a clump of grass.

Johnny was glowering. “Why you pig-headed old sow.”

Scott just looked at him. “And you call that cussing? Come on. Is that the best you can come up with?”

Johnny grinned through the frustration on his face. “Sure. You think any self-respecting steer wants to be called a pig?”

Scott was familiar with this part of the ranch because it had only been a few weeks ago that he’d cleared the stream—his winning move in beating Johnny. “This is hopeless. We’re not getting anywhere. Why don’t we head him towards those bushes near the creek?”

“Scott, he hates bushes.”

“Exactly. I have a plan.”

Johnny winced. “Your plans always land us in trouble.”

“You stay on the right. I’ll drive him towards the bushes and then he’ll deviate to the left and hopefully follow the tracks of the rest of the herd.”

The look Johnny threw him didn’t exactly reek of confidence but he rode Barranca over to the prickly bushes and took up his position, nonetheless.

Scott urged Freckle-Face on, making the steer get going at a slow run. Johnny rode on the right, whistling and waving his hat.

The bushes loomed ahead and it was clear by the steer’s gait that he was already having second thoughts about his direction. He was starting to track left. Scott urged his horse on faster. With Johnny on the right, the steer would have no choice but to go left.

It was working.

Until the last moment.

Of all the stupid, idiotic things to do—Freckle-Face went straight through the bushes.

“Johnny, no!”

But it was too late. Johnny, seeing what was happening and determined to head the steer off, urged Barranca on and followed Freckle-Face through the gap.

Scott didn’t follow. Instead, he rode around the bushes because he damn-well knew what was waiting on the other side. This was not going to be good.

Pulling any animal from a bog was a miserable job for man and beast. He just hoped he wasn’t going to have to pull Johnny out as well.

The first thing he saw was Freckle-Face, mud up to his knees and looking somewhat surprised to find himself standing on solid ground.

Johnny and Barranca weren’t so lucky. Barranca had taken the bog at a run and had nearly got to the other side when he’d stuck fast. Johnny must have done some work to save himself from being thrown over Barranca’s head. At least the mud was only mid-way to his knees. All the same, Scott was dreading that sucking sound of the bog refusing to let go. “Will I toss you a rope?”

“Nope, I think I’ve got it.” Johnny was all concentration. He patted Barranca’s neck. “Come on, boy. Come on.”

Barranca tried to lunge…then lunged again. The third time his front feet came free and with an ungainly jump, the back legs followed. Thankfully, the bog wasn’t as deep as Scott had feared. Water from the creek must have seeped through here, thanks to his efforts at clearing the creek and increasing the flow.

“Is he all right, Johnny?”

Johnny walked Barranca around in a circle but there was no sign that he was troubled by his brief run-in with the bog.

They both looked around as Hank rode up, looking more pleased with himself than he had a reason to. Scott was beginning to smell a rat.

“Hank, you swindling four-flusher,” Johnny called out as soon as he was in earshot.

“What’s wrong, Johnny?” Hank was all innocence itself.

“You knew exactly what Freckle-Face was like. You boys are just having the time of your lives watching Scott and me try to herd this demon.”

Hank leaned on his horn, breathing easy after a few quiet hours of work. Unlike Johnny and him.

“Hank, you knew damned well he’d fight like a Kilkenny cat.”

Hank was laughing now. “You just need an expert to show you greenhorns how it’s done.”

Scott waved his hand. He’d reached that point somewhere between anger and amusement and Johnny had pretty much said everything he felt.  “Be my guest, Hank.”

Hank took out a branch he’d stuck under his vest. He whistled, no more than twice, then gave Freckle-Face a few taps on his rump and sure enough, he moved off as docile as a lamb. “Like I said, fellas, you just gotta know how to talk steer.”

Scott looked at Johnny. “I think I know what they’ll be talking about in the bunkhouse tonight.”

Johnny laughed. “And all over town by Saturday night. We must have looked a sight chasing that critter. Come on, brother, we’d better prove to these cowpokes we aren’t the shave tails they still think we are.”


The sun was high in the sky when Scott cantered up the grassy rise then brought his horse to a halt underneath a couple of oak trees. It was good to take a moment and catch his breath after all their work with Freckle-Face. Johnny was right—they must have looked a sight. It was going to be a funny story to tell Murdoch over supper.

By his reckoning, it should only take another few hours and they’d have the herd relocated in the south pasture.

As Scott watched, a black horse shot out of the bushes half-way down and headed up the hill. He could make out the form of Curly, a lanky Texan Scott didn’t know too well. He’d only been working at the ranch three weeks.

He rode right up to Scott, like he was as sure of his welcome as he was of his horsemanship, bringing the black alongside. “After this morning’s work, we got ourselves a herd of choirboys, ‘cepting for those two down yonder.”

Johnny was the other side of the herd down below, cantering beside a couple of stubborn steer, whistling and waving them towards their companions with a sweep of his hat and doing plenty of urging. “Come on. Get moving. Go’on. Hep, hep.” Johnny could yell as loud as anyone when he wanted to. Interestingly, he was more likely to yell at steers rather than people.

Curly stood in the stirrups, his cheek bulging with a wad of tobacco. “That brother a’yours seems to know what he’s about, don’t he jest. Though, begging your pardon, you two gave us a showin’ this morning. Funniest damn thing I seen since—.” A greasy smile slid across his face. “Well, I guess, since I can’t remember when. But I said to ole Hank, ‘Those two boys can stand the gaff, yes siree.’”

“I’m always happy to entertain.” He didn’t mean to sound curt but there was something about Curly that was hard to like. That drawl of his was edged with a sneer more times than not.

“Not that you ain’t got a way about you as well. Boss. Must be all that cavalry training an’ such.

Scott turned his gaze full on Curly but the look on that ferret-face of his was bland.

“Can’t say the same for that Jellifer Hoskins though.” Curly followed his words with a spit of juice that hit the ground like a bullet.

Scott’s horse took that moment to toss his head and take two steps sideways. And maybe that was Scott’s fault. Whatever the reason, his hands were clenching the reins as he circled the bay until he was facing Curly again. “What do you mean?” His words came out harsher than he’d intended and that was annoying. The last thing he wanted was to sound like he was lording it over the hired help. He wasn’t his grandfather.

“Aw nuthin, Boss. Don’t mind me none.” And he pulled his lips back in something that was meant to be another smile but all Scott saw was his stained, brown teeth.

At least he could take the edge off his words with a smile. Well, he hoped it looked like a smile. “You’d better get down there with Hank and the boys.”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

Scott watched him make his way back down the hill but that damned itch was back again. After all, hadn’t Curly simply echoed his own feelings from this morning? The whole conversation was damned annoying. He’d almost forgotten about the whole Jelly situation and now he had that sour taste back in his mouth.

Scott scanned the pasture but there was no sign of any escapees up here so he rode back down the hill.

Down below, Johnny whistled then waved his hat at Scott. Come to think of it, his stomach had been rumbling for some time. He should have thought of calling a break earlier. Hank and the others seemed to be headed to the other side of the herd so Scott rode to where Johnny had stopped near a stand of eucalyptus trees Murdoch must have planted years back as a wind break.

Johnny was sitting on a fallen log out in the sun. He was already eating by the time Scott got there then took out the sack Teresa had handed him this morning.

Scott eyed the log but it was a gnarled old thing. The grass looked more inviting. “In spite of Freckle-Face. I think we’ll have our feet up before sundown.”

“Sipping on a glass of Murdoch’s Scotch whiskey.”

Scott stretched out his legs and leaned on his elbow. “Or maybe two.”

“Don’t get greedy, now. Besides, you don’t want him to find out you drank his other bottle while he was in Sacramento.”

Scott eyed him before opening his sack. “I seem to recall I had some help when you both came home.”  He peered in. Ham sandwiches. Of course.

Johnny gave him a lazy look. “What’s wrong? Ants in your food?”

“No.” Plenty of times during the war he’d have dreamed of a meal like this. “No, the meal’s just fine.”

Johnny took a swig from his canteen, then held it out to Scott.

“No thanks. I’ve got mine here.”

Scott looked out over the valley while they ate. He never knew there were so many shades of green until he came out here. It made the mountains to the north look almost like blue bonnets on a green dress. Hmm…he’d blame that thought on Francie and that blue bonnet she was wearing last time he was in town. He didn’t think she wore a green dress, though. Hard to remember—he mostly thought about what she’d look like without either one of them.

The herd was grazing, not bothered by a family of rabbits hopping about. They were probably annoyed their field had been invaded.

Every so often he’d stop chewing just to take in the quiet. Out here you could hear a breeze stirring a stand of trees a mile away or a crow cawing the other side of the valley. 

The north pasture was where Murdoch wanted to dig a new well. That meant re-fencing. Not something Scott was looking forward to. He’d said as much at the time—but once Murdoch had a bee in his bonnet, it was almost impossible to talk him out of it. Much like that day in town when Jelly had thrown himself at their wagon. And didn’t Scott warn him as they drove back to Lancer? Well, it was a waste of time going over all that again. And to think Murdoch says Johnny is stubborn! Truth be told, stubbornness was probably a vice of all Lancer men.

“I bet that’s Freckle-Face over there.” Johnny pointed to a steer making its way to the back of the herd.

“Good, because he’s Hank’s problem now.”

“That’s an evil grin, brother.”

“It matches yours.”

Sure enough, the steer was slowly eating his way, clump by clump, back to his old pasture. So much for Hank’s theory.

“Murdoch’s worried.”

That kind of comment was so typical of Johnny. Sometimes he’d just throw a few words into the air, like a lure, to see if he could snag anything. Well, not today, John.

“Why, have you been in trouble again?”

He got a smile out of Johnny with that line but he still had a determined spark in his eye as he thumped his canteen stopper back on, keeping his eyes on Scott. “Very funny. No, it ain’t me this time. He’s trying to figure out what’s got you tied up in knots.”

Now that was a new thought—Murdoch being worried about him. And unexpected. “It’s probably nothing a hot bath and night in town won’t cure.” And he wasn’t going to add anything else but…well. “Why would Murdoch be worried about me?”

“Dontcha know? You’re the reliable one. He’s used to all kind of trouble with me—but you,” Johnny looked sideways at him, “I have it on good authority you’ve got your mother’s eyes.”

Scott grinned. “I hope not. I can’t imagine my mother looking at Francie the same way I do when I go into town.”

Johnny grinned back. “She sure is pretty. But you’re changing the subject, brother.”

“I wasn’t aware we were on a particular subject.” He threw his empty sack at Johnny then stretched out flat on his back with his hat over his eyes. “The only subject I’m interested in right now is peace and quiet.” And this was just what he wanted; it wasn’t long before he could feel his body soaking up the warmth. The Californian sun was his best friend in winter.

“It ain’t working, Scott. You can’t fool me.”

Scott waved a lazy hand at him. “Shut up, Johnny.”

“I’ve seen the way you look at him. Jelly’s got you so bent out of shape that…well, Murdoch and me…we’re both noticing.”

“If it’s bothering you so much, stop looking.”

“I’d have to walk around with my eyes closed to do that.”

Scott took in a breath. Dammit all. And yes, he meant to sound annoyed when he let his breath go and sat up. He clearly wasn’t going to get any peace on the matter with Johnny poking at him every ten seconds. “I don’t get it. Doesn’t that old man drive you mad as well? Because he’s driving me crazy.”

“Yeah, I get it, Scott.”

“And I don’t trust him.”

“Murdoch does.”

“Yeah, well Murdoch’s a…”

He caught the sudden look from Johnny and closed his mouth. Not that he knew what he was going to say anyway.

“We both know Murdoch’s no fool. It ain’t wrong to trust.”

“It’s possible to be too trusting, though.”

“It’s possible to not know what trust is.”

“You weren’t there when Jelly was demanding food and ringing that cursed cowbell like he was Lord Muck.”

Johnny grimaced. “I know. And he’s got an answer for everything and never admits he’s wrong. I never said it was easy to like Jelly.”

“And why should we have to? As soon as he’s paid us back with one hundred days of work, he should be gone. That was the deal we agreed to.”

Johnny watched an ant running over his hand. “I dunno. Somehow he’s just becoming one of the family.”

“He’s not part of my family. He isn’t now and he never will be.”

Johnny flicked the ant off. “Aw, Scott, he ain’t that bad.”

“Oh yeah? Perhaps you’re forgetting I caught you cursing up a storm in Spanish the other morning?”

Johnny grimaced. “I had to spend most of the morning herding up those brood mares because Jelly left the gate open.”

“I’d swear he does those things on purpose. I don’t get it. I know he annoys you as much as he annoys me.”

Johnny started fidgeting with the toggle on his stampede strings. Perhaps Scott wasn’t the only one grappling with Jelly after all?

“Admit it, Johnny.”

There was one thing he’d learned early on about Johnny—he wasn’t a liar.

Johnny glanced up at him. “I’m not saying he doesn’t annoy the hell out of me, too.”

“And that proves my point!”

 “But I saw him with those kids, Scott. And they thought the world of him.”

And it always came back to that, didn’t it. Even Scott had to admit it was Jelly’s one saving grace. Every time he’d had it up to his eyeballs with Jelly and was about to damn Murdoch and everyone else and tell the old guy to leave, he’d think of Jelly holding Toogie, tears on his cheeks as he railed at them all for trying to take his boys away. It was true. Who knew what might have happened to the children if they hadn’t fallen into Jelly’s hands?

Scott stood up. “I know. You’re right. And that’s probably why I’m so damned annoyed because it feels like the bad half of me is at war with any good parts I might have. Pass me my sack.”

Johnny picked up the sack—but he held onto it a moment longer when Scott tried to take it. “You’ve got a kind heart, Scott. I’ve seen it. Murdoch has, too.”

Scott took it, then shrugged at Johnny. He appreciated the words. He just wasn’t certain of how true they were right now. “Come on. Get up. That herd won’t move itself.”

Johnny squinted up at him, with one eye closed. “I was thinking….”

“That’s always dangerous. Let’s get moving. Curly will sit around all day if we let him.” Scott turned to the bay, stowing the empty sack in his saddle bag.

“I was thinking…” Johnny started up again…and sometimes he could be as bad as Jelly when he was fixated on a plan… “That maybe you should make one of those new year resolutions you were talking about.”

And now the whole topic was making his brain hurt. “Let go of it, Johnny.”

“Brother, I just think you oughtta give Jelly a chance. You know. Make a resolution about getting to know him.”

“And just how am I meant to do that when I want to strangle the life out of him whenever he’s within ten miles or less of me?”

“I don’t know, but you’ve got all that Harvard learning.” Johnny slapped him on the back. “You oughtta be able to work something out, brother.”

Chapter Three

Scott put his glass of whiskey down on the table next to his chair then stood up and walked across to the French doors. Murdoch’s pen scratching on paper was making his toes curl. “I don’t understand what’s keeping Johnny out there. It doesn’t take that long to apply a poultice, if that’s what they’re doing.” Scott had already washed up and put on a clean white shirt. So much for sharing a drink with Johnny as a reward for getting back early.

Murdoch clearly wasn’t interested. He barely looked up from the ledgers he was working on at his desk.

They’d made good time with the rest of the herd, as he’d predicted, but Johnny had been worried about Barranca’s fetlock as they neared the hacienda.

As soon as they rode through the corral gate he was off that horse and running his hand down Barranca’s leg, asking if Scott had noticed him limping any?

It was just as well Johnny didn’t see him roll his eyes. “Are you sure you’re not imagining things?” Johnny would never have survived in the cavalry—there was no wet-nursing of horses, there.

“Maybe. But I could have sworn he was favouring that right front leg a couple of miles from home.” Johnny had practically walked backwards to the barn so that he could check Barranca’s gait.

And Scott hadn’t been serious when he said, “Jelly tells everyone he’s the best horse wrangler in the business. Perhaps you should go and find him.”

Well, all that was over an hour ago, now.

Scott pushed the curtains back a bit further. He’d had a velvet coverlet when he was little. He could still remember rubbing his fingers along the furry pile. He wouldn’t do that with these curtains though; like most things out here, they were faded and dusty, in spite of any cleaning. Still, if Johnny ever got tired of that pink shirt of his, he could have Teresa make him another one out of these old red curtains. 

For a second Murdoch stopped scratching. Maybe he was finished? No, apparently he’d only stopped to dip his pen in the ink.

Scott could always go out to the barn and see what was keeping Johnny?

Hmm…on second thoughts…no.

Scott stared through the gloom. A few of the hands were wandering into the bunkhouse. Even in the half-dark, it was easy to make out Curly’s skinny frame. He slouched when he rode and he slouched when he walked.

Then again, if Jelly was giving Johnny an earful of whatever it was he was babbling about, Johnny might be glad of an interruption? It was damned boring standing here, doing nothing. He grabbed hold of the handle—but before he even had a chance to push open the French door, he heard a click-clack of heels behind him. Well, that was that. Teresa and Maria were already putting supper on the table

Murdoch looked up and glanced around the room. “Supper? Is it that time already?” Then he went back to his ledgers and scratched away some more but in a few moments he lifted his head again. “Where’s Johnny? I thought you’d both come in.”

Sometimes Murdoch and Grandfather could be very alike. “He’s in the barn. His horse got stuck in a bog.” He walked across and relieved Teresa of the platter of potatoes she was carrying.  “He’s checking Barranca hasn’t strained anything.”

“Thanks, Scott.” But a quick look of concern crossed her face. “Poor Barranca. I hope it’s not serious.”

“What’s that you say?” Murdoch closed his ledger then came across to the table. “Something about that horse of Johnny’s?”

Scott put the platter on the table. “He’s alright. Probably just strained something.”

“He got caught in a bog,” Teresa said over her shoulder as she took a

plate of pot roast from Maria, “Gracias,” then placed it in the middle of the table as he and Murdoch pulled up their chairs.

“This is the time of year for’em. I would have thought Johnny knew how to avoid a bog.”

“He does.” So much for a fun supper regaling Murdoch and Teresa with their tale of Freckle-Face and bushes and bogs. Instead, he had to listen to Teresa tell Murdoch about old missus someone-or-other who had the grippe.

“You remember her, don’t you, Scott? Her son is the one who went East to study.”

He vaguely remembered a woman buttonholing him about her son and how clever he was. “I think I do.”

And that was how most of supper went. Murdoch was in one of his distracted moods and that left Teresa trying to fill the void. Even worse, he could barely say the word ‘pot roast’ without thinking of Jelly and how he’d virtually eaten the entire thing that night he was supposedly laid up with a hurt leg. What a rogue.


He found Teresa’s eyes on him. She must have been saying something that required an answer from him. The last name he remembered her mentioning was ‘Squire.’ “They have four sons, don’t they?”

She probably would have scolded Johnny for not paying attention but he just got ‘the look.’ “Scott, I asked if you think I should send Johnny’s supper out to the barn?”

Oh. “Beg your pardon, Teresa. I was thinking of something else for a moment. That’s a fine idea.”

“Unless you want to take it out? I should probably make up a plate for Jelly as well.” She laughed, then looked at them both. “You know how he loved my pot roast.”

It took a lot for Scott not to talk through clenched teeth. “Funny— that’s exactly what I was thinking.”

Teresa began piling a plate high with pot roast and vegetables. “And you were so angry with him, Scott. Remember? He was horribly annoying though, wasn’t he.”

“I wasn’t aware anything had changed on that front,” he murmured, not quite under his breath.

“What was that?” But she’d already stood, presumably to organise a plate for Johnny. And Jelly.

He waved her on. “Nothing. Don’t mind me.”

Murdoch and he finished the rest of their meal in silence but it didn’t feel as comfortable as he’d begun to grow accustomed to. He was glad when they finished and moved across to the hearth. He put his arm on the mantle and stared down at the fire. Things had changed—or shifted somehow—around here. Why did it feel as if everything was off kilter?

“Brandy? You look like you could do with some.”

He looked up to see Murdoch watching him. And unless he was mistaken, that was concern in his eyes.

He forced out a smile. Well, that wasn’t too difficult when he was being offered Murdoch’s French brandy. “If you say so.” 

He warmed the glass in his hands while Murdoch talked about where they’d dig the well. The idea of digging a hole anywhere between fifteen to seventy-five feet wasn’t exactly appealing.

“Did you dig the wells at Lancer, sir?”

“Two were already here. But I dug the one closest to the kitchen. Your mother was my look-out on top, making sure none of the buckets full of dirt hit my head as she wound them up and down.” He grinned. “It was hard work.”

“So, will we dig this one?”

“We’ll see how it goes. Henry Simpson has a water well drill. He digs most of the wells in these parts, nowadays.”

“Okay.” Johnny would be happy to hear that news, too.

Warming his legs in front of the fire was starting to make him feel more mellow with the world. Or maybe it was the brandy? At least the silence felt more comfortable now. Even comforting.

“Hard day?”

He’d wondered what he’d got himself into that first afternoon—standing there, in this very room. He certainly had no inkling that Murdoch could convey so much understanding and concern in two small words.

He put his head down for a second but when he looked up he couldn’t stop the makings of a smile. How could he not when he had a picture in his mind of Freckle-Face leading him and Johnny on a merry dance? The both of them cursing up a storm.

It felt a lot like peeling an onion, but by the time he’d got to the end of the story about the wily Freckle-Face and the entertainment they’d given the hands, his annoyance had shredded. He was even able to join in with that deep, rumbling laugh of Murdoch’s.

Murdoch slapped the arm of his chair. “Ooh, yes, I’ve met a few ‘Freckle-Faces’ in my time.”

“What’s so funny?” They both turned around. Johnny was grinning at them from the doorway, hat in hand.

“I was just telling Murdoch about our adventures today.” Johnny wasn’t looking worried, so that was a good sign. “How’s Barranca?”

Johnny hooked his hat on the stand as he walked past. “Maybe a mild strain. Nothing serious.”

“You were out there a long while for a mild strain.”

“Yep.” Johnny plumped himself down on the couch, stretched out his back, then started taking his boots off. “I was helping Jelly make a poultice.”

Scott sniffed the air. “I thought I could smell something. Then again, it might be your feet.”

Johnny smelled his hands. “I thought I’d washed it all off. The poultice,” and he eyed Scott, “stank all right.”

“What did you do? Ride to Sacramento to buy the ingredients?”

“Ha ha. Very funny. Nope, Jelly made a cold poultice from bran and herbs and he told me he had a secret ingredient.”

“That must be what smells.”

“Maybe. Anyway, we had to reapply it each time it got warm. I’ve got to admit, the old guy seemed to know what he was doing.”

Scott still wasn’t sure if all this had been necessary but he felt bad all the same. “Johnny, I’m sorry I didn’t think to mention the bog. It was barely noticeable a few weeks ago.”

“Well, you weren’t to know I’d be fool enough to ride through those bushes.” He held out a hand to show where the thorns had scratched him.

“Gloves would have prevented that,” Murdoch murmured.

Johnny shrugged. Scott knew he had his own reasons for not wearing gloves.

Murdoch watched Johnny taking off his other boot. “Have you eaten?”

“Sure. Teresa brought out a couple of plates for Jelly and me.”

“Speaking of Jelly…”

Good God, the name sounded like a death knell when Murdoch said it like that. Damn. How was it that every conversation always came back to that name? He almost had to stop himself from clenching his fists. Right now, Scott would be happy if—.

It was then he noticed Murdoch looking his way. And the intensity was uncomfortable, to say the least. He did his best to look unconcerned and return the gaze. That was what he’d do when Captain McLaren was eyeing his staff to take a message. No-one wanted to leave the battlefield to be a postman.

Scott didn’t blink. Or swallow. Not even when Murdoch started frowning.

Then his gaze moved off Scott and rested on Johnny—and stayed there. And Scott breathed out. Ooh, he had an inkling of what was coming next.

“Johnny, I’ve given Jelly a list of goods to be bought in town. I’d like you to go with him. Show him the ropes, so to speak.”

Johnny brushed some dried mud off his white sock. “Make sure he don’t abscond with our wagon?”

Well, well, well, were these words said in jest? Scott looked afresh at Murdoch. It hadn’t occurred to him that perhaps Murdoch didn’t entirely trust Jelly, for all he said.

“No.” Murdoch sounded irritated. “I’m increasing his responsibilities and I just want to be sure he knows how we do things.”

“Sure, Murdoch. Don’t get in a pucker.” Johnny threw a look at Scott. “Bad luck, brother. Looks like you won’t be seeing Francie this week.”

Murdoch paused as he put the lid back on the bottle of brandy. “Scott, if you would prefer to go?”

“No.” Good God, he could think of nothing worse. Even the thought of seeing Francie wasn’t enough to make an entire trip to Morro Coyo with Jelly sitting next to him, in any way bearable. “He’s all yours, brother. I’d rather take…”

Ah, he just put a face to the lady Teresa had gone on about during supper…

“Mrs Porter to the dance—than ride in the buckboard with Jelly complaining the entire trip.” Mrs Porter had waylaid him outside Baldemero’s a few weeks back and he’d had to listen for half an hour as she bragged about her son then whined about everyone else.

Johnny winced. “Ooh, Scott, I met her one time. She’s a dragon, all right.”

“You’ll be pleased to hear she’s a dragon with the grippe.”

“Serves her right.”

Murdoch frowned at them both. “Boys, that’s no way to be speaking about our neighbours. Or our hands, for that matter.”

“Speaking of hands.” Scott leaned on the words to get Murdoch’s attention. “I can’t say I’m impressed with Curly.”

“He seems like a good worker to me.” At least Murdoch sounded thoughtful rather than defensive. After all, he was the one who hired the man.

“It’s his manner I don’t like.” Scott swung around to Johnny. “What do you think of him?”

Johnny’s shrug was a vague one. “There ain’t a hand that rides as good as him. I say we give him a chance then, if he makes any trouble…,” Johnny sliced his fingers across his throat, “phft.” His mouth twisted as he tried to hide a yawn but in the end, he gave into it. No polite ‘covering of the mouth’ with Johnny. “I’m heading up to bed.”

“I was going to give you a chance to get back on a winning streak at checkers.”

But Johnny hauled himself to his feet and yawned again. “Not tonight, brother.”

Once Johnny had left the room, Murdoch picked his book up. “You mind?”

Scott grinned and picked up the book he’d left on the side table last night. “Not at all. Great minds.” Scott settled himself in the blue chair and opened Murdoch’s well-worn copy of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ But for some reason, instead of finding himself wandering the streets of Paris, he could still hear the crackle of the fire and the tick of the grandfather clock.

Finally, he looked over at Murdoch in the other chair, book on his lap, brandy in hand.

Scott cleared his throat. “And, by the way, in case you’ve forgotten: the count we’re up to is: Day Thirty-Seven.”


“Where’s Johnny?” Murdoch came out from behind his newspaper and looked towards the stairs, as if expecting his wayward son to appear at the breakfast table any moment. He turned to Scott with a disgruntled face. “He should be almost ready to leave for town by now.”

Murdoch had a point but nothing was going to mar Scott’s mood today—not even a dozen freckle faced wily steers or a grouchy Murdoch. For the first time in over a month, he was going to have a blissful ‘Jellifer Hoskins’ free day. “He’ll be down soon. Have some more coffee.” It seemed to cure most ills out here.

But Murdoch shook his head. “Perhaps you should bang on his door?”

Scott was enjoying his own coffee. A particularly fine cup of coffee at that. Would it be rude to say, ‘It was your idea—you go?’

Fortunately, Johnny came into the great room at that moment, hair sticking up every which way, boots in hand.

“Sorry, Murdoch, I didn’t mean to sleep late.” He took his place opposite Scott. “Morning, brother.” Then began to pull one of his boots on.

Murdoch pushed a plate towards him. “You’d better get some food into you before you leave. Jelly’s had the wagon harnessed and ready to go since sunup.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t seen Jelly be early for anything, so far. That all you’re eating?” Johnny had only put one biscuit on his plate.

“I don’t have much time,” he grunted out, struggling with his other boot. “I’ll get something in town later.”

Teresa bustled in with a plate piled high with bacon. It was practically still sizzling. The smell alone was enough to make a mouth water. “Oh good, Johnny. You’re here. I cooked this especially for you.”

Scott had his fork in hand. “You first, brother. I’ve already had some.”

Johnny put a hand to his collar, like it was too tight of a sudden. “No, you have it, Scott.” He pushed the plate across the table then turned to Teresa. “Sorry, honey. I just don’t feel like that this morning.”

Scott leaned across and snagged two pieces with his fork. And then another two. “No sense in letting this go to waste.” And seeing as Johnny wasn’t interested in the biscuits, he took one of those as well.

Teresa picked up the empty milk jug. “Honestly, I don’t know how men can be so unfeeling.” But apparently, she only meant Scott, because she was frowning in his direction.

Not even Teresa on her high horse was going to bother him today. He just had to reason with her.  “Teresa, it’s not the end of the world if Johnny doesn’t feel hungry.” And for that he earned a nod of approval from the man himself.

“Scott, look at him. When does either one of you not feel hungry at breakfast?”

She had a point there. Scott buttered his biscuit then gave Johnny a critical once-over. Johnny’s shirt had the same dust that had been there the last three days, ever since that ‘sweet little mare’ he was breaking, wasn’t so sweet. “He looks fine to me.”

Johnny grinned at him. “Thanks, Scott.”

“Now if he’d changed his shirt, I’d be worried.”

He got a friendly kick under the table for that comment.

Teresa stamped her foot. “Scott, stop funning. I’m serious. Look again.”

This time he put his biscuit down and took his time. Finally, he pointed a buttery finger at Johnny. “It’s the hair. No wonder he’s out of sorts.” He waved a hand around his own head. “Run a brush through it, John, and you’ll be fine. You’ll have those girls in town eating out of your hand.”

“Is that your secret, brother?” Johnny grinned, then gulped down some coffee but even Scott noticed he was nursing the cup more than drinking from it. But so what? There could be any number of reasons Johnny wasn’t hungry. And it was a fine day for a drive. A trip to Morro Coyo would blow any cobwebs away.

Teresa put her hands on her hips. “Murrr-doch.”

Johnny waved a hand at her. “Teresa, why don’t you sit down and eat your own breakfast, huh.”

But Murdoch was peering at Johnny now, over the top of his newspaper. “What is it?”

“Murdoch, Johnny is not fine. Look at that.” Her finger pointing at the single biscuit on Johnny’s plate was overly dramatic to Scott’s eyes—but it did catch Murdoch’s attention.

Scott was beginning to feel a little shaky himself, by this time. That perfect morning wasn’t feeling quite so perfect.

“Johnny, are you ill, son?”

Johnny shifted in his chair and rubbed the back of his neck. “I woke up with a bit of a headache, that’s all, Murdoch.”

“Murdoch, he can’t possibly travel all the way into Morro Coyo when he’s unwell.” Scott was ready to tie a gag on Teresa’s mouth. Of course Johnny could travel. This was Johnny, for heaven’s sake. He was never sick. He has the constitution of an ox.

Johnny threw his hands up. “You’re all making a big fuss out of nothing.”

And Scott sincerely hoped they were or the day was going to go very badly for him. Johnny’s colour seemed to be the same as always. Nothing of that pasty colour he’d had after Pardee’s bullet took a chunk out of his back.

The trouble was—if the tables were turned—he knew exactly what Johnny would do. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit all to high hell.

Murdoch folded his paper, then rubbed his chin in an absent way, with his eyes on Johnny. It wasn’t often that Murdoch looked indecisive.

Or perhaps it wasn’t indecision…but expectation?

Scott swallowed.

A walk to the gallows would be easier than this.

“Scott?” Teresa nudged.

“No.” Johnny stood up, then he turned to Murdoch and Teresa. “Let’s forget about this, huh.”

But that was it for Scott. No-one should be made to feel guilty because they were unwell. “Johnny, why don’t I go to Morro Coyo instead. You can rest here for the day.”

Johnny shook head. “Scott, I couldn’t ask you to do that.” Everything in his voice said he knew exactly how big a sacrifice this was going to be.

“Well, fortunately for you, you don’t have to ask.” He stood up from the table. “I’m telling you that I’m going. Do you think I haven’t been trying to think up some excuse to see Francie?”

“Scott, do you mean Francie McClure?” Teresa sounded half-way between shocked and tickled by the idea.

Murdoch cleared his throat, as he did when he didn’t want any further talk around Teresa. “Thank you, Scott. That’s very kind of you. Johnny, you can have the day off.”

Johnny looked undecided and Scott had to admit, he was hoping Johnny would baulk at the idea, but instead he gave an embarrassed sort of half-smile. “Thanks, Scott. My turn next time, huh?”

Scott had to admit, for Johnny to give in that easily, he must be feeling really unwell. Scott put his napkin on the table. “Don’t give it a thought, Johnny.”

But as he walked to the door, that breakfast he’d relished a few minutes ago had turned to hot lava in his stomach.

Jelly was actually waiting by the wagon when he and Johnny walked outside, putting an end to his hope that Jelly would be lying prone in the wagon, having come down with whatever ailed Johnny.  But no, just as everything else had gone so far today, it wasn’t to be. He squared his shoulders; there was no putting off the inevitable.

Jelly squinted at the two of them before climbing onto the seat. “You boys think I’ve got all day to twiddle my thumbs?”

Scott closed his eyes. This was going to be worse than he thought.

What on earth had he been thinking? He should have nominated Murdoch to go into town. Or Teresa? Or the barnyard dog for that matter!

Johnny looked up at Jelly. “There’s been a change of plans. Scott’s going into Morro Coyo with you, instead of me.”

Jelly had his nose in the air. “No need to explain anything. I’m jest the hired hand. Makes no difference to me.”

Johnny opened his mouth as if he was going to say more but instead, he unhooked the lines from the brake and handed them to Scott, murmuring, “Go easy on him, Scott. Give him a chance, huh.”

“Do you have any hints as to how I don’t strangle him?”

Johnny put a hand on his shoulder. “Just try talking. That’s all.”

Chapter Four

A trip into town. With Jelly. Already Scott could feel a cloud of doom settling in. 

He flicked the reins, keeping his eyes on the road ahead as he threaded the team through the Lancer arch. As the wagon lumbered past the adobe frame, Scott ran his eyes over it. Yes, the chips and holes, thanks to Pardee’s guns, were still there.  Murdoch kept saying he was going to have them filled in—and he wouldn’t call Murdoch a forgetful man.

Any other time, that winding road in front of him would have looked like it was paved with gold instead of dust. Especially with the thought of Francie McClure waiting at the end of it.

But not today. Not with the handyman from hell in the seat beside him. No, this trip into Morro Coyo was likely to be a nightmare instead of a treat.

Thanks to brother Johnny. Ooh, he was going to have to think of a way to show Johnny his gratitude; there was those two sections of fence that had to be rebuilt for Murdoch’s well…

Well, maybe that wasn’t fair. He could hardly blame Johnny for feeling under the weather.

He glanced across to his right. Jelly hadn’t said a thing. He just sat there, oozing disapproval through every pore. But damn if he couldn’t feel his annoyance with Jelly growing every second at the thought of having to spend an entire trip to town with the scoundrel.

His jaw would be aching by the time they got to Morro Coyo if he didn’t relax. He just had to stop thinking about—him. Just focus on driving the wagon.  The sun was shining. The team was stepping out nicely. The brown on the left was the sturdy, no-nonsense one on the team but that grey mare on the right was a show-off, bobbing her head and flicking her mane. Just like Sally Lawson last week. He’d told Johnny she knew full well she was being watched when she crossed the street in front of the saloon.  Of course, Johnny would have none of it, he was already watching her over his beer, with starry eyes. Until Scott elbowed him in the ribs, that was. Sure enough, Charlie Cooper had followed Sally and right then was kissing those pretty lips under her pink bonnet in full view of the whole town. Teresa told him they were virtually engaged.

Thinking of bonnets; Francie McClure had a velvet bonnet with a long blue ribbon that just begged to be tugged undone…

Well, for a couple of minutes the distraction had worked.

Until Jelly sniffed. 

Not once, but twice.  And loud enough to be heard above the jingle of the harnesses and the wheels crunching over the gravel.

He glanced sideways—in time to see Jelly wipe his nose along his sleeve like he was drawing a bow across the strings of a cello. On second thought, that analogy was way too elegant for Jelly. It was more like…like…no, he couldn’t come up with anything suitable. Not with Jelly sitting ramrod straight beside him, chin sticking out as if he’d been taken prisoner. He clearly didn’t want to be on this trip, either.

What on earth was Murdoch doing?  They’d helped Jelly’s boys; made sure they all went to good homes. Wasn’t that enough? Murdoch should never have insisted on taking the scoundrel back to Lancer in the first place. Then they wouldn’t be in this mess. And heaven only knew what would have happened to Jelly’s boys if they’d remained in the care of a two-bit crook who cheated his way through life to support them.

Oh, to hell with it all. He’d been over this a hundred times already.

He let the horses walk for another few miles but trying to silence that voice inside his head wasn’t helping any. With each toss of the mane or that flinty sound of hoof on a rock, his mood was dipping lower and lower.

‘Training Scotty. Good breeding is everything.’

Good God, now he had Grandfather preaching to him. There he was in front of Scott, bottom lip stuck out, droning on and on about character building and good breeding. Two things Jelly clearly knew nothing about, by the way. 

He half closed his eyes…tugged at his hat brim…shifted his boot on the board…but that nagging voice in his head wouldn’t be silenced. Damn Grandfather and damn his training. They could both go to—. 

He didn’t have to clutch the seat as the wagon lurched sideways. It wasn’t as bad as that. One of the wheels on the right must’ve hit a rock. No doubt Jelly would be rolling his eyes. After all, the man was a master at anything he put his hand to. According to Jelly, that was.

Scott stared ahead, past the bobbing ears. The horses were plodding now. Even Sally Taylor had lost her saucy air. 

Conscience was a damnable thing. No doubt about it. “You have your orders, Lieutenant Lancer,” he murmured under his breath.

“You say something?”

Scott cleared his throat. Why did it feel like he was throwing himself into Hawley Bog? “I was thinking we’ve got a fine day for a trip into town, Jelly.”

“Humph. You call an airish day like this, fine? Why you oughtta have yer head read; what, with that north wind liable to cut clear through a man’s bones.”

“At least the sun is shining.”

“Right in my eyes. I’m likely to have a thumping head by the time we get to town from all the squinting.”

“A beer and a steak should solve that.”

“You think I’d waste ten cents on that dish-water in town that tastes like I boiled my socks in it?”

“I’m paying.”

“Humph. In that case, I woulda thought you’d be offering scamper juice ‘stead a beer.”

Scott clenched his fist. It was either that or say something he’d regret…possibly. 

The next few miles Jelly instructed him on how to hold the lines. Not only that, but he was told he was going to tire the horses because he was going too fast. Only a mile later, he was apparently too slow and they’d take all day getting there. In the end he held the lines out. “Do you want to drive, Jelly?”

“No-one said anything about me being hired as a chauffeur. Still, I guess that’s what a fine feller like you would be used to.”

He had to grit his teeth this time. “And why is that, Jelly?”

“Well, it ain’t like you was born around these parts—with simple folk an’all.”

“You happen to be wrong on that account. For your information this is precisely where I was born. But I then lived in Boston.”

Jelly’s nose almost poked a hole in the clouds. “T’aint none of my concern what part of the country you was raised in.”

It wasn’t as if Scott had had any say in the matter, either. “You’ve got that right.” He clicked the team on into a faster gait. Galloping them would feel particularly good right now. 

“You think I ain’t travelled? Why, I been clear across the country from east to west afore you was even born.”

“So, you’ve been to Boston?” At last. Maybe this was something they could talk about? The old guy seemed to enjoy his food. “Did you try a bowl of clam chowder, Jelly?”

Jelly snorted. “I got more sense than corruptin’ my innards with slimy critters in a soup? No sirree. I knew better than to ask for a case of backyard trots.”

“Maybe you saw some of the sights? Paul Revere’s house is still standing and…”

“I never saw anything so all-fired fancy about Boston. I couldn’t wait to scrape off the smell of the city and fish and head west again, where a body smells the fresh air.”

“I guess you prefer the smell of manure to fish.”

And that was pretty much as high as the level of conversation went.  Then stopped.


Once they got to Morro Coyo, Scott determined to buy what they needed and head back home as fast as they could. What a fool he’d been for even thinking about having a meal and a drink with Jelly, let alone suggesting it.

Morro Coyo was its usual sleepy self. In fact, worse. Jelly was annoyingly right—the wind had whipped up on their drive and now the women were clutching at their shawls as they scuttled between the few businesses on the one and only main street. Even the old shrimp man was nowhere to be seen.

“Jelly, why don’t you look around town while I buy our supplies.”

But Jelly insisted on going into Baldemeros. He’d climbed down from the wagon as soon as it stopped. “Your father hired me to buy the supplies so that’s what I’m fixin’ to do. ‘Sides, a greenhorn like yourself won’t know to watch the ambush.”

“What ambush? What are you talking about?”

“See. I told you so.”

“No, you’ve told me precisely nothing, so far. Who is going to ambush us?”

“Well, I thought your pa woulda told you ‘bout that.”

“Jelly.” He was that close to grabbing the old guy by his scrawny neck and wringing it until he started to make sense.

“You just follow me and I’ll show you the ambush.”

Scott looked at the sky. Would a prayer help? Probably not. With a sigh, he followed Jelly up the steps and into the store. As usual, he had to weave his way through the tables with their hats and shirts and knickknacks. The pot belly was throwing out a good heat, which was probably why the smell from the various spices tickled his nose. 

Jelly had stopped at the scales on the back counter. “Well,” he said, pointing to them as if he was the teacher and Scott was a particularly dull student.

“Well, what?”

“In these parts, unlike fancy Boston, we call the scales the ‘ambush.’”

“Jelly, I’m sure you’ve got a good reason for that.”

“Well, it’s on account of’em ‘lying in weight’ of course.”

Baldemero joined them on the other side of the counter. “Hee, hee, Señor Lancer. It is a good joke, no? But of course, my scales do not lie.”

Jelly stuck his whiskers out. “Well, we’ll see about that.”

Baldemero moustache bristled as he pulled in his stomach and drew himself up. “Señor Lancer, your father has shopped here since before you were born. And my father and your father…”

Scott held his hands up. Once Baldemero started on about his father and Murdoch there was no stopping him. “I’m sure your ‘ambush’ are accurate, otherwise Murdoch wouldn’t have shopped here all these years.”

Baldemero was beaming again. “Oh, Señor Scott, when you and Señor Johnny returned—.”

“Yes, it was a very happy day, I’m sure. Here’s my list of supplies. We’ll be back after a bite to eat, then load them up.”

Somehow he got through his beer and steak without sticking his fork in Jelly’s hand—but it was a close-run thing.

Jelly moaned the entire time they loaded up the wagon—after instructing Scott how to load every sack then implying that Scott had somehow manoeuvred it so that Jelly always had the heaviest sack to lift.

By the time Scott climbed onto the wagon seat and released the break, he was more than happy to be back on the road and heading home. Even the fact that he hadn’t seen Francie McClure was not enough to make him regret leaving Morro Coyo so soon.

Now, if he could just make it home without killing Jelly. Well, never let it be said he wasn’t up for a challenge.


Scott leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees as he set the team in motion. He tugged his hat down further; that way it was easier to block Jelly from his line of sight. Silence would be his best weapon. Hopefully, Jelly was tired out. He was certainly sighing like he was.

But after five or so miles, Jelly started shifting about on the seat and grunting. Scott set his face. Jelly was the worst ham actor he’d seen.

But his resolve was crumbling after another five miles of Jelly’s grunts. What if the old guy was really hurting? It seemed unlikely. They’d only loaded the wagon and in spite of Jelly’s tirade, Scott had made sure he’d loaded the heaviest sacks himself.

But what if he wasn’t pretending this time? What would Teresa say if Scott brought home a dead Jelly? Hmm, it was a tempting thought.

Well. He took a deep breath. He could try talking. Perhaps get the old guy distracted?

“How did you enjoy your trip into Morro Coyo, Jelly?”

“It ain’t much of a town. And I might just as well have cooked up the sole of my boot and chawed on that ‘stead of that hunk of beef they called a steak.”

Considering Jelly had tucked his checked napkin under his chin and his plate was just about licked clean before Scott was even half-way through his, this seemed more than a little hard to believe. All the same, in pursuit of being agreeable, he merely urged the team on, saying, “You must have strong teeth, Jelly.”

 “And now my back is spasming something fierce on account of all the supplies I toted.”

“Oh.” Scott did his best to sound concerned. “I’m sorry to hear that, Jelly.” A pity Grandfather wasn’t here to take note of his well-modulated tone.  “I always find a trip into town is good for breaking the monotony of the ranch day.”

Jelly harrumphed. “The way I heard it, Johnny was supposed to be going. I guess that’s why you wrangled it so that you’d go instead.”

That did it. He was definitely going to strangle Jelly. “For your information, Johnny was under the weather this morning, so I offered to go.”

“Humph, he sure looked fine to me when I saw him and Teresa talking outside while I was hooking up the team.”

“No, you’re mistaken.” And it felt so good to be able to say that. “That couldn’t have been this morning. Johnny came down late to breakfast.”

“Well, that must have been his second breakfast. Mind you, the way he was bolting down those biscuits of Teresa’s I’d be surprised if he could fit in another bite…”


Somewhere through the haze he could hear Jelly’s voice droning on.

“Of course those biscuits of hers—.”

“Shut up, Jelly.”

Good God. It all made sense.

“Well, you don’t have to be so rude about—.”

“Shut up!”

He was staring but he wasn’t seeing. He even forgot to breathe. 

And then he could feel the anger starting at his toes before making its way up through his chest. If he said another word it was liable to burst out through the top of his head.

God, what a fool he’d been.

The rest of the trip home, Jelly didn’t say a word. Which was just as well.

Teresa was sprinkling grain in the yard for the chickens as he drove the wagon up to the barn.

“Scott.” She looked up and gave him a big smile. “Hi, Jelly. How was your trip into town?”

Jelly clambered down as if his back was broken. “Anyone would think it was the Fourth of July the way you all carry on about a trip to buy supplies. And that Baldemero has probably been robbing Murdoch blind for years.”

“Why, Jelly, we’ve been dealing with Baldemero for the longest time.”

“Well, it’s none of my concern iffen he wants to deal with a charlatan.”

Scott set the brake before wrapping the lines around it. “Takes one to know one.”  Did he say that out loud? He damn-well hoped so. He gave the lines a tug. Then another. “Jelly, go get yourself a drink. We’ll unload this later.” Or maybe never. Right now he didn’t give a damn.

When he climbed down from the wagon, Teresa’s smile wasn’t quite as sunny as she searched his face. “Where’s that brother of mine?” he managed to ground out between his teeth.


“That’s the only brother I know of—so far.”

“Um…he’s in the barn, I think.”

“Oh? He managed to raise himself from his deathbed, did he?”

She laughed but it sounded so awkward he almost felt sorry for her. Almost. His frown went even deeper. “Teresa.” He took her by the arm and led her over to the front porch. “Would you like to tell me what game you’ve been playing?”

“Game?” Her voice was very small.

“Hey, brother. You’re back early.”

Scott swung around. Johnny was sauntering across from the barn, looking hale and hearty with his sleeves rolled up.  He was drying his hands with the old towel that hung near the pump.

“Don’t you ‘hey, brother’ me, Johnny.” He clenched both fists. “Why I ought to—.”

But Teresa ran around and stood in front of him with one hand on his arm. “Scott, don’t blame Johnny. It was my idea. He didn’t want to go along with it.”

Scott shook his arm free. “Teresa, this isn’t your fight.”

“Scott, I just thought if you had the chance to get to know Jelly—.”

This time he put his hands on her shoulders and moved her to the side. “I’ll talk to you later. Right now it’s Johnny I’m talking to.”

Johnny wasn’t smiling now. He slung the towel over his shoulder and held his hand up. “No need to be angry with her, Scott. She was just trying to help.”

So, Johnny was going to be the voice of reason in all this, was he? Well right now, Scott was ready to punch the reason right out of him.

“I’m not angry with her, brother.” And he ripped out that last word with as much scorn as he possibly could. Two strides had him eye-balling Johnny—and yes, he intended to ignore the voice calling his name from the front door. “I guess you’ve been laughing up your sleeve all morning.”

Johnny’s eyes flickered. At least that was some show of emotion. “It wasn’t like that, Scott.”

“Scott, that’s enough,” Murdoch was saying from somewhere close at hand. He must have come down the steps.

But Scott didn’t take his eyes off Johnny. “No, sir. It isn’t nearly enough.”

Johnny shook his head for Murdoch’s benefit, before throwing his arms wide and turning back to Scott. “You want to hit me, Scott? Go on, then. Take your best shot. You’ve got good cause.”

Scott balled his fist. His whole morning had been wretched from go to woe. And it was all Johnny’s fault. It should have been him in that wagon drive to hell—Johnny, who damn-well seems to get along with everybody.

Johnny tossed the towel in the dirt before locking eyes with Scott. “Go on, brother. I got it coming. It wasn’t right to lie to you.”

“You’re right about that, Johnny.” He drew his arm back…only to have to shake off Teresa’s grip on his sleeve.

“No, Scott. I’m so sorry. It was a stupid idea. I was just trying to help. Johnny didn’t even want to go along with it.”

“Hush up, T’resa,” Johnny snapped, sounding as annoyed with her as Scott was right now.

“No. I won’t.”

“Teresa, come away.” Murdoch took her arm, making her step back.

Scott made a fist with his right hand. That first blow was going to taste so good. He’d wipe that smug look off Johnny’s face.

A movement over near the barn caught his eye. Curly and a few hands were standing around, probably enjoying the show, even if they couldn’t hear what was being said.

Johnny half-looked behind. “Ignore them. This is between you and me.”

Well, it would be if half the ranch, and Murdoch, weren’t watching.


He clenched his fist even tighter. Johnny didn’t flinch but there was a watchfulness in his stance, as if he remembered Scott’s right hook from the last time.

The last time…by the river…brothers fighting…Brothers fighting. What was he doing?

As much as he wanted to hold onto to it all, he was coming off the peak. His anger was slipping and a damned aggravating reason taking hold. No way could he hit Johnny in cold blood, no matter how much he deserved it. Especially with Johnny playing the noble fool. Good God, what a hollow compensation that be.

To hell with it all.

He stepped up to Johnny, still holding up his fist. At least from his height he could stare down at his brother. “Don’t come near me, Johnny, if you know what’s good for you. Just don’t.”

Johnny looked neither relieved nor surprised. “Okay. That’s fair.”

“I’m so sorry, Scott.” Teresa was tearing up now. “I…we…well, we thought if you had the chance to spend some time with Jelly…”

“She thought you’d get to know him better,” Johnny added, in a quiet voice.

“Well, thanks to you two, I got to know Jelly better and it only confirmed everything I’ve been thinking about him and I can’t wait for the one hundred days to be up so that I can tell him goodbye and good riddance.”

And if the hands wanted a show, he’d damn-well give it to them; he put on his best scowl and stormed into the house.

Chapter Five

The front door of the hacienda was a huge oak affair. Tall enough for Murdoch to enter without the least need to stoop, let alone duck his head; so when the heavy door banged shut behind Scott, he was damned pleased with his efforts. At least for that moment.

But what was he to do now?

Betrayal. It wasn’t a word he liked but that was the word thrashing about in his head.

He thought they’d established something. It hadn’t been easy. Heaven only knew how different their upbringings had been. But dammit all, hadn’t they somehow found that blood, even when it was only that of the same father, counted far more than circumstances?

And as for Teresa…well…to think she’d put the feelings of that damned conniving reprobate over his own.

“Whatever happened to ‘treat me like a sister’?”

“Pardon, Señor Scott?”

Maria had just come out of the great room, probably on her way back to the kitchen. “Would you like something, Señor?” She wiped both hands on her white apron, as if she was ready to do battle with whatever task he gave her.

“A new handyman, perhaps?”


He shook his head. She didn’t deserve his sarcasm. “No. Nothing. Thank you.”

“The coffee, it is hot, Señor Scott. By the fire. You like?”

He actually had in mind something stronger but…well, he wasn’t going to take his churlishness out on the staff. “I do like. Gracias.”

She nodded then bustled off to the kitchen, probably to stir whatever it was he could smell cooking in one of her huge pots on the stove. Grandfather would be aghast; in his world kitchens were below stairs and the door always closed. Only common folk had parlours that smelled of last night’s fish. But he had to admit, it was one of the things he liked about the hacienda—right now it was the smell of baking bread and one of Maria’s spicy Mexican concoctions bubbling away. They say food soothes a soul. Perhaps that was the reason some of his anger with the world was starting to drain.

He took his time unbuckling his gun belt. If he’d thought things through, he would have done what Johnny does after an argument—head for the barn and saddle a horse. So much for his fine gesture of storming into the house. What was he meant to do now?

What he wouldn’t give this moment for the sodden streets of Boston; a stroll to his club or cab to Lucky Ping’s. Maybe cheering on a prize fight with Vincent or Rudy at the latest gambling den. They’d stagger out at dawn with sweat, beer and smoke clinging to their coats, then laugh like schoolboys when the cold turned their breath a vapoury white.

How long ago was all that…the restlessness…the desperation?

Was it better to come to Lancer rather than blow his brains out like poor Rudy?

Grandfather never really understood what they were all wanting to forget. Well, they looked the part—young men, on the town, yelling themselves hoarse in between swigs of whiskey and rum. Afterwards, Louisa or Mary or Marguerite would welcome him into their bed but the damned pictures in his head always came back with the sunrise.

Good Lord, why was he thinking about all that now? He hung up his hat and gun belt then walked into the great room.  Murdoch must have been working inside because one of Pedro’s forest fires was blazing in the hearth. He’d left a stack of wood on the flagstones so Scott did his part by adding another log to the flames. Scott put his hand on the mantle and stared down.  It took a while for the fire to accept his intruder but after a few licks they became best friends and the log burned solidly with the rest of the wood.

By the time he lifted his head his cheeks were burning from the heat. Time to back away. He looked around. Going up to his room would be pointless. Not to mention, cold.

Maria had mentioned coffee. Sure enough, a tray holding the porcelain coffee pot and matching cups and saucers was on the side table. A quick touch proved it was still hot. He’d had no idea when he stepped off the stage that Murdoch would be so refined as to have a porcelain coffee set with gold trimmings. Certainly not him, if he were to believe even half of what he’d been told.

He filled his cup, then his eyes fell on the empty cup and he filled that, too, before sitting down, legs crossed, in the blue armchair.

And waited.

You can learn a great deal about life while staring at flames. Hmm…someone told him that. He had no idea who.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before he heard the front door open, then footsteps coming his way. No jingling of spurs, so it wasn’t brother Johnny.

He soon caught sight of Murdoch’s boots, scratched and in need of blacking, within his field of vision. He went to speak but the anger had climbed into his throat again. It was safter to just hold out the other cup and saucer to Murdoch, without taking his eyes from the fire.

Murdoch took it, then a shower of embers flew up as he poked one of the burning logs with his boot. “Thank you, son.”

More silence—other than the crackling of the fire—until Murdoch cleared his throat of something that possibly wasn’t stuck. “I’m sorry about all that. Out there. And this morning.”

It sounded genuine enough.

“Can you believe what the two of them did?”

“Teresa’s upset. She thought she was helping.”

“She wasn’t.”

“She can see that now.  Scott, she’s young. At her age, it’s not unusual to be wiser after the event. All the same, they shouldn’t have counted on your good nature like that.”

Scott drained his cup. It clinked and nearly overbalanced when he put it on the saucer. “Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“Send them to bed without any supper?”

“I don’t find this a laughing matter, sir.”

“I know you don’t Scott. And I will talk to them both. They hoodwinked me too, you know.”

He gave Murdoch a quick look. “I thought maybe you were in on it.”

“No. No, I would have openly suggested you go. I wish I’d thought of it. I asked Johnny to go because he seems to be able to get on with Jelly—at least on some level.”

He didn’t wince but that stung, almost like a stab in the ribs. His jaw tightened. “So, you think I’m being unfair? Uncivil even? Has Jelly done one single act that would endear himself to our family?”

Murdoch scratched the top of his head, for once looking like this conversation wasn’t going as he intended. Good.

“Scott, it’s a fact of life that men like Jelly are hard to warm to.”

“But Johnny manages it.”

“Johnny has a few things working in his favour.”

“Because he spent time with Jelly’s boys?”

“No, I don’t think that’s it. From what Johnny says, Jelly was in a huff with him being there. Suspicious.”

“That sounds like the Jelly we know and love.”

Murdoch frowned at him over the rim of his cup but honestly, Scott wasn’t trying to bait him.

“Sorry, sir.”

Murdoch stooped down and picked up one of Pedro’s logs “Teresa told Jelly that Johnny was upset that we’d put him in jail, on account of him knowing the boys were in the line shack.”

“That’s hardly enough reason for them to be bosom buddies.” He threw up a hand at Murdoch’s expression. “I know. I know. That’s not true.”


“Perhaps what?”

It wasn’t often Murdoch looked hesitant. He hefted the log in his hands a few times, a thoughtful frown on his face, before placing it on the fire. “Perhaps,” and he kept his eyes on the flames, “he sees something in Johnny that he can relate to—an understanding of a young man who spent much of his youth having to fend for himself.”

“So…he resents me because I grew up in Boston? Not just that, but I had everything Johnny didn’t.”

It was damned hard to keep the edge out of his voice.  Murdoch winced when he turned from the fire—so clearly, he hadn’t managed it.

“Scott, you know Johnny doesn’t blame you for that. And his opinion is the one that matters on that score.”

It was true. Johnny seemed to view Scott’s upbringing more as a millstone around Scott’s neck. You had tutors, who made you do learning at night? You had this Percy-feller following you around when you went out? Johnny mostly enjoyed Scott’s tales of climbing out his bedroom window or tricking Percy by ducking into a side-street.

“No, I don’t think resent is the right word. But perhaps it was easier for Johnny to slip through that wall Jelly has put up?”

“What about you, Murdoch?”

“What about me?”

“Why do you want to keep him here? I’ve seen you mutter under your breath when Jelly tells you the right way to pitch hay or do the smithing.”

Murdoch’s smile was twisted. “He’s a challenge, all right.”

“Then let him be someone else’s challenge. We did all we had to do. We dropped the charges against Jelly and found homes for those children.”

“That’s true, Scott. But if we left it at that, would we have done all we should do?”

He’d come to admire Murdoch, he really had, but this ridiculous trait of always wanting to believe the best of everyone was becoming ridiculous. Not to mention, dangerous. Johnny had nearly been hung for murdering a lawman and Murdoch might have had a bullet in his back thanks to Marcy Dane’s son. And all because of the plank Murdoch had in his eye about second chances. Where would it end?

“You’re not convinced, Scott.”


“Haven’t you met men like Jelly before?  The men never given a chance? The world treats them harshly and because they’re treated that way, they react to everyone else in kind?”

Scott sighed. Was this about Murdoch’s guilt regarding Johnny’s upbringing again? He’d spouted all those words to Johnny when Jeff Dane turned up, about how different it might have been if someone had shown some faith in Johnny when he roamed border downs. Just how much did all that colour Murdoch’s thinking?

It was so damned tempting to say something along those lines as he changed his position and crossed his other leg

“Scott, I know he growls and grouches and complains to us but he took in those boys when no-one else cared.”

“I’ll grant you that part as proving there’s good in him, Murdoch. But that doesn’t make him any easier to get along with. And,” he gave Murdoch a swift look, “Will it be worth it if Jelly tears our family apart?”


He didn’t take his supper with the family. He really wasn’t all that hungry but he took it in his room, after having lit a fire in the grate.

Johnny didn’t sit at the table either, apparently.

That just left Murdoch and Teresa sitting alone and from Maria’s mutterings, when he took his plate back to the kitchen, they hadn’t done justice to her cooking, either.

He left his half-finished plate on the bench next to the sink then slipped out the side door, shrugging his jacket on as he went. He’d only gone a few steps before he had to turn his collar up. After the warmth of the kitchen, the night air made him suck in his breath. He had a fur-lined coat in his wardrobe back in Boston. It’s always warm in California, they said. Well, he could tell those travel brochures a thing or two.

The red gingham curtains were drawn in the bunkhouse but the lamplight shone through. The boys would have eaten by now. Someone was strumming a guitar. No doubt the cards were out and the coffee flowing. Johnny was the first to initiate going over there after supper, a few times each week. And Scott soon followed. If he hadn’t argued with Johnny, they’d probably both be in the bunkhouse, now.

Instead, he made his way over to the corral and leaned his forearms on the top rail. Good God, it was quiet out here sometimes. He held his breath and listened; no breeze stirred the air; no birds chirped a goodnight song. It was the type of silence that hurt your ears. The only noises that told him he wasn’t alone in the world were the long drawn out moos from a restless steer somewhere out with the herd. It sounded almost mournful.

When he looked up, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen, just a black sky with millions of stars twinkling all the way to the horizon.

Wow. Now that was really something. Would he ever get used to how vast everything was out here?

A couple of times, these last few months, he’d woken up in the night, and just for that split second, in the very first moments between sleeping and waking, he’d thought he was back in Boston. It was the strangest feeling. Almost a panic. Hard to explain to anyone, let alone himself.

Was he being a fool? Was this whole thing with Jelly worth arguing with Murdoch…and Teresa? And Johnny?

He bowed his head, resting his forehead on his arms. He’d faced down men charging him on horseback and foot, muskets firing, canon balls exploding—how was it that Jelly was harder to take than any of that?

Couldn’t the old guy just do his hundred days and be on his way? Was that too much to ask?

He’d been standing there quite a while when he heard footsteps.


He would have been deaf or stupid to miss the uncertainty in her voice. Thankfully, he was neither.  “No, I’m not still angry about what happened this morning, Teresa.”

“Are you sure?”

“Not with you, anyway. How could I be angry at my sister?” He tried smiling but it was easy to add warmth to it when he looked down. Her face looked pale and woebegone in the light of the lantern she carried. “I know you were trying to help.”

“I’m not very experienced at being a sister. I just want us all to get along.”

“We can’t always have what we wish for.”

“I know that, Scott.” There was no sign of the child in her when she spoke with an edge to her voice like that. Sometimes he forgot about all she’d been through. She was no Boston-drawing-room miss.

“I didn’t mean to sound so harsh, Teresa.”

She sighed, then passed him the lantern so that she could pull her woollen shawl tighter. “But it’s true. I know that. It’s just that…well, when you and Johnny came, I was so excited about having a family. And Murdoch’s been a different person these last few months. And…and there’s something I need to tell you.”

He couldn’t for the life of him think of anything that would make her look so serious…but they’d been talking of Jelly and the way his day had gone today, it was bound to involve him, yet again. “Murdoch’s promised Jelly that he can stay?” That was the type of news that would be the crowning glory on his day.

“No. It’s about my pearls.”

“Good God, Jelly hasn’t stolen them again, has he?”

“No, that’s not it. The thing is,” and she took a big breath, “I sold them.”

“What?” This wasn’t anywhere near the calamity he’d been fearing but…what? “You sold your pearls? The ones we gave you for Christmas?” Her giddy delight unwrapping the gift had been a highlight of his first Christmas out here. It was the first gift he and Johnny had given her.

“Don’t be mad, Scott. I was going to tell you—and Johnny.”

“I’m not mad. Just surprised.” Well, she was only sixteen, after all. She probably had no idea of the value of the gift—but he couldn’t help feeling a bit letdown. “And Murdoch knows?”

“He said it was my choice. Oh, Scott, don’t be disappointed. How could I wear pearls knowing those boys had no shoes and the only food they had was what Jelly stole for them? Johnny said they ate rattle snake.”

“He was probably joking.”

“No, I don’t think he was. He said it tasted kind of chewy.”

“I don’t understand. All the boys went to good homes.”

“A good home doesn’t necessarily mean they have plenty. And none of the families would take money to help care for the boys. Murdoch offered. More than once.”

He put his hand on her shoulder. “So, you sold your pearls.”

“And then I had Mr Roberts at the bank distribute the money for me. And he could truthfully say it wasn’t from Murdoch, so all the families accepted it.”

He gave her a little shake. “And you thought Johnny and I would be angry with you for doing that?”

“Well, it was the very first present you gave me and that meant so much, but…”

“You have a very kind heart, Teresa. I couldn’t imagine any of the girls I knew in Boston being so generous.”

“Oh, fiddle-faddle. But Scott, can you imagine how happy the boys must be, sleeping in real beds and going to school and everything? And that’s why Jelly needs to stay. To help them settle in.”

“Ah hah. So that’s what this is all about? You’re trying to cajole me?” At least he could laugh at her tricks, this time. “Come on. Let’s go inside before you start shivering.” And he turned and started walking back towards the house.

“Scott, I know there’s good in him. I wasn’t so sure at first but then I caught Jelly one morning in my garden. He was up before breakfast, pulling the weeds out.”

He tried striding out. Surely that would stop her from talking but instead she trotted beside him.

“Then the other day…he brought all the washing in before it rained,” she was almost running to catch up now. “It was so funny, he made out the sheets were scaring the hens when they blew in the wind and that they’d stop laying.”

“That sounds like some sage Jelly advice,” he threw over his shoulder.

They were almost to the front door when she stopped. “There was something else I meant to tell you.”

He turned around. “Teresa, can’t this wait until morning? I think I’ve had enough ‘Jellyisms’ for one day.”

“It’s about Johnny.”

“To be honest, that’s one name I don’t want to hear, right now.”

“It wasn’t entirely a lie.”

“Teresa, it’s cold. It’s getting late.” A quick glance showed even the bunkhouse was in darkness.

“There was something troubling him. I don’t know what. He wouldn’t tell me.”

“That sounds like Johnny.”

“Scott, I’m being serious. When I came out to collect the eggs, it was just on sunrise, and Johnny was already up. He looked like he hadn’t been to bed.”

Right now, anything that would make him feel less justified in being angry with Johnny was not what he wanted to hear. “No, it must have been some other ‘Johnny.’ The one I know always sleeps well. I have that on the best authority.”

“He hadn’t slept. I’m sure of it. I told him to go back up to bed so that he could at least get an hour of sleep before he had to be up.”

“And was that before or after he ate a plate of biscuits?”

“I don’t understand. Why would you think that?”

“Because…never mind.”

But it was too late. The look on her face said she knew exactly who had given him that piece of information. “It was Jelly, wasn’t it. I can’t believe he’d do that when Jelly was the one who ate all the biscuits. I tried to get Johnny to have one and he only took a few bites.”

He thought he’d reached the pinnacle of his anger today, but then again, it just showed how wrong he could be at times.

There were no two ways about it—he really was going to have to strangle Jelly.

Chapter Six

Scott turned his head on his pillow, then forced one eye to open.

Damn. Johnny wasn’t the only one who wasn’t sleeping well, lately.

He pushed himself up and opened his other eye. The world was bleary. And dark. Except for the one damn ray of sunlight that had somehow snuck in through a chink in his bedroom curtains. It was now making its way, uninvited, across the embroidery on his bedspread. Another half hour and it would be slapping him in the face.

He sat up against his pillows.  “Who invited you in here? You think you can hide between all those swirls…scrolls…things?” He waved a hand at his bedspread. “Or whatever the pattern is.” A plain grey would have suited him fine but apparently Teresa, in all her girlish wisdom when decorating the rooms, had decreed satin and swirls as just the thing for a gentleman from Boston. But then, she probably had no idea what half a bottle, (and he ran his eyes over the bottle on his bedside table; no, less than half) of Murdoch’s best whiskey will do to a man’s perspective first thing in the morning.

He blinked at the streak of sunlight. “The day awaits. I shall leave you, my good friend.”


The word rolled around in his head as he splashed water from the bowl on his face. The tepid water. The water that would have been hot an hour ago when Pedro brought it in.

He stared at himself in the mirror. His shirt collar wasn’t sitting quite right.

Disgruntled: a word well-favoured by his tutor…probably most aptly applied to Percy himself when he realised his wayward charge had once again exited via his window. Poor Percy. They were always making fun of his twitches. Well, what do schoolboys know; going off to war is an adventure, isn’t it?

He ran a brush through his hair. A clump at the side refused to sit straight. It was probably disgruntled as well.

He’d gone down the first couple of steps when he put a hand to his forehead and ran back to his room.

Then it was back to the stairs, which he took, two at a time. The great room was cold and deserted this time of day, except for the whiff of Murdoch’s pipe tobacco from last night. He put Murdoch’s whisky back in the cabinet (confessions could wait until after dinner, when Murdoch had mellowed with a brandy or two) then headed for the kitchen. No doubt, Murdoch and Johnny would be already at the breakfast table. 

Damn. He’d be the last to arrive.

Should that bother him? No, it shouldn’t. But it did. Especially if they ate all the bacon. He quickened his steps, straightening that annoying collar as he went.

The blast of heat as he entered the kitchen was almost as welcome as the smell of coffee and bacon frying. And no-one was sitting at the table. His day was beginning to look up.

He made his way to the chair nearest the fire. “Good morning, Teresa. Maria.”

They were both busy the other side of the kitchen but Maria, with the usual flush to her plump cheeks, nodded to him as she took a frying pan off the stove. “Good morning, Senor Scott.”

It was a wonder Johnny and Murdoch weren’t still lingering over the meal.

“Where is everyone?”

Teresa came across with a plate of biscuits, then handed him Murdoch’s folded newspaper, before pouring his coffee. “Murdoch rode into town and Johnny’s somewhere outside. Murdoch asked him to take a team and start on the new fencing. Maria, where’s the plate of bacon and eggs for Scott?”

Maria babbled something in Spanish he didn’t understand but hurried across to the table with a platter of food that would feed an army. He looked at Teresa. “Have you eaten?”

“Oh yes, I ate with Murdoch and Johnny. Scott are you too hot this end of the table? You could move further down if you like?” And she half pulled out a chair a few seats down.

She wasn’t usually quite this solicitous. “No, I’m fine right here. And what about me? Did Murdoch say what he wanted me to do?”

“Murdoch said you worked hard enough yesterday. You could choose whatever you wanted to do today.”

Hmm…he was beginning to understand…

“In that case, my first action will be to enjoy this delicious breakfast you ladies have made. The best biscuits in the entire valley.” He caught Teresa’s hand as she was about to walk away. “You’re a good girl to care so much about us all. Where would Johnny and I be without you as our sister?”

Her eyes went watery—not quite the reaction he was hoping for—but she wobbled out a smile. “Thank you, Scott.”

“No, I mean it. I know what happened yesterday was only because you cared.”

“Well,” and she lifted her chin, “I made a resolution not to interfere with you boys again.”

“An admirable decision.”

“After all, as Murdoch says, you’re both grown men.”

“I’m delighted he noticed.”

“Oh, Scott.” She was laughing as she walked away and he unfolded the newspaper. At least he could eat his breakfast with a clear conscience now, while he dreamed up a dozen ways of enjoying his unexpected freedom.


He was feeling quite content with the world by the time he finished breakfast, but he still hadn’t decided on what he should do. He didn’t really feel like reading…the newspaper had been last week’s so he wasn’t going to settle by the fire to finish it…writing a letter to Grandfather required too much thought…after yesterday’s disastrous trip he couldn’t be bothered riding into Morro Coyo…staying inside while the sun was shining seemed like a stupid waste of a good day…

Scott stopped short, one arm in the sleeve of his jacket. Habits could be damnable things. How else could he explain the fact of him walking outside, gun belt and hat on, as if it was the beginning of any ordinary work day at Lancer? Teresa must have drugged his coffee.

He was just in time to see Manuel rattling out of the yard with a wagonload of fence posts and wire. Curly and a few other hands riding by his side.

The rest of yard was deserted which meant the other work crews had already ridden out.

Johnny had probably gone ahead by what Teresa said about him being up early. Well, it would take too much effort to analyse if he was happy or disappointed to have missed Johnny.

He finished pulling his jacket on. The air was crisp but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Perhaps a ride would do him good?

And just as he had that thought, a voice carried in the air from the barn. “Okay, Jelly, but keep an eye on him, huh.”

Scott slowed his steps as Johnny came out, leading a chestnut with a flaxen mane. Apparently, if Johnny couldn’t ride the palomino, he’d go for the next showiest horse in the bunch.

Johnny stopped mid stride when he saw Scott. He dipped his head. “Howdy, Scott.”

“Johnny.” Scott pointed to the horse. “Does Murdoch know you’re riding his latest acquisition?”

“The General here?” Johnny ran his hand along its neck. “He’s a beauty, ain’t he? As sound as they come, as Murdoch says.” His grin fell away when he looked back at Scott. “What’s wrong? You don’t like the name?”

So much for his renown poker face. Scott shrugged, then got busy tightening his gun belt. “You know me and naming horses.”

By the time Scott looked up, Johnny was grinning as he put his hat on the horn. “I know. You’re a cavalry man.”

“I was.”  After all, it had been five years ago.

Johnny brought The General alongside, then flipped the stirrup up on the saddle.

Check your saddle…Tighten the girth…sword in the scabbard…

Johnny’s forehead was almost touching the saddle as he tightened the girth strap, but there was no missing his meaning, no matter how muffled the words. “Yeah, Scott, I used to be gunfighter, too.”

Blow the bugle…

“I talked to Teresa last night.”

If Johnny thought the change of subject a little abrupt he didn’t show it as he slid the stirrup back. “Yeah, she told me.”

“It was very informative.”

Johnny grabbed his hat from the pommel. “I, uh, I don’t think that was the word she used.”

“Most likely.” Scott hid his grin. He was on safer ground now—and he had to admit, it was fun watching Johnny squirm.

Johnny had a lot of interest in his hat all of a sudden. “So, what did she tell you?”

“Hmm…what did Teresa tell me? That would be…” It wasn’t often he had Johnny dangling on the end of his line—so he waited for Johnny to look up. “Everything.”

At least Johnny had the grace to wince. “I’m real sorry, Scott. It was a lousy thing to do.”

“I, brother of mine,” and he poked Johnny in the chest, “could have hit you.”

“Well, better me than Teresa.”

“You’re incorrigible, you know that.”

“Besides, I figured I had it coming. I, ah, I didn’t feel good about tricking you like that. But T’resa had this bee in her bonnet. You know how she gets.”

“I know.”

“She’s got herself all twisted up in knots over this Jelly thing.”

“Well, I’m happy to hear you’re not about to keel over and die.”

“Yeah, well…” He gave an embarrassed shrug.

“So, what’s it all about then, Mr I-always-sleep-well?”

Johnny’s brows went up. “Did I say that?”

 “Do you have any idea how exasperating you can be? Yes, you said that.”

Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, well, mostly I do. Except the other night. It was the darndest thing—as soon as I put my head on the pillow, I was wide awake.”

He ran his hat brim through this fingers with a frown that either said he was trying to remember or was deciding on how much to tell Scott.

Finally, after seconds had passed, Scott clicked his fingers. “I’m not a mind reader, Johnny.”

Johnny grinned. “Sorry about that.” He dropped his hat on his head. “Come on, mount up. I’ll tell you while we ride.”

“Uh uh. Not me. Murdoch gave me the day off.”

Johnny put his fingers to his lips and whistled. Loud enough to make Scott wince. “Hank!”

And out came Hank from the barn, leading Scott’s horse, all saddled and ready to ride. Scott turned on Johnny. “What are you up to now? Was Hank going to ride my horse?”

Johnny started fidgeting with his reins. “We…ell, I figured you’d be pretty lonesome kicking around this place by yourself all day. So I, ah, had him saddled for you.”

“Oh, you did, did you?” And Scott must have done reasonably well with his expression because Johnny was studying Scott’s face, to see what his response would be. “You think you know me that well, do you?”


“Scott, you didn’t take your midday meal with you.” When he turned around, Teresa was running out towards him, apron flapping. She shrugged when she got up to him and smiled in a helpless way. “Johnny said you’d be needing it. And I knew it was last week’s newspaper so that wasn’t going to keep you interested.”

“Thanks, Theresa.” Johnny leapt forward and took the sack, then shoved it in his saddle bag with all the haste of a man running from a swarm of bees. “Well, come on, Scott.”

“You think I don’t know I’m being bamboozled?”

Johnny put a boot in the stirrup. “Sure. I know it.” Then he grinned and swung himself into the saddle. “The day’s awaiting.”

Scott watched him ride off. When he turned around, Teresa and Hank were watching for his reaction. Well, it looked like his day had been decided for him. “Hank, give me the reins.”


The way of the west—talk was usually conducted at a snail’s pace and there was little choice but to go with the flow, no matter how annoying.

They’d passed through the arch a good mile back before Johnny slowed Barranca to a walk and Scott brought his bay up alongside. “You were saying? About last night?”

“Boy, you’re a dog with a bone sometimes, aren’t you.”

“Especially if it’s something other than beef. So what have you got for me? Lamb? Roast Duck?”

“Nothing more exciting than beans and hard tack, probably.”

“Well, that would give anyone indigestion. No wonder you couldn’t sleep.”

Johnny grinned but it didn’t last long. “It was the darndest thing. I could hardly keep my eyes open downstairs. I just about climbed into bed with my boots on.”

He caught the look on Scott’s face. “Of course I didn’t. Teresa’s already warned me about my spurs. Anyway, as soon as I put my head on the pillow, I got to thinking about Curly and all those things you said about him.”

“You know him?

“That’s the thing. I don’t know. I’m starting to get the feeling there’s something familiar about him, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“I hope he doesn’t turn out to be another Al Evans. As I recall, you were just about hung for murder, thanks to him. It would be helpful if you could remember these past associates.”

“Would you remember someone you fought against in the war? A face at the end of your rifle maybe?”

Scott grimaced. “Oh. That sort of friendship.”

“I’m not saying it was. I’m just saying, it’s not easy to remember everyone you pass along the way, especially in border towns. Folk come and go.”

“So that’s why you couldn’t sleep? You were trying to decide whether you knew Curly or not?”

Johnny squinted into the morning sun, then pulled his hat lower. “Not exactly. I went out to the barn, you know, just to get some air and clear my head a little. Jelly must’ve figured everyone was asleep—but he was so loud I could hear him from outside the barn.”

“What was he doing?”

Johnny winced. “He was bawling like a kid who’s lost his ma.”

“So, the man has a heart.”

“Scott, that ain’t fair.”

Now it was Scott’s turn to wince. “You’re right. I’m sorry. So, what did you do?”

“Well, I made a whole lotta noise when I opened the barn door. You know, just to give him time to pull himself together. I made out I was there to check on Barranca and then I tried to get him talking.”

“Did it work?”

“He was his usual grumpy self. Ready to bite the head off a rattle snake. Probably embarrassed.”

“Which is the same reaction I got when I tried talking to him on the way to town, only he wasn’t embarrassed, just plain…”

“Ornery?” Johnny’s grin slid away.  “He’s hurting real bad, Scott. He’s grieving for those kids.”

“We both know what we did was the best decision for the boys. Deep down, even Jelly knows that.”

“I know. I know. But you can’t turn off your feelings. Grief can eat away at a person. Turn them into something mean. I don’t remember too much about losing my mother. I was pretty young, I guess. But boy, I remember my pinto dying. It was like losing my best friend.”

When Scott didn’t answer, Johnny looked across at him. “You must think I’m crazy, getting all cut up about a horse.”

He closed his eyes for a second, then took a deep breath. “No. No, I’ve seen grown men cry when their mounts went down.”

“Anyway, so after Jelly went to bed, I got to thinking…and thinking…and before I knew it, the sun was coming up.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me all this yesterday?”

“Heck, Scott, I wasn’t gonna let a sleepless night stop me from heading into town. Not when I knew it would fall to you to go with Jelly. But then T’resa, she kept going on and on about how poorly I was looking and…and I guess my brain wasn’t working too well by that time so when I got to the breakfast table, I just gave in.”

They’d reached the workers who’d started on the new line of fencing by now. Manny gave them a wave as they rode up. Curly turned, but only long enough to throw a look their way before hammering a fence post into place.

“Well, I suppose there’s an element of sense in what you’ve told me. But if you ever do that again, Johnny…”

“I won’t. Cross my heart.” He held up his hand with a grin. “So what do you want to do? Dig the hole? String the line?” Johnny turned around and yelled. “We could use some more help, couldn’t we, Man!”

Manny flashed a white grin and rested an arm on his shovel. “I shall challenge him. And you. How many holes can you dig in an hour, amigos?”

Scott leaned on the pommel, then looked around. It hadn’t rained in a few days so the ground would be dry under all that thick, green grass. Yesterday’s wind had vanished and the sun was putting on its best wintery face. “Sorry boys. You’ll have to challenge Johnny.”

“We could take’em, Scott.” Johnny’s eyes had lit up at the idea.

“You see that nice soft patch of grass over there in the sun, Johnny?”

Johnny gave the area a wary once-over. “Yeah. Where those little white flowers are sprouting?”

“That’s right. If you need me, that’s precisely where I’ll be. Watching you work, brother, by the sweat of your brow; while I shall be enjoying my day off.”

Johnny didn’t look convinced. “You’ll be awful bored.”

Scott grinned, as he turned his horse around. “I doubt it.”

Especially when, in between dozing, he’d be keeping an eye on Johnny’s mysterious Curly Taylor…

Chapter Seven

Out here, with a blue sky and no wind, it was hard to believe it was winter.  Back in Boston, they’d be huddled before their fires and up to their necks in scarves and furs and mufflers.

Scott leaned back on his elbows; legs stretched out before him. He’d chosen a slight rise as the perfect place to lounge while Johnny worked. That way he could see what was going on in front of him but still get a full dose of the sun.

Better still, there was not the slightest chance he’d see Jelly.

Johnny was a hard worker. He’d give him that. And he had a nice easy relationship with the hands—now that they knew he wasn’t liable to shoot anyone if they crossed him.  Johnny had already directed them to clear some old logs that were in the way and now the fence line was beginning to take shape as they worked in three teams. Jake and Carlos were further away but Johnny and Manny were almost in front of him and Curly and Burke were working on the next post to his right. Burke, the seasoned hand, was probably nearing forty, but the others were closer to Johnny’s age. 

All except Curly Taylor, that was.

It was hard to tell just how old he might be. Men aged fast out here at the best of times, but with his long nose and lean jaw, it was hard to imagine Curly ever looking boyish. His clothes didn’t help any. The buckskin jacket hanging on his skinny frame should have been buried years ago and his hat was battered and out of shape. A picture of sartorial elegance he was not, even by western standards. On the other hand, he sat a horse like he’d been moulded into the saddle and right now, he was working as hard as any of the crew. He couldn’t remember where Curly had come from. Perhaps he blew in on the wind? He’d have to ask Murdoch how he came to hire him.

A stir in front of him brought his eyes back to Johnny. From what he could tell, Johnny had fallen for Manny’s boast that he could dig a hole and secure the post, faster than any man in the San Joaquin.

Johnny was giving Manny one of his calculating looks. “You think you can take me, do you?”

Manny held up his shovel. “Hey fellas,” he called out, “what do you think? You think our boss can beat Manuel?”

Johnny let the post in his hand drop to the ground. “A dollar. I bet you a dollar I can take you.”

Scott rolled his eyes and sat up. This was something he had to see.

“A dollar? That’s all, amigo?” Manuel, all smiles, raised a hand to the others who’d started to draw near, clearly sensing some entertainment.

Johnny tossed his hat into the grass with a grin. “Okay, you call it. Whatever it is, I’ll match it.”

All the hands had downed their tools now and were egging Manny on but somehow, through all their yells, one voice broke through. “Seems to me, if y’all wanna make this a real fight, it outta be a five dollar gold piece, don’tcha know.”

Curly had slouched up to stand alongside the others, thumbs hooked over his belt.

Everyone went silent.

To Scott’s ear, there was something about his tone, as if he was intimating that Johnny should have made the amount higher; that he hadn’t because he knew he’d lose. But Johnny knew how much money his friend made in a week.

The thought of a higher stake had added some spice to the competition for the others though, Manny included, and they started urging Johnny to accept the wager. Johnny threw a look at Curly. “Seems a little steep for a friendly competition,” then he turned to his friend, “but if that’s what you want, Manny.”

Carlos, always keen for some fun, slapped Manny on the back. “Take him, Manny. You can do it.” Even Burke joined in with the chorus.

Only Curly was silent, like a fox watching the hen house. He took a plug of tobacco out of his pocket and started chewing.

Manny took Johnny’s outstretched hand. “We have a deal, amigo.”

Johnny grinned back at him and started to peel his jacket off but he still had one arm in his sleeve when Manny yelled, “Go,” then started running.


Scott laughed and called out, “You’d better run, Johnny.”

Johnny grabbed a shovel but Manny had already grabbed the closest spot where the pole was laid out, ready for the hole to be dug, so Johnny had to run further along the fence line. Scott walked down and stood with the others, mid-way between the two combatants. “You got caught with your pants down, brother.”

Johnny flung a quick look at him, then drove his shovel into the ground. “You’re a big help. You know that.”

Everyone was yelling now, heads turning this way and that as they tried to see who was quicker. Manny worked like the devil himself though: shovel in, dirt out, shovel in, dirt out. And to Scott’s eye, the hole he was digging was narrower than Johnny’s hole, which was beginning to look more like a groundhog burrow. At least the ground was reasonably soft because of the rain the other day and that made the going a little easier.

“Yer brother’s sure got an even swing. He ever worked on a chain gang?”

There’d been so much yelling that Scott hadn’t noticed Curly sidle up to him. “No.” Good God, had he? “Not to my knowledge.” And then he just about bit his own tongue. As if he owed Curly Taylor an honest answer. “You seem to know a lot about it,” he snapped back.

“Sure do.”

Scott swung around to look at him but right then a yell went up from the others. Manny had thrown his shovel down and grabbed the spade instead. He must have hit a root from the big oak near where they stood. That was good news for Johnny.

“Get going, Johnny.” He had to yell to be heard above the others all cheering. At least that helped bring his mind back to what was happening in front of him instead of Curly and his distractions. “Put your back into it.”

Johnny glanced up the once then drove his shovel back into his hole. That root might be Johnny’s saving grace.

Scott glanced around—Curly had slunk off to stand beside Carlos and Burke—then he went back to watching Manny who was ramming his spade into the hole. The hands were yelling at him to get it done which left Scott the only one cheering Johnny on. He smiled to himself. It was good to know they looked at Johnny and him as ‘big bugs’ alongside Murdoch. It was only four months ago he’d wondered if that would ever happen.

But Manny cleared the root damnably fast, threw down the spade and went back to using the shovel, the whole time with a grin on his face that had Scott thinking Manny could do this all day long with one hand tied behind his back. Johnny, on the other hand, had circles of sweat under the arms of that pink shirt he wore and he gave a grunt of effort now, each time his shovel hit the dirt. “Come on, Johnny.”

Even as he yelled out, Johnny flung the shovel down and grabbed the digging bar to loosen the dirt at the bottom of his hole. Digging post holes was not Scott’s favourite work. Johnny was at that tricky point of making sure the hole was deep enough but nice and snug near the bottom to keep the pole secure and upright, regardless of strong winds and the nudge of steers.

Now Manny had his digging rod in hand as well, and he jammed it down like he’d been doing this since the day he could walk. Up down, up down, in a smooth rhythm that Johnny didn’t have. A huge cheer went up as Manny threw his rod down and picked up the post but Johnny, at his part of the fence, was only a matter of steps behind him. They both rammed their posts into the hole then started shovelling the dirt back around the post as the men began clapping to count off their final efforts. Even Scott was holding his breath as they pushed the packed soil down further with their boots. Come on, Johnny. Finish…

Johnny stomped one time then jumped back with his hands in the air. “I’m done.”

And then he started laughing—because, when he looked across, Manuel was in the same position, hands in the air and looking at Johnny.

It was a dead heat. Unbelievable. They’d both finished and jumped back at exactly the same time. In one sense, that was the perfect result. No doubt Johnny would have felt bad taking five dollars from Manny but he wouldn’t disrespect his friend by not giving his all and faking a loss.

Even now, Johnny was still breathing hard. He looked spent as he walked across to Manny. “It looks like…we’ve got ourselves a draw.”

“Best of three, amigo?”

Johnny groaned. “Uh uh. No way. I’ll need a day to recover as it is.”

“Don’t y’all be so quick to concede, Manuel. I reckon what we need is a judge.” Everyone had been laughing until Curly spoke. Now they all started looking at Scott.

Burke was nodding, as were Carlos, Jake and Manny. “That seems like a sound idea.”

Damn Curly Taylor. The man had a knack for causing trouble. A draw had been a happy solution.

If Johnny was thinking the same as Scott he wasn’t showing it. “What do you say, brother?”

“That’s a great idea.” He certainly wasn’t going to let Curly know he’d gotten under his skin. He bowed to them both. “I accept the honour of judging this competition.”

He walked across to Manny’s post and pushed it, first with one finger, then with his hand. It didn’t give an inch. That post was going to be there longer than any of them. He then went across to Johnny’s and pushed it as he had with Manny’s. “It’s tighter than a…” But even as he said that it gave a little…then wobbled a whole lot more. Cheers went up all around him. “Sorry, Johnny. I declare Manuel the winner.”

Johnny groaned again. “Man, you must have weaved a spell over your post. No way could it be jammed in as tight as that.”

Manny’s grin was wide as Carlos and Jake slapped him on the back then knocked his hat off. “Hee hee, Johnny. You owe me a five dollar gold piece.”

“You did real good, Manny. I shoulda known better than to go up against a wily coyote like you.”

“Who-ee, now ain’t that somethin’.” Curly ran his fingernails down his unshaven cheek. “I reckon some a’those winnings outta be scattered my way, seein’ as how you nearly called it a draw ‘cept for me.”

“I’m not sure I see it that way. Manny’s the one who raised a sweat.” Johnny sounded mild enough but Scott had a feeling he was none too pleased.

Manny didn’t look put out, though. “No Johnny. It is only fair.” He turned to Curly. “I tell you what, my friend—a dollar of it is yours.”

“No…ope. Johnny here is right. I can’t lay claim to earnings from another man’s sweat. But I thank y’all for the offer.”

There was a bit of back and forth between him and Manuel but finally Johnny looked at the sky. “Okay, let’s get back to work…if we aim to be finished by nightfall. Curly, you come with me and we’ll head down the other end.”


Scott bunched his jacket under his head, dropped his hat over his face, then closed his eyes with a sigh.

Yesterday it was Jelly that troubled him…today it was Curly Taylor. This time last year, his most pressing decision also involved a Taylor: only it was the tailor next to Jordan and Marsh in Washington Street who made his clothes. Monsieur Dubois had promised him that the new plaid material from France would have the ladies going, “Ooh la la.”

He’d worn the plaid pants to…the Winterburn picnic. The sun was warm that day as well. Was that where he met Barbara? No, her sister was there and…

He smiled a drowsy smile under his hat. Neither Johnny nor Teresa had been particularly impressed with those plaid pants…

It was the gun shot that woke him up.

And just as he had that thought, another three shots, so fast it was hard to tell one from the next, had him knocking his hat from his face and jumping to his feet.

Good God.


The first thing he saw was the hands standing around in a half circle further down the fence line and staring at something.

Scott started running.

When he was halfway there he started breathing again. He could just make out Johnny’s hat through the checked shirts and rolled up sleeves. So Johnny was standing in the middle of them—and not lying on the ground. For a horrible moment, he’d seen himself standing in front of Murdoch…

Scott pushed his way past Carlos and Manny. “What happened?” Even as he spoke, he saw the answer in front of him. Scott had seen a rattlesnake out here, once before. This one was huge, five or six feet long, with a striking diamond pattern on the skin.  Only now, the grey-brown devil had been dissected into five parts thanks to some very impressive shooting from somebody.

Johnny twirled his gun on his finger then slipped it back into his holster.

“Nice shooting, brother.” He put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Where did our friend here, come from?”

Johnny pushed his hat back with a finger to the brim. “They nest in logs over winter. We might have messed up his hidey-hole when we cleared the area maybe?”

Curly touched the severed head with the edge of his boot. “Or mebbe the sun brought him out? That sure was some fancy shootin’. I barely got my mouth open to holler afore young Johnny blew the head off. Yes sirree, that was some shootin’.”

“Yeah? That’s not the way I remember it.”

Scott’s unease regarding Curly Taylor jumped another five rungs when Johnny used that quiet voice; the soft tone might fool an innocent but he suspected anyone who knew Johnny Madrid in those dusty border towns would be keeping their gun at their side, oiled and ready, whenever he spoke like that.

Scott looked from Johnny to Curly but it was Carlos who broke the tension by blurting out, “Dios, I wish I’d been there to see you shoot like that, Johnny.”

Burke squatted down to get a closer look. “Pity you had to shoot it so many times, Johnny. You could’ve had yourself a nice hat band out of that beauty.”

Scott was quite sure Carlos was unaware but he was thankful for the laconic Burke, who was never troubled by anything and knew a hundred ways to defuse a confrontation.

Manny clapped Johnny on the back. “Just as well you shoot better than you dig post holes my friend or it might have been a different kind of hole I was digging.”

Johnny whacked him in the stomach. “Well, I got a hole in here that needs filling. Get goin’ up to the wagon and we’ll take a break.”

The others all started the walk back along the fence to the big oak where they’d left the wagon.

Johnny was about to follow until Scott grabbed him by the arm, then waited until the hands were out of earshot. “How come, Johnny?”

“How come, what?”

“I’ve seen you kill a snake with a single shot. Sometimes two to be sure. But four shots…?”

Johnny shrugged, slipping the bullets out of his belt to reload his gun.

“Four is showing off. Or maybe you had a message to send, Johnny?”

Johnny spun the chamber, then holstered his gun. “Or maybe you’re loco?”

Scott watched him saunter back up the fence line. “I might be loco, Johnny…but I don’t think so.”

Chapter Eight

Scott leaned back in the blue winged chair and looked at Johnny, sitting cross-legged on the floor. “Are you going to take all night, Johnny? The fire will be nothing but embers before you’ve made a move.”

Johnny, elbow resting on the small side table and chin in hand, studied the checker board by the light of the fire. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Scott didn’t want to gloat. After all, this was their third game and he’d already won the other two. He stretched out his legs then looked towards the French windows. “Yes, the wind has picked up. And that sounds like rain.”

Johnny’s hand wavered over his black piece. ‘You know damn well I’m not talking about the weather.”

“Oh, you meant the game?”

Johnny threw him a look but Scott kept his expression bland. Eventually, Johnny sighed before very slowly moving his piece one square. He then waited, with a face of doom.

Scott rubbed his hands together before he swooped and picked up one of his pieces. “And that’s one, two, three, four.” And he wiped the last of Johnny’s pieces off the board and onto the floor.

Johnny moaned and thew himself backwards on the rug. “It just ain’t my day, is it. First Manny beats me. Now you. I should’ve gone to bed, like Murdoch did.”

Scott laughed at him. “Well, don’t feel too bad, brother. After all, I was the checker king of Harvard.”

Johnny took his arm away from his face and eyed him. “You were? I bet—.” But that was as far as he got. The knock at the door made them both look in that direction. “Who’d be knocking this time of night?”

Scott stood. “Seeing as I won, I’ll get the door.” Whoever it was, patience was not one of their virtues, because they banged on the door again, this time louder. “Coming.” But as soon as he opened the door, Scott’s smile sailed away like it always did when he saw those grey and white bristles. “Jelly?”

“You don’t have to look so darn happy to see me.”

Johnny had jumped up by now and stood behind him. “What is it, Jelly?”

Jelly scraped his cap from his head then glowered at the both of them, before pointing at Scott. “It’s him I’m needing to talk to.”

“Jelly, ’him’ has a name.”

“Yeah, well, I came about his horse. He hasn’t been himself. Looks like a case of colic.”

“The bay?” Scott snapped the word out. Damnation. Not colic.

“Well, how bad is he, Jelly? What are the signs,” Johnny was asking.

Jelly stuck his chin out. “What? You boys think I can’t tell when a horse is colicky?”

Scott had yet to see that Jelly knew a thing about doctoring horses, other than making a poultice. “I know one thing; that horse was perfectly fine this afternoon.”

“Yeah, well don’t go blamin’ me none. T’weren’t me that grazed him too long or let him drink from that cold stream or…”

“I know the reasons a horse can develop colic, Jelly, and no, I didn’t do any of those things.”

Johnny was already reaching for his hat. “No call to argue about it.”

“Wait a minute.” Scott put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “You don’t have to go out. Jelly’s our horse wrangler, isn’t he?” Behind Jelly, he could see drops of rain in the lamplight.

“Scott, it’s okay. You might need me out there.”

“We won’t. It’s late enough. No need for two of us to miss out on our sleep. Good night.”

Johnny’s hand fell back to his side, but the glance he threw at Scott said he wasn’t entirely convinced.

Scott reached for his own jacket on the stand near the door. “Well, get out there, Jelly. I’ll come in a minute.”

Jelly stomped off to the barn, muttering who-knew-what.

Scott could feel Johnny’s eyes on him. Dammit, just go to bed, Johnny. He threw him a sharp look. “What’s wrong with you? Didn’t I say I’d deal with this?”

Johnny just stood there, as if he was frozen on the spot, before taking a step backwards. “Sure, Scott. If that’s what you want.” He turned on his heel, leaving Scott staring at Jelly’s muddy footprints on the threshold, until the click of Johnny’s boot heels died away. Damnation. Scott hadn’t spent the last few months studying Johnny for nothing…

He took his time putting his jacket on. Then his hat.

He should have controlled himself better. Johnny didn’t deserve to be snapped at. He was only trying to help. No doubt if it was Barranca down with colic, Johnny would rush out to the barn, then spend the entire night with the horse and come morning, Barranca would be perfectly fine and kicking up his heels with a gallop around the field.

Who was he kidding? Reality was a damn sight uglier than that.

Scott reached for his gun belt.


He was only half-way to the barn when the rain changed from a downpour to a deluge and he could barely see where he was going.

Away to his left, a blurry hint of light showed in the bunkhouse but other than that, he could have been heading down into some sort of watery grave.

At least he didn’t walk into the corral fence. It loomed up in front of him through a wall of water. He wasn’t going to slosh all the way around to the gate so he put his foot on the bottom rail to start his climb over the fence. But somehow his foot slipped and he had to grab hold of the top rail to stop himself from falling backwards and landing in the mud.

“He’s really something, isn’t he?”

“The horse?”

“No.” And she’d looked at him like he was stupid. “Johnny.” And, as if that wasn’t enough, she added, “Your horse is over there.”

And he couldn’t imagine a more staid, placid little thing. Apparently, they’d decided it was perfect for a blue-nose from Boston.

At least Murdoch had been apologetic when he returned after his ride on Johnny’s palomino. “I might have forgotten to mention that you were a cavalry officer.”

“It would appear so.”

That was when Murdoch pointed to another horse, hitched to the railing. “I think you’ll find that horse more to your liking. He’s a well-trained cow-pony, which you’ll need out here, but he’s got plenty of spirit.”

Scott walked around the horse, then ran a hand along its withers. He couldn’t fault Murdoch’s ability to judge fine horse flesh. Not that Scott was about to let that show on his face. Besides, he was still marvelling at how much the horse looked like The Duke—the first horse he’d ever owned—right down to the blaze and the four white socks. Was he meant to take this as some sort of a sign, considering nothing else had gone well, so far?

“He’s a fine looking animal, Sir.”

It was the waterfall spilling over the brim of his hat that brought him back. Not to mention the cold patches he could feel on his shoulders thanks to the rain soaking through his jacket. What the hell was he doing standing out here, getting pounded by a storm? It was a work horse, for heaven’s sake. He climbed the fence then ran across to the barn doors, managing to splash through at least four deep puddles on the way.

It was gloomy in the barn and thick with the smell of hay and fodder. Jelly had the bay on a short lead and was walking him around the open part of the barn but with all the noise of the rain, it looked like he hadn’t noticed Scott.  The old fraud was babbling away, as usual. “You jest tell all your troubles to Uncle Jelly and we’ll get rid of those miseries in yer belly. Yes sirree.”

After another circuit, he stopped and ran his hand along the bay’s flank. “There, that feeling better? Ole Jelly’s just gonna have another listen.” He put his ear to the bay’s gut, blocking out the noise on the roof by putting his fingers over his other ear.

Well, that was logical, at least. Perhaps Jelly had a few brains, after all?

The bay swung his head around, as if he was checking to see what Jelly was up to as he listened on the right side. Scott rubbed his hands together. They were wet and stinging with the cold, just like the rest of him, and he just wanted to get this over and done with. “How is he, Jelly?”

“See for yourself.” And Jelly pointed to a steaming pile of dung. “He’s just let loose and he’s coming on jest fine. He’s playing music in his belly. T’weren’t more than a twinge, I’d say. I dosed him with a lump of asafetida. Doggone, if it don’t do the trick, every time. I’ve never lost a horse to colic, yet.”

He almost laughed out loud. “He’s going to be okay?” Could he trust the old fraud? “Are you sure?”

“Course I’m sure.  Go see for yerself.”

There’d only been a few times in his life when he remembered being struck dumb.

“Well,” Jelly was saying. “Go on. He’s wanting you.” He let go of the lead and sure enough, the bay walked across the barn floor to greet him and his movement was just as free and graceful as always.

“Hey, there, boy.” He wasn’t sure where the sudden lump in his throat came from but he managed to whisper the words as he let the bay nudge his chest. He had to find a dry spot on his shirt to wipe his hand but once that was done, he ran it down the white blaze. The bay tossed his head then nuzzled into Scott’s cupped hand, as if he was saying, ‘Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for you?’

“I don’t believe it, Jelly.” Right then, he could have hugged the old fraud. He took his soggy hat off and tossed it onto a barrel then ran his hand along the flank. No doubt about it, the bay looked relaxed and happy and handsome as ever.  “You must be some kind of miracle worker.”

For once, Jelly didn’t puff out his chest. “Now, if you just take the rope and walk him slowly for a bit. I’ve got a blanket warming by the stove out back. We’ll lay that on him and by morning he’ll be just as good as new. You’ll see.”

Scott took the lead. They’d only walked a few steps when he felt a nudge near his jacket pocket. “Oh, no you don’t. You’ll give away my secret. Johnny thinks he’s the only one who carries treats for his horse.”

Jelly was back in a few minutes. “That’s enough walking now. We don’t want to tire him out, none.” He shook an old grey blanket out and threw it on while Scott straightened it out on his side.

“He sure is a beautiful boy, ain’t he. Fine boned but strong with it. And look at that noble head. Fit for a king, he is.” Jelly grabbed a spade and started scooping up the dung, but he called out over his shoulder, “I always did have a soft spot for white socks.”

“Well, you know what they say:

One white foot, keep him not a day,

Two white feet, send him far away,

Three white feet, sell him to a friend…”

Jelly stopped scooping, one hand resting on the shovel. “And four white feet, keep him to the end.”

Scott grinned at him. “I’ve no idea how I remembered that rhyme.”

“Best put him in his stall. We don’t want him eating afore morning. Then I’ll give him some warm oats.”

“Come on my beauty. In you go.” He led the bay into the stall, then took a moment, leaning on the gate, just watching him. He was beautifully responsive to ride, but headstrong. He needed a strong hand. Scott liked that about him. He was the type of horse that might have survived…? Scott winced and dropped his head for a moment. No, maybe not?

“Looks like you could do with a heated blanket, too. You’re looking a mite peaky.”

“I’m fine.” He tried to sound friendlier. “Just a little wet, that’s all. Thanks for everything you’ve done, Jelly.” And this time he didn’t need to try to put warmth into his words.

Jelly leaned against the stall gate, next to Scott. “I’ll watch him during the night. Make sure he don’t go backwards, but it ain’t likely.” He nodded towards the bay. “The good Lord sure knew what he was doing when he made’em. The other day I was watching a string of wild ones out on south mesa and they was streaming across the field, manes and tails flying in the wind. Just watching made a fella glad to be alive.”

“I agree with you, there.” Johnny would be falling on his head if he heard that. Mind you, give Jelly another hour and no doubt Scott would be wanting to strangle him again.

“Here, you’d better take that jacket off before we’ve got two patients out here.”

“Jelly, I…”

Jelly started walking off. “Then you’d best come out back. I’ve got coffee on the stove.”

Scott looked towards the barn door.  It was still pouring outside. And it would be churlish to leave Jelly watching his horse while he went inside and slept. Oh well. He shrugged his jacket off then slung it over the stall’s partition. Sharing a coffee with Jelly was the least he could do, especially when Johnny said he was still grieving over the loss of his boys. Perhaps he could help Jelly in some way—as a thank you for saving his horse?


The pot belly was fired up in the tack room, or workroom as Murdoch called it. The side door led to where he did his smithing. Jelly had another grey blanket warming on the back of a chair while he rummaged around some brown bottles on the shelf of an old dresser.

Scott grabbed a couple of white mugs—well, they used to be white— and poured the coffee. There weren’t many places to sit, so he grabbed a rather rickety looking chair, and placed it near one that was already in front of the stove. “Come and have your coffee, Jelly. You’ve earned it.”

“In a minute. I thought there was some linseed oil here, somewhere.”

Scott stretched his legs out. His pants were sodden and covered in mud. Nothing like a storm to take the shine off a good set of clothes. Or off him, for that matter. He’d had an easy day so there was no reason for him to be feeling battered like this. He was probably just damned wet and cold. That’s all it was. It would pass.

“If you love horses, my boy, don’t join the cavalry.”

“Shut up.”

“What?” Jelly turned around from over near the shelving.

“Nothing Jelly. I was just talking to myself.”

“Well, this should be ready by now.” Jelly took the blanket off the back of the chair.

Scott didn’t really want to get up again but he put his cup down, anyway. “I can do that for you.”

“Nope, you jest sit right there. This ain’t for your horse. It’s for you.”

“No, Jelly…I.”

“I can’t have you catching yer death a’cold because you were out here, helping me.”

And it was too late, because Jelly had already draped the blanket about his wet shoulders.

“And another thing, I can’t have Mr Lancer saying I cared more for his horses than I did for his sons, now, can I.”

“You certainly won’t hear me saying that.” Not when the warmth of the blanket felt so good over his damp shirt. He pulled it tight around him. Somehow, Jelly had known exactly what he needed.

“My boys would huddle under a warmed blanket on a night like this. ‘Tell us a story, Jelly,’ they’d be saying. I never could understand why they’d fight sleep so much, even when Toogie’s eyes were so darned heavy you’d need a shovel to prop’em open.” His voice wavered on the last few words but he cleared his throat as he pulled up a chair. “Yep, it’s a toad strangler out there, all right. I saw a downpour just like this in Mississippi one time. It must have been…”

Jelly’s voice droned on and on about storms and rain and wind while Scott drank the coffee. It was comforting—in an odd sort of way. Who would have thought? Like hot buttered toast and marmalade in front of the nursery fire. Not that Jelly looked anything like his old nurse—but they could both talk a lot. He used to love that story she told about—.

“You know, I never did find it easy to see an animal in pain.”

Scott blinked. Well, that brought him back from Boston with a thump. He could just deny it. Pretend he didn’t know what the hell Jelly was talking about. In the end, he swallowed his mouthful of coffee, then looked across at Jelly. “What gave me away?”

“Well, you had a certain look on your face when you opened the barn door. Like you was expecting the worst. An’ then I was kinda wondering why you were standing out in the rain all that time. Course, I figure a man who owns a spread the size of Lancer, can do what he wants.”

“I guess he can.”

“Not that it’s any of my business.”

Scott ran a finger over the chip in the rim of his cup. “Johnny thinks I should name my horse.”

“Seems to me a body has the right to make up his own mind on that score.”

He started smiling, in spite of himself. Who knew the old fraud could be so wise. “You know, we could’ve done with someone like you in our regiment, Jelly. Our horse doctor had more expertise in whisky than horses.”

“And the man oughtta be ashamed of himself.”

Scott had thought that at the time, too. “Well, it wasn’t entirely his fault. Half the time there was no feed or the necessary medicines to treat them. Colic was a death sentence nine times out of ten. I…ah…I think that was why I expected the worst tonight.”

Jelly’s mouth turned down. “It just don’t seem right, does it. All those beautiful animals. War sure is a terrible thing.”

‘Terrible’ didn’t even go close to describing it. “I saw officers go through six horses in a day, sometimes.”

“I know it. I saw it with my own two eyes.”

Scott stared at him. “You were a soldier?”

“Nope. I was workin’ on a farm. They were just some poor folk an’ I was helping with the harvest. I was just about to head into the house when it was hit by a cannon ball. Blew the whole darn thing to bits.”

“A lucky escape.”

“For some. Not for the family inside. The only one to survive was…Willie. He was just a little fella. Not much more’n four at the time. I knew they didn’t have any other kinfolk and ever-one in the town was too all-fired busy trying to save themselves, so I just took him and ran. Headed west. But I saw what you saw; all those proud, beautiful animals…stretching right across the field…just lyin’ there in the mud. It plumb broke my heart to see it.”

Scott swallowed. Could he ever forget? “I had this big old flea-bitten grey for a while. Harvey. Strong as they come with a heart to match. I remember saddling Harvey that last morning… he was looking at me with those big, trusting brown eyes of his…”

“What happened to him?”

“Dead by nightfall, Jelly.” He did his best to sound matter-of-fact. “Gave his all so that I could get a dispatch through to another regiment. Turned out it wasn’t even a very important one.”

For once Jelly didn’t talk. And Scott was glad of the silence. He’d never spoken about Harvey. There were a lot things he’d never told anyone.

“Scott, you might need a touch of this.”

He went to shake his head but, “Why not,” and held out his mug instead and let Jelly splash the brandy into his coffee.

“Just for medicinal purposes, a ‘course.”

Scott gave him something close to a grin. “Of course.”

The rain was still thundering on the barn roof. It could have been cannon fire, way off in the distance. “I can tell you one thing, Jelly; as bad as I felt about my mount going down, I was glad every time the bullet hit the horse and not me. I suppose that makes me the worst kind of hypocrite.”

“No, it don’t. Any man would be pleased to be alive. You’d be a fool otherwise. I’d say your pa was pretty pleased about that, too.”

“I suppose so.” Although, at the time, surviving seemed enough to worry about, rather than wondering about a father who apparently didn’t want him.

“I’d best go check on your horse.”

Scott drained his second cup while Jelly was gone—and did some thinking. What was it Murdoch said, something about a man who’s treated badly, never shown any trust? It was certainly true of animals. He’d seen his fair share of mounts in the cavalry, that swished their tails and kicked out the minute a uniform came close.

Jelly was muttering away out in the barn while he tended the bay. But then Scott caught his voice clearly when he must have been closer to the tack room and talking to one of the other horses. “…just behave yourself tomorrow. You gotta be ready in the morning to ride to Green River with Mr Lancer. An’ I’ll tell you a thing or two, Murdoch Lancer’s the finest man I ever worked for, so don’t you go all fidgety on me, you hear?” Jelly came back in almost immediately, with a couple of bridles slung over his shoulder and rubbing his hands. “That bay of yours is doing just as fine as cream gravy.”

Jelly looked happy enough, when he was talking about the horses. As happy as a grouchy, horse wrangler could ever look, probably. “And that’s thanks to you.” Scott grabbed the handle and opened the pot belly. The heat was beginning to wane and it could do with another log.

“Just don’t be expecting me to be up every night wet-nursing the stock. A man’s gotta sleep, you know.”

“Of course, Jelly. I wouldn’t dream of it.” Scott almost grinned as he tossed another log in—but then he thought of what Johnny had told him, about catching Jelly out here, grieving for those kids. Maybe the old guy had something to be grouchy about? Scott’s eyes went to Jelly as he sorted the bridles then hung them on the hooks. He had his back turned and his head down. That vest of his must be twenty years old, at least. It wasn’t just moths that had eaten it.

“How are your boys doing, Jelly?” This might be a touchy subject, so he asked as gently as he could. “They must be missing you.”

Jelly’s hand stilled for a few seconds.  “Them? Nah. They’ll be way too busy with all their learning and chores to think about old Jelly.”

“I don’t think so, Jelly. You mean a great deal to them.” They’d hugged Jelly like they were never going to let go when it came time for Johnny to take them into town.

“Yeah, well, I got them off my hands and it’s about time, too. I got me a job here for a hundred days. Seems like that oughtta keep me outta trouble until I decide which way the wind blows. Yes, sirree, I’m a free man now.” If he nodded his head one more time, it was likely to fall off— and there still wouldn’t be a morsel of truth in what he just said.

A thought came to Scott. Just popped into his head from who knew where. He rubbed a hand along his jaw line. “You know, Jelly…” There was no going back if he said this. “I was thinking…”

Jelly ambled back to the stove. “Uh huh?” He bent down to pick up some kindling that had fallen out of the box.

Scott’s hands were sweaty. “I was thinking…that maybe…”

“I ain’t got all night, you know.”

“Well, I was thinking about…” There was a huge chasm opening up in front of him. Just because he had the thought, it didn’t mean he had to go through with it, did it? He took a deep breath. “I was thinking about—.”

No. He couldn’t do it. One night talking to Jelly in the barn wasn’t enough to decide on anything permanent. He scrambled around his mind for something else to say…

“Um…Curly Taylor.” And it wasn’t a total lie. He had been thinking about Curly—this afternoon.

“Is that all?” The bristles were bristling again. “And what’s so all-fired important about Curly Taylor?”

He should have kept his mouth shut. Now, he’d have to cover up his blunder. “You’re a studier of human nature, Jelly. What do you think of him?”

“Well, I suppose I am, if I do say-so myself.” Jelly stuck his bottom lip out and put his thumb through a hole in his vest. “I guess I’d say he’s about the best horseman I’ve seen but then most cowboys can fall asleep in a saddle and still herd a steer with their eyes closed.”

Scott frowned. All that unease he’d felt regarding Curly was coming back again, just speaking about the man. “Nothing about him strikes you as…suspicious?”

“Nope. Not that I can think of. Course, I never took to that feller from up north and Curly was from Texas but that…”

Scott let Jelly drone on about all the men he apparently hadn’t taken to. Oh well. If nothing else, Curly Taylor had possibly saved him from a huge mistake. It must’ve been the brandy affecting his judgement. Why else would he even have considered for a second asking Jelly if he—?

“…although, I thought Murdoch Lancer musta known. Figured he was expecting some sorta trouble. Why else would he hire him?”

Scott’s ears pricked up again. “Known what?”

Jelly lifted his chin. “Why, that he’s a gunfighter of course.”

“What?” Scott almost jumped to his feet. “Curly Taylor? Are you sure?”

“Why, it’s just as plain as the nose on yer face.”

This time, when Scott closed his eyes, he had a very enjoyable vision. “I am going to kill him.” He could almost see himself doing it, too, as he punched out each, individual, word.

Jelly’s eyes went wide and he started the head shaking again. “That ain’t too wise, Scott. I mean, I’m sure you’re respectable with a gun and such, but Taylor would…”

Scott was trying to muster all the patience he could. “I’m not going to kill Taylor. I’m going to kill Johnny.”


Chapter Nine

Scott’s eyes sprung open.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

He jumped out of bed and grabbed for his shirt and pants on the chair. He only had one leg in his pants when he pulled his foot out and flung them away. Ugh. Of course they were still wet from last night.

He started rummaging in his draw for a new set of work clothes. Teresa must have changed the order he kept them in because he’d tossed three pairs of pants onto the floor and still hadn’t found the ones he wanted. And if he had any sense, he’d open up his curtains so that he could see what he was doing.

And why was it so damn quiet?

He ran across to the curtains and flung them open, then cursed some more, loudly—the yard below was deserted.

There were no horses in the corral. No hands milling around. The only movement was the hens clucking their way through the dirt, pecking at the seed Teresa had probably tossed out hours ago.

Why on earth didn’t anyone wake him? To sleep in this morning, of all mornings, when he’d wanted to grab Johnny before he went downstairs and have it out with him about Curly Taylor.

Curly Taylor. The gunfighter.

He’d had half a mind to charge into Johnny’s room when he came inside from the barn last night. He’d even had his hand on the doorknob…but…but, he’d let it go. Let go of the doorknob and walked into his own room instead. Anger was never a great ally when confronting anyone. As it turned out, nor did it induce sleep. The only thing it did was wear a hole in the rug on his bedroom floor and leave him thumping his pillow into shape a dozen times before sleep finally came. If you could call it ‘sleep’ considering all the weird dreams he’d had.

And of course, Murdoch must have chosen this morning, of all mornings, to let him sleep late.


The hacienda was silent downstairs. There was no sign of a soul. The kitchen had been scrubbed clean after breakfast. Maria, Juanita, Pablo—nowhere to be seen.

And worst of all, the coffee pot had been left on the sideboard and it was lukewarm. But there was a note next to it.

Dear Scott,

Murdoch thought you’d need your sleep after being out in the barn most of the night.

Johnny has organised the work crews and Murdoch and I have gone to Green River for the day. Maria will be back to make your lunch if you want something cooked or you can help yourself to the sandwiches I left wrapped on the bench.

Murdoch asked you to stay around because he’s expecting Mr Simpson, possibly today. Murdoch would like you to take him out to the wash so that he can examine the site for the well. You should find Johnny there finishing off the new fence line.

Good news about your horse!


Scott took the note and screwed it up into a ball. No, he did not want to cool his heels around the hacienda, waiting for this Simpson fellow.

He shrugged his jacket on, dropped his hat on his head then grabbed his gun belt, doing it up as he trod down the steps outside the front door.

“Jelly. Jelly!”

When he reached the barn, he took his gun out and checked it was loaded, then looked around.

“Jelly. Where the blazes are you? Jelly!” He’d just walked into the barn when he caught Jelly on his way out, carrying a pail.

“No need to yell the place down. I heard you the first time.” Jelly eyed the gun still in his hand. “And good mornin’ to you, too.”

“There’s no time for pleasantries.” Scott holstered his gun. “What time did Johnny leave?”

“With the work crew. Nigh on two hours ago or more. Ever-one got goin’ early.”

Why did Jelly have to talk so darned slow and make it sound as if Scott should have known this already? “Who did Johnny have with him?”

Jelly huffed. “Well, I weren’t keeping tally, if that’s what yer asking.”

Scott was ready to shake him. “I just want to know about Johnny–did you see who he rode out with?”

“Murdoch will jest have to say if he wants me to keep a tally of where ever-one goes. It’s not as if I ain’t got enough to do.” Jelly turned to go back into the barn, still grumbling who knew what.

Scott took a breath and stared around the yard. Damn this Simpson fellow. Why would he choose today, of all days, to come out to the ranch?

“And who might this be, riding in?” Jelly had stopped near the corral fence and was now squinting at the Lancer arch. “I s’pose you want me to write this feller’s name down somewhere for yer tally, too. Not that anyone left me so much as a scrap of paper to write on.”

Could it be? Scott stood on the bottom rail to get a better look. From this distance, it didn’t look like anyone he knew. Could the gods finally be smiling on him for once? “If my guess is correct, this should be Mr Simpson, to dig our new well.” He jumped down from the corral and started for the barn.

“And where might you be going?”

Scott glanced behind to see Jelly doggedly following him. “I’m going to saddle a horse.”

“Not that it’s any of my business, but ain’t you gonna meet this here Simpson feller?”

“I am. And then we’re going to ride out to where Johnny is working on the fence.” At least he could relax a little now, assuming it was Simpson riding in. The bay put his head over the stall as Scott got near. Had it only been twelve hours ago he’d been so sure the horse wouldn’t make it? For a moment there, he’d forgotten all Jelly’s good work last night. That wasn’t right. He tried to show a friendlier smile. “How’s he been, Jelly?”

“Jest as good as new. You can see for yerself.”

Scott ran his hand along the bay’s neck. “You behave yourself from now on.”

“Well, you ain’t planning on riding him?” Jelly’s tone was all disapproval.

“No, I’ll give him a day’s rest to be on the safe side.” A handsome black that Murdoch sometimes rode was in the next stall and showing quite a lot of interest in Scott. “You feel like stretching your legs, boy? Jelly, saddle the black for me, please. I’ve got a visitor to meet.”

He didn’t stop to hear Jelly’s response. It wasn’t likely to be pleasant.

As he got outside, the rider rode up to the coral. Scott threw him a quick look, taking in the bushy beard and wide brimmed hat pulled low against the winter sun. Scott reached out his hand. “Henry Simpson? Perfect timing. If you don’t mind, we’ll ride out to the well site, straightaway. Johnny should be finished the fence by now. Murdoch said you’ve dug wells out here before?”

Simpson looked a little taken aback with Scott’s greeting as he leaned down to shake Scott’s hand. “Sure have. And I’m mighty pleased to meet you.”

“I’m sorry, sir. I probably sound rude. It’s just that I’ve got a situation at the well site that I have to deal with, so I’m keen to get out there straightaway.”

Simpson simply nodded. “Of course. Happy to oblige, any way I can.”

Thank heavens he was an amiable fellow under all that beard.  “Murdoch wasn’t sure if you’d want to stay at the ranch tonight or not. I suppose that depends on how long it takes to assess the site, sir?”

“Yup. In my business, you can’t rush these things.”

“My brother should be working on the site so he can probably tell you about the state of the ground.” Just then, Jelly brought the black out, and held the reins while Scott checked the cinch. The sooner he got to Johnny, the better.

Simpson took his hat off and scratched the back of his head. “Your brother’s started on the well already?”

“Johnny? Oh, no. I’m sorry, I’m not being at all clear, am I.” Scott swung himself into the saddle. “No, Johnny’s been working on the new fence we had to build near the well site.”

“Oh.” Simpson started chuckling. “I was hoping this Johnny had done half my work for me. Looks like I’m out of luck.”

Jelly passed him his reins. “Yer in an awful big hurry, Scott. Doncha think—?”

“Jelly, the only thing I’m thinking about is whether I strangle Johnny as soon as I see him or savour the thought, and leave it until later.” With that, he kicked the black onwards. “Follow me, Mr Simpson.”


Scott glanced across at Murdoch’s well-digger, as they slowed to give the horses a breather. Simpson wasn’t particularly talkative, like a lot of men out here, but that suited Scott as he had enough to think about. Simpson might be wearing a shirt and tie under the worn jacket but that gun strapped to his thigh looked like it had seen some work. And the man himself struck Scott as being very capable.

“You eyeing my girl?” Simpson patted his gun, directing a stern eye at Scott.

“I didn’t mean to stare.” It was embarrassing that he’d been caught assessing the man.

Simpson started smiling under his beard. “Sorry, Scott, I was just funning with you. I tell you, boy, in my business, you don’t go anywhere without one of these.”

“Digging wells is a dangerous business?” This was news to Scott.

“You wouldn’t believe the stories I could tell. I’ve been caught up in fights over water rights from here through to Texas.”

“I would’ve thought everyone was pleased to see you. Your work makes you a life saver.”

“Now that’s good of you to say that, Scott. I confess, that’s how I look upon it myself.”

At least Simpson didn’t sound scared of a fight. It was tempting to warn him there could be trouble but…well, he wasn’t even sure Johnny would be working with Curly and in any case, he really wanted the chance to talk to Johnny alone. No, it was better he said nothing.

However, the man probably deserved more of an explanation for their haste, than the one he gave. After all, he hadn’t even invited him inside for coffee. “I’m sorry about the haste, Mr Simpson but I’m keen to see my brother about a particular issue.”

“Just call me Henry. And don’t you worry, when I’m here to do a job I like to do it. I’m not one for fussing, if you know what I mean.”

“Thank you for being understanding. And I’ll make it up to you with a delicious supper when you finish. I’m sure you and Murdoch will have things to talk about.”

“That sounds mighty fine.” Simpson looked around as they cut through the south pasture, probably assessing the land for any future drilling work. “So, who is it we’re heading out to meet? Your brother, did you say?”

“That’s right. My brother Johnny is working on the fence. We had to change the fence line for the new well.”

“Ah, of course.”

“To be honest, I don’t know much about it. I’ve only been at Lancer a few months, same as Johnny.”

The only response to that was another nod and Scott had the feeling Simpson had done enough talking. Scott looked at the sky. It must be nearing midday and those butterflies in his stomach were beginning to feel more like flapping crows. “If you don’t mind, Henry, I’d like to get moving again.”

“Sure thing, Scott.” Simpson gave the roan a gentle slap on the neck. “This ole girl of mine is as sturdy as they come.”

It was hard to tell how old Simpson himself was under that beard but thankfully he was the amiable sort. You probably had to be patient when digging wells. Scott threw him a grin. “We’d best give her a special supper as well then.”


It was hilly this section of the ranch and it showed how distracted he was that twice Scott thought they’d reached the well site and twice he’d been wrong. Now they were riding up a third rise and this time Scott cantered the black up to the top. Surely this was the right site?

Up…up…up went the black. He could hear Simpson’s roan breathing through her nostrils behind him. And then…

Sure enough, the wash was below. The first thing Scott saw was that pinkish-red shirt of Johnny’s.

The second thing he saw was a cowhand with a familiar slouch as he walked.

Whew. He had to admit, this eased some of the tension he’d been feeling.

He pushed the black onwards, down the hill and onto the flat where they’d worked the day before, calling over his shoulder, “We’re here, Henry.”

Johnny, mallet in hand, was driving a post into the ground as they rode up. “Hey, Scott. So you decided to ride out here and do some work at last?”

Scott swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted. A quick scan showed nothing untoward. They were digging the final post hole. Both gun belts were slung over the wire of the previous section. “I thought you might need someone to hand you a canteen while you dig. I hear digging fence poles is thirsty work.”

Johnny tucked the mallet under his arm then took his leather gloves off and threw one at Scott. “You hear that, Curly? My brother thinks he’s out here to look pretty.”

Curly came alongside and stood by Johnny. “Well, maybe we just gotta teach him?”

Nothing in their exchange sounded anything different to how Johnny would talk to Hank or the other hands, it was Curly’s sneering reply that Scott didn’t like. Johnny didn’t seem to notice though. He was looking up at Henry Simpson.

Oh well, they’d been out here together for hours. If Curly did plan trouble, it didn’t seem to be right this moment. Scott almost felt disappointed after all the tension of the morning. It was just like Johnny to be hale and hearty when everyone had been worried about him.

“Johnny, this is Henry Simpson. He’s here to check out the site and dig our new well.”

“Mr Simpson. Howdy.” Johnny tossed the mallet down and reached out his hand. “So what do you think?” Johnny swept his hand over the area.

“Pleased to meet you, Johnny.” Simpson pulled his hat lower, against the morning sun. “But we can’t rush what I came here to do. Digging wells is a serious occupation.”

Scott frowned. Henry had changed to something like a ‘business’ voice. It was lower and more gruff than when he’d talked to Scott, as if he was now talking to the hired hands.

“I guess not.” Johnny’s reply was easy so perhaps he hadn’t noticed anything.

All the same, it wouldn’t hurt to set Simpson straight. “My brother and I own the ranch—with our father.”

At least Simpson looked impressed with this information. “That’s a fine thing, indeed. It surely is.”

“I’ll leave you to it, Henry.” Scott went across and tied the black to the fence. In his mind, he’d been ready to haul Johnny over the coals for not being honest with him, then front Curly and demand answers, but all that would be difficult with Simpson here—not to mention probably idiotic on Scott’s part—but the picture had whiled away a great part of the ride out here.

All the same, Curly had a few questions to answer in his book and what better time than when he was unarmed? At the moment, Curly was closer to Scott than Johnny, stacking the posts they wouldn’t need into the wagon. “Ah…Curly, would you mind coming over—.” And that was as far as he got before his mouth fell open.

Johnny came across and pushed his hat back, his eyes following the direction Scott was staring. “Scott. I’m sure there’s a reason.”

“Don’t plead for him, Johnny. Not this time.”

All that anger he’d been feeling towards Jelly the last few weeks just about burst through his skull. If Simpson hadn’t been there, he’d…he’d… Take a deep breath, Scott. He had to shake Johnny’s arm off before marching forward to meet the old fraud.

“Jelly, would you like to explain how you come to be riding my horse? The horse that’s meant to be resting?” Jelly was flopping all over the saddle, barely able to control the bay, but as he got close to Scott he held out a piece of paper he had in his hand. Scott folded his arms. That way he wouldn’t punch the man. “Well, explain yourself.” And to think, just last night, he’d almost offered him a permanent place at Lancer.

Jelly leaned forward. “Scott, we gotta talk.”

“Not now, Jelly.” This time it was Johnny who growled. “You got some explaining to do, first.”

“You gotta read this.” Jelly shoved the paper in Scott’s face. “Read the wire.” For someone trying to whisper, he just about told the entire valley. Scott snatched the wire from him then opened it out. One word caught his eye immediately but—but this didn’t make any sense? How could it be? His eyes flicked to Johnny.

“What is it, Scott? Is Murdoch okay?” Johnny tried to read over his shoulder.

Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong. “Ah, no, it’s not Murdoch.” His insides were racing but he tried to look calm as he passed the wire back to Jelly with his left hand—but even as Scott’s right hand went for his gun, he heard the tell-tale click.

The gods were definitely not smiling on him now.

Slowly he turned and looked up. Simpson was leaning his arm on the horn, just as he did when he talked to Scott by the barn—only this time, his hand held a gun. And it was cocked and ready to fire.

Simpson grinned down at him. “Throw your gun down, Lancer. “

Scott took a breath. Throwing his gun down was the last thing he wanted to do, with Johnny unarmed. Could he count on Curly? That was three against one, not counting Jelly, and even if—.”

“Throw it down, Scott.” Johnny’s tone was matter of fact but not resigned.

Damn. What a hellish situation. Against all his better instincts, he threw his gun down into the long grass, a few feet in front of him.

Some of the tension went out of Simpson. “That’s real sensible of you, Lancer. Now old man, why don’t you get down off that horse and read that wire out for everyone to hear?”

Jelly stuck out his chin. “And just why would I wanna do that? T’ain’t nobody’s business but Scott’s.”

“You wanna be dead, old man?”

Scott murmured, “Read it out, Jelly.”

Jelly threw his leg over the bay and slid to the ground. The old guy looked nervous but he still had an air of that Jelly-bravado that was so annoying. “To Murdoch Lancer-stop-delayed-stop-won’t be there until next week stop-Henry Simpson.” He almost swallowed the last two words.

Scott could hardly look at Johnny. What an idiot he’d been to assume the rider was Simpson. His jaw clenched but he managed to get out, “If you’re not Henry Simpson, then who the devil are you?”

‘Simpson’ took his hat off with a flourish. “Dontcha recognise an old friend, Johnny-boy?”

Johnny squinted up at him but it took a moment for the look of recognition to light up his eyes. “Amos McFadden. As I live and breathe.”

Scott winced. He wished Johnny hadn’t put it quite like that. “Is this one of those ‘friends’ of yours you were telling me about, Johnny?”

Johnny sniffed the air. “That beard had me fooled but I shoulda known it was Amos by the stench in the air.”

“Well, Curly. It done look like you did my work for me. Mama will be right pleased. Go get your gun, boy.”

“Mama?” Johnny sounded as surprised as Scott felt.

“You’re brothers?” Oh hell, this was going from bad to worse.  “I take it you’re not here to dig wells.”

Curly slouched back across, this time with his gun in his hand. He tipped that battered hat of his to Amos. “Wasn’t expecting you so soon, Amos.”

Now that Curly had his gun trained on them as well, Amos got out of the saddle. “Well, Curly an’ me here, we aim to do some digging but we ain’t filling the hole with water, are we Curly.”

Curly grinned back in that sly way he had about him and Scott was about ready to punch that grin right off his face.

Amos stood in front of Johnny, towering over him. “If it ain’t Johnny Madrid, large as life. We heard you done got yerself killed in sunny Me-hi-co, amigo.”

“You heard wrong, Amos.”

“Yep, we surely did. But word has a way of getting out, don’t it.”

Johnny shrugged. “I wasn’t trying to hide it.”

Then Amos switched his beady eyes to Scott. “And you got yerself a pretty brother, huh? Now ain’t that something, ‘cause Curly an’ me, we used to have a brother.”

Scott’s head was still reeling. Did Johnny know Curly was a McFadden? Is that what kept him awake the other night?

“Oh yeah, you had a brother all right.” Then Johnny locked eyes with Amos and his voice turned to a growl.  “A brother who tried to back-shoot me after I pulled him off that girl he was aiming to rape.”

Amos ran his tongue over his lips, almost whispering the words. “That ain’t the way Rance told it.” This close, Scott could see the evil in the man’s eyes. How many men had shuddered and breathed their last after seeing that expression?

“Yeah? Well Rance is a liar. Always was. Always will be.”

“Only he ain’t doin’ any talkin’ at all nowadays, Johnny.”

Johnny frowned. “What d’you mean? I got him to the doc. He said he’d pull through.”

“That old doc didn’t know a scalpel from a knitting needle. Rance, well he lingered for nigh on a month, keeping the house awake each night with him crying out and writhing in his bed with the pain a’fore he died.”

“I’m real sorry about that. It woulda done the world a favour if I killed him outright.” Johnny switched his gaze to Curly. “So you’re one of the McFaddens? I shoulda recognised the look.”

“This here’s my baby brother, Johnny. Curly didn’t think you’d met before so he signed on for work. Looks like he had you fooled.”

“Not quite,” Scott ground out.

Amos motioned to Johnny, with his gun. “Get over there, Madrid. It’s gonna be fun watching your brother’s face as you die in front of him.”

Johnny threw a look at Scott; that calculating look that said he wasn’t going down without a fight. Well, neither was Scott.

“Whoa. Wait a minute, Amos.” That sly grin was back on Curly’s face. “I wanna hear what happened to Rance.”

“I told you, Curly. Rance told me everything that happened.”

“I guess I just wanna hear if Madrid is as much of a liar as I think he is. Let’s see him try and worm his way outta this, Amos.”

Amos grunted at Johnny, like a bear denied his kill. “Okay, Madrid. Let’s hear your version of what happened.”

“What’s the point.”

The gunshot almost made Scott jump. The dirt kicked up a half inch from Johnny’s boot. Curly waved his gun. “Start talking, Madrid. And I wanna hear the whole story—from the beginning.”

At least this was some sort of a reprieve. Keep talking Johnny. Make it a long story. Give me a chance to think of a way we can get out of this.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed at Curly first, then Amos, as if he was imagining what he’d like to do to them. Finally, his eyes settled on Curly. “Your two brothers and me were hired by a rancher in Yuma who was having trouble with some others over water rights.”

“Who-ee, didn’t I tell you, Scott. Water rights. Hee, hee.” Amos showed his teeth and that was a mistake, because most of them were black and broken. Hopefully, the look Scott gave him showed how much the man disgusted him.

Curly waved his hand at his brother. “Shut-up, Amos. What was the rancher’s name, Madrid?”

“Diego. Arturo Diego.”

“Go on then.”

“It didn’t turn out to be much of a fight. The other ranchers saw sense and they did a deal to share the creek they’d been fighting over. Diego decided to have a kind of peace-party. I was aiming to leave that night but Valeria—.”

“Who’s she?”

Amos stamped his foot. “Curly, you heard all this from Rance. We’re wasting time.”

“I just figured ole Johnny here might wanna get everything off his chest. He don’t wanna go to his grave with a lie on his lips and burn in hell, does he?”

“He put yer brother through hell.”

And it looked like that was what Amos was planning for Johnny. Scott looked at Jelly. He was just about shaking right through the hole in his boots, so there wasn’t going to be any help there.

“Why’d you stay?” Curly was saying.

“Valeria, Diego’s daughter, asked me stay.”

“An’ you just couldn’t wait to get her in that barn, could you, Madrid?”

“Valeria was fifteen.” The scorn in Johnny’s voice said it all. “She wanted me to see the foal she helped birth, the day before. That’s all.”

“That ain’t the way Rance told it.”

“Like I said, Rance was a liar.”

Curly was fast. Before Scott could move he’d back-handed Johnny across the mouth. “I don’t like hearing you speak ill of the dead. Now keep talkin’.”

Johnny didn’t move so much as a muscle on his face as he brought his gaze back to Curly—but his eyes said a great deal and the way his chest expanded, he seemed to be doing all he could to control himself. “We walked into the barn and someone—Rance—hit me on the back of the head. When I came to, Valeria was screaming, with her dress half ripped off and Rance was on top of her. I grabbed hold of his arm, and pulled him off. We traded a coupla blows. I told him not to be an idiot; that Diego would have him hung if he raped his daughter and told Rance to leave. The poor kid was sobbing fit to burst. Rance looked at her, then said, ‘You’re right, Madrid,’ and he walked outta the barn. I turned around to Valeria, when she screamed. I pushed her outta the way, dived for the floor and fired my gun.”

The poor girl. Scott could see it all in his mind. He would’ve done exactly what Johnny did.

Curly could’ve been a courtroom lawyer, the way he kept prodding. “Keep going, Johnny-boy.”

 Johnny looked him full in the face. “Rance’s bullet missed—mine didn’t.” Blunt and to the point. That was Johnny all right.

It was no small wonder that Amos looked just about ready to strangle Johnny the way he said that last part. “Your bullet took Rance in the gut.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I guess my aim was off. I was hoping to hit his heart.”

Amos took a step towards Johnny but Curly pushed him back. “Amos, now don’t get all testy and spoil the fun.” Then he looked at Johnny with that nasty sneer on his lips. “That ain’t what Rance said. He said you shot him as he walked away. That you were crazy for the girl yourself. Said she’d been making eyes at you for weeks.”

“Dammit, Curly. She was a kid. Just turned fifteen.”

“You’re lying, Madrid.”

“Did you look at Rance’s wound? Did you ask the doctor? Anyone fool doc knows the difference between a back and a gut wound.”

“I bet Amos, did. He’s real smart, ain’t you, Amos.”

“You think I’m a fool, boy? Course I checked. Now stop this jawing. We got ourselves a job to do. I swore to Rance you’d pay for what you did, Johnny. We was friends. You an’ Rance and me and Isham.”

“I was never friends with you and Rance.” Johnny almost spat the words. “We worked on the same side, once or twice. It was nothing more than that.”

Desperation was tingling Scott’s fingers. He was pretty sure Johnny would go for one of the guns. And so would Scott. But he needed to get their eyes off Johnny. “I thought there was honour among you gunfighters.” Then he called to Amos. “If you want to make it a fair fight, why don’t you give Johnny a gun?”

“You think there was anything fair about the way he shot Rance?”

“The way Johnny tells it, there is.”

Scott eyed the mallet near Jelly’s foot but it might as well be a hundred feet away as where it was, the other side of Jelly.

Amos was just about drooling by now. “You wanna take the first shot, Curly?”

“Madrid, I travelled a long ways to hear that story.” Curly aimed his gun at Johnny’s leg.

Could he bump Curly and knock him sideways? Two guns against none. He had to try something.

Curly cocked his gun, then tipped his head as if deciding where best to aim.

Scott readied himself. He only had the time it takes to breathe.

He didn’t see it at first. Just a blur, out the corner of his eye. Jelly was grabbing the mallet. Stupid…stupid…stupid…

Scott heard the gun go off as he lurched into Curly. If he could just get his gun…

“Hold it. That was a stupid thing to do, old man.”

Scott froze. Curly’s gun was aimed at him while Amos had Johnny covered. A swift look showed Jelly had been thrown back on the ground and he wasn’t moving. “You’d better not have killed Jelly.” The fury in his throat even surprised Scott.

“Yeah? You think anyone’s gonna cry for a saddle bum?”

“He’s worth ten of you and your stinking brothers. Rance probably deserved everything—.”

Johnny charged at Amos.

The move caught Scott of guard but he dug his elbow into Curly’s side. If he could just—. And then he was hitting the ground. No…no…he had to get up. He tried shaking his head and clawing at the grass to stay conscious.

“Stay down, Scott.”

That was Johnny’s voice. Scott tried to get up on his knees.

“Scott, I said stay down.”

He didn’t know how long it took for the black around his eyes to start clearing. When he looked up, Johnny was staring at Curly—but Curly was staring at Amos.

“Put your gun down, brother Amos.”

Scott’s head was buzzing. Nothing made sense. No, one thing made sense; Amos had his gun trained on Johnny, standing to the right of Curly.

“I mean it, Amos. Drop your gun. There’ll be no killing today.”

“Have you gone plumb loco, Curly?”

“Nope. I went to Tucson. I talked to Valeria Diego. She told it just like Johnny said.”

“You’d believe a filthy Mex over your own kin?”

“Amos, we both know what Rance was like. He was plum no good. He got what he deserved from Johnny. Pity’s sake for all the other girls that it hadn’t happened years a’fore.”

Amos was almost shaking with fury. “Curly, you came here to kill Johnny.”

“Uh uh. No. I came here to warn him.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You always was crazy. Now stand aside. I aim to kill Madrid for what he done to Rance.”

“Don’t do it, Amos. Ma sent me. She’s been a’weeping for the two of you.”


“She’s dying, Amos.” There was no sneer on his face, now. “She ain’t got but a few weeks left. She told me to find you and put a stop to the killing.”

“I don’t believe you. You got under Madrid’s spell too, huh? Believing all that stuff he spouted ‘bout being good at yer trade.”

“You’re dead wrong, Amos. Johnny ain’t like Rance. I came here and did my best to put a burr under his saddle but he kept giving me a chance. He was friendly and treated me like all the other hands. I believe what he just said.”

Scott held his breath. The indecision was clear to see in Amos’ eyes. If ever a man wanted to kill, it was him.

“Amos, you listening to me? You wanna break Mama’s heart?”

“Aw, damn-it.” Amos screamed to the sky. “How am I meant to fight my own ma?” His gun hand dropped.

Thank God. Scott started to breathe again.

And then Scott just knew. “Johnny!”

Two pistols cracked. Scott saw the fire spurt out of the gun Amos held, then his eyes widened, as if he was surprised and his gun fell out of his hand. “Curly? My own brother?” Then he stumbled forward and hit the ground with a thud, almost making the ground shake.

Scott jumped to his feet. Johnny was down. No…not Johnny as well…

But even as Scott started forward, Johnny rolled over and grabbed the gun Amos dropped. Scott put out his hand and hauled Johnny to his feet. “You’re all right?”

Johnny nodded but he looked as confused as Scott felt. “What about Jelly?”

Curly was kneeling over his brother. “Amos. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He clutched at Amos’ vest—but it was no good. His eyes were blank, aimed at a sky he’d never see again.

Scott and Johnny rushed over to Jelly. The tattered vest and shirt were covered in blood. Jelly’s face was white.

Scott grabbed a handkerchief from Jelly’s pocket to press on the wound while Johnny grabbed a canteen close by and poured some on Jelly’s face.

“Dammit, Jelly.” Johnny shook his head then looked at Scott, the anguish showing in his eyes.

Scott pressed harder on the wound. “God help those eight boys who care for the old coot.”

Johnny put his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Maybe you should change that number to ten?”

Chapter Ten

Scott pressed his hand over the wound in Jelly’s shoulder but every time he took the handkerchief away, blood kept flowing. This wasn’t good. Not good at all. He needed a doctor—and fast.

Johnny threw the canteen down then ran across to his horse. He ran back with a roll of bandage from his saddle bag, jumping over the last of the posts still lying in the grass. Johnny was breathing hard, but not from the exertion of running to his horse and back. No, he was as worried as Scott was. “Turn him over. I wanna see his back.”

“Good thinking.”

When they turned Jelly onto his side, they found blood on the back of the old, checked shirt as well. “That might be good news—no bullet to dig out.”

“As long as it passed through cleanly.” But he was so damned still. “Jelly. Jelly, can you hear me?” Scott tried slapping his whiskers.

“It’s no use, Scott. He’s out cold. Maybe he banged his head as he went down? Let’s bandage him up then get him in the wagon and back to the house. He needs doctoring.”

Scott nodded in the direction of Amos and Curly as he wrapped the bandage around Jelly’s shoulder. Curly was still on his knees next to Amos’ body. “Look at that.” They both stared as Curly made the sign of the cross. “What do we do about them?”

“Amos is past helping—earthly help at any rate.”

“And who knows about the other kind, even with Curly’s prayers.”

Scott tied the bandage off, then took Jelly’s legs. “Come on, help me lift him.” Johnny grabbed under the shoulders and they started carrying Jelly towards the wagon. Scott noticed Curly jump up, and run across to the wagon. He’d tossed the unused posts and wire onto the ground and had the wagon clear by the time they got there, then he went round and helped Scott hold Jelly while Johnny jumped up to haul him onto the wagon bed.

“Here, Johnny.” Scott took his jacket off and threw it. “Put this under Jelly’s head.”

“You want me to ride for the doc?” Curly’s voice was husky. He was still getting his emotions under control. His lean face was white under the tan and his bottom lip wobbled if he didn’t press both lips together.

From the look on Johnny’s face, he felt all the awkwardness of the situation with Curly, just as Scott did. “I…ah…thought you might wanna stay with your brother until  we send another wagon out?”

“He’s got a bedroll on his horse.” Curly dragged his hat from his head, as if he needed to show respect when speaking about the dead. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d be mighty obliged if we can wrap him and put him in the wagon? I’ll arrange for a burying when I’m in town.”

Johnny jumped down from the wagon, shooting a question at Scott with his eyes.

“Of course you can.” It was a far better idea than slinging the body over a horse, which Scott hadn’t wanted to suggest in deference to Curly’s sensibilities, but was their only other option.

Johnny put a hand on Curly’s arm as he went to turn. “Curly…” Johnny halted. Words were always hard at a time like this. “I’m real sorry it had to end this way.”

Curly kept his head down. “Sounds like you knew Rance and Amos better than I did, Johnny. Looks like it was always gonna end this way for those two.”

A man didn’t need a great deal of imagination to feel his pain. He’d just shot his own brother, for heaven’s sake. “I’m sorry, too, Curly. But…” like Johnny, he hesitated, “I also have to thank you for saving our lives.”

Curly signalled ‘halt’ with his hand. A cavalry officer couldn’t have made his intention any clearer. It was all too raw. Curly didn’t want thanks for what he’d just done. Not now. Not yet. Without a word, he turned towards his brother’s horse.

“Can we help?” Scott went to follow but Curly’s ‘no’ was a definite one.

“Leave him be, Scott. I think that’s something he’s gotta do for himself.”

“I understand, I just hope he’s quick about it, for Jelly’s sake.” Scott climbed onto the wagon, then watched Curly wrap Amos up in the bedroll. He struggled to lift the bigger man but they left him to it as he asked, although once or twice Johnny looked ready to jump forward and give him a hand. But Curly managed to put him in the wagon while Johnny tied the black, the bay and Barranca on. It was just as well Jelly was out to it, or there would have been no end of complaining.

Scott checked Jelly’s shoulder before taking up the lines. “Damn.” His mouth was tight as Johnny climbed onto the seat beside him. “I bound him up as tight as I could but he’s still losing blood.” Jelly’s head was resting on Scott’s jacket and Johnny had covered him with an old grey horse blanket that he found in the wagon.

Johnny leaned over the back of the seat. “His face is awful white. Let’s get goin’. We’ll see you back at Lancer, Curly.”

Curly had mounted his brother’s horse, as he drove the wagon earlier while Johnny rode.

Scott watched him ride off as the wagon moved forward. Before long, Curly was over the hill and out of sight. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance of him not returning?”

Johnny shrugged. “We’ve got his brother, don’t we?”


It was slow going in the wagon, even with Scott urging everything he could out of the team. Johnny drummed his fingers on the seat, adding to Scott’s frustration as they bumped along the track. Add to that, the myriad of questions that were buzzing through his mind. “I don’t know what to make of it all,” he muttered, not really meaning to speak out loud.


“Why did Jelly try to grab the mallet? Hardly the actions of a man who steals pearls and food and…” he almost said rifle scabbards. “And who knows what else?”

“He’s a funny one, all right.”

“Self-preservation perhaps?”

“Well, I’ve got a few ideas, but I don’t think they’d tally with yours.”

Of course not. It seemed his ideas about Jelly didn’t tally with anyone’s. “Dammit, Johnny, I wanted Jelly gone. I admit to that. But I never wanted it to be in a pine box. Hang on.” Too late—he couldn’t avoid the half-buried rock.

The wagon lurched and Johnny gripped the seat to avoid being flung out. The quickest way back to the house certainly wasn’t the smoothest.

Johnny leaned over the side to check the wheel. “I never said you did, Scott. And if I were you, I’d take it easy on the team. We don’t want one of’em to go lame before we get back.”

He had a point, as much as it went against the grain to slow the team. The sun was already getting lower in the sky and a wind had sprung up. It would be late afternoon by the time they got back. Damn.

Johnny’s fingers had started drumming again.

He flicked a glance at Johnny as the wagon splashed through a deep rut filled with water from last night’s rain. “I’ve never heard you mention Rance McFadden before?” Hopefully that sounded casual.

The fingers stopped thrumming. Then a pause. Then, “Do you talk about every girl you’ve kissed?”


“Well, I don’t talk about every man I’ve shot.”

“That makes sense.” Scott kept his tone light.

“And no, I’ve never met Curly McFadden, if that’s your next question.” It was said mildly enough but was there a faint hint of defensiveness?

“You don’t need to explain anything. It would be no different if we were in Boston and someone who had a beef against me showed up.”

“Some irate father, maybe?” At least Johnny was smiling.

He smiled back. “I seem to recall there might have been at least one of those knocking on Grandfather’s door.”

Johnny took a look at Jelly again, then slapped the seat. “You know, one of us should ride to the house now and have everything ready when the other one gets back.”

Scott had been thinking along those lines himself. “It won’t get Jelly there any quicker, but it might help at the other end.”

 “I wish Murdoch was home.”

“Me too.” And any other time he probably would’ve laughed about how plaintive they both sounded. Two boys—wanting their daddy. Who would have thought?

“You wanna flip for it?”

“No. You ride. I’ll drive the wagon.” It seemed like a reasonable penance after all his grumpiness with Jelly.

Scott hauled on the reins but Johnny was already jumping off the seat. By the time the wagon stopped, he was at the back, untethering his horse. “At least you won’t have to tell Jelly to shut-up this trip.”

“Which just goes to show what a difference a day can make.” Right now, he’d give away their prize bull to hear Jelly complaining. “Ride like the wind, Johnny.”


With Curly and Johnny both gone, it felt almost lonely, trundling the wagon along the trail. He kept looking back at the wagon bed but he could have been carrying two corpses, such was the lack of movement.

He even tried bumping over a pothole to try and stir Jelly—any other time that would have him telling Scott how to drive—but when he looked behind, Jelly was deathly still.

Damn, why did the old fool have to go for the mallet? Who would’ve thought Jelly was the type to stick his head out when gunfire was blazing?

Well, those morose thoughts weren’t helping anyone, least of all Jelly.  “Come on, get up. Get going.” The team flicked its ears and the wagon gained speed. “Jelly, I can’t promise you anything, but we’ll do our best.”


By his reckoning, he was still a good ten minutes from the house when he spotted Johnny galloping across the field.

“What are you doing here, Johnny? You’re meant to be…”

“Keep your pants on, brother. Murdoch’s back. I left him and Teresa to get everything ready.”

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day.”

“Any improvement?” Johnny brought Barranca alongside and looked into the wagon.

“He’s still out cold.”

“Well, it’s probably for the best. It wouldn’t be much fun for him being jostled in this contraption if he were awake. But I’ll be happier when we get him back to the house.”


Scott had to admit, he felt a huge surge of relief when he drove the wagon up to the front of the house and Murdoch was there to meet him. Murdoch the unflappable. Solid as a rock.

“It’s good to see you, Murdoch.”

Murdoch’s eyes rested briefly on the wrapped body of Amos McFadden before going to Jelly. “Let’s get him upstairs and into bed. Teresa’s got hot water and bandages ready.”

Johnny left the horses with Hank and Burke. The two watched on sombrely by the steps as Johnny and Scott carried Jelly into the house.

“He could talk the branch off an oak tree but I don’t like to see Jelly like that,” Scott heard Burke say, just before Murdoch closed the big front door behind them, once they were inside.

They got Jelly upstairs and on the bed, then pulled off his shirt and vest. There wasn’t much of the old guy under all that. He probably hadn’t had many decent meals over the years. Scott tossed the clothes onto the floor. “Should we burn them?”

But Murdoch was already inspecting the wound. “Johnny said the bullet went right through,” he murmured, more to himself than either of them.

“He doesn’t look too good, does he Murdoch.” Johnny watched as Murdoch pulled their crude bandage right off. “I sure hope Curly brings the doc here soon.”

“I didn’t want to break it to you before but Curly won’t find the doctor. I overheard Widow Hargis say Eileen Henderson is in the middle of a difficult labour. They’re not sure if either mother or baby will make it.”

This was not the news Scott wanted to hear and Murdoch must have seen his expression. “Scott, I’ve managed my fair share of bullet wounds. We pack the wound and hope for the best. If Jelly has a few angels on his side, the bullet will have missed any vital parts. If not,” his mouth turned down, “well, if not, we’ll know in a few hours.”

Teresa came into the room just then with a towel and bandages over her shoulder and a pitcher in her hands. “Oh, poor Jelly.” And wasn’t that like her? Probably the only one who’d always shown a genuine concern for him. Scott took the pitcher of hot water from her and placed it next to the bowl beside the bed.

Murdoch looked around as he rolled up his sleeves. “I need a lamp.”

It wasn’t dark outside but it would be before long. Scott brought a lamp across from the desk near the door, then stood with Johnny at the end of the bed. Teresa gave them both a smile but her eyes were worried as she waited for Murdoch to tell her what to do.

After a few moments of working on the wound, Murdoch looked up at them. “Why don’t the two of you go downstairs. Teresa and I can manage here. You both look like you could do with a drink.”

Johnny nodded and headed for the door, even if somewhat reluctantly. “You’ll call us if you need us, Murdoch?”

“Of course.” Then he looked at Scott, still gripping the bedpost. “You too, Scott. You’ve done all you could. Now leave it up to us. You might want to clean up, yourself.”

He looked at his hands. It was only then he noticed the dried blood. “Yes, sir. I’ll do that.”


As he reached the great room, after scrubbing his hands and changing his clothes, Johnny was just coming in the front door, holding his old rifle scabbard. So, the new one still hadn’t turned up. He didn’t know what Johnny thought about it but the missing scabbard jabbed at Scott like a red-hot poker in his side. Johnny leaned the empty scabbard against the wall then undid his gun belt and hung it up. Scott was about to ask why he’d even brought the scabbard inside when Johnny said, “Curly’s back. He just rode in.”

That was strange. “He couldn’t have gone to town and back in so short a time?”

“He didn’t. It seems that everyone knows about Mrs Henderson and her baby.  He got half way there and met a neighbour who told him the doc was outta town.”

“That’s the trouble out here. There’s never a doctor when you need one.” He didn’t even try to keep the bitterness out of his voice. How soon would it be before someone at Lancer died thanks to a lack of medical care?

“Take it easy, Scott.”

Johnny’s glance in his direction was troubled but he chose to ignore it, anyway. He was in the mood for a darned good rant. “Murdoch’s the most capable man I know out here—but he isn’t a trained physician!”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about that.” Johnny headed across to the fireplace and held his hands out to the heat. “I’ve come across plenty of doctors out here that you’re better off not seeing. I knew one feller who went to the doc for a sore stomach. The doc gave him some medicine and within a year, all his teeth had fallen out.”


“’Course, it kinda helped his stomach because he could only eat soup. And then there was the time—.” He caught Scott’s eye. “Well, you probably don’t wanna hear about that. Ease up, though, Scott. Nothing that happened to Jelly is your fault.”

“I know.” Then more gently, “Or yours, for that matter.” He sighed. The day hadn’t gone how he feared, but it was wretched, nevertheless. “We’d best talk to Curly. Good God, what must he be feeling right now?”

“I know.” Johnny stared into the fire. “I told him to come inside once his horse was fed and watered.”

Scott headed for Murdoch’s silver whisky tray. “You want one?”

“Nope. Maria’s bringing in coffee.”

Scott held up the whisky decanter. “I feel like I could drink the whole thing. It’s been one hell of a day. You know, I rushed out there today with Simpson—Amos McFadden—thinking I was coming to save you from Curly Taylor.”

Johnny’s head came up. “Why in blazes did you think that?”

“Because Jelly told me he was a gunfighter.”

Johnny started smiling. “Curly isn’t a gunfighter…although, he had me fooled at first. I—.”

They both turned at the knock on the door. “Hold that thought, Johnny. I think Curly’s got some explaining to do, either way.”

Curly came in the door, hat in hand, only he wasn’t slouching nearly as much as he had been. Perhaps a weight had been lifted off his shoulders? “I’m sorry I couldn’t bring the doc.”

Scott poured a shot of whisky. On second thoughts, he made it a double shot. “It’s not your fault, Curly. We know the doctor wasn’t available. Murdoch told us.”

“You boys know where Amos was put? I oughtta take him into town.” He only half came into the room, as if not sure of his welcome.

“Already done. I got Hank to do it.” Johnny waved him over. “There’s an undertaker in Morro Coyo. Murdoch wants to cover the expenses.”

Curly almost sagged. “Thanks Johnny. That’s real fine of your father, ‘specially considering what Amos was aiming to do.”

“You saved our lives, Curly. If it wasn’t for you, it might have been Johnny and me in the wagon.” Would Curly rebuff his words, like he had before? Scott waited. Curly blinked and wiped down his face with his hand but he seemed to have come to terms with what happened out there. “Come on over. Would you like a drink?” Scott held up the decanter.

Johnny rubbed his hands together. “Yeah, come on in and sit down by the fire. It’s getting cold out there.”

Curly eyed the whisky, then the tray Maria was carrying in. “If I had my druthers, I’d take that fresh coffee.”

“Coffee it is then. Gracias, Maria.” She put the tray down on the round side-table by the blue chair then went back to the kitchen.

Scott took a gulp of whisky while he studied Curly Taylor. He was a curious fellow. For some reason, he seemed different now. Almost a different person. The battered hat and greasy jacket still hung on him but…no, Scott couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.

Curly took the cup and saucer Johnny held out to him but he wouldn’t sit down. His eyes swept the room, taking in the books and the model of the ship and all the other mementos Murdoch had collected over the years, with a look that bordered on awe.

Johnny pointed to the cup and smiled, “Take a drink, Curly,” then drank his own coffee.

“Oh, yeah.” He took a sip, then turned to Johnny. “I’m sorry I had to smack you in the face, out there. Thing is, I had to make Amos believe that I was on his side, otherwise he would’ve gunned us all down.”

Johnny rubbed his face but Scott wasn’t finding anything funny in all this. “Even you? His own brother.” Although, having seen Amos McFadden, it wasn’t all that hard to believe.

“Boy, I tell ya, he wouldn’t even blink a’fore pulling the trigger.”

Johnny grimaced. “That sounds like Amos.”

Curly must have noticed the look on Scott’s face. “You see, we was only half-brothers. But not like you and Johnny. We scarce had anything to do with each other.”

“You told Amos your mother sent you?”

“Yeah. She’s been praying for those two since…well, since ever I can remember. Their pa was hung for rustling and murder.”

“The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, then.”

“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about our mama. She was just a girl of seventeen when she had Amos and then Rance a year later. She knows the worst mistake of her life was marrying Donny McFadden.”

“We aren’t judging her, Curly.” There was no mistaking the sincerity in Johnny’s voice.

“McFadden died when Amos was about ten and our ma married again and that’s why I’m a Taylor, but them two boys, well, they were wild from the time they was born.”

“I don’t understand. Why did you stay here, Curly? You could have warned Johnny and then ridden away and be done with it.”

His brow puckered. “I guess I got a streak of my ma in me. We’d already lost Rance. I figured there was maybe a chance to save Amos, if I hung around.”

“So that’s why you wanted me to tell you what happened between Rance and me?”

“I needed to hear it for myself. I mean, I was almost sure Amos lied to me about what happened. But he was my brother. I just had to be sure, you know.”

“Johnny tells me you’re not a gunfighter.”

“Me? Gosh no.” He actually looked startled at the idea.

But the way Johnny was smiling, there was clearly a story here, somewhere.

Johnny put his cup back on the saucer. “Tell him what you are, Curly.”

“My daddy ran a small travelling show. Trick riding, sharpshooting, I was taught it all from the time I was a little tucker.”

“I was gonna tell you, Scott, but you weren’t at breakfast. I remembered where I’d seen Curly. Came to me in the middle of the night. I’d watched his show a few years back. In Texas I think it was? He was…what was the name you used in the show? Jack Death?”

“That was me all right. I’m pretty chuffed you remembered that, Johnny.” It was the first time Scott had seen an honest smile on his face. It changed him completely.

“Oh yeah, Jack Death could shoot right through the centre of the Ace of Hearts. It was really something.” He grinned at Curly. “You made me practice that trick, myself. I wasted a whole lotta cards.”

“That Texas show would’ve been right before my pa died. He had big plans after the war. He always said one day folks would pay a lotta money all round the world for his show—but nothing seemed to go right for him and then he took sick and died.”

And to think, these last few days, he’d been suspicious of Curly. “So you were acting all the time? I’m impressed. I really am.”

For once, Curly looked embarrassed. “All those years I pretended to be a gunslinger for the show, so when Ma asked me to find out what happened to Rance, I just kinda slipped into my Jack Death role. And tell you the truth, I was kinda having fun, pretending to be the tough guy. But I’d already figured it was time I told Johnny the truth. I had no notion Amos was already here.”

Scott shook his head. “You were very good at it. You had me fooled.”

“And me for a while.” Johnny grinned.

“And Jelly.” Although if Jelly hadn’t said Curly was a gunfighter, Scott might never have rushed out to the site or assumed Amos was Simpson—or he might not have missed breakfast and found out about Curly’s past from Johnny? Would a life, if Jelly stayed, always be this complicated? It didn’t sound promising.

“Not our old man, though, huh; that all-seeing, eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head, father of ours. He would never have hired you if he thought you were a professional, Curly.”

“I guess I always put on a bit of a show around Rance and Amos, anyways. I had to talk tough like them or they’d be just as likely to wallop me one.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I have to do the same with Scott here.”

“Don’t listen to a word he says, Curly.”

Curly handed his cup and saucer back to Johnny. “I sure wish my brothers had been like you two.”

There was so much sadness in his voice that neither he nor Johnny knew what to say. At least the sound of footsteps broke their awkward silence.

They all turned as Murdoch entered the room but his face was set. Grim. Scott hardly dare ask how it all went.

“Murdoch, how’s Jelly?” At least Johnny was brave.

“We got the wound dressed and cleaned and packed. That stopped the bleeding.”


“But, we won’t know anything for quite a while.”

A silence fell over them. Scott poured Murdoch a whisky and handed it over.

“Mr Lancer, I’m real sorry about Jelly.” Curly was twisting his hat in his hands. “He sure could talk but I never wanted to see him like that. If I could’ve done anything to stop it—.”

“Curly, from what Johnny tells me, you saved them all. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.”

Curly shuffled his feet and generally looked miserable. “I oughtta get going before it’s dark.”


“My ma’s only got a few weeks left to live. I told her I’d be right home as soon as…well, as soon as I did what she asked me to do.”

“You stopped the killing, Curly.” Murdoch’s tone was gentle. Kind.

“I never killed a man before…except in the war of course. But this wasn’t like that.”

Scott stared at his drink. “Nothing’s ever like that.”

“So, I’d best ride into town and see Amos off and then get back home.”

You’re owed money, Curly.” Murdoch went to his safe.

“Johnny already said you were paying for the burying, Mr Lancer. That’s plenty good of you.”

“You’ll take the money owing to you and you’ll take a little extra to help your mother.” Murdoch was stern.

“But I…”

“I’m not rewarding you for killing your brother, if that’s what you’re thinking—it’s because you saved my boys. Now humour a father. To me, that’s worth a few dollars.”

“Just a few, Murdoch?” Johnny nudged Curly.

But Curly was staring at the bills Murdoch had placed in his hand. “That’s too much, Mr Lancer.”

“It’s probably not enough. Now make sure you bless your mother with that, for whatever time she’s got left.”

Curly’s face lit up. “I know what; I could hire a carriage and take her to the seaside. She told me she’d love to see the ocean one more time. She lived on the coast growing up.”

“You do that, Curly.”

Scott held out his hand. “And if you ever need a job, you’ve got one here waiting for.”

“That’s right.” Johnny shook his hand as well. “And if you come back, you can teach me a few more of those fancy tricks of yours.”

Poor Curly looked quite overcome. Even if he didn’t know Amos well, it wasn’t hard to see how difficult shooting his brother had actually been. Scott’s insides twisted, just thinking about it.

At least that was a decision he’d never have to make.


“Why don’t you go to bed, Scott?”

Teresa and Johnny had both gone to bed, although he wasn’t sure if Johnny was sleeping. He’d probably only disappeared into his room for Murdoch’s sake.

The lamp by the bed had been turned down but he could see Jelly in almost the same position he’d been in an hour ago. Murdoch was sitting in the stuffed chair by the bed, half asleep himself. But he’d roused when Scott came in.

“Scott. You should be in bed.”

“I can’t. I just can’t. I’d only wander around downstairs, so I might as well be up here when—.”

“Scott, you did all you could for Jelly. You stopped the bleeding and got him home as quickly as possible.”

“I know Murdoch. My head tells me that but…I don’t know.” He rubbed some of the ache at the back of his neck and stared down at Jelly.

“What’s troubling you, Scott?”

Murdoch’s kindness was almost his undoing. All he could do was shake his head.

“You might find talking about it helps?”

He just stood there. To tell the truth, he wasn’t even sure why his thoughts were tumbling around inside his head. Most of them didn’t make any sense…scabbards and pearls and mallets. Although, if he was honest with himself, out of all that, there was one thought he’d been avoiding. He looked across at Murdoch. “It was something Curly said to Amos. He was trying to convince him that Johnny was telling the truth.”

“Not an easy thing to do when a man’s mind is made up.”

“True. He told Amos that Johnny treated him kindly even though Curly had tried to make it hard for him. ‘Put a burr under his saddle’ was the expression.”

“I don’t understand. Why was he treating Johnny that way?”

“I think he might have been hoping that Amos was right and that Johnny really was a vicious killer. That that would make his part easier in all this.”

“But that wasn’t the case.”

“No. That wasn’t the case.”


Scott started smiling. He couldn’t help it. “You never give up do you?”

“Not when I see one of my sons is troubled. I’ve got a few years of fatherly advice to catch up on—if it’s wanted.”

Grandfather would practically shove advice down his throat. He liked Murdoch’s approach better. He thought some more. “The thing is, it made me think about how I’ve been treating Jelly. You saw how angry I was with him for pretending to be run over. For trying to take advantage of your good nature and kindness. Then he even stole Teresa‘s pearls—after all she’d done for him.”

“You’re intuition was better than mine, Scott.”

“And all this time, he’s made me so angry. I couldn’t see anything in Jelly to like. I just wanted him gone. I’m not even sure I don’t still feel that way.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Scott. There wasn’t much about Jelly to like. You’ll get no argument from me on that score.”

“But you and Johnny kept reminding me about what he did for those boys…”

Murdoch was silent for a moment. “It’s possible to have strengths, even noble qualities, in one area and not in others. None of us is perfect.”

Scott sighed. Jelly had certainly been understanding last night about his horse. He’d even felt warm towards the old fraud But…

“Murdoch, are you thinking of asking him to stay longer?” He took a breath. “I want to be honest. I’m just not sure I can trust Jelly. Not after all he’s done.”

Murdoch nodded. “It would be a three-way decision.”

“We’d vote on it?” This was already disheartening. No doubt Johnny would side with Murdoch on the issue.

“Scott, what exactly happened out there? I’ve only heard Johnny’s abridged version.”

That thought made Scott grin. “I can imagine what that sounded like. Now I’ll give you my version. It probably all started with my concerns over Curly…” Murdoch listened attentively. Once or twice Jelly groaned, and rolled his head on the pillow. They’d stop to look at him, but each time he’d go back to sleep. Scott got right to the end, telling Murdoch how Curly shot Amos, without any interruption; then he found himself with the same question that had been rolling around in his head. “What I don’t understand, is why Jelly, with two guns held on us, decided to go for the mallet. It was the kind of damned fool move Johnny might do.”

“Or you, for that matter.”

He had to smile at that. “Perhaps. But Jelly? Why would he do it?”

“Scott.” Murdoch stood up, all his attention on the bed.

Scott didn’t dare stir. Jelly’s hand was moving on the bedspread. He groaned, then his hand went to his chest. He seemed to be feeling the bandages. Clutching at them.

Murdoch leaned over him. “Jelly?”

Jelly’s eyes opened but they didn’t seem to be focussing.


“I don’t think he’s aware yet, Murdoch.”

Even as Scott said that, Jelly started to appear agitated. He was muttering words Scott couldn’t quite decipher.

“Do you know what he’s saying?”

Scott didn’t have a clue. “Something about being safe?”

“You’re safe, Jelly. You’re in bed, at Lancer.”

But Jelly was twisting his head on the pillow and then trying to sit up.

Murdoch held him down. “Don’t try to talk, Jelly. Here, sip this.”

Murdoch tried to bring a glass of water to his lips but Jelly pushed it away. “My boys. Are they safe?”

Murdoch eyed Scott. “It must be the fever,” he said under his voice. “Of course they’re safe, Jelly. We took them all to town, remember, and placed them with good kind folk who’ll love them like you do.”


Scott tried. “Your boys are all in town. Toogie and Boomer and the others.”

But Jelly started huffing and spluttering as if Murdoch and he were idiots. “Not those boys. I ain’t been kicked in the head. I mean Scott and Johnny. Our boys, Murdoch. Are they safe?”

The room went quiet. Scott didn’t dare look at Murdoch. Did he have the same lump in his throat that Scott had?

Jelly gripped onto Murdoch’s shirt now, and he gave Murdoch the most lucid look they’d seen. “I tried to bring them home safe for you, Murdoch. Are they safe?” The old coot was almost on the brink of tears.

Murdoch swallowed, hard. “Yes, Jelly. Thanks to you, they’re both safe.”

Which wasn’t quite true that he’d saved them, but who was going to nit-pick with a sick man who risked his life to save yours?

Jelly patted Murdoch’s chest. “Good. That’s all I was needing to hear. Now hush up so that a man can get some blasted rest.” And with that, he closed his eyes and seemed to have gone back to sleep.

Murdoch put a hand on Jelly’s forehead. “No fever,” he whispered. Then he turned to Scott. “I think you got your answer.”

It was one of those moments when you realise what a fool you’ve been.

“Yes, sir. I think I did.”


Scott almost felt dizzy when he walked out of the room.

“Whoa, brother.” Johnny grabbed hold of him so that they didn’t crash into each other.

“I thought I heard talking in there. Jelly?” Johnny hadn’t gone to sleep either, just as he thought. He’d got as far as undoing his shirt and taking his boots off.

Scott put a hand on his shoulder. “He’s going to be all right, Johnny.”

“Whew.” The tension slipped from Johnny’s face. “You know, I thought Jelly was too ornery to die.”

Then Scott took a step back. The hallway was only lit by a single sconce but… “What’s that you’ve got in your hand?”

“Oh, this?” Johnny held it up. “It’s my new scabbard. The one Murdoch gave me.”

“You found it?”

“Turns out it wasn’t lost. Murdoch left it with the silversmith in Green River to have a plate engraved. I figured Murdoch would be still awake so I was just coming in to ask him what it meant.”

This was confusing. How hard would it be to have inscribed: From Murdoch to Johnny.

“Here, look at it, Scott. “You’ll probably know.”

Scott took it and held the small silver plate up to the light. “Per Unitatem Vis.” Scott was impressed.

“Well? What does it say, after the ‘To Johnny, part?”

There was no doubt about it; their father was a very wise man. And a thoughtful one. He held the scabbard out to Johnny.

“Per Unitatem Vis—Through unity, strength.”




Scott had to hurry through the great room. Johnny already had his hand on the doorknob to go outside.

Just as he got alongside, Johnny called out, “T’resa, are you ready?”

Scott grimaced. “Did you have to yell in my ear, Johnny?”

Johnny simply grinned then said under his breath. “What did you tell him?”

“I told Jelly we were all going to come outside and have our midday meal with him on the patio.”

“Was he suspicious?”

“If you call complaining about the sun in his eyes and how the morning damp was affecting his ‘rheumatics’ then I’d say…no.”

Teresa came bustling out of the kitchen. “Why don’t you go out there. I can’t get this quite right.” She pushed a lock of hair off her forehead.

“Teresa, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Where’s Murdoch, anyway?” Scott looked around.

Teresa was looking harassed. “He’s coming. I think he’s outside? I don’t know.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for you?” Johnny took his hand off the door.

“No.” She pushed him back towards the door. “Get going. You know what Jelly’s like—he’s just as likely to decide to come inside.”

“Okay. Okay.” Johnny held the door open. “After you, brother.”

When they got outside, Jelly was still sitting in one of the stuffed chairs by the French doors with a colourful quilt wrapped about his legs. Teresa had already arranged a table outside with plates and glasses and lemonade.

“It’s ‘bout time you two got out here. My stomach’s been growling the last half hour, waiting to be fed.”

Johnny stood in front of Jelly. “I guess we’ll be waiting on Jelly hand and foot now, wouldn’t you say, Scott?”


“What are you two getting at?” Jelly squinted at them.

Johnny slapped his thigh. “Well, you’re a hero, Jelly.”

“I am?”

“Course you are. Murdoch says so.”

Scott could see the idea taking hold in Jelly’s brain. It wasn’t long before his chest swelled out.

“Well, if Murdoch Lancer says I am…”

Johnny scratched the back of his neck. “Still, we’ve still got a few jobs that need doing. That pig pen…” He looked at Scott and winced.

Scott winced as well. “Ooh, I’d forgotten about the pig pen. Since you’ve been laid up, Jelly, it’s not looking too good.”

“Well, that ain’t my job. Young Pedro does that. A fella in my position can’t be expected to clean out the pig slops, can he.” Jelly tugged on his vest, clearly affronted by the very idea.

“We’d have to check that with Murdoch, wouldn’t we Johnny.”

“That’s right. You know, he calls the tune around here. Scott and I wouldn’t ask you to do the pig slops but…well…if Murdoch says…”

Jelly was looking like he was about to explode, so it was just as well Teresa came out right then, followed by Murdoch holding a platter of sandwiches.

“Pig slops?” Murdoch’s voice boomed as he put the platter down. “No, Jelly, the boys are just teasing. Aren’t you boys.”

But Jelly was already distracted by what Teresa was carrying. “What the dickens is that fool thing?”

She gave him her brightest smile. “It’s a birthday cake, Jelly.”

The old coot was eyeing Teresa’s efforts with suspicion, especially when she had Johnny put a small table right next to his chair and she placed the cake on it.

“What in tarnation is going on here. It ain’t my birthday.”

Teresa gave him one of her sweetest smiles, “Have you ever had a birthday cake, Jelly?”

“Nope, and who’d want a fool thing like that.” Jelly eyed the layer cake, complete with frosting and candles. “You’re liable to set fire to the whole house.”

But Teresa wasn’t put off, bless her. Her smile didn’t even slip. “That’s good. This cake can make up for all the ones you didn’t have.”

“We even got you a present.” Johnny handed him the box of Murdoch’s cigars he’d been hiding behind his back.

For once the old guy was quiet. He wouldn’t even look up at them. “No. T’aint right. I can’t accept’em.”

“Oh, hush, Jelly.” Johnny put the box on his lap. “You can’t say no to a birthday present.”

“And here’s our other present.” Scott handed him a piece of Murdoch’s finest parchment, rolled up and tied with a blue ribbon.

“Well, what’s this?” His whiskers were bristling again.

“Your contract.”

Jelly slowly undid the ribbon while they all looked on.

“Yeah.” Johnny leaned over. “It says you’re to work from sun-up to sundown, without a break, seven days a week. Or maybe six.”

“What d’you mean, no break? A man’s gotta have a break! Well that’s no better’n being a slave driver. If you reckon—.” But then his eyes fell on the actual words. “Why you!”

Scott pointed to the paper. “Ignore Johnny. Read the contract. It says you’re a part of the family now.”

The paper in Jelly’s hand started trembling. “I…I don’t understand.”

“It’s a new start, Jelly. You can stay at Lancer as long as you wish and you won’t have to be stealing to feed your boys anymore.” Murdoch put a hand on his and Johnny’s shoulders.  “Because they’re both right here.”

Jelly sat back with his mouth open. For once, he didn’t have a word to say.

“The birth-day cake was Teresa’s idea. You wanna try some?” Johnny handed Teresa the knife.

“Wait a minute.” Murdoch stopped her. “We’ve all forgotten to say one thing.”

So the four of them stood around him. “Happy birthday, Jelly.”


Later that night, Scott stood on the patio, a glass of brandy in his hand.

He knew it wasn’t Murdoch coming out. He was so tall that you’d sense his presence before he reached you.

“How’re you doing, Scott?”

Scott kept his eyes on the stars. “I’ve had a fine meal and I’m finishing it off with a fine brandy.” He raised an eyebrow and looked at Johnny. “I’m not too sure about the company, though.”

“Yeah, those beeves sure do smell.”

Scott grinned at him. “To what do I owe the pleasure, brother?”

“Oh, I was just wondering.” He folded his arms and leaned against the pillar.

“It’s a wide world, Johnny. Anything specific?”

For once, Johnny looked hesitant.

“It wouldn’t be about Jelly, would it?”

The twist to Johnny’s lips said he’d been found out. “I guess it might. Well, you know, you were so annoyed with him an’ all. I’m just wondering what changed your mind.”

Scott swirled the brandy in his glass while he thought about how to answer. Eventually, he smiled. “I had a teacher whose favourite saying was, ‘You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head, but you can stop it from building a nest in your hair.”

Johnny just looked at him, then looked at Scott’s hair. “I don’t see any nest there, brother.”

Scott took a gulp of brandy. He had to admit, he felt particularly good with the world, right now. “No, there’s no nest. And I can show you something else I’ve managed to eliminate.”

“What’s that?”

He reached  behind one of the pillows on the soft chair and held up—a cowbell. “And I’m going to make sure this contraption never enters our house again.”

October 2022


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 Suzanne directly.

10 thoughts on “A New Year’s Resolution by Suzanne

  1. When I first started reading this I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but by the time I got to the end, I was really impressed. Excellent take on how and why Jelly became a permanent part of the Lancer family.


    1. Hi Carolyn, thanks so much for persevering with this story, in that case! And I’m thrilled you’d come to enjoy this story by the end. Unfortunately, I had to write Jelly initially as the tiresome, cantankerous character we saw in the episode ‘Jelly’ but I very much wanted to explore how he came to be a beloved part of the family. Thanks so much for taking the time to both read and send feedback. I greatly appreciate hearing from you! 🙂


    1. Hi Helen, thanks so much for your encouraging words. I do love to delve into the episodes and fill in the gaps, so I’m thrilled to hear this one works for you. Many thanks! 🙂


    1. Hi Ruby, yay, I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed this story. Even more delighted to hear you’re going to read it again! Thanks so much for the lovely encouragement for my writing. 🙂


    1. Aw, thanks for letting me know you enjoyed this, Kim. I appreciate it! Yes, I’ve got a Pony Alice story coming up. 🙂


    1. Hi Janbrac, it’s fun getting inside Scott’s head. I do enjoy his dry sense of humour. Thanks so much for your encouraging words! 🙂


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