In the early evening twilight Scott Lancer didn't even notice the motion of the leaves caught nearby in a silent whirlwind. Leaning forward his gray-blue eyes stared into the flames which were just adequate to heat the coffee pot so that he and Johnny could have a cup of the strong brew before they continued on their way to the Armstrong ranch. Picking up a short tree branch which was close at hand, the blond stabbed at some of the ashes from the fire of the night before. They hadn't needed a very big fire since the weather was comfortable, but neither man had relished a cold dinner so the fire had been lit.
"Coffee ready yet?" Johnny Lancer emerged from the trees where there was a stream that they had used to wash up.
Scott murmured something which Johnny took to be an assent, but could just as easily been a negative comment. Deciding to take the chance, the dark-haired poured himself a cup and took a sip. Perfect. "I figure it's only another coupla hours to the Armstrong place. Sure will be good to sleep in a real bed tonight."
Still, his older brother didn't avert his eyes from the flames nor the tree limb from its burnt foe.
"Scott? What the hell's the matter with you? You've been grumpier than a mule what sat on a cactus."
The easterner ignored the other man before he poured the remainder of the coffee on the fire and headed for his horse. "I'm ready to go anytime you are," he tersely announced.
"Murdoch will be expecting us back in the next day or two after we get that agreement signed."
"S'pose so but I was athinkin' mebbe we could stay at the Ambling A tonight. My back feels like I was sleepin' on a rock the size of that one you told me about."
"No, that ain't it. It's somewhere in Spain, I think you said."
"Oh, Gibralter you mean? It's located at the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, but actually belongs to Great Britain," Scott informed his brother.
"Don't care who it belongs to, but one of its smaller cousins was under my bedroll all night. 'Course the way you been grousin' around since we left Lancer, mebbe the real thing's been under your bedroll."
"Sorry if my company hasn't been as congenial as that of one of your lady friends."
"S'pose you can't help not havin' a sunny way 'bout you since you're from the East and all."
Scott swung around quickly to face the younger man. "And just what does that mean? I realize we've been here six weeks or so, but that doesn't mean you know all about me!"
"Guess not but Murdoch 'n me were just talkin' 'bout you before we left. He told me some about Boston and your mother and all."
The older man's face paled slightly as he took in those words. "Did you ask or did he just volunteer the information?"
"Let's see. He was atalkin' about what a temper my mother had and how I was so much like her. 'Course I don't know where he got that idea, considerin' ever body knows how calm I am 'n then he said, you looked and acted just like your ma too. He used a word I never heard."
"That's it! How'd you know?"
"Because he said the same thing to me just before we left. He also commented on the fact that I had inherited my grandfather's sense of business—a perfect combination he said: even-tempered and meticulous, just like a ledger.
"Didn't have much to say 'bout me, huh?"
"On the contrary, he waxed poetic on how your gun and guts had saved Lancer from Pardee. He's counting on you being his strong right arm to keep the ranch safe. He even told me how he remembers taking you for rides on the ranch when you were small. He actually had a smile on his face at the memory."
Johnny unconsciously straightened. "Right arm, huh? Sounds pretty good."
Scott mounted his horse, looking over at Johnny who was also ready to mount Barranca. "You've earned his respect, Johnny. I'm sure that once you learn not to be so thin-skinned and he learns to watch what he says, you'll have a good relationship. Now, let's get going. I want to have this deal completed as soon as possible."
Several hours later the two Lancers rode up to the front of the white, wooden house that was surrounded by stables, corrals, smokehouses and all the other buildings needed by a large ranch. Jumping down from Barranca, Johnny barreled his way up the steps and knocked on the door. A small boy of eight or nine answered.
"Hey there, is your father around? We're Johnny and Scott Lancer from Morro Coyo."
The lad's brown eyes opened wide, but in a calm tone, he informed them that his father would meet them in the parlor where he escorted them. Then he ran off to find the man in question.
Standing in front of the fireplace, Johnny looked around at the magnificent wood bookcases. "Whooee! Look at all them books. Mebbe he went to Harvard like you."
Scott moved closer to the shelves to take in some of the titles. "Just because a man likes books doesn't mean he's been to a fancy school, Johnny. It's just another way to learn about the world." Turning back to the shelves, the blond removed one large tome.
"Gentlemen, I welcome you to the Ambling A. I didn't realize that my good friend, Murdoch Lancer was going to send both of his sons."
Scott Lancer's lean body tensed as he heard the voice of Cornelius Armstrong. It was a voice he had heard once long ago, and had never been able to forget. Turning slowly he took in the sight of the broad man with the reddish-hair. The brown eyes were more lively and the figure of the man showed years of good living, but there was no question that this was the man he had met that hot day some seven years before—although his name hadn't been Armstrong at that time.
"Good to know you, Mr. Armstrong, I'm Johnny and this is Scott. Murdoch said that he had worked out all the details with you and the papers just need our signatures."
"I can see that you are just as efficient as your father, Johnny, but please, I'd like to get to know both of you. Sit down and we'll have a drink or some coffee."
Cornelius picked up the crystal decanter to pour himself a measure. "Johnny, Scott, will you join me?"
Johnny took one of cut-glass shot glasses from the man, but Scott declined. Instead, he slumped down onto one of the leather couches. His knees felt like jelly and his stomach like he had been kicked.
"I know that you two are relative strangers to Lancer. Murdoch never even mentioned having sons to me and I met him right after I came out to California—just after the war ended. I'm sure he must be happy to have someone help him with that huge ranch."
"We work real hard and we're getting' to know our way around."
"I'm sure. Murdoch Lancer would never let his sons be lay-a-beds. I must say I'm looking forward to the day when my son, Maurice, can help me run the ranch. My wife, Dorinda, and I were only blessed with the one boy."
"Uh, yes Sir. He looked to be a fine boy."
"His mother is somewhat overprotective of him. I guess that's the way of mothers, but he has to learn sometime. Perhaps, I could ask you to show him your horse, Johnny? The boy saw him out the window and was struck by him. Usually, he's afraid of horses."
"Uh, well, sure. If you really think he'd like to see Barranca."
"Thank you, Johnny and while you're out with Maurice, Scott and I can talk some about the agreement we're going to sign. Murdoch said that his older son was a wizard with facts and figures."
The heavy-set man stood up and went to the door to call his son. To his surprise the lad was waiting just outside as if he had been listening. "Maurice, there you are! Mr. Lancer has kindly agree to take you out and show you his palomino. After that, I'm sure our guests will want to clean up before lunch."
Without a word Maurice turned and headed for the glassed door which led outside. Johnny grinned before glancing at his brother and remarking, "Be right back, Boston. Don't sign anything without me."
Cornelius Armstrong sat down just across from Scott. "Well, Lieutenant Lancer, what a surprise to see you so far from Virginia. When I heard your name, I wondered if it might be you, but I couldn't imagine why you'd be in California. Now, I know! So you're Murdoch's older son? Amazing!"
Even the fairly innocuous words grated on Scott's nerves. "Armstrong, or whatever your name really is, I'm here for just one purpose to sign that paper and then I intend to get out of here and I never want to see you again!"
"Now, is that anyway to behave? I could tell even back then you were a man of breeding so can't you be polite for a little while? We'll sign the paper, but we'll do it when I say so! Why don't you tell me what you've been doing for seven years? I'll bet you went back home and indulged in all that money of yours, didn't you? I've spent the last six years building this ranch. It's not the size of your old man's, but it's mine and I earned it—unlike you two did!"
Scott started to struggle to his feet. "I have no intention of staying here, pretending like we're old acquaintances. Give me the paper and I'll sign it, then Johnny and I can be on our way!"
"Is it true that your. . .brother is really Johnny Madrid? I've heard about all the men he's killed. It must make you sick to your stomach when he talks about drawin' down on a man, doesn't it?"
"Johnny did what he had to, to survive!" Scott protested.
"Oh sure, you say that about him, but you didn't talk like that seven years ago! No, you were Mr. High-and-Mighty, judge of all he surveyed. Well, let me tell you, in wartime, men do lots of things to survive and most of 'em ain't pretty!"
Scott clenched his teeth together before uttering, "Don't try to make excuses! You and those men were wrong and no words will ever make what you did right!"
"Oh, I'm not makin' excuses. We were doin' just what old William Sherman was doin' farther south and they gave him all those stars! 'Sides, I'm glad that killer brother of yours is here. Mebbe I can talk him into showin' my boy how to handle a gun and ride before you pull out. Maurice is kind of a milquetoast, like his ma."
"What Johnny does is his business, but I do not intend to stay here. I'll wait for him in town. He can sign the papers since it only needs one signature."
"Sure, he can and you can run off, just like the yellow-belly you are. I'll bet you took off that day in Virginia too, didn't you? What'd you do, desert? Johnny Madrid would be real proud of his fancy brother, if he knew that, wouldn't he?"
Scott started for the door then stopped as Armstrong sneered one more taunt. "Sure beats all that you two could both have Murdoch as your father. I 'spect one of you had a ma who was partin' her legs for some other sucker!"
The blond launched himself onto the heavy man, ramming his fist right into the pudgy face. Armstrong's head snapped back and he went down with blood flowing freely from his nose. For one instant Scott just stood there with hatred in his eyes, then he stalked out the door.
the stable, he found Johnny and the boy who was on top of Barranca.
"Johnny, I'm going to stay the night in town. If Mr. Armstrong still
wishes to sign the agreement, you'll have to do the signing." On
that note, Scott Lancer rode away from the Ambling A.
"Mister, can I get down now?"
Johnny Lancer looked up at the small boy mounted on the golden horse. "Sure, let me help you."
As soon as Maurice's feet touched the ground, he took off for the white house. Johnny followed him slowly. His brother's abrupt departure had puzzled the dark-haired man and he intended to find out exactly what had happened since Scott had left without saying anything about the agreement.
Entering the carpeted hallway, he found his way back into the parlor where he found a woman cleaning up the room. "Excuse me, is Mr. Armstrong around?"
"My husband is upstairs. He'll be down in just a minute. Please sit down, Mr. Lancer. Lunch will be ready in about a half-hour."
"Thank you, Mrs. Armstrong. Uh, I don't believe my brother will be joining us."
The small, colorless woman just nodded, "So my husband said. Please excuse me, I have to finish the cornbread."
Johnny wandered around the room for a few minutes, looking at all of the volumes that were available. Most of the titles were unknown to him, although Scott had mentioned a few of them during the past six weeks.
"Ah, Johnny, thank you so much for helping Maurice. He came running into my room to tell me how much he enjoyed being on your horse."
The brunet turned to see the heavy-set man, sporting a bandaged nose and bruised eyes, smiling at him. "I'm glad he enjoyed it. I, er, thought he seemed to be kinda scared. But could you tell me what happened between you and Scott? He stormed out of here like a polecat was after him."
"What a colorful description! Uh, yes, there was an unfortunate incident between us. I made the regrettable mistake of mentioning an occurrence that obviously your brother would have preferred to forget."
"What. . .what do you mean? I really haven't had a chance to learn much about Scott in the time we've been at Lancer."
"Yes, I can see why he might not impart such information to a new acquaintance, even a brother. You see I met Scott in 1863. There was an unfortunate incident involving his leaving his post. I had to report it, of course, but I did understand. He was so young and inexperienced. Fortunately, General McPherson was a most compassionate man and didn't hold it against him. Poor McPherson—to die so young, but of course, by that time Scott was in Virginia."
"Where was this? Near Vicksburg? I know Scott said somethin' about being in the cavalry at Vicksburg."
"Exactly, but I, well, I should not have mentioned anything about it. He took exception." The rancher dramatically rubbed his nose gently.
"He hit you?"
"Yes, but I really blame myself. Hopefully, this will not cause a problem between us. Murdoch Lancer has been my friend for six years and I do not want to end our business dealings."
"Uh, well, I don't think Murdoch would like that either. I can sign the agreement and in about two weeks or so we'll get the cattle to you."
"Excellent! I could tell you were a reasonable man as soon as I saw you—and Maurice seems fond of you already. Please, I do hope you will stay overnight. I would enjoy getting to know you."
"Uh, I should get into town. Scott will be waiting for me."
"Now, Johnny, your brother is a big boy. He can be alone one night. Besides, I'll bet you're good at checkers. Maybe we can have a game?"
"Well, me and Murdoch do play sometimes."
"Good. I expect you to give me a good game and besides, my wife is an exceptional cook. I believe she's planning to make a cake for dessert."
"Yes, chocolate. Maurice loves chocolate cake."
"So do I!"
"Well, it's settled then. You'll stay here tonight then we'll sign the agreement and you can be on your way back to Lancer in the morning."
The evening did turn out to be quite pleasant. The dinner was delicious and the cake moist and flavorful. Johnny ate two large pieces. After the meal, Johnny and Cornelius played two games of checkers. Each man won a game so they decided to call it a draw.
That night Johnny slept soundly in the down-soft bed.
In the morning Mrs. Armstrong provided mugs of hot coffee, bacon, eggs and fluffy biscuits. As soon as both men ate their fill, they went into the parlor to sign the agreement. Maurice shyly followed them into the room, but Cornelius gruffly insisted that the boy go outside and play. After a few moments, Johnny heard a tune being played on a piano from somewhere above them. "Somebody plays pretty good."
"That's Maurice. Dorinda is trying to teach him to play. I wish he was as interested in horses as he is in that piano."
"Well, nothin' wrong with makin' music."
"I suppose not, but you can't run a ranch from a piano bench. Now, let's get this signed. I'm sure you're anxious to meet your brother and get back to Lancer."
Ten minutes later, Johnny headed to the stable with the Lancer copy of the agreement. After saddling Barranca, Johnny mounted and rode out towards the small town where he assumed that Scott was waiting for him.
Riding into the town of Midway Bend, the gunfighter stopped in front of the saloon. Since there didn't seem to be a hotel, Johnny assumed that the blond would have found a room there. To his surprise, he found a rather disheveled Scott Lancer sitting at one of the tables, a drink in hand.
"Hey there, Boston, you about ready to head out?"
Bleary blue eyes glanced up at the dark-haired man. "Thought you had decided to move in with the Armstrongs, Brother."
Annoyed, Johnny remarked, "Well, one of us had to be polite. They asked me to stay over so I did."
"Oh of course, wouldn't do for the Lancers to be impolite. Did you get the agreement signed?"
"Sure. Uh, by the way, Armstrong told me tell you he doesn't hold a grudge for you punchin' him."
"HE doesn't hold a grudge?"
"Yeah, he said he was wrong to mention what happened at Vicksburg."
The blond's cerulean eyes filled with pain then cleared. "That was a long time ago. We'd better get on the road. Murdoch will be expecting us."
The two Lancers rode steadily for some hours. When Johnny wanted to stop, Scott insisted that they keep going until it was obvious that the horses needed a break. Both men took out their bedrolls for a few hours of sleep before getting up once again to take to the road. Scott seemed obsessed with reaching the white hacienda in the shortest amount of time possible.
Finally, they did ride under the great gate. Scott, then volunteered to take care of the two horses so that Johnny could go inside to report to his father on his meeting with Armstrong. By the time, Scott entered the great room, the two Lancers were drinking a small glass of whiskey in celebration.
"Scott, come join us in a drink. I'm pleased everything went so well at the Ambling A. Cornelius Armstrong has always been a good customer and friend."
"Uh, if you don't mind, I'd like to go take a bath. I. . .I feel kind of dirty."
"Well, certainly. I guess it was a dusty ride." The tall rancher then turned to his younger son. "Johnny, tell me what you thought of the Armstrong ranch. He's always asking me for my advice about how to make it grow."
The blond walked slowly into his room to grab a towel and fresh clothes. Soaking in the tub for nearly a half-hour helped to restore his spirits. The agreement had been signed and it appeared that Armstrong didn't intend to make trouble because of Scott's loss of control. Not that the easterner regretted striking the man; he had certainly deserved it for his remarks and so much more, but Scott was determined not to let his personal actions affect the welfare of Lancer. After drying off and dressing, Scott went in the back door to the kitchen. He needed a cup of coffee. The muzziness of the alcohol he had consumed still swirled in his overtired brain.
"Did you have a good trip, Scott?" Teresa inquired.
"We got the agreement signed or rather Johnny did."
"Well, that's good. Murdoch was kind of concerned since this was the first time you two have been sent off on your own."
"I'm sure he was, but everything turned out okay."
"Good. Well, I've got to go put some laundry on the line."
Scott sat there for some time, sipping at the brown brew. "Scott, could I talk to you a moment?"
"Certainly, Murdoch. Is there a problem?"
"Well, Johnny told me that you had words with Cornelius Armstrong."
"Words? Yes, I suppose you could say that."
"Something to do with the War?"
"We met in 1863. He was a captain. We had a difference of opinion, but since he outranked me, I ended up on the losing end."
"Yes, well, that was a long time ago so I hope you can put it behind you. We have to deal with many types of men. You can't expect to be friends with them all. Do you understand what I saying?"
"Good. When it's time to take Armstrong's cattle, Johnny and I will deliver the herd. You can stay here and become more familiar with the ranch books. I'm counting on you."
"Very well. I'll do my best to meet your expectations," Scott assured the older man.
"Fine. Now, I think I'll get cleaned up for dinner. See you then."
Ten days later Johnny and Murdoch Lancer, along with several other hands, headed the small herd of cows north toward the Ambling A. As soon as the cattle were out of sight, Scott sat down at his father's desk to begin his work on the books.
Johnny and Murdoch Lancer heaved a sigh of relief as they herded the last of the beeves into the designated area. For a small herd the cows had been unbelievably ornery, but now they were responsibility of Cornelius Armstrong. "That's the last one Murdoch. My throat feels like one of them harry deserts Scott told me about."
"All right, Johnny, let's go up to the house and tell Cornelius that the cows are here. I'm sure Dorinda will give us a cup of tea or coffee."
"What'd you say, Son?"
"I hope Armstrong's got somethin' stronger than tea! I don't know why you won't let us have a little nip while we're drivin' them dumb beeves."
"Johnny, you know how I feel about that. I don't want any of my men getting hurt just because they've had too much to drink!"
"Okay, okay. Let's get goin'. Mebbe Mrs. Armstrong'll have some of that chocolate cake hangin' around."
"Johnny! I expect you to mind your manners while we're visiting."
The sapphire eyes narrowed. "Well, it wasn't me who punched out my host the last time we were here!"
Murdoch ignored the remark. Truthfully, he was quite concerned about the incident—as Johnny referred to it—it simply was not like his stoic older son to do something so violent. Shaking his head unconsciously, the tall rancher still marveled at the difference between the two young men who now lived at Lancer. He had never imagined that the influence of a mother could be so strong, especially when Scott had never known Catherine. But then she had been Harlan Garrett's daughter and the old man had raised Scott, so naturally his influence would be strongly felt. But Murdoch still did not understand why Scott had condescended to visit, let alone stay, at Lancer. The blond young man did not need the money, nor did he seem to fit into the rough lifestyle of the west—even though the rancher had to admit that Scott had made an effort to do so.
Johnny, on the other hand, had always seemed to be a volcano ready to explode at any given moment. Still, it had been the dark-haired young man who had saved Lancer when Pardee had attacked—even if his method had been unorthodox. Hopefully, Johnny would calm down somewhat as he felt more secure in his new home. Murdoch could foresee battles between his younger son and himself, but he was grateful that the boy had decided to stay although the tall man suspected that the financial aspect had certainly played an important role in his decision.
When the two Lancers rode up to the house, they found Cornelius Armstrong waiting for them. "Murdoch, Johnny! So glad to see you! Johnny, Maurice has been driving me crazy asking about you. He wants to know if you'll let him ride your palomino again?"
"Uh, sure, but I'm kind of tired right now. Mebbe later."
"Of course, of course. Come in and we'll have a cup of coffee and some of the chocolate cake my wife made. She noticed how much you liked it."
Following the portly man into the cool house, Johnny sniffed the air in appreciation. "Smells real good in here."
"Dorinda knew you'd be hungry after your long ride so she's already started dinner so we can eat early."
Murdoch's shoulder slumped slightly. "Sounds good, Cornelius. We put in quite a few miles today and I'd like to start back tomorrow."
"I won't hear of it! How often do we get the illustrious owner of Lancer and his son here to visit? You're going to stay for at least two days and I won't take no for an answer! Now, let's go have that coffee."
Murdoch had to admit that he felt much better after indulging in the sweet confection and the hot brew. He had even allowed Armstrong to add a drop of whiskey to his cup. Johnny, too, had indulged in a drop or two or three.
After eating, the two Lancers went up to their rooms to clean up some before being taken on a tour of the Ambling A. Murdoch had only visited once, three years before, so he was quite anxious to see if Armstrong had implemented any of the suggestions he had given the other man. The two older rachers rode along together with Johnny trailing behind. Truthfully, the brunet would have preferred to have stayed at the house to take a nap, but he would never have admitted that to his father. The night before they had left Lancer, Johnny had visited a certain young lady in Morro Coyo and as a result, had not returned until early in the morning. The few hours he had spent in bed had only made him more exhausted and then of course, the herd had taken every opportunity to annoy and exasperate the gunfighter during the drive. At that moment Johnny Madrid would have willingly given up his one-third of the huge ranch—just to get away from contrary beeves.
The tour continued on for some time with Johnny making appropriate comments at appropriate times while Cornelius and Murdoch carefully discussed all the little topics that intrigued such ardent ranchers. Finally though, the three men rode back to the ranch since it was approaching dinnertime.
The chicken and dumplings were hot and plentiful. Also in abundance were beans flavored with bacon, stewed tomatoes and for dessert—the rest of the chocolate cake. Johnny ate until his stomach stopped rumbling and started groaning.
After dinner, Dorinda and Maurice disappeared upstairs. As before, soon sweet strains of piano music filled the evening air. Johnny, who was lying almost prone, on the one sofa grinned. "That boy of yours sure plays good."
"I believe that is Dorinda this time. She practices two hours everyday—usually when I'm happily outside," announced Armstrong.
"You are a fortunate man, Cornelius, to have such a wonderful family."
"Well, I s'pose you're right, Murdoch, but I kinda envy you too. Look at this fine boy you've got here. Johnny is Maurice's hero, you know. Boy wouldn't even look at a horse 'til your son visited us. Now, that's all he can talk about. Hope you don't mind, Johnny, but I sure would appreciate it if you'd spend some time with Maurice tomorrow. I got real hopes for him. He's got to know how to ride and shoot and protect himself if he's ever gonna take my place."
"Well, I'm sure Johnny will be happy to spend an hour or so with Maurice, but ranchers do have to know more than how to ride and shoot, Cornelius."
"Sure, sure. I know what you mean—them dull, dry books and dealin' with cantankerous shopkeepers and all, but you can hire somebody to do that for you or mebbe if you're lucky like you, Murdoch, you'll have somebody in the family do it for you."
"Cornelius, I'll have you know that I work on the books myself!"
The pudgy face whitened. The bruises from Scott's blow, which had faded slightly, now stood out on the fat cheeks. "Sorry, Murdoch, didn't mean nothin' by it. Just figured that your other boy'd be good at somethin' like that."
"As a matter of fact he is, but a good rancher has to understand all facets of his ranch and not expect someone else to do his job."
"Right. I guess it's just that I've always hated all that picayune stuff. I've led an active life, not at some desk."
"Well, I admit, I'm not all that fond of paperwork either, but it's part of building a successful ranch. Now, Cornelius, if you don't mind, I think I'm going to go upstairs and read for awhile and then go to sleep. Sleeping on the ground the last two nights was hard on these old bones!" The tall rancher stood up to stretch.
"Aw, Murdoch, you're not old. 'Sides you got Johnny here to keep you young. But sure if you want to, go on up. Mebbe Johnny and me can play the tie-breakin' checker game tonight? Whaddya say, Johnny?"
"Sure, Mr. Armstrong, but I gotta warn you I'm feelin' lucky tonight."
"We’ll just see, Johnny my boy. Cornelius Armstrong is not a man who likes to lose, never have, never will."
Two hours later a disgruntled Johnny Lancer shuffled up the stairs to the bedroom which he shared with his father. The checker game had extended to five and Johnny had only won one of them so he was glad to see that Murdoch was already asleep—even if he was snoring loud enough to be heard back at Lancer. Climbing into his own soft bed, Johnny wrapped a pillow around his head and tried to go to sleep.
In the morning the three man sat down to another hearty breakfast of flapjacks, bacon, apple butter, syrup and pots of coffee. Just as they were finishing up, Maurice walked quietly into the dining room. "Maurice, come on over here. I believe you wanted to ask Johnny a question?"
The small boy gave his father a timid glance then turned to the dark-haired Lancer. "Mr. Lancer, would. . .would you let me ride on your horse again?"
"Sure, Maurice, if you want to. You didn't seem to like it overmuch the last time."
"I. . .liked it. He's just kinda tall."
"Well, yeah, I s'pose that's true and you're smaller than me so I guess it could look scary up there."
Armstrong nudged the brown-haired boy. "Didn’t you want to ask him somethin' else?"
"Oh, that's right. Papa told me you were real good with a gun. Could you show me some shootin'?"
"Well, mebbe if you got some old dishes or tin cans or whatnot."
Solemnly, the boy only replied, "Thank you. I'll ask Mama if she has any dishes she doesn't need."
"Fine. I'll meet you out at the stable. I'll show you how I brush Barranca and then we'll take a ride."
The booming voice of Cornelius Armstrong filled the dining room. "Murdoch, I just may hire your boy here to be a tutor for Maurice. I've been tryin' to get him back on a horse for the last two years."
"I'm sure Johnny appreciates the compliment, but I need him at Lancer. We've got lots of work there, but I'm glad he can help while he's here. Uh, in the meantime, while Johnny's with Maurice, there are a couple of things I'd like to discuss with you."
"Certainly, certainly. I always welcome your advice. After all, you've been at this business a lot longer than me. But say, Johnny when you're ready to gun down those tin cans and dishes, will you let me know? I admire fancy shootin' and I 'spect you're real good at it."
The dark-haired Lancer blinked before replying, "Have to be if you want to stay alive."
Armstrong burst out laughing. "Now, that's just what I want Maurice to learn. Ain't no place for sentimentality out here. His mama wants him to learn about the nicer things of life. I guess that's okay back where she came from, but out here a man has to stand up for himself. I know you understand that Murdoch, and your boy here sure does too."
"Yeah well, I guess I'd better head out to the stable to meet Maurice."
"Thanks again, Johnny. I am in your debt and nobody can say that Cornelius Armstrong has ever welshed on a debt."
The two ranchers, so different in appearance, watched as the younger man disappeared out the door. Armstrong then turned to his friend, "So Murdoch, what do you want to discuss? You gave me a few suggestions yesterday and I surely do appreciate them. You know I don't expect to ever have a place as big as Lancer, but I do intend to make this one of the finest ranches in California."
"Actually, Cornelius, I think you've done a fine job here and those new cows we just delivered will be good breeding stock. You just need to have a little patience. After all, you started your place only six years ago; I've been at it for twenty-five years."
"Yeah, I 'spect you've got a point. Just as soon as the war ended I knew that I wanted to come out here and make a new life for me and Dorinda and Maurice. I'm mighty proud of what I've built and I sure want the boy to appreciate it too. You're sure lucky to have a boy like Johnny who can help out. I know it must make you real proud that he's stayin' with you."
"I do have two sons, Cornelius," the gray-haired man announced tersely.
"What? Oh sure, Scott. I'm. . .sure he's a help too."
"Cornelius, what exactly happened between you and Scott when he was here?"
"You mean he didn't tell you?"
"No. Johnny just said that the two of you had had words and. . .and that Scott struck you."
"Uh, yeah well, that's about it. As I told Johnny, I mentioned something that happened at Vicksburg and he was a might touchy about it. Guess I shoulda known better but it was seven years ago."
"What happened at Vicksburg?"
The pudgy man fidgeted on the parlor sofa. "Not sure I should tell you. He is your son and well, a man don't like to hear bad things about his kin."
"Cornelius, Scott has told me very little about his wartime service and I haven't pressed him about it. If there's a problem, I'd like to know."
Armstrong's hand jerked up in a capitulating move. "Well, I guess it won't hurt to tell you that one night Scott was supposed to be on picket duty and when I was patrolling around I couldn't find him. It was a miserable night so I s'pose he ducked out to find a little comfort somewhere. Anyway, I had to report him. Fortunately for him, General McPherson knew he was green—and of course, it didn't hurt that his grandfather was a friend of the President—so they went easy on him. Next thing I heard he went east with Sheridan after Chattanooga."
A troubled look crossed Murdoch's lined face. "You're sure about what happened? Scott doesn't seem the type to forget his duty."
"Murdoch, you gotta admit you've only known him for a short time. Maybe he's growed up some since the War. Lots of young fellers went in no more 'n boys and came out men."
"I suppose it's possible, but. . . ."
In a patronizing tone, Armstrong continued. "Listen, old friend, I'm just tellin' you what I know. What he done in Virginia wasn't any worse than what lots of other fellers did during those years."
"Virginia? I thought we were talking about Vicksburg?"
"Uh, well, I did see Scott one other time—in Virginia during Grant's push on Richmond."
"Well, I'm not sure 'xactly what happened. There were rumors he'd been helpin' out this young girl with food 'n stuff. Some of them people were real pathetic and I guess a pretty girl is a pretty girl—even if she's on the wrong side. Anyways, I guess old Phil Sheridan didn't take kindly to his aidin' and comfortin' since you know how Little Phil was in the Shenandoah. Didn't hear much about your boy after that. I sure can understand why he laid low. Nobody crossed Sheridan—even old Snappin' Turtle Meade lost out to him, you know."
Before Murdoch Lancer could make a comment, the sound of a crying boy reached their ears as Johnny and Maurice entered the house. Scowling, Armstrong walked out into the hallway to confront his son. "Maurice, stop that yowling! A big boy like you shouldn't be cryin'"
"It's all right, Mr. Armstrong, a bee stung Barranca and he started to buck. I got him under control as soon as I could, but Maurice got scared."
"Well now, is that all? Maurice, you weren't even hurt! Go on up to your room, wash your face and we'll all go outside to see Johnny give his shootin' demonstration. Whaddya say to that?"
The tears slowly came to a stop on the boy's face as he sniffed once or twice. "All right, Papa, I'll go do as you say." As he headed up the stairs, the boy stopped, "I'm sorry, Mr. Lancer. Barranca is a nice horse."
"Don't worry about it, Maurice," the younger Lancer reassured him.
"Well now, I am really looking forward to this and then we'll come in for lunch. I believe Dorinda has planned Cornish Pasties. They are definitely one of my favorites. I believe you like them too, don't you, Murdoch?"
"Yes, I do. I remember my step-mother making something like them for my father to eat when he was out working in the fields. I'll have to ask Teresa to make some. She has put her foot down about making haggis!""
Johnny's sapphire eyes narrowed. "Haggis?"
Cornelius thumped the young man on the back. "Believe me, son, you don't want to know!"
Armstrong was still chuckling when Maurice descended the stair case so that all of them could go out and watch Johnny do some fancy shooting. Cornelius thoroughly enjoyed the demonstration while the boy hung back with his hands over his ears. Finally though, it was time to go in and devour Mrs. Armstrong's delicious lunch.
After the repast, Johnny decided to take a ride around the property. Informing his father that he definitely needed some exercise, the dark-haired Lancer enjoyed riding across the miles of Armstrong range. It was not as beautiful as Lancer, but the air was clean, the sun bright and there was nothing to worry about—for the moment.
When Johnny returned to the ranch house, he found Murdoch and Cornelius playing chess. The two men seemed evenly matched in their good-natured game so he was not surprised that it ended in a draw. After that, Johnny asked Maurice to play a few songs for them. Shyly the boy led them upstairs to the small room where the piano was kept. With his mother at his side, the boy did play some simple tunes then Mrs. Armstrong played a classical piece before excusing herself to finish dinner.
In their room to wash up before the meal, Johnny commented to his father that if he visited the Armstrong's very often, he would soon be the size of Cornelius. Murdoch had admonished him for the remark, but agreed that Dorinda was a superb cook.
The meal that night was a ham from their own smokehouse, mashed potatoes with red-eye gravy, buttered carrots, lima beans and an angel food cake for dessert. Johnny wasn't too thrilled with the lima beans so he only took a spoonful.
After dinner, Cornelius invited Murdoch and Johnny to join him in the parlor for a brandy and a toast to their future business dealings before the two Lancers headed upstairs for bed. They intended to get an early start in the morning. Since they didn't have to worry about herding cattle, they hoped to make a fast return to Lancer. Unfortunately, sleep seemed elusive so Murdoch took out the book he had brought with him. Johnny, benefiting from his afternoon ride and full stomach, fell into sleep almost immediately.
After some time, Murdoch's eyes, too, became heavy so he turned over with the pillow wrapped around his head to block out the snores from the next bed. He could hardly wait to return to Lancer.
The next morning the two men ate then said a quick goodbye so that they could get on the road. Thankfully, the weather remained good so the miles passed quickly. Declining to spend the night around a campfire, the Lancers found a small town with a room above a saloon for that night. While sitting at one of the tables having a beer, Murdoch told Johnny an edited version of Cornelius' story about his two encounters with Scott. The younger man had listened in confusion. The Scott Lancer of Armstrong's version did not seem to be the same man who had lived at Lancer for six weeks. Both father and son had to acknowledge that the third Lancer was an enigma to them. The question was how or even if they should try to find out the circumstances behind the story. It would seem that Scott's wartime service was his own business—unless it affected Lancer sometime in the future.
Heading out of the small town at an early hour, Murdoch shivered in the early morning air. The darkening clouds overhead promised rain even before they arrived at the great gate. Continuing on with only brief stops to give the horses a breather, the two groaned inwardly as a cold rain began to fall. Not wanting to stop for shelter, they rode on until the familiar landmarks of Lancer were sighted. Also in evidence was a terrifying smell—smoke. Even through the droplets, there was a haze and as they approached closer to the white hacienda, the haze became more apparent as a cloud of smoke from the nearby hillside—in the area where the Lancer sawmill was located.
Murdoch had had the mill built to provide wood for various reasons. Since it was not all needed for Lancer itself, he also had turned it into a profitable sideline. In fact, he had asked Scott to take over its management when he had arrived. The young man had agreed and had tried to spend a couple of days a week overseeing its operation.
Diverted by the sight of the smoke, Johnny and Murdoch rode towards the mill. To their horror, it was only a pile of steaming ashes. As they drew closer, a soot-covered man hurriedly approached them. "Senor Lancer, I. . .I am happy you have returned. Lightning struck. . . The mill could not be saved."
"All right, Cipriano, I'm sure you did all you could, but the fire is out?"
"Si, but. . . ."
"What's the matter? Was someone injured?"
Distraught by what he had to tell Lancer's owner, Cipriano slipped into Spanish. "El rubio uno fue adentro. Yo no lo podria parar."
Johnny interrupted. "What? Why did Scott go inside the mill?"
"Yo no se, Senor Johnny. El menciono alguna clase de libro mayor. Yo no lo vi que sale. Hemos comenzado a buscar. Soy muy arrepentido, Senor."
Johnny stared at the man for a second before turning to his father. "Cipriano says that Scott went into the mill to get something and he's not sure that he made it out. They've just started to look. . .to see if. . . .
only sound was that of the rain which continued to splatter onto the rapidly
"Senor Lancer, he is here. Come!"
Johnny, Murdoch and Cipriano turned immediately toward the sounds of the voice that called to them from the trees. Hurrying through the slippery ashes, Murdoch almost lost his balance, but righted himself just in time. Near some rocks which abutted the remains of the mill, they found Ramon standing near a seated figure with his back to them. Approaching the partially-concealed blond, Johnny stopped when Ramon took his arm. "Gently, Senor Johnny, I believe he has felt the flames."
Kneeling down in the mud and muck, Johnny tried to pull back the poncho which was wrapped around Scott's head and shoulders. Instantly, one slender hand snaked out to snatch back the covering. "Scott, it's me. Where are you hurt?"
Silence was the only reply.
"Johnny, we've got to get him to Lancer and out of this rain."
"I know, Murdoch," Johnny replied with annoyance. "Why don't you see if you can get through to him? I can't even tell if he's burned or not."
Moving back to allow his father to take his place, Johnny watched as the tall rancher knelt down to speak to the blond on the ground. "Scott, it's Murdoch. We're going to take you home. Do you understand?"
The slender body made an almost imperceptible shiver under the bulky covering. Then, the younger man shifted slowly around to face Murdoch. Under the protective rain gear, Scott's blue eyes filled his white face as he stared up into the craggy visage of his father. Murdoch could see that the poncho was burned away in some areas, but it had protected the young man from the flames to some degree. Still it was a cause for concern as he appeared to be hunched over with his hands and arms wrapped around his torso. Reaching down, Murdoch endeavored to help the easterner to his feet so that he could be checked out for burns, but Scott flinched away from the touch. "Scott, please, listen to me. We need to get you home. There's no need to be afraid."
This time the cerulean eyes flickered slightly as Scott's left hand lifted the poncho. Under the raingear, the young man was wearing a lightweight jacket. Awkwardly, he undid one button on the jacket, stuck his hand inside and withdrew a book--a ledger-- and handed it to the tall man.
"What's that?" Johnny inquired.
Riffling through the pages, Murdoch handed it over to his younger son. "It's the ledger for the sawmill accounts."
"I don't understand. Why would he have that on him?"
"I don't know, but right now we have to get him out of here." Murdoch stood up to stretch his legs after being in the uncomfortable position.
"Senor Lancer, I have sent for a wagon. It should be here soon."
Thanks, Ramon. I think we're going to need it. Scott's not going to be able to ride. Why don't you men go on back to the ranch? You must be wet and cold. Johnny and I can take care of Scott."
"I would like to stay, Senor. Senor Scott is a fine man. He. . .he tried hard to save the mill, but we could do nothing until the rain."
"All right, Ramon. You stay here. Cipriano, go with the others and tell Teresa that we'll be there soon. Also, see if you can get the doctor to come out. I'm still not sure if Scott was burned or not."
"Si, Senor. We will tell Senorita Teresa."
After the men left, Johnny, Murdoch and Ramon debated on whether to let Scott stay as he was until the wagon arrived or make an effort to get him off the wet ground. Since there didn't seem to be a dry place for him to rest, they were content to leave him still huddled near the rock.
While Murdoch surveyed the site of the ruined mill, Johnny knelt down once again by his brother. The smell of the burned wood permeated everything with a sickening stench. Johnny turned his face up into the drizzle seeking a breath of clean air, but there was none. Straining to hear the sound of an approaching wagon, Johnny glanced over at his brother. After handing over the ledger, Scott had taken no more notice of those around him. Even the wet chill seemed not to affect the slender man.
Finally, the sound of an approaching wagon was heard. The wagon was loaded with blankets, a canvas, and someone had even provided a canteen of whiskey to help provide a bit of warmth. When Johnny took hold of Scott's shoulder, the blond once again tried to pull away, but between the brunet and his father the two men forced Scott to his feet.
It took the strength of both men to move him the few feet to the wagon where he was wrapped in the blankets and then covered with the canvas for protection. Johnny and Ramon sat in the back with the injured man while Murdoch and one of the men rode in front while the other hand rode Murdoch's horse after tying Barranca to the back of the wagon.
Johnny took a drink of the whiskey then passed the canteen to Ramon and on to Murdoch and the other hand. The raw bite of the alcohol bit deep but felt good after it began to spread through their bodies. Since Scott seemed to be unconscious, they did not try to force him to drink, hoping that the blankets and the canvas would give him the warmth he needed.
Driving over the bumps of the virtually non-existent track to the white hacienda, the wagon thumped along in the miserable weather until it hit a deep rut which threatened to overturn the wagon. Curled in a fetal position, Scott rolled towards Johnny who frantically grabbed at his brother to stop him from further injury, but the young man thumped the left side of his body against Johnny's knee. This caused an intense moan as his body rolled back to the other side as Murdoch struggled to get the wagon under control. Ramon grabbed at the slender man to hold him in place. To his relief, Scott allowed the young vaquero to hold him down just long enough for the wagon to right itself. Then the blue eyes squeezed tightly shut as a few tears slipped out from under.
Ramon leaned over to murmur comforting words in Spanish. The litany continued for sometime until Scott gave a deep sigh and fell into unconsciousness which lasted through the rest of the uncomfortable trip home and even until Scott was carefully carried into his bedroom.
It was as they were removing the soaked, smoke-filled clothing that the two Lancers caught sight of the burned arm and hand which had already started to blister. "Johnny, let's see if we can get that arm cleaned up then we'll put something over it until the doctor arrives. That arm looks to be the worst of it fortunately."
"I sure hope the Doc gets here soon," Johnny remarked.
"Well, let's get this done. It's not going to be pleasant for any of us."
That turned out to be an understatement. As they began to clean the arm, Scott's blue eyes flew open and he began to struggle to get away.. "Scott, you've got to relax. Johnny, hold him down. I'm almost finished and then we can put the bandage on."
Both men gave a sigh of relief when the bandage was in place. "Johnny,you sit with him while I go see if Teresa's got anything we can use to help with the pain."
The dark-haired Lancer sat down next to his brother. Looking at the lines of pain on the blond's pale face, Johnny couldn't help but think of the things that Cornelius Armstrong had told his father. Could that man be the same one who had gone into a burning mill seemingly to save a book of numbers?
When Dr. Atkins arrived, he approved the steps that Murdoch had already taken. "I know some people like to put honey or milk on burns, but I prefer to let nature start some of the healing. I don't think the burns are real serious but I suspect there's going to be a lot of pain. I'll leave you a bottle of laudanum, but Teresa can try making a tea of something like bugle weed to help. Just keep it clean and don't let him do too much. If it starts to really bother him, try mixing some bicarbonate with water and applying it like a paste. Sometimes that helps. Have one of the hands come get me if it starts to get worse, but I really don't expect it to."
"Thanks, Doc. We'll take care of him. Uh, he seems kind of disoriented. Is that due to the pain or what?" Murdoch questioned.
"Well, I suppose it could be, but you gotta remember that being trapped in a fire would probably terrify any man. Maybe his brain is just trying to give him the time to recover."
For the rest of the day Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa took turns keeping an eye on the man in the bed. When Murdoch was not on duty, he took the opportunity to talk to Ramon and Cipriano trying to discover how the fire had started. Lightning was certainly the most obvious cause, but the tall rancher wanted to make sure that there were no other possibilities.
That evening during dinner Teresa, Murdoch, and Johnny discussed Scott's condition. Knowing that Johnny and Murdoch would need a good night's sleep after their ride back from the Ambling A, Teresa volunteered to stay with the blond for most of the night. That way one of the men could take over in the morning.
At dawn, Murdoch Lancer reported for duty at his older son's bedside. "Morning, Teresa. Any change in his condition?"
"No, he's still asleep. I'll go make you a cup of coffee."
"Good. I could use one and I expect Johnny will too when he wakes up. That boy can certainly snore. I went in his room just now and it was like a saw in there!"
The brown-haired girl giggled. "Oh, well, he's the only one around here that does that!"
Murdoch's eyes narrowed. "Of course, he is! Maria accused me of lots of things, but never snoring!"
Teresa broke into a full-blown laugh.
After Teresa left, Murdoch sat down in the chair by the bed. Then, he remembered that he had left the sawmill ledger on his desk. He wanted to take this opportunity to look at the book. Since he had turned over the management of the mill to Scott, Murdoch had not had the time to look over the books. Strolling out into the great room, the rancher picked up the slightly scorched ledger. It still smelled of smoke.
Carrying it in with him, he again took his seat and began to look at the figures. To his surprise, the mill had done well in the past six weeks. Usually, the mill would just about break even, but it had certainly made a profit in the last weeks and there seemed to be some new accounts. When Scott recovered, he would have to ask him about those new customers.
Just after Teresa entered with coffee and biscuits and announced that she was going to get some sleep, the man in the bed started to shift around. Realizing that the young man might be in pain, Murdoch prepared a glass of water with a dose of laudanum, just in case.
Taking a damp cloth that Teresa had left in the basin, Murdoch carefully wiped the sweating face of his son. "Scott, can you hear me? Are you in pain?"
The blue eyes fluttered slightly.
When the wet cloth passed over the dry lips, the tip of Scott's tongue peeked out. "Do you want some water?"
Scott again licked his lips so Murdoch carefully adjusted Scott's head so he could sip at the glass of cooling liquid. Then the older man lowered him to the pillows again.
Gazing at this son, he was reminded that only six weeks ago it had been Johnny who had been laid low by a bullet wound. It had been Scott who had risked himself to get his brother to safety from the revenge of Day Pardee. So much had happened in such a short amount of time and there was so much to learn, to know after twenty-five years without his sons.
Murdoch had been so proud that day when he and the two young men had signed their contract at the lawyer's office, proud but astonished when Johnny had agreed to use the Lancer name. Secretly, he had been almost as startled that his older son had taken up the challenge to come to Lancer. Part of the tall man suspected that Scott had been put up to by Harlan Garrett—to show his old rival that he could raise not only a civilized man but also one who could handle the rigors of western living. That Scott turned out to be an expert rider had been unexpected as had the fact that his older son had served in the Union Army. Deep in his heart, Murdoch had been expecting the dandy who had arrived on the stage--a man afraid to get his hands dirty, a man who might look down upon an unknown brother.
To Murdoch's relief Scott had accepted Johnny's background without question. If anything, it had been Johnny who had looked askance at his brother from the East, but he too had learned that appearances could be deceiving. In the short period of six weeks the three Lancers had begun to form the beginnings of a family, along with Teresa O'Brien who had quickly taken the measure of his two sons who seemed to complement each other—gun or ledger in hand.
The thought of the ledger caused him to look down at the book again. The neat handwriting and figures seemed to reflect the man in the bed—precise, meticulous—an excellent business partner in the making.
The tall man dropped the ledger in astonishment. "Scott?"
The rasping voice reiterated its question. "Book?"
"Don't worry, the ledger is only a little burned. You've done a good job at the sawmill, Scott."
Coughing from the smoke he had swallowed, Scott's body shook in pain. "T-tried."
"No more talking. You need to rest. Do you need some laudanum?"
The blond shook his head. "S-sorry. . .mill."
"Ramon told me about the lightning. He said you did everything that could be done. I'm just grateful that the rain prevented further damage. Why don't you get some sleep now?
Johnny should be in here soon. He was tired after that ride back from Armstrong's."
"Who do you mean?"
"Well, as a matter of fact he did, but we don't have to talk about it now. I'm sure there's an explanation."
Scott's face closed over. "War."
"Scott, I know it couldn't have been easy. I'm sure you tried, just as you've tried here at Lancer. What matters is now."
"Not hero like. . .like Johnny."
"I don't expect you to be like your brother. He's lived by his gun for many years. You did follow my orders so that Pardee was caught in the trap. That's all I asked of you. Murdoch hesitated then continued on. "I'm very happy that you've been willing to pitch in with the books. You're going to make an excellent partner and hopefully a good influence on Johnny. Truthfully, he can be a bit impetuous." The tall man remarked with affection.
"N-not like m-me."
"Well, yes, although going into that burning sawmill was somewhat impetuous, I'd say. Why did you?"
"My. . .my job. . .ledger."
"I see. Well, I can't criticize a man for doing his job, now can I? Now, I insist you get some sleep. I'll be in to check on you soon. fieI need to talk to Cipriano about getting the mill area cleaned up. I want to rebuild as soon as possible."
lay still for some time trying to conserve his strength before he rolled
onto his right side and, managing to maneuver his legs over the side of
the bed. Pushing himself up with his right arm, he swayed to his
feet. Slowly, he forced himself to take one step then another until
he was standing in front of the desk that his father used when working
on the books. Moving cautiously so that he didn't bump his burned
arm, the blond sank down into Murdoch's chair. Straightening his
exhausted body, the easterner surveyed the room. He might not be
a hero, but there was a place for Scott Lancer here—and for now that would
have to do. Perhaps one day, if fortunate, the phoenix would rise
from the ashes.