**Special thanks to Harrigan for the superb beta (and the education!)
Worries had no place in such a nice day, but Murdoch Lancer gathered them anyway, like so many gnats in a web.
He stretched out his back by the big window, rubbing the sensitive spot just to the left of his spine, keeping his hands busy while squinting into the April-bright sun setting halfway down the horizon. A wagon rattled by with Frank at the reins, going out to the haying field for last minute bundles. Just behind, the dog charged out of its bolt-hole in the barn, running to catch up. She made it in one well-timed leap and a slap of paws.
Looking back when Scott and Johnny came into the office, Murdoch waved to the big chair sitting opposite the desk.
“How did the day go?”
“Fine,” Scott told him, watching Johnny sink into the leather chair.
“No sign of Birch’s men?”
Scott folded his gloves into the crown of his hat and placed it upside down on the edge of the desk. “No, but I wouldn’t expect to see any trespassers with Johnny and me out there.”
Murdoch settled back into his armchair.
“Are you saying we need to be extra careful?” A subtle change came over Johnny, a kind of silent alertness, watching Murdoch through half-closed eyes. Two years since coming to Lancer, he still carried vestiges of his former life.
Murdoch flipped through some papers, scribbled a few notes on one, then pulled out a small key from the top left drawer. “After talking with the lawyer this morning, I wouldn’t underestimate Birch, and you shouldn’t either.”
The documents from the locked drawer, tinged yellow, had tight cursive Spanish splashed across the pages.
To Murdoch they meant more than pressed paper and words. They meant life. “Do you remember seeing these when you both signed the agreement?”
Two heads, one dark and one light, nodded. Even if they didn’t look anything alike, their expressions were as one: curious.
Johnny spoke. “The Mexican land grants.”
“That’s right. Jonas sent a letter from town saying Birch has filed a mining claim on the parcel of land that extends from the mountain due south to the valley floor that aligns with his property.” He thumbed through them and withdrew a hand-drawn map, held it up. “Here is the diseño for our land. There’s twenty-five hundred acres total that borders the area.”
Scott leaned over to study the drawing. “A tributary of the San Joaquin River cuts through the land. Mining that section would deprive Lancer of any irrigation in that area. You couldn’t put cattle on it, nor would you. It would be virtually worthless.” His brow wrinkled. “But the property line for Lancer on this map doesn’t extend that far. Do we own it or not?”
Murdoch held up a letter, yellowed and water-stained. “I brought that stretch of land years ago, after your mother and I took ownership, as an addition to the original land grants. The hacienda’s roof was in pieces on the kitchen floor at the time.”
“It’ll take an earthquake to bring it down now.” Johnny grinned. “You do know how to get ’em built.”
“We wanted it strong. Fire-kilned adobe and hardwood. Slow, but on that we didn’t compromise. We wanted Lancer to last.”
Most of their meager furniture spent months under tarpaulins in the shed, but when he thought back to those early days, to the long ship voyage, even the ruined house, it was with a feeling of hope. He forecasted comfort for himself, his descendants, and rebuilt in his unhurried way.
Back then he looked out to his few cows, fingering a piece of newspaper advertisement in his pocket: “Cattle are $20 dollars on the head in Los Angeles”. When the railroad came—and it would come all right—he would stand to get more. The whole valley was that way, always looking to the future, never to the past.
“Birch’s claim encompasses a portion of the creek to the foothills. He’s claiming the shared water source.”
Johnny sat up, took a deep breath. “How can he do that?”
“The boundaries of the land were originally surveyed with markers, which are long gone now. His grant likely shows his property crossing ours. As the markers were moved or destroyed, the surveying was imprecise. But it’s never been an issue before.”
“He’s been a neighbor since Scott and I came here. We’ve hardly seen ’im.”
Scott crossed his arms, bumped his hat with one finger and perched on the end of the desk. “I’ve seen him a few times.”
Murdoch brought his head up. “Where?”
“Oh, in town” — Scott threw out his hand— “just around. He knew I was from Boston, so we spoke about the city, current events mostly. I didn’t think it was significant to mention at the time.”
When Scott said nothing else, Murdoch sighed.
Johnny shifted forward on the leather seat, the squelch ending awkward silence. “Murdoch, if he’s found ore….”
He shook his head. “I know. We’ll need to request an injunction as soon as possible. I’ll take the diseño to Jonas. He’ll need them to talk to the circuit judge. In the meantime, I want you two to ride back to that section, and post a warning sign for Birch and his men until we can this figured out.”
“You think that’ll do it?” asked Johnny.
“It’s a start until the judge can make a ruling.”
Johnny stood. “I guess that’s that.”
“No, it’s not,” Murdoch said, rolling the pencil between his fingers. “But I have a bad feeling we’re going to wish it was.”
The signs had been posted and, somewhat surprisingly, Birch and his men had remained quiet the past few days except for the movement of wagons. And now, Scott and Johnny faced a meadow full of lowing cattle, snuffling good green grass.
“Is that Rush Carnes heading our way?”
Scott pushed the brim of his hat up with a forefinger. “Hard to mistake anyone else with that red hair.”
“Can’t figure why that kid isn’t called Red by now.”
“I give him until fifteen.”
Johnny chewed on his lower lip. “He’s what, twelve?”
“Far as I know.”
“I make it before fourteen. Winner buys drinks.”
Rush rode up to them, all limbs and shocking red hair, a grin stretching his freckled face from ear to ear.
“Heya, Johnny, Scott. Was just riding out to your place. Mr. Griffith wanted me to give you folks this.”
Johnny reached over to take the note from Rush, gave it a quick glance and passed it to Scott. “One of us needs to head to town.” Reaching into his shirt pocket he pulled out a coin.
Scott eyed it, gave a nod. “Heads.”
Johnny flipped it into the air, caught it, and swore softly at the result.
Scott grinned. “Rush, are you heading back to town?”
“No sir, I’m on my way to the Delany place. You have a good day.”
“Thank you, Rush. Appreciate the delivery.”
“Think maybe you’re a mite more appreciative than Johnny at the moment.” Red cackled, setting his horse off to a trot.
Johnny let out a soft huff of laughter. “He’d be right at that. Catch you at dinner.”
With a two-finger salute and a laugh of his own, Scott veered towards Green River.
Haze blocked the sun, the air humid. The changing color of the western sky held the promise of rain later in the day. Perspiration dripped from Scott’s neckline, dampening his collar. Inclement weather or not, a few hours late to town wouldn’t make a difference; the lawyer would stay open until he got there.
Despite the offbeat hoof steps of his horse, there was a gentle cadence to his thoughts, allowing all manners of things to enter. Scott went back in his mind over the land grants and maps, how Murdoch must have felt when he and his new bride first saw Lancer. Were they disheartened, or too thrilled at leaving the past behind to be bothered with the inconvenience of a house without a roof? The idea of happiness and loss were so keen and intertwined, he couldn’t think of it anymore. His mind moved on to presumed water rights and poor neighbors.
When Scott reached town and stopped at the lawyer’s shingle above the boardwalk, disquiet crawled through him. He identified it as Douglas Birch.
Dismounting, one single thought came to him: For two years now, he and Johnny had been at Lancer without any real dealings with the man. Odd.
As he sat in Jonas Griffith’s outer office, it occurred to Scott that if not for having to wait he would be riding snug behind a sea of tails and horns. Thank God for small favors.
Moving cattle didn’t particularly offend him, although from the foul smell and the taste of grit Scott doubted he would ever truly appreciate it. The fact that he had begun to form certain opinions about the work made the wait even more pleasant. He thought about the hundreds of things involved in pushing a few head of steers from one meadow to another and settled into the plump cushion of his chair, more than willing to make a mental list rather than actually do them.
Right between loading the fatback and beans for the midday meal and assigning the men their horses, Jonas hustled out of his office.
Scott amused himself by thinking about Jonas on a horse. Here was a sensible feet-on the-ground lawyer. His charcoal suit was tailored, right down to the neat corner of the white handkerchief peeping out of the breast pocket. Ruffles and plaid stopped by to pay a brief visit in homage to a poorly prepared first visit out West, then fled with visions of fatback and remudas. Scott stood, swiped across a thigh to remove lingering dust and wished he’d worn clean boots.
Griffith hooked a thumb around his coat lapel and smiled. “Lancer dirt not sitting too well?”
He gave his hand to the lawyer’s beefy, dry grasp. “At the moment, sitting too well for my liking.”
Jonas’s smile quivered with bonhomie under the wire rims of his spectacles. “Oh, come on, Scott. A little hard work never hurt anyone.”
“So sayeth the man who hasn’t done any. Hard work, that is.” Jonas managed an affronted look while he ran his hand down the smooth lapel of his coat. Scott envisioned him standing before the jury box. All the flash and dazzle worthy of an Othello in the new Green River repertoire company.
“Speaking of work, I have the document from Judge Lawton. Signed and sealed. Took me an extra day to track him down in the next county.”
Interest piqued. “On horseback?”
He was peered at over spectacles, eyebrows fully arched. “Surely you jest. Buggy, of course. With a high-stepping Morgan to boot.”
Jonas headed for his office and crooked a finger for Scott to follow. An envelope lay on the lawyer’s desk.
“Here’s the injunction for Birch to cease and desist, and the original diseño. You retain the land and mineral rights on your northern pasture area for now.”
“Including the water?”
“Specifically mentioned. In paragraph four, I believe. The Birch ranch can’t move a toe in that direction until the judge makes a final ruling.”
As he studied the documents, Scott thought of the potential improvements that could be made with the water. Maybe sustaining Lancer would be good enough—for now. Their father expressed interest in expansion, a future beyond a few Palominos and cows, but it had to be done at his own pace. Cows now, perhaps crops of some sort later. The problem came when Scott and Johnny couldn’t figure out whether to trot or gallop.
“I know why Lancer needed those rights ironed out. It’s a shame about Doug Birch, though.”
“What makes you say that?”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned after law school, it’s that there are always two sides to the story. It occurred to me that that Birch and Lancer both look to succeed. Put yourself in his place. What would you have done if the ruling went the other way?”
It gave him pause and he didn’t have an answer. “The rights to it are Lancer’s based on Murdoch’s old Mexican deed; Birch was the poacher.”
“Before I warn you about horses and carts, let me say I see your point, Scott, but Birch doesn’t.”
Jonas shrugged. “The law may be on your side, but Birch is the kind of man who knows what he wants and fights to take it.”
“Murdoch and he knew each other a long time ago, from what I’ve been told.” Little enough at this point and he wondered just what Murdoch held back.
“Sometimes neighbors make the worst enemies.”
Folding the papers back into the envelope gave Scott something to do while he considered Jonas’s words. He worried he judged Birch for attempting to do the same thing as Lancer—advance, grow.
He stood and glanced at Jonas who watched him, open-faced. Then Jonas quirked his eyebrows together above his spectacles in a way only he and an earnest spaniel could manage. A signal of sorts, telling Scott he worried.
Scott pushed the pouch into his coat pocket and shook the lawyer’s hand. “Come out to the ranch, we’ll make a real worker out of you.”
Jonas visibly shuddered. “No thanks, I have all the work I need here.” He glanced towards the window, his grin fading. “The saloon keeps me busy enough.”
Scott smiled. “What was it you said? It’s all about location.”
“Yes, well, even I can be wrong sometimes. Especially when the resident Beethoven starts pounding the keys during the third stanza of Sweet Betsey. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind it if he just played in pitch.”
Reins lax, Scott wiped his right hand free of sweat on his trouser leg. Another half mile along and he passed off public land, realized he was frowning. The shadows he saw a few miles out of Green River must have been part of his imagination, beckoned no doubt by Jonas’s dire warnings.
He had no intention other than home when he rode out of town, but instead found himself at the grassy area of dispute. Dismounting, he walked to the sign Johnny and he had placed the day before.
Such a pretty piece of land to be juggled back and forth like a magician’s rubber balls. The entrance, if Scott could call it that, ran under a giant poplar which dipped its roots into the tributary. He looked out over the acres lying close to the creek and its shale-studded banks to the rounded foothills. A line of river willows and oaks started at one end, hopscotching their way into a thick forest, almost a mile wide. The land was rich here. The creek itself wide and full from recent rain, white whorls of water tumbling into each other.
Across the creek bed, Birch had driven in another wagon, tarped and ready. Something to tell Murdoch when Scott arrived home. Looking upwards, the sun was blotted out by thick, heavy clouds—the creek was about to get another dosing, and so was he. The promised cold front had finally settled in. He buttoned up his jacket, feeling the first drops hit his face.
A terrific rise in wind ripped through the site, uprooting the sign, and sent it cartwheeling sideways down the creek. The rain fell heavier as Scott ran for his horse. The wind tore his hat away, his eyes smarting from the pelting drops and slowing him down.
A sharp echo of gun pierced through the noise, made Scott stutter step to the left when a bullet plowed into the muddy ground. His horse bolted and he spun around to look. With limited visibility, he could see two riders coming from the vicinity of the Birch ranch, their weather-nervous horses fractious. Didn’t stop the second shot his way, this one burning alongside his boot. He pulled his gun and ran.
Lightning cracked, sent a wide shot of yellow arcing across the dark sky. He wheeled about, bolting for the band of trees near the creek.
Scott felt a swooping sense of danger, knew his luck had run out right there.
The lightning sizzled again, and the hair on his arms went en pointe. Then a horrifying explosion as the tree in front of him cracked in two, bursting into flame.
Breathing raw, he jagged away from the fire. Felt the temperature drop and drop and smelled, above the odor of his own fear, the scent of ozone and creosote, sinking into his wet skin. With an effort, he turned his head to see the men, mere shadows in sheets of rain.
More thunder prickled his ears, sent a vibration into his head. Between one second and the next, the ground moved. Or maybe he had. Dizziness swept over, threatened to topple him.
His world burst in a flash of white light, sound dying with it.
Everything spun when he blinked his eyes open. He closed them quickly, waiting for it to stop. Felt as though his brain had been skewered. He couldn’t focus on anything, just buried himself in the sound of distant heavy rumbles. Rumbles? Where was the rain? All around him, a bright yellow, like any fine cloudless afternoon. He listened to his own breathing for a while, staring at the clear day, trying to piece together fragments of thoughts. A sick feeling came over him as he stumbled.
He didn’t know where he was.
The rumbles were coming closer. Startling, not unlike a train, and he wondered for a moment if he’d somehow wandered down to some tracks, unbeknownst. But no, the staccato resolved itself into something else, and Scott turned, astonished, to see a railless locomotive barreling towards him, trailing smoke from its tail.
He clutched his gun, not willing to let go of his only weapon as the thing smashed against his hip. He went up and over, landing in a heap at the foot of it, air driven from his lungs.
There was a slap of metal, the sound of footfalls. He looked wildly around for Birch and his men while trying to make his lungs work. Groaning, he rolled over, his elbow hit something hard, and he tried to pretend he didn’t care. But he did.
He cared because it was all so wrong, because this wasn’t where he was supposed to be.
A woman stared at him with worried pale eyes and soft hair that fell to her shoulders. Scott repressed a shudder—what he saw was out of place. He wasn’t scared, not of a woman or her…he flicked his eyes to the piece of shiny metal that hit him…machine. His fingers tightened on the gun, every muscle singing. He scrabbled to one knee, forcing his lungs to take air.
She was saying something, he saw her flail her arms and her mouth was moving, but it was all so removed, might as well have been underwater. The ringing in his ears helped disguise the thunderous sound coming from the machine, but he could only ignore that for so long.
The day was hot, he realized, blinking something warm out of his left eye. He swallowed, a tendril of fear making its way into the back of his throat, felt pain in his head and side. Where were the men?
He sat, so sudden it surprised him, and pulled the gun across his lap. The gun barrel was warm and he wondered if he could even squeeze the trigger now. A touch on his shoulder, bearing the unwelcomed weight and warmth of a hand, had Scott turning his head.
He met her eyes, tried to wink away the black spots and wanted to tell her that—
Cursing, in a soft feminine voice, then a shout in a not-so-soft feminine voice threatened to take his head off.
Scott hoped Will came soon. He couldn’t take another yell.
“Oh shit. Sorry. Didn’t think.”
His couldn’t hold his head up. Eyes wouldn’t focus. Nausea threatened to overtake him. Nothing felt right. Smelled right. Smooth fabric vibrated under his hands that stopped along with the rumbling noise.
“Help me. I hit him.”
“With the Jeep, I kind of hit him.”
“You don’t bring him here, you get him to a hospital!”
No, not that.
“See, he doesn’t want to go.”
He said that out loud?
“You hit him. He’s not thinking straight.” Hands cupped his face.
“Yes, this is Lancer. Hold on, son, let me get a look at you.”
The hands on his face stilled.
“Did he say Murdoch?” It was the woman.
“Could be, but right now it would be best to get him inside.”
“Ahhh… how are we going to do that?”
“What’s going on?”
“Dad! Thank God. I’ve hit someone. We need help getting him in the house.”
“We need to get him to a hospital.”
“We’ve had that conversation. He doesn’t want to go and since I hit him, I don’t feel it’s my place to dictate what he should do.”
His head hurt. At least when he opened his eyes this time, the world had stopped moving so fast it blurred. Blue eyes peered down at him.
No, no. Not right. Wrong color hair, but the eyes.
“I’m Christopher John. Do I know you?”
“No….” Who were these people? He turned his aching head carefully. The hacienda, but not the hacienda. He blinked several times to clear his sight. Calloused hands gripped his jaw and the blue eyes looked into his, gaze intense.
“His pupils are dilated. He really should go to the ER.”
Eee-are? Scott pushed at the hands.
“Chris, I think he’s afraid.” The old man. Smaller in stature, but bearing the same type of authority that Murdoch commanded.
Fingers brushed the side of his head setting off a streak of fire. He pulled away.
“He was right there, Dad. All of a sudden, I never saw him!”
He heard an audible intake of air, then the slow release of that breath.
“I hit him. I hit a person with my jeep,” the woman said in a slow measured tone. “I could’ve killed him.”
Scott heard the guilt-fear and lifted a hand towards her. Wasn’t her fault.
A watery laugh and slender fingers wrapped around his. “You’re a nice man. Dad, you know enough what to watch for, right?” Abby, she had to be Abby, said. “I’d feel better if we could look after him.”
“Chris, I think he should stay.”
Scott focused enough to see Chris’s curious look at the older man and nod. Relief made him weak. He didn’t want to go to ‘ER’.
Hacienda or not-quite-hacienda, this was still home.
Quiet. Faint light. Scott breathed in a sigh of relief, aware of the headache. Mild. Not the all-consuming pain of before. He didn’t move, wary it would return. Trouble was, he wasn’t the type to stay down when he should and the room was familiar, but not his own.
Why wouldn’t he be in his own bedroom?
Starting with his legs, he eased them out beneath the covers, then tackled raising his head, propping himself up by an elbow.
The dizziness manageable, he sat up, letting the room settle into the recognizable lines of the guest room on the ground floor.
It didn’t look the same.
The bureau did, and he rose to his feet, gripping the bedpost as he got his legs under him.
Where were his clothes?
Dragging the coverlet off the bed, he cocooned himself, and headed for the bureau. His goal the photographs he could see placed on its surface.
Confusion. Because it was Johnny.
While he was reluctant to let the light in that he could see peeking between the curtains, he needed to see the photograph clearly.
Compromising, he took hold of the frame and with it, moved the curtain aside.
Johnny with a toddler on his knee and a smile at odds with the stiff photographs Scott remembered.
An older Johnny, with deeper crinkles around his eyes, and a sense of contentment Scott didn’t see in his brother, but felt at the end of the work day with the sun heavy on the western horizon.
The toddler had Johnny’s smile.
Icy shock swept over him, and he stumbled back to the bureau.
Murdoch, much older, a sense of melancholy so evident Scott’s stomach twisted. He ran his fingers over the glass surface wondering what could’ve made his father look that way.
Wasn’t right. Nothing felt right, and where did the hum come from? Green light from the bedside.
The time in lights, lending the room a green hue.
His head gave an angry pulse. Fear had his muscles locking, stressing an already bruised body. He tried to remember if he’d had a dream so vivid the pain carried through. He didn’t dismiss the possibility, because to accept he wasn’t dreaming led to more frightening avenues. Ones he couldn’t even begin to guess at.
A murmur of voices caught his attention. The bedroom door was ajar. Clutching the blanket, he cast around for his clothing. Nothing.
A brief search of the bureau revealed old linens, books, and papers musty with age. The wardrobe, coats of an unfamiliar style, of no use to him, but scented pleasantly of lavender.
Nothing left to do but to keep the blanket and find his strange hosts.
The familiar and unfamiliar struck him again as he stepped into the hallway. If it weren’t for the photographs, he’d swear this was a duplicate of Lancer decorated differently to accommodate different tastes.
The ever-present hum was stronger beyond the guest room. So were the voices. From the way they carried, he knew they originated from the great room.
Scott’s hip protested the walk. Laying a hand over the bone, he could feel the heat and hoped to work the ache out. It would only stiffen up if he remained in bed. Given his unease, he wouldn’t allow it.
One hand trailed over the wall and he marveled at the colors so intense, but muted at the same time. Never had he seen such shades of greens and tans, colors of the outdoors lending themselves to offer the same soothing combination indoors. A mind-boggling difference from the whitewashed walls he knew.
Walls of fire-kilned adobe and hardwood. Built to last.
Out of habit, Scott avoided the creaky board in the hallway, then stopped. If this wasn’t Lancer surely the floor would be different. Nerve threatening to fail him, he stepped back.
Heart hammering, he stared down at bare toes and polished wood, fighting the urge to run. The fact he didn’t know where he could run stopped him as much as the lack of clothes.
“Hey, you’re up.” Abby. Her name was Abby. “You gotta watch out for that board. Used to give me away before I learned to avoid it.”
“Where am I?”
“You’re at Lancer, a ranch not far from Green River.”
Lancer. Not dreaming.
“I don’t think you should be up. Dad!”
Scott’s heart leaped at the shout, hands gripped his arm.
“He went really white all of a sudden.”
Those blue eyes looking into his again. “What are you doing up? Let’s get you to the couch.”
Strong, capable hands on each side steered him into the great room to an unfamiliar leather couch where another couch was supposed to be.
Lancer. This was Lancer. Not one he knew.
“Perhaps we should take him to get checked out.” The old man said, meeting Scott’s eyes. “I know we said we wouldn’t, but not a one of us would forgive ourselves if there was something seriously wrong.”
Wrong? Where would he start?
“No, I’m all right. Just moved too fast.” He didn’t want to leave. A very real fear rooted deep inside that if he left, he’d never find his way back.
“Can you tell us your name?” Chris sat down on the coffee table in front of him, those eyes so damn familiar.
Fear or self-preservation kicked in. He didn’t know for certain which, but he couldn’t tell the truth since he really didn’t know what that was. “Scott.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Scott Garrett.”
“I’m Chris Lancer.” Chris indicated the older man. “This is William Lancer, my uncle, and beside you is Abigail Lancer, my daughter. Welcome to our home.”
Scott twisted his hands so hard in the blanket the fibers squeaked. “It is nice to meet all of you.”
“Under normal circumstances, I’d believe that. I’m truly sorry, Scott.” Abigail sat beside him on the couch. “I’m not sure how you came to be on the road, but I’m so sorry I hit you.”
“Forgiven. I doubt you make a habit of it.” The words slipped out without him thinking of them, but given her laughter, he was glad to have said them.
“No, I do not. You’re the first. Hopefully the last.” She smiled, and Scott blinked. A little bit of Johnny came through that smile.
The late afternoon spat of rain left everything on Lancer that was colored green so much greener it hurt your eyes to look at it; the rest though, was just mud brown. The in-between stuff that clung to your boots but not heavy enough to actually need a scraper. The cows they moved didn’t appreciate the fine weather, especially the heavy thunder up north. Johnny knew a few would scatter when it started, but thankfully the brunt of the storm had passed on by.
Given two minutes, he’d just lie down, right there between the stall and the water bucket, grimy green from the slobber of too many animals. Lie down in twenty kinds of bugs and dirt and just sleep. That led to thoughts of horses and that meant more work. Instead, he walked out and hooked a foot on the bottom slat of the fence, content to watch Teresa work the newest pony in the damp corral. Johnny had been sore before, but not like this. Not in a good damn while. A spasm worked its way across his back and he grimaced.
She worked the mare in a tight circle with the lead rope. “Johnny, you could come give me a hand.”
The horse stood fifteen hands high, full of sass, and kind of like Teresa herself. “Now why would I want to do that?”
“Because I saw you when Cipriano brought them in from the range. Like a dog going after a meat bone.”
“I wasn’t that bad. And you should rub her down with a burlap bag or some grass, get her used to things. ”
She raised an eyebrow, nodded, then slowed the mare to a stop. “I thought you didn’t want to help. And it was bad. Scott said we should set your bed up in the pasture so you could watch them all night.”
Well, they were a pretty bunch. He dropped his chin on the top rail. “Where is he, anyhow?”
“I thought he was working cattle with you and the crew.”
“Didn’t see fit to get his boots dirty this afternoon. We tossed a coin for the lawyer and he won. Something was up with that toss, no one is that lucky.”
She pulled in her lower lip and barely stopped a chuckle. “You had to drive all those cattle shorthanded? He’s not home. I’ve been out here for a good couple of hours and haven’t seen him.”
“I hope he didn’t think about staying in town with Jonas, because that’ll just force me to ride in and drag him back home. We lost a few cows when the rain hit, down on the eastern slope. Nice and bogged up. Tomorrow they’re all his.”
He unhooked his leg and climbed over the railing. Caught up the lead line and rubbed his hand over the mare’s fine nose when she lipped his sleeve. “Where’s Murdoch?”
She gestured in a vague direction of the hacienda. “He’s there, probably looking over his papers again.”
Johnny’s gaze shifted from horse to the house. The short walk seemed to stretch for miles.
Teresa reached for the rope. “And, Johnny, don’t go baiting the bear.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Uh-huh. He’s pretty growly.”
“Bear-baiting? Well, it’s a good thing we only have one dog, and a lazy one at that.” He said it with a smile, but Johnny wasn’t sure when Murdoch had slipped into this mood, maybe after the last ride to the lawyer’s.
He took his time getting to the front door.
He walked into the kitchen aware that his clothes were wrinkled and soiled from the day’s work. Between the front door and Murdoch’s office he stopped, listened for his father, and in a moment heard the scrape of the coffee pot on the stove.
The scraping stopped, and there was silence for bit as though his father was gauging what words to say. Then, “Here!”
Murdoch looked up when he entered. “Saw the clouds and rain out your way; everything go all right with the drive?”
“ 'Bout as well as can be expected. We lost a few head when they hightailed it for the brakes, but I suppose we’ll find’ em tomorrow. Most of the storm went up north; Green River probably caught hell.”
Johnny went to the cupboard, pulled out a cup and waited as Murdoch poured.
“I got the message from Cipriano; did Scott come back with you?”
Johnny wrapped his hand around the cup, feeling its warmth seep into his cold fingers, and settled his forearms on the smooth table. “Nope, haven’t seen him since he lit out for town to see Jonas. He might’ve got held up with the rain.”
Murdoch’s shoulders sagged. “Do you want something to eat?”
“No. No, I’m fine.”
Unanswered questions flopped about on the table like catfish left on the bank. Johnny tried to ignore them, stepped up, danced back. In the quiet, he could hear Murdoch take long methodical swallows. He was never a man for letting a cup go cold. Johnny leaned back, letting the chair hold him.
“Murdoch?” he asked, hating the pinched look on his father’s face. “What’s goin’ on between you and Birch?”
Murdoch ran his finger along the rim of his cup, once, then twice. “Doug Birch came out here more than twenty-five years ago, around the start of the annexation from Mexico, with nothing except hard work and grit. Back then it was easy to be neighbors. Hard to say this now, but we found happiness in our lack.”
Murdoch’s expression changed. It looked to Johnny something like anger, and he frowned. “There’s somethin’ else you’re not telling.”
“Sometimes I wonder what drives Douglas, whether it’s greed… or envy. He was what you’d call dashing back in the day, had a way of talking that captured a woman’s eye.”
Murdoch’s face was a study of shadow and planes and angles.
“I always thought he was so agreeable because of her.” Murdoch was utterly calm, as though he’d rehearsed the words a hundred times. “He made an overture to Scott’s mother, once, while I was away.”
Johnny sat very still, tried to keep— embarrassment or anger?—at bay. He couldn’t imagine it. Or rather, he could. Husband gone, Scott's mother all alone on a big ranch.
“Thank God for Paul O’Brien. He heard the conversation. Heard the slap. Birch was escorted off Lancer.”
Johnny smiled. The lady had backbone. He tried to imagine Birch’s surprise and that made him smile harder.
Murdoch’s palm came down flat on the table, jiggling the cups a little. “That was a long time ago. Birch went back east for quite a while, then reappeared when the land was in danger from Pardee, shortly before you two came. He’s been working it ever since.”
“So that’s why you were lookin’ that way the other day when Scott mentioned he’d been talking to Birch.”
“Did Scott say anything?”
“No, not yet. But he’s thinking and I expect he’ll get around to it. Would’ve been easier if you told him right off.”
Murdoch knuckled his eyes, suddenly weary. “A lot of things would have been easier.”
Teresa burst in through the kitchen doorway, boots thudding on the tile. Her eyes flicked between Johnny and Murdoch. “His horse is outside, just standing by the corral.” She took in a shuddering breath. “But I can’t find Scott.”
William watched, the familiarity of their guest gnawing at him like an itch in the middle of his back he couldn’t reach. He’d seen that face before. He wanted to ask, to dig, but the very lost look on Scott’s face halted any interrogation. Abby’s word, interrogation. She accused him more than once of grilling the men she brought home with her.
Of course, she also admitted if they could stand up to that, they were worth keeping.
Scott Garrett though, was a mystery. A young man of mid-to-later twenties but held the maturity of one older. He didn’t fit William’s sense of the young men these days. His clothing another mystery. Work-worn and older in style. How old, he couldn’t place.
Along with the holster and pistol that Abby neglected to mention had ended up in her backseat. Old, well-used and in perfect working order.
Eyes that darted around the room, taking it in, and while he tried his best to hide it, William had spent far too many years sizing up men, opponents, to not recognize the rigidity of fear that held Scott.
“Scott, how did you end up on the road?” Chris glanced in William’s direction. Good. Chris saw the wrongness.
“I honestly do not know.” That William believed. The tone held such a note of disbelief and confusion, it could only be taken as genuine. Alarm overtook Scott’s features. “My clothes. Where are they?”
“Getting washed.” Abby stood up. “But I’m sure you’d like something to wear in the meantime. Dad?”
“Sure, sweats will work.”
Abby turned to Scott. “Are you involved in those reenactments? You’re clothes are so Old West.”
“Old West?” No mistaking the body tension ratcheting up higher. “I’m not involved with reenactments.”
The emphasis on the word, spoken as one unfamiliar with it, heightened William’s own sense of wrongness.
“I had papers—” Scott said.
“There weren’t any when I cleaned out your pockets before I threw it all in the washer.”
“The—” A brief puzzled look crossed his face to slip into a mask of blank. “Washer?”
“They’re almost done. Hey, maybe those papers are in your coat? I hung it up on the back porch to air-dry. I’ll put the rest of your things in the dryer, but in the meantime I’ll go find you something to wear.” Abby glanced at her father, then at William as she exited the room.
Abby, she knew too. Just how to approach what they knew, but didn’t really know.
Scott Garrett didn’t fit their world.
Lancer, with Lancers he didn’t know. Chris walked Scott back to ‘his’ room when Abby arrived with clothing for him to wear. After assuring Chris he could manage, Scott was left alone.
The clothing. Soft. No buttons. Black, with a weave that stretched. Nothing he had ever experienced, but he had seen something close. The primary for Thespis, a particularly wearisome opera, had worn a similar pair while flopping about the stage at the California Theater in San Francisco. At least these were a bit loose and the band around the top kept them anchored, albeit a bit low, on his hips.
He picked up what Chris had called a “tea-shirt”. Green and emblazoned with the words Los Angeles Dodgers on the front, and on the back: Do you feel lucky?
Pulling the shirt over his head, it smelled faintly of lilacs and felt heavenly against his bare chest. No shoes with the clothes, not even his boots.
He stood up—too suddenly—and the room swam in hazy circle. He leaned on the bureau for a minute, studied his face in the mirror above it. More than half a day since leaving home, then returning to… what? His hair was twisted at all angles. He smoothed it down, tugging it partially over the ugly bruise that ran from his temple into the hairline. Dark circles half-mooned his eyes.
It was no wonder he looked so bad. Aside from the headache, he was someplace that was home, but wasn’t. What to do now? He was for all intents and purposes quite devoid of anything that was familiar. His options were few. A knock sounded on the door.
“Scott?” It was Abigail. Here to fetch him for dinner.
He splashed water on his face from the bowl, then left the room in someone else’s clothes, in someone else’s time. Barefoot.
She talked all the way down the stairs, the words unintelligible for the most part. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a place for Jeep or fabric softener in his mind.
He slid to a stop at the doorway into the kitchen. A row of silver and copper pots hung from the ceiling. Sleekly made, there must have been a dozen of them. A shrill sound came from a black box, startling him.
Abigail cocked her head, puzzlement written across her face. “Just the stove.” A wisp of a smile. “It’s my turn for the cooking duties. We’re having leftovers. Dad says it’s safer that way when I’m in the kitchen. So, reheated lasagna and salad okay?”
A stove. She flicked a red light and the sound disappeared, then opened the door. A wave of heat escaped, but when he looked inside there were simply a few steel racks. Palms out, he felt the warmth. “Where do you put the wood?”
She juggled the big pan from the oven in one hand, two cups in the other. “What wood? Hey, can you grab the milk out of the fridge? Both Dad and Will like to have a glass with their meals. Why, I couldn’t tell you.”
He shut the stove door, looking around for something that might be called a “fridge”.
“Scott?” She pointed with her elbow to a tall silver box.
He grasped the big handle and pulled. Coldness hit his face, and he savored it for a moment.
“It’s the plastic jug there in the door. All we have is skim. Better for Will’s cholesterol, you know?”
No, he didn’t know about cholesterol or plastic, and he wasn’t used to this intensifying sense of panic. He grabbed the only object that looked like milk and placed it on the stone counter beside him. Then puttered. Apples and lettuce, carrots and square containers of foodstuffs, bottles of sauces. Each drawer, each shelf, was cool to the touch. He shut the door and followed the line of the box to its back, looking for the evaporation set-up.
“Scott, what are you doing?” William had come to the table. Scott flushed.
“Is that mouse back again?” Abigail’s father bumped him away to pull the box from the wall. They both peered behind it. “Nothing but dust bunnies.” He turned back to look at her. “I told you we’d be dealing with Mickey again since you wouldn’t let me kill it.”
“Oh, come on, Dad. Teeny tiny field mouse, up against cruel or poisonous traps. No.”
“Then I don’t want to hear it when he gets into your stash of Oreos.”
“Then Mickey has good taste.”
Scott was half-listening as he bent down to trace the black cord into the wall.
“Something wrong with the electrical outlet?” Chris asked.
Scott straightened, bluffed. “No, no, I don’t believe so.” Electricity. From the wall.
“Good, help me shove this back and we’ll eat.”
The table at least offered some semblance of home. The same one, he was sure of it. He ran his fingers along its smooth edge.
William grinned. “See? Now this is a man who knows his antiques.”
Abigail sighed. “Will keeps everything that’s fifty years or older. He’s a terror at garage sales.”
“You laugh, but this table is old, I’d bet my bottom dollar. Maybe close to a hundred and fifty years old. It’s been in this house for as long as I can remember. My mother used to pull my highchair up to it, as her mother before.” He patted the dark wood. “Good American craftsmanship never goes out of style.”
Scott’s mouth went dry as he sat down. The mark was still there despite what looked to be sanding. The corresponding scar was on his forearm, paled to a soft brown.
William huffed. “That’s an old burn mark. Never has come out and I’m afraid to refinish anymore, it would lose its luster.”
Murdoch had wanted to plane down the wood, smooth it out again to remove any evidence of Drago and Chapel. Scott had stopped him. A few more nicks and scrapes were added bit by bit over time, and like the memory of that day, it became faded, but never really disappeared.
His plate was filled with what he could only assume was lasagna. A glass of milk was offered, declined. What he could use right now was a good stiff drink. When Abigail went to sit, he automatically got up, held her chair. Her color deepened, a subtle blush, and she looked at both her father and great-uncle in question.
His own face heated. He wanted to make some witty remark about men and manners, but nothing would come.
Picking at his meal, appetite gone, he wondered about Murdoch and Johnny. Had they searched for him long?
Murdoch wasn’t one to shout—that was the first thing that occurred to Johnny. His father had a temper, sure, but in Johnny’s experience it usually expressed itself in a slammed palm and mutters.
So to hear “What?!” echo clearly through the kitchen was a bit of shock. Teresa flashed her eyes in question.
“Murdoch,” Johnny interceded. “We don’t know that Birch had anything to do with Scott being missing.”
Murdoch nodded, and it didn’t surprise Johnny when his father understood everything he wasn’t saying. What he wouldn’t even admit to himself.
It was an effort to be helpful, to be diplomatic, which wasn’t exactly his forte, but he needed to see all the angles on this mystery and so did Murdoch. Ten to one the flighty bay just gave Scott a ride for his money.
A little voice inside him insisted differently.
Then Murdoch snapped out orders because it was what he did best. Teresa to ride out to where Cipriano and Isidrio were unloading lumber for a new mill, gather them and the crew to search Lancer piece by piece on the North side, like a needle in a haystack. He and Johnny were to hunt for Scott along the road to town.
And that, was that.
Long shadows rippled across the land as they rode farther away from the hacienda. Johnny pulled up and pointed. “Murdoch, look there.” The topsoil was flayed by uprooted trees and rivulets of water.
“The storm must have broke right over this place. If Scott rode through this no wonder his horse spooked. We’ll probably find him hunkered down somewhere.”
They poked and prodded the downed trees for a few minutes, then Murdoch frowned. "I don't know, Johnny," he said. “I think we're wasting our time. We’ll talk with Jonas. He’s the last person who might have seen Scott, if he made it to town.”
Yanking on the reins, Murdoch kicked his horse into a gallop, leaving Johnny to catch up.
With night thickening around them, they pushed their horses to the small office across the saloon. The lawyer once remarked to him and Scott that location was everything. The saloon provided an ‘interminable’ stream of clients. One of them was stumbling out the lawyer’s door, aided by Griffith’s firm hand on his back.
His white shirt had lost a tie and the top two buttons at his throat were unbuttoned. His eyes widened a bit as they dismounted, then a broad smile puckered his lips. “You just missed one of Green River’s finest. Now, gentlemen, two visits from the Lancers in one day? That must be a record somewhere. Need another settlement handled?” With a creak of wood, he stepped aside and gestured to the inside of the office.
Murdoch stayed him with a hand on his arm. “Scott was here?”
“Earlier this afternoon. He collected the injunction papers I had the judge sign.” Jonas looked from Murdoch to Johnny and back again. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“He hasn’t returned to the ranch yet. His horse was found, but Scott wasn’t.”
“My God, what can I do to help?”
“Nothing. Wait, maybe keep an eye out. If you see anything from Birch, send a rider.”
Jonas nodded and they turned to leave. “Murdoch, I hate to bring this up. But if that diseño is gone with Scott and you can’t find him, the land could be in jeopardy.”
Murdoch unclenched enough to smile the awful smile he had when he was furious. “Right now it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.”
Scott didn’t know what to do about the cold air coming through the vents in the flooring, keeping the room too cool for his comfort. He crossed to the window, flung it open, letting in the soft, warm breeze of night and cricket song. When he tuned his ears to the outside, more familiar things came his way: a coyote crying in the hills, a few restless horses in the corral. Familiar sounds, a salve for the hole in the pit of his stomach.
Palms on the glass, he savored the warmth of it, the hardness. He held onto sanity, at best a tenuous hold, but this was, in fact, real. He rested his head on the back of one hand, closing his eyes. The storm, the explosion, what Abigail called a Jeep—all too fantastic.
Scott swung away from the window. He hadn’t undressed, hadn’t even thought about it. He brought the coat out and slid it on. A tap on the left side pocket of his coat - water-stained, the leather pouch with his life was still there. The papers inside were wrinkled now and torn at the corner from touching and opening it every so often to make sure. He wished… damn, he wanted it to be right again.
The hallway was dark, but that didn’t matter. Just moving, just doing something about it was a relief. By rote he made his way through the darkened house, avoiding the squeaky floorboard this time, passing by the kitchen when he heard a scrape of chair leg against the tile floor.
“Leaving so soon?” William’s tinny voice called out.
William’s eyes were impossible to read and when he went to the wall flipping a switch, the flood of light made no difference. A man used to keeping things to himself. William reminded Scott a bit of his grandfather but without the starched collar and turned-down lips.
“Are you going to sit down? Or are you going to leave?” No shilly-shally here, straight to the point. Grandfather would have admired William for that. He watched the old man spoon some coffee grounds into a machine and twist a button.
The coffee was awful, possibly the worst he’d ever had, but he drank it for something to do. William was standing by the counter, one hand holding the white pot handle, looking like he was going to offer more. Scott’s stomach clenched.
His eyes met Scott’s asking him something. Telling him, maybe.
Sit down, you’re not going anywhere.
“Yes, I’ll sit,” Scott murmured, tearing his eyes from the window, from the moon and escape, settling across from William. He allowed more coffee into his cup and the old man finally sat with him only to hitch back up and rustle in the refrigerator. He turned around with the jug of milk in his hand and gestured.
Scott shook his head then looked back to the window.
“What’s got you so bothered out there?”
He shrugged, ran a fingernail over the chip in the rim of his mug. “It’s warm tonight.”
William grimaced, pulling wrinkles together in the middle of his forehead. “Weather’s always warm here,” as a matter of fact, and Scott’s face went hot, then cold.
“Can’t trust anyone, not like the old days. Can’t rely on good neighbors anymore; they’re just people who’ve figured out how to lie the best and most often. So what does that leave you with?”
William’s eyes were bright, a shade of brown-gold hazed with cataract, but still functional. He wasn’t expecting an answer to that, was he?
Perhaps not. After a loaded minute, William slouched in the rail-back chair, one hand worrying his cane handle. He sighed as though he’d been hoping for an answer then slid his eyes to the side, ruffled his fingers through his white hair, making it stand on end. “You’re from back East, aren’t you?”
Scott gave a surprised little half laugh at the change in topics. “Born in California, raised and educated in Boston.”
William nodded. “Must have been quite a change. What did your people say when you left?”
Before Scott could correct him, the old man barreled on. “Chris left Lancer for a good while. There was an accident, not Chris’s fault, but his parents and I didn’t make that clear enough to him at the time. I wanted so desperately for him to stay,” he said firmly, like Scott should know. Then a flash of teeth. “The one bright spot of the whole mess? Abby. She wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t left. Still.”
William’s jaw worked a little, like he came to some kind of decision.
“We’re going to have to do something with you,” he said with a tight smile. “Pay is twenty-one hundred a month, room and board. Staff cabins are a ways away from the main house; we can set you up in one once your hip is better, but utilities are extra.”
Employment. William was offering him a chance to stay at Lancer.
“Our foreman, Gray, can set you up in the morning. Maybe Abby can take you to town, buy some new clothes.”
It sounded so possible and would give him time to sort things out. Scott could barely think. Talk. Reasoning was hard. It would be easy to just give over to this old man. Except William didn’t know him from a hole in the ground.
He thought of the money in his pocket, the coinage—would it be correct? “I don’t have anything to pay with,” Scott finally murmured.
“Don’t worry about that.” William stared at him, backlit by the light overhead. “We have that covered.”
“You know nothing about me.”
“I know what I can see. I know you need a hand. Call me a foolish old man, but that’s enough for now. We’ll figure out the rest. Come on, I’ll see you back to your room for what’s left of the night. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Scott knew it was all lies, but he wanted to believe, so he nodded, not saying a word.
He’d woken up sweating. With a few minutes of not understanding where he was, somewhere on Lancer, but not his Lancer—although if he had a choice he’d take the pristine flushable toilet over the privy any day. Rolled over to his side and hung on the edge as his head made itself known, pounding like the time Johnny had introduced him to mescal.
After a few minutes of arguing with himself, he pushed the quilt to the end of the bed and managed to get out the door. To his new job.
Scott stopped at the kitchen threshold and Chris nodded to him. He was chancing a cup of something, but maybe he’d made it himself. “William tells me we’ve hired you to work at Lancer.” His lips clamped together, then gave Scott a sharp look as though holding him responsible.
“Abby! He’s ready.” When there was no answer he yelled again.
The girl jogged into the kitchen out of breath and flushed. “Dad, I keep telling you we need to get an intercom. I was all the way back in the greenhouse.” She flopped a handful of fresh cut greenery down on the counter. “Here, cilantro for whatever goodness you’re whipping up tonight.
She turned to Scott. “C’mon. We’ll get breakfast on the road and by the time we hit town, the stores’ll be open and I‘ll do what I do best. You’re a thirty-two long, aren’t you?”
Chris shrugged at his look. “Good luck.”
The changes in this new world battered at Scott’s mind. The car, as Abigail called it, growled along the road, its front dials spewing forth an exuberant tune. She tapped her hand in time, the wind making her hair fly up and about in a riotous mess. Her carefree ways reminded him greatly of an older Teresa. Emptiness and a killing sense of loss lay around him.
He couldn’t speak while his blood raced. But he swallowed, forced his fists to uncurl and his body to relax, as the car came to a stop. She was a fearless driver, but the speed was unlike anything he had encountered before. The egg sandwich they had picked up ‘to-go’ sat like a stone in his stomach.
“Here we are! This is a great store. Yeah, I’m thinking jeans and a couple of shirts.”
“This isn’t a good idea. My current clothes are fine.”
“And you’ll need a hat if you’ll be out on the range.”
They swerved into an empty place alongside the boardwalk in front of the large glass window, ending what little conversation they had between them.
Ignoring his shaky legs, Scott got out of the car. He could do this. Determined, he strode toward the glass doors and stuttered to a stop when said doors whooshed open without a visible hand.
The feminine voice calling “Hey, Abby!” was a godsend. Suitably distracted, Abigail looked for the owner of the voice while Scott gathered his scattered wits.
“When did you get back from Europe, and don’t tell me you haven’t finished that fussy paper yet.”
“Oh, I got back weeks ago. My dissertation will be done in two months.”
And from there, he’d tuned out what they were saying. Something about how Charles de Gaulle frisked her and lost luggage, maybe. It made no sense and he was too absorbed in the absolute hum of the town anyway. Green River had grown, become for all intents and purposes a real city. The colors alone were startling.
A high-pitched hail from across the street had Gina making her excuses and stepping off the curb. She leaned toward Scott before she left and he could see a floating pendant with two hearts entwined slide forward on her silver necklace as she came close, and a cloying scent of perfume.
“You are so cute. Abby should bring you to Mugshots on Friday night, you know. We could have a few drinks.” She cocked her hip, balancing her weight on one leg, her face inches from Scott’s. “It gets really boring around here. Really. Boring.” What she meant by it was so obvious, so literally in his face, words did not come right away. He stood there stunned until Abigail pulled on his sleeve.
“See ya, Gina.”
Gina smiled, a coy thing. “Hope to see you soon, and you too, Abby.” With an extra swish of hip, she turned away.
“Sorry, Scott. She gets a little… exuberant around someone new.” She rolled her eyes. “Any male someone, that is.”
Sliding glass doors? Scott welcomed them and the Gina-less space after that.
Abby grimaced at the all-too-obvious impression Gina left on the all-too-obvious old-fashioned Scott Garrett. Funny, how she had accepted Gina’s ways. In fact, didn’t give them a second thought, but once Gina moved in on Scott, with his gentlemanly behavior that Abby secretly adored, she saw the gracelessness of the act. She appreciated his manners. Appreciated how they made her feel a little special in a household of men. She didn’t think less of Gina. Her ways were her ways and her straightforwardness was a hit among men, and she was honest about who she was, as honest as possible for a person to be.
Abby enjoyed seeing a different side, a peek into manners of another era. She didn’t know where Scott hailed from, but California easy-going? He didn’t fit in, but his clothes were workman’s clothes. His hands calloused. She might have pegged him as a silver-spooned trust fund recipient except for those two facts. Then again, given what she saw in People, trust fund recipients didn’t sport the manners their mysterious guest did.
Mysteries later, shopping now. While the guilt of injuring him was no longer crippling, Scott could ask anything of her and Abby would do her best to make it happen.
She owed him. His forgiveness was not to be taken for granted.
Tugging the shell-shocked man after her, Abby introduced him to the men’s department.
Musing of wranglers turned into jeans, and exhausted, Scott didn’t see the man coming out of the tall brick building, but Abigail did. She ran her hand restlessly through her hair.
A shaky sigh followed by a shaky smile. “That’s Steven Thayer.”
Older than Chris, Thayer was tall, wrapped in a coat of pale gray. He considered Scott with understated curiosity.
Up close Thayer’s face showed the ravages of both age and life lived hard. He smiled and Scott had to check himself, wanting to make sure his money clip was still in his back pocket.
“Abigail Lancer. How is your father doing?”
“Busy, Mr. Thayer.”
“Mm-hm. There’s something innately satisfying about owning your own land. Not everyone has the opportunity, or the courage, to make it a success.”
“What you call success is another person’s heartache.”
Scott’s heart thudded, because he could see what was in the man’s eyes and he couldn’t put a word to it, even though he was a man full of words. Before he had time to think it through, Scott grabbed her arm, pulled her away behind him.
“So that’s how it is. You’ve hired your own muscle,” Thayer said, but kept his eyes on Abigail. “We’ll see who wins this argument, won’t we?” He waited, cold eyes darting.
Then, like a light breaking over the horizon, Thayer caught himself and smiled again. “There’s no need for me to delay you any longer. Tell the old man I’ll be in touch.”
Scott waited until he got into the car. “I don’t care for the man.”
Abigail squeaked out a chuckle. “Slimeball. I always feel like I need a shower after talking to him. You’d feel the same way if someone was trying to steal what was yours.”
“Thayer and his thugs want Lancer. The land around it is not enough; they want it all so they can rape it with strip mining.” She nodded to the brick building. “He was visiting his lawyer. I’d feel better if we could do something. The worst is the waiting, the not knowing what he’s planning.”
“It should be clear you don’t want to sell.”
“It’s not as easy as that, Dad or William can tell you more. It started when I was in France on fellowship. Has to do with some ownership papers that were never filed, or maybe we never had them in the first place. Something about a loophole.”
Abruptly, he turned, slid into the seat and waited for her to do the same. He slid his hand inside his coat pocket to touch the envelope. If there was a chance…. “Abigail, I saw a stretch of road I’d like to see on the way back. Can we stop?”
They drove forty minutes out of town and turned onto a two-rut dirt lane that would lead them to the section of land Scott wanted to see. They topped a small summit and came to a dusty halt.
“This is most northern piece of our property, Scott.” She turned to him, a curious tilt to her head. “But why you’d want to come out here beats me.”
He got out and walked to the creek. “It’s rained.”
She sent him a puzzled look.
He motioned to the creek. “It’s running high.”
“You really aren’t from around here, are you? We have monsoons every afternoon in the spring, when the clouds come over the mountains. The run-off keeps the creek busy.”
Abigail stopped short. “See the green line of scrub grass? Our property extends to the end of it, but nothing past it. I see Thayer has hired some men and moved their trucks out here.” She scowled and nodded across the invisible boundary line. “The creek is ours, though. Dad would bring me here as a girl, for picnics," she said, her face coursing with memories.
"Once upon a time, wild flowers grew here, beautiful colors. I wish you could have seen this area just a few years ago, before Thayer bought the adjoining property. It doesn’t look like the same place."
Wrong, all wrong. The land had tumbled and rolled like an ocean storm. The shale promontory on the other side of the creek bed—Thayer’s property—had shifted and cracked. The bands of river willows and oaks were no more. He studied the rocks, half looking for the tree split in half by the lightning. Maybe there, the trunk twisted and hardened, like the stones around it. Along with it, a whiff of something that lifted the hair on the back of his neck, made his breath hitch painfully. A smell of rain and ozone, stone and ash—of home.
Abigail frowned and started forward. “Hey! What are you doing?”
Scott followed her. The man was rangy, like he was used to hard work. Scabbard on his hip, a shiny-handled knife peeking out. Lean, all muscle and sinew, and a walk like a wild animal.
“That’s Adkins, Thayer’s hired thug.”
There was no hesitation when Adkins noticed them standing there, just pad, pad right to them.
A prickling sensation rippled Scott’s spine. On its heels, anger. His right hand went down to his hip, found only fabric. The holster and revolver were folded on the top of the bureau in his room.
Adkins stormy gaze never faltered. “So you’re the one Lancer has hired.”
“You’re trespassing.” Abigail’s voice gave away her worry.
“Am I, little girl? According to Mr. Thayer, this is his land, or soon will be.”
Scott stepped forward. “Then you weren’t given the straight of it. This is Lancer property, and always has been.”
Adkins scowl darkened with fierce anger. “My men have orders to not make trouble, for now. But it’s a thin line. I wouldn’t push it.”
Scott only had one option, and he and Abigail were going to take it. “I would.”
And knew from the way Adkins turned away, leaving, that he was right to take the bluff. Scott took a shaky breath, feeling a little ill.
Abigail looked at him, up, eyes wide in the bright sun, face flushed. “I’ll need to tell Dad about the new trucks and men. He won’t like it.”
“Stay away from Adkins, Abigail,” Scott murmured, because the man, he could see, had no intention of staying away from anybody. It was all useless posturing.
Madness, he thought, denying his eyes.
The next morning they rode without talking, and Johnny was grateful for it. He didn’t want to stop, not when he felt swollen with Murdoch’s distress and his own; it had mounted up like a tide, and Johnny felt as though he could crash anytime now, water against rock.
The clearing on their side was pretty big, dominated by an enormous stump slashed down the middle. Except for the divot, black ash covered it, burned into something more solid than it had been as a tree. Around the stump was devastation, recent fallen saplings and tangled underbrush packed into ungainly bundles. He imagined Scott here, riding, the storm all about. Johnny narrowed his eyes. Something wasn’t right here. Four long strides took him to the creek.
Across the water, Birch had moved in a few wagons, material and equipment. Had even dug a little. Johnny had seen it in Mexico too many times to count. Birch was mining ore. Either gold or silver, it didn’t matter. In a few short months the creek would be polluted with a slurry of magistral and mercury. No cows, no anything, would drink from it.
He kicked the sign lodged on its side in the bank, sent it sliding into the water. He spared one glance at Murdoch, finding the tight jaw and determined eyes boring down over the split burnt tree and scrubby pasture. Mud, rocks and grass, that’s all he saw, the willows bending with the slight breeze.
The ground fell off into shale and Johnny searched the rough edge of the embankment, before bringing his eyes back to Murdoch.
A hat. Just a damn hat was all they found. Still curled in Murdoch’s hand.
The barn was new and not new. Stalls and tack didn’t change much over time. Neither did horses, and that was where he found solace. For whatever reason, he was here, against nature. Still going, a dead man walking. Murdoch and Johnny? Long dead. He spread the papers on the hay bale, smoothing out wrinkles to look at them. One finger followed the weaving, red-tipped boundary line and he compared it to what he saw earlier with Abigail. The course of the creek had changed over time, taking a more westerly direction, now flowing on all of Lancer proper instead of being shared. No wonder Thayer wanted it so badly.
Mech walked in, the smell of liquor wafting about him. One of the newer hires, he was tall, not Murdoch tall, but he wouldn’t have to stretch to get the rope off the highest shelf in the barn. Long hair pulled back and caught at the neck with a brightly colored string. But what interested Scott the most was the thing Mech held to his ear. Listening and talking to it at the same time. He caught Scott’s eyes and slid to a stop on the sawdust floor.
The sour staleness intensifying, he stood when Mech approached. “Gray lets you drink when you’re working?”
Mech said a few words and pressed a button on the small box. “A little beer in the afternoon, ain’t no one’s problem except my own.” He cocked a savage grin. “And I don’t consider it a problem. What Gray doesn’t know can’t hurt him. Besides, my foot needs a push in the afternoon, still a lotta work to do, you know? Or maybe you don’t know. Hiding out here like you got all the time in the world.” He lingered on the words like sweet candies, drawing them out.
“Hey, what are those?” Mech tipped his head to the papers exposed on the hay bale. “That old colored one looks like a map of some kind. You hunting around, too?” He brought up the thing and pressed, making a clicking noise.
“What did you do there?” Scott scooped up the papers, folding them into the pouch.
“What did I…?” Mech chuckled. “Boy, you sure like to kick it old school, don’t ya? You really need to get a grip, come into the twenty-first century or something.
“But I like you, Scotty. I think we’re the same underneath, you, me, even Gray, though he really needs to get laid so he’d loosen up a bit. Just trying to scratch a living,” Mech said, pushing the small box into his pocket.
“How far would a man go to eke out a living?”
“Far enough. Don’t get in my way here, Garrett. You wouldn’t like it.” His face softened, the grin was back. “And if that map is what I think it is, maybe you and I could do a little business.”
Mech turned to leave, looking pleased, like he’d found a new prize.
It was late afternoon by the time Chris made it out of the house. He hated days filled with nothing but insurance claims, taxes, and filing. The news from Abby about the north section hadn’t gone a long way to ease his mind, either. He walked to the barn and stopped just outside the door when he heard the voices of Mal and Rube, two cowboys who had worked on Lancer long before he returned. They were good men, if a little rough around the edges. Both watched Scott brush out a mare in the crossties.
Rube gave Scott a wide berth, leaning into a stall wall at an angle so he could watch his face. Mal did the same, only a little closer. Scott seemed to fit in physically well with this bunch. He had that hollow-eyed underfed cowboy look down pat. Mal’s glance kept flicking over to Scott, who took great pains in ignoring it.
Chris decided to listen in.
“So, new guy, huh?”
Mal slid around to the horse’s nose and patted her lightly. “Rube, whatever happened to Marlboro Man?”
“Monty Flowers!” Rube yelled as though Scott and Mal weren’t standing two feet away. “The four-pack-a-day dude, right?”
“Yeah, that’s him. Bet he wished he’d kept up the cancer sticks.” Mal chuckled. “Tried to quit the cigs one season, got all jittery and took on old Leon, nastiest seed bull we’ve had around here. Roped him just as fine as could be, then BAM!” He slapped his hand against the wall. “Sonofabitch came back on him, trapped his arm right there against the corral railing and squeezed.”
Rube nodded. “Smokes with his left hand now. But not near as bad as Clayton. Said he had a new way of breaking the wild grullas we found runnin’ in Pikes Canyon. Yeah, it was new all right, stomped his head almost clean off.”
“Hey, how ’bout Adolfo?” Rube said, like it was a parlor game. Mal groaned. “Oh, man, the tractor chain whipped around and snapped like a firecracker.”
“So’d Adolfo,” Rube chimed in. “In a whole bunch of places.”
Gruesome warnings designed to scare the new guy. In a now recognizable mannerism, Scott glanced down at the ground before meeting their eyes with a smile. “I knew this one hand who was pounded so flat by a stampede that we rolled him like an area rug to bring him home.”
Chris started to laugh behind a splay of fingers over his mouth at the crestfallen looks on Rube’s and Mal’s faces.
Shaking his head, Scott led the horse out to the corral.
A presence beside Chris pulled his attention away.
“How’s he working out?”
The noticeable pause had Chris turning his attention to their foreman. Gray, whipcord thin and the epitome of the western cowboy looked –sheepish. The very unlikely expression from a man who took stoic to heights William couldn’t match, nearly floored Chris. Chris, who couldn’t match ‘stoic’ in regards to either man, gaped.
Gray let loose a low chuckle and leaned against the corral. “He’s a hard worker despite the light workload I have him on because of the hip injury. Pushes himself and understands the need to get the work done and why. Takes to it like one born to it.”
“Understands horses, prefers them to the ATVs which he doesn’t know how to start.”
“He’s never used one before, perhaps?”
Gray shook his head. “Strange as it sounds, I’d say he’s never been around much in the way of machinery before. Nearly flies out of his skin if anything starts up without him seeing it happen. Stays tense until he understands it. I’d swear he’s like a kid seeing the fair for the first time. All wonder and nerves, even if he does his best to hide it.”
Chris thumped his forehead on the rail. “Ah, shit. We should’ve taken him to the hospital.”
A slap on his back had him straightening and Gray did that eye twinkling thing that he did when he was laughing at you, but only in the inside.
“Naw, think his head is fine. There’s another story there.”
“You like him.”
“That I do. Authentic like we don’t see much these days, so it’s hard not to.”
Mind-boggling. Gray’s praise and respect was hard won. Many other outfits did their best to woo Gray from Lancer with higher pay and more perks since the man had a reputation for putting together an unbeatable staff.
“You don’t think he’s working for Thayer then.”
“Not that one.”
The hairs went up the back of Chris’ neck. “Not that one?”
“Need to keep an eye on Mech. He’s fallen behind some financially. Saw Thayer’s man, Adkins, talking in his ear last week.”
“And you’re just mentioning this now?”
“Wanted to be sure it isn’t a onetime thing.” Gray waved a hand in Scott’s general direction. “That one, he won’t sell out. Mech’s a not a bad guy all in all, but he’s one when he’s between a rock and a hard place, he’ll slither out from between.
“You’re that sure about Scott?”
“Yeah, I’ve no doubt there’s some city in him, but he knows Lancer like he’s lived here. Never had to give him one direction on where to go. Figure that one out.”
“Gray, this is weird.”
“No argument there.”
“I hate mysteries.”
“Kind of enjoy ’em myself.”
“That simple.” With a wave, Gray left to join Scott with the horse.
Chris half sat on the desk’s corner, crossing his arms. “We have a brain-damaged hand.”
William looked over his shoulder at the announcement, waited.
“Gray tells me he isn’t familiar with machinery, yet knows Lancer land like he was born here.”
“Odd.” Unsettling. The niggling feeling grew. William eased into the chair; filing could wait. “You talked to Gray?”
“I did and Gray likes him.”
Interesting. “What about the brain damage?”
“Gray thinks he’s smart enough, but believes he’s never been around machinery before. No worries about him finding his way around Lancer, though. He knows the area better than I do.” Chris grimaced, shifting more of himself on the desk. “Trusts Scott, but not Mech—who we need to keep an eye on—and this is getting weirder and weirder.”
“You like him as well.”
“Sure, he’s a hard worker. Shows up early, quits late, polite and friendly to everyone. I just don’t get him. He doesn’t fit.”
There was the crux of the situation right there—Scott didn’t fit.
Sleep eluded William in the form of a face he’d known he’d seen before and a familiar name, but not the why of it.
Scott Garrett. Simple enough name, one that needled at him all night long.
Scott Garr—oh, surely not.
Predawn hours or not. Aching leg or not, William tore out of bed, throwing a warmer shirt over his pajamas. Catching up his cane, he slid into his slippers and eased his bedroom door opened. He didn’t want Chris or Abby to know of his nocturnal foray. They worried enough. Didn’t matter how often he assured them his leg had healed, they worried.
Stumbling about in the dark would make them very worried, indeed.
Hell getting old.
The attic stairs were far enough away from their bedrooms that they wouldn’t be awakened by his trek up them. He made a note to tell Marley a dusting was in order. Rare that anyone went up into the attic; William, the most likely of all of them to do so. Flipping the overhead light on, he made for the corner.
The old family records and photos were stored there. William knew what he looked for was in the oldest wooden box with the broken lock. Using his cane to hook a chair closer, he dropped into it, lifting the box lid up.
Photos – where…
“Holy shit.” Abby’s go-to vernacular slipped from him in a hushed whisper.
Murdoch, Johnny, and Scott Lancer. Stiff, unsmiling, but a hint of amusement in all of them. He’d always wondered what they found so funny. Scott Lancer, grandson of Harlan Garrett, son of Catherine Garrett and Murdoch Lancer.
Scott Garrett. No mistaking the resemblance. They could be twins.
Scott’s comment of the house humming. How it wasn’t quiet. His fascination with the refrigerator. His fascination with everything, but working so hard to hide it.
William, stop. Do you know where you’re going with this?
Scott’s antique clothes and weapon.
No reenactment. Reenactments didn’t exist in the 1800’s. Not like now.
He shook himself. His conclusions were impossible.
Scott Garrett didn’t fit this time, manners and nature so at odds with the world now. William stared at the picture.
A long lost time-traveling relative?
Chris and Abby would question his sanity if he even mentioned the possibility. Then again, he’d seen the puzzled looks they exchanged when Scott’s speech or behavior clashed oddly with the world today.
He needed to talk to Chris. To Abby. Boiling it down, that was the recourse left. Show them the pictures; they’d set him straight.
But what if they couldn’t? Adrenaline shot through him, causing him to breath fast and hard. If they couldn’t….
William returned to the box, picking through the photos and papers. Another photo caught his eye, this one Murdoch and Johnny with his wife and a baby. Too bad he didn’t live to see the rest of his grandchildren. William didn’t know if he looked for it, but there was a hardness or sadness showing in Murdoch in that picture.
He spread all the photos out, no other pictures of Scott Lancer in the bunch. There were many of Murdoch and Johnny, and more than a few of Teresa O’Brien and her family.
The brittle papers held information. He recalled reading with detached fascination the reports about the search for Scott Lancer. With care, William placed everything back in the box, his proof that that he wasn’t losing his mind, to present to Chris and Abby.
Almost five. He had some time and found he needed the following hours to do what he needed.
The kitchen table worked best for spreading things out. Everything laid out in chronological order, something he had never done before. Lives that once had seemed so distant in more than time, felt more personal.
“What’s all this?”
William looked up from his organizing as Chris stepped closer to the table. “No, Chris, start here and follow it clockwise.” He pointed to the corner of the table where the timeline began.
Abby walked in, stopping when she saw the full table. Before she could say anything, William gestured to her. “Follow your father. Look at all of this and tell me what you think?”
“What is it?”
“Just look, Abby, please.”
She did as asked while William moved away to watch. He knew the moment they made the connection with the picture and Scott.
Chris shifted his eyes between William and the photo. “Uncanny resemblance.”
“Scott Lancer’s mother’s maiden name was Garrett.”
“But that’s….” Abby let it trail off, her eyes returning to the items on the table.
Silence followed. Chris and Abby took their time, going around the entire table and then back selecting papers or photos to study closer. When they ended back at the photo of the three Lancer men, William knew he wasn’t going to be set straight on any of it.
“This is too sci-fi, right?” Abby looked pale, they both did.
Chris studied the picture again. “This doesn’t make sense. It’s a strong, incredibly strong, family resemblance.”
“Yes, it is.”
“But the name? How can….” Chris stopped, looked down at the table again as if searching for a better answer.
“Maybe the reason Scott Lancer disappeared was because he found someone and they had children.” Abby gestured to the table. “Maybe there was some kind of falling out and Scott felt he had to leave.”
William heard the uneven tread of a man favoring his hip descending the stairs. “Think we’ll find out.”
One couldn’t fail to notice the sudden quiet in the kitchen when he entered. Scott’s heart gave a lurching thump at the faces that greeted him. Shocked disbelief on Chris and Abigail’s. Wonder on William’s.
Liberally covering the table were pictures and papers. The knowledge of who lived a generation ago, the last time Señor Baldemerro’s store was open, or who was buried standing straight up in his grave, it was an intimate sense of… self. These Lancers possessed it, when he and Johnny were still learning.
He moved closer and his heart gave another uncomfortable thump when he recognized the photographs.
Boys, we’re getting our picture taken. Be ready in a half hour.
He and Johnny had exchanged dismayed looks, given they had just staggered in after dragging two cows out of a mud pit. Picture-ready they were not.
“Snap to it.” Murdoch clapped his hands together and in that instant they realized how important this was.
Scott picked up the photograph of the three of them, smiling at the memory.
William moved closer. “What happened during this photo?”
“Our first as a family.” Scott shook his head. “Johnny and I had been at Lancer almost a year before it ever came up. The significance of it didn’t occur to any of us until that moment.”
Chris still looked like he had found a two-headed calf in the stall. “Scott Lancer. Huh.”
The tightening of William’s expression, while minute, removed any pleasantness gained from the memory.
Scott braced himself. “What is it?”
“A year after this photo was taken, there was some sort of dispute with a neighboring ranch. A range war erupted and Murdoch was shot. He recovered, only to die within a couple of years.”
Scott took that, tucked it away for later, because right now he was aching in a spot so familiar he didn’t know if it would ever go away. “What else? Johnny?”
“He lived, married and had children.” William continued with reluctance. “From what I’ve pieced together from historical papers, the judge at the time ruled in Murdoch’s favor eventually. The incident started over gold ore. The neighbor found a vein of it on his land, saw that it crossed property boundaries, as such.”
The diseño and the injunction were still in his pocket. The judge must have made the ruling based on Murdoch’s reputation.
Scott nodded. “Birch would mine the land, pollute the water source.”
William’ eyes flicked to Chris in surprise. Abigail, who had sat in stunned silence through the whole interchange, looked nervous; her hand was in her hair again, sweeping it to the side and behind her ear.
“History repeats itself.”
William shrugged more with his lips than his shoulders. “The ranch, including that part of the property, has stayed Lancer all these years, willed from member to the next with the stipulation the ranch stays in the family. John Lancer, the second son, your brother, did that. And it’s carried through the years.”
William tapped the table, deep in thought. “When Murdoch died, his share was supposed to pass to John. But John never changed the original agreement; he kept your name on it.” He looked at Scott with bright eyes.
“According to rights, you own one half of this ranch.”
Scott shrugged. “I’d have a time proving it.” Grief flickered before Scott swallowed hard.
William moved on. “We have the original agreement that split Lancer into thirds, found it in the large family bible. Whoever did it had a wicked sense of humor. The document was pressed between verses five and eight of Job. What we don’t have are the original land grants. Thayer found out somehow, he’s pushing his lawyers to overturn the 1873 ruling on the condition that we truly don’t own the land. If he can prove that, the land becomes public and he’ll buy it.”
Chris blew out a breath. “And strip mine the hell out of it. In doing so, he’ll ruin the only source of water for that northern section.”
“We’ve gone so far as to try and establish contact with the Mexican government for a history of the transaction from Mexican to Anglo, but the officials there are less than helpful. Much like the state of California, where they were supposed to be originally filed.” William sat back, and closed his eyes. “Doesn’t anyone keep the past sacred anymore?”
He was twenty-five years old and understood that back in his time he wasn’t going to get any older. All the plans he’d made for himself, all that he’d made with Johnny and Murdoch, none of them were ever going to come to pass. He looked long and hard at William and Chris, then at Abigail, turned and left the kitchen.
Entering the great room, he walked behind the old desk, now showing its age with horizontal cracks running the grain of the wood.
The whole family had followed. “Scott?” Chris’ words were crisp, the vocal equivalent of grabbing his arm.
Scott glanced at him briefly. He wanted nothing more for the documents to be there. Carefully, he pried open the side panel, age and disuse gluing it together. William looked over his hunched shoulder, heard a catch of breath when the panel scraped open.
“There was a key, about this wide,” Scott held his fingertips two inches apart, “made of brass.”
William’s grey eyebrows came together in one long line. Finally: “Abby, the jar with blue lid, can you get it from the hutch?”
When she returned, William dumped the jar’s contents on the desktop. Yellow and brown buttons, a few cat’s-eye marbles tumbled out: small, meaningful things one would find around the house but not have a safe place to store. Teresa had a teacup perched on the kitchen table that did the same.
“We didn’t know what it went to.” William held aloft the key. “Do you think the documents have been stored there all this time?”
“Murdoch stored sensitive items in there.” At one time it held Pinkerton reports, as he and Johnny had found out.
His compliments to the Californian cabinetmaker, the mechanism was silent after all these years.
It all happened so fast, he didn’t have time to open his mouth. William said it for him. “Nothing’s there.”
Chris’s chin came up. The old man choked, literally choked, when he understood what Scott had shown them. There was a resignation to their faces that cut Scott to the quick, surprising him. That sort of fear—of losing home and family—was familiar.
A painful lump lodged somewhere inside. “You don’t need the original grant, at least not for the piece of land by the stream.”
William looked up. “What? Why?”
Nerves raced over his skin. “Murdoch bought that section separately.” He reached into his pocket, withdrew the leather pouch.
His hip was better, but Scott didn’t think the current Lancers would send him to the staff quarters any time soon. Teary-eyed, William had opened the papers with shaky hands. They talked far into the evening and most of the night until the old man’s head nodded to the side in a doze. Then Chris had carefully folded the documents and placed them in the secret drawer, locked it, and put the key in top of the desk. Much like Murdoch.
Knowing they were there safe yet out of his hands was a blend of regret and peace.
He eased out of the house leaving William and Chris, plates of toast and eggs pushed to the side, poring over strategy. Full morning now, his own belly full of Abigail’s homemade waffles, so sweet two cups of coffee and a glass of milk weren’t enough to cut it. He hoped a morning spent doing barn chores would set him right.
Once, he knew in his skin where he was and what he needed to do. The look Murdoch gave when sipping an excellent glass of scotch, Johnny rumpled and mumbly, not-quite-awake in the morning, when the wind would blow, when it would rain.
It itched, deep inside his gut. He existed between times, between generations, between Lancers. Just between and damnit if he didn’t feel like riding all day, all the way to… just about said it again, swallowed it because he was already here. His teeth clenched until it hurt his jaw and he sensed someone at window—either William or Chris—watching him, wondering.
The clean, warm air of almost summer felt welcoming on the way to the barn. But it pinged him in a way he hadn’t dared to think quite yet—what if he couldn’t get back to his Lancer?
The disquiet drove him to move and he did, taking the comb and dandy brush from the bucket inside the tack room. He tied the first paint mare in her stall. His new hat, unlike the old one, felt stiff and constraining. He swept it from his head and hung it on a free nail, then reached for the comb.
He started rubbing in circles starting at the top of her neck, veering away from a sensitive spot on her shoulder when the skin rippled. Two voices were outside, one feminine and one masculine. The soprano belonged to Abigail, the deeper teasing one was Mech. The mare’s tail swished against the side of the stall and Scott stepped back, leaned into the wall.
The voices became louder, sharper.
“Really, really, there’s no need for you to help me take these pots into the shed.”
Mech gave a hearty laugh. “Now Miss Lancer, my mother taught me to always help a girl in need.”
“Well, Mama’s not here. And I don’t need your help.”
“But it looks like you do.”
Maybe it was the insistence, or the fact Mech’s tone had gone cold. Scott threw down the comb and veered out of the stall at a jog.
Mech had caught her hand and swung her into his arms, clamping her hard against him.
Abigail brought her knee up between Mech’s thighs. Even as he grunted, she swung and hit the man hard in the eye.
“Get off!” she shouted, shoving at him. Groaning, he fell against the car, curling up like a dried apple. Abigail’s fist came up. “If you don’t get out of here now, I’ll hit you again. I mean it.”
Scott grabbed Mech’s wrist mid-air, wrenched it around his back. “You’re fired. Leave and never come back.” He gave him a shove and sent him stumbling down the drive.
“You got no right to fire me.” Mech jabbed a finger in Scott’s direction. “Especially you!”
“Maybe not, but I do.” Gray had stepped up without anyone seeing. “Like the man said, you’re fired; now get out.”
“You’re crazy, both of you.” Mech scurried for his car.
The front door opened and Chris came running out, pulling up short at the three of them watching Mech drive away in a cloud of dust and noise.
“Abby, are you all right? I heard shouting.”
“Mech was offering to help when I didn’t need any.” Chris’s face darkened. “But I’m fine, Dad. Scott backed me up.”
“She was already taking care of the situation by the time I arrived.” He couldn’t stop a grin. “I’d better see to the horses.”
Gray spit out a chuckle. “Chris, I do love a mystery. He fired Mech, told him in no uncertain terms to leave and never come back. Think I’d better watch out or Scott’ll be running the place soon.”
Chris looked at Abby, eyebrows raised.
Restless even after hours of sweating in the barn and corral, Scott saddled up the paint and made his way past the crumbled remnants of the white arch.
The dirt road he traveled on paralleled and crossed an old game trail Johnny and he had found one day. They had made a sizable dent in the deer population that season. As Lancer raised cattle, a little variance was always welcome. It had been good that winter. Scott looked to the hill in front of him. A cabin had stood there, and it bothered him more than he thought possible to see all that was left was a few decomposed logs on a broken rock foundation.
A cloud of vague forms and sounds descended. He wasn't conscious of any real thoughts, until he arrived at the cemetery, drawn to find the past.
The cemetery was filled with children and young mothers. Cowboys and vaqueros who worked the estancia. A simple Good Man read one tombstone. Some he had helped bury in the aftermath of Pardee.
But he needed to see. It was there in a small area, what once was sectioned off by a stone wall, but now ribboned with rubble. He dropped down to the first grave and brushed aside the overgrown grass. The script was of large letters to fit the man: Murdoch S. Lancer. His heart gave an ugly hitch. The date of death was two years after the day Scott had left the lawyer’s office, as William had said.
He glanced to his left. John M. Lancer, Son, Brother, Husband. For a man who once counted his existence by hours, it was gratifying to see his brother had lived so long. Next to Johnny’s marker were several other stones, all in too much faded disarray to read the inscriptions. He looked across the stretches of open grasslands that emptied into the horizon.
And was aware that someone else watched.
Chris reined his horse at the gate. His eyebrows were bunched together in concern, a look that leapt generations. “Murdoch Lancer, your father.” He pointed to the other stone. “And that’s my namesake, John Madrid. My folks thought the name was an affectation of the man.”
“We call…called him Johnny.” He had interrupted but it was somehow important Chris knew.
Tangled bloodlines. It didn’t matter, and maybe he was looking for it, but despite a hundred plus years or so, Chris could pass for Johnny’s son.
“The name did mean something. Johnny was a gunfighter. He took the surname of his mother when he started, and before you ask, he’s excellent.”
The open-jawed look was almost comical. “William hinted that Johnny had a black past. He killed people in showdowns?”
Scott stood and brushed off his pants. “A gun for hire.” He struggled with the right words. “Protection? Mercenary?”
“How is it that he even got to Lancer?”
“Would it surprise you to learn Johnny was born at Lancer? Murdoch’s second son and a brother I never knew until two years ago.”
He could not believe Johnny was dead. The rich drawl in his ears, the tone rising and falling depending on what Johnny was doing at the time. In most men, you knew what was going to come next, but he was never sure what would come out of his brother’s mouth.
Scott shivered, walked slowly past the riot of purple and yellow wildflowers dotting the green around the gravestones and out of the cemetery. The wind had come up with another promise of rain, but the heat had reinvigorated his sweat and he tried to ignore the wetness that soaked through his cotton shirt.
Memories. All those memories scattering around in his mind, shaken loose watching a man struggle to accept the here and now while looking at the gravestones of family not dead to him, but gone for decades. Chris swirled the scotch in his glass, appreciating the amber color in the setting sun. That it eased the stiff muscles from too much worry added to the allure.
He took another swallow.
“What are you so concerned about?”
Chris fought hard not to jump at the unexpected voice and turned at the belated scrape of a boot on the concrete as Scott came through the doorway.
“What makes you ask that?” He wasn’t too old to try for a good stall or distraction. A soft laugh let him know it wouldn’t work.
“You are very much like Johnny in a lot of ways.”
He stilled at the comment. Scott sat in the chair beside him, long legs crossing at the ankles with a sense of relaxation, Chris could only find in the Scotch tonight. Damn him. Man out of time—and didn’t that still send the hairs in the back of his neck to attention—but Scott was the one taking his ease out in the sunset tonight.
“Johnny is as confident and accomplished as any man, but when it comes to the larger of Lancer’s issues, he still defers to Murdoch or myself since as he put it ‘he doesn’t have the same education’.”
Is. Now. Not was. For Scott the past was very much the present.
“The trip to the cemetery got me to thinking about things. Good guy?” Stories passed down for generations weren’t as good as the now.
Scott smiled. “Yes. A good man. I’ve no doubt he will be a good father. I’d like to see it.”
Would he? The question floated unasked between them. Chris glanced at his companion. Scott looked content for now. Chris watched his struggle with the modern day world. He did it silently. Only asking for help when he couldn’t figure out how something worked. That Scott had a quick mind for grasping the unbelievable was evident in the first few days.
“Do you like this time?”
Scott smiled, keeping his eyes on the sunset. “There is much to recommend it, the conveniences, the apparent ease in which one lives in this time.”
Now Scott looked at him, smile softening. “I’m an old-fashioned man. Home is the people I’ve left behind, though it will be hard to leave you all.”
“No.” Now Scott looked like the young man he was. “No. There is a way back. I can’t leave Murdoch and Johnny wondering for the rest of their lives what happened to me.”
“Lancer survived. Poor comfort, I know, but we don’t know how you got here much less figure out how to get you back.” Chris didn’t want to be the voice of reason, but the idea of Scott relying on such a fragile hope—it would devastate him.
“Murdoch has done nothing but survive without his sons for years. We didn’t know.” Scott grimaced, continuing in a softer tone. “Our first meeting was contentious at best. He wasn’t welcoming. Although, if he had been, I doubt we would have accepted that welcome. Given all our hopes and fears, it was perhaps the best approach. But we did learn he wanted us both. Desperately.” His hands curled into fists on his thighs. “That picture you have, it was taken after I was gone. He didn’t look like that—not after he realized we were there to stay.”
“What made you stay?” Chris always wondered if Scott Lancer had enough of the West, and returned to the East without word to his family. Meeting Scott now, the very idea was preposterous.
“Murdoch and Johnny.” Scott stood up, to lean against a pillar. “Lancer. This place soaks into you, gets a grip that won’t let go and yet, I never felt as free as I did here. Life is immediate. No artifice.”
Chris knew that feeling. Kept coming back here even when he felt shamed, not good enough. William never indicated he shared that belief. His eyes would flash with relief when Chris pulled into the driveway. A fierce bony hug awaited Chris every time, as soon as he got out of the car.
“What keeps you here?”
Chris’s mouth twisted as the question turned back on him. Scott looked over his shoulder waiting on the answer.
“William, Abby.” He laughed softly. “This place is home.”
“Then why do you fight it?”
“My brother died not far from here.” His stomach still clenched when he said those words. “The crossroads a mile down. I’d just told some stupid joke. Aidan was laughing hard and didn’t see the car barreling through the stop sign. Hit his side. He died instantly.”
“You blame yourself?”
Scott raised his brows.
Scott turned to face him, crossing his arms over his chest. “Surviving is one of the hardest things to not feel guilty about. I don’t care what reasoning is given, it is difficult to accept that you live while others die.”
A wealth of experience colored those words.
“I wasn’t a good son after that. Went off the rails. Met Hannah a few years later and Abby was born. We married, but couldn’t make it work. The divorce was apathetic at best.”
“Knowing Abigail, you have no reason to feel you failed.”
“No, while not something I claim total credit for, I’ve no regrets there.”
“So then you fear failing now.”
Chris felt the strike, froze, and absorbed it. You fear failing now.
His held breath released, and he relaxed deeper into the chair.
“Yes.” How odd to have it come down to something so simple. And not. “William wants me to take over. I don’t want to let him down.”
To disappoint William—as he had done in the past.
Scott studied his hands before answering. “Couldn’t a life be rebuilt around accepted truth?”
Chris started. “Isn’t that a little too pat?”
Scott looked at him sharply. “Is it? From where I sit, it seems rather complicated.” He stood, looked weary to the bone. “The truth for me is where Abigail found me. It has to be there.” He looked like he was trying to convince himself.
Stopping at the doorway Scott turned, his voice softened. “Chris, I see you and William planning for a future beyond this one. You come from a line of stubborn people. You’ll find your way.”
There were fresh biscuits in the kitchen. Murdoch wriggled his hips in the big leather chair, coming up to a half sit, half slouch and breathed in the buttery-scented air. Breakfast. Five-thirty-six to be exact. He’d been watching the clock since three. He pushed himself out of the chair. Morning light made the great room visible again. Scott’s hat lay upturned on the edge of the desk still. No one had thought to move it. The braided band was warped, the felt roughened with grime. The wet from the brim had puddled and formed a ring, now dried pale.
Yellow gloves, broken in and wrinkled, had been laid in the crown, one long finger slipping out to curl over the top. Scott had forgotten them that morning, left them folded on top of each other on the hallway table. When they brought the hat home, Johnny thought it looked odd without the gloves and said as much—so they were placed together.
Murdoch wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
Almost twenty years ago and it still caused pain: he was supposed to get the ranch in order, grieve—always that—and he would get Scott back. Then the day had rolled around and Murdoch realized, sick, that he would never see the boy again.
Scott’ll show up.
A wild fabrication and Murdoch knew it. The words held weight a few days ago, but now they rattled around in his head like thrown marbles. Scott could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time. Maybe lost—hopefully only lost—but this time Murdoch didn’t know where he was and all he could do was look down gullies and search behind trees.
“I’ve wrapped a breakfast for you, and one for Johnny, too.”
“Wake him, would you?”
A scuffling noise made him turn. “No need, I’m awake.” Johnny stood in the doorway, hands tucked into his belt, the same rumpled shirt he’d worn since Scott went missing. He hadn’t slept, at least not well; there were shadows under his eyes, several days growth of jagged black beard.
Murdoch crossed over the great room to the tall mahogany cabinet nailed on the wall. He chose a fancily engraved rifle, its smooth barrel cool in his palm.
“Awful big rifle to be searching for a man. Where you goin’ with that?”
Because Johnny was watching him in that way he had of appearing to not actually watch him, Murdoch nursed his actions, slowing to pull out a box of shells, trying to find the words. The last time he talked with Douglas Birch for any reasonable length of time had ended with fists thrown. And how long ago had that been? Over two decades.
“Teresa, has Cipriano left already?” Biding time, he had heard the rustle of men and horses at five.
“Why sure, you told them to be out by first light and they were.”
Her hand fisted in her skirt, she glanced at the rifle, brought her eyes up to meet his. “And whatever you’re going to do with that, well, I’m already missing Scott, I don’t need you gone as well.” Her jaw was set. “You’ll find breakfast in your saddlebags.”
It was a habit of Teresa’s, much like her father, to read between the lines, straight and to the point. She gave one last look at the both of them and walked out.
Not so transparent with this son, he kept things hidden. Murdoch was struck, forcefully, by the feeling that he could lose Johnny too.
“You’re going to Birch’s.”
He slapped the door to the gun cabinet closed with too much force; it missed the catch and bounced back into his hand. A box of shells was crammed into his breast pocket.
“Yes, I’m going to see Douglas Birch.”
Johnny shook his head a bit, raised up both hands in a crude ‘I give up’ gesture. “Let me get my things.”
His head came up then, in a swift arc.
“I want you to find Cipriano, work the crew towards the foothills then back down.”
Johnny’s jaw clenched and he sighed through his nose. “I guess it’s my turn now. No. You can’t outrun a bullet, Murdoch.” Pointing it out like he hadn’t thought it over once or twice or six times.
He just wanted it the way it was.
That’s all he wanted. A long time since he prayed for that, and even as he prayed, he knew the wish was a mirage. Things being how they were, he couldn’t help himself.
Murdoch took two steps, found his image in the mirror above the sideboard. Certain about what he wanted to do, wishing for Scott to walk through the door. Knew he might have to get used to it not happening.
Johnny shifted, his eyes softening, and then he was looking away too fast as happened at times, either too sad or too angry, and Murdoch braced himself for either because both reactions were too strong for their current frame of mind.
The pages of the original grants were scattered like birdseed across his desk. Hope was a vicious thing. “Okay,” he said quietly, after a moment. “Okay.”
Up to the north, trickling down from grey hulking ridges out through green foothills, the creek carved a line through Lancer. By the time it’d widened out into the valley, trees and yellow brush had populated its banks. There was still evidence of the storm, would be for months until it could repair itself.
Water, Murdoch thought, all this over a trickle of water.
The air was so much cooler nearer the foothills—the wind had steadily picked up since they'd left the stream. A second storm that hovered at a close distance since they'd left the hacienda was finally coming. Murdoch hoped it would hold until they got to the disputed land.
He called to Johnny, who was just over the edge of the clearing, his white and blue shirt the only thing that kept him from disappearing in the dark intricacies of willow branches and brush. Johnny waved without turning, intent on something, and Murdoch went back to looking past Toby’s white fetlocks for any new signs.
The air had a chilly quality that made him shiver and reflexively hunch in on himself. He cocked his rifle, felt the wrongness in the pressure in his chest, and recognized it from the last time he and Johnny were here. Very slowly he turned in the saddle, swept the spot where Johnny was supposed to be, only to find it empty.
He almost called him, stopped, mouth hanging open, when he caught the movement way to his right, a deeper shadow against the darkness of the trees. A horse and rider. He realized he was in a bad position, too exposed, completely visible in the clearing.
Riding into the relative dark of the woods wouldn't cut it now, not when whoever was out there had already seen him. Murdoch strained his senses, tried to feel any movement, and caught a barely distinguishable brush of leaves in the way ahead. Still no sign of Johnny. He considered shouting for him, abandoned the idea just as soon as it came. More movement ahead, the position different. Circling.
He kicked Toby into a gallop, and the shadow moved, still hidden by the underbrush, but Murdoch caught the shape of an arm, something that looked like it, blurry with movement. Johnny couldn’t be far. He bit down on the need to shout a warning.
A shout—then silence. Murdoch’s heart dropped.
He kneed Toby forward leaving the clearing behind, towards a promontory. Straightening, he leveled the rifle. A few feet along, he heard Johnny’s soft drawl before seeing him.
“Murdoch? There’s someone here you’ll want to talk to.”
On the ground was a cowboy, hunched and breathing hard. The boy’s head was tilted down, blood trickling from his mouth.
“Hicks works for Birch.” Johnny twisted the boy’s shirt and shook, forcing him to look up. In the shadows of the wood, he seemed about fourteen, but was probably closer to seventeen. “Should’ve watched your back door; someone could be gunnin’ for you, especially since you’re on Lancer.”
Murdoch dismounted, saw something shiny beside his boot and swept his hand along the dirt. “These are shell casings for a fifty-two.”
“Check his rifle, Murdoch.”
“Those ain’t mine. You gotta believe me!”
Murdoch took the rifle from its scabbard. “It’s a forty-four Henry.”
“What about it, Hicks?”
He shrugged. “Mr. Birch was boastin’ about how he was gonna get the land. How it would be easy for the judge to decide and all. Like he had an ace up his sleeve or somethin’.”
“Were you up here when the storm hit?”
His eyes flicked from Murdoch to Johnny and back again. “I might have been.” He sucked in his bottom lip and chewed for bit. “But not when the shooting took place.”
“We didn’t ask about any shooting. Who owns the buffalo gun?”
Hicks stared at his hands, reaching for the words. “Kirby… and I… saw your brother in town leaving the lawyer’s office. We told Birch and he said to follow ’em. We found him here, looking around. Kirby sent me back to talk to Birch and the next thing I know all hell broke loose with the storm and Kirby was firing.”
“Did he shoot my brother?” Johnny shook him a second time, the boy’s head bouncing like a rag doll.
“Mebbe. I don’t know and that’s the God’s honest truth. It was pouring down, couldn’t see my hand in front of my eyes. It’s like one minute he was there and the next he wasn’t. We figured he fell into the water—it was runnin’ fast with the rain, and got pulled downstream.”
“What did Birch say?”
“That no good would come of it. Told me to find the body, bring it to the ranch.”
Murdoch started forward and the boy scooted back against a tree, eyes rounded. “Mister, I been out here every day since, combing that creek--I haven’t found him. Maybe Kirby did, I don’t know!”
A howl was somewhere inside him, but he didn’t know how to release it.
“Tie him up. Make sure he stays put.”
Johnny held him there, one hand planted in the middle of the Hicks’s chest.
Hicks looked confused for a minute, then started to struggle. “Hey, you can’t leave me here.”
The look on Johnny’s face shut the boy up.
From their spot on the small hillside, they had a limited view of across the creek. A man dismounted and walked over to the wagon. He was wearing a decrepit black hat but even at that distance Murdoch could see the straight carriage, the easy gait. Douglas Birch was difficult to forget.
Birch wasn’t even trying to hide, and if Murdoch hadn’t been so surprised to see him at the work site, he would have been incensed at his sheer gall. He was talking to a man in the wagon while another looked on, obviously on the way back to the main ranch or to town, judging from the wagon’s emptiness.
They let the driver leave before slipping across the creek, following Birch to the ranch house.
Murdoch swallowed with some difficulty, felt heat creep up his neck. Everything hummed for a second and he pulled Toby back into a walk, dizzy with murder. Knew he had thrown off Johnny when his son side-eyed him and slowed down.
The man beside Birch saw them first, stared hard and bumped his boss’s elbow, who altered his stance when he saw Murdoch. Something wasn’t exactly right with him. Pale, sweating, more gray than tanned. Murdoch looked away first, found the cowhand had shortened his distance, but Johnny had him in sights.
Johnny leaned towards him. “One tied up, one here, and one gone. There’s bound to more scattered around.”
They dismounted. “Birch, I need to talk to you.” His voice was harsh, unforgiving. Behind him, Johnny shifted.
“Easy,” Johnny whispered, one hand coming to rest along Murdoch’s arm.
In no mood, he recognized his anger when it came; he had a lot of practice over the years. A hot and fast burst of emotion until the last few years, a trait he shared with his older son. Johnny, on the other hand, was a slow burn that flared. But for wrongness like this, Murdoch’s anger was deep and abiding, as much a part of him as his legs or arms.
Birch, face tense, smiled slowly. “It’s all right; I have business with Mr. Lancer,” and waved his man off to the porch.
Maybe five feet, that was all Birch would give him. Smart.
“Where,” he growled, hands balled at his side, “is my son?”
The smile again, lopsided and sickly. Murdoch understood part of it; Johnny had his hand resting at his gun, the leather thong pulled off long before they reached Lancer’s border.
Wouldn’t be goaded, he had too much experience with anger, but he had to shove it down hard. “I asked you a question.”
Birch took a shaky breath. “You want to kill me, because of Catherine’s boy.” His voice was flat as Tule Valley. A statement, not a question, but there was an undercurrent of…familiarity? Ownership?
Murdoch knocked away Johnny’s cautioning arm, stepped in and swung a heavy work-hardened fist. Birch sprawled in the dirt.
“That first time I saw her, I knew.” Birch’s voice was a mere murmur, but it didn’t need to be big because the courtyard amplified so much. He put a hand to his cheek, a bruise already starting to form. Though it took a while, he got to his feet. “I thought if I could just talk to her—it was so easy with other women. But Catherine wouldn’t have me. Then I came back to California, learned she was dead, but found out that she had a son.”
“So help me God,” Murdoch whispered. Then his hands were on Birch’s throat, pressing in hard, driving the blood into his face, bulging his eyes. Just as suddenly, he realized what he was doing and plucked his hands away.
Birch panted, fingered the two bright red handprints on his throat. A sheen of sweat pasted across his forehead. “Funny how we always want we can’t have, isn’t it, Murdoch? Something small that takes root and grows and fills until you can’t stand it anymore. You understand, don’t you?”
Murdoch tasted grit on his teeth, ran his tongue around to draw up some spit. “You’re willing to kill for it?”
“I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Kirby got carried away….”
Their eyes met and something like a shadow passed over Birch’s, a subtle change. A warning.
Early morning, Scott’s eyes opened and he rolled to his side, twisting in the too-soft sheets, listening. Already he was getting used to the sounds—the buzz of the clock, the crankiness of the car starting, the loudness of the ungodly television and radio. He didn’t mind the constant hum of the house interrupting his sleep, just that he couldn’t ignore it any longer. Couldn’t keep telling himself the wrong would be righted. Because for the last five days he’d waited and Murdoch could already be on his way to dying.
He took two deep breaths and eased the door open, trying not to make any noise, and slipped through the darkened house.
Running his hand along desk’s surface, fingers picking up unfamiliar dings, he knelt. The remains of a fire burned in the grate, which was a lucky thing since he didn’t dare try the switch on the wall. Using its red glow for light, he keyed open the secret panel. One hand hovered, then yanked the leather pouch free. A small sound, like a scrape, came from the hallway, made him hesitate. He chanced a glance back into the gloom, worried that he might see Chris, or worse, William. Scott saw neither. They wouldn’t understand, at least not in any way Scott could tell them. If it worked, if he did make it back to his time, things would be sorted out.
Back in the room, he thought he was wandering aimlessly, puttering as he was wont to do at times, but he wasn’t, not really, because his mind was made up and all it required was a step out the door. He couldn’t think about it too much; the outcome was too important.
When light first beckoned, Scott folded his new clothes into a tidy bundle on top of the bureau, put on his old. He turned to go, then remembered he had something for them, an apology of sorts. He tucked the folded piece of paper into a shirt pocket.
Scott snuffed in the wet morning air and murmured to the paint horse in the barn, watching as their breaths combined and whorled away.
A heavy squelch of boot heels stopped him. Chris, mussed from his bed or a late night, grunted out a hello. He was, as far as Scott could tell, not one for mornings.
“What brings you to the barn so early, Scott?” he yawned out.
He panicked a little, trying to demur yet feeling the stab of loneliness down to his toes. “I thought I’d do some riding.”
“In the rain.”
Scott lifted a shoulder as Chris’s eyes caught the holstered gun tied to his thigh.
“Are you sure you want to go up to the site by horse? The car’s heater works just fine. So do the wipers.”
At Scott’s look, he continued. “Not so difficult to puzzle out. You said as much last evening on the porch.”
“Want some company?”
Scott took a moment, flipped up his collar, blew into his hands. “If you feel up for a ride in the rain.”
“Well, Abby said you’re not an easy passenger yet, and her driving—she learned from her mother by the way—is enough to make anyone think twice about getting into another vehicle. So horses it is.”
They led their mounts to the trail.
Scott cast his eyes about, following the line of the horizon where the purples, browns, and greens of spring met the bubbling gray of the sky. “Johnny would call this a “goin” rain.”
“As in going to rain all day.”
“Ah, I truly hope not.’ Chris stifled a sigh. “I wish I could have met him.”
“Johnny is many things, but a lover of a good long rain he’s not.” He thought so hard it was almost painful. “He’s been a fine brother.” He’d hate to lose that.
As they traveled, Scott couldn’t help but notice the improvements made to the rolling hills. What was once wide spans of grasslands had been broken up into furrowed squares of hay, corn, and wheat.
“While we still run a few head of cattle, our main operation has shifted to crops. We try to be a no-till operation with the ground being the way it is, over tilling makes the soil nutrients leech out, but the corn demands it. Dedicated fruit trees are on the bottomland, courtesy of William and Abby—their idea. And seeing how the weather crunched in Florida this year, it seems to be a sound investment.”
“You saw this through your television?”
“Yes, and the computer. When we get back I’ll show you how to Google.” He waggled his eyebrows. “It’s not as lewd as it sounds.”
Chris slowed his mount and frowned. “I found Dick Hudson’s body over there in the weeds. Dick was a hobo, used to travel the back hills, just floating from one ranch to another. He must have been eighty-four, eighty-five, if he was a day.”
“A rail rider, used to hop freights back in thirties. Um, nineteen-thirties. When they got to be too dangerous or too few and far between, he took to walking. The official report said he’d shot himself or ran into some poachers.”
The tone was of frank disbelief.
“I knew him, talked with him. Hell, I even had him work on the ranch a few times. He wasn’t into suicide.”
“Not likely. In addition to the bullet wound, he had another so deep the white plate of the shoulder showed through the opening in his shirt.”
Scott twisted in the saddle. “A knife?”
“That’s what it looked like to me. It happened around the time I hired Mech.”
“Mech is a bully, but it seemed to me that he liked to use his mouth, not any kind of weapon.”
“No, not him—he’s just part of the larger whole.”
“Uh-huh. I’d bet money it was his doing, probably on Thayer’s orders.”
“What about the law?”
“The sheriff is a friend, but he can only do so much. There was a lot of chatter about the death, but it was finally ruled a suicide. Funny thing, Thayer punted a whole lot of money into the county coroner’s office for reelection this year.”
Some things remained the same from one century to the next.
They arrived to the site at mid-morning, clouds scudding across the sky into the mountaintops, and pulled up their horses.
Chris nodded to the barren stretch of land across the property boundary. “You know that’s Thayer land; they’re likely to not want any trespassers. Which is an understatement.” He sat back in the saddle and whistled low. “I’ll be damned.”
Scott followed his gaze and found a dark truck hidden beneath some low branches.
Rube tumbled out of the truck. “Been watching since sunup; a few men have arrived and they’ve started over at the very end as far as my binoculars can tell. Looks like things have ramped up. They’ve started dynamiting, just a few small charges so far.”
He tipped up his hat. “You like it? Took all morning to get it just right. Beats letting Thayer and his bunch know we’re here.”
“Only thing is, I told you to never come up here alone.”
“Well, I ain’t exactly alone.” He hitched his thumb behind his ear. They looked back and saw Mal coming out of the brush fumbling with his trouser buttons.
He walked up to them, beet red. “Too much coffee, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
“Speaking of which, what are we supposed to do now? Watchin’ them blow up a bunch of rock gets tiring after a while, even for me,” Rube said.
Chris eyed Scott. “You and Mal head south and search the property limits, make sure nothing of Thayer’s crosses over. Scott and I, we’re gonna take a walk. If anyone does come close, give a signal.”
“All right. We can do that.”
What was left of the woods on the Lancer side smelled clean, of pine and early honeysuckle. The rain left the broken twigs under Scott’s boots soft and pliable, a little slippery. A full rush of water coursed through the creek, sluicing along its banks. He didn't know if it was the sun that had cleared the sky or the westerly wind, but every detail was in sharp relief, the green brilliant, the earth deep black.
A façade, the kind of day that fooled you into thinking the hot, dry summer wasn’t that far away before sending rain as hard as pellets down on your head. The clouds would return with rain, and soon. Almost a sure thing since thunder already sounded in the distance. “We’re wasting time,” he said, and instantly regretted the tone in his voice.
Chris kept silent, but Scott felt his eyes boring into his back as he continued to walk. When they stopped, Chris cleared his throat like something was wrong with it. “Well?”
Scott shook his head, stepped to the remnants of the oak, bent down. Eroded to knee height, the knobby wood was hard as stone under his palm. He took a breath. Felt the shift in air temperature, and smelled, above the tang of ozone and dust, a scent of home. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.
“Maybe you need a TARDIS or some such crap.”
He didn’t understand the words, but he was well-acquainted with the sentiment behind them. “There are no other options; this is the place. Either I get back to my time, or I don’t. I have to try.” He got up, went to his horse.
“Where are you going?”
Scott nodded across the stream.
“With those documents in your pocket?”
Caught red-handed—the scrape in the hallway. If he had to wager a guess, the only one up and roaming around would have been William. They were looking at each other, but Scott wasn’t sure what he was seeing. Chris’s eyebrows crooked together, like he was holding in or holding back. Anger was a hard emotion for Johnny, apparently another trait that dipped and threaded its way down the Lancer line.
He reined his horse in a slow walk through the rushing waters, dismounted, and led the animal up the shale-studded bank. There were lines of demarcation where the water used to run, stones worn smooth, almost glossy.
Scott shuddered. The same prickly feeling he had before. Was it noteworthy? Or merely the fact he was standing high in the mountains, wanting it so badly there was a taste in his mouth?
Chris came alongside, boots smacking hard against the loose rock. “You didn’t answer me; what did you figure on doing with those documents?”
A long silence followed, and the obvious corollary to that statement was somehow already there: he was guilty. Scott stayed riveted, couldn’t move for the sense of false betrayal.
“You should listen to me when I tell you an idea’s stupid.”
Scott’s retort fell away at the screech of tires. A Thayer truck skidded to a stop in front of them at the same time as a car horn broke from the south. Rube’s warning.
Chris rolled his shoulders. “We’re trespassing. Like I said—stupid. Let’s go.”
Not Thayer, he wasn’t the type to sully his hands with the actual breaking of bones or shooting. It was Adkins, the hired help, a shotgun in his left hand. And he had company: Mech and another man.
They were in no mood to talk. By Scott’s count, they would stand a decent chance, but he was unsure of any firepower Mech might have on him. They were looking for something to shoot. Under orders probably, but looking just the same.
“What the fuck are you doing on Thayer’s property?” Adkins spat out the words. Scott edged a little to the left, hoped to draw them out, get into a better position.
“Checking our range is all. We didn’t mean to go over the line,” Chris answered, but he was on the move, too, shuffling to the right.
“He’s the one, Adkins. He has the papers that I took a picture of and sent to Mr. Thayer.” Ambitious bastard. A tendril of dread crept up Scott’s spine, gave him a little shake.
Adkins cocked his head, looked at Scott in a way that could only be described as feral. “Fancy gun, mister. You out playing cowboy?”
He didn’t look at Chris, but stared at Adkins. “Oh, this gun right there?” He exchanged the question for an extra few seconds as he shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet.
“Yeah, that one. Hand it over nice and easy. Papers, too, if you have’ em. Mech, go look,” Adkins said, and smiled. “Hey, Patterson, go to the truck and get me some rope, should be near the crates of fuses in the back.”
He lowered his hands—and eyes—because Adkins had already recognized a murderous look and Scott didn’t want to give him any extra warning. Leaning back, he hunched his shoulders a little, unbuckling the holster as he did every evening at Lancer, and swung it into Mech’s face like it was a brick, breaking his nose with a fantastic crack.
He would have broken fingers on a punch like that, but the gun took it and then some. Chris launched himself at Adkins and Patterson, dodging under the shotgun.
Mech bent over, screaming, blood pouring between his fingers. Then Scott brought up his knee, the hard cap smashing into the man’s face, sending him flying backwards.
The barrel of the gun tipped wildly in Adkins’s grip, and when it lowered, Scott was on him. Instinctively, he raised his right hand, but a sharp whipcord of pain ran up his side so quickly that he found himself with his hand fisted in Adkins’ shirt, not pushing away, just holding on, frantically trying to twist the big knife away. Adkins raised a ham-like fist and brought it down with such a force, Scott’s vision wavered.
Everything slowed. Scott landed blows so hard he didn’t feel the impact until his right hand flared with pain, then flattened to a peculiar numbness. Much like what had settled over him since coming to this time.
Chris was shouting for Mal and Rube, telling them to call the sheriff.
He heard Mech again, voice muffled from the broken nose, from what seemed like far away this time.
“Fire in the hole!”
Adkins reared back. “Not the dynamite, you fucking idiot!” and he shoved Scott into Patterson.
They tumbled together as they rolled, until he kicked away. From the back of the truck, Mech lobbed a lit charge.
Scott stumbled back towards the creek, boots slipping on loose twigs until a rush of hot air blew him forward, almost like a strong summer wind. And then more pain, so abrupt and biting, he gasped.
But before everything plunged into inky blackness, it was white, a stark white.
Chris rocked for moment. At first there had been shouts, a horrific explosion. Then there was only pain. After that a complete blank, the absence of everything—pelting rocks, shouting, pain—all of it gone. He’d been fine with that, to be honest.
A giddy, nauseating sensation rolled through him. He could hear his name being called out in a barking shout of worry. Then he was tumbling and swirling through the darkness. When he came back out of the cloud, Mal was talking a mile a minute. Police sirens sounded in the distance.
“We thought Adkins had blown you two up. Rube went down to meet the cops, lead ’em here.”
Chris dragged his hand though his hair. “Where’s Scott?”
Mal stuttered off and when Chris looked up, saw why. Utter devastation. He took a moment—Adkins car had vanished along with Mech.
Grabbing Mal’s offered hand, he pulled himself to his feet. They scrambled to the clump of trees where Chris had seen Scott fighting with Adkins. Mal jumped from rock to rock, skirting around the large hole that bore the brunt of the blast. Sliding down the last little bit so that he came to Patterson’s side, dropped to his knees. Rolled the man over, then looked up and shook his head.
Chris imagined Scott when the dynamite came his way. He imagined getting blown away from the trees, body or boots skidding towards the embankment. He turned, eyes narrowed. Four strides and he bent down.
Shale disturbed as if something had scattered it, points sharp as spears. Spattered with blood. Chris reached out his finger, tacky still. A rumble of thunder, and fat rain drops plopped down, pooling the bloody spots. He spotted a small patch of fibers clinging to one of the stones and pried it off. Dark blue.
Turning to Mal, he yelled, “Find the horses; we’re going downstream.”
The world spun in red. Scott closed his eyes quickly, waiting for it to stop. Cautiously, he tried again—everything still blurry. Gritting his teeth, although it didn’t hurt much per se, he lifted his shirt—wanting to see what the damage looked like. An angry long line of red marked his ribs where Adkins’s knife had sliced the skin open, crusted dark. Although it stung, it wasn’t too deep. He rolled his shoulders, feeling the catch and tug of fabric across wet. His back was fire. He reached around and pulled the cloth away, arching when it stuck. Looking down, he found his fingertips tinged with blood.
Scott heard a voice, muffled like he had a woolen cap over his ears: “Goddamn Lancers”.
Then he was given over to the business of a roiling nausea. Behind his closed eyelids, the sun bathed his face, sunflower yellow and warm. The voice wasn’t Chris’s or Adkins’s, the timbre was all wrong. He buried himself in his own breathing for a while, and squinted at the clear blue sky, trying to not come unraveled like Teresa’s knitting.
Because he knew exactly where he was.
“Goddamn Lancers. Shitforbrains Kirby. Is there anyone out there?” The words came clearer, cutting through the ringing in his ears.
His back was stiff and sensitive by the time he made it up the small hill towards the voice. The man had quieted down after a few minutes, making tracking difficult.
Scott turned a bend and there he was, tied to a tree. In his late teens or twenty at the most, the bruise to the side of his face made him appear younger. The rest of the area was clear, just this young man bound to the tree.
“It’s not too often you come across someone tied up in the woods.”
That got the boy’s attention with a jerk of his head.
There was something not quite right about him—bloody lip and ropes notwithstanding. He was afraid, would bolt if he wasn’t tied down. Scott took a step back and considered him against the tree. In the soft sunlight, he looked terrified.
“Look, Mister. It wasn’t me, I didn’t do any shooting.”
“Kirby did it; he was the one with the fancy rifle.” His eyes narrowed. “Hey, is this some kind of joke?”
Scott crossed his arms. “It doesn’t look like one from here.”
“You don’t look so good.” Con man smooth, despite the white-rimmed eyes.
“Is that so? I was unaware.”
Either stupid or afraid, the man plowed right ahead. “I can help you” —he lit into a cocky smile —“but these ropes’ll have to come off.”
“Not before telling me about the shooting.”
The smile dropped like it was pushed off a cliff. A line had been crossed or was about to, and it was almost painful to watch. “Birch wanted to scare you. Kirby got carried away…. I tried tellin’ your brother that.”
“This is Johnny’s handiwork?”
He nodded, miserable.
“How long ago?”
The boy was shaking so much Scott could see it, his face milk-white. “Maybe an hour, maybe less. Went to see Birch, I guess. Him and the old man.”
His head rang and Scott didn’t think it had anything to do with the dynamite. “Where’s your horse?”
He wheeled away at the boy’s shrug, glad he didn’t have to listen to his pleas anymore, and started through the woods with renewed clarity of purpose. His chest hurt, ached as though someone was squeezing it.
There, thank God, or Johnny’s sense of humor—it didn’t matter who or what—stood the horse, not far from where the boy was tied, but hidden from line of sight. Johnny’s humor only went so far, though; the scabbard was bare and no holster to be found.
He gathered the reins, hoisted one foot into the stirrup when the world turned and twisted.
Scott shook, balanced on his hands and knees, fingers clutching the grass, forcing his breath to come in little tiny gasps. A drop of sweat rolled off the tip of his nose into the soft blades between his fisted hands. He wasn’t going to make it.
I’m sorry, Murdoch, the horse wouldn’t stand still.
Then he started to laugh, and that was an awful idea as pain radiated in waves across his back.
He sat back on his heels, hands resting on his thighs. The horse, no more than ten feet away, turned its head, looked speculatively at him. Considering Scott made a mockery of mounting, the horse appeared almost resigned to being ridden by the man flopping about in the dirt.
The mare shook out her mane, waited patiently for Scott to gain his feet and stumble over, turning its head to focus one coffee-colored sloe-eye on him. While Scott gathered the reins and blinked away snowy grittiness, the horse lipped the edge of his shirt above the elbow, as if in apology: Sorry about the first go-around; let’s try again.
He reached up to the horn, girding his strength for the second climb, repressed a yelp as his back protested. The saddle was deeply broken in, almost comforting, when he got his seat. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt to ride—it was excruciating.
Fully aware of the outcome if he didn’t, Scott managed.
He couldn’t put the creek and tiny woods behind him fast enough and a few minutes later, he passed over the property lines onto the Birch ranch.
Nothing had changed really, crossing the imaginary line that existed only on maps and legal grants. The land was flat and green, yet something about it jangled his nerves. A few miles further on, a rutted track bent off the trail and a faded sign pointed to the east: Birch, 10 miles.
His heart gave a thump. This was it. Grimacing, he swallowed down a hard lump and turned onto the track. The shadows alongside his horse had disappeared; it was almost noon. He gave the horse a cluck and started her into a gallop.
The warning was clear in Birch’s eyes. For one appalling moment, Murdoch thought it was too late.
“I’m sorry, Murdoch. Scott….” A solemn, brick-heavy frown marred Birch’s face, pulling his lips downward. He seemed to fold within himself. “I never meant….”
Fear mounted up within Murdoch, a dread that constricted the breath from his chest as he drew his revolver. Already ahead of him was Johnny’s. Whisper-quiet, cocked and gleaming deadly in the sunlight, drawing down on the startled man behind Birch.
Johnny’s slight smile was as good as any weapon, sharp as a knife. Raised brows, the ‘we bought this, we’ve got no choice look’ that was so eerily similar to Scott’s.
He twisted around looking for the other shooter, because there had to be one. The sound of a scuffle drifted faintly from behind the barn, and Birch started to yell.
With a shout of warning that drew Kirby around like he had tied a rope to him, Scott tackled him from behind. The rifle dropped and skittered away as the man lurched forward.
He lost his grip, or maybe Kirby’s fist caught his fingers, because he fell to the ground and Kirby scrambled up.
In that splinter of a second, Scott saw a gun arcing from the man’s holster.
“No! Stop!” someone shouted, although not Murdoch or Johnny, and Kirby was almost comically indecisive at that moment, big blond head pivoting from the prey at his feet to the sound of men running across the courtyard. It was enough, that moment, because Scott found and pulled the rifle trigger hard, nothing in him indecisive.
Kirby was flung back against the barn wall, making a dull thud and rattle of wood. Breaths gasped out in hitches as the pistol went flying from his lax fingertips.
“Sonofabitch, that hurts!” Kirby clawed at his shoulder. He lay panting up at the sky, red blossoming out from under his fingers, staining his checked shirt down to the elbow. He raised his head to look at the ragged tear and took away his palm, covered in sticky blood. “You almost blew my damn arm off,” he said, strangling out a moan.
Scott reached over, plucked the Colt from where it had fallen near Kirby’s boot, and stuck it in his belt. He stood, letting the rifle hang in his hand. A heavy forty-four, the initials RK etched into the ornate silver plating. It was solid, a rifle primed for hunting at long distances.
He looked down at the man who almost shot Murdoch.
“If I wanted your arm gone, it would be.” His thumb rubbed the silver plate over and over. “As it was, I needed to get your attention away from my father.”
Kirby pulled himself up and sat back, leaving a wide, dark streak against the whitewashed wood. “Jesus, you got it.” A jagged hole above his head showed where the rifle bullet had tumbled its way into the barn.
“What’s the R stand for?”
“I said, what does the R stand for?” Scott jiggled the rifle.
“Rufus. Rufus Kirby. Why?”
“The sheriff will want to know your full name.” Scott watched as he clamped his hand to the wound. “Here,” he finally offered, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, “take this.” And threw it to Kirby.
“Birch’ll have something to say about that.”
They’d soon find out what, if the sound of boots pounding on the ground was any indication.
Running headlong towards the corner of the barn, Murdoch sensed the struggle had ended after the shot, a few more thuds and that was it aside from the talking. Hearing the deep voice surprised him so much he pulled up, and Johnny almost tumbled into him. Shook his head, remembered when they had talked about the Mexican grants and the extra piece of property, stopping short when he got to the part where Scott said he talked to Birch in town.
Not quite there, he shouted his son’s name, hoarse from the ride, the long night and, goddamn it, from the fear.
Scott wasn’t alone, but he was alive. Standing, barely, in a tattered shirt, pale torso running with sweat, grime, and blood. A relieved white smile, gleaming white against the dirt. Glad to see them. Not just that though. Murdoch recognized the look of a man who hadn’t expected to see the light of day—or home—again.
He grabbed Scott’s shoulder, wanting to hold or shake, he didn’t know which.
Out of the corner of his eye, Murdoch saw a relieved Douglas Birch coming around the barn. With a solid grip on his son, Murdoch could pity Birch for letting the past control him.
Scott, sitting on a stump in front of the barn, his back haphazardly patched with linens from the house, looked at the borrowed buckboard and knew it was going to be a long trip.
Murdoch and Johnny were sniping glances at one another, a thought or two passing between them, a conversation Scott wasn’t a part of. Barranca proved skittish to being tied and Johnny had his hands full, but the tight jaw and sharp reprimand to the palomino were uncharacteristic. And Murdoch—Scott knew something had happened between him and Birch, beyond water rights and boundary lines.
But he was past trying to understand any of it.
He swallowed, a wedge of fear stuck there, the pain in his back again, a tie with a future that had been severed or made, it was impossible to tell—but it was good, the pain. Real, and therefore maybe the future was, too.
“You’d better take it easy,” he heard someone say, and midway through the admonition hands bumped hands and he found wrist beads and strength, pulling him to the wagon.
The ride home was bumpy yet the sway felt like a lullaby, and Scott stretched out in the back on top of patchwork quilts, listening to murmurs from the box seat kept purposely low. It was almost soothing. He felt safe, more so than he had in at least a week, and fell asleep halfway during a question from Murdoch.
He woke to darkness and the sudden wrongness of a stopped wagon. A familiar voice cried, “My God, what happened?” and Teresa held a lantern high. He felt like he’d been beaten, which in a way he had, because Adkins had been doing his level best. The fight—the frenzy—was gone, replaced with leaden pain. She frowned, waited while Johnny slid a hand under one shoulder, uttered a quiet “Sorry, Scott”, then tugged him to a sit on the tailgate.
Teresa was there before Murdoch could tie the reins and pulled his other arm around her small shoulders. She was warm and so strong and Scott was all right with all of this. He leaned on her more than he liked, but couldn’t help it, not really.
Murdoch sat up in the sagging chair, a relic from Harlan Garrett and the big house by the bay, and kneaded his fingers into stiff muscles corded on either side of his neck. The room was filled with the in-between soft light of night’s end and day’s beginning.
As Murdoch stood, a well-thumbed copy of Moby Dick slid off his thigh, and a place marker—the folded, ragged deed they found in Scott’s coat pocket—floated to the floor. He automatically stooped to get it, dizziness arresting his hand. A week flat out, more or less. Not good to move too fast.
He scuffed to the lamp and struck a match, lowering the wick until the faintest of flickers caught, grudgingly throwing out its brightness.
Scott was still in his clothes, sprawled on the bed, blanket half-wrapped around him, face buried in the pillow.
The smell of heaven in a cup wafted in with the light thuds of Johnny’s boots.
“How’s our boy? He awake yet?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I hope one of those is for me.”
Johnny handed him a white mug, put the one marked with a red rose pattern on the bureau, and saved the third, an exotic-looking blue, for himself. He curled back against the wall and sipped. “Did you figure out who Chris and William are?”
“No. He seemed pretty unhappy he couldn’t find ’em a few hours ago, though.”
Scott had talked about them. In his sleep, waking. What William would think. Betrayal and loss. Muttered about explosions of white. Caught in the whirlwind of a nightmare, most likely.
One boot slid up the wall and braced, the coffee cup lowered to his knee, and a soft drawl came out: “I thought it was buckshot in his back.”
“No, not shot thank God, but something, just the same. The dynamite he keeps talking about, perhaps.”
“I do know one thing, that stripe on his chest wasn’t made by anything but a knife.”
“Meanin’ he had to be close to whoever did it.”
“The men’s names he said earlier?”
Johnny shrugged, pushed off and pulled the blanket straighter. As he touched him, Scott struggled, one hand just missed clipping Johnny’s nose. Coffee sloshed and splattered over the throw rug.
“Jesus,” Johnny swore quietly, and Scott burrowed himself into the pillow, one hand covering his head. Murdoch saw how bruised the knuckles were, recognized the signs of a brawl.
The aroma and steam from the cup held by Scott’s nose eventually roused him to a sitting position. Wash cloths soaked in hot water cleaned the torn back and swollen cheek, the long cut on his chest already too set for stitches, the impressive hand-size purple-green bruise on his hip—a mess but nothing broken.
Scott remained silent, didn’t wince, as they cleaned and rewrapped the bandages. Into himself. Thinking. Murdoch didn’t know what to make of it. He’d patched up his son before, and Scott usually masked everything with a smile and pointed sarcasm. This was different, not right.
“What happened?” Murdoch pushed the bloodied bowl of water to the back of the stand.
Scott, whey-faced, looked at the cup of black coffee in his hands. He shook his head so slightly Murdoch could barely see it, let alone decipher it.
“The bruise on your hip is old, but those wounds on your back are new.” Murdoch’s mouth compressed into a thin line despite his best efforts to keep it reined in. Scott noticed because he blinked once, looked away.
“There were shots, then… I was somewhere else.”
“Well, that’s definitive,” Johnny muttered.
“What do you want?”
“A straight answer.” He softened his voice. “Did Birch’s men do this or someone else?”
Scott gave a hard sigh. “Don’t you think if I had an answer, I’d give it? One minute I was being shot at in the rain, the next someone ran into me, literally ran into me with a….” His voice petered out, and the room filled with silence, louder than the banging of pots and pans in Maria’s breakfast kitchen.
This time, Murdoch kept quiet, left it open. When Scott’s voice came, it was soft and they strained to hear it.
“Lightning struck the tree, split it in half. There was white, all around. The rest doesn’t—wouldn’t—make any sense.”
Still Murdoch said nothing, sent a warning glance to Johnny. Scott’s attention was on the bed, one hand clutching the blanket, the other wrapped around his waist like he had a stomachache.
“I didn’t know where I was.” Scott kept his face angled away. Masking with an out-and-out lie, but why?
“Bullshit.” Johnny was done dancing around.
Up close, he could see the bruise jump on Scott’s face when he flinched. Could see the swallow he took before saying, “Well, there you have it.”
Murdoch’s head swam. He needed more sleep. Sunlight filtered into the room, making them all look like refugees from some battle, war torn and wan. He couldn’t pick the time when Scott might tell him something useful. Maybe it was still too fresh, or because he’d been having a nightmare, or maybe there was really nothing to tell if he couldn’t remember. This was the opportunity Murdoch got.
“Who are William and Chris?” His voice was light, trying not to antagonize. Scott wasn’t cooperating, however.
He gestured to the window, tried a smile. “Did the cattle get moved to the new pasture yet? A week too long and they’ll damage the grass.” The smile dropped and he looked straight at Johnny. “William and Chris are, were, uncle and nephew. I can’t explain who they were or where they are now, but they were there when I needed help. And when I tried to help them back,” he flung his arm out wide, “this happened.”
William Lancer slammed the window shut against the rain, a squelch of metal against metal. The frame was bent, had been for a while, but there were more important things on the fire at the moment. His eyes followed the desolate color of sky, studded dark grey, black, and blue like a quail in the brush. He wasn’t superstitious, but to him it was an angry sky, portent of something bad about to happen.
The seeming silence was pointedly broken by boot heels as they made their way down the hallway. Heavy scrapes on tile they were, the owner not caring to lift up his or her feet. William let the curtain drop, wasn’t entirely sure he wanted the news, but sat waiting.
Chris appeared in the doorway. And William started to his feet, cane clattering to the floor.
The left side of his face was purple and puffed, left eye almost swollen shut, skin glistening wet from the rain.
“Adkins and his bunch, cornered us on the property.”
“I don’t know. We tried so hard, William. We tried so goddamn hard to find him.”
“Then maybe… maybe he did find his way home.”
Chris head came up. “You knew he was leaving?”
“I had an idea. I’d like to think Scott would have found a way, if he made it back to his time, to let us know. He wouldn’t have taken the deed for anything else.”
Miserable, Chris looked away. “Mech threw charged dynamite towards him. The explosion carried him to the creek. All I could find was a piece of his shirt and blood.” He shook his head a little, raindrops scattering at right angles. “The police, everyone, searched that creek up and down; we couldn’t find him.”
Chris sat down hard in the ratty leather chair in front of the fireplace, scrubbed at his good eye. “Not only is Scott gone, but without those papers, the land will be gone too.”
The quiet stretched a little. The image of the bright young man dying at the hands of someone like Adkins and Thayer too much to bear.
William let it slide away in grief.
Scott fingered the ripped edge of the papers he had held on to for over seven days—perhaps held was too kind a word, clutched was better, because it implied desperation. And that was what he had been, a desperate man. He’d found it on his bedroom floor when he got up, like a simple piece of refuse that had escaped the dustbin. Stunning to just see it there, forgotten.
The key in Murdoch’s top drawer had the desk panel opening with ease, but he found he didn’t want to let go what was in his hand. Funny, it seemed so much more important than the paper it was written on.
He slid the documents into the space and caught up the Mexican grants he found scattered on Murdoch’s desk. Slid them in, too. Felt a little like a hen collecting her chicks, said a short prayer then locked the panel.
Would they find them in time? What if it was already too late?
God, he was angry. It wasn’t what he wanted, not what was needed. It should have been enough his father was alive and well. Scott cursed; turned away from the window and walked in a loose circle.
“Think they’ll be safe in there?” Murdoch’s voice boomed from the doorway. “Good to see you up from this morning, but it looks like you’re losing the argument, son.”
His father watched him with dark eyes, arms folded across a jacket too dusty to be worn inside. Scott’s breath stopped as it had at the very first meeting, caught, strangled. Murdoch Lancer hadn’t shaved in over a week; hair was flattened from his hat that Scott could see propped on the chair back.
He’d been surrounded by yelling men, Adkins sending out a neat left hook that threw him up, clear across… across—and then back here. To Lancer—his Lancer this time. With a close encounter to a very real gun because Birch had given orders and his father had been in the crosshairs.
Anger didn’t begin to cover it. “Murdoch, what’s the story behind Douglas Birch?”
His father didn’t utter a word, looked like he’d been speared through as efficiently as though Scott had thrown a lance. He stopped fussing with the jacket, laid it across the chair to join his hat.
“I’ve seen plenty of men like Birch, scrapping for every bit they can get, even if it means getting some of their neighbor’s. He doesn’t have anyone else, just the land. I sometimes wonder if I would have ended up like him. I doubt it. We can’t go back.” But Murdoch was talking to himself, and Scott let him.
He walked so slowly, Scott was reminded that Murdoch was chasing the tail end of a sleepless week, had just missed being shot, had said goodbye to a missing son.
So he didn’t curse again, though he felt like it. Reluctantly, Scott accepted a glass of whiskey, strong enough to take off the silver plating from the rim of the glass. They sat on the sofa and Scott scrubbed his face with his hands, grateful for the strong drink. Between them on the coffee table rested a pewter box inlaid with delicate oystershell ivy. Scott twisted the glass around on the table, drove a finger through the wet circles the dripped liquor made. He swiped it off with the palm of his hand because Murdoch was taking what was in the box out, laying them down like cards. Old tintypes, in different odd sizes, their edges pitted and brittle as dried leaves fallen in November. With a jolt, he recognized some of the same were what William had spread out on the kitchen table.
“This one,” Murdoch said. And he didn’t have to say anything more because Scott could see it was Murdoch and his bride. She was gentle-looking with upswept hair, a smile ghosting her lips. Was that contentment in her eyes?
“Nothing but green grass and a hacienda with a battered staircase that led to nowhere, the roof caved in to the kitchen floor.” Murdoch fingered the edge. “We had it taken after.”
“After?” Scott looked up and Murdoch was calm. He hadn’t slept but it didn’t seem to bother him.
Murdoch refilled his glass. “After she told me we were to expect you along in a few short months.” He slumped back against the sofa, took a long sip.
Scott sat, braced his heels against the bottom rung of the coffee table. After a few moments, he collected himself and swallowed, sure of the question.
“Did he know my mother?”
“Yes. Douglas Birch knew your mother.”
“That’s why what happened at the Birch ranch, happened.”
“Johnny’s been talking.”
He conceded with a shrug. “A bit. Although given more time I’d like to think I would have figured it out for myself.”
“Birch approached your mother one day while I was away. Paul O’Brien intervened, sent him on his way.”
Scott considered his drink. “Then here’s to Mr. O’Brien.” He raised his glass, met Murdoch’s over the tintypes with a clink.
“I thought Birch had something to do with your disappearance, and I was ready to do what was needed.”
“For the record, I’m quite happy I don’t have to visit my father in prison.”
Murdoch turned a rueful grin. “It was a close thing.”
“So it wasn’t just the land, then,” he teased.
Murdoch looked him sharply. “It was never just about that. But this is your legacy, Scott. Johnny’s, too.
“What I’m trying to say is that I started with nothing, if it went back to that” —his hand made a slash in the air —“we’d start anew.” But he looked suddenly haggard.
Scott made a noise, like a cough. “Fairly easy words to say with deeds in hand. You’ve sweated for this land, bled for it.”
Murdoch shrugged, but his face was impossible to read now. “You’re here, Johnny’s here. That’s enough.”
Regardless of not reading his face, it was there in his voice. Scott heard everything Murdoch had been holding back, and it was terrible the level of longing.
Was it like dominoes? If the present failed then the future would be lost? He refused to think about it, surely he saw the future, and William, Christopher, and Abigail were all part of Murdoch’s legacy, too. Like his own children would be, if there were any to be had.
He stood and stalked back to the window. Even with it open the air was hot, humid. No rumbling machines to cool down the house. Despite a dribble of sweat snaking its way under the bandages on his back, he much preferred the quiet.
The wind had picked up with the approaching storm, whistling through the eaves of the house. William turned back to the window, looking out. His father, standing in this very office, always said the wind sounded like the wail of the bean nighe. She was a messenger from the otherworld, harbinger of death. The old stories had lived on through his father and his father before him.
Chris entered the room, hair still damp from his shower and William shuddered, remembered another wind that brought travesty to the hacienda.
“My heart broke the night your brother died.”
The sudden intake of breath from Chris almost unnerved him. Almost made him stop, but this should’ve been said years ago. “Aidan was gone. But he took you with him, Chris. You left Lancer physically, but you were gone long before that. Well, no more. We can’t live in the past; life has to go on.”
A peal of thunder shook the air, rattled the window.
“You don’t get to decide the future,” William said, but softly. “You just make sure it happens. The dead don’t own it, not Aidan, not Scott.”
“Dad?” With a whisper of shock, Abby slid to a stop. “I heard there was trouble at the property from Mal and Rube. They wouldn’t tell me… Scott?”
Chris shook his head, eyes on William.
“His new clothes were all folded on the bureau.” With a thin smile, Abigail leaned forward. “He didn’t even have time to break them in.” She held up her hand, a piece of paper was there, folded between two fingers. “But he left this, addressed to you, Will.”
William held the square of white, ran his eyes over the old-fashioned intricate scrawl: Mr. William Lancer. He tapped it on the desk over and over, like he didn’t know what to do. Then pushed a finger under the fold.
He read for a moment, hands shaking. “Chris, Abby, you’d better look at this.”
The expression on their faces fell somewhere between hope and breakdown.
“Do we try it?”
In answer, Chris kneeled down, felt for the side panel of the old desk, and tugged it away, revealing the keyhole. William fumbled with the small brass key until it slid into the lock. Together they opened it wide enough to look inside.
Even with the horrors of the day just a few hours ago, William couldn’t help a small smile—a grin—when he pulled out the papers. Yellowed and tissue thin, the Mexican grants stared up at him. In Chris’s hand were the deeds to the property.
Scott felt a profound sense of familiarity, as he sized up the creek and burnt tree. He crouched down to its base. Strange that for all the distractions, as soon as he closed his eyes everything came to a halt: no cattle noise, no wind in the trees, and no rush of water. In an instant, he found himself far away. Just an abstract notion that felt like home, but older. Less formed.
As the vision focused, he saw he was at Lancer, sitting at the long mahogany table in the kitchen. He heard the slush sound of the coffee maker, the tap-tap of William’s cane against the tile and the unexpected delight of the cold refrigerator. He grinned up at Chris who returned the smile along with an eye roll of mock exasperation when Abigail described their meeting with Gina in town.
The sense of kinship was so strong that Scott couldn’t stop himself from reaching out. He fought the tug on his arm, the twisting of his shirt. A hard knock to his chest forced his eyes open. Still near the tree, Johnny was beside him, looking worried. Scott blinked.
He struggled to stand.
“Wait,” Johnny said. “Just wait a minute. Get some color back before you try and get up. I knew this was a bad idea.”
Past, present and future melded all together.
Johnny laid a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”
In the twenty-first century, automobiles raced at seventy miles per hour. And people talked to one another though a slim hand-held box that was able to take pictures. He looked past the tree, found what he was looking for—green blades already popping up amongst the blackened ash and soot.
Scott nodded, never more sure. “I’m good.”
Johnny pulled something out of his coat pocket, threw the chunk of rock onto Scott’s lap with a smile. “The sheriff is still wondering what to do about Birch. So, I’d say this is yours now.”
Fool’s gold, pulled from the creek. Scott smiled, but didn’t say anything else. Presently Johnny offered his hand. He took it and was grateful.
Three Months Later
The sound of a motorcycle drew William from his desk to the French doors. Chris, coming out of the barn, gave him an ‘I don’t know either’ shrug and they met on the veranda. Abby came between them, hooking her arms in theirs.
William wondered if the united front they presented caused their visitor to hesitate in shutting off the engine. Then, heeling the kickstand down, the rider—a long lean man—stood to unbuckle his helmet.
Blond hair, high cheekbones.
Abby’s grip tightened to the point of pain, but William made as much note of it as he did Chris’s breathless ‘please’. His own heart threatened to thunder out of his chest.
“Good evening, are you William Lancer?”
“Yes, and this is my nephew Chris, his daughter Abigail.”
Their visitor smiled, presenting his hand. “Hello, I’m Garrett Lancer. I’ve heard stories—”
Abby’s fierce-heartfelt-knock-you-off-your-feet hug halted anything else Garrett Lancer planned to say. William gave the young man credit for remaining upright.
Chris took Garrett’s still-offered hand, wearing a smile William hadn’t seen in years.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Garrett.”
“You too.” A glint appeared in blue-gray eyes when he met William’s, then widened. “Great many times Grandfather Scott—he really did it?”
Laughing, William grasped the calloused hand so reminiscent of another’s.
“He really did.”