Warm summer sunshine flooded through the windows while the delicate scent of freshly cut orange blossom seemed to float in the air and fill every corner of the Lancer hacienda. With spurs jingling as he walked, Johnny took a few steps across the landing before pausing for a few moments to inhale the sweet fragrance approvingly.
Wearing a brightly colored lace fronted shirt and black silver trimmed jacket with matching pants he continued on and sauntered into his brother’s bedroom. “Hey Scott, what do you think? Didn’t want to look too fancy incase I overshadowed the bridegroom,” he admitted as he flicked a hand across his blonde head while managing an exaggerated twirl.
Sitting on the bed with his own plain white shirt unbuttoned Scott was well used to Johnny entering without knocking and he looked him up and down with no word of censure for the unannounced intrusion. “In that outfit it’s more likely you’ll be out-prettying the bride little brother,” he gently teased.
Since first meeting nearly two years before, the two men had become firm friends with an easy, half joking kind of relationship which suited them both. Giving him a playful tap on the arm, Johnny studied himself in the mirror as he slicked down his hair. “I’ve gotta agree with you there. There’s no gettin’ away from the fact I am a snappy dresser, aren’t I.”
It was more a statement than a question and without asking he pulled out a stopper from a bottle on the dresser, sniffed the contents and emptied a few drops into the palm of his hand.
Scott smiled at his barefaced cheek. “Help yourself, why don’t you.”
Johnny smiled back. “I intend to.” Without pause he patted the expensive lotion over his freshly shaved jaw.
Scott grinned as Johnny sucked in a sharp breath at the stinging sensation on his chin. However the amusement at his brother’s discomfort soon faded from Scott’s face and he lowered his gaze, his expression darkening somewhat.
The distinctive change from happy to sad was reflected in the mirror and caught Johnny’s attention. “You seem a little distracted brother, and not for the first time. Something wrong?”
Shaking his head, Scott continued to study his clasped hands intently. “No, there’s nothing wrong. Why should there be?”
Johnny turned his head and peered at him. “Cut the crap Scott. Just ‘cause I ain’t had no fancy Harvard education don’t mean I can’t work out what’s going on in that thick skull of yours.”
Scott swallowed hard, unable to bring himself to meet the pair of blue-eyes he knew were staring at him. “Care to explain?”
If he heard unease in his voice, Johnny made no mention. “It’s obvious, even to a blind man. You’ve been worrying yourself stupid something might go wrong today with your wedding planning.”
Still averting his gaze Scott opened his mouth ready to vehemently deny the allegation as this was far from the truth. However after a moment’s thought he decided against it. “You’ve got it in one little brother. Perfectionism, as you know, is my middle name.”
Flashing a sympathetic smile in his direction, Johnny eased down on the bed, looping an arm over his shoulder. “Listen to me, everything’s gonna work out just fine. I mean, there weren’t no problems when you organized Josh and Laurie’s wedding last year were there? Apart from them never getting hitched in the end and I’d sure like to see anyone try and pin the blame for that on you.”
Scott gave a soft sigh. He still held himself responsible for bringing Laurie to the area and introducing the ill-matched pair to each other. However, oblivious to his guilt-ridden thoughts, Johnny went on. “Take it from me brother; nothing’s been forgotten and thanks to you and all your hard work Zee is going to have the perfect day you promised her.”
The ghost of a smile flickered across Scott’s face. “I hope so. After all it isn’t every day a girl gets married,” he mused; his voice barely more than a whisper and tender in its tone. “Zee deserves the best wedding I can give her after all she’s had to go through in her life...”
“That’s right and that’s what she’s gonna be getting,” Johnny quickly interrupted. “There’s enough food to feed the Mexican Army in the kitchen and I ain’t ever seen so many flowers and fancy silk ribbon decorating one place. I tell you brother, no one could have done more to make today special and that’s a fact.”
Pausing for a moment, Johnny pulled out a scratched and battered looking time-piece from his pocket and checked the time. It was his most treasured possession and he carried it with him everywhere; the watch having been given to him by his father many months before.
He clicked the lid shut and returned it to the inside of his jacket. “Guests are gonna be arriving pretty soon and we need to be ready to help Teresa do a load of greeting. So stop your worrying and finish smarting yourself up. That’s an order boy, you hear me?”
Scott shot him a look. “Does Murdoch know you’re calling the tune today little brother?”
Johnny smiled. “If that’s what it takes to get you off your bony backside, reckon he won’t mind,” he responded lightheartedly.
Scott hid the inner tension he felt behind a chuckle as Johnny pushed up from the bed and extended his arm,
Heaving a vast inward sigh, Scott took hold of his hand and allowed himself to be pulled up to a standing position. With his brother watching him, he buttoned his shirt but muttered a few well chosen expletives as fumbling fingers found difficulty in tidily securing the knot of his string-tie.
After the third unsuccessful attempt Johnny shook his head with exasperation and took the tie from his grasp. “Hell brother, I ain’t ever seen you in this kind of state before. You’re as edgy as a cornered jack-rabbit. Looks like you could do with some of the old man’s best whiskey to help calm you down.”
Scott flashed a sheepish look towards an empty shot glass on the wash stand. Not wishing to admit he’d already been tempted to have more than one measure he said nothing, and without protestation allowed Johnny to finish dressing him.
Once done Johnny stepped back. With his arms crossed he studied his elder brother thoughtfully through critical eyes.
Feeling slightly unsettled at being under such close scrutiny, Scott took hold of his jacket from the back of the chair and put it on. “Do I pass inspection?” he asked as he brushed away a speck of dust from one of the sleeves.
Johnny nodded. “Ain’t a patch on my finery…but reckon you‘ll do,” he responded with a grin. “Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be. Just…just give me a minute alone, okay?”
Although slightly puzzled by his request, Johnny nodded. “Sure,” he agreed and turned to go.
He’d barely taken a step when Scott took hold of his arm and held him back. “Johnny…there’s something I…I…”
Suddenly unable to say the words, Scott shook his head. “Nothing…nothing important. It can wait till later.”
Although his brows drew together in a puzzled frown, Johnny didn’t press further. If there was one thing he’d learned over the past months on Lancer, when Scott wanted to keep something to himself, wild horses couldn’t drag it out of him. He let his fingers tighten in a tender, brotherly squeeze on his shoulder; the touch gentle and supportive. “Whatever you say. I’ll see you downstairs.”
Spinning on his heel Johnny left, leaving Scott staring blankly for several seconds at the door his brother closed behind him. With his stomach churning mercilessly he shuddered. Damn! He’d never felt such a bundle of nerves since facing a line of Confederate Infantry in ‘64.
The haunting sound of deftly played organ music wafted up from the large living room below. Scott took a deep steadying breath. In truth the day couldn’t be over quick enough.
After managing to compose himself Scott rejoined his brother and not long after a swirl of dust heralded the arrival of several buckboards in the yard of the Lancer ranch. It seemed like half the population of Spanish Wells and the surrounding area had been invited to the wedding, Sheriff Gabe together with the Widow Hargis leading the way.
In double quick time the guests were welcomed and shown to their seats. Many had never visited the hacienda before and eyes surreptitiously scanned every inch of the vast and expensively decorated room with a sense of awe. Finally with everyone in place, Scott and Johnny settled down on their own allocated chairs on the front row.
Minutes passed but to Scott it felt like hours. His collar was overly starched and tight making it difficult to swallow, and nervous sweat began to trickle down his back. He shifted uncomfortably and could sense Johnny staring at him and smiling at his obvious discomfort. He flipped a hand on his leg with an irate look, which only made Johnny grin even more.
As he returned his gaze to the front, for no apparent reason Scott remembered someone he’d fleetingly met before he joined his Cavalry unit during the war. She was the first woman he’d ever made love to and to his shame he couldn’t recall her name.
Scott could feel his face redden at the memory of his first time and silently scolded himself. What was he doing thinking of a past dalliance when the woman he loved with all his heart was about to walk down the aisle.
He let out a groan without realizing it. Johnny stared at him again. This time Scott refused to look his way.
Suddenly there was the sound of a creaking door as it opened behind them. Given a well rehearsed signal the organist gave a nod of understanding and began playing the familiar strain of ‘Here Comes the Bride’. Taking his cue, Justice of the Peace Archibald Trask who was officiating at the ceremony loudly cleared his throat to gain attention and indicated for everyone to rise.
As he complied with the instruction Scott was unable to resist turning his head. The tall imposing figure of his father wearing his Sunday best came into view, Murdoch beaming proudly with Zee on his arm.
Scott’s heart missed a beat as he viewed the vision of loveliness. Even the congregation gasped collectively at the sheer beauty of her as she walked passed.
Carrying a bouquet of pink roses, Zee wore no veil but a small posy of matching rosebuds was secured into her dark hair piled in curls on the top of her head. The wedding dress had been hurriedly made by the local seamstress and was simply cut in ivory white with no elaborate decoration. But no bride had ever looked more stunning or beautiful, of that Scott was sure.
His mind flashed back to their first meeting as he carried Zee kicking and screaming into the jail house after she’d been caught trying to rob the town’s mercantile store.
It was during those next few days while in his custody Scott developed a growing affection for the spirited though not a little devious young woman. His parting words after the trial was over and she’d been put on probation under Widow Hargis’s guardianship came to him again. ‘I’m not through with you yet.’
When did he first realize his feelings for Zee went beyond fondness and had turned into love? Certainly not during those awkward visits to the widow’s house when her prim elderly eyes closely supervised their every move in the front parlor.
Thinking back, it was the day he’d left for San Francisco. Knowing he’d be gone for a while on ranch business, Zee insisted on seeing him off. A soft smile of remembrance touched Scott’s mouth as he recalled the moment he’d gently pulled her into his arms and kissed her farewell; for once the widow turning a blind eye to such brazen familiarity in a public place.
The tenderness of Zee’s response was enough for Scott to suddenly realize he didn’t want to leave her. Never before had he felt such immediate passion and desire for anyone – not even his ex-fiancé back in Boston - and from that moment he knew he’d found the woman he could happily spend the rest of his life with. However he silently conceded it wasn’t the right time or place to admit his true feelings and ask for her hand. So with his eyes reflecting what his lips couldn’t say Scott decided to wait until he returned.
With his thoughts on Zee during the longest three weeks of his life, he wondered what his grandfather would make of her. Although now a reformed character and a popular member of the community, she was still a far cry from the Bostonian socialites Harlan Garrett had tried to match up with his grandson. However Scott had long decided he’d only follow his heart in the same way his mother had done. Not for Catherine Garrett an easy marriage of convenience and a chance to climb the social ladder when she chose to wed Murdoch Lancer against her father’s wishes.
Shaking himself from his thoughts as Zee drew level she smiled towards him. Scott returned the smile then watched as Murdoch tenderly kissed her cheek before leaving Zee by the side of the waiting husband to be.
Scott’s throat tightened with emotion. This was it…it was time.
Unconsciously clenching his fists tight, Scott struggled to keep his mind on the service as he stared at the couple now standing only feet away.
Randall Hargis, the nephew of Widow Hargis, arrived in Green River to visit his aunt during Scott’s absence in San Francisco. He was a qualified doctor in the Arizona Territory, and founder of an ever growing medical practice in Tucson. Handsome, kindly and his eyes always sparkling with humor, within a short while of him being introduced to Zee the pair had fallen in love, and by the time Scott returned from his trip Randall had just proposed and the young woman accepted.
With the widow insisting they marry before travelling back to her nephew’s spacious home, arrangements had to be hastily made. Keeping his own feelings well hidden deep within him, Scott willingly suggested he take charge of all the preparations and promised Zee the wedding of her dreams on Lancer. He also insisted on paying for everything…money no object. It would be his wedding present to them both. A generous gift for the woman who’d stolen his heart then unknowingly shattered it into a thousand pieces.
To Scott’s relief the wedding service itself was short. Once pronounced husband and wife and with the formalities completed, everyone enjoyed a more than generous wedding feast with speeches and countless toasts. Finally the cake was cut and then for the rest of the day the ranch house was filled with good-hearted laughter and music.
Outside on the patio there was dancing to the sound of a five-piece band and during the intervals a sing-a-long instigated to everyone’s surprise by the Widow Hargis who with unbelievable gusto sang her way through each and every song.
Eventually came the time for the bride and groom to depart for Green River. The finest room in the town’s hotel had been reserved for their use until the next day when they were to catch the stage on the first leg of their journey to Arizona.
The wedding guests surged forward to offer their congratulations and well wishes while Scott held back until the end before claiming his moment with the happy pair.
Ignorant of his feelings for her, Zee hugged him tight. “I don’t deserve to have such happiness Scott Lancer,” she said with thankful tears brimming. “I ain’t Zee Mangrim anymore. I’m Mrs. Randall Hargis and it’s all down to you.”
Without answering Scott knew what she meant. If it hadn’t been for his stubborn determination to be a complaining witness and insist she stand trial, she’d have fled the area and continued her life of crime; never to meet the man now standing by her side.
Knowing all about Zee’s past and Scott’s part in it, Randall nodded in agreement. “We both have a lot to thank you for.”
For the first time Scott looked Randall squarely in the eyes. For a brief moment he thought he saw more than gratitude reflecting back at him. Had Randall seen through his charade and knew he loved Zee as much as he did himself? However there was no sign of animosity in the doctor’s gaze as he shook his hand. “I’ll take good care of her. I promise you that.”
A look of understanding passed between them. “I know you will,” Scott replied, confident Zee had found a true soul-mate and a better man, though he couldn’t pretend the thought didn’t hurt.
To the sound of a great deal of whooping and hollering from the enthusiastic crowd, the newly wed couple disappeared from sight; the single-horse buggy which whisked them away festooned with paper roses and ribbon of every color. The festivities continued unabated however, and it was past midnight when the last of the guests reluctantly called it a day.
As the small train of wagons winded their way back to Green River under the light of a full moon and numerous torches, Murdoch and Johnny strolled into the house. However Scott failed to follow their lead. Waiting until they’d disappeared through the front door he headed slowly across the yard; his mind still in a whirl of confused thoughts.
At the corral he undid his tie and let it hang loose around his neck. With his arms then resting on the top rail he stared blindly towards the shadowy outline of the hills in the far distance.
Visions of Zee smiling, laughing and eyes filled with love as she looked up at new husband flooded his head. Scott stroked a finger across his lips, relishing the memory of the soft kiss of thanks she’d placed on his mouth before leaving.
A dull ache settled in his chest. He’d never imagined unrequited love could be so damned painful and he silently cursed.
The tell-tale jingle of spurs and sound of footsteps suddenly disturbed Scott’s moment of miserable thought. Knowing who it was he spoke out without turning. “I thought you’d gone to bed.”
“Well you thought wrong brother. Still plenty of drinkin’ time left I reckon.”
Scott gave a faint smile of thanks as he accepted a tall fluted glass and watched as Johnny filled it to the brim with champagne. “Where did you find this? I was sure there was none left the last time I looked.”
Johnny grinned as he put down the bottle. “When I saw the rate them Green River folks were pushing it down their throats, I made sure there was enough well hidden for our sole consumption.”
With his back resting on the fence, Scott made comfortable on a bale of hay and Johnny eased down by his side. The two men stared towards the white-washed hacienda in silence, contented to be in each other’s company as they sipped their drinks.
Finally Johnny broke the quiet between them. “Well brother, looks like the day was a big success. I lost count of the number of folk who told me this was the best organized wedding they’d ever been to. Didn’t I say there was no need for you to do any worrying?”
A muscle in Scott’s jaw flexed and his only response was a faint grunt.
A light was suddenly extinguished in a bedroom window and Johnny gazed in its direction. “Looks like the old man’s turned in. Reckon he’ll sleep well after all the jigging around he’s been doing. For someone who keeps moaning he’s getting old, Murdoch sure managed to dance his socks off tonight.”
Scott gave a nod. “Something tells me there’s plenty of life in the old fox yet. He’ll probably outlive us.”
Johnny smiled in agreement then a thought struck him. “You were gonna tell me something earlier but clammed up all of a sudden. You up to fillin’ me in now?”
Scott stared down thoughtfully at his champagne for a few moments. As though a decision had been made he then pulled out a small velvet covered box from his jacket pocket. He looked at it in the palm of his hand before handing it over. “I know you thought I was preoccupied by the wedding plans but this is part of the real reason.”
Johnny put down his glass and opened the lid. He let out a low whistle as he took out a sparkling three-stone diamond engagement ring. It was exquisite and clearly very expensive. He turned his head with a questioning frown.
“I…I bought it in ‘Frisco last month,” Scott told him falteringly, then coughed and cleared his throat. “It was my intention to ask Zee to marry me as soon as I returned.”
“You…you and Zee?” Johnny stared at him as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I knew you were fond of her but you never said a word about fallin’ in love!”
“I didn’t know how I really felt about her myself until the day I left on the stage. Then it suddenly hit me like a bolt from the blue. Zee was the one, only….”
Scott’s voice trailed and he took a breath. “Only she’d already accepted Randall’s proposal by the time I got back.”
Johnny swallowed. Emotion crept into his voice, sympathy into his eyes. “And like the honorable man you are, you stepped away and didn’t say a word. That right brother?”
Scott gave him a sidelong look. “What was I supposed to do Johnny?” he sighed. “Challenge Randall to a duel when it was obvious Zee had found the man of her dreams?”
A silence settled for several seconds, heavy and uncomfortable until Scott ran a hand across his overly bright eyes. “No one else must ever know about this. Our conversation stays between us and goes no further. Agreed?”
With a sigh Johnny touched his arm. “You can count on me brother. But why didn’t you say something to me earlier instead of keeping it locked up inside?”
“Believe me, I wanted to get it off my chest many times but always chickened out at the last moment. I mean a man’s got to have some pride. It’s not an easy thing to admit the woman you love has fallen head over heels for another.”
There was no bitterness in his voice but Johnny heard his pain. He took a swallow of champagne. “Is it this fancy drink that’s loosened your tongue now?”
“Probably,” Scott acknowledged though without remorse. “So where do I go from here little brother? How do I get over a broken heart? They never taught me this at Harvard.”
His tone was self-deprecating and Johnny studied Scott’s profile in the darkness and was sure he saw the hint of a weak smile appear on his face. He considered for a moment as he fingered the ring thoughtfully.
“Don’t reckon you can ever truly get over losing the woman you love Scott,” he finally answered then paused as he searched for the right words. “But one day the sun will shine a little brighter, birds sing a little sweeter and life will feel more like living without Zee around. It’s just gonna take time, that’s all.”
“Are you talking through experience?” Scott asked gently.
Johnny sighed wearily. “Yeah. It was the same for me after Mattie went away.”
Hearing the catch in his voice, Scott swallowed hard at the memory.
Several months had passed since Johnny had been blinded by a sniper’s bullet and left for dead, only surviving through the care of a mute young woman. Over the few days they were together he’d fallen in love with his silent savior, only to have his heart broken when she hastily left the ranch as soon as it was apparent his sight had been restored.
“Does it still hurt when you think about her?”
Johnny took a moment before replying. “Mattie will always have a place in my heart but there’s no pain there anymore when she comes to mind. Just a feeling of emptiness, that’s all.”
Scott seemed to ponder his answer as he drained the last of his drink. Johnny looked at him again. His features appeared more relaxed as if the tension had gone from his body. “So, what you gonna do with this now?” he asked as he handed the ring back.
Staring thoughtfully at the token of his love for a few moments Scott shrugged then returned it to its box. “I’ll take it back to the jewelers next time I go to ‘Frisco, though I don’t expect they’ll give me back the full price I paid.”
“Why not keep it? You know, for the next time it’s needed.”
Scott gave a wry smile. “What makes you think there’s going to be a next time Johnny?”
Suddenly back to his animated self, Johnny gestured towards the house. “There’s gotta be a next time Scott or your life won’t be worth living around here. You know how Murdoch keeps hankering for us to settle down and start producing heirs. Seeing as he’s the one who calls the tune, there’ll be hell to pay if you don’t follow his orders some time soon! And I for one don’t hanker to be an only child!”
For a few moments Scott just looked at him with a blank expression and then he began to laugh. Unable to stop himself Johnny soon joined in, the sound of their mingled chortles dancing across the yard.
As he felt the mantle of misery he’d been carrying lately slowly lifting off his shoulders, Scott finally managed to control his amusement. “I needed that so badly. Thanks brother.”
“For being you,” Scott answered and ruffled his hair affectionately.
Johnny smiled in the darkness.
With both men now showing the burry-eyed look of inebriation Johnny took a further sip of his drink then his face lit up excitedly. “Tell you what brother. I’ll give you $20 for the ring…cash.”
“$20!” Scott looked at him with mock indignation. “This wasn’t some back-street peddler I bought it from! Add another zero and I might do business with you though I’d still be out of pocket.”
“Over $200 for a ring!” Johnny’s voice was incredulous. “Hell brother, you must have more money than sense!” However undeterred he increased his bid. “I’ll give you $30 and throw in my old saddle.”
“Sorry John…not for sale. I’ve decided to keep it. Like you said, I might need it some day.”
Grinning at him Johnny refilled their glasses. “In that case, a toast brother. To the future Mrs. Scott Lancer, wherever and whoever she may be.”
Scott nodded with a smile as he raised his own glass.
For a time over the past weeks he hadn’t been able to see himself ever marrying anyone else, such was his heartache and feeling of loss. But with his brother’s words ringing in his ears, Scott was now sure he’d be blessed with a loving wife and a future worth having one day.
And for him that was a good enough reason to carry on…after Zee.