“Come on, Scott, look at him. You’ve seen Diablo run. You telling me that any horse in this valley…hell, in the whole state, has a chance against him?”
The stallion in question was certainly a fine specimen, sleek, black and well-muscled. But even more remarkable was the vivid sense of barely-contained energy. It conjured up an image of speed—pure, God-given, over-the-limit speed. How easy to picture this animal galloping headlong over endless miles of rolling hills even as he stood, placid, nuzzling the hand that offered slices of apple. When the last of these cut-up treats disappeared, Diablo ambled away from the fence.
Wiping a sticky palm on the side of his pants, Johnny nodded at the departing horse. “Gallagher’s nag will be eating his dust four ways to Sunday.”
“Johnny, you don’t have to convince me that Diablo’s an outstanding piece of horseflesh. If you strapped a pair of wings on that animal, I believe he could fly.”
A saddle had been slung over the top rail of the fence. Giving it a dismissive slap, Scott turned away. “You should ask one of the hands to take your place.”
Frustrated, Johnny began to pace back and forth next to the corral. After a few halting steps, he’d pivot on his makeshift crutch and limp a couple of feet in the opposite direction before repeating the whole process again. “Aw, that’s not the same thing. It has to be a Lancer sitting on Diablo’s back when he walks away with this race. That’s the only way we’re going to wipe the shit-eating grin off that Irish blowhard’s face.”
Scott merely shrugged. “I don’t know where this bad blood between you and Sean Gallagher got started, although my guess would be over a woman. But it has nothing to do with me, and I’ve got way too much on my plate to take a whole day off for…”
“Now don’t be too hasty, son.”
Neither of the two brothers had heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching, but Johnny immediately took those words to mean that he had a possible ally for his cause. “You tell him, Murdoch.”
“I’m just as fond of glory as the next man, I suppose, and it would be a source of great pride for me to watch either of my boys cross that finish line in first place.” A certain unabashed gleam in those usually staid eyes testified to the truth of that statement before his face took on a more serious demeanor. “But there are more important reasons why I’d like Scott to participate.”
His father’s voice had taken on that ‘I’m-calling-the-tune’ attitude which Scott knew from experience had about as much give to it as a brick wall.
“Well, sir, I’m sure your reasons are very compelling, but as I was telling Johnny, I have some pressing responsibilities that shouldn’t be put off…”
“And I admire your dedication, son. But we have a greater duty here. Putting aside the matter of the money from the entry fees that’s going to buy books and supplies for the school, this event is serving another significant purpose.”
Murdoch glanced over as if to make sure he had his older son’s undivided attention. “The group of Irish settlers who moved into this valley over a year ago hasn’t had an easy time of it. Making a living off this land is an arduous undertaking at best, but they had the bad luck to arrive on the heels of that unfortunate incident with the McGloins.”
For just an instant a pained grimace twisted Scott’s face. As quickly as it appeared, though, it was replaced by a bland expression of tolerant interest as Murdoch’s lecture continued.
“We both know that McGloin was a thief and a swindler, but the prejudices and injustices experienced by the Irish immigrants to this country are much as Moira described them to us that night in the study here at Lancer. The Gallaghers, the Concannons and the rest not only had those burdens to contend with, they also had to overcome the fear and suspicion of neighbors who tarred them with the same brush as the black McGloins.”
“After a great deal of hard work and a thousand small gestures of friendship and compassion, these families are starting to be accepted as members of the community. The cattleman’s association and other civic groups could have held this competition any time. The fact that they chose to honor one of Ireland’s most famous patron saints this way gives it special meaning. I mean for Lancer to do all it can to promote this newfound unity.”
If he hadn’t agreed with every word his father had just said, Scott’s nerves probably wouldn’t have been so on edge. Those people did deserve whatever support Lancer could lend them. He just wished Johnny hadn’t been so careless as to slice his leg deeply on a piece of sharp debris while clearing the riverbed. With one Lancer brother taking part in the race, his presence wouldn’t have been so critical.
So he was left with no choice. Like it or not, he was going to be right in the midst of this little celebration. His only concern now that no one guess why he’d tried to avoid the gathering in the first place.
“As usual, sir, your arguments are quite persuasive.” Scott grabbed the saddle and stepped into the corral. “I’ll need to spend a bit of time putting Diablo through his paces and getting him used to me. Please tell Teresa that I may not be back in time for dinner.”
Soon he was cantering beneath the Lancer arch, grateful for some solitude and a chance to gather his thoughts.
The Gallaghers and their fellow countrymen were honest, diligent and decent, exact opposites of the shifty, deceitful McGloins. Even so, with their lilting speech and typical Irish blarney, they put him forcibly in mind of a certain dark-haired lass. Saucy and yet alluring, she’d been willful and heedless enough to warrant his characterization of her as a ‘strange little savage’.
During their brief interlude, Moira had roused his anger, pity, resentment and passion, often all at the same time. He could have tried to induce her to stay once she’d parted ways with her scheming clan, but he’d left it to his father to make that suggestion. Perhaps that had rankled, for her last jaunty words of farewell had been directed to Murdoch.
“I’ll be back someday with all me pretty manners and lovely graces. And then maybe I’ll see if this fine son of yours is good enough for me.”
He’d watched her ride off with only a slight tug of regret, but somehow she’d continued to haunt him.
Then a letter had arrived, a stiff, formal composition worthy of a child’s copybook. She’d found a position as a companion for a well-to-do gentlewoman and planned to make good on that final promise.
The first short note had come from San Francisco, but her wealthy patron traveled extensively and he began receiving regular missives from cities across the country. Gradually that stilted manner had fallen away, her faltering grammar had improved and she’d written with the same vibrant zest that he’d come to admire in her presence.
The communications had been all one-sided. Moira never revealed the name of her employer or given any mailing address so that Scott could respond to her letters. Then, as more time passed, her correspondence had slowly dwindled. It had been several months since he’d last heard from her.
Perhaps that was when he first began to find being around the Irish folk so intolerable. They were a reminder that he may have let something special slip through his fingers. Even now, memories of soft lips, yielding arms and a crude straw pallet produced distinct longings. Whether they were simple lust or evidence of a deeper, more meaningful connection was a subject upon which Scott preferred not to dwell.
So it was all for the best that he’d reached the edge of a vast meadow. In a few seconds he was flying across the lush grass at a hell-bent-for-leather pace that proved all Johnny’s bragging was justified and cleared his head of useless, fanciful notions. It also served to rid his body of certain inconvenient and uncomfortable urges. At least…
Perhaps a few more miles…
The turnout was better than even the most optimistic of the organizers had expected. After suffering through an especially wet, cold winter season, there were few souls who weren’t anxious to kick up their heels during this first break in the miserable weather.
A whole gaggle of energetic females chattered and giggled while marshalling their forces to set up for the massive potluck dinner. Miles of cheap muslin had been dyed green for use as table coverings and decorative bunting. Every table, bench or chair that wasn’t nailed down had been commandeered. Husbands, boyfriends, sons, brothers—any able-bodied male who lacked the foresight to go into hiding had been dragooned to help with the heavy lifting.
For all their preoccupation with the job at hand, the ladies found time to chat about everything from the newest dress patterns to the price of sugar to juicy gossip about who’d just delivered a ‘seven-month’ baby.
But for the men there was one topic and only one topic—today’s horse race. Arguments raged about speed versus stamina. Some held to the importance of good breeding while others swore by the dauntless wild mustang. Would this dry track be faster or slower than last week’s muddy trail? Chapter and verse—details about every horse and rider were being debated at great length.
The majority opinion had it all pegged as a two-horse race. Lancer’s Diablo and Sean Gallagher’s Liadan were hailed as the top contenders. The more superstitious among the pundits had it that the grey mare—named after a female Irish saint—had the advantage in a contest being held in honor of Ireland’s most famous holy man, while a number of others thought of the Lancer’s stallion as the home town favorite.
Most of the interested parties had come prepared to put their money where their mouth was and wagers were being laid hot and heavy. With everyone eager to expound on their knowledge of horseflesh and gambling fever running high, the saloon was doing a brisk business and steadily grew more rowdy.
After being forcibly ejected from the livery stable—Scott having had a bellyful of his brother’s well-meaning but incessant advice—Johnny was headed in that direction too. He’d discarded his crutch, but the limp came in handy for fending off Teresa or any other women in search of more slave labor.
More than a dozen loud conversations clamored in the crowded room, but a young fellow standing at the bar seemed to be getting the lion’s share of the attention.
“Now, boys, don’t be mistaking my meaning. Lancer’s stallion is a good, sound animal. But, you see, your average rider must rely on spurs or the whip to have a chance in a race like this. I have no need for such crude methods. I can coax every last inch of speed from Liadan merely by whispering a few soft, tender words in her ear.”
“I’d think most men would save that kind of sweet talk for two-legged fillies, not the four-legged variety.”
“Ah, Johnny-me-boy, I can see how you’d be inclined to do so. Seeing as how you’ve trouble keeping a girl by your side even long enough to finish one little dance.”
“Well, I’m not much of a hand at dancing.” A smug grin belied the humility of this admission. “But I wasn’t alone later that night…walking in the moonlight.” He had the pleasure of watching those emerald eyes harden and knew he’d touched a nerve.
A few more onlookers began to take notice, hopeful that a friendly brawl might become part of the day’s entertainment. The two men were nearly the same height. Muscle added some heft to Johnny’s frame, while Sean was all sinew and whipcord lean.
“Sure and what a great pity you won’t be in that saddle instead of your brother. It would be so grand to wipe that bloody smirk off your face.”
“You need a horse in order to do that, Gallagher?”
“Any Irishman will tell you that a fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed, but it wouldn’t be sporting of me to take advantage of a cripple like that.”
“Yeah? Well, this cripple is about to help you get better acquainted with that floor down there.”
“Maybe the both of you would like to get better acquainted with the inside of a jail cell!”
Val Crawford with a full head of steam made a grizzly with a sore paw seem downright cuddly. He cast a jaundiced eye over the two would-be combatants. “So what’s it gonna be?”
Gallagher’s lip curled in disdain. “Was this your plan all along, Lancer? Get your friend the constable to lock me up so your brother could have a clear shot at first place?”
“Aw, leave him alone, Val.” Dropping his fists Johnny took a couple of long, slow breaths. “We aren’t gonna cause any more trouble.”
When the sheriff continued to glare, obviously unconvinced, he gritted his teeth. “You’ve got my word.”
“Huh!” Val’s only response was a grunt, but he turned his back and started walking away.
As Scott shoved through one side of the bat-wing doors, he noticed that Green River’s normally dour lawman was looking even grimmer and more harried than usual.
“Good afternoon, Val.”
“Ha!” With one hand resting on the second of the swinging doors, Val snorted in disgust. “Ya wouldn’t think so if ya had my job today. Every yahoo with a plugged nickel to his name figured this was the day to come into town and cut the wolf loose. I got Mayor Higgs flapping his gums, wanting me ta be sure to ride herd on the bad element. A couple of smart-aleck brats think it’s funny to wedge the door to the outhouse shut on folks. You never heard so many upstanding citizens screaming about getting caught with their pants down. And I can’t turn around without some dab-blasted female trying to shanghai me into toting a passel of chairs or climbing on a ladder to nail green fal-de-rahs all over the place.”
So far things were going as badly as Scott had anticipated. No matter where he looked, trappings of the Irish-themed festivities evoked bittersweet memories. Listening to this plaintive litany of grievances, the lines in his face softened and his mood lifted for the first time all day.
“Sorry to hear that your responsibilities are so overwhelming.”
Perhaps he hadn’t managed to keep all traces of amusement from his voice because Val was squinting suspiciously.
“That’s real nice of you, but I’d save some of that sympathy for your own self. I aim to dump one of my responsibilities right in your lap. Keep that brother of yours out of my hair. If I catch wind that him and Sean Gallagher have been disturbing the peace by beating each other to a pulp, I’ll throw’em both in the hoosegow and stick you in there with’em, just on principle.”
“Now, just a minute, Val…”
But Scott’s protest fell on deaf ears. Beneath all the bluster, it was clear that Johnny’s long-suffering friend meant exactly what he said. The swinging door creaked wildly on its hinges as he slammed out. “Hey, you kids! What did I tell ya about messing with that shit-house?”
With a resigned set to his shoulders, Scott headed towards the table where his brother was just paying the barmaid for a fresh mug of beer. One smooth, predatory strike and he was swallowing a long, cold draught of the amber liquid before Johnny could utter an indignant, “Hey!”
“Since I’ve been told it’s my job to keep you out of trouble today, I figure I should start collecting my wages.”
When his brother’s only response was a rude noise, Scott lifted one eyebrow in warning. “You’d be wise to pay heed, boy. Our esteemed sheriff is on the warpath because of all the extra havoc from today’s shindig.”
“Ha! A few liquored-up cowboys? That ain’t what’s got Val all in a lather.”
“No? Would you care to enlighten me as to the real reason?”
Lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, Johnny said, “Miz Harper.”
“Mrs. Harper? You mean the Reverend Green’s widowed sister. The one who’s come here to live with him?”
“Yep. Seems like the widow lady has taken a shine to Val. She’s been bringing him baked goods, offering to tidy up the jail and such. It’s got Val sweating bullets.”
For the second time in less than an hour, Scott enjoyed a good laugh at Val Crawford’s expense.
“Still, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to rile him. Think you and Sean Gallagher could agree to postpone bloodshed for the time being?”
“The barest glimpse of feral, white teeth flashed for an instant. “I will if he will.”
Sean chose that moment to walk by, stopping to greet Scott. “Sure and I’m pleased at having this chance to be testing the mettle of our horses—and their riders—one the field of honor.”
Accepting the proffered hand in his own firm grip, Scott nodded. “I’m looking forward to this little contest too. May the better man—or horse—win.”
Johnny accorded this show of good sportsmanship no more than a roll of his eyes, and Sean left the saloon unmolested.
Before the two Lancers could have any further conversation, though, they were joined by a squat little man with a bald pate and yellow teeth.
“Lieutenant Lancer! Sir, may I have the honor of buying you a drink?”
“Thank you, Morley, but I already have one. And I think I’ve mentioned before that it’s not necessary to use my former rank when you address me. Mr. Lancer, or even Scott, will do.”
“That’s real democratic of you, sir…real democratic. But I shouldn’t be taking up your time. You must have lots to do getting ready for the big race and all. I’ve been saving up some of my pay…gonna be on you to win.”
“I appreciate your confidence, Morley. There’s going to be some stiff competition.
“Aw, Lieut…Mr. Lancer, you ain’t got to worry about any dirty mick doing you out of first place.”
A faint shadow of distaste crossed Scott’s face. “As I said, there are a lot of fine animals and some excellent riders. But that’s what makes a horse race.”
Cackling as though this worn-out cliché was a joke of the first order, Morley shuffled away.
Johnny shook his head. “Talk about a fawning, boot-licking waste of shoe leather. How do you stomach that little worm, Scott?”
“I can’t say I have much more liking for the man than you do, but I feel a certain sense of obligation towards someone from my old unit who’s fallen on hard times. It hasn’t gone much further than putting in a good word for him when he applied for work at the feed store.”
“Uh,huh! And putting up bail when Val had him locked up on that drunk and disorderly charge. And digging into your wallet every time he hits you up for a loan… which he never repays.”
“I told him last month that he’d received his last hand-out from me. To his credit, he hasn’t asked since. And it hasn’t diminished his fawning and boot-licking.”
Flagging down a barmaid, Scott ordered two more beers. “Now don’t we have anything better to discuss than Morley and his charming personality?”
“Sure we do. I wanted to go over today’s race course in a little more detail. You know how Diablo likes to take the bit in his teeth on the downhill runs? Well, if ya…”
“Thanks for helping out with this delivery, Red. I know the feed store is closed for business today, but I figured with all these folks in town for the race, some extra supplies would come in handy.”
As he spoke, Morley glanced up and down the row of stalls lining the stable. Satisfied that they were alone, he dropped the bag of grain he was lugging and stepped back to close the door.
Red, whose shock of carrot-colored hair left no doubt as to how he’d come by his nickname, was stooped over a bit from the weight of the full burlap sack slung over his shoulder. Instead of releasing his burden, though, he stood peering nervously into every corner.
“Morley, are you sure about this? You already got the cash from the feed store. With the place closed up until tomorrow, we could be long gone before old man Richards knows it missing.”
“Idiot!” Morley’s whole demeanor was a far cry from the bowing, scraping attitude he’d displayed earlier in the saloon. “It wouldn’t take’em two minutes to figure out it was me done the job. Then it would be posses and wanted posters. My way, we put that money back and still have two, three times as much left to put in our own pocket with no one the wiser. Besides,” he added, with a scornful look at his hapless partner, “you should be thankful. If I didn’t need someone to help me lay off all these bets, you wouldn’t be getting even ten percent of the take.”
Looking suitably cowed by this reminder, Red stammered out a few more questions. “But are you sure that stuff will work? What the hell is it anyway?”
“The mixture is based on a recipe handed down by my dear old grandmother.”
Red goggled at him. “Your grandmother fixed horse races?”
“Lamebrain!” Morely fired back in exasperation. “Of course not. Granny was a healing woman. Knew more about herbs and home-brewed medicine than anyone around. This little concoction would have a grown man sleeping like a baby for a week straight through.”
“Uh, Morley…you sure it will work on a horse?”
Red cringed as the smaller man jerked on his shirt-front, yanking him down until they were nose-to-nose.
“I’m not stupid, you know,” Morley snarled. “I’ve worked on this plan for weeks. Once I’d snuck a look and got the combination to the safe, I bided my time. When they announced this horse race, the whole valley knew that either Lancer’s stallion or Gallagher’s mare was gonna come out on top, and I was smart enough to come up with a sure-fire way to make a fortune.”
As his brief spurt of temper was mollified by Red’s doleful sniveling, Morley released his hold and smoothed the rumpled fabric. “There now, you gotta trust that I’ve done all the thinking for both of us. I even turned it to good account when Jed Evens asked me to water and feed his livestock while he was off in Sacramento. I used his animals to test the dosages and calculate how long before the stuff would take effect. We can give this to one of the horses now, and as long as the nag is just standing around, it won’t look much different. Working’em hard gets the blood moving or something because they hit the dirt a lot quicker then.”
Now that Morley was calm, Red didn’t want to say anything to set the man off again, but he was still confused on one point.
“So, how did you decide which of the two horses you were gonna dope up?
An expression of pure malice descended onto Morley’s features. “I had pretty well decided on taking down that loud-mouthed mick’s horse, until I learned that our noble, high-and-mighty, chicken-shit lieutenant would be riding the Lancer animal.”
Once again, Red could only gape at his friend. “I thought you were such good pals with the lieutenant…I mean, him helping you out and all.”
Morley’s sneer was baleful. “Oh yeah, he’s just like all the rest of them other officers—from General Sheridan right down the line. With their shiny brass buttons and their orders and their lectures, handing out charity like alms to the poor and expecting a man to be grateful, acting like their shit don’t stink.”
A mean, piggy little smile that spoke of vindictive pleasure twisted his lips as he pulled a small leather bag from his pocket. “With any luck, Lancer will break his fine, blue-blooded neck when the beast gives out.”
“From your lips to God’s ears, me fine lad …but I’m thinking there may be a way to sweeten the pot a bit.”
The cheeky Irish brogue couldn’t have caused more shock and panic in the two men if it had been a rifle shot. Red, pale as a ghost, looked ready to turn tail and run, but Morley stood his ground. Producing a gun he aimed in the direction of the disembodied voice and cursed viciously. “Get out here where we can see ya!”
Sean emerged from the shadows with an impudent grin and not a trace of fear. Leaning casually against a sturdy wooden post, he held his arms stiffly away from his body in an exaggerated gesture to demonstrate that he wasn’t carrying a weapon.
“You won’t be needing that toy cannon of yours, boyo. The noise would just mean a lot of unnecessary bother, wouldn’t it? And don’t we want the same thing? To kick those arrogant bastards, the Lancers, in the teeth? Wouldn’t we be better off working together on that?”
This breezy speech seemed to have the desired effect. Morley remained wary, but relaxed his grip on the pistol slightly.
“I ain’t never had truck with any heathen Irish papists before. Can’t see starting now. Don’t need nothing from you except that you keep your dirty mouth shut.”
“A hasty decision like that could cost you dearly.” Sean wagged a finger in admonishment. “Didn’t I say I had an idea how to add some more gold to the jackpot?”
One could almost see the conflicting emotions of greed and hostility battling for control as Morley hesitated. It was obvious that greed had won out when he lowered the barrel of his revolver and demanded sullenly, “Well?”
Clapping his hands together, Sean began briskly, “All right then…this scheme of yours is all very well in its way, but with the two horses being so evenly matched, I’ll warrant you’ve not found anyone offering better than even money.”
He gave them no chance to confirm or deny this assumption, instead posing his own question. “Now, unless I misheard what you were saying, you can use that potion of yours to fix about when the horse will go down.”
“Yeah,” Morley conceded with scarcely veiled impatience. “If I dose him now, he should give out as soon as he starts running hard. But he could last for a good part of the race if he didn’t get the mixture until just before the start.”
“Don’t you see, man? That’s perfect.” Sean grabbed a nearby broom and used the handle to draw a diagram on the dirt floor. “The start line is here, smack on the edge of town. That’s where everyone will be gathered to watch. First we run north, all the way past the old saw mill, but then the trail brings us back around to be in full view of the punters again…right here. Looping south for the second half of the course, we’ll be out of sight again until we cross the finish line.”
When he gazed at them expectantly, Morley and Red just looked blank.
“Ah, it couldn’t be clearer! If I hold back and let Lancer build a good lead when we pass by close to town, you’ll be able to hoodwink a whole raft full of those gamblers into giving you sky-high odds against me pulling off a victory. You could collect four…five times more winnings.”
It took a few moments for Morley to wrap his mind around what Sean was proposing, but as he did so, a gleam of cunning, rapacious avarice lit his eyes. “We’d make a killing, by God!”
“That we would, my lad. And for a small cut of the rich rewards, I’ll undertake to keep the Lancers well-occupied so you’ll have no trouble getting to this black devil right before the race. Just meet me here in about two hours.”
From the time she’d first put up her hair and lengthened her skirts, Brianna Concannon had been accustomed to receiving attention from men. But it hadn’t made her vain about her looks. Others may have admired her glossy chestnut hair, but she thought it common and would have preferred a mass of golden curls. The freckles that dusted her nose and cheeks were the bane of her existence. She’d tried everything to rid herself of them—from lemon juice to Mrs. Godsey’s Olympian Complexion Cream—with no success. A few more inches added to her height would have been welcome. She despised being such a wee, dab of a thing.
But despite these flaws, she had no shortage of eager young fellows making advances of one sort or another. And Brianna had no immediate plans to whittle down that number. Naturally she cherished romantic dreams of marriage and wedded bliss, but a girl didn’t always fetch up with her one true love the first crack out of the barrel. And—come to that—how was a body to know she’d come face-to-face with her heart’s desire if she’d nothing to compare it to?” In her mind, a bit of flirting was an agreeable pastime and gave one a chance to sample the wares…so to speak.
Sure and wasn’t Sean a fine example of that theory? The Gallaghers and the Concannons had been friends and neighbors for generations in the old country. They’d made the journey to American in one another’s company. Still, the fact that they’d romped together as children didn’t blind Brianna to her old playmate’s tempting qualities. He’d grown into a fine figure of a man, hadn’t he? And that beguiling gift of gab surely did make it easy for him to turn a girl’s head.
Lately, Sean had been sending the full force of his undeniable charm in her direction. Brianna would have fund this new evidence of devotion very flattering if not for a lurking suspicion that it was mainly another way to spit in Johnny Lancer’s eye.
From the first time those two met, they’d begun butting heads. It had escalated to the point that anytime they were together, both of them puffed up like a pair of bantam roosters. At the dance last month, she’d allowed Sean to steal her away from Johnny’s arms, mostly to prevent an embarrassing scene. Luckily it hadn’t come to blows…that time.
And wasn’t Johnny—in all his glory—proof that a girl needed to look further afield than her own backyard? She’d been able to observe this complicated man quite a bit during the past year. Wrapped up in the business of breaking horses, clearing brush and manhandling bales of hay, he’d revealed a strong, hard, masterful body which—in spite of sweat and dirt—was sinfully enticing.
There’d been rumors about his former life as Johnny Madrid, but a slight touch of the devil did a man no harm in her eyes. More than once, she’d caught him in the midst of some childish piece of mischief and that boyish, high-spirited side was also appealing.
Perhaps the most fascinating were those intimate Spanish endearments.
Murmured softly beneath the light of the moon, close enough to tickle her ear, they made her feel…how? The comparison that came to mind was remembering when she’d snuck a sip from Pa’s little brown jug…dizzy, breathless, all hot on the inside and unsure of what was going to happen next.
Pausing for a moment in the shade of the hotel vestibule, Brianna let her flushed cheeks cool before stepping onto the porch. Down the street Johnny was deep in conversation with his brother.
Now, Scott Lancer was a whole different kettle of fish entirely…which may have seemed an odd turn of phrase to describe such a fine gentleman. But the deep lochs back home were inhabited by a brilliant species of native trout. Watching one of these splendid, agile creatures break the surface of the water and glisten in the radiance of the sun was a sight to take your breath away. Scott’s blond good looks had much the same effect.
During their travels in the East, Brianna had met other men with fancy educations and smooth polished manners, but it was doubtful that many of them would have stood as tall and straight and proud amid the harsh conditions of life out here. She’d never known Scott to be spoiling for a fight, but on the other hand, she’d seen him stand his ground even when seriously outnumbered and give a good showing for himself. To her way of thinking, staunch, calm, confidence was more likely to awaken a response in the feminine breast than loud male swagger and posturing.
And then there was the fact that a body might be clad in her oldest, most faded calico with a smudge of flour on her nose, and all it would take was a few of those deft, graceful compliments to have her feeling like a lady—swanning about in silks and lace. But with Scott Lancer, you’d never feel so much like a lady that you’d forget you were a woman.
But lately, although the man had been as gallant and courtly as always, there was a certain distance. On one occasion, she’d laughingly accused him of trifling with the ladies and leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake. He’d politely excused himself soon thereafter.
“Don’t take it personal,” Johnny had reassured her at the time. “There was another pretty Irish lass a long time ago. My brother’s still carrying the marks of her spurs.”
All this woolgathering was pleasant indeed, but if Brianna intended to grant the favor Sean had asked of her, she’d best get moving. For the life of her, she couldn’t think of rhyme nor reason for his strange request.
“It’s such a small thing, me darling. Just pick a nice public place and keep the two of them by your side until I tip you the high sign.”
Well, it was no hardship to while away a bit of the afternoon with the handsome Lancer brothers. Although he wouldn’t explain himself further, Sean had given his pledge that he meant no harm to Scott or Johnny some might scoff at her for taking his word on this. But Sean was one of her oldest friends, and ties of loyalty ran deep.
So with a swish of her skirts and toss of her hair, Brianna moved into the street and approached the two men.
Within the old barn, everything was still and quiet, a stark contrast to the gleeful hoopla raging outside its walls. Red had seemed jittery before, but he now bore the appearance of a man who would jump a mile in the air if a mouse said ‘boo’. Morley’s air of stubborn determination was unchanged, although he still bolted the doors from the inside.
“You two are like to making me nervous,” Sean complained. “Didn’t I tell you that nobody would be leaving such a grand, festive party until the last moment they had to? We’re safe as houses.”
“What if one of those Lancers turns up?” Red’s craven whining was enough to drive anyone into flaming temper.
Sean intervened before Morley could erupt. “Didn’t you see with your own eyes? Brianna has them wrapped around her little finger. She has orders not to let them out of her sight until I let her know otherwise.”
If Red didn’t look convinced, he was too afraid of his partner to make any more of a fuss.
“Not to be putting too fine a point on the matter, but maybe we should be finishing things up. I need to be making Liadan ready and you ought to be mingling with the rest of the crowd when the horses make for the starting line.”
With a last furtive glance around the gloomy interior, Morley pulled a small pouch from his pocket. He tipped the contents into the palm of his hand and cautiously approached the stall.
“Here you go, boy. I got something sweet just for you.”
An old saddle blanket that lay in an untidy heap a few yards away suddenly moved and Val Crawford stood there, solid and unyielding, with his colt already cocked and aimed.
“You’re a real horse-lover, ain’t ya?”
Morley staggered and flung his arms out. “Sheriff! What…? I don’t know what you think, but…”
Moving with cat-like grace, Sean relieved both men of their pistols. Keeping them covered, he remarked with a smirk, “Oh, I think the sheriff knows just what to think.
“I don’t know what this dirty, lying mick has been telling you, but…”
Val interrupted Morley’s spluttering, bringing his weapon to bear even more menacingly against the man’s chest.
“Old man Richards about bust a gut when I hauled him back to the store on his day off. But when he opened that safe and found it empty, he changed his tune right quick. Seems you’re about the only candidate could have pulled that off.”
“Now wait… You’ve got no proof. With all the drifters and varmints around town today, anybody could of stole that money.”
Down on one knee, Val gathered up the evidence. “You’ll be lucky iffen all they get you for is thieving. When folks find out what you was up to with this horse, you’ll be lucky if they don’t start looking for a rope and a tall tree!”
“But I’m telling you, those are nothing but sugar.”
“That right?” The lawman nodded as though he was considering this statement. “Well, that ought to be easy enough to prove. We’ll just fine some bag-o-bones to test these on.”
Thrusting the handful of white cubes into Red’s terrified face, he growled, “You ought to be a good choice. We’ll even rustle up some coffee to wash’em down with.”
“No…! No…! No, you can’t! He’s only ever tried’em on horses. No telling what the stuff would do to me…”
It was only Sean’s quick reflexes that kept Morley from succeeding in his frenzied attempt to throttle his former accomplice. Meanwhile Val had taken the time to unlock the doors and several armed deputies rushed in to subdue the prisoners.
“That’s right…drag these two off and throw’em in the smelliest cell we got.” The leer on the sheriff’s face had poor Red quailing in his boots. “Oh, and you can go ahead and let those riders in here to saddle up. You men forgetting that there’s a race going on today?”
The general consensus was that it had been the most exciting horse race in the annals of the county…maybe the whole territory. From the very start, Diablo and Liadan had been neck-and-neck. At the half-way point, spectators could only make out twin streaks of black and grey leading the pack. Gallons of beer and more than a hundred shots of whiskey were guzzled in the debate over that finish. Was the stallion ahead by a nose, or was it the mare? In the end, though, the decision was moot.
In the final stretch, thirteen-year-old Mary Lou Parker—weighing in at under ninety-five pounds—had clung to the saddle of her daddy’s big old roan like a tick to a hound dog. She beat out the two favored contenders by a scant few inches, but it was enough to send the audience into an furor of hooting and hollering.
So the only person to make a profit on the day’s wagering was Mary Lou’s proud father, and his daughter made him promise that the winnings would be put aside to pay for stud fees to insure that this winning bloodline had a chance to continue.
Once Sean had seen to Liadan’s needs, brushing her coat and giving her an extra ration of oats, he wandered outside and found Johnny leaning against the corral fence.
For a short time there was only silence, and when Johnny spoke, his gaze never wavered from the blacksmith’s equipment in the side paddock.
“If Diablo had gone down out there, Scott could have broken his neck, maybe worse.”
Sean seemed to have developed a similar interest in that unassuming anvil, bellows and tongs.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of folk who are real surprised that one of the gutter Irish would have done the decent thing.” He turned to face the other man. “How about you, Lancer? Were you surprised?”
“No,” Johnny thrust out one hand, “not surprised…just grateful.”
Accepting the gesture with dignity, Sean clasped the proffered hand for a moment or two and then by mutual consent, both men resumed staring at the deserted forge.
Just as Scott joined them, a fussily-attired, older lady bustled over, wringing her hands a bit and clucking with ill-disguised dismay.
“Mrs. Harper?” Scott asked solicitously. “You seem distressed. Can we do anything to help?”
“Oh my! I fear I’m just a bit flustered you know. All this excitement…” Every beribboned flounce and furbelow seemed to wave to-and-fro as she plied her fan. “It’s just, I was so worried when I heard about our brave, true Sheriff Crawford risking his life to apprehend those dastardly criminals. Thank heavens he’s unharmed, and they’re locked up where they belong.”
The woman’s tongue was flapping almost as furiously as the fan she wielded with such dexterity. “But, I’ve been checking, and it seems the dear, noble man has sent all his deputies to have their supper at the potluck. But he has no one to relieve him so he can obtain suitable refreshment.”
“I bet no one realizes what kind of a spot Sheriff Crawford is in. All that food might just be gone before he goes off duty.” Johnny was as quick off the mark as he’d ever been. “I don’t suppose a busy lady like yourself would have time to pack up some goodies for him, would you?”
“Oh…” Mrs. Harper almost squealed with delight. “Why I’d be more than happy to…if you don’t think I’d be overstepping my place.”
“Aw, no! Poor old Val is probably near to fainting from hunger about now.”
“Why, I shall prepare a veritable feast…and deliver it personally, of course.”
The widow-lady was rushing away when Johnny called out, “Ma’am? It would be real kind of you to maybe set with the sheriff and keep him company while he eats his meal. I’m sure he’d be glad of some feminine companionship after a day like this.”
When the woman finally disappeared in a flurry of ruffles and petticoats, Sean simply stared, disbelief tinged with awe. “Johnny Lancer, I’ve known some shamefully devious men, but you take the prize.”
“And totally without mercy, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Scott added with a shake of his head. “I don’t think anything can top that little stunt, so I believe I’ll call it a night myself. Could you tell Murdoch and Teresa that I’m heading back to the ranch?”
“Hey, Scott, you can’t pack it in so early. How does that old saying go—“Lucky at cards, unlucky at love?” Well, maybe the same thing holds true about horse racing. You’d be a shoo-in to end up with the girl of your dreams tonight.”
“That’s a nice sentiment, Johnny, but I...”
“You know, you might be wise to listen to your brother’s advice, Mr. Lancer.”
Refined vowels and smooth diction aside, the voice still had the lilt of a cool mountain stream in the old country. Unruly dark curls had been confined beneath a neat bonnet trimmed with a wide satin ribbon. The sedate traveling dress was stylish and elegant without being gaudy or overdone.
There was only a subtle hint of that tantalizing come-hither look in her eyes as she remonstrated, “Sir, it’s hardly gentleman-like of you to take the liberty of using my given name based on such a brief previous acquaintance.”
“Please accept my apologies, Miss McGloin.” Scott decided he could play at this game as well. “My forward behavior can be attributed to shock and surprise. I had no idea you were anywhere near Green River.”
At least those familiar dimples hadn’t changed. “Mrs. Hannigan, my employer, is visiting her sister in Denver. The two ladies will be traveling to San Francisco together, so Mrs. H. has no need of my company for the trip. I’ve been sent to see to the house and be sure it’s ready for the mistress. As there are no matters of great urgency awaiting my return, I’ve been given leave to please myself for a week or two.”
“In that case,” Scott offered his arm and when she laid her fingertips lightly upon his sleeve, captured her hand with his own, “perhaps you’ll allow me to escort you to this evening’s special Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. I’d like to demonstrate that I’m good enough for a lady with such pretty manners and lovely graces.”
“Johnny,” he threw over his shoulder as they strolled away, “would you mind letting Murdoch and Teresa know that I’ll probably be in very late?”
“What was that saying of yours, Johnny-me-boy? Unlucky at horse racing, lucky at love?”
“Yeah, except I wouldn’t count on that working out too well for you, Gallagher. See when Brianna was doing her job of keeping me and Scott busy out there, she agreed to be my date for the potluck supper tonight.” Johnny didn’t bother hiding his smug satisfaction.
“That’s lovely for you, my lad.” Sean’s gracious demeanor instantly roused all sorts of suspicions. “It’s grand you’ll be so well entertained. I’ll be taking in supper with a cozy armful myself. Brianna isn’t the only comely Irish colleen in these parts. With a name like O’Brian, how could the lass be anything but charming? And she seems quite eager to show her gratitude for my heroic actions today.”
Whistling a lively tune, Sean strode up the path leaving Johnny prey to a number of unwelcome thoughts.
How was he supposed to take advantage of Brianna’s weakness for a full moon if he was busy breaking someone’s arms?