The letter arrived while Scott and Laura were still in San Francisco. Murdoch Lancer stared at the return address in Boston and frowned. It wasn’t unusual for Scott to receive letters from his grandfather -- they arrived with predictable, and somewhat irritating, regularity. With a sniff and a muffled grunt, he pitched it onto the small pile of correspondence that awaited his son's return. Within seconds, the letter was forgotten; just another minor annoyance quickly relegated to the back of his mind.
Their trip to San Francisco had been restful; a time for Scott to recover from the bullet wound inflicted on him by Dan Cassidy’s henchmen. Now Laura was tired. The train ride from the city to Cross Creek had been tedious, but the last leg of the journey was slow and miserable. The buggy had bumped along the rutted road to the hacienda, leaving her sore and travel-weary. Still, she couldn’t sit quietly and fuss over her needlework; and she couldn’t understand how her husband could retreat to his chair by the fire after dinner, losing himself in rereading his worn copy of Emerson’s The Conduct of Life.
Scott tucked his index finger between the pages of his book and stretched, exhaling softly. “Are you planning to wear a groove in the floor, or would you like to tell me what’s bothering you?”
“What?” Laura paused and turned to face him, pulling her bedroom shawl more closely around her. “Oh. I’m sorry," she mumbled. “I didn’t realize I was pacing. I guess it’s hard to read with me fidgeting so much.” Her mouth crooked up in a sheepish smile.
Abandoning his book, Scott rose and came to her, folding her into his arms. “It wasn’t all that interesting anyway – I supposed I’ve dissected it too much.” He tipped her face upward with his hand. “So what has you marching guard duty in front of that window? Is the baby…?”
Laura instinctively ran her hands over her expanding belly. “No,” she said softly. “I feel fine. He’s fluttering around a lot…but I love that.” Pulling away, she resumed her circuit. “Why is he really coming, Scott?”
“Who? Grandfather?” Scott slumped onto the blanket chest at the foot of the bed and stretched his legs out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles.
“Yes, your grandfather. Why is he coming here? Why now?”
“Perhaps because he’s tired of waiting for me… for us…to come back to Boston? He said as much in his letter.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” she snapped back. Her tone softening, she continued, “Harlan Garrett never does anything out of sentiment. He’s not longing for a reunion with his grandson – or with his son-in-law. He’s up to something.”
“Laura,” Scott sighed. “I think you’re being a little too critical. Why not at least give him the benefit of the doubt? Assume he’s coming to Lancer simply to visit. You’re already expecting the worst, and he won’t even be here for another six weeks or so.”
“Because it doesn’t make any sense.” Laura stopped pacing and dropped into the armchair next to the window. “Think about it. He’s traveling three thousand miles in September. There’ll be snow up in the Sierras before long, and, if he stays any length of time, there’ll be snow in Boston by the time he returns there. Why didn’t he come during the summer when the weather was more amenable?”
“I can’t answer that. Other than my letters to him made it pretty clear how difficult things have been this year -- with you getting hurt, and then the whole Cassidy affair.” Scott shrugged. “Now that life’s settled down a bit for us, maybe he thinks this is a better time – before we’re busy with the baby. The snows won’t stop the trains this early in the season – or Grandfather.” Scott scratched the back of his head and grinned. “You know how he is.”
“That’s the problem. I do know how he is,” she retorted without returning his smile. “And, while we’re on the subject, exactly how long does he plan to stay – after traveling all the way across the country?”
“You read his letter.” Scott’s reply was somewhat curt, a sign Laura knew meant he was tired himself – and he was tiring of the conversation. “He didn’t say, and I’m not sure it matters. We will show him Lancer hospitality for however long he chooses to stay.”
“Even if it means he’s here when our baby’s born?”
“Yes. Even if he stays until then.”
“Fine.” Laura stood up, dropping her shawl into the chair. She stepped around Scott, shrugging off his arm as he reached for her. She blew out the lamp on her bedside table and crawled silently into bed, pulling the quilt up close around her face.
Scott rolled his eyes and, shaking his head, he grabbed the fireplace poker and banked the coals in the fireplace. After extinguishing the lamp on his own bedside table, he settled under the bedcovers as well. “Laura,” he whispered and reached for her, wrapping his arm around her. When she stiffened at his touch, he continued, “It’ll be all right. I promise.”
“I’m sorry, Scott,” she said. “But this time, I don’t believe you.”
Her husband snored softly beside her, and Laura resisted the urge to throw her pillow at his head. I’m glad one of us can sleep. When the grandfather clock sounded four o’clock, the chimes echoing softly through the halls, she gave up and crawled out of bed. Scott rolled over, and she thought she’d awakened him, but he rubbed at his nose with his fist and started snoring again. Finding her way through hallways dimly lit by the moonlight streaming through the windows, she padded down the stairs and into the kitchen. I might as well start the coffee and make the biscuits. It won’t be long before the men’ll be up and looking for breakfast.
“What are you doing up so early?” Johnny wandered into the kitchen as she was stirring up the fire in the stove. He scrubbed at his face with his hands and yawned.
“I couldn’t sleep. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Nope. You didn’t. Just couldn’t get comfortable for some reason.” He pulled out the coffee grinder and opened a bag of beans. “I’ll start the coffee.”
“Thank you. I think both of us could use a cup. Or maybe two.” She set a pot of water on to boil before selecting the ingredients for the biscuits from the cupboard.
“Did…ummm…that letter from Scott’s grandfather happen to have anything to do with you not sleeping?” Johnny glanced back at her as he turned the handle on the grinder.
“Yes,” she admitted. “How did you guess?”
He gave her a crooked grin. “I put two and two together. You’re pretty easy to read anyway. I know you’re tired, but when you go all quiet like you were at dinner, something’s wrong.”
Laura chewed on her upper lip, trying to decide what to tell her brother-in-law. “He’s coming here, Johnny. To Lancer. Scott’s planning to talk to Murdoch about it in the morning.”
“Old man Garrett’s coming here?” He whistled softly through his teeth. “That could be interesting.”
“Interesting isn’t the word I’d use. Unpleasant or maybe even awful, but not interesting.”
Johnny added the coffee grounds to the pot of water, pulled out a chair and sat down at the table, watching as she mixed the biscuit dough. “That bad?”
She nodded. “I think so. Scott wants to believe he’s simply coming here because we haven’t been able to get back to Boston. Or maybe because he’s curious.”
“But you’re not buying that.”
“No. I think there’s more to it.”
“More to what?” Scott trudged into the kitchen. His voice was still husky with sleep, and Laura could see the dark smudges under his eyes.
Chancing a quick look at Laura, Johnny said, “We were talkin’ about the problems I’ve been having with that bay filly. Laura doesn’t think she’s just being stubborn – maybe there’s something wrong with her.”
Picking up on his lead, she added, “I think she really does have a good mind. Maybe she’s hurting somewhere. If we give her some time off work, we can see if it helps.” Laura toweled the flour from her hands. “I think the coffee’s ready. I know I need a cup.”
Joining her at the stove, Scott crooked his arm around her and kissed her softly behind her ear. “You didn’t sleep at all, did you?” he murmured.
“Not too well. But it’s all right,” she said. “I can nap during the day.”
“And you weren’t really talking about the filly, were you?”
“No,” she whispered back, leaning into him. “We weren’t.”
“I didn’t think so.” He gave her back a reassuring rub. “We’ll talk to Murdoch after breakfast.”
To his credit, Laura reflected as she sipped her cup of tea later that morning, Murdoch hadn’t exploded when Scott broke the news to him. His left eyebrow had crooked upward, and he’d shifted a few papers on his desk before responding.
“He won’t be arriving before mid-September,” Scott had explained. “So I’ll be free to help with the fall drive.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Murdoch said. He raised his hand at the look of protest on his son’s face. “I appreciate your concern, but it’ll be awhile yet before your shoulder’s completely healed. We’re not short on hands right now, and there’ll be more than enough for you to do without worrying about the cattle drive.”
“Still, I….” Scott paused and shifted in his seat to look over his shoulder as the front door creaked open and Johnny rambled into the great room.
His eyes shifted from his brother, to his sister-in-law, and finally, they came to rest on his father. The look on Johnny’s face reminded Laura of her former schoolchildren when she’d had to reprimand them; a mix of humor, apology, and just a small trace of defiance. “Oh….” He pulled his hat off and ran his fingers through his hair. “Did I miss a family meetin’ or somethin’?”
“No, Johnny.” Murdoch settled back in his chair, crossing his arms on his chest. “We were just discussing Scott’s grandfather’s impending visit to Lancer.”
Laura found her father-in-law’s choice of the word impending very telling. Not a positive word, but one that provoked images of gloom. Rather like a bad thunderstorm looming on the horizon.
Feigning ignorance, Johnny shrugged and shifted his feet, his fingers fiddling with his holster. “I kinda wondered when the old…Mr. Garrett....” He corrected himself with a half-smile directed at Laura. “…would decide to show up. I’m surprised he’s waited this long.” Johnny turned his attention to his brother. “When you’ve got a minute, Boston, I wanted you to take a look at that filly we were talkin’ about this morning. Looks to me like one of her back legs is stockin’ up now.”
“I’ll be right out.” Scott turned to his father as his brother backed away, retreating through the front door. “We can discuss this more later?”
Murdoch’s mouth turned down at one corner. “I don’t think there’s much else to discuss, Son. I won’t say I’m pleased that Harlan’s coming, but I can’t forbid it, either. Lancer is as much your home as mine. You have a right to have your grandfather visit.”
“Well, then….” Scott stood up. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll get to work.” He leaned over and kissed Laura on the top of her head, trailing his finger down her cheek. “I’ll see you later. Get some rest.”
“I will,” she murmured. “Be careful.” She watched as he retrieved his hat and gun belt from the hall tree, and he slipped through the door, closing it quietly behind him.
Murdoch started to stand, but at the look on his daughter-in-law’s face, he dropped back into his seat. “Is something wrong, Laura?”
“Other than Mr. Garrett coming to Lancer? No….” She tapped her palm against the arm of the chair. “Well….yes, there is.” Laura balled her hands in her lap, trying to stop fidgeting. “Do you remember when Scott was so ill, and we were talking about how you needed to explain to him why you never tried to take him back from his grandfather?”
Dipping his head slightly in assent, he replied, “I do.”
“That was weeks ago, and you still haven’t had that conversation with him. Before his grandfather comes, I think you need to talk to Scott.”
He picked up the paperweight on his desk, and ran his finger over the stag’s horns. Laura knew her father-in-law well enough to know Murdoch was buying time, weighing his reply carefully. “Ahhhh….” He sighed deeply. “If only it were that easy.”
“But it is that easy, Murdoch. All you need to do is sit down with him, and….”
“And tell him what?” Standing up from his desk, Murdoch turned to stare out the window, his hands on his hips. “Tell him I went to Boston with the intent to take him back when he was five, but his beloved grandfather threatened me with an army of lawyers? He knew I couldn’t compete with him. He could hire the best attorneys, perhaps even buy the judge.”
“You came for him?” Laura nearly choked on the words.
Murdoch pivoted to face her again, the bitterness gone from his voice. “That surprises you?”
“Well, yes, it does. I don’t remember you coming to Boston. You’ve never mentioned it, and Mr. Garrett….”
“Garrett never told Scott, either. That, at least, shouldn’t surprise you.” Murdoch slumped back into his chair. “And my son clearly has no memory of my brief visit with him. So, you see, my dear, I find myself in an untenable position. If I tell Scott about my trip to Boston, he might believe I truly wanted to bring him home to California. But convincing him of that will force me to explain in detail to him just how manipulative and deceptive his grandfather can be. I, for one, am not willing to do that. However I may feel about Harlan Garrett, he’s still the man who raised my son—and did a remarkable job at that. Bad-mouthing him will only make me look petty and vindictive.”
“But if you don’t tell Scott, he will always believe you didn’t care enough to come for him.”
“Exactly. Either way, Garrett will still be firmly entrenched between us. Maybe with time, Scott will see the truth. Or perhaps we just need to leave the past in the past and move on.”
“I don’t believe that’s an option. Trying to gloss over the truth might be convenient, and it’s definitely easier, but it’ll eventually come back to haunt all of us. Please promise me you’ll at least consider that discussion.” Laura stood and stretched, smoothing the front of her skirt.
“I will,” Murdoch promised, rearranging the stack of invoices on his desk.
Pausing by the dinner table, Laura turned back to her father-in-law. “And, Murdoch….”
He looked up from his paperwork, his pen poised in his hand.
“Scott already knows how devious his grandfather can be. One of the things I love most about your son is his ability to forgive – particularly those he loves. And despite how young he is, never underestimate the depth of his character…or his power of discernment.”
Laura hurried into the dining room with the platter of steaks, a serving fork clutched in her right hand. She had barely settled the dish onto the table when Johnny’s quiet voice startled her. Somehow, it still surprised her how cat-like her brother-in-law could be.
“Hey, I’m sorry I’m late. Where’re Murdoch and Scott?” He pulled out his chair, and started to sit down.
“They’re in the kitchen washing up,” she replied, turning to face him, her fingers still gripping the fork. “And what do you think you’re doing?”
“Uhhh….” Johnny straightened up, his back against the bookshelf as his sister-in-law confronted him. “Sitting down for supper?”
“No, you are not.”
“No, you are not. First of all, you’re late. Secondly, you need to go wash up. And finally, you will wait to be seated until the food is on the table and everyone’s ready to eat.”
“I’m sorry. I figured the old man and Boston’d be in here by now. I mean, it’s past time….”
“Stop it, Johnny,” she spit out. “You’re always ‘sorry,’ but it doesn’t make any difference. Enough is enough.”
“Why are you so…?
Ignoring his question, she leaned toward him, the fork now only inches from his face. “And while I have your attention, let me make a few things clear. Mr. Garrett will be arriving tomorrow. While he is here, you will not call your father ‘old man’ or your brother ‘Boston.’ You will be at the dinner table on-time and wearing a clean shirt. You will pull out the chair for Teresa and wait for her to be seated first. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Johnny’s mouth crooked up in a nervous smile, his eyes nearly crossed as he focused on the fork.
“Laura.” Scott’s voice, coming from behind her, sounded like he was barking a command on the battlefield. He and Murdoch stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway to the breakfast room, Teresa peeking between them. Had Laura bothered to turn around, she would have seen the scowl on her husband’s face. “That’s enough.”
“I’m not finished yet,” she persisted.
“Yes.” Scott slipped up behind her and carefully removed the fork from her fingers. “You are.”
Crossing her arms on her chest, Laura confronted him, feeling as rebellious as she ever had. “You know…we wouldn’t be having this conversation if your grandfather wasn’t coming tomorrow.” Speaking through clenched teeth, she muttered, “Who invited him anyway? I certainly didn’t, and I’m quite sure he didn’t.” She tilted her head toward Murdoch.
“We’ve already had this discussion, and we will not repeat it while supper gets cold.” His voice took on a gentler tone as he added, “So why don’t we eat while the food’s still warm?”
“If you’ll excuse me….” Laura stiffened her spine and sidestepped her husband. “I’m not very hungry right now.” By the time she’d stalked upstairs to their bedroom and dropped into her armchair, her anger had diffused like a wisp of smoke on a windy day, and it had been replaced by tears of frustration. She looked up as Scott walked into the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
“Care to tell me what that was all about?” He leaned against the doorpost, his thumbs hooked in his belt.
“I don’t know.” She sniffled and swiped at her nose with her sleeve. “I just….I don’t want him here, Scott.”
“You’ve made that extremely clear, and I’m trying to understand. But you didn’t need to take your anger out on Johnny. He didn’t deserve that.”
“No…you’re right. He didn’t. It’s just that when he came in late for supper again, something in me snapped. I will apologize to him.”
“Yes, you will.” Scott opened the door for her. The smile on his face was welcome and familiar; the boyish grin that deepened the dimples in his cheeks and never failed to take her breath away. “And could you please do it now? I’m starving.”
“I owe all of you an apology for my behavior earlier.” Scott stood next to her in the great room, his arm around her waist. Laura glanced up at him, looking for reassurance. “But most of all,” she said, “I need to apologize to Johnny.” Leaving Scott’s side, she joined her brother-in-law in front of the fireplace. Murdoch shifted slightly, allowing her to stand next to his younger son. She reached for Johnny’s hands. “What I said, and did, to you was inexcusable.”
“Mac, you don’t have to….”
“Yes, I do. I haven’t been able to hide the fact I’m not happy Mr. Garrett’s coming tomorrow. But I’ve let my own misgivings affect how I’ve treated you, and that’s wrong. I am so sorry, and I promise….” She looked at each of them in turn. “…I will not let it happen again.”
Johnny shuffled his feet and squinted at her. “Are you done now?”
“Absolutely.” Laura grinned at him, relieved by the glint of humor in his eyes.
“Can we please eat, then? Me and Murdoch were bettin’ you weren’t comin’ down for supper at all. I’m hungry.”
“Yes, we can eat now.” She laughed, planted her hand in the middle of his chest and stretched up to kiss him on the cheek. “Your brother’s about to faint from lack of food.”
“I warmed it all back up,” Teresa chirped as she bustled around the dinner table. “It should be fine.”
Murdoch blotted at his mouth with his napkin. “Your grandfather should have arrived on the late stage today,” he said, tilting his head toward Scott. It was a statement of fact, not a question.
“Yes, he did. Grandfather sent word that he’s at the hotel in Morro Coyo.” Scott paused to take a sip of wine. “I told the boy who brought the note to let him know we’ll be there by eight o’clock or so. We’ll need to leave by dawn.”
“I’m going with you.” Laura focused on her plate, waiting for the rebuke from her husband she suspected was coming.
“No. You’re not.” Shifting in his chair, Scott carefully replaced his utensils next to his plate. His effort to control his response was reflected in the preciseness of his movements. “There is no need for you to be bounced around in the buggy.”
“Are you saying I’m to stay here on the ranch until the baby’s born? That I’m not allowed to go anywhere?”
“No, that’s not at all what I’m saying.”
Laura ventured a glance at him. “Then it’s settled. I’m going.”
“We’ll discuss this later,” Scott said. The look in his eyes made it clear the topic was closed. Addressing his father, he continued, “We should take the buggy and bring the buckboard as well. I’m sure Grandfather’ll have a fair amount of luggage.”
“Knowing your grandfather,” Murdoch responded with a small grimace, “I have no doubt. Take Slim and Jake with you to help.”
“I’ve got a few things to pick up in town,” Johnny said. “Mind if I ride along?”
“Not at all. I’d appreciate your company.” Scott nodded at his brother.
But not mine. I’m not invited. The thought hung in the air as Laura picked at her dinner.
“Exactly what was that about?” Scott managed to keep his voice down, but his anger was evident. “Despite your apology, you intentionally baited me at supper.” He stood in front of their bedroom window, his hands on his hips.
“Maybe I did,” Laura replied with a defiant lift of her shoulder. “If I had asked you privately, you wouldn’t have listened at all. You would’ve simply said ‘no’ and that would’ve been it. At least this way I got your attention.”
“That is not the kind of attention you want from me,” he snapped back. Turning to face her, he pointed his finger in emphasis. “And you are not going in the morning. As I said, I’ll not have you bouncing around in the buggy unnecessarily.”
“You do realize you just proved my point. I’m trying to talk to you, and you’re still not listening. You’ve issued your command, and I’m supposed to salute and say ‘yes, sir’ and not argue."
“All right, then.” Scott ran his fingers through his hair and exhaled. “I’ve always considered myself to be a reasonable man….”
“And you usually are,” she interrupted. “Except when it comes to over-protecting me.”
“Is that what you think? I over-protect you? Just because I find it ridiculous for you to exhaust yourself driving to and from Morro Coyo?”
“Sometimes you do over-protect me. You always have. And most of the time it doesn’t bother me – I rather like it, in fact. And, since you’re thinking it….” Laura reached for his hands. “I would never put our baby at risk. If I thought it would cause any problems for him, I’d stay home. But I don’t. And I don’t just want to go tomorrow. I need to go. You have to understand – I haven’t seen your grandfather since the night of your Harvard graduation party in ‘63. I need to see him on neutral ground for the first time. Not here. Not at Lancer. Not in our home.”
He reached out a finger and pushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead. “I know you’re worried about him coming here. But I do think you’re completely over-reacting. It’s going to be fine.” He tipped her face up and kissed her gently.
“I don’t think it will be…fine. But I guess that remains to be seen. Knowing how he feels about me, I just think it’ll be easier if I see him for the first time somewhere other than here.”
“I know you think he dislikes you. But he does finally seem to be coming to terms with our marriage."
“Perhaps. But he would’ve been a lot happier if you’d married Julie."
“I thought we’d moved past all that.”
“I thought we had, too – at least as long as he stayed in Boston. Somehow, I feel like he’s bringing it all here with him.”
Scott studied her face carefully before he pulled her close. “I suppose if it means that much to you, you can come along in the morning.”
“Thank you,” Laura replied, nestling against him. “It does mean that much to me.”
“Why are you pinning your hair up?” Scott watched as she braided her hair and wrapped it in a coil at the back of her head. She worked by the light of the oil lamp on her dressing table; daylight was only a rosy glow beyond the window. “You haven’t worn it up in…well…a long time. I like it down.”
“I don’t know,” she said as she worked another hairpin into the braid. “Maybe because your grandfather will expect it.” She finished and smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt. “Just as the ladies in Morro Coyo will expect the extra petticoats. That way, they can almost pretend I’m not pregnant. It’s too bad I don’t wear hoops anymore – I could’ve just pulled the top one up a bit. I suppose this really will be my last trip into town. I’ll need to stay…confined.” She hated that word. Confinement made it sound like she was being punished for having a baby.
“Since when did you care what Grandfather -- or the ladies -- think?” He laughed as he slipped into his jacket.
“Since now.” Laura retreated to her wardrobe and selected a hatbox from the stack.
“Your best hat, too? Don’t you think you’re overdoing it a bit? It’s not Sunday.”
Jamming the hat on her head and stabbing a hat pin in, she spun on her heel and headed for the door. “Don’t you think we should go now?” Before I lose my resolve.
She hadn’t been nauseated since early in her pregnancy, but as Scott ushered her into the hotel lobby, Laura could feel the same cold sensation creeping across the bridge of her nose and the bile rising up the back of her throat. Johnny had mumbled something about meeting them at the hotel and had nudged Barranca away.
Scott paused briefly to speak with the hotel clerk. “Good morning, Elliott. My grandfather is….”
The clerk motioned with his head toward the dining room. “He’s eating breakfast.”
“Thank you.” Scott nodded and took her arm, carefully guiding her in that direction. Harlan Garrett was seated at a table in the back of the room, absorbed in his meal. “Grandfather.”
Laura couldn’t help but notice Garrett didn’t stand up. He twisted in his chair. “Scotty,” he said, and Scott edged in front of her to shake the proffered hand.
“Mr. Garrett.” Laura leaned into Scott and offered his grandfather her own hand. You’re going to acknowledge me whether you want to or not.
“Laura, my dear.” He slowly stood and took her hand. “You look lovely.” Gesturing toward the table, he said, “Please. Sit.” After pulling her chair out for her, Scott took a seat across from his grandfather. “Breakfast?” the old man suggested.
“No, thank you. We ate ours at sun-up.”
“Sun-up?” Garrett questioned, his eyes wide with disbelief.
“Absolutely, Sir," Scott said with a grin. “We start our day a little earlier out here than you do in Boston.”
“I would say so. But it seems to agree with you. Despite how…primitive…this town appears. And your clothes, Scotty….”
I wish he’d stop calling him ‘Scotty.’ It makes him sound like he’s still five years old. Laura clenched her hands in her lap and bit her tongue.
“I…we…like it here, Sir.”
“I’ve gathered as much. You’ve politely ignored my requests for you to come back to Boston.”
Scott picked at a piece of lint on the tablecloth and tilted his head in a way Laura knew meant he was considering his response carefully. “I think it’ll be quite a while before we return to Boston, Grandfather.”
“Well, Scotty, we’ll see.” He grimaced. “We shall see.”
“How was your trip?” Laura watched as Harlan carefully dissected a piece of ham. Maybe I can steer the conversation to a safer subject.
“It was quite long – as you know.” Garrett paused to take a sip of coffee. “But fascinating. I spent a delightful evening in St. Louis.” He glanced at his grandson. “You do remember the Russells, Scotty? They send their regards and insist you visit any time you’re in town.”
“We’ll do that one day,” Scott replied. “I haven’t seen them since I stopped in St. Louis on my way to Fort Riley in….”
The clatter of boots on the wooden floor interrupted their conversation as Johnny breezed into the dining room.
“Johnny!” Scott motioned him over. “Grandfather, this is my brother.”
Again, the older man didn’t rise from his chair. “Johnny Madrid,” he murmured.
“Well…it’s Lancer now,” the young man replied softly. “It’s good to meet you. Scott’s just about talked my…ear…off about you and Boston.”
Oh my, Laura thought. He nearly said ‘ass.’ That would’ve raised old Harlan’s eyebrows.
“Lancer. Of course. Scotty’s told me a great deal about you as well. Your mother was Murdoch’s second wife – a foreigner, I believe.”
Scott must have felt her go rigid; he took her hand under the table and gave it a cautionary squeeze. The hint of hurt in Johnny’s eyes made her want to slap Garrett. Old bastard. How dare you.
“Mexican,” Johnny said, the hesitation in his reply barely perceptible.
“I’ve heard she was a beautiful woman.”
“We should probably get going, Grandfather,” Scott hurriedly interjected. “It’s a long ride out to the ranch. Where’s your luggage?”
“I left it in the lobby,” Garrett replied.
Johnny stepped back as Scott helped Laura from her chair. “Elliott pointed it out to me. The boys are loading it on the wagon.”
As he handed Laura into the buggy, Scott asked her, “Do you want to stop by the school and see the children while you’re here?”
“No,” she said, arranging her skirts. “They’ll be well into their lessons. I don’t want to interrupt them.”
Garrett settled himself onto the back seat of the buggy. “Scotty told me you came out here to start a school.”
“I did,” she replied, staring over her shoulder at him. “Imagine my shock when I discovered he was still alive.”
With no hint of remorse in his voice, Garrett replied, “I imagine it was a very pleasant surprise.”
“You have no idea.” Actually, I think you do. In fact, I know you do. She was certain Scott whipped up the horses intentionally at that moment to put an end to the conversation.
Scott pulled the horses to a stop on what they had all come to refer to as “Laura’s hill.” The spot on the mountain overlooking the ranch where he had formally proposed to her nearly a year before; the place she’d frantically galloped off to in panic when Cassidy’s men had kidnapped her husband.
“So this is Lancer.” Laura could see a flicker of surprise in Garrett’s eyes as he whispered the words.
“Yes, sir,” Scott replied. “We’ve been on Lancer land for the past hour.” He pointed with one gloved hand, the reins gripped in the other. “The ranch extends all the way to that far mountain range.”
“It’s even more beautiful than I imagined.” Garrett sniffed, and his mouth turned down at the corners. “This wild land that took my daughter from me and, in the end, killed her.”
She felt Scott stiffen as he shifted in his seat to look at his grandfather. “She knew the risks,” he said softly. “My mother came here because she loved my father and wanted to share her life with him. Lancer was their dream.”
Garrett waved his hand in dismissal. “She was a naïve young girl – so infatuated with Murdoch Lancer that she wouldn’t listen to reason. And he was so obsessed with building his…empire…that he couldn’t be bothered to raise his own son.”
“That is not….” Laura tried to rise from her seat, angry and wanting to confront the old man head-on. Scott’s hand gently, but firmly, restrained her.
“My father did what he felt was best,” Scott said through gritted teeth. “And with all due respect, Grandfather, I’ve tried to show my gratitude for all you….”
“I don’t need your gratitude, boy,” Garrett sniped. “I want more from you than mere gratitude.” He settled back in his seat, carefully composing himself, his anger seeming to evaporate in the breeze that ruffled his gray hair. The old man’s hand fluttered in the air, motioning at the road ahead. He seemed suddenly tired, distracted. “Shall we proceed, then?”
“Well, I guess that went better than I expected.” Laura stretched, her fists tucked against the small of her back.
Scott quietly shut the bedroom door behind them, momentarily resting his head against the wood panel before he turned to face her. “I’m not sure what I expected, but they were at least civil to each other.” The sardonic smile on his face changed to a look of concern. “Is your back hurting? Here….” He guided her into her chair by the window, tucking a pillow against her back. “Better?”
“Yes, thank you.” She moaned softly and lifted her aching feet onto her footstool. “I guess you were right – bouncing around in the buggy was a bit much for me. But it was worth it to see your grandfather’s face when he met Johnny.”
Easing himself into his own chair, Scott grinned. “You do realize I’d warned Johnny what to expect?”
“I thought as much. Still, I wanted to smack Mr. Garrett when he made that nasty remark about Johnny’s mother being a ‘foreigner.’ Your brother’d never admit it, but I think that hurt him.”
“Oh, I think Johnny’s perceptive enough to know where that came from.” Scott picked at the fabric of his pants over his knee. “Grandfather was challenging him, just as he does anyone he sees as a potential adversary. You did notice Johnny stared him down, kept his temper in check.”
“And that’s why your grandfather backed off.”
“Exactly. In his own way, Johnny established the rules of engagement there. He won’t be intimidated.”
“Any more than Murdoch is?”
“Have you ever seen anybody intimidate Murdoch?” Scott chuckled.
Laura returned his grin. “No. I’m not sure that’s possible. But he was awfully quiet at supper.”
“What did you expect? A glorious family reunion?”
She shrugged. “No, I suppose not. After all, the only two things those men have in common are your mother…and you.”
Leaning his head back against the chair, Scott sighed. “True. I just hope they manage not to kill each other while Grandfather’s here. I thought I’d let him rest tomorrow, and then I can show him the ranch little by little. Keep him out of the house as much as I can. Murdoch’s planning to go to San Francisco for a week or so, anyway.”
“That’s what he’d said. Rather convenient, don’t you think?”
“Probably. But he also wanted to bid on some Army contracts for beef for next year.” Scott rubbed his face and yawned deeply.
“It’s going to be a very long few weeks,” Laura said. “But, for now, I suppose we should try to get some sleep.”
“Sounds good.” He stood and helped her from her own chair, his hands lingering on her shoulders. “But, Laura….”
“Hmmmm?” She wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head against his chest.
“You do promise to behave yourself, don’t you?”
“Define behave,” she challenged with a crooked smile, looking up into his eyes.
“No picking arguments with my grandfather, no goading, no provocation.”
“Why, Scott Lancer,” she protested, “do you really think I’d do that?”
“In a word…yes. I know you only too well.” His lips drifted over her hair. “But it’s a useless proposition – rehashing old grievances with him. And, besides, he’ll be gone in a few weeks.”
“All right. I promise. I’ll be the model of lady-like behavior while your grandfather’s here. He won’t have any reason to think I’m anything but a perfect wife.” As long as he behaves himself.
Murdoch had excused himself three days later, heading down the road to Cross Creek to catch a train to San Francisco. He had said few words to his father-in-law in the meantime; only what was necessary to play the role of genial host.
Johnny, for his part, had ridden off with the hands early each morning. He had spoken only when spoken to, slipping in and out for meals with his usual cat-like grace. Teresa had mostly disappeared as well, seeking the company of Maria or Juanita as they tended the house or made the rounds of the workers’ homes, caring for the sick.
So it was that Scott and Laura found themselves alone with Garrett, lingering over coffee one morning after breakfast. Harlan sat forward in his chair, his long fingers tracing the delicate pattern on the china cup.
“While we’re alone, Scotty…Laura….” He tilted his head toward her. “There is something we need to discuss.”
“What’s that, Grandfather?” Scott took a sip of his coffee and leaned back in his chair.
“While I did want to see you – and I became convinced you would not return to Boston even to visit – I have another reason for making the outrageously long trip out here.”
Despite the look on her husband’s face that urged caution, Laura blurted out, “Is that so? What other reason could you possibly have?”
Garrett’s mouth curved up in a cynical smile. “Never any subtlety in you, was there, my dear? Then I will get straight to the point. I’ve come to California to take you home to Boston.”
Scott and Laura retreated into what they would later describe as shocked silence. Scott was the first to find his voice. “You’ve come to do what?”
“You don’t belong in this wilderness, Scotty.” Garrett glanced at Laura. “And neither do you. You both belong in Boston with me. Your child deserves to grow up with the best tutors, the right people – not in this backwoods. He has a significant legacy waiting for him.”
“But Lancer is our home.” Laura’s voice echoed in her own ears, sounding unnaturally loud. “You can’t just show up here and demand we go back to Boston.”
“You forget, Grandfather,” Scott said tersely. “This ranch is a legacy for my son – or my daughter.”
“What? To be shared with your half-breed brother?” Harlan practically snorted.
“How dare you call him that!” Laura launched herself from her chair, her hand raised to strike Garrett before Scott neatly intercepted her. He held her tightly, and, at that moment, Laura realized he was holding on to her in order to restrain himself.
“Because you’re my grandfather, I’ll pretend you didn’t say that.” Scott’s voice was flat and emotionless, but Laura could feel his muscles were as tightly wound as piano strings. “And we have absolutely no intention of returning to Boston with you.”
“Ahhhh….” Garrett paused and took a sip of coffee. He appeared as he might while sitting in a board meeting for one of his many enterprises – businesslike, cool and composed. Not like he had just delivered a crushing blow to the young couple. “That’s where you’re wrong, Scotty. You will return with me. And you will remain in Boston.”
“And if we don’t?” Her husband’s voice had taken on an edge that Laura rarely heard; a combination of challenge and command she was certain he had perfected while in the Army.
“If you try to defy me,” Garrett responded with a sniff, “I will destroy this place you call home. It may have taken your father twenty years to build, but I assure you I can reduce it to rubble within weeks.” He casually crossed his legs and flicked a bit of dust from his boot. “So, the choice is yours. You return with me, and Lancer is safe. If you don’t, it will cease to exist. Now…what will you do?”
“My God.” Laura crumpled back into her chair at the table after Garrett left the room claiming he needed fresh air and his customary morning walk. “Oh, my God.” Her stomach lurched, threatening to regurgitate her breakfast. “What are we going to do, Scott?” she whispered.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I need to think.” He wandered into the great room, pausing to lean against Murdoch’s desk, his hands flat on its polished surface.
“Can he really do that? Destroy Lancer?”
Scott straightened, turning on his heel as he began to pace back and forth with military precision. He finally stopped, leaning back against the desk. “As you know, Grandfather has nearly unlimited resources. We can’t possibly compete with him financially.”
“I still have about twenty thousand dollars left from my grandmother’s bequest,” Laura said weakly. “Maybe we could….”
“Twenty thousand dollars is a great deal of money, my love, but when compared to Grandfather’s millions….” Scott shook his head. “It’s miniscule. He can manipulate water rights, buy up surrounding ranches and cattle, flood the market with beef so we can’t sell our own….The possibilities are endless.”
“There has to be something we can do,” she insisted, joining him in the great room. “I don’t want to go back to Boston.”
He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close. “I don’t want to go back either. But I don’t see how we can avoid it, unless I can convince Grandfather otherwise. It seems that, in order to save our home, we’re going to have to leave it.”
“It’s my dream coming true,” she murmured. “My nightmare.” In response to the question in his eyes, she explained. “When you were missing, I dreamed that Father and your grandfather had come to take me back to Boston. Your grandfather used exactly that same word – legacy. I had to go back because our son has a legacy there. Please tell me this is just another bad dream.”
“I wish I could, Laura. God knows…I wish I could.”
“Your father would be so disappointed to see you like this – working like a common servant.” Laura was alone at the sink the next morning after breakfast, up to her elbows in dishwater, when Garrett strolled into the kitchen.
She dried her hands on her apron, and turned to face him. “Lancer is a working ranch. Everyone – including me – works. And what my father thinks is of no concern to me.”
“You were born to grace the parlors of Beacon Hill, not to slave away buried in this wilderness. And my grandson was intended for positions of wealth, power. He should – and will – be sitting on the boards of my companies. Not on the back of a horse, herding cattle." The old man pulled out a chair from the table and eased his tall frame into it. “And your father’s opinions should be of great significance to you.”
Leaning back against the sink, Laura pushed stray strands of hair from her face. “My father forfeited his right to my respect when he refused to accept my marriage to your grandson. You may be forcing us to return to Boston, but that does not mean I’ll become his dutiful daughter.”
“Just as fractious as ever, I see.” Garrett’s mouth turned down in displeasure. “I had hoped marriage to my grandson might temper your attitude.”
“In all honesty, Mr. Garrett, you had hoped I wouldn’t marry your grandson at all. Julie Dennison would’ve been more to your liking, I’m sure.”
“Ahhh….” The smirk on his face infuriated Laura, but she was more angry with herself for inadvertently giving him ammunition to use against her. “So Scotty told you of his relationship with Julie. Yes, I will admit I was quite fond of her.”
“Because you could control her?”
“Because she understood how ladies should comport themselves,” he snapped. Relaxing once again, he ran his finger back and forth over a scar in the wood table. “Did Scotty ever tell you why he and Julie parted ways?”
“That is not something I need to discuss with you.”
“I see. Then he clearly did not.” Garrett settled more deeply in his chair and crossed his legs. “Scotty came home from the war a very changed man; he was no longer the young boy who had so foolishly enlisted in ‘63. When he started courting Julie after he left the Army, I was thrilled, and I hoped she would be a calming influence on him.”
She wanted to tell him to stop. Argue that it was inappropriate for him to be telling her what her own husband had steadfastly refused to talk about. But Laura bit her lip and steeled herself for whatever he might reveal.
“But, Scotty was never able to rid himself of his memories of you. No matter how much he drank and embarrassed himself – and me -- with his all-night carousing, it was always you he looked for. Always your picture he carried in his coat pocket. Did you know he and Julie were engaged to be married?”
“I did.” Laura managed to choke the words out, trying without much success to make her voice sound matter-of-fact.
“They might actually have wed had he spent that particular Thanksgiving evening two years ago with her as they had planned. Instead, he spent the night drinking at his gentleman’s club, apparently in the company of an…actress.” Harlan spit the word out as though it had left a bad taste in his mouth. “When he finally reappeared at home the next morning, he announced he would not marry Julie. At that point it mattered little – she’d had enough of his boorish behavior, and word of his transgression had already reached her. She broke off their engagement, and thereafter refused to speak to him. I sometimes wonder if I’m not indebted to Murdoch for sending that Pinkerton agent to Boston. Scotty needed something to pull him together and out of his self-destructive spiral.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Bostonians have notoriously long memories. I wouldn’t want you to be caught unaware by the gossip when you return.”
“I am so gratified by your concern.” Laura didn’t bother to hide the sarcasm in her voice. “I only wish you had been so concerned for our welfare seven years ago when Scott and I were separated.” When Garrett responded with only a lift of his eyebrows and a frown, she continued. “You knew where I was, and yet you did nothing.” She hesitated, raising her hand to silence any reply the old man might make. “Actually you did do something – you took my letters, and you let Scott believe I never tried to write to him. How could you do that?”
“Yes, I did know you were in England.” Garrett spoke quietly. He shifted in his chair and recrossed his legs. “And, at the time, I felt my grandson needed to focus on his new responsibilities, his career, rather than on you. Unfortunately, I discovered that your absence only worsened his obsession with you.”
“Is that what you think it was?” Laura rubbed at her eyes, not wanting him to see her tears. “Obsession?”
“You and Scotty were too young to have any idea of true love,” he replied with a dismissive wave of his hand.
She might have laughed at the irony had it not been so profoundly tragic. “As much as my father and you dislike each other,” she said, “you sound exactly like him.”
Garrett sniffed and chuckled, swiping his hand over his face as though to wipe the smile from it. “That’s almost exactly what Robert told me, my dear. At dinner -- just the other week.”
“You had dinner with my father?”
“Why are you so incredulous? Your father and I have a great deal in common. I know we had that…disagreement…some years ago, but….”
“What happened between you and Father was hardly a disagreement.” Laura shook out her dishtowel in emphasis before she picked up a plate, drying it so hard the pottery cracked in her hands. “Good men died or were wounded because of you. And then you left Father to face the lawsuits – and the government inquiries.” She pitched the pieces of plate into the trash bin, turning back to face Garrett.
“Scotty told you about that particular business arrangement, I surmise?”
“You surmise correctly. And it explains why Father turned on Scott as he did. I find it hard to believe he’s suddenly reconciled with you.”
“Ultimately, my dear, your father is a practical man – as am I. We found we share a common goal.”
“That would be the goal of forcing us back to Boston.”
“I prefer to think of it as persuading you to come back to Boston – for your own good and for the good of your family. Your father agrees, and he looks forward to welcoming you home.”
“Lancer is our home – and it always will be. However you, or Father, prefer to think of it and whatever word you choose, it’s still blackmail.” She tossed the towel onto the kitchen table, the dishes forgotten in her anger. “Scott may eventually forgive you. Somehow, despite your influence, he’s a man of deep convictions and unshakeable integrity. I, however, will never forget or forgive you for what you’ve done to both of us – to all of us.” Squaring her shoulders, Laura stalked from the kitchen. She made it half way up the back stairs before she slumped onto a step and dissolved into tears.
“Are you planning to talk at all while Grandfather’s here?”
Laura shrugged at her husband’s question. “I suppose.” Seated at her dressing table, she watched his reflection in the mirror as she yanked her hairbrush through her hair. Scott’s eyebrows quirked upward, and he leaned against the bedroom door, pushing it closed with his back.
“Try not to be quite so enthusiastic,” he sniped.
“What do you expect of me, Scott?” She swiveled on her stool to face him. The fatigue and worry engraved in the lines around his eyes and mouth registered briefly with her, but she stubbornly chose to push back. “I didn’t want your Grandfather here to begin with, remember? And now my instinct’s been proven right.”
“I expect you to carry on and not give Johnny and Teresa any reason to think there’s any problem. You didn’t say two words at dinner. You may not have noticed, but they certainly did.”
“Oh. So let me get this straight.” She paused and plucked a few stray hairs from the sleeve of her nightdress before glaring at him. “You want me to soldier on. Pretend I’m not devastated by what your Grandfather’s doing to us.”
“What I want you to do is give me time to try to reason with Grandfather before the rest of our family grows suspicious, and they start raising all sorts of questions.”
“And would that be so bad? They should know we’re being blackmailed.”
“No, they shouldn’t.” Scott propped himself against the doorpost. He briefly closed his eyes and stretched his still-sore shoulder, seeking a position of comfort. “I don’t want to alarm them unnecessarily, for one. And, for another, Grandfather made it clear to me this afternoon that he expects us to go without any argument. Any effort on our part – or anyone else’s -- to oppose him, and he’ll carry out his threat to destroy Lancer.”
“So we somehow have to play along and not let on that anything’s wrong. Make believe everything’s just perfectly fine. And exactly how do you anticipate breaking the news to everyone? If, as I suspect, you can’t bargain with your Grandfather.”
“Very simply. When Murdoch comes back from San Francisco, I’ll…we’ll…just tell him we decided to go back to Boston. For the sake of our baby.”
“I see. So we lie and blame my pregnancy. How convenient. And you think he’s going to believe that – or Johnny and Teresa will believe it? That we suddenly -- with no warning -- decided to leave the home we both love? I wouldn’t believe us if I were them.”
“They likely won’t believe us either,” Scott admitted. “But I think the least said, the better. We tell them, we pack the few things we’ll need to take, and we go.”
“There’s something else you need to know, while we’re having this delightful tete-a-tete.” Laura rose from her seat and wandered over to stare out the window. The sun had long since set behind the mountains, and a scattering of stars mirrored the twinkling lights from the workers’ village in the distance. “I had my own talk with your Grandfather this morning.”
“Is that so?” Scott pushed away from the doorframe and stretched again, rolling his shoulders. “About what?”
“Well, he started by pointing out how disappointed my father would be to see me washing dishes.” Laura turned to face her husband, watching as his eyes narrowed and darkened in speculation. “And you’re wondering why he would say that? Because he and Father have reconciled. It sounds as though they’ve become quite the best of friends again.” She crossed her arms on her chest. “So, it’s not only your grandfather and his fortune we have to contend with – it’s my father and his millions as well. We are well and truly doomed.”
Scott exhaled and groaned. Laura wasn’t certain if he was reacting to pain or to the realization that the two old adversaries had reunited. “Doomed might be a bit strong a word, but, you’re right -- with those two in cahoots, I’m not sure we have any options.”
“There were other things he said, too, Scott.” She turned back to the window, finding it easier to talk if she didn’t have to look into his eyes. “Your Grandfather told me why Julie broke off your engagement.” Much as she tried, Laura couldn’t keep the accusation from her voice.
“Is that so?" Laura could hear the not-quite-controlled anger in her husband's voice. “Go on. It sounds like a fascinating conversation.”
“He said you were…drinking a lot, staying out all night with other women.” She shivered as a sudden gust of wind blew through the open window and ruffled the lawn fabric of her nightdress. “You were….an embarrassment.” Her arms still crossed on her chest, she rounded on him. “How could you? Even if you had forgotten me, how could you do that to Julie?”
They stared at each other until Scott sucked in a lungful of air. He spoke through gritted teeth, and he whispered, but his words were anything but gentle. “I’m not an angel, Laura. I never pretended to be.” Scott shrugged, the faintest of bitter smiles flickering across his face. “But maybe I should’ve told you the whole story, instead of trying yet again to protect you from the ugly truth.”
“Don’t make this about me.”
“I’m not making it about you,” he retorted. “But the truth is – it was about you. It was always about you.” He paused to scrub his face with his hands. “No, it wasn’t fair to Julie. No matter how hard I tried to make her you, she obviously wasn’t. And those other women? They weren’t you either.”
“And that’s somehow supposed to make me feel better? While you were…with them…you were thinking of me?”
“Yes. They were all you.” Scott joined her at the window. “And I can’t make it anything other than what it was – a very black time that I deeply regret.” He reached for her, but she brushed him away. “Laura….”
“Don’t….” She jerked away, fluttering her hands at him. “Just don’t.” Retreating a few steps, she faced him again. “Not only do I now have to return to Boston against my will, I’ll have to tolerate the whispers and the knowing smirks behind my back.” Lifting one shoulder, Laura uttered a soft, cynical laugh. “Actually, maybe Mr. Garrett did me a favor by telling me. Like he said, Bostonians have very long memories. At least now I know. It might have been easier, though, if you’d had the decency to tell me yourself.”
“And how, precisely, do you think I could have told you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she snapped. Laura knew she was being unfair, but she was too angry and hurt to care at that particular moment. “Maybe you could’ve just told me the truth instead of glossing it over – or, as you prefer to do, simply refusing to talk at all.”
“What happened -- what I did after the War -- is over and best left in the past. If I don’t talk about it, it’s because I don’t feel anything useful can be gained by dredging it all up.”
“Now you sound like your father. ‘Leave the past in the past.’” She tried, without success, to mimic her father-in-law’s deep bass voice.
“Leave Murdoch out of this,” Scott shot back. His blue eyes blazed with anger as his finger stabbed first at her and then at himself. “This is between you and me.”
“Yes, Scott, you’re right. It is between you and me. And at the root of it is that same old unwillingness you’ve had to completely trust me. You long ago decided I was too delicate or too sensitive or too…something….”
“It’s not a matter of trust, Laura. It’s a matter of love.” The anger faded from his eyes to be replaced by a look of wistful resignation. “I’ve loved you completely for more years than I can remember, and I wanted to keep you from being hurt in any way. Even if that meant not being totally honest with you. Honesty’s a double-edged sword – it can hurt more than it helps.”
“That’s very noble of you.” She spit the words at him, her own voice laced with bitterness. “Always protecting me. Will you at least tell me one thing?”
“What’s that?” The exhaustion had crept from his eyes to his voice.
“Do I know any of them?”
“Any of whom?”
“The women you slept with. Am I going to have to look every woman I meet in Boston in the eyes and wonder if you know them just a bit too well?”
Johnny uncrossed his feet and shifted his weight, pushing off from the thick post that held up the porch overhang in front of the stage depot. The dust kicked up by the arriving coach smelled of garbage and horse excrement, and it was nearly blinding before it drifted down like dirty snow to settle over everything. The young man coughed into his elbow, wiped his face on his shirt sleeve, and settled his hat more firmly on his head.
“Murdoch.” The coach door swung outward, and his father bent double as he ducked through the opening and struggled to unfold himself onto the boardwalk. Both men instinctively sidestepped when the shotgun rider proceeded to pitch the cases and canvas bags from the top of the stage without bothering to look down first.
“Mostly.” Murdoch pounded the dust from his hat and stretched the kinks from his back. “Just long and dirty.” Stiff from his prolonged ride in a coach that lacked both adequate springs and room for his long legs, he leaned as far as his knees would allow and picked up his saddlebags. “Can you….Ahhh….” He straightened and twisted, trying to relieve the spasm that ran from his back down to his left foot. “Can you get that trunk, Son?”
“Yup.” Johnny hoisted the small case to his shoulder and gestured toward the buckboard hitched down the street. “You wanna get a beer before we start back?”
“No.” Murdoch limped slightly, matching his son’s stride. “I think I’d rather go on home. I can hear a long, hot bath calling my name. As well as a very large Scotch.” He grinned before adding, “And not necessarily in that order.” Throwing the saddlebags behind the buckboard seat, Murdoch pulled himself up. “Mind driving?”
“Nope.” Picking up the reins, Johnny eased the brake off. Roused from their nap, the matched bays pinned their ears and threw their heads up before, grudgingly, they leaned into the traces.
“Everything okay at the ranch?”
His eyes fixed on the road ahead, Johnny muttered, “Mostly.”
“Meanin’ it’s about as good as it’ll be with Harlan Garrett still there.”
“I see.” Murdoch elbowed the sweat and dust from his eyes. “Anything in particular I should know?”
Johnny pursed his lips and shrugged. “Not sure.”
Exasperated with his son’s reticence, the older man sighed. “Not sure about what? Not sure what’s going on or not sure I should know?”
“Both.” Hesitating as he slapped the reins against the horses’ backs, Johnny blew out a soft breath. “Look, Murdoch. It’s like this….” He chanced a look at his father. “There’s nothin’ I can really tell you, and I don’t want you to get your back up for no reason. But somethin’s goin’ on with Scott and Laura. They ain’t talkin’ – to me or each other – and Teresa and me can’t figure out what the problem is.”
“They’re not talking to each other?” The worry groove between Murdoch’s eyes deepened.
“Not for the last coupla days.” The young man shifted the reins to one hand and sniffed, scratching at his nose. “Laura moved into the bedroom across the hall. Told Maria she wasn’t sleepin’ good, and she didn’t want to keep Scott awake.”
“Maybe she’s telling the truth,” Murdoch reasoned. “When your mother was….” Johnny smiled as his father’s face turned a deep pink; the color was most pronounced in the tips of his ears. Murdoch cleared his throat. “When your mother was expecting you, she….well, she sometimes slept in another room. She couldn’t get comfortable, and she wanted me to be able to sleep.”
“I might buy that if they were still actin’ right. But they’re not.”
“You think Garrett’s causing problems? Something Scott’s keeping to himself?”
“Could be. I mean….” Johnny tilted his head, considering the possibilities. “They’re all polite and all. But they’re tiptoeing around each other and none of them are saying Jack sh….much of anything. Garrett’s actin’ like those barn cats do when they’ve finished off a rat. Really happy with himself.”
“That can’t be good. Sounds like I’ll need to have a talk with your brother.”
“Good luck, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “The way I see it, Boston’s just about had it with everybody and everything.”
The mood at dinner was decidedly somber. Murdoch had been greeted with hugs from his daughter-in-law and Teresa, and Scott had offered him a handshake and the flicker of a smile, but they were all clearly stressed. Only Garrett seemed content, self-satisfied Laura thought, and she couldn't bring herself to even look at him during the meal. She mumbled an apology, feigned exhaustion, and excused herself from the table without finishing her food. Slipping into the spare bedroom that had become all too familiar over the past few days, she lit the lamp on the bedside table and slumped onto the bed. She startled when she realized Scott had quietly followed her; he leaned against the doorpost, his arms crossed loosely on his chest.
"Mind if I come in?"
"Sure. Of course." She started to stand, but eased herself back when Scott motioned for her to stay seated. He closed the door behind him and wandered over to the chair next to the fireplace, gracefully dropping into it.
"You didn't finish your dinner."
"I wasn't very hungry."
His lips pursed in a frown, Scott tilted his head, studying her face. "And you're tired. Not sleeping well in here?"
"No," she admitted softly. "I'm not sleeping at all in here." Laura picked at the folds of her skirt feeling the tears pricking at her eyelids. "I'm sorry, Scott." His face was veiled, blurred by the moisture in her eyes. "I am so sorry." She sobbed, the sound coming out as a muffled squeak, and rubbed at her nose with the sleeve of her blouse. "I've been so angry -- angry you let your grandfather come here, angry at his blackmail. Angry he had told me things I didn't really want to know."
Scott stood and pulled her up into his arms. "I should have told you a long time ago," he whispered. "But I never thought there'd be a reason for you to hear all about my...bad behavior. And I guess deep down I was afraid it would change how you felt about me."
"You know me better than that," she said, trailing her finger across his cheek, tracing the outline of his lips. "Nothing could ever change my love for you."
He took her fingers in his, lifting them to his lips, kissing the back of her hand. "Then I think we need to talk. Clear the air now. Before we have to have that conversation with Murdoch."
"I'm dreading that," she sighed. "I think Johnny already suspects something's wrong."
"Why? Has he said anything?" Scott smoothed her hair from her face and tucked a stray strand back into place behind her ear.
"No. He hasn't said anything specific. It's more the way he looks at me sometimes. Like he can see what I'm thinking. He's too observant."
"That he is," Scott said. "But...that conversation will have to wait. In the meantime -- would you consider moving back to our room? I miss you."
"Yes." She smiled sheepishly. "I've missed you, too. I didn't really intend to stay in here this long. It all just sort of snowballed. You've been spending so much time with your grandfather, and I couldn't sleep anyway."
A few minutes later, Laura was ensconced in her armchair next to the fireplace in their bedroom as Scott crouched on the hearth, arranging the kindling in the grate. The dry logs roared to life, and he flicked the Lucifer stick into the hissing flames before he pushed himself to his feet. "That should warm things up pretty quickly -- it's cold tonight."
"It feels wonderful," she said, wrapping her woolen shawl more tightly around her shoulders. She searched her husband's face, feeling suddenly apprehensive. The grim set of his jaw, she knew from experience, was visual evidence of the turmoil in his mind.
"Laura...." He caught his tongue in his teeth and turned back toward the fireplace, his arms spread wide, his fingers gripping the mantelpiece. After a long pause, he unbowed his head, straightened his spine, and pivoted toward her. "This is a discussion I never wanted to have with you," he confessed. Easing into his own armchair, he leaned back and sighed deeply. "But, it would seem I have no choice. Grandfather has seen to that."
"Before you say anything, Scott...." Laura raised her hand to silence him. "I do think your Grandfather's trying to drive a wedge between us. And I nearly let him." In response to the question in his eyes, she continued. "Don't you see? It's all about control. If your Grandfather can pit us against each other, he can control us both more easily. Together, we're stronger. At odds with each other, we're more vulnerable."
"Divide and conquer?"
"Exactly. It doesn't mean we can defy him. I have no doubt if we tried that, he'd carry out his threat to destroy Lancer."
"But together we can at least control some aspects of this whole mess. Minimize the impact on our family."
"I think so." Laura distractedly massaged her belly as the baby in her womb shifted and stretched. "And while we're forced to live in Boston, I think we can dictate the terms under which we will live there. For starters, we will not live in the same house with either your Grandfather or my father. Between the two of us, we have sufficient means to start our own household."
"Agreed." Scott visibly relaxed. "That would make it infinitely more tolerable."
"And...I was thinking...maybe we could try to find Katie?" The young Irishwoman had been Laura's maid and confidant, as well as a casualty of her Father's vendetta against Scott. "Like I've told you, I never saw her again after Father sent me away. I tried to write to her almost as often as I wrote to you, but she never answered. I've often wondered what happened to her."
"I did go to see her in '65 when I was finally shipped home from Washington, but, as you know, she wouldn't talk to me. I went to see her again when I went home from Fort Riley, but she and her family had moved. No one seemed to know -- or would say -- where they'd gone." Scott's face softened as his lips curled up in a gentle smile. "But, yes. We can look for Katie. With us together again and back in Boston, someone's bound to tell us where she is. Or, I'll simply hire a Pink to find her."
"Then there's Julie." Laura spoke hesitantly, deep down not really wanting to talk about her old nemesis or any other women; knowing how much anger still simmered in the recesses of her mind. She wanted to convince herself that the man she loved beyond the shadow of any doubt had been both emotionally and physically faithful to her. Still, she knew that wasn't possible given Garrett's revelations. And continuing to push dark thoughts to the back of her mind would never allow her to truly move on; eventually the darkness would only poison her soul and make a mockery of her love for Scott.
He grimaced, seeming willing to look anywhere but into his wife's eyes. Finally, Scott rubbed his forehead as though massaging away a headache, and he briefly pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "Yes," he said, meeting her eyes. "There is Julie."
"You do know I was never terribly fond of her," Laura said. "I always found her to be a little too...proper. It didn't help that Father held her over my head as the perfect example of a Boston lady. 'If you could only be more like Julie....' If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times."
"I know. I remember." His fingers traced a pattern on the arm of his chair, and Scott's eyes were once again lost in shadow. "I'm not completely sure at this point how or why we ended up together. Sometimes I think she was just...convenient. We were thrown together at dances, dinner parties, social events...." He lifted his shoulders in resignation. "Grandfather adored her. And it was just too easy. Easy to distract myself with her, easy to convince myself she could be you."
"To be fair, Scott, you didn't know where I was, and Father had told you I was never coming back. Despite my own choice to be alone, I shouldn't have expected you to isolate yourself." There you go, Laura. That sounded reasonable -- even if you're feeling anything but reasonable. She struggled to compose her face, relax. But mostly she felt like throwing up.
"It would've been better if I had," Scott muttered, almost to himself. He leaned over in his chair, resting his elbows against his thighs, his fingers steepled under his chin. "Grandfather told you the truth." His eyes were focused on the floor, looking back at a time when everything in his life had seemed twisted and out-of-kilter. "I came home from the War physically -- and emotionally -- exhausted. The utter brutality...the carnage...." He shook his head slightly and briefly closed his eyes, remembering the unspeakable horrors he'd seen during those years; the never-ending cycle of fighting and killing and death. Destruction of human life that knew no boundaries, either of age or social status. Watching as the men he had come to think of as brothers jerked in agony like grotesque puppets when rebel bullets slammed into their bodies. "You were gone, Drew was long dead. I'd barely regained my bearings -- started sleeping more than a few minutes at a time again -- when the Army issued my orders for Fort Riley."
"So you comforted yourself with Julie." The part of her mind that didn't want to be fair asserted itself with a vengeance, and Laura could feel the old jealousy stabbing viciously at her heart.
"Julie was...." Scott paused, buying time to gather his thoughts by leaning over to add logs to the fire, poking at the embers until they finally hissed and flared. When he sat back down, he seemed markedly ill-at-ease; especially so for a man who was by nature confident and composed. "Julie spent a lot of time at the house while I was recovering. She was very...." He cleared his throat. "Attentive."
"Somehow that doesn't surprise me." Laura sniffed.
His left eyebrow curved upward in response to the acidity in her voice.
"Sorry," Laura said, realizing even as she uttered the word that her apology was remarkably insincere. She just couldn't scrape together any charitable thoughts toward the woman who had been held up to her as the ideal of virtue and grace -- and who had very nearly married the man she adored. Overly warm as the fire blazed, she slipped her shawl from her shoulders and arranged it in her lap.
"You do know you're not making this any easier for me," Scott snapped. "If you don't want to listen, it's perfectly fine with...."
"No," she said, biting the inside of her cheek. "I'll try not to interrupt. Just realize how hard this is for me, too."
"I understand." Scott leaned his head back against the back of the chair, staring at the ceiling. "While I was posted to Kansas, she continued to write to me. When I resigned my commission and went back to Boston, it was easy to go back to seeing her. I wanted you, but you were, for all I knew, gone forever. My world that had been so comfortable and predictable was gone. In some ways, seeing Julie allowed me not to think about much of anything. It kept me busy, and I thought that maybe, in time, I'd actually grow to care for her. It was exceedingly unfair to her."
"And the others?"
"First of all, there weren't that many others." He looked directly into her eyes. "And secondly, in answer to your question the other evening, you wouldn't have known any of them. They were not, shall we say, Beacon Hill debutantes."
"I see," she whispered, trying to reconcile the memories of the Harvard boy she'd idolized with the man who'd lost his bearings and slipped into a morass of drunken debauchery. "Your grandfather told me he was rather grateful Murdoch sent the Pinkerton agent to find you."
"In all honesty, it probably saved my life," Scott admitted softly. "By that point, Julie and I had gone our separate ways, and there didn't seem to be much point to anything. I'd had enough of the Army--reenlisting wasn't an attractive option -- and, much to Grandfather's dismay, I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for adding to the family coffers. Murdoch's offer, coming when it did, was like a lifeline to a drowning sailor. I didn't need his money, but I desperately needed to find something to believe in again."
"What are we going to do, Scott?" She swallowed hard against the knot in her throat, twisting her fingers in her lap. "This place -- Lancer -- is more than just home. It's a sanctuary -- for all of us." Laura swiped at a tear that streaked its way down her cheek. "I'm so afraid."
Slipping from his seat, Scott scooped her gently from her chair and sat down in it himself, cradling her in his arms. "I know," he murmured. "Me too."
The knock on their bedroom door sounded to Laura like an undertaker hammering nails into a coffin. Chillingly measured and devastatingly final. Scott carefully deposited her back in her chair and went to answer his grandfather's summons.
"Scotty," Garrett said. "Forgive me for intruding on your privacy. But I thought perhaps you might want to talk to your father. And your brother," he added almost as an afterthought. "While they're all together downstairs."
"Laura?" Scott turned to her, his eyes and face gray and haunted.
Her mind screamed no, but she chewed on her lower lip and forced herself to her feet. She gripped Scott's arm as they followed Garrett down the stairs and into the great room. Why do I feel like we're marching to our own execution? Teresa looked up from her sewing, smiling as they entered. Murdoch was engrossed in his book, while Johnny dozed, sprawled in front of the fire. Jelly poked at him, grunting something about it being his move. Laura barely noticed there was a chess board balanced on the ottoman between the two men.
"Murdoch." Scott choked on his father's name, and he coughed, clearing his throat. "I...we....While we're all here, Laura and I need to let you know we've talked about it, and we've...." He gagged again, and Laura gave his arm an encouraging squeeze. Murdoch, she saw, had gone rigid; his face was nearly devoid of expression, but his eyes were filled with apprehension. Johnny seemed to have suddenly awakened, his body tensed in anticipation. Teresa's fingers were strangely idle in her lap. The silence was deafening, broken only by the hiss and crackle of the flames in the massive fireplace. "We've decided to return to Boston with Grandfather. We'll be leaving by the end of the week."
Without waiting for a response from his family or acknowledging his grandfather, Scott turned on his toe, pulling his wife with him, ushering her down the back hallway and up the stairs. She was able to hold back her tears just long enough to make it back to their bedroom. Laura collapsed against the blanket chest, gasping for breath. Her baby kicked hard and rolled making it even more difficult for her to draw any air into her lungs. She jerked upright, hurriedly wiping the tears from her cheeks and shaking out her skirts when she heard her brother-in-law's voice in the hall.
"Scott...wait...." Johnny called out, his footsteps muffled by the thick Turkish rugs on the floor. "Hold on."
Too well-versed in social graces to shut the door in his brother's face, Scott waited. Head down, eyes focused on the floor, jaw locked.
"What the hell was that about?" Johnny's face was contorted, his eyes dark with anger.
"Just what I said, Brother. We're moving back to Boston. There's nothing more to discuss," Scott replied tersely. "Now, if you'll excuse us...." He started to close the door.
"Mac?" Quickly dodging both the doorframe and his brother, Johnny confronted her.
Shaking her head, Laura rubbed her face against her sleeve again. "Scott's right, Johnny. There's nothing more to say."
"Then why are you cryin' and Boston's lookin' like he's been eatin' nails if there's nothing more to discuss?" He ended his question by mocking his brother's more elegant manner of speech. "This has somethin' to do with old man Garrett, doesn't it?"
"No," she replied hurriedly. "No, it doesn't." Her eyes locked on Scott's she knew what she had to do. Lie convincingly. Lie well enough to make sure her beloved brother-in-law -- who seemed able to read her mind -- didn't ask too many questions. "I was crying because I've been so tired and uncomfortable today. I'm frustrated." She lifted her chin, feigning a calm she didn't feel. "As far as moving back to Boston...Scott and I have been discussing it a lot -- especially since our trip to San Francisco. We feel our baby would have more opportunities there. All the opportunities we had that would not be available out here. Since Mr. Garrett will be leaving at the end of the week, it'll be easier to travel back with him."
"That is complete bullsh....garbage, Mac," Johnny said, the look in his eyes a mix of humor and challenge. "What's the real reason?"
"That is the real reason," Scott interrupted. "Whether you choose to believe it or not is your problem. Now...." His hand still holding the door, he motioned with his head. "My wife needs to rest. So if you'll...."
Johnny slowly backed into the hall, grudgingly giving in to his brother's demand. "All right. I'll let it be -- for now. But this is not right...and it ain't over yet." Spinning on his heel, he retreated down the hall.
"No, Johnny," Scott muttered, closing the door. "It's not right. But it is over...."
The trunks had been pulled out of storage, and now occupied a prominent position in the middle of the bedroom floor. Laura had managed to pack a few books, a shawl, her riding boots. Scott folded another of his shirts and added it to the growing pile in his own trunk.
"This is hard. Deciding what to take now and what we can have Murdoch ship later." He wandered over to his dresser, picking through one of the drawers, obviously unable to muster any enthusiasm himself for the task at hand.
Forcing a brittle smile, Laura shrugged. "It's not too hard for me. I don't have too many dresses that fit anymore. I can even leave my pretty evening gown -- maybe Teresa can have it altered to fit."
Scratching at his nose, Scott grinned at her. "She'd love that. But I'm not sure where -- or even if -- she'd wear a House of Worth ballgown."
"Oh, you just wait, Scott Lancer," she said, grateful for the laughter. "Haven't you noticed she's been more attentive to her appearance lately? Our little sister already has a flock of young men hovering around her. One of these days, one of them'll steal her heart."
"Don't tell Murdoch that," he cautioned, a look of pretend shock replacing the smile. "He'd have a fit."
"He would," she giggled. "And then he'd lock her in the guardhouse." Stretching, her hands fisted into her back, Laura frowned. "Seriously, though. There isn't any point in taking much with us. My clothes don't fit, and you can't wear your work clothes in Boston. I'll have to see the dressmaker after the baby's born, and you'll need to see the tailor for a whole new wardrobe."
"True." Grimacing, Scott glanced at the shirt in his hand, changed his mind, and slipped it back into the drawer. "I'm not looking forward to that -- to wearing a coat and tie every day. I'd rather be out herding cattle with Johnny."
"And I can't imagine having to sit in those stuffy parlors day after day with a bunch of over-indulged debutantes. Wearing those new hideously ugly bustles." She shivered as a chill ran down her spine. "It's not fair, Scott." She joined him, wrapping her arms around his waist. "This is so...wrong."
"I know." He cupped her face in his hands. "It is completely wrong. But I promise you...we'll find a way to come home. Someday, somehow, we'll come back."
"I hope so."
"What?" He tried without much success to smile. "You don't believe me this time either?"
"I want to believe you. But I know how cunning your grandfather is -- and so do you. He'll never let us go."
"Cold as it sounds, he won't live forever," Scott said.
"I'm not so sure," she sighed. "I'm not so sure."
In the end, only one full trunk belonging to the young couple was loaded with Garrett's baggage onto a buckboard and sent on ahead to meet the train from Cross Creek to Sacramento. In one final burst of defiance, Laura had refused to pack anything more than undergarments, her journal, and a couple of dresses. Even her cherished riding boots had been pulled from the trunk, and they would remain at Lancer with her beloved books. She realized that, ultimately, she was likely the only one who would notice or care that the items were left behind. But it was a promise to herself that she would return home; a symbolic gesture that she had left a vital part of herself in California.
Johnny was morose at breakfast the morning of their departure, picking at his food; quiet -- not because he was too busy eating, Laura thought, but because he was aware he'd lose control if he tried to talk. He'd approached Scott several times over the last few days, probing, pushing; trying without success to provoke his brother into telling him the truth about their decision to leave with Garrett. Murdoch had remained stoic as usual. She realized, with a pang of regret, that her father-in-law had not -- and at this point, would not -- have any discussions with his elder son about their past. Unless she eventually changed her mind and told Scott what she knew, he would continue to believe his father hadn't truly cared enough to come to Boston for him. Teresa prattled on about nothing in particular, but her eyes betrayed her. Unlike Johnny, she didn't appear to be on the verge of losing her temper; on the contrary, she looked like she'd burst into tears at any minute if she stopped talking.
Breakfast over, Scott was all business. He carefully arranged his napkin on the table and forced himself to his feet, his face set into an inscrutable mask. Politely, but with no hint of warmth, he addressed his grandfather. "I think we should get going early if we're going to make the morning train at Cross Creek." He turned to Murdoch. "If it's all right with you, we'll take the buggy. I asked Frank to hitch it before I came in for breakfast. I'll leave it at the livery."
"Of course. That's fine, Son," Murdoch responded. "Are you sure you don't want me to drive you?"
"No," Scott said, almost too quickly. "We can say our goodbyes here. There's no point in you...." He glanced at his brother. "...Or anyone else making the trip." He helped his wife from her chair, and added, "It'll be more comfortable for Laura if we take the train -- avoid that long, dusty ride to Sacramento."
"And once we arrive in Sacramento," Garrett offered, "I'll see she's well cared for." His face was beaming, and Laura decided he was gloating to his son-in-law, whether intentional or not. "As you know, my private cars are waiting on the siding in Sacramento. Scott and Laura will travel in luxury back to Boston. She will have the services of my personal physician."
Dragging her feet, Laura followed the men from the breakfast room and through the front door. She watched as Scott shook first his father's hand and then his brother's. She did notice his vividly blue eyes had turned gray -- a sure sign he was angry or troubled. As he hugged Teresa goodbye, the young girl burst into tears and clung to the front of his jacket; sobbing, her breath came in great gulping waves. Johnny reached for Laura, fixing her with sapphire blue eyes that challenged her to finally tell him the truth. "Mac," he whispered in her ear, using her old nickname he'd reserved as his own personal term of endearment, "you don't have to do this. I know old man Garrett's making you go. What I don't know is how or why. Just tell me, and it's over."
She surrendered to silent tears that overflowed her eyes, blurring her vision. Laura shook her head, her fingers locked in Johnny's in a near death grip. "No. It's all right. We want to go...home." Breaking away, afraid to say anything more, she hugged Murdoch, choking out a quiet "thank you for everything." After kissing Teresa on the cheek and promising to write often, she gathered her skirts in one hand and allowed Scott to assist her into the back seat of the buggy. His hat pushed back on his head, Scott took one last look at the home they'd both come to love, memorizing its features before he pulled his hat low over his face and settled into his own seat. He whipped up the horses so abruptly that the bays lurched forward, jolting Laura backward against the cushions. Over her shoulder, she heard Murdoch call out. "Be careful. Let us know you're safe...."
The older hand, Jake, shifted his rifle to his left hand, squinting at the cloudless sky. "You sure Frank said they were goin' over to Cross Creek?"
Slim, so named because, no matter how much grub he shoveled down, he couldn't seem to gain weight, grunted softly. "Yup. They'll be along right soon, I 'spect. We jes got here faster." He grinned maliciously at his partner. "And we didn't have no goodbyes to say."
"You figure that ole man'll have cash on 'im? If we're gonna kill 'im, it oughta be worth somethin'." Jake scratched at the three-day growth of stubble on his chin.
"Yeah. He'll have money. The ole man's got bucketfuls from what I hear. One of the boys said he was flashin' some of it around Morro Coyo the other day. The Lancers are bound to have some on them, too."
"We ain't gonna hurt 'em, are we?" His gun propped on a rock, Jake focused down the barrel, sighting on a tree next to the dusty road that ribboned in the distance. He noticed Slim was slow to answer.
"Naw....we ain't gonna touch a hair on their heads," he lied. "I ain't hard enough to kill a woman who's with child. We'll just scare 'em good, and then we'll ride South -- mebbe Arizona or Texas. Lotsa open space down there." His eyes searched the horizon, and he grinned as he caught sight of telltale dust in the distance. "Well lookee there." Slim gestured with his head. "Mebbe that's them. You ready?"
"Yeah, I'm ready," Jake said without much enthusiasm, raising the rifle to his shoulder.
Laura struggled unsuccessfully to find a comfortable position on the buggy seat. Parts of the road resembled a washboard, and every bump and lurch reverberated up her spine and into the roots of her teeth. There was no point in trying to talk; she would've had to lean far forward and cling to the seat in front of her to make her voice heard. And, in reality, she had nothing to say to Garrett anyway. Scott, she noticed, had not spoken to his grandfather, either. He drove, his hands confident and light on the reins as usual. The rigid set of his shoulders told her, though, that he was angry -- angry and frustrated. A lone tree sat next to the road, and she smiled as Scott intentionally drove under it, forcing Garrett to duck and push a small branch out of his way. She would later recall she initially thought the crack that echoed softly across the valley was the tree branch snapping back into place. She screamed as her husband's head jerked sideways, and he rolled, seemingly in slow motion, off the side of the buggy. The horses, spooked by the gunshot, threw up their heads and bolted.
Thrown off balance, Laura screamed Scott's name, and she fought to hang on to the buggy seat, terrified she'd be tossed headfirst into the road. The buggy lurched from side to side, careening along at breakneck speed. In one curve, she could feel the rear wheels lose their grip, and the buggy threatened to fishtail off the road. At some point, Garrett was able to retrieve the reins, but the horses fought his efforts to slow them down; they almost seemed to be enjoying their new-found freedom. The bays finally ran themselves out, acquiescing to the old man's steady drag on the lines. He was able to pull the team up behind a line of boulders just as another shot rang out. With an agility that surprised Laura, he jumped from the buggy seat, and he pulled her from her own perch. Heads down, the pair ran for cover under the sheltering rim of rocks as more bullets raised poofs of dirt around them.
Sobbing, Laura braced herself against the boulder and slowly slid to a seat, her hands gripping her pregnant belly. "You bastard," she hissed. "You goddamned bastard!" She leaned her head back, giving in to the deep agony of loss and grieving. "You've killed him."
His eyes wide with shock and fear, Harlan backed up against the rocks, and he pulled a small pistol from his pocket.
"You can't be serious," Laura said. She laughed through her tears -- a cynical, mocking laugh, one brought on by shock -- wiping the moisture and dirt from her face with her sleeve. "You think you can protect us with that little gun?"
Not responding, Garrett peeked around the edge of the boulder. He jerked back as yet another bullet ricocheted and showered him with shards of rock. Perhaps as much from frustration as optimism, he fired one shot in return before he retreated to Laura's side, plastering his own body as tightly to the rock face as he was able.
"Well that was effective," Laura taunted the old man. "What shall we do next? Wait for whoever's up there to come for us?"
"Perhaps they'll lose interest? Go away?" Garrett suggested hopefully. The words had barely left his lips when a voice from approximately a hundred yards away called out to them.
"Y'all come on out, now," the man said. "We won't hurt you."
"Yeah, y'all come out and talk." The second voice sounded guttural, almost tired. "I ain't gonna shoot you."
"Maybe they're telling the truth," Harlan rationalized. "Surely they won't harm us. Whoever they are. I'll give them the money they must be seeking, and we'll go back and find Scott."
"You really don't understand, do you Harlan? This isn't Boston where you can negotiate a deal. Once they come off that mountain, we're as good as dead."
"We could get to the buggy and try to escape."
"I don't think so." She rubbed at her belly as her baby lashed out, perhaps offering his own disagreement with that particular plan. "If we could ride cross-country, we might stand a chance, but in the buggy?" She shook her head. "They'd catch us in a heartbeat."
They both looked up in surprise as the sound of galloping hooves reverberated off the rocks. Murdoch roared up to them astride his big chestnut, drawing more gunfire. He dismounted in one smooth move while the horse was still loping, crouching as he ran to his daughter-in-law. He knelt in front of her, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.
"Are you all right, sweetheart?" Murdoch reached for her hands.
"They shot Scott. He's dead...." Laura sobbed.
"No....No," Murdoch insisted, his big hands cupping her face. "He's fine, darling," he said quickly. "We found him. The bullet just grazed his head. Johnny's taking him to the Laymon's. For once, they both listened to me. Scott needs to be tended to, and Johnny can bring help back with him."
Searching her father-in-law's eyes, Laura wasn't convinced. "You're not just saying that to make me feel...?"
"No. I promise. Scott's fine -- just dizzy and worried about you." Murdoch attempted a reassuring smile.
"How did you find us?" Finding her father-in-law's presence comforting, Laura pushed herself to her feet.
"Long story," Murdoch said, glancing at Garrett. "I'll explain it all later -- once we take care of those men up there."
In response, a series of rapidly-fired rifle shots echoed off the rocks. Murdoch crept to the edge of their sheltering boulder and peered up at the cliff face where it was obvious their attackers were hiding. Seeing a head emerge from behind a rock, he aimed his revolver and squeezed off a round before retreating once again to his daughter-in-law's side. "I hope they keep shooting," he said, smiling. "It'll help Johnny find us."
"You're sure Scott's okay?" Laura asked again. She wanted to believe him, but she'd seen her husband's body lying limp in the road.
"He'll be fine," Murdoch assured her with another grin. "He's half Scot. His head's harder than those rocks."
"Then what does that say for me?" Laura grinned back. "I'm half Scot as well."
"I'd prefer not to answer that." Murdoch laughed, his eyes wide with mock horror.
"Smart man," she said with a nod. "How long do you think it'll take Johnny to get here?"
"Not long. He was planning to leave Scott with Sally and bring some men back." Finally acknowledging the other man, Murdoch turned to his father-in-law. "Harlan."
His mouth turned down, Garrett nodded without saying anything.
Cold blues eyes glued on the elder man, Murdoch spoke quietly, but firmly. "I don't know yet what you've threatened my children with, but they will not be going back to Boston with you. It's over."
Laura bit her lip, anticipating what Scott's grandfather might say. He fixed her with eyes that she suddenly realized were remarkably like her husband's -- a bright, clear blue.
"Yes, Murdoch," he said. "For once, you're right. It's over."
In the end, Johnny and several hands from the Laymon ranch swooped down from the hills above the cliffs and took Jake and Slim without much of a fight. Jake had thrown his hands up and surrendered at the first sign of trouble; Slim had had to be subdued, lassoed by one of the Laymon's hands and tied like a calf ready for branding.
Murdoch had assured himself that his daughter-in-law was safely secured in the front seat of the buggy, grudgingly allowing Garrett to take the reins, before he eased himself back into his saddle. Johnny would organize the former Lancer hands' transfer to the jail in Morro Coyo before rejoining his family.
The carriage had barely rolled to a halt at the neighbor's ranch when Laura stood, steadying herself against the buggy frame in front of her. She had gathered her skirts and turned to back down the step when Murdoch called out. "Whoa. Stay there. I'm coming." He threw his reins over his horse's neck and jogged to her side. "Not so fast." He reached up for her. "Let me help you."
"Sorry." She braced her hands on his shoulders and allowed him to lift her to the ground. "I need to see Scott."
"I know," Murdoch said. "But no need to hurt yourself."
Sally Laymon met them at the top of the porch steps. A tiny woman, her lined face bore testimony to years spent in the sun and the effort needed to raise the four sons who had survived to adulthood. "Thank God you're here!" She glared at Murdoch, her hands on her hips, as though he was somehow to blame. "That son o' yours is givin' me a fit. Won't stay still, but ever'time he moves, he 'bout falls over and throws up. Mebbe you can talk some sense into that thick skull o' his."
Laura wanted to laugh, but she was afraid Mrs. Laymon would find her too impertinent. Instead she made sure her face was arranged into sober lines. "May we see him, please?"
Studying the younger woman from head to toe, Sally spoke her mind. "You're much bigger than last I saw you. That baby due soon?"
Her face coloring with embarrassment, Laura stuttered. "December. The baby's due in December."
"A few more weeks, then. Gonna be a big one. Lord help ya." With that, Mrs. Laymon turned and shuffled across the porch. "Well, come on now. He's upstairs -- or at least he was last I looked in on 'im."
Scott was lying on his back on the bed in the guest room, a cotton bandage wrapped around his head. He opened his eyes when Laura tiptoed in, but she noticed he didn't move. He winced and briefly closed his eyes again when she sat down on the edge of the bed. "Hi." She ran her finger down the side of his face and leaned over to kiss him.
"Hi, yourself." He took a deep breath in through his nose and blinked a couple of times. "I was worried about you."
"I was worried about you, too." Terrified might be a better word. "Does it hurt?" She was glad there was no obvious blood on the dressing, but she was concerned about what she might find under it. The memories of the bullet wound in his shoulder were still too fresh; he had lost copious amounts of blood and had very nearly died of infection just a few months before.
"A little. Feels like I got kicked in the head." In response to the horrified look on his wife's face, he added staunchly, "But I'll be fine. Mostly just dizzy and nauseated." He cautiously glanced around, only too aware that every time he moved his eyes or head, the world swirled violently and he'd uncontrollably vomit what little remained in his stomach. "Is Mrs. Laymon around?"
"No," Laura said. "She stayed downstairs with your father and grandfather. Murdoch thought maybe we'd like some time alone."
"That woman scares me," Scott admitted. "She's worse than any of the generals I knew in the Army."
"In what way?" Laura giggled at the vision of her war-toughened husband cowering in front of a woman more than twice his age and not much more than half his height.
"She's...bossy. Gives orders like an Army sergeant. Obey her or else."
"Well, then. Have you been a good patient?"
"Not particularly," he groused. "I can't move without throwing up. It's humiliating."
"Better to be humiliated than...." She couldn't bring herself to finish the thought.
"Dead?" Scott had no such reservations. "You're absolutely right." He gingerly shifted in the bed, relaxing when the movement didn't bring on any additional stabbing pain in his head or dry heaves. "Any idea who shot me?"
"It was Jake and Slim," she replied. "I haven't had a chance to talk to Murdoch about why he and Johnny decided to follow us -- but I'm glad they did."
"Me too. And I'm not surprised it was those two." Scott shrugged. "I never trusted them. Too shifty." He played with her wedding rings, twisting them back and forth on her finger. "Almost too eager to please."
"Mind if I come in?" Murdoch stood in the doorway. Laura thought he looked tired, but there was a great deal of relief in his eyes as well. He eased himself into an armchair and crossed his legs, relaxing. "Johnny'll be up in a minute. He sent Jake and Slim off to jail with some of the hands. Sally's feeding him right now. He said he's starving -- I think it was the smell of her apple pies that set him off."
"He's always hungry," Scott sniffed. "Wish I was."
"Patience, Son." Murdoch smiled. "Looks like you were pretty badly concussed. Sally said you should stay here for a few days. If I were you, I wouldn't argue."
"Trust me. That's the farthest thing from my mind." Gingerly moving his head to chance a look at his father, Scott continued, "Laura said it was Jake and Slim who attacked us."
"It was. They were apparently looking for some quick money." His left shoulder lifted in a brief shrug, Murdoch's mouth turned down in obvious disapproval. "Your grandfather, unfortunately, has not been as discreet about his wealth as he should've been out here. Johnny said Jake told him Harlan was the real target, not you. Seems Jake's aim isn't very good -- or his sight's off."
Laura shuddered. "Either way, I'm grateful." She reached for Scott's hand, needing his touch. "Why did you come after us?"
"After you left, Johnny was more restless than usual." Murdoch paused to stretch his back and neck. "Neither of us really bought your excuse that you wanted to move back to Boston, but he wasn't willing to let you leave so easily. He was angry with you, but he was furious with me for not trying harder to stop you."
"You wouldn't have been able to stop us anyway," Scott said. In answer to the question in his father's eyes, he added, "I'll explain it after you finish."
"Not much else to say. Johnny went out to saddle Barranca -- he was planning to try one last time to convince you to stay -- and he ran into Frank in the barn. Frank had noticed that Jake and Slim seemed unusually eager to ride out this morning. He'd heard some of the other hands gossiping, too, that they'd shown a little too much interest in Harlan's money. I'm learning to trust your brother's instincts -- he put it all together and convinced me to come along."
"We're so glad you did. If you hadn't...." Laura shivered again, and her hands instinctively massaged her swollen belly. "I don't even want to think about what might have happened," she whispered.
"No need to fret about it now," Murdoch said with his usual Scot's practicality. "It's over, and you're going home -- to Lancer, that is," he clarified with a grin. "So what did Harlan threatened you with? I would guess it was something rather significant. Neither of you have shown any particular interest in going back to Boston."
"No...." Scott inhaled through his nose, fighting the wave of nausea that swept over him. "We didn't want to leave. But Grandfather insisted he'd destroy Lancer if we didn't. He was adamant he would 'reduce it to rubble' within weeks."
"I see." Murdoch fingered a wrinkle in his pants leg, his face grim. "And is there a particular reason you chose not to discuss this with me?"
"We couldn't, Murdoch." Laura's green eyes misted over, filled with regret and apology. "Mr. Garrett and my father have reconciled. With their money -- and business connections -- Scott and I knew Lancer couldn't possibly survive."
"And if we'd tried to talk to you about it, I have no doubt Grandfather would've carried out his threats, and...."
"Lancer would've ceased to exist." Murdoch finished the sentence for his son, saying the words none of them wanted to consider, much less say out-loud.
"I'm sorry," Scott murmured. "I would never have invited Grandfather here if I'd thought he was going to pull something like this."
"You had no way of knowing," Murdoch countered. "But, hopefully, he's learned his lesson this time."
"I hope so," Laura said. "I'm just thankful he didn't get Scott -- or me -- killed in the process."
Scott stayed at the Laymon ranch for three days. He and his father had insisted Laura rest at Lancer, despite her protests to the contrary. She secretly was grateful for the respite. The whole experience -- including the wild buggy ride -- had left her mentally and physically bruised. All she wanted to do was sleep and try to forget how close to losing everything they had come. As a precaution, Sam Jenkins had been summoned to the ranch to examine her, and he had bluntly opined she was lucky the trauma hadn't brought on premature labor. Garrett had been uncharacteristically quiet, his usual bravado evaporating with the unspoken consensus that his actions had brought about nearly catastrophic consequences.
Scott, for his part, was polite to his grandfather, but it was obvious their relationship had suffered almost irreparable damage. At the end of October, the old man announced he would be leaving for Boston, and none of the Lancers even suggested he stay any longer. On his last evening at the ranch, Garrett drew Scott, Laura, and Murdoch aside in the back parlor; the cozier room the girls usually reserved for reading and needlework. A place Teresa and Laura retreated to when they needed time away from their men.
His hands clenched behind his back, Harlan stared into the fire before turning to speak. Addressing Murdoch, he said, "I cannot and will not apologize for what I wanted to do. I only regret the means I chose to accomplish it."
Laura admired her father-in-law's restraint. Under the circumstances, she didn't trust herself to speak at all. He spoke with conviction, but with a measured tone. "You took my son from me before -- when neither he nor I had a choice in the matter. Do not expect me to understand or condone your behavior this time, either."
With a dip of his chin, Garrett turned to Scott. "You, boy, have good reason to be angry with me as well. I do hope you haven't given up on the relationship we've enjoyed."
Slipping her hand into her husband's, Laura gave it a cautionary squeeze, willing him to be as reserved as his father . Scott squared his jaw and his shoulders before answering. "I haven't given up on our relationship, Grandfather. You, however, threw it away. You'll forgive me if I'm unable to feel any charity toward you at the moment."
"Perhaps with time...." Taking full measure of the anger in his grandson's eyes, Harlan's mouth assumed its customary downward curve. "My dear...." He bowed slightly in Laura's direction. "I trust you at least will write after your child is born."
Feeling just a small nudge of compassion for the old man, she managed a soft, "I'll try."
Garrett left the next morning for the railstop at Cross Creek, following the same road as their previous ill-fated trip. Neither Scott nor his father chose to accompany him.
The days grew darker as fall progressed toward winter, and Laura grew incrementally larger. Thanksgiving was a somewhat scaled back celebration with Maria and Teresa sharing most of the meal preparation and the delivery of food baskets to the workers and their families. Laura felt useless, but she contented herself with the mending basket, taking on the lion's share of repairing the constant flood of ripped shirts and hole-ridden socks. Scott, for his part, had recovered from both his shoulder wound and the concussion, and he had thrown himself back into work with a vengeance. He was exhausting himself, Laura thought, as an excuse to avoid dealing with the havoc his grandfather had wrought. She finally had had enough.
"You need to talk to Murdoch," she demanded one evening after dinner. Scott had settled yet again into his armchair in front of their bedroom fire, his head bowed over a book.
"Why?" He huffed. "Is something wrong with him?"
"Don't be a...." She almost said smartass, but she didn't think it would go over well. Johnny might call him that frequently and with complete abandon, but ladies simply didn't say such things. "Don't be difficult," she said instead, punctuating it with a frustrated stamp of her foot. "You know what I mean. You and Murdoch have yet to talk about what happened with your grandfather, much less about your childhood. If he's not going to bring up the subject, you need to."
"Laura," he sighed, closing his book. "We've had this conversation -- more times than I care to remember. Why do you insist...?"
"Why do you insist on being so...hardheaded? Lancer is our home, and it's going to always be our home. But we can't live here with so many questions between you and Murdoch. I'm tired of tiptoeing around and cringing every time your grandfather's -- or your mother's -- name comes up."
"Fine." Scott pushed himself to his feet and tossed his book onto the chair. "But I'll do it on my terms and in my own time."
"Fine," she echoed, deflecting his anger back at him. "You do that."
It was the next week, on a cool, breezy early December day, that Scott cornered his father in the kitchen after breakfast. Johnny had driven off with Teresa, grudgingly escorting her on a holiday shopping trip to Green River. Laura was washing dishes, expecting the men to go off to their usual morning chores. She was looking forward to a second cup of tea when her husband's voice nearly caused her to lose control of the skillet in the deep sink.
"My wife tells me we need to talk, Murdoch."
She turned around and grabbed a kitchen towel to dry her hands, worried by the steely glint she saw in the younger man's eyes. Both men were posturing like young bulls sizing each other up.
"Is that so, Laura?" Murdoch glanced at her. At least, she thought, his voice was gentle; there was no anger directed at her.
"Yes," she said. And thank you, Scott, for throwing me under the buggy wheels. We'll talk about that later.
"All right." Murdoch turned to the stove and poured himself another cup of coffee. Easing his bulk into his chair at the table, he folded his hands in front of him. "What's on your mind, Son?"
Scott pulled a chair out for Laura before dropping into his own seat. "We've needed to talk for a long time -- probably since the first day Johnny and I came out here."
"I see." Laura thought Murdoch seemed guarded, reluctant to talk despite his promises to her that he would. She was reminded of the times he had suggested to her that the 'past needed to stay in the past.'
"Lancer is our home now," Scott explained, and he looked to his wife for encouragement. "And our children will grow up here. Given that, we need to clear the air now so old wounds aren't left to fester."
"You want to know why I wasn't able to bring you back here after your mother died." It was a statement, not a question.
"Bluntly, yes." Scott leaned forward in his chair, his blue eyes blazing with a mix of curiosity and anger. "I can understand why you couldn't find Johnny -- one lost boy in thousands of miles of wilderness. But you knew where I was. And yet you never came for me. You let someone else raise your son."
"That is not true, Scott," Laura blurted out, not waiting for her father-in-law to respond to the accusation. Scott stared at her briefly, his mouth open in surprise. She did notice Murdoch wasn't at all taken aback by her interruption.
"Laura's right," he said. Harlan may have led you to believe that all these years, but I did come for you."
Scott's chin jerked up, and his face took on a defiant, challenging look. "When?"
"I wrote Harlan multiple times through the years, demanding -- even begging -- that he return you to me. I was able to come to Boston when you were five. For your fifth birthday, in fact." Murdoch's face softened as the memory lit up his eyes. "You had a lot of little friends there, balloons, cake...."
"I don't remember seeing you." Scott clearly wasn't convinced, and his own eyes narrowed in speculation.
"Why would you?" Murdoch paused to take a sip of his coffee, grimacing when he found it had gone cold. "I must've seemed like only one of many of your grandfather's business associates. Just another adult, quickly forgotten."
"And you knew about this?" Laura almost physically recoiled from the anger in Scott's voice as he glared at her. "You knew, and you never told me?"
"Don't jump down her throat," Murdoch snapped protectively. "I'm the one who should've told you."
Tears welling in her eyes, Laura replied, "I only found out recently myself. That's another reason I thought the two of you should talk." She started to get up from her chair. "If you'll excuse me, I...."
"No." Scott half-stood and reached out to her. "No. Stay. Please." She eased herself back into her chair, and he apologized, running his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry I snapped at you. This is all a big shock to me."
"It was to me, too," she confessed. "All those years we thought Murdoch had abandoned you." She sniffed and rubbed at her nose with her napkin. "It was all just more lies."
Scott bent his head, thinking, and his lips curled downward. "Then tell me something else." He braced his hands palm down on the table. "Did Grandfather know about Johnny?"
"Yes," Murdoch said simply. "He knew."
They had stayed at the kitchen table for nearly two hours while Murdoch methodically explained to the young couple his attempts to bring his elder son back to California. Laura knew her father-in-law had tried to be reasonable; he managed to keep most of the bitterness and invective tamped down. But despite Murdoch's best intentions not to fan the flames, it was clear Garrett had manipulated and controlled all of them -- from refusing to allow a young, grieving father to take his baby home to withholding knowledge that, some years later, would likely have driven a teenage boy to find the brother he'd never known.
"Good conversation with Murdoch this morning." Scott spoke into the darkness. They were wrapped snugly in bed that night as a cold rain beat a steady rhythm against the windows. Laura rested on her side, unable to find comfort on her back.
"It was. And since you brought it up....Thank you for using me as an excuse to have that talk." She fluffed her pillow, giving it several firm pokes, thinking it was better to punch it than her husband.
"What?" To his credit, he sounded completely clueless.
"Really? My wife tells me we need to talk? Could you be any more obtuse, Scott?"
"Why? I thought it was a good conversation starter." He reached for her, but she rolled to her other side, presenting her back to him. She wasn't really all that angry with him. She mostly just couldn't find a tolerable position; but maybe better he thought she was miffed. He might think the next time before he repeated his transgression. "All right," he conceded. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have started that way. But you have to admit, the outcome was good."
"Yes, it was." She rolled back to face him, struggling with her own bulk. "All those years," she sighed. We thought Murdoch was practically the Devil incarnate. And your grandfather was really the one with all the lies and secrets. How do you plan to deal with him?"
"I'm honestly not sure right now," he said. "I'm still too angry to think rationally."
"Have you heard anything from him, yet?"
"Not really. Just a telegram to let me know he arrived safely back in Boston."
"Well, regardless. I will write to him after the baby's born. He may have lied and schemed, but I think he deserves to know his great-grandson's name."
"And have you decided on a name?" She could feel his fingers playing with her hair.
"I thought we had decided," she chided him. "John MacNeill for a boy, and, if it's a girl, she'll have your mother's name. You did ask Johnny about it, didn't you?"
"I did. And, yes, since you're wondering, I asked Murdoch too."
"And?" She hated to be impatient, but she felt like Scott was intentionally toying with her; knowing how important it was to her that her family approve.
"Relax." Scott laughed softly, twisting her hair into ringlets. "They like the names -- both of them."
"Johnny's not opposed to you using his name? He might want to name his own son 'John.'"
He nearly choked with laughter, his deep voice echoing through the darkness. "I don't think Johnny's particularly interested in marriage at this time in his life," Scott said.
"Has he mentioned that to Cassie Wilson?" Laura snuggled as tightly against her husband as she could for warmth. "She might disagree."
"Miss Cassie has designs on my brother?" As guileless as he sounded, Laura knew Scott was keenly aware of the burgeoning attraction between the former gun hawk and a local rancher's daughter.
"Designs might be too gentille a word for what she has in mind." Laura snickered. The giggles faded to moans as a contraction hardened her belly. "That's good," she whispered when she was finally able to catch her breath.
"Are you...is the baby....?" She could hear the near-panic in her husband's voice.
"No," she said. "It's just the same random contractions I've been having. Sam said I'll probably go into labor sometime this week, though."
She was wrong. A week went by, and their baby had shown no significant interest in making an appearance. Laura spent most of her time in Murdoch's armchair next to the fire with her feet propped on the ottoman. Some nights she even slept there, finding it easier to breathe sitting up. She was increasingly irritable -- particularly when her husband snored away next to her, and she couldn't sleep at all. Tired of Scott's constant scrutiny, Laura was almost grateful when the men rode off in the morning and she was left with her tea tray and the mending basket. At least the women in the household approached her impending labor with practicality and common sense -- knitting baby blankets, sewing tiny dresses, folding away diapers.
By the time Saturday, December 10th arrived, Laura was convinced she was going to stay pregnant forever. Her patience with Scott had reached its breaking point. She had gingerly eased herself into the chair by the fire after breakfast when he wandered into the great room and settled himself on the sofa. "Don't you have chores to do?" Trying without success to keep the annoyance from her voice, Laura was horrified at the prospect of spending the day with her husband perched on the edge of the sofa watching her every breath. "Something to do?"
"I think I'll stay in with you -- if that's all right," he said.
"Why? I'm fine. Stop hovering."
"Hovering?" His left eyebrow quirked up.
"Hovering. You don't need to sit there and stare at me all day. Nothing's changed. I promise you'll be the first to know when something does. In the meantime...."
"Okay." Scott stood and raised in hands in surrender. "I get it." A crooked, sheepish smile flitted across his face. "I'll go. I will, however, be out in the barn. I've got a few horses to shoe."
"'Bye. She wiggled her fingers at him, picked up a darning needle, and, squinting in concentration, poked the thread through the eye.
Several hours later, a sweaty, dirty Scott peered cautiously through the door into the great room. "May I approach?"
This was definitely not the Scott she'd come to know at Lancer; the self-assured man who could bulldog a steer or, as ranch scuttlebutt had it, could drill a silver dollar -- or a man -- with his rifle at four hundred yards. He looked like a little boy who'd been called to task by his schoolmaster. "Back so soon?" She chuckled under her breath, feeling a bit guilty that she was enjoying his discomfiture. She didn't intend to be short with him, but she'd savored the few moments of peace and quiet.
"Well, it is time for lunch," he mumbled, throwing his hat onto the halltree. "I thought you might need help getting out of your chair."
The front door slammed shut as Johnny ambled in behind his brother. "Hey, Mac." He clearly had no problem approaching her. "Still sittin' there, huh?"
If her patience with her husband was growing thin, her patience with his brother was nearly nonexistent. His excitement at the prospect of having a nephew to bear his name had, in Laura's eyes, made him almost intolerably giddy. "Obviously. Don't you two need to eat lunch? Or go on a cattle drive or something?"
"Whoa." Johnny poked his brother in the ribs with his elbow. "Somebody's in a foul mood."
The look she gave them could've kept the spring house cold on a late July day. The brothers backed away in unison, beating a hasty retreat for the kitchen. When they reappeared a half-hour later bearing a lunch tray for her, they were literally tiptoeing.
"Scott and me...." Johnny sounded almost apologetic for once. "We were...ummm....Gus is holdin' a big poker game this evening, and we...."
"Go." Laura couldn't for the life of her figure out why the men couldn't simply make a decision and carry it out.
"Are you sure? I don't want to leave you alone," Scott said. "Murdoch's going, too."
"I won't be alone. Teresa's here, and Maria's just next door. Stop hovering." Please. For God's sake. "Stop hovering and go." The sooner, the better.
"All right, then." Scott bent over to kiss her. "We'll just get cleaned up, and...."
"Have fun." She smiled, as much at the look of boyish anticipation on her husband's face as her own relief at the prospect of an evening of respite. "And don't rush home. I'm sure I'll be right here when you get back."
She had fallen asleep in the chair. When Laura awakened, she was initially disoriented, taking a few minutes to recognize she'd been dozing for quite a long time. The small table lamps had been lit and the curtains drawn across the French doors making the room feel cocoon-like despite its large size. She glanced at the old Grandfather clock; it was already past eight o'clock. I wonder why Teresa didn't wake me for dinner. As she struggled to pull herself from the armchair, a contraction gripped her so hard it nearly brought her to her knees. She gasped as a flood of liquid soaked through her pantalettes, absorbing into her petticoat. Leaning against the chair for support, she grabbed for the small bell Teresa had insisted she keep on the lamp table. Laura had steadfastly refused to use the bell, feeling it was too presumptious, and it reminded her of the imperious Boston matrons who'd used bells to summon the help rather than bothering to help themselves. But, she realized, she needed help now -- and quickly.
In response to her frantic ringing, Teresa ran into the room. "Is the baby...?" Laura could only nod as another obscenely painful contraction stole her breath. "Here," the younger woman said. "Let me get you to your room, and I'll go get Maria." Reassured by Teresa's calm, Laura allowed her to lead her down the back hall to the spare bedroom near the kitchen that they'd prepared for her delivery.
"I'll be all right," Laura assured her. "Please just get Maria." Struggling to breathe as contractions continued to rip through her body, she slowly unbuttoned her dress, leaving it and her soaked petticoats in a pile on the floor. Laura somehow managed to slide a nightdress over her head before she slumped onto the edge of the bed. It seemed like an eternity before she heard footsteps in the hall. An eternity punctuated by white hot pain that nearly blinded her.
"Mi hija," Maria crooned as she bustled into the room. Éstoy aqui." Switching to English, she added, "Cipriano has gone for Dr. Sam -- and Senor Scott."
"I need to lay down," Laura groaned. "It hurts."
"No." The housekeeper insisted, pulling the young woman to her feet. "You will walk."
"You're joking." The steely glint in Maria's eyes convinced Laura otherwise.
"Come." Maria wrapped her arm around Laura's waist, encouraging her along. "We walk. It will make your baby come faster."
The two women paced back and forth in the room, periodically stopping as Laura doubled over in agony. "I can't do this anymore," she finally said, panting. "I...can't...breathe. Please let me lay down."
"Just a little longer, ninita. Just a few more steps."
Back and forth. The two women walked until Laura could no longer make any sense of the passing hours. At times she thought she was going to die. At others, she was afraid she wouldn't, but she'd be condemned to live forever in mind-numbing pain.
The sun had peeked over the mountains when the door slammed open and Scott skidded into the room. "Laura!" His face was white, but what impressed her the most was the panic in his eyes. In that instant she knew there was likely only one thing her husband truly feared. That she -- like her own mother and Catherine -- would die in childbirth. Still, it wasn't proper for him to be in the room with her; men were banned from birthing rooms, sheltered from the suffering their wives endured.
"No." She gestured with her hand before a particularly strong contraction stole her breath. "Go away," she managed to grunt.
Ignoring her demand, he reached for her, gripping her face in his hands. "Are you all right?" He glanced at Maria. "What can I do?"
"Go away," Laura repeated. She backed up and grabbed for Maria's arm. "Make him go away. I can't...think...with him here."
"Senor. Por favor." As she turned away, Laura had a glimpse of the housekeeper flapping her apron at Scott as though she was shooing the chickens from her kitchen garden. "Por favor. Vete! Ahorita!"
The shrieks resonating through the mansion were nearly non-human. Guttural, animal-like. Scott bolted from the great room, intending to go back to his wife whether or not she wanted him in the room. He stopped only when confronted by his father's massive bulk.
"You don't want to do that, Son." Murdoch's voice was firm, but his eyes glinted with understanding. "You do not want to go in there."
"Move, Murdoch." Scott tried to shoulder past the larger man. "She's dying. I need to be with her. I did this to her."
"She's not dying." Murdoch smiled. "Does she sound like a dying woman?" He shook his head. "No, Scott. Laura's strong. She'll come through this just fine." Subtly nudging his son backward, Murdoch turned to the whiskey decanter on the side table, pouring two substantial glasses before handing one to Scott. "Here, have a drink."
Scott looked slowly from the glass to his father's face, not completely comprehending. "We haven't even had breakfast yet."
"You need this more than you need breakfast," Murdoch said. "Trust me."
The younger man accepted the glass warily. "Are you sure?" Despite his initial hesitation, he finished half the liquor in one large gulp. A drop escaped his mouth, and he carelessly wiped it away with the back of his hand.
"I'm sure. Here. Sit for a minute." Stretching his long legs in front of him, Murdoch settled onto the sofa, balancing his own drink in his lap. Scott slumped hesitantly into the armchair next to the fire. "Let me tell you something about women having babies."
Another scream ripped through the walls, and Scott jumped to his feet. "Steady," Murdoch said, gesturing with his hand, and Scott returned to sitting on the edge of his seat. "She's fine. Maria has everything under control."
"I hope so," Scott murmured. "It doesn't sound like it, though."
"I wasn't with your mother, sadly, when you were born," Murdoch continued. "If I had been...." He paused to rub at his nose. "Well....I suppose there's no sense in dwelling on what might have been. But....I was here when Johnny was born. Like you, I wanted to be in that room with his mother. Wanted to help her. Maybe in some way I thought I could protect her from the pain. I went to her...and the torrent of Spanish that came out of her mouth almost defied translation." Murdoch grinned. "Mostly what I understood was that she hated me, and I'd be lucky if she ever allowed me in the same room with her again."
"That bad?" Scott choked down another mouthful of whiskey.
"That bad," Murdoch said with a nod.
"What's bad?" Johnny threw his hat onto the halltree and strolled into the great room. "How's Mac?" The question died almost as soon as it left his lips. He squinted first at his father and then at his brother. "You drinkin' already?"
"We are," his father admitted. "And you might want to join us." He gestured at the decanter. "Mac, as you call her, is rather indisposed right now." As if confirming the truth of his words, another poorly-muffled howl echoed off the ceiling and caused all three men to flinch.
The crystal decanter chimed as Johnny tilted his own measure of amber liquor into a glass. "Didn't know she could yell that loud."
"You never heard her on the hunt field," Scott retorted. "Actually...come to think of it...it reminds me of how the Confederates sounded when they attacked." He managed a weak smile and drained his glass. The potent alcohol rattled around in his empty stomach, but it left a pleasant warmth diffusing through his veins.
"I wouldn't tell her that, if I were you." Sam Jenkins stalked into the room, his black medical bag swinging from his hand. "No point in inviting her wrath further."
"Meant to tell you." Johnny motioned at Sam with his head before dropping onto the sofa. "Doc's here."
Sam's wise old eyes missed nothing -- his old friend drinking Scotch with his sons at barely six in the morning. On the Sabbath at that. "Hmppphhhh." The sound that came from his mouth wasn't exactly disapproving, but it wasn't exactly resounding approval either. "She's in the bedroom next to the kitchen?" Sam strode past the three Lancers and into the back hall before any of the men managed to respond.
The grandfather clock had sounded eight o'clock before the doctor reappeared, drying his hands on a towel. Johnny had long since drifted off, the combination of alcohol and lack of sleep taking its toll. Murdoch and Scott weren't faring much better; at least in Scott's case, adrenalin-fueled anxiety kept his eyes from rolling up in his head. "Scott." Sam jerked his head toward the hall. "You can come on back now."
"Is she...." Scott gulped in a breath. "She's alive?" He sputtered again. "She's okay?"
"Yes," Sam said with a grin, remembering his own terror when his firstborn made an appearance. "She's very much alive."
"And the baby?" The young man's voice was shaking.
"Go see for yourself," Sam said gently, stepping aside as Scott tentatively slid past him and down the hall.
The bedroom door was partially open, and he could hear Maria making soft crooning noises. There was another sound as well; an unfamiliar chuffling that was quickly followed by a full-throated bellow. "Dios mios," Maria exclaimed. You sound like your Tio Juanito, or maybe your mama." The housekeeper's back was turned to him, so he couldn't see the infant she was wrapping.
"Is he all right?" Laura's voice sounded tired, but strong. "I want to hold him. And I want Scott," she demanded.
"I'm here." Scott hurried to her side, carefully sitting down next to her on the bed, reaching for her hand; torn between wanting to reassure himself she was all right and wanting to hold his baby. "Are you...."
"I'm fine." She squeezed his hand. "He's so beautiful, Scott! You have to see him. If Maria would just...."
"Patience, daughter." Maria finished wrapping the baby to her own satisfaction and turned toward the couple. Meeting her halfway, Scott reached for the bundle she offered him.
"It's a boy?" Scott barely recognized his own voice, feeling disembodied. Like the words had been spoken by someone else. He looked down into his son's eyes; eyes that were already intimately familiar. Laura's eyes.
"John MacNeill," Laura whispered.
Scott again eased himself onto the edge of the bed next to her, tucking the blanket back from the baby's face so they could both admire him. "We may call him John, but according to his Uncle, he'll always be...." Scott grinned at her. "He'll always be Mac."