by  Judi


She was dancing.  Floating.  One, two, three.  Turn, two, three.  It was her birthday.  No, that wasn't right.  It was Scott's graduation party.  Harvard College, class of '63.  Father would be infuriated when he returned from his business trip and learned she had slipped out to dance with Harlan Garrett's grandson.  But she was in love with Scott and he with her, and nothing else mattered.  The curls of her chestnut hair cascaded over her shoulder and gleamed in the candlelight.  She was wearing the ball gown that was Scott's favorite--pale yellow organza embroidered with tiny pink roses, its hooped skirt enormous.  Scott had never looked more handsome in his tie and tails, the highlights in his blonde hair reflecting the candles' glow.  One, two, three.  Turn, two, three.  The waltz had always been their dance, a chance to bask in each other's arms.  They turned and swirled as one, the faces of the other dancers blurring into a mosaic of color.  One, two, three.  Step, two, three.  Close your eyes, tilt your head, and listen to the violins.  But why was Scott holding her so closely?  She felt as though she couldn't breathe.  "Please, Scott, not so tightly.  Let go a little," she whispered.  She tried to push against his shoulder with her left hand.  Oh God it hurts.  Why can‘t I move my arm?  Why won’t Scott listen to me?  Why am I so cold?  Laura Lancer opened her eyes – and found herself lying face down on a muddy, rock-strewn hillside.


She and Johnny had argued at breakfast early that morning about her riding into Morro Coyo alone.

"Oh, by the way, Johnny," Laura commented as she poured him another cup of coffee, "I ran into Miss Porter, the new school teacher, when Walt took me into town to church yesterday.  Her mother’s ill, and she asked me to teach for her this week while she visits with her in Green River.  I can ride in by myself so you don't have to pull anyone off their jobs."  

"You are not riding into town by yourself, Laura," Johnny said, shaking his head.  "It's too dangerous."

"It's not all that bad, really."  She shrugged as she placed the coffee pot back on the stove.  "It hasn't rained since Saturday, and the roads were quite passable yesterday.  I'll be fine." 

"Nope.  You're not goin'.  I don't care what the roads looked like or didn't look like yesterday."

"Then what do you propose I do, Johnny?" Laura persisted.  "I promised Miss Porter I’d teach for her.  She told me she’d leave the lesson plans on her desk.  It appears at this point that Scott and Murdoch won't be back from Sacramento until tonight at the earliest.  The hands are tied up mending fences and that bridge that washed out on South Creek.  You've a million and one chores to do, and Teresa's gone visiting in Stockton.  The only plausible thing for me to do is to ride in alone."

Johnny sighed.  He adored his strong-willed sister-in-law, but, much as he admired her, she had a stubborn streak that annoyed him at times.  His brother seemed to have no problem laying down the law with her.  Then, again, she was Boston's wife, and he had a long history of dealing with her.  "Maybe Jelly can go with you?"

"Did I hear my name?"  Jelly shuffled into the kitchen, stroking his beard. 

"Would you like some breakfast, Jelly?"  Laura motioned for him to sit down.

"Don't mind if I do.  My knee's painin' me somethin' awful this mornin'.  Must be more rain a'comin'.  What're you two fussin' at each other about?"

"Laura's got the brilliant idea to ride into Morro Coyo by herself," Johnny replied as he stabbed at a bit of egg with his fork, unable to conceal the sarcasm in his voice.  "I was thinkin' maybe you could go with her."

"Naw, I really can't Johnny.  If'n I don't get those horses shod before Murdoch gets back tonight, he'll be hell ... uh, beg yur pardon, Laura...real hard to live with.  I gotta put a new wheel on that buckboard, too.  Wish I could help ya out, Laura, but it's just a busy time," Jelly finished, helping himself to most of what remained of the coffee, bacon and eggs.

"So, Johnny, Jelly can't go with me, the hands are stretched thin, and you're too busy.  Exactly what other option does that leave me?"  Laura sat down and picked up her cup of coffee.

"You could just stay home.  Sometimes I think you're just as stubborn as that husband of yours, Laura.  And why didn't you say anything about this last night?"  Johnny glared at his sister-in-law.

Returning him stare for stare, she retorted, "It's not a matter of being 'stubborn', Johnny.   I promised I'd be there for the children, and be there I will.  Besides, I'm a good rider, and it's not that far.  You should see some of the countryside Scott and I used to foxhunt around Boston.  Trappy doesn't even begin to describe it.  At least there's an excuse for a road here, poor though it may be.  And I didn't mention it at dinner last night because I didn't want to add any more to your worries." 

"This ain't Boston, Laura," Johnny snapped.  "And the roads are washin' out with all the rain.  They might have been 'quite passable' yesterday -- that doesn't mean they'll hold up today.  Just how'm I gonna explain it to Scott if I let you go and you get yourself hurt?  I promised him I’d look out for you while he’s gone."

"I won't get hurt, Johnny," she said.  "I'm not as fragile as you all seem to think I am.  I'll be home in time to help Maria with dinner.  Maybe Scott and Murdoch will even be home by then."

"If you're not gonna listen to me, and you're so all-fired set on goin'," Johnny replied, "then at least use your sidesaddle. You're more used to it."

"After the hard time you and Jelly have given me about riding sidesaddle?"   Laura shook her head.  "Oh no… I'll use the saddle Murdoch gave me for Christmas.  I'll ride just like Jelly said with 'one leg facin' east and one leg facin' west'.  You know I've been practicing.  I'm getting better all the time."

Emerald eyes met sapphire blue ones, each refusing to blink.  Johnny slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the teacups in their saucers.  Standing up and running his hand through his hair, he almost shouted.  "You're impossible – you know that?"  He waved his arm toward the back door.  "So go on….you're gonna do what you want anyway."

Jelly kept eating, looking up only when Laura quietly asked, "Would you please be so kind as to saddle my mare, Jelly?"

"With tha sidesaddle?" Jelly looked sideways at Johnny who had started pacing between the table and the back door.   The fingers on Johnny's left hand were twitching the way they did when he was agitated.

"No, with the regular saddle, like I said," Laura responded softly. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go get ready."

She rose from the table and looked back at Johnny, hoping he'd at least say goodbye, but he'd already turned his back, his shoulders rigidly set in disapproval.  Laura swept out of the room with all the dignity and grace she could muster, wishing she had handled the situation better.  She truly hadn't intended to provoke him into an argument.   He'd been in a foul mood with Murdoch and Scott gone, his temper short, and stress etched deeply on his face.  Everyone on the ranch had been tiptoeing around him for days.  He probably was right about her riding alone, even though she didn't want to admit it.  The road to Morro Coyo was treacherous in January weather like this.  But she was an experienced rider with a lovely mare Scott had given to her just before their wedding.  Riding astride had proven to be a new, though not always comfortable, experience, but she was slowly beginning to master it.  Sitting astride the animal without all the voluminous skirts required for a lady back East had actually created in her a sense of amazing freedom.   What Scott would have to say tonight, she mused, might determine just how free she would remain.  She'd been able to out-stare Johnny; Scott would've very calmly, but emphatically, put his foot down before he'd let her make a promise that would prove so difficult to keep.  No, she probably shouldn't go, but a promise was a promise, and she couldn't, in all good conscience, renege on it. 

Her ride from the ranch into Morro Coyo was uneventful, despite several minor mudslides and washed-out sections of road.  But the road didn't seem any worse than it had the day before when she had ridden in for church, and at least it hadn't started raining again.  The little schoolroom was warm with the woodstove churning out heat and the children packed in.  It took a while to get them calmed down and into their seats, but soon they were all settled and looking at her expectantly.  Laura was thankful at least part of the lesson plan for the morning covered the years of the Revolutionary War.  Growing up in Boston, it had seemed as though the war had only just been fought and won rather than the nearly one hundred years that had passed.  Her family history was filled with stories of her ancestors' involvement in the young country's fight for independence; various family members on her mother's side had been present from the Boston Tea Party, as it was called, to Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown. 

The afternoon lessons in science and math, however, were not as easy to deliver, with Laura wishing she’d had more time to prepare.  If only Scott had been there to teach, she was confident he would’ve sailed through those lessons.  As she listened to little Sammy Jenkins, Doc Jenkins' grandson, recite his sums, she fingered the tiny Lancer “L” that hung from a delicate chain around her neck, and allowed her thoughts to drift.  Scott had ordered the necklace from the silversmith for her for Christmas, delighted that it matched both of her initials.  She missed him dreadfully.


Johnny rode back toward the house, his shoulders sagging with exhaustion.  God, I'm tired.  Scott and Murdoch had been gone for over a week now, leaving him alone to deal with the constant challenge of running the ranch.  It was --what was that word Scott had used -- "ironic" -- they were in Sacramento dealing with water rights.  Water rights when the ranch was overwhelmed with water right now.  Checking on the progress of the South Creek bridge repair, he had learned the entire bridge would have to be rebuilt.  The footers were gone, washed away in the raging stream.  The engineering of a new bridge would have to wait for Scott and his fancy Harvard education. 

The disagreement with Laura that morning had been an unpleasant start to a miserable day.   What was I supposed to do?  Hogtie her to keep her home?   He knew he had overreacted to her decision to ride into town alone just as she had overreacted to his attempt to stop her, but he felt responsible for her in Scott's absence.  I'll never forgive myself if something happens to her.  And I could never face Scott if she gets hurt.   But why does she have to be so damned independent?  Despite his frustration, Johnny had to admit he and Laura had shared a special bond since the first day they met; the Boston lady and the former gunslinger, as unlikely a combination as anyone could imagine.  Their shared passion for horses had provided a starting point.   Their mutual love for Scott had deepened their relationship.   Laura accepted Johnny for who he was, and she didn't condemn him for what he had been.  She had never tried to come between the two brothers, realizing how each completed the other.  She made Scott happy; that alone was enough.

Pulling his hat low over his face to block the wind, Johnny felt the first few drops of rain pelt his hand.   The clouds, lowering and thickening, were an ominous gunmetal gray.  Feeling increasingly uneasy, he urged Barranca forward and headed toward the road to Morro Coyo.  As he did so, he ran into Frank coming in from riding fences on the east range.  As they reined their horses in to speak to each other, Johnny saw the riderless horse barreling down the road toward the hacienda, stirrups flying behind the saddle. The men watched in horror as the chestnut galloped panic-stricken back toward the barn.

Johnny swallowed against the bile rising in his throat.  "Frank, go get Cipriano.  Bring blankets, lanterns, and the buckboard.  Tell Jelly to take care of that mare."  Before he had finished barking the orders, Johnny wheeled and spurred Barranca toward the mountains.  Please God, let her be walking back toward home.  Let it be a bad dream. 


Leaving the school in mid-afternoon, Laura had thought the wind felt colder and wetter than it had that morning.  She had retrieved her chestnut mare, Celeste, from the livery and started home.  Part of her had felt somewhat apprehensive – nothing she could really define – just a sense that maybe she should've waited in town for Scott and Murdoch to arrive on the stage.  But she hadn't wanted Scott to find her shivering on a muddy, wind-blown street.  She wanted to greet him at the front door of the hacienda, wrap her arms around him and feel his lips on hers.  She wanted to look into his eyes as he told her how much he loved her and how badly he had missed her.  It was the first time they had been apart for any length of time since their wedding in December.   And, besides, there was no one to send out to the ranch with a message should she wait in town for a stage that might very well be delayed, if it arrived at all.  It wouldn't be fair, she had reasoned, to ask someone else to leave the warmth of their fire so she could get a message to Johnny.   No, her only choice was to pull her jacket collar up around her neck and ride on.  She only regretted she'd forgotten her oilskin poncho in her haste to leave the ranch. 

She was well into the mountains just north of the hacienda when the rainstorm struck.  It was raining and blowing so hard Laura couldn't see the road clearly and could barely stay on the horse.  The rain quickly soaked her to the skin, plastering her clothes to her body.  She feared her new hat, given to her by Johnny for Christmas, would be ruined.  She realized, however, smiling wryly to herself, a ruined hat was the least of her worries.  She and the little mare tucked their heads down and kept going; they had gone too far to turn back.  Visibility was so bad, and the wind howling so fiercely, it all happened before she had time to react.  At some point, without realizing it, the pair had strayed off the edge of the road.  She thought she heard the crack of a tree falling to her left, its roots giving themselves up in the face of the wind and the saturated ground.  Celeste spun and spooked at the same time, leaping sideways.  And then they were falling.  It seemed unreal; her body tumbling through the air, the world eerily quiet, the only sound a strange buzzing in her ears.  Then excruciating pain as something hit her head hard. 

As she lay there, she struggled to open her eyes, to stay conscious.  Any attempt at movement was agony.  She didn't think it was possible to hurt so deeply, to have every breath take so much effort.  Moaning, she turned her throbbing head to the side and retched, the sour taste of vomit mixing with the metallic taste of blood in her mouth.   She was vaguely aware she was lying on her stomach, her left arm twisted unnaturally beneath her body.  With no real sense of the passing of time, she knew only that darkness was beginning to fall and she was, for one of the few times in her life, afraid.  "Scott...."  Laura moaned her husband's name.  Then…there was nothing.


He hadn't wanted to go to Sacramento.  Only Murdoch's insistence that it was time for Scott to meet Governor Haight and various members of the legislature had persuaded him to leave his wife.  He sat in interminable meetings all week in suffocating, smoke-filled rooms while politicians, ranchers, and mine owners debated the finer points of riparian and appropriative water rights.  The ranchers, including Murdoch, supported riparian rights wherein the landowner had the right to use water flowing on or by his property without any interference.  The miners demanded appropriative rights.  Under their system, they could "state a claim" and simply take and use the water for "beneficial purposes."  So many disputes had arisen over the dual system of water allocation in California, Scott was convinced the courts would ultimately need to step in and settle the issue. 

Friday afternoon, and he was suffering through yet another deathly boring meeting.  His mind drifted away again as he played with the plain gold band on the ring finger of his left hand.  Laura.  Scott missed her laughter, the softness of her lips, the smell of her warm skin as he held her close.  He could almost feel the silkiness of her hair, see the way tendrils escaped from the pins she used to sweep it up.  Lately, growing more accustomed to the relaxed atmosphere at the ranch, she had taken to wearing her hair down like Teresa.  So much the better – he could run his fingers through it more easily.  Their wedding day, a mere two weeks before his birthday, had been the most blissful day of his life.  She had looked so enchanting, her chestnut hair woven with holly, the lace veil sweeping the floor. They had waltzed again for the first time in years, turning around the dance floor with ease and grace, her head tilted back, and her eyes never leaving his. Their whirlwind honeymoon to San Francisco had been cut even shorter when Laura insisted they be home to celebrate his and Johnny's birthdays together.  She had said she couldn't stand the thought of the brothers being apart on their special days, and she was adamant she needed to be home to help Teresa with preparations for their party and with the Christmas decorations.   Besides, she had teased, she missed the cows.  Scott lips curved into a small smile at the memory.  Laura loved to wake up in the morning listening to the cows bawling in the pasture; the smell, however, was something she had complained about since her first days at Lancer.  It had become a standing joke between them.  She wanted pretty, mooing cows without the odor.   His reverie was broken by a sharp tap to his shin under the table.  He looked up to find Murdoch's eyes fixed on him, the disapproval there evident. Scott sighed and stretched, trying to focus on the voices that droned on and on. 

That evening, as they shared a glass of brandy after dinner, Murdoch chided his son for his inattention.  "Scott, I know you really don't want to be here.  I can't blame you for that.  But you are my son, and someday Lancer will belong to you and Johnny.  The issues we're debating here this week will have lasting effects for years to come on your ability to hold the ranch together.  Water is our life's blood out here; we can't survive without it."

"I understand, Murdoch," Scott responded with a nod, taking another sip of his brandy.  "It's just very difficult to remain attentive when the same points are argued over and over again ad nauseum.  We could've settled everything in one day if everyone would simply stop talking and take the time to listen."

"It doesn't help, either, when you're missing a certain young lady, does it?" Murdoch chuckled, lifting his glass in a small toast.

Scott blushed, holding his own glass up.  "No, sir, it doesn't help at all." 

By Saturday night, Scott was certain the trip would never end.  He and Murdoch attended a dinner hosted by the Cattlemen's Association as they were expected to do as the owners of the largest ranch in the state.  He smiled at all the right times and made the appropriate responses, but his heart was at home with Laura.  Had he been there, they would be curled up on the couch in front of the fire, his head in her lap as she read to him.  He could almost feel her fingers playing with his hair, pausing as she turned the pages of the book.

Father and son left Sacramento early Sunday morning for what should have been a tedious, day-long journey home.   Delayed by nearly impassible roads, they reluctantly spent Sunday night in a dirty way station, the cold wind seeping through the cracks in the walls and tree branches slapping against the windowpanes.   Neither of them slept for more than a few minutes at a time.  Scott noted with concern on Monday morning that the weather looked as though it would turn nasty again.  The wind had picked up, and he could see the gray storm clouds gathering to the west.  The last leg of the stagecoach ride into Morro Coyo that afternoon was harrowing as the skies seemed to open up, the clouds eager to relieve themselves of their burden.  The two men rode in silence toward home, the pouring rain and the wind stifling any conversation.  The coach pitched and rolled like a ship on the open sea, forcing the men to cling to their seats with both hands.  The air in the stagecoach was nearly unbreathable, the rain flaps tied down against the storm.  Scott thought how lovely it would feel to be back home in his own bed, Laura's head resting on his chest, his arms wrapped tightly around her.  

Arriving back in Morro Coyo even later than expected in the afternoon, Scott suggested they hire horses from the livery to ride home and leave their luggage at the stage depot.  He feared the buggy they had left at the livery would mire on the muddy roads, forcing them to be even later, if they made it home at all.  They could send a hand to retrieve the rig and their bags the next day, weather and the condition of the road permitting.  Truth be told, he wanted to get home the quickest way possible.  Murdoch reluctantly agreed, admitting he was not eager himself to be stranded in the road in the middle of a storm.



Johnny was finding it difficult to follow the tracks Celeste had left in the mucky road.  The roadbed was rutted with wagon tracks and pitted with hoof prints.  He figured that if he stuck to the road back toward town, he might find something, anything, that would give him a clue as to where Laura had fallen.  He fought the knot in the pit of his stomach, trying to focus on the job at hand.  The darker the sky became, the more desperate he felt. 

Out of the rain and fog, two riders appeared like ghosts.  "Scott, Murdoch!"  Johnny yelled above the wind.

 "What are you doing out here?" Scott asked, nudging his horse up next to Barranca.  "Not exactly an ideal time for you to decide to take a ride." Scott laughed as he glanced up at the lowering sky and pulled his hat more tightly against his head with one gloved hand.

"Laura rode into Morro Coyo by herself this morning to teach at the school.  Her mare came in without her.  I've been tryin' to find her, Scott."  Johnny's voice broke as he watched the smile evaporate from his brother's face.  "I sent Frank to get Cip and bring up the buckboard." 

"Why in God's name did you let her do that?"  Scott fought to hold onto his horse as the animal pinned its ears and snapped at Barranca, shying away when the palomino responded in kind.

"Scott, we can discuss that later.  Let's get going before it gets any darker."  Murdoch intervened, taking charge of the situation.  "I'll go down and meet Frank and Cip and help them bring up the wagon.  Frank can go into town for Doc Jenkins.  You ride back up the road, and Johnny can continue to search this section.  It'll be tough in this weather, but we're going to find her."



Moving slowly and methodically, afraid he would miss something, Johnny chose to track just off the edge of the road.  He thought any hoofprints might be easier to follow out of the rutted and churned-up road. His hunch proved correct when, out of the corner of his eye, he caught the flutter of something flapping in the wind.  Barranca snorted and tried to bolt.  Patting the trembling horse on the neck, Johnny went to investigate.  What he saw made him feel like he had been punched in the gut.  The hat he'd given Laura for Christmas was dangling from the branch of a small bush.  It was mangled almost beyond recognition, soaked and covered in mud, but it was definitely her hat.  The hat with the little eagle feather that had delighted Laura and given Scott and him such a joyous laugh was spinning in the wind. 

"Laura!" He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.  There was no response, nothing but the sound of raindrops splattering.  Dismounting, he led Barranca down the hillside, angling off the road and facing into the wind.  Barranca snorted again and tried to shy away from him.  His stomach lurched as he saw the familiar form lying prone on the saturated ground.  Madre Dios.  She's not moving.  Please let her still be alive.  He knelt down beside her in the mud and touched her face gently.

"Laura, honey, can you hear me?"  No response.  Drawing his Colt from its holster, Johnny fired off the signal he and Scott had used with each other in the past.  Two shots.  Pause.  Another shot.  He only hoped his brother would hear the gunfire over the wind and rain and come.   Taking off his own oilskin poncho, he laid it carefully over his sister-in-law.  "Hang on, Laura, we're gonna get you outta here."

It seemed like an eternity he knelt in the mud next to the frighteningly still young woman.  He was afraid to try to move her by himself, concerned he would hurt her even more. He took his bandana out of his jacket pocket and wiped some of the mud from her cheek.  Then, he heard Scott call out, "Johnny, where are you?"

"Down here, Scott.  I found her.  Is Murdoch back with the wagon yet?"

"No, not yet."  Johnny could barely hear Scott's reply.  "I'm coming down."

"Don't...stay there," Johnny yelled.  "Wait for Murdoch."

As desperately as Scott wanted to be there with his wife, he realized Johnny was right. Murdoch would have little chance of finding them in the storm if he wasn't there to direct him.  After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting in the downpour in the fading light, he saw the glow of a lantern slowly coming up the road.
"He's here now, Johnny." Scott's voice was already growing hoarse from screaming.  It was almost impossible to hear each other over the keening wind and the driving rain.

"Son."  Murdoch climbed down off the buckboard and touched his elder son on his arm.  "I'll go down there if…."

"No, Murdoch.  I need to take care of her," Scott said quietly.  He slipped his way down the hill, carrying several thick blankets and an extra oilskin.  As gently as he could and with Johnny's help, he turned Laura over.  He frantically felt for a pulse in her wrist, finding that her heartbeat was slow, but steady.  Her left arm was twisted grotesquely underneath her.  Wrapping her carefully in the blankets, he slid his arms under her and picked her up.  Laura's only response was to moan.

Scott crawled his way back up the hill carrying his wife while Johnny and Barranca steadied him from behind.  Cautiously, not wanting to injure her any further, he laid her in the back of the buckboard, climbed in himself, and cradled her in his arms.  

Murdoch breathed a prayer under his breath as he urged the horses forward.  "Dear God, don't let her die in the back of a wagon like Catherine….Not like Catherine…."



Had he closed his eyes when he carried Laura into their bedroom, Scott might have been able to convince himself he was reliving their wedding night a few short weeks earlier when he had carried her over the same threshold.  The joy and passion of that night was a stark contrast to the nightmare of this one.   Maria met him there and placed an oilskin over the bed to keep the linens dry.  They would remove it once Laura's wet clothes were disposed of.  Scott couldn't help thinking if it had been him or Johnny, they'd be lying on the kitchen table while their broken bones were set.  But this was very different.  It was his Laura; his beautiful, radiant bride, lying there looking so completely lifeless.

"Senor Scott, let me take care of her, por favor," Maria implored.  "You go dry off, get dry clothes on.  I'll take care of the Senora until you return."

"No, Maria.  I need to stay with her," he murmured.  "Besides, you can't turn and lift her by yourself."  Scott's tone was adamant, and the Lancer housekeeper reluctantly withdrew. 

Starting with her boots, Scott took out his knife and ripped the seams.  You are really going to be annoyed about this, but there's no other way.  They were her favorite boots; a pair she'd had custom made when she was still living in London.  If you'll just live, I'll buy you a hundred pairs of boots. He noted with dismay her left ankle lay at a bizarre angle, the swelling extending halfway up her calf.  Cutting her clothes off, Scott nearly gagged at the sight of the ugly bruises marking her arms and chest.  Despite being bundled about, Laura didn't open her eyes; she only moaned, her face contorted with pain.  So consumed with worry for his wife, Scott was barely aware of Maria bringing extra blankets and stoking the fire in the hearth.  The room was stiflingly hot, and yet he couldn't stop shivering.  Changing into dry clothes, which he accomplished quickly once Maria left again, didn't help.  There was nothing else to do then but to sit and wait for the doctor.  He had never felt so completely useless.


A soft tap sounded on the door, and Sam Jenkins pushed it open quietly.  The two men nodded to each other, the tension in the room palpable.

Sam spoke first.  "Scott, do you want to go get something to drink?  Maria can stay with me while I examine Laura."

"No, Sam," Scott took a deep breath.  "I'm not leaving her."

"All right."  Sam sighed, as he set his bag on the bedside table and removed his stethoscope.  "Has she woken up at all yet?  Has she been moving any?"

"She hasn't woken up, but she has been moving a little," Scott replied dully.  "She looks like she might be trying to open her eyes.  I...uh...left her clothes off.  I didn't want to hurt her any more by trying to put a nightdress on her right now."

Trying to maintain a balance between respecting Laura's modesty in front of her husband, and conducting a thorough examination of his patient, Sam carefully pulled the blanket down and listened to Laura's chest with his stethoscope.  Her heartbeat was slow, but steady, and her lungs sounded clear, at least for now.  He was troubled, though, at how cold she still felt to the touch and how bruised and broken she looked.  Finally, Sam rose from his ministrations and turned to Scott, grimfaced.

"Well, Scott," he said, "If she survives the night, she stands a pretty good chance of recovering from her injuries.  The real danger to her right now is the hypothermia from her prolonged exposure.  She's very cold, and we need to warm her up as quickly as possible.  That said, she does have a number of significant injuries.   Her left shoulder's dislocated, and we'll need to put it back in place.  She appears to have several broken ribs, but they, fortunately, don't seem to have punctured a lung.  Her left ankle's broken and will have to be set."  The old doctor paused for a minute and tucked his stethoscope back into his bag. "Finally, she's badly concussed, and from the looks of that bump on her head, the horse may have accidentally kicked her when she fell.  I'd keep a basin handy for when she comes to; she's likely to be very dizzy and nauseated.  Do you think you can help me put that shoulder back into place?  I'll need you or Maria to help hold her down."

"I...uhhh...I think I can," Scott said, his face paling.  "I saw some injuries like hers during the war."

"I know this is difficult, Scott.  She's your wife.  But it is necessary." 

Nodding mutely to Sam, Scott took another deep breath.  He held Laura's right arm and shoulder down while the doctor lifted her left arm up and rotated it back to force the shoulder joint back into place.  Tying a strip of cloth to her left wrist, Sam wrapped it around her back and tied her arm to her chest to keep her from moving the arm.  The ankle was easier – Sam was able to pull it back into place by himself, the bones realigning with a sickening crunch.   Scott briefly walked away from the bedside.

Laura groaned and feebly tried to pull her foot away.

"Can't you give her anything for the pain?" Scott asked, pushing his bangs from his forehead.  "I feel like we're killing her." 

"We can give her some laudanum eventually, Scott," Sam replied, "but I don't know how well she can swallow right now, and I don't want to drug her up yet either.  Frankly, we need to see if she's going to wake up at all.   If I give her laudanum right now, it's going to cloud the issue.  I won't know if she's unconscious from being concussed or sleeping from the effects of the opium. There's nothing we can do but wait and keep her warm.  I'm going downstairs and have a drink with Murdoch.  I'll be spending the night here.  You would do well to get yourself some dinner and a drink and let Maria stay with Laura for a while."

Scott shook his head vehemently.  "I can't leave her, Sam," he insisted as he sat down next to the bed.  "If she wakes up, I need to be the first person she sees."

Sam nodded in understanding, squeezed the young man's shoulder and headed for the door. 


Murdoch sat staring into the fire in the Great Room, nursing a glass of whiskey.  So many memories chased through his mind -- the joy when Catherine had told him she was pregnant, her untimely death, the boys' return to Lancer, Laura and Scott's lovely wedding.  The young woman fighting for her life upstairs had brought so much happiness to all of them with her quick smile and her generous spirit. Her determination to fit in, to learn her new role as the wife of a cattle rancher, had won all their hearts.  She had thrown herself into life on the ranch with a passion that impressed them all.  Laura and Teresa had become closer than most sisters, laughing together over the latest fashions in Godey's or at Laura's most recent disaster in the kitchen as she learned to cook.  Johnny could count on her cooperation in pulling his practical jokes on Scott.  Just the other week, she had tacitly looked the other way when Johnny quietly removed Scott's clothes from the bath house, forcing him to walk back upstairs wearing nothing but a towel around his waist.  Murdoch had dared to hope he might finally become a grandfather with grandchildren to watch grow up and to spoil shamelessly.  Now it seemed his older son might join him as a widower.  It gnawed at him that he had insisted Scott accompany him to Sacramento.  Perhaps none of this would have happened if Scott had stayed home as he had wanted to.  Murdoch wondered if he should write to Laura's father in Boston; if she died, she'd be buried before he could make it to California anyway.  He would never forgive Robert MacNeill for the pain he had caused his daughter in refusing to acknowledge her marriage. 

Johnny paced back and forth, unable to sit still, his face pale and drawn, his eyes haunted.  Both men looked up in unison as Sam stiffly walked in, moving to sit down on the couch.  Neither Murdoch nor Johnny spoke, both reluctant to ask the questions they were afraid to have answered.   The grandfather clock ticked mercilessly on, the sound annoyingly shrill in the stillness of the room.

Sam broke the excruciating silence, his voice seeming unnaturally loud in the somber air.  "I think I'd like a drink now, Murdoch."  He looked at the two expectant faces, and read the unspoken question in their eyes.  "She's resting quietly at this point.  Scott could use some dinner and some sleep, but I don't expect he'll leave her side.  I wouldn't either, if it was my wife."  Glancing at Johnny, he suggested, "Maybe you could talk your brother into taking a break?  It's going to be a long night."   He leaned back and stretched his legs, trying to loosen the knots in his back as he accepted a glass of whiskey from Murdoch.  Johnny didn't need to be asked twice.  He was up the stairs, two at a time, before Sam had taken the first sip.


Johnny knocked lightly on the partially open door.  "Mind if I come in?" he asked quietly.

Scott nodded almost imperceptibly, his eyes never leaving his wife's form on the bed.  Only her face was visible under the mounds of blankets.  Johnny sat on the blanket chest at the foot of the bed, not quite knowing what to say.  His mind raced, thoughts crowding in on each other, knowing how passionately his brother loved his wife, wondering if Scott held him responsible for her accident.  Wondering, if Laura died, if he and Scott would ever be able to bridge the gulf in their relationship her death would undoubtedly create.  He couldn't help feeling that Scott had trusted him to look out for his wife while he was away, and he had failed him miserably. 

"How's she doin', Scott?"  Johnny thought his sister-in-law looked half-dead already.  It shook him to his core that a woman who had been so vibrant and full of life that morning, could look so waxen and still, and yet be alive.  He shuddered to think how suddenly his brother's world had tilted on its edge. 

"As well as can be expected, I suppose," Scott sighed.  "She's pretty badly beaten up, but Sam's hopeful she'll be all right." 

Johnny wished his brother would look at him, even just for a second, but Scott's eyes remained focused on his wife.  "Scott," he whispered, "I tried to talk her out of ridin' out by herself.  I couldn't get her to listen.  I couldn't even get her to use her sidesaddle so she'd be more sure of herself."   Johnny picked at the blanket covering the trunk.

"Despite what I said to you out in the road earlier, it's not your fault she was hurt, Johnny," Scott said quietly, still not looking up.  "You can't blame yourself.  And if she had taken her sidesaddle, she'd likely be…."  He paused as the words caught in his throat.  "…dead right now.  Since she was riding astride, she was thrown clear when the mare went down.  With her sidesaddle, she might have been pinned under the horse.  It would've broken her back, her neck, or both.  She could've been crushed.  And I'm sure Murdoch's thinking he shouldn't have demanded I go with him to Sacramento.  Probably feeling guilty -- but he shouldn't.  As awful as it is, it's just something that happened."  He stretched and finally looked at his brother.  "I know better than anyone how determined Laura can be.  Stubborn even.  A true Lancer.  She would've gone no matter how much you protested."  Scott smiled wistfully, and his eyes lit up as he talked.  "She was the most beautiful girl least to me.  We were inseparable for years -- until her father sent her away.  As a child, she'd try things that would drive him to distraction.  He tried so hard to turn her into a 'proper Boston lady.'   I don't honestly remember how many governesses he dismissed trying to find just the one who could keep her in line, or at least make her behave the way he wanted.  Laura would slide down the banisters, climb trees, ride the craziest of the ponies. She's always been fearless on a horse.  Maybe too fearless sometimes.  I saw her jump fences on the hunt field when she was a little girl that grown men wouldn't take."  Scott laughed softly, almost to himself.  "You remember the first time I brought her out here, and she talked you into letting her ride Barranca?"

"Yeah," Johnny managed a weak smile.  "She was something, Scott.  I still don't know how she sweet-talked me into lettin' her get on him.  And then she had to go and jump that paddock fence with him -- just like you.  That's when I decided she was the right woman for you."

"I think I'd decided she was the only girl for me by the time I was about seven years old,"  Scott admitted with a sheepish grin.  His face sobered as he continued, "I never could imagine my life without her.  All those years we were separated, I never gave up hope I'd find her again.  And she's always had a talent for getting her own way, Johnny. That's part of her charm."  Scott shifted in his chair, stretching his legs again.  "She was so different from the other girls in Boston.  I think that's one of the reasons I fell in love with her.  Well, that and the fact she was my best friend.  She wasn't interested in playing silly games to try to attract me. She could ride all day with the best of us and then dress up in the prettiest gowns for the evening.  She was so full of…"  Scott gritted his teeth as his voice faltered.  "I won't lose her again, Johnny.  Especially not when we've just found each other again.  I can't." 

Johnny closed his eyes and took a deep breath, unsettled by the pain in his brother's voice.  Then Laura started screaming.


She was in London.  Father had come to take her home to Boston.  His cabled message, following an earlier letter, had been brief and explicit.  Arrive May 15.  Expect to sail for Boston no later than the 20th.  The garden was in bloom, and the windows had been thrown open to the warm breeze.  She was sitting in the front parlor when he arrived.

"Father."  She rose from her chair to greet him. 

"Laura."  He briefly embraced her.  "I've come, as you know, to take you home.  The war's all but over.  It's time for you to return."

"Yes, I received your letter, Father.  But why would you want me to come home?  You know I'll only go back to find Scott."

"You haven't received any letters from him, have you?"  Her father questioned.  She sensed, somehow, he already knew the answer.

"No, but it doesn't matter.  Scott would never forget me—any more than I could forget him.  He loves me.  He'll be there waiting for me." Laura spoke through gritted teeth.

"Scott Lancer won't be waiting for anyone," her father retorted sharply.

"What do you mean?"  Her knees grew weak when she saw the look on his face.  She gripped the back of the chair for support.

"Lieutenant Scott Garrett Lancer, US Army Cavalry, was shot during an escape attempt from Libby Prison in Richmond in March."  Her father paused ever so slightly. "He's dead, Laura."


Scott moved quickly to Laura's side, reaching out to hold her face in his hands.  "Laura, sweetheart, wake up!  Please wake up!"

Out of the darkness, she struggled to open her eyes.  His face was blurry, hidden in shadows.  "You're not dead?"  she whispered, her mouth so dry she could barely form the words through the muddy grit in her teeth.

He stroked her face gently, a smile warming his face.  "No, I'm not dead.  I'm here…with you.  I won't leave you.  I promise."  He found it strangely humorous that this was the second time in less than six months she had questioned the fact that he was alive. 

"What happened to me?"  She continued to struggle with the words.

"You don't remember anything?"

"Not much..." She grimaced.  "It rained...hard...and I couldn't find the road...and the ground felt like it gave way."

"It did.  There must have been a weakened section of road, and it collapsed with you.  Celeste apparently rolled over you.  Johnny found you lying on a hillside off the road about three miles from here."  Scott brushed her hair softly with his hand.

"Johnny?"  His name was barely a whisper.

"I'm here, honey." Johnny moved next to Scott so Laura could see him.

She tried to sit up.  "Celeste?  Where's Celeste?" she pleaded, as Scott gently pushed her back against the pillows.  

"She's fine, Mac," Johnny quickly replied using Laura's old childhood nickname he'd grown fond of.  "Jelly cleaned her up and bedded her down.  She's scraped up, but she'll be fine.  Don't worry about your mare right now."   He stopped short of adding, "when it's you who's so beat up."

Laura settled back.  "I do remember leaving town," she started hesitantly, trying to form coherent thoughts.  "It started raining, and there was so much wind. Celeste bolted.  After that, everything went black."  Her body went rigid, and she clamped her eyes shut.  "It hurts so badly, Scott."

"Johnny, would you go down and ask Sam to come back up here?" Scott glanced at his brother.   And to Laura, he added, "Maybe we can give you a little laudanum now for the pain."  Johnny nodded as he turned on his heel and headed for the door.

"I think that'd be good."  She said, clenching her teeth against the throbbing pain that took her breath away.  "Could I have some water?  My mouth feels like it's full of mud."

"Do you think you can keep it down?" Scott went to pour a glass of water from the pitcher on the table.

"I think so.  I'm so thirsty." 

Cradling her head in his arm, Scott held the glass of water to her lips.  She took a few tentative sips before leaning back against her pillows.

"Scott…I'm so sorry…" she started.  He kissed her lightly on the forehead, and pushed a few strands of her hair from her face with his fingertips.

"Shhh....Don't talk right now. We can talk about it later, when you're feeling better."

"But it's all my fault….I didn't listen to Johnny…I should've listened to him.  I shouldn't have been so hard-headed…"  She was interrupted by Sam's brisk tap on the door.

"So, I see my patient's awake.  That's good!"  Sam took her face in his hands and looked carefully into her eyes.  "Can you wiggle your fingers for me, Laura?"  When she successfully complied, he asked her to move her toes.  "Can you feel my fingers?"  He uncovered her toes and touched the soles of each of her feet gently.

"Yes," she replied softly, concentrating.  "I seem to be able to move everything.  And I can feel everything -- maybe a little too well."

"We'll give you a few drops of laudanum, then, so you can sleep for the rest of the night.  I asked Maria to bring you some tea to help wash it down." 

Maria bustled in behind him, bringing a steaming pot of tea, heavily sweetened to mask the bitter taste of the laudanum. "Senor Lancer is going to send to Stockton for Senorita Teresa tomorrow," Maria announced to Laura as she poured the tea and again stoked the fire.  "She will want to be here with you."  And to the men, "Senor Scott, you and Doctor Jenkins will leave now.  I will dress the Senora so she can drink her tea."  

Oh dear God.  Laura realized, with a sense of horror, she wasn't wearing a nightdress -- or anything for that matter.  How will I ever look Dr. Jenkins in the eyes again?  He's seen me completely naked....

Scott started to protest that he needed to stay with his wife.  But, judging from the look in her eyes, Maria wouldn't take no for an answer this time.  No one on the ranch, including Murdoch,  was brave enough to argue with the Lancer housekeeper when her jaw was set that way

"Come on, Scott."  Sam patted him on the back, urging him toward the door.  "Let's go get you that drink while Maria tends to Laura."  Reluctantly, Scott gave in  and allowed the kindly doctor to guide him away while Maria busied herself gathering clean clothes for his wife.

Growing sleepy from the effects of the laudanum, Laura thought, Just perfect.  I've not only broken myself, I managed to ruin Teresa's visit as well….I couldn't have made more of a mess of things if I had set out to do it on purpose.   She barely noticed as Maria chose a nightdress from the dresser and buttoned it around her.  Laura slept quietly through the rest of the night, not even awakening when Scott slipped back into the room. 

Early the next morning, she awakened feeling bruised from head to toe and incredibly stiff.  Each breath, any minute movement of her body, produced paroxysms of pain that cut into her like hot knives.  Maybe she should ask Scott to give her more laudanum, she thought, as much as she disliked feeling sedated.   She saw he had fallen asleep in the chair, his feet propped on the bed frame; Murdoch would likely have Johnny pick up his chores for the day.  Laura watched her husband sleep, not wanting to disturb him quite yet.  She hadn't missed the dark smudges under his eyes as he tended to her the night before.  She loved him beyond all reason, still amazed and grateful at the miracle that had brought them back together again.  As she watched, his eyes fluttered open.  He stretched, and yawned. 

"Good morning," he yawned again through the words.  "How're you feeling?"  He leaned over the bed, his fingers playing in her hair fanned out over the pillow.

"Not so well right now."   She frowned.  "I hate to take it, but I think maybe I need more pain medicine."  She hesitated, stretching her right leg and wiggling her toes, the movement bringing more spasms of pain. 

"I'll go get you some tea, then.  That'll make the laudanum a little more palatable."  Scott kissed her softly before turning toward the door.


He turned back toward her, his hand on the doorknob.  "Yes?"

"What did you do with my boots?"  She wasn't sure why that particular thought came to mind at that point.  Maybe it's the opium playing with my mind or wiggling my toes reminded me to ask.  But, she had a grim feeling she knew what his answer would be, and she wasn't going to like it.

"I had to cut them off – along with the rest of your clothes," he replied matter-of-factly. 

"You did what to my boots?" She almost choked.  "You cut them off?  My best boots?"   The room started to spin again, and her stomach lurched, but Laura was almost too distracted to notice.  The clothes she didn't care about; the boots were like old friends, broken in and comfortable.

Scott exhaled deeply before replying.  "Take it easy, Laura.  Be reasonable.  I can replace your boots or maybe have them repaired. Your ankle's broken.  I didn't have any other choice. That's not something you need to worry about right now." Scott's voice remained quiet and even as he tried to cajole her into calming down. 

She grimaced as sharp pain shot through her shoulder.   She leaned back against the pillows, waves of nausea continuing to course through her. 

"Your shoulder's hurting, isn't it?  And your ankle and ribs, too, I expect."  Returning to stand next to the bed, he traced his finger down her cheek and kissed her again. "Those boots can wait.  We'll worry about them when you're well, all right?  It doesn't appear you'll need them for a very long time anyway."

Sipping on the tea Scott brought up to her, and still feeling grit embedded in her teeth, Laura realized how dirty the rest of her body felt.  If only she could make it down to the bathhouse, she'd soak until the water turned cold and scrub herself with the fragrant milled soap Scott ordered from Boston to spoil her.  As it was, she could barely lift her head off the pillow.  "Scott, do you think you could ask Maria or Juanita to help me get washed up a little?" 

"Are you sure you're up to that, Laura?  I don't want you to try to do too much too quickly.  Besides," he protested, "it'll likely hurt very badly."

"I think I'll manage, particularly since I've had the laudanum.   I can't stand being so filthy." 

She smiled as he left the room to find Maria, rubbing his tired face.  She knew he understood; he didn't like to be dirty any more than she did.  In short order, Maria returned to gently bathe her, change her linens and tuck her into a clean nightdress, braiding her hair neatly.  The laudanum and the warm bath worked wonders, the combination of the soothing hot water and the potent drug sending her into an opium-induced haze throughout the remainder of the day and into the evening. 

She awakened once more to the faint glow of the oil lamp, lit against the darkness.  She felt like she was lying back on that hillside, her body so cold she couldn't stop shivering.  "Scott?" she whispered.  "Why is it so cold in here?  Could you put another log on the fire?"

"Laura."  He was at her side in an instant.  "It's not cold in here.  The fire's blazing." 

The fever consumed her and pain wracked her body until she moaned uncontrollably.  Even the laudanum Scott dripped between her cracked lips brought very little relief.  The pain in her chest worsened; she couldn't cough without feeling as though her lungs would explode.  Summoned back to the ranch in the middle of the night, Sam shook his head helplessly.  "I was afraid this would happen, Scott.  She was so hypothermic – so cold from exposure.  We knew pneumonia was a very real possibility.   Quinine might help the fever and the muscle spasms.  Mostly, we'll just have to wait.  And pray."

"But she was doing all right," Scott insisted.  "She was in pain, but the laudanum seemed to relieve it. There must be something we could've done to prevent this.  She can't survive her injuries only to die of pneumonia. You need to do something!" 

With no ready answers or further suggestions from the doctor, Scott sat by Laura's side for the rest of the night, his head on the bed next to her, his hand intertwined with hers.  Murdoch sat at his desk staring out into the black night.  Johnny paced endlessly back and forth in front of the fireplace until Murdoch was afraid he'd wear out his boots, the floor, or both.

Teresa arrived back at the hacienda during the morning on Wednesday, picked up by Frank from the stage in town.  She hurried straight upstairs to find her dear friend struggling to breathe.   "Isn't there something we can do, Scott?"

"No, Teresa, there's nothing we can do.  I wish to God there was.  Sam says we'll just have to wait it out.  Laura's strong.  She wouldn't have survived the fall she took if she wasn't." 


Laura tossed and moaned on the bed, hearing the voices of her family as they tended to her, but not able to respond.  One minute she was freezing and the next she felt as though her body was on fire.  She felt cool hands touching her face, cold cloths pressed to her forehead.  Her head throbbed with the fever, every inch of her body riddled with pain.  At times, she almost wished she'd die just so she'd stop hurting.

"I love you, Laura."  Scott's voice penetrated her fevered brain.  "Hold on....Just hold on a little longer."  He tucked the blankets more tightly around her and wiped her face with yet another cold rag.  "You're going to be all right.  I promise.  You're going to get well, and we're going to have all those children we've talked about.  We're going to grow old together here at Lancer."

"Scott," she groaned.  "Where are you?"

"I'm here, my love."  He leaned over her, searching her face for any sign of recognition.  

Her only response was to moan incoherently and mumble his name.

By Thursday morning, the mood in the house was increasingly bleak.  Scott looked like a ghost, the stubble on his cheeks unshaved and the purple shadows under his eyes making his face appear bruised.  He steadfastly refused to come downstairs to eat, ignoring the trays Maria or Teresa brought to him.  He thanked them politely and left them untouched. He hadn't had a full night's sleep since he and Murdoch left Sacramento on Sunday, and the strain was beginning to take its toll. 

"Johnny, maybe he'll listen to you."  Murdoch was nearly at his wits' end.  "Maybe you can persuade him to come down for dinner and let Juanita sit with Laura.  If he doesn't take a break, he's going to end up sick himself.  I don't think he's capable of grasping that fact right now."

Shifting himself off the corner of Murdoch's desk, Johnny headed for the doorway.  "And don't take 'no' for an answer, son," Murdoch called after him. 

Murdoch, nearly unable to look at his elder son, had spent his days at his forge, pounding iron until his head and shoulders ached with the effort.  No matter how guilty he had felt through the years about sending Catherine away, at least he hadn't sat and watched her die. 

"Scott, you need to come down for dinner," Johnny insisted.  "I'll sit with Laura for awhile.  I promise I won't leave her alone.  You've gotta get outta this room.  You're gonna end up sick too.  Laura wouldn't want that." 

Scott's shook his head and uttered a very quiet, "No.  I won't leave her.  If she's dying, I need to be here with her." 

 On Friday morning, Murdoch again sent Johnny upstairs yet again, this time to drag Scott down, if necessary, to breakfast.  Johnny peered around the frame of the open door.  "Scott," he whispered.  His voice caught when his eyes took in the poignant scene.  His brother had given in to his exhaustion and fallen asleep in his chair, doubled over with his head cradled against his wife's uninjured arm.  Johnny hesitated, feeling like an intruder, before he pulled a chair up on the opposite side of the bed from Scott and sat down.  He brushed his fingers lightly against Laura's cheek.  She did seem to be breathing a little more easily.

"Mac, honey, you gotta listen to me this time." Johnny spoke softly, not wanting to wake Scott up now he was finally sleeping.  "I know, I know… you're not always good at that." He smiled, knowing how she'd laugh at that comment if she was able.   "But you gotta fight this.  You can be as stubborn as you want now.  Scott loves you so much.  He needs you.  We all need you."  He paused, fighting to keep his emotions at bay.  "I remember the first time Scott brought you out here to the house, Mac.  You were so quiet at first, kinda pale and scared looking.  Scott told me you were afraid we wouldn't like you.  That we'd think you were too fancy.  Then you saw Barranca.  Remember?"  Johnny chuckled softly.  "You started talking about the horses in Boston and the horses in England.  You almost talked my... ear... off about the horses.  You said you hadn't seen too many 'golden' ones.  You wanted to ride Barranca, and he actually let you.  My crazy horse let you put a sidesaddle on him.   I knew right then Scott had picked the right woman.  If Barranca liked you enough to let you ride him sideways, you had to be okay."  Johnny grinned, remembering that first visit, not so many months before.  "I couldn't believe it when you jumped the paddock fence with him.  Just like my brother.  Then Boston told me he'd let you know some about my past."  Johnny's face took on a more somber expression.  "I figured that was it.  I thought you'd be upset about me bein' a gunhawk and all.  I didn't think you'd wanna have anything to do with me.  But you didn't care.  You loved Scott and all of us enough that my past didn't matter.  And now we're a family, Laura, and families take care of each other.  Scott and Murdoch've drilled that into my head for the last year.  We're tryin' our best to take care of you, but you've gotta help us out.  You've gotta wake up."

Johnny's voice.   He seemed so far away, like he was in another room and all the doors were closed.  She fought to open her eyes, to force her lids open against what felt like an unseen hand holding them down.  Laura looked into his sapphire eyes, darkened with worry.

Watching as she struggled to open her eyes, Johnny willed her to gather the strength to fight her way out of the fog that had shrouded her for the past days.  He smiled as her inherited Lancer stubbornness finally won out, and he saw that, for the first time in days, her eyes were clear. 


A week later, the young Lancers sat in the Great Room, enjoying the warmth of the fire and a sense of relief they were all still there together.   Laura was bundled in the chair next to the fire, her left leg propped on a pillow.  The two brothers lounged on the sofa.  Teresa bustled around pouring coffee and fussing over her sister.  Laura thought Johnny looked preoccupied, but she trusted him to tell her what was on his mind when he was ready.  Finally, when Teresa had left the room to make even more coffee and some sandwiches, he spoke up.

"Laura….I had somethin' I wanted to ask you."  He glanced at Scott, who was staring intently into his coffee cup. "Scott told me it was okay to ask." 

Laura wasn't sure if he was looking to Scott for support or ready to blame him if she didn't like the question.

"What is it, Johnny?"   Is that a blush on his face?  Could Johnny Madrid Lancer actually be blushing?  Scott's face was also turning pink from his collar up to his hairline.

"Well, uhhhh…..I was wondrin'…..since you're not gonna be able to ride for quite a while…."

"Maybe never, if it's up to me," Scott commented dryly.  He ignored the glare Laura aimed at him.

Johnny tried again.  "I was wondrin' if you'd be willing to…."  He took a deep breath, his words hurried. "…..willing to let me breed that pretty mare of yours to that new palomino stallion I bought?  I had my eye on Celeste when Boston bought her out from under me."

"So you think it'd be a good cross?"  Laura sipped her coffee, enjoying the boys' obvious discomfort in discussing such a delicate subject with her.  She thought maybe she should draw this out, make them blush a little longer.  She tilted her head and fixed her bright green eyes on her husband's face.  He still seemed to find the bottom of his coffee cup fascinating.

"Yeah, I think it'd be a good cross."  Johnny grinned. 

A big smile slowly crossed Scott's face, as he lifted his eyes to meet hers.  He knew precisely what she was thinking.

"The blond and the chestnut, right, Johnny?"  She just couldn't resist the play on words, watching as the blush on her husband's face deepened to a bright red. 

"Somethin' like that," Johnny replied, winking at his brother.  The three of them would laugh about it for years to come.

Standing in the front hallway, having just come down the stairs, Murdoch smiled, relishing the sound of his children's laughter.  Joy instead of pain.  Life rather than death.  The tragedy he had experienced as a young groom had not been repeated in his son.  He turned and walked out the front door, closing it softly behind him. 






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