Most Discreet
Karen Campbell


Chapter One 

Breathe in and a second is gone; breathe out and another.  Keep on doing it and the hour goes by and then the day, weightless as the air in your lungs.  Gone.

There were moments when he considered those fragments lost—not often, but moments. Ones of silence, deep in the night, with nothing more than the sheets touching his skin, cool and with bare substance.  He’d search for it then, sifting through the clutter of his memories and grasping for that instant.  And it would come, slowly, gathering from the nothingness—one image, one resurrected blur of motion. 

One second when it all began. 

He’d squinted into the sun.  It was strong, low in the sky and September bright, and it made him press his hand against his brow, palm stretched out flat and eyes sheltered by it, still squinting.  Just off the boardwalk, coming out of that sun, a team of horses pounded through the dirt, two abreast and two deep in their harnesses, and a long whip crackled the air above them.  Behind them a stage lurched by, passing before the dust could rise above its wheels, but the gritty haze grew and it spread across the sun, mottling it. Scott hesitated on the edge of the planks, holding what breath he could, and he waited for the air to change.

A long-legged form moved toward him.  As it came closer, the muddled lines shaped themselves into a man, one with a valise hanging from his one hand and his face nearly hidden by the other, his palm also cocked above his eyes.  He wore a dark suit, the non-descript sort that men of breeding choose for travel, but it was splotched a dirty grey.  A bowler hat sat tilted back on his head and a wiry shock of rusty straw stuck out from under its brim.  Scott coughed softly into his fisted hand and nodded at the stranger, and he took one step down into the road.  He almost left it at that, going about his business just as he had a hundred days before, but the man stared back at him—out and out stared—and then lowered his hand from his brow.

“Scott?” the man asked.

The set of the mouth maybe.  Or his eyes, there was something about the slant of his eyes.  “Do I know you?” Scott half-raised his hand, ready to offer it even as he studied those eyes.

The man’s face split into a grin.  “You damn well better,” he said, briskly covering the last few feet between them and thrusting his hand into Scott’s.  “You still owe me a drink, Scott Lancer.  I bought the last round that night at McClancey’s.”

Those eyes, that voice…Boston…the name crossed his lips a second before his own grin broke loose.  “Joshua Wright.”  Scott shook his hand and looked the man up and down. “I don’t owe you anything.  You stole Elizabeth Cunningham right off my arm, you thief, and you bought me that drink on the condition that I’d sit and listen to you boast about it. But why are you…”

“In Morro Coyo?” Josh gave Scott his own visual assessment.  “Business, my friend.  I’m a banker now.”


“Vice president.”

“Somebody allowed you near their money?”

“I have the letter of introduction to prove it.”

“They don’t know you very well, do they.”

“No, they don’t.” 

Josh’s eyes twinkled with the same old mischief and Scott’s grin widened.  “You came all the way from Boston?” Scott asked.

“Stockton.  I’ve been there two years now.” 

A wagon rattled by just behind Josh and he edged forward, making Scott take a step backward.  “I think I’ve eaten enough dust to last me for the next ten years; you want to join me in there?”  Josh pointed past him and Scott twisted around, remembering where he was as he did it. His gaze skimmed over the red-checkered curtains drawn back from the café windows.

“No,” he said, as he turned back to Josh.    

“No?”  There was the vaguest hint of hesitancy in Josh’s voice.  “Are you still holding Elizabeth Cunningham against me?”

“I’ll get you back, you can count on that, but not this way.  Do you remember that stew Mrs. Ashcroft used to serve us?” 

“What was that seasoning?”

“Bad.  It was a bad seasoning.”

“Is that the recipe they serve in there?”

Scott nodded.  “Close to it, anyway….Besides, there’s somebody I’d like you to meet.”  He glanced up the street to the wagon in front of Baldemero’s.  He had to squint again to see them, but the horses stood patiently in their traces, heads drooping, and the wagon seat was empty.  “You’re not doing business this late, are you?”

“I’d like to, but I doubt that my customer is willing.  I thought I’d just eat and then find a room. Is there a good hotel in town?”

“I’ve got a better idea.”  Slapping a hand onto Josh’s shoulder, Scott pushed him gently into an about face and guided him toward the wagon. “I heard something about roast beef for dinner and I know Teresa was making an apple pie.  You’re coming back to the ranch with us.”

“Teresa?” Josh turned his head as he walked, giving Scott a curious look.

“She won’t mind another plate at dinner,” Scott said, distracted.  He saw a dark head move from the shadowed shop door onto the boardwalk.  “Johnny!” 

His brother kept crossing the planks, dumped a heavy-looking burlap bag over the rails and into the wagon bed, and then stood straight, resettling his hat on his head and looking toward them.

“Do any of those bags look comfortable?”  Scott shouted at first, but there were townsfolk still out and one of them was old lady Winslow.  Scott caught her out of the corner of his eye as she stood stock still in front of the millinery store, watching.  There wasn’t any gossip in an old friend from Boston, he knew that, but those eyes of hers could prick a hole in a man and drag all his secrets right through it, stringing them clear to Green River and back.  Scott softened his voice.  “I’ve picked up a passenger for us.”

Johnny didn’t say anything, but Scott could see his gaze lock onto Josh and, for one disconcertingly disloyal second, he wished that Josh was wearing a cowboy hat or that his boots were a bit more worn.  Visions of plaid burned a flush across Scott’s face.  “Johnny,” he said, “I’d like you to meet Joshua Wright, probably the only man in Boston who could heal all those broken hearts I left behind.”

“Yeah?” Something devilish crinkled into his eyes and Johnny took a few steps toward them, running a hand along the back of one of the wagon horses.  “From what I’m guessin’, that musta kept you busy for what…half a night?” 

Josh came around the front of the horses first and put his hand out to Johnny.  “At least.  But since Scott promised to feed me tonight, I think I’ll get my belly full before I divulge the full extent of his delusions.”

“That sounds like smart thinking.”

“I’m going to regret this, aren’t I,” Scott said, and he wagged a finger toward Johnny.  “But maybe I should finish that introduction….Johnny’s my brother.”

“Your broth…?”  Josh’s jaw got lost in mid-word and for a long second it just hung there, until a crooked smile pulled it back into place.  “Then I am glad to meet you, Johnny.  And my price for telling those stories on Scott just went up, because I figure that you’ll pay it.”

Laughing, Johnny grabbed the valise from Josh’s hand and tossed it up into the wagon.  “How much is it gonna cost me now?”

“Oh, I figure three or four slugs of good whiskey ought to loosen my memory quite well.”

“I want the good stuff.”  Using the wheel hub as a step, Johnny vaulted onto the bags lining the wagon bed. 

“Well then, that may cost you the whole bottle.”  Josh gave Scott a sideways glance and clambered up to the wagon seat.  “Hey, Scott,” he said, “do you remember hanging Professor Andrews’ long johns from the chimney of the old library?”

“No, I don’t.”  Scott shot a warning look at his brother’s smirking face and he climbed up beside Josh.  “That was your idea, Josh, and you’re the one who risked your neck crawling out on that roof to hang them.”  He pulled a pair of gloves from his belt and tugged them on.  “I was the one down on the ground telling you what a bad idea it was.  Remember?”  Setting a boot up on the box, he took up the reins.

Josh grinned.  “That time, but what about Mrs. Carvel’s corset?”

One sucked in breath was as far as he got, then Scott gave it up, and he slapped the reins against the horses’ rumps and clucked them into motion.  Behind him, he heard his brother’s stifled snort.  All he could do was shake his head and watch as Josh leaned forward, his black-polished boots also up on the box and his elbows on his knees.  Josh kept talking, the whole story of Mrs. Carvel’s corset and its seasons in the elm trickling out with intricate exaggeration while the horses plodded home.  Scott got his objections in, loudly at times, just to be heard over Johnny’s laughter, but mostly he listened.  The voice wasn’t quite the same—it was older now, deeper than he would have thought.  And something was different in the tone; that was crisper than it’d been, more like California, but it sounded of Boston, too.

Fabrications, Scott told himself, watching the horses’ manes sway in matching rhythm and letting Josh’s voice wash over him.  Fabrications and half truths and old times.

It sounded good.

The introductions at the ranch, dinner, it all was over before they really had a chance to get out the good whisky, but they made up for it later in the great room.  The bottle was half full when they took it from the shelf, and not a whole lot emptier when Murdoch left for his bed.  Johnny hung in longer though.  There wasn’t more than a swallow left when he tipped it in the air, watched the amber liquid swirl from side to side, and then set it on the floor next to his chair.

“Well, I’m done,” he said.

Scott watched Johnny find his feet, guiding himself gingerly with a hand on the ottoman.  “I can get the fence line started in the morning,” Scott said, the offer sounding hollow even to his own ears.

“Nah.” Johnny yawned loudly, swatting that idea down with an aimless wave.  “I can get it,” he finally said.  “Or Cipriano, maybe…One of us…I’ll figure it out…”  He yawned again.  “….in the mornin’.” 

“Night,” Scott called out, as Johnny walked slowly and heavily toward the stairs.  Josh was watching him go too, Scott could see that out of the corner of his eye, but Josh waited until Johnny was out of hearing to ask the question.

“Your brother?”  Josh turned a raised brow toward Scott.

“I was wondering when that was coming.”  Scott laid his head against the back of the sofa and let his eyes fall half shut.  “Don’t you see the family resemblance?”

“I do.”

From under his weary lids, Scott just watched Josh give it a moment’s whiskey-sobered contemplation.

“He’s better looking, of course,” Josh said dryly.

“I do have my admirers,” Scott said, just as dryly.

“That old Boston charm still working?”

“Only on the more discriminating ladies.”

“Like Teresa?”

Scott’s eyes flew wide open.  “What?”

“When you mentioned her name earlier, I thought maybe you were married.”

“To Teresa?” 

“Well, you don’t have to sound so shocked about it.”  Josh leaned forward and dragged the ottoman closer to him. “A man could do worse.  She’s a pretty girl.”  He set his feet on the ottoman and crossed them at the ankles.

“She’s twelve.”  Scott shot a guilty look into the dark of the hallway, grateful when no femininely curved shadows showed there. “No—Teresa’s more like a sister.    Even if she wasn’t, I don’t think that I’m ready for just one woman.”

“You’re what now?”  Josh asked. “Twenty-seven?  Twenty-eight?”

“That’s not exactly decrepit.”

Shaking his head languidly, Josh smiled, then he scrunched his eyes and rubbed at them.  “I knew you had a father out here, but you never said anything about a brother.”

“Johnny was a surprise.”

“A pleasant one, I trust?”

“Mostly.”  Scott dropped his gaze to Josh’s boots.  Even the soles pointing toward him looked smooth and barely used.  “Those first few days…Well… Johnny had his own way of doing things, but yes…I’ve gotten pretty used to having him around.”

It was a slower smile this time, one that nearly took over Josh’s face and worked with the whiskey, dragging some soft sort of knowing into his eyes.  Scott dipped his gaze again.

“It would have been different, wouldn’t it?” Josh said.

“What’s that?”

Josh pointed his finger lazily around the room.  “Growing up here, with your brother and your father—being a rancher instead of what we were doing.”

“Johnny didn’t…”  Scott caught himself, carefully considering the rest of the truth.  He wasn’t sure why, maybe it was just that it was a long story and his bed was sounding tempting, but he measured out his words. “I guess a lot of things could have been different.  The cows keep me too busy to think about that, though.  What about you?”  He looked up again.  “Stockton is a long way from Boston.”

“That’s what my mother keeps telling me.”

“You get those letters too?”

“Twice a month, regular as clockwork.  Apparently there is no civilization west of St. Louis and she’s doubtful about it.  It sounds too French for her tastes.”

“You can’t trust the French.”  A corner of Scott’s mouth edged up.

“A wanton people.  There aren’t any French around here are there?”


“Too bad,” Josh said. “A little wantonness is good for soul.”

“I just can’t see it,” Scott said, studying Josh.  “Banking?”

Josh pointed a finger and tapped it once in the air.  “I have a very good reason for that.”

“I’m listening.”

“Her name is Hattie.”

The laugh was right there, waiting on the edge of his drunken ease, and Scott let it roll through him.  “Why am I not surprised?” he finally said.

“You’d like her, Scott.”

“I’m sure I would.”

“She has green eyes.  I never met a woman with green eyes before.”

“Rebecca Woods had green eyes.”

“Not like Hattie’s.”  Josh shook his head and he dipped his gaze, smiling shyly.  “When my father died…”

“I’m sorry,” Scott said.  “I didn’t know.”

Josh shrugged one shoulder.  “Father and I…well, you know that we never saw eye-to-eye.  At least now I can’t disappoint him anymore, and he did me one favor—he left me the deed to some land in Stockton.  Nobody could tell me how he came by it, but I know why he left it to me.  I guess he thought that the farther I was from Boston, the better off Boston would be.”

There were things he could have said to that, but there was too much hurt, too softly spoken, to ever fix it with a few sympathetic words.  And besides, none of them sounded right to him.  Scott let it lie.

“I was going to just sell the land,” Josh said, “but I wanted to see it first, so I came west.  And then I met Hattie.”

“Does her family own the bank?”

“No.”  Josh shook his head.  “But Father always said that if you want money, then you should go where the money is.  And in Stockton, the State Bank is where the money is—so I put on my cleanest suit, pretended that I was a responsible, upstanding member of society, and I fooled them into giving me a job.”

“As a vice president?”

“That was the job I asked for, but no…they made me a teller.  I worked the window for the first six months, but thankfully I was so bad that they promoted me purely out of self-protection.”

“Your father would be proud.”

Josh shook his head again.  “That’s doubtful, but Hattie seems to like me.  Did I mention how green her eyes are?”

“There was something about that.”

“Will you come to the wedding?”  Josh pulled his feet from the ottoman and leaned forward, an earnest look on his face.  “I’d really like you to meet her.”

He was almost too tired to do it, but Scott couldn’t help but grin.  “You’re engaged?”

“I am…we are.”

“When are you making it legal?”

“The spring, I think.  Sooner if I can talk her into it.  Bring your family.”

“I wouldn’t miss it.” Scott pushed himself out of his lethargy and leaned forward too, then stretched across and backhanded a slap against Josh’s knee.  “She’s a lucky woman.”

The shy smile flitted across his lips and Josh stared down at the floor for a second.  “Not her.  Me, though…I’ve never felt like this before.  She’s more than I ever thought…Hell, how much of that bottle did I kill?”  He looked over at the nearly empty whiskey bottle, then up at Scott.  “I’m going on like some drunken sap.”

Scott sank back into the sofa again. “We’re both going to pay for this in the morning.”

Josh gave out a small snort.  “Just wait.  Someday you’ll see a woman like my Hattie and that’ll be it, the end of any sense you ever had.  And have some news, my friend—as long as you have her, you won’t even care.”


And that was the beginning.  Later, years later, it was Josh’s voice that touched him in the dark, Josh’s words threaded through his breaths.  And he would listen.  Not often, but in the silence of the night—there were moments.


Chapter 2

The dawn was easy enough; all Scott had to do was roll over and drag a pillow over his head to make it go away.  Full on morning was harder. 

“How do you do that?” His gaze left the blurred dirt of the road beneath him and Scott turned his head, stiffly, being very careful to keep his chin down and the brim of his hat tipped low, fending off the searing sunlight.  A squint twitched into his eyes anyway, and he tugged his hat lower, just for good measure. 

“So—you are among the living.”  Josh leaned onto the saddle horn, squirmed in the saddle, and then settled again pretty much in the same position he’d started from. He quirked his mouth.  “Confess, Scott.  You gave me this bag of bones out of revenge, didn’t you.  It’s like riding a well pump.”

“It’s not the horse.”  Scott watched the roan carry his joggling friend a few more strides. “Keep your heels down,” he told him, pointing to Josh’s boot.  “And how can you look so human when my head is about to come off?”

“You’re out of practice.  You need to drink more.”

Josh stared through him and Scott chanced a look the same direction, to the east, into the still rising sun.  They were passing a small farmhouse, all whitewashed boards and white picket fence, with a small garden rowed with orderly clumps of something leafy and poles of tangled vines.  Just stepping from the back stoop, a girl with a basket full of laundry turned toward them.  She settled her load against her hip, and her body arced away from it, balancing, and she stared.  Scott nodded once.  There was a white glimpse of ankle as she gathered a fistful of skirt and she swept her hem up, out of the way, and crossed over the cabbage to follow them a few steps.  When they were almost too far down the road to see, she craned her neck around the corner of the house and watched them go.

Scott caught the last look at her from the corner of his eye, but Josh was still twisted in his saddle, looking back.  Scott fought down the smile that was trying to tuck into his cheek.  “You want to tell me any more about your Hattie?” he asked. 

“The young lady had her eye on you,” Josh said, innocence dripping off his words.

“If you say so.”

“She was pretty, though, wasn’t she?”  Josh grinned at him, then set his eyes straight ahead on the road. “And Hattie.  She has dark hair, not black, but dark, and it’s long…and it smells like lilacs. I love that smell, don’t you?  Spring lilacs, and she’s soft.  I like that, too.”  He gave a satisfied nod.  “Some women are like holding on to a shovel, they’re just stiff and mean-feeling, but Hattie’s soft and she fits…”  Josh spread his arms slightly, looking down into the curve of them.  The roan folded its ears at the movement in the reins.  “But…nobody ever hanged a man for looking.”  Josh gave Scott a sly glance, his body bouncing in awkward rhythm to the horse’s trot, and he kneed the horse into a canter. 

The Hansens’ house was the third one down the hill from the Methodist Church.  Scott eyed it as they rode up to the big elm in the front yard, considering its single story economy.

“You sure this man has money?”

“Well, it doesn’t look like his brother does.  It must not be family money.”  Josh dropped from the roan and stumbled backward a step.  He kept one rein in his hand and worked at tying it to a low hanging limb as he eyed the house himself.   “His letters said that he has a contract on 50,000 acres, so I’m taking him at his word.  If not—well…”  He aimed a brief look Scott’s direction.  “It was still worth the trip.”

Josh strolled along the hard-packed dirt walk and up the porch steps, with Scott right behind him.  His knock was answered with some muffled footsteps inside the house and then a pinched female face peered through the cracked-open door.

“Can I help you?” the pinched face said. 

Josh grabbed the bowler from his head and held its brim in both hands.  “Mrs. Hansen?  I’m Joshua Wright from the Stockton State Bank, and this is my friend…maybe you know him?...Scott Lancer.  He has a ranch near here.”  Josh half turned and tipped his hat, pointing it toward Scott.

“Mrs. Hansen.”  Scott already had his head bare and he nodded.

The door opened marginally wider and Mrs. Hansen stepped her body across the gap.  “Of course I know who Mr. Lancer is,” she said.  “Everyone around here knows the Lancers.  But I’m afraid that you’re two days early, Mr. Wright.”

“Isn’t this the 12th?”

“It is.”

“Mr. Hansen said the 12th.”

“I’m sure that he didn’t.”

“But he did…I have the letter…”  Josh started to reach in his pocket and Mrs. Hansen drew herself up, still nearly a foot shorter than the men, but, in Scott’s eyes, gaining unarguable authority in that single added inch.  Scott took in a breath to speak, but Josh beat him to it.  “Obviously, I’ve mistaken the day,” he said, and he hung his head for the briefest of seconds, gazing down at his hat, and then lifted his eyes to meet hers.  And he smiled.  Scott didn’t have the clearest view, standing as he was just off to the side of his friend, but he could see the effect the smile was having.  “I’m terribly sorry to have disturbed you, Mrs. Hansen,” Josh said, and the rigid line of the woman’s shoulders gave.  “It was a careless mistake,” he added, and her face widened, becoming not exactly friendly, not in Scott’s estimation anyway, but duller, maybe. Persimmons, Scott decided, in the early fall, before the frost had sweetened their puckered flesh.  That’s what she reminded him of and it made his mouth sour. 

“Maybe you could tell me when Mr. Hansen will be available?” Josh asked.   

“Thursday,” she said, and she swung the door open wider, allowing them a narrow view of the parlor.  The windows were shrouded by heavy drapes, and the room itself was stuffed with dark cherry woods and purple upholstered chairs.  “My husband took the buggy to Cross Creek to meet his brother’s stage.  I expect that they’ll be back late tomorrow night.” 

“May I call on your brother-in-law Thursday morning then?”

“I’m not Jacob’s secretary, Mr. Wright.”  Her tone had tightened again and Scott watched Josh’s smile weaken.  “I’ll certainly tell my husband that you’ve called.  And if you’ll excuse me, I have a pudding on to boil.”

That seemed to settle things as far as Mrs. Hansen was concerned.  She shut the door and Josh just stood there for a second, eyes aimed straight at the smooth oak, listening to her footsteps fade away.  Then he shivered dramatically. 

“Did you see her fangs?” Josh asked, pivoting and walking briskly down the steps and back to the roan. “I definitely heard a rattle and I seriously believe there were fangs.  Her lips curled.”  He twisted around, facing Scott and dangling his fingers from his mouth, wiggling them. 

“She’ll see you.”  Scott glanced back at the curtained windows, and tried not to smirk too much when Josh shot a look at them too and jerked his hands back down to his side.

“It looks like you’re stuck with me until Thursday.” Josh grabbed at the horse’s rein and tugged it free from the limb.  “Maybe longer if her husband has the good sense not to come home.”

Scott mounted and watched Josh try to settle his side-stepping horse.  “I can see why Mr. Hansen is turning Cross Creek into a two day trip.  Whoa, Charlie,” he soothed, backing his horse a step and putting some distance between it and the strawberry-speckled rump listing dangerously close.   

“How far is it?”

“Cross Creek?  A couple of hours’ ride.”

“I wish he’d been here.”  Josh had the roan backed up against the tree and it was finally still, but he had to hop to get into his saddle.  “You really didn’t see her fangs?”

“No, but then you were standing closer.”  Scott urged his sorrel up beside the roan.  “What do we do now?” 

“I need to send a telegram,” Josh said, looking up the hill toward the Methodist church.  “I promised Hattie that I’d be home tomorrow and she worries.  At least I hope she worries; it’s hard to know what a woman has in her head.  Have you figured them out yet?”

“I’m not sure that I want to. I’m rather enjoying my studies of the fairer sex.”

“Ah, see…I knew it!”  The roan jerked into a trot and Josh held on.  “She was looking at you, my friend, and you were looking back.  I’ll never know what those women see in you, but you’re a dangerous man, Scott Lancer.” 

Scott gave in to a throaty laugh.  “So you’re ready to admit that the ladies prefer my debonair style?” 

“I don’t know…there was Elizabeth Cunningham, remember?  And I do, I promise…I do remember the lovely Elizabeth and that lacy dress.  There was more to Elizabeth than there was to that dress, that I can tell you, but I wasn’t complaining…”

They found the telegraph office before Josh had quite gotten Elizabeth Cunningham out of his head, but he quieted finally, lingering at the counter, drumming his stub of a pencil, and considering the small lined form. Scott watched him.  It couldn’t have been more than a minute, or not much more, anyway, but that was a long time to pick at his words when they seemed so easy.  “Delayed—Home Friday”, that’s all he needed.  The man behind the counter hovered expectantly at first, but he bored in short order and started flipping the pages in his ledger and swiping sideways glances at Josh’s tap-tapping.   Scott hadn’t gone any farther than the door and he stayed there, the sunlight soaking through the back of his shirt and warming his skin, and he watched Josh fidget.  After the interminable seconds, a niggling guilt settled in and he stepped back onto the boardwalk, staring out onto the town instead.  It was just a glimpse, not even that really, more of a sliver of a face just grazing the edge of his sight.  Old Lady Winslow.  She disappeared into the café, but for some reason that made no sense at all, Scott moved between it and the telegraph office door, blocking her line of sight.

“Ready?” Josh asked, another long minute later.

You’re not a fast writer, I take it?”  Once again, Scott mounted easily and watched Josh negotiate his own awkward vault into the saddle.   “Remember those heels.”

The calm seemed strange after so much of Josh’s voice. They’d gone past the livery, past the low-pitched roof of the blacksmith’s shop, past even the new string of laundry fluttering over the cabbages on the edge of town before Josh started up again.  “We had words,” he said.  Scott tried to see Josh’s expression, but the roan had taken the lead and he had to settle for the sound of his voice, the tenuous grit in it. 

“Hattie and I had words—the night before I left.  That’s why.” 

“Why what?” Scott urged his sorrel even with the roan.

“The telegram.  Why I took so long composing it.”

“It wasn’t serious, was it?”


“And you’ll apologize?”

Josh smiled softly.  “What makes you think that it was my fault?”

“How long have we known each other?”

“Point taken.”  His smile widened.

“Flowers are usually well-received. Teresa’s roses are still in bloom and we could make up a bouquet for you.”  Scott considered the options, remembering the girl with the laundry basket and wondering just exactly what Josh might have done wrong.  “That and some groveling might improve things,” he added. 

“Seventy miles on the stage with roses in my lap?”

“I take it that you don’t care for my plan.”

“The groveling…that’s good…I can use that.  But there’s bumps on that road and those thorns…”


“Not that I don’t deserve it.”

“So what did you do?”

“Honestly, Scott…I don’t know.”

“But she’ll tell you?”

“No, she won’t.”  Josh shook his head slowly.  “Not if it’s nagging; Hattie’s not that kind. But I’ll just feel better about it all when I get home.”  He reached up then, grabbing at his hat.  It had slid with the jarring of the roan’s trot and he righted it again, tugging it low across his forehead. 

Scott examined him, watching Josh’s body jerk with each stride.  There was a sound, too, a flattened air sort of sound as Josh’s rear hit the saddle bounce after bounce.  “How have you managed to be in California for two years and not learn how to ride?”

“Hattie’s tried to teach me, but have you ever noticed how a woman moves when she’s on a horse?  I have a hard time concentrating with her going….”  Josh jiggled his head up and down, even more than the roan was already making him do.  “Well, with her going, anyway.  Maybe you can give me some pointers?  You were cavalry, weren’t you?”

“I was.”

“And I bet you spent every day of the war in the saddle.”

The sorrel covered a good stretch of dry, dusty road while Scott put his words together.  “Keep your head up, Josh,” he finally got out. “And your shoulders back.”  Josh didn’t know. He’d thought they’d all known, his friends and his grandfather’s employees, all of Boston. Suddenly there were glimpses of them, piercing through the yellow-green of the grass edging the road. Sounds of them.  Their eyes, vigilant; the studied kindness of their tone.  Their knowing was wrapped like week-old fish, their “welcome home” a brown paper encasing it, and their “you look well” tying it closed, burying it away.  And he’d let them, and he’d been grateful.

“Try counting off the strides,” Scott said, evenly.  That’s the way he heard it, anyway, to his own ears.  Even and concealing. 

“Do you think that will help?” 

“No.”  Scott managed a smile and he thought he’d gotten away with his diversion, until Josh sighed softly. 

“You never talked about it—any of you.  Harry, Sean, you.” The rise and pitch of Josh’s voice moved in cadence to the roan.  “It was like the war never happened.”

“Out here…sometimes I wonder if it did.” Scott swept his gaze across the horizon, the live oaks patterning the blue above them and the brown of the cattle dotting the hills below. 

“You’re a new man?”

“Something like that.”

“If we break open another bottle of whiskey, can I still get you sopping drunk and hear your troubles for awhile?  I’m getting pretty bored with my own.” 

“I’m not drinking tonight.”  That answer was sharp and Scott glared at Josh to emphasize the point.  “You and Johnny can, but I’ve had enough of that stuff.  No.  You can have it.”

“One,” Josh wheedled.


“A small one.”


“Then you’re stuck with my pitiful stories.”  Josh resettled his bowler and took a deep breath. “Harry,” he said, loudly.  “Now, Harry would drink with me.  I remember once after one particularly well-lubricated evening…it was summer, one of Judith Sloan’s garden parties…she always had that punch bowl full of….what was that full of?  Anyway, it was trying to rain and Harry set his eye on this little blonde….”

And so it went, the whole hot September day.  Scott stuck to his word, passing the wine right by his glass at dinner and calling it a night early, leaving Josh behind with Johnny.  The two of them were slumped in their chairs, heads lolled back onto the cushions, laughing.  The bottle was corked and wedged next to Josh’s hip, and it leaned just a bit. Scott tacked on a threat to his goodnights, knowing it wouldn’t do any good, that they’d both be telling stories on him before his head had fairly hit his pillow.  And it didn’t matter.  One had nothing to tell—ladies he’d forgotten before their scent had left the air, midnight debates in smoke-filled bars—nothing.  And the other—he knew the secrets, some of them anyway, but that was different.  And he wouldn’t tell.  Scott went drowsily to his bed.

The next morning, Josh slept in and Scott left him to it. There were new calves in the north pastures and he worked there, with his brother, searching out the gullies and that sinkhole up above Froze Creek, covering miles and miles of ranch and finally being satisfied that all the mamas had the ranch’s future profits safely at their sides.  It was late afternoon before they rode back to the stables. 

He didn’t think anything of it at first.  He had finished with Charlie, pouring out his measure of oats only after the sorrel had been curried and brushed. Johnny took longer with Barranca; he always took longer. 

“You missed a spot.”  Scott stepped up on the bottom rail of the stall gate, reached over, and idly pointed toward the horse’s leg. 

“Where?” Johnny asked, looking quickly up and then down again, the direction of Scott’s gaze.  “That?”  He swiped the brush at the horse’s fetlocks, dislodging a few blades of grass, and then squinted up a good-natured frown.  “You sayin’ that I’m fussing over this horse?”

“Just a bit.”  Scott made a serious effort not to smile, but he could feel himself failing at it.  “What do you say to some poker tonight?  I estimate that between us we should be able to take Josh for at least twenty dollars.”

“He any good at bluffin’?”

“A baby could take him with a pair of fives.” 

“I’m in.”  Johnny wiped his wrist across his brow and shook his hair back, then set to his brushing again.  “Just give me a minute here.”

“Or two.”  Scott grinned and dropped down from the rail, then strolled out of the barn. 

He saw it then.  At first sight it was only a horse and buggy, still too far away to make out anyone in it.  It was driving down the Morro Coyo road and it came closer at a good clip. Josh must have seen it, too.  He called out to him from the hacienda and Scott looked toward him, seeing him raise his hand in a vague wave and then turn to watch the buggy.

It was only idle interest for those first few seconds, but then the look in Josh’s eyes changed.  Scott watched the slow transformation come over his friend as he walked toward him, and he kept watching as Josh’s eyes followed the buggy.   Josh took a step forward.  He breathed one word, too low to make it out.

“What?”  Scott asked, pausing shoulder to shoulder with Josh and seeing the same view as he did.

“Why would she…?”  That was barely audible, and Josh took another step closer to the buggy.

They came at a fast trot and the man at the reins had to brace himself against the box, straining to pull the brake.  The horse passed them and then the buggy, making Scott and Josh both follow a good fifteen feet before the rig rocked to a stop.  Josh jogged the distance, getting there first and reaching up to the seat, offering his hand to it.  There was a wary look on his face, but his voice was full of wonder.  “Hattie?” he said, clearly now. 

Scott stood just even with the big back wheel, seeing first a hand extend quickly from the buggy and take Josh’s, and then the rest of the woman appear.  She grabbed at her skirt, catching up almost nothing in her rush, and she stumbled, missing the step.  Josh saved her.  “I told him you didn’t have it,” she blurted out, half falling against his chest and half embraced by his arm.  “He wouldn’t listen, Josh; I tried, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

A motion blurred on the other side of the rig and a second later somebody was coming around the back of the buggy, knocking against Scott and barreling forward, a six-foot boulder of a somebody.  His arm cocked back and a fist coiled at the end of it, and all Scott could see then was a black expanse of jacket with that fist swinging forward, hard.

It connected.  Two bodies went sprawling and the woman squeaked a panicked, “No!”  Josh grunted.

Lunging, Scott grabbed a fistful of the big man’s sleeve. He jerked free and Scott grabbed again, seeing the woman somewhere on the edge of the confusion, struggling to her knees, grasping for Josh.

“Stop it!” She glared up defiantly, kneeling next to Josh’s head, green eyes bright.  “Just stop it!”

The big man did, letting Scott restrain him and glowering down at Josh. Josh got an elbow under his stretched out body and he rubbed his jaw with the other hand, looking straight up at him.

“What the hell was that all about?” Josh asked.

“My fourteen thousand dollars!”  The man twisted free and took one step forward, towering over the prostrate Josh.  “Where the hell is my fourteen thousand dollars?”


Chapter Three

He looked smaller sitting down.  Scott leaned into the doorframe, blew the steam from his coffee, and considered Zachary Todd.  The man’s long legs stretched out under the kitchen table and his boots shoved the chair out on the other side, so he was tall, there was no question about that. Even so, the part of him showing above the table seemed mismatched.  Sitting, Murdoch had at least three inches on Todd, even with the man still wearing his hat.  And he was still wearing his hat—a Stetson, grey, with a little feather sticking out of its band.  Scott aimed tactful looks at his pockmarked face, trying to guess whether the man was that arrogant or that rude or just too focused to remember the niceties of polite society, but the last option seemed most likely.  Maybe that’s why he seemed smaller—Todd was tilted forward, intense, his eyes locked onto Josh.  He hadn’t said a word since he’d sat down, but he twitched, one little twitch, right there under his left eye…every time Josh breathed.

“Here, Hattie.”  Teresa handed the woman a basin full of water and Hattie took it, glancing up with a softly grateful look, and she set it on the table.

“Thank you.” Hattie fished a cloth from the basin and wrung it out. “Hold still, Josh.”  She dabbed it at his lip and the cloth came away spotted red.  “You’re a mess,” she said, and she took a hitching breath, then folded the blood away and dabbed the cloth again. 

“I guess I should have ducked.”

It didn’t even sound like Josh’s voice, not the way the words fell away at the end, but it brought a gentle smile to Hattie’s lips.  “It might have helped,” she said, laying the cloth across the rim of the basin.  “Try to remember that next time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  The old humor flashed through his eyes, but faded again when Josh looked across the table to Todd.  He ran his tongue over the split in his lip.  “All right, Mr. Todd,” he said.  “I’m going to say this first, and then you’re going to get your chance.  I came to Morro Coyo with exactly thirty-one dollars in my pocket, and all of it was my own, every penny.  Now, what’s this about the bank missing fourteen thousand dollars?” 

“You’re a liar.”  Todd slid his chair back, and he set his hands on the table, ready to rise.

All three of them moved.  Murdoch was closest, sitting right there beside him, and he stopped Todd with a heavy hand on his shoulder, just as Scott shifted his weight from the door frame and started to step forward. Johnny caught Scott’s eye then.  He’d been sitting on the sideboard, watching an apple roll in his hands, but his head jerked up at that word and his feet hit the floor with him moving toward Todd.  He kept walking, casually, setting his hand on the back of Josh’s chair for only a second.

“I’m telling you the truth,” Josh said, turning slightly and shifting his gaze toward Johnny as he went on, brushing past Murdoch’s seat. 

“Two people know the combination to that safe.”  Todd finally swept the hat from his head, pointing it at Josh before dropping it in the middle of the table.

“Three.  You’re forgetting Mr. Grayless.”

There was an empty piece of wall between two cabinets and Johnny found it and leaned into it, arms linked across his chest.  Scott met his eyes before they settled again on Todd.   

“An eighty-three year old man?” Todd asked, incredulously.

“He was president before you took over.”

“Fifteen years ago.”

“I’m just saying, I’m not the only one who has that combination.  Maybe Grayless gave it to somebody.”

“Or maybe I’m looking at the man who took my money, not to mention the reason why.”

Scott could tell that struck a nerve.  “You leave her out of this,” Josh said, and he tilted forward almost imperceptibly.  “And while I’m at it… if you ever, and I mean ever, hurt her again like you did out there…I’ll kill you.”

“Josh.”  His name came out small, and Hattie leaned closer to him, closing her eyes or looking down at her hands, Scott couldn’t tell which, not from where he stood, all the way across the kitchen.

“I mean it, Todd,” Josh said. 

“There are witnesses here, Josh.”  Todd looked around the room, an unattractive smirk twisting his face.  “Are you sure you want to be making those kinds of threats?”

“It wasn’t a threat.”

“Gentlemen!  That’s enough!” Murdoch’s bellow drew Todd’s eyes and he sank back into his chair, but Josh came after him, leaning, reaching across the table, and jabbing a finger just above Todd’s hat.

“I’ll kill you,” Josh said.

“That’s enough!”  Murdoch stood, suddenly, and his chair tipped and banged back into place. Johnny reached over and steadied it.  “Mr. Todd, I want to know what evidence you have that this young man stole your money…and I want you to present that evidence without inciting any more violence.  Teresa?”  He took his cup and held it out toward her, then added, only marginally calmer, “Is there any more of that coffee?  Please?”

Teresa grabbed a towel and wrapped it around the pot handle.  “Mr. Todd?” she asked, “or Josh?”

“No, thank you,” Josh answered, while Todd waved his hand over his cup.  She reached across the table to pour Murdoch’s and he gave her a reassuring smile.

“If I had all the evidence I needed, then the law would be here instead of me, Mr. Lancer.”  Todd finally took a sip then.  “I just about tore Josh’s house apart, but there wasn’t any money.  I’m not entirely convinced that he didn’t give it to Miss Whitfield…”  Josh looked ready to jump in again at that suggestion, but Todd went on.  “…but she has sworn to her innocence and I’m bound by chivalry to believe her.  For now, anyway.”  He looked up into Murdoch’s face. “I’m going to search your ranch, Mr. Lancer, starting with Josh’s things.  I’d ask your permission, but it doesn’t really matter.  I am going to search it.”

“I’ll put some men on it,” Murdoch said, nodding.  “But we still have the assumption of innocence in California.  Why do you suspect Josh?”

“He’s the only one who could have taken it.  It was in my wall safe the day before he left, but when Miss Whitfield came to me this morning to inform me of Josh’s delay, the money was gone.  Besides myself, Josh is the only one with the combination to that safe.”  At Josh’s quick intake of breath, Todd added, “With the exception of Mr. Grayless, of course.”

“That still isn’t proof,” Scott said.

“If it’s proof you need, then I’ll have all that you could possibly want once I find my money.  It’s here; I can feel it.  Isn’t it, Josh?”  The man smiled, but it was thin-lipped and it didn’t last.  He grabbed his hat off the table and stood, slowly. “Shall we?” he asked.

“Fine.”  Josh jerked to his feet and started toward the hallway.  “Fine…my things are upstairs.  Let’s get this over with.”

With Josh barging straight at him, Scott had to step out of the way, and he almost imagined that he could feel the heat burning off his friend’s face.  Todd followed after him, that narrow smile slipping back across his lips.  Scott watched him pass, and then he turned back to the kitchen. 

They were all looking at him.  “Sir,” Scott said, leveling his gaze on his father, “I’m not sure what to say.  Josh has never given me any reason to think that he would do…”

“He didn’t do anything.”  Hattie’s voice was crisp and she raised her face to him.  “He didn’t take that money.”  And she left it at that, defying him with her eyes to say anything against Josh.  It was the first time Scott had given her any real consideration.  She wasn’t at her best, Scott allowed for that.  Her nearly black hair was swept up, but wisps of it trailed from her pins.  And she had dirt from the stable yard on her skirt and the back of her sleeve, but she wasn’t an unattractive woman; she just wasn’t what he’d imagined from Josh’s description.  Not plain, but not the sort of woman who inspired that kind of passion in a man.  She did have green eyes, though, and right now they were glistening, her tears springing up despite the determined set of her chin, making those eyes dark like damp moss. 

“Don’t worry, we’re going to find out the truth,” Murdoch said soothingly, but Hattie kept looking directly at Scott. 

Only a second after he said it, Scott was already questioning if it was true, but just then, looking into the watery depths of her eyes, the words came as naturally as the air.  “I believe you,” he said simply.  She nodded. 

“Miss Whitfield?  Teresa took the chair that Josh had just left empty and laid her hand across Hattie’s arm.

“Hattie, please.”  Her eyes finally left him and Hattie’s gaze swept across all the other faces turned toward her.  “And this is a terrible imposition, I know.  I told Mr. Todd coming here was ridiculous, but he wouldn’t listen to me.  I’m sorry.”

“There’s no need for apologies,” Murdoch said, but Teresa only smiled at her, that smile that Scott knew so well.  She pulled the basin closer, dipped a corner of the cloth into the water, and took charge.

“Hold still.”  She grasped Hattie’s chin in one hand and scrubbed the woman’s temple with the other.  “You could do with a proper bath.  Do you have a bag?  Johnny, can you get her bag?”  Teresa glanced up at him and Johnny pushed away from the wall.

“No,” Hattie said quickly.  “I mean…I don’t have a bag; there wasn’t time to get one.  I didn’t want Mr. Todd searching Josh’s house by himself, and then the morning stage was leaving and we had to be on it. Mr. Todd wouldn’t wait.  I had to borrow money from his secretary for the fare.”  She took the cloth from Teresa and folded it into her hands.  “I’m afraid you’re all wasting your time on a very foolish woman.”

“We’ll find some clothes for you.”  Teresa eyed the woman’s frame, tempting Scott to make his own subtle examination.  “I’m sure I must have something that will fit,” she said, taking the cloth from Hattie and dropping it in the basin, then carrying it all away to the sink while Scott’s eyes lingered on the contours of Hattie’s grey wool bodice. She glanced his direction and he looked away—down—suddenly and guiltily.   

“If you’ll excuse me,” he said and he didn’t give them a chance to answer before taking off into the hallway. 

Her soft footsteps stayed a distance behind him as he climbed the stairs and headed toward the far guestroom.  He knew it was only polite to slow or to stop, to make some attempt to wait for her, but he didn’t and that gave him a disquieting satisfaction.  He picked up his pace.

The door was open when he came to it and Josh was slumped into his chair, looking miserable and staring off into an unseen spot in the room.  There was a small, rumpled pile of clothes at his feet and a shirt went flying toward it as Scott stepped into the room.  Todd stood by the bed and he had the contents of Josh’s satchel emptied onto the quilt and scattered across it.  He picked out a shaving kit and opened it, poking his finger inside it before tossing it onto the floor, too.

“I take it you haven’t found anything.”  Scott stopped in the middle of the room, hands on his hip, watching Todd.

“It’s here.” Todd dangled an undershirt, then dropped it back on the mattress, and he reached up toward the pillow, snatching the quilt by its hem and flinging it back.  He grabbed the pillow next and he kneaded it between his hands.  “Isn’t it here, Josh?  Where’d you hide it, boy?  Is it under here?”  He hurled the pillow at Josh, who reached out and batted it away, and it hit the bureau as Todd bent to one knee.  “Did you think you could get away with hiding it here?”  He ducked low, bracing with one hand on the floor and one clinging to the mattress, searching out the shadows beneath the bed.

Something moved behind him and, out of the corner of his eye, Scott saw Hattie walk to Josh’s side. She perched on the upholstered arm of the chair and stared grimly across the room to where Todd’s generously sized rear was filling the rest of Scott’s view.  If it was possible, Josh looked even more wretched than he had before.

Scott tipped his head sideways, looking past Todd to as far under the bed as he could see.  There was nothing there, not even a ball of dust, and for a second Scott blessed the thoroughness of Teresa’s cleaning.  Todd wouldn’t even have the satisfaction of uncovering any poor housekeeping.  “When are you going to admit that you’ve made a mistake?” Scott asked.

“You could help.”  Todd shot him a disgusted look. “And he could have hidden it anywhere by now.  I want this whole ranch searched.”

“Go right ahead.”  Scott couldn’t help the smirk that crawled across his lips.  “There’s 100,000 acres of it.  It shouldn’t take you more than three or four months.”

Zachary Todd wasn’t an easily discouraged man.  By nightfall, he’d made a good start on those 100,000 acres.  When the crew came in from the north range, Murdoch set them to the job and they crawled all over the stables and the bunkhouses and the sheds.  After some discussion, they drew straws for the outhouses.  Pablo won.

There’d been more than a few perverse pleasures that day, but this was an irresistible one, and Scott made himself comfortable.  He eyed some hay bales stacked three high to the side of one of the outbuildings, and went for them, crawling up and leaning back into the rough wall.  And then he just watched.

Frank and Chet and the rest of the crew surrounded the poor man and poked and prodded, herding him toward the nearest outhouse.  Pablo rounded on them and feinted at the line, but they held steady and, in the end, there was no help for him and in he went.  Johnny sauntered up about then, and vaulted gracefully up onto the bale beside him, picking a straw from it and chewing as he found his own bit of wall to slump against. 

The curses gusted through the evening air.  Going through a mental list of orators he’d heard, and there’d been quite a few in his Harvard days, Scott had to admit that, in his own way, Pablo was as eloquent as any.

“Given the dimensions of fourteen thousand dollars and the physical restrictions of that particular part of Todd’s anatomy, I don’t believe that’s even possible.” Scott gave his brother a sideways look.  Johnny had his head tipped back and his eyes closed.  

“Not without stretchin’ things a mite.”  The straw twitched.  “But I’d purely love to watch him try.”

That door slammed shut and bounced open again, as Pablo stalked off to the next outhouse.  He’d fallen into Spanish and Scott only caught the odd word, but Johnny’s brows went up appreciatively.  “Boston, I think maybe we should keep that Todd fellow out of Pablo’s sight for awhile.”

Nodding, Scott watched Pablo take a deep breath and launch himself into the second outhouse.  “I can’t say that I have much use for the man, either.  What do you make of him?”

The end of the straw jerked and Scott watched it for a long moment.

“That’s a whole lot of mad for not much proof,” Johnny finally said, and he leaned forward, pulling the straw from his mouth and tossing it to the ground.  He looked off across the stable grounds to the outhouse.

“So you think that Josh is innocent?”


“But maybe not?”


Scott pulled his own straw from the bale and snapped off a fragment.  “A lot of good men have been destroyed with no evidence.”

“Some men get something in their head…”  Johnny nodded thoughtfully. “Good sense turns to bad.”

“I just can’t see it.  Josh isn’t the type to steal that money.”

“You figure you know him enough to say?”

“It’s been a long time and we were never particularly close…but Josh…”  Scott caught them out of the edge of his sight, and he watched Hattie and Josh emerge from the shadows of the hacienda, standing just outside the kitchen door, Josh’s arm around her shoulders.  She was looking up at him, listening, as Josh gazed out at the grounds and the searching men.  “I wouldn’t trust him alone with any woman, but this…I hope it’s not true.”

Johnny gave Josh and Hattie a quick glance, and he picked at another straw, scraping his thumbnail at a rough spot on it.  “So what do you make of her?”  He lifted his gaze to Scott and stuck the straw between his teeth.


“She what she seems to be?”

“You heard what Todd suggested, that she’s the reason Josh needed the money.”

“She is pretty.”

“You think so?”

The straw dipped down, jiggling with Johnny’s grin.  “Yeah, I think so,” he said.

Scott took another look at Hattie, standing in profile now, still gazing up at Josh.  She made a graceful figure, filling out her white blouse and blue skirt in a way that made him doubt that they’d ever been worn by his girlish sister.  Her hair was down, pulled back loosely into a ribbon, but still damp from her bath and thick with barely contained waves.  Her fist was in her skirt and she clenched a fold of it, lifting the hem on that side out of the dirt.  She was tense, and watching her, he wondered at her worries.  There’d been words, Josh had said—words and now a missing fourteen thousand dollars.  That was enough, too much even, and Scott felt that guilt again, like Old Lady Winslow, sucking in the secrets that weren’t his to take.  He let his gaze fall away, but raised it once more and watched, intensely, as Hattie’s hand dropped her fistful of skirt and brushed against Josh’s sleeve, fleetingly, there and gone in a single breath.  And he wondered.

Pablo came out of the last outhouse and let loose on the men, hollering as he ran at them and slapped his hat.  They retreated, whooping and laughing, and he chased them across the stable yard and into the bunkhouse, then he shut the door as he followed them inside.

“I guess that’s that,” Johnny said.

“No,” Scott said, rolling the straw between his fingers.  “No, it’s not. But I have a bad feeling that Josh is going to wish that it were.”


Chapter Four

Once, during the war, he’d eaten his plate of beans and hardtack with a tarp tented over his head, waiting out the rain.  It’d poured all day and there hadn’t been a stitch on him that he couldn’t have wrung out, and still the rain came on, cold rivers of it running off the tarp’s sagging folds and seeping back, turning the mud under his rear to just a body-sucking muck. 

Scott cut a bite of roasted chicken, stuck it in his mouth, and looked around the table, chewing, and he considered that long-ago meal.  And for a moment, maybe more than just a moment, he envied the peaceful solitude of that rain-pelted tarp.

“I don’t know how you thought you’d get away with it.”

Todd shot Murdoch a sideways glance after mumbling that into his forkful of potatoes, and Scott was gratified when his father reprimanded the man—again.  “Mr. Todd,” Murdoch said, quietly but with a practiced authority. He followed it with a similarly perfected glower and then went back to his dinner as Josh stared down at his. 

And taking still another stab at civil conversation, Scott swallowed and turned to Teresa.  “This is delicious.” 

“It’s rosemary,” she said gamely. 

He nodded.  “There’s something else…”



“I put a lemon half in each of the breasts.  You tuck the rosemary under their wings.” 

“It’s good.” 

“Thank you.” 

Searching intently for anything else to say and knowing full well that he’d exhausted the possibilities offered by Teresa’s chicken, Scott grabbed at the only words that floated near.  “You’re welcome,” he said. 

The silence took hold again, threaded through the clinks of their knives against the china.  Scott tried not to watch Josh as he fidgeted with his food, stringing his peas like green pearls on the tines of his fork.   Hattie had barely touched her dinner, but she hadn’t left it unwatched for more than a few seconds either.  The top of her head was becoming all too familiar as she bowed it over her plate, and he had a maddening desire to reach across and smooth away that one willful curl, the one that was sticking straight out from her ivory pin.

Johnny was being Johnny, just watching.  Scott caught his eye a time or two and he’d felt the sympathy in his brother’s gaze, but it hadn’t done him any good.  It was his friend, his problem, and they were all obviously leaving him to it.  He sawed off another bite of chicken and tried once more.

“So, Josh…how did you and Hattie meet?” he asked.

The gentlest of smiles drifted across Josh’s lips.  He set his fork across his plate.  “Hattie?”  Ducking his head, he aimed a sideways glance her direction.  “You want to tell this or should I?”

“You know you’re better at it than I am.” She set her fork down, too, and pushed her plate away.

“True enough.”  There was a teasing humor in his tone and Hattie’s eyes softened at the sound of them. “But there really isn’t much of a story to tell.  Hattie’s parents have a dry goods store in Stockton and one day I needed a new razor.  I remember her mother was just wrapping it up and trying to sell me a pot bellied stove to go with it…”

“She was not,” Hattie said abruptly, but with a fleeting smile.

“No?” Josh said, his amusement spreading into his eyes.  “If I’m telling the story, then that’s what she was trying to do.”

“Well, she wasn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“I was there.”

“I remember.”

“Then tell that.”

“You just did.”

Hattie gave out a little exasperated sigh and Josh took her hand, a move she did nothing to discourage.  “Hattie was there,” he said, “hiding behind the counter.”

“I wasn’t hiding.”  Those words were quiet, but quick.

“Kneeling behind the counter.  I think she had a stack of boxes next to her, spices maybe…were they spices?  And she looked up at me and asked if I was new to town.”

Hattie glanced at Scott and then Teresa.  “He had such an interesting accent.”

“She hated it.”

That brought Hattie’s gaze back to Josh.  “I didn’t.”

“She hated me.”  Josh looked straight at Teresa, an exaggerated seriousness set across his face. “Can you believe it? She took one look at me and instead of yielding to my powers of attraction, as any reasonably perceptive woman would do, this one decides to hate me.”

“It must have taken a great strength of will,” Teresa said, solemnly at first, but with the last of it falling off into amusement.

They’d all relaxed a little and Scott found himself leaning casually back in his chair, but his ease ended when Todd’s low-pitched voice rumbled through the room.  “She should have trusted her instincts.”

There wasn’t time for Murdoch to reprimand him then, not before Hattie spoke up.  “I didn’t hate him,” she said, even her slight smile already gone.  

“Of course not, he’s saving your father’s store.”  Todd let his fork loose and it clattered against his plate.  “Half the town knows that your father hasn’t made a payment on his loan since July.  Your house won’t be far behind.”

“That’s none of your business,” Josh told him.

“Isn’t it?  My bank holds the mortgage and it’s my money you stole to cover his loans.”

Josh’s quiet denial clashed with Murdoch’s shouted, “Mr. Todd!” and Teresa stood, taking the empty breadbasket from the table and murmuring an “excuse me”. 

“And how exactly is it your money, anyway?” Josh asked, ignoring Teresa’s retreat to the kitchen.   He was obviously angry, but Scott had to admire his friend’s restraint.  Josh’s cheeks were splotching red, his thumb rubbed against his slightly curled fingers, and there was some grit in his throat, but that was it.  He hadn’t even raised his voice. 

“Meaning what?” Todd asked.

“You may be the president of that bank, but that money’s not yours, it never was yours.”

“I’m the one responsible for it.”

“Are you afraid that the board will fire you?  Is that it, Mr. Todd?”  Josh’s voice grew stronger. “What are you going to do when you’re out of a job and nobody will hire you because you lost the bank’s fourteen thousand dollars?”

“Go to hell.”

“Not without evidence, I won’t. And you don’t have any, because I don’t have the bank’s money.  I didn’t take it.  And if you want to send me to jail…or hell…or wherever, then you’re going to need a whole lot more than your word.”  That thumb was still drumming against his finger, but the rest of him was still, eerily so.  “You wouldn’t even have your job if it wasn’t for me.”  He leaned closer and the thumb stilled too.  “Remember?”

“That has nothing to do with this.”

“Oh, doesn’t it?”

The wrinkle twitched again, just as it had before, the deep one at the corner of Todd’s eye.  Scott watched Todd force his face into a squint, but the man couldn’t seem to stop the tic. 

“Watch yourself, Mr. Wright,” Todd said. “You’re not the only one who can get hurt here.” 

Hattie made the first response, a quiet little “Josh”, but Johnny’s was one that drew Todd’s attention.  He still slouched lazily in his chair, one elbow angled on its back and his tone honeyed, but Scott knew better.  “Now, Mr. Todd,” Johnny said, “you’re going to sour your digestion if you’re not careful.  You keep threatening Josh and this lady like that, and it might not be so good for your health.  You might want to think on that.” 

“This is none of your business,” Todd said, glaring at Johnny and drawing only a slow smile for his troubles.

“Maybe we should all just calm down,” Scott interjected. 

Murdoch shot a warning look Johnny’s direction. “An excellent idea,” he said. “And as it seems that we’re all finished eating, perhaps you’d like to join me in the parlor, Mr. Todd?”  It sounded like an invitation, but there was no mistaking the order in his added, “Now, please.”

“Of course, Mr. Lancer.”  Todd downed the few swallows left in his wine glass and it jiggled when he set it back by his plate.  “And I apologize.  This hasn’t anything to do with you or your family, and it’s a shame to drag them into this.  I truly do apologize…but there’s more to this than you know.”

“There always is,” Murdoch said jadedly.  He pushed his chair back and stood.  “Shall we?”

Todd nodded at Hattie as he rose, and she looked down at her plate.  Josh stayed tilted forward, silently watching as Todd followed Murdoch from the room, and Scott watched his friend in turn.  He studied him, trying to dissect the particular slant of those eyes, the slight uplift of that brow, the tight line of his mouth. He isolated the anger there; that was easy as it was lying right there on the surface, but there was something deeper than that, too.  Something that left Scott’s mouth feeling dry and he went for his own wine, wasting the rich burgundy in a distracted gulp, just as if it were his brother’s harsh tequila. 

“Would you like to join them?” Scott asked his brother, knowing the answer to that question and acknowledging its inappropriateness with a sardonic smile.

“Nope.  He always like that?” Johnny asked.

“Unfortunately,” Hattie said, “Mr. Todd is a most consistently disagreeable…well, I’m not sure what word to use for him.”  Hattie’s lips lifted into a stiff smile and Josh squeezed her hand.  She turned to him.  “I’m sorry, Josh.  It’s my fault he has this in his head.  If my father was better with his money or if there wasn’t so much gossip…”  She hesitated and dropped her eyes to his hand.  “I’m just so sorry.”

“Hush, Hattie.”  Whatever had been there before was buried in the gentle tone of Josh’s voice and the soft gaze he aimed at her.  “It’s only a job, that’s all.  It’s nothing.”  He caressed his thumb against her fingers.

Hattie sighed quietly.  “I take it that you don’t need to meet that client tomorrow?”

“No.  I don’t believe that I’m still in the employ of the Stockton State Bank, so no, darling, I don’t see any reason to meet with Hansen.”  Josh wadded his napkin with his free hand and set it next to his half-eaten dinner.  “It appears that I haven’t any other obligations and I’m yours, day and night.  Do you think that you can stand me?”

“No rescue from you at all?” she said fondly, then she released his hand, and she stood and reached for the plates instead and began to stack them together.  “Just those bad jokes and that awful smile of yours, all to myself?  Well, you do know how to turn a girl’s head, Joshua Wright.”

“So when are you marrying me?” Josh handed his plate over and held onto it just long enough to make her tug it out of his hand.  Some quick color rose to her cheeks, and she shot both Scott and Johnny a shy look, but she leaned down anyway and kissed the top of Josh’s head. 

“It’s going to work out,” she said softly. 

He really didn’t believe them at the moment, but later Scott considered her encouraging words; later, after Josh had said his goodnights and Hattie had followed him up the stairs to her room, too.  Todd didn’t last much longer and they’d finally had a chance to discuss it all then, he and Murdoch and Johnny.  Murdoch was keeping his opinions guarded and all Scott could get out of him was a “possibly” or a “we’ll have to see”, but Johnny had kept staring into his coffee, listening to all the arguments and asking a question here or there, and then he’d set his cup down, rubbed a fist into his eye, and drawled out what Scott had been thinking all along.  “I can’t say for sure that Josh didn’t do nothin’,” Johnny said, “but I know the likes of Zachary Todd.  The truth’s kinda slippery for his kind and I don’t trust him.  And I plan on keepin’ my eye on him until he goes on his way.”

Maybe that’s what Scott was doing, lying in his bed until long after the cool of his sheets had warmed and staring up into the dark.  Keeping an eye on Zachary Todd, or an ear, anyway.  And there had been sounds, footsteps in the hallway outside his room.  The first ones had been heavy and they’d repeated, a slow thud-thud all the way down the long carpet.  Scott waited, thinking that they’d come again.  Listening.  A minute slid by, maybe.  Then another.  The thick silence took them.  He should get up. That thought came to him, prodded at him even, and it left him restless.  He should get up, only he didn’t, and the shadows shifted as he watched, hollows shaping in the dark above his bed. 

He closed his eyes. 

Sounds came again, faintly.  A door.  Maybe a door, maybe just imagination.  That was it, for a long time.  Maybe.  Maybe only minutes.  He turned to his side, pressed the pillow to his ear and watched the night again. A thin line of pearly grey showed at his window, there where the curtains parted.  The pale in the blackness drew him and he thought to move again; felt it.  A lighter sound, on the steps.  Hattie.  Her image poured through him—the dark, dark of her hair—and he sat up, naked feet touching the floor before he’d even meant to do it. 

He grabbed his pants and was putting his legs into them as he crossed the room.  He had to reach back for his robe, and he snatched it from where it lay draped across the footboard and wrapped it around him as he opened the door.  He tied the cord while searching through the dimness.

“Did I wake you?” a quiet voice asked.

“Hold on,” Scott told her, and he let the door swing open as he reached back to his bureau and felt for the candlestick there, then the matchbox next to it.  He struck the match and, in its sudden brightness, found the wick and lit it. 

Hattie was standing in the middle of the hallway, still fully dressed and squinting from the light.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” she said.

“You didn’t.  What time is it?”  Scott cupped his hand around the flame and moved out of his doorway, keenly aware of his rumpled bed behind him and the hem brushing the tops of his bare feet.   

“I don’t know.  It’s late.”

“What are you doing up?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”  She said it simply and Scott forgot the folds barely covering his chest and worried instead at her tone, wondering what he was listening for.

“I could get you some warm milk,” he said.

“No,” she answered quickly.  “Thank you.”

“It’s no trouble.” 

She smiled gently.  “Josh tells me you’re a good man.”

“You can’t believe everything he says.”

“No, you can’t.”

“He tells me you’re getting married.”  Scott turned for a second, gazing into the darkness to the third door, the one Josh should be asleep behind, and he thought there was a sound, a small one.  Or he imagined one again.  It could be a late night indiscretion, he knew that.  Hattie caught leaving Josh’s room and feigning her unrest.  There was no light under Josh’s door.

“I didn’t hate him, Scott.”

That brought his eyes back to hers.  “What?” he asked, feeling his brows knit.

“What Josh told Teresa, that I hated him when we met.  I didn’t.  I don’t know why, but it’s just important to me that you know that.  You’re his friend.  I’ve never hated Josh.”

“He thinks you love him.”

He lost them, those green eyes.  She dropped her gaze and her face lowered with it, only the dark of her hair gleaming in the flickering light.  “Too much,” she said softly, and she took a step toward her room.

“What were you doing downstairs?” Scott asked quickly.

She stopped and looked back at him. “I thought I heard someone.  And I couldn’t sleep.”

He watched her go until her door closed behind her.  He took his candle to his bedside then, with his own door shut against the house.  The flame danced as he set the candle on the nightstand and he blew, emptying it into the darkness.  With his pants folded at the foot of his bed and his robe tossed across them, he pulled the sheet against his skin and then he watched, once again studying the shadows, and, once again, he listened.

He must have slept.  He knew he had because that shaft of light woke him, the one that pushed through the curtains. It was well past sunrise and he felt a pang of guilt as he dressed, then flipped open his pocket watch.  Ten past seven.

Johnny was still at the breakfast table when Scott made it to the kitchen, hunched over his plate and yawning.  Not enough coffee yet, Scott figured, and he poured his own, filling it as high to the brim as he dared.  He took a slurping slug. 

“You hear anything from Todd?” Johnny asked.

“No.  Hasn’t he been up yet?”  Scott sat, eyeing the eggs and bacon and biscuits piled up in front of him.  He took another slug. 

“Haven’t seen him.  I thought maybe you were goin’ to sleep all day.”

“Long night.” Scott looked up as light rushed through the suddenly opened garden door.  “Good morning, Jelly,” he said.

“No, it ain’t.”  Jelly stalked across the room, clenching something in his hands.  He slapped it on the table and left it lying. 

Scott and Johnny both looked down at the dirt-caked bag.  Johnny poked at it.

“What is it, Jelly?” Johnny asked.

“Found it under a feed bin out in the barn.”  Jelly reached into the sack.  “I wore my knees plumb out crawling all over that barn yesterday and don’t know how I missed it.”

“Jelly?” Scott watched the ranch hand’s fingers pull out of the bag.  “Is that…”

“Money.”  Jelly slid the thick wad of bills out onto the table. “Thousands of it.”


Chapter Five

It was four thousand three hundred and thirty six dollars, to be exact.  Jelly went back to his chores, but Johnny watched, slouching back in his chair and rubbing his thumb at the rim of his cup, while Scott counted it out.  Twice.  He made piles of it, ten hundred-dollar bills in each stack, fitting them into the space they’d made between a platter of eggs and Teresa’s blue-speckled bowl of strawberry marmalade.  All the odd tens and twenties and ones went into the last pile.  He lingered over that one, turning the stack in his hand and squaring the edges, then tapping the pile against the table until the bills were in perfect alignment.  He set it with the others.  Four thousand three hundred and thirty six dollars.

Still staring at the money, Scott sat back, picked up his own cup, and took a long, slow sip, and then he took another.  And, finally, he lifted his eyes to meet his brother’s. “I think it might be time to invite Val out for a visit.”

Johnny pursed his lips and leaned forward, and he poked at the methodically stacked bills, fanning the corner numbers back into view.  “It doesn’t look good.” 

“No, it definitely does not.” Scott tilted his head and forced a little half-smile. “It’s a shame we didn’t get that game of poker.  Apparently Josh could afford to lose somewhat more than only twenty dollars.”

“Yeah.”  Johnny’s smile barely nudged his lips.  “I kinda wanted to believe him, though.”

“So did I.”

“You figure the rest of it’s here somewhere?”

“He could have spent it.”

“Maybe.”  Johnny cast his eyes toward the garden door.  “Or maybe we need to send Pablo back into those outhouses.”

Shaping the spread-out pile back into a proper stack, Scott shook his head.  “I’d like to have a little talk with Josh before we do anything as drastic as that. And maybe I should tell Murdoch about this….”  He wagged a finger over the money.  “…loot.  Where is he?”

“He went into Morro Coyo.  Said something about sending a telegram to Stockton.  Maybe the sheriff there might know somethin’.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“Seemed like it.  Now, well….I can’t see what that sheriff could tell us that we’re not already lookin’ at.”

It should have been more substantial.  That thought took hold as Scott considered the money, each meager pile of it.  Set one bill on top of the other, it was only a hand’s width high.  It hardly seemed big enough to ruin a man’s life the way it was about to do.   “Damn.”  Scott rubbed his fingers into his eyes.  “Ten years,” he softly said.

“Fifteen, if the judge doesn’t like the looks of him.”

Scott took another sip of his coffee.  It was cooling and that swallow went down more easily.  “Do you think there’s any chance of Josh getting a lady judge?”

His smile nudged a little harder, but Johnny’s eyes gazed steadily into Scott’s.  “He’s no kid,” he said.  “I know he’s your friend and all…but he’s gonna have to face whatever’s comin’.”

“I know.”  He took a deep breath and let the smell of the coffee dull his thoughts.  Breakfast, he suddenly remembered, he hadn’t had any breakfast, and he scanned the food still heaped on the platters. Stacks of biscuits, piled higher than that money, and mounds of eggs.  And bacon, hickory-smoked bacon he could tell from the pungent sweetness that seeped in with the coffee.  And he was hungry, he suddenly remembered.  “I know,” he said again, and he pushed his chair back. He palmed the stacks of bills and made one hand’s width of them again.  “I guess it’s time I woke Josh.”

The money was all he was thinking of as he stood and turned toward the hallway, how awkward it felt to hold that much of it in his hand.  He wished the bag wasn’t so filthy or that he had a box for it.  He could get one maybe; Murdoch might have something in his desk.  He was staring down at the wad in his fist when he heard Johnny call softly to him.

“Hey, Scott…”  Scott turned his head and saw his brother over by the garden door, taking his rig down from its peg.  “You’re not goin’ up there alone,” Johnny said, and he slung the rig around his hips and looked down as he jiggled the buckle into place.

“There’s no need for that.”



“You ever corner a rabbit?” Johnny looked up, then focused again on fastening the holster to the button on his pants. “Saw one down around Modesto, this dog had it dead to rights…backed right up against a crate in a little alley.  Well, that rabbit…you never heard a sound like he made, and he came right after that old hound.”

Scott waited for his brother’s gaze to leave his Colt and come back up to his.  “Josh isn’t a rabbit,” he said.


“What happened?”

“No rabbit’s got a prayer against a hound.  He didn’t last two seconds.”  Johnny started toward him. “And I aim to see that we have the same advantage.”

The dimness seemed strange when they reached the long hallway leading to Josh’s bedroom.  The sun was well-up, and any other morning those doors would be open, dust-speckled rays falling through them.  Scott thought he heard sounds as he passed Hattie’s room, maybe the gurgle of her pitcher pouring, but Todd’s was quiet.  Josh’s was across from Todd’s, at the far end of the hall.  Johnny stood behind him as Scott raised his hand to that door and knocked twice.  Nobody answered.

“Josh?” Scott called through the heavy wood.  He waited a few seconds.  “Josh?”  Turning, he studied Hattie’s door, and Scott listened intently, remembering the footsteps in the night, the quiet closing of the doors. 

“You figure he might be in the wrong bed?” Johnny asked, his voice low.

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Can’t say that I’d be sorry about it.  That one might have to last him a long time.”

He could have denied it.  That realization came to him a second later, as Scott was still staring at her door.  He knew the kind of women Josh had dallied with, but it was ungallant to think the same of Hattie.  Only he couldn’t get her image from his mind, the one that wisped across his thoughts—of her hair, thick against the linens, and her shoulder, the soft curve of it, bare to the morning light and warm. He raised his hand again and knocked, hard this time. 

“Josh?” he said, more loudly, as he turned the knob.  It wasn’t locked and he swung it open. 

It was more of a jerking than anything else.  Josh’s head was off the pillow before his eyes had even opened and his hand grabbed at the blanket, pulling it over his chest.  He blinked heavily.  “What the…Scott?” he asked to the general direction of the door.

“Get up.”  Scott stalked across the room and glared down at his friend’s face.  Josh’s head sank back onto the pillow. 

“Good morning to you, too,” Josh said with a bewildered smile. 

“I said get up.”  Scott yanked at a handful of quilt and threw it back, suddenly and embarrassingly aware that Josh might not have had the grace to wear anything underneath it.  He was grateful to see Josh tug at his long johns, drawing them up a bit. 

“All right.”  Josh sat up and swung his legs to the floor, then stared up at Scott.  “I’m awake.  You happy now?”  His gaze drifted down Scott’s arm and he finally focused on the green wad clutched only a foot away from his face.  “What’s that?” he asked.

“Money,” Scott said, as accusingly as he could manage with only two simple syllables to work with.

“It looks like a lot of it.”  Josh tilted sideways and looked past Scott.  “Johnny? Would you like to tell me what the hell’s going on here?” 

His brother’s footsteps moved softly across the carpet, and Scott looked back to see Johnny settling into the upholstered chair, his leg angling over his knee.  His Colt was already in his hand and he balanced it across his thigh. 

“I think Scott’s got some questions he needs answered,” Johnny said softly. 

“The kind that need asking with a gun pointed at me?” 

Johnny smiled, just as softly as he’d spoken.

“All right.”  Josh reached to the foot of his bed and grabbed up a shirt.  “You mind if I make myself decent for this inquisition?”

“Where’s the rest of it?”  Scott thrust the cash closer to Josh’s face and Josh squinted at it as he shrugged into his shirt.  He looked up again as his fingers fumbled for and fastened his buttons.

“How should I know?” Josh said, with one brow cocked with irritation.  Scott could feel his fist tightening around the money and he held back the lightning flash of anger that nearly sent it flying forward. 

“We’re not doing this, Josh.”  Scott set the money on the nightstand, shoving Josh’s shaving kit aside to make room. “Mr. Todd said that your bank is missing fourteen thousand dollars and we’ve found less than five thousand.  Where’s the rest?”

“What?” Realization rippled across Josh’s face.  “You found the money…how?”  His mouth gulped open again, but at first nothing came out, and then, finally, again, he asked a quivering, “How?”

“What did you think?  That you could just stash your stolen money under my feed bin and I’d turn a blind eye for old time’s sake?”

“No—no, Scott.  I didn’t take that money.”  Josh started to stand and Scott slammed a hand to his breast, knocking him down again.  “Scott,” Josh pleaded, “you have to believe me.  I didn’t even think of the bank’s money when I saw you with all that, because it isn’t possible.  It’s just not.  I didn’t steal anything; I couldn’t steal anything.  Hell, you know me, Scott…I’m a coward.  I could never steal anyone’s money.  You know that.”

Scott schooled the anger out of his voice.  “Where is it?” he asked flatly.

Josh’s head moved slowly from side to side.  “I don’t know.”


“I don’t know.”

His brother’s voice drawled behind him and Scott spared him once quick glance.  The Colt gleamed in the light shafting through the window.  “It’s not going to work, Josh,” Johnny said.  “Like Todd said, that money’s all the proof he needs.”

“There has to be some other explanation.”  Josh’s eyes searched wildly between their faces.  “Maybe that’s not even the bank’s money.  Did you think of that? Not everybody trusts banks; I’ve met lots of people who don’t.  They hide their money.  I knew a man who stuffed his life savings in his mattress and bugs ate big holes out of it.  Some people bury it in their garden.  You admitted that it’s not even the right amount.”

This was getting them nowhere.  Scott looked down at the floor, seeing the crumpled black of Josh’s pants peeking out from under the bed.  He bent and grabbed them up.  “Here,” he said, as he threw them at Josh’s face.  Josh flinched, but he caught them in mid-air.  “Get dressed.”

“All right.”

Scott watched Josh’s face as his friend stepped into his pants and then reached for his boots.  Ashen worry drained his color and his eyes took on a faraway look, his concentration going somewhere else, somewhere deep into his thoughts. Calculating, Scott decided, trying to determine a way out of this mess, when there wasn’t any, there just wasn’t, and he’d have to face the consequences of his madness. They’d both have to face it, Josh marching off to a decade of imprisoned hell and Scott the one to send him to it.  And, once again, Scott had to fight the urge to slug him. 

There was a deep cough, outside in the hallway, and a door slammed.             

“Todd’s up,” Johnny said, and Scott stared off toward the closed door.

“You want to tell him?” Scott asked.

“Sure.  When we’re through here.”

He looked full on at his brother then.  “I’d rather you kept Todd out of here,” he told him.  “Josh isn’t going to try anything; not anything I can’t handle, anyway.  And besides…I’d like a few minutes alone with my friend.”  He took a small satisfaction in the bitter fury he’d infused into that one last word.

Johnny’s mouth quirked up and his thumb rubbed against the handle of his Colt.  “You sure?” he asked. 

“Go on.”  Scott nodded toward the hallway and the heavy clumps fading off at its far end.

He hesitated a second longer, but then Johnny got to his feet, slid the Colt into its leather, and nodded toward Josh.  “You might want to give him those answers,” he said, with more sympathy than Scott was willing to allow the man. 

Johnny moved toward the nightstand first, took the money, and feathered the edges of the bills as he strolled out of the room.  He closed the door behind him.

“Well?”  Scott squared his shoulders and turned back to Josh.  “You have one minute to tell me where that money is…or so help me…”  He sucked in his next breath, not even knowing what came next, but feeling the violence in his gut. 

Josh was slumped on the edge of his mattress, looking almost as limp as the quilt hanging off beside him.  His elbows were on his knees and his hands dangled as he stared down at them.  He didn’t answer at first and Scott just watched the mass of blondish hair tangled at the back of his head, waiting.

“Thirty seconds,” Scott said.

“It wasn’t me.”

“Then who?”  Scott pointed toward the hallway.  “Todd?  Are you going to try to tell me that Todd took the money, just to hide it in our barn?”

Josh finally raised his head and a fragment of Scott’s anger died away at the wretched look in Josh’s eyes.  “No, I’m not saying that.  He’s not the only one who knows the combination.”

“Then who, Josh?  That Grayless, maybe?  An 84-year-old man planned all this just to bury it under the feed bin?”

“Grayless hasn’t left his rocker since I’ve known him.”

“Well, then, he must really hate you to go to all that trouble.”

“Nobody hates me,” Josh said, miserably.

He let himself breathe then, deep breaths that cleared his head and washed a fragment more of the anger away.  Scott smoothed the quilt near the foot of the bed and sat finally, leaning forward just as Josh was, and looked sideways at him.  “Is that why you did this, Josh?  Was it Hattie?”

“Leave her out of this,” Josh answered quickly.

“Her father needs that money, doesn’t he?  And you’d do anything to keep her.”

“Scott,” Josh warned, and Scott suddenly envisioned it—Johnny’s rabbit, trapped and scared and lunging out at anything it could. 

“You didn’t have to steal it.”  Scott tapped the back of his hand against Josh’s leg.  “She loves you, you poor, dumb idiot.  She told me she does.”

“When?” Josh sat straighter.

“Last night.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“It was late.”  There was something in Josh’s voice, something uglier than the misery Scott had heard before.  Jealousy?  Maybe.  It was faint, but maybe.  “You’d gone to bed,” Scott added, watching Josh’s face for a reaction.

“Hattie went to bed before me.”

“She said she couldn’t sleep…Josh?”  Scott reached for him again, laying a hand on his back as Josh bent forward, his face buried in his palms.  “Josh, you made a mistake.  It’s not going to be easy, but you’re going to handle this.  You hear me?  You can do this.”  He slid his hand to Josh’s shoulder and gave it a gentle shake.  “Just tell me where the rest of the money is.”

His face still hidden, Josh nodded.  “All right,” he said and his muffled voice broke on the words.  He took a deep, quaking breath and dropped his hands, turning his face away as he did it.  “Scott…I need to get shaved…I think…”  He turned back and Scott could see the lines etched into his face.  He’d grown old, all of his youthful mischief gone in the span of a moment.  “I don’t want to face Mr. Todd like this.”  He scrubbed his fingers through his hair.  “And I need a brush.”  He looked absent-mindedly around the room.  “I left it down there…in my bag.”  He pointed past Scott’s boots to the floor at the foot of the bed. 

“Under here?” Scott asked, lifting the hanging edge of the quilt and glancing down.

“Do you mind?” 

Scott locked eyes with him.  “Are you going to show me where the rest of the money is?”

Josh’s jaw clenched.  “I’ll show you…can you hand me that bag?”

Later, he forgave himself for looking away.  Years later.  It was all he could do.  He knew that look in Josh’s face; he’d seen it, felt it.  The fear that seeps like darkness, sealing all thought, hiding it away in some protected place. 

He bent down, glad of it even, and raised the quilt away from the planks, peering into the dimmer space under the bed.  He heard Josh move, he must have heard him, even felt the mattress shift when Josh’s weight lifted from it, but that wasn’t what Scott remembered later.  It was the smell, the sudden overpowering smell of kerosene, as it poured across his temple and down his cheek, trickling onto the floor a second before he hit it.  And the sound, he remembered that.  The unexpected crack and the roar that exploded through his ears. 

And as he hit the floor, it all grew silent.


Chapter Six

There was a knock. 

Scott wanted to answer.  The air pressed through his throat and a word almost shaped itself, before it sank back into the silence.  The knock came again and he obeyed this time, just, rolling face up and grunting out a sound.  A jagged pain frayed his gathering senses. 

“Wait a…wait.”  He squeezed his eyes tighter, and his hand went to that spot, there at the back of his head.  Sliding his fingers through his hair, he held onto the ache.  It was wet.


Hattie’s voice was hushed by the heavy door and the whoosh, the one that kept pulsing through his ears.  Scott braced his hand against the floor and it was wet, too.  His palm slipped a little as he pushed, but he managed to sit.

“Josh?  Are you all right?”

Josh.  It all rushed back to him and he jerked to his knees, frustration contracting his muscles and driving him up.  He stumbled and grabbed at the bedpost, but momentum took him forward and, blessedly, his legs caught up.  The room was lurching.  He closed his eyes to make it stop and his hand enclosed the cool glass of the door handle. Sucking in a bracing lungful of air, he yanked the door open.

“Scott?  What happened to you?” 

There wasn’t any stopping her, although he tried.  He felt her hand on his arm and he opened his eyes, looking over her dark hair down the long, empty hallway. Then he was shuffled backward, gently, back into the room where he didn’t really want to be.  Josh wasn’t there; he was somewhere else, gone, but Hattie wasn’t listening to him.  “I need to find him…” he said and his words were buried in her concern.

“What’s all over you?” she asked as she kept nudging him, her fingers dabbing at the hair plastered to his temple.  She moved closer, and Scott retreated.

“I need to…” he tried again, but her “you’re drenched,” was more insistent.  “How did you get so wet?” she demanded, her hand hovering at his brow, barely touching. 

“Hattie…”  He stood his ground, and he grabbed her wrist.  “Listen to me.”  Confusion flickered through her eyes.  “We have to find him.”

“What’s that smell?”  Her nose wrinkled.


“Why?”  She craned her neck, looking past him toward the bed and then the chair.  “Where’s Josh?”

“If you’d listen, I’m trying to tell you.”  Her gaze settled on the broken glass and the brass font still scattered across the floor by Josh’s bed and then, quickly, it came back to him. “Josh stole the money,” Scott said.  “He admitted it.” 

“No.”  It was flat denial, as certain as he’d ever heard.

“He did—we found it this morning.”

“No.”  She shrank back, dragging a weight into his hand, and something—fear, confusion—something creased across her face.

“Hattie, we need to find Josh before he hurts somebody.”

“He wouldn’t do that.” 

“No?”  Scott let go of her arm and pressed tenderly at the sore spot in his hair. “I’m not so sure about that.”  He pulled his hand back and looked at his fingers, but there wasn’t any color to the wet.  He wasn’t bleeding.  “Before he gets hurt, then.” 

He stepped around her and felt her hand grasp at his sleeve, but he kept striding forward.  Hattie followed behind, her footsteps quicker than his.  She was so close that he could almost feel her when they came into the great room.  Scott’s eyes swept across the room, finding first Todd, enthroned on the leather chair, feet up on the ottoman and arms spread wide open, hands dangling down on either side of the chair.  Smugness twisted Todd’s mouth and it gleamed in his eyes.  That’s all Scott could see in the man, smugness seeping from his casual slouch, souring the air even worse than the kerosene, and Scott would have sworn that the man stank with it.  

Johnny was across the room, perched on the corner of Murdoch’s desk. The money was stacked next to his hip and the handle of his Colt seemed to point toward the too-small pile of bills.  He tensed and came to his feet.  “What happened to you?” he asked.

“The rabbit bit me.”  Scott glanced around.  “Obviously, he didn’t come this way.”

“He got away?”  There was a dangerous edge to Johnny’s voice.

“It would seem.”  Hattie’s shoulder brushed his sleeve and Scott looked down at her. She was staring at Todd, her cheeks flushed and her eyes unwavering.  “He couldn’t have gone far, though. Do you want to check the barns?”

Johnny twisted, snatched up the money, and stalked over to Todd.  He slapped the pile of it into the man’s belly.   “Here, hang on to this,” he told him, and then, barely giving Todd a chance to smirk up a “sure”, he shot a backward glance at Scott.  “Some reason why you took a bath in kerosene?” he asked.

“It was Josh’s idea.”  Scott headed for the door, with his brother falling in beside him, both of them walking at a good clip. “And I’ve got some ideas of my own when I catch up to him.” 

They didn’t though, not in a full twenty minutes of searching.  Scott started to wonder how they’d ever find the rest of the money, if a full grown man could disappear so completely into the hay lofts or the tack rooms or the hacienda or whatever secret niche Josh had found.  He stared idly off across the fields a time or two, hands on his hips, wondering if Josh could manage to saddle a horse or fit a bit into the animal’s mouth.  It didn’t seem likely, not after the gangly riding he’d been witness to.  And if he did, they’d find him, somewhere over one of those ridges, the loosely cinched saddle hanging around the poor mount’s middle and Josh on foot, his toes already sore in those immaculate boots.

That was before Johnny found Isaac.  Isaac had been standing a lot like Scott, just off from the stables, arms cocked at his side and staring off at nothing.  He looked a bit embarrassed when Johnny walked up behind him, and Scott caught fragments of his apologies as he came up on both of them.  Isaac didn’t know what had happened to the bay, he was saying.  He left her there when he’d ridden in, tied right up to the corral.  He’d even filled a water bucket for the horse and hung it from the rail. 

The hand turned a little sheepish when Johnny asked what he was doing back at the bunkhouses instead of out with the crew.  He unbuttoned his sleeve and folded the cuff back, showing the bright white of a new bandage, and he fingered the knife handle sticking out from its sheath on his belt.  He had a few carefully chosen, uncomplimentary words for a heifer that’d been brainless enough to get itself snared in a thorny vine and was then too ungrateful to stand still while he cut it free.  The knife slipped.  Scott assumed that the shirt was a fresh one, but there was blood on the man’s pants, enough to explain why Cipriano had sent him in to get the wound properly cared for.

He’d meant to make it back to the crew before they’d rounded up all those strays and help them move the beeves into the North Mesa pasture.  Only his bay wasn’t where he’d left her.  That was worrying Isaac, and Johnny’s questions, softly asked though they were, weren’t reassuring him any.  Yeah, he told him, there was a canteen hanging from the saddle horn, a half-full one.  And yeah, there was a bit of jerky in a little leather bag that he’d tied around the horn, too.  When Johnny asked about the gun, Scott gazed off across the hills again.  There’d been wolf tracks spotted up by North Mesa, Isaac told them, and he’d wanted to be ready, just in case.  Rumor had it in Green River that the state was paying a ten-dollar bounty on wolf pelts and he could sure use the money, not to mention looking out for all those new calves.  He’d taken a Winchester with him, with an extra box of bullets in the leather bag with the jerky.  The rifle was still in its boot when he’d tied the bay to the rail.

“All right, go on,” Johnny told him, and he slapped him on the shoulder.  “Tell Cipriano to bring the crew in…and take it easy with that arm.”

With Isaac trotting off toward the barns, Johnny turned back to Scott and looked him up and down.  “How’s that head?” he asked, gingerly taking hold of it.  Scott could feel him feathering his hair away and pressing against the swollen flesh. “You’re gonna have a lump.  Guess it still hurts some?”  With his head bowed, Scott watched Johnny’s hand drop to his thigh and wipe against his pant leg.

“I can ride,” Scott said, combing his fingers through his ruffled hair.

“Yeah?”  The appraising look lasted a few seconds later, then Johnny squinted up at the still-rising sun.  “What do you figure?  Half an hour maybe?”

“Not quite.  Time enough for Josh to get a good head start, though.  Do you have any idea which way he headed?”

“Nope.  You?”

Scott scanned the horizon, starting with the thin, brown line that snaked up over the high ridge, heading west into Morro Coyo, and then shifting his gaze east, toward the mountains. They stood in a sentry line, shoulder to shoulder across the horizon.  “That way.”  He tilted his chin toward the rough peaks.  “Josh would go east.”

Johnny spun around, following Scott’s line-of-sight and staring off as he was, curving his palm above one eye.  “Why’s that?” he asked.

“Because it’s the least convenient option and Josh isn’t doing anything to make my life easy.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I don’t know, Scott.”

“Johnny?”  Scott tilted his head and looked sideways at his brother.  “If you were a spoiled city boy who’s convinced that horses were born with a buggy harness around their neck, where would you head?”

“Morro Coyo.  San Francisco.”  Johnny ducked his head, considering, then brought it back up. “Someplace with a good steak and a hot bath.”

“And if you wanted to stay far away from any place we’d look?”

He didn’t look convinced, but Johnny gave one nod.  “All right, Brother…but there’s frost up on those north slopes, maybe even some snow.  We’re going to need provisions.”

“So will Josh,” Scott said, more to himself than to his brother.  An image came to mind, a particularly satisfying one, with Josh splayed out on his butt, watching the bay kick its heels across the scrubby range.  He’d see the horse got an extra scoop of oats if that’s how they found them, and he was feeling more and more convinced that’s exactly what would happen.  “Let’s go.”

It wasn’t much of a bath, only a pitcher of water poured over his head and then a towel scrubbed through it, but it got rid of the worst of the kerosene stench.  A clean shirt helped, too.  By the time Scott made it back down to the kitchen, with his bedroll and a jacket under his arm, Teresa was handing Johnny two overstuffed saddlebags and four canteens. 

“Did you see Hattie up there?” she asked. 

“No.” He turned to Johnny.  “Are the horses saddled?”

“They’re ready,” Johnny said.  “And I got your Winchester.” 

“Did you leave orders for the crew?”

“Jelly’s going to send them out after us.  Cipriano’ll head into town, check things out there.”

Teresa’s raised voice got their attention.  “Hattie says that she’s going with you.” 

Scott jerked around.  “No, she isn’t,” he said, with as much finality as he could muster.

“She wanted to borrow some riding clothes from me.”

He slung one of the saddlebags over his shoulder.  “You didn’t give them to her?” 


“She can’t come.”

Teresa took a small, napkin-wrapped bundle from the sideboard and walked toward him.  “She’s worried about him, Scott.”  She shoved it into the bag, dragging it down a little. 

“She should be.”  He tugged the bag into a more comfortable position and added, “Josh is in real trouble.”

He should have heard her coming.  Scott realized that a second later, but the first he knew of Hattie standing at the kitchen door was Johnny’s muttered “no” and his brother’s suddenly rigid stance.  Scott looked her over quickly.  Her clothes—no, Josh’s clothes, because that’s what they surely were—hung from her.  The pant legs were rolled, more than once, but they still draped over her boots, and would have fallen far worse than that if it wasn’t for the curtain sash she had threaded through the loops.  Her improvised belt was from Josh’s room, purple, with dark roses splotched across it, and it lent a strange flourish to the outfit.  Like a gypsy, Scott thought, some ludicrous, out-of-place gypsy.  Her shirt was at least three sizes too big and the seams drooped inches off her shoulders.  Even buttoned all the way, it still gapped at her neck, and that’s where Scott’s gaze settled, at the fine hollow of her throat.  Forcefully, he drew his gaze up.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, reaching back and taking his holster from its peg by the garden door.

She shifted a bundle in the crook of her arm, wrapping a dangling jacket arm back up and around.  “Josh doesn’t know how to use a gun.  You won’t need that.”

“He doesn’t know how to ride either, but he’s out there somewhere.”

“Take me with you.”

“You’re not going.”  Scott slung the rig around his hips and buckled it.  “Teresa…”  He nodded toward her.  “Keep an eye on her.”  The only answer was Teresa’s thin smile, but Scott knew that she’d try.

“Johnny, you ready?” he asked curtly, with one last glance at Hattie.  “Wait here, Hattie.  We’ll find him,” he said, turning toward the door.  “You can count on that.”

He meant that promise, too, but it wasn’t long before he’d started to wonder.  They walked their horses at first, searching the ground for any print that might give them a clue, but there were hundreds of them, thousands.  Every horse on the ranch had left its own curved marks in the dirt and each one looked almost exactly like the others. He aimed hopeful looks at his brother, waiting for that cocky smile, just a flash of one, that would tell him that Johnny had seen something, anything, that might seem uniquely “bay”.  But it didn’t come.  All he saw was his brother’s odd angle in his saddle, tilted over Barranca’s shoulder and looking down, his hair hanging in his eyes. 

“Maybe I’ve got it wrong,” Scott finally said.  “Josh could be sitting in the saloon in Morro Coyo right now, laughing at us.”     

“Could be.”  Johnny tilted away, leaving the back of his hat to Scott as he searched down on the other side of his horse.  He reined Barranca to a halt and Scott did the same with Charlie.  “Cipriano’ll find him if he is.”  He looked up toward the mountains.  “Which way, Scott?”

He couldn’t see that it made much difference.  All of the mountains were the same, full of ridges and canyons where Josh could be lost for weeks.  He had a fleeting thought that it might be better to just wait where they were until night came and maybe Josh would come dragging back on his own, afraid of the dark or the snakes or Isaac’s wolf.  It was a sensible plan.  He even considered sharing it with Johnny, except that his brother had lost interest in the mountains and he was staring off behind them.  Scott twisted in his saddle to see what was so fascinating back the way they’d come.

Hattie.  She was pushing a little paint hard across the uneven ground and closing in on them fast. 

“Well, she can ride,” Johnny drawled.

“Yes.  Yes, she can.”  And as he turned his horse and watched her move with the paint’s gallop, he had to appreciate the way she set a saddle.  She might have made an excellent cavalry soldier, except for that pesky problem with taking orders.  “Josh told me that she could.”

“He was right.”

“I see that.”

“You gonna let her stay?”

“Do you think that I have a choice?”

“Nope.”  There was that cocky grin, the irritating one, sliding across his brother’s face.

“I could give her a stern talking to,” Scott said, sitting his own saddle a bit more authoritatively. 


“You think I won’t?”  He leveled a threatening look at his brother, but Johnny only grinned back.

The paint thudded closer and Hattie reined it in, bringing the horse to a bone-jarring, straight-legged stop right in front of them.  She let the horse’s rump swing closer as she looked at them, and her chin tilted challengingly.  Her hair was a mess, wild strands of it free of her braid, and her cheeks were flushed with the sun and the heat of her blood.  Her too-big shirt had slid to one side and the buttons followed the wrong line, a crooked line that led Scott’s eyes directions he didn’t want them going just then. 

“Nice day for a ride?” He glared into those green eyes.

“I won’t be any trouble.” 

“No?” Scott leaned forward, bracing his forearm across his saddle horn.  He smiled grimly.   “Starting when?”


Chapter Seven

It itched, infuriatingly out of reach, deep inside his gut.  Hattie was looking at him, head still high and eyes narrowed against the sun, and the warm breeze was flapping her shirt, gently, dragging curves across it.  Scott could feel the hard knob of the saddle horn pressing into his arm where he leaned, trying to judge just how impulsively reckless this particular woman might be, and every time her lips parted, every time she tried to speak, that itch burrowed itself deeper.

“Hattie,” Scott said, barbing the words with little spiny edges, “turn around, right now.”  He pointed past her, to out there—out in the low hills and the feathery sage and the failing echo of a far-off quail.  The breeze ruffled his sleeve.  “Josh is dangerous.  He has a rifle and he’s already attacked me.”

“He wouldn’t—”

“What makes you think that he wouldn’t?  There’s a prison cell waiting for Josh and he’d do anything to stay out of it—hit me, steal that horse, shoot us—anything, Hattie. You’re going to get hurt out here and I’m not about to just let that happen.”

“You don’t know—”

“No, Hattie—No! I’m not taking you with us. You’re going home—right now.  Those mountains are no place for a woman and I won’t be responsible for you.  Do you hear me?"  He’d found a cadence to his anger and he let it pulse with methodical pleasure.  “I don’t care what you think you’re going to do, it’s not going to happen.  Josh is my problem now, not yours.  Not any more.  He has a Lancer horse under him and one of our rifles and he’s my problem.  And I don’t need any more trouble, so I’m telling you to just turn that horse around and go back and wait with Teresa.” 

“Scott,” Johnny said, quietly.

“Johnny, let me handle this.”  Scott shot him a threatening look.  “Are you going, Miss Whitfield?”

A wisp of her hair fluttered in the breeze, catching at her eyelashes when she blinked.  Hattie fingered it away, still watching him, silently.  That itch prickled.

“Are you?”

“Scott.”  From the corner of his eye, Scott could see Johnny leaning forward and Barranca shifting his balance, stepping sideways.  “I don’t know that sending her back…” Johnny tried to add.

“I’m not going back.”  Hattie flicked her reins and urged her horse toward them.

“Hattie….”  Scott hauled Charlie’s head around, and he grabbed for the paint’s rein.  “We don’t even know if Josh came this way.”  His arm wrenched as the paint tossed its head and pulled against the sudden interference, but Scott held on, grateful for his gloves when the rein slipped in his hand and he had to clench it tighter. 

“Let go!” She was nearly even with him and Charlie’s withers rippled as the paint’s tail swished under his nose.  Snatching at his hand, Hattie twisted and her eyes blistered up at him.  “I can’t go back, Scott.  I can’t just sit there.”

Her paint was a full hand smaller than his bay, making him look down into her upturned face.  She wasn’t pretty; Scott wondered how he’d ever thought she was, not like his Julie.  Greek, maybe, from the shape of her chin and those brows, black and thick, too thick for the graceful shape of her green eyes.

“It’s not safe here,” he told her.

“I don’t care.” 

“I do care,” he said, more firmly than he felt it. 

“Well, you shouldn’t.  It’s my choice.” 

“And it’s my ranch.” 

That ended it, it had to end it, but she looked past him and then brought her eyes back to lock on his. “Johnny?” she asked, her chin rising to throw the words against the breeze. “This is your ranch too.  What do you say?”

All he heard was silence for a long moment and Scott waited it out, still watching Hattie. A creak sounded behind him, leather on leather, and he envisioned his brother resettling in his saddle, ready to move on and leave this woman behind.  Or maybe reaching for his gun, maybe that was it, and that image was more satisfying than the first—Johnny checking the chamber of his Colt, shutting it…Scott listened for that click…and lifting the barrel, aiming it square at her empty head. As willful as she was, though, even that was unlikely to dissuade her.

“How’d you find us, Hattie?” Johnny’s voice was soft, just like it always was, sweetened with that same damnably casual drawl.  It wasn’t right and the itch gnawed again, down deep in Scott’s gut.  At least his brother could have the good sense to be as irritated as he was with Hattie, even half as much, something—instead of sitting there behind him being so gallingly reasonable.  It wasn’t right at all.

“Luck,” Hattie said.  “I kept spotting you when you crested a hill, and I finally caught up.”

“You know your way back?” Johnny asked.


“She’s coming with us, Scott.”

They were both insane.  Scott wallowed in the unexpected pleasure of that thought, the probability that Hattie and his brother were both quantifiably demented and he could have them locked up, maybe right in the same cell with Josh, for their own protection, of course.  And his.

Scott pivoted in his saddle, looking full on at his brother. “You can take her back.”

“Nope.”  The word rolled like a boulder between them.

“I’ll keep looking for Josh and you can meet up with me at Froze Creek, down where it cuts through Miller’s Gulch.  You shouldn’t be any longer than two…maybe three hours.”

“Nope.”  Johnny gathered up his reins and pulled them tighter, arching Barranca’s neck and rocking his weight back on his haunches.  The horse backed across several feet of the sparse grass.

“I don’t want her with us.”

“I’m not happy about it either.”  Clear of Charlie now, Johnny turned his horse and pointed him again toward the mountains.  “But that’s the way it’s gonna be.”


The boulder wasn’t budging.  “Josh is armed,” Johnny said, all of his drawl gone, “and I’m not leaving you alone out here.”

“I can handle him.”

“That why you stink with kerosene?”

If he’d said it with a smile, it might have dragged a wry one from Scott, too.  As it was, all it did was drive a lungful of Scott’s exasperation out into the warm air.  Scott turned purposefully away from his brother.  “All right, I’ll let you come…but we have a lot of ground to cover and we’re not letting you slow us down.”

“Thank you,” she said simply, reaching for the rein in Scott’s hand.  He let her take it and she threaded it expertly through her fingers.  “Can we go find him now?”

“Ladies first.”  Scott swept his hand in an exaggerated wave toward the mountains. 

At Hattie’s almost invisible prompting, her horse jolted forward and fell into a trot, with Johnny and Barranca coming rapidly up beside her.  Scott turned Charlie and followed a good two lengths behind, tugging his hat down against the sun that somehow burned harsher than it had a few minutes before.  He peered out from under his brim, snatching glimpses of the horses’ flanks as they bobbed up and down, side by side, the mottled cream of the palomino and the paint’s brown-splotched white looking oddly matched.  A barn full of sorrels and bays, he considered wordlessly, and just like his brother, Hattie rides off on the flashiest mount in the stalls.  Scott’s shoulders stiffened and he pulled one glove tighter, satisfied to feel it fit press more snugly against his fingers. 

Slowly, clump by thick-grassed clump, the range passed under him.  Scott watched the hills, searching their folds for some motion, some glint of metal, but there was nothing, not even the cattle this high, this late in the season.  He let his gaze drift across the ground, trying to will some scoop of soil to appear, a half-moon mark, anything that might mean that Josh had been this way.  Nothing.  Just dirt. 

The purple sash drew his eye then.  Her white shirt sagged over it, cutting wide swatches from his view.  The color fascinated him, the sway of that white against the sash’s lurid dark.  Hattie swayed, too, with each rise and fall of the paint, smoothly coupled to the horse’s trot.  Scott watched her body move until finally, firmly, he pulled his gaze away, back to the yellow-tinged grass and the too-smooth soil.  And, once again, that itch prickled.

Off to the south, trickling down from a hulking, sway-backed ridge, a thin creek carved a grey line through the mountainside.  By the time it’d widened out into the foothills, there were tasseled stalks lining its shallow banks and hiding most of it.  That’s where they were heading, in their wandering way.  It was as good a destination as any, Scott decided, searching across the mountains again, as soon as he could trust his eyes to find them.  He tried to see them as Josh would, not knowing their trails, but seeing only their sameness, shrubby trees reaching up from every rock and ledge, everywhere, an endless line of bald knobs and bleached-green pines, stretching out as far as the distant haze.  No one sun-filled clearing was any better than the other, just empty wildness to offer haven, as inhospitable an escape as Josh was likely to find anywhere he could have run.  Water, Scott considered, the thought settling into some sort of decision; Josh would head for the water. 


“You see anything?” Johnny asked, setting a hand on Barranca’s rump as he twisted back to find him.

“No,” Scott said.  “You?”

“Your saloon is looking pretty good.  You figure Josh might be waitin’ to buy us a round?”

Scott urged his bay up beside his brother.  “I think he owes us a whole lot more than that.  What do you think about that stream?” 

“Prints would show if he’s been that way.”

“I’ll take it.  You want to check out the tree line?”  Scott nodded toward the staggered row of pines edging the foot of the nearest slope.  “I’ll meet you up at that point.”  He aimed a finger toward the ridge, but Johnny was already shaking his head.

“There’s two banks to that creek.”  There was an off-handed tone to Johnny’s rather obvious observation, but Scott wasn’t fooled.  “I figure I can ride the shady side,” his brother added, with the start of a lop-sided smile.

Scott stared off past Hattie, to the stream threading through the shrub-dotted range.  “Is that your reward for watching out for your naive brother?” 

“There a reward in that?”

“About as much as there is shade by that stream.”  Scott brought his gaze back to his brother, just long enough to see him duck his head and try to hide the way that smile kept on sliding.  “Hattie?”  Scott glanced back at her.  “You’ve seen Josh try to ride—how long do you think he can stay in the saddle?”

“The man I know?” she said gently.  “Not long.”

“I assume the man you know wouldn’t have taken the fourteen thousand dollars, either,” Scott said. 

“No, he wouldn’t.  And he didn’t.”

Scott watched her eyes, looking for any doubt in that defense.  There wasn’t any.  “Maybe so,” he said, “But I wish that we were looking for the man you know…because the one I know has a lot of explaining to do.”

At least the riverbed was a change of pace. Instead of staring down at hard dirt, they had mossy rocks and the silvery, shallow water to watch. Johnny said something that Hattie pretended not to hear when Barranca stumbled for the third time, the loose dirt at the edge of the bank collapsing under the horse’s hooves.  He rode him through the middle of the stream then, Barranca splattering up droplets that soaked the horse’s legs and belly to a dark, golden sheen.  Hattie and Scott stayed on higher ground, riding one on one side of the water and one on the other.  Occasionally, a dragonfly stirred the air, or a green blur turned to frog and plopped into the water. And there were snakes, more than a few of them, jute-striped shafts of black slithering down through the cuts in the bank.  Even those signs of life became more meager as the day wore on and the sun shifted, throwing long shadows ahead of them. 

For the fourth time in a single hour, Scott pulled his watch from his pocket.  He was tempted to wait while the second hand made the last few ticks to six o’clock, the hour of decision.  Instead, he looked up, catching the sun at the tolerable range of his sight, judging its descent.  They’d be stumbling through the dark by the last few miles, but he knew those trails, the ones nearest to their barns.  If Hattie would just do as she was told, they’d be all right.  He clicked his watch shut.

“We’re done,” he announced.

Johnny reined in Barranca and ran a bandana over his neck.  “Maybe Cipriano had better luck.  Least we can get some food in our bellies back at the hacienda.”  He stuffed the bandana under his belt.

“I don’t know why we’re doing Todd’s work for him, anyway.”  Scott jiggled his watch in his cupped palm.  “It’s not as if the man is likely to thank us for it.  Hattie!”  She’d kept riding and for a second, as her paint trotted further away, he thought that she hadn’t heard him.  “Hattie!”

Finally pulling up, she turned her horse to face the stream and glared back at him.  “Josh is up here somewhere.  I’m not going back.”

A sluggish anger moved and died inside him; he was just too weary for it.  “You don’t know that.”

“Then why did you come this way?”

“Because I had my choice of four different directions and I picked the wrong one.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I’m not arguing with you.”  He let Charlie take a few steps forward.  “We can’t find him in the dark and we’re going back.”

“You have bedrolls; you were ready to stay the night up here.”

“That was before you showed up.” 

Scott loosened his reins and Charlie kept plodding toward her. Hattie watched him for a long moment, her arms not quite settled at her side, her expression flickeringly vague. 

“Hattie?” he half asked, half warned. 

She jerked, whirling her horse.  With a low-pitched “damn it”, Scott was after her, his heels in Charlie’s sides and the horse lunging forward.  The paint took off at a dead run, Hattie laid out over his withers.  Her too-big shirt whipped around her, a white sail, flapping.

Scott leaned lower too, and Charlie’s wind-driven mane grazed his face with quick, sharp flicks.  The ground churned and the thump-thump beat of the hooves filled his ears.  The paint was flying, gaining ground and on the wrong side of that steam.  Scott’s gaze swept the creek, madly searching for some easy way across it.  There—a shallower drop—and they were down it, Charlie scrambling for his footing on the bank and clattering on the rocks, crashing through the water.  Scott’s legs were drenched with the spray.  And then they were climbing, up and over the other bank, Charlie pushing forward willingly.  The ground leveled and Scott could feel the horse’s stride stretching again, finding its rhythm.  He asked him and Charlie responded, and the powerful speed was exhilarating. 

Hattie looked smaller, the space between them deadening the sound of her horse’s hooves.  It was hopeless, he couldn’t catch her, but Scott shoved that thought from his mind, focusing instead on her, on the purple of that sash, driving him on, faster.  “Go,” he told him, lying deeper across Charlie’s neck, and the horse did, sprinting across the range, his lungs sucking in air.  The paint had to be feeling it, had to be straining, but he didn’t slow and Scott knew it was Hattie, pushing him.

Neither of them gave.

Four minutes, five, and the sprint became a gallop, both of them losing their desperate edge.  Somewhere, back there, his hat had flown off and the wind raked his hair, cooling the sweat on his brow.  Scott let Charlie cool, too, falling off into a lope that became a walk.  Hattie twisted back, eying him, and when she was far enough ahead, she pulled the paint around, standing stock still on the top of a little rise. 

He had time to watch her, riding closer, seeing her pat the horse’s neck and then raise both hands, grabbing handfuls of loose hair and sorting them back into a braid, and she watched him, waiting.  Her cheeks were still reddened when he came near enough to see.  Her eyes were soft, though, almost trusting, but that was wrong—he knew it was wrong—and that idea, too, was pushed from his mind.  He reined Charlie a few feet off and shifted in his saddle. 

“Stay,” he said, as she gathered her reins, ready to bolt again. He stretched his hand out, palm down.  “Just stay, Hattie.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked warily.

“I should take you over my knee. Where’d you learn to ride like that?”

“I can’t just leave him out here.”

“He’s a grown man and he knew what he was doing.  He took that money—I wish he hadn’t, but he did.  Running away was his choice.” 

“He didn’t do it, Scott, he couldn’t have done it.  I know him,” she pleaded, her voice tender with it.  “Please.” 

She hadn’t asked him for anything, not with so many words.  But it was there, aching in her face.  The woman Josh had stolen for, his accomplice possibly—probably—watching him with those innocent eyes.  Scott breathed in and his breath caught on something deep inside him.  His answer rose from that place, as natural and weightless as the air from his lungs.  “I’ll help you, Hattie,” he said.  “Just stay.  If there’s a way to help you…I’ll find it.”


Chapter Eight

The shadows faded with the dusk and were gone with the moonless dark.  All that was left of the mountains then were the sounds and the pine-sharp breeze and their own flame-lit portion of the rustling trees.  Scott settled his head against his saddle, carefully, wiggling a little to the right, just enough to cushion the sore spot at the back of his skull.   He smoothed his hair and skimmed his fingers over the swelling.  Hearing a clink, he glanced up.  Hattie was kneeling by the fire, just the other side of his outstretched legs.  Her gaze flicked away from his, down to the fire, and then she came to her feet, two tin cups dangling by their handles from one hand and the coffee pot in the other.  Stepping across the saddlebags, she stood over him.  

“Here,” she said, and she offered her fistful of cups to him.  He took one, rotated the handle into his hand, and held it out to her, ready.  She poured it half full of the coffee.  “Does it hurt?” she asked.


Even in the bare light of the campfire, he could still make out the frown that flickered across her face. She knelt down again, this time with one knee pressing into his hip.  “I should have looked at this before.”  She set the coffee pot and her cup on the ground and had to resettle the pot when it started to tip on a rock.  “Hold still,” she said, and she laid a hand against each side of his face, lightly, just up by his temples.

“I’m all right,” he insisted.

“Hush.”  She turned his head and bent closer.  The blinders of her palms narrowed his view and he stared away at the grass, unfocused.  “Maybe a wet cloth would help?” she said, and one hand left his temple.  He felt it on his head next, pressing carefully but painfully against tender flesh. 

“Ow.”  Reaching back, he batted her fingers away.

“Stop that.”

Her touch came again, even gentler this time, but still finding spots that were too raw for it.  “That hurts,” he told her, trying to grab her wrist.  He ended up with loose sleeve and held on.  “Maybe you could just…”  He tilted his head to look up at her face.  “…not do that.”

“All right.”  She sat back on her heels.  “I’m sorry.”

“You’re going to listen to me this time?”

She huffed out some air, he could hear it, and she bit her lower lip.  “This time,” she said, with a smile that showed more in her eyes.  “I really am sorry, about all of this.  Josh had been working so hard lately, and I thought this trip would be good for him.”  The smile softened.  “He told me about you, you know, and I was hoping that he’d find you.  He needs an old friend, although Josh swears that the handsome Scott Lancer stole away half the women in Boston.”

“Like I said, you can’t believe everything Josh tells you.”  Suddenly conscious that he still had a wad of her sleeve in his fist, he let go and wrapped his fingers around his hot cup instead.  He shifted a bit more upright, his back against the saddle, and blew at the steam.

“Josh couldn’t have told you that he took that money.  Are you sure that’s what he said?”

“He admitted it.”  Sucking in a slug of coffee, Scott concentrated on the words he remembered.  Had he?  “At least he said that he’d show me where the money was hidden.  How else would he know?”

“Josh couldn’t have done it.  It’s not like he’s some sort of saint; he isn’t…God knows that.  But to take that money from Todd’s safe and run off with it…”  She shook her head.  “No, he just didn’t do that…not Josh.”

“Most men, if you push them hard enough…they’ll do almost anything.”

“Nobody pushed him.”

“Todd seems to think…”

“I don’t care what Mr. Todd thinks.”  

“Hattie, how much does your father owe?”

“Not that kind of money.”  She looked down, reaching for the empty cup near her knee, and took it to her lap, empty, then turned it in her hands   “A couple thousand dollars, I think.  That’s all.  You think that Josh did it for me?” 

“It’s possible.”

“He didn’t.”

“You keep saying that.”

“He didn’t.”

Johnny’s voice came softly from the dark beyond the campfire.  “You two goin’ at it again?”  Scott watched his black shadow move closer.  “You’re gonna wear yourselves out.  Wear me out, anyway.”  The flickering light lit Johnny’s face first, as he grabbed a sapling branch and shoved it aside.  He stepped into their small clearing. 

“Did you see anything?” Scott asked. 

“No.  The horses are just jumpy, I guess.”  Johnny looked toward the rope slung between two scrub oaks.  The horses were tied there in the fading edge of the fire’s glow, the paint and the palomino easier to make out than Scott’s chestnut.  “Can’t see the wolf bothering them any, if that’s what they smelled.  He probably got his nose full of us and headed for higher ground.”

Hattie stared off into the nothingness of the dark as Johnny sauntered to his saddle.  He bent down for his bedroll, flung it out across the ground, and stiffly, limb by limb, collapsed onto it.  Crossing his arms behind his head, he looked up at the stars, or closed his eyes, Scott couldn’t tell which from where he sat, on the far side of the fire.

“Did he have a blanket?” Hattie asked, quieter than she’d been.

“Josh?”  Closed, Scott decided, when his brother had to open his eyes to look sideways at Hattie.  “I doubt it,” Johnny said.  “Isaac didn’t say anything about a bedroll.  He’ll be all right, a little cold maybe, but it won’t hurt him none.”

She wrapped her jacket tighter. 

 “So what’d you two decide?” Johnny asked.  “If Josh didn’t take the money, how’d it show up in our barn?”

“I don’t know.”  Hattie hugged her arms across her chest.  “It had to have been Mr. Todd.”

“Todd?”  Johnny’s yawn stretched out the name.  “You know of any reason why he’d do somethin’ like that?”

“I didn’t say it made sense.”

“Good.”  He gave them one last look and then rolled to his side, folding his blanket over him as he went.  Scott had to strain a little to hear his brother then.  “Cause it don’t make any sense.”  The sloping line of the blanket heaved as Johnny’s arm moved under it and he set something by his head, next to the saddle, and then tugged the bedroll tighter against his shoulders, settling.  “You go ahead and argue over it, though, if you want.  I’m gettin’ some shuteye.”

“Good night,” Scott said, getting no answer from Johnny.  Pulling his gaze away from his brother’s silent back, Scott looked up at Hattie.  “You should be getting some sleep, too.  We’ll be up at first light.”

She took hold of the pot and came to her feet.  “There’s more coffee in the bag,” she told him, and then she stepped over his legs and set the pot and cup on a rock next to the fire.  “I’ll make it fresh in the morning.  Just wake me when you’re up.”

“Can you throw some of those on the fire?”  Scott wagged a finger at their small pile of gathered wood. 

“This enough?” She dropped two heavy logs into the flames.  Crimson sparks scattered and died in the smoke. 


Watching her spread her blanket and sink, cross-legged, onto it, Scott took another two sips of his coffee, and then he reached behind his saddle, pouring the remains into the unseen ground.  He left the cup lying an arm’s reach away.  “Your feet will stay warmer if you leave those on.”  He nodded toward the hook-and-eye boots she was undoing.

“Does it get very cold up here?”  She left her fingers hovering over the last hook.    

“Give it another hour or two and you won’t want to come out of that blanket.”

He knew what she was thinking, but she didn’t say it this time, not exactly.  He heard it in her sigh, though, and she stared off again, into the pines.  Then, leaving her boot half-fastened, she wrapped herself in the blanket, turned to her side and huddled against the saddle.  She brought her arm out again, pushing her hair from her face and slipping her hand as a pillow under her head. 

“Goodnight,” Scott said, wondering as he did how a cold night on the rocky ground could possibly have a prayer of being anything but miserable. 

“Goodnight,” came Hattie’s muffled response. 

The stars kept him company then, for a while, as he pulled his own blanket around him and stretched out again, head cautiously settled against the saddle.  Sleep, he told himself, but his eyes wouldn’t obey and they stayed open, gazing up through the pine branches.  Dissecting the skies, what small piece was left to him by those trees, he sorted the milky arcs into constellations, trying to drown out the lingering scent of the kerosene with the focus required.  Capricornus, he decided, that one was Capricornus, and the next….Delphinus…no… possibly.  He couldn’t remember and he resurrected the lectures from his past, the droning voice of his long-faced professor, charts spread across the walls and the mysteries of the heavens made more modest, organized and labeled and recited in rote. 

Far off, faintly, a howl carried with the breeze.  Isaac’s bounty Scott decided, leaving the stars to the night and making his eyes slide shut.  The wolf was too far away for them to worry about.  Josh, maybe, Josh could worry about it, if he was up there, anywhere.  Scott’s head grew heavy and he let it loll to the side.  Josh could worry, he thought again, forgetting why, and the ground held him as he sank into his sleep.

He dreamed, deeply in those first few moments and then again, cold hours later, huddled in his rough wool blanket.  Faces floated through the night, slipped through his memories, sharp-boned faces and dull-eyed, one and then another and another, until the dark was crowded with their hunger and they pressed against him.  The husks of their bodies rubbed raw against his skin.  He dreamed to move, yearned with it, but the fear was thick in his sleep.

There was a sound.

Gasping awake, Scott opened his eyes and listened.  It wasn’t him he realized a second later, hearing the sound again, nightmare whimpers, and believing for that one twilight second of consciousness that they belonged to him; paralyzed by the knowing that his brother might have heard.  He forced his lungs to suck in air; counted each breath.  And he waited, just as he had all those other times, knowing that the thud of his heart would dull, knowing it and concentrating until it did, slowly, beat by beat.  He rolled to his side and searched across the remains of the fire, finding Johnny’s sleeping form. 

The whimper came again.  “Hattie,” Scott whispered, sitting up.

He wrapped his blanket around him and crossed to her, dropping to one knee.  Hattie was curled up tightly in her blanket and folds of it were clenched in her hands.  “Cole” she moaned; he could hear it clearly this close.  The name came a second time, achingly low. 

“Hattie,” Scott whispered again, and he laid his hand on her shoulder, shaking her.  She turned and stared up.  In that ember-red dark, he wondered if he was any more than a stranger to her.  “It’s Scott,” he offered, and he settled closer, feeling the chill of the ground against his legs. 

“Scott?”  She rubbed her eyes.  “I had a dream.”  Emotions twitched across her face and he thought at first that she was going to cry, and he didn’t know how he was going to handle that, whether to sit there and watch her at it or take her in his arms or how.  She didn’t though, and he took the hem of her blanket, the one that folded back from her shoulder, and pulled it smoother, closer against her neck. 

“Are you cold?” he asked, quietly. 

“No.  I wish it was morning, though.” She raised her head and craned her neck, staring off toward Johnny.  “I didn’t wake him?”

“I guess not.”  Scott smiled wryly.  “My little brother’s getting soft.  Maybe it’s Murdoch’s snoring; he’s learned to sleep through just about anything.”

“I woke you, though.  I’m sorry.” 

“I was awake,” he said, nearly the truth, a piece of it anyway.  “Do you want to tell me about your dream?”

“No.”  She sat up, pulling her legs in close and hugging her knees.  “Can we get the fire going again?”

“I think I can manage that.” 

Gathering his blanket around him, Scott squatted next to the fire and threw a handful of twigs and three good-sized branches onto the coals.  The twigs caught quickly and he drew a longer stick from the pile, poked it at the logs and nudged them over the bright little flames.  The fire licked at the curled bark.

Hattie’s blanket dragged through the dirt as she came up beside him and their shoulders brushed as she crouched.  “The fire feels good,” she said.  Holding her blanket with one hand, she stretched the other toward the flames.  “How long before daylight, do you think?”

“I don’t know.”  Scott looked up into the sky.  The moon was out, but it was mostly hidden by the higher branches.  “A couple of hours at least.”

“Why were you awake?”  There was a rustling and Scott looked down again, seeing Hattie’s blanket swirl around her as she dropped lower, cross-legged.  She gazed at him when she was still.  “Is your head hurting?” she asked.

“No.”  And it didn’t; not much anyway.  It was too cold, Scott decided, all the nerves deadened by the chill.  “There was a rock attacking my back,” he told her, an outright lie this time, and he covered quickly with his own question.  “Where’d you learn to ride like that?”

She hesitated, still watching him, but her eyes softened.  “My father isn’t a fortunate man; that’s how Mama tells it, anyway.  The truth is that he drinks too much and he has a temper and if he can charm his way into another job, then why should he try to keep the one he has?”

“I suppose this has something to do with horses?”  Scott smiled gently. 

She smiled, too, looking shy suddenly.  “We lived in Kentucky for a while, on a horse ranch.  They raised the most beautiful thoroughbreds, big black ones; those were the ones I liked anyway.  Father worked in the stables and I got to rake out the stalls, when he’d let me.”

“Got to?” 

“That’s the way I saw it.  I was only fourteen, that first year, and I wanted to spend every minute at those stables.  It was heaven.”

“Mucking out stables?”

That earned him another smile, but it was fleeting.  Hattie burrowed deeper into her blanket, making its puffed up folds form a hood, and most of her disappeared.  He watched the blue-edged flames instead, glancing past them as Johnny shifted in his bedroll and lay still again.

“So I assume that your father taught you how to ride?” Scott asked.

“Father?  No.”  Her laugh was strained.  “Father and horses have a gentleman’s agreement.  They don’t ride him and he doesn’t ride them.  He did what he had to at the stables, but mostly he took care of their tack.  He’s a very good leather smith.” 

“So who?”

A branch burnt through and fell into the coals.  Scott watched the flames crawl up a hollow split in its angled end, hissing as it went.

“A friend,” Hattie finally said.  “You don’t have to sit up with me; I’ll be all right here by the fire.  Go on to bed.”

He tossed his stick on the fire.  “Was it Cole?” 

“How…?”  The hooded blanket fell away as she turned her head, staring at him.

“You were talking in your sleep.”

“What did I say?”

“Just his name.”

She pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms around them as she had before, and she ducked her head.  Her hair fell across her face, hanging until she pushed it back.  “Cole was…” she started in, her voice hushed.  Her hair fell again and she left it this time.  “That was a long time ago.”

“Was it?   I’m sorry, Hattie, but I’m trying to understand how Josh could do what he’s done, and I keep coming back to you.  He told me that you two had words, just before he left Stockton.  Was your fight over this Cole?”

“It wasn’t Cole.” 

“Then what?”

“Did you ask Josh?”

“No.  I didn’t think that it was my business.”

“It isn’t.”

Scott grabbed up another stick and jabbed at the embers.  “I have a pile of stolen money and a lump on my head that says otherwise.”

Hattie laid her cheek on her knees, watching him as Scott stabbed fiery chunks from a flaming branch.   “I know,” she said wearily.  “I’m sorry…and I know.  Josh wanted to go to Colorado.  He met someone who has a mining claim there and he wants to invest in it.  That’s what we were fighting over.”

“You don’t approve?”  He let the stick fall at his feet.

“He wants to get married right away.  He said that he’ll build me a little house out there, with a white picket fence and lacy curtains, and we’ll sit around and count our money, and all I’ll have to do all day is be happy.”

“Is that how he put it?”

“No…he said it would be a big house.”

“And you don’t think it’ll happen that way?”

“Do you?”

It was about as likely as those constellations resorting themselves in the sky, but some depraved, short-lived sense of loyalty made him say it.  “Some people strike it rich.”

“Nobody that I know.”  She pulled her arms tighter around her knees and the blanket tented, shadowing her face. 

Scott watched the dark of her eyes, not green anymore, but just dark in the low, flickering light.  “So Josh is a dreamer.  Is that why you haven’t set the date for the wedding?”

“His dreams are wonderful,” she said.  “I love Josh, I do…I’ve tried not to, but I do.  And I want him here, Scott.  It’s freezing and he’s out there, all alone.”

“He’s stronger than you think, Hattie.  And there’s nothing we can do about it until morning anyway.”

Even in those shadows, Scott could see the tear that slid down her cheek and soaked into the blanket.  She seemed small huddled there, the wool hiding all but her hair and her dark, glistening eyes.  “It’s so hard to just sit here,” she said.

“We don’t have any choice.”

“But he’s alone…and I can’t…I can’t…” Her eyes clenched shut and she drew in a hitching breath, turning her face into her knees, dragging the embrace of her arms higher and shutting herself away.  The blanket made a cocoon that only her hair escaped, black waves against the black cloth.  “Not again,” she said. 

“Are you all right?”  Scott dropped from his squat, sitting lower, nearer to Hattie, and wishing again that the ground wasn’t so cold or that she wasn’t so lost or that he knew what to do, how to comfort her or even if he should try.  He didn’t in the end, clutching his blanket closer instead, with a thick handful of wool held tight against his chest.  “Hattie,” he asked. “Who was Cole?”

“It doesn’t matter.  Cole’s dead.  He died a long time ago.”

“How did he die?”

“Alone.  He was captured at Bull’s Gap.”

He felt it, there at his chest, the hard thud. He breathed in, concentrating, counting the beats of his heart.   “I’m sorry,” he said, carefully.  “Where did they take him?”


Hattie turned quiet beside him, and Scott let her be, grateful for it.  The night air chilled the memories, numbed him, but it wasn’t enough; it was never enough.  Andersonville—Libby—the names may have been different, but the hell was the same.

“I had a mare,” Hattie said. The words washed through him, drifting pieces of him back to her.  “I called her Sally.  She had a stripe…here…”  Scott looked toward her, seeing the motion just as she lowered her hand from her brow.  Hattie’s blanket had hooded over her head again.   “..and I fed her apples.  She really liked those apples and she used to shove her head against me, wanting them.  She wasn’t really mine, but Cole and I would pretend that she was and we’d ride for hours.  My father used to get so mad about that, me being gone with Cole—God knows where, he’d say.”

Somehow, she’d leaned.  He felt her shoulder against his arm, growing heavier, and he leaned, too, just enough to balance her weight.  

“I got a letter from him—just one.”  Her voice softened again, nearly dying off.  “There must have been some missionaries allowed into the prison and they sent it to me.  He said that he was well and that I shouldn’t worry.  He said that he’d be home before the dogwoods bloomed…”  It did die away this time, falling off into a silent quake. “All I wanted to do…” She swiped at a tear.  “All I wanted…was to get on Sally and ride till I...” 

“Sshh,” Scott soothed, and she buried her face in his shoulder.  He let the blanket hang around him and he reached for her, holding her head embraced in the one hand he had free and laying his cheek to her hair, hushing her again.  “Sshh, Hattie.”

“He was alone,” she said, and Scott could feel her breath as she spoke. Its moist warmth seeped through his shirt.  “Do you know what it must have been like to be alone in that place?”

There wasn’t any answer, none that he could give anyway.  None that he would give.  Scott watched the flames flicker through the logs and he held her until she pulled away, sitting upright again and wiping her hands across her eyes. 

“I’m sorry.  I seem to be saying that a lot.”  She sighed heavily.  “You’re probably wondering how Josh can put up with a crazy woman like me.”

“I don’t think that he minds much.”

“No?”  Hugging the blanket to her, she watched him with her dark eyes.  They were green again in the light from the flames, damp and sad and green.  “And you’re not arguing the fact that I’m crazy?”

“I never argue with a lady.”

She leaned again, lightly, just tapping her shoulder against his and pulling away.  “You’re a good man, Scott Lancer.  Josh was right about that.  He hasn’t been right about much lately, but he was right about you.”  She stood stiffly, catching at her blanket and reorganizing it around her.  “I’m going to try to sleep.”

He watched her walk to the rough pillow of her saddle and drop to it, and he thought to say something, but in the end he didn’t. He stared into the fire instead, as the branches burnt down into the embers.  The blanket scratched against his neck and the cold leached through, rising up from the hard ground.  Above him, the leaves rustled with the memories. 


Chapter Nine

It was the metallic click that woke him. 

Scott lay still, moving only his eyelids at first.  There was hardly enough light for color yet, just the haze of the sluggish dawn.  Johnny knelt on the other side of the cold fire, his hair matted, his shirttail loose, and his blanket crumpled down around his knees.  He almost about as drowsy as the morning—almost.  The .45 barrel he held pointed above Scott’s head went a long way toward destroying that misperception. 

Johnny’s eyes flicked to him.  “There..,” he mouthed, pointing off into the trees, as if the aim of his Colt needed any clarification.  Reaching smoothly to the holster he’d left lying by his head, Scott slid his own pistol from its leather and rolled to face the trees.  He cocked his hammer with the same sharp click.

A leafy branch swished, somewhere off that direction, maybe a hundred feet down the slope.  And a rock clattered.  Whoever was moving through those trees wasn’t doing much to keep it a secret.  Another rock thudded down the hill, and then a flurry of snapping branches, and it wasn’t a who anymore, but a what.  Bear, maybe?  Or a man on horseback.  Scott feathered his hammer down and shoved the Colt into his belt, then leveraged himself up on his elbow and reached across the saddle to his rifle, drawing it out of its scabbard.  Pushing to his feet but crouching low, he crossed as soundlessly as he could to where Hattie lay still sleeping.  Off on the edge of his sight, he saw Johnny moving stealthily toward the rim of their little clearing. 

“Hattie,” Scott whispered, holding her shoulder and shaking lightly.  She moaned some muffled word and shrugged away from his hand.  “Hattie, wake up,” he said, still half a whisper. 

She twisted over and opened her eyes, but he wasn’t sure if she was seeing him.  “There’s something in the trees,” he told her.  “Let’s go.” 

“What…?” He had her moving, grabbed up from her blanket, before the rest of the question had fully formed in her throat.  Scott kept a firm grip on her upper arm and nearly dragged her toward a tangle of grapevine.  It wouldn’t stop a bullet, but it was at least thick and leafy, and it was the best shelter he could find with only that second’s notice. 

“Get down,” he told her, shoving her through the vines.  She fell to her knees and crawled the few feet to the trunk of a pine, huddling next to it.  Scott spared her only a glance before he turned and scanned the clearing.  The horses were on the far side of it, still tethered.  The paint was looking off toward the clattering in the trees, his ears pricked toward it, but the others hadn’t seemed to notice.  They still stood with their heads hanging low, both of them with a back hock bent.  Couldn’t be a bear; they’d smell it.  He cocked his rifle and raised it to his shoulder.

“Is it Josh?” Hattie asked, more quietly than he’d expected.

“We haven’t seen anything yet.”  Scott kept his eyes on that line of trees, trying to make out anything through the branches and the shrubs and the blurry light.  

“Please don’t hurt him.” 

He gave her one more look, a quick one.  She had her leg bent up against her chest, her fingers refastening the hooks she’d left loosened on her boot the night before.  She watched through the vines as she did it, her head ducked a little to follow whatever line of sight she’d decided was most likely. 

“You keep forgetting who has that lump on his head,” Scott told her. 

The paint snorted.  Scott watched the horse lift his head, those big nostrils working the air, and then he searched again into the trees.  Something crackled—a branch breaking—and a flash of deep brown moved behind a squat pine.  Johnny stalked closer to it, bending low and darting through the scrubby trees.  He crouched behind a small boulder, his gun arm balanced across it, and Scott saw him crane his neck, watching something behind that pine. 

The brown showed again, still filtered by the needle-thick branches. 

Letting his Colt hang from his hand, Johnny stood, and he took a few steps toward the pine.  He threw Scott a look and ran his free hand through his hair, scratching the back of his head as he went.  “Whoa, girl,” he said soothingly, and he stretched his hand out, palm down, toward their noisy intruder.

“What’s he doing?” Hattie whispered.

“Either he’s charming a bear,” Scott told her, lowering his rifle, “or we’ve found Isaac’s horse.  I wouldn’t put the former past my brother, but my money’s on the bay.”

“Josh?”  Hattie scrambled to her feet, grabbing at the vines and trying to jerk them apart. 

“I doubt it,” Scott said, standing too.  “Josh would still be looking at Johnny’s gun.”

The vines were gnarled and twisted together, and they all moved when she yanked, the whole leafy screen trembling but none of it letting go.  Several of the pine branches swayed too, low ones with the thinner, greener ends of the vines snaking around them. Hattie gave it up, dropping to her stomach and wriggling across the ground, under the vines and between their brown stalks.  The sash caught on a twig and she reached back to snatch at it.  Scott bent down to help. 

“Hold still,” he said, as he tried to reach through her fingers for the skewered pinch of purple.  She didn’t and they warred over it, neither one of them coming at it from the right angle.  Scott dug his hand into any opening her fingers gave him.  “Stop, Hattie; I’m getting it if you’ll just hold still.”  She squirmed and tipped her hip up, in his way.  Impatiently, he tried to push it back down, and his hand had barely touched her when he pulled it back.  “All right...” he told her, “you keep trying.”  He stood, wiping his palm against his leg, still feeling the curve he shouldn’t be feeling and hoping that she hadn’t noticed any of it.  Hattie kept wriggling, free of the twig suddenly, and Scott averted his eyes as the rest of her body slid under.

By the time he’d torn a hole into the vines and stepped through it, Scott could see that Johnny was holding the bay by her bridle and his brother was watching them come into the clearing, rather too intently for Scott’s comfort. 

“Is there a Lancer brand?” Scott called out.  Beside him, Hattie rose up from the ground, brushing off leaves and dirt.

“It’s ours all right—canteen, jerky, saddle and all.”

“You think that she threw Josh?”

“Could be.”  Johnny clucked at the horse and led her through the trees.  “Can’t blame her for that, can ya?  At least we have a trail to follow now.”

“Can we go then?” Hattie asked.

Scott turned and saw her gathering up her blanket, shaking it out and wrapping the ends together.  “I was hoping for some breakfast first,” he said, not unreasonably in his opinion, looking down toward the smokeless ashes.  She glared at him, pinning the blanket against her chest as she folded it again and again into a bedroll.  “Josh won’t get far on foot,” he added.  “And believe me—you don’t want me catching up to him before I’ve had my coffee.”

He thought he was going to get an argument, but she looked away finally, tossing the bedroll down with her saddle and stalking over to their woodpile. “I’ll get it.”

“That wasn’t an order, Hattie.  I can start the coffee.”

“I’ll get it,” she said again, a little of the edge gone from her voice.  She crouched next to the wood and looked up at him, most of the glare gone, too.  “I promised I would.  Remember?”

He nodded.  “I remember.”

“Besides,” she added, a shy smile playing at her mouth, “didn’t you tell me that you never argue with a lady?”

There must have been some sort of fire still smoldering under the ashes, because by the time he’d finished examining the bay, the coffee pot was balanced between two rocks, flames licking up around it.  He hadn’t found anything.  Except for a few burrs and mud-speckled legs, nothing on the bay gave any hint of the previous day’s flight.  They’d checked the saddle over, along with the blanket, and both he and Johnny were satisfied that there wasn’t any blood.  Despite the sore spot on his head, Scott was glad of that.  Whether for Josh’s sake or Hattie’s or his own, he wasn’t sure—but he was glad.

There were day-old biscuits in their saddlebags and they washed them down with the coffee.  It went down fast and hot, burning Scott’s mouth.  Hattie had everything packed up before he’d taken his final slug, and Scott flicked the last drops out of his cup, and then stuffed it into his saddlebag.  They mounted, Johnny in the lead and Hattie and Scott following, with Isaac’s bay on a lead behind them. 

Following the trail wasn’t hard.  A well-marked path of broken branches and freshly scraped furrows led down the mountain, into the sparser pines.  They hadn’t gone very far when Johnny pulled up just the other side of a gravel-littered wash, throwing his leg over Barranca’s withers and sliding from the saddle.  He dropped to one knee and scanned the scuffed up ground, sifting a scooped up handful of soil through his fingers.

Scott watched from his saddle.  “Is this where Josh and the bay parted company?”

“Yeah.”  Johnny stood, his hand on the handle of his Colt and his thumb fidgeting over it.  “There’s where he landed,” he said, pointing at a flattened patch of grass.  “From the looks of things, wherever he is right now, he’s rubbin’ on somethin’ sore.”

Scott leaned forward, searching the ground for some mark from Josh’s boots.  They’d need a shine by the time they got Josh back to the hacienda, but that was the least of Josh’s worries.  “Can you tell which way Josh headed?”

“Up.”  Johnny aimed his finger to the steep, boulder-strewn slope that climbed up to a ridge above them.  “Be best if I check it out on foot. Easier to see the tracks that way.”

“All right.”  Scott swung off his horse and led Charlie and the bay up to the edge of the wash.

“Where you goin’?” Johnny asked.

“Up, as you so eloquently put it.”

“You forgettin’ something?”  Johnny tipped his head Hattie’s direction.  “You sure you want to leave her down here with the horses?  No offense, Hattie.”

“None taken,” she said, her eyes leaving the slope long enough to glance back at both of the men.  She sat a little taller in her saddle. 

“You stay here, Scott, and if I see anything up there, you can bring the horses around from the other end of the ridge.”  Johnny pulled the canteen off of Barranca’s saddle horn and hung it over his shoulder.  “Unless you’d rather make that climb?”

“It’s pretty steep.”  Scott stared up to the ridge.  “No, Brother, I think you need the exercise more than I do.  You’ve been getting soft.”

“That so?”

“I have noticed,” Scott said, with a sly sideways look at his brother, just before Johnny’s backhanded slap got him right in the gut. 

“Keep your eyes open,” Johnny told him, and then he took off up the hill, his boots slipping in the scree.  He leaned low, bracing against a rock or grabbing at a tenuously rooted shrub, and he made a zigzagging path through the boulders, following Josh’s tracks, Scott guessed.  There was no other reason for that haphazard trail, unless his half-witted friend had left it. 

“How did you know, Scott?”  Hattie’s voice was quiet, but filled with anticipation.

“Know what?”  He let loose of the reins, watching both Charlie and the bay drop their heads to crop at the grass.

“That Josh would be up in these mountains.”

Patting his chestnut’s neck, Scott looked up at Hattie.  “I didn’t know.”

“But he’s here.”

“Sometimes a man gets lucky.”

She kept staring up the steep hill, watching Johnny scramble through the rocks.  “What’s going to happen to him?”

“The judge and a jury will decide that.”

“He’s not guilty, Scott.  They can’t send him to prison if he’s not guilty, can they?”

“If the evidence says he is, then yes, Hattie—they can.”

She turned finally, gazing at him with that faraway look that she had.  Biting her lip, she pulled a foot out of her stirrup and dangled her leg over the pommel. “Why would he tell you that he knew where the money was?” she asked.

“Maybe because he stole it?”  He watched her expression flicker.  “Hattie, last night—you told me that Josh talked about me.  Did he know where I was before I saw him in Morro Coyo?”

“He knew.  He’d told me stories about you before, months ago.  He said he was going to look you up.”

“Then if his client had been there when he expected him to, Josh could have hidden the money in our barn and gone back to Stockton, and there wouldn’t have been any evidence against him.”

“And left you with the fourteen thousand dollars?”

“He’d have all the time in the world to make another visit and dig it up again.”

She frowned.  “You promised that you’d help him.”

“And I will, but I need the truth.”

“The truth is that Josh didn’t take that money.”

“How can you believe that?”

“Because he didn’t.”

Scott gave Charlie one more pat, maybe a touch harder than he’d meant to, and then left him to walk up beside her, taking the paint’s rein in his gloved hand and looking straight up into her eyes.   He held up one finger.  “Opportunity, Hattie—Josh had opportunity.  He had the combination to the safe.”  Another finger went up.  “Then there’s motive and Josh has two that I know about so far—your father’s debt . . .” A third finger.  “. . . and a mining claim in Colorado.  Do you know of any other motives?”

She waited, silently, gazing through his raised fingers to his face. 

“And then there’s the hard evidence,” Scott said, balling his hand into a fist and letting it drop to his side. “The money hidden under our feed bin and Josh’s promise to show me where he hid the rest of it.  Against all that, you have what?  What possible reason do you have to say that Josh didn’t steal Todd’s money?”

“None.” She looked up the hill, then back at Scott.  “I have no reason at all.  But I have to believe in him.  Josh needs me.”

A court would need a whole lot more evidence than that. Scott searched her face, looking for some clue that she really did believe Josh, that it wasn’t just the illogic of a desperate woman.  All he saw was yesterday’s sun glowing on her cheeks, making her look younger than she had, more innocent.  “Why did Josh tell me that he knew where to find the money?”

“I don’t know.  He was scared.”

“Of what?  Prison?  Because that’s where he’s going, but confessing seems like an odd way to avoid it.”

She dropped her eyes to the sash and rolled its hem between her fingers.  “It was stupid; I know.”

“Was he afraid of me?  Was that it, Hattie?”  He knew that his voice had gotten too loud, but her horse only folded his ears back and Scott didn’t care.  “Am I so frightening that Josh would rather face prison than face me?  I’m surprised that old women and children don’t run in terror every time I go into town.”

“No.”  She shook her head, her brow wrinkling, and her voice softened.  “You’re not like that.”

“Then why?”

She pulled several quick jerks against the sash, then dropped it on her thigh.  “He did it for me,” she said forcefully.  “I think that’s why, anyway—for me.”

“For your father.”

“No.”  Her eyes flicked between the ground and Scott’s face.  “Josh . . .  Josh just does things . . .  he doesn’t think about them.  A couple of months ago Mama was making corn chowder for dinner—Josh loves her corn chowder—and I went by the bank to see if he wanted to come.  He was in Mr. Todd’s office and there was this money lying on the desk . . .”  Hattie’s hand swept an imaginary pile through the air.  “. . . and Josh was just sitting there, staring at the safe.  He couldn’t get it to open—Josh never was any good at that, he’d spin past the numbers or something.  I don’t know what he did, but it always took him three or four tries to get the combination right.”

“So you opened it.”

She sighed.  “He shouldn’t have given me the combination.  Mr. Todd would have fired him for it, but he did—and I opened the safe.”

“You know the combination?”

“I did.  I couldn’t even tell you the first number of it now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“Because I wanted to talk to Josh first.”

“Hattie, you have to trust me—”

A shrill whistle cut through the air, and Scott shot a look up to the ridge.  Johnny was standing at the top of it, waving his hat.  “Bring’em up!”

Scott waved back.  “We’re not through with this,” he told her, walking away to where the horses were grazing. 

“I do, Scott.”

He looked back over his shoulder.  Her horse had tried to follow him and she was reining him back. “Do what?”

“Trust you.”  The paint shifted his balance, drifting sideways a step, and her balance shifted too, her body twisting to keep her eyes bound to his.  Scott let his gaze fall away first, sweeping it across the ground as he looked again at the horses.  The three of them were waiting obediently, reins trailing through the grass, not expecting anything from him but to be told where to go next. 

And that was up. 

They took the long way around it, heading single-file back down the trail until they’d reached a low-lying clearing full of feathery sage and fat cedars.  Scott led them through it and higher, not as steeply here, but higher.  They picked their way up, dragging the bay and Barranca behind them.  Every now and then Scott threw a look up at the edge of the ridge, a nearly smooth line where the pale green of the dry grass contrasted against the morning sky.  It came closer with every glance.

He saw Johnny first, just after they’d mounted the crest of the ridge.  He was ambling down the slope, his hat dangling from his hand and swinging with his stride.  The whole hillside bowled into a hollow at its bottom and that was densely filled with trees, some pines, but mostly cottonwoods.  Those trees meant water, but that couldn’t be why Johnny was heading toward them—not with a half-filled canteen hanging over his shoulder.

Scott stood in his stirrups. “Johnny!”

His brother kept walking.  Scott could see his other hand now, swinging too, with something metallic glinting sunlight from it.  “Hattie, stay here,” he told her, handing Barranca’s rein to her.  He loped Charlie down the hillside, watching Johnny, but scanning the trees, too. 

“Josh?” he said, low and lost to the breeze that brushed past him.

Something flickered, a flash of blue at the edge of the trees.  Scott turned Charlie toward it.

He saw the blond hair first, rising from behind a sapling pine.  Josh stood and gestured toward Johnny, then looked up the hill toward Scott.  It was faint, from that distance, but Scott could have sworn that Josh grinned.  He did swear, too, a gratifying word that was also gone in the tender breeze.  

“Scott!”  His name floated over the hillside. Scott kicked Charlie into a gallop. 

“About time you showed up!” Josh hollered, waving and limping out from behind the pine.  “I was looking for you all night!”


Chapter Ten

A marionette, that’s what he was.  Josh limped at him with some divine string jerking him, awkwardly swinging his left leg and turning both arms into crudely hinged pendulums.  Josh was hurting, Scott could see that.  He flicked the end of his reins against Charlie’s side and drove the horse closer.   

“Scott, let me explain,” Josh said, his marionette hand bouncing on the air.  “Just listen to me.”

“This better be good!” Scott shouted over Charlie’s pounding hooves, brushing past a cedar, just a dip in the ground away.

The strings let him be and Josh settled, his arms dangling and all his weight to one side.  His left knee was bent.  “Just listen, Scott,” he said.  “I had to. . . ”

It felt good to haul back on Charlie’s reins, powerful, and the horse spun to a prancing halt barely feet away from Josh.  “Had to what?” Scott asked.  “Try to kill me with that lamp?” 

“I didn’t try to kill you.” 

“You didn’t hit me?”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Is that right?”

“Scott . . . ”

Sidestepping, Charlie closed any gap between Josh and the horse, and Scott let him.  “Then how did I end up with this knot on my head?”

“I know I hit you.”  Josh stumbled back, pushing against Charlie’s flank.  “But I panicked.” 

Scott kept Charlie moving, circling tighter, nearly bowling Josh backwards. 

“I didn’t mean to hurt you; I swear I didn’t.”  Josh grabbed at the horse’s blanket, just keeping himself from falling.  Charlie’s shoulder bumped him and he staggered, ducking his head and hopping on his right foot.  “Scott, I’m sorry…” Josh said, as earnestly as his hitching breath would let him.

“Sorry?”  Scott glared down at the matted blond of Josh’s head.  The sliver of sun-burnt cheek he could see under Josh’s ducked head was furrowed, and when Josh looked up, straight at him, he saw why.  Scott twitched the reins, holding Charlie still, and glared down at his theoretical friend.  A gaping cut, rimmed with dry blood, ran from Josh’s ear to the outer edge of his pained grimace.  His clothes were a damp mess.  With no rain, not even any dew to contend with, Josh had to have gone out of his way to get wet, but he’d obviously managed it.  He was wearing a cloth jacket, blue denim and too small, and it was splotched dark with moisture.  His wrists stuck out from it, one still covered by his sleeve and the other, the one clutching the jacket tighter, etched with spidery red scratches.  Josh shivered, standing there in the morning sun.

“You’re going to have to do a lot better than sorry,” Scott said.  He swung down from Charlie, having to drop close to the horse to avoid hitting Josh.  “And sit, before you fall down.”

“All right,” Josh said meekly, and he sat, hanging onto Scott’s forearm and ending with one leg turned under him and the other stuck out.  He clenched a fistful of his pant leg and lifted his left thigh, making the knee bend a little.  “I think I was headed here anyway.  Why’s Hattie with you?”  He looked off her direction.

Scott watched her struggle with the horses, pushing her little paint down the hill with Barranca and the bay led by the reins, pulling her half out of the saddle.  “You need to marry her, Josh.  Neither of you has any sense and you belong together.” 

“Yeah,” Josh said wearily.  “I saw your fire,” he added, still watching Hattie.

“Last night?”

“It looked warm.”

“It was.”  Scott nodded as a memory of Hattie’s blanket-swaddled body sifted through the lie. 

“Is she mad at me?”

“What do you think?”

Looking over his shoulder, Scott saw Johnny still trudging down the slope, in no hurry from the look of things.  Hattie reached them first, slowing the horses and letting them walk the last hundred feet.  Scott waited for her to call out to them, say Josh’s name—something—but she didn’t.  All she did was watch Josh, her expression impenetrable.  She let the horses loose and sat her paint a minute longer, waiting as Josh rubbed on his leg and watched her, too.

“You didn’t have to do this,” she said, swinging her leg over the saddle horn and dismounting in Johnny’s style.

“What are you wearing?” Josh smiled tentatively and eyed the purple sash holding her pants up.  “Wasn’t that belt keeping my curtains open?  It looks good on you.”

“I’m in no mood, Josh.”  She sank to her knees next to him and traced a finger over the cut on his face.  “How did this happen?”

“It was dark,” he told her, trying to grab her hand and being left with empty air when she slapped his fingers away.  She reached for his pants leg next, rolling it up past his boot and showing gouged, oozing skin. 

“How bad is this?”  Hattie pressed against the raw scrape, right up against the bone, and Josh sucked in a quick breath.  “Is it broken?”

“No. . . I don’t think so.”

“So how?”  She swept her gaze across the ground, as if whatever she wanted could be found in the nettles or the dirt or the spiny grass.  Finally, she looked up at Scott.  “This needs wrapping.  Do you have anything?”

“No.”  Scott took a quick mental census of his bags.  “Wait . . . try this,” he said, flipping the saddle bag open, fishing for Teresa’s napkin, and then tossing it to Hattie. 

“I fell—over there,” Josh said, pointing off at the slope Johnny had just climbed.  “After the horse threw me I thought maybe higher ground would be warmer.”

“Why were you riding in the dark?”

“I was cold, Scott.”  Josh’s voice was as hard as the ground.  “That damn horse dumped me in the stream yesterday and I was still wet.”  He winced as Hattie tied the napkin tight around his leg.  “I thought everything would be all right when I caught him again, but then the sun went down and it got so cold.  I saw your fire, when I hit the top of the ridges.  I thought that letting you take me off to prison had to be better than freezing to death.”

“You could have broken your neck.”

“I know.”  Josh reached for Hattie’s arm and let her sleeve brush against his fingers as she went about her bandaging. “But I was so cold.”

Johnny had his gun still hanging from his hand when he sauntered up beside them.  He gave Josh an assessing nod, holstered his Colt, and glanced over to Scott.  “You still think his neck’s worth savin’?” 

“I’m having serious doubts about that.”  Reaching back behind his saddle, Scott loosened the strings tying his bedroll down, and then threw it to the grass beside Josh.  It partially unfurled as it fell.  “There—wrap that around you.  It may take a while to get your blood going again.”

“Thanks.”  Josh offered up a grateful look, the flesh around his eyes showing swollen and pink.  He slung the blanket around his shoulders and burrowed his arms inside the wool.  “Hattie, you about got that?”

She tugged her knot tighter.  “It’s the best I can do.  You need a doctor.”

“Help me up, then.” 

The gods played at his strings again, raising Josh’s limbs in awkward order, first his arm around Hattie’s shoulder, the blanket caping out around both of them, and then his leg, his good one, straightening under him as he leaned.  Johnny came up on Josh’s other side, taking over as Hattie staggered under the injured man’s weight. 

“Can you ride?” Johnny asked.

Smiling grimly and hobbling between them, Josh studied the ground.  “I never could before.  I guess that didn’t stop me, though.”

“Not much.”

“I don’t suppose there’s a chance of you taking me on to Morro Coyo?  I’ve been considering what to say to Mr. Todd and I think altogether it might be to my advantage . . .” Josh winced again as Hattie took the bay’s bridle and Johnny shoved him up on the horse.  “. . . to stay out of the man’s way,” he finished, pain feathering his voice.

“Too bad.”  Johnny grabbed up Barranca’s reins and vaulted into his saddle.  “Because you’re goin’ back.  And I think Todd knows exactly what he’s goin’ to say to you.”

Only he didn’t.  They rode in unnoticed and Josh was already settled into the guardhouse before Todd found them.  Josh’s leg was laid out across the cot and Hattie, still in her too-big pants and garish sash, perched on a bentwood chair across the cell from him, her feet balanced on  the seat edge and her arms hugging her knees to her chest. 

The sudden brightness of the outside got their attention.  Scott turned where he stood, leaning into the frame of the open cell door, and watched as Todd walked into the small building.

“What did he tell you?” Todd asked.

“Ask him yourself,” Scott said, stepping out of the cell..  He tipped his head toward the cot. “He’s in there and he’s not going anywhere this time.”

Todd crossed the small space in a few long strides and took Scott’s place in the doorway, filling it with his bulk.  He wore a black wool jacket, too warm for the way the sun had heated the day, and there were glistening trails of perspiration striping his neck.  Another sweat tear formed as Scott watched him, seeping out of his thin, graying hair. 

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Todd’s flat voice echoed off the stone walls.

Josh’s answer came from inside the cell, the other side of Todd.  “Did you get your money back?”

Todd dropped his hand back to his side and his fingers twitched.  “Not all of it.”

“I guess you’re expecting an apology.”

“Are you offering one?”

“I don’t think so.” 

Scott listened intently.  That wasn’t the Josh he knew. He’d expected excuses, begging, something besides that off-handed refusal.  Even Josh sounded surprised by it.

“And my money?” Todd asked.

“I don’t think I’m giving you that either.”

There was more of Todd’s neck suddenly as he lowered his head, his gaze aiming somewhere on the floor instead of across the cell to Josh’s cot.  “I don’t understand you, Josh,” Todd said, too low to echo.  “Why did you do it?  You know what’s going to happen.”

“Mr. Todd?”

His head came up.

“Get out of my cell.  Please.”

Todd went, wordlessly, backing up one step and making Scott take a matching step out of his way.  He stalked off, not quite slamming the door.  Scott moved back into the doorway and he searched out Josh’s face first.  His eyes were closed, but they opened as Scott watched him turn toward Hattie and they softened when they found her.  Hattie didn’t notice, she couldn’t have.  She wasn’t looking at Josh, but at the door where Todd had been a moment before, where Scott stood now.  Her expression—her whole body—was rigid.

“Scott?”  His name was singed by her anger.  “I’d like a moment’s privacy with Josh. Do you mind?  We have some things to discuss.”

They both became his prisoners, or Isaac’s more precisely.  It only seemed fair to hand the key over to him, as it was his canteen and his jerky that had disappeared with the bay horse the day before.  Scott still wasn’t sure where the jacket had come from, but he contemplated that, leaving Isaac behind to guard the locked cell and heading across the yards to the hacienda.  That and other things, like where the money might be and why Todd had turned almost civil and exactly what Hattie had to say to Josh, locked up with him in that musty cell. 

He was still wondering an hour later.  He’d left Johnny to explain things to Murdoch and escaped to a proper bath, finally, one with hot steam swelling the wood of the bathhouse.  He poured himself in the water, pulling his legs in so that he could sit lower, deeper, the water rising over his shoulders and lapping at his jaw.  Steam beaded on his face. 

The heat attacked him tenderly, and he drifted with it, his limbs slack and head resting against the copper.  And when it was too much, sweat stinging his eyes, he immersed himself and came up again, standing in the tub and letting the kerosene scent and the heat empty from his body. 

Scott dressed quickly and left the bathhouse with his collar damp from his dripping hair.  There were voices as he came through the garden door, angry voices reverberating down the hallway, and he held where he was for a cowardly minute, standing in the middle of the empty kitchen.  Hooking his thumbs in his waistband, he let his gaze fall to the scrubbed floorboards and he listened.  The deeper tones were muffled, but there were more passionate ones, too—sharper.  Those came through clearly—a “How can you let him…” or a “Young lady, watch yourself…”

Hearing the footsteps behind him, Scott turned.

“Who’s she goin’ at it with now?”  Johnny asked, as he pulled a chair out from the table, pivoted it on one leg, and then straddled it to sit.

“Todd, I’d say.” 

“Todd?”  Johnny nodded.  “Sounds about right. Must be his fault for havin’ that money in the first place.”

“I wish it were that simple.” 

Johnny snatched an apple out of the wooden bowl on the table and cocked his head.  “Now, Scott—you tellin’ me this friendly little visit is gettin’ complicated?”  He twisted the stem and watched it until it came free in his fingers.  “Can’t say as I’d noticed.” 

“No—complicated was finding that money in the barn.”  Sitting was a temptation and Scott eyed the chair across from his brother, considering whether his hard sleep of the night before and his steam-soaked muscles were reason enough to ignore the battle in the other room.  “Right now I have a man in our guardhouse who’s confessed, but can’t or won’t tell us where the rest of the money is.  And I have Hattie in there swearing that Josh didn’t do it and giving Todd bloody hell for stealing from his own bank.”

“That what she’s sayin’?”

“Loudly.”  His body thinking for him, Scott pulled out a chair and sat.  “And if that isn’t convoluted enough, Hattie told me that Josh gave her the combination to the safe.”

“Why’d he do something like that?”  Johnny bit into the apple and chewed, swiping the juice from his lower lip. 

“Because my friend Josh has the reasoning ability of Jelly’s goose, that’s why.  And apparently he’s no better at opening safes than he is at riding.  The combination lock threw him.”  Scott dragged the bowl closer and rubbed his finger on its edge.  “Hattie thinks he’s protecting her, that he thinks she took the money.”

Johnny stopped chewing long enough to purse his lips.

“She didn’t,” Scott added quickly, wondering why he’d said it.  He was tired, that’s all—it had to be that.  “Josh could be facing prison,” he added, right on top of his groundless defense.  “And if he’s lying, he’s doing it for her.”

“I don’t know, Scott—Hattie’s pretty and all—but ten years?  I can’t see that any woman is worth that kind of sacrifice.” 

Scott shrugged.  “Maybe she’s wrong.  Maybe Josh did take the money.”

“Seems more likely.  Fourteen thousand would make a good stake out in Colorado.”

Scott studied Johnny’s steady gaze.  “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was—mostly.”  Johnny’s head cocked again.  “Ain’t as soft as you think I am.”

The pitch of the argument grew louder, making them both look toward the hallway.  Scott twisted in his chair.  Todd’s voice pounded through the hacienda, the words “my money, my money” repeating and bouncing off the walls.  They buried Hattie’s heated response.

“Sounds like your girl could use some help in there,” Johnny told him.

“She’s not my girl,” Scott ground out, but he was up, crossing the room in a few quick strides.  “And you could help, too, you know.”

“Yeah, I’ll be right along.”  His brother’s voice carried behind him as Scott kept moving down the hallway, but his set of boots thudded against the hard floor.  

He saw Todd first, standing next to the French doors.  Todd’s sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and his bare arms were crossed over his chest. 

Leaving the shelter of the hallway, Scott stepped into the room.

“I won’t let you get away with it.”  Hattie’s tone was deceptively calm.  She held herself, too—still in Josh’s clothes.  The dirt-streaked shirt hid her fingers as she wrapped them around her waist.

“Miss Whitfield,” Todd said, quieter now, almost as if he were speaking to a child, “the money—they found the money here.  I’m sorry, I really am, but I’m not getting away with anything.  And I want that money back.”

High stakes stud on a Saturday night.  Scott looked from one determined face to the other, picturing them in the dim light and cigar smoke haze of The Red Dog Saloon.  The back table, chips piled high, all in and everything riding on one unseen card.  He had a bad feeling that one of them was bluffing.  The question was—which one?


Chapter 11

It was late afternoon by the time Val came riding under the Lancer arch and only half an hour later when he hauled Josh out of the guardhouse.  They made a gangly pair, Josh’s cuffed wrists turning his arms to worthless nuisances and his weight unbalancing Val’s support.  The lines tightened around his eyes every time Josh took another painful hobble, and he paused for a second when they reached the harsh light outside.  Josh’s gaze settled on Todd’s buggy and a real smile flitted across his lips. 

“No saddle?” he said, a hint of pleasure lightening his voice.

“No saddle, but you get to ride with him.” Scott moved in and took Josh’s other side.  They hauled him forward and Val lifted as he did, pitching Josh into the seat.  He landed hard, with his hip on the bench and his shoulder dug into Todd, but Todd’s elbow straightened him.  Josh pulled himself upright and then he clenched his eyes and breathed out a rough grunt. 

“You’re wrong about this, Josh.”  Hattie pushed her way to the buggy.  “I want to come into town with you.”

“You’ll just worry over me.” 

“As if I don’t have good reason?”

“The stage doesn’t leave until tomorrow. I’ll see you then, Hattie.”

“I could follow you.”

 “I know you could, but Scott’s going to have you hanged for a horse thief if you keep that up.  Aren’t you, Scott?”  Josh’s gaze found Scott’s briefly.  

“Hattie’s more than welcome to stay the night here at Lancer.”  Scott took her gently by the arm.  She moved with him, backing one step from the buggy.

“Diplomatically said, but that wasn’t a no.”  Josh stretched his bad leg as far as the confines of the wagon box would allow.  “Hattie—I’d behave myself if I were you.” 

“The pot calling the kettle,” she said softly.

Todd took up the lines.  “Sheriff Crawford?”

“I’m comin’,” Val said.  “Keep your pants on.” 

Val walked around the back of the buggy, stopping to say something to Murdoch and Johnny, their voices too low to hear.  As he waited, Scott looked past Josh’s hanging head to Todd’s passive face.  “If Doctor Jenkins isn’t in town tonight, you’ll have him check Josh’s leg tomorrow before the stage leaves?”

“It’s not broken,” Todd said.

“I didn’t say that it was.” 

“I’ll find the doctor.  You just find my money.”  The buggy horse leaned into the traces when Val’s horse went trotting past it.  Todd slapped the leather against the horse’s rump. 

The buggy jerked and pulled away.  Hattie followed it for a few steps, the distance growing with every jangling stride of the horse. Murdoch and Johnny faded off, somewhere out of Scott’s range of sight.  For a quieting moment, the burden faded too, gone into Val’s hands, into Todd’s, just not his anymore.  Scott took a step and then stood watching the buggy’s black canvas grow fainter.  “Hattie?” he asked, softly.  There wasn’t any answer and he left her to her thoughts.  The sun was warm on his back as he walked toward the hacienda, eyes cast down to the shadowed grass.

There was beef for dinner, with roasted potatoes and peas, but that’s all Scott really noticed of the meal, excepting the top of Hattie’s head again as she bowed it over her plate, her knife and fork making barely audible clinks as she needlessly shredded the beef.  None of it made its way into her mouth.

After the dishes were cleared, Murdoch poured the sherry in the great room.  Johnny was slung over the ottoman before Scott was halfway through his glass.  Johnny’s head was on his arm and if he was hearing any of the conversation, it would have to have been through his exhausted snores.  Murdoch got the polite basics from Hattie, with Teresa’s help.  Scott watched her answer the questions, his tired body sinking into the soft leather of the wingback chair and hers poised on the sofa, not quite sitting but more suspended on its edge, both feet flat on the floor and her back stiff.  She didn’t touch her sherry, either.

She’d grown up in six different towns and four different states, an only child.  And yes, it was lonely, and yes, she was glad to be settled in California, although the Carolinas had been lovely, too.  She’d lived there when she was little, barely big enough to reach the low-hanging magnolia branches and pick their flowers for her mother’s vase.  There was nothing said about Cole or the war, but those weren’t the sort of questions Murdoch was likely to ask anyway.

Scott tipped his sherry, pouring the last swallow down his throat, and then rose, setting the empty glass on the table as he passed.  He heard the momentary distraction in his father’s voice, as Murdoch no doubt watched him cross to the French doors.  It didn’t stop Murdoch from asking Hattie another question, one about her dry goods store this time, but her response faded as the doors closed behind him and Scott stood alone in the cool air.  The night was damp, smelling of rain, and he gazed up at the sky, searching out the patterns of murky clouds against the flickering stars.

Long moments later, the door creaked behind him. 

“Do you mind?” Hattie asked, walking softly up behind him. 

He pivoted, leaning back against the low adobe wall.  It was still warm from the sun.  “I was wondering how long you were going to stand that.”

“Your family is sweet.”  She moved to the wall too, a few feet from him.  “Is your father always so interested in talking about the past?”  Bracing her forearms against the wall, she lifted her face to the stars. 

“No, that’s a fairly recent interest.”  Scott hid his wry smile in the dark.

They were quiet long enough for Scott to watch through the French doors, seeing Murdoch finish his sherry and poke Johnny, rousing him from his sleep. 

“What was he like?” Hattie asked.

Scott found her profile against the night, still tipped up.  “Josh?”

“Back then, in Boston.  He’s talked about it, but there are things he won’t tell me.”

“Everyone has secrets.”

“As common as dreams and as full of heartbreak, my mother says.”  She tilted her face to him and he turned, letting his hip fall against the adobe.  The lamplight from the great room laid shadows on her skin. 

“And you don’t have secrets?” he asked.

“I do.”

“But Josh isn’t entitled to his?”

“Not the ones that can hurt him,” she said.  “His father can hurt him.”

“He can’t anymore.” 

“What was his father like?  Did you know him?”

“We met.  He was old—that’s all I really remember.”  An image drifted through his memory, one of a stern-faced man at a Harvard debate, eyes distant, darting away, searching for someone of more importance than his son.  His handshake had been firm.  “He was old and he looked like Josh, only with less hair.”

Her laugh floated on the dark.  “Are you telling me that Josh is going to go bald?”

“Probably.  Would that matter?”

“No.”  She ducked her head as she shook it, and then looked sideways at him.  “I do like Josh’s hair, but no—it wouldn’t matter.  No more than being in prison for the next ten years will.”

“Maybe that won’t happen.”

“Maybe…Did Josh talk about him?”

“Josh talked about women mostly.”  Scott glanced back at his family, fewer of them now.  Johnny and Teresa were gone, but he could still see the back of Murdoch’s head, bent forward.  “I hope this doesn’t come as a shock, but your fiancé has always been quite fond of the ladies and his ability to discuss other subjects is limited.” 

She smiled.  “He said that you started those conversations.”


Nodding, she leaned into the adobe.  “Yes, you.”

“He’s deluded.”

“Is he?”

“You don’t believe me?”


“You’d rather believe Josh?”

“I’d rather.”

A grin was digging into his cheek and he gave in to it finally, trying to remember when the last time was that he’d really smiled.  It felt good.  “There was one red-head,” he said conspiratorially.

Her laugh was small again, deep in her throat.  “Just one?”

“A gentleman doesn’t keep count.”

“Somehow I doubt that Josh was as gracious as you.”  The breeze gusted, lifting a thick strand of her hair and she reached up, smoothing it back with both hands and readjusting a silver comb. Her neck curved delicately.

“Josh was always a gentleman,” Scott said, turning his eyes back to the stars.

“But not all of the ladies were ladies.”

“You knew that, though.  Josh has never been a choir boy.”

“But he’s not a thief, either.  He’s good, Scott.”

“I always thought he was.”  He let his gaze fall back to hers.  “Have you given any thought to what you’re going to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“I know that you’re trying not to believe that Josh took the money, but if he did—“

“He didn’t.”

“If he did—then what happens to the two of you?”

Hattie pushed away from the wall, brushing something from her skirt.  Her hands flashed pale against the black folds.  Then she turned, into the light of the great room.  “If he goes to prison,” she said, her back to Scott, “it’s because of me.  I can’t leave him.”

“You can’t know that.  Josh could have taken the money.”

“Then why won’t he give it to us?”

“You tell me.”

“Because he didn’t do it.”

For a long moment, Scott thought that’s all he’d get from her, that same naive answer, just her foolishly knowing.  As he watched her in their silence, a need swelled in him, and he sensed himself moving forward, fought it.  To shake her, that’s all he wanted, to wrap his hands around her shoulders and force her to see the way things were, drive the truth into her.  The wall’s hard edge pressed into his side. 

Hattie twisted back.  “Josh is trying to help me, he has to be—only how can he think that I’d steal all that…”  Again, the wind caught at a black wisp of hair and she brushed it from her cheek.  “I made a promise.”

“You hadn’t set a date.”

“I should have.”

“But you didn’t.”


Scott stood straighter, losing the adobe’s heat.  “Hattie.”  Her chin rose and the lamplight washed around her shadowed face.  He didn’t have the right, God knows he didn’t, but the question was there, part of the night air, before he’d even thought to stop it.  “If Josh was the right man for you,” Scott asked, “if you were so sure—why weren’t you already married?”

Hattie cocked her head and studied him.  “Have you ever been in love, Scott?”

Boston nights and Julie, her tender scent on his skin—a feeling so strong he could almost touch it rose and dulled in the beat of his heart.  “I thought I was.” 

“I knew I was.”

“With Cole.”

She nodded.  “He was so handsome …”  Taking a step back to him, she laid her hands on the wall.  “Father worried that I was going to forget myself with him, so he tried to keep us apart.  And it was true—I did forget myself, but not the way he thought.”  She looked at him and her eyes were dark again, as they’d been by the firelight, dark and solemn and worn.  “Cole made me better.  The first time he smiled at me, I was home and I was safe and I was me.  And I know that it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how I felt.”

“And Josh isn’t Cole.”

“Maybe it only happens that way once.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.”

“Josh deserves better.”  Her voice faltered.  “He’s so smart and sweet and I should be mad about him, and I am…I am…But then I close my eyes and I see a dead man.”

“Does Josh know how you feel?”

“He thinks that I’m haunted.”  A vague smile struggled at her lips and failed into her sigh.  “Josh says he’s going to take me to New Orleans and we’re going to find one of those voodoo women to make up a spell, something with magic chants and chicken heads and frog eyeballs—he says that just to see me make a face—and she’s going to make me forget all about Cole.”

“At least he has a plan.”

“Josh always has a plan—they just don’t work out very often.”

“This one didn’t.”

The dim lamplight wavered, drawing Scott’s eyes back to the great room.  Murdoch was up, walking from the sofa toward his desk.  His face was turned toward them, but his eyes seemed unfocused and Scott wondered how much he could see looking from the light to the dark.  Scott found Hattie’s eyes again.

“I don’t think that I’ve thanked you,” she said.  “That’s why I followed you out here.  We’ve been nothing but trouble for you, and you’ve still been so kind to us.”

“I told you that I’d help Josh.”

“I won’t hold you to that promise.  He’s my responsibility.”

“He was my friend.”

“And you still haven’t told me what he was like.”

Scott leaned lower, more even with Hattie, and he let his elbow rest on the rough adobe.  “Like he is now, I guess—only young.”

“It wasn’t that long ago, was it?  When did you leave Boston?”

“I’ve been at the ranch three years now.”

“Josh would have been 24.”

Scott nodded.

“He said that you were different, that the men who came back from the war were different—older.”

His hand fisted of its own accord, and Scott tapped it against the adobe, twice.  “He told you that I fought in the war?”

“Forgive me, Scott, but sometimes it seems so far away—like a bad dream.  Most of the people I know in Stockton read about the war in the newspaper, the same as they might read a novel.  Their hearts didn’t stop beating every time those names were posted on the courthouse door and they didn’t see the men, the ones the cannons had chewed to pieces.”  She shook her head slowly.  “I can’t forget it, but out here…”  She raised her hand, palm up, and the lamplight filled it.  “It’s as if none of it ever happened.  But it did.”

“Yes, it did.”

“Were you wounded?”

Considering his words, Scott watched her hand settle back to the wall.  “I was fortunate,” he said, satisfied with the concealing timbre of his answer.  Hattie’s dark eyes searched his face and he concealed it, too, tipping it downward, to the red clay tiles that shone like water in the reflected light. 

“Cole wrote me,” she said wistfully, “when he first went off.  He said that the uniforms itched and that he was more than tired of eating hardtack and that he had more blisters on his feet than he’d ever seen in his life.  And that it was the grandest adventure, marching toward off to battle.”  Her breath hitched. “I knew that he wanted so badly to be a hero.  He was scared to death, but he made himself be brave.  Was that what it was like for you?”

“I think we were all like that.  Nobody knows how they’ll react in battle until they’re tested.”  He gave her a small smile.  “But I was cavalry, so my sores weren’t on my feet.”

“An officer?”

“Not the first few months, but yes—I was commissioned.  I suppose you could call that one of the benefits of war—there’s no shortage of advancement opportunities.”

“Tell me about it, Scott. What was it like being so far away from anything you knew?”

Unbidden, the faces crowded through the dark—young, so young.  He focused on his own, those first few weeks, cheeks pinked by the harsh sun and his pimpled jaw scratching against the newly-issued wool.  “Hot,” he said through his soft smile. 

“You enlisted in the summer?”

“July.  They sent us down to Georgia and I decided that the South must be closer to hell than Boston was, because I could feel the heat.”

Her voice lightened.  “Was there anyone waiting for you back home?”

“Grandfather.  He wrote me dutifully every week and I dutifully wrote him.”

“But no woman?”

“Dozens.”  Hattie laughed gently and Scott leaned again, just a bit closer.  “But no, not really,” he added.

“So you were free to be the dashing, young officer.”

His own low laugh surprised him, soothed him.  “I think that I more closely resembled a gangly kid.”

“I doubt that.”

“Well, I do admit that the mosquitoes found me attractive.  Nobody sleeps alone in a tent in Georgia.” 

“You sound like Cole.  He wrote me that they’d caught one of the mosquitoes and the men took turns riding it around the camp.”

“Theirs must have been more accommodating than ours.  We had to break our mosquitoes first.  The wranglers earned their pay on that job.”

Hattie’s voice softened and she turned toward him, leaning as he was, her white-bloused arm braced against the warm adobe.  “Were you in Georgia through the end of the war?”

“No.”  Scott shook his head and his smile faded.  “I was assigned to Sheridan’s division.”

“The Shenandoah Valley?”

It would have been easy—a nod, maybe, or some question of his own, distracting her from the truth—he’d done it a hundred times before.  Only this time he didn’t answer and Hattie watched him, waiting, her dark eyes searching his face.

“It must have been cold, that last winter,” she said, hesitating only a second more before adding quietly, “—in the valley.”

The silence took hold again and they let it, watching into each other’s eyes, until Hattie looked away, tipping her face to the stars.  Scott followed her gaze.  There weren’t any constellations; their regimental order was hidden by the clouds, dark masses of them.  But there were stars—small clusters huddling together in the deeper black. 

Beside him, Hattie sighed.  “Tell me more lies, Scott—tell me that it was all glorious and that everybody came home.  Tell me those prisons were only a nightmare and that Cole is out there somewhere, laughing….”  Her voice was thick with longing.  “I want to hear him laugh, he had a beautiful laugh…and tell me that this is all going to be all right.”

“It’s going to be all right.” 

“And the prisons?”

“Only a nightmare.”

She looked down at his hand and lightly touched it.  “Say it again.”

The warm lie poured through him.  “Only a nightmare.” 

Deepening, the night shifted. Scott looked toward the great room.  His father moved on, out of the way of the light, and his shadow moved with him.  The lamp seemed brighter than before as Murdoch stood by the desk and watched again through the panes of the door.

“We should go in,” Scott told her.

Her fingers left his hand.

“Thank you,” Hattie said.  She turned, casting her own shadow as she walked against the lamp’s glow. 

A moment later, Scott followed.


Chapter 12

A single excuse would have been enough, but Murdoch offered up three.  There was the Cattlemen’s petition for one—Tobias Maynard hadn’t signed yet, and, seeing as he was back from visiting his daughter in Denver, now was as good a time as any to persuade him to add his name.  Murdoch had business with the bank, too—maybe.  That never was made clear to Scott’s satisfaction and it could have been either a bank draft or some forms that needed review, but obviously, in Murdoch’s opinion, whatever it was—it was important.  And Olstead’s Grocery was to receive a fresh shipment from San Francisco, a case of scotch.  Ordered three weeks before, it was overdue and Murdoch was getting thirsty for a taste of the old land. 

“All right,” Scott said, as he broke open a biscuit and spooned a dab of strawberry marmalade between the halves.  “Why don’t you come with us into Green River?”

“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” Murdoch said.   He sipped at his coffee.  “I was thinking that you could start the crew on the repairs to the South Creek bridge.  We need to move the lower pasture herd next week and that bridge is a tricky piece of engineering.”

“You want to take Hattie into town yourself?” 

“That seems to be the most efficient plan.”  Murdoch lowered his cup, wrapping both hands around it. “Unless you think there’s anything to be gained in speaking to Josh?   Do you honestly believe that he’s going to tell you where the rest of the money is?”

“No.”  Scott bit into the biscuit and chewed.  It could be over, right here and now, his father relaying his concern to Josh and saying his goodbyes.  It was more than Josh deserved, at least until the kerosene lamp had been replaced.  A good one, too, an expensive one, Scott considered, reveling for the moment in the petty satisfaction.  “I don’t see that there’d be any benefit in speaking to Josh again.  Do we have the materials for the repairs?”

“They were loaded last night.” 

“Who’s on the crew?”

“I asked Cipriano to pick out six men.”

“Cipriano has a lot of experience in that kind of repair.”  It was an observation, nothing more.  Scott took another bite and a gulp of his coffee, feeling Murdoch’s eyes on him. The rest of the argument formed itself in his mind, the fact that he’d brought Josh to Lancer and it was his responsibility, not Murdoch’s, to see him off to face the law in Stockton.   That objection seemed reasonable, and he almost voiced it, swallowing first and washing the biscuit down with a second big swig.  “Hattie’s not the easiest woman to handle,” he said instead. 

“Are you suggesting that I can’t manage one young lady?”  Murdoch’s lips twitched with his barely concealed smile.

“Certainly not.”  Forking a slice of bacon onto his plate, Scott raised his brow.  “And Hattie hasn’t done anything rash in the past twenty four hours, so there’s an excellent chance that she won’t wrestle the lines from you and take off for Mexico.”

Murdoch braced his hand against the table and pushed himself up.  “I’ll keep my eye on her,” he said with a touch of humor, and then he drained his cup.  “She’s quite a young lady.”  He pivoted away and walked with his cup to the sideboard.

“Josh was lucky to find her,” Scott said evenly.  Those unfocused eyes, the reflection of the lamplight in the glass—Scott watched his father and wondered how much he’d seen the night before.  He cut a bite of bacon as Murdoch set the cup on the oak top and turned back.

“She seems taken with him.” Murdoch leaned casually against the sideboard, crossing his long legs at the ankles.  “Of course, you’ve spent more time with her, and a theft charge could make a lady think twice.  So has she…thought twice?”

“No.”  Scott wiped his mouth and set his napkin next to his plate, leaving most of his bacon untouched.  “Hattie isn’t a fickle woman.” 

“I don’t suppose that she is.”

Scott rose.  “If Cipriano can wait a moment, I’d like to say goodbye.”

“The bridge will still be there,” Murdoch said, more sympathetically than a work assignment really called for. 

Scott looked away from his father’s watching eyes.  “All right,” he said, irritation clipping the words.  Then, more placidly—“I’ll tell her that you’re leaving shortly.”

As he passed through the Great Room, Scott glanced out the French doors into the bright morning sun.  The veranda was dappled with leaves, driven there by the rain.  He’d heard it during the night as it rattled hard against the roof tiles.  It was over now, but it’d left the morning cooler.  He felt a draft as he climbed the stairs and, as he came up on the landing, Scott saw that the curtains, Teresa’s Irish lace, were billowing out over a vase of burgundy red roses.  Their scent saturated the air.

Briefly, he looked toward Hattie’s door, but Scott kept walking to the end of the hallway, reached around the roses, and forced the window glass down, then straightened a kink in the drape of the delicate lace.  The curtain still held some moisture and the round cherry table was beaded with rainwater.  He swept his hand across the wood, making his palm damp, and then wiped it on his hip. 

Crossing the hallway, he could hear the small thuds of Hattie moving around the room.  He stood for only a second at her door, and then he knocked. 

“Just a moment.” 

Quick little sounds followed and Scott waited, wiping his palm again. When the door opened, Hattie was still working a mother-of-pearl button at the neck of her white blouse.  Her thick hair was down. 

“Scott,” she said softly, stepping back for him. 

“Good morning.”  He was conscious of his eyes straying, but Hattie didn’t notice—she had looked down, tugging at her waistcoat and petting out the wrinkles in her skirt. 

“I’ll just be a second,” she said distractedly.   When she brought her face up again, she dragged her hair from her shoulders and swept it back into both hands, twisting, and she held it that way as she walked to the dressing table. 

Scott followed her only a few feet into the room, lingering near the open door.  “Did you sleep well?” he asked.

She picked up a brush.  “No,” she admitted, and he could see her reflection when she turned to the mirror.  “I was listening to the rain.  We needed it though, it’s been so warm.”  She looked to where his reflection in the glass must have fallen.  “I hope that you slept better.”

“Have you packed?”  He crossed his arms over his chest for lack of anything else to do with them.

“There’s nothing to pack.”  Smiling into the mirror, she added, “I’m the crazy runaway woman, remember?” 

Scott’s gaze swept the room.  It looked as it had before she came.  The quilt was smoothed evenly across the bed and only the hospitable luxuries Teresa must have placed in the room were left visible—a small vase of daisies, a few books, the toilette set in front of the mirror.  Hattie’s beaded purse sat on the corner of the dressing table, but that and the woman herself were the only things out of place.

“Are we ready to go?” she asked.

“Murdoch will be taking you into town.” 

“Murdoch?”  She turned her head and simply stared for a brief moment, but then looked back into the mirror.  Her brush moved through her hair, its heavy waves flowing back at the brush’s stroke and falling again over her shoulders.  “I thought that you were going to take me.”

A tendril of warmth uncoiled and he stilled it.  He’d imagined it, that wisp of regret in her voice, and it didn’t matter.  It couldn’t matter.  “My father has business in town,” he said.

Giving up on the the brush, Hattie used her fingers instead, weaving her hair into submission.  “It’s kind of him.”  Her voice trailed off and Scott lost her eyes in the mirror as she tilted her face down and half shut her lids. “I just thought…”  She took a silver comb with ornate scrolling from the dresser and pressed it into her upswept braid.  Slowly, she turned to him.   “I should thank you.”

“You already did.”

“Last night,” she said quietly.

“Tell Josh….”  What?  Scott studied her face, her cheeks accented at the bones, not by any artful rouge, but from the sun of the morning before and the day before that.  Her dark brows framed the green of her eyes and she was beautiful.  He heard the word in his head—beautiful—caressed it like a pebble.  “I know a lawyer in Stockton, a good one.  I’ve given his name to Josh, but I could send a telegram.”

“I’d be grateful if you would.”

“And Josh needs to give up the money.  You can convince him to do it, Hattie.”

He knew what she was thinking, but she didn’t say it—not this time.  Hattie watched him for a second longer and then those thoughts, all of her thoughts, settled into a tender gaze.  She walked to him and rested her hand on his arm, and she tipped her face, stretching closer to his cheek.  Scott bowed his head.  When her lips brushed his skin they were warm, and she smelled of lilac soap, so close.

“Take care of yourself,” she said.

He nodded.  “If you need anything…”

“I’ll be all right; you told me so.” 

“But if you do…”  She had a tiny scar above her lip.  He stored that memory away, categorized and sealed it, as he nodded again and walked toward the door.  Scott turned with the knob in his hand.  “Goodbye, Hattie,” he said, and he pulled the door closed behind him.


Cipriano knew what he was doing and the crew worked well together, but the bridge was still four days of back-breaking labor in the unrelenting sun.  September in Boston would have been mild, this late in the month, and as Scott looked out across the pasture’s scrubby trees he missed the crimson that would be dotting his grandfather’s hard maples.  As it was, by mid-morning the sweat had soaked through his clothes and by midday even his gloves were uncomfortably drenched. 

All he wanted when the day was over was a bath and a soft chair in the hacienda, someplace where he could sink his weary bones and let Murdoch’s fine scotch soothe him.  Anybody would have been annoyed by his brother’s boisterously good humor and he told him that—twice.  The first time Johnny just eyed him, but the second time he tossed his cards a little too hard on the table and leaned back against the sofa.  “Brother,” Johnny told him, “if you don’t get that burr out of your saddle, somebody’s gonna knock it out for you.”

Scott remembered that, walking Charlie into the barn that fourth day.  He’d left the crew to follow with the wagon and ridden hard, and as he passed the nearly empty stalls, he savored the dust-thick silence.  Charlie plodded obediently into his stall and stood as Scott pulled his saddle, his blanket, and then his bridle from him.  The horse turned, trying to follow as Scott reached for the stall gate. 

“Whoa, there,” Scott said softly, patting the horse’s neck.  “You’ll get your brushing.”  He closed the gate behind him, but he didn’t let go of the rail.  He leaned instead. 

Again, as they’d been doing for days, his thoughts crept through the quiet.  They drove him to move and he did, dragging his gloves from his hands and aligning them, then folding them into his waistband.  His hat seemed to trap the heat and he swept it from his head, hung it on a nail, and then reached for the buttons on his shirt.  After he’d unfastened the top two, he had to tug at the cloth to free it from his wet chest, but it was cooler with his skin exposed.  He slipped the third button from its hole and saw, off to his side, a stream of straw dusting down from the loft.  He took a step away from the stall and looked up. 

“Who’s there?”

A pink shirt and a dark head showed before he found the face, then Johnny dropped to his stomach and lay with his elbows bracing him, watching down from the edge of the loft.  “You look good’n hot.”

“What are you doing up there?”  Scott’s neck complained about the angle, and he looked down again, refastening one button.  “And there is no good in hot.”

“You still got that burr?”  Johnny held a fistful of hay over the edge and made a sieve of his fingers, letting the straw slip piece by piece to the hard dirt below.  “I been thinkin’,” he said, watching the trickle of gold. 

“And to what do we owe the blessed fortune of your learned consideration?”

Clenching his fingers, Johnny stopped the flow of straw, and he cocked his brow.  There was a soft-edged teasing to his voice.  “You want I should come down there and answer that question?”

“No.”  Scott did up another button and shook his head slowly.  From the corner of his eye he saw the trickle of straw fall again.  “I’d just get you sweaty if you came near me.”  He looked toward the loft.  “Allow me to rephrase the question—why are you doing your thinking in the barn?”

Johnny jiggled the hay in his palm.  “Josh couldn’t ride, right?”

“No more than I can decipher any meaning in that question.”  The straw hit him in the head.  Some of it stuck, Scott could feel it as he brushed his hand through his hair and watched the flecks of dust and hay fall.  Johnny was grinning when he looked up at him again.  “All right,” Scott said, “Josh couldn’t ride.”

"So the money has to be here.”  Johnny dangled his finger over the edge and idly wagged it.  “Somewhere near the hacienda.”

“We’ve been through this already.  The money could be anywhere.”

“Josh slept in, didn’t he?  And he had all day to stash the money somewhere in the house or the barns.”

“Or he could have hidden it at half-a-dozen stage stops between Morro Coyo and Stockton.”

“Is that what you would’ve done?”

“I wouldn’t have taken the money in the first place.”

“Now—there’s your problem.”  Johnny pushed up from the floor of the loft, his pink shirt flashing against the rafters, and he disappeared for a second.  “You gotta think like a thief,” he said, from somewhere up there, and then his boots slid over and he showed again, sitting and scooting treacherously close to the edge.  Straw drizzled down.  “They don’t like to work too hard.”

“Is that so?”

“They’re lazy,” Johnny said, leaning his elbows on his thighs.

“And how would you know this?”

Johnny grinned again.  “Josh wouldn’t hide the money at the stage stop, because it’d be too much trouble sneakin’ around to dig it back up.  But an old friend from Boston—a couple of stories—a bottle of whiskey—and he’d have all the time in the world to dig fourteen thousand dollars out of whatever hole he stuck it in.”

Rubbing at his neck, Scott considered his probable complicity in the theft.  “Assuming that Josh had the money in the first place,” he said.

“You assuming somethin’ different?”

“No—Josh probably did take that money.”  Scott backed a few steps, easing the angle between him and the loft.  “But there’s still a document that says a man’s innocent until a jury says otherwise.” 

“Not where I come from.  Down on the border everybody just figures you’re guilty and nine times outta ten, that’s about the size of it.”

“All right.  So let’s say that Josh is that nine in ten—where’s the money?”

Johnny looked behind him and then back at Scott.  “It ain’t up here.”

Setting his hands on his hips, Scott stared up at his brother.  “And how long did it take you to determine that?”

Johnny scratched at his cheek. “Well,  it took ‘bout half an hour to chase all the mice outta their holes and poke around inside them….and then that hay started looking comfortable.”

“Did you sleep well?”

“Like a baby.”

“And does Murdoch know how you spent your afternoon?”

“Nope.  Think we can maybe not tell him?”

He wasn’t even sure when the smile had worked its way across his lips, but Scott let it sink in and he added a small, exasperated snort.  “That shouldn’t be a problem—I’m becoming quite experienced at harboring criminals.”

“Like I was sayin’,” Johnny went on, “that money didn’t walk itself all the way from Stockton and the way I see it, there’s only three people who could have put it there.  One—Josh.”  He held a finger out.  “He’s not denying it and I bet you still have a lump on your head sayin’ he’s guilty.” 

Johnny gave him a beat to deny it, but Scott just waited, still with his hands on his hips and still staring up.  “All right—then there’s Todd.”  A second finger stuck out.  “Can’t see why he’d come all this way just to hide that money, but he could be crazy or somethin’.”

“It’s plausible,” Scott deadpanned.  “We’ve had an epidemic of that condition around here.”

The third finger fanned out.  “And Hattie.  Her old man needed the money and she knew the combination.  And she sure came a long way in an all-fired hurry.”

There was only half a step between him the tack room door and Scott backed that step, then he leaned. 

“You think maybe Hattie might’ve taken Todd’s fourteen thousand?” Johnny asked.

“No,” Scott said carefully, “As I’ve told you before, I don’t believe she’d do anything like that.”

“That some of your Harvard logic?  Or just you knowin’?” 

Scott listened for a challenge in Johnny’s questions, but there wasn’t anything to argue against—just his brother’s mild, annoying frankness.  He looked down into the straw-packed dirt.  “We need evidence to know anything.”

“Well…I looked, and there ain’t any,” Johnny said, and Scott heard the faint rustle of paper.  “You gotta go to Stockton for that.  Here—”  Scott kept his eyes on the ground and Johnny whistled sharply.  “Catch.”

A flash of white drifted down, and as Scott raised his gaze and focused on it, it caught on a current of air and carried several feet to his right.  It landed in a patch of bare dirt.  “What’s that?”  Scott bent and picked up the small envelope. 

“It’s from Stockton.  I picked it up in town this morning.”

“From Josh?” 


Scott flipped the envelope and examined the handwriting.  It was addressed to him, with an address and the name “Whitfield” delicately scripted at the top corner.  “Hattie,” he said, looking up into his brother’s face.

“It looks like your girl’s wantin’ some help.”

“She’s not my girl,” Scott told him, wishing he’d stop calling her that.  Wishing a lot of things.

“You going?” Johnny asked.

Scott turned the envelope again and pried a finger under the sealed flap.  “If I thought there was anything that I could do for Josh, I’d be in Stockton now.”  He slid the seal free.  “There isn’t.”  

“Maybe.”  Johnny’s voice changed pitch and Scott glanced up from the envelope to see his brother coming to his feet.  Johnny walked toward the ladder.  “But you won’t know anything waitin’ around here.”  

Johnny swung onto the ladder and as his boot hit the second rung, Scott looked down at the envelope.  He lifted the flap and slipped the letter past it.  It was an inexpensive stationery, folded once, with the writing to the inside.  His thumb raised the paper’s edge, ready to unfold it, and he held it there.  He could feel Johnny’s eyes on him, and he practiced his guarded expression—set his mouth into a granite line, felt it harden. 

Johnny’s boots thudded to the dirt. 

The paper opened crisply.  Scott’s gaze fell first to the bottom of the sheet and the flourished loop swirling through the signature.  It took a few seconds to decipher one letter from another in the name but finally, faintly, he made them out.  And the granite shifted.


Chapter 13

“It’s not from Hattie,” Scott said, reading through the body of the letter and nearly taking in the words.  Their meaning floated through the haze of her image—the woman who hadn’t written him, hadn’t even thought of him, if the likely truth be known.  Phrases settled into place.  “It’s from her mother.”

“What’s she want?”  Johnny asked, standing next to him in the wide barn aisle. 

Scott glanced up from the letter.  He hesitated only a moment, then handed it across to his brother.  “Here—read it.”

Johnny gave him an assessing look before his eyes dipped obligingly to the paper.  “Dear Mr. Scott Lancer,” he read, “please forgive the…informality…of introducing myself through this…missive.” He squinted at the paper.  “There’s something about you being helpful.  Least I think that’s what it says—to her and Mr. Wright at a time of great need…I extend my sincere…gratitude?”  He frowned.  “I am con…confident that you appreciate how…troubled I am …”  Johnny looked up from the paper.  “I can’t make this out, Scott.  Can you read chicken scratchin’?”

“It’s not that bad.”  Scott took the letter from Johnny’s outstretched hand. He skimmed the lines, but he’d already registered their intentions.  “She’s inviting me to go to Stockton.  Apparently, she’s fond of Josh and is under the illusion that I can help him.  Or help Hattie.”

Johnny scratched his thumb at his jaw.  “Might not be a bad idea.”

“I’ll wire my regrets.”  Scott folded the letter, slipped it into its envelope, and creased the flap securely back into place. 


“Charlie needs brushing.”  With one quick warning look at this brother, Scott turned, shoved the letter into his pocket, and opened the door to the tack room.  The brushes were in a bucket hung from the wall. He pulled out the red-handled one, the one that seemed to fit his hand the best, and walked purposefully past Johnny to Charlie’s stall.  The horse flicked his ears, but kept nibbling at his hay as Scott swept a long stroke across the chestnut’s back.  His view was filled by the stirred dust and the reddish flanks, but he could still see Johnny from the corner of his eye, hanging his hands through the stall rails and watching him.

“Don’t you have anything better to be doing?”  A fleck of dust got in his eye and Scott rubbed a finger at it, and then blinked hard. 

“Would it make any difference if Hattie had written that letter?”

Scott fell back into the rhythm of the brush strokes. “And why would it?”

“You’re not foolin’ anybody.  You know that, don’t ya?”

His next stroke hung in the air before it landed in a brisk sweep across the horse’s coat.  Scott went over the same well-groomed line again and then a third time.  He started in on Charlie’s legs next, bending to reach his hocks.  The whole time, his neck prickled with the sensation of being watched.

Finally, his brother’s voice drawled through the silence.  “You’re not crazy, either.”

Not even bothering to glance up, Scott worked a bit of mud from Charlie’s wiry hair.  “I didn’t realize that my sanity was ever in doubt.”  He stood straighter and ran a hand over Charlie’s rump as he moved around to the opposite side, putting 1200 pounds of horseflesh between him and his brother.

“Look, Scott—I know somethin’ about women,” Johnny said.

Scott leveled a cool stare across Charlie’s withers and stilled his brush.  “Do tell.”

“I’m just sayin’—” Johnny tipped his hand into the air.  “Hattie doesn’t know what she wants.  Maybe Josh took that money and maybe he didn’t, but if you’re hidin’ from the truth because of her… that ain’t right.”

“I’m not.”


“Are you finished?”  Scott found some satisfaction in the dismissive tone of his question, but he didn’t have much hope that it would end matters for his brother. 

It didn’t.

“So are you goin’?” Johnny asked.

Scott crossed his arms over Charlie’s back.  His brush dangled from his hand.  “Johnny,” he said, heat smoldering in his brother’s name.  “What could I possibly owe Josh?  Thanks to him I had a three-day headache, I froze sleeping on that mountain, chased Hattie halfway to Utah, and now I have you…”  He dampened his fire for one brief second, but it flared again.  “…nagging me like some old biddy about—”

“Old biddy?”  Johnny’s head rose challengingly, but a smile flickered at his eyes.

Scott pointed the brush at him.  “Back off, Johnny.”

“I’m goin’.”  Johnny’s hands spread in open-palmed surrender, then he pulled his arms from the rails.  “But I know you—and if Josh goes to prison for somethin’ he didn’t do—well, you just be sure about what you’re doin’.”

Charlie shifted under him and Scott straightened again as he watched his brother walk away.  He went back to his brushing, watching the bristles raise puffs of dust from the horse’s coarse coat.  Charlie’s tail flicked around the horse’s legs and caught the back of his hand a time or two, but Scott barely noticed.  The point of the envelope poked him too, every time he bent.  He looked down and saw that a corner of it had worked its way out of his pocket and the white stationery was crumpling there.  There was a ledge on the wall behind him and he set the brush on it, and then pulled the envelope from his pocket.  One fold would fit it securely in his pocket.  Staring down at the letter, he intended to do just that, fold it and hide it away again so deep that this time it wouldn’t bother him. 

Charlie’s tail swished and Scott stepped back, leaning against the wall.  The corner of the letter had also crumpled; he saw that as soon as he slipped it from the envelope.  It spread spidery creases through the handwriting.  The script was overly careful and ornate, its thick flourishes nearly concealing the form of the words.  He could interpret it, though, more easily than his brother could, and this time he read it through—

Dear Mr. Scott Lancer,

Please forgive the informality of introducing myself through this missive.  I am Mrs. Franklyn Whitfield, mother of Miss Hattie Whitfield. My daughter has informed me that  you were most helpful to her and Mr. Wright at a time of great need.  I extend my sincere gratitude for your kindness.  

I am confident that you appreciate how troubled I am by the accusations made against my daughter’s fiancé.  I have always believed Mr. Wright to be a fine young man, and I remain fond of him.  Hattie’s welfare, however, is my paramount concern and there are circumstances affecting that of which I fear you are unaware. 

While reluctant to trouble you further, I have great hopes that you will indulge an anxious mother and ensure that the actions necessary to secure Hattie’s contentment are undertaken.  

If you would be so kind, I am requesting that you accept my invitation to be a guest in our home.  It is necessary that this occur at the earliest date your obligations will allow.  

Please come.

Most Sincerely, 

Mrs. Franklyn.Whitfield

His eyes lingered on the two, simple words—Please come.  The script in that line was clean and it seemed separate from the rest of the letter, more real.  

“Hattie’s contentment,” he murmured.  Charlie tilted his ears to the sound of his voice.  “And I don’t want to hear about it from you, either,” he told him, and watched as the horse dropped his head and sniffed at the straw on the ground. 

Again, Scott read the letter.  The words became more legible as he learned the tilt of the woman’s pen and the scrawl of her hand.  Phrases seeped in with the stillness of the barn.  Fond of Mr. Wright…Hattie’s welfare…circumstances…I fear you are unaware.  There wasn’t any sense in it and he was tempted to wad the paper into the worthless scrap that it was and toss it into the straw.   Going to Stockton was pointless; there was nothing he could do.  Josh took the money, he was going to prison, and Hattie would pine over her Cole, just as she’d been doing.  And if Josh wasn’t guilty….

Scott reached for the brush again and clenched it in his hand.  The facts aligned themselves in his mind, just as they’d been doing in every unguarded moment for the past four days.  Josh knew where to find him; Josh needed the money; Josh never denied taking it, not since that first morning.  And there was the oil lamp—that damned oil lamp—giving his friend a means of escape, indicting him as solidly as any evidence Scott could fathom.

Josh stole the fourteen thousand dollars.

Scott shoved the brush under his arm and folded the letter, twice, so that it fit easily into only half of the envelope.  Then he folded the envelope and slipped it deep into his pocket. 

He stored the brush again and as he shut the tack room door, he tested the latch, making certain that everything was as it should be. Then, giving the barn one last sweeping glance, Scott headed for the open doors leading out into the afternoon sun.

A bath, that’s what he needed. Leaving the heavy smells of horses and hay behind him, Scott was left with only the lingering stench of his unwashed perspiration and he longed for a good, long soak. A hot one, with a sharp razor and bay rum lotion to follow. 

He had to squint as he strolled across the stable yards, and he pulled his hat from the back of his head, resettling it for the short walk to the hacienda.  He came in through the garden, stopping at the bench just outside the kitchen door and wetting his hands in the basin of water kept there, then reaching for the soap.  It was lilac. 

I fear you are unaware.   The words whispered in the scent.

He scrubbed his hands, pouring more water from the pitcher and rinsing as thoroughly as was reasonable.  The towel absorbed the rest of the perfume, most of it, and what lingered was faint.

In the kitchen, he heard voices coming from the Great Room and he strode toward those sounds.  It was cooler inside the thick walls.  

Murdoch looked up when he entered the room.  “How did the bridge work go?” he asked. 

“Fine,” Scott told him, watching Johnny sink into the leather chair.  He turned back to Murdoch, pen poised over his papers at his desk.  “We finished the bracing today and Cipriano is bringing what lumber we didn’t use back with the wagons.  You should be able to move the herd tomorrow.”

“How’s the stream running?”

“It’s low, but it always is this time of year.”

“But there’s water for the herd?”

“Enough.”  Scott turned his hat on its crown and tugged his gloves from his waistband, then laid them inside it.  “The spring’s flowing well,” he added.  He set his hat on the table, walked to the desk, then settled in the cherry armchair opposite his father. As he sat he could feel the folded letter, thick in his pocket. 

“I hired two new men today, and I’d like you and Johnny to work with them tomorrow.”  Murdoch flipped through some papers, scrutinizing the third one before marking something in its margins.  “They say they did some droving down in Texas, but I never know about a man…”   Still looking down at his papers, Murdoch’s pencil stilled.  His brow wrinkled and he made another mark.  “Keep an eye on them until you’re certain that they know cattle.”

Scott watched his father’s face, what he could see of it as he bent over his work.  “I suppose Johnny told you about the letter.”

“The letter?”  Murdoch spared him a puzzled glance, then went back to his papers.  “No, your brother didn’t say anything about a letter.”  He looked briefly at Johnny, but didn’t seem to get any clarification there.  His gaze fell back on Scott.  “Is there something I should know about?”

“Hattie’s mother wants me to come to Stockton.”

Murdoch laid his pencil on his desk.  “Are you going?”

“I told Johnny that I wasn’t.”  Scott was aware of a rustling noise from where his brother sat, but Murdoch just leaned back in his chair, still watching him.  “I’d already considered the trip, but I decided against it.  The authorities in Stockton are better equipped to handle the investigation.”

“That’s true.” 

“And Josh didn’t exactly endear himself to me with his visit.”

Resting his elbows on the arms of his chair and clasping his hands over his chest, Murdoch nodded warily.  “We’ve had more gracious guests.”

Scott sat straighter and looked over his shoulder toward his brother.  Johnny was slumped in his chair, one boot crossed over the other knee and his head resting in the well-worn hollow of the leather back.  He was drumming his fingers on his thigh.  “So you’ll both understand,” Scott said, turning back to his father, “that going to Stockton isn’t something I want to do, but something I need to do.  I’ll be leaving in the morning.”

“What changed your mind?” Murdoch asked.

“The letter,” Scott said, as truthfully as he was willing.  “Mrs. Whitfield wrote that there are circumstances.  It’s probably nothing, but Stockton’s only a day’s travel by stage and if it would rest her mind, then what harm could be done?”

The lines at Murdoch’s eyes tightened.  Scott knew that look, knew the worries that Murdoch was considering.  There wasn’t any need; he could handle it.  She was only one woman.  He held his gaze steady and was grateful when his father gave him a small smile.  “All right,” Murdoch said.  “I’m sure we can spare you for a few days.”

“Mrs. Whitfield will be grateful.”

Murdoch’s smile grew.  “I suppose some good always comes in making a lady happy.” 

“I’ll be back as quickly as I can,” Scott said.  He set his hands on the arms of the chair, ready to rise. 

“I know you will,” Murdoch said, looking away.  “Johnny, can you handle your brother’s chores for a few days?”

“I was thinking that I might go with him.”

Scott twisted and stared at his brother. “That’s not necessary.”

“It is if I want to breed that sorrel mare,” Johnny said cryptically. 

“And why do you need to go to Stockton to breed a mare?”  Scott glanced at Murdoch to see if his face reflected any understanding of his brother’s statement, but Murdoch only frowned. 

“She’s got Morgan blood.”  Johnny dropped his foot to the tiles and leaned forward.  “And Charlie Harrison told me a couple weeks ago about the Stewart ranch in Stockton buying up a pure blood stallion.  Had it shipped in all the way from Kansas City.”  He gestured in the vague direction of the coveted horse.  “I figured I’d just take a look and see if we can’t mix a little of that blood in with our line.  That mare could drop some real fine foals.”

“That’s a long way to go to find a stud,” Murdoch said.

“I hear it’s a real fine stud.”

“There’s nothing suitable closer to the ranch?”


“You’re sure?”

Johnny only nodded.

Tipping forward in his chair, Murdoch took up his pencil again. “Just be back before too much work piles up,” he said.  “Both of you,” he added, looking directly at Scott.

“Thank you, sir,” Scott said.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me—” He stood and eyed his brother.  For a moment he wondered what it would have been like growing up big brother to that innocent face; the shambles of every crime lying right at his feet and Johnny could have sweet talked the devil himself into taking the blame.  “I need to bathe,” Scott said, aiming an irritated glare his brother’s direction.

Johnny ducked his head as Scott left the room.  He watched his father at his work when they were alone.  “Thanks,” he said softly. 

“For what?” Murdoch shuffled his papers, finding the one he wanted and stacking it on top.

“Nothin’,” Johnny mumbled.  He came to his feet and headed for the stairs.

Murdoch looked up. “Willie Stewart really does have a stallion, doesn’t he?”

Johnny stopped at the edge of the room and looked back.  “Fifteen hands and full of sass.  Did you think I made it up?”

“No.”  Murdoch smiled gently.  “I know how you worry about your mares.”

“Well, like you said, Murdoch…there’s always some good in making a lady happy.”  Johnny turned and walked slowly into the hallway.  “I just hope this filly don’t throw our stud.”


Chapter 14

Dickens kept his brother at bay.  Scott had searched Murdoch’s shelves the night before and considered each novel, weighed them.  He’d chosen “The Pickwick Papers” for its thickness.  Eight hundred and seventy-four pages of folly and every word a shield against his brother.    

He had to step carefully past the intimately spaced boots and skirts as he folded his body into the stage and, with a choice of two narrow widths of seat, he selected the far corner.  Johnny wedged himself inelegantly into the middle seat opposite. There were ladies at either window by the door and Scott nodded at them.  He hung his hat on the hook behind his head and then, settling, he angled his ribs around the elbow of the man next to him.  He propped Dickens on one knee. By the time the stage lurched out of Green River, he had successfully established his defensive lines and was convincingly immersed in Dickens’ world, jiggling through it was.

For miles of well-rutted road, it worked. 

It wasn’t until late afternoon, so close to Stockton, that his eyes just wouldn’t focus anymore.  Or his thoughts.   Scott stared out the window, watching the clumps of grass blur by, and he let the pages flutter beyond his place.  He dropped the book, spine up, across his thigh. 

“Looks like home.”  Johnny leaned and looked beyond Scott to the pastures.

“Almost.”  Scott closed the Dickens and wedged it between his leg and the bowed wall of the stage.  “The grass isn’t as green.”

Johnny sat back again.  “Nope,” he said, closing his eyes and resting his chin on his chest.  He’d taken the seat next to Scott at the last stop and their shoulders rubbed.  That pressure lessened when Johnny crossed his arms again, as he had for most of the past twenty miles.  He shifted his right foot, just an inch, all the motion that the loose weave of legs would allow.

“What do you say to a steak tonight?” Scott’s gaze shifted from his brother and back to the grazing fields.  They stretched for empty miles before rising into the brown foothills. 

“A thick one?” 

“With baked potato and chives.”

“I want butter.”

“My treat,” Scott said, letting his head rest against the leather seat.  His hair ruffled in the breeze.

The rest of the passengers had wilted into silence hours before.  The ladies still kept their vigil by the windows, but the others—business men both of them from the cut of their suits and the attaché the one held in his lap—were nodding slack-jawed to the constant rocking.  The taller gentleman wore a thin dribble of spit on his chin.

With a twinge of guilt, Scott realized that he hadn’t even caught any of their names.  The not knowing was good, though.  For the first time in days he felt alone, gazing off across the fields with his brother pressing at his side.  The money—Josh—Todd—it all faded with the miles.  Scott held to that feeling; let it soak through him, even though it wasn’t right.  Every bump of the road told him that it wasn’t right.

The wind brushed his face.  A sensation touched him, too, lightly—warm on his cheek and with the scent of lilacs.  That wasn’t right either, but as the stage passed over the endless dirt, rocking his unease away, he allowed the memory to linger.

The grazing fields turned to wheat, and the wheat gave way to gardens and small frame houses.  The first real buildings were white-washed board.  The horses slowed at those and they fell into a trot at the brick storefronts.  The streets there were crowded and the coach swayed as its path swung around a slower wagon or a standing horse.  Scott scanned the signs as they passed, watching for one with Whitfield printed on it, but he didn’t spot it.  Finally the stage lurched to a stop and he ducked his head, looking around his brother and the ladies and through the far window.

A clean-shaven young man stood waiting, and he stepped forward and opened the door.

“Aunties,” he said, smiling up and offering his hand. One of the ladies took it. “It’s been a month of Sundays since I’ve seen you.  You both look more beautiful than ever.”

The men waited for the women to be helped from the stage, and then stood and sorted themselves and their hats and whatever else they felt a responsibility for.  They filed gratefully through the low door. Scott was last and when his boots hit the boardwalk, he saw Johnny already pacing the wood, stretching his shoulders, and looking up to the top of the stage. 

“Heads up!” a voice called.

A bag came sailing down and the driver caught it, dropping it immediately to the boardwalk beside him.  He raised his hands for another.

“I got it,” Johnny said, stepping in next to the driver and grabbing the black satchel flung toward his chest.  “That one, too.”  He let the first one fall and barely got his hand up in time for the second.  He trapped it against his side and Scott took it from him. 

“I don’t see anyone,” Scott said softly, watching the perimeter of their little group as he stuffed the book in his bag and wrapped his hand around the handle.  Then, to the stage employee, “Can you tell me where I can find Whitfield’s Dry Goods?”  As soon as the question was asked, he realized that he’d never known the name of Hattie’s store, only guessed it.

“No, Sir,” the man answered brusquely, still watching up at the luggage being thrown to him.  “Tom, you know any place by the name of Whitfield’s?”

“One block over.”  That voice came from behind him and Scott pivoted, coming face to face with the ladies’ nephew.  Smiling politely, the young man crooked a thumb.  “Turn right at the corner and it’s a few doors down.  But it’s the Emporium.”

“Thank you.”  Scott said the words, even though the aunts had already reclaimed their nephew and the man was being dragged away, a heavy-looking bag dangling from each hand and bumping against his knees. 

Scott’s own bag hung lightly in his hands.  It was half-filled, only a few days’ change of clothing.  This was Tuesday and they’d be on their way home by Thursday, Friday at the latest.  He hadn’t needed much.  The bag swayed as they walked down the boardwalk and turned at the corner.

The Emporium was a small storefront with a brightly painted sign above an open door.  Johnny was the first to step across its threshold, and Scott followed, casting his gaze into the dimmer space, not quite focusing at first after the bright sunshine outside.  He jiggled his bag, needing the motion, and then, suddenly conscious of the weight shifting in his hand, he stilled it again.

Nobody greeted them.

“Hello?” Johnny called softly, walking past a stack of cloth bolts and leaning over the counter.  A pyramid of canned goods filled the space at his elbow.  “Anybody back there?”

The flash of white on the floor at the far end of the counter, behind a pile of boxes, caught their attention. Scott stood straighter and swept his hat from his head.  A woman pushed up from the floor, huffing slightly and using the boxes for balance.  She was slighter than Hattie, more fragile looking, and her hair was pulled back, with gray strands twisted into the dark coil.  There was no mistaking the relationship though, not with those green eyes watching curiously from her thin, delicately-lined face.

“Can I help you?” she asked, and she lifted a fistful of skirt and stepped over the boxes.

“Mrs. Whitfield?”  Scott set his satchel on the counter and laid his hat on top.  “I’m Scott Lancer and this is my brother—.”

“Mister Lancer?”  Confusion furrowed across her brow, but her voice was warm.  Her eyes flicked to a spot beyond him.  “I’m so glad you’ve come.  I’m Alice Whitfield.”  She put her hand out and Scott took it.  “Didn’t Mr. Whitfield….my husband was going to meet the stage.  I suppose…” 

“My pleasure,” Scott said, and then her gaze left him and Scott released her hand, which she offered to Johnny.  “And it’s so nice to meet you, too, Mister Lancer.  When the wire said that you were coming with your brother, I was so pleased.”

“It’s Johnny, ma’am.”

She glanced distractedly over Scott’s shoulder, and, looking back, he saw a clock on the wall.  Its hands showed four twenty-three.   He turned to her again and smiled reassuringly.  “No doubt the stage was early.  It was no trouble finding your store.”

She allowed the slight deception.  “You must be hungry.”   She reached under the counter and her hand came up clenching a set of keys.  “I have a stew on the range and I left Hattie baking an apple pie. Do you like apple pie?”

“I’m sure it’s delicious,” Scott told her, grabbing his bag as she headed for the door, “but I thought that Johnny and I would check into the hotel this afternoon and come by to visit after we’d seen Josh.”

“Hotel?”  Mrs. Whitfield toed an iron weight away from the propped open door.  She stood with the knob in her hand. “I have the guest room all made up for you.  Unless you mind a cot?  There’s only one bed, but we set up a cot and I had hoped that it would be comfortable.”

“A cot would be fine, but we really don’t want to put you out.”  Almost involuntarily, driven more by polite breeding than desire, Scott had followed the woman to the door.  He had a vague sense of Johnny walking behind him, of silent and useless help, and a stronger sense of his thick steak slipping away.  Faintly, the taste of apple pie woke on his tongue.

“So it’s settled.  It’s no imposition at all and you’re staying with us.”  Mrs. Whitfield stood back for them to pass and they did, waiting on the boardwalk as she pulled the door closed and turned to lock it.

Johnny leaned in and kept his voice low.  “Baked potato and chives, huh?”

“With butter,” Scott said, just as softly.  “And I didn’t notice you doing anything about it.”

Johnny gave him a slight smile, but he sobered as soon as Mrs. Whitfield tested the knob and slipped the keys into her skirt pocket.

“It’s this direction,” she said, pointing away from the center of town.


Scott smelled the pie from the garden.  They’d come around the back of the house, up a stone path lined with rosemary and tarragon and pale green cabbages, and mounted the sloping steps of a small porch.  The scent surrounded him as soon as Mrs. Whitfield opened the door and he stepped into a kitchen filled with it.  The pie itself sat in the middle of the table, but except for it and a pot steaming on the range, the kitchen was neat, orderly and empty.

“Sit down,” Mrs. Whitfield told them, and then she shouted “Hattie!” into the next room.  “Sit,” she said again, when she turned back to see Scott and Johnny both standing in the middle of her kitchen, still holding their bags in their hands.

“Yes, ma’am,” Johnny said, and he tossed his bag to the floor beside the table.  Listening for any footsteps and not hearing them, Scott set his bag next to Johnny’s.  They both obediently sat.

“With your permission,” Scott said, pulling his chair closer to the table, “I’d like to ask a few questions, Mrs. Whitfield.”

She gave the quiet interior of the house one last glance.  “There’s no reason to talk on an empty stomach.”  She took two bowls from a shelf next to the range and ladled stew into each of them.  “There’s fresh bread, too, and Edna Crawford brought me some butter this morning, and milk from her cow.  She knew that you were coming.”  The aroma from the stew overpowered the apple scent when she laid the bowl in front of him.  “Or there’s water, if you’d rather have it.  Would you?  Prefer water?”

“Milk is fine,” Johnny told her. 

“Can I help you?” Scott asked.

“No, it’ll just take a second.”

The china made a sharp clatter as she set plates in front of them.  The silver that followed was freshly polished.  Scott watched her fill a pink-rose platter with the bread and set it and a bowl of butter on the table, all the while wondering how many neighbors knew his name and exactly what they’d been told.  Mrs. Whitfield poured their drinks and leaned over the table and she tore a scrap of bread from the loaf, and then nibbled at it as she slid into the chair opposite him.

“How’s the stew?” she asked.

Scott swallowed.  “Good,” he said, as Johnny murmured his approval.  Taking another spoonful of the rich beef and barley, Scott considered his approach.  “I was surprised to receive your letter,” he said, deciding a direct statement was the only way to get past the subject of their dinner.

“I know it was presumptuous.”  She shifted her gaze to Johnny, then back to Scott.  “But I didn’t know any other way to help Hattie.”

Scott let his spoon hover over his stew.   “And what is it that I can do?” 

“You can keep Josh out of prison.” 

“That all?”  Johnny reached across with his knife and scooped a glob of butter from the bowl.  “And how exactly is he supposed to do that?” He swiped the butter across his bread.

“By proving that Josh is innocent,” Mrs. Whitfield said. “He didn’t do anything.”

Heredity, Scott decided.  Hattie had come by that particular form of lunacy honestly, as a family characteristic.  He tactfully studied Mrs. Whitfield, imagining what other traits Hattie might one day take from the woman—the hints of silver maybe, not too much, even at her age. 

Johnny bit off a hunk of his bread and brushed the crumbs that fell from his lap.  “You got any reason for thinkin’ Josh didn’t do it?

“Yes,” Mrs. Whitfield said, “There was an audit.”

Scott shared a look with his brother, and then he leaned forward.  “An audit?”

She nodded.  “Last winter.  Josh told me about it.  I know he shouldn’t have, but I had some peach preserves and I’d made a cobbler and Josh is fond of cobbler, so he stayed and we were talking.”

Scott could feel Johnny eyeing him, but he kept his gaze on Hattie’s mother. 

She rambled on.  “He’d worked late three nights in a row and we’d hardly seen him—then all he could talk about was the bank.  There’d been an accountant in looking at the books.  And apparently, there’d been a math error.”

Dinner, that first night with Todd, Josh and Hattie.  Scott struggled to remember, and Josh’s words came to him—“you wouldn’t even have your job.” 

“Josh found the error?” he asked.


“How big a mistake are we talkin’?” Johnny asked. 

“I don’t remember exactly, but it was more than a thousand dollars.”

Johnny gave out a low whistle.  Scott tapped his finger on the table as he sorted through the possibilities, weighing each likely cause for this bit of gossip.  “Was it Todd’s error?”

Just on the edge of his hearing, a light thud came from the room on the other side of the kitchen.  The sound was muffled by the wall between them.   

“Yes,” Mrs. Whitfield said.  “The board of directors would have fired him over it, maybe even sent him to prison if the money had really been missing.”

The footsteps came closer, almost to the doorway now.  They stopped.

“Does Josh’s lawyer know about this?” Johnny asked.

“No,” Mrs. Whitfield told him.

“Why not?”

A board creaked and Scott looked past Mrs. Whitfield. 

From the other side of the doorway, unseen, Hattie said, “Because Josh won’t let us hire a lawyer,” and then she stepped into the room, barely, her hand still holding to the doorframe.  “Hello, Johnny…” Her gaze left his brother.  “Scott.” 

Scott dragged the words past the scrabble in his throat.  “Make him do it.” 

“I’ve tried.”  Her eyes were smaller than they’d been, rimmed by the swell of sleepless nights or tears.  Scott took them in, drank in all of her, fitting her to his memory.  “You don’t know how hard I’ve tried,” she said wearily.  “Josh is determined to ruin his life, and I don’t know how to stop him.”

“Nobody’s blaming you,” Scott said.

“That’s what I’ve been telling her.” Mrs. Whitfield rose and, after sliding a good-sized bowl from the china cabinet, she walked briskly to the range.  “Josh has always been a dear, but I’m going to take a switch to him if he doesn’t start listening to us.”  Steam clouded from the ladles of stew she poured into the bowl. 

Johnny wiped his napkin across his mouth.  “You got anything else we oughta know about Todd?”

Still filling the bowl, Mrs. Whitfield shook her head.  “Just that I’ve never liked him.”  She glanced back as she let the ladle sink into the pot and hooked its curved handle over the edge, then she set a plate as a lid on top of the stew.  “He has ambitions.”

“So do a lot of people,” Johnny said. 

“I suppose—but the men I’ve known are two kinds….”  Moving with an economy of motion, she reached up to a shelf next to the range and took a willow-pattern platter from it.  “There’s dreamers and there’s doers.  Mr. Todd doesn’t have the imagination to dream…”  The bowl clinked as she set it on the platter.  She wrapped a hunk of bread in a red-checkered napkin next, and set it next to the stew.  “…and I don’t believe he’s enough of a man to actually do anything.  So all he has is ambition.”

“Stealin’ all that money would take some doin’,” Johnny said.

“Not so much.”  The dangling end of a towel twitched as she polished a spoon with the cloth, then she set the silver on the platter.  “It was there for the taking.  It’d be harder not to.”

“The letter—” Scott said. 

Hattie stiffened and her mother gave her a quick, worried look. 

“You wrote in your letter that there were circumstances,” Scott said.  “Is that what you meant—Todd’s accounting error?”

 “Yes,” Mrs. Whitfield said distractedly, then she turned at the sounds of heavy footsteps coming up the porch steps.  “That’ll be Frank.”  

The door swung wide.  A tall man with washed-out, fat freckles and thinning hair took a hesitant step through it, aiming first a half grin at Hattie and then a sheepish look at Mrs. Whitfield.  Her arm had crooked and her fist was on her hip.

“Roger had a little trouble with the harness,” Frank announced, lingering near the door as it slowly closed behind him.  “By the time I got to the stage stop…”  Etiquette interrupted his excuses, and—looking grateful for the diversion—he stepped toward the table.  “Frank Whitfield,” he said, sticking a big hand out.  In turn, Johnny and Scott shook it.  “I see Alice has been feeding you.  The woman does detest a hungry man.”  Cautiously, he eyed his wife again.  “Is there any of that stew left?”

“You have the buggy?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”  His head bobbled in an overstated nod.   

“Sit, then.”  All motion again, she twisted back to the platter and grabbed it up. “Hattie—Scott—why don’t you two take the buggy and get this stew to Josh.  And cut a piece of that pie for him—Hattie?”  Her hands full, Mrs. Whitfield nodded toward the pie.  “Go on.”

Slowly, but obediently, Hattie left the shelter of her doorway and took a plate from the china cabinet, then brought it to the table. “I don’t mind walking,” she said.  She looked down at the pie as she cut it, but Scott caught one glimpse of green as she flicked her gaze to him.  “Scott hasn’t had his dessert yet; he can stay.”

“I’d like to see Josh.”  Scott watched her as she turned away.  “Maybe all this time in a cell has made him more reasonable.”

“Don’t count on it.”  Her back to him, Hattie arranged Josh’s dinner and took the tray from her mother.  “Reason has been singularly lacking around here lately.  I’ll walk.” 

This was crazy.  Scott’s eyes bored into the dark of Hattie’s braid and he wrapped the hollow of her voice around him, held it tight.  She didn’t want him here, she’d never wanted him. The moonlight’s black deception, the subterfuge of the lilac scent, they’d left him weak.  Imagination had crept in with its cunning.  The memory of her kiss faded to ashen-warmth on his cheek.

Scott stood.  “It may be pointless, but I’ve come all this way,” he said, as he strode toward her.  “And I’d still like to talk to him.” 

Behind him, Johnny’s chair made a scratching noise against the floor. 

“Frank?”  Mrs. Whitfield abandoned Hattie and passed Scott on her way to the table.  As he watched back over his shoulder, Scott saw her set her hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “Didn’t you have some questions about where the money was found?” she asked. “Maybe Johnny can stay here and answer those for you—do you mind, Johnny?”  She smiled down at him.

Craning his neck to watch past her to his brother, Johnny mumbled a hesitant, “No, I don’t mind.” 

He could have rescued him.  Scott considered that as he swept the platter from Hattie’s hands and, following her out of the kitchen, watched that the plate didn’t rattle too much against the china bowl. He balanced it all carefully when he got to the steps.  Despite Mrs. Whitfield’s obvious intentions, despite the raveled dreams of his own foolish heart, it felt good to leave his brother behind.  It was one little victory of control in this whole maddening nightmare.

Hattie’s skirt brushed the rosemary as she walked ahead of him, head high and back stiff, her heeled boots making quick little tap-taps against the stoned path.  Scott breathed in the herb’s aroma, the faint sweetness that drifted on the air.  It died in the warmth of the early evening and all he smelled as they passed under the elm tree and onto the narrow road was the stew.  Josh’s stew, he reminded himself—his dinner and his woman.

The rough road slowed her, and as Hattie picked her way through the clumps, Scott let his eyes leave the platter and fall on her.  Josh’s woman, he told himself again.  Josh’s. 

Her hair fluttered in the breeze. 


Chapter 15

“Why are we walking?”  Not that he minded.  The stage had cramped his legs and they were still tight, but his thighs warmed as he found a rhythm, one just a long-legged fraction of a stride faster than Hattie’s.  They were alone on her back road of Stockton, all except for the fat blue-roan mare harnessed and waiting a dozen steps behind them.  “Hattie?”

“It’s a nice day,” Hattie said, not even attempting any pretense in her aggravated tone.  A bit of her hem swirled as she lifted it away from the dirt and walked on down the middle of the road.

Scott squinted up to the sun, still showing sky between it and a broken-down barn.  “It is.”   And it was, he reluctantly admitted.  Not too hot this late in the day.  The breeze was tender, cooling his face and the back of his neck.  It curled under the buttons of his shirt. 

He gained a step on her.

“Have you been taking him dinner every night?” he asked.

“Yes.”  She looked back, giving him a quick glimpse of her determined profile.  “And I really can manage on my own.”

A vision flickered through his mind, one with Johnny confessing that he was wrong—admitting that Hattie knew exactly what she wanted—and doing it over whiskey, good whiskey, bought on his brother’s dollar.  He watched Hattie’s skirt sway with her quick stride.  “How’s Josh holding up?” he asked.

Another step closer.

“You know Josh.”  She stopped suddenly and swung around, dropping her crumpled fistful of skirt as her hand came up and waved through the air.  “Everything’s fine, to hear him tell it.  If I hear that one more time…if anyone tells me it’s going to be fine…”  Looking lost for a few heavy breaths, she pulled her arms in tight around her waist.  “Josh says that I worry too much.”

“He’s due to be right about something.”  Scott slowed as he covered the last few feet to her and the bowl on the platter jiggled less.  She let go of her self embrace and reached, settling the china with the tips of her fingers.  “Why didn’t you tell me about the audit?” he asked.

She looked up.  “Because I didn’t know about it—not the details anyway.  All Josh told me was that Mr. Todd owed him a favor.”

Scott filed that evidence for verification.  “Does your mother usually know more than you do?” he asked. 

“She thinks she does—about everything. She thinks that…”  Suddenly silent, Hattie bent her head and stared down at the platter.  After a long, silent moment, she sighed.  “Why did you come, Scott?”

“At the moment, I can’t think of any good reason.” 

Her head jerked up this time.   “What did her letter say?”

An April dusk, deep in the Georgia thickets and slick with heat.  They’d come up on a spring, barely the reach of two men across and glossed with lily pads, dark ones floating edge to edge in the spring’s moss-green.  He’d drunk his fill.  Scott gazed into the green of Hattie’s eyes, defiantly bright, and, unbidden, those cool waters poured through him. 

“Just that she was fond of Josh,” he said.  “That there were circumstances.”  Somewhere behind him, from one of the houses tucked behind the elms and the gates and the orderly gardens, a door slammed. The sound frayed at his thoughts.  “That I should come—didn’t she show it to you?”

“No.”  Still looking up, shaking her head, Hattie seemed to study his face.  “She didn’t show it to me and she didn’t ask me if I wanted you to come.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Scott.  It wasn’t me.”

“Maybe I should apologize then.”  The words came out pleasurably terse.  “I didn’t realize that my wasting eight hours in a cramped stage would inconvenience you so.” 

“I didn’t mean it that way.”

“How did you mean it?”

A dog barked and then a woman’s voice, faint and far off, called to it.  Scott’s senses prickled with the human sound, and the windows facing their portion of the dusty road grew eyes. 

“Not like that.  Scott…”  Searching still, her gaze softened.  “How’s your head?  I’ve worried about it.”

He would have fingered the knot still healing on his scalp except for the platter filling his hands.  “It’s fine, no thanks to Josh.”

“Josh.”  Her voice caressed the name and she reached out, lightly touching the china’s edge.  Her finger traced a thread through the spidery crackles in the glaze.  “He’s doing this for me—you know that, don’t you?”

His head bent, his gaze on her finger, Scott held the platter still.  “I’m starting to believe it,” he said. 

“He is.  It’s like one of those story books you read when you’re a child, with the white knight and the lady, only Josh…he’s not a child.  Neither am I.” 

“Josh knows that.”

“It’s romantic, I guess.”  She gave out a shallow sigh.  “Don’t you think?”  Her gaze found his for only a second, and then she looked away to the willow pattern framing her finger.  She pulled her hand from the platter.  “Josh wants to be my hero, and I want him home and safe.  I guess we don’t always get what we want.”  She smiled up sadly. 

“Not in my experience.” 

The breeze gusted, lifting dust around them and swaying the branches of the elms and the pines.  A momentary worry nudged him and he wedged the platter against his stomach, holding it with one hand while he used the other to adjust the plate covering the bowl.  With Josh’s stew safe from the dust, he scanned the empty windows and shadowed yards, and then he took Hattie’s elbow in his hand.

“His stew’s getting cold,” he told her.

Their road sloped down to another and that one led to the main street of Stockton.  Side by side this time, with the platter again firmly in both hands and Hattie carefully watching her steps, they started toward the jail.

She glanced at his stride.

“How did you fit those long legs in the stage?” she asked.

“I shipped them ahead,” he said.  Then he watched, gratified to see a smile twitch into the corner of her mouth.  He slowed slightly, matching her pace. 

“My father was supposed to meet the stage.” 

“I gathered.”

“I don’t know why we trusted him to do it; he’s rarely on time.”   

“It couldn’t be helped.  As your father said, there was trouble with the harness, and you and your mother were both occupied.”

“You don’t need to make excuses for us.  That’s not why I didn’t meet the stage.”

“I wasn’t making excuses.”

She looked up at him and the smile twitched again.  “Are we going to argue about that, too?”

“I’m willing to call it a draw.”

She had a dimple, just a small one.  He hadn’t remembered it, but it dug into her cheek and it made her eyes look less swollen.  “That’s very kind of you.”

“My pleasure,” he said, as he watched the road and watched her.  “So why didn’t you meet us?”

“For the same reason that I didn’t want you coming with me to see Josh—that letter.”  They’d reached the bottom of their road and Scott could see a buggy passing at the end of the next one. Together, they moved from the middle of the dirt and just to the edge of a shallow, dry ditch that ran along the second road.  The weeds there were sparse, but tall and prickly, and Hattie’s hem caught on them.  “What did she say in the letter?” she asked.

They pressed against his throat, all the rote recitations of each curious word.  He held them.  “I told you what she wrote.”

“There wasn’t anything about me?”

“Should there have been?”

“No…not if she wasn’t a hopeless romantic, just like Josh.”

“That hardly describes the woman I just met.”

“You think not?  How well do you know women, Scott?”

Smiling, he looked down at the top of her casually braided hair.  “Well enough not to answer that question.”


Almost too quickly to notice, the dimple flashed and was gone again.  Hattie drifted closer, away from the prickles, and she looked off at a buggy passing on the main road ahead of them.  For the moment, Scott left her alone to her thoughts.

They were almost at the boardwalk, the first improvement of Stockton proper, when she looked at him.  “I scared her,” she said, “running off like I did.  I just didn’t know what else to do though.  Mr. Todd was going after Josh and how could I just sit here in Stockton, not knowing?  I’ve done that, and I can’t…I just can’t…”

Cole.  Not as she’d waited for Cole.  His name, unspoken, hung between them as they stepped up on the boardwalk.  The sun was in their eyes here and both of them ducked their heads against it. 

“I had to tell her everything when I got home,” she started in again, “and I was trying to explain how you had helped us—that you were Josh’s friend.  She kept asking why—after Josh hit you like he did—why you’d help him.  Most men would have just left him in the mountains.  Why didn’t you, Scott?”

“What did you tell her?”

She hesitated for only a second, dropping her gaze to the boardwalk.  “I told her that you have nice eyes.”

Pleasure swelled inside him before he caught it, contained it, but the smile came anyway and it was small and crooked and good.  “That sounds logical,” he said.

“I was afraid that she’d given you the wrong idea.”  Hattie looked at him again, warily, and Scott wasn’t sure what she thought that she saw, but her own eyes softened.  “That’s why I didn’t meet the stage.”

There’s a moment in the day when it edges toward night, still warm, but more tender and hazed.  Easier.  Scott knew it wouldn’t last, that the sun would just keep slipping away, but for this moment, just this one, he let it be tender.  They kept walking.

The shops had closed.  The signs dangling by their chains in the windows, most of them crooked, said so. He searched down the road, past the saloon with its rump-to-rump line of bays and chestnuts and one grey tied to its post, and he found the barred window of the city jail.  The building was smaller than he’d somehow envisioned. 

Scott resettled the platter in his hands. 

“Hattie,” he asked, “what is going on between you and Josh?”

“I’m taking him his dinner.”

“And after that?”

“Saving him from himself, if I can manage it.”

The gentle breeze playing across his neck, the swish of her skirt—they gave him permission.  “Are you marrying him?” he asked.

“He loves me, Scott.”

“That’s not an answer.”

He heard the breath she sucked in; listened as it eased out again in a slow sigh.  “Can we talk about something else?” she asked.

Josh’s woman, he reminded himself, watching down as each step rattled china on china and Josh’s beef and barley cooled.  Josh’s woman—and the wanting sifted through his caution, settled in the sweet suggestion of that sigh.  Something stirred inside him and his smile turned wicked. 

“All right,” he said, looking sideways to her.  “So…what is that you like about my eyes?”

Hattie’s laugh was sudden and deep.  “That’s not fair, Scott Lancer.”

“You don’t want to talk about eyes?”


“Unfortunately, we’ve already covered the subject of my legs.”

Her laugh turned lilting.  “Have I mentioned that it’s a nice day?”

Again, he looked up to the sky.  “Yes, and I believe that we agreed on that point.”  Far off, too high to do anything but float away, there were clouds stretched linen-white across the blue.  “It should be a beautiful sunset.”

Hattie glanced up too.  “Is your head really all right?” she asked.

“There’s a lump, but I’m fine.”

“No headaches?”

“No headaches.”

With the shops closed, the townsfolk had abandoned this part of Stockton, leaving it to the cowboys in the saloon, and even they were quiet, as early as it was.  Besides Hattie and Scott, the only one still on the street was a gangly man in white sleeves and a trim vest, walking away from them with his bare, bald head glinting in the low sun.  He held his jacket dangling from his hand.  Scott watched him go as they stepped from the boardwalk into the dirt, heading toward the jail across the road. 

Hattie’s voice brought his gaze back to her.  “When we get back to the house I want to look at it,” she said.

“My head?”


“You don’t need to do that.”

“Mother has a salve.”

“I’m fine, Hattie.”

She watched him for a few steps and then looked down to the boardwalk in the front of the jail, mounting it.  “Humor me,” she said.

“Do I get some of your pie first?”

Just outside the jail door, he stood for a moment, and Hattie turned to him and reached toward the platter.  She rearranged the china an inch or two either way.   “Do you like apple?”  Hattie smiled softly as she looked up again. 

“Yes, I do.”  Scott nodded and it made the plate over Josh’s stew jiggle.  “I like it very much.”

The jail office was empty, but Hattie obviously felt at home and there was no mistaking the door leading to Josh’s cell anyway.  It was made of heavy-looking oak, with a small barred window near the top, and it was the only other door in the room.  Hattie knocked, but there wasn’t time for anyone to answer before she pushed it open and stuck her head through.

“Mick?” she called out.  Scott looked around the office for the second or two that he waited behind her.  Oddly, his grandfather came to mind, and he questioned exactly what Grandfather might think of his familiarity with California’s jails.  Since coming west he’d become something of a reluctant authority.  This one was neater than most, with the desktop arranged in orderly piles and the posters hung with corners horizontally aligned.  The coffee pot on the stove was dented though and the floor could have used a sweeping. 

“Come on in,” a deep voice rumbled and Hattie did.  Scott followed.

There were three cells off a long, narrow aisle and he processed that distinction, registered the brick walls and the grey iron, the same as he remembered then, but smaller and brighter.  It was easier now, with the years and the distance, but still a thin chill crawled up his neck as the door clunked shut behind him. 

Bunk beds partially blocked Scott’s view through the first two empty cells, but a pair of boots stuck out between the bars of the third one.  The sheriff sat tilted back in a Windsor oak chair, his boots lined up next to his prisoner’s, wedged on the rail of the bars and sticking through the other way. 

“What’cha got this evening, Hattie?”  The sheriff’s mustache quivered as he talked.  It was untrimmed and thick, just like the feral, black brows sagging down into his mud-brown eyes.  He looked past Hattie and, from what Scott could see through the coarse brows, the sheriff gave him a methodical scrutiny.   “Smells good.”  He pulled his boots out of the rails and jerked them to the floor, letting the front legs of the chair thud down.  “You want to hold up there, Mister?”

“Mick, just stay.” Hattie walked on past the empty cells.  “Scott’s not here to make any trouble.”  Slowing, but not stopping, Scott followed a cautious stretch of cedar-planked floor behind her. 

“It’s still my jail,” the sheriff said, and he stood.  The prisoner’s boots slid out of Scott’s view and a pair of hands wrapped around the iron, then the straw of Josh’s hair stuck through the bars as his cheek pressed up against them.

“Scott?” Josh dangled his hand through the bars and waved limply.  “Good to see you.”

Giving Josh’s uneasy expression a cursory glance, Scott held still for the sheriff’s inspection.  “I hear Hattie’s been putting some meat on your bony ribs,” he said, and he watched as the sheriff—reorganizing the china Hattie had so carefully organized only a moment before—prodded the silver, lifted the napkin, and peered into the bowl. 

“Looks good, too,” the sheriff said.

Josh watched them through the bars.  “I don’t know what I’d do without her.  Starve, I guess.”  The walls were hard and close and the sheriff’s voice, a gravely one, had echoed off them.  Josh’s didn’t.  He was more timid, like a child with a strange dog, reaching out his fingers to be licked.

Tilting his head one way and then the other, the sheriff looked around the platter to Scott’s holster-free hips.  “You’re not hiding anything, are you?” 

“No, Sir, Sheriff…?”

“Clooney.  Mick Clooney.  You a friend of this ner’ do well?”

Hattie was already at Josh’s side, leaning against the bars just on the other side of his dangling hands.  The worry was back in her eyes, heavier than before.  “Yes, I am,” Scott told the sheriff, watching Hattie hold his gaze and qualifying the statement, adding a silent provision.  

“Well, I been hoping for my dinner, too—so be quick about this.”  The sheriff looked back at Hattie and Josh.  “You hear?  Half’n hour, no more.”

“Thank you, Mick.”  Hattie pointed down to the single chair outside Josh’s cell.  “You think you could get us something else to sit on?”

“I reckon,” Clooney said, and, his hands still inconveniently full, Scott stood and watched as the sheriff opened a cell and swung a chair out of it.  The clatter of its legs landing on the planks reverberated in the narrow room, barely registering on Scott’s thoughts as Hattie came up to him and took the tray from his hands.  Scott watched her turn with it as Clooney mumbled another “half’n hour” and left them to the cells.  The heavy door was disconcertingly quiet when Clooney closed it behind him.  

Hattie slid the tray through the envelope-shaped hole in Josh’s cell door and then—her in the Windsor and Scott in a straighter, ladder-backed chair—they sat.  Striped by the grey bars and now with his hands full of the willow-laced china, Josh stared down at them.  His eyes had the same fleshy look as Hattie’s.

“Did you have a good trip?” Josh asked—just asked—no apology in it, just two old friends filling the air with idle talk.

“No.”  Scott stretched out one leg and wedged his boot against the bars.  He felt the chair give an inch across the floor. 

“Is that my fault?” 

Nodding, Scott half saw and half sensed Hattie beside him.  Her hands were folded in her lap and she sat stiffly, not quite all the way into her seat.  She felt a world away from him and, like his, her eyes were only on Josh. “It is the way I see it,” Scott said.

Josh turned to look behind him first, staring at his chair a second longer than was necessary, and then he sank into it, set the platter on the floor, and leaned forward, elbows on his knees.  His fingers combed furrows through his hair.  “I’m sorry, Scott…” he said.  “I really am, but you wasted your time coming here.  I know Mrs. Whitfield asked you to, but she shouldn’t have.  I don’t have anything to say.”

“Yes, you do, Josh.”

“No, I don’t.”

Scott only glared, but Hattie’s gentle voice filled in the silence.  “Josh, please…talk to him.”

Bringing his gaze up to meet Hattie’s, Josh studied her, his eyes shifting only narrowly.  The swollen red rimming his lids seemed to thicken.  Finally, satisfyingly, there was a trace of anger in his voice.  “What am I supposed to tell him?”

Scott dragged his foot from the bars and, just like Josh—elbows on his knees—he leaned forward.  “For starters?” he said.  “How about the truth?”


Chapter 16

His fingers couldn’t be still.  Scott searched for the evasion in Josh’s face, waited for a twitch of his eye or a tightened line of his mouth, anything that would prove the theory that had settled into fact—Josh was lying.  But there was nothing, not even a quiver in his jaw.  Nothing except those fingers, hanging down between Josh’s knees and curling, tapping—beating against themselves and keeping time to some disjointed rhythm. 

Scott hardened his voice and the sound of it thudded back to him from the brick.  “Did you steal that money?” 

“Why do you think I’m sitting here?”  Josh’s fingers coiled. 

Hattie answered before Scott had a chance to.  “Because you think I took the fourteen thousand dollars.  Isn’t that right, Josh?”  She sat just as stiffly as she had been, her hands still folded in her lap, but there was a fragile thread to her voice.  “You’re trying to protect me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“I don’t want you to do this.  I didn’t steal it.”

Josh shook his head and thin lines fanned out from his downcast eyes.  “I’m not doing anything.”

Tilting forward, Hattie lowered her voice.  “I knew the combination—.”

Josh shot a look at Scott.  “Hattie…” he whispered, as if her name alone might give away her secrets.

“She already told me,” Scott said, and he saw the flicker in Josh’s eyes.  “That morning we found you—Hattie told me about your trouble with the combination.”

“She shouldn’t have.  Nobody needed to know about that.”

"Why shouldn’t he know?”

Something crashed—a door slamming maybe, out there in the outer office—and Josh turned toward it.  He listened for a few quick breaths, but nothing more happened.  Their door stayed closed.   “It doesn’t change anything,” Josh said, looking back at first Hattie and then Scott.  “Even if she had the combination, what difference does it make?”

“It means that you’re not the only one who could have taken that money,” Scott told him. “A lawyer could use that.”

“No,” Josh said, as simply as if he were declining a cup of coffee. 

Anger charged through him and Scott had to move.  He leaned back in his chair and braced his shoulder blades against the chair’s high slats, and then he stretched his leg again and linked his hands across his belt. It wasn’t enough. His thumb rubbed against his buckle. 

“Did you steal that money?” he asked.

“I already told you,” Josh said.

As much as the bars would allow, Scott looked him straight in the eyes.  “No, you didn’t.  Yes or no, Josh—did you steal it?”

Josh swallowed hard.  “Yes—yes, I stole it,” he said.

“You’re lying.”  Hattie’s voice shattered into Josh’s cell.  “You’re lying, Josh, and I’m sick of it.  Stop it, just stop it.”

“Hattie,” Josh told her, “you don’t know—”

“Don’t know what?  That you’re convinced that I’m guilty?  That you think I’m a thief?”  She gripped the arm of her chair and the tendons pulled tight across her skin.  “Because believe me, I’m well aware of your opinion of me right now.”

Scott sat straighter and watched as Josh looked at her feet, at the walls, everywhere but Hattie’s eyes. 

“I never said that you took it,” Josh said.

“You didn’t have to say it, you’re sitting there and I know that’s why.  Mr. Todd had to have taken the money—let us prove it, Josh.  Just stop lying and we’ll hire a lawyer and we’ll tell him about that audit.”

“No.”  His eyes still averted, Josh shook his head.  “No.”

“Please, Josh.” 

A tear glistened on her cheek.  Scott reached for her arm, feeling it small and tense under his fingers.  “Let me talk to him,” he said.

“No.”  Josh’s eyes settled on Scott’s hand.  “Go home, Hattie.”

“I don’t want you to do this, Josh.”

Silently, Josh studied Scott’s fingers.

“It’s prison, Josh.  A cell just like this one, only day after day after day for ten years.”  Hattie inhaled deeply and her voice steadied.  “You don’t know what you’re doing, and Todd took that money, not me. Josh, I swear to you, I didn’t take that money.”

Looking intensely into Josh’s face, Scott asked his question again.  “Josh, did you take that money?”

“Yes, Scott.”  Josh closed his eyes and laid his forehead against his upturned fist.  “For the last time, I took it.  Now will you go away?”

“Then where’s the rest of it?”


“What does that mean?”

“Gone.”  Josh’s eyes squeezed tighter.  “Where else could it be?  I spent it.”

This was ludicrous.  “On what?” Scott asked.

Josh rubbed his brow against his knuckles.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “And it’s none of your business, anyway.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have hidden it on my ranch.”

His fist dropped and his head came up.  Josh glared at Scott.  “Why are you here?”

Scott glared back.  “Because I foolishly thought that your sorry skin was worth saving.”

His voice was as hard as the brick, and this time Josh’s echo came back from the walls.  “Then take your hand off Hattie’s arm.”

Her smooth cotton dragged against his fingers, Hattie moving first.  Scott’s palm fell on the wood. He watched her wipe her hand across her cheek, intensely aware of Josh watching them both.

“I’ll marry you, Josh,” she said, all of the tremor gone from her voice, and Scott held his hand from reaching again.  “We’ll do it as soon as you’re out of this jail.  Next week—Scott knows a good lawyer and he’ll help us.  Won’t you, Scott?”  She turned to him, but her gaze was damp and distant.  “There’s the audit and Todd’s mistake before…” The rigid line of her shoulders sagged as she turned back to Josh.  “And that’ll be enough—it has to be.  We’ll go to Colorado, just like you wanted, and we’ll get a little house.  Only you have to tell the truth, please…”  Again, the tremble rippled into her words.  “Josh, I’ll marry you, but you can’t do this. You can’t go to prison for me.  Just tell us the truth.”

Clarity arranged itself on Josh’s face.  “Hattie,” he said as a breath, and then he took the air back in, compressed it.  “Go home.”


“Go home.”

Jerking to his feet, Scott took a step forward and grabbed the bars.  The iron fit to his hands, edged and cool, and its chill seeped though those memories, stirred their careful stupor.  “You’re a fool, Josh,” he said.  “This isn’t helping anyone.”

“My dinner’s getting cold.”  Josh reached down for his napkin and shook the spoon from it.  The ping of silver hitting china sharpened against the close walls.  “Hattie’s mother makes a good stew.”  He slid the plate from on top of the bowl and laid it on his lap, then set the bowl on top.  “Have you tried it yet, Scott?” he asked mildly.

“Ten years is a long time.”  Scott watched Josh stir bits of beef to the surface of the stew.  “You’ll feel like an old man when you get out.”

“It’s the carrots,” Josh said.  “Alice cuts the carrots real thin.”

“All you’ll have is a cell.”  Hattie’s voice made Scott turn and look at her, but he didn’t give up his hold on the bars.  “All that time,” Hattie said. “Year in and year out, just a cell and a cot and time to think.  Don’t do this.” 

“Her chicken soup is good, too,” Josh said lamely, holding his spoon over the bowl and letting the brown broth dribble from the tilted silver.

“Look at the bars, Josh…just look at them.”  Hattie’s voice fell away and, still facing the other way, watching Josh and his dripping stew, Scott heard her inhale deeply.  “I know you, you won’t survive in prison,” she finally added.

Scott leaned into the bars.  “We’re only trying to help you,” he softly said.

Josh’s gaze rose and fell again.

“Tell him, Scott.” Hattie’s tone pierced him.   “He’ll believe you,” she said.  “You know what it was like.” 

She wasn’t seeing him.  Scott stared down into the unfocused green of her eyes and found the girl, not the woman, far away and yearning for a man who could never come.  “Don’t, Hattie,” he said, keeping his voice low, trying to reach her across those years.

“Where was it?”


“It wasn’t Andersonville.” 


“Tell him.”  Realization flowed over her, widened her eyes, and finally she saw.  “Scott…” she said, and his name was woven into her mourning, heavy and sweet.

“It was Libby,” he told her, encasing the memory in his crisp tone.  He turned his back to her and clung to the bars again, felt his fingers wrap around and press the fleshy base of his palm.  “And it wasn’t the same.  Only a year.” 

Josh set his spoon into the stew and Scott watched it sink, fragments of meat and herbs swirling in its wake.  The aroma filled the room, filled him, sudden and thick with warm beef.  And the hunger came behind it, filled him too, soured his throat.  Beside him, the starving pressed against the bars, scratched against his skin, and they whispered in wonder at the sacrament of meat.  Only a year.

“You never told me,” Josh said.

“No.”  Scott forced his gaze to the white of Josh’s shirt.  “Listen to her, Josh.   Hattie only wants to help you.”  Then he politely nodded.  “And if you’ll excuse me, I believe that my brother is waiting at the house.”

He heard his name, softly called, but the heavy door closed behind him and then the second, the door that emptied him into the evening haze, and Scott found his stride, a long one.  Passing the saloon he heard a piano player tinkering at his keys.  The horses at the hitching rail, more of them now, just hung their heads at the unidentifiable tune. 

The boardwalks gave way to dirt and Scott pounded against it, subdued the clumps and ruts under his boots. She’d betrayed him.  The deceit pulsed through him.  He’d allowed her that moment, just one moon-weakened moment, to see inside the darkened places, to know. And she’d betrayed him. 

Unseeing, he passed the houses and the broken-down barn, and Hattie’s elm loomed before him.  And finally he slowed.  This was madness, pure madness.  Hattie wasn’t his, she wasn’t even Josh’s—she belonged to a dead man.  One who had gone through hell in life and should be mercifully put to rest.  Josh deserved his prison and Hattie hers.  Ten years. 

“Damn it.” 

Scott leaned against the elm, putting its narrow trunk between him and the stone path.  From here, the scent of rosemary kept its distance.  He calculated the seasons.  Spring—it’d been spring—but there’d been no summer, only hunger—no autumn, only bone-rasping need.  And then the winter.

“Damn it,” he said again. 

He turned at the sound of her footsteps.

Looking down the road, he saw that Hattie’s braid had loosened, and a dark strand of hair hung down and fluttered against her shoulder.  She had her skirt lifted more than she should, and her high-laced boots showed quick glimpses of pale skin above the leather.  She was running and, pushing away from the tree and standing as imposingly tall as he was able, he watched her come.

“I’m sorry,” she called, nearer and breathless.

Scott’s jaw clenched.  “I don’t want to hear it.” 

She came into the shadow of the trees. 

“I’m sorry, Scott.  I never wanted to hurt you; I’m so sorry.”

“I can’t help you, Hattie.”

“I know.  God, Scott—I know.  You should never have come here.”

“So you keep telling me.”

She set her hand on the bark, looking up at him.  “I was wrong and I shouldn’t have said anything.  I know that.  It’s just Josh—I can’t let him do this; I can’t.  It’s not fair.”

He stepped closer and she had to tilt her face to meet his eyes.  “Not fair to whom, Hattie?  Josh?  He’s a grown man.  He doesn’t need you to save him.”

“Somebody has to.”

“Like you wanted to save Cole?  Is that what this is all about?”  Scott jabbed his finger in the empty air and she flinched; he saw it and he didn’t care.  “Josh is competing with a dead man and no matter what he does, he can’t win.”


“Do you really want to know what it was like?  Do you, Hattie?”


She held the answer in her eyes, graced it with her longing.  The breeze lifted the leaves above them and he heard their rustling, saw their faint shade move across her cheek, touch the scar above her lip.  Cold and fierce, his wanting swept into the shadows. 

“Men died.  They were sick and they were starving and they died.  That’s what it was—that’s all it was,” he said, each word a bludgeon.  “Cold and hunger and death.”

“Cole was strong.”

“We all were strong, and men died.  There was cornbread…” He grabbed her hand, forcing his own around it—making her hand fist.  “It was this big, if we were lucky, and we ate what we could save from the worms.”  He clenched her hand tighter, willing her to pull away.  Hattie looked into his eyes.  “And sometimes there was meat if you could chew the gristle, but it wasn’t enough.”

“We sent packages,” she said futilely.  “There was food.”

“The guards were hungry, too, Hattie—good men with that burning in their stomach, just like we had.  Only they got to the packages first and some of them burned a little less.”

He threw her hand away.

“Men died,” he said, and he pivoted, stepping blindly through the grass and faltering at the cabbages, searching through the grey light for his way through them.  The sun had gone and the dark gathered in the bushes.  The rosemary scented the air as he brushed its spines.

“It wasn’t all stolen.”

Scott walked the stones, looking down at their rough edges, and he stopped, breathing hard—remembering. 

“Some of the food made it,” she said.

He granted the favor.

“Some,” he said.  “Cole must have gotten some of it.”

“I sent a ham.”

“There were hams.”

In the gloom, it dangled—just above him, nailed high, small and perfect—Von Klodt’s ham.  The faces assembled in the shadows, curious and gaunt, lured by the ham’s immaculate temptation.

“And preserves,” Hattie pleaded, “in little jars—strawberry and plum.”

They whispered at the evil, coveted the sin, as slice by slice, with precise economy, Von Klodt shaved the ham into paltry sustenance, hoarded it and warmed it at the morning fire.  His Prussian mouth sucked the juice that leached out with the heat, and their lips parted, black and hungry.

“And cakes,” she said.  “There were cakes.  The guards didn’t get it all; they couldn’t have gotten all of it.”

Scott closed his eyes, praying the faces dead.  “No,” he said.  “They didn’t get it all.”  One by one, obediently, the faces faded in the blackness.  “Cole knew, Hattie…some of the food must have reached him…he knew.”

The house surprised him when he opened his eyes again.  Its white boards glowed in the semi-dusk, and it seemed strange and out-of-place.  Somehow Hattie had passed him on the path and she stood on the bottom step, looking back at him.  She gazed up to his face as she sat.  Her skirt billowed over the second step, the sloping one, and she pulled her knees in tighter. 

“Thank you,” she told him.

“Men died, Hattie.” 

She held out her hand and he watched it.  Her palm was cupped and her fingers curved, pale and delicate.  There wasn’t any thought inside him, only memories, and he reached, as deferential as the faces.  Her fingers took his gently, and she led him down.  He sat, one step below her, and the coarse edge of the crooked stair pressed into his back.

“You came home,” she said. 

“Sixteen men didn’t.”

“Was it the sickness?”

The lie came to his throat.  It would have been easy, just to let her assumption linger. 

“They were shot.”  There was reverence in the words.  He let them settle in the cool night air; watched as the shifting leaves collected them to the elm.  “We had a tunnel.  It was only fifteen feet to the wall; that’s all, just fifteen feet, and there were diagrams.”  He studied them in the dark, those careful marks on a stolen scrap of cornmeal bag, counted off the distance, computed time of duties and line of sight.  “There were diagrams,” he said again, grasping at the fallibility of the charts.  “And sixteen men were killed.”

“You survived,” Hattie said.

“I was the only one.”

“Did they send you back?”

“To our quarters?  No, not right away….”  He blinked into the night, as the elm tree disappeared and brick walls compressed the dark.  “There was a cellar.  They took me there.” 


“No, there were others.  It was only that first night, after the men….after they took me down.  Just that first night that I was alone.”

“Scott…”  It soothed him.  His name settled on his shoulders, light as leaves, and he permitted the sensation.  Like the moonlight before it, her voice inebriated his reason. 

“There wasn’t any light,” he said, “not after the guard took his lantern.  It was just dark and cold, and I had to feel my way.  There was something on the walls.”  He spread his hand on his leg, nearly wiping before he caught himself.  “I found a bench, and I tried to sleep…”

His planked step turned to bench and it rotted beneath his leg, gave as he hunched into it.  The echoes thudded on the bricks—each shot, each body reborn in the darkness and dying again. 

Her hand was warm against his arm.

“There were six of us, the next morning—men they suspected as part of the escape.  One tiny room, a bucket in the corner, and six of us trying not to freeze to death.  We walked in circles, just to stay warm.  And there wasn’t any water, let alone food.  All we had was curses.”

Gentle fingers pressed into his skin.

“The second day, we saw some light…it was bright…and then a hand. The prisoners above us, they’d moved a board, and there was a hole in their floor.  They had coffee…and cornbread.  They all were starving; they couldn’t afford to give up any food, but they did—they handed it down through that hole.  It was just that once, we heard the guards up there after that, but it kept us alive.” 

Lifting his gaze, the hole became ragged sky, and bread and coffee, intoxicating as wine, poured through it.  He drank it in, tasted it on his lips as the board scraped against the floor, fit into its notch.  The darkness took hold again.

Almost too faint to feel, her hand trailed gentle strokes through his hair.  Numbly, Scott twisted on his step, and he looked up, to where Hattie sat on her step.  Tears glinted on her cheeks.  He raised his hand and cupped it against her face; wiped the wetness with his thumb.  “You’re crying,” he said.

“No,” she lied.  “I’m not.” 

So soft, her fingers brushed his brow.  “Hattie,” he said, his confession in her name, and the transgression followed, her lips warm and yielding.  He pulled her to him, awkwardly, painfully, her knee dropping to his thigh and her hand hard against his chest.  She gasped in her falling, and he breathed it in, touched it, and there wasn’t any hunger but that. 

Trapping her mouth, he worked it roughly, and his hand found the belly-soft nape of her neck.  The burning drove him.  He longed to lay her down, there in the garden, in the dark and the cabbages—skin to skin—and bruise the rosemary with her surrender. 

Just beyond the white-planked porch, from the other side of the kitchen door, a deep voice called. 


Chapter 17

Scott jerked away first. 

Hattie’s hand dragged down his arm as he pushed to his feet, and then he stood over her, staring down at the step, acutely aware as the white of her sleeves flashed through the moonlight.  Surrounded by the deepening night, it was all that existed—Hattie’s awkward motion as she tugged at her shirt and pawed at her hair, and those sensations, unwanted and raw and intensely alive.  And then that light—driving through the opening door.   

 “Hattie?  What are you doing out here in the dark?”  Seeming taller than he had before, her father stepped out onto the porch.  His long shadow rippled down the steps. 

“Nothing,” Hattie answered.  She looked up at him, but Scott kept his gaze down.  “Scott and I were just talking.”

“Well—there’s still pie.” 

Scott watched the man through his lowered lashes, and he breathed in the night air, hoping that it would clear his thoughts.  It barely helped and he took another step down, further into the dark, to the feathered edge of Frank Whitfield’s shadow.  “Thank you,” he said casually, and then, reaching for anything his swollen mind could grasp, he added, “Pie sounds good.”  He finally risked a look directly into Hattie’s face.  The kitchen’s glow lit her tilted cheek, but her eyes were still in the shadows.  She was watching him though, and that stirred him to motion.  Carefully courteous, Scott held his hand out to her.  “Shall we?” he asked.

Hattie wrapped her arms around her knees and she shook her head.  “We’ll only be a minute,” she said, loudly enough for her father’s ears, and then, still embracing her knees, she twisted to look back at him.  “Can you go ahead and cut a slice for us?”

Taking his empty hand back and crossing his arms over his chest, Scott looked across the porch to Mr. Whitfield.

“You’re coming in?” Mr. Whitfield asked.

“In a minute,” she said.

“All right.”  His gaze took in first Scott and then his daughter, then Mr. Whitfield stepped back into the kitchen.  He reached for the door knob.  “How’s Josh this evening?”

“The same,” Hattie said wearily.

“I’ll pour some coffee.” 

“That sounds good.”

“Scott, do you take sugar in yours?”

“No, sir,” Scott said.  “Thank you.”

“We have cream.”

“Just black will be fine.”

“All right,” Mr. Whitfield said again, ducking his head against his own light and peering sideways through heavy lids into their darkness.  He did as he was asked though, slowly, and he pulled the door closed, not quite all the way.  It left a yellow streak fanned out across the porch.

Scott lowered his gaze to Hattie’s and he smiled gently.  “I think that your father would be more comfortable if we went in.”

Just as gently, she smiled back.  “Father worries.”

And then he just watched her, wishing that she’d say something and wondering why she didn’t.  Rubbing his thumb against the tensed muscle in his arm, letting his smile die away, he arranged his own words into a semblance of order.  “I owe you an apology,” he said.

“You don’t.” 

“I took advantage of the situation.”


“That wasn’t fair to you…or to Josh.  It was inexcusable and it won’t happen again.”

“Just stop—”

“Johnny and I will take a room in the hotel; we can leave tonight, if you’d like.  I just need to get our bags.”

She let go of her knees and, soothingly, she held her palm out.  She stood.   “Don’t, Scott…please.”  Stepping down from the stairs, she came even with him. “I don’t know who I am anymore, I really don’t—but you didn’t do anything wrong.”

The muscle under his fingers tensed again, and he shook his head.  “I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

“And I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

That memory warmed his lips and the corners twitched.  He ducked his head and stared down to her hand, curled into her skirt.  “There is that.”

“People have words for fiancées who go around kissing gallant men.”

Tilting his head, he brought his gaze back to hers.   “Gallant isn’t a word that seems to describe me at the moment.”

“Yes, it does,” she said.  “But I’m starting to believe that heroes are overrated, anyway.”  A shadow moved across the glow on the planks.  Hattie turned her head to the shifting light.  “He’s pacing again,” she told him.  “That’s Father’s idea of waiting patiently.”  She turned back.  “We should go in.”

Arms still crossed, fingers still kneading his biceps, Scott nodded, and he waited for Hattie to move first.  The lower step creaked under her foot, but she moved silently to the second, the one she’d sat on those few minutes before. 

She reached the porch’s white boards. 

“Hattie?” Scott called out softly.  Hattie stopped and looked back, and again the kitchen’s glow lit the curve of her cheeks.  “Why did you?”

“Kiss you?”

He wished he could see into her eyes, but the dark kept them and she looked away, down and past him, into the garden.

“You do, Scott,” she said finally, and her tone was hushed.  “Mother shouldn’t have sent that letter, and I shouldn’t have told Josh what I did, and that…”  She lowered her voice even more.  “...that kiss…You do, Scott.”  She brought her gaze up to his.  “You have nice eyes.”

Her shadow loomed past him as she moved closer to the door, and then she opened it all the way and the light poured into the night. 


“Why do you get that one?”

“Cause that’s my bag.”  Johnny kneed the cot out of his way and it moved weightlessly.   “Yours is over there,” he added, pointing to Scott’s valise.  It sat in the small gap between the rose-papered wall and a bird’s eye maple bureau. 

Johnny flopped onto the bed and laid his head against the fat lump of his satchel.

“There has to be a fairer way to decide this.”  Hands on his hips, Scott eyed the thick mattress cushioning his brother’s stretched out body, and then he turned to the cot.  It was a crude army style, with canvas straps stretched taut across the frame and a thin, narrow mattress not quite reaching to its ends.  The pillow looked comfortable enough.  “Age, maybe,” he suggested.  “Or  height.  Or number of languages spoken.”  He bent and bounced his hand against the cot’s mattress.  It barely gave.  “I can claim the bed in English, French, Latin, and, if you excuse the accent, German.  What do you have?”

“My rear end layin’ on it.”

“A persuasive argument.”  Scott sat.  He could feel through the mattress to the straps underneath.   “Foresight is an element of success, Emerson says.”

“That a fancy way of callin’ squatter’s rights?”  There was a knock on the door, and Johnny swung his boots from the pulled-back quilt and sat upright.  “Door’s open,” he called out.

“I have blankets,” Mrs. Whitfield announced, and she did, a colorful armload of them.  Camouflage, Scott decided, as she fit herself through the slender space between the cot and a rocker and set the blankets on the bureau.  Just an excuse for her real mission.  He stood, waiting politely.   

“This should keep you warm enough,” she said, patting the pile and turning to Scott, and then she took the top blanket and set it on his cot.  “There’s towels on the washstand and if you need anything else…”  Her gaze swept the room.  “…our bedroom is just next to yours.  Knock, or shout, or…”  She smiled and settled her gaze on Johnny.  “You must be awfully tired of listening to me prattle on.”

“No, ma’am.”  Johnny scratched his chin and gave her a small, crooked smile. 

“Well, I’m tired of listening to myself.  Scott…”  Just as she had the blankets, she patted his arm on the way out.  “Hattie tells me that you’re thinking of leaving us tomorrow.”

“Thank you for your hospitality, but yes—I think that would be for the best.”  Scott felt Johnny’s eyes on him, but Mrs. Whitfield kept walking toward the door. 

“I’m counting on you to talk him out of it, Johnny.”  She turned at the doorframe, looking back over the room one more time.  Despite her brisk movements, thin lines frayed at her eyes.  She was smaller boned than Hattie, more brittle, and Scott suddenly noticed the worn cuffs of her sleeves.   “I think that’s everything,” she said.  “I’ll see you gentlemen in the morning then.  Goodnight.” 

They said their goodnights to the click of the door shutting, and then Scott turned to his brother, and he sat.  “Whatever you promised Mrs. Whitfield, it’s not going to work.”

“Why’s that?”  Johnny toed off his boots and kicked them under the bed.

“We’re getting a hotel room tomorrow, as soon as I’ve talked to a lawyer.”

“Josh agree to that?” 

Johnny started in on his shirt and Scott found himself reaching for his own buttons, undoing them methodically.  “No,” Scott said.  “Josh is still protecting Hattie, or he’s being blackmailed…or he’s just that much of a fool, but he doesn’t want a lawyer.”

“Maybe he’s guilty.”

Johnny shrugged out of his shirt, while Scott tugged the tails out of his pants and let his shirt hang open. 

“So what did you and Mrs. Whitfield talk about all evening?” Scott asked.  He brought his right foot up across his other knee, pulled the boot from it, and then did the same with his left foot.

“Hattie, mostly.  You, some.”

Setting his boots side-by-side next to the cot, Scott eyed his brother.  Johnny didn’t seem to notice; all his concentration was on his pants and those concho buttons.  He had them undone and he’d stood, stepping out of them, before he added anything to that “mostly” or “some”. 

“Did you know Hattie called it off a couple months back?”  Johnny left his pants crumpled on the floor and sat on the edge of the mattress.  “July, I think Alice said—didn’t last.  You need that lamp?”


“Good.”  The lamp was on the nightstand, just at the head of his bed, and all Johnny really had to do was lean to reach it.  He cupped his hand over the chimney and blew.  Blinded by the darkness, Scott listened for the creaks of the bed and the slight huff of air that told him Johnny had settled back onto his mattress. 

“Did she say why?” Scott asked.

“Nope.  She told me plenty about Kentucky, though—that soldier Hattie had back there.  Said there would’ve been a weddin’ then, but Hattie’s old man wouldn’t stand for it.”

“Hattie couldn’t have been more than seventeen.”

“She tell you bout that one?”

Still in his pants and open shirt, and still sitting with the cot’s hard rail pressing into his legs, Scott stared across at the vague outline his brother’s body made against the black.  “She told me,” he said.

“Long time ago.”

“Not so long.”  Scott pulled his arms out of his sleeves and, feeling the cotton slip through his fingers, folded the shirt and set it on the floor next to his boots.  “Did Mrs. Whitfield say anything that can help us get Josh out of jail?”

“Just more about Todd.  She doesn’t like him much.”

“That’s a common opinion.”

“Frank took a swing at Todd awhile back.”

“How did that happen?”  In that dark, he could almost imagine that he was back at Lancer, in his own room, except that the cot wobbled when he moved and he could hear the sounds of people getting ready for bed in the other rooms.  Behind him, on the other side of the wall, the Whitfield’s muffled voices made a broken murmur, but there were other noises, quieter ones, from across the hall.  Or maybe he imagined them, too. Scott shook the blanket out across the cot and, leaving his pants on, he swung his legs up and under the cover.

“They owed Todd some money,” Johnny said.  “He made some threats, and Frank tried to deck him.  The way Frank tells it he did all right, but Alice swears he missed and fell right over.  He’d been drinkin’ some.”

Lying flat on his back, Scott felt his heels slide off the end of the mattress.  He turned to his side and pulled up his knees.  Johnny must have turned, too, because his voice seemed closer.  “You wanta tell me why we’re gettin’ a hotel tomorrow?” Johnny asked.

“You try sleeping on this cot.”

“We’ve both had worse.”  Johnny reached out and tapped the cot’s wooden frame. The thud made Scott search hard through the dark for his brother’s face.  “What happened between you two?” Johnny asked. 

Slight, almost lost in the walls, a sound thumped from across the hall.  Scott closed his eyes.  “Go to sleep, Johnny.”

“That bad, was it?”

Scott pulled the blanket over his shoulder.  “Did Mrs. Whitfield tell you why she sent that letter?”


Irritation scratched his throat.  “Would you like to tell me then?”

He didn’t, not for a long moment as Johnny settled again in his soft bed.  Scott could hear the ropes scratching against the mattress as his brother shifted his weight and found a more comfortable position.  “Hattie and Josh….well, no man’s ever good enough for a mama’s daughter.”

“Mrs. Whitfield wrote that she was fond of Josh.”

“Maybe she is, but that don’t mean she wants Hattie marryin’ him.”

“And why not?  Besides the obvious drawback of Josh facing ten years in prison.”  His hand around her arm—Scott felt it again, as he had in the jail, with Josh’s eyes watching him.  He had no right.  And still warm, lingering, the memory of her kiss pressed his lips. 

Johnny sucked in a breath before his answer came out, hard and flat.  “Let’s just say Hattie’s mama wants to see the rest of the stock before they cut them out a calf.”

It’s all he could say to that.

“Goodnight, Johnny.”  Scott shoved his pillow against his neck and shut his eyes even tighter against that absurdity. 

“Night,” came his brother’s voice.

Around him, the sounds of the house quieted, leaving space for his thoughts.  Long after the moon had risen above the trees outside their window and spread its light across his blanket, deep into the night, Scott’s thoughts quieted too.  And then, even on his too-short cot, and with the bawl of calves and the scent of rosemary wafting through the moonlight, he dreamed.


Chapter 18

Anthony Costello’s bench was long, narrow, and bone-bruisingly hard.  Scott shifted, again, still sitting stiffly upright, still with his back pressed against the wall, while Johnny hunched his shoulders and slumped even lower than he was.  The minutes ticked by, each of them marked by the twitch of that minute hand, night black against the clock’s white face.   

Just feet away from the bench, directly under the regulator clock, the law clerk sat memorizing his books.  At least, that’s what he seemed to be doing.  His glasses were persistently half-way down his nose and, as he concentrated on his work, they slid.  He pushed them back into place with every third turning of a page.  Scott counted it out, in between watching the minute hand jerk, and he had to give the man a grudging respect.  He was certainly dependable—three pages and then that finger gliding up the bridge of his nose.  Resting his hand on his thigh, four fingers extended, Scott watched and waited.  Another page turned, and then the third, and the spectacles’ position was improved again.  Scott aligned his thumb with his fingers, and then curled them all into a fist. 

“When did you say Mr. Costello is expected in the office?”

The clerk looked up, and, from the corner of his eye, Scott would have sworn that he saw his brother smirk.  He barely suppressed his own laugh at the clerk’s surprised expression.  It wasn’t just that his eyebrows rose, it was that his brows rippled wrinkles into his forehead, and the flow just kept going right up and over his hairless scalp. 

“I’m sorry…” The clerk said.  “I’d forgotten that you were here, actually.  Rather foolish of me, I’m afraid.  Nine.”  He tilted his head and looked back at the clock.  “Well, the morning does seem to be getting away from us, now doesn’t it?

The hand twitched and settled at 9:09.

“Mr. Costello is always quite punctual.  Perhaps if you had made an appointment?”  Lowering his glasses and peering over them, the clerk studied their faces.  “I could schedule you.  Tomorrow morning at…”  He reached beside his ledger and ran a finger across the second tablet lying there.  “Ten o’clock.”  He looked up again.  “Would that would be suitable?”

Beside him, Scott could see Johnny’s head lolling against the wall, and he felt his brother’s eyes.  “No, Mr. Harvey, that won’t be suitable.”  Scott glanced up at the clock, but the second hand hadn’t moved again.  “We’ll wait.”

“Of course.”  Taking up his pencil, the clerk touched it to the ledger.  “I’m afraid that your delay may be a long one, however.  Mr. Costello was expected in court this morning and it’s most likely that he’s decided to forego the office.  I expect that he’ll be occupied with the trial proceedings until at least early afternoon.”

Johnny was on his feet, pacing toward the door, before Scott had finished his exasperated breath. 

“I’d be happy to set an appointment,” the clerk said as his gaze followed Johnny.

“Yeah, you do that,” Johnny told him, looking back expectantly at Scott.  “You comin’?” he asked.

“Thank you, Mr. Harvey, but the appointment won’t be necessary.  We’ll try Mr. Costello again this afternoon.” Scott rose to his feet and took his hat from the hook by the door.

“As you wish,” the clerk said, dropping his gaze to his ledger again, and Scott nodded.  He followed Johnny out of the office. 

Stockton had crowded to life while they’d sat waiting.  There were wagons lining the street, some with loads piled up in their beds and others still empty, and horses—dozens of horses—trotting by with cowboys in their saddles, or flicking their tails at the hitching rails, or in their harness, jangling their tack.  Over the dirt-muffled thud of the hooves, a shrill voice was giving somebody an earful of the way it was supposed to be.  A fancy buggy passed and the voice moved with it, fading unanswered into the clatter of the town.

“Johnny?” Scott watched his brother’s heels click hard and quick against the planks.  He stretched his legs to catch up.  “Do you know where you’re going?”

Pointing ahead, Johnny nodded.  Scott saw the back of his head bounce up and down.  “That way,” Johnny said.

“All right.”  Scott came even and watched as Johnny kept his eyes aimed straight ahead.  He looked down the boardwalk himself.  “We can get something to eat at the café.”

“Those biscuits looked good this morning.”

“I wanted to get to Costello’s office.”

“So’s we could sit.”

“You could have stayed at the house.”

“And miss Harvey’s fascinatin’ company?”  Johnny looked at him, one brow raised.  “You know, she ain’t gonna bite you over the biscuits.”

His empty gut kinked. All of his torture on that rickety cot, Josh’s pigheadedness, and Hattie’s—Hattie’s—whatever the hell was wrong with Hattie—it all came wriggling into his stomach and it grabbed hold.  He dug into his pocket.  “Here.”  Scott shoved a wad of bills into his brother’s palm.  “Go get your breakfast.  I don’t know why you came to Stockton anyway.”

Head down, and boots still making a steady cadence against the planks, Johnny counted the money. “What did happen last night, Brother?” 

“Who said that anything happened?” 

“I ain’t blind.”

"It’s none of your business, Johnny.”

“Maybe not,” he said, “but it’s a pretty damned profitable business.”  He waved the money at him.  “There’s seventeen dollars here.”

Watching the green bills flutter in the air, Scott searched for a suitably vague explanation.  “I didn’t sleep well,” he finally said.

“And why’s that?”

“Because unlike your bed, that cot was two feet long and as hard as granite.”

“So it’s got nothin’ to do with the way you and Hattie acted last night in the kitchen?”

“And how did we act?”

“Like your eyeballs were gonna catch on fire if you looked at each other.” 

Scott stared down, watching the toes of his boots appear one after another into his line of sight.  Johnny hardly missed a beat as he folded the bills and pushed them into his waistband.  “She still marryin’ him?” Johnny asked.

“Yes,” Scott said flatly.  “She’s marrying him,” he added, his tone softer this time.  “But we have to get Josh out of jail first.”

“Well, we’re workin’ on it.” Johnny pointed and Scott looked down the street.  Partially hidden by the roof of a smaller building, big red letters painted on a wide wall spelled out ‘Miller’s Livery’.  “That it?”

“That’s the one.  Mr. Whitfield said it’s the road just past it.”

“What do you make of him?” Johnny asked. 

“Mr. Whitfield?”

“Yeah…You figure he could’ve had something to do with stealin’ that money?”

Honestly assessing that possibility, Scott finally just shook his head.  “I don’t know.  He needed the money, but not fourteen thousand.  And Hattie has me convinced that Josh didn’t do it.  So if Josh didn’t take it, I don’t see how Mr. Whitfield could be involved.”

The road that cut off on the other side of the livery was rougher.  There wasn’t any boardwalk, just a well-trod, bare path on the edge of a rain-rutted ditch.  Scott followed that path, while Johnny stepped across the weeds to the road, walking a few feet away.  The houses facing them from either side of the road were two-story, with lacy curtains in their windows and well-tended flower beds framing their foundations.  Scott gave them a cursory look, and then let his gaze drift down the road, following the row of progressively smaller houses, each one with a bit more flaking paint or one more loose shutter, until he spotted the house at the end, just behind a stand of oak trees.  It was nothing more than a cottage.  Josh’s, if his directions were correct.

Johnny’s voice was quieter than before.  “Hattie could’ve taken it.”

“Is that what you think?”  Scott watched the nettled weeds lining the path, carefully avoiding Johnny’s eyes. 

“No reason not to.”

“She didn’t,” Scott said, his tone determinedly mild.

“She knew the combination.”

“And then she forgot it.”

“All right,” Johnny said unconvincingly.

He’d settled this, last night on that cot, staring into the dark of his sleepless thoughts.  Hattie had the combination and she had a motive.  She was smart, too, and when she’d set her mind to something, there was nothing to do but get out of her way.  But when could she have taken it?  How could she have hidden it?  And where was the money now?  It didn’t make sense, and besides, she’d forgotten the combination; she’d told him so. 

But she couldn’t sleep. 

Staring down at the weeds, Scott remembered.  That morning at the ranch, with Josh swearing his cowardice, as convincing an innocence as he’d ever seen—it was Hattie that had changed his plea.  Just that small, unimportant detail—that Scott had seen her in the hallway, late in the night of the mysterious sounds; wandering alone only hours before the money was found.  It wasn’t jealousy he’d seen in Josh’s eyes.  Hattie couldn’t sleep. 

But it didn’t matter; she had to have the combination to steal the money and she’d told him that she couldn’t remember it.  She couldn’t have done it.  She couldn’t have. 

The road dipped downward and, with the oak trees sheltering them, the weeds there grew over the path.  Scott had to duck under a low-hanging branch, and he looked up from the dirt, there to Josh’s white-frame house.  It wasn’t a home; it was too small for that.  It was little more than a roof and white-washed walls, with a stoop at the front door and a clay pot sitting crooked on its edge.  Whatever had been growing in the pot had become a yellow stalk.

Johnny jogged through the ditch and came up on his side as Scott knocked on the door.  There wasn’t any answer and, a moment later, Scott tested the knob.  It wasn’t locked.

“This the place?” Johnny asked, and Scott gave him a glance, and then swung the door open.  He peered past it.

“Hello—” Scott called into the empty house.  Feeling as if he were invading a tomb, he took a few steps into the middle of the room.  “Mr. Whitfield said it was at the end of the road.  This has to be it.”  He didn’t touch anything—not yet—but Scott studied the simple furnishings.  There was a coal stove in the front corner, a small range in the back, a few narrow cupboards, a table and four chairs, two of them upright, ladder-backed styles and the others mismatched.  There were empty, food-stained dishes on the table and more in a basin on the counter, partially immersed in water.  A basket sat on the counter, next to the basin.

“It could use a woman’s touch,” Johnny said, and Scott turned to him, surprised that he’d made it across the floor already.  Johnny was standing in the doorway of the second room.  The bedroom, Scott knew, and the flash of blue and white quilt that showed when his brother leaned into the doorframe confirmed it.  “You want to take the kitchen?” Johnny asked.

Nodding, Scott went to work.  He started with the cupboards and swept outward from there, turning dishes over and feeling under the woodwork, then checking the boards, watching for any loose ones.  Methodically, one by one, he pounded his boot against each plank in the floor. He tipped his ear to the solid thunks, listening for any difference in the sound.  There wasn’t any. 

The stove was full of ashes; he saw them as soon as he opened the curved door.  It was September already and the nights in the valley hadn’t been cold since the spring, early spring, and Josh still hadn’t cleaned out his stove.  Searching, Scott found a ladle in the basin and shook it, spraying drops of water across his pants and the floor.  He scooped the ladle through the ashes, digging down until he hit metal, and then dragged it across the belly of the stove.  That’s all that was there—just ashes. 

There was nothing in the range either.  He got his hands dirty searching it, and wished hard for the good, sturdy gloves he’d left lying on the bureau in his bedroom back at Lancer.  For just one moment, one wasted moment, he wished hard for his bedroom, too, the soft mattress and the comfortable solitude and no Josh.  But there was no helping it, and after he’d felt inside the heating tray and the oven box, and then knocked against the stovepipe, he stood and studied the room.  Nearly without thinking, he reached for a towel and wiped the grease and grime from his fingers, then slung it on the counter next to the basket.  He lifted the basket’s lid.  Inside, there was pie.

A corner of his mouth lifted.

Hattie.  Her pie— cherry this time.  The fruit was shriveled and turning deep shades of crimson and brown, and a fly was crawling across the crust.  Scott flicked the fly away, then picked at the napkin next to the pie.  The lump underneath turned out to be bread, with grey meat under it.  He let the basket’s lid fall.

“Johnny, have you found anything?” Scott asked, heading for the bedroom.  His brother’s “no” came back muffled, and when he got to the doorway, Scott saw why.  Johnny’s legs were sticking out from under the bed, the rest of him gone under the mattress.

“Isn’t hiding the money in the mattress a bit of a cliché?” Scott asked.  He leaned into the doorjamb and crossed his arms.

“Maybe.”  His legs jerked as Johnny shifted under the bed.  “But I figure if I’m looking for somethin’ that ain’t here, might as well do it layin’ down.”

“What makes you think that it isn’t here?”

“Cause that’s what you’re thinkin’.”

“I could be wrong.”

Johnny squirmed out and lay flat on the floor, looking up at the ceiling.  “You’re not wrong…and Josh can’t bluff worth a damn.”  He curled up and gave him a crooked smile.  “Too bad we didn’t get a poker game outta him.”

Scott returned a small smile.  “Josh may not be convincing, but he’s consistent.”

“Crazy, is what I’d call him.”  Johnny rolled and pushed to his feet.  “No woman’s worth goin’ to prison over.”  He pivoted to the bureau’s open drawer and started shoving at the clothes in it. 

“Josh seems to think that she is.”

Scratching at the side of his nose, Johnny turned and gave him a quick look.  He went back to his drawer.  “I knew a woman once…down in San Antone.  She was somethin’.”  He yanked out a fistful of clothes and shook them loosely.  “Had a voice like doves talkin’ and her eyes…well, they could put a preacher man to stutterin’.  And she had a way of movin’…sort of…”  He wagged his hand in the air, then glanced back slyly.  “I tell ya—all that gal had to do was walk around in the broad daylight and a man would start to wantin’ things he couldn’t have.”

Scott’s smile was warmer this time.  “You’re saying that she was pretty.”

Grinning, Johnny stuffed the clothes in the drawer and shut it.  “Yeah, you might say that.  Old Billy Longstreet sure musta thought so.  He and Amos Marlowe got to fightin’ over her and old Billy pulled his gun.  Shot the big toe right off of poor Amos.”  He reached across the bureau and tipped the hanging mirror, tilting his head to look behind it.

Scott came into the room and stood at the foot of the bed.  “I imagine that Amos Marlowe must have regretted ever meeting this woman.”

“Beulah.  Her name was Beulah.”  Johnny let the mirror fall back and it swayed.  “And if he was sorry he met her, he sure didn’t say nothin’ about it.”

Scott folded the quilt back.  “Then Amos must be a generous soul.  Most men would resent losing body parts over a wanton siren.”

“She wasn’t no siren.”  The second drawer squeaked as Johnny yanked it open.  “Josh must have least ten different shirts.  Who has that many shirts just lying around?”  He dangled one of them, then let if fall back into the drawer.

Sitting on the mattress, Scott frowned. “She wasn’t a siren?”

“Nope.  Beulah married a dirt farmer—had three babies by him last I heard.”

“So what was the point of that story?”

Johnny knelt and leaned a hand onto the floor, running the other one on the underside of the bureau.  “Just no accountin’ for it, is all.  Some women do that to a man…”  Drawing his hand back and wiping it on his leg, he looked up at Scott.  “Makes ’em plain crazy.”

Scott hung his head and watched the empty space under the bureau.  “A madness most discreet.”

“What’s that?”

“That’s what Shakespeare called it. ‘Love is a madness most discreet.’”

Sitting back on his heels, Johnny swept his gaze around the room.  “Well, I don’t know about that, but the money ain’t here.”

The announcement was premature.  There was still the garden to search for any freshly dug ground, and the crawl space under the flooring.  It would be dark and musty, but one of them would have to go down there.  Scott considered those tasks, and then he sighed.  “Josh didn’t take it.”

“And that leaves either Hattie or Todd.”

Nodding, Scott lifted his gaze to his brother’s face.  “I know.”

As tender as the question was, it made Scott’s jaw tense. “So how bad do you have it?” Johnny asked.

Scott stretched his leg out and hung his head again.  He smiled gently.  “Not good,” he answered.  He clasped his hands and rubbed one thumb over the other.  “I kissed her…last night, out in the garden.  We were talking and …It was wrong; I know that.  Hattie knows that.”

“She kiss you back?”

His head barely moving, Scott gave one small nod.

“All right,” Johnny said.

“What does that mean?” Scott asked, finding his brother’s eyes. 

“All right.” Johnny pushed off the floor, coming to his feet. “We’ll figure this out.  If it’s Todd that took the money, you can punch him in the nose for all your trouble.  And if it’s Hattie…well, you let me take care of that.”  He shoved the drawer shut with his knee, and then, setting his hands on his hips, he stared down at Scott.

Scott gazed up.  “No, you won’t.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because if it’s Hattie,” Scott said, coming to his feet.  “I’ll take care of it.”

Looking unconvinced, Johnny nodded anyway.  “All right.”


Chapter 19

The money wasn’t there. 

Scott lost the coin toss and he went under the house, leaving Johnny crouched by the foundation, calling out needless instructions.  Scott crept belly-low over the dank soil.  Warm wax oozed onto his fingers and the candle flame flickered with his motion, swaying faint light into the corners.  It gleamed into two yellow eyes, the length of the house away.  And the eyes hissed.  After a disconcertingly long, loud stand-off, a cat streaked past him and out into the daylight. 

“Madre de…”

He heard his brother’s leap backward, and, barely feeling that he had room for it in that sliver of space, Scott grinned.  It was small comfort, with his elbows dug into God-knows-what, his rear scraping against the floor joists, and his nose wrinkling over that smell.  Something had died down there, something that by now had left a hidden, decaying lump of fur.  He held the flame as high as he could.  Patterns of dark and light scattered over the shallow landscape.  It was all clumps and hollows, coarse soil, but there wasn’t any change in color, any of it any rougher than the other.  None of it had been disturbed.  And that left him with the same conclusion he’d had when he was standing in the sunlight, still upright and still clean—Josh was a damned liar.

And they still hadn’t had any breakfast. 

He crabbed out of the space and Scott considered his options, listening to Johnny’s stomach rumble, pawing at the dirt smeared into his shirt, and covering the same weedy path they’d followed to Josh’s house.  Only this time they were headed back into town, toward the busy main street of Stockton. 

“Todd’s?”  Johnny asked.

Breakfast could wait.

“Todd’s,” Scott answered. 

They had directions to the State Bank of Stockton.  Frank Whitfield had given them to him—go one block past the store and turn right.  It didn’t take long, but Scott was grateful for the silence from his brother, especially as they crossed the street just on the other side of the Emporium.  They’d already said enough, and in the harsh sunlight, with Hattie working so near, those words soured his throat.

Hattie or Todd.  The money didn’t get to the ranch any other way, and one of them had hidden it in that barn. Hattie or Todd?

There was an audit.  A mistake, Josh had called it, just a stupid mistake, and the money was never missing.  And that was it, all of the evidence Scott could find in this whole infuriating mess, just that audit—all of it that pointed toward Todd.  And if Todd had taken the money, why would he go all the way to Lancer with it?  Why did not simply hide it at Josh’s house?  Why hide it at all?  Any reasonable man with fourteen thousand dollars would be down in Mexico by now, drinking twenty dollar whiskey with ten dollar senoritas. 

And if Todd didn’t take it…

The door to the State Bank of Stockton was dark oak, with deeply inset panels.  Johnny pushed it open and stepped in first, pausing as he looked around.  Scott came up on his side and swept his gaze over the interior.  There were two teller windows, one with a man in a bowler hat leaning at its counter and a fashionably dressed lady in line behind him.  The other was empty. 

The teller looked briefly at them as he counted out his bills and flipped them into his customer’s hands.  Bars barricaded the teller into his space, and behind them, standing just tall enough to be seen over the counter, a safe filled a good portion of the bank’s floor.  It looked as thick and heavy as any Scott had ever seen.

With one glance back to Scott, Johnny started across the room, headed for the open door at the end of the teller’s bars.  “Reckon he’s in?” Johnny asked.

“If not, we’ll hunt him down,” Scott answered.  That earned him a second, quick look. 

Johnny poked his head into the office before entering and knocked against the doorframe.  “Morning,” he said, with a nod.  From behind him, Scott could see his brother’s cheeks tighten with his smile.  He walked past Johnny.  It was only a small, outer office and Scott could see immediately that the door to the right of the desk was where they really wanted to be.  The plaque on it read, “Bank President”. 

The lady smiling back from the desk was young and primly dressed, with eyes as blue as Hattie’s were green.  Her gaze was warm.  “Good morning,” she said, as she set her pencil down and looked up at Johnny.   “Can I help you?”

“Yeah.”  Johnny sauntered toward her and she sat straighter.  “We’re needin’ to talk to your boss.  He around?”

“Yes, he is; however he has a very full schedule today.”  She looked toward Scott and the warmth in her eyes held.  “May I tell him what this is regarding?”

“We have a few questions for him,” Scott said, following Johnny to stand in front of her desk.  His gaze drifted up to the door. “About the missing money?”

“Are you detectives?” The excitement in her voice brought his eyes back to hers.  Her brows had lifted.  “If you are, then you need to know that Mr. Wright didn’t take that money.”

“No?”  Johnny said.

“He didn’t.”  Shaking her head more enthusiastically than the denial called for, she bit her lip. “I know that you don’t have any reason to believe me, and the Pinkerton office—you do work for the Pinkertons don’t you?—the Pinkertons can’t file a report based on woman’s intuition, but Mr. Wright wouldn’t do anything like that.  I’ve known him for years now, and Mr. Wright has always been honest.  He wouldn’t—Josh just wouldn’t do that.”

“We’re not Pinkertons,” Johnny told her.

“Oh?  Then who are you?”

“They’re Lancers,” a voice said.  Scott flicked his gaze to the opening door.  “Scott…Johnny…”  Todd’s expression was placidly blank.  “This is unexpected…”  He hesitated for just a second, then added, “but a pleasure.  Won’t you come in?”  He swept his hand in invitation, glancing backward into his office, and then his head snapped back.  The tone of his voice deepened.  “Does this mean that you’ve found my money?”

“Ma’am.”  Johnny smiled softly at her. 

“He didn’t do it,” she whispered.

“That’s what I keep hearin’,” Johnny said softly, for her ears, and then, louder, “We don’t have the money, Todd.  You sure you really lost it?”

The woman turned her head as they passed, watching them.  Scott noticed that, but he had his gaze aimed at Todd, seeing his eyes harden. 

“I lost it,” Todd said, then he stepped back, allowing them to enter.  “Haven’t we already discussed everything that’s necessary?”  He wagged his finger toward two chairs, and then walked around his desk to his own. “Josh left for Morro Coyo, the money went missing…”  He emphasized those words, glaring at Johnny as he said them. “…and it turned up in your barn.”  Todd waited as they sat, and he settled heavily into his leather chair.  “I trained that boy, and this is how he repays me.”  Leaning forward, he tapped his fist on his desktop.  “The board wants that money returned.”

“I bet they do,” Scott said.

“You’ve searched the ranch?”

Johnny shrugged.  “It’s a big ranch.”

“And it’s a lot of money.”

“Fourteen thousand is a small fortune,” Scott said.  “So what have you done to find it?”

Todd rubbed a knuckle at his nose.  “That’s the law’s job.  I have a bank to run.  And, if you can’t tell me where my money is…”  Todd pushed his chair back.  “…then I really don’t see the need to continue this visit any longer.”  He stood and leaned his palms flat against his desk.

Scott’s tone hardened.  “Sit down.”

That tic.  Scott remembered it as soon as it twitched.  It was there under Todd’s left eye, just as it’d been the first time they’d heard Todd’s accusations. Only that time it’d been aimed at Josh and now Todd was staring straight at him.  Todd’s face had turned to fleshy marble, his pockmarks little puddles of grey in his blood-drained face, and that tic was the only living part of it. 

Slowly, stiffly, Todd smiled.  “What is it that you want to know?” he asked.

Just as coolly, Scott smiled back.  “From the beginning,” he told him, “tell us what happened the day the money disappeared.”

“It was stolen.”  The tic kept twitching, but Todd sat.  “Money doesn’t simply disappear, it’s stolen.”

“As I understand it, you didn’t discover that it was stolen…” Scott emphasized the word, “…until the day Hattie was here.”

“That’s right.”

“She come around often?” Johnny asked.

“Not often, but I was acquainted with Miss Whitfield.”

Scott studied Todd’s expression.  “What happened that morning?”

“Miss Whitfield was waiting for me when I arrived at the bank.”

“She been waiting long?”  Johnny shifted in his chair, bringing his boot up across his other knee.

“I really couldn’t say.  I was a few minutes late that morning, but I don’t believe that the office had been open more than a few minutes.  Miss Steele could tell you how long Miss Whitfield had been waiting.  Would you like me to call her in?”

“That Miss Steele out there?” Johnny asked.

“That’s my assistant, yes.  She opened the office that morning.”

“Just keep talkin’, Todd.  Hattie’s waitin’ for you and you show up…?”  Johnny turned his hand in the air, and Todd’s gaze followed Johnny’s hand as it sank again to his thigh.

“I brought her into my office,” Todd told him, “…and she showed me the wire that Josh had sent her.  I was disappointed that Josh would be delayed.”  His gaze lifted.  “There was a lot of work waiting for him here in Stockton, but I thanked her and expected her to be on her way.”

“And she wasn’t?” Scott asked.

“No, Mr. Lancer.  Miss Whitfield wanted to discuss her father’s affairs, and I’m afraid that I’m as susceptible to an attractive woman as the next man.”  Todd smiled—a small, but seemingly real one this time.  “I let her stay, even though there was another appointment waiting for me.  I excused myself to apologize for the delay, but then Miss Whitfield and I finished our conversation.  It wasn’t until after she’d left that I discovered that the money had been stolen.”

Scott shifted his gaze to Todd’s desk, taking in that sequence of events.  “Any particular reason you checked the safe then?”

“My appointment required some papers from my safe.”  Turning, Todd pointed to the small in-wall safe behind his desk.  “As soon as I opened it, I saw that the money was missing.”

“That safe?”  Lifting a single finger, Johnny pointed it at the wall.

“That one.”

“Why wasn’t the money in the vault?” Scott asked.

“Normally all of the money is in the vault, but one of our more important clients had asked me to have his funds ready and I’d set them aside in my office safe.  He’d been delayed.”

“The vault behind the teller looks like it’d take a wagon load of dynamite to blow it open.”  Scott crooked a thumb toward the door. “Why do you need a safe in here?’

Todd spread his palms.  “Ask Mr. Grayless.  He’s the one who had it installed, I’ve simply chosen to put it to use.”

“Do you use it often?” Scott asked.

“Yes.  Usually only for documents, though.”

Fourteen thousand dollars.  Scott imagined the pile of bills he’d held in his hand, multiplied it, and mentally stacked it in that safe.  It would fit—barely.  But in a purse…or hidden under clothing…?  “And what happened after you discovered that the money was missing?” 

“I’m not sure that I can even tell you.”  Todd’s palms widened again.  “I know that I lost my head…completely.”  He picked up a pencil.  “I’m afraid that Miss Steele would probably enjoy embarrassing me with the exact details of how I behaved.”  He tapped the pencil against the desktop.  “I remember standing in the middle of the reception office, demanding that she get the sheriff.  I demanded it rather loudly as a matter of fact.”  The pencil stilled as he suddenly seemed to remember.  “Miss Whitfield hadn’t left yet—I believe she’d been chatting with Miss Steele—and she poured me a cup of coffee.  That brought me back to my senses as much as anything.”

Why would she stay?  Scott glanced up at the safe, imagined Hattie’s hand spinning the lock.  If she had the money on her, why would she stay?  “What made you think that Josh had taken it?” he asked.

“He had the combination.  Why wouldn’t I think it was Josh?”  The staccato tapping started again. “He’s the only one I trusted with the combination, and don’t let anyone fool you…”  Todd jabbed the pencil toward him.  “Mr. Grayless may have known the combination at one time, but he’s fortunate to remember what he had for dinner, let alone how to open this safe.  Josh is the only one who could have taken it.”

“So you went after him,” Scott said.

“Yes, with Miss Whitfield following me the whole way.  She’s a rather determined lady.  We searched his house first, and then I saw the stage and I couldn’t help myself.  I knew it was going south toward Morro Coyo and I got on it.”

Scott nodded.  “With Hattie.” 

“With Miss Whitfield.  It probably wasn’t the most sensible decision I ever made, but that’s what I did.  I barely had time to stop at the office and warn Miss Steele where we were going.”

A memory settled.  “Hattie told me that she borrowed money for the trip from Miss Steele,” Scott said.

“Believe me,” Todd said, smiling his stiff smile.  “I had a word with Miss Steele about that loan when I returned.”

Voices rose from the reception office and Todd turned, watching the door.  Above the deeper one, the secretary’s more feminine tone sounded as if she was prevailing.  Todd pulled his watch from his pocket and flipped it open. 

“That would be my eleven o’clock,” he said.  He looked up and flipped the watch closed.  “That’s all, gentleman, and now if you’ll excuse me…”  Bracing against the desk, he half rose.

“How much money do you carry on you?” Johnny asked, more than just the question in his tone.  Todd glared at him, but he sank back into his chair.  “Enough to pay your way on that stage and rent a buggy?”

“I’m not a poor man.”  Todd shoved the watch into his pocket.  He stared down at his desk and took in a deep breath.  “And I’ve never had any reason to mistrust the safety of this bank.  Not before Josh taught me otherwise.  I have a substantial amount of savings held here, and I made a small withdrawal.”

“How small?” Scott asked.

“Fifty dollars.  And I fail to see how that question is relevant to finding my money.”  Todd’s gaze locked onto Scott’s.  “And I really am through with this conversation.”

“The fourteen thousand came out of that safe?” Scott nodded toward the wall behind Todd.

“I believe that I’ve already made that clear.”

“How long was Hattie in here waiting for you?” Johnny asked.

“Miss Whitfield?”  Todd looked from one face to the other, and his brows knitted at the question.  “I’m not sure—no more than three or four minutes, I’d imagine.  My client wasn’t pleased by the delay.  I’m sure that you know the type—they simply won’t accept a simple explanation.”

“Did you close the door?” Johnny looked up at the small safe.  “While you were out there, explainin’ to that man?” 

Rubbing his thumb against the armchair, concentrating on its smooth finish, Scott waited for the answer to his brother’s question.

“I’m not sure…” Todd said after a moment’s thought.  “Probably.  I try to be discreet about the bank’s business.”

Three or four minutes.  Hattie was alone with the safe, behind the closed door, for three or four minutes.  Again, in his imagination, Scott saw her hand twist the safe’s lock; he timed the motion.  Thirty seconds, no more if she knew the combination.  And only a few seconds needed to reach for the money, grab it out of the safe, and stash it…where?  How could she walk out of that office with fourteen thousand dollars?

She didn’t.

“Mr. Todd,” Scott said, “I understand that Josh assisted you with some errors in the bank’s ledgers several months ago.”

Todd’s eyes narrowed.  “Errors happen.”

“And how did this one happen?”

For one brief moment Scott thought that Todd wasn’t going to answer.  The man’s silence drifted over his face, hardened his features.  And again, the pencil tapped a rhythm against the desk.  “The digits on a deposit were transposed,” he finally admitted.  “Mr. Grayless sold a piece of property and entrusted us with the funds from the sale.  When he asked for a statement of his account, there was a discrepancy.”  He lifted one shoulder in a vague shrug.  “Mr. Wright found the error and we corrected the balance.”

“So you shorted old man Grayless?” Johnny said. 

“Crudely stated.”  Somehow, Todd managed a thin smile.  “But unfortunately, yes—we shorted Mr. Grayless.”

Johnny pressed the point.  “And Josh figured it out?”


“It wasn’t the auditors?” Scott asked.

There was no mistaking that look, even though it faded quickly.  Todd hung his head, staring down at his pencil, barely controlling his anger.  “Technically,” Todd said, “I suppose that it was the auditors who found the error.  They questioned a shortfall in the assets on hand.”

“Meaning that there was money missing that time, too,” Scott said.

“Only on paper.”  Todd brought his gaze up, and it was as cold as his tone.  “And I’m not sure that I appreciate your insinuation.”

“What insinuation would that be?” Scott asked.

“That I had something to do with the disappearance of the fourteen thousand dollars.”  This time when Todd stood, he kept walking, right on toward the door.  “You have to believe me the biggest fool since Cain if you think that I’d steal from my own bank.  And I can assure you…”  He turned back, and a hard smile twisted across his face.  “If I had taken it, none of us would be here having this discussion right now. I’m sure there are more pleasant locations than Stockton where a man could spend fourteen thousand dollars.”  He pushed the door open and flung his arm out toward the reception office.  “This interview is over.”

Scott’s smile was just as forced as Todd’s.  “Thank you for your time,” he said, and, with Johnny just behind him, he crossed the office and brushed past the banker.  Todd stepped backward as their shoulders touched.

He heard his brother’s quick, crisp “bye”, but Scott was already calculating the evidence.  It had to be Todd.  Hattie had the opportunity and she had a motive, but she couldn’t have taken the money out of the office, not right under Todd’s nose.  She’d had a purse—a small one—but that’s all she’d had when she showed up at Lancer.  And if she’d hidden it on her body…Scott lingered on that image, fitted the money to her curves, made her heavy with it.  Too heavy; Todd would have noticed.

Todd’s welcome drifted past him and a rancher, well-used hat in his sun-weathered hands, rose from his reception chair.  He nodded as he walked by.

“Good day,” the man said.

She couldn’t have taken it…There was too much money.  She couldn’t have. 

Too late, responding purely from ingrained breeding, Scott felt his greeting rise in his throat, but he swallowed it again.  The rancher was already disappearing into the banker’s office.  Turning back from Todd’s door, Scott saw that Johnny was leaning with one hip against Miss Steele’s desk, and his brother was fingering the papers on her desk and drawling something soft and low.  A crooked smile was working across his face, and the assistant had her face turned up to Johnny’s, watching that smile. 

“Josh said that we could trust you,” Johnny told her.

“Did he?” she said, almost reverently.  Scott watched her lean closer, drinking in his brother’s lie. 

“Yeah.”  Johnny’s finger fell on a paper only inches from the woman’s hand.  “He’s in a lot of trouble, you know.”

“He didn’t do anything.”  She glanced sideways to Scott and whispered the next words.  “It was that woman.”

“Hattie?” Johnny whispered back.

Miss Steele nodded.  “I don’t know how she did it, but I warned Josh about her.  He wouldn’t listen.”

“Josh needs a good woman.”

Her face lit.  “How can I help him?”

“That mornin’…”  Scott took a step closer to the desk, straining to hear his brother’s softly spoken words.  “The day the money went missin’…” Johnny ducked his head closer to the woman’s.  “You know any way Hattie could’ve hidden it?  Snuck it outta here?”

“Do you mean like that basket?”

Johnny twisted on the desk, making the papers shift under him, and he raised his gaze to Scott’s. 

“She was taking lunch with her to the store,” Miss Steele said, “and she had a basket.  I never saw what she had in it.  Do you mean something like that?”

Josh’s house.  Scott saw the blue of his brother’s eyes turn deep with sympathy and he looked away, down into the dark grain of the floor planks.  Josh’s house and the basket in the kitchen, carried there on Hattie’s arm.  There was room enough in the basket.  He placed the money there, wedged it between the pie and the meat, buried it under the napkin.  There was room.

“Does that help?” Miss Steele asked eagerly.

“Yeah,” Johnny said, and Scott could hear the rustle of the papers as Johnny slid his hip from the desk.  “That’ll do.” 


Chapter 20

The sun was nearly overhead and merciless.  Scott leaned, arms crossed and hands dangling, at the bank’s hitching rail, and he let the sun soak into the back of his shirt.  On the other side of the rail, a dusty buckskin flicked its ears, keeping a fat horsefly from landing, but the horse didn’t raise its head.   Scott hung his own head, too, and he stared down at the unseen ground. 

She stole the money.  She stole it and she lied about it; lied to him.  Damn her!  And Josh—Josh, the unrelentingly romantic idiot—Josh buried himself in that cell, and she let him.  How could she do that to him?  How? 

The heavy oak door opened and shut behind him, and Scott looked over his shoulder and back toward his brother.  He swallowed hard.  “You want to say it now?”

“What’s that?”  Johnny cocked his head as he strolled across the boardwalk.

Scott turned his gaze to the dirt again.  “I told you so.”

“Be glad to…soon as we know somethin’ for sure.”  Johnny pressed in beside him, not quite touching.  Scott saw Johnny’s hands dangle down next to his, and he turned his head enough to catch his brother’s profile.  “The way I see it,” Johnny said, “we still don’t have anything that’d make a jury see things one way or the other.”

Scott gave out a harsh laugh.  “Opportunity, motive, and Josh—her own fiancé—convinced that she did it. You’re right…Absolutely.  No prosecutor would be counting his blessings over that kind of evidence.”

“That the way it is?” Johnny asked.  “You dead set on believin’ Hattie did it?”

He nearly spat out his answer—not only a “yes,” but a “hell, yes.”  He tasted the words on his tongue, tart like soured buttermilk.  Scott’s lips parted, but the words lingered, unspoken. 

He’d believed her.  Hattie’s voice crept into his head, desperate with denial.  “I swear to you,” she’d said, and despite the evidence, despite the well-tested logic of his own mind—God help him—he’d believed her.  Scott pushed off from the rail, turned, and allowed it to catch him as he leaned his back against the bar.  He let out a long, slow sigh.  “We need to find that money.”

Johnny gave a shallow nod.  “I don’t know how we’re gettin’ into Todd’s house, but maybe we don’t want to be movin’ into the hotel just yet.  Searchin’ the Whitfield’s shouldn’t be too much trouble.”  Johnny flicked the back of his hand against Scott’s arm and Scott turned to find his upturned face.  “Does it make much sense to you?” Johnny asked.  “Todd leaving a customer waitin’ just for Hattie?”

“None of this makes any sense.” 

“Can’t argue about that.”  Johnny stood and looked off at the passing buggies.  “So what’s next?”

“What time is it?” Scott checked his pocket watch.  Eighteen past eleven—too early for Costello and too late for breakfast.  He cocked a brow.  “I haven’t had a pointless discussion with Josh for what…sixteen hours?  Maybe another night on a jail cot has made him a wiser man.”

“Not likely.”

“Are you coming?”  Scott slid his watch back into his pocket.

“Can’t.”  Johnny shook his head and took a step back from the rail.  “Frank and I are supposed to head out to the Stewart Ranch and take a look at that Morgan.”

“The stud?”


Scott nodded.  “Tell me, Brother—if I Josh hadn’t gotten himself into all this trouble, would I have ever heard of that Morgan?”

“Sure.”  Johnny smiled sheepishly.  “Of course, it might be a while.  That mare got in with the bay stallion a couple weeks back.  Had herself a fine time, but I don’t think she’ll be wantin’ to entertain Stewart’s Morgan, not until she drops that bay’s foal first.  Lessen the bay’s not the stud he thinks he is.”

Scott managed another thin smile.  “So I’ll catch up to you at the house?”

“Yeah.  You goin’ by Costello’s?”

Turning his gaze to the bank’s closed door, Scott nodded.  “Maybe Costello could petition a court order for Todd’s ledgers.  It there was already one error, there might be something there.”

“Might.”  Johnny followed his gaze.  He took a step toward the door.  “Doesn’t take a court order to ask a lady for a little help, though.”

Scott set his hands on his hips and shook his head.  “She’s not handing over the bank’s ledgers,” he said.  Johnny kept walking.  “Wait, Johnny…Miss Steele—”

“Victoria.”  Johnny wrapped his hand around the door’s bronze handle.  “Her name’s Victoria.”

“All right—Victoria.”  Scott could feel his back stiffening as he looked into his brother’s smug face.  “She’s not going to do it.  I’ll talk to Costello.”

“She’s sweet on Josh.”

“That’s obvious, but she’s not going to break the law for him.”

“Oh, I don’t know…if I ask her right, maybe she will.”

“Johnny—” Scott said, exasperation roughening his words.  “As charming as you may think that you are, she’s not handing over the ledgers.”

With his free hand, Johnny tugged his wad of green bills from his waistband.  “You willin’ to wager?”  He waved the money in the air.  “Because I have seventeen dollars that says she will.” 

“That’s my money!” Scott called out as Johnny pushed against the bank door. 

“Was your money.”  Johnny flashed a rakish grin.  “Was, Brother,” he said again, shoving the wad back into his pants and stepping into the bank.  “Bye.”


The air in the jailhouse was hot and sodden with whiskey.  Scott sucked in his breath, and he watched one of the liquor and sweat-rancid cowboys squint a one-eyed look at him, and then the man grunted.  It was a loud grunt.  There were two of them in the first cell and one in the second, each of them as bleary looking as the next.  The grunter twisted on his cot, his shirt not exactly twisting with him and a pale swatch of skin coming exposed, and he turned his face to the bricks. 

Scott’s lungs gave out.  “Hard night at the saloon?” he asked.

“One of these days I’m gonna just let’em fight it out.”  The sheriff had stopped just outside the first cell, and he swept his heavy-browed glower over the slung-out men.  “I need some sleep.”  The glower stayed just as dark as he turned to the end cell.  “The one model prisoner I’ve got, and here you’re tryin’ to get him free.”  He started back toward the outer office.  “That don’t hardly seem right.”

Scott kept putting one boot in front of the other, the sound of his steps making a thudding echo against the hard walls.  Josh was lying on his cot and Scott watched him as he came closer.  At first, Josh just tipped his head up.  His hair was a straw-tangled mess and his squint as swollen as the hung-over cowboy’s.  There was no reading his expression, even though Scott tried.  He tried hard.

“Scott.”  Josh sat up, swinging his bare feet to the floor.  He bent over, patting the planks under his cot, and then he dragged out a single sock.  Coming up again, he let the sock just dangle from his hand.  “I wasn’t expecting you,” Josh said softly.  “I could’ve have….” He looked around distractedly, and then settled his gaze on his sock.  He rolled the grey wool between his fingers and let it fall again to the floor.  “…cleaned up.”  His sigh was as well-worn as any Scott had ever heard, and Josh looked up, the same weariness washing across his face and draining his eyes.  “Did Hattie find you?” he asked. 

“When?”  It was a stall.  Scott knew what Josh was asking, and for a desperately self-conscious moment the answer stirred to raw memory.  He turned away, reaching for the Windsor chair still sitting outside Josh’s cell.  He slid it closer to the bars and sank into it, facing Josh again.

“Last night,” Josh said quietly. 

She’d been a minute behind him, no more.  He hadn’t even considered that until just that moment; Hattie with her shorter stride had found him under the elm almost as soon as he’d escaped there.  She had to have abandoned Josh to run after him. 

Scott leaned forward and braced his elbows on his thighs, and he stroked a finger lightly against one of the bars.  “She found me.”

Josh nodded, and he left his head hanging.  “I didn’t know about Libby,” he finally said.  “We knew each other in Boston what…?”  He tilted his head and looked sideways at Scott.  “Two—three years?  I never knew.”

“It wasn’t a secret.”

“Well…”  He took in a slow breath.  “I didn’t know…You never talked about it.  Here I’ve been feeling sorry for myself being in this cell…but Libby?”  Josh shrugged and his voice frayed tenderly.  “You were there for a year.”

There wasn’t any answer to that.  Scott had tried through the years, sometimes a simple “serving was my duty” would quiet the sympathy.  Sometimes.  Or a straightforward “thank you” if a blessing came with the question—a “praise God” for his survival maybe, or a “thank heavens” for him standing there in a Harvard Hall or his grandfather’s office, shaking the hand of someone who’d been safe in Boston that whole hellish year, overfed on roast mutton and yeast rolls, and who was no doubt feeling as uncomfortably awkward at that moment as he was.  There wasn’t any answer.  Scott waited for Josh to break the silence. 

“You told Hattie?” Josh asked.

“I didn’t tell her,” Scott said, “she guessed.”  Finally, carefully, he let his gaze drift.  Josh’s light blue shirt was creased where he’d slept in it and something dark splotched near his collar. He needed a shave.  “We were talking about you and she guessed.”

“No, you weren’t.”  Josh smiled wanly.  “You were talking about Cole.”

Cole.  An image materialized in Scott’s mind, one lean with youth, and tall.  “Yes, she mentioned him,” he said.  The vision had no face and he hated it for that; hated Cole.  “She told me that you wanted to do some kind of voodoo—that you wanted to make her forget.  I’m not sure that she can.”

“I thought that maybe…” Josh said.

A cot creaked in the next cell over and both of them turned to it.  Even with their arms hanging down to the floor and their bodies dumped crooked across their beds, none of the sleeping men moved.  The sounds of their breathing thickened the heat.

Josh’s voice grew stronger.  “You know, I can remember the exact moment that I knew that I loved her.  I was standing in the back of the store…”  He lifted his face, and the memory shone bright in his eyes.  “…and I don’t think she’d seen me…I know she hadn’t.”  Softly, genuinely, Josh smiled.  “There was this man—one of those broad shoulder types, with a square jaw…”  He squared his palm and held it to his chin.  “You know the type.  And an expensive suit.”  He gave a throaty laugh. “He did everything but pull flowers out of his rear end trying to make time with her.  And you know—all Hattie did was walk away.”  He stirred his hand through the air.  “She let her mother take care of him, and she never even gave him a second look.”  Still smiling, Josh gazed off into the sodden air.  “And then I come out of hiding,” he said, “and she smiles, just like I was the only man on earth worth smiling at.  That was it for me.”  He looked down at his bare feet.  “Except being on earth wasn’t enough.  I had to compete with a dead man.”

“Last night she said that she’d marry you.”

“Yes, she did.”  Josh’s tone hardened. “And that’s a good bargain, don’t you think?  I get Hattie, and she gets to pity me for the rest of our life.”

Scott shook his head.  “That’s not fair.”

“I know it, Scott.”  Josh stood and he padded across the floor to his chair.  He grabbed it by its slatted back and the chair twisted around as he dragged it closer to the bars.  Straddling, he sat.  “I’m a fool…and I’m certainly proving that now…but I’m not stupid.  Hattie cares about me; I believe that.  But it wouldn’t work.”  He crossed his arms over the back of his chair and rested his chin on his forearm.  “She told me that once—a couple of months ago.  She said that I need to marry a dreamer.”  He smiled a wistful smile.  “Apparently, according to the very wise Miss Whitfield, my head’s in the clouds most of the time—can you believe that?”

“I believe it.” Scott lifted his boot, fitting the toe onto the bottom rail of the jail bars.  “But you were still engaged.”

There was a trace of humor in Josh’s voice.  “I’m not without some persuasion,” he said, and he ducked his head, scratching his upper lip against the wrist still draped across the chair.  He sat straighter.  “And she didn’t want to hurt me.”  One brow cocked.  “I’ve had a lot of time to think in this cell and when you stare at the same brick for hours on end…you start to figure things out.  That’s one of the things I’ve realized—Hattie just didn’t want to hurt me.”  Looking around at the grey bars, Josh nodded.  “Well, that worked out well, didn’t it?”

“You didn’t steal that money.”

Josh cast a searching look at the sleeping cowboys, and his voice lowered to a whisper.  “No.”

Leaning forward, Scott grabbed the bars in both hands.  He looked through the iron to Josh’s eyes.  “I need to know.  Josh, if you have any real evidence against Hattie, I need to hear it.”

“You found the money in your barn—isn’t that enough?  I didn’t put it there.”

“That doesn’t mean that Hattie did it.”

“Who, then?”  The confusion on Josh’s face was real; Scott had no doubt about that.  “Todd?”  Josh shook his head and his tone turned plaintive.  “Because if you can give me one good reason why he would’ve chased me all the way to Morro Coyo just to hide the money at your ranch, then I’ll swear on a stack of bibles that I didn’t take it.”

“I wish I knew that reason.”

Determination drew Josh’s mouth tight.  “Then I’m staying here.”

“It’s ten years,” Scott said.  “Is it worth it?  If Hattie took that money, then she’s just going to watch you go off to prison for her.  Is she really worth it, Josh?”

For a moment, Josh’s gaze escaped the cell. The set of his jaw eased.   “I love her,” he said, and a quiet wonder trickled through the words. He found Scott’s eyes.  “I know you think that I’m crazy and I am—I know I am.  But that day…when she smiled at me…I don’t care.  I love her.”


Costello never showed up. 

It was well past one and the sun was already moving to the west, pushing the elm’s shade away from the stone path.  Scott walked slowly down that path, squinting up to the shadowed recess of the porch.  It was cooler there, and beyond it, inside the house, solitude waited.  Blessed solitude.  Mr. Whitfield and Johnny would still be at the Stewart ranch, assessing the attributes of the rumored stud, and Mrs. Whitfield would be at the Emporium.  And Hattie…Scott lengthened his stride, vaulting up the stairs and missing the crooked one. 

That was the step.  The sensation drifted through his thoughts and the voices with it—hers sorrow-sweet and his name a whisper on it.  And Josh’s, full of knowing, that first night at the ranch.  “Someday,” he’d said, the whiskey slurring his words, “someday you’ll see a woman…”

Only that’s not the way it was.  Stopping just short of the kitchen door, holding his hand to the knob, Scott permitted the memory.  Flashing across the pasture, whipping above the pinto’s flanks, bold and defiant and exhilarating, there in his vision was the purple sash.  He lusted to take it.  It wasn’t right; he knew it wasn’t right.  Josh loved her, and that basket…the four thousand in the barn…they branded her a thief, but in his mind that sash fluttered, tempted him with its lurid color, and, hard across the range, longing to subdue her, Scott followed.

Determinedly, he focused on the door.  He turned the knob and opened it 

“You’re back.” 

Surprised at the voice, Scott looked toward the source.  Mr. Whitfield stood at the kitchen table, hovering over his coffee mug and the scraps of bread scattered on his plate.  “I hope we can still catch Stewart,” he said, and then he picked up his plate and carried it to the basin.  He glanced back and past Scott.  “Where’s Johnny?”

“Isn’t he here?”


“Are you sure?”  Scott closed the door behind him.  “He should have been back an hour ago.”

Mr. Whitfield wiped his hands on a towel.  “Well…I was a few minutes late getting back myself.  Maybe I missed him.”  He tossed the towel on the sideboard, then just stood and considered the floor.  “I thought I heard him in the parlor when I came in, but I didn’t see anyone…”  He lifted his gaze to Scott’s, and a slow smile spread across his face.  “If he went by the store instead, Alice probably got hold of him.  She’s a good woman—I’m not saying anything different, mind you—but she does like to talk at a man.”  He gestured toward the table.  “You hungry?”

“No,” Scott told him, only half a lie.  Too many troubles were filling his stomach for the lack of any breakfast or lunch to work its way through.  “You say he was in the parlor?”

“No, I said I thought he was there.  But that was half an hour ago.”

Scott walked through the kitchen.  “Is anyone else home?”

“Hattie’s upstairs.”

The parlor was on the other side of a small dining room.  Scott only had to take a few steps into it to know that Johnny wasn’t there.  There was a low settee, two upholstered chairs and a few claw-footed tables.  A heating stove filled one corner and an oversized desk took up a good piece of the floor next to it.  Someone had been there, though.  There was a plate on the desk, and Mrs. Whitfield kept too tidy a house to have left it there.  Scott strolled closer, just to the middle of the room’s thick rag rug, and he judged the remnants on the plate.  It was a sandwich, with only a few bites gone. 


Scott took the stairs two at a time and was just about to call out his brother’s name when he stopped at their open guestroom door.  He set his hand on the frame and stared at the bed.  Looped over the headboard post, hanging heavy with the weight of his brother’s Colt, was Johnny’s gun belt. 

Brother, where are you? 

Scott turned back into the hall and he tapped his fist absentmindedly against the wall.  The Emporium—maybe.  The Stewart’s Ranch—if Johnny had a horse to get him there and he’d tired of waiting on Mr. Whitfield.  Todd’s?—even Johnny wasn’t brazen enough to search the banker’s house without someone to watch his back.  So where?  Nowhere without his gun belt. 

Worry drove him there.  Scott knocked on Hattie’s door and, a second later, her hair down and a brush in her hand, Hattie answered.

“Have you seen Johnny?” Scott asked.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.  He came back alone and he left his gun.  I thought maybe he told you where he was going.”

“Maybe Father knows something?”  Hattie started walking toward the stairs, giving Scott backward glances as she went.  “Did you see him when you came in?”

“He was in the kitchen.” Scott followed just behind her.  “Hattie, did you leave a sandwich on the parlor desk?”

“No.”  She reached the stairs and the first step made him even taller behind her.  He could look over her shoulder to the parlor below.  “It could be Father’s,” she said.

“He was clearing his plate when I came in.” 

Halfway down the stairs, Hattie paused and turned. She had to tilt her head to look up at him. “Scott, I don’t understand.  Has something happened?”

“I don’t know.  Johnny wouldn’t leave the house without….”  Scott pulled his gaze away from hers, down to the desk.  “…his gun.”  From this new angle, looking down at it, the plate seemed smaller and insignificant.  Behind the desk, he could see more of the wall, papered with delicate roses and twining vines.

For a second Scott froze, but then his breath came out again, harsh and low.  “Johnny…” 

Hidden before, but exposed by this higher vantage point, a bloom of roses smeared into crimson red.  And below it, barely a shadow on the floor and nearly concealed behind the desk, lay the answer to Hattie’s question.  It was a slivered glimpse of blood-dark hair.


Chapter 21

“Get your father,” Scott ground out as he shoved past Hattie.  He grabbed for the banister and leaned hard as his hand glided down it.  His boots hit twice on the rest of the stairs and he was across the parlor and on his knees, next to the desk, before he heard any answer. 

“Is he…?” 

Johnny was wedged into the narrow space, gracelessly limp.  One knee was slung up and over the chair’s pedestal foot, and the other lay bent under the desk.  His upper body twisted, with one shoulder propped against the wall and the other hunched under him.  His neck was cocked hard to the side, and his chin rested on his lower shoulder while his head lolled to the floor.  There was blood on his shirt, on the floor, and it made a thin pool under his head.  

“He’s alive,” Scott told her, praying that it was true.  He heard the slap of Hattie’s skirts and the tap of her heels as she ran from the room, but he was looking intensely into his brother’s face.  Johnny’s closed lids were ashen pale.  Scott reached for his neck, placed two fingers just under his jaw, and, still praying, his silent “please, please” fervently eloquent, he waited.  Weak—but there—he felt a pulse.

“Damn you,” he barely breathed.  “You couldn’t wait—whatever trouble you stirred, you couldn’t wait for me, could you, Brother?

Gently, Scott cradled Johnny’s head in his hands and he lifted.  A warm trickle seeped between his fingers, and he ducked his head to see the wound as well as he could.  It was deep and oozing.

There wasn’t room for both of them behind the desk and, just as gently as he’d held it, Scott let his brother’s head sink down again.  He wedged his shoulder against the desk and shoved hard.  A pencil rolled down onto his arm as the desk’s feet scraped against the floor.

Johnny shouldn’t be here.  That recrimination beat against the silence of the parlor.  It was his friend, his problem, and his brother shouldn’t be lying here half dead.

Inching forward on his knees, Scott moved into the newly widened space and he bent over his brother, carefully dragging him from the wall and resettling his body more comfortably on the floor.  Dead weight, Johnny’s head listed sideways, and Scott could see the wound better from that position.  It gouged a raw furrow from his brother’s brow to the scalp just above his ear.  Johnny’s hair was matted into it and there was blood, too much blood to make any real judgment, but it was bad. 

Scott sucked in his breath, and he let it out again in a ragged grunt.  He shifted his gaze, reluctantly drawn to the spreading crimson on Johnny’s chest.  Scott thrust his hand to the blood and felt gingerly for what he already knew was there.  Underneath a bullet-round hole in Johnny’s shirt, soaked to a gloss with fresh, warm blood, was the second wound.  This one was deceivingly small, the skin barely puckered where the bullet had entered, just below his brother’s collarbone. The tip of Scott’s finger fit neatly over the swollen flesh.

Something white dangled, and, looking up, suddenly conscious of the brush of a skirt by his arm, Scott saw a towel.  He reached for it, pulling it from Hattie’s trembling hand, and he lifted his gaze higher, up to hers.  For a fragment of a moment, they held each other’s eyes.

“He needs a doctor,” Scott told her.

“Father can go.”  She was in motion already, setting her bleached-white armful of dishtowels on the desk and turning to her father—Scott suddenly realized that Mr. Whitfield was standing there behind her, with a panicked stare focused on the blood.  Hattie pushed her father toward the door.  “Take the buggy,” she said firmly.

“What?”  His neck craned back, his gaze still on the floor’s red smear, Mr. Whitfield stumbled away.

“The buggy’s out front, remember?  You left it there?  Take the buggy and get the doctor.”

Pulling his eyes away from the scene on the floor, looking down at his daughter, Mr. Whitfield seemed finally to hear.  “The buggy,” he said, and he nodded, leaving his head ducked down.  He took another clumsy step backward, and then he reached out and took her arm.  “It’ll be all right, baby.”  He pecked a quick kiss to her forehead.  “I’ll just be a few minutes.”  Then, with a quick glance back at Scott, he jogged for the door.

Scott folded the towel in his hands, formed a thicker pad of it, and pressed it to the gash on Johnny’s head.  Crouching in beside him, Hattie wove her fingers between his.  “I’ve got it,” she said quietly.  With her other hand she offered him another towel.

“Keep it tight” he told her, grabbing Johnny’s arm and tipping him.  It only took a second to see that there wasn’t any blood on his brother’s back, nowhere that the bullet could have made its way through.  It was still in his chest.  Scott pressed the towel stiff-armed over the wound, and then he waited.  It’s all he could do.

With all the manhandling they’d given him, Johnny hadn’t stirred.  Scott watched his face, hoping for a flicker of Johnny’s eyelids or a grimace—anything but that pallid stillness. He could have been asleep, just napping on the Whitfield’s parlor floor, except for the blood.  It had already reddened the makeshift bandage. 

Squirming closer, Hattie slid her palm under Johnny’s head and pulled it up into the pillow of her lap.  “The doctor’s just a few blocks...”  She drew in a deep breath.  “What happened, Scott?”  Scott’s heart lurched at the fear in her eyes.  “That’s a bullet wound, isn’t it?  Somebody was here…in my house…and they shot him.”

“Hattie…”  Scott kept his voice irrationally, reverently low.  “Guns make noise.  You had to have heard it.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“You had to.”

“I didn’t…”  The timbre of her tone softened, matching Scott’s calmer voice. “It happened before I came in, that’s the only thing that makes any sense.  But Father…he was in the kitchen; he should have heard something.”

Scott sat back on his heels, keeping the pressure of his hands on the towel.  Just to the side of his head, a drawer gaped partially open.  He leaned to avoid it.  “How long have you been home?” he asked.

“Five minutes…ten.  I don’t know.”

“And you didn’t see anything?”

“No…I said hello to Father and I went up to my room.”  Hattie looked down, staring into Johnny’s closed eyes.  “I wasn’t there more than a few minutes when I heard you knock.”

“Your father said that he was late.”

“He’s always late.”  Wondering at the sudden shift in attention, Scott watched Hattie’s gaze move to the floor by Johnny’s hand.  “Scott?” she asked.  “What’s that?”  She nodded toward the spot, then gave him a sickened look. 

Scott tipped forward slightly and looked to the floor.  Burrowed into a board, just at the point of Johnny’s finger, was a dull, flattened piece of metal.  A bullet, small caliber. 

“How?  That should be….” Scott said, as much to himself as to Hattie, and he searched up, across the red roses and the twisting vines and the faded-ivory emptiness in between.  The paper was nicked in spots, showing its age, but there weren’t any holes—not where there should have been.  Carefully, thoroughly, he examined an imaginary line head high—almost—for a seated man.  He calculated the angle—placed the assailant across the desk, raised the arm and aimed the pistol—downward.  The bullet would graze and hit the wall moving downward.  But only inches lower, not into the floor. 

“He was already down.”  Hot anger singed Scott’s words.  “That first bullet must have dropped him, and Johnny was down…lying on the floor…when that …” He caught the curse, remembered Hattie crouched beside him, and, looking again into Johnny’s motionless face, released it.  “…that bastard shot him again.”

“Why would anyone do that?” Still cradling Johnny’s head in her palm, Hattie stroked a thumb across his cheek.

“He knew something.”


“I don’t know. We split up.”  There was a sound outside—a horse, maybe?  Scott glanced to the door, and then he remembered—it was too soon.  It’d only been minutes and too few of them.  Hattie’s father couldn’t be back yet.  “Johnny went back to the bank,” he said.

“You were at the bank?”  Hattie’s question was sharp.


Still gentle, her caress became a quick, small circle.  Scott watched it move against Johnny’s pale skin.  “You saw Mr. Todd, didn’t you?” she asked, carefully quiet again.  “Josh wouldn’t believe me...I don’t know why he wouldn’t.  You’d think that the man who’s supposed to love you…”

Her hair was wild around her face, it was always wild, when it wasn’t braided and coiled and tamed by her combs.  Hattie’s hand left Johnny’s face, only for that second, and she swept a dark wave of hair back and over her shoulder.  Scott watched her fingers as they moved, followed them as they lowered again, sinking back to Johnny’s head and cradling it again.  “It’s true,” she said.  “I know it is—Mr. Todd took that money. And if you and Johnny were there asking questions…”  Her thumb swept its caress again.   “You shouldn’t be here.  If Johnny dies…”

“That’s not going to happen.” 

“No.”  Her single word broke with fear.  She lifted her face to him.  “You shouldn’t have come, Scott…you shouldn’t have…He’ll hurt you, too.”

“Hattie?”  Scott looked into her eyes, searching.  “Are you sure?  Are you absolutely sure that Todd’s the one who did this?”

“There were three of us at your ranch, Scott—just three.”  The green of her eyes deepened, searched back into his.  “And Josh didn’t do it.”

Childlike in its omission, the plea lay between them.  An image formed, there in the vines and the roses of the wall.  It pressed near.  Cold steel hung suspended in the narrow space, closed in on his brother’s head., and a face sighted down the barrel—a fleshy face with pockmarked skin.  He cocked the hammer.  He steadied the gun.

Scott gave her his answer. 

“Todd’s not going to hurt anybody.”  He glanced toward the door, and he willed the sound of the doctor’s footsteps.  “Not any more.  Not when I get through with him.”


The doctor, when he came, was soft-spoken and young.  Scott shuffled sideways, making room for him in their crowded bit of bloodied floor, and he lingered a wary look at the man’s youthful face.

“Does he have any medical conditions?  Any allergies to medication?” the doctor asked, as he pulled the sodden towel from Johnny’s chest.  He leaned, examining the wound more closely.

“No,” Scott told him, “Nothing that we know of anyway.” 

Twenty-five, Scott figured.  Hardly more than that—hardly more than his brother. His mustache was too thin, his hair too black, and, when he hung his head downward, there wasn’t any skin falling forward, no wrinkles, not like Sam had in comforting supply. 

“Has he been conscious at all?”  Efficiently, gently, the doctor wrapped proper bandages into place. 


“I’m not surprised.” 

Hattie moved when the doctor reached for her towel.  He folded it back.  “I can’t do anything here,” he said, looking from the gash up to Mr. Whitfield’s face.  “Help me get him to a bed.”

That was an awkwardly negotiated task.  Scott took Johnny’s shoulders and Mr. Whitfield his feet, and, vigilantly careful, they stumbled up the stairs.  Hattie slipped past them in the hallway, and she reached the bedroom first.  The quilt was turned down when Scott made it through the door, he saw that with a quick backward look, but the cot was in the way and he had to kick at it, sending it scooting across the floor and knocking into the bureau.  Hattie steadied the cot, and he could feel her watching them as Scott stood by the mattress, fathoming some way to get Johnny from his arms.  Mr. Whitfield surrendered Johnny’s legs to the bed first, and then Scott propped one knee on the mattress, bringing Johnny’s shoulders over the sheets.  He lowered him as lightly as he could, but there wasn’t any way but to flat-out drop him those last few inches. 

Johnny’s eyelids never flickered.

“I need hot water and soap.”  The doctor rolled his sleeves and walked to the side of the bed.  “And an assistant…Hattie?  Do you mind?”

“There’s a tea pot on the stove,” Hattie said, “and the water’s already hot.  I’ll be back in a minute.” 

“And more clean cloths,” the doctor called out as Hattie all but ran from the room.  “Frank?” He set his bag on the mattress next to Johnny and opened it.  “I’m putting you in charge of Mr. Lancer.  Take him downstairs and get him a stiff drink.”

“I’m staying.”  Scott took hold of the headboard and held on.

“Suit yourself.”  The doctor leaned down and pried Johnny’s eyelid open, then quickly let it close again.  “But Frank—you look like you might be ready for that drink.”  Pulling a stethoscope from his bag, he glanced up.

“More than you know.”  Looking down at Johnny, his brow furrowed, Mr. Whitfield heaved a deep sigh.  “It might be best if I talked to the sheriff first, though.”

They all quieted as the doctor held the stethoscope to Johnny’s chest.  He listened intently and then he straightened and gave a shallow nod.  “Well, go on, Frank.  I’ve got some work to do.”


Work was a piteously inadequate word.

Scott considered that an hour later, one arm braced against the hallway wall and his head down.  He rubbed two fingers at his eyes and held them there, pressing hard enough for white spots to float across his closed lids. 

“We’ll have to see” the doctor had said.  Gus, Scott silently corrected, the doctor told him to call him Gus.  He’d turned away as he said it, facing Hattie, and his voice had dulled the ping of the bullet.  Scott heard the sound again, sharp against the china, a blue willow bowl held tight against Hattie’s waist. She stood at the doctor’s elbow—Gus’ elbow—offering still another white cloth or cleaning his scalpel or doing as she had just then, catching a deadly scrap of metal in her mother’s delicate, imported dish. 

“We’ll have to see,” Gus had said, but not about the bullet.  That had been set aside; the blue willow looking elegant against the bureau’s glossy veneer.  The bullet had gone deep, but not straight.  A splintered rib had curved its path, making Gus wince as his forceps had followed.  But it was flesh he’d dug through, not lung or heart, and flesh would heal.  It’d healed before.

Gus had stretched after the bullet was out, just that one arch of his spine and a roll of his neck, and then he’d bent again, and he’d turned Johnny’s head to the side. Carefully, he’d removed the wrappings there.  And that’s when he’d said it, just after Scott had asked if Johnny was going to be all right. 

“I wish I could say,” Gus told him, looking up for only the second it took to give away his strain.  “The chest wound is serious, but from these scars, I’d say that he’s survived worse.  But the head wound—it’s definitely a concussion.  I just can’t tell how much damage there is until he wakes up.”  He went about his business as he spoke, expertly swabbing and cleaning and probing the gash.  “We can hope for a positive outcome…but it’s up to your brother.”  He took another white towel from Hattie, and Scott caught her eyes as she looked to his.  There was blood on her brow where she’d swept her hand across it, and her face was tense, thin lines spreading across her temples.  Her eyes were tender. 

Gus dampened the towel, and he dabbed it at the blood.  “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen, Scott.”  He folded the towel and dabbed again.  “We’ll just have to see.”


Chapter 22

There were voices in the parlor.  The sound seeped up through the floor, low and rumbling, and it frayed at Scott’s already ragged nerves.  Odd words nudged him to move—a muted “stage” while he stood, still leaning against the hallway wall, and then “Todd”, as he pushed off from the wall and stood straighter, listening.  He waited outside Johnny’s door. 

The voices moved nearer and the stairwell clarified their rumble.  “Todd,” the deeper voice said again, “he’s sure one man who won’t take kindly to that kind of talk.”

The nudge turned to shove.  It couldn’t have taken him more than seconds to reach the top of the stairs, but Scott had already sifted the evidence.

Todd had opportunity; no jury would question that.  It was just an arm’s reach away—all that money, thousands of it, so near and tempting.  Seductively near.  Weaker men had surrendered, why not Todd?  And Todd was alone—Hattie had left his office—wasn’t he alone?  There was nothing to stop him.

But why?  That was the piece that wouldn’t settle.  Thieves run away, to Mexico or New Orleans or someplace else, some sanctuary far away and decadent.  They don’t take off on the morning stage, just to hide the money—no, a portion of the money—at a ranch only a day’s ride away.  It didn’t make sense.

And where was the rest of the money?  The memory drifted through the voices—on paper, Todd had said—the money was missing on paper.  But the audit had been when?  Winter.  Too long ago to matter, and it’d been a mistake.  Maybe.  Grayless couldn’t remember what he’d eaten for lunch—Scott turned the words, considered the implications.   Grayless—too old and too senile—Grayless, who hadn’t left his rocking chair in years—it was his money, his profits from that sale, lying there so close, so tempting.  Grayless couldn’t remember what he’d had for lunch. 

And if Grayless’ error was only on paper, who’s to say that the rest of the fourteen thousand wasn’t an illusion, too?

Todd, that’s who.

The sheriff had his arm slung across the banister, his hand dangling.  One knee was casually cocked.  He was looking across the room, to where Frank Whitfield sat on the edge of his desk, and Whitfield was looking at the shambles of his parlor.  The desk took up the better part of the parlor floor, with his rag rug bunched up against it.  On the other side of the desk, the blood had soaked into the planks, and it wasn’t crimson anymore, but just dark.   

Both men turned to him when Scott started down the steps. 

“How’s your brother?” the sheriff asked.

“Alive,” Scott told him.  More of the room came into view as he reached the lower steps. Muted by the walls in between, he heard the kitchen door shut.  “We won’t know any more than that until he wakes up.”

“So he didn’t say anything?”

“No.”  Scott stopped one step from the bottom of the stairs, still a head above the sheriff.  Determinedly, he stood stiffer, shoulders set solidly back, and he summoned whatever authority he could salvage with his shirt and hands still a bloodied mess.  “But maybe he didn’t have to,” he said.  “I know that I don’t have any solid evidence—but hear me out.  I want you to arrest Zachary Todd.”

Still leaning lazily against the banister, his scraggly mustache twitching, the sheriff just smiled.

Scott’s anger flared, and for a moment, one exhaustedly wild moment, he felt his hand ball up into a fist.  Mrs. Whitfield stalled the motion, though.  Scott’s eyes flicked to her as she walked into the room. 

“Frank?” she asked anxiously, crossing the room to her husband. “I heard that someone was shot…”  Mr. Whitfield held an arm out and she slipped under it.  She tipped her face, lined with worry, up to his as he pulled her into his embrace and lightly kissed her forehead.  “…is Hattie…?”

“She’s fine,” he said softly, and then he loosened his hold.  “It’s Johnny.  The doctor’s still upstairs with him.”

“He’s all right, isn’t he?”  Before she’d even asked it, Mrs. Whitfield was already pulling away from her husband’s arm and sweeping a wide-eyed look across the desk to the blood-darkened floor.  “Where’s Hattie?”

When Mr. Whitfield’s only answer was to turn toward Scott, Mrs. Whitfield did the same.  She hurried toward the stairs.  “Where’s Hattie?” she asked again, her tone thinner this time.

“She’s helping the doctor.”  Scott flattened himself against the banister, making room for Mrs. Whitfield to pass, but she paused with one foot on his step, and she reached for his hand. 

“And Johnny?” 

“He took a bullet…here.”  Scott pointed his other hand to his head, carving a line along his scalp.  “And his chest,” he said, feeling her squeeze his fingers, but then the small comfort of her hand was gone and she was too, her skirt swirling around her feet as she rushed up the steps and rounded the corner into the upstairs hall.

Letting his fingers curl again, Scott swung back to the sheriff.  Before he could speak, though, the sheriff spoke for him.  “Cool down, son.”  He raised one hand in half-hearted, mock surrender.  “Todd’s already enjoying my hospitality, such as it is.”

“You’ve arrested him?”

“Well, not exactly.”  The sheriff quirked a corner of his mouth.  “Took him in for questioning is more like it, but he’s not goin’ anywhere until I say so.”  He started toward the desk and wagged a finger toward it.  “You see anything over here that might say I should be keepin’ him a while?”

“No.  I haven’t had a chance to look.”  Sinking a hip against the banister, letting his head hang wearily, Scott watched the sheriff poke at the items on the desk.  There wasn’t much—an oil lamp, a few papers lined up neatly in the corner, an ink pad, a few books, and Johnny’s uneaten sandwich.  “If you took him in, you must have some evidence.”

“Yeah, that’s what Todd said, too. He’s was real insistent bout my havin’ some of that.  Used some pretty big words tellin’ me too.”  The sheriff picked up a small, leather-bound book and flipped through the pages.  “Mostly, all I got is that bag.” 

“What bag?” Scott asked.

The sheriff tossed the book on the desk and walked around between the wall and desk.  “The one in Todd’s hand.  He was goin’ somewhere when I caught up to him, and I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea.”

“It’s not,” Scott told him with cold assurance.  Todd was running away; that disquieting evidence sifted into the rest.

“Hey, Frank?”  The sheriff shot Mr. Whitfield a quick look, and he pointed to the open drawer.  “Was that like this when you found him?”

“I don’t know.”  Mr. Whitfield tilted across the desk and craned his neck toward the drawer.

He’d had to lean—hovering over his brother, holding that towel to his bloody chest—he’d had to lean away from the drawer.  “It was open,” Scott told the sheriff.

“What do you keep in that drawer?” There was only idle interest in the sheriff’s voice.

“Paper…pencils.”  Mr. Whitfield tilted further, studying the contents. “I might have some tobacco.”

“Not hardly worth killin’ over.”  Shuffling through the few papers on the desk, the sheriff shrugged.  “Nothing here is worth killin’ over.”  He opened the drawers, ducking his head to search inside them, and Scott could hear the quiet rattle of objects sliding, but all he could really see from his position on the steps was a disappointing lack of reaction in the sheriff’s face.  The man tapped two fingers on the ink pad when he was finished, and he cast a cautious glance toward Mr. Whitfield.  “Mr. Lancer, you figure maybe Gus can spare Hattie for awhile?”  He turned his gaze across the room and found Scott’s eyes.

“I can ask him.” Scott studied the man’s expression, but all it held was that same guarded ease.

“Would you?”  Cocking one heavy brow, the sheriff gave him a small, appreciative nod.  “I might have a few questions for Hattie, too.”


Scott gripped the edge of the cot and tipped his weight to his legs, suspending himself over the cot just long enough to drag it closer to Johnny’s bed.  Sitting again, the cot wobbling under him, he wished for a proper chair, one with a back to rest against and arms.  Gus had offered to get him one, just after he’d wrapped the last of the bandages around Johnny’s head, but the doctor hadn’t come back from looking for his coffee.  He could get a chair himself; it’d only take a minute.  There had to be one somewhere.

He reached to Johnny’s sheet and smoothed a crease.  It was fresh linen, just brought in from the line, and it still held the crisp scent of the sun.  Alice had crumpled the others, the stained ones, and she’d carried them off in her basket, but this sheet was clean and spotlessly white.  It was all white, both the linen and the gauze swaddling Johnny’s wounds, innocently pure, like a christening gown and cap.  Despite the fear constricting his lungs, Scott lingered a look at his brother’s face and a smile raised one corner of his lips.  His cocky brother in a christening gown and cap.  He’d have to tell Johnny that one, when he woke up. 

Letting his shoulders slump forward, bracing an elbow against each knee, Scott buried his face in his just-washed hands.  That stage…the dust of it clouded his eyes, and Scott squeezed them tight.  If he hadn’t gone into Morro Coyo that day, just that one day.  If he’d never seen that stage, never seen Josh…. 

He spread his fingers, looking through them to his brother.  Then, roughly, he rubbed his face.  He reached again for the crease, pinched the linen, and pulled it tight. 

The sound of footsteps came from the hallway, and Scott turned toward the door, watching.  The steps were light. 

Hattie had changed; Scott noticed that as soon as she came into the doorway.  Her hair was braided back and the blood was washed from her face.  She held a plate in one hand and a steaming cup in the other. 

“Do you like ham?” she asked quietly, walking across the room and offering the plate to him.  “I brought coffee, too.  Black.” 

“Thank you,” Scott said, lifting the napkin and looking underneath it.  There were two thick slices of bread, with a slice of ham overlapping the crust on either side.  “I’m not really hungry, though,” he added, looking up to the cup she was offering.  He took it, and, balancing the plate on his knees, he sucked in a cautious sip of the coffee.  It was cool enough, and he took a good, deep swallow. 

“When was the last time that you ate?” Hattie asked, still standing over him.

Scott looked up, and he tried to remember.  That pie.  “Yesterday.” 

“Eat,” she gently ordered. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Scott answered, just as gently.  He set his cup on the floor, moving it just far enough from his boot so that he wouldn’t tip it over, and then he took the sandwich in both hands.  That was as far as he got it though.  He left the sandwich hanging over his plate as he stared down at the bread.

“Has there been any change?” Hattie slipped between the cot and the bed, and she gazed down at Johnny.  “His color looks better.”

It wasn’t true, at least not as far as Scott could see.  He dropped his sandwich to the plate and then set it on the floor, next to his coffee.  “Johnny’s tough,” he said, his head still down.  He picked up the coffee and, coming up, he sipped at it.

Hattie eyed the plate, he could see her turning her head to do it, but she didn’t say anything about it.  She sat instead, perched at the far end of the cot, and then she wedged her feet onto the bed rail, tugged her skirt to where the hem modestly covered her ankles, and wrapped her arms around her knees.  She drifted her gaze across his brother. 

“How did he get those scars?” she asked.

“The hard way,” Scott told her, searching across his brother’s chest.  There were two scars visible, one long and jagged, reaching across his right shoulder, and the other just above the bandage.  “Alone.”  He took another long swallow.

“He’s not alone now.”

“No.”  Scott curved his hands around the cup. It was warm against his palms.  “What happened with the sheriff?” he asked, bowing his head and looking sideways at her. 

“Mick?”  Hattie tipped her head sideways, matching the tilt of Scott’s gaze.  She hesitated, but then her voice, still hushed, was steady.  “He wanted to know why I’d come home and where I was when Johnny was shot.” 

“What did you tell him?”  Scott’s gaze fell away from her eyes, to somewhere in the air between them.  Unfocused, wondering why he wasn’t more curious, he waited for her answer.  His thumb rubbed against the china’s smooth rim.

“That I wasn’t home when Johnny was shot, I couldn’t have been—I would have heard it.  And that I came home to take Josh his lunch.”

It was after one when he’d come back—well after.  That was late for lunch. There was something Hattie wasn’t saying, but Scott turned to his cup, watching his thumb stroke across it, and he let the question lie.  “Did the sheriff leave?”

She nodded.  “Mother asked him to stay to supper, but Mick wanted to get back.”

“What time is it?”  Scott looked toward the window.  Lace stretched across the bottom panes and it fluttered in the slight breeze, scattering pebbles of light across the floor. 

“It’s after five.”

Scott took another slug, and he turned back to his brother.  “Josh will be looking for his dinner.”

“Mick can feed him.”  From the corner of his eye, Scott saw her look again to his untouched plate.  “I don’t think that I could stand to be in the same room with Mr. Todd, anyway,” Hattie said.  “Not after he did this.”

Todd’s pockmarked face flashed before his eyes, and Scott felt a curse rise in his throat.  He drowned it in his coffee, emptying the cup in three big swallows, then watched the cup as he turned it again and again in his hands. 

“Would you like something stronger?” Hattie asked.  “Father has a pint of whiskey hidden in the flour bin.   He thinks mother doesn’t know about it.”

Vaguely, Scott managed a smile.  “Do you think that a stiff drink would help?”

“No—I know it won’t, but I’m willing to try.  I haven’t had whiskey since I was eight years old and I snuck Father’s bottle from the barn; I haven’t wanted any.”  She gave him her own weak smile.  “But I’m willing to try it now.” 

“Eight years old?” 

Hattie nodded.

“You got it down?” he asked, setting his cup on the floor.

“Two whole swallows.”  She scrunched her face.  “Angus O’Malley dared me to take the first one and his cousin Ian double dared me to take the second.  I thought my throat was going to burn up.”

“But you swallowed it.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“On a double dare?”

Hattie nodded again.

His smile lingered, and Scott stretched his leg, sliding the heel of his boot against the floor under the bed until the bed rail pressed against his shin.  He rubbed his palm on his thigh.  “David Carlton the third,” he said, stretching the name as casually as he had his leg.  “His uncle was Lord Marlsborough, of Marlsborough Manor, back in England…or something blue blood like that…”  Still massaging his tense muscle, gazing into the white of Johnny’s sheets, Scott gathered that memory.  “I was twelve, and Davey took it as his personal mission to undo all of my grandfather’s explicit moral training.”

“Davey was older than you?”

“He was.”  Bringing his foot back, Scott clasped his hands loosely and he leaned forward, his elbows on his thighs.  “By an entire year.”

“That much?”

“That much.”

“But you were incorruptible.”

Shaking his head lightly, Scott felt his smile warm.  He settled his gaze on his brother’s face, watching the slight, reassuring parting of his lips as Johnny breathed.  “Davey stole a bottle of Bordeaux from his father’s wine rack and he and Charlie Bennett and I hid with it behind the stables.  There was a stack of hay bales—I remember they were only this high on us…”  He held his hand even with his third button, looking down at it.  The blood on his shirt had dried and it made stiff, dark patches.  He lowered his hand and clasped his fingers again.  “We all had to duck down behind the hay, and since Davey hadn’t thought to get a corkscrew, we opened it with Charlie’s pocketknife.”  Scott glanced toward Hattie.  “I don’t recommend that.” 

“You drank the wine?”

He nodded. “And most of the cork—straight from the bottle.  At least until Charlie knocked it out of Davey’s hands and spilled it all over Davey’s lap.  That’s when I found out that David Carlton the Third could curse like a Griffin’s Wharf sailor.  I knew a quartermaster in the army who had a poetic flair for blasphemy, but he didn’t have anything on Davey.” 

Watching him, Hattie laid her cheek on the knobby pillow of her knees.  “I’m sure you covered your ears.”

His fingers still woven together, Scott rubbed one thumb against the other.  “I just wish....”  He looked into his brother’s still face.  “It should have been Johnny behind those stables…or someplace like it.  I could’ve taught him…”  Letting out a sigh, he attempted another small smile.  “Fortunately, my little brother managed to learn a more than adequate number of curse words without my instruction.” 

Hattie was quiet and Scott allowed his gaze to drift back to hers, and for a long moment he just looked into her eyes, satisfied with the silence.  When she finally spoke, her voice was low.  “Why were you in Boston?”

“Because that’s where Grandfather was.”

“I know that—but why weren’t you with your father?”

It was a simple question, and Scott searched for a simple answer.  “Murdoch doesn’t give explanations, he gives platitudes.  According to him, what’s past is past.”

“But you had to wonder.”

“Some.”  Scott nodded.  “I’ve wondered some.”

Again, Hattie just watched him, and Scott hung his head, looking down into the emptiness of the floor.  This time he broke the silence. “I think that I agree with Murdoch—what’s past is past.  Or maybe it should be.  Murdoch wanted things to be different …I believe that now.  I didn’t for a long time.  And after all those years, sending for Johnny and me…that had to be one of the hardest things he’d ever done.”

“He’s a good man.”

“Yes, he is.”

“But you couldn’t have known that then. Why did you go?”

His answer was quick.  “He offered me a thousand dollars.”

“You needed the money?”

“No, not really.”  He shook his head.  “He’s my father, that’s why I went—one of the reasons, anyway.”

“And the other?”

Subtly, persistently, like the bricks in Josh’s cell, the memory closed around him.  It weighted the air with the gluttony of indulgent ladies, the cloying luxury of French champagne.  Scott raised his eyes to where Hattie sat, arms slung around her knees and that one simple braid, inelegantly woven, hanging down the back of her cotton shirt.  The breeze stirred through the lace, and it drifted the wisps of her hair. 

“There wasn’t anything keeping me in Boston,” he said. “There was a woman, but that was over.”

“The woman you loved.”

“Julie.  Her name was Julie.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing—not really.”  A thread of regret tightened his voice, and he looked away, toward Johnny. He reached, smoothing the crease again.  “There wasn’t any indiscretion or public embarrassment…I just wasn’t the man that she wanted me to be.  I couldn’t blame her; I wasn’t the man that I wanted to be, either.”

“You’d been through a lot, Scott—you needed time.”

Scott looked into his brother’s face, searching for any tell-tale flush or sheen, anything to show that Johnny might be starting a fever.  He brushed the back of his hand against his brother’s cheek.  It was cool. 

“What about you, Hattie?” he asked, and then he settled again and turned to her.  “Cole’s been gone what…” he asked, his question carefully gentle.  “Seven years?”

First one, and then the other, Hattie lowered her feet from the bed rail to the floor.  She braced an arm on either side of her, wrapping her fingers around the rod in the cot’s frame.  “Cole had a pipe,” she said, affection overwhelming the softness of her voice.  “His Uncle Earl had given it to him, and all he had was this awful, smelly tobacco, and he loved it.  I hadn’t thought of that in years, but I did…last night.  Somehow I’d always remembered Cole in his uniform, looking so tall and handsome, but he had that rancid, old pipe, and he used to sit in the bentwood rocker on our front porch, and put his dirty boots up on the porch railing…and he’d smoke it.  I know tobacco doesn’t have to smell like that, but Cole’s smelled like a wet possum; I swear that it did.”

She crossed her feet at the ankle and gazed down at them, making her shoulders hunch.  “We fought over it all the time, and one day I put my foot down.  I told him that too—that I was putting my foot down.”

“How did that go over?” 

Scott watched a fond smile spread across her lips.  “About like you’d imagine.  Cole smoked that horrible thing every day for the next week, until even he was sick of it.”

“Good for him.”

Her gaze twitched to him, lit with humor.  “You’re all alike, you know.”

He could hear Johnny’s breaths, faint in the still room, and he held to the sound, but then Hattie turned to him.  The warmth of her smile touched him.  “No,” he said tenderly.  “No, we’re not, Hattie.  The war—and those prisons—there were thousands of men, and what happened last night…it shouldn’t have.  We’re not the same.”

Faintly, the thud of footsteps came from the hall.

“Is that what you think?” Hattie’s voice was hushed.  “Cole’s gone, Scott; I know that.  That’s what I was trying to tell you—I know.”  The sounds came closer, and for a second she bent her head to them.  “I still wish you’d never come,” she said, dropping her gaze down to Johnny. “But I know who you are, Scott…And Julie was a fool.”

Just outside the doorway, the footsteps stopped.  Scott looked up at the doctor.

“Alice wants to know if you’re ready for some pie,” Gus said.

There was a rustling beside him and Scott felt the cot wobble.  Hattie had stood, and she was turning in the tight space between the cot and Johnny’s bed, careful not to bump the mattress.  She pointed a finger down to Scott’s cup, still on the floor next to his feet.  “I’ll get you some more coffee,” she offered.  He grabbed the cup and passed it to her, meeting her eyes as he did. 

“Eat,” she ordered.


Chapter 23

The doctor brought a chair, dangling it crookedly by its bowed arm, one leg scraping the floor.  Scott balanced his plate in one hand and pushed the cot back with his leg, barely making room for Gus to swing the chair over the newly opened floor.  The cot hit the bureau and Scott shoved it again, this time toward the window.  It thudded against the wall. 

“Maybe this will save your back some,” the doctor said.  He set the chair down and sidled past it, then bent over Johnny.  “The seat’s hard, but it’s been my experience that the posterior recovers faster than the spine.”  He laid his palm over Johnny’s forehead.  “There’s no fever.” 

Finally looking up, Gus stepped gawkily backwards, making space for Scott to sit.  “Not much room left in here, is there?”

“Not much.”  Scott swept his gaze around the room. It had been small the night before, but now it was stiflingly cluttered.  The cot had trapped the curtain’s hem and the lace billowed over it, the breeze pressing persistently against the restraint.  There were basins and towels and the doctor’s black bag piled onto the bureau, and they doubled in the bureau’s mirror.  Roses spread above them.  The blooms filled the mirror and the walls, and they bled into the vines.  It was the same paper as in the parlor, faded to dusty rouge and grey-green leaves where the sun had baked it, and deeper red near the corners.  Scott turned his eyes away from the walls and looked down at the chair.  “Aren’t you going to sit?”

“Take it.”  Gently, Gus settled his hip onto the mattress.  “Oh…”  He dug into his pocket as Scott slid the chair an inch or two closer and sat.  “Here…”  Gus handed a slip of paper to Scott and followed it with a pencil.  “Frank thought you might want to write out something for him to wire to your family.”

Scott looked down at the paper, set the plate down again, and then unfolded the paper against the muscle of his thigh.  “What do I tell them?”  He asked the question softly, more to himself than to the doctor, but he looked up anyway, into Gus’ sympathetic eyes. 

“It’s your father you’re sending it to?”

Scott nodded.

“I’d ask him to come.” 

It was simply said, and Scott accepted it with a subtle nod.  The first stroke of the pencil tore a hole in the paper and Scott lightened the pressure, scribbling out the few words.  “Johnny injured.  Prognosis uncertain.  Advise to come.  SL.” 

He handed the paper to the doctor.  “Tell Frank ‘thank you’ for me.”  The top slice of bread slid as he picked up his plate again, and he repositioned the bread over the ham. 

“I guess Frank knows how to address this?”

“If he doesn’t, then Alice does.”  Scott took a nibble, mostly crust, and he chewed.  He’d left the letter at Lancer, folded and buried under his socks, the second drawer down in his bureau.  “There are circumstances,” Alice had written; he remembered it clearly.  Circumstances.  He settled his gaze on Johnny’s fingers, so still and dark against the clean white of the linens.  It wasn’t worth it, none of it.  Josh could rot in jail for all he cared. 

He bit off another tasteless scrap of bread as the doctor leaned over Johnny and checked the bandages.  At least the bleeding had stopped. 

“I’ll bring the rocker back in,” the doctor told him, glancing back at what little empty space was left behind him.  “Alice or Hattie will want it while I’m gone.”

“You’re going?”  Scott looked up at him.

Gus nodded.  “There’s not much I can do for your brother, and the Taylor boy has a pretty high fever; been running it for days.”  He stood and moved behind Scott.  There was a rustling noise and Scott twisted in his chair to see.  The doctor was rolling the cot mattress into a bundle.  “His folks are pretty anxious,” Gus said as he worked.  “They just lost their youngest last winter.”  He tossed the mattress into the corner and folded the cot, then leaned it against the wall next to the window.  Freed finally, the lace quivered in the breeze. 

“I’ll be an hour, maybe less,” Gus added, as he took a blue-speckled basin from the bureau and set it on the table next to Johnny’s bed.  “Frank knows where to find me if anything changes here.”  He dragged a cloth from the basin and wrung it efficiently, then wiped Johnny’s forehead with it.  “You’ll have to watch for fever here, too,” he said, and then he dropped the cloth into the water.  “And a prayer might not hurt, if you’re the kind that favors them.”

“I have my moments,” Scott told him.

“I imagine that you do.”  A crevice jerked into the doctor’s cheek.  Thirty, Scott decided, looking upward, full-on into the man’s face, and amending his earlier estimate of the doctor’s age.  Or maybe worry had aged him.  “It’s none of my business,” Gus said, “but do you know what kind of trouble it was that got your brother shot?”

“A good deed.”  Dutifully, Scott tried to take another bite, but the ham’s fatty edge hung unappetizingly and he laid the sandwich on his plate, and then tipped forward to set the plate on the floor.  “Josh Wright is an old friend of mine.  I assume that you know Josh?”

“I know him.”

“Then you know that he’s been jailed on charges of bank theft.”

“It doesn’t take long for that kind of news to spread through a town this size.”

“He didn’t do it.”  Scott tilted his head back, eying the doctor.  There wasn’t any change in Gus’ expression.

“And how do you know that?” Gus asked mildly.

“First, because Josh told me that he didn’t take it, and second…”  Scott pointed a finger toward his brother.  “…because of that.  Johnny asked somebody the wrong question…or he found something…”  A cocky grin and a flash of bills flickered through Scott’s thoughts.  He looked up at Gus and quickly asked, “Would you ask Frank to do me one more favor?”

“What’s that?”

“Stop by the sheriff’s office and tell him to talk to the bank secretary—Victoria—Johnny said her name is Victoria.  Johnny was going to ask her for the ledgers.”

Gus shook his head, and then he started for the door, passing behind Scott’s chair.  Scott had to swing his head to keep the doctor in his sight.  “Miss Steele wouldn’t hand over confidential documents,” Gus said.

“That’s what I told Johnny.  But ask Frank to do it, anyway.”

“All right.”  Gus reached the hallway and disappeared, then came back awkwardly carrying the rocker.  He dropped it with a sharp thud near the foot of the bed.  “An hour,” he reminded. 

Scott turned back to his brother as the doctor left again, and he stretched his legs as far as his shins and the bed rails would allow.  Wearily, he rubbed a thumb and finger into his eyes, then braced his elbow against the chair’s arm and rested his cheek against the knuckles of his upraised fist.  He kept his voice soft, just loud enough for Johnny’s ears, knowing that it wouldn’t wake him and wishing that Johnny would prove him wrong about that.  “I just lost seventeen dollars, didn’t I?  Well, Johnny…you have to work for it.  You don’t get it until you wake up, you hear?”  He hardened his voice.  “Wake up, Brother.” 

Faintly in the distance, outside the open window with its rippling lace, a dog bayed.  The pitch rose and it turned doleful, a long, sustained howl, and that one was matched by a second hound, farther away or weaker voiced.  Scott watched Johnny’s pale face and waited for the howls to stop.  It was a long wait.


Too much coffee had driven him from his chair.  More comfortable since his trip to the outhouse, but just as drowsy, Scott climbed the steps back to the bedroom.  He’d taken a lantern with him and the wick was trimmed low, but the small flame still loomed shadows across the ceiling and the walls.  They swelled through the banister and across the parlor; great, moving slabs of darkness that swept across the rug and the desk.  He kept the parlor on the edge of his sight, aiming his eyes toward the stairs instead.  He knew what was down there—nothing.  He’d checked the desk again, thoroughly this time, and there was no note, no ledger, no hidden stash of cash.  Whatever Johnny was working on there, Todd must have taken it.


There wasn’t any proof, not yet, anyway, but the banker’s guilt had settled in Scott’s mind, and with it came a fortifying hatred.  More than the coffee, more than the hard chair under his rear, that hatred had kept him awake through the night.  He’d amused himself imagining ways to bloody Todd’s pockmarked face, and briefly, the first time Gus had frowned at the heat beginning to rise from Johnny’s forehead, he’d felt a powerful compulsion to drag the banker from the jail and turn his idle thoughts to gratifying action. 

Treading softly across the upstairs carpet, trying not to wake Gus as he slept on the cot in the hallway, Scott felt a rush of weary pleasure at the promise of his fist smashing into Todd’s chin.  The sensation died as he came into the guestroom and saw his brother lying motionless on the bed.

“It’s after three,” he said, keeping his voice low.  Hattie had been rubbing her neck, but she dropped her hand as she watched him walk toward her. “I checked the clock in the parlor.  Why don’t you go on to bed?”

“I will,” she said.  Her voice had turned raspy hours before, sometime after midnight.  She squinted as he carried the lamp past her. 

“When?” Scott asked.  “It’ll be daylight in a couple of hours.”

Hattie leaned back in the rocker as he sat, and the floorboard under her made a muffled squeak.  “I’m fine; why don’t you get some sleep?  I can watch Johnny.”

Scott set the lamp on the table, grabbed up the cloth from the basin, and looked at Hattie as he wrung the water out.  She had lolled her head back against the rocker’s high, scrolled woodwork, and the green of her eyes was worn and washed-out.  Scott turned to Johnny, folded the cloth, and dabbed it at his brother’s flushed cheeks.  Johnny’s eyelids twitched, but they didn’t open.  “Come on, Brother—you can do it,” Scott said, hearing the rasp in his own voice.  “Wake up.” 

But Johnny didn’t, and Scott folded the cloth again, dampening his brother’s forehead.  He carefully avoided the bandage swathed across Johnny’s head. 

“I guess that means that you’re not leaving him?” Hattie said.

“He wouldn’t leave me.”

“That’s what I thought.” 

The floor squeaked again as Hattie started up her rocker.  Scott draped the cloth across the rim of the basin, and then he slumped back into his chair, and he laid his head against the back’s hard edge.  He let his face tilt toward hers and watched as she rocked in and out of focus.  “So, what did your father say when he found you in that tree?”

It was only a half smile, but Hattie’s eyes warmed with it.  “I thought that you promised not to ask me any more about that.”

“I never promised.”

“A gentleman would allow a lady her secrets.”

“True.”  Despite the worry and fatigue burrowing into his bones, a sleepy ease nudged him.  “But I stop being a gentleman after midnight.”

“No, you don’t.  And I’ve been telling my stories for hours now….it’s your turn.”   Covering her mouth with the back of her hand, and clenching her eyes shut, Hattie gave out a long, guttural yawn.  She stilled her rocker.  “Sorry,” she murmured, and she turned her face to the rocker, stuffed her hand under her cheek, and nuzzled against it.

“Go to bed, Hattie.”

“I will.”

Scott just watched her, studying her face.  She was dark in the shadings from the lanterns—dark shadows, dark brows, dark and solemn eyes.  Unmoving, perfectly silent, she accepted his gaze.    

“Where did you get that scar?” he asked.

“What scar?”

“That one…” Scott raised a finger to her face and brushed it just above her lip, tracing the tiny scar.  He let his finger linger, then slowly brought his hand back.

“That one,” Hattie softly said. 

Scott waited, letting his gaze settle on the scar; and feeling his body settle, too, lower into the chair and into the quiet of the room.   

“A star fell on me.”

Somehow, it seemed right.  His smile rose anyway.  “Naturally.”

“That’s what Father told me anyway.  I’ve always had it.”  Hattie snuggled into the rocker.  “Father says that when I was a baby, the stars fell from the sky and filled my crib.  He swears that he found me playing with them.”  She closed her eyes for a long moment, and then opened them again and raised them to Scott’s.  Laughter whispered through her voice.  “Sometimes my father drinks a little.”

“You don’t believe him?”

“Do you?”

He had dreamed, deep into those nights.  With no sky but darkness, the stars had drifted to him on the river’s fog, low and damp.  They’d seeped into the press of shoulders and hips and knees crowded across the prison floor, filled each sharp-boned crevice.  In the callous light of day, there had been no dreams.

“Hattie,” he said, dropping his gaze from hers and turning back to his brother.  “We have to get Josh out of that jail.”

“I know.”

“There’s something we’re missing; there has to be.”

“I’ve told you everything already.”

“Johnny knew something.”  The ledgers.  Scott took in a deep breath, trying to clear his mind of the numbing tiredness, struggling to think.  Todd tried to kill Johnny for the ledgers…maybe.  But why?  Ledgers are nothing but numbers, each detailed and dated and organized into columns of deposits and withdrawals.  What did that have to do with the cold betrayal of an emptied safe or the carnal pleasure of the money, thousands of dollars, smooth as flesh and as tempting? 

“What happened that day,” Scott asked, turning back to Hattie.  “Why were you in Todd’s office?”

“Josh sent that wire.”  Hattie shifted in her seat, pulling her legs up and under her skirt.  The rocker swayed with the motion.  “I had to tell Mr. Todd.”

“Todd told us that you wanted to talk about your father’s debts.”

“What?” Hattie’s voice rose with her quick response.

“That’s what he said.”

“And you believed him?”

The safe was small and high on the wall, positioned just above Todd’s head.  Unbidden, the image came again, just as it had in Todd’s office, with Hattie reaching and the safe so near, so tantalizingly close.  “I didn’t know what to believe,” he said.

“He lied to you.”

“Then you tell me what happened.”

Hattie sighed, and she wrapped her arms around her knees.  “I showed him the wire and he asked me to sit.  He told me that he wanted to talk about Josh’s future with the bank…I thought that meant Josh was getting fired or something, but that wasn’t it.  Mr. Todd started talking about real estate investments and having Josh travel more to arrange the contracts, and then he excused himself.  I heard him talking to the man waiting out in the reception.”

“He left you in the office?”


The image lingered in his mind and Hattie’s basket grew heavy with the theft.  “Do you know who the man was?” Scott asked. 


“Was he a customer?”

“I don’t think so.  He came in while I was waiting for Mr. Todd and I think he made Victoria nervous.  I got the impression that she was afraid that she’d say something wrong and Mr. Todd would hear.  He can be pretty hard on her.”  Hattie tilted her head away to hide a yawn, then turned back to Scott.  “Anyway, I thought the man seemed important in some way, and I’m still not sure why Mr. Todd left him waiting for me.”

He wouldn’t. It was a plain fact, as obvious as the arrogant glower Todd had given them that day in the bank.  Todd wouldn’t leave anyone waiting for Hattie unless he had a reason. And it would have to be a damned good reason.  “Did he say anything to the man when he took him into his office?”

“I don’t know.”  Hattie rolled a pinch of skirt between her fingers and she stared down at it.  “I stopped to tell Victoria that everything was all right…she was worried that Mr. Todd would be mad at Josh…but, no…” She shook her head and then looked up at Scott.  “He didn’t…I remember that now…the man was still waiting in the reception room when I came out.  Mr. Todd closed the door behind me, but he didn’t come out of his office.”

“Did he say anything to the man?”

“No…not that I can remember.  Of course, a few minutes later Mr. Todd started shouting about the money being missing and I just lost my head.  I don’t really remember much of anything after that.”

“Todd took off for Josh’s house then.”

“With me right after him.”  Hattie buried her face in her hands, and then wiped them back across her cheeks and up into her hair.  She twisted sideways in her rocker, gazing up and into Scott’s eyes.  “I knew Josh didn’t take that money; I just knew it.  But Josh…”  A grimace flickered across her face and her voice thickened.  “Josh believed the worst of me; that I not only took the money, but that I was willing to let him go to jail for me.  How could he think that?” 

“You knew the combination.”

“He’s supposed to trust me.”

“It was either you or Todd.”

“He should have known.”

“You were wandering around that night at the ranch—the night before the money was found.”

“Why didn’t he trust me?”

Trapped into defending Josh, Scott reached for the unsettling truth.  “He loves you, Hattie.” 

All Hattie did was look at him, a deep and searching look.  Finally, she turned her eyes away.  “I haven’t talked to Josh since we took him his dinner…last night.  I was going before this…”  She nodded toward Johnny, and then she unwrapped her feet from the swirl of her hem and dropped them from the rocker.  Hattie stood and leaned past Scott, taking up the basin of water, and then sat on the edge of the mattress, balancing the basin on her knees. 

“I should have left the store earlier, but I couldn’t get away…or I didn’t want to.”  The water splashed dark splotches on her skirt as she wrung the cloth.  Gently, she wiped the cloth across Johnny’s neck.  “Mother finally pushed me out the door,” Hattie said.  “She means well, but sometimes I think life might be easier if my mother wasn’t quite so helpful.”  She glanced up with a small, wry smile, then dampened the cloth again and dabbed it against Johnny’s forehead.

“I could say the same about Johnny.”  Scott reached out and took the cloth from Hattie’s hand, then he folded the cooler side out and swept it across Johnny’s cheeks. 

“He’s not too warm.”  Sitting straighter, Hattie wrapped her hands around the basin.

It was small encouragement, but Johnny’s fever really hadn’t risen.  “Hear that, Brother,” Scott said, in hardly more than a whisper.  “There’s no reason not to open those eyes.”

They both watched Johnny lie against the pillow, his dark hair splayed out in tufts between the bands of gauze.  Hattie’s sigh broke the silence again.  “I know Josh loves me…I’ve always known that.  It’s just…” She reached for the sheet stretched over Johnny’s chest and smoothed a wrinkle from it.  “This isn’t right…I have to talk to Josh.”  She lifted her gaze to his.  “Like you said, Scott—we have to get him out of that jail.”


Chapter 24

First light woke him.  Scott wrapped his hand around the burning muscle at the back of his neck, stretched and squeezed it, and then rolled his head.  He forced his eyelids open, but, heavy with grit, they fought back.  So he compromised, tilting his head back against the chair, rubbing his fingers into his eyes, and then allowing his lids to droop, half closed. Already the dawn overwhelmed the lantern’s feeble output.  The bandages on Johnny’s chest seemed brighter than they’d been the day before.   

“Good morning.”

It was Gus’ voice, and, lolling his head to the side, Scott watched the doctor move toward him and set his satchel on the mattress just at Johnny’s fingertips.  “How long was I asleep?”

“Not long enough.”  Gus took a thick handful of gauze from his bag.  “Half an hour maybe.”  Sidestepping, he moved between Scott and the bed.  Scott scooted his chair back, giving the doctor more room to work. 

“Where’s Hattie?” Scott glanced at the empty rocker, and then rubbed his eyes again.  They stung. 

“She went to lie down, doctor’s orders.” 

Gus’s body blocked his line of sight, and Scott had to lean to see the doctor’s hands working deftly at the bandages swaddling Johnny’s head.  Years of instruction fell away and, grateful for the pillow of his upturned fist, Scott braced his elbow on the chair’s arm and permitted himself to slump.  The angle gave him a one-eyed view, and he used it to watch the doctor lift Johnny’s head and swirl the old bandages loose.   The pad covering the wound was stiff with dried blood and patches of it clung as Gus gently pried it away. 

A throaty moan made the doctor still his hand.  Scott leaned forward, suddenly alert to every sound, every imagined twitch of his brother’s closed eyes.

“I know…” Gus soothed, and he pulled the pad free.  The gouged flesh was raw and glossy.

“Is he awake?”

“He’s getting there,” Gus said.  “Was he showing any signs of it before you fell asleep?”


“Pain can do that.  It tends to bring them around.”  The doctor gently cleaned the wound and then slid a strip of bandage under Johnny’s head, eliciting another low-pitched groan.  “I’ll give him some laudanum when he wakes up, but it won’t be enough to manage the pain.  With that concussion and possible brain injury, I don’t want to risk morphine.”

“He’s tough.”

Gus’ gaze flicked to the purple marks on Johnny’s shoulder.  “It looks like he’s had to be,” he said, and then he finished his wrappings and straightened, arching his shoulders back.  “But you need to remember that a head wound is unpredictable.  Even if he comes around enough to tell us what happened, he may not remember.  Don’t push it.”

“What about the fever?”

“There’s no visible infection and it’s still low, so I think that we have a good chance of getting past that.”  Gus grabbed his satchel from the mattress and sat in its slight indentation and then, with a glance at Johnny’s slack face, he set the satchel in his lap.  He lowered his voice. “But that head wound worries me; I want to be clear about that.  Besides the memory difficulties, there could be verbal or visual impairment or any of a number of potential problems.”

Steadily watching his brother, willing those eyes to open, Scott nodded.  “I’ve seen what a bullet to the head can do.”

Gus fastened the clasp on his satchel.  “Then you know that the first few days are critical.  His pupil responses are good, so I’m optimistic…cautiously, mind you…but until the swelling goes down and I know that we’re past the worst of the danger, I want him kept quiet.  Is that understood?  You can ask him what happened, but if he doesn’t know or if it upsets him, then you just let me do my job.”

It should have been Sam.  Dropping his face into his hands, rubbing his temples with the tips of his fingers, Scott fought back a wistful longing.  Sam should be here, issuing those warnings, shaking his head and jiggling those wrinkles with it, being experienced and old.  “If I’d had more sleep last night, I might be saying this more diplomatically…but apparently it was only half an hour.”  Scott brought his head up.  He looked intensely into the doctor’s black-stubbled face.  “So I’m just going to ask.  How good are you, Gus?” 

It was the same slow smile.  The dawn’s light was hazy enough and Scott’s vision sleepy enough to confuse it, but it was the same dark hair, trimmed shorter, the same unwavering gaze, and the same smile, unhurried and soft and impossibly sure. 

“Good,” Gus said matter-of-factly.  “My father was a surgeon back in Louisville.  I was eight when I learned to suture and I did my first amputation when I was fifteen.  A lot of good men died at the Battle of Perryville, but if they made it to us, they stood a fair chance—my father made certain of that.  I learned from the best, Scott, and I learned my lessons well.”  He nodded once.  “All right?”

Scott scratched a sudden itch on his cheek.  He needed to shave too, and he swept his palm across his chin, feeling the roughness.  “All right,” he said, looking sideways at the doctor.  “But you won’t mind if I hold off judgment until you’ve proven it?”

Gus tapped Scott’s knee with the back of his hand.  “Fair enough.”  Standing, he tossed the satchel into the rocker.  “I smelled some coffee brewing downstairs.  You want any?”

“Black,” Scott told him.  He settled back in his chair, putting a boot up on the bedrail.  “And you might as well bring the pot.” 

Listening to Gus’ footsteps move down the hallway and fade into the house, finally alone, Scott guarded his brother’s sleep.  And it was sleep, he was convinced of that.  Johnny’s eyelids rippled with his dreams.  Scott kept his voice low.  “What do you know, Brother?”

More than he did.  That fact trickled through the solitude.  Scott shifted his gaze to the rocker’s seat and lingered it on the doctor’s satchel.  The bag was squat and made of old, well-conditioned black leather, with a metal clasp, discolored where the doctor’s hand had closed it time and time again.  It was uncomplicated and practical and a mean replacement for the woman who had warmed the seat the night before.

Hattie.  Scott fingered the chair’s arm, caressing a circle on the worn oak finish.  There was nothing uncomplicated about Hattie.  She was willful and impulsive and that wasn’t what he wanted, he knew it.  Julie had been right for him, with her graceful manners and refined style—Julie—not this woman who dressed herself in men’s pants and purple sashes and couldn’t even manage a proper braid. 

Mentally, turning his gaze back to his brother and filling the minutes as he watched him dream, Scott made a list of the complications that were Hattie. Too many men, for one.  She was betrothed, and Scott clung to the romance in the word.  Betrothed.  It fit, only Josh was sitting in that jail and Hattie was here, she’d been here all night.  She hadn’t seen Josh, hadn’t talked to him even, since that kiss. 

And that kiss.

Cole had been there in the garden with them.  Hattie could deny it until she was hoarse from the pleading, but he’d heard the yearning in her voice—felt it.  And, God help him, Scott had reached for that yearning, taken it as his own.  There had been nothing graceful about it, just body against body and artless need.  It wasn’t right—it wasn’t—but she had reached for him too.  She had reached for him.  He added that to the complications, remembered, and despite his worry and the nearly boneless exhaustion of his sleepless night, an aching rose inside him.

"What are you dreaming, Brother?”  Scott lowered his foot from the bedrail and leaned forward, needing to move.  He laid his hand on the mattress by Johnny’s shoulder and, very gently, he shook the bed.  “I could use a little help here, you know.”  He moved his hand to his brother’s cheek, brushing his fingers against it.  He was only warm and not as feverish as he could have been.  “You want to wake up and tell me what happened?”

Johnny’s lips parted with his steady breath.

“Who did this?”  Setting his elbows on his knees and letting his clasped hands rest on the edge of the mattress, Scott spoke low and urgently.  “Tell me that you saw him, Johnny.  Tell me that it was Todd.”

It had to be.  Only why?  Why steal the money and then stay around long enough to put a bullet in his brother?  Why bury part of the money—only part of it—under a feed bin miles away from Stockton?  And who was waiting at the bank that morning?  

Closing his eyes, shutting out all other thought and focusing hard, Scott envisioned the stranger waiting in the bank.  He’d be well-dressed; he’d have to be for Hattie to assume that he was important.  A businessman, maybe.  Someone from out-of-town?  Hattie hadn’t known him.  But why would Todd avoid a customer from out-of-town? And what would that have to do with…? 

Scott clenched his eyes tighter—there wasn’t any money.  That’s why they’d only found four thousand three hundred thirty six dollars—there wasn’t any more than that.  Scott brought his voice to a whisper.  “You almost got away with it…”  Opening his eyes again, he looked down at Johnny.  “Damn it!” he said, loudly enough to wake his brother.  It didn’t, and he said it again, slamming the words against the rose-papered walls.  “Damn it!”

Johnny didn’t move.  He didn’t hear him; he wasn’t hearing anything.  Scott reached for his brother, sweeping Johnny’s hair back.  The bandage edges scratched against his fingers.  “Come on, Brother,” Scott said desperately.  “I need you to wake up.”  He cupped his palm around Johnny’s head.  “Don’t do this, Johnny.  Talk to me.”

He’d missed the sound of the footsteps in the hall, but Scott turned his head at the gentle voice. 

“Gus said he was doing better.”  Alice stood in the doorway, a haggard sympathy softening her eyes.  The doctor waited behind her, and when Gus set a hand on her shoulder Alice took a step into the room, letting him pass. 

“I didn’t know you were there.”  Scott watched the doctor walk to Johnny’s bedside, and then brought his gaze back to Alice’s.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t usually curse like that.”

She gave him a small smile.  “It’s no worse than what I’d be saying if I were you.”

Gus stopped near the foot of Johnny’s bed, looking down at him.  “Are you still thinking that Todd has something to do with this?”

Scott’s answer was bitterly hard.  “He shot him.”

“Then you need to know that Sheriff Clooney just left.”  Brushing a knuckle under his thin mustache, Gus gave him a penetrating look.  “And Todd’s out of jail.  His lawyer woke the judge and he signed some piece of paper that said the sheriff couldn’t hold him.”

He’d be gone.  There was no way Todd was carrying this charade any further.  “How long has he been free?” Scott asked.

“Twenty minutes…just before dawn, anyway.  Clooney said that he told him not to leave town.”

Scott almost smiled.  The man had stood over his brother, only feet away, aimed the gun, and fired it.  The only thing that had saved Johnny was his hard head, yet Todd was supposed to stay put, just on the sheriff’s asking? 

“Did Clooney talk to Miss Steele?”

Gus shook his head.  “I don’t know; he didn’t say.”

Twenty minutes.  Scott studied Johnny’s face, searching for any sign of waking. All he saw was the bandages, covering half of Johnny’s head.  Wake up, Johnny.  The plea churned inside him.  Wake up and talk to me; tell me that Todd did it…Tell me that you’re going to be all right. 

A man could be gone in twenty minutes.  Scott rubbed at his eyes and then he looked around the room, trying to remember.  “Where’s my gun belt?” 

“Why do you want it?” Gus asked.

“Why do you think?” Scott pushed up from the chair and moved stiffly toward the bureau.

“Let the sheriff take care of it.”

“He set him free.”

“I thought that you wanted to stay with your brother.”

“I did.”  Stopping for just that second, held by a rush of guilt, Scott glanced back to Johnny.  He turned back to the bureau.  A stack of fresh towels still filled one corner and a pitcher of water sat next to them, but otherwise the bureau top was an empty expanse of glossy maple.  “Alice?”  He found her eyes.  “Where is it?”

“I put it in the top drawer.”  Needlessly, she pointed toward the bureau.

“Thank you,” he quietly said.  He smelled the leather when he took it from the drawer, well-oiled like the doctor’s bag and earthy.  He wrapped its weight around his hips and it settled, satisfyingly heavy.  Taking the Colt from its holster, he spun the cylinder and nodded at the brassy gleam of the bullets filling the chambers.   

“I don’t need you sending me any business,” Gus said.

Scott glanced sideways at the doctor, then slid the Colt back into its leather.  “Alice?”  He started for the door. “How do I find Todd’s house?”

“On Third Street,” she said.  She looked straight up to him when he came closer and there was a determination in her face that almost matched his own.  “A block past the bank, then turn right.  He’s the fourth house, with the three cedars and red shutters.”

“If Johnny wakes up…”  Scott felt the regret flicker through his eyes and he was grateful when Alice lightly touched his arm.  “Tell him I had something I had to do.” 

“Be careful,” Alice softly said, but he was already in the hallway when he heard it.  He saw Hattie then.  She was standing in the doorway of her room, holding her arms wrapped loosely around her waist and staring at him.  Too brief, her sleep had left her looking wrinkled and worn. 

“Don’t go,” she said.

His hand was wrapped around his Colt’s handle, and Scott’s thumb rubbed the smooth wood as he stopped just short of her door.  He could sense Alice behind them, watching, and he kept his voice low.  “If Todd takes off,” he said, “any evidence will be gone.  I can’t let that happen.”

“He’ll kill you.”

“He won’t get that chance.”

“He did with Johnny.”

“And he’s not getting away with that.”  Scott saw her move as he did, stepping out of her doorway to grab his sleeve as he tried to pass. 

“Mick’s a good man,” she said, hanging onto her fistful of sleeve. “Talk to him—he’ll go with you.”

Lilac.  The air in the hallway was close and warm, and her lilac scent drifted on it. Scott tried to pull away.  “There isn’t time,” he told her.  “Todd belongs in jail.”

“Take Mick.”

“I have to go.”

“He’ll hurt you.” 

“Hattie…” He took her hand from his arm and she wrapped her fingers into his. “Don’t,” he told her, as the fear in her eyes became a tangible thing between them.  He wanted to hold it, hold her, but he stood waiting instead, head bent slightly to her upturned face.  “I’ll be all right,” he gently said, and he squeezed her hand.

“Let him go,” Alice said from Johnny’s doorway. Hattie looked to her mother and then, obediently, allowing her fingers to unfold, she did as she’d been told. 

Scott escaped, feeling her eyes on him as he strode toward the stairs. He barely saw the steps under his feet or the porch when he crossed it, coming into the early morning sun.  He saw her eyes instead, her sleep-swollen worry for him.  For him.  It was still one more complication, but one that seeped through him, unsettling and warm.

He forced his thoughts to Todd.  It was too early for the stage, he couldn’t have escaped that way, but he could have hitched a buggy or saddled a horse.  This was a mistake.  If he had found that roan, the fat one Frank had left in its traces that first night, then maybe he could have followed Todd.  There were only so many ways out of town and he couldn’t have gotten far.  It didn’t matter, Scott finally decided, coming onto Third Street’s narrow brick sidewalk and looking down the road for a red-shuttered house.  Todd had shot his brother, callously tried to kill him—and there wasn’t a hole in California the man could hide in anyway.

The three cedars were huddled at the far corner of the house and its porch was nearer, just off the sidewalk.  There was a window next to the door and its curtains were drawn back.  Scott climbed cautiously onto the porch and ducked a little, searching through the curtains into the dim interior of the house.  The first room was a parlor; he could tell that by the settee he saw facing an upright piano.  Beyond the parlor was a doorway and as Scott watched it, a tall, thick body moved across it. 

His Colt fit his hand comfortingly.  He held its barrel down, at hip level, as he knocked on the door.  There was only silence for a long moment and he took a step backward, bringing either end of the house into the far edges of his sight, and then he waited. 

The footsteps were muffled.  He focused on the door, eye level, losing everything else in his piercing gaze.

The bolt clicked.  Scott brought his pistol up.  He aimed it at the opening door and he cocked the hammer.

Despite the already warm morning, Todd wore a black overcoat and a bowler hat.  His face was clean-shaven, Scott noticed that, wondering if that vanity had been the banker’s downfall.  Five minutes? Ten?  However long it had taken, it’d cost him his escape. 

His pockmarked face hanging down, Todd stared at the Colt. 

“You shouldn’t have shot Johnny,” Scott said.

Todd shook his head, still watching the gun.  “I didn’t.  And I hope that you have a good reason for pointing that thing at me.”  He brought his eyes up to meet Scott’s. “Like some proof?”

Scott nodded toward the parlor.  “Back up and let me take a look around.  Maybe we can find it.”


Chapter 25

Carefully guarding Todd’s every movement, their footsteps falling silently into the cushion of the richly colored rug, Scott followed the banker into the parlor.  Persian, he decided, catching fragments of the ornate pattern at the edge of his sight, but not risking a downward glance.  The whole parlor was ornate, with a heavily framed storm-swept landscape above the settee, brocaded cloths dripping from claw-footed tables, and that piano, imposingly solid, with delicately carved scrolling and gold-leaf etching, gold-trimmed sconces.  A shaft of light filtered through the open drapes and lit the piano.  It warmed the etching and the gold glowed.   

Todd stopped in the center of the parlor, turned and swept the bowler from his head, and then waggled the hat at Scott.  “I hope you enjoy Josh’s company, because what you’re doing right now is going to land you in that jail cell right beside him.”

“I’ll take my chances.”  Scott kept the Colt steadily pointed at the tempting target of Todd’s chest.  He swept his eyes around the room, coming back quickly to Todd’s face, but the only thing suspicious in the room was the banker himself—Todd—watching him with that smug conceit.  “Were you going somewhere?” he asked.

“Why do you think that?” Todd said, letting the bowler hang to his side.

“You’re overdressed.”

Todd looked down at his coat and tapped the bowler against his leg, then tossed the hat onto the settee.  “True.  I have a buggy waiting out back, but I ask you—” His empty hand dropped toward his pocket.

“Ah-ah...I wouldn’t do that.”  Scott’s sudden warning had the desired effect and Todd stopped his hand.  “Take your coat off, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.”  Todd shrugged out of his coat, then draped it over his arm and, with a questioning look toward Scott, leaned toward the settee.  Scott allowed the movement and Todd laid the coat across the settee’s upholstered arm.  “As I was saying though—if someone already tried to kill your brother, why should I feel safe staying in Stockton?”

“The sheriff told you not to leave.”

“He also refused to arrest the Whitfields.”

“And why would he want to arrest them?”

Todd’s laugh was deep and his fleshy jowls widened with the smile that followed, a condescendingly knowing smile.  “You too, Lancer?  I thought that Josh was the only man foolish enough to fall for Hattie’s lies.”

Scott’s finger tensed against the trigger.  “The sheriff said that you had a bag,” he said.  “Where is it?”

Shaking his head, Todd straightened the lapels of his black wool jacket.  “I can’t blame you.  She’s an attractive woman, and if I had any reason to think that she’d offer me any…”  His smile twisted into a leer.  “…compensation for my silence, I might overlook her lies, too.”

The need blistered through him.  Just to smash his fist into Todd’s face, that’s all he wanted; to drive the lewd suggestion, all of this maddening doubt into the man’s jaw and hear the sweet explosion of fist on flesh; feel the bone give.  “Todd,” Scott warned, his voice as hard as the steel in his hand.  “I’m giving you two seconds to tell me where that bag is.” 

The smiled faded, and there, right at the corner of Todd’s eye, a tic pulsed.  “There’s nothing in it,” Todd said.

Scott nodded.  “One.”

“All right.”  Todd stared down at the pistol, and he spread his palms in surrender.  “It’s in the study...” He aimed a thumb behind him. “On my desk—just across the hallway, one door down.  I can get it for you.” 

“Just lead the way...slowly.” 

Watching the back of Todd’s head and following behind with his Colt ready, Scott sifted the facts, desperately clinging to the few that he had.  Three people were at the ranch—three—Josh, Hattie and Todd.  Josh was in jail when Johnny was shot and that left two.  It had to be Todd; it had to be…unless Hattie was lying. 

As he walked into the study and squinted against the sun pouring through two glass-paned doors, Scott allowed that possibility.  What if Hattie was lying?  An image pierced him and in it a candle flickered, cupped within his palm.  Its light escaped his hand and lit the hall, that first night.  She was restless. He had felt it, too, sleepless in his bed and driven from it through the dark.  She was restless and she’d heard a sound.  Sometime in that night Josh’s guilt had been seeded in their barn, and Scott considered that, admitted the bitter cunning of that truth, but Hattie came to him, restless and alone, and her green eyes found his in the flickering light. 

“Do you want me to show you what’s in the bag?” Todd asked.  He stopped just short of the desk, started to put his hands in his pockets, and then splayed them out at his sides.  The tic jerked deeper.

Scott walked to the far side of the desk and dragged the bag closer.  “Is the ledger in here?” 

“What ledger?”

“The one you shot Johnny over.” Barely dropping his gaze, Scott half felt and half saw the clasp, but he managed to work it loose and he turned the bag upside down, dumping the contents out over the desktop.

“Any ledgers you might mistakenly be referring to are in the file cabinets at the bank.  And I’m sorry, I should have asked—how is your brother?”

“Alive, no thanks to you.” 

“Has he regained consciousness yet?”

Leaving that question unanswered, Scott sorted through the clothes, dangling shirts and pants to loosen evidence that might be trapped in their folds, then tossing them aside on the floor behind the desk.  Todd had done the same, he remembered.  All those days ago at the ranch, Todd had searched through Josh’s bag, just as he was doing now.  How could Todd have acted out that scene?  How? 

Scott raised his gaze to Todd and studied his face.  Was he acting now?  If he was, the man was gallingly convincing, but there was that tic; there had always been that tic.  “I know that Johnny went back to ask Miss Steele for the ledgers,” Scott said.  “The sheriff knows it, too.  Are you telling me that he didn’t get them?”

A faint furrow cut across his brow.  Todd tilted his head, shook it slightly, and he looked behind the desk to the growing pile of clothes.  “Miss Steele is a loyal employee.  I highly doubt that she would have given your brother our ledgers.”  He straightened.  “Of course, you can always ask her.”

She didn’t.  It was a simple fact to check and no bluff would last any longer than a single question to Miss Steele; Todd knew that.  Even if he had the ledger, it wouldn’t prove anything.  And if that wasn’t why Johnny was shot—if it wasn’t over the ledgers—then why? 

With only a few personal items still scattered across the desk, a comb, a shaving kit and a shoe brush, Scott brought his full attention back to Todd.  Someone was lying and he had no way of proving who; that fact settled in his mind and it settled hard. 

“That morning at the bank,” Scott asked, “the morning you found the money missing…you left someone waiting while you met with Hattie.  Who was it?”

“May I?” Todd asked, wagging a finger at the crumpled mound on the floor.

“Be my guest.”  Scott nodded toward the pile, then grabbed up the empty bag and tossed it down beside the clothes.  “So who was it?”  He leaned a hip against the desk, letting the weight of his Colt drag his hand down, his aim less certain but still ready. 

“I told you,” Todd said, as he walked around the desk and knelt beside the clothes.  “It was a customer.  Who did you think it was?”

“Maybe a bank auditor?” 

Scott watched for a reaction, but there was only that same damned tic.  Todd grimaced as he retrieved a white, ruffled shirt from the pile and held it up by its shoulders.  It was already wrinkled.  As he folded its sleeves to the back of the shirt, his fingers trembled slightly. 

Looking up over his dangling shirt, Todd finally answered.  “And why would it be a bank auditor?”

“You had trouble with your ledgers before.”

“A simple entry error.”

“On Grayless’ account.”

“Yes.”  Todd dropped his gaze to his folding again, taking another shirt from the rumpled mess at his knees.

“Grayless is senile.  Is he rich, too?”

“As a matter of fact he is.”  Todd’s voice lightened with whatever humor he found in the admission.  “He spent his whole life only feet away from all that money and what happens?  The week he retires, his uncle dies and leaves him a fortune.  The man is richer than God.”

“And maybe you wanted a little of that money?”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Embezzlement.”  It was nowhere near as satisfying as his fist would have been, but Scott savored the blunt force of the word.  It was the only answer that made sense—simple subtraction.  Fourteen thousand missing, minus the nearly four thousand found, left ten thousand gone into Todd’s greedy pocket.  “What did you do with the money?” he asked.

“Nothing.”  Todd was looking away as he answered, sweeping an armful of the scattered clothes closer to him.  “I didn’t take it.”

“The way I have it figured, you must have spent it.  Right, Todd?”  Scott waited for the banker to look up, but Todd kept his head down.  “You went to a lot of trouble to frame Josh and I don’t think that was part of your plan.  Were you going to replace the money—is that it?  But then the auditor showed up and you panicked?”

“He wasn’t an auditor,” Todd quietly said.  He gathered his folded clothes into a neat stack and glanced up.  “It’s a very entertaining theory, but the man wasn’t an auditor.”

“Then who was he?”

Todd sat back on his heels and sagged against the desk drawers.  He idly fingered the cuff of an expensive looking shirt.  “His name is Jefferson Morris and he has a ranch thirty miles north of here.  He comes into Stockton once a month, insists on seeing me personally, and then uses an hour of my time telling me about every single cow on his place.  Last time he explained the workings of his new water pump until I was ready to kill myself with a dull letter opener.”  Todd’s voice took on a sarcastic edge.  “Apparently, Morris believes me to be a sympathetic soul.”

Another blind alley.  Scott flexed the fingers of left hand and considered the pistol in his right.  Maybe Todd was only what he seemed to be—a sleazy, overbearing businessman.  What the hell was he doing here, when he should be back at the house?  Johnny could be awake by now. 

Pointing the Colt’s barrel toward the wall, Scott feathered the hammer safely into place.  He sounded defeated even to his own ears.  “So why did you leave him waiting?” Scott asked.

“Courtesy.  If a lady asks for my time—a lady much more attractive than Jefferson Morris, I might add—I grant the favor.”

“Hattie said that you asked her to stay.”

“And you believed her?”  Reaching again for his clothes, Todd gathered several refolded shirts and shoved the small stack into his bag.  “That was your first mistake, you know.  I have to admit that it took me awhile, too.  I thought it was just Josh, but when your brother was shot with him still in jail…well…”  He looked up, dragging his gaze over the lowered Colt and then up to Scott’s eyes.  “I just know that I wouldn’t leave him alone with that woman.”

Alone with that woman.  Doubt pricked him, and, like the haze that first evening, the moment he’d seen Josh emerging from the dust of the stage, the truth drifted through Scott’s grasp. 

Todd latched the clasp on his bag, took the handle, and then stood with the bag hanging from his hand.  He slid the other hand into his pocket.  “I’m not staying around to let her shoot me, too.”

Wearily, Scott struggled to think.  A derringer; the bullet came from a derringer.  Grey steel rose into the haze, aimed at his brother; the finger tightened against the trigger.  Whose finger? 

“You’re not going anywhere,” Scott told Todd, looking into his face and seeing her—seeing Hattie—her hand reaching through the dusk of the garden steps, her palm cupped to his. “Not until I know what the sheriff found out about those ledgers.” 

“You can’t trust her.”

“All I have is your word for that.” 

In the dark of his imagination, Scott fitted the derringer to Hattie’s hand, folded her fingers around it.  And above the gun, she watched him, whispering her longing from her eyes.

“I want proof,” Scott said. 

“Proof?” Todd smiled bitterly.  “You don’t need any proof.  You already know the truth.”

It was one more small deception, but this one Scott permitted.  He gave his reason to it, quieted his thoughts.  Feeling the weight of his Colt in his hand, lost into that night, he listened. 

“You have no right to keep me here,” Todd said.  “There’s no sense in it.”

Beside him, so softly, her fingers touched his face.  He already knew.

Scott cocked the hammer.  “You shouldn’t have shot Johnny,” he said, and then, looking down to where Todd’s hand filled his pocket, he added, “And get your hand out where I can see it.”

“You son-of-a…” Todd’s bag came flying forward.  Distracted in that splinter of a second, slapping the bag away, Scott searched for Todd’s hand again and found it arcing from his pocket.  Todd’s fingers glinted in the morning light—glinted—and Scott raised his Colt.  Deadly real, a snub-nosed derringer leveled its aim. 

Scott’s bullet slammed into flesh. 

Todd jolted backward, and he hit the floor hard.  He gasped out his air as his derringer clattered over the planks. 

“Jesus,” Todd said, pawing at his shoulder.  “Jesus Christ that hurts.”  Lying on his back, he stared up at the ceiling, panting, while the wool reddened between his fingers. When he pulled his hand away and held it up, suspended above his face, his palm was bright with blood.  “Damn,” he said, the word mangled by his moan.

Bending low, Scott picked up the derringer.  Like the parlor, it was ornate, with a pearl handle, nickel-plating, and intricate etching on the barrel.  It was a beautiful piece. He stuck it in his waistband and straightened, then took a step closer to Todd.  Letting his Colt hang in his hand, he stared down at the man who had shot his brother.  

“Can you think of any reason why I shouldn’t finish you off right now?”  Scott asked.

Unfazed, Todd pulled his lapel back.  “You’re not that kind,” he mumbled, craning his neck to see the jagged hole in his shirt. 

Scott rubbed his thumb against his Colt, and, wishing for a long moment that he was that kind, he watched Todd wad a linen shirt into a crumpled fistful and press it to his wound.  He jiggled the Colt.  “That would work better with something cotton,” he finally offered, sliding his pistol into its leather.  “Here,” he said, kneeling next to the desk and fishing another shirt from the pile.  The derringer dug into his stomach as he leaned down. “Use this…”  He tossed it to him as, muffled by the walls, a voice called from the front of the house.

Scott strained to hear the voice, and it came again, a stronger, “Todd?  You in there?”

Standing, Scott shouted back.  “Come on in, Sheriff!

When the sheriff showed in the doorway, it was cautiously, with his gun drawn.  Under his dark brows, his gaze swept the study and settled on Todd’s outstretched body.   “Looks like one of you needs arresting.  You want to tell me which one?” He looked at Scott and arched one of those brows. 

“Todd’s going to need his lawyer.”  Scott started toward the sheriff, but held his ground when Clooney’s gun swung toward him.  “Did you talk to Miss Steele?”

“I did.”

It was an irritatingly terse answer and Scott tried again.  “Did she give Johnny any ledgers?”

“Why?  Did you find some?”

“No, I didn’t find any ledgers, but Todd had to have some reason for shooting Johnny.”  Scott glared at Todd.  The banker had braced himself against the wall, almost sitting upright and looking pale enough to pass out at any moment.  “She had to have told you something,” Scott said, turning back to the sheriff.

Clooney eyed him up and down, and then gave a small shrug.  “Nothing about any ledgers.  I thought the auditor took those with him.” 

“What auditor?” 

“The one who wrote up the report Victoria gave your brother.”  Todd walked to and around the desk, and then crouched next to Todd.  None too gently, he pulled Todd’s hand from his shoulder and poked at his wound.  Todd sucked in a deep breath and gave him a narrow-eyed glower.  “I don’t guess you found that anywhere around here, did you?”

“No.  Are you talking about the audit last spring?”

“Not that one—a couple of weeks ago.”  Clooney picked up a crumpled cloth and used it to wipe the blood from his hand.  From the drape of the cloth, Scott guessed it to be at least a ten dollar shirt.  “Victoria said the auditor was there the morning Todd here…” He nodded toward the banker.  “…took off.  The man’s coming back through Stockton next week and I think he has some questions to ask.  I have some for you too, you know.  You still haven’t given me any reason not to arrest you.”

“Jefferson Morris, huh?” Scott said to Todd, then he took the derringer and leaned across the desk, handing the gun to the sheriff.  “That’s Todd’s,” he told him.  “And I’m betting that the bullet we took out of Johnny came from this gun.”

“How’d you get hold of it?”

“Todd tried to shoot me with it.”

The sheriff turned the gun in his hand, and then laid it on the desk.  “That right, Todd?”  He turned and gave the banker a deceptively friendly smile.  “You making a habit out of shooting at the Lancers, are you?”

Todd didn’t even look at him.  “Are you going to let me bleed to death?” he asked, and then, just a quick, quaking gasp after that, he clenched his crumpled cloth tighter and added, “And I would like my lawyer.”

“Figured as much.  Lancer?” Clooney said and, bracing a hand against the wall, he pushed himself stiffly to his feet. “Do you think maybe you could send Gus on over…when your brother can spare him, I mean?” 

“Probably.  But I hope you’re not in any hurry.”

“Never am.”  The sheriff’s grin made the edges of his mustache stand straight out.

Turning to leave, even making it halfway to the door, Scott suddenly remembered.  “Sheriff?” he asked.  “What are you doing here?  I thought Todd’s lawyer had an injunction for his release.”

“He did.”

“So why are you here?”

“Hattie.”  The sheriff stood and leaned into the desk, setting one hip up on its edge.  “She came barging into my office, giving me hell about letting Todd out. Seemed to be pretty well convinced that you were going to get yourself killed and if that happened, she was coming after me.  I figured I was safer seeing how you two were getting along than I was staying there with that woman.”

Scott let his gaze drift down to the floor, not really seeing it, and he smiled softly.  “She didn’t follow you here, did she?”

“Sure tried to—about had to lock her up to make her stay. How’d you figure that?”

“No reason,” Scott told him, heading for the door again.  “It’s just that I know Hattie.”


Nobody was downstairs when he made it back to the house, and the silence got to him.  Scott took the steps two at a time, seeing the doctor’s empty cot as soon as he made it to the upstairs landing.  The air was stale in the hallway and he searched the doors, realizing that they all were closed, even Johnny’s.  He paused just outside that one, feeling some strange compulsion to knock.  It didn’t last and he pushed the need aside and opened the door.

Alice was in the rocker, her back to him, and she was looking up at the doctor.  Gus had his profile to him, and his head was bent down to Johnny’s.  The doctor was saying something, but it was too soft for Scott to hear clearly.  Scott threaded his gaze between them and he found his brother, his head lolled to the side and his face pale against the pillow.

It hurt to smile so big.  That realization took a few seconds to sink in while Scott stood in the doorway, looking down at Johnny.  All he knew at first was that his brother’s eyes were open.  They looked dull and drunk—Johnny looked drunk—but they were open, and Scott wanted to yell at him for getting himself shot, or grab him up and hold him, but he was too tired to move, so he just stood there instead, smiling. 

Johnny’s voice barely made it across the small room.  “Did ya’ get him?’

“I got him.”  Scott’s smile widened painfully.  “And pay up, Brother—you owe me seventeen dollars.”


Chapter 26

Definitely drunk.  It was only a small dose; Gus adamantly insisted that he’d only added fifteen drops of the narcotic to Johnny’s water, but the laudanum clung to his brother like a smitten woman.  It seduced him into sleep and when he did wake, barely opening his lids, wearing from just that small effort, it dragged his drawl to a slow, thick slur. 

Scott knew his rear end was going to take on the shape of that chair.  He’d settled into it while Johnny was still relatively alert, in those first few minutes after finding Johnny’s exhilaratingly open, bleary blue eyes, and he’d leaned forward, closer to his brother’s voice.  Somewhere beside him, there in that rocker or over his shoulder, watching, he knew that either Alice or the doctor were still around, but he was only vaguely aware of it.  His own senses were failing too.  They floated, sweetly mired in an intoxicating ebb and flow of exhaustion. 

In the odd moments that Johnny was awake, they talked.  “Hey, Brother,” Scott would say, hearing the quickened breath that always came just before his eyes would open.

The lashes would flutter then, and then that blue. 

“Where?”  Johnny would ask, searching with his eyes until he remembered finally, or a shaky “water” would come out dry as August dust.  Either way, Scott would offer him his glass, half filled so that he could drink it without raising his head too far.  Scott would slide his hand under Johnny’s bandages and, slowly, as gently as he was able, he’d lift with that hand and tip the glass with the other.  Johnny’s eyes would close tightly again as, no matter how careful Scott was, the pain grimaced across his face.  But he didn’t complain; he just drank. 



And he’d let him down again. 

“What happened?” Scott asked that once.

“Papers…” Johnny said, grasping out, his hand barely lifting from the sheets.  Scott’s hand filled his brother’s instead of the remembered papers, but it seemed to satisfy him.  “That woman…Victoria?  She…all right?”

“She’s fine,” Scott told him, wondering about the truth of it.  The sheriff hadn’t been by, and, waiting there, watching his brother sleep, Scott had come up with more questions than he had answers.  “What was in the papers?”

Johnny gazed through him. “The papers…”

“The auditor’s report.  What did you find in it?”

“Gone…the money…gone.”  Still breathlessly weak, Johnny’s voice grew more agitated.

“Take it easy,” Scott said, tightening his hold on Johnny’s hand. “There’s plenty of time.  Todd’s not going anywhere.” 

“Todd…” Seeing him finally, a grateful awareness coming into his focused eyes, Johnny calmed.  Scott sank closer to his brother, sheer gravity dragging a warm sensation through him, pulling him down.    

“You with me?” he asked.

“Yeah.”  Johnny took his hand back and raised it to his head.  He felt gingerly at the thick pad bandaged there.  “Look bad?” he asked.

“You’ve looked better.”  Both hands free now, Scott clasped them together and fidgeted one thumb soothingly over the other.  “You’re going to have a scar there, but Alice says it’ll give you character.”  He glanced to the rocking chair, trying to remember where Hattie’s mother had gone.  He hadn’t seen Hattie yet either.  “Just what you need, isn’t it?”  Turning back to his brother, he smiled gently.  “I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to do with a little less character for awhile.”

“All right by me.”  Attempting a smile and failing painfully, Johnny ended up coughing instead. Scott reached down to the floor where he’d set the water glass, but when he brought it up Johnny, still coughing, just waved it off.   “Damn,” Johnny said when it over, touching his fingers to his head again and letting them linger over the gauze.  It was fresh, Scott noticed that, watching his brother’s calloused fingers follow the ridge of one overlapped length of gauze; the dressings were pure white against his brother’s tanned skin.  None of the blood had soaked through since the last time Gus had changed them.  It was a good sign, Scott decided, and he dropped his eyes to the wrappings around Johnny’s chest.  Only a few splotches of red showed there.  

“Would you take some more laudanum?” Scott asked.

“No.”  The answer was as slow as the rest of his brother’s speech, but the wary look Johnny gave him was all the answer Scott really needed.  “Can’t stay awake,” Johnny added.

“You need to rest.”

Pulling his fingers away from his wound, Johnny curled them into a loose fist and laid it on the pillow next to his head.  “Todd’s aim stinks,” he said languidly. 

“His aim was good…”  Still dangling the glass from his hand, Scott pointed a finger over its rim.  “It’s just that your head is so hard.  It must be from butting it against Murdoch’s so much.  He’s toughened you up.” 

“That so?”

“You might want to thank him for that.”

It was just a small one, but this time the smile stuck.  Johnny’s eyelids slipped a little lower, though.  “Remind me…’bout that,” he said.

“I will, Brother.” 

“The ole man…”  Johnny’s eyes looked past him again, and Scott had to listen closer, watching Johnny’s lips move to make sure that he caught every quiet, wistful word.  “He comin’?”

“He’s coming.  He’ll be here this afternoon.”  There’d been a telegram, delivered just an hour before, mid-morning.  Murdoch was on the stage already and Scott considered adding that detail to his reassurance, but it’d been enough, just knowing that Murdoch would be there.  He could see it in Johnny’s face.  “Johnny?”


“You saw him, didn’t you?  You saw Todd pull his gun on you?”

There wasn’t any blue anymore—just Johnny’s lashes resting on his cheeks.  “Derringer,” Johnny said, the single word drawn out across a long, slow yawn.  “Couldn’t ‘a bin a real gun…jus’ that…damn…pretty…derringer.” 

“You gone again, Brother?” Scott asked, and then, a long moment later, feeling the weight of the half-filled glass still hanging in his hand, Scott set it on the floor.  The planks there were old and warped and he slid the glass, moving it safely away from a shallow dip in the wood. 

Johnny’s drawl, molasses thick, surprised him.  “Ya got ‘im,” Johnny slurred.

His head still down, his shoulders tilted sideways over the floor, Scott looked at his brother.  He studied him as he pulled himself upright, watching for any sign that Johnny wasn’t already deep into his dreams.  There wasn’t any, so he wiggled his rear to a new, even flatter spot on the seat, hunched against the slats, leaned his head to the chair’s bowed back, and wedged his boot up on the bedrail.  He let his gaze linger on his brother and then, his own lids too heavy to hold open any longer, Scott closed his eyes.  “I got him,” he softly said.

He must have slept. 

A scraping noise, wood on wood—impossibly far away—split through his stupor, and then there were footsteps, quiet ones, and voices.   He stirred in his dreams, wanted to wake, but the sounds came to him instead.  They altered his colorless dark.  Bodies moved into it, filled the stillness, and, fascinated, apart, Scott let them pass.  Their presence turned to touch—real, so light and real against his shoulder—and he thought to move, dreamed that he had reached up to it.  His darkness emptied to the touch and in its place came ragged sky.

He woke to that light.

“I’m sorry,” Alice said and he turned to her voice.  She was at the window, with her arm extended up, tugging at the drape. She eased it past a kink and pulled it open wider. “I didn’t mean to wake you; I just thought a little sun would be nice.”  With no breeze to move it, the lace curtain hung straight from its rod.

“Has Gus made it back?”  Scott registered another sound, a very quiet, rhythmic drone coming from the bed.  Johnny was snoring.  Scott leaned toward him, feeling Johnny’s cheek with the back of his fingers. 

“He’s downstairs,” Alice told him, coming back to her rocker.

Johnny was still warm, but he was keeping his fever at bay, and Scott felt a smile drift across his face at that small reassurance.  “We were lucky,” he said.  “Gus is a good doctor.”

Alice sat and the rocker tilted with her weight.  “Why don’t you go lie down?  I made up our bed for you and the sheets are clean.”

Just the suggestion of it drew a yawn from him, but Scott shook his head.  “I can sleep when Murdoch gets here.”

“I don’t mind watching your brother.”

“I know you don’t.”  Scott dropped his gaze to the sheets, the dream lingering with him.  “I meant to thank you,” he abruptly said, gathering his thoughts.  “For telling me how to find Todd’s house.  He would have gotten away if you hadn’t.”  He turned and studied the drowsy expression on her face.  “Thank you.”

“If I hadn’t told you, would it have stopped you from going?”


“I didn’t think so—and I learned a long time ago not to get in the way of a man on a mission.”

The irony struck him, and it drove her image between them.  Scott cocked his head, gazing off at the faded wallpaper, and, distractedly, he rubbed his hand against his thigh.  “Your daughter could use a lesson there,” he finally said, focusing again on Hattie’s mother.

“That is something that I’ve tried very hard to teach her,” Alice insisted, with small tilt of her own head.  “Even when she was little, Hattie was always so serious.  She thought that everything was her responsibility and that somehow, no matter what happened, she had to set things right.”

It was only a moment’s calculation, weighing the likelihood of Alice’s annoyance against the pure truth.  Scott chose the truth.  “Like you did with that letter?” 

Her smile brightened and Alice relaxed into her rocker, tipping it backward and making it rock.  “I knew I liked you,” she said, with a hint of laughter in her voice.  “Are you suggesting that I like to meddle?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well, I do…I meddle…Hattie hates it, but I do.”  She pinched at her skirt, lifting and sorting it more smoothly on her lap.  The material was old and washed-out and, watching her fingers fidget against it, Scott thought how much she seemed like that cloth, graceful and well-worn and comfortable.  “But this time I had a very good reason,” Alice said.  “Hattie wouldn’t write that letter, so I had to.”

“To save Josh?”

“All right.”  She gave him a sly, sideways look.  “If you’re willing to let me off that easily, then yes…it was to save Josh.”

He looked down again, holding back the smile that tucked one corner of his lips tighter.  “The sheriff could have asked the same questions we did.”

“But he didn’t.”

“That’s because Josh was being a fool.”

“Josh is a fool.”  Alice’s tone sobered and it took on a deep, resolute fondness.  “He’s a dear, sweet one, and I love him like my own, but he’s a fool.”

“What made you think that I’d come?”

“Because of something Hattie said.  Did she tell you that we talked about you?”

That walk, the first night he’d been in Stockton.  His eyes.  The warmth flushed across his cheeks, and he flicked an imaginary something from the arm of his chair, remembering.  “She said something about it.” 

Alice’s rocking creaked against the floor and Scott waited her out, staring down at his chair.  “Well, I wasn’t very happy with her….” Alice finally said, forcefully.  “…going halfway across California and then chasing Josh into your mountains.”

“I tried to send her back.”

“She told me.”

“She could have been hurt.”

“I know.”  Biting her lip, Alice nodded.  “She could have been thrown from her horse or a cougar could’ve attacked…I was quite clear about how dangerous it was for her to ride off like that, that anything could have happened, but Hattie told me I was wrong, that it couldn’t…that you wouldn’t let it.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”  He raised a brow and pictured a purple sash fluttering over the range. “I wasn’t very happy with Hattie.  Did she mention that she stole that horse?” 

Ignoring his half-hearted denial, Alice found his eyes.  “She felt safe, Scott.  That’s why I sent that letter… you made her feel safe.”  She reached to him, leaning over the arm of her rocker and squeezing a warm hand around his wrist.  “Now—there’s biscuits on the range, and I left a plate of bacon and eggs in the oven.  If you won’t get some sleep, why don’t you go eat?  Johnny and I will just have a nice conversation while you’re gone.” 

Glancing at his brother, listening to the deeper rhythm of his snores, Scott let Alice’s words seep through him.  Sluggishly, he pushed himself from his chair.  That drunken feeling made the air thick as water.  “Some breakfast does sound good.  Have you seen Hattie?” he asked.

“She was here earlier,” Alice told him.

The touch.  Scott stepped around Alice’s rocker, finding his legs again as walked toward the door.  “If Johnny wakes, give him some water,” he reminded her.

Her voice followed him into the hallway.  “There’s marmalade in the pot.  It’s on the table.”

A part of him was hoping to escape to the kitchen alone, but that hope trickled away as soon as he saw the two backs bent over the parlor desk.  He was halfway down the steps when Gus turned a cleanly-shaven cheek to him.

“Is he asleep?” Gus asked.

“Like a baby,” Scott said, running a finger over his own jaw. Shaving could wait, he decided.  First those biscuits, and then a warm, damp towel and a sharpened razor.  It sounded good.

Frank slid a large piece of brown paper to his left on the desktop, then unfolded another quarter of it to his right.  He poked his finger at it. “Right here,” he said.  “Just sitting there where you hardly even have to dig for it…all that silver…thousands of dollars of it…millions maybe.”

“That’s a long ways from Stockton,” Gus told him, with half an eye on Scott and half on the paper spread out in front of him.  The map, Scott corrected, coming close enough that he could see it.  There were roads drawn out in the brown and contours sketched.  An ornate script at the top of the map identified the source as the Rosita Land Company.

“What do you know about Colorado?” Frank asked him, dropping a hand on his shoulder and pulling him closer.  “It’s beautiful country—right?”

“If you like mountains.”  Scott laid a finger on the map, dragging it to the desk’s edge. 

“That’s where the silver is.”  Frank’s voice was as deep as ever, but there was an adolescent tremor to it.  “I’ve just been telling Gus about Rosita.  They already have a dozen mines going, but this…” He stabbed a finger at a circled spot near the middle of the map.  “This one is going to make somebody rich.”

Gus tried to hide his tolerant smile.  Scott saw him from the corner of his eye, catching the doctor as he ducked his head and leaned over the map, setting his palms flat on the desk. 

“Are you considering an investment?” Scott asked.

“We’d have to sell the store,” Frank said, “but yes…I’ve considered it.”

“Who’s running the store today?” Scott asked, remembering Alice upstairs and Hattie gone. 

“Nobody,” Frank said.  “With all that’s going on here, we left it closed.”  He stabbed again at the map.  “They just opened a new bank out there to hold all the money.  Rosita’s the real thing, that’s what all the papers say.”

“Colorado…” Scott said, more to himself than to either Gus or Frank.  He rubbed his thumb against his upper lip, feeling the scratch of his day-old stubble against his nail.  “Didn’t Josh say something about investing there?”

“Sure.”  Frank dropped his hand, skimming it over the printing on the map.  “He still might, now that he’s out of jail.  They had shares to sell a couple of weeks ago.  With any luck, we could get in on it.”  He rotated the map, bringing the top of it closer, and wagging his finger over some writing.  “This claim over here feeds off the same vein.  If we can’t get a piece of the first one, they’re sinking a new shaft here.  It should be producing by Christmas.”

Scott’s gaze drifted past the map to the wall behind the desk, down low near the floor.  The paper there was still damp from Alice’s cleaning, and the red of those roses was darker than the rest of the wall.  “How long would it take you to get your investment back?” he asked.

“From the working mines?  Just a few months.” 

“Do you think Todd could have any money in those mines?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Frank said.  “Todd introduced Josh to the Rosita Land man.”

It fit.  Todd had never meant for the money to go missing.  If the auditor hadn’t visited that morning—if Todd’s investment had paid off in time—then those roses wouldn’t be damp and Scott wouldn’t be there, standing in the Whitfield’s parlor and needing another ten hours’ sleep.   

“Alice told me there’s some breakfast.”  Scott pulled away from Frank’s hand.

“The coffee’s fresh.”  Gus turned and watched him go, setting his hip on the edge of the desk.  “Take your time; I’m heading up to check your brother in just a minute.”

Scott wondered about the look on Gus’ face, but his stomach was grumbling at him and his blood was starting to flow again.  He picked up his stride. 

He got his wish finally—a part of it, anyway.  The kitchen was empty and there was only the hollow closing of the cupboard doors and the clatter of the china to break the silence.  Steam rose from the coffee as he poured it in the blue-willow cup and he breathed in the scent.  It was strong, but he needed it strong.  He slurped a hot slug of the coffee as he grabbed up a towel and used it to open the oven door.  The eggs were shriveled and dried around their edges, he could see that when he got the plate out into the light, but the bacon smelled good. He set the plate down on the range just long enough to throw a fork and a biscuit on it and sling the towel over his shoulder, and then he picked up the plate and carried it and his cup toward to the table.

A thin shaft of daylight drew his eyes.  It splintered through the barely open door.

He hadn’t seen her anywhere else.

If he slid the biscuit over, which he did using the bottom of his cup, it barely left enough room on his plate to fit the cup next to it.  He balanced it all carefully in his right hand while he pulled the door open with his left, then he rescued the cup again before lifting his eyes to the porch.

The roof’s shade reached only to the first step and Hattie was sitting on the second, facing away, her braided hair lit by the morning sun.  She hadn’t seemed to hear him.

Scott’s boots hit softly against the planks, and then he stood, with his plateful of dried eggs and Alice’s biscuit, in the middle of the porch.  “Do you mind some company?”

Hattie twisted and she lifted her face to him.  She hadn’t slept any more than he had and the long hours had settled in dark shadows under her eyes.  He should have shaved first—that thought whispered to him as he looked into her eyes—he should have shaved.

Her complaint was warm.  “Are you just now eating?”

“As soon as I sit down, I am.”  He stepped cautiously onto the stairs and waited as Hattie gathered a handful of her skirt.  She swept it up and over her lap, making room.  “How’s Josh?” he asked.  

She hesitated.  “Worried about Johnny,” she told him, then, stronger, looking straight up at him, she added, “And it’s almost noon already, why didn’t you eat something earlier?”

He lowered himself and the breakfast to the step, wishing that the wood wasn’t quite so hard.  “Have you eaten yet?”


The admission was subdued, and it drew his gaze back to hers, just for a second. The green of her eyes was paler in the morning light. “Here…”  Scott set his cup on the step and balanced his plate on his knees, then broke the biscuit.  He handed half to her.  “Eat.”

“I don’t want your breakfast.” 

“There’s more in the kitchen.”

“That’s yours.”


She gave in, whether to her hunger or to him, Scott really wasn’t sure.  Taking the biscuit, she bit off a too-large piece and lost crumbs of it to her lap.  As she flicked the specks away, her skirt’s hem slid back to the step.  “How’s Johnny?” she asked after she’d swallowed.

“Considering that either of his injuries could have killed him…not bad.”  Scott speared a plausibly edible clump of eggs.  “He’s in a lot of pain, and laudanum and my brother have never gotten along, but right now his biggest concern seems to be that nobody finds out that Todd took him with a derringer.” 

“Isn’t that better than a bigger gun?”

“I think they call it insult to injury.”

“I saw those bullets,” Hattie said.  “They were big enough.”  All she was doing was picking at her biscuit, flaking off little bits.  Scott watched her, he couldn’t help but watch, but as far as he could see only a few of the tiny pieces made it into her mouth.

“Victoria asked about your brother,” she said.

“You saw her?”

“She showed up at Josh’s house.”  Giving up the small torture of her biscuit, Hattie encased it in her cupped hands and held it protected on her knees.  “She feels terrible, you know…I guess Todd must have heard your brother leave the bank and she just straight out told him that Johnny had the reports.”

He speared another lump of eggs, clinking his fork too forcefully against the plate. “Why would she do that?”

“Because she’s afraid of him.  Todd really can be horrible to her…could be…not anymore, I guess.  But it never even occurred to her that Todd might be guilty of anything.”

“She didn’t think Josh did it.”

“No.” Smiling bitterly, Hattie shook her head.  “Not Josh…Me.  Apparently Victoria decided that I must have stolen the money.  I asked her how the auditor’s report was supposed to prove that, but all she could come up with was that she thought it would help Josh.”  She shook her head again and a tendril of hair fluttered loose from her braid.  “What is it about me?” She brushed the hair back and left her cupped palm suspended in the air.  “Is it my face?  Is that why everyone around me thinks I’m a thief?  Do I look like one?” 

“No, you don’t look like one.”

“Then what?  Why were Josh and Victoria both convinced that I was some terrible person? Is that what you thought, too?”  She turned to him and set her jaw set in a challenging line.  “Did you think that I took the money…that I shot Johnny?”

Setting his fork on his plate, Scott turned to study the dark, ragged curve of her arched brows, the guarded fear in her face.  “A thinking man would have to consider it.”

“Did you?”

It fell like petals on the steps, soundless and lovely.  He thought to touch the longing in her question, to touch her, and he let it linger, delicately raw.  “Yes.  I considered it—but I knew you didn’t.  You couldn’t have done that.”

“How did you know?”

The sun was nearly overhead and windows faced them from across the road.  There were voices, too—far off, carried through the still, warm air—but voices.  Anyone could see them, but there was only one answer to that question, no longer delicate.  It singed his caution. 

“Hattie?” he asked, leaning and setting his plate one step lower.  “What happened with Josh this morning?”

“He’s free.  Mick let him go home.”

“And you went with him?”

“I owed him that much.”

“What happened?”

“I cleaned his house, for one thing.  I hadn’t been in it since that morning and it was filthy.  How can men live that way?  Then Victoria showed up and I came home.  You were asleep,” she added gently.

“Is that all?” Scott asked, hearing the frustration in his voice and moving to hide it, grabbing his cup from his side and swallowing a mouthful of the cooling coffee.

“No.”  Hattie suddenly seemed to realize that her fingers were still curled around the biscuit.  She tossed it into the cabbages.  “We talked,” she said, and then she stared off at the elm tree.  “I never wanted to hurt him, Scott.  You believe that, don’t you?”

“I know you didn’t.”

“I could blame him.  He shouldn’t have acted the way he did…how could he do that?  He should have known that I didn’t take that money.”  Still looking off to the elm’s motionless branches, sitting stiffly beside him, she clasped her hands into the cradle of her lap.

“I wish I could blame Josh,” she said.  “I’ve made such a mess of everything.  Josh…he’s a good man and he deserves better than me.  We talked, Scott.  I wanted you to know that, that’s why I came looking for you…that and to see how Johnny was…but you were asleep.” 

His left hand filled by the rounded weight of his cup, he reached with his right.  She didn’t resist and her hand felt small against his palm, her fingers fragile as they threaded between his.

Hattie took her gaze from the tree and laid it on their hands instead. Her voice faltered.  “I told Josh that I’m in love with somebody else.”

Scott tightened his hold on her.  “What about Cole?”

“I hurt you, too,” she said, turning to him, searching into his face.  “I had no right…I never should have told Josh about that prison.”

“Hattie, I’m not Cole.  You know that don’t you?”

Painfully tender, the memory washed across her face. “It was you, Scott…here on these steps.  That kiss…it wasn’t Cole…it was you.” 

There is no glory in discretion.  There, in the full sun of the September morning, on the steps between her father’s porch and the pale green cabbages, Scott set his cup on the plank.  He should have shaved—that thought whispered again as he touched his fingers to her chin, lifted it to him. He kissed her gently at first, and then, as he felt her hand against his neck, as he lost his sweet exhaustion to the hungry pressing of her lips, he kissed her truly and deeply and satisfyingly well.

He forgot about his shaving.  Hattie didn’t care.  


Chapter 27

Frank tried not to stare—Scott saw him working at. He lifted his head though, still leaning over his spread-out map, and watched as Scott guided Hattie up the stairs, Scott's hand at the small of Hattie's back. And later, lingering at Johnny's bedroom door, Frank eyed the narrowed gap between Hattie's rocker and Scott's bow-backed chair. He ducked his head as he stood there, twitching a knuckle against his brow and hiding his eyes behind his loosely fisted fingers. He left it alone that time, but when he came back, late in the afternoon, clearing his throat as his boots thudded down the hallway, Frank grunted something. Johnny was sleeping again, he had been for an hour or more, and Alice had left Scott and Hattie alone to watch him snore. Hattie slipped her hand from Scott's as her father came around the doorway into the room, and she bent to the floor, grabbing up an empty glass. Her chair rocked freely when she left it and walked to the bureau, where she'd left a pitcher of fresh water.

"About time for that stage," Frank said, shifting his gaze slowly from Hattie to Scott.

"Is it that late?" Scott pushed his chair back and he stood just as Hattie tried to pass again. They brushed by each other, Scott laying his hand on her shoulders and Hattie tipping her face up, stepping out of his way. Frank couldn't have seen Hattie's face, not all the way across the room and not with her back to her father, but he saw Scott's. That was an obvious and uncomfortably enlightening fact. Scott flicked his gaze to Frank's, after it'd left Hattie's. "Did you harness the roan?" he asked.

"She's out back." Frank looked as if he was about to say something more, but instead he turned his almost-stare back to Hattie. Scott's movement toward the door forced him out of it finally, back into the hallway and headed toward the steps.

For a few sideways glances, Frank didn't say anything. Then, at the end of the hallway, just as they started down into the parlor, plaintively quiet, Frank asked, "Did I miss something?"

Scott's boot was already on the top step. "Hattie broke it off with Josh."

Frank's boot hit beside his. "Huh." By the second step Frank had nodded, and by the fourth he'd taken a deep breath. "That explains it then."

At the bottom of the steps, Frank looked toward the map on parlor desk. "I think I'd like Colorado. Worth a try, don't you think?"


The sleeping arrangements changed.

Frank made that decision, looking at Murdoch when he announced it. Murdoch was in the bow-backed chair, his long legs stretched out as far in front of him as they would go. His boots were stuck under Johnny's bed, but his one knee still bent at an awkward sideways tilt. Johnny was awake for once. He hadn't had any laudanum for hours and he was overdue, but Murdoch wasn't forcing it on him—not yet.

"You're going to have parts of you lapping right over that cot," Frank told Murdoch, with a slight smile playing around his mouth. "Do you mind sharing a bed? We can move the cot into our room…put Hattie on that. You and Scott could take her room."

Standing by the window, gapping the lace open with a single finger, Scott let his gaze leave the deeply shadowed yard and looked toward his father. "You take the bed. I'm all right in here with Johnny."

"No, you don't." Murdoch twisted his neck and angled his gaze back over the chair, looking as if his head was going to fall right over onto the floor. "As a matter of fact, why don't you go on and get some sleep now?"

"Do I look that bad?" Scott asked, letting the lace fall straight again.

"When was the last time that you stretched out in a bed?"

The memory of the cot ached through Scott's neck and he rubbed it. "What day is it?" He watched Murdoch lean forward and reach for Johnny's sheet, draping it over the bandages on his brother's chest. It barely hid anything. A length of gauze still notched a pure white swatch across Johnny's bare shoulder and swaddling covered most of his head. From Scott's angle by the window that's all he saw, just Johnny's dark hair, matted by his blood and lying stiff and dull against the pillow, and those bandages. Murdoch said something to his brother, but it was hard to understand. Johnny's response was just as low.

"How's his fever?" Scott asked.

Their father's big hand took in more than just Johnny's forehead; it covered a good portion of the bandage too. "I'm fine," Johnny insisted, but his voice was weak. Scott took a few steps closer, trying to get a clearer view of his brother's face. The lines around Johnny's eyes had deepened.

"It's not high," Murdoch said. "Has it been?"

Scott stood just behind Murdoch's chair. "No."

Johnny grimaced up at both of them. "You two want to quit fussin'?"

"I don't fuss," Murdoch said.

Johnny’s weary smile softened those lines. "Well…don't."

"How's your head?" Murdoch asked.


"It will. And you need to sleep, too."

"I've been sleepin'."


All Scott could see was the back of his father's head, tilting even closer to his brother's. Johnny's gaze had settled steadily on Murdoch's.

"You want to tell me what's been happening around here?"  Worry—lessened, controlled, but there—rumbled through Murdoch's deep voice.

"Long story," Johnny said. His eyes closed and he dragged in a deep breath. "And I'd kinda like to know a couple things `bout it myself."

It seemed like a timely escape.

By the time Scott had closed Hattie's door behind him, leaving Frank and Murdoch and Johnny on the other side, the concept of sleep had become a carnal need. Murdoch could handle it all for awhile. That release numbed his thoughts and left only his body, moving through sheer compulsion and not through any will of his own. He was relieved when he reached the blue-and-yellow quilt, grateful when he lay back across the bed and stretched his arms like the points on the quilt's center star. Staring up at the plaster ceiling, he lost even his few remaining, deadened thoughts, drifting them on the lilac scent of the too-warm air. Finally, with as little effort as possible, he toed his boots off and they thudded to the floor. He rolled, hauling his legs up onto the bed and moving his head to the pillow, wedging it under his neck. The mattress sagged under him and his hip settled into the hollow where she had been.

His body refused to sleep.

Determinedly, one by one, his eyes firmly closed, Scott counted cards, starting with the ace and working backward through the diamonds first, and then the clubs and then the spades. By the time he'd reached the hearts, his sleep had finally found him and he'd fallen—hard and far. He dreamed then, deep within that hollow.

The trial was on a cloudy Tuesday. Gus came by that morning at half past six, just as he had every morning for the past ten days. Alice was in the kitchen frying bacon and Gus peeked over her shoulder, another habit he'd developed, and snitched a biscuit from the oven-blackened pan she pretended to guard. Scott followed him upstairs that morning and rocked as Gus checked Johnny's dressings.

The chest wound had puckered to a two-inch, delicately pink scar.  Johnny swore that he could do without it, but Gus fashioned him a sling anyway, insisting that the jury expected to see an invalid and that he wasn't going to let good doctoring get in the way of a conviction. Even after all that time the gouge on Johnny's head was still scabbed in places and raw in others. The first few days Scott had felt driven to watch as Gus cleaned it, the removal of the dressings drawing fresh blood every time and Scott's nagging sense of guilt holding his gaze on the crimson drops. Somehow, even those ministrations had become routine and as Johnny sat up against the headboard, tilting his head for the doctor, Scott couldn't help but smile.

"Gus? Are you afraid his head is going to fall off?"

The bandages were already wrapped several layers thick and Gus didn't show any signs of stopping. "Some of those jurors might be near-sighted," Gus said, tucking still one more layer into the white orb already encasing Johnny's skull. "They're going to see this, though."

"Everyone in the next county will see that."

"How do I look?" Johnny raised his rounded, oversized head and looked dead-on at Scott.

"Like a baby bird hatching out of its egg," Scott told him dryly.

A contagious grin split across his brother's face. Scott felt it on his own face, too, a sensation that had become more familiar with every day he'd spent in Stockton. It felt good.


Johnny took the stand early that afternoon, right after Scott had given his testimony. Yes, Johnny said, Miss Steele had given him the bank auditor's initial report and yes, he was at the Whitfield's desk, copying notes from the illicit papers, when Todd showed up with that derringer. The first bullet had stunned him, just for those few seconds, and he'd awakened on the floor, reached for the wall—he'd felt it against his palm—and opened his eyes. It was Todd's ugly, pockmarked face he saw hovering above that barrel. The pain had paralyzed him. That isn't how Johnny told it—"It hurt" was all that Johnny said—but Scott filled in the rest, listening to his brother's testimony. The pain had pinned Johnny to the floor while Todd aimed his pistol. Johnny described the gun as squat and bright with nickel-plating and with a satiny sheen of pearl showing through Todd's thick fingers, and he told how Todd had steadied the pistol and pulled the trigger. And that was it, all of the testimony Johnny had to give.

Mick Clooney and Victoria Steele told the rest. The sheriff had found the audit under the seat in Todd's buggy and Victoria confirmed that it was the bank's. Todd's lawyer tried to discredit her testimony, shaking his head as she told it and then staring pointedly at Josh. "Miss Steele," he asked, his voice deceptively sympathetic. He gave her a patronizing smile. "Please forgive my indiscretion, but there are rumors and my obligation to my client requires me to ask—are you in love with Joshua Wright?"
Victoria's chest heaved as she sat straighter on the elevated throne of the witness stand. "I am."

"And you would do anything to help him avoid prosecution?"

"I would."

Scott twisted in his seat one row behind the prosecutor's table and sought out Josh's face. He was positioned in the back, behind a woman with a particularly floral hat. Through the greenery, Scott just made out Josh's expression. The smile was strained and self-conscious, but Josh's gaze was locked onto Victoria's and it was fond. Scott said the word in his head; wanted to believe it. Josh was fond of Victoria.

It was later, after Murdoch had taken Johnny home and after the jury had filed out of the courtroom, that Scott had the chance to test that theory. He found Josh sitting by himself, head ducked down and one long leg stretched out in front of him, the other cocked under his bench. There was a window above him and a grey light fell through it. The clouds must have deepened.

"I've been by the bank," Scott told him.

Josh lifted his face. He didn't seem surprised. "I know. Victoria told me."

"You were in appointments."

Smiling fondly—Scott clung to that interpretation—Josh cocked his head toward the bench beside him. "Sit," he said, sliding to make room. "So that's the excuse she gave you?"

"It's not true?" They both squared their shoulders against the wall and it was uncomfortably hard against Scott's skull. He tried to remember exactly where the lump had been, the one from Josh's lamp. He couldn't feel it. "You just didn't want to see me?"

"No, I didn't," Josh said mildly. He lolled his head against the wall, aiming his gaze into Scott's eyes. "In fact, I told Victoria to tell you to go to hell."

"Is that the way you feel about it?"

There was no doubt about that "yes". It was there in Josh's face, ready to roll off his tongue. His lips parted and the word lingered, unspoken. Josh looked away, down at the floor, and finally, slowly, he shook his head. "No," he said unconvincingly.  His brow furrowed and he kept staring at the wood. "If I thought it would change things, I would. I'd still take her back, you know. It would be a mistake and Hattie would be miserable…I'd be miserable… but I'm weak." He smiled again, shyly. "I know that," he added, and then he brought his face up. "She never loved me the way she should, but she loved me, Scott."

"Too much, Hattie said."

"Too much to hurt me." Josh sat straight against the wall again, his head tilted again face-to-face with Scott's. "Until you came along."

"You didn't help matters much, deciding that she'd robbed your bank."

Josh snorted quietly. "That was dumb, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was."

"It seemed like a good idea…keeping the blame off Hattie." Josh shrugged slightly. "Sorry about that lamp. Does it still hurt?"

"Would you feel better if I said that it does?"


"Then it hurts like hell." Scott looked off at the stern portrait hanging across the hall. The man in it was peering off to his side, down the long, gleaming floor, and Scott idly wondered
what he was searching for.

"How's Johnny?" Josh asked.

"Better," Scott told him, grateful for the truth of the statement. "It could have been a lot worse."

"I know. I owe him. I owe you." Josh followed Scott's gaze and settled his head against the wall. "It could be me in there instead of Todd, and I don't think I would have liked my chances with that jury. They look mean."

"What about Victoria?" Scott asked. "How do you like your chances with her?"

Definitely fond. Scott watched Josh from the corner of his eye; saw him duck his head and smile that same soft smile. "Will I ever figure them out?" Josh said. "Women, I mean…the whole lot of them must be born crazy or something." He stretched his other leg out, crossing them both at the ankles. "And you've got to love them, Scott, that's all I can say…You've got to love every insane one of them."


The Morgan would do nicely. Johnny decided that on their last day in Stockton, leaving his sling behind at the house and leaning with his arms draped over the rails of the Stewart's corral, watching the stud trot. Scott heard him telling the Whitfields about it as Hattie dried the last plate in the basin and handed it to him. He set it in the cupboard while listening to a detailed description of the straight line of the Morgan's back, and as he opened the back door, letting Hattie through into the evening air, he thought he caught something about the horse's hocks. Hattie's skirt swayed as she crossed the porch into the slanting light.  Scott followed.

This, too, had become a routine. If they followed Hattie's road to the north, past the house with the green shutters and the chicken coop in the abandoned garden, it led out of town. There was a peach orchard there, a young one with regimentally lined, well-pruned saplings. The fruit had ripened months before, but the leaves were still thick on the branches, and if they strolled into the middle of the orchard, there where someone had left three wooden-slatted bushels sitting upside down under a spreading tree, they could imagine that they were alone in a world of dappled shade and glossy, green leaves.

Hattie could quote the entire soliloquy from "Hamlet". Scott had no idea why she'd memorized it and neither did she, but that was one of the things that he learned in the orchard. He had a scar on his arm, just below his elbow, where Timothy Crosby's spaniel had bit him when he was six. He showed her that, along with some other scars, most of them the kind that he couldn't roll up his sleeve to find, and she listened, those green eyes watching him so tenderly that sometimes he forgot to say anything. It was one of those times that he found the spot just behind her right ear. If he brushed his lips there—lightly, very lightly—Hattie turned as limp as the leaves and he could take her to him, helpless and safe and beautiful.

Those evenings never lasted. No matter how hard they wished, the sun kept setting.

Coming back up the garden walk that last night, with the rosemary sweetening the hazy air, Scott lifted his head and listened. Music, an enthusiastically played polka, assaulted the yard.

"He found his harmonica," Hattie said.

If the polka hadn't already made him smile, Hattie's tone would have. It was filled with an affectionate dread. "I didn't know that your father played."

"He'll be at it all night," she said, stopping at the bottom of the steps and staring up at the closed kitchen door. "I thought he'd packed it yesterday."

The air chilled; Scott could nearly see it. Like breath in the winter, just as real as it was before, but confessed in the frost and visible, the words gave substance to the one subject they hadn't discussed under the peach trees. Colorado.

Scott slipped his arm around her waist and, together, they climbed the steps. The tune dropped a beat and there was silence for a moment, then Frank started again from the chorus.

"He's not bad," Scott said, letting Hattie loose. He leaned a shoulder against the post.

"Wait until he starts on the classical music. I never saw Cole laugh as hard as he did at my father playing Beethoven's Fifth."

Scott watched as Hattie jerked her eyes up, looking intently into his.

"I'm sorry," she quietly said.

"The percussion must be quite something on the harmonica."

"Small dogs and children hide."

He offered his hand and Hattie took it, taking a step closer. "Hattie, you can say his name."

"I know."

She nodded and the loose wisps of her braid floated to her chin. It was his fault this time, his hand that had loosened that braid, and that memory, still fresh and pleasurable, moved through him. He caressed his thumb against her palm. "Cole's always going to be a part of you. You can't help that."

"He's not who I dream about."

Scott ducked his head, gazing down at nothing before finding her eyes again. "What do you dream about?"

Hattie's color deepened—even the dusk couldn't hide that. There was a subtle pink, like the palest coral, blushed across her cheeks.  He'd come to love that blush. "Nothing," she answered shyly. She pulled away, slipping her hand from his.

The notes coming from the house had changed. It was a new song now and it swayed softly through the walls, as softly as a harmonica was able. Scott didn't know the name of that particular selection, but he recognized the tempo.

"Come here," he said.

"No." Hattie shook her head and the wisps fluttered.

Scott leaned again, the post firm against his shoulder. "Why not?"

 "I know you, Scott Lancer."

"Hattie…" Her resistance weakened; Scott saw it in the drop of her shoulders, the way her head grew heavy and tilted to the side. "Come here," he said, and she came finally, her heels sounding lightly against the porch and her chin lifting for his kiss.

He fitted her hand to his instead, and raised it gracefully. With his other hand wrapped just above her waist and his fingers reaching to the curve of her spine, he straightened. "Your hand goes on my shoulder," he told her, looking down into her eyes.  He felt tall or she felt small, he wasn't sure which it was and he didn't care. He guided her a single step forward.

"What are you doing?" Hattie grabbed a fistful of his sleeve with her free hand and clung.

"It's called the waltz."

"I don't dance."

Their knees collided and Hattie stumbled. Her clench tightened desperately.

"My shoulder," Scott reminded her, and she obeyed, grasping for a hold. "Now let me lead," he said, his laugh low and deep in his throat.

"I'm trying."

Her head was down and he was looking at that braid as she watched their feet. "Just feel the music," he said, trying to pull her into the rhythm. Even with her hair blocking his view, he knew when her toe landed on his.

"Sorry," she mumbled, the word barely audible as she aimed it to the planks.

It happened again. "Sorry." Her laugh was sudden and as throaty as his own, and it floated across the porch. She gave up on her feet and looked at him instead. The dusk had deepened and the light had changed with the seconds. The night hid the color of her eyes.

"Just feel it, Hattie."

It was a long way from being elegant and their boots bumped again, less painfully that time and the next, but finally they waltzed.

"It's not exactly a fancy ballroom," Hattie said

Scott looked around, into the dark shapes of the garden. The elm tree made a black and lacy silhouette against the first few stars. "I like it," he said.

"So do I."

Pressing with his fingertips, he brought her closer.

"Tell me about those women," Hattie said quietly.

"What women?"

"At those fancy balls."

Frank's tempo slowed and so did theirs. "They were all old and wrinkled and most of them had mustaches," Scott told her, listening for her laugh and letting it seep through him when it came.

"No, they didn't,” she said.

"You doubt me?"

"I do."

"Then why did you ask?"

"I shouldn't have."

Abandoning Frank's lethargic beat, Scott spun her faster across the planks. "Stockton must have a society ball."

"In the fall."

"I'll take you."

Hattie stumbled and she looked down again, widening the gap between them. Her tone was careful. "I won't be here," she reminded him. "Not if the store sells."

Still twirling awkwardly, Scott considered the probability of Frank's investment. Hattie's head stayed down and all he could see through the dark was her black hair. He measured his steps. "I don't want you to go," he said, wishing that he could judge the effect of his words and trying to feel it through her palm in his hand.

"Don't do this, Scott."

It wasn't what he'd expected and he stopped abruptly. Still with his left hand poised in the air, his right holding her at arm's length, just as he had with so many women before, he waited.

Hattie dragged her hand away. "I can't take any more noble men," she said.  "And you don't need to save me from anything. If Father goes to Colorado, then I'm going with him."

"Is that what you want?"

"Yes." There was a quiver in the word and he took that to him, held it protectively close.

"I hear Rosita's beautiful," he said.

"I've always wanted to see those mountains."

It was as poignant as it had always been, lingering delicately in her lie. Frank's waltz trailed off into another tune and this one Scott knew. He was grateful for the dark then, listening to the melody and hearing the ribald lyrics in his head, hoping that his brother didn't decide to favor them with his voice. He allowed his smile, a small one, hiding it in the shadow of the night.

"What if I wanted you to stay?" he asked.

"I wouldn't," she said.


"It's been a few weeks, Scott…that's all. You don't want to do this."

"Do what?"

"Ask me what you're thinking."

The warmth threaded through his thoughts, what there were of them.  All he was really aware of was that song, thumping cheerfully through the walls, and the dark.  And Hattie. "Two weeks isn't enough," he said, wanting her to hear the longing in his voice. She didn't though, he knew that when he felt her weight pressing against his hand; saw her try to pull away.  He grabbed her arm.

"Hattie…" he said.  "I didn't mean it that way."

"Let go."

"Look at me."


"Look at me."


You breathe in and a second is gone; breathe out and another—but there are moments. Scott considered that, watching as Hattie turned to him and a tear glinted in the almost black. There are moments when the air becomes a tangible thing and you wrap the pain and the sweetness in it; hold it apart.

Years later, he remembered. Lying in the deep of the night, with nothing but the sheets touching—he would reach for her as he did then and take her to him. And with the seedy notes of Frank's harmonica twining through the memory and Hattie skin-to-skin in his arms, he would resurrect that moment, the tender substance of that grace.

"Hattie," he had whispered, and there had been no more than that—no intention, no thought—just the knowing. "I'm asking."

"Thank God," she said.

And that was it, the whole familiar story. The single second when it all began.




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