WHN to Zee
or The Story of Zee Continued
by Lorraine M.
The glass in the large picture window shook and a chilly draft, accompanied by the sound of low moaning, filled the room. Three pairs of eyes automatically glanced toward the Lancer great room and the early morning vista framed in the window.
"Well, it is November." Murdoch Lancer smiled at his sons. Broad-shouldered and tall, Murdoch’s craggy face contrasted with those of the younger men with him. All three were standing in the hall a few steps from the kitchen, the aroma of coffee and bacon from breakfast still lingering on the air.
"It might be November, but yesterday morning it felt more like August." The speaker was blond, thin with blue eyes that danced in his face putting a lie to the grumbling voice.
"The weather never changes sudden like in Boston, Scott?" Deep blue eyes twinkled in the deeply tanned face framed by dark hair.
"Oh yes Johnny," the elder of the two Lancer sons said. "But then I never had to worry about sitting in a buckboard traveling miles without cover in Boston."
"Rode everywhere in style, huh?"
"Well, I could send Cipriano with Johnny to get the grain," Murdoch quickly interposed before either son could make another smart remark. "If you don't want to risk the possible inclement weather, Scott."
"Of course I will accompany Johnny." Scott said hastily–a little too hastily. Both Murdoch and Johnny exchanged a brief but amused glance. Seeing the looks, the older son sighed and smiled ruefully. "A little cold weather will not hurt me."
"You being anxious to go wouldn't have anything to do with a certain dark-haired girl minding Widow Hargis' store, now could it?" Johnny was openly grinning.
Pulling his hat off its customary hook, Scott frowned at his brother. "Can we go now?" Matching action with words, he strode toward the front door.
"Sure." Johnny's grin widened. Glancing at his father, he lowered his voice to a whisper although Scott was already almost out the entry. "Wonder how long before he admits he's soft on her. Everyone knows it but him."
"When he's ready to admit it to himself, I suppose." Murdoch smiled. "Maybe he's not quite forgiven her for that business in the jail and with that outlaw?"
"Yeah, a man's pride can get in the way of things."
"Johnny!" The shout reached into the hacienda. "Are you coming?"
"Well, duty calls. See you later, Murdoch."
“Make sure you take slickers and thick coats," the father said. "Nothing says we couldn't have a freak snowstorm this early."
"Yes Murdoch, I'm sure Jelly's already taken care of that."
Johnny's irritated tone caused Murdoch to shake his head, and then sigh. He was being a bit overprotective. But having his two sons together with him on the ranch, sharing his life, was such a precious thing that he should be forgiven for acting like a cautious father.
The squeaks of the wagon wheels, the creaking wood of the buckboard and the hum of the wind were the only sounds as the wagon made its way along the road. The route from Lancer approached the mountains and then ran parallel with them for many miles. The way wound through open meadows, wooded groves and once they left the borders of the ranch, the occasional farm with its outbuildings and tilled fields.
The landscape grew steadily hillier passing through several valleys. The high rocky bluffs of the glen they were currently traveling through seemed to press against the road. But, just as Johnny was beginning to feel closed in, the valley opened up and he could see a farm house set back from the road. Rows of dry corn stalks still filled the field around it.
As Johnny had expected Jelly had insisted they take coats and a blanket. Teresa had even packed extra slices of beef and bread on the off chance they might be on the road longer than they expected. But the weather had held. Although there was a bite to the wind, the billowing clouds scudding across the sky never completely blocked the sun. The journey had been uneventful and boring.
They were already almost in town, and for the whole ride Scott had stared at the road. Since he had insisted on driving, that was a good thing, but he had also refused to engage in any conversation. Inwardly Johnny sighed. Well, he'd had enough of Scott's moods. Shifting slightly in his seat and stretching Johnny spoke aloud.
"At least it seems a might warmer now." Glancing quickly at his brother, Johnny realized he wasn't going to respond. He'd have to be more direct. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to see a pretty girl. Nobody thinks any less of you."
That comment finally drew a reaction. Scott's frozen gaze shifted, and he turned his head slightly, "I dislike being the target of gossip."
"Too late for that, Boston. You and your involvement, or not, with one Zee Cooper, once calling herself Mangrim, has been the main gossip since she planted one very public kiss on you six months ago. Nope, I'm wrong. Since the town folk found out your prisoner was a `she'."
Scott closed his eyes and groaned. "All I ask is some privacy and peace.”
"Oh, nobody goes out of their way to spy on you. Not that I know of, that is. Call it friendly curiosity. Why even the widow Hargis lets you see Zee alone."
"And everyone assumes I am courting her!" The anger in Scott's voice surprised Johnny. He really was upset. Biding his time, Johnny waited to see if his brother would continue. After a long silence Scott sighed. “I have been tutoring her, and lending her books. She is remarkably intelligent. However, contrary to what everybody seems to believe, there is nothing but friendship between us."
"Sorry Boston." A flush reddened Johnny's cheeks. "I guess we have been presuming a might too much." Chagrin roughened his voice. "I shouldn't do something I'd hate to see directed at me."
Scott grimaced. "I suppose it is my fault. I do go out of my way to see her. But . . ."
As the hesitation grew longer, Johnny glanced over at his brother's face and found his older sibling staring at a spot just over the draft horses' rumps. A slight smile played on the older man's lips. Johnny doubted he even realized he was doing it. "It'll come or not come, Boston." Again the younger man's voice was pitched softly. "I've seen you with Zee. Two good friends having fun together. I think I'll leave it at that."
Scott shot his sibling a grateful look just as a gust of cold wind rushed between them. "What did you say about warmer?" he said shivering even in his coat.
"It could be worse."
"I suppose that is true. I also suppose those clouds over there bode well."
Johnny glanced in the direction Scott indicated. A bank of darker clouds, visible against the mountains they were approaching, hung in the distance as they rode out of the small valley. "Wouldn't want to ride into those mountains, but there's no telling if what's in them clouds will reach Lancer."
"I might not have lived in this part of the country as long as you, but I can recognize a weather front when I see one. And I know which direction the wind is blowing."
"And we can't do nothing about it."
"That is a fact, little brother." Scott shook the reins and whistled sharply. Immediately the horses quickened their pace. "We will be in town soon, and pick up our grain. Hopefully we can beat whatever is coming in back to Lancer."
"Good idea, Boston." Both men fell silent as Scott concentrated on the animals. But Johnny couldn't help but notice the small smile on his brother's lips, the brighter gleam in his eye, and the note of anticipation in the older man's voice.
Friends indeed. Maybe that's how you see it Scott, he thought to himself, but . . . I do recollect a fancy passage you read to me once about blind love.
As the Lancers drove into the small community they met very few town folks on the streets. The increasingly bitter wind had seemingly swept the inhabitants into their homes and businesses. Those people who were out greeted the Lancer brothers amiably. Scott kept driving until the siblings reached the feed store.
Johnny jumped down before Scott had completely stopped the wagon. As the younger man slipped into the entryway he paused and looked up at his brother. "I'll see to the grain. Why don't you check if that dress material Teresa ordered has arrived yet?"
No hint of a smile could be seen in the younger sibling's deep blue eyes or on his expressive face, but Scott still frowned. "No, I should help you."
"Figure I owe you still for making you load all those barrels yourself that day."
"I did lose the bet," Scott said dryly.
"Yeah, but I meant it to be a day when there wasn't so much work to be done."
“Lancer is a working ranch. We even have chores on Sunday."
"But not as many." Johnny's eyes twinkled. "You could have chosen any day."
"The wager was for a full day's chores. I do not begrudge that day." Scott grinned. "But if you are so sure you can handle the grain, maybe I will check on Teresa's cloth. See you, little brother."
With a tip of his hat, Scott jumped off the buckboard and headed across the street. Johnny watched his brother saunter over to the dry-goods store owned by Eulalia Hargis. The woman calling herself Zee Mangrim had been paroled into the custody of the widow after her trial, a trial that had very nearly not happened.
Even after all these months Johnny only knew the bare facts. And if he let himself think too much about those facts, he wanted to punch out some of the good citizens of this fine town. Somehow the outlaw Tom Mangrim had found out that Zee was claiming to be his daughter. He had ridden into town, offering her a place with his band. Only Scott had stood up to him, refusing to free Zee.
How close he had come to losing his brother, Johnny suspected he would never know. But he had seen how the judge and town drunk apologized to Scott every time they saw him until the older sibling had testily told them for the umpteenth time that they had apologized enough. Johnny wasn't sure about that. Yet, perhaps some good had come of that episode. Johnny had never seen Scott act so relaxed and happy with any other woman. He and Zee had a connection. The question was what kind?
Abruptly Johnny realized he was standing half in and half out of the door and letting the cold draft into the interior of the feed store. Sighing to himself, he shut the door and walked in. The store owner looked up at him from behind the counter. Jed was about his father's age, tall and spindly. What hair he had stood up in tufts from his head. He frowned at Johnny. "Let enough cold air in? Well, I have your order in the barn. You here by yourself?"
"No, Scott came with me, but I figured I could load the buckboard myself."
"Did you lose the bet this time?"
"No bet," Johnny said, deceptively mildly.
Sensing the other man’s irritation, Jed swallowed. "Um, it’s just, my boy can help you. And if your brother went to the store to see the widow's charge he's gonna be disappointed. Fact is she's not there."
Despite his dislike of gossip, Johnny was about to open his mouth and ask why when he heard the door open and turned to see Scott enter. Seeing the expression on his brother's face the younger Lancer spoke first, "Grain is in the barn. Let's go and load the wagon." With a smile and nod at Jed, Johnny headed for the side door leading into the attached barn. He sensed his brother following. Scott walked past him, through the outbuilding, and only paused when he neared the barn's outer door. After gazing into a straw-filled corner for a long moment he began to speak softly.
"She is not in town."
Johnny had to stifle a smile at the mix of irritation and dejection in his sibling's voice. "So Jed said. I'm real surprised the widow let Zee out of her sight."
"Do you remember Mrs. Bradley?"
"You mean Tom and Mary who own that land up almost in the mountains. The ones with four kids and another on the way?"
"Not on the way. She was born almost three weeks ago. Apparently it was a difficult birth. Sam wanted someone to stay with Mary, and Zee volunteered."
"I wouldn't want to be in that place with four young'uns and a new one." Johnny grinned.
"Nor would I." Scott's smile matched his brother's. "My understanding of the situation is, Mrs. Hargis had intended to also go with Zee, but her nephew has been sickly and she has been nursing him. So Zee went by herself.” Pausing, he glanced around. “Well, no reason to delay returning home. That looks like our order." The older Lancer came to a halt at a pile of bags all marked with an L and piled neatly next to the exit.
Realizing from the way Scott had changed the subject that he wasn't going to talk about Zee, Johnny tactfully nodded and opened the door of the barn.
Both brothers picked up bags and headed to the wagon. They were each on their fourth load when Johnny happened to see the widow Hargis step out of her store. The older woman wrapped her shawl tightly around her arms and glanced around. When she saw the Lancers, she stepped determinedly into the street and began marching toward them. Tapping Scott on the shoulder, Johnny inclined his head in the direction of the austere woman. Placing their respective loads on the wagon, they waited. Ignoring Johnny, Widow Hargis walked right to Scott and gazed up at his face.
“I need your help, Scott Lancer."
Scott blinked at the older woman. To Johnny's amusement he could read his brother well enough to know the older man was wrestling with his manners and his desire to have as little to do with the widow as possible. Manners won out of course.
"Good day to you again, Ma'am. How can I help you?"
True to her personality she plunged right into her request. "Zee was supposed to come home today. Fred Simpson had told me he would do it."
"The same Fred who escorted Zee to that barn dance we missed last month." At Johnny's soft voice the widow turned her severe visage upon the younger Lancer.
"Fred is a good boy. He'll be a first-rate blacksmith someday. But apparently he injured his hand and he can't drive a wagon himself. The weather is looking to turn for the worse. I wanted Zee home before that." While she spoke Widow Hargis glanced in the direction of the mountains. A slight smile softened her face. "She's such a help." Seemingly realizing how much of her inner feelings she was letting out, her face turned stern again. "Well Scott, will you help me?"
"I am not sure how I can help you, ma'am."
Once more Johnny suppressed a smile. He could see the change in Scott's demeanor. His brother was well aware of what the widow wanted him to do. And he was ready to leave in a heartbeat. He just wanted it spelled out.
"I would think that was obvious, Mr. Lancer. I want you to pick Zee up at the Bradley farm. I'll lend you my buggy and horse."
"I am in the middle of a chore. I will have to ask my brother if he can take the grain back by himself. Johnny?" Scott turned so he was fully facing his brother and had his back to the widow.
The look he gave his sibling, daring him to say anything but `yes', caused Johnny to smother a chuckle. The chuckle quickly became a snort that he hid in a fit of coughing. “Can I tell Murdoch, you'll be back at the ranch tomorrow, midmorning or later?"
“It will be late by the time I return to town with Zee.”
"You can stay at my house," the widow said. "But if the weather takes a turn for the worse, don't come back until morning. Tom has a shed you can sleep in if need be."
"I should leave as soon as possible, and I will be pleased to partake of your hospitality when I return with Zee," Scott said. "Where is your buggy?" Once more he glared at his brother, but this time Johnny saw the gleam in his eyes.
With difficulty Johnny suppressed more laugher. The younger sibling had once spent a night in Tom's shed. It would be dank, cold and uncomfortable. The widow's workroom would be warmer at least. Well, Scott, he thought. Hope you make good use of your time with Zee. Aloud he said, "Have a safe trip. Be careful though. No telling what kind of weather you'll run into up there. See you back at Lancer."
With a quick flick of his wrist, Scott urged the draft horse, Bessie, to greater speed. It had taken several miles of driving before he was completely comfortable with the widow's Phaeton Carriage, a type of buggy he had never operated before. The carriage was light and responded quickly to all maneuvers. However, those same features made it more prone to skidding and more challenging to control.
Trust the widow to have the “Ladies” style, with most of the added accouterments available. The leather upholstery was comfortable and its leather top would afford some protection if it did rain. To be on the safe side Scott had also opened the knee-boot, with some help from Johnny and the widow. When not in use the leather apron lined with woolen serge was folded against the dash. But fully installed, it extended upward to protect the lower bodies of the riders from inclement weather.
A cold gust of wind knifed through Scott’s woolen coat and the rubber slicker he wore, as well as the lap blanket he had covered his legs with. Another blanket and a mackintosh, also provided by the widow, were folded next to his feet. Looking at the darkening sky, he shivered. “Maybe this is a stupid idea.”
His teeth chattered on the words and Scott grimaced. No way was he going to spend a night in the Bradley shed. He’d heard Johnny’s colorful and detailed description. And that had been a cold spring night.
As Scott shivered again, he caught sight of a wooden shack just visible down a side trail. The thin, clapboard structure appeared to lean against the stony hillside. It resembled the description given by Johnny of the shed at Tom’s place. Must be someone’s line shack, he thought fleetingly. The sight made him yearn all the more for the warmth of Widow Hargis' storeroom.
The highway leading toward the mountains climbed steadily upward through rocky, less hospitable land. The Bradley’s actually lived in the foothills, for which Scott was grateful. He had no desire to take on steep, switchback mountain paths in potentially bad weather. The roads he would be travelling would be challenging enough.
Tom and Mary owned a small plot of land on which they grew food for themselves, but mostly they eked a living from a small mine. Tom had been lucky enough to find and lay claim to a vein that provided just enough silver to support the Bradley’s. Scott had met the family in town and had been to their farm once before, when he had delivered an order of supplies as a favor to Jed.
Mary was a tiny woman with seemingly boundless energy and her children were surprisingly well behaved and happy. Their eldest was twelve and she already helped her mother. The rest of the children, all boys except for the newest, were spaced every three years like clockwork. The Bradley’s loved each other. Anyone with half a brain could see that. They had found happiness together despite the hardships of their life. Love was possible for some people.
In the midst of his musing an image grew, of a slender girl with dark hair and a twinkle in her eyes. Scott’s thoughts tumbled. When he had first met Zee, he had been angry with her, then sorry for her, then angry again. Finally, he had felt only sadness at how she was throwing away her life. The sorrow had turned into a grudging respect and admiration as she had faced the angry townsfolk.
When Mangrim and his men had left the settlement, the good citizens’ cowardice had shifted into anger against the one they perceived to be the cause of their discomfort. Zee had accepted their censor, matching it with quiet courage. She had even faced up to what she had done to the widow and regained her respect.
Yet, even from the beginning he had felt something else while in her presence. No matter how angry he had been with her, deep inside part of him wanted to laugh with her at her audacity. She was like a breath of fresh air in a smoky room. Her general irreverence was exhilarating, always invigorating him.
They never stopped talking when they were together. Zee’s mind was amazing. She was like a sponge, drinking in whatever he would tell or show her. Denied any kind of education by her deprived childhood, he had begun by teaching her to read. Before long he was lending her books. They discussed history and literature, even some political science. What she didn’t understand she would work at until she had figured it out. He had never met anyone like her.
Deep in his thoughts he was almost allowing the draft horse to steer itself. Suddenly a gust of wind whipped around him, the biting cold once again penetrating his coat with ease. The discomfort brought him back to the present with a vengeance. He shivered as he watched the hump of the animal pulling the small buggy. The closer Scott came to the road leading off to the Bradley farm the more ominous the clouds began to look. In the higher elevations it was most surely snowing, but here it would likely rain--at least at first. And it would be dark in some two hours. Almost not enough time to make it back to town.
Maybe I will have to stay the night, he thought grimly. But I surely hope not.
As if in answer to an unspoken prayer, the rocky wall to his left opened up and the side road leading to the Bradley home came into view. Eagerly Scott directed Bessie onto it. Minutes later he reached the clearing with the small house. Behind it, he could see a tiny boxlike structure that shook in the wind. A young girl came spilling out the front door of the home, an even younger boy at her heels. Both children were shrieking with laughter. They froze when they saw Scott pull up. From his perch Scott nodded down at the obvious siblings.
“I am here to see Zee Cooper. You are Suzy, right? Can you tell your mother that Scott Lancer has arrived to take Zee back to town?” At the girl’s quick nod, Scott smiled. Delight lit up the girl’s eyes and she grinned in return before scampering back into the house with her brother right behind her. Shaking his head, Scott swung down from the single-bench seat, grabbed the mackintosh and approached the front entry. Before he reached it, the door swung open. Light, and the odor of baking bread and cooking beef, enveloped him.
Something else enveloped him. A familiar set of arms hugged him, before the owner stepped back, pulling him through the door. “Mary, this here is Scott Lancer.”
Seated in a rocking chair near the massive fireplace was Mary Bradley, her arms enfolding a bundle of cloth. Standing behind her stood three small boys. They stared at the new arrival with wide eyes.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.” Scott approached her and gazed at the tiny face within the material. “She is a beauty. As are all your children.”
“Almost evening from the feel of it, Mr. Lancer. And yes, I am partial to her. Partial to all my young’uns. So you’ve come for Zee. Well, she’s been a treasure to have, but I reckon we can get along well enough now. But surely you should stay for supper and sleep here tonight? We can always feed another.” She glanced at the fireplace. “Supper should be ready within the hour.”
Following her gaze, Scott really studied the hearth. Nestled in its hot coals was a bake-pot from which came a sweet, fruity smell. Near the fireplace was a step stove, the cast-iron pipe venting through the roof. The contents of a kettle bubbled on top of its lower surface along with a coffee pot. The odors of cooking meat emanated from the pot that was being studiously stirred by the girl who had been outside. Scott could also smell what might be biscuits from the oven portion forming the step up. It all appeared very appetizing. Scott’s stomach almost let out a betraying rumble.
Then he studied the rest of the home. The only other furniture to be seen was two chairs and three stools along with a small table and several chests. The walls were set with hooks from which hung coats and various bundles. A ladder led up one wall to the undercroft, where the children probably slept. A curtain closed off what Scott knew was the only other room in the house, more an alcove than a separate space. There was no sign of where Zee had slept and certainly no place for him. The dinner might be worthwhile but the accommodations certainly would not be, he thought wryly.
As if reading his mind Zee said cheerfully, “I sleep near the fire on the floor, but you could use the shed.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief.
“I know we can make it back tonight, ma’am. But we must not dawdle. Mrs. Hargis has already promised me a late supper and a bed in her store.”
“On the counter, right?”
“A place to sleep. You see ma’am, I am doing this as a favor since Fred Simpson hurt himself . . .”
“Oh poor Fred,” Zee interrupted, the picture of worry.
“What happened to the young man?”
“He hurt his hand, I understand. Nothing too serious but he is unable to drive a buggy. Ma’am, I have duties at home, the sooner I get back to Lancer the better.”
“I understand. But call me Mary, please. There’s a bad spell of weather coming in.”
“I think we will be back in town before it arrives. That is, if we leave now.”
“Well, I reckon I’ll let my husband know what’s happening when he comes in from the mine. You drive carefully. Zee’s a wonderful person. I want you to take good care of her and get her back to town safely.”
“I promise Mary. You take care, ma’am.” Scott bowed to the mother and then to her oldest child before turning to the object of his trip. “Zee? I have another coat from Mrs. Hargis, her mackintosh.”
“How sweet. She’s always looking after me, I . . .”
Before she could continue the door opened, letting in a cold gust of wind and a tall, bundled bear of a man. Closing the door carefully, he hung his coat on a hook, turned and immediately strode up to his wife. Enveloping her and his new baby in his arms, he held them for almost a minute before hugging each of his other children in turn. For several minutes he spoke softly to them, eliciting giggles in return. Finally, he shifted back to the visitor and smiled. “Nice to see ya again, Scott.”
“Good afternoon, Tom.”
“Not much afternoon left. Nigh on dark and the wind’s fitting to sweep everything out of its way. You’re here for Zee? Well, we knew she was going back to the widow. Leaving first thing in the morning?”
“Well, no.” Scott felt compelled somehow to explain his intentions. “I am sure I can get Zee back to town tonight. I was not supposed to be making this trip.”
“Fred was supposed to do it,” Zee interrupted, her face carefully neutral. “He hurt himself.”
“Yes. My brother and I were in town picking up our supply of grain, and Mrs. Hargis asked me to drive out here and retrieve Zee. I agreed of course, but I left Johnny to finish my chores as well as his. It is only fair I return as soon as possible. If I stay here, tonight, even if we leave at dawn, I will miss half a day’s work.”
“I reckon we understand.” Tom shared a quick smile with his wife. “Mighty nice of you to take time from your busy schedule to come up here for the widow.”
“Um, yes. Well, um Zee?” He turned to her quickly, suddenly at a loss for words.
“I’m just about ready. I know, the sooner we’re on the road the better.”
Quickly she hugged Tom, Mary and each child in turn before walking to the wall. Pulling a coat and scarf off a hook, she put on the coat and then wrapped the scarf around her head and neck before allowing Scott to help her into the rain gear. Then she plucked off a bundle that was hanging on another hook and grinned at the blond. “Let’s go.”
His stomach knotting uncomfortably, Johnny drove through the large arch of the Lancer homestead, finally stopping the horses outside the barn. Several hands came out to greet him and immediately began unloading the feed. For a brief moment Johnny thought longingly of dinner and the warmth of the hacienda before his worry reasserted itself. Catching sight of the Segundo opening the barn door, Johnny called out to him as he jumped down from the buckboard.
“Hey, Cipriano, can you saddle Barranca and Scott’s horse, por favor?” The man nodded, and entered the barn. He asked no questions, for which Johnny was grateful. The younger Lancer had no answers for what he was planning on doing.
For no good reason Johnny was worried about Scott. He knew his older brother was competent, perfectly capable of driving to the Bradley place and back to town. Yet the dark clouds over the mountains, and some inner voice Johnny had learned not to ignore, urged him to return to town.
Murdoch Lancer chose that moment to ride through the arch himself, followed by several men. Dismounting at the barn he rubbed his hands and blew his breath against them. “Glad to see you back, Johnny. It’s sure turned bitter. Juan,” he called after one of the hands who had just arrived with him. “After you take care of the horses and grain, why don’t you and the men have a nip of tequila. I think you’ve earned it.”
Juan and the others smiled and nodded. Grinning, Murdoch turned to his younger son. “So you beat the weather after all. Good. Who knows how bad it will get.” Glancing around, he asked, “Where’s Scott? Is he inside?”
Just then a flash of lighting lit the sky. Swiftly Johnny twisted around and stared in the direction of the mountains. “No, he’s not.” A thread of fear ran through the soft words.
“Where is he?” Somehow Murdoch knew he wasn’t going to like the answer. A loud rumble of thunder echoed from the direction of town. Murdoch heard Barranca’s familiar whinny and turned to see Cipriano leading the palomino and another horse toward Johnny. Both animals were saddled with what looked like extra blankets. “Where are you going? Why do you have Scott’s horse? Isn’t he here?”
“By now he should be on his way back to town from Tom and Mary Bradley’s place.” Seeing the irritation tinged with apprehension on his father’s face, Johnny accepted the fact he would have to take the time to explain the situation. But the clouds massing over the mountains were turning ugly. And the thought of Scott on those roads worried him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as if he had a logical reason for his uneasiness.
He took a deep breath and began to talk. “Mary Bradley had her baby but the doc wanted someone to stay with her. Zee volunteered. Fred, the blacksmith’s apprentice was supposed to pick her up and bring her back to the widow today. But it seems he hurt himself. So the Widow Hargis asked Scott to do it. Kinda at the last minute. She knew he would. And we didn’t think you’d mind.” A smile tugged at Johnny’s lips.
“Anyways, I think I’ll ride back. Bring him his horse. This way, he won’t have to hire some nag to get back here and we won’t have to worry about returning it.”
“Well, you say he should be on his way back to the town by now. He’ll be there before you.” Murdoch carefully studied his son. “Johnny, what aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing to tell. Just, just that I don’t rightly know. But Murdoch, I feel I gotta go back to town. I gotta be there when Scott . . . For Scott . . .” his words trailed off into silence as he stared at the distant mountains. He couldn’t justify how he felt to himself, how was he supposed to explain it to Murdoch? When Jelly’s voice broke the silence Johnny almost jumped.
“The widow has that fancy rig. Called a Phaeton,”
Mentally cursing himself for his jitters, the Johnny turned to the family friend. A scarf was wrapped around the older man’s head and ears and his hands were thrust under his coat.
Jelly continued talking, oblivious to Johnny’s discomfiture. “Scott’s never used one. Plus he’s driving into a storm. Mighty foolish, even for a fool in love.”
“Scott’s proved himself adept at handling any rig he’s tried,” Murdoch stated. “And we don’t know how bad the weather is up there.”
“It’s bad enough,” Jelly said. “Mark my words. We’ll be seeing icy rain soon and there’ll be snow by morning. Them roads Scott is on will be ten times worse.”
“Murdoch.” Johnny shifted to face his father. “I just gotta go. I know Scott can handle that rig. He can handle anything. But, every sense I’ve got is screaming for me to go back.” Shifting slightly, he took the reins from Cipriano. “Please understand.”
“No, I don’t understand. You’re cold, wet, you must be bone-tired already and you haven’t had supper. But, I won’t stop you. If you feel you must, how can I gainsay you? Bring your brother back tomorrow.”
“I will, Murdoch.” In one lithe movement Johnny jumped onto Barranca. Taking the line for the other horse, he turned once more to his father. “I surely will.” Nodding once at the assembled men, he whispered into his horse’s ear and Barranca leapt forward.
Ignoring the growing uncomfortable lump in his own stomach, Murdoch stood in the cold until he could no longer see his son.
The cold air struck Scott like a slap in the face after the warmth of the Bradley home. Shivering despite himself, he helped Zee into the buggy, settled the lap blanket on her, and climbed in. He was a little disconcerted when he felt Zee arranging his lap blanket, leaning over him to make sure it was secure. He felt her warm breath, and a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold, reverberated throughout his body. Covering his discomfiture with movement, he flicked his wrist to start their journey, and almost had to draw Bessie back when she eagerly pulled forward. Apparently, she wanted to be in a nice warm place as much as the humans.
For a space Zee was silent. Scott had the uncomfortable feeling she was judging whether he could handle the rig properly. But, true to her personality, Zee began talking after about a mile.
"Sure is a wicked night."
"Night will not arrive officially for several hours."
"With that storm coming the night'll follow real soon. I expect we'll have rain that'll turn into snow."
"I sincerely hope not."
"Am I making proper conversation about the weather?"
Scott suppressed a smile, knowing without looking, that her face was wreathed in a mischievous grin. "You are doing just fine."
"Why, thank you. You're right handy with this fancy rig of the widow's, you know. We'll be okay."
"I have driven other phaeton carriages, and this rig handles very like them. But, I am pleased you have such faith in me." Scott turned his head briefly from the road and chuckled.
"I have faith you can do anything you set your mind to." Her voice dropped. "You're a right fine man."
Although her comment was almost swallowed by the wind, Scott heard enough of it. Suddenly disconcerted, he concentrated on the bends in the road.
Zee was also quiet, so quiet that after several minutes he turned to her in concern. "Are you feeling well?"
Flashing a smile, Zee nodded. "Tired some. Helping Mary was harder work than anything I've done for the widow. That's some fine woman, Mary Bradley. Her young'uns are small treasures. Bringing up such angels takes some powerful rearing."
"It takes a mother and a father who truly care about their children. Who show them unconditional love," Scott answered automatically, his thoughts shifting to his own impressions of Mary and Tom. "Parents who raise their children united, secure enough in their own love to share that affection with the offspring of that passion." His voice trailed off as he heard his own words. Even in the cold wind he could feel his cheeks grow warm.
"You always had a purdy, no pretty way with words Scott Lancer. Comes from all that poetry you give me to read."
"I was just commenting on how happy they must be," He replied stiffly.
"Oh, yes. They're powerful happy. Um, no. They are very happy."
"Very good, Zee."
"You think so Scott? I've been trying real hard to learn proper speech. Hmm, I'm working hard at learning proper English."
"Everything you say proves it. You are progressing faster then I would ever have thought possible. I am very proud of you." He turned his face to her. “I am glad our time together has been so fruitful."
"Fruitful? So we thrive together?"
"Well, yes," Scott laughed. "You could say that. You continue to study, improving yourself and I continue to have a star pupil."
"Is that what I am to you, Scott Lancer? Nothin' more than a schoolgirl?"
"Surely not a schoolgirl." Once more his words were spoken before he thought about them. Shifting slightly, he saw the gleam in her eye, and began to sputter. "What I mean to say is you are mature, certainly not a child . . ."
Suddenly a brilliant light split the night. Rearing up in alarm, the draft horse darted forward. Scott fought to calm her. The loud boom of thunder following moments later further rattled the horse. For several minutes Scott struggled to regain control of the carriage. When he finally had her moving at a steady pace once more he realized it had begun to rain, a steady, icy flow.
The leather top and knee-boot somewhat shielded the passengers from what poured from the heavens and what splashed from the road, but not from what blew in from the sides. Cold rain drove itself into every possible crack in the slickers and began to soak their lap blankets. No, not rain. The moisture had begun to change into tiny pellets that stung Scott's face wherever they fell.
"I am sorry Zee. We should have waited," he shouted into the wind, not daring to take his eyes off the darkening road.
"Don't worry none about it. Tom and Mary's shed would have let this rain in too." Scott could hear the smile in her voice. "Tom always talks about fixing the roof, but never gets to it. Uses their cold cellar to store food in." He felt her arm encircle him. "I kinda wanted to get out of there.
Being surrounded by so much love, well, it kinda gets strange. Kinda gets almost lonely . . . me being well . . . I'm glad enough to be going back to the widow. And I'm grateful you came to get me."
Her words died out and he felt her stiffen and suddenly release him. "Zee, maybe you'd better hold on to me."
"You want me to hold you?" The words held an edge of eagerness.
"What I mean to say is, the road could be bumpy." His words came out with difficulty. "You will be safer if you hold on."
"Is that all you mean, Scott Lancer?"
"What?" He shifted slightly to look at her.
Suddenly another flash lit the air followed by a loud rumble. Immediately Bessie took off down the road. Urgently Scott pulled at the reins. After what seemed like hours, but he knew were only minutes, he began to feel the draft horse responding to his commands. In the dimming light, he saw the road ahead begin to curve around a jutting bluff. The other side was lined with some trees interspersed with boulders of varying sizes.
Scott felt Zee shift so she was able to clutch at her side of the buggy. Fleetingly, he thought that she must have realized he needed all of his wits to control the carriage. Yet when a hand snaked out to lie reassuringly against his leg, the touch brought a measure of calm to his racing heart. He wished she could calm the horse as easily as she could calm him.
He pulled back more on the reins, but they were moving too fast. As the buggy traversed the arc, he felt the wheels slipping forward instead of turning. Frantically, he dragged at the reins, but momentum drove them against the line of trees and rocks. With an unnatural grinding noise the wheels impacted with live wood and stone before they belatedly took the bend.
The carriage bumped and shook as it continued its progress. Jutting his leg out, Scott stomped on the brake. He felt Zee release him to use both hands to hold the bucking vehicle. There was a whisper of pressure against his leg just as the buggy jumped and the wheels began to disintegrate.
The phaeton was going to crash. Desperately Scott began to turn, with the half thought of somehow protecting Zee, when fate or divine intervention finally stepped in. Bessie slowed and stopped just as the phaeton twisted to the side, the jerking motion projecting Scott out of his seat and over the side of the knee-boot. He fell between the trees, landing on the wet, cold ground.
Rolling as he descended, he hardly felt the jar of impact. As he came to a stop, he jumped to his feet, running for the carriage. With immense relief, he saw Zee half in half out of the buggy.
She almost melted into him as he reached for her. Then they were in each others arms and nothing else existed or mattered.
The cold rain had turned to icy crystals as Johnny Lancer entered town. It was dusk, and several lamps had been lit on street corners, their flames sputtering in the wind. He rode down the street shivering in his coat.
Scott. I'd better find you warm and snug in the widow's storeroom.
Unconsciously urging Barranca to a faster trot, he stopped outside her store. One of the lanterns hung nearby, its light illuminating her entry and some of the sidewalk. Dismounting, he tied the horses to the hitch. "Sorry Barranca. I'll get you out of this cold soon. I promise." With a soft touch against his horse's neck, he turned and stepped up to the door.
It took several minutes of pounding before the door opened to reveal the angry widow dressed in a nightgown and robe. She squinted at him a moment. "What do you want, Johnny Lancer? Why are you rousing a respectable woman at this hour?"
"I'm sorry." Now that he was here he began to feel like a fool. He ducked his head downward and then looked up again. "I wanted to see Scott."
"Scott? Scott's not here."
The uneasy feeling in the pit of Johnny's stomach flared again. "Where is he?"
"At the Bradley place, I presume. Where else would he be? The weather came in sooner then we expected. We'll see him come morning."
"Dios!" Johnny shivered.
"Now, what's bothering you? Why did you come all the way back here?"
"Something's wrong, I know it."
"Now what makes you think . . .?”
"Mrs. Hargis, Mrs. Hargis!"
The shout issued from the mouth of a child. Turning together, the man and woman saw a young boy running full tilt down the wet sidewalk towards them. Johnny recognized him as the ten year old who helped his dad in the town's only livery stable. Stopping next to them, the child gulped in air as he stared at the other person with the widow.
Smiling encouragingly despite his growing fear, Johnny prompted. "Well, go on."
"Yes Davy. What has happened?"
"Your horse, ma'am. Bessie. She just come back to the barn."
"The one my brother was using to pull the widow's buggy. Boy, tell us all of it, slowly."
"Nothin' ta tell. Bessie just came back. She's lathered something awful an' she's lame in one foot. But my pa says it'll get better. But she has burn marks on her like her harness had rubbed badly against her skin. Pa thinks she was in an accident."
"Dios!" Automatically Johnny turned toward his horse.
"Johnny Lancer where do you think you are going!?"
Pausing, the former gunfighter shifted his face so he could see the widow. "After my brother," he enunciated slowly.
"In this freezing rain? And its going to be full dark soon. Don't be a fool, boy. You won't do your brother Scott or Zee any good lying on the road with a broken neck!"
Glaring at her, Johnny opened his mouth to rebuke her when the wind blew the lantern, illuminating the worry and fear in her eyes. Breathing deeply, he slowed his rapidly beating heart. "He might die outside in this weather." He almost choked on his words.
"They might both be dead already."
"No, not dead." Johnny turned back to the boy. "Davy, was Bessie pulling any harness or tack?"
"Scott must have removed it." He smiled at the widow. "Don't you see? Whatever happened they’re still alive."
"Then let's pray to God that he's found them shelter this night. Don't go off half-cocked and get yourself hurt or killed. Scott wouldn't want that. God knows what you need. Let him help you."
"In my experience, ma'am, God helps those who help themselves," Johnny growled. "What Scott needs is me findin' him!" Turning and jumping, he mounted his horse. Grabbing the reins of Scott's horse, he spoke earnestly. "Ma'am, I'm coming back with Zee and Scott."
"You're a fool, Johnny Lancer!"
The widow found herself speaking to a young boy and an empty street as the growing darkness swallowed the former gunslinger. Shaking her head, she sighed before glancing down at the boy. "Well, Davy, let me put on a coat. I want to see my Bessie and talk to your father." She reached for her door knob, and then glanced once more at the deserted street. Softly she whispered, "Please God, you have a special love for fools. Protect one fool tonight, and let him find our missing loved ones." Shaking her head, she continued into her store.
The cold, icy rain blew against the two people on the muddy, darkening road. Nearby a horse whinnied. When the sound came again, the man hastily pulled away from the woman. "I apologize, Zee." Scott backed away another step. "I am being unforgivably forward. I thought you might be injured."
"Nothin' to fret about. I'm fine." Her face carefully neutral, Zee rubbed her hands. "I'm a little sore. Felt like I've been thrown around like a sack in a mail stage. Nothin' a good night's sleep won't take care of. Feel wet through, even with this mackintosh. You must be too. You alright? You landed hard."
"Nothing a good night’s sleep will not cure.” Scott smiled in relief. “Let me see to Bessie. She must be terrified."
The next several minutes were spent calming the horse and separating her from the useless rig. Then Scott turned his attention to the carriage. The body of the phaeton was lying just off the road, the wheels on the left side obviously destroyed. "I am fairly certain the Widow’s carriage can be repaired," he announced with a frown. "But not anytime soon."
"How far is it to town?"
Scott gazed down the road they had been traveling and his frown deepened. "I am not sure. A few more miles at least, not an easy walk in this weather. Maybe Bessie will let you ride her."
Abruptly the dusk was replaced by a flash of brightness that momentarily blinded both man and woman. At almost the same instant a loud crash and boom nearly threw them off their feet. Dimly Scott heard Bessie scream in terror. When his eyes cleared the horse was nowhere in sight.
"Damn! Bessie is gone.” He looked around urgently. "We need to get under cover. That lighting was close." He sighed. “At least Bessie will enjoy a warm barn tonight!"
"What?" Lancer turned to the woman next to him. "Do you see the horse?"
"Don't care about that fool nag." She was looking down.
Finally, following her gaze, he sucked in his breath. His pants were shredded on the outer side of his right leg from knee to ankle. Gingerly he knelt and touched the skin that was exposed. It seeped red along the length of torn material. "I can hardly feel it."
"You're near frozen through. Course you can't feel it.” Shaking her head, she began removing her scarf. “But it sure needs tending."
"You are not taking that off for me."
"Don't be a danged fool!"
"The cold is keeping it from bleeding much. I am fine. You need that scarf."
"You are the most obstinate man I've ever met."
"I can say the same about you."
"Well, bleed all over yourself if ya want to. But you'll never walk to town like that."
"I suppose not," he agreed ruefully. Carefully, he stood up. Glancing around, he chewed at his lip. "I am unfamiliar with this terrain, but I am reasonable certain no shelter exists between us and the town. What have I done? I am a fool Zee." He gazed into her brown eyes. "We should have stayed at Tom and Mary's. I have put you in terrible danger."
A small smile played on her expressive face. "Don't feel so terrible. And I reckon the only person you've hurt so far is yourself."
"This weather can kill us both. And quicker than you might think."
"You'll think of something."
"I hope your faith in me is not misplaced.” He frowned, and looked down at the snowy ground. Wait!" His eyes widened. "I remember seeing an abandoned shack on my way up. I believe it is between us and the town."
"Well, movin' is better than staying out in this. As long as you can keep movin'."
"I said I was fine Zee."
"All right, don't get your nickers up. Think we should get them blankets we was using. They're wet but they might come in handy."
"Good idea." Scott started to turn.
"I'll just get those," Zee said firmly. "You stay right where you are." Matching action with words she returned to the rig and removed the blankets. Folding the bulky material over her arm, she came back to Scott. Taking his arm, they began walking.
Johnny rode along the icy road. Deep inside he knew the widow was right. He'd as likely break his own neck as find his missing brother. Glancing up at the dark clouds, he prayed for more light. All he needed was another hour!
The deepening shadows made a mockery of wishes. He could not even see the road clearly, let alone search for two people very likely dying of exposure. "Dios! Scott, where are you?" He was not aware of shouting, until he felt the rawness in his throat. The rising wind swallowed any sound he made. It also found every point of entry possible under his coat and slicker. Johnny could no longer feel his fingers, holding his reins, nor the skin of his face.
Unconsciously, he allowed Barranca to pick his own slow, but steady pace. Nevertheless, when his horse suddenly reared, Johnny found himself falling, unable to keep hold of the reins. Rolling with the abrupt descend, he landed hard. The movement brought him up against a solid, rough and uncomfortably large object.
Johnny's mind registered the objects' identity slowly. It appeared to be a tree trunk, a very big trunk, with very sharp and painful branches. It must have fallen on the road. He was on the road? I can feel the smoother surface of the road under my butt, right? He thought, strangely disorientated.
Barranca whinnied softly, followed by the same sound from Scott's horse. "I'm alright.” Johnny grimaced as he carefully stood up. “See? I'm fine boy.” Barranca whinnied again, nudging his rider with his nose. “I'm fine boy!” Once more Johnny spoke aloud, wondering even as he said the words if his cold-induced numbness hid anything other than assorted aches and pains.
It was now completely dark. Johnny could not even see the huge pine that blocked his way. “Scott, are you here?” He cried out uselessly.
Carefully he walked down the length of the tree until he reached its roots. Moving back to where its trunk narrowed, he gingerly climbed over it to check the other side, all the while fearful of what he might find.
Fortunately, or not, he found nothing but broken branches and holes hidden by the darkness. Finally he made his way back to the two horses. “Dios! Scott donde es tu?”
Once more his words were barely audible as the wind blew past him, knifing through his wet clothes. He almost missed the tug of the reins as Barranca began to back up. But he felt the nip, as his horse grabbed at his coat and pulled. “What are you doin’ boy? We gotta go on!”
Even as he spoke the words, Johnny realized he was fooling himself. It was dark, he couldn’t see where he was going, and he was cold and wet. The searcher was almost in need of rescue himself.
Once more Barranca snorted and pulled at his rider. Tears welled under Johnny's eyes, momentary warmth against his frozen skin. Scott, Scott. Where are you? He thought desperately. Dios! Where are you?
“I gotta go back.” He continued aloud, rubbing Barranca's neck. “Forgive me! I gotta wait until morning.”
Using a body that had suddenly become incredibly clumsy, he slowly mounted. Grabbing the other horses' reins, he whispered into Barranca's ears. “Get us back to town, boy.”
With a snort, the palomino began a careful trot. The countryside took on an eerie sameness as a light film of snow covered everything in sight. Very soon Johnny had no idea where they were. For all he knew they might have lost the road and were wandering the countryside. When he saw wildly moving lights in the distance, he almost cried out in relief. The lights turned out to be lamps held by Jed, his son and Davy's father.
The illumination guided him to the town. Without stopping, Johnny continued until he reached the livery stable. The men holding lanterns followed, providing plenty of light. Someone, he had no idea who steadied Johnny as he dismounted and stumbled into the barn.
Johnny looked up, surprised to see the widow Hargis. "I guess . . . you were . . . right, ma'am." It was surprisingly difficult for him to speak.
Mrs. Hargis opened her mouth to make a caustic remark, and then snapped it shut. Before her was a bedraggled, freezing, and hurting boy. As the widow watched, the young man's whole body seemed to deflate and melancholy filled his deep blue eyes
He almost looks as young as Davy, the widow thought. God, please. Help Johnny Lancer find his Scott and my Zee!
Aloud she said practically, "Let John and Davy take your horses. They'll take good care of them. Come with me. I have a bit of late supper for you to eat and some hot coffee. Looks like you could use both."
“But Scott? Zee? They’re both still out there?”
“Ya done all ya could. They're in God's hands now.”
He stared at her, as if he couldn’t understand her words, then he stumbled forward one step before stopping and glancing behind him. His words were whispered so low she almost didn’t catch them.
“Scott, why didn’t you stay at the Bradley’s? Did you listen to my foolishness about his shack?”
“Ain’t nothing to do but wait, son.” Jed said, pushing at Johnny. “Go with the widow now”
“You’d better not let yourself die. Hold on Boston, I’m coming.” Turning back toward the widow Hargis, Johnny took another step and his impossibly pale face became whiter.
With a gentle snort, Jed caught Johnny before he could fall. “Dang fools. Both of them.”
The two people stumbled along the stormy, windswept road. Scott kept them to the path more from the feel of the texture of the surface under his leaden feet, than from sight. His leg ached abominably, the heat of exertion no doubt helping to awake the pain.
Their movement was all that was keeping them alive. Both of them were soaked. If they stopped they might very well freeze to death. And, to make matters worse, the rain had turned into a fine snow, coating them with white.
Beside him, Zee moved mechanically. Her exhaustion was plain to see, even in the dark. For the umpteenth time Scott cursed his own pride; he had allowed his desire for comfort to replace his good sense. If he injured himself, well he deserved it. But his actions had already hurt an innocent, hurt Zee. What had he been thinking?
“Scott, you're limpin’”
“What did you say?” Lancer's tired mind finally registered what Zee had said. “I am fine. I told you.”
“And I'm the daughter of a famous outlaw," Zee muttered. She turned her face upward, only her expressive eyes visible under the scarf wrapped around her face. “For the past mile you've been limpin’ more and more. We gotta stop and see ta your leg.” In her agitation she was reverting to her old language habits.
“That is not possible.” Even as he said the words his leg began to ache more. He had no doubt he was bleeding.
“We gotta stop.”
“When we find that shack.”
Planting her feet wide, Zee stopped and glared at Scott. “Where is it, this fine shack of yourn?”
Her ire was lost on the blond, who slowing began to turn, gazing at the rock intently and then between it into the darker shadows. “There. Thank God, we found it!” He pointed excitedly into the darkness. “Come on!”
Practically dragging her by the arm, he stumbled toward the form he could barely see. The snow had coated the cabin in white. In the shadows the lighter shade gleamed, an unnatural shape among the rocks. Reaching the building both Zee and Scott began to laugh. Pushing against the door, Scott felt it give. With a final push he opened the door. Still laughing, with a mirth born of almost hysterical relief, both entered and shut the door behind them.
The cold, dark interior seemed to swallow the laughter of the man and woman. With a muffled curse, Scott turned back to the door. Clasping Zee's hand, he kept hold of her while he used the other to feel the wall around the opening.
“If this was provisioned similarly to the Lancer’s line shacks, and it is still stocked, there should be a lantern on a hook around here. Wait, I found it.”
“Is there oil?”
“Yes!” Relief flooded Scott's voice.
“Well, we keep them on a little shelf above. I have them! Now I'll see about lighting this in the dark.”
“Let me,” Zee said. "I can do it by feel."
With a shrug he knew she couldn’t see, he handed her the lantern. He heard the sound of the glass dome being lifted, and then a bright flare nearly blinded him. Moments later a cheerful glow filled the small building.
Grinning, he glanced around and was rewarded by the sight of a small pot-belly stove and a pile of wood. Quickly he began to lay a fire while Zee searched the rest of the small room.
“Well, there's a bed, not that I trust it none to stay in one piece ifen I laid on it." Scott glanced where she indicated and nodded in agreement before going back to the fire. He continued listening to Zee's voice. “And I found some hardtack, jerky and even some water stored in leather sacks. Huwee!”
Scott jumped up, regretting the hasty movement as pain flared in his leg. “What is the matter?”
“Nothin's wrong. I found us an almost full bottle of whisky. I think this place was stocked up just fine.”
“Well,” Scott gingerly began lowering himself back down. “More food would have been nice.” Once more the pain in his leg intensified, freezing his movement and taking his breath away.
He was unaware that he made any kind of sound, but Zee was suddenly at his side and she gently helped him sit. Carefully, she stretched out his leg. “Oh you big fool. Can't ya see you're bleeding all over?”
“Bleeding?” Belatedly he saw the blood pooled on the floor where he had been crouching next to the stove.
“Let me finish. You just wait.” With deft fingers she lit the stove. Then she studied Scott. “I gotta take care of that leg of yourn. It must hurt something fierce.”
“It . . . hurts.” Scott swallowed hard, fighting the pain that seemed to radiate up his body.
Pursing her lips, Zee jumped up and grabbed a skin of water and the whiskey. Dumping them next to Scott, she pulled the blankets off the bed and left them with the water and whiskey. “Ya got a pocket knife, Scott? Lemme have it.”
Somewhat bemused, he pulled his small knife out of his pocket and handed it to her. Pulling up her skirt she began to tear her petticoat into strips. When she had a pile she sat down next to him. Reaching forward she began to unbuckle his belt.
“Hey, what . . . what are you doing?” For some reason his teeth were chattering.
“Takin off these pants. All your clothes are soaked through, but these pants ain't hidin' nothen' anyways.”
“This is highly improper.”
“Ya gonna freeze. And now that it's a mite warmer, ya gonna bleed ta death ifen ya don't shut your trap an' let me tend ta ya-you!”
Scott stared at Zee, and suddenly began to laugh. “Oh Zee, if you could hear yourself.”
Anger and hurt flooded Zee's face. "You don’t sound so high an’ mighty yourself, so just stop jabbering and I'll take care of your leg and then git as far from you in this room as I can!"
"Zee," Scott's laughter subsided. "Please, I apologize for offending you. I am the foolish one here, perhaps criminally foolish. You could have died because of my bad judgment"
"Only foolishness is your talk. Ifen you've done laughing, and talking, help me with your pants before ya do bleed ta death. Don't look that way. It's gotta be done. Or I could cut them pants offen ya."
"No,” Scott suddenly found it difficult to form words. “We'll remove them . . . the . . . conventional way."
With surprising difficulty, Scott began pulling off his boots and then his pants. In the end, he needed Zee's help. His long johns were a complete loss on his right leg and soaked through but he insisted on keeping them on. With a muttered curse of "stubborn men," Zee cut the cloth away to expose the wound.
The skin had been scrapped raw where his leg had impacted with the rocks and trees. Zee studied the wound carefully. "Don't think it's too deep. Likely just took a layer or two of skin off. Don't see no pieces of wood, but I'll have to check. Here, drink this."
Taking the bottle, Scott grinned, saluted her with a nod, and then drank. The liquor burned going down but the pleasant numbing feeling was worth it. He took another long, careful swallow before handing the bottle back to Zee. She too drank deeply, before suddenly pouring some of the whiskey over Scott's leg.
Arching up, Scott's suppressed scream ended in a gurgled groan. He bit his lip to stop himself from making any other sound. After glancing quickly at Scott, Zee once more poured liquid on the wound before examining it intently.
Using the knife, she picked at it for a few moments. Scott studied the shifting wall behind her, hoping it was the wind blowing the wood and not fever and the throbbing pain causing him to hallucinate. He felt pressure and realized Zee was binding his leg. Swallowing carefully at the uneasiness in his stomach, he waited for her to finish.
When Zee tied off the ends of her former petticoat she sighed. "Gotta do. Hope it stops bleedin'." She looked toward the stove. “Finally seems ta be working."
Abruptly, Scott realized the air was warmer, especially, this close to the stove. Glancing at his leg, he could see where spots of red bled through the brown material. Silently, he echoed her statement. Hope it stops bleeding. Have to take care of Zee.
"Now, take off your shirt."
"What did you say?"
"Ya heard me right. All your clothes are soaked. Ya gonna catch pneumonia."
"Well, that word . . . you said correctly."
“Scott, am I gonna hafta undress you?"
"No! But if . . . I'm undressing . . . so should you!"
"You are . . . in as much danger as I of . . . catching pneumonia from your wet things. Remember, what's good for the goose is good for the gander."
"It’s not proper!"
"Now who's . . . talking . . . about proper. Zee, you're shivering, your teeth are chattering and I can see . . . goose bumps on your arms."
"I can say the same ‘bout you.”
The man and woman glared at each other, before bursting out into laughter. It was Zee who managed the first words. "Here I am worrying about what others might think when we both are gonna get sick. Wait."
Standing up she retrieved the carriage blankets and laid them carefully on the floor nearby to dry. "Do ya need ta take care of anything? There's a bucket in the corner here I think must be for that." She walked to one shadowy corner and came back with an old, worn bucket. "I'll turn my head if you do the same."
"Scott, after sharing a cabin with five young'uns and two adults ya think I don't know what needs doing an' what it sounds like?"
"Well, if you insist on putting it . . . like that." With a frown he took the bucket. Obedient to her words, Zee turned away. "I'm done. Thank you."
Shifting back she found his clothes in the same position. Grinning she picked up her wet coat, put it on and grabbed the bucket. "Hey, where are you going?"
"Be right back. Now you get out of your wet things while I'm gone. Wrap yourself with a blanket."
With that she was through the door. For a moment Scott just stared after her. He was somewhat amazed at how she had taken over. And, she had done a good job on his leg. Blood only spotted a few sections and the pain had subsided to a dull, ignorable ache. He was exhausted, and seemed to have trouble forming a full English sentence, but for all of that he felt better then when they had stumbled into the shack.
The walls of the room shifted a little and again he wondered how much was the wind, and how much came from the whiskey he had consumed. He had no doubt he was a little drunk. But he was also warm in a way he associated with a low-grade fever. Could he have acquired one so quickly?
Absently he rubbed his hands, surprised when he realized his fingers were still somewhat frozen. She was right about his clothes. He would catch his death if he stayed in them. Regretfully, he pulled off his sodden shirt and finally also his long johns. He had just wrapped a blanket around himself when Zee returned.
Johnny sat on a chair next to the pot-bellied stove in the widow’s back room. The comforting heat was just beginning to warm his frozen body. His body ached, but aside from a few deep cuts the widow had bandaged and an assortment of bruises, he was unhurt.
The widow had provided a rope which Johnny had strung across the room, as close as safely possible to the stove. From it Johnny had hung his wet clothes. Wearing a borrowed nightshirt and wrapped in a wool blanket, he almost felt adequate. Except that he was dry and warm while Scott was possibly dying in the cold . . . !
For the umpteenth time Johnny found himself halfway to the back door. With a sigh he returned to the chair and sat down again. “Boston, how can you let this happen?” He spoke aloud, a deep thread of pain permeating his words. “Scott, you gotta be alright. Dios! Why did you stop me from finding them?” Almost unconsciously, Johnny began to pray. “He’s my brother. She’s a good friend. I can’t loose Scott, I can’t!”
Once more Johnny rose, and reached the outside door, before he consciously thought about it. But this time, as he laid his hand on the wood, a sudden and profound sense of peace enveloped him. With a certainty he knew he would never be able to talk about or even explain to himself, Johnny realized Scott was safe.
Almost in a daze, he stumbled back to the counter. Raising himself up, he sat on its surface and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. Suddenly he was exhausted. A creepy lethargy stole over him, and sleep beckoned. Lowering himself onto the hard surface, Johnny had one coherent thought before he succumbed. Thank you, God, for watching over Scott and Zee.
In the golden glow of the lantern, the young man’s fair, well-formed chest stood out against the dark blanket. One muscled thigh was also visible. Both were hidden quickly as Zee shut the door against the bitter wind. Gulping, she hoped he hadn’t seen her expression. She was sure the widow would have some strong words from the good book to douse the desire Zee felt welling up inside her. In fact, Mrs. Hargis would have a lot of words to say if she knew what was happening. Well, hopefully, the widow would believe they had spent the night safely at the Bradley’s. No use borrowing trouble.
She shook the snow off her coat before carefully hanging it on one of the many hooks in the wall. Walking around, she picked up her mackintosh along with Scott’s coat and rubbers. These she also hung. Lastly, she went over to the cabinet that held the hardtack and jerky and brought them over, with more water.
Picking up the other blanket, she began to wrap it around herself when Scott’s growl stopped her. “Get out of your wet things. I promise not to look while you do it.”
“Ah can’t, taint proper”
“Zee you will freeze in your wet things.” In his agitation, Scott began to rise. Once more his firm, shapely chest, as well as a hint of fuzz below the waist, came into view. The young woman almost missed hearing what he was saying. “I will not have you becoming ill as well. Please Zee.”
“Ill!” Immediately dismissing everything but her worry for Scott, she bent down and felt his head. “Ya do have a fever, I think. How’s your leg?”
“Well enough.” He shook his head when he saw her expression. “I mean it. Of course it hurts, but it feels much better. Yes, I believe I have a slight fever, but nothing serious. And I mean it. I do not want you becoming ill. I feel guilty enough as it is.”
“Scott Lancer. Ain’t nothin’ for you ta get guilty about. I wanted to leave that cabin as much as you. I wanted to have a chance to ride alone with you. I’ve wanted ta be completely alone with you for months now!”
“You did?” The surprise in the blue eyes was almost comical. “You do?” The color of Scott’s eyes darkened as another emotion came to the surface. “You do!”
In one fluid movement he arose. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he wrapped his arms around her form. He felt her tremble as her face lifted and her mouth found his lips.
They remained like that for a long moment, before the kiss finally ended. In rapture, he gazed down at her before he finally became aware of the state of his excitement and his undress. The blanket hung partially on him, in no way covering his nakedness.
At the same time, she also seemed to notice him. Her first reaction was not what he expected. “Scott Lancer, you get down on that floor. What do ya think your doin’? Gonna be bleeding in a moment.” Without taking a breath she continued to berate him until she had him back on the floor. Then she sat down next to him and gazed into his face.
Silence descended on the inside of the cabin. Outside the wind began to howl again, and the thin walls shook. Cold tendrils of wind seeped in, increasing the chill inside. As if she found the floorboards fascinating, Zee’s eyes went down, and she shivered slightly. Then she stood up and added wood to the stove before sitting down again. All the time she kept her face turned away.
“God forgive me. I am sorry Zee.” Scott’s words when they came were soft, and full of pain. “What I did was unforgivable. Once we get out of here I will make sure the widow knows anything that happened is my fault. She always was ready to believe my intentions toward you were less than honorable, and now I have proven her correct.”
“What did you say?"
“I said, I can not expect you to ever forgive me, but I will do everything I can to make it right.”
“Make it right?” Abruptly Zee shifted to face the young man. “Scott Lancer, you are a fool. Just tell me one thing. Do you love me?”
Scott gulped. Zee’s face was scrunched up in the adorable expression he associated with her pouting. Her eyes flashed in anger, distress and a touch of fear. All Scott wanted to do was to make her misery go away and replace it with joy. But how?
Love? Me He thought. I love my brother, Murdoch, and Grandfather. Is there room in my heart for another? For Zee? Oh God! For beautiful, wonderful Zee!
With a rush of emotion stronger then anything he’d ever felt, he realized what a fool he had been. All these months he had been denying his feelings, feelings he had felt from the very first time he had realized who she was.
She had become so important to him, a part of his life he had to have close to him. A wide smile broke out on his face. “Oh, Zee. Yes. I do love you!”
His lips found hers and, this time, the kiss lasted for a long time. Then she was taking off her wet dress and the remains of her petticoat. When her fingers fumbled, his strong ones took over. Soon both of them were undressed. She felt his firm body against hers, and a wave of desire rose within her. He kissed her again, his tongue probing her mouth. At the same time his hands began caressing her body. When he touched her breasts, she hissed.
“Am I hurting you?” Freezing, he looked down at her in concern.
“Oh no, Scott. Never.” Sense began to return to her eyes and she felt the bandages on his left leg. “Am I hurting you?”
“I hardly feel it.” He grinned. “Other things are much more sensitive. Zee?” His blue eyes clouded. “If you want me to stop, I will. I would never do anything to hurt you.”
“Scott Lancer. Ifen you don’t stop jabbering, and let me find out what it feels like ta be a woman, well, I’m gonna have ta to something about it.”
Her hand snaked underneath the blanket and rubbed sensually against his manhood. She was rewarded by a groan of pleasure from Scott. Grabbing her hand, he pulled it back up. Imprisoning it with an arm, he leaned down and began to suck at her breasts. Soon, her own groans filled the cabin.
Long hours later, both were silent as they lay in each other’s arms. Scott felt himself awaken from a light doze. Shifting, he found the object of his dreams lying in his arms. He stroked her hair, marveling at how stupid he had been. How could he not see how much Zee meant to him? Now that he had accepted the truth, he wondered how soon propriety would allow them to marry. Well, maybe immediately if the widow found out what they were doing.
At that moment Zee began to stir. Opening her eyes, she smiled up at him. “You are looking mighty fine.” She placed her hand on his chin and moved it down until she came to rest over the blond hairs above his groin. Scott felt his passion rise again.
“I love the way ya can always tell what a man is thinkin’,” Zee laughed wickedly. “But I think we’d better put more wood in the fire and hang our clothes ta dry. Let me. I want you ta mind your leg.”
Standing up, she proceeded to add wood to the fire, before picking up her dress and under things, and hanging them on a hook. His pants and shirt she lay over the bed. All the while Scott’s eyes followed her body, drinking in the sight.
She turned slightly, saw his gaze and grinned. Stepping over to the carriage blankets, she bent down with her back to him, and felt the material. With a satisfied sigh, she pulled one over to them and placed it on Scott.
Moving the food she found closer to where Scott lay, she finally joined him on the floor. She shivered, and he hastened to cover her up, pressing his still warm body against her.
“How’s your leg?” Her words were mumbled into his chest.
“It hurts, but not too badly. I do not feel feverish.”
“I know. I should take a look at it.”
“Don’t bother. Please. I just want to enjoy the feel of you against me.”
“Purdy way with words. We should eat something.”
“You are wicked, Scott Lancer. Ya need ta eat food.”
“Hardtack and jerky? You call that food?”
“I’ve had worse.”
Scott shifted so that he could look at her face. “I swear you’ll never call that a meal again!”
“It’s all right, Scott.” Zee touched his face with her fingers. “Ya don’t --you don’t have to make any promises but to love me.”
“Till the day I die!”
“That’s real nice. Now eat some of these vittles!”
“After you ma’am.”
“Scott.” Giggling, she picked up a biscuit. “It’ll go better with the whiskey.”
“Of that I have no doubt.” Scott agreed with a grin.
The two worked at the unappetizing fare for several minutes, and then each had some water and another drink from the bottle. Once more silence descended as they finished. Scott thought Zee had fallen asleep, when she shifted her head and leaned up to look at him. “Scott, I haven’t been completely honest with ya.”
Bending down, he was about to laugh, when he realized how deadly serious she was. Narrowing his eyes, he nodded. “Tell me what you have to say, and I will reveal my secrets.”
“Ya don’t have ta tell me nothin’, Scott. But I gotta.”
“Honesty works both ways. I insist.”
“Alright. Well. You’re not my first man.”
Scott grinned. “Well, you are not my first woman. But you are the first woman I have laid with in real love. And you will be the only woman for the rest of my life, if I have anything to say about it.”
“Scott, I’ll make sure that comes true. But if we are gonna get serious, I gotta tell you something.”
“I am listening.” He propped one elbow up and gazed at his lover.
“Well, it’s my name. I lied about my name. It’s not Zee. That’s just what my momma called me. It’s Zenobia. Zenobia Cooper. I hated it, so I ignored it.”
“Zenobia? Do you know what your name means?” Scott began playing with Zee’s hair.
“The name is Greek and means Zeus-born. A child of the gods. How appropriate, and how beautiful. I love your name, whether you want to be called Zee or Zenobia, I love you just the same.”
“Real pretty words.”
“And I am just getting started. Are you finished?”
“Good, now I will tell you, my secrets. I have told you I was in the cavalry with the Union army. Well, I was not forthcoming about the year I spent in a Confederate prison camp called Salisbury.” Stopping her gasp of surprise with a finger, he smiled sadly. “The experience has left me with some scars, in my mind, and elsewhere.”
“I felt them, on your back. I know’d what they were.”
Scott took a deep breath. “I am so sorry you had to learn such things in your life.”
“They’re your scars, Scott, not mine. That’s bad.”
“Shush, Zee,” Scott smiled. “Zenobia. Let me tell you everything.”
The two young people talked, and then made love again. Dawn found them deeply asleep, wrapped in each other’s arms.
Johnny woke up with a start. It took him a few moments to realize where he was, lying on the counter in the widow’s storeroom. It also took him a moment to swallow the sudden pain from what he guessed were severely bruised limbs. At least he hadn’t hurt himself seriously with his fool stunt. The widow had made sure of that.
Sighing, he sat up, shifting the blanket wrapped around his body. Dangling his legs over the counter, he wondered what had awakened him. Shivering in his borrowed nightshirt, Johnny jumped down and added wood to the pot-bellied stove. The widow had offered him Zee’s room. But as much as a bed would have been nice, being in close proximity to the stove was even nicer. Touching his clothes, hanging on the line, he was relieved to find they were dry.
It was still dark but he could almost feel the sun. Dawn would come soon. Quietly he walked to the back door, opening it a slit. He saw an expanse of snow, but not as much as he’d feared.
Mostly, the wind had blown it against the sidewalks and houses in funny shapes. He glanced up at the clouds. More snow could come, or it might rain. Either way he wanted to be on his way. Scott still needed him!
Abruptly, Johnny realized what his instincts were telling him. He knew his brother was alive, but in what condition? Well, not exactly, he thought wryly. Scott, you’re alright, but you’re not out of trouble. Dios! I think I need to get to you first!
Quickly, he grabbed his clothes and boots, dressed and slipped out. He was able to get into the livery stable and saddle Barranca and Scott’s horse before a sleepy Davy confronted him.
“Where ya goin’, mister?”
“To find my brother.”
“My pa was gonna get some men together and help ya search. Heard him myself.”
“That’s fine. I’m grateful. I’ll see them on the road. Now, please, open the barn door for me.”
“It’s still dark. Your horses haven’t had their morning oats.”
“No, the dawn is coming. And I’ll make it up to both of them, they know that. Tell your father and the widow I’m riding along the road to the Bradley place.”
“Okay. I’ll tell my pa, mister. I’ll let you out.”
With a grin, Johnny rode out of the door and down the streets. Once more he couldn’t have explained what he was feeling. His anxiety was different. All he knew was that he had to find his brother and Zee before the townsfolk came to help.
The ride was uneventful, but slow. Johnny had to go carefully. The piles of snow could hide ruts in the road where Barranca might misstep and hurt himself. The fallen pine tree provided another obstacle. In the growing light he could see just how massive it was. The townsfolk would need saws and a whole lot of grit and sweat to unblock the route completely. For now Johnny just carefully rode around it.
Johnny was watching the path so intently; he almost missed the line shack set back from the road. But once he saw it he also saw the remains of tracks where they were sheltered from the wind by the overhanging rock.
It was fully light now, although the sun was hidden behind a thick bank of clouds that promised more bad weather. With a thudding heart, Johnny approached the door. Something made him pause when he reached it and knock twice, before pushing open the entry.
Two heads raised themselves from a pile of blankets, their breath visible in the chill room. Johnny stared at his brother and Zee. That they were both nude was obvious. That they were both blissfully happy was also evident. Almost casually, Scott pulled the blanket covering Zee completely.
“You let the fire go out.” Johnny said dryly.
“So we did,” Scott agreed. “You’re letting the cold in.”
“So I am.”
“Little Brother, I have a question for you.”
“Ask away, Boston.” Johnny folded his arms.
“Will you be my Best Man?”
“Well, I guess I’ll be tickled pink to be your Best Man.” He shook his head in exasperation. “That is, if you survive the tar and feathering you’re gonna get from the townsfolk that are coming, helping to look for two people lost in the snow. That pine in the road might slow them down, but it’s not gonna stop them. And I’m gonna help them!” Johnny stepped in, slamming the door behind him. “For all the worryin’ and fear you put all of us through!”
“I’m truly sorry, little brother.” Scott sighed, before scrunching his face quizzically. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“For some reason I can’t explain, I was worried sick about you. So I came back to town. When I got there Bessie came in. She was hurt, and we knew something must have happened to the carriage. So I stayed to help find you, and I left before first light because I knew I had to get here first. And then I find you, I find you so . . . comfortable!” he added lamely.
Zee began to laugh, and after a few moments Johnny found himself joining in. She finally hiccupped and said, “Ifen they’re as close as you say, we better get dressed. Can you turn around, Johnny? You’re gonna be my brother so I think I can trust you, right?”
“Sister! By golly, I’m gonna have another sister.” With a wide grin, Johnny spun around.
“You can look now.” He shifted back and saw her in an outfit that had seen much better days. “I think you’re gonna have ta help Scott. Don’t think he’s gonna be able ta dress himself with his leg. An’ his pants are a might ripped up”.
“I can do it myself.” Scott’s words ended in a hiss of pain as he shifted slightly.
“What? What happened, Scott?” As he spoke Johnny bent down to look. Scott’s right leg was wrapped with what looked like strips of petticoat. He glanced at Zee, and she nodded. Grimly, he studied the red-stained material. He could see the lines of pain on Scott’s face when he tried to move the limb.
“I had an encounter with some trees and, I think, rocks last night.”
“And he was throwed from the carriage.”
“I’m not that badly hurt.”
“Well, Boston, you might not have been hurt enough to stop you performing on the floor but I think getting you decent and on your feet will be another story entirely.”
Scott blushed a deep red, but Zee’s laugh rang out. “Scott, don’t worry none about Johnny. He wouldn’t let anyone hurt you, or me, would you?”
“No ma’am, I won’t. I’ll get my brother as decent as possible. And, I’ll do whatever I can to stop any gossip that comes of this.”
“I would like to head off any gossip, if possible. I plan to have the engagement announced on Christmas.”
“Well, that’s real nice Scott.” Zee smiled.
“We can be married in the spring”
“Really?” Zee purred, smiling at Scott.
Any doubts Johnny might have had melted away. He grinned at his brother and future sister-in-law. “Fine with me, Boston. Guess that means we’ll have two extra at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.”
“Two?” Scott said.
“Zee and the widow Hargis.”
“Oh no! I hadn’t thought of that.”
“The widow is a nice lady. You’ll like her if ya give her a chance.”
Scott studied the woman who would complete all his dreams. His smile matched hers. “I expect I will. And, it will be worth it. Zee Cooper, I love you!”