“Madam, I have asked you three times now to leave my room,” Murdoch stated coldly from the middle of his bed, back up against the massive carved headboard.
“And I’ve told you three times Murdoch Lancer that I will not leave this room and let you fend for yourself trussed up like a turkey. Now quit playin’ the shy retiring sort and scoot over to the edge so I can help you get dressed,” Grace Richards told him firmly, shirt in one hand, trousers held up in the air with the other.
“I do not scoot! And I do not get dressed in front of strange ladies I hardly know,” Murdoch shouted slapping his good right arm on top of the bedcovers by his thigh.
Grace smiled and lowered the clothing in her hands, “Well if you hardly know me, it isn’t from the lack of tryin’ Murdoch Lancer. Now quit acting like a little boy and get your rear end over to the side of the bed so I can help you get dressed. For cryin’ out loud, you’d think you were naked or something under those covers and last I looked, you weren’t.”
Murdoch Lancer grimaced and turned five shades of red at her open observation. He wanted to cross his arms and look away from her but with his left arm plaster cased there was no way he could show his defiance other than to stare her down but even that wasn’t working with this exasperating woman who seemed to think she called the tune where he was concerned. Not wanting to give in and feeling as if he still needed to fight for what little dignity he had left, Murdoch lowered his eyes to his hand on the covers and said, “No.” That was it. Just a simple no. ‘Now what is she going to do with that?’ Murdoch thought.
Grace pursed her lips, blond wisps of hair straggled out of the coiffeur she had it in mixed with the curling ringlets that cascaded down her soft and very feminine neck, giving her a just woke up appearance that if the truth be told unnerved the man in the bad who felt as if he were naked and vulnerable in her presence. “Honey, I’m not tryin’ to embarrass you one bit. The way I figure it, it’s either Teresa or me. And you want to know somethin’ else?” she asked him walking up to the side of his bed and setting the clothes near the end where his feet were.
That question got his attention, he raised his eyes, working desperately to hide the admiration he felt toward this striking woman who was like a mini whirlwind that wouldn’t stop. In the back of his mind he stored away the attractive face and womanly curves in all the right places and behind a closed off, nonchalant look considered her question, “And what is that?” he asked, thinking he may regret the asking part.
“You are worse than your boys,” she told him indulgently, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder, “You should set a better example, even if they aren’t here to witness that example.”
Murdoch’s brows knitted together with defiance at her words. She didn’t know him from Adam, so who was she to tell him he should set a better example. “You don’t know me.”
Grace laughed, her soft little squeal that always accompanied it, drifting into Murdoch’s heart and making him for the first time since this conversation started, regretful that he was giving her such a hard time. He liked the sound of her laugh and he liked the perfume that wafted from her slender neck and ample bosom when she stood this close to him. But he wasn’t prepared to let her know that she affected him so, and did his best to thwart her subtle advances at every turn. Things might have been different if he didn’t feel like he was half a man, half dressed and fully at a disadvantage to be anything other than a helpless invalid that needed help with the simplest of task, such as getting dressed.
Squeezing his shoulder in understanding Grace told him, “I don’t know you Murdoch Lancer. Though the Lord knows I’ve been tryin’ to catch your eye for over a year now. If you give me a chance and work with me, I think you’ll see that we could be real good friends. Now give me a break and let me help you get dressed.” She leaned in toward his ear and whispered into it, “I promise not to tell if I happen to see somethin’ I might not ought to see.”
Murdoch turned his head, their eyes meeting, he said low and in a gruff whisper, “You are the most exasperating woman I have ever met.”
Grace smiled showing even white teeth, her lips rosy soft and supple so near his mouth, “You like it and I know it.”
Time passed, ebbing and flowing in a slow rhythm between them as they stared into one another’s eyes. Murdoch was just thinking the brazen woman was going to kiss him on the lips when at the last second of his thought she moved her head and placed her lips on his rough cheek. He sat stone still at her touch and when Grace removed the blanket that covered the lower half of his fully clad body, he instinctively slid his legs to the side and let her help him slip his shirt on over the soft cotton of his long johns.
The task was difficult with his arm being covered, but with deft hands the woman somehow managed to get it on and button it up. His cheeks flamed when she got down on the floor and proceeded to help him with his pants, but he had the good grace not to say anything. He might have, but even with all her unabashed talk, Murdoch could see from the flush on her pale cheeks, the bloom she naturally had was darker than it had been before she actually followed through on her desire to help him dress properly.
Grace had him stand using the footboard to balance his stance and soon his shirt was tucked in, his pants buttoned up. With a shaky hand swept carelessly through the side of her hair, Grace smiled and did her best to look impressed with Murdoch’s appearance. “Well, Millie would say you ain’t ready for no ball, but you’ll do. Now sit down and we’ll get your socks and boots on.”
Grace started to turn away from him, but Murdoch had other ideas, he grabbed her arm, swaying when he let go of the post, and brought her up to his chest, “Did I tell you that you were exasperating, woman?”
Grace tilted her head to look up into the face of the man who now seemed as if he stood ten feet tall in is bare feet, her lips parted, “I think you did…once or twice.”
Their eyes held, and Grace wondered what was going on behind the blue summery depths, “I think I like it,” he told her, dipping his head and giving her the kiss he thought he hadn’t wanted but in his heart did. It was just a touch really. Nothing to write home about, but at their age and having lived alone for so long with no real close companion to call their own, the kiss was sweet and just enough for both. A promise of something more when things were different and times weren’t so tough or strained as they were in the here and now.
Scott wasn’t faring any better in the dressing department. Sadie and Teresa were both in his room, making for a very uncomfortable situation. He wasn’t prone to taking off his shirt in public as it was, even to stave off the desert heat and blinding sun that was the California weather.
Unlike his younger brother who practically stripped his shirt off his back at the drop off a hat, he wasn’t like that. The standard and decorum with which he was raised prohibited any natural instinct to bare all at any time of day, let alone in the presence of two ladies.
He sat on the edge of the bed while Teresa rummaged through his wardrobe, picking out a clean tan shirt and soft brown slacks, comfortable and easy to get on, or so she hoped. Teresa held the clothing up for his inspection, “Will these do?” she asked him with a tilt to her head.
Scott nodded and held up one bandaged hand in her direction, “And get me my belt. I think the dark brown one is hanging up on the inside wall on a hook.”
Teresa laid the clothes down on the foot of the bed. She found the belt he asked for but held it skeptically in her hands as she looked from it to Scott, “I don’t think you’re going to be able to manage getting it buckled Scott,” she told him critically.
“Just put it with my clothes. I’ll manage just fine when the two of you leave my room and give me some privacy,” he told her, indicating the spot at the end of the bed.
Sadie pulled a pair of clean socks out of his dresser drawer, “You want these with your clothes?” she asked him, wondering how in the world he was going to manage all the buttons on his shirt, not to mention the pants that would have to be done up as well.
Apparently Scott had thought of this and asked Sadie hesitantly, “Will you ask your brother to come up? I think I might need some help with all those buttons.” Milo was the last person he really wanted helping him with his attire, but there was no getting around the fact that his hands just weren’t healed enough for him to tackle the job alone. Since most of the men were gone and it would take time to round up a hand, he thought Milo being in the house was the best option.
Sadie and Teresa walked to the door of his room, “Of course. I’m sure Milo would be happy to help,” Sadie commented with a smile.
Both women were just turning to leave the room when Scott murmured from where he sat, “I bet.”
Sadie turned back to face Scott, “Excuse me?” she asked, “What did you say?”
Scott had the good grace to bow his head and stare at his hands, “Ah…hmm…I said I can’t…you know…do it myself.” Scott’s mind whirled with shame at having been almost caught making his little derogatory remark. He hoped and prayed his answer would pacify the green-eyed girl who made his heart race a hundred miles an hour when she was near him.
Sadie turned her head back to the hallway. Teresa was standing near the stairwell waiting for her, “I’ll be down in just a minute Teresa. You go on and ask Milo to come upstairs.”
Scott felt nervous. The look he saw in Sadie’s eyes told him she knew he had just lied to her and now he was being left alone to face the same woman he remembered that first day in town. When she turned back to him, Sadie pushed her auburn hair back off her shoulder, the waves of cascading curls, swirling down her back.
She put her hands on her hips and walked toward him, slowly, deliberately, “Scott Lancer, I don’t think for one minute that’s what you said. But if I find out different or that you’ve been anything other than grateful for my brother’s help. You are going to rue the day mister.”
Sadie now stood right in front of Scott and he looked up into those fiery eyes and hoped to high Heaven she never would find out what he said. “Yes ma’am,” he told her contritely. He held up his hands, “But I really can’t,” he tried with her once more.
She leaned down and kissed the top of his head, “I know. Now be good.”
Sadie started to leave and Scott quickly put his wrapped hands on either side of her waist, a slow grin starting to weave its way into her heart, “You are so bad,” she told him, giggling when he wouldn’t let her go.
Scott stood and bent his head toward hers, “I’ll be good if you give me a better kiss than some childish peck on the head.”
Her eyes looked up at him through long ginger lashes, “Do you deserve a better kiss?”
His mouth got nearer, “Probably not,” he whispered, putting his lips to hers as he pulled her closer, embarrassment at being in his sleep wear totally forgotten as the world was suddenly forgotten.
That world came rushing back to him in full force when he felt a strong hand on his shoulder and he was pulled abruptly away from Sadie. Milo stood next to them, his hulking figure looking like he was about to explode, “I think that’s enough manhandling of my sister, Lancer.”
Milo grabbed his sister’s hand and pulled her toward the door. She looked back over her shoulder at Scott and had just enough time to see the worry on his face before she was shoved out the door and had it slammed tight in front of her face.
Milo turned around, giving Scott a look that said he would kill him as soon as he crossed the room. Scott held up his bandaged hands and stepped away from the side of his bed, “I was just kissing her Milo. No harm. Just a simple little kiss.”
“That didn’t look like no simple little kiss Lancer,” the man sneered from across the room. “And if you ain’t noticed cowboy, you’re still in your underwear. Now the question is, what am I gonna do about what I just saw goin’ on in here?”
Scott’s heart pounded in his chest, “Nothing,” he replied weakly. Well that was apparently the wrong answer since Milo’s face turned red with rage.
“Yer gonna think nothin’ all the way to the doc’s office when I kick yer ass from here to kingdom come,” the redheaded giant yelled as he started across the room.
Milo was only two steps away from him when the door opened and Murdoch Lancer’s looming figure filled the doorway, “What’s going on in here?” he demanded.
Milo faced the new voice that boomed across the room from his back, “I’m takin’ this boy to task for assaultin’ my little sister,” Milo boomed back.
Murdoch gave the giant Milo his most commanding look, “Not today you aren’t. That boy is my son and I’ll thank you to keep your hands off him.”
Though Murdoch didn’t look as if he could stop a wild horse with his left arm held tight against his chest, his other arm holding it in place, his tone was enough to cause Milo to rethink what he was just about to do to Scott. “You are a guest in my home and I would appreciate it if you would remember that. I’ll talk to my son about his behavior and he will apologize…of course.”
Milo who stood between the two, first gave Scott a seething glance and then Murdoch, “Guess that’ll have to do, seein’ as how I’m a guest and all. But I’m tellin’ you here and now,” he said pointing his finger into Scott’s chest, “You better mind your manners where my sister is concerned or you’ll be findin’ me up in your face again.”
Grace Richards pushed her way past Murdoch and walked up to Milo, “Ok boys, that’s enough for now. I’m sure Scott meant no disrespect.” She squeezed Milo’s hand between her own. “You come with me and let Scott get himself dressed.” Pulling on the huge arm between her hands, Grace was able to get Milo to leave the room past the protective father who stood aside to let them pass. On her way out the door, with Milo trudging down the hall, Grace looked up into Murdoch’s face and gave him a sassy grin and a twinkling wink of merriment, “Guess it runs in the family,” she had the audacity to say to him as she walked past.
Murdoch let out a heavy sigh as the woman made her way to the stairwell and followed the lumbering Milo down to the lower level. Turning his head, he eyed his son from the doorway, “Well what have you got to say for your self?” he asked.
Scott had heard Grace’s comment as she swept past his father, “Like father, like son.”
The son took a step back when he heard a rumble issued from his father’s chest and he walked into the room, closing the door behind him.
Murdoch picked up the tan shirt and tossed it at Scott, “Not funny,” he told his son, “Get dressed and then take me downstairs so I can meet these people you are so fond of irritating.”
Scott wasn’t sure how he was going to manage getting dressed but there was no way he was going to give Murdoch Lancer anything more to get mad about. Between the two of them, he managed to get properly dressed and within minutes of doing so, Scott was leading the way down the stairs to introduce his father to the family he thought one day could possibly be his in-laws. Or at least up until about a half ago he had thought so. Now he wasn’t so sure.
“Dang blast it all! I said hee-yaw!” Jelly shouted as he stood, cracking a black leather whip into the air over the backs of the horses. The horses strained and pulled to get the chuck wagon out of a hole two thirds of the way across a slow moving river. The crossing had gone well so far. Nary a head of beef had gotten caught in the drift, nor had any trouble finding their way up the shoreline as they swam across to the opposite side. That is until Jelly found himself stuck and unable to go an inch further no matter how many times he blustered and yelled at the top of his lungs.
He whipped the leather cord again; the sound reverberated across the water, echoing with a loud crackle and a final pop through the air as if sparks might fly from the tip of its tongue. Setting it down by his side, Jelly held the reins in his weathered hands and flapped them none to gently, hoping against hope that the horses could gather enough strength for one last pull and get him out of the mess he found himself in.
He was just about to try the whip again when he heard a shrill whistle that could be none other than Johnny’s from the bank of the river. He stood up again and took off his hat, waving it in the sunny air above his head, “Bout time ya figured out I was held up lame,” he yelled from his standing place.
Barranca shifted and danced away from the waters edge as cattle herded their way past his legs. Johnny shifted in his seat and turned around to look at Jelly when his horse sidestepped and twisted around. Fighting to control the urges of his animal to get out of the way, Johnny kept a tight rein and yelled back, “What’s wrong?”
Jelly dropped his shoulders and let out a huge frustrated sigh hollering, “Now what’s it look like?”
Pulling back and tightening up on the reins in his hands to calm Barranca, Johnny pushed his hat back as he stood in his stirrups shouting out across the water, “Looks like you stopped and decided to take a break.”
Jelly slapped his hat back on his balding head and pulled a bandanna from his back pocket to swipe at the sweat on his forehead, “You just gonna keep makin’ jokes or are yah gonna git yer sorry butt out here and hep me? I reckon yer ah gonna want to eat tonight unless ya suddenly decided my cookin’s too good fer yah,” he shouted back.
Johnny smiled and pulled hard on Barranca’s reins leading his horse away from the river and Jelly’s cantankerous words. Within a few minutes he returned with two hands, Jose and Charlie. Both were big men and Jelly soon relaxed, waiting for all three of them to dismount and rid themselves of the leather chaps they wore and the guns at their hips, before wading out to the back of the wagon.
Johnny grinned up at him when he reached the drivers seat calling out to Jose to take the right side and then for Charlie to take the left. The water swirled and eddied around Johnny’s middle but he seemed for all the life of him not to care as the water lapped at him from the waist down. In fact Jelly would have thought Johnny was having the time of his life if they hadn’t needed to concentrate on the task at hand. “I’m gonna get in behind and help the men. When we count to three you give them horses some of that sass your always givin’ me and whomp ‘em good so we can get you out of here.”
Jelly pursed his lips tightly, letting Johnny take control of the situation. He picked up the reins and prepared to ‘whomp’ ‘em as Johnny said, soon as he got the word.
Johnny made his way to the back of the wagon, holding onto the side with his left hand as he made his way. The mud underneath him sucked at his water logged boots but he ignored it, making his way around Charlie and finding a place to place his shoulder against the middle of the tail gate. “You give the count Charlie. Make it good and loud so Jelly can hear yah,” he told the wrangler.
Charlie gave a curt nod of his head and peered around the corner, “Yah ready Jelly?” he called out.
Jelly called back, “I been ready! Now lets git these mangy, flea bitten bag ah bones haulin ass!”
Charlie gave Johnny and Jose who had their shoulders pressed against the wagon a quick look, “He’s ready, on the count of three. One! Two! Three!”
Jelly slapped the reins, his feet planted firmly on the floor of the wagon, “Get-up! That’s it! Pull hard! I ain’t gonna let yah give up. No siree! Hee-yaw! Get on up thar now! Pull yuh low down no good varmints, pull!” The reins flicked and snapped against the backs of the tired horses. Their heads bent low, their necks strained and steamy sweat snorted from wide open nostrils that flared as the wagon groaned and creaked its way out of the mucky mire that held them still bound in the waters depths. At first the wagon seemed as if it might just make it out of the hole it was in when it faltered backwards, losing what little ground it had made with the herculean efforts. Jelly picked up his whip, keeping a tight hold of the reins in his left hand. The leather cord whipped through the air and the loud ringing snap urged the horses to pull even harder.
Johnny and the two men, who helped him push, fell into the muddy water when the wagon lurched backward. They pushed themselves up and waded to the tailgate once more when they heard the cracking noise that filled their ears. Pushing for all they were worth the wagon began to move. Muscle’s strained and teeth gritted in fierce determination until the wagon was rolling along without problem and making its way upon the muddy banks of the river.
When the wagon wheels finally touched solid ground the men let go and watched from the waters edge as the wagon made its way up the incline and away from where they stood. Johnny turned to both his men and gave them a nod of thanks. They made their way out of the river and though they were all three soggy and cold clear to the bone, they mounted up and rode off to catch up with the still moving chuck wagon.
Johnny rode up hard on Jelly’s left calling out to him, “Hey Jelly!”
Jelly leaned over and grimaced when he saw the soaking wet boy he promised to take care of, “You better stop and git them clothes of yours changed afore you go catchin’ your death before we git home.”
Johnny ran a hand through his wet hair slicking it back off his forehead before settling his hat back on, “I will soon enough. Just checkin’ in with yah. You Ok?”
Jelly snorted through his nose, “Right as rain I reckon. Now you and them boys do what I done told yah and git yourselves dried out. I ain’t got enough tonic for all you hair brained whippersnappers if yall get colds before headin’ back.”
The grin Johnny gave him could have lit the world on fire it was that bright to Jelly. He wouldn’t ever say it, but he had been worried about all three of the men who had been in back of his wagon helping to push. Anything could have happened but it hadn’t and for that he was grateful. Once again things had gone well. Another minor problem quickly resolved and his Johnny was safe and sound, riding right alongside him, asking if he was ok, instead of taking care of himself, as he should be. “You did good boy. I’m right proud of yuh,” Jelly told him, not caring if anyone around them heard. As it was they were riding side by side alone and no one did hear. But what counted most in Jelly’s mind was that Johnny heard.
Johnny tilted his head up to his friend sideways, “Thanks Jelly.”
Jelly smiled down at him as he flicked the reins gently, “You’re welcome. Now go do what I told yah, before I git a notion to take a switch to yah fer bein’ so comical back there.”
White teeth gleamed and Johnny tipped his hat in response to the threat, “You have to catch me first Jelly and I don’t see that happenin’ with you rollin’ along like you was goin’ to a Sunday picnic.”
Before Jelly could give him back a smart retort, Johnny squeezed his knees and Barranca spirited forward at a fast gallop, away from Jelly and away from the knowing eyes that held so much pride in their old age wisdom where he was concerned. Johnny only did what was expected of him, nothing more and nothing less. But seeing that pride in Jelly’s eyes made him think of his father and the pride he hoped to see in his eyes when he came back home.
Scott and Murdoch made their way down the steps that led toward the kitchen area and with an immediate left turn, found themselves walking into a room full of people, some who were strangers to Murdoch and others who were not. It was the strangers he was leery of meeting for the first time.
Under normal circumstances meeting the parents of Scott’s girlfriend would have been fine, but the truth of the matter was, he felt uncomfortable greeting them with his head bandaged and his left arm plaster encased as it was. As he followed his son down the stairs he thought they both looked like they had just come from the long drawn out Civil War that had ravaged most of the country for four long years. He’d heard tell of men coming home, wounded and barely recognizable in much the same condition as he now saw the two of them in his eyes. He wondered too, if Scott thought the same thing by the time he had finished dressing and then stood staring at his wrapped hands, looking back and forth between the two of them with a haunted expression on his face. The look quickly disappeared when he realized Murdoch was watching him intently from the doorway of his room, only to be replaced by a smirky grin that lit up the slate blue of his eyes. “Well we’re certainly a pair aren’t we?” he remarked, holding out one bandaged hand toward his father’s broken arm.
Murdoch laughed quietly, “Well I think it was just you who said, ‘Like father like son,’” he told him gently, mocking Scott’s earlier words.
Scott lowered his head a fraction, lifting his eyes sheepishly to his father, “Remind me next time not to be such a smart mouth.”
Murdoch crossed the room holding his injured arm close to his chest, “I will if you’ll remind me to be sociable with our guests. I’m afraid I’m not too fond of the man who was just up here in your room.” Murdoch wrapped his good arm around Scott’s shoulders, “I take it, that was Milo.”
Scott stood where he was, the heavy arm around his shoulders giving him the nudge he needed to lead them out of the room, “That was Milo. He’s Sadie’s brother.”
“The one who got into a fight with Johnny in town?” Murdoch asked from behind, knowing the answer to the question.
Walking down the hallway, Murdoch heard his son say with a hint of remorse, “The one and only.”
They both entered the room slowly as all sets of eyes turned in their direction. It was clear who everyone was, but Sadie stood up from the sofa and with a quick stride across the room made her way to Murdoch’s good side, slipping her arm through the crook of his. Smiling up at him she said, “Mr. Lancer, I would like you to meet my parents, Boyd and Fiona McIntyre.”
Boyd and Fiona stood up and waited for the two of them to get closer before reaching out in greeting for the first time. Murdoch was quick to give Fiona McIntyre a warm smile and after pulling his arm from Sadie’s took the woman’s hand in his with a gentle squeeze, “It’s so good to meet you,” he said pleasantly enough, then turned in greeting toward Boyd who stood just as tall as himself in front of the blue chair that sat next to the side of the fireplace.
For a small fraction of time, the two giant men stared at one another without greeting. Scott had the feeling the room was going to suddenly burst into blazes as the two men stared at one another, their eyes, one set a frosty winter blue the other a sea of swirling greens and gold’s. Murdoch broke the ice by saying, “You look familiar.”
“Aye! I near thought as much when you walked into the room,” Boyd McIntyre returned. “The name is Boyd McIntyre.” The man extended his large hand and Murdoch grasped it in his, the two of them shaking as they both stared at one another again trying to place the exact moment in time when the two of them could have met before.
Fiona spoke, breaking the eye contact, “I suppose you’ve done met our Milo?” she asked motioning for her son to come to her side. When he did, Murdoch turned to him, seeing for the first time, now that he was up close and in personal contact with him, at faint resemblance to someone he had known long, long ago before he had left the country of his origins.
He shook Milo’s hand; the grip strong and healthy for a man he could see was about the same age as Scott. “Yes, We met upstairs in my son’s room…briefly,” he told Fiona who looked up at her towering son with pride in her eyes.
“He stopped me from givin’ Scott a whompin’ for manhandlin’ Sadie,” Milo told his mother, dropping his hand from Murdoch’s grip.
“Milo McIntyre!” Fiona said aghast at her son’s words, her eyes that were only seconds ago so filled with pride, now wide eyed and rolling heavenward.
Sadie stepped in front of Murdoch and pushed on her brother’s chest, “I can’t believe you’re my brother Milo. You have the manners of a rutting ram.”
Fiona clasped her hand to her chest and looked as if she might pass out any second, but quickly regained her composure as she turned to her husband for help with their children, “Are you just going to stand there husband and let them act this way or are you going to say something?”
Milo took a step back from his irate sister and said, “What? It’s the truth. He was upstairs kissin’ on Sadie in broad daylight.”
Sadie’s face flushed red and very nearly matched the color that flamed Scott’s, “Milo McIntyre you just wait till we get home. You are so gonna regret embarrassing me!” she hissed at him.
Before another word could be said, Boyd McIntyre stepped into the fray and pointed his finger at his son, “That’ll be enough right now! Ye mother and ye sister both have a reason to be angry with ye poor manners. They’ll be wantin’ an apology and I expect ye to give it to ‘em… now,” he told his son with an air of authority.
Milo hesitated his green eyes flashing in his tanned face, “I apologize,” he told them grudgingly. He didn’t understand why his family was so angry. He thought it was his job to protect his sister and in his mind that was all he had been doing. He glared at Scott thinking that ever since he came along things had been different where his sister was concerned. Somewhere along the way, the rules had changed and he was at a loss as to why her virtue was no longer his to protect.
Sadie still glared at him as she backed up and stood next to Scott, a look of humiliation on her face for what her brother had just said and her own reaction and words as well. She began to wonder if her actions hadn’t been any better than Milo’s. She doubted that what she said in anger should have been hurled at her brother in front of virtual strangers who didn’t know that it was just their way to be so spontaneous and straightforward in their verbal responses to one another.
Grace Richards slapped her hands down on her knees, “Well now, that was better than a ringside seat at the parade.” She giggled and stood up, brushing her hands down the soft curves of her hips, putting her hand out to Teresa to take, “Honey why don’t you and I go get these gents something cool and refreshin’ to tone down the heat that just soared sky high in this room.”
Teresa took her hand, smiling at Grace’s colorful description. “I think that sounds good. We can check with Maria while we’re at it and find out how supper is coming along. Mrs. McIntyre would you like to join us?”
Fiona nodded her head woodenly, her lingering embarrassment still clearly evident on her face. She stepped past her husband, giving her son one last look of silent reprimand on her face and joined Grace and Teresa as they left the room.
Grace took her hand and pulled it through the crook of her arm, patting it as they walked away and said for her ears alone, “Now don’t worry about what just happened sweetheart. That Milo of yours…well he’s just cautious where his sister is concerned. Why if I were thirty years younger I’d be right proud to have someone lookin’ out for me the way he does your little gal Sadie. So don’t you worry ‘bout it one little bit. He’s a bit rough around the edges, but one of these days, some little lady is gonna turn his head around so fast he won’t know what hit him. And there’ll you’ll be with some other poor soul of a brother tryin’ to protect his little sister, same as him.”
Fiona looked at Grace skeptically and all Grace could do was laugh. “You just wait and see. I’m tellin’ you true.”
“You seem to know so much about it,” Fiona said to her.
Grace shook her blonde head, the ringlets bouncing off her slender neck in joyful union just like the tinkling laughter that sprang from her throat, “Don’t know a thing about it. But I do know men and you got yourself a whole lot of man in that boy of yours.”
By the time the three of them returned with a tray laden with drinks, the atmosphere of the room had a decidedly different tone to it. Scott and Sadie sat on the sofa side by side while Milo had taken a stance, arms crossed, by the large picture window that overlooked the ranch behind Murdoch’s desk. Murdoch and Boyd found they had much in common as they began to reminisce about the old country, the villages they were from and clans their families belonged to.
As time passed and supper was served, it was a much lighter, happier group that took their seats at the table. Even Milo who had spent the better part of the evening wishing he was anywhere else but at Lancer, soon warmed up to the memories shared by the two giant Scots who’s brogues got thicker and thicker as the evening wore on.
Halfway through supper, Murdoch began a tale about himself. “When I was a young lad of thirteen, a challenge was issued by friends of mine who dared me to do, back then, the unthinkable,” he started to tell their guest.
Scott’s eyebrows rose in curiosity, “The unthinkable?”
Murdoch nodded his head never realizing the accent long ago forgotten had taken over and was so pronounced that Scott found it charming and most interesting to hear his father as he must have once sounded long before he was born, “Aye, the unthinkable.”
Teresa who sat at the opposite end of the table leaned forward with her elbows on the table, chin in her hands over her plate, her manners completely forgotten like the others who were just as interested in Murdoch’s tale as she was, “What was so unthinkable Murdoch?” she asked innocently.
Murdoch wiped his mouth with his napkin, holding up a hand for all to wait while he gathered his thoughts together, “A monstrous trip that only the very bravest of lads would undertake if dared to do so,” he told them setting his napkin down on his lap, lifting his glass and drinking of his wine.
Milo looked at his father who sat to his right and next to Murdoch at the head of the table, “You told me once of a monstrous trip Da, do you think it’ll be much the same?” he asked Boyd. The story told to him when he was young and impressionable still made him shiver with the thought that his father had been so brave at the time.
Boyd dropped his beefy left hand onto Milo’s thigh, “Shush boy, let the man tell his tale and we’ll see if it be as it was.”
The words were quietly said and Murdoch looked over at his guest, thinking he had remembered correctly and though Boyd hinted of a possibility he gave nothing away.
Murdoch cleared his throat and cast a grim smile to everyone around the table. Darkness had fallen while everyone ate, and the glow from the candlelights provided the perfect tone for telling his story, “It all began with a dare, my friends and family. A dare that was issued by a brash and bold newcomer, who had come to our little village with a chip on his shoulder and a desire to best every last one of my mates, including myself.”
Murdoch paused and drank another sip of his wine, “We called the lad, Erik the Red, for he had a temper that could bring down the rafters of the sturdiest home. His family had sent him into our Highlands to stay with his cousins for the summer. The boy’s mother was soon to give birth and for most of her pregnancy she was ill and fraught with misery as the days went by.”
Murdoch took his time telling his story, his arm ached some but he was grateful for the small amount of wine he was allowed to have, and sipped it sparingly as he continued his tale, “The lad did nothing but cause trouble and grief for the other boys who were my friends. One night as we all sat around a roaring fire, taking turns telling the scariest stories we could think of, it was Erik who issued a challenge to one and all. He said he’d been to Loch Ness, a place of great mystery and ancient folklore that had been handed down from generation to generation. He told a tale of meeting face to face with the mythical creature that roamed the loch for years.”
“What creature was that, Murdoch?” Teresa asked in awe as she listened.
Murdoch sat back, resting his encased arm in his good hand, “The Loch Ness Monster,” he replied slowly, letting the name sink in.
Teresa gasped and Grace patted her hand saying, “Heaven’s Murdoch, was there really such a monster?”
“There was and there still is,” he replied knowingly.
Scott told his father, “I think I’ve heard of that particular creature. I spent one summer in England and it was a topic that came up one evening during a parlor game I was involved in. Everyone I spoke to says the tales are true. Some even claim to have seen it.”
Murdoch shook his head, “No doubt my son.”
“So what happened next Mr. Lancer,” Fiona asked from her seat opposite Grace.
“Please, call me Murdoch,” he told her. Sighing heavily, Murdoch continued, “Erik dared our group to go, in the dead of night in search of the monster. The lake wasn’t that far away, though none of us ever dared to go there alone because of the daunting tales told to us by our fathers.” Murdoch took a bite of his roll and then a sip of his wine, “Many a men had ventured onto the lake, never to return. Boats disappeared without warning, and more than one poor soul was found lying on the banks with one or more limbs missing from his or ‘her’ body,” he told them, stressing the ‘her’ for the sake of his tale and the frightened looks on the women’s faces.
“Good Lord Murdoch, and yet you took the dare?” Grace asked him incredulously.
“Aye, ‘We’ took the dare,” he told the table of onlookers. “That night, after our folks were fast asleep, Ewan, Duff, Angus, myself and Erik, packed our gunnies, trekking through the village, across the moor and down to the banks of the loch, with only the moonlight to guide our way. On this night of nights, the air was still, the water quiet. The light of the moon looked like a lantern high in the sky as it cast a slivery shimmering image upon the dark waters.”
“Did you see the monster?” Sadie asked, holding on to Scott’s bandaged hand lightly under the table.
Murdoch shook his graying head, “No, not right then we didn’t. No, we had to go down farther, so Erik told us. He led the way and we followed close behind, each one of us looking to the water expecting what, we didn’t know, since none of us other than Erik had seen the terrible beast before.”
Maria came through the doorway, just as Murdoch was going into detail, asking if anyone wanted any coffee or more wine. When her service was done, Murdoch began where he left off, “It was maybe a half hour to forty five minutes when a sound like no other echoed across the loch. The sound was like the trumpeting of a muffled bugle, far off and lonely sounding in the night. And yet…the sound came closer and closer, almost haunting in melody or so we thought, until we heard the unmistakable sound of rippling waves followed by another sound that could only be described as a loud roar, like that of a lion almost.”
Boyd coughed into his hand, “A roar Murdoch?”
Murdoch’s brows arched, “A roar, a screeching horrendous bellow if you like, call it what you will but it was nothing like anything I had ever heard before.”
“Let him finish Boyd,” Fiona told her husband.
Boyd sighed but he let Murdoch go on with his story, “We all stopped, dead in our tracks. The cold seeped into our bones and we shook not only from fright but from the elements as well, for the wind began to blow and mist from the water started to spray us as we trembled in our boots and walked closer to the waters edge for a better look.”
Murdoch paused and shook his shoulders in remembrance of the time, “We dropped our gunny sacks, pulled out the round rocks we gathered earlier and prepared ourselves to greet the monster with a barrage of hurling stones. Little did any of us know, that they would be useless with such a large and formidable looking creature as Nessie was.”
Teresa sat up straight, “Nessie?” that sounds like a girl’s name.
Murdoch shrugged casually, “I suppose it could be sweetheart. The serpent is named after the loch, or lake, that she lives in, Loch Ness.”
“Oh,” Teresa replied, wondering if a creature that had a girl’s name could be as fearsome as Murdoch was describing her.
“With a stone in each hand, we followed Erik, wading into the water and waited,” Murdoch continued, “Then as if the hounds of Hell had broken loose upon us, the water began to churn and swirl around our legs, and to our astonishment and total fright, a large scaly head came up out of the water, connected to a neck as long as three men standing end to end. Red eyes flashed, its mouth opened wide showing teeth that were as long as my hand,” Murdoch held up his palm, flat with his fingers together, “curling, thick and sharp as it opened its mouth. The serpent hefted the tail end of its body into the air and then back again, slamming it into the water, causing a huge wave to curl over our bodies, throwing us off balance and under the glassy surface.”
“Oh my God, Murdoch! How on earth did you and your friends survive?” Grace asked petrified and holding onto Teresa’s hand.
Murdoch snorted rubbing his nose thoughtfully, “It was by the grace of the almighty God and the boy we knew as Erik the Red. My fellow mates and I were able to swim to the surface, no small feat I assure you with our boots on, when we saw Erik throw his arms around the beast before he dove into the water, taking Erik with him.”
“Then what happened?” Sadie asked, leaning forward anxiously as they all waited somewhat patiently for Murdoch to finish the last of his wine. “Did you ever find Erik, or see the beast again?”
“Oh we found Erik all right,” Murdoch told her. “We sat on the shore for what seemed like hours, crying our hearts out, afraid to go home, afraid to stay and not knowing what we should do. All any of us could think about was how we saw Eric riding the humped neck of that serpent and being taken down beneath the water, away from his family and friends. His life had been given to save those who were left behind. A decision made, we all stood up and gathered around, our arms wrapped around each others shoulders, making a promise to the bravest man we’d ever known, to come back for as long as we lived in honor of his sacrifice. Dropping our arms and with heavy hearts we picked up our sacks and started the long walk home, only to have the life scared out of us ten fold when an apparition appeared on the trail before us.”
Murdoch paused, waiting to make sure he had their undivided attention, “It stumbled and careened toward us, wailing and moaning, crashing through the weeds and brush as if the very devil himself were coming at us. We stopped in our tracks, the blood pounding in our veins, as we stood immobile, unable to do anything other than breath, and even that was a difficult chore after what we had just been through. And then it was there, standing in front of us, laughing hysterically at the shocked looks we must have had on our faces. We realized it was Erik and somehow he had made his way back to us unharmed and no worse the wear except that he was soaked to the bone like we were, and had a swelling black eye for his troubles.”
Scott sat back in his chair, the tension gone now that he knew the hero of his father’s story safe, “Interesting story. Whatever happened to Erik?”
Murdoch laughed, “He was the toast of the town, so to speak, for days. Of course, my friends and I never forgot what he did for us and to this day I am still forever grateful. He went back home of course. I’d heard tell he lived in Dornoch. Another village much like our own, somewhere up north a ways. My friend Duff went to visit him once and came back telling us that Erik was doing well. He was in school and working with his father, making furniture for the local communities in their area and he was the proud brother of a little baby sister his parents named Shea. The rumor was, he was extremely overprotective and quite taken with the little girl who when she got old enough to walk, followed him around wherever he went.”
A hush followed the ending of Murdoch’s tale and it was Murdoch himself who looked over at Boyd, a wide grin on his face. “You didn’t think I would forget did you?”
Boyd laughed, pounding his fist on the table like he did thousands of times at home, “Not in a million years my friend. Not in a million years.”
Everyone was stunned speechless. The story had been about the very two men who sat at this table, worlds away from a time and place so long ago. Scott was the first to come back to his senses and ask, “How is it sir, that you were called Erik the Red?”
Murdoch and Boyd both laughed but it was Murdoch who answered his son’s question, “He was called that because of his redheaded temper and when he was younger he went by his Christian name Erik. He never liked it because his friends compared him to Erik the Viking, who had a terrible temper and liked to fight.”
Scott nodded his head at the answer then Grace asked the man from around Milo’s shoulder, “Is that the reason you go by the name Boyd now?”
Boyd shook with laughter, “Aye lassie, that is the very reason.”
Milo spoke to his father, “The tale was a good one Da. A little different from the story you’ve told us, but just as good.”
Boyd laughed again, this time patting his son’s hand, “And the story gets better and better with age my son. Next time it might well be Murdoch who saves the day.”
With supper over, the family and guest, friends really, now that they realized they had a history, retired to the great room for more tales of Scotland and newer tales of how and when they came to America.
Val Crawford, Terrance Littleton and Cotton Eye Joe walked their horses near the area where Joe last hid under the trees as he watched Bruce Craddock bury the money that had been stolen from the bank. Val didn’t want to go in too close on horseback disrupting the signs he hoped would still be there for him to see.
Joe squinted in the sun, pushing his raggedy hat back on his head, “It’s right thar Val, underneath that old gnarled oak tree. Covered the hole back in just in case the varmint decided to come back and take a look see.”
“All right Joe. You and Whitey stay here with the horses; Terrance and me will go and look around. If I see any tracks we can follow, we’ll go from there.”
Cotton Eye Joe chewed on the new wad of tobacco he had just stuffed in his mouth, spitting a fresh stream of juice onto the ground near the sheriff’s feet. When he saw Val give him a disgruntled look for his efforts he said with a wicked grin, “It ain’t like I hit ‘em.”
Val rolled his tongue around his cheek, “Just watch it!” he told the old miner, “I got ‘bout enough patience to light a stick match and you ain’t helpin’ matters.”
Terrance Littleton grabbed Val by the arm, “Come on Val. Leave the old man alone. We got business and this isn’t the sort I’m generally comfortable with in the first place.”
“Well it’s your money that was stolen,” Val grumbled as the two of them walked across the rocky shores of the creek where Cotton Eye Joe had been panning a few days ago.
“Which is the only reason I’m with you now. That and this hare-brained idea you have about keeping the money a secret,” Terrance said back to him.
“You want to catch the crooks that did this don’t yah?” Val asked him sarcastically.
They found the spot that Joe told them about and while Val moved around the site looking for clues as to which direction Craddock’s horse traveled, Terrance said, “Of course I do.”
“Then we keep it a secret for now. Sooner or later, if we can’t trail the bastard, he’ll come back lookin’ for his money,” Val replied.
“My money!” Terrance hissed back at him, “It isn’t his money, it’s my money.”
Val stood up and glanced over at Terrance who was checking the ground in a similar fashion, “The towns money if you want to get snippy about it,” Val retorted.
Terrance Littleton counted to ten mentally before speaking, “I’m not the one that’s snippy, you are, besides mine, ours, yours, theirs, what’s the difference if we know what we’re talking about?” he asked scanning the ground a little farther up and finally finding some tracks. “Over here Val!”
Val walked over looking down to where Terrance pointed, “I’m not snippy and it makes a hell of a lot of difference if you ask me.”
“Looks like he headed that way,” Terrance pointed through the woods and Val agreed, “What’s the matter with you today? You act like a rattler bit you or something,” Terrance told him, looking Val up and down when the sheriff brushed his hands off on the gray shirt he wore.
“Ain’t had my mornin’ coffee yet,” Val informed the banker.
“Think you can follow that trail?” Terrance asked the grumbling sheriff.
Val snorted taking off his hat and swiping the sweat and dust off his forehead with his dirty sleeve, “With my eyes closed shut and one hand tied behind my back.”
“All right then. Lets see you do it and when we get back, I’ll buy you the best cup of coffee the town has to offer. Is it a deal?” Terrance asked Val, smiling at the confidence with which his friend spoke.
“Make it two cups of coffee, a plate of steak and eggs and you got yerself a tracker,” Val told him.
“You drive a hard bargain my friend,” Terrance said laughing and giving Val a backhanded swipe to his middle as they both set off to rejoin Cotton Eye Joe.
Val told Joe he could go back to town and wait for them at the hotel. The old timer’s bill was paid up for the next month, compliments of Terrance Littleton, “We’ll be back late, but if your still up and waitin’ for us you can join us for a late supper,” Val told the old man.
“You sure you don’t want me an ole Whitey here to tag along, just in case?” Joe asked Val.
“Not this time Joe,” Val told him. “You’ll just hold us up. Terrance and me are gonna make fast tracks and see if we can find out where them hombres are holed up. But thanks for the offer.”
Cotton Eye Joe waved them off as he mounted up, turning his borrowed horse back toward town, “Any time fellas. See ya when ya get in.”
Joe left with Whitey trotting along beside him, glad to be heading back to town. The game they were playing was for younger men than he was. He turned around looking back the way he had come, Val and Terrance already long gone. “See yah tonight boys,” he said out loud. Whitey looked up at his master from the ground woofing as if in answer to what Joe had just said.
The McIntyres stayed with the Lancers for a full week. Much longer than they or Murdoch Lancer thought they originally would. But as things turned out, Murdoch and Boyd had much more in common than just some fanciful adventure they shared as young boys. There were family and long time friends whom they both knew, tales of glorious summers and frosty winters, good times long forgotten but soon remembered in vivid detail as they shared them back and forth each evening in front of a rapt audience of eager listening young adults and curious guests.
Grace stayed on for only a couple of days, just long enough for Mildred Kramer to become concerned when she hadn’t opened her shop by the middle of the week. She knew her friend had gone to Lancer, but nevertheless, she worried that things were worse off than she had first been told and so thinking, had a buggy outfitted with a pair of fresh horses and made her way to the ranch.
“Land sakes alive child, you look like you been run over by steam engine,” she cried when Scott answered the door to her knock on the day Grace was to leave them.
“Hello Mrs…ah Millie,” Scott stammered when he opened the door and saw who it was. “It looks much worse than it really is,” he told her, pushing the door further open so the big woman could come in without knocking him backward when she made her way past him and into the great room.
“Well I should hope so Scott Lancer. I see you’ve still have your manners intact,” she said moving past him, giving his arm a quick pat as she scanned the interior of his home. “Where’s Grace?” she asked, “She told me she was only goin’ to stay for the night.”
Scott pointed to the great room, closing the door behind her and raising his eyes with a warning when his father came walking into the front foyer from the kitchen, “Mrs. Kramer,” he hissed under his breath.
Murdoch stopped short, clutching at the elbow of his encased arm, “Oh,” was all he could think to say as he peered around the corner wall and into the great room. “Is she planning on staying too?” he asked his son, a little leery of the answer.
“I hope not,” Scott sighed between his teeth. “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for some quiet and Mildred Kramer is anything but,” Scott whispered quietly to his father, looking up at him from beneath his father’s head where he clutched at the corner of the wall.
Murdoch tapped Scott on the shoulder and he looked up, “Kitchen,” he mouthed.
They both stood up and turned around, heading back the way Murdoch had just come from as feminine voices carried on in the other room with vigor and excitement.
“Millie honey, what are you doin’ out here? Did you come out here all by yourself?” Grace asked sweetly getting up to give Mildred a hug when she came into the room.
Mildred Kramer hugged her back and replied, “I sure did and I came out here because you didn’t come back when you said you would. You got customers all over town wonderin’ where the heck you run off to and well…I got to thinkin’ that maybe…”
Grace started to laugh that quick tinkling laugh she had and before Mildred could get out another word she shushed her with a quick finger to her smiling lips, “Hush now Millie. Heaven’s to Betsy but you’re gonna give me away if you don’t keep it down some.”
Millie leaned in, the room was empty save for the two of them and with a look of conspiracy on her face asked as innocently as it was possible, “Did you have any luck?”
Grace laughed and picked up one of her bags handing it to Millie, “I’ll tell you everything on the way back,” she promised with a twinkle in her bright blue eyes.
Millie grinned back and took the bag, taking it to the buggy outside. By the time she had it settled, Grace was coming through the door with her valise with Murdoch trailing close behind, “Now Murdoch, I’ll be back on Sunday to check up on you boys and Teresa.”
The valise was put in the back of the buggy with her other bag and both ladies turned to say their goodbyes to the tall rancher. Standing side-by-side Murdoch thought they were very much the unlikeliest pair of friends he had ever seen in his life but refrained from saying so when Grace came up to stand in front of him, “Grace,” he said.
“Murdoch,” she said in the same manner.
He took her hand in his good one and gave it a hearty squeeze, not daring to do anything more than that with Mildred Kramer looking on, “Thank you for coming and helping us out like you have.”
Grace pulled him closer to her and he let her. Standing on the tips of her toes she leaned in toward his ear, “Any time cowboy…anytime,” giving him a quick kiss on the cheek that turned him rosier than a red-hot poker iron when he saw Mildred gleaming at them. “See yah Sunday, and don’t forget it.”
Murdoch looked down into her smiling eyes, thinking he was going to miss in some odd way, the budding romantic feelings he was starting to feel for this tiny blond haired woman. Clearing his throat he said to her, “Sunday. I won’t forget.”
Looking over to where Millie waited by the buggy he said, “Mildred, it was nice to see you. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to visit.”
“Well I don’t mind stayin’. I can have someone else run the boarding house a few days if you want me to.” She was kidding of course and Grace knew it. The two ladies had a good laugh as they drove away discussing the face that dropped like a stone when Mildred made the suggestion and Murdoch quickly helped them into the buggy, suddenly very efficient for a man with a broken arm.
On the day the McIntyres left the only sad goodbyes were the ones between Scott and Sadie just five days later. Milo, who had come and gone throughout the week his family stayed at Lancer, left the day before, leaving his parents to ride back with Sadie. The bags were packed and loaded into the wagon as Scott and Sadie stood next to it waiting for Boyd and Fiona to say their farewell to Murdoch inside the house.
Scott shuffled his feet and stepped up close to Sadie saying, “I thought I might come for a visit come Sunday. You think your parents will mind?” he asked her, bending his head near hers and touching the bottom of her chin with an almost healed, fisted hand.
Sadie looked up at him shaking her head, “No, they won’t mind at all. In fact I think they rather like you.”
Scott brushed his hand down her cheek, “I think they kind of like me too,” he said mildly teasing, trying to stave off the rush of loneliness he was feeling knowing she would be gone soon.
A silence hovered between them as Scott watched the tears begin to form in Sadie’s eyes. When a lone drop spilled over her lashes and trailed its way down her cheek, she quickly swiped it away and looked across the yard toward the road she would soon be traveling.
“It’ll be good to get home again. I’m sure Milo will be glad to have the help now that Da will be home.” She moved closer to the wagon, grasping the edge of the wagon bed in a white knuckled grip. Oh how she hated leaving, even if it was to go back home again. She liked being with the tall blond man at her side more than ever. Their relationship in the past week had done nothing but grow stronger in her mind, and this only added to her sorrow that she would be going back to what she now considered a humdrum existence while she waited to spend time with him.
Scott closed the gap between them, his chest pressing against her rigid back. Sadie felt his hands rest on her shoulders and she closed her eyes, willing herself not to cry. She knew, and Scott knew, they weren’t parting forever. They were merely going back to the way things had been before, but why oh why did the leaving have to hurt so much, she wondered.
Scott bent his head toward Sadie’s shoulder, his soft warm breath caressing the tiny hairs on her neck. Her eyes opened and closed as if his very nearness were a hypnotic drug that made them entirely too heavy to keep open. Her head tilted to the side, heart pounding in her chest, sensing without sight that his lips were only seconds away from the pulsing vein that throbbed on the side of her neck. When he kissed her with his undemanding firmness, Sadie felt the earth spin and her blood quicken as an erotic sigh escaped past her parted lips.
When Scott heard it, his hands tightened on her shoulders, the pads of his thumbs caressing the bare skin at the nape of her neck. His mouth moved upward, burning a slow fiery path to her jaw line and then to the lobe of her ear, where he swirled his tongue lightly and then suckled the tiny lobe, causing her knees to go weak and her chest to heave with pent up passion.
Sadie’s eyes opened, languid and heavy as she released her grip and turned into Scott’s sinewy arms. Wrapping her arms around his waist, she pressed the palms of her hands against the firmness of his back, feeling the hard corded muscle’s as they flexed beneath the fabric of his shirt. Emerald eyes were pulled into the dark stormy depths of Scott’s embrace, mesmerized by the chiseled flexing of his jaw, the uneven ragged breaths that mingled with hers hotly, only to be cut off inexorably when his mouth took hers, closing the space that ignited them with tiny flickers of flames. Their lips met with a hungry obsession that threatened to topple them over the brink of insanity, so inflamed was their desire for one another.
In the back of his mind, Scott knew that Sadie’s family or his father could come out at any moment, but when he kissed Sadie, his natural ability to hold firm to any kind of social propriety escaped him completely. He kissed her with complete abandonment, savoring the sweetness that was all Sadie. Her kisses tasted like honey, so sweet and tempting it was hard pull away, drowning as he was in the heady ebb of love he felt for the woman in his arms.
If it hadn’t been for the restlessness of the horses that were harnessed to the wagon, they would have been caught, wrapped up in their own little, not-so-private world, when Murdoch and the McIntyres came out the front door. As it was, the two of them had parted just in time with not a second to spare, when Sadie’s family joined them.
If anyone noticed Sadie’s slightly swollen, just kissed lips or Scott’s fidgety hands finding a resting place in the pockets of his pants, his head bowed as he stared at the tips of his boots, no one said a word. Leastwise they didn’t as the McIntyres climbed aboard and got themselves situated on the seat of the wagon.
Boyd picked up the reins, leaning forward past his wife’s shoulder, “Murdoch, it was a great pleasure to spend time with you and your family this week. We accept your invitation to come back when the young bairn comes home. I look forward to meeting the lad. Tis a big responsibility he has upon his mighty shoulders for one so young.”
Fiona McIntyre leaned across Sadie, patting Murdoch on the good hand he held the wagon with, “A big lad like him and our Milo like to eat, maybe your Johnny would enjoy a special meal cooked for him when he gets home. It might be nice if we make it a traditional Scottish feast to make up for the lack of a good home cooked meal while on the trail. What do you think?” she asked hopefully.
At first Murdoch looked a little puzzled that Fiona would be comparing Johnny’s size to that of Milo’s hulking figure, but then he thought about the amount of food his younger son could put away and shrugged off the comparison with, “I think Johnny would like that, so long as the food isn’t too outlandish. I don’t think either one of my sons have had a real Scottish meal ever prepared for them. It should be a treat for all of us. I’ll send word when I know for sure he’ll be home. Right now, it looks to be another couple of weeks at least before he starts back.”
“Good. It’s all settled then. ‘Til we meet again Murdoch,” Fiona squeezed his hand, nodding her head toward his son, “Scott.”
“Mrs. McIntyre,” Scott replied in kind.
Boyd flicked the reins and the wagon lurched forward with Sadie looking back at a waving Scott who called out, “See you on Sunday.”
“What do you see?” Terrance asked from astride his horse. Val was crouched down by the edge of a dry streambed, his sweaty battered hat pushed back from his puckered forehead. Terrance waited patiently for the sheriff to say something but when several minutes passed and there was still no word from him, Terrance got off his horse and joined him.
Crouching down next to Val, studying the same piece of baked ground, Terrance couldn’t tell if there was anything there to see or not. He took of his black Stetson, swiped at his forehead with a white handkerchief and asked again, this time giving Val a nudge in the arm with his elbow, “You see anything or not?” he asked irritably.
Val rolled his tongue around and looked off to his right and spit unceremoniously onto the ground, “Not a dang blasted thing.”
“Then why the hell are we still out here in the blazing sun? Let’s go back to where we lost the trail in the first place and start again,” Terrance suggested heatedly.
Val turned his head to looked blearily at the banker, “Cause if I thought that would work, don’t yah think I’d of said so already?” he asked more casually than he felt at the moment. Trailing the man from the money hiding spot had been downright difficult in Val’s opinion. Whoever stole the money, with Rusty and Jake Fletcher’s help, was good. The man obviously knew how to cover his tracks and did a first rate job of it.
Val was good at tracking, maybe one of the best as far as he was concerned, but this was one of the first times he was having more than just a difficult time finding signs, let alone any prints to help him out. The robber’s trail was easy to follow at first. In fact it almost seemed as if the slick hombre hadn’t a care in the world as plain as it had been. But then, just as they reached a heavy outcropping of boulders, rocks and shale, the trail ended. He and Terrance had split up, circling around and even trailing on foot with nary a sign to guide them up, down or sideways. It was as if the man had suddenly dropped off the face of the earth.
Val suggested they travel further down the line of rock face and boulders, hoping that eventually by following the same direction they would find some clue to get them back on the trail. But it wasn’t to be. They rode slowly, zigzagging back and forth, until hours later they came upon the dry bed where they currently were now.
Terrance watched the frustrated flow of thoughts that crossed Val’s face. Unlike his friend, the banker wasn’t good a following signs. He could make out the obvious ones, but that’s as far as his knowledge went. Terrance sighed and plopped his hat back on his head, “Look Val, we got the money. We’ve tried at least a dozen times the past week to pick it up. Hell man, you even brought ole Joe and Whitey out here and they couldn’t pick it up either. Let’s just go back to town and call it quits.”
Val stood up quickly, grabbing his hat off his head and slammed it against his dusty thigh, “And what the Hell you think that hombre’s gonna do when he goes back and finds his money is missing?”
Terrance stuffed his handkerchief back into his pocket and walked back to his horse answering over his shoulder at Val, “First off, it isn’t his money. It belongs to the town. So if he finds it missing then so what. He gets mad and realizes he shouldn’t have been so stupid in the first place.”
Val turned toward Terrance, squinting in the hot sunlight, “He ain’t stupid Terrance. He’s gonna figure things out, sooner or later. I ain’t ever had a man beat me on the trail before and I have to tell yah, this is one smart hombre. He ain’t gonna go leavin’ this one alone.”
Terrance grabbed the pommel of his saddle and stood looking at Val, “Fine then let him figure it all out if he’s so damn smart. Let him come to us. We aren’t getting anywhere doing things the normal way. So lets cut our losses and see what happens. No one knows about the money except Joe and us. We keep him and the dog safe in town just like we’ve been doing and sooner or later this ‘hombre’ as you so aptly call him, will show us his hand one way or the other. In the meantime, we wait him out.”
Val slapped his beaten up old hat back onto his head, scratching at the too long stubble on his cheeks as he gazed down at the hard packed earth under his feet, “I reckon you could be right. He’s gonna find that money missin’ sooner or later and with all the damn tracks we left behind, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that part of them head toward town.”
Terrance dropped his hand from the pommel and walked back to stand in front of Val. He took off his hat and swept a hand through his black and gray-slicked hair, “It makes the most sense Val. There isn’t a man alive who would say you didn’t give it your all. But now it just doesn’t make any sense to keep beating a dead horse. We can’t find a trail, we can’t find a hideout and we sure as Hell can’t keep up this pace without getting some rest and food in us.”
Not wanting to give up, because he had the deep rooted suspicion that somehow the bank robbery and the thieves were tied into what happened to Murdoch and Scott, Val had to admit that Terrance was right. The search was getting them nowhere fast, and if nothing else, he needed to quit long enough to get some decent sleep and food inside him. As hot and tired as he was, the idea of going back to town was very appealing if for no other reason than to replenish his physical resources and start again, when he was fresh and could think better. Shrugging his shoulders, he clamped Terrance on the shoulder, silently thanking his friend for making him think more clearly on their predicament.
Val rubbed his middle hungrily and walked to where his horse was standing next to the banker’s big blue roan, “Well yah comin’ or ain’t yah? Yah got me all worked up now ‘bout gettin’ back and there yah stand just lolly gaggin’ around like yah got all the time in the world. Git on that horse of yours and lets git back afore I change my mind again.”
Terrance settled his hat back on his head, smiling as he mounted his horse, “You know something Val?” he asked when they both reined their horses toward the direction of Green River.
“What’s that banker man?” Val asked chuckling as he gave his horse the spurs.
“You’re an old grump. It’s no wonder you can’t find yourself a woman,” Terrance retorted as they loped off.
Val laughed, “I wouldn’t talk if I was you city slicker. I don’t recall you havin’ a woman either to belly up to.”
It was late and Jelly wondered when in the world Johnny was going to get his sorry butt back to camp. Two weeks on the trail and still the young man worked the cattle and the men as if the devil was on his tail with a burning whip just waiting to lash out if he were to consider taking a rest. Jelly didn’t know how Johnny could keep it up for much longer.
No matter how much he cajoled, bargained or bribed him, Johnny was never seen for more than a few short hours on any given day. Always the boy was on the go. If he wasn’t scouting out the trail ahead, he was riding drag, making sure the hands were doing their jobs to the best of their ability. Johnny and his golden horse could be seen from far away chasing drifting cattle that strayed too far off course, or flying across the prairie to help some range weary cowhand pull a stray out from a prickly ground brush, too stupid to get out on their own without a little help.
Ray Corbett did his best to help the old wrangler when he could, but he didn’t have any better luck getting the boss to take his rest, same as the other men, than Jelly did. The first time Ray tried, he sat next to Johnny while they ate their trail grub, telling Johnny that the pace he was setting for himself was going to come crashing down on him when he least expected it, but Johnny just ignored his advice with a bright smile made even whiter by the dark stubble that covered his dusty face.
Johnny told him that night, “I ain’t tired Ray. My body will know when it’s time to shut down and I don’t aim to be careless when it does. So stop lettin’ Jelly get to yah. He’d have me ridin’ on that seat with him all day if he had his way.”
As soon as the food on Johnny’s plate was gone, he stood up, tossing the tin plate in a wash tub for utensils and such, stalking off with spurs jangling, into the night to check on the men who were on watch with a tireless shift of his shoulders.
Jelly watched him leave, glancing across the campfire at Ray who only shrugged his shoulders and then drank the last of his coffee, flinging the tin supper ware in the tub as he too set off into the night in the opposite direction from his boss.
Though Ray didn’t keep up the same pace as Johnny, he did tend to follow his example and like his boss, checked on the men as well. It wasn’t the norm to be so conscientious about the comfort of the men on watch, but Ray had seen the results of such care and consideration. The men, many of whom, might have been less than thrilled to have an inexperienced trail boss leading them, gained a quick respect for Johnny that maybe hadn’t been there before to such a high degree. Ray thought that after this drive, the men would follow Johnny to the ends of the earth if need be, because he showed he cared about them all and respected them each for being hard working and loyal Lancer employees. The results of which, meant that there had been little to no incidents that weren’t corrected without hesitation or complaints from anyone. A feat that Ray thought his head employer, Murdoch Lancer would be proud to know.
Jelly huffed as he took another look around behind him. No Johnny. He put away the dry dishes, and started a fresh pot of coffee, listening with half an ear to Diego Sanchez, as he strummed an old guitar and sang softly to the off duty hands that gathered around the fire pit. Diego had a magical voice that was soft and lyrical. Many times the hands could hear him singing quietly in the dark of night as he rode his horse around and amidst the slumbering cattle. His songs were all in Spanish but one only had to hear the soft strains of his aching voice to know he sang of love lost or love found. The haunting tunes held the men and the cattle mesmerized as his rich voice floated on the evening breeze, lulling them with a sense of well being and harmony with the stars that twinkled in the inky sky above.
It was about the time that Diego was finished with his third song, that a weary Johnny came walking into camp. Jelly noted his hat hung down his back and his thumbs were tucked firmly in the waist of his black leather chaps. The shirt that was once crisp and white was now dirty and torn, the pocket so carefully sewn back on by Teresa, ripped and hanging loosely by a thread. Spurs jingled and jangled with each tired step until Johnny was standing by the fire and reaching for the pot of coffee that Jelly had put on just a little while before he got there.
Jelly walked over to him and before Johnny could pour himself a cup, he took the pot from his hand and said quietly, “It ain’t quite ready yet Johnny. Just put it on a few minutes ago. Should be ready in two shakes of a rattlers tail if you want to go get cleaned up first.”
Johnny sighed tiredly, “Got anything left to eat?”
Jelly nodded his whiskered head at him and took him by the arm, leading Johnny effortlessly to where his cook stand was. “Yep I sure do. Thought you might come in earlier, but since yah didn’t I made you a plate and kept it warm,” he told him. “Go wash up first, yah look like yer ‘bout ready to fall flat on yer face,” Jelly reprimanded under his breath for Johnny’s sake. Jelly might not agree with the way Johnny was pushing himself but the last thing he would do is make a scene about it while there were ears who could hear him say so.
“I got you a set of clean clothes set out in the back of the wagon with your saddlebags and there’s soap and clean towels fer yah to use as well. Go on with yah now and I’ll have yer coffee and meal ready when yah come back. The ones that wanted to clean up did it down by the crick just over yonder,” he pointed towards the bank of a small creek about a hundred yards from their campsite. “There’s plenty of moonlight so yah should be able to get there and back without any trouble at all.”
Johnny twisted his head and followed the path of Jelly’s gnarled finger, “Sounds good Jelly, but if I’m not back soon come get me. I think I’ve finally reached that fallin’ down point you been warnin’ me ‘bout.”
Jelly clamped him on the shoulder and turned him around toward the chuck wagon, giving his back a slight push to get him moving in the right direction, “Go on then and git it over and done with. Sooner yah git cleaned up, the sooner yah can eat and lay down fer a spell.”
It didn’t take much prodding on Jelly’s part to get him moving. Johnny made his way to the back of the chuck wagon, finding his clean clothes and his saddlebags right where the old man told him they would be. He unfastened his gun belt and dropped it in the back of the wagon temporarily, bending over next to untie the leather thongs that kept his chaps tied to his legs. When that was done, he unbuckled them, pulling the heavy weight from his slim hips, rolling them tight and stuffing them into the corner of Jelly’s wagon bed.
His spurs were next, thrown haphazardly with his chaps when he got them off.
Feeling much lighter with the extra weight off his hips, Johnny grabbed his gun belt, clean clothes, soap and towels and headed off into the night, the full moon lighting his way easily just as Jelly told him it would.
By the time he got to the creek, Johnny thought it was a good thing that he told Jelly to come get him if he wasn’t back soon. The long days of hard work, rough riding and constant awareness of all that was going on around him, was finally taking its toll. His body never felt as tired as it did tonight and it was with a heavy sigh of relief that he shucked his boots and clothes under the stars in the heavens and stepped gingerly into the cold water with soap in hand. He washed quickly and paid close attention to making sure he got the soap all out of his hair and off his stubble covered face. It felt good to be clean again, even if it was only for a little while. Tomorrow he would be just as dirty but it would only be one days worth of dirt instead of several.
Stepping out of the water, Johnny toweled off, the coolness of the night breeze causing his skin to break out in goose bumps as he got dressed. Jelly had laid out a soft pair of gray twill trousers and one of his favorite shirts, a blue cotton flower print that felt soft and comfortable against his bare skin. He chuckled knowing that Jelly had deliberately picked this particular outfit for him, most likely knowing he would want something to wear that was light and cool for him to sleep in.
Donning his socks and boots, Johnny gathered up his belongings and made his way back to the camp. Feeling pounds lighter and hungry as a bear. Jelly was waiting for him with cup in hand, gladly taking the possessions from Johnny’s arms, “Now yah just sit down right thar and take a load off yer feet. Ole Jelly’s got a plate of grub that’ll put some of the meat back on yer bones iffen yah eat it all.”
Johnny sat where he was told to, making the conscious effort do as he was told for a change without arguing. For the first time in two weeks, he missed the comforts of home, the cooking and mothering of Maria, the soft touches and stolen kisses he got from Teresa. He missed Scott and all his brotherly wisdom, his playful bantering during a game of checkers or chess, and his carefully orchestrated lifestyle. Johnny also missed Murdoch. He missed his father’s towering presence and solid no-nonsense behavior that sometimes brought them to loggerheads, but nevertheless gave him a mindset of home and hearth now that he was away from him.
His thoughts were interrupted when Jelly handed him a plate loaded down with food. Johnny looked up at Jelly and said seriously, “I don’t know if I can eat all this Jelly.” He was hungry to be sure, but Jelly had put at least double the amount he usually served him on his plate and hungry as he was, he really didn’t think he could eat it all.
“Yuh just dig in boy and do the best yah can. Them clothes on your back are hanging so loose on yah, it’s a wonder I can even see yah,” Jelly commented handing him a knife and fork.
“Ah Jelly, I haven’t lost that much weight,” Johnny told him taking a bite of fried potato’s and ham.
“Are yah tryin’ to fool me or fool yourself with that statement? Peers to me yah done lost so much weight the family is gonna think I done starved yah the whole way to Stockton and back. Now shut yer trap and eat up.”
Johnny kept his mouth closed on the subject, too tired to spar with Jelly and ate his food. He found that even though he didn’t think he would eat everything Jelly had given him, he was so hungry, he ate it all down to the very last bite, much to Jelly’s delight for having pegged the right amount in the first place.
The rest of the men were already asleep in their bedrolls by the time Johnny got done. As he drank his last sip of coffee he eyed the sleeping men enviously, wanting nothing more than to lay his head down for the night and sleep dreamlessly for hours.
Anticipating his needs, Jelly took the plate from still hands and led the overtired Johnny with a hand to the elbow, to a rolled out little slice of Heaven where he could go to sleep comfortably, well away from the chuck wagon. Johnny stared down at the bedding recognizing his own gear and gave Jelly a grateful smile, “Thanks Jelly. You thought of everything tonight. I’m…”
Jelly shook his head, “Don’t say it. No need to. Just hunker in there and make an old man happy and get some sleep will yah?”
Johnny rubbed his eyes with his fingertips, yawning wildly as he sat down and pulled off his boots. He lay down and before Jelly had the blankets pulled over the young man’s shoulders, Johnny was sound asleep.
Jelly shook his balding head, the whiskers on his face quivering oh so slightly as he watched him sleep. Unbelievably long dark lashes curled upon Johnny’s cheeks and Jelly gave in to the urge that besieged him and brushed back the overly long dark locks that fell recklessly in every direction except the right one after they dried.
Sighing he stood up, glad that his sixth sense had kicked in and he had gotten things ready for this boy who so captured his heart, with his wicked sense of humor, wide smile and bottomless pit of energy. Going back to the wagon, Jelly got Johnny’s gun belt and carried it back to him, putting the rig near his hand, knowing that if Johnny were startled awake for any reason the first thing he would do would be to reach for it. The last act of the night that Jelly could do to ensure that Johnny was well taken care of the way the boy took care of all of them.
If Val Crawford and Terrance Littleton knew how close they were to Craddock’s camp, they would have kicked themselves into next Sunday for giving up and turning back when they did.
The dry streambed led to a narrow fissure in the cliff walls, just barely wide enough for one man and his horse to go through at a time. Once past the rough-hewn rock walls, the dark passage opened up to blue skies, high canyon walls, scattered pine trees, saltbush and dried desert grass. The likes of which provided the necessary hideaway that Craddock and his men needed while they waited for the return of Johnny Lancer.
Craddock knew from overhearing Murdoch Lancer at the bank, that the rancher and his two sons stood to make at least eight thousand dollars on the sale of their cattle, and that they planned on having the money on them when they made the return trip back. He raised the odds of stealing the money with the least amount of fight, by making sure that at least two of the Lancers were out of commission, with only one Lancer to have to deal with on his way home.
Too late he learned that the one family member he didn’t put out of commission was Johnny Lancer, the younger son, who as it turned out was well known across the state and down south around the Mexican border was none other than Johnny Madrid. This somewhat impressionable fact didn’t hinder Bruce Craddock’s plans at all. If anything, it made his plans to steal from Murdoch Lancer, just that much more pleasurable, knowing he would be the one to take the credit for killing Madrid in the end.
Craddock knew that Butcher Drake wanted his turn at Madrid as well, but the killing shot would be all his and no one else’s, no matter what the fat man wanted. The plans for robbing the bank had been his and so were the well laid out plans to take the Lancers and their home by hostage. Meticulously he detailed the plans for stealing the money with a face-to-face standoff after Johnny walked through the door to find his family firmly ensconced in his wicked grip. In Craddock’s mind Johnny Lancer would hand over the eight thousand dollars without a fight if he thought it meant saving his family from getting killed in the process. It was Johnny Madrid that was the wild card in this game, but Craddock had thought of that too and he was willing to lay odds in his favor of winning the deadly game he had in store for the young gunfighter.
Craddock snickered evilly to himself, thinking he would relish the look of utter anguish when he got the money in his hand and then turned his men loose on the Johnny’s family to do with as they saw fit. He would wait until the debauchery and destruction was completely over before sending Johnny Madrid to his grave, knowing that the ex-gunfighter wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing to save his family from death. Inwardly Craddock mentally shook with anticipation, anxious for his power play to begin. He loved to scare the hell out of his victims and watch the fear on their faces when he did the most despicable deeds right before their very eyes. In a way, the fear and the fright was an aphrodisiac that fueled the evil in his soul and made him hungry for more. The Devil was his partner and the Devil in him had to have his due.
His plan was bold, riskier than taking the money from the bank, which in his mind had been a piece of cake. Craddock scratched more notes in his little black book, looking up every now and then to see what his men were doing. He had maps of the entire Lancer compound drawn out, from every out building to the barns and stables. Craddock knew who was left behind and with careful observation from the surrounding hillsides, he knew where and when the vaqueros stood their watch. He was prepared mentally for a take down of the grandest scale and when the time drew nearer his men would be prepared as well. The added bonus for doing the job right would be the ransacking and looting of the Hacienda. A house that grand, he thought had to have additional monies laid aside and he was determined to find it by whatever means were necessary, even at the expense of torching the house if he didn’t get what he wanted. He didn’t care, just so long as the Lancers met their maker in the end. There was no way he could do a job of this caliber and leave any witnesses behind to tell the tale or try and come after him.
He and Fred Wallace had gone to Morro Coyo, bringing back with them, three of the local saloon girls and several bottles of rotgut whiskey and beer. Enough entertainment to keep the men occupied and out of his hair the past few days without the constant bickering and fighting that had been going on.
Later he would send the girls back with Clyde Willows and Frank Granger. While the women did much to placate his men, he couldn’t risk having them stay any longer and take the chance that one of his men would spill the beans and tell them why they were holed up in the arroyo in the first place. So far he had been lucky in that respect but he knew it was only because of the murderous threat he gave them before he rode out that night with a twitchy Fred Wallace to keep him company.
Taking Clyde aside from the group Craddock told him, “Here’s some money. I want you and Frank to take the whores back to town. Show ‘em a good time and make sure you two do it up right. I don’t want ‘em gettin’ too nosy, so give ‘em a story about how we’re headin’ down to Mexico or somethin’. Make it sound good.”
Clyde closed his pocketknife and stuck it inside his pants pocket, “Sure thing boss.” The long haired cowboy turned his face from Bruce and spat onto the ground, “Ya give me a might more ‘an we need for a little fun and games. What’s the extra fer?” Clyde asked.
Craddock clamped the man on his shoulder, “More ammo,” he ground out between his teeth, his eyes gleaming wickedly in his face.
In another week, they would lay siege to Lancer, taking out the few guards who stood watch over the ranch. When that was accomplished the rest would be easy, Craddock convinced himself. As far as he was able to tell, other than the few women that came to the home on a daily basis to cook and clean, there was only a handful of vaquero’s left to guard the place. Easy pickin’s if his men followed his orders to the letter and did as they were told. Craddock’s men each had an assignment and tonight he would go over them again. Being detailed and thorough was the name of the game and he didn’t want there to be any mistakes.
At the sound of an approaching horse Craddock and Clyde turned their heads to see Kirk Means riding in through the fissure in the rock face. They waited until the red head rode up and dismounted, flicking his leather reins over the head of his horse.
Craddock stuck his hand in his vest pocket and pulled out a smoke. Kirk waited until his boss was ready, scratching the flaming beard on his face as his eyes took in the camp. Inwardly he was glad the saloon girls were still there. He wanted another romp with the laughing brunette before Craddock sent them back, unaware that he would not get the chance.
Craddock pulled long and hard on his smoke, the gray puff cloud he blew out wafting lazily between him and Kirk. Squinting hard with one eye he asked, “So what did you find out?”
Shoving the muzzle of his horse off his shoulder, Kirk said, “They’re gone.”
“All of ‘em?” Craddock asked a thin stream of smoke pouring from his mouth and nose as he talked.
Kirk nodded, his ears perking up when he heard the distinct bell like laughter from Bonny who he noticed was sitting on Jake’s lap, her hands tangled in his wild long blonde hair. Craddock gave him a kick on the toe of his boot, making him aware again that his boss had asked a question, “Yeah, all of ‘em.”
“What about the rancher and his son?” Craddock asked.
“Same. Don’t look like neither of them are goin’ anywhere for a while yet. The old man’s arm is still laid up in that contraption the doctor put on his arm, and the boy looks like somethin’ the cat dragged in,” Kirk told him.
Craddock threw his smoke on the ground, grinding it into the dirt with the toe of his boot, “What about that big vaquero who’s always carrying around that shotgun of his?”
“The same as usual,” Kirk said, “Makes his rounds, checks on the men. He don’t stray too far from the house. Seen him a couple times makin’ the men clean their rifles, but other than that, they’ve done nothing but patrol the grounds near the house. Near as I can tell, they have five men including him. All of ‘em bearing rifles and armed to the teeth with pistols and ammo across their chest.”
Craddock smirked, “Ain’t gonna do ‘em any good when we’re through with ‘em.”
Kirk nodded his head, grinning at the thought of taking down the puffed up Mexicans who thought they were invincible. “How much longer do yah think we have boss?”
Craddock sighed through his nose, running a finger along the scar on his face, “One week.” He turned and walked away, throwing over his shoulder, “Then we take them down and wait for Johnny Madrid to come waltzin’ home like the good prodigal son that he is.”
Kirk pulled on the reins of his horse, taking him to where the others grazed on the sparse desert grass. He was just entertaining the idea of pulling Bonny from Jake’s lap when he heard Craddock call out to two of his partners, “Clyde! Frank! Saddle up and get these whores out of here.”
“Want another one Val,” Scott asked from behind the couch in the great room.
Val scrubbed at his scruffy cheek contemplating another drink. The Lancers had the best of the best when it came to their stock of good liquor. Making a decision that wasn’t his favored answer, he shook his head and said, “Naw Scott. Think I’ll pass. I am here on official business after all. Don’t think the kind citizens of Green River will be too pleased with me if I come back all snookered and needin’ a nap, if yah know what I mean.”
Scott grinned setting down the decanter, putting the stopper back in, “Sorry Val. I shouldn’t have asked in the first place.”
Val waved his hand off at Scott from the chair he sat in, “No need apologizin’ now. It ain’t like I never had a nip or two on the job in the first place. It’s just that I got a long night ahead of me and I don’t want nothin’ draggin’ me down or puttin’ it off.”
Scott rounded the couch and sat down, crossing his legs, setting his drink on the top of his knee, “You heading back out to where the money was buried?” he asked.
“That’s what I have planned. Yah see, the way I figure it, the varmint’s got to come back to it sooner or later. Ole Cotton Eye Joe said it was near dark when the money was hid there, so it stands to reason to me, that he’ll want to check on it and see if it’s all still there.”
Scott nodded his head thoughtfully, “I think that’s a reasonable assumption. I hope you’re not planning on going it alone.”
Val leaned forward planting his forearms on his knees, “I been doin’ it the past week. I got Andy lookin’ out for things while I’m gone at night. Not much happens that he cain’t take care of durin’ that time. And just in case, I got Terrance and Joe, keepin’ an eye on him.”
Scott drank some of his scotch and Val noticed his hands were looking much better now that they had healed up some. He also noticed that Scott was careful when he sat down, as if his ribs still bothered him some.
Scott interrupted his observations by saying, “Andy’s kind of young Val. I hope you’re not putting too much on his shoulders. Why don’t you just have someone else stand watch?”
Val stood up agitated, “I can’t Scott. There ain’t a man one, who’ll take on the responsibility for me when the whole town is pissin’ and moanin’ about me not catchin’ the hombres that robbed the bank. If I don’t catch them varmints red handed I might not have a job come next year.”
“But I thought you told me that you have the money. Isn’t that enough?” Scott asked.
Stepping in front of the fireplace Val clamped his hands on his hips and turned to stare with puffed up cheeks at his friend, “No it ain’t,” he said, cocking his head at an angle and blowing hard from his mouth in frustration.
Scott’s eyebrows shot up, “Why not?”
Val leaned over just a bit as he talked, “Cause in the first place it wasn’t me, what found the money. It was that old geezer Joe and his dog Whitey. Now how’s that gonna look on me when the towns folk find out that Joe Mesker got the money back and the sheriff is still left blowin’ farts in the wind, chasin’ his tail round and round like some crazy dog with no sense.” Val pointed his finger downward, swirling it in the air for added effect, his jaws clenching in anger.
Scott did his best to stifle a laugh, but wasn’t very successful. It still came out hidden as best he could behind a throaty cough and fist to his mouth. Val was such a character he thought. Dropping his eyes to his lap he wondered again at the friendship between this rough around the edges Sheriff and his little brother. The unlikeliest, most mismatched pair of men he could ever imagine. But then again the more he thought back on all the times his brother had brought home some stray scraggly dog, half drowned cat or helped some stranger in need, he wasn’t really all that surprised. Johnny had a penchant for helping the weak and downtrodden, the helpless and forlorn, with a bottomless heart of gold, rarely seen by anyone other than those he chose to expose himself to.
“So what do you need from us Val?” Scott asked now that his self-control was back in order.
“Well yuh got me there Scott, cause there is somethin’ I need to borrow from yah if yer of a mind to lend it to me,” Val told him seriously.
Scott reached behind him and set his glass down, and then stood up, “Anything Val. You name it and it’s yours.”
Val wiped his hands down the tattered vest he loved to wear over his not so clean white shirt, “Johnny told me once, that yah have one of them fancy spyglass’s. I was hopin’ you wouldn’t mind lettin’ me borrow it fer a spell.”
“No problem Val. I have it upstairs. I’ll get it right now for you,” Scott replied. As he started to walk away, Val harrumphed behind him and Scott turned around getting the feeling that there was more the sheriff wanted to say before he left the room. “Something else Val?”
Val ducked his head and just as quickly raised it up again; tearing off the sweat-stained hat he wore on his head. Scott watched him nervously run a hand through his dark hair and then rub at his vest again, “Just one thing, but it’s…ah… really somethin’ I kinda wanted to talk to Miss Teresa about. So I was wondering if she was home and if I could have a word with her for a minute or two.”
Scott grinned indulgently at the timid question coming from Val, “I think that can be arranged. Teresa’s upstairs with Murdoch. I’ll let her know that you would like to see her.”
Scott turned away, his shoulders broad and straight in his tan shirt, tucked neatly into nicely pressed brown trousers. As he climbed the stairs he held onto his ribs with one arm crossed over his middle for added support, going first to his father’s room to tell Teresa she had a visitor downstairs.
He opened the door to Murdoch’s room, only to find his father fast asleep and no Teresa to be found. Closing the door as softly as he could, Scott left the room and walked down the hallway. He noticed that the door to Johnny’s bedroom, which faced the grand arch to Lancer, was opened just slightly. Having a rather strong feeling he would find Teresa inside, Scott pushed open the door on oily hinges, without a sound.
The room was filled with dark shadows, the sun now making its way down the horizon on the west side of the house. With her back to him, Teresa’s silhouette stood dark in contrast to the late afternoon light that filtered through Johnny’s window, one of his shirts pressed firmly to her face. He watched her for several seconds hearing the soft sound of a sniffle when she lowered the shirt in her hands and picked up a new tallow candle and pressed it into the holder on the windowsill. The shirt was brought back to her face and rubbed gently on her cheek, his presence still unknown to her.
He walked quietly up behind her, placing his hands on her thin shoulders, “You miss him,” he stated without it being a question.
Teresa closed then opened her eyes, but kept them straight ahead, looking out to where the gleaming white adobe arch now burned with rich oranges and gold’s from the setting sun, “I do,” she whispered, touching the candle as if by doing so she was touching Johnny.
Teresa tilted her head, her heavy chestnut hair swaying across her back with the movement, “I miss him so much.” She sighed. “I worry you know.”
Scott kissed her on the back of her head, “I know. I do too.”
Teresa swallowed back the tears. She didn’t know why but she was missing Johnny so much more today than any of the others and found it difficult to not think about him with every breathing minute she was awake. She supposed it didn’t help any that she had picked this day to dust and air out his room, making sure that things were tidy and that his clothes were put away neatly. It was the shirt too, she thought. She had pulled it subconsciously from the wardrobe, the striking color of it just beckoning to be touched and held in her hands. Though it had been washed, pressed and hung up, the smell of it reminded her of him because of the little things he kept in the bottom of the wardrobe that gave his clothes the distinctive smell of leather and man.
She smiled as Scott held her shoulders, thinking of the extra gun belt, small bits and pieces of leather strapping that Johnny swore one day would be finished when he was done tooling it with his designs. There was a coil of rope, boxed ammunition and a new pair of boots, worn only once for a special meeting Murdoch insisted he attend properly dressed, much to Johnny’s chagrin.
Turning in Scott’s arms she looked up at him, tall blonde and wonderfully handsome, his eyes so full of understanding, his face filled with overflowing patience and concern for her, “He asked if I trusted him before he left.”
Scott bent his head near hers and asked, “And what did you tell him?”
Wet lashes touched her cheeks, bright glistening eyes looked up and met Scott’s, “I told him I trusted him with my life but that I didn’t know if I could trust him with his own.”
Scott dropped his hands and leaned past Teresa to pick up Johnny’s shirt she had set on the windowsill. He stared at it, Johnny’s vibrancy and lust for life electrifying his fingers by merely holding it in his hands. Scott held it up between them, “You need to trust him Teresa.” He watched her big brown eyes go from him to the shirt then back to him. “You know why?” he asked her.
Teresa’s brow knitted together, “Why?” she asked, so curious to know the answer.
Scott smiled, squeezing the material in his hands and holding it up to her cheek very much as he saw her doing only moments ago, “Because he loves you and…” he put his empty fingers to her mouth before she could deny their secret, “and,” he repeated, “because there’s no way Johnny would ever leave this red shirt behind if he didn’t think he’d make it back in one piece.”
At first Scott’s words made her want to deny what he told her was the truth, but when he continued and the words sank in, she realized with clarity that Scott had done his magic again and had somehow made her feel better. She still wanted to deny his guess about Johnny’s feelings for her, because she didn’t want anyone to know just yet, the same as Johnny, how they felt about one another. But with Scott’s joking last statement she knew with a second of thought, that there was no need to say a thing, for he had let her know in his own way that their secret was safe, at least for the time being.
Words could not express what this meant to her and she wasn’t even going to try. Instead, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek, whispering in his ear, “Thank you.”
Scott looked at her, smiled and thought how grown up she looked. “Val is downstairs. I don’t know what he wants with you but he says he would like to speak to you.”
Teresa nodded, her head and stepped around Scott to leave the room. Before she walked through the doorway she hesitated, turning around to find Scott’s back was to her. As he had done earlier, she watched him silently from the doorway. The dark silhouette of his head lowered and the shirt was held to his face. She knew what he was doing; she had just done it herself. The essence of Johnny was in that silly red shirt and somehow it made them both feel closer to him, just by pressing it to the face and feeling the rich texture of it in the palms of ones hands.
Teresa left quietly, her padded shoes barely making a noise as she made her way down the stairs. She came around the corner to find Val waiting for her impatiently, his quick toothy grin almost quivering from nervous tension.
She smiled at Val, hoping to make him feel more comfortable in her presence, “Hello Val.”
Val took off his natty hat and twirled it around in his hands. “Miss Teresa. How do?”
Taking a stand in front of the nervous sheriff, Teresa stilled his twirling with a touch of her small hand on his, “I’m good. Scott said you wanted to speak to me,” she prompted.
“Yes Ma’am, I surely do. But I have to tell you Miss Teresa, I’m a might embarrassed to be askin’ a favor of yah,” Val was finally able to say.
Teresa’s eyes lighted in her face, serene and beautiful just as Johnny described them to him. Val looked away, he didn’t want her to read on his face, that he had any knowledge whatsoever that Johnny had ever spoken out loud to him about his feelings for her. The boy hadn’t actually said her name, but Val knew it was Teresa. It was all in the way he described her one night while they were playing cards and drinking maybe a little more heavily than they usually did. Val had been laid up with a bullet wound and Johnny had kept him company. His friend’s usually quiet demeanor having cracked open just a little when they talked about what they wanted in a wife someday. It hadn’t taken long for Val to realize that every word out of Johnny’s mouth had been all about the young filly that stood innocently before him now.
“What’s the favor Val? You know I’ll do whatever I can,” she told him reassuringly.
“Well it’s like this, Ole Joe Mesker, well…he done did me a great big favor and well…we was talkin’ last night,” Val cleared his throat and stretched his neck, one hand going to his throat as if he were trying to loosen a tie knotted at his neck, “Well, I owe him yah see.” He paused trying to find a way to ask Teresa what he wanted from her.
Teresa waited patiently, giving him a chance to say what he wanted. “Yah see, Johnny brung me those cookies yah made a while back fer me and well…I been hordin’ ‘em from everyone, ‘ceptin Johnny of course…until Ole Joe found the tin last night and helped himself to ever last dang one of ‘em. Now he wants some more of ‘em and try as I did to explain that they was a gift from you, he insist that it has to be part of the bargain in payin’ ‘im back fer what he did fer me and Terrance Littleton.” Val took a deep breath and hung his head briefly, kicking himself mentally for blurting it out in one long rush.
Teresa took pity on him and saved him from any further embarrassment by saying, “I can have a fresh batch made up tomorrow. Will that work?”
Val raised his eyes, his hands once again twirling that tattered old hat of his, “Yah don’t mind?”
Teresa laughed shaking her head at the man, “Of course I don’t mind. And for future reference any time you would like some you just let me know. Actually I’m very flattered that my cookies are so popular.”
“What’s so popular,” Scott asked as he came into the room.
Teresa turned around to greet Scott with a smile, “Apparently my cookies are.”
Scott laughed, “Is that what you wanted from Teresa?” he asked Val, handing him the spyglass when he got near enough to give it to him.
Val gave Scott his best hangdog look and said, “Yeah it was. Ole Joe ate me out of house and home last night when he came to my office and found the tin of cookies that Teresa had Johnny give to me.” He took the spyglass from Scott and said, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Scott said, stepping back.
Val put his hat back on his head and lifted the spyglass in a mock salute, “I’ll get this back to yah, soon as I can.” Slapping his hat back on his head, Val said, “Well its time for me to skid addle. You folks have a nice evenin’ and if it’s all right, I’ll send Andy out to get them cookies late tomorrow.”
Scott and Teresa walked Val to the door. Scott opened it and as Val walked out he told him, “Keep the glass as long as you need it Val. No hurry for you to return it.”
Val turned around on his heels and replied, “I appreciate that Scott. Tell yer Pa I said hello and I’ll come back and give him an update a little later in the week if I can.”
Scott put his arm around Teresa’s shoulders as they stood in the doorway and watched Val mount up on his horse. Teresa waved to him saying, “Good bye Val.”
The scraggly sheriff stuffed the spyglass into his saddlebags and just before he rode of he swept off his hat and waved it at the couple hollering over his shoulder, “Good bye and thank ya kindly.”
Scott looked down at Teresa, they smiled and together they went back in, Scott closing the door behind them to the sound of pounding hooves and billowy clouds of dust as Val rode away.
The stars above him twinkled in the night sky; bright and flickering like the flame he knew was waiting for him each and every night until he returned home. With his hands beneath his head, Johnny thought of her. The dark silky hair, lips pink and inviting, her waist so tiny his hands could nearly span the width of it.
He closed his eyes and felt her mouth on his, soft and yielding to the pressure of lips. Groaning from pent up need he flipped over and laid his head on his hands, squeezing his eyes tighter, trying fitfully to get the erotic images out of his mind. When that didn’t work he sat up with a huff, pulling his knees to his chest, wrapping his arms around them, dropping his forehead down on his knees caps.
A gentle breeze blew across the land, tickling the back of his neck, the sensation of it feeling as if her fingers were running through his hair. For just a moment he let the feeling stay with him, imaging that he was home again and in her arms. Johnny licked his lips, feeling the touch of her hands on his face, his neck. The memory of her scent aroused his passion to heights that were not welcomed when he was alone and missing her so very much.
His eyes opened wide and he let the image of Teresa float away with the breeze. He couldn’t think of her that way right now or else he would never get any sleep. It was bad enough that she came to visit him in his dreams and on more than one occasion he found himself taking over night herding duties just to get her out of his mind. Even that was a difficult task but it usually worked nevertheless.
Some nights he would go to the nearest watering hole and cool off. This was often times the best way to rid himself of the nightly tortures. On this night though, there was no cold watering hole to douse his head in or stave off the images in his mind and there was no need for him to be riding around all night only to find himself pent up and angry from being tired the next day.
Johnny lifted his head and sighed, looking back up at the stars again, wishing this next week was over and done with already. He wanted to go home. He missed Teresa and he missed his family. Two things that if anyone had asked him just a year ago would have been possible he would have given an unequivocal ‘no’ to. He reflected on what he had come to learn so far since coming home and it was, not having a family hurt, but having a family hurt even more. They were always on his mind and the only way they weren’t was if he kept himself so beat and tired he couldn’t think of them or if he called on his other personality to take control and banish the faces from his mind.
Calling on Madrid was the last thing he wanted to do. That personality so completely took over him and protected him, that he couldn’t justify resurrecting him just to cleanse his mind of his family. That was unfair to them and unfair to him. He loved his family, he loved Teresa, no matter the sleepless nights or the heartache and loneliness he felt being out here on his own with so much at stake and so little experience that qualified him for the job.
He shivered, but not from being cold. No, he shivered from the intensity of his need to be back with them and all he could do was shake the feeling off for now and do his best to make his father and his brother proud, and earn the right to hold on tight to the love he shared with Teresa.
Johnny lay back down on his side his left hand acting as a pillow for his head; his thoughts now filled with everyone instead of just her, his girl, his future if things went right and he somehow got his father to accept and love him for who he really was and for who he tried so very hard to be, Murdoch Lancer’s son.
Sapphire eyes closed wearily, tired and sleepy all of the sudden, the rest of the night filled with dreams of flickering candles, soft dreamy brown eyes, supple hands caressing the back of his neck with words of endearment whispered in his ear.
Scott eyed himself critically in the mirror. It was Sunday and he had promised Sadie he would come out to visit her. He thought she planned on a picnic so he dressed casually, opting for a touch more color by choosing a deep blue shirt, that was just a shade darker than his usual style of dress, tan slacks and polished brown leather boots with matching belt.
Leaning toward the upright standing mirror he held his chin and moved his face from side to side, carefully looking for any missed nicks or cuts that might blemish what he thought was the perfect shave. He crinkled his brows, licked the tip of his finger and then ran it lightly over a stray hair that seemed out of place when he relaxed his features. ‘That’ll do,’ he thought, satisfied that his appearance was well within the standards he had set for himself.
Stepping back he appraised the dark blue shirt, wondering if it did anything to heighten the blue of his eyes. He thought it did. They seemed to him to be a deeper shade of blue than normal. An effect he was hoping for when he picked this particular new shirt this morning. Sadie had remarked on more than one occasion how beautiful and stunning she thought the color of his eyes were and that they were one of the things that attracted her to him in the first place. She had told him that when he held the trampled on hat box between them, embarrassed and not a little shy about what had happened to it, that his eyes and his smile had done more to make her forgive him than any words that had passed between them that fateful day they had met.
Backing up a few steps he turned his back to the mirror, craning his neck to see how he looked from behind. His concentration was so deep he didn’t hear the door to his room open or hear the young girl who stood watching him from his doorway. With a silly grin on her face, Teresa watched him preen, adjust his belt, and run a hand down his derriere as wayward blonde bangs fell across his forehead. She watched him, stifling a laugh with the fist of her hand as he hastily swept back his hair then stretched his neck even further, scanning the back of his slacks for any tell tale crinkles that might need to be ironed out before leaving.
Unable to contain her laughter any longer, Teresa laughed from the doorway of Scott’s room and said, “If you stretch your neck any further your head is going to spin around completely on your shoulders Scott.”
Scott fairly jumped, whipping his head around at the sound of her voice, “Don’t you know how to knock yet?” he asked perturbed at being caught preening like some young schoolgirl without a warning.
Teresa dropped her hand from the doorknob and strolled into the room, “Nope. If I did, then I would miss out on some of the more interesting sights a girl never gets a chance to see otherwise.”
Scott put his hands on his hips and stared at her, his soft bangs falling heavily onto his forehead again, “One of these days you know, you’re going to do that and see something you’re not supposed to. Or do you even care about that?” he asked full of brotherly warning.
Teresa smiled at him, bright and cheery, “You know, that color looks real good on you. I think Sadie is going to like it.”
“You’re avoiding my question,” Scott reflected, picking his jacket up off the bed and draping it over his arm.
Teresa leaned against the back of his sitting chair with her forearms propped on the back of the seat, her smile toning down when she saw he was about ready to leave, “I’m sorry. I’ll try to remember and knock next time.”
Scott walked the few steps it took to get to her and tweaked her on the nose, “See that you do.” He leaned over and gave her a kiss on her cheek, “And thanks. I think she’ll like it too.” Three steps to the door and he turned back to her in the doorway, “You coming?”
Grinning, Teresa sighed and said, “Yeah, I’m coming.”
They left the room and went downstairs to the great room. When they reached the landing Scott asked, “Coffee still hot?”
Teresa wrapped an arm around his waist, “Yes, would you like some before you leave?”
Scott pulled her tight to him and then let her go, “Yes, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Teresa headed for the kitchen, saying over her shoulder, “I’ll have it for you in a minute.”
“Thanks sweetheart,” Scott called back, rounding the corner to find his father sitting at his desk. Walking across the room, Scott laid his jacket on the arm of the sofa and made his way to a chair by his father’s desk. Sitting down, he waited until Murdoch acknowledged him, which was hardly a second it seemed.
Pushing back in the large leather chair, Murdoch got more comfortable, his fingers lightly thrumming the cast on his left arm, “You heading over to Sadie’s?” he asked casually.
“Yes. Do you want anything from town since I’ll be riding through?” Scott asked his father.
Murdoch sighed; if it were closer to next weekend he would tell his son to check the telegrapher’s office for word from Johnny. Murdoch looked for his youngest son to send word once he was in Stockton and the sale had been completed, giving them a better time frame for when to expect him home. The last week of the drive was anyone’s guess as to how long it would actually take. For all Murdoch knew, Johnny could be nearing Stockton this very minute, if things had gone well or it could be another two or three weeks if things hadn’t.
Murdoch hoped for the best, wanting to see the positive in an otherwise uncalculated promise of a quick return. His son had only the best of the best riding herd with him and he knew that where there was a will there was a way, and Johnny would do his best to get him and the men to Stockton in one piece, with as little loss as possible for all of them.
Dropping these thoughts Murdoch replied to Scott’s question with a quiet air about him, “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t sound so sure,” Scott commented, feeling like he was able to read his father much better than those first few months since he and Johnny had come home.
Murdoch blew a deep sigh through his nose, “No it’s not that. I was just thinking is all.”
Scott thought he knew what his father had been thinking. Taking a guess he asked, “About Johnny?”
Murdoch turned his closed mouth up into a kindly smirk, “How did you guess?”
Scott grinned, very reminiscent of his father’s look, “I guess we all have recently. He should be getting close to Stockton about now, shouldn’t he?”
Murdoch’s head bobbed up and down, “Yes he should.”
The corners of Scott’s lips went up, “Good. It’ll be good to know he’s on his way home.”
Murdoch turned away from Scott, his gaze honing in on the spot in front of the fireplace where Johnny liked to nap, “I couldn’t have said it any better,” he remarked under his breath.
Murdoch closed his eyes briefly, imagining his dark haired, blue eyed, laughing son, until Teresa entered the room, dispelling the image abruptly, her heels clunking on the hard surface of the wood floor as she crossed the room and set a serving tray on his desk with a fresh pot of coffee and three cups.
Three cups Murdoch counted silently, watching his ward pour them each a steaming cup. Paul’s little girl was certainly turning into a woman. Murdoch could still remember when she would turn her nose up at the thought of drinking the bitter brew, but things were different now, she was older, and like the rest of them, Teresa enjoyed the brew right along beside them, strong, black and steaming hot just the way they all liked it.
When they all had taken a drink in companionable silence, with Teresa sitting opposite Murdoch’s desk from Scott, Murdoch set his cup down and asked them both, “So what’s on the agenda today, since none of us went to church and we have the whole day to do what we want?”
It was question made to create conversation and it did, Scott replied, “I’m going over to Sadie’s for a while, but I plan on stopping in to see Val first. I want to know if he’s found anything out since he borrowed my spyglass.”
Murdoch took a drink of his coffee, sipping it slowly with his good hand, “Let me know what he says when you get home,” he told Scott from the brim of his cup. “What about you Teresa? What plans do you have today?”
Teresa shrugged, taking her own sip of coffee, “Not much of anything really. Thought I might go for a ride.” She saw the raised eyebrows on Murdoch and Scott’s face, adding to her last statement, “Close by of course.”
Murdoch set his cup down, maybe a little too heavily on second thought, but didn’t care much when it came to his ward’s well being, “I don’t want you riding off alone Teresa.”
Self-consciously Murdoch rubbed at his cast, his thoughts not far from the accident that caused him to be wearing the infernal thing in the first place.
Scott too set his cup down. Not as heavy-handed as his father had done, but with the same concern etched on his features and a heaviness suddenly weighing on his shoulders, “I agree with Murdoch, Teresa. I don’t want you riding out alone. In fact, until we hear something from Val about who did this to us or that he’s captured the men who robbed the bank, I highly urge you not to go anywhere. It isn’t safe without a guard.”
“Scott Lancer, I’m not a child you know. I can take care of myself and I have enough sense not to go too far from the house. I don’t really think there’s a need to pull one of the few men we have protecting us from their post just to watch me ride around the yard.”
Murdoch looked over at his ward sternly, “I’m sorry honey, but Scott is right. In fact, now that I’ve thought a little more on it, I don’t want you riding out at all.”
“But that’s not fair! Scott’s going out so what’s the difference?” Teresa demanded to know.
Exasperation filled Scott, “The difference is young lady, is just ‘that’. You are a young lady, not some cowboy riding his horse down the lane.” He saw that she was going to do some more refuting but held up his hand to her, “It’s different Teresa and you know it. We can’t protect you if we aren’t with you. And with Murdoch’s broken arm you can’t expect him to go with you and right now it isn’t wise to ask the men to go for a joy ride.”
At Teresa’s hurt look, Murdoch added, “I know you’ve been cooped up in here, taking care of the house, us, and a million other things, and today we didn’t even get to go to church. But I promise honey, as soon as things are safe and Scott or I can go with you then we will.”
Scott got up out of his chair and went to squat down in front of Teresa, “You are the strongest, most self reliant, independent woman I know, but I want you to have a care, if not for yourself then for us,” Scott told her quietly, giving the hands in her lap a gentle squeeze, his eyes asking her to understand, knowing that she was debating the decision in her head on whether to obey or not. Seeing that maybe she was beginning to relent a little but just needed that little bit of push to help her make the final right decision Scott added very quietly, “Johnny would kill me if anything happened to you. So please do as I say. Do as Murdoch says. We love you and well…we would like to keep the skins on our backs for a few more years.”
The teasing last part of Scott’s council was all she needed. Teresa nodded her head conceding defeat on her plans to venture out. They were right and she was being selfish and foolhardy, thinking of taking risks she knew better than to do. Smiling she said, “I won’t go riding. You’re both right, as usual.” She sighed, “I guess I’ll find something else to keep me busy.”
Scott gave her hands one last final squeeze, “That’s a good girl. When I come home, if it’s still light out, I’ll take you riding. Is it a deal?”
This idea brightened Teresa’s hopes of getting out of the house for a little while. While it wasn’t the best part of the day for a good ride, she would take Scott up on his offer. It was the least she could do, since she knew it meant that he would be giving up some of his time with Sadie just to get back before the sun set. “It’s a deal.”
Scott stood, grateful that things had gone rather smoothly. He realized if he threw in Johnny’s name, she would relent without thinking too much on it. He knew how she felt about his brother, especially after seeing her in his room a few nights ago with Johnny’s shirt and the memory prompted him so use Johnny’s name as a lever to sway her reluctance toward the right decision without much of an argument.
It was maybe a little unfair to use an advantage on her the way that he did, but if it kept her home safe then it was for the best. Scott picked up his coffee cup, his back to Teresa and saw that Murdoch was studying him with furrowed brows.
Murdoch spoke a silent question to his son, but Scott only shrugged and drained his cup. He wasn’t going to get into it right now with Teresa sitting right here in the room. He hadn’t thought about what his father might think of his tactics or his words when he had said them to Teresa. But what was done was done. If Murdoch didn’t approve of the relationship that was building between his son and his ward, then that was something he would have to deal with later. Not now, not when Johnny wasn’t here to defend his burgeoning intentions and not when all of them were still virtually prisoners in their own home until things got back to normal.
Setting down his cup with a satisfied air of pretentious ignorance, Scott walked to the sofa and picked up his jacket, pulling it on over his new blue shirt. He wasn’t worried about leaving them alone. Murdoch wouldn’t say anything to Teresa just yet. He laughed a little to himself as he grabbed up his hat and put it on his head at a rakish angle, knowing that he was right in his thinking, for Murdoch had a fear of talking about anything too personal and with him gone, he had no doubts that any conversation would be kept silent until Murdoch could speak to him privately first. This was especially true when it came to matters of the heart, and having to deal with a lovesick young lady who was easily swayed by just the mention of Murdoch’s youngest son.
“Do I look all right?” Scott asked, turning around in a circle for their inspection, hoping his antics would lighten the mood before he left them to their own devices.
Teresa stood up and walked over to Scott. She straightened the lapel of his jacket and smiled up at him, “You look handsome. Have fun,” she said rising on tiptoe and kissing his cheek. She left the room then, her heels clunking across the floor and disappearing into the kitchen.
Before he had a chance to say anything to his father, a hurried Teresa came running back into the room, her hands filled with two bright colorful shiny tins, each about the size of a large jewelry box, “Before I forget, give these to Val,” she said, pushing the rectangular containers into his hands.
Scott smiled looking down at it, “What are these for, may I ask?”
Teresa put her hands on the hip of her back pockets, a grin spreading wide on her face as she tilted her head up at him, “It’s just homemade cookies. I promised Val I’d make some for Joe Mesker. He says that ole miner ate all of his and that getting some more was part of some deal he had with him. I made two batches so Val could have some too. So just make sure he gets them alright?”
“Will do? But let me ask you one thing?” Scott said.
Teresa’s eyes sparkled, “What’s that?”
“You saved some for all of us poor souls here at Lancer, right?”
Teresa grinned, skipping away from him, “Guess you’ll find out later when you take me for a ride Scott Lancer. So you better stick to your deal.”
Scott looked across the room at his father who remained silent but smiling, giving him a mock salute, “I’ll see you later tonight,” he told Murdoch, tucking the cookie tins under his arm.
Murdoch stood up, the leather rocker chair rolling heavily with a push of his knees and strode across the room. Clasping his hand on Scott’s shoulder he said, “Ride careful son. We’ll talk later,” he told him.
Scott gave a curt nod, “Yes sir.”
Murdoch followed Scott to the door, waiting to watch him store the tins in his saddlebags, mount up and turn his horse away before closing the door behind him. With a heavy sigh and an unconscious scratching of his cast, which did nothing to ease the itch under it, Murdoch went back to his desk. When he was seated, he turned his chair around gazing out the big bay window that framed the lane and the giant arch that welcomed those to Lancer. He watched his straight backed son ride toward Sadie’s, his wounds very near to being completely healed, wishing he hadn’t heard the words that confirmed his and Scott’s suspicions that Johnny and Teresa were more than just son and brother, more than just a ward and surrogate sister.
Scott had warned him of the possibility ‘it’ might be happening. He had said he would keep an eye out for ‘it’. But somewhere he realized he had missed ‘it’. Missed it all and that ‘it’ was already a flaming torch that could not be denied. Murdoch wasn’t sure how he felt about the idea that Johnny and Teresa were in love. At first, when Scott had told him that he suspected there were feelings between the two of them, that they loved each other in a way that wasn’t the sisterly, brotherly kind of way, Murdoch had been a little angry. He thought Teresa was too young and Johnny too unsettled for that type of relationship. But Scott had said he didn’t think it was anything to worry about just yet and that if he said anything it might make the situation blossom even faster, which Murdoch certainly didn’t want.
Scott’s image faded as he and his horse climbed the steep hill out of the valley and Murdoch could no longer see him. His thoughts went back to Johnny, to Teresa, and he was left wondering when ‘it’ had all started. It had to have been fairly early on, since the boys hadn’t been back home for much more than a year. The very idea that somewhere along the way he had missed the subtle changes between them was unnerving. Was he so careless an observer that he couldn’t even the see the way things really were around him? Or was it that he was so focused on making sure his sons learned the ways of living and running the ranch that he had little regard to the emotional aspects of what was happening? Hadn’t he just been having a time of it, getting along with his hotheaded son, until hurt and near loss made them all realize what they meant to one another?
And how was it that with Johnny spending so much time, working sunup to sundown, sometimes gone days at a time repairing lines shacks, or herding beef that he or Teresa had found the time to get that close? How could they have gotten close enough to build a bond and forge an unspoken secret love for one another without the benefit of anyone becoming the wiser until recently? And really, in the long run what was he supposed to do about it? That was the real question in his mind.
A myriad of swirling unanswered questions filled Murdoch’s head. A thought suddenly began to take root and Murdoch thought he was maybe beginning to understand just a little. He hadn’t been able to see their budding romantic feelings because he was so focused on building his own relationship with Johnny and with Scott. He wanted his sons to love him, to respect him. Hadn’t this just been the very subject that he and Scott and then later with Johnny, had talked about.
He remembered telling Johnny in his room, that he was proud of him. Johnny had been surprised, shocked even and had asked why. Now that he thought back on it, Murdoch was saddened that he had to explain why he was proud. He had told his son that it had to do with family loving one another, sticking up for one another and taking care of their own. He had told him it was love, pure and simple. It was nothing to ponder over, a fact of life that should be inherent with any family.
Johnny hadn’t at first replied or commented. His quiet silence making Murdoch realize that he should have said those words to his son a lot earlier in their relationship, but he hadn’t. It wasn’t until he was about to leave the room that Johnny had called to him, hesitancy lacing his sleepy voice, calling him ‘Pa’ for the first time ever. Drowsy blue eyes drew him like a moth to a flame, toward his son, his heart somersaulting when Johnny told him tiredly, eyelids closing heavily, that he loved him, the long awaited sluggish words drawing tears to Murdoch’s eyes, as he kissed his sleeping boy and whispered back, ‘I love you too. We all do.’
Murdoch realized with full clarity that his son, hardened and angry as he could seem at times, energetic and full of laughter, needed to love and feel loved, whether he admitted it or not. And with these thoughts Murdoch realized that in fact, it was probably the most natural thing in the world for him to find a feeling of that magnitude for his Teresa. She was in a nutshell, the very essence of what Johnny needed in his life. Maybe not right now, but when they got to be a little older, he thought a little selfishly. He could see it happening. And the more that Murdoch sat and pondered the idea; the more and more he felt that it was right. Paul’s daughter and his son, a union he never would have dreamt of.
He could see now that Teresa was born and bred to be a Lancer one day. She had the toughness required to be a rancher’s wife and she was no wilting flower when it came to danger. She was well aware of Johnny’s past but accepted it for what it was, the past, with a chance that it could always put a dangerous touch on their future. Paul’s daughter wasn’t afraid to live life to the fullest, knowing the dangers and the pitfalls that having an ex-gunslinger could bring with it, for she was living it now. The only difference should they one day get married, would be the legality and confirmation that they were more than just two people living in a home. They would be family in a way that was just as binding as blood and more.
Hearing the hard step of her heels on the floor, Murdoch swiveled his chair around, facing his girl, Paul’s strong willed daughter, whose seventeenth birthday was just days away, smiling at her, seeing her in a new light. A light that wanted to bring tears to his eyes for he loved her so, and was glad that he would have her with him for as long as he lived. Knowing in his heart that one day she would well and truly be his daughter. A future that now looked more bright and promising for him, his son and his family than ever before. Any disparaging thoughts he may have once had concerning their eventual union, was completely dispelled. In it’s place was a determination to see that if things went in the direction that was now so clearly evident, that it was done properly and in due time, not a minute too soon and not a minute too late. He was her guardian after all and he called the tune.
Scott rode into Green River, occasionally swiping at the dust the settled on his jacket. One of the reason he wore the thing regardless of the fact that it was a little too hot to be doing so. It was nearing eleven and Sadie didn’t expect him until around noon, so he had plenty of time to make his stop to see Val first thing. He didn’t know if the sheriff was in or not, but he was going to check anyway just in case.
On his way into town he had had the uncanny feeling that someone had been watching him, at least part of the way. It unnerved him just a little to think that somewhere out there in the surrounding hills and cliffs, that an assailant could be lying in wait, rifle pointed squarely at him, just waiting for the first opportunity to take a pot shot at him. Why they didn’t after what the shadowy images in his mind had done, he didn’t know.
The shot never came, and careful as Scott was he decided he would take an alternate route home just to be on the safe side. If an attacker was gearing up for a take down the last thing he would expect was for Scott to take another trail. Of course nothing had happened and all his thoughts could be the result of his panic when Teresa had said she wanted to go riding on her own. After the sensation he felt riding into town, he was glad they had insisted that she didn’t.
He pulled his horse up to the office, hoping Val had some kind of news and anxious to tell him what he suspected of being watched. Pulling out the tins he had stored away, Scott put them under his arm and started to walk up the steps that led to Val’s office. He was stopped dead in his tracks, his boot on the first step, when a low rumbling growl and deep short bark came from a large white dog that lay just in front of the Val’s door.
He waited, watching the dog for any intentional sign he might attack, saying, “Good dog. You must be Whitey.” Taking another cautious step the growling grew deeper, fiercer; the thick white tail began to thump on the wooden boardwalk, yet the dog didn’t move to get up. “I see you and I are going to have to find a way to become friends real quick if I want to get in there and see Val,” he said calmly to the dog.
Whitey ignored the stranger, his growls growing softer yet still there. ‘Where the Hell is Val,’ Scott thought. ‘And why does he let this mutt lay in front of his door that way?’
He called out Val’s name but no one came to the door and opened it. ‘Must be in the back,’ he thought.
When the stranger didn’t back away, Whitey got up, the constant growl turning to a predatory stare as he eyed Scott and sniffed the air, his nostrils flaring in and out while his head made little movements to catch the scent that floated toward his sensitive nose. He stepped toward Scott, the stranger, until he was standing just on the edge of the boardwalk.
There was another low growl and Scott stayed his ground, fearing that if he suddenly bolted the dog would attack him with the sharp teeth that were now so clearly seen, as they stood almost face-to-face.
The growling white face moved forward, neck stretching and straining as the dog sniffed at the containers under Scott’s arm. Another low soft sounding growl emitted from Whitey’s fang filled mouth and Scott thought that the dog had actually taken another step or two closer.
Sweat began to trickle down Scott’s temples as he waited, wondering if the dog was going to tear him in half just to get to the tins under his arm. His heart nearly gave out on him when from next to him a thin hand reached past his face and scrubbed roughly behind the dogs ears and he heard, “Hey yah Whitey! Hi Scott. Is Johnny back yet?”
Andy Clark stomped past him and up the steps, the white dog, wagging his tail furiously and following the boy as if he were his playmate. Andy opened the door to the sheriff’s office and looked back at Scott, twisting his gun belt, a boyish grin spreading wide from ear to ear, “Yah look sick Scott. Are yah sure you should be out ridin’ in all this heat? Why don’t yah come in a sit a spell. Val’s out back but he’ll be pure put out if he don’t get to see yah.”
The white dog jumped up, his front paws landing on Andy’s thin shoulders, “Aw Whitey, I love yah too boy. Now get down, you’re makin’ me lose my gun belt again.”
The dog obeyed and Andy hitched up his gun belt for the second time, waving Scott inside the building. Scott took another step when Andy disappeared through the door, but stopped just shy of taking the last one when Whitey growled at him again.
Scott’s eyes narrowed at the dog. The dog walked up to him and before Scott had a chance to react, Whitey hefted his front body like he did to Andy and put his paws on Scott’s shoulders, wagging his tail and still growling.
Andy came back to the doorway, wondering why Scott hadn’t followed him inside. When he saw that Whitey sort of had Scott pinned while standing, he laughed and said innocently and unaware of Scott’s feeling of unease, “I guess ole Whitey loves yah too Scott.”
Though the dog looked menacing to Scott, he realized that Whitey was playing some kind of game with him or at the very least wanted some of the cookies that he could obviously smell from inside the tins he had under his arm. Deciding to take a chance that the dog was as friendly as Andy seemed to think he was, he pushed onward and sure enough Whitey dropped to the walkway without incident, much to Scott’s relief.
“Ain’t he a friendly dog?” Andy remarked going inside with Scott right behind him this time.
Scott sighed heavily through his nose, casting a scornful look toward the white beast that had gotten him half scared out of his wits just moments ago, “Sure he is,” Scott replied with lost sarcasm to Andy.
“Yep, Ole Cotton Eye Joe says I can have one of his pups someday if he ever has any,” Andy said with pride.
Scott turned to look at Whitey then back to Andy as he put the tins down on Val’s desk. The dog was just standing there in the doorway staring at him. A low growl sounded across the room when Scott’s hands were finally empty of the tins. If he didn’t know any better he would swear the dog was mocking him, his features changing back and forth depending on whether it was him or Andy he was looking at, from menacing to hang dog puppy happy.
Backing up several steps, Scott pushed his hat back and moved around to the far side of Val’s desk, “So Andy, when is Val coming back?”
“Oh in just a few, I expect. He went to the outhouse. Said the late night crap he’s been eatin’ ain’t sittin’ right with ‘im.”
Scott’s face turned red, “He said that huh?”
“Oh yes sir. I wouldn’t tell a lie. No siree. My pa would whip my hide good iffen he thought I was tellin’ a lie.”
Scott thought he should have a talk with Val about the way he worded things when he was around the very young and impressionable Andy Clark.
“Want some coffee Scott. Got some fresh made by me early this mornin’,” Andy offered holding up an enamel coffee pot.
“How long were you on rounds Andy?” Scott asked.
“Oh, I’d say a couple hours at least,” Andy told him with his back to Scott while he poured at least one cup of what Scott now knew must be the blackest and stalest coffee ever made. ‘Guess Val’s teaching him all kinds of things,’ Scott thought, never having liked Val’s coffee. The man didn’t seem to care how it was made or how long it had been sitting around. To Val, coffee was coffee. As long as it still poured from the pot and was hot, it was still drinkable.
“I think I’ll pass on the coffee Andy, but thanks.”
Andy turned toward Scott taking a sip of coffee from his mug, “Mmmm mmmm. Sure is good.”
Scott’s brows arched and he bent his head down to hide the smile on his face. Andy was doing is best to be a man, but Scott nearly came undone when he watched Andy lift the mug to his face and saw that is gun belt was once again, starting a slow trek down his slim waist.
With a satisfied smack of his lips, Andy set his mug down and told Scott, “Well I gotta go. Gotta do the rounds again. You wanna wait here until Val gets back?”
Scott lifted his head noting that Andy readjusted his gun belt without thinking, waiting expectantly for his answer, “You taking Whitey with you?” Scott asked, prompting the boy with a subliminal message that he wanted him to take the dog when he left.
Andy took Scott’s bait, thinking the idea was a great one, his eyes lighting up with the prospect of having the dog go with him, “You don’t think ole Joe will mind?” he asked with restrained excitement.
Scott looked at the dog and thought he saw another challenge there in his eyes, “No I don’t think he’ll mind. In fact I’ll make sure that Val knows, so he can tell Joe himself.”
Andy clapped is hands together, “Hot dang! This will be exciting. I’ll have me a deputy dog. Come on boy,” Andy said, ruffling the hair on Whitey’s head. Andy stomped out door calling for Whitey to follow.
The dog turned, his soft padded feet barely making a sound on the floor. Just as Scott was about to breathe a sigh of relief that Andy was taking the dog with him, Whitey turned in the door and gave one last growl and a nipping bark before trotting off.
Scott leaned from his side of the room, craning his head to look out the window. The white dog was gone, following close on the heels of a man-boy who looked ganglier than ever in the bright light of day, with his too large hat and his too loose gun belt.
A dark figure passed by the window and Val stood in the doorway, blowing out a long harsh breath from his scruffy cheeks, nodding his head when he saw Scott waiting for him, “One of these days, the good folks of this town is gonna have to build me a decent crapper. It ain’t right that the sheriff has to wait in line like some dern fool when he’s got to go!”
Scott was just about to make a remark but Val beat him to the punch, “Hey is that the cookies I asked Teresa to make fer me? And looky here. Now ain’t she a sweetheart sending me a batch too?” He looked up at Scott, his curling, vagabond hair sticking out from his sweaty hat in all directions, “These are fer me, ain’t they Scott?”
Figuring that there must not be anything worth while to tell him, or else Val would have the instant he saw him, Scott laughed, “Yes Val. They’re for you,” he said, settling into a hard backed chair as he watched Val smack his lips, pick up a tin, and take it behind his desk. He had to laugh again when he watched Val take a cookie out, his mouth fairly watering, putting the lid back on and then hide the tin in a bottom drawer, locking it when he knew it was safely tucked inside.
“So you’re not going to offer me one?” Scott asked with amusement.
Val chomped on his cookie, smacking his hand down on the table in conjunction with a foot stomp, “Nope. You got the baker at home. These are all mine,” he exclaimed, popping the last bite into his mouth. He grinned big and toothy at Scott, “Sorry but a man has to protect his valuables.”
“So I see. I’ll tell Teresa you said thanks,” Scott retorted with mild humorous sarcasm.
“You do that. Yes sir. You sure do need to do that.” And with that, Val licked his fingers and tucked the key inside his vest pocket. A patient Scott waiting for the next fifteen minutes to go by until he could make a proper exit without offending Johnny’s friend and his.
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