LANCER WRITER’S CHALLENGE STORY – SEPTEMBER 2012
A “WHODUNNIT?” MYSTERY
Teresa considered it a good morning. She rose well before the Lancer men, and had the coffee hot and waiting by the time they arrived for breakfast. Warned the night before that they had a busy day ahead of them, Teresa was determined not to become the target of blame for any delays. ‘If they’re going to be late, let it be their fault!’ she thought with smug satisfaction.
The Lancers made quick work devouring their breakfast, then scattered to their various tasks. Teresa stacked the dishes and headed out herself. She made a brief stop at the barn and then continued on to the chicken coop with a bowl of feed in her hands and the handle of an empty basket looped around her arm. The chickens were cackling up a storm. ‘I’m coming!’ She rounded the corner of the coop at a brisk pace. The sight that welcomed her made her stop so fast grain spilled up and over the side of the juggled bowl of feed.
“Mornin’, Miss T’resa,” Buck Harper called. He leaned against the coop, next to the door, his right knee crooked with a boot heel hooked over the wooden slats. Despite the nip in the cool morning air, the Lancer hand stood there looking comfortable with his long john top half unbuttoned and his shirt open.
“Good morning, Buck,” she said, pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes with her free hand. Around Johnny’s age, she knew his given name was Casey, but most everyone called him “Buck” because of his skill at bronc busting. A foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than Teresa, she always found him an imposing figure. His smooth-talking and brash demeanor upset her – although she was never sure why. Scott and Johnny were confident and assertive men, but she never felt intimidated by them.
“You sure do look pretty today,” Buck said. “But then, you always look pretty . . . pretty enough to eat!” He sported a tremendous grin as his eyes traced a slow path up and down her figure. “Yesiree . . . you are a good lookin’ woman.”
She took an unconscious step backward. “Th-thank you,” she stammered, not for one minute appreciative of his “compliment,” but not sure what else to say. Caught totally off guard, he had her wholly disconcerted.
He straightened and sauntered her way. She found herself backing up another step . . . and then another.
“Why don’t you let me hold that bowl for you,” he said – but his eyes fastened on hers, his attention not at all interested in the care and feeding of female fowl.
“Feeding the chickens is not something I need help with.” She had meant to sling the words as a rebuke, but instead barely managed to get them out, sounding as unnerved as she felt.
He laughed – an unpleasant, slime slick chuckle. “Gimme a chance and you might find I can be all kinds of helpful.”
He advanced on her again, and this time she managed to turn and scurry forward a few steps, far enough from the chicken coop to search the courtyard for someone – anyone. She caught sight of Johnny heading toward the barn. Emboldened, she fairly shouted, “You leave me alone, Buck Harper!”
“Now, now, missy!” The lout sniggered, her attempt at rejection batted away as no more than a girlish attempt to play hard to get. “You¾” He advanced on her another step before he, too, noticed Johnny in the courtyard – aimed in their direction and marching with a clear-cut purpose.
Buck faced her again. His manner shifted from brazen arrogance to a sullen resentment. “You done it now, missy,” he hissed. “All’s I wanted was to spend some time with you.” Now he backpedaled, distance growing between them as Johnny drew ever closer. “You’re gonna be real sorry you ever said no to me.”
He turned and set a quick pace away, but she heard him repeat, “You’re gonna be really, really sorry . . . .” The venom permeating through the threat made Teresa tremble.
“Teresa!” Johnny called, nearly upon her – but she remained focused on Buck as he continued his retreat.
Only when she was certain that Johnny had driven Buck away did Teresa realize that she had dropped the bowl of chicken feed into a pile at her feet.
L L L L L L L L
Jose shifted in the saddle, making sure his seating was firm as he readied for a chase. He lifted his hat and held it off to the side of his face, shading his eyes from the rising morning sun. He gazed at the opening to Cedar Canyon, and watched with utter dismay as another steer made its way into the ravine. “Ahhhhh!” he exclaimed in total annoyance to no one but his horse. “Those stupid cows!”
Cedar Canyon was in the northern range of the ranch. It was the singular passage between two small but prime grazing areas for Lancer. Anyone who worked the ranch for any length of time would eventually end up with the sorry chore of hazing strays out of the canyon and back into the main herds. The trouble was those “stupid cows” loved the patch of long, sweet grass they had discovered at the end of the ravine. A sizeable watering hole made that grazing land even more attractive. Without affection, the vaqueros had long taken to referring to that plot of acreage as the “Lancer Saloon.”
It might have been fine to leave the cattle alone to grow fat in that rich pasture, but flash flooding could kill the ranch’s profits at a moment’s notice. The remote location also made it easy pickings for rustlers if not regularly scouted. Parts of the high granite-walled canyon were narrow, but other sections could accommodate six or seven cows across. You might easily get that stubborn beef moving forward while out in the open, but it could be a thorny undertaking making sure they didn’t turn right around on you in bovine retreat back to the bounteous amenities of the saloon. Avoiding the irksome task until rain threatened was not recommended for the safety of man nor beast.
Jose resigned himself to the fact that it was his turn in the rotation, and the sooner he emptied the saloon, the better his chances were for actually making it back to the bunkhouse in time for a hot dinner. He reseated his hat with a firm tug of the brim and spurred his horse forward.
That last steer in was the first hauled out. The skilled vaquero caught up to it halfway through the canyon and tossed a lasso around its neck. He dallied the rope to his saddle and took the lead as he dragged the animal back into the open. The cow’s doleful bellow echoed off the canyon walls the entire way. Jose released his rope and dogged the steer until he was sure it would not cut and run back into the canyon.
Jose made his way back through the canyon, and did not see another steer until he entered the saloon. He reined to a stop and could only shake his head at the sight of two dozen cows dotting the landscape. “Ay yi,” he griped, now certain that he faced a hard, full day of dusty work ahead of him.
After an hour, he had managed to move a sum total of five steers back through the canyon. The less than stunning achievement was not from lack of trying. Jose felt quite proud of himself on his first attempt when he rounded up a dozen cows and headed them toward the canyon. But the steers were being extra stubborn this day. The minute they eyed those tall walls of granite looming around them they all turned and hightailed it back to the comfort of the saloon. Jose started prodding them through in pairs, and found better luck. Moving beef a mere two at a time was surely going to take him longer, but Jose was satisfied that it would be a heck of a lot less frustrating.
The day warmed early. Jose removed his jacket and tied it to his saddle. He pulled an apple out of his saddlebag and crooked a knee around the saddle horn while he enjoyed the snack. “Get ready, cows, ‘cause I’m gettin’ ready for you,” he declared between bites. Hunger pangs satisfied, he leaned over the neck of his horse and treated his mount to the apple core. He straightened and took a drink of water from his canteen. Fortified and strategy determined, the cowboy sat tall in the saddle and once again spurred his horse forward.
Jose had a smart cow pony that quickly adapted to the plan to move cows by pairs through the canyon. In no time, cowboy and horse had cut two sets of steers out from the saloon strays and drove them into the open pastures of the Lancer ranch.
On his next trip back to the saloon, Jose spotted a rock the size of a man’s head, lying in the middle of the trail. The canyon was not particularly wide at that point, so it stood out as something he definitely would have seen before. He reined up and looked it over, then gazed upward to the top edge of the high cliffs around him. Rockslides were not common in this area, so he was more curious than concerned. He spotted nothing out of the ordinary along the rim. He sat still for another minute and let the canyon talk to him. When there were no cows around complaining about being moved, the ravine became rather serene. Other than an occasional gust of wind or scream from a hawk or such, there was mostly just silence.
Reckoning that one of the cows must have kicked the rock out from somewhere against the wall without his notice, Jose kneed his horse past the distraction, determined to get most of the steers moved by noon.
An extra cow volunteered to make the next trip through the canyon, and that was just fine with Jose. He considered it a sign of good fortune. He was further pleased when the trio of steers set a quick pace all on their own. They were making good progress when they turned the next bend and Jose spotted that unusual rock he had noted on his last trip through. Two more about the same size and another three times as large now littered the center of the trail.
Set on edge Jose kept the steers moving forward as he scanned the cliff top. He heard gravel skittering down the canyon wall. The trickle started like a hard rain on windows and built to the pounding of hail. He looked to his left and witnessed a waterfall of pebbles and small rocks oozing out from beneath a large crescent of granite boulders on the rim. He watched with increasing dread as a sizeable boulder on the outer edge broke loose and started its descent. Halfway down the hunk of granite bounced off an outcropping that sent it careening into the bottom of the wall on the opposite side of the canyon. It hit with a resounding crash of rock against rock and rolled forward, partially blocking the trail.
The cattle panicked. Closest to the falling boulder, the largest of the three reared backward. It landed draped across the back of one of the other cows, its hooves flailing in the air, seeking purchase to run. The other cow bucked and sent them both off balance. They crashed to the ground into a chaotic pile of hide and hooves. The third cow jumped over the other two, bolted down the canyon and fled quickly out of sight.
Jose’s horse reared back from the commotion. The cowboy fought hard to stay saddled. He yanked at the reins and brought the animal back under his control. A strange noise echoed through the canyon, a distinctive “ting” that sounded like metal striking metal. But Jose had no time to consider that as the ledge at the top of the cliff issued a low, deep rumble, mixed with sharp cracking that fired off like a barrage of bullets.
When the rim visibly trembled, Jose had seen and heard enough. He jabbed his spurs into the side of his horse and whipped the reins across its neck. The horse bounded forward and managed one full stride before those cows untangled themselves right in front of them. The horse ably sidestepped one of the cows before the other blocked the pathway. Jose attempted to rein the horse in, but it was too late. The animals collided in a flurry of movements that pitched Jose clear out of his saddle. He landed facedown and hit his forehead hard against a half-buried rock.
Jose was blessedly unconscious and died without knowing that a good portion of the canyon rim had just tumbled down on top of him.
L L L L L L L L
The late afternoon sky was the pale blue of paintings skillfully crafted to uplift and soothe. There were no clouds and only a light, gentle breeze. The sun offered a temperate, comforting warmth. Most would consider the sum of these parts to equal a perfect day.
Murdoch stood in front of the picture window behind his desk. A vast expanse of the Lancer ranch spread out before him. No element of the pastoral scene brought him solace. Arms crossed firmly over his chest, he peered through the glass and abruptly leaned forward, head angled as his gaze focused in the distance.
“Johnny?” Scott asked from behind him.
The Lancer patriarch straightened and, after a contemplative moment, answered, “Yes.”
Scott took a measure of time for his own considerations. “Do you think he’s heard yet?”
“He’s riding in at a gallop. He knows.” Murdoch turned and faced the other men. “Cipriano.”
The Lancer Segundo stepped forward, his sombrero clutched in his hands. “Sí. You wish me to stay?”
“That won’t be necessary. We’ll speak to him. Considering his current suspicions you’ll most likely hear his reaction clear out to the bunkhouse anyway.” If the situation were not so dire, Murdoch knew his offhand comment would have been considered humorous. Instead, it just served as a grim prediction of the argument that was sure to follow Johnny’s arrival. “Just take care of his horse. We’ll let you know what we decide.”
“Sí, Patrón.” Cipriano nodded briskly, then donned his hat and left the door open as he exited.
Murdoch stepped forward to stand beside Scott in the middle of the great room. It took no more than a minute before Johnny entered. He stopped in mid-stride. The trace of a scowl betrayed his displeasure at finding both father and brother already poised for confrontation. His next reaction surprised Murdoch – Johnny merely turned and gently closed the door.
“You’re not going to slam it this time?” The derisive rebuke came out gruffer than intended, but Murdoch had indeed, been set for a fight.
Johnny held on to the stampede string around his neck and let his hat slide down onto his back as he stepped further into the room. “No. I want to know what you know, and what you plan to do about it. Then I’m gonna decide if I’m gonna let you do it.”
“We’ve been through this already¾” Murdoch started.
“That was before he got one of our men killed!” Johnny’s forbearance shattered and compelled him forward a long stride. Murdoch held his ground, but Scott straightened perceptibly. Johnny’s voice was low, but full of intense determination. “Tell me what you know.”
The battle of stubborn wills persisted until Murdoch nodded to Scott.
“Jose was hazing strays out of Cedar Canyon. There was a rockslide. His horse must have thrown him. It was found wandering about a mile from where they found the body, half buried under rubble.”
“And now, Murdoch, this is where you tell me that this was just another accident.” Now Johnny’s voice was soaked in sarcasm.
Murdoch fought his temper. “If we had any evidence to the contrary, I’d tell you. I’d also be the first one to do something about it. But so far all we’ve had is a rash of bad luck.”
“Bad luck named Buck Harper,” Johnny said.
“There – is – no – proof!” Murdoch fired his barrage, then turned and retreated from the skirmish, taking refuge in his desk chair.
“There’s proof these haven’t been accidents – you just don’t want to see it.” Johnny stepped forward and leaned his fists onto the desk, setting him eye to eye with Murdoch. “Well-built corrals just don’t fall apart and set prize horse stock loose. Why were you the only ranch owner within fifty miles sold chicken feed that killed every hen overnight? How can Lancer have a stream suddenly dam up when there hasn’t been any rain in weeks? And now we’ve had a rockslide in a canyon that’s had solid walls for hundreds of years. I also know that men like Buck Harper talk tough but fight their battles like cowards.”
Johnny stood upright and turned toward Scott. “So where do you stand now, brother? You still believe Lancer’s just havin’ a stretch of bad luck, or are we dealin’ with a coyote gone rabid?”
“I don’t know,” Scott said. He shook his head. “I really don’t know.”
Murdoch slammed a fist down hard onto a hapless book atop his desk. “Not you now!”
“Murdoch, you’re right – up to now there really hasn’t been any hard evidence whatsoever to prove otherwise. But Johnny’s got a point.” Scott crossed to stand beside his brother. “One or two incidents may be a coincidence, but this is getting out of hand. And now a man is dead. Just because we don’t have any proof doesn’t mean Johnny isn’t on to something. Buck did threaten Teresa.”
Murdoch burst to his feet. His tall leather chair rolled back and spun in wild circles behind him. “Don’t think for one moment that I’ve forgotten that. If she hadn’t been brave enough to tell him to leave her alone then I would have. He’s a no-account cowboy with a gift for breaking horses. That’s it. You fired him,” he flicked a hand toward Johnny, “and he’s moved on. There’s nothing that says he’s seeking revenge. There’ve been no other threats and no further contact with Lancer. And there is no proof!”
“Then I’ll find it,” Johnny said.
“You’ve already made up your mind,” Murdoch barked.
“I doubt Buck has, but maybe you forget how I used to make a living,” Johnny said.
Murdoch’s eyes stole a fleeting glance at his son’s holstered but ever-dangerous sidearm.
“And ‘ya know how I managed to stay alive?” Johnny continued, his father’s distraction either ignored or accepted as inevitable. “Just because some rancher told me his cause was just didn’t mean I hired straight on to fight his battles for him. I looked for proof first, Murdoch. Buck’s got pride stuck in his craw, but he’s not stupid. There’s no way he’d take on a fight with Lancer out in the open. If he’s behind this, I’ll prove it and turn him over to the law. And if he’s not guilty, then I’m gonna find out who is. The one thing I’m not gonna do is wait around for another Lancer man to be killed by bad luck.” Johnny’s spurs jangled viciously as he headed out of the room and up the stairs.
Murdoch glared at Scott as he dropped back down into his chair with a rough heaviness. “Thanks for your support.”
“I don’t see what harm there is in doing a little investigating. What’s wrong with finding out what Buck’s been up to since we fired him?”
“Teresa!” Murdoch blurted, too loudly, pent-up misgivings eager for freedom. He glanced toward the doorways in consternation, hoping he hadn’t drawn his ward’s attention. He scrubbed a weathered hand over a face made downcast by wearying apprehension. “What’s wrong is poking at a sleeping bear that involves her.” Murdoch leaned forward and set his elbows upon the desk. “I took his threat – as empty as it seemed – seriously. ‘You’re going to be real sorry,’ he told her. Given our current circumstances, that’s certainly an indictment against the man. But if he’s not behind our problems and has truly moved on, then accusing him is just going to give him another reason to hate Lancer . . . and maybe Teresa too.” He stood and turned to stare once again out the picture window. “I couldn’t bear it if someone hurt her,” he said quietly.
“Then I think you’ve justified Johnny’s point,” Scott said with marked empathy for his father’s concerns. “Buck needs to be eliminated as a suspect, there’s no way around that. I’ll just have to make sure that my brother is discreet. Won’t I?”
Murdoch turned and nodded. His regret compelled a smile of appreciation. “Thank you for understanding, Scott. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, it’s Johnny. I do trust his instincts. I do.”
“Can you do without us for a few days?”
Murdoch nodded again. “Take all the time you need. But for Teresa’s sake – one way or another – find me some proof. Fast.”
L L L L L L L L
Scott climbed the stairs leading to the bedrooms. The staircase always seemed steeper when hunting a riled-up Johnny, hell-bent on a purpose. For the most part Scott considered his brother to be fairly even-tempered – except when dealing with matters that involved the family’s safety, when he would become passionately protective. At times like this, Scott could not fault Johnny for his devotion, but he also found it best to choose his words wisely.
Standing before the closed door of Johnny’s bedroom, Scott paused to determine his strategy.
“It’s not locked,” Johnny called.
No longer surprised by his brother’s powers of perception, Scott stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Johnny stood bare-chested before a washstand, his dirtied shirt in a ball on the floor – his hat and gun belt, a clean shirt and saddlebag lay on the bed. Scott took a seat on a chair beside the door and waited patiently as his brother soaped up his hands, ran them over his face, then scooped up handfuls of water and rinsed the suds away, leaving wild splatters of water droplets over the mirror in the process. Johnny snapped a towel off the bar of the washstand and briskly dried his face and hands.
“Murdoch send you up here to argue some more?”
“Actually, I’m here to find out where we plan to start our investigation.”
The towel stopped moving. “Our investigation?”
Scott bobbed his head once. “I’m going with you . . . with Murdoch’s blessing.”
Johnny had the decided look of a suspicious man. He swiped the towel over his hands one last time, and then tossed it back onto the washstand. “Why?”
“Don’t fault him for being stiff-necked. He thought he had a good reason.”
“Teresa?” Johnny set his hands on his hips and gaped at Scott like he’d just spoken a foreign language.
“Yes, Teresa. To use Murdoch’s phrasing, stirring things up around Buck Harper might be like ‘poking at a sleeping bear.’ With no proof he didn’t consider it worth the risk of waking the beast if it might charge back toward her.”
Johnny stared at Scott a moment, then picked his shirt up off the bed, put it on and slowly began to button it. “Our old man . . . .” he said, shaking his head in amused wonder. “Considering how protective he is of her, as downright stupid as that sounds it makes perfect sense.”
“I thought so as well. Your insistence on Buck’s guilt made him nervous for Teresa’s safety. But, as long as we’re discreet, we now have his permission to search for evidence.”
Johnny grinned. “If by discreet you mean sneakin’ around, I can do that.”
Scott returned the smile. “So . . . where and when do we start?”
“Cedar Canyon – we’ll leave at first light.”
“I agree,” Scott said, rising to his feet. “I’m interested in seeing that rockslide for myself.”
“That – plus I noticed that trouble’s been hitting Lancer farther from the ranch house. Buck’s either tryin’ to draw hands away from the hacienda, or he’s gettin’ lazy and is holed up somewhere to the north.”
“His being lazy bodes better for Teresa.”
“I’m thinkin’ that’s more likely anyway. Buck’s prideful and stubborn, but I never considered him to have much grit.”
Scott leaned his back against the door and crossed his arms over his chest. “You know, we’re both talking now like the only suspect out there is Buck Harper. What if we find otherwise – or nothing?”
Johnny picked the saddlebag off his bed and headed to his dresser. “If we find tracks, we’ll trail ‘em until we see where they lead. If we find nothing then I’ll eat crow and tell Murdoch he was right. Then we start looking for a padre who can pray this curse off Lancer.”
Scott chuffed. “Then for our sakes, I’m placing my bet on Buck Harper.”
“Pack your bags, Boston,” Johnny said, opening the top drawer of his dresser. “We’re on the trail until we figure this out.”
Scott nodded, turned and opened the door. “One way or another . . . .”
L L L L L L L L
While Scott charted strategy with Johnny, Murdoch went to seek out his ward. Other than her initial account of Buck Harper’s brazen advance, she had not mentioned any further trouble from the man. But Murdoch considered it best to be sure.
He found Teresa in the kitchen. She sat at the table and snapped beans without thought, fingers moving on reflex, her mind elsewhere. “Hello, Dear.”
Startled by his innocent greeting, she flinched and almost knocked over the bowl of prepared beans. “I’m sorry, Murdoch!” She stood and headed toward the stove. “Dinner will be ready soon. The coffee is still hot, if you’d like some.”
“Yes,” Murdoch said and took a seat. “That would be nice.”
She set a mug full of steaming coffee in front of him within seconds, then sat down and began snapping beans in earnest.
Murdoch took a sip of the hot brew, and worked to keep his tone casual. “You seemed a bit distracted when I came in. Is something bothering you?”
There was a bean in her hands, poised to snap, but she considered her answer instead. “I was thinking about Jose . . . and that awful accident.”
“I was just discussing that with Scott and Johnny. They’re going to head out for a day or so and have a look around . . . just to make sure that it won’t happen again.”
Teresa nodded, and then seemed to struggle to keep her own tone casual as she asked, “Do you think . . . maybe . . . it wasn’t an accident?”
Murdoch heaved in a great breath and released it slowly. The more he considered the situation the more foolish he felt for not listening to Johnny sooner. In his heart he knew someone would prove to be the culprit behind the recent rash of vandalism – and now, perhaps, murder. ‘Even Teresa suspects!’ he thought, adding to his chagrin. He would not soon forgive himself for choosing a passive defense in an attempt to protect her. He still could not fathom the weakness of his strategy, for such a course of action went totally against his nature. He could only hope that Scott and Johnny would not pay dearly for his decision.
Clearing his throat, Murdoch countered with another question. “Why would you think that?”
“Well . . . I was also thinking about Buck Harper. He told me I’d be sorry. What if he didn’t so much mean ‘sorry’ like ‘sad,’ but sorry like a warning. Or . . . not really me, but us?”
‘When did she become such a perceptive young woman,’ Murdoch mused, ‘and me a royal idiot?’
“Teresa, we have weighed Buck’s threat.” He tried to be sensitive with his next question. “Has he been back to bother you at all? Have you seen him?”
“No,” she said.
Murdoch forced a wide grin. “Then I don’t want you to worry about him another minute. As far as I’m concerned, he’s moved on.” He did not consider that much of a lie. Much.
“Do you really think so?” she asked, still eager for reassurance.
He patted her hand. “Yes. I believe so. The boys are just going out to see if we can head off any more bad luck. Really, you shouldn’t be concerned.”
Teresa offered him a slim smile – but he lacked any real confidence that he had done a good enough job to set her mind to rest.
L L L L L L L L
Scott clambered onto the top of the pile of rubble left by the recent rockslide in Cedar Canyon. Expansive and consisting of a mix of medium and large boulders, he considered the fact that Jose most likely never had a chance to escape the falling debris. It had been close, but rocks stained a dark maroon at the edge of the wreckage marked the place of the cowboy’s death. He stood tall and looked at the surrounding area for other evidence of loosened rocks, but there had been no other slides – recent or otherwise.
He heard gravel bouncing off the canyon walls above him and looked up in time to sidestep a none-too-small stone headed toward his shoulder. Boots scrambling for footing, he fought to regain his balance atop the uneven rock pile. In his struggle to remain upright, he caught a brief glimpse of the bloodstained rocks, and had another flash of empathy for the dead cowboy. He could only imagine how helpless Jose must have felt in those last moments, unable to get out of the way as a section of the canyon rim plunged toward him. Scott shook off the morbid thought and hailed upward. “Johnny, was that you?”
“Yeah,” Johnny shouted from somewhere out of sight above. “Sorry ‘bout that. Slipped. Rocks are kinda slick up here. But these walls are solid.”
“I haven’t found anything unusual down here,” Scott called. He waited, but there was no immediate reply. “Johnny?” He peered upward, hand raised to shade the sun off his eyes, but he could not see anything beyond the steep canyon rim. “Johnny?” he hollered louder.
“You better come up here and take a look at this so Murdoch don’t think I’m lyin’,” Johnny shouted back.
It took Scott almost a half an hour to backtrack through the canyon to the trail leading to the ridge. He found Johnny taking siesta under a lonesome sycamore tree. He dismounted and ground tied his horse next to Johnny’s.
“I applaud your unique method for conducting an investigation,” Scott quipped.
“Take a look at the crevice running along the canyon edge, to the right of where the slide happened. You see what I saw, we got Murdoch his proof.” Johnny never moved, just issued the instructions with his hat comfortably parked over his eyes. “And careful of your footing over there.”
Intrigued, Scott headed toward the ridge and started searching. The area was littered with gravel, small rocks, and ancient boulders. Scott discovered why he had not been able to see Johnny from below – there was a moderately steep incline leading to the edge. You would have to lie on your stomach to see over the side to the canyon floor below. The rockslide had left a crescent in the rim. On either side, about two feet back from the edge there was a thin split in the rocks. It was obvious that the rockslide had started because the natural fissure had fractured at that location.
Scott moved to the right while closely inspecting the thin cleft. Along the way he saw patches where gravel had been brushed away from the fissure – whether by Johnny or someone else, he could not yet tell. He had paced off about ten feet before he saw what looked like an unnatural gouge cut into the rocks – and the telltale grey-streaked scoring left behind by a metal hand tool. He heard Johnny walk up behind him as he knelt down on one knee to take a closer look.
“What do you make of that?” Johnny asked.
Scott removed a glove, touched a couple of fingers to the gouge and ran them back and forth. “Pickaxe maybe. Maybe a wedge of some kind.” He stood and put his glove back on.
“That’s the way I figured it. I think we can safely say that Lancer’s problems have not just been bad luck.”
“Do you think he meant to kill Jose?” Scott asked, his anger building at the thought.
“Who knows . . . doesn’t matter. My guess is he tried to split the rim here first,” Johnny pointed at the gouge, “and when the face didn’t give way, he tried again over there.” He pointed toward the damaged section of the cliff. “It wasn’t an accident, so it’s murder, far as I’m concerned.”
Scott turned and looked around the surrounding area. “Find any tracks?”
“Nothing leading anywhere particular yet, but someone else has definitely been up here. We’ll search the trail on our way to Spanish Wells.” Johnny began walking to his horse, and Scott followed.
“Do you think we’ll find Buck there?”
“Don’t know,” Johnny called over his shoulder, “but its close enough to find out. If he isn’t there we can at least do some ‘discreet’ askin’ around.”
Scott offered a short-lived laugh that faded away upon remembrance of Jose’s recent death. Their mood somber, the brothers mounted up to begin their search for the now very real vandal – and murderer.
L L L L L L L L
It was still early enough in the day for Spanish Wells to be fairly quiet. The general store, saloon, and livery were obviously open for business, but customers were few. That suited Johnny just fine, considering it simpler to do their sneakin’ around if less people saw them searching the town. Sheriff Gabe Bryant made it all the easier when he exited his office just as they were passing.
“Scott . . . Johnny!” Bryant hailed.
“Gabe,” Johnny said as he dismounted and hitched his horse.
“Sheriff,” Scott said. He hitched his own horse and the brothers stepped up onto the porch.
“What brings you into town?”
“Did you hear about the accident yesterday in Cedar Canyon?” Johnny asked.
“Yeah, I did,” Gabe said, looking solemn. “Some of your Lancer men were in drinkin’ last night, commiseratin’ over Jose gettin’ killed. Horrible thing,” he added, shaking his head.
“Anyone else around mention anything about the accident?”
Gabe shrugged. “Maybe. Least ways folks were sorry to hear about it.” Gabe was an astute man, and glanced from one brother to the other. “Why? You wonderin’ about someone in particular?”
The brothers shared a look. Scott finally answered, “We’d be interested in knowing if you’ve seen Buck Harper lately.”
“Why you lookin’ for him?”
“Got our reasons,” Johnny said.
“Like maybe he has somethin’ to do with trouble at Lancer?”
“Maybe yes . . . maybe no. To answer your question, no, I haven’t seen Buck lately. But Kyle Murphy is back in town. Did you know that?”
The brothers shared another look. “No,” Johnny said. “He been drinkin’ and talkin’?”
“Nope. Just seen him around. Asked him what he was doin’ here and he said ‘nothin’. Then he smiled real big. Never was much of a looker, but you knockin’ them teeth out didn’t help much, Johnny.”
“He started that fight.”
“Don’t doubt it – but if you’re lookin’ for enemies, you Lancers have made a few.”
“Not Scott. He charms all comers,” Johnny said with a grin.
“Not Bill Tucker,” Gabe said. “Now he’s been drinkin’ and talkin’. Scott, its one thing to call a man for tryin’ to switch good stock for poor in a done deal – it’s another to call him on it in front of his friends. I’d keep away from him if he’s been anywhere near a bottle.”
“My, aren’t we the toasts of the town,” Scott said, drawing a chuckle out of the other men.
“Come on now,” Gabe offered. “You got plenty of friends. But when ya’ll make an enemy, you sure make ‘em tenacious!”
Johnny laughed, but turned his attention to the town, already planning where to look next.
“We’d appreciate it if you’d keep our interests private,” Scott said. “We’re not looking to provoke trouble that’s not really there.”
Gabe nodded. “I understand. I’ll keep my ears open. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you,” Scott said as the brothers stepped off the boardwalk.
“Yeah, thanks,” Johnny said, unhitching his horse.
“Try the blacksmith,” Gabe said. “Harvey knows just about everyone’s horse on sight. He might know something, and I’m pretty sure he can keep his mouth shut.”
“We’ll do that,” Scott said and pulled at the reins of his own mount.
“Stop in before you leave and let me know if you need any help,” Gabe added.
Scott and Johnny nodded, and headed toward the livery.
L L L L L L L L
Harvey did know a thing or two about people’s horses, but he’d seen neither hide nor hair of Buck or Kyle – although Bill Tucker owed him a dollar. So he was more than pleased to livery the Lancer’s horses while they headed into town.
The Widow Hargis refused to let them say no to lunch – or to helping her move a heavy trunk down a steep flight of stairs – but none of the men they were now interested in tracking had been in her store.
They ran into Joe Talbot, but he had not heard of any of the local ranchers recently hiring a bronc buster.
In the end, no one else they talked to could offer any insight into the location or recent activities of Buck Harper, Kyle Murphy, or Bill Tucker. Frustrated that they had followed a dead-end trail, they headed back to pick up their horses and loop past the Sheriff’s Office. But Gabe Bryant was not in when they returned.
“What now?” Scott asked.
Johnny flipped a stirrup over Barranca’s back and adjusted the horse’s cinch. “Well, before we start scouting south, I’m still betting that Buck’s hiding out somewhere . . . like maybe the Salt Canyon Mine.”
“He’d certainly find an old pickaxe or other mining tools there,” Scott said, inspecting his own tack. “We could spend the night in the Top Mesa line shack and get a fresh start in the morning.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Johnny said.
They mounted up and headed back out onto the trail.
L L L L L L L L
A mile out from the Top Mesa line shack, the brothers spotted ominous wisps of gray smoke snaking upward from the tree line. They quickened their pace and managed to arrive just before dusk. What they found was nothing but piles of wreckage and smoldering ash where the building and stable had very recently stood.
The oft-used shack had been well maintained and kept well stocked. It would take the ranch a good deal of cash they could not spare and months of hard work to rebuild the shelter that was so valuable to the Lancer work crews.
The acrid smell of charred wood and singed hay permeated the air. As they surveyed the shambles in silence, the remains of the lone wall that had continued to stand collapsed, sending up clouds of white ash and flecks of red-hued cinders. The fresh tinder fed still hot embers. A small fire broke out that crackled like distant gunfire and put a final cap on the destruction.
“Killing a man did nothing but make him bolder,” Johnny said. He tore his hat off and whipped it across his leg. Barranca danced nervously beneath him.
“This has gone well past childish vandalism,” Scott said, his voice carrying Johnny’s ire.
“And I’m well past thinkin’ I won’t shoot Buck on sight!”
The brothers needed no further words, their rage blazing, fanned by the brazen nature of the destruction. Their determination to catch the immoral rogue now burned hotter than any fire that could hope to gut Lancer’s spirit.
L L L L L L L L
An uncomfortable night under the stars, capped with a dew-dampened morning, did nothing but further sour Scott and Johnny’s dispositions. They woke before dawn, more eager than ever to catch Lancer’s menace.
The second the sun rose high enough to light the trail, Johnny took the lead as they made their way into the foothills heading to the old mine. The area was a mix of open ground, rock canyons and grassy valleys, with an abundance of various-sized watering holes. They did not have to travel far before Johnny stopped in front of a trampled patch of poppies. “There’re two of ‘em! And those tracks ain’t a day old.”
Scott interpreted the mix of hoof prints the same and responded by quickly turning his attention upward to the craggy hills that surrounded them. “You watch for signs,” he said as he pulled his rifle from its scabbard, “I’ll watch the cliffs.”
No longer hampered by cold trails, the brothers found renewed energy by dogging hot prey. It was as if the Lancer ranch itself was fighting back and rising up in revolt against the men causing it harm. Clean tracks marked a fresh trail, the hunted men unable to hide their passage. They were desperately trying, Johnny could tell that much, but it seemed that past every rock-strewn area spread an unavoidable swathe of delicate wildflowers, and beside every pond and stream lay a blanket of mud churned up with traceable imprints. The tracks were plain as day and any child who had ever hunted rabbit could have tailed this game.
Johnny finally reined up and motioned Scott beside him.
“This is getting too easy,” he said. “Either they just ran into their own brand of back luck, or they’re leading us into a trap.”
Scott shifted in the saddle, scanning the area forward and back. “We’re just about to the mine. Think we should split up?”
Johnny considered for a moment. “Yeah. You head that way,” he pointed to a steep side trail off to their right. “You should have a good view of the first couple of shaft entrances from up there. I’ll stay on this track, and if I don’t find anything we’ll head higher, toward the main tunnel.”
Scott nodded and prodded his horse into motion.
At the first mineshaft, Johnny dismounted and carefully scouted the surrounding area on foot before looking inside. The boarding that had sealed the entrance was scattered about the dirt. Splintered but evenly weathered, the damage showed sign that it had not been done any time in the near past. In fact, Johnny found no evidence that anyone had been near the place in years. But the Salt Canyon Mine was a maze of tunnels. There was no reason why someone couldn’t go in one shaft, make his way to another, then sit in ambush, just waiting for some poor fool to pass by and let himself get bushwhacked.
Scott might have found a bit of fun arguing the point, but Johnny did not consider himself much of a fool. He searched the mine, going in as far as the light would allow. Pausing just inside the entrance on his way out, he caught Scott’s attention on the cliff above him, and got an all clear signal before moving on.
The second mineshaft was on the small side, long abandoned and still securely boarded over.
Just within sight of the third and largest mineshaft, Johnny’s instincts shouted at him to stop. After following a trail of nothing but hoof marks he spotted a deep set of boot prints, freshly stamped into the soft sand, the wind not yet able to erode away the distinctive outline. He looked around, considering his options, and prodded Barranca onto a side trail that offered a thick cover of mesquite trees. He dismounted and tethered the reins around a branch. He left his hat sitting on the saddle horn.
Johnny drew his handgun and crouched beside the tree closest to the main trail. He scanned the landscape for movement. A soft breeze rolled through the valley and pushed at the leaves on the trees, but otherwise nothing stirred. There was a smattering of discarded mining equipment scattered about the area, but the rotted wood and rusted metal offered no evidence to suggest any recent activity. He peered up to the cliff top across the way and spotted Scott well positioned behind a stronghold of protective boulders. He waved a hand in Johnny’s direction before training his rifle on the mine entrance.
Slipping along the edges of the trail, Johnny advanced stealthily from cover to cover. As he had already found once that morning, the boards that had sealed this mineshaft had been removed and tossed into a jumbled pile beside the entranceway. Johnny made his way that far before sparing another look toward Scott. His brother was furiously motioning for him to get back. Before he could consider his options, Johnny heard a horse nicker from inside the tunnel.
Hugging the canyon wall, Johnny wedged himself behind the tallest stack of the discarded lumber. Buck Harper exited the mine leading two horses. He stopped just outside the entrance and faced north. “Kyle! Hurry it up,” he shouted.
“I’m comin’,” echoed back from somewhere around the next bend in the canyon.
Johnny held his place, Buck too close for him to move without giving away his presence.
“Get the molasses out of your britches and let’s go!” Buck chuckled, pleased by his own boorish banter. He led the horses further out from the mine entrance.
Johnny maintained his cover but adjusted his position until he could catch sight of both men.
“What’s yer hurry?” Kyle hollered, getting closer. A pair of canteens dangled from his right hand. “Ain’t nobody likely to find that shack fer days.”
“Just ain’t takin’ any chances is all. That was a right popular place to layover, and there ain’t no tellin’ how far fire and smoke can be spotted.”
Kyle joined up with Buck. He guffawed raucously. “What’s got you all skittish?” He grabbed the reins of his horse from Buck and tossed him one of the canteens. He looped the strap of his own canteen to his saddle. “They ain’t found us out yet, and they ain’t gonna find us out!” With every “t – h” his tongue made an appearance through the gap Johnny had excavated out of the front of Kyle’s lower teeth. “ Hell . . .” There was that tongue again . . . . “I don’t even think they been lookin’!” He snorted out a scornful snigger.
“We’ve been looking,” Johnny announced, gun aimed at Kyle as he stepped out from his hiding place. “We don’t take the killing one of our men lightly at Lancer.”
“Killed one of yer men?” Buck said, sounding as unnerved as he looked. His attention shifted uneasily between Johnny and Kyle. “We ain’t killed no one. We just been havin’ some fun!”
“A jury’ll decide if we believe that or not. Remember Jose, Buck?” Johnny didn’t wait for a reply. “He was at the bottom of the canyon where you started that rockslide. I don’t imagine he was much amused by a ton of rocks comin’ down on his head.”
Both men appeared stunned by Johnny’s accusation. They stared at each other, Kyle’s jaw moving back and forth as if he were trying to work loose words jammed between the teeth he still had left. Buck beat him to the excuses.
“That was Kyle’s idea!” he shouted, as if volume would make him more convincing.
“You went along easy enough!” Kyle hollered back. Whatever tenuous thread there had been binding their partnership proved too easily severed by the threat of a murderer’s brand. “Was you who roped me into this.”
“That’s enough!” Johnny took a stride forward and extended his handgun. He had a clear bead on Kyle, but Buck’s horse gave the man too much cover for Johnny’s liking. “Both of you . . . step away from those horses.”
The men hesitated, each weighing Johnny’s reputation with a gun against the long stretch of a hangman’s noose. Kyle more out in the open, Johnny recognized the decision in his eyes first. “Don’t try¾” Johnny called, just as Buck lobbed the canteen in his direction. The toss was dead on, and Johnny was forced to duck out of the way or get hit in the forehead. He recovered quickly, but the rash move had bought just enough time for the desperados to react.
Kyle grabbed onto the saddle horn and cantle, hooked a boot into a stirrup and kneed his horse into motion. He was halfway to the bend in the canyon before he pulled himself upright in the saddle.
Startled by the flurry of quick movements, Buck’s horse reared up and then danced in panicked circles as Buck tried to grab the reins. With Kyle gone and him soon to be left an open target, Buck drew his own handgun and dashed into the darkness of the mine.
Buck’s horse continued to spin and buck. Johnny dodged a flailing hoof, then swatted at the horse’s rump and sent it kicking away from him. He heard a rifle shot echo through the canyon and left Scott to deal with Kyle.
Crouched low beside the mine entrance, Johnny steadied his breathing and listened. He heard the faint whisper of boots scuffing along the sand-covered ground, then a soft “Oof!” as Buck most likely fell or ran into something in his haste. Johnny unbuckled his spurs and let them drop onto the dirt. He peered around the edge of the entrance, and spotting no movement darted inside to assume a new position, just where the mineshaft took a blind curve.
He stopped and listened again, but there was only a deceptive quiet. He looked back toward the sun-haloed entranceway, and knew once he turned the corner that he would move deeper and deeper into darkness. Lighting a lantern was out of the question – even if he had one to light – but it was not an option for Buck either. Accepting the odds as even, Johnny moved forward.
Every few yards Johnny stopped and listened. The sound of a far-off trickle of water filled what was otherwise mainly silence. The air was a thick musty mix of ancient dirt, mold-encrusted rock, and decaying plant life that had lost the struggle to survive within the cool, dark environs. He hugged the mine walls that in some places was bare rock or earth, sometimes shored up with board planking and heavy wooden bracing beams.
His progress took him beyond shadows to the edge of where darkness loomed. To his surprise, total dark was kept at bay by diffuse sunlight drifting through the many tunnels dug by long-departed mining crews. Still, the light was minimal at best – but enough to repel awakening nightmares. Johnny fended off an involuntary shiver as he remembered an incident when a sniper’s bullet had left him temporarily blinded. He traded fear for strength as he considered how his experience living sightless now gave him an edge over Buck.
Johnny moved forward once again . . . then again, before he caught sight of a shadow darting between black corners about twenty feet ahead of him. Before Buck could set his position, Johnny rushed ahead and cut the distance between them almost in half. He wedged himself into a protected corner, and in a normal speaking voice said, “This is a waste of time, Buck.”
A shot rang out. The bullet bit into the wooden shoring that lined the mine, about five feet further down the shaft from where Johnny hid. He heard Buck on the move, a hand slapping against flat timbers as the man felt his way to a new position.
Johnny was close enough now to hear Buck’s labored breathing. He judged the new distance between them, and in a crouch cat-footed forward another ten feet. He stayed low, and squatted behind a thick beam set in the ground to brace the roofing. “Scott’s outside. You won’t get away.”
Buck responded with another gunshot. The bullet hit the dirt even further from Johnny’s new position. The miss told Johnny two things – that Buck was having a difficult time judging distance in the dark, and that Johnny had figured the distance to his prey perfectly.
Johnny felt the ground around him until his fingers hit upon a fist-sized rock half buried in the sand. He wiggled it free and hefted its weight in his left hand. Thinking his plan over, Johnny holstered his weapon. He centered his weight and then lobbed the rock around the corner at the opposite wall.
Two shots fired off in quick succession, and Johnny sprang forward. He caught Buck turning to flee and slammed into his back, knocking the man to the ground. The gun flew from Buck’s grasp and was lost in the dirt and blackness.
The benefit of surprise proved all too brief. Despite Johnny’s firm grip around his neck, Buck was heavier and taller, and easily flipped over to pound Johnny into the dirt beneath him.
Buck’s full weight bore down upon him, and the air burst from Johnny’s lungs from the impact. He went limp for a moment. As soon as Buck shifted and rolled off of him, Johnny heaved in a great breath and turned onto his side. He jabbed an elbow into Buck’s ribs. The big man gasped and flinched back, giving Johnny enough room to rise to his knees. He seized the opening and punched Buck in the face, sending him sprawling onto the ground. Johnny put his whole body behind the blow. His momentum carried him forward until he caught his balance, propped up on his hands.
He scrambled to stand, but Buck recovered and kicked out, catching Johnny with a vicious blow to his side that sent him flying back against the mine wall. He hit planking hard and heard one crack. The wood split and sent a stream of sand and small rocks cascading over his shoulder. Johnny heard the mine emit an ominous groan as timbers shifted from the collision. But there was no time to fear the threat of a cave-in, as Buck seized an ankle and pulled Johnny off his feet. He landed hard, and felt Buck’s hands grabbing at both his boots. Johnny shoveled a hand across the ground, came up with a fistful of sand, and lobbed it at Buck’s head.
Buck’s hands released Johnny to claw at his eyes. He had wanted to avoid a shooting, but Johnny knew his advantage had played out and he could not continue to scuffle with the larger man. He rolled to the center of the mineshaft, moving hand to holster as he went. In a fluid motion, Johnny knelt, pulled his gun, and aimed it at Buck. “You’re dead if you move, Buck. It’s over.”
Both men were breathing hard. Buck took one more swipe at his eyes, and blinking fast, focused through the grey veil onto Johnny’s weapon. He took a couple of deep breaths and then sat back on his haunches, resigned. “We didn’t mean to kill no man,” Buck whined, gulping hard.
“Meant to or not, it happened,” Johnny said. “I suppose you shootin’ at me just now was an accident too.” He stood and found his legs more unsteady than he would have wished. “Move.”
Johnny suppressed a groan as he bent over to retrieve Buck’s gun, his ribs reminding him of the ruthless accuracy of the kick. He had Harper walk in front of him as they made their way back through the mine. About ten feet from the entrance Johnny called, “Hold up.”
Buck’s back stiffened and he turned his head to stare over his shoulder at Johnny. “You ain’t gonna shoot me, are ya?”
“Thought crossed my mind,” Johnny said, “but no, I won’t, unless you give me cause.”
“Johnny?” Scott called out, his tall silhouette backlit and framed in the entranceway.
“Yeah. Lettin’ my eyes adjust to the light. Be along in a minute.”
The men finally exited the mine, Johnny’s gun still drawn and trained on Buck. Scott had retrieved all their horses. Kyle sat on the ground near where they were gathered, his hands roped together. Scott finished tying off a strip of Kyle’s own shirttail around the man’s bloodied shoulder, and stood.
“You all right, brother?”
“Had to wrestle a bit, but I’m fine. You?”
“Never better. He was an easy shot.”
Johnny grinned, knowing Scott rarely missed anything he aimed a rifle at – “easy” shot or no. Scott returned the smile.
Given a shove in the back, Buck lurched forward a couple of steps. He turned clumsily and shot a hateful glower Johnny’s way. Johnny just smiled, kept his gun aimed at Buck, and reached down to pick up his spurs. His breath caught as a painful hitch in his battered side again reminded him of his challenge to subdue Harper. He was really looking forward to getting home as quickly as possible.
Buck missed finding any self-satisfaction within Johnny’s grimace, as he turned his attention to Kyle. He scowled at his former partner in disgust, as if the wounded man was the only reason they had both been caught.
Kyle sneered right back at him. “What’re you mad at me for? I’m the one who got shot!”
Buck threw up his hands in frustration and started pacing. “This ain’t fair!” he shouted to no one in particular and at everyone who had to listen. “Ain’t fair at all! I might hang just because of some stupid girl!”
“Settle down, Buck,” Johnny warned, his brow furrowed in rising anger, knowing exactly to whom Buck was referring. But Buck did not relax. He just kicked at the dirt and sent up a plume of sand and pebbles, and then started pacing in larger circles.
“That Miss Teresa. She got no right lookin’ down on me . . . actin’ all high an’ mighty just ‘cause she lives in that big fancy house. But she really ain’t nothin’ more than a ranch hand’s daughter. She ain’t a true sister to ya’ll, so what do you care if I like her or not?” Buck suddenly stopped his pacing. He brayed a laugh and assumed a decidedly roguish smile, meant to taunt and full of spite. “Unless she’s been showin’ her appreciation by lovin’ on the two of you!”
Buck’s vulgar laugh was cut short when Scott took two long strides forward and punched the cowboy squarely in the mouth, sending him brain-addled and spread-eagled onto the ground.
Johnny finally holstered his gun and sauntered forward until both brothers stood over the semi-conscious man. “Is that what you call bein’ ‘discreet’?”
Scott flexed his fingers, testing their integrity. “In a manner of speaking. Can I tell Murdoch that you punched him?”
“Don’t see why not. Already hit him more than once. Would’ve again if I’d been closer.”
“Deal. And I can safely say that our luck has definitely changed for the better. You know, we can’t be more than seven or eight miles from Spanish Wells . . . .”
Johnny smiled. “I like the way you think.” They bent over and each man grabbed Harper up under his arms. “The quicker we get these two over to Gabe the faster we get home to a hot meal.”
Buck’s head began to toss and he uttered a groggy groan that the brothers chose to ignore as they dragged him toward his horse.
“I’ll be happy with a hot bath and a bed that doesn’t have a rock mattress,” Scott said.
Buck merely groaned louder.
L L L L L L L L
Murdoch continued to stare at his ledger, his view of the figures incessantly blurred by thoughts of Buck Harper and the safety of his sons. His senses taut and alert, he heard the horses while still off in the distance. Murdoch left his desk and stepped out to the edge of the veranda. The disquiet coiled within his chest unwound with each gallop as Scott and Johnny drew nearer. He could not restrain a relieved smile as the men dismounted and tethered their mounts.
“Did you find him? Was it Buck?” Murdoch hated the tinge of desperation shadowing his questions, but he had a burning need for quick answers.
Johnny seemed to ignore him. “Come here, Teresa.” Murdoch turned and saw his ward hovering in the doorway. He had not realized that she had joined him on the veranda. Johnny held out a hand and guided her forward.
“Yes. It was Buck. And Kyle Murphy. We caught ‘em at the Salt Canyon Mine, and dropped ‘em off in the Spanish Wells jail.”
“Buck really did all those things to Lancer because of me?” Teresa’s tone of regret was piercing.
“No, Teresa,” Johnny said, taking both her hands up in his. “Buck’s a bully with no care for the costs. He just used you as an excuse for bein’ ornery, and Kyle joined in to help settle a score with me.”
“He’s right,” Murdoch said, gathering her up in a hug. “If I’d have realized Buck’s intentions we’d have put a stop to this sooner. But the likes of him and Kyle aren’t worth another thought.”
“Not at all,” Scott added. “Besides . . . Johnny’s hungry.”
Teresa grinned and gave Murdoch a tight hug back, clearly reassured by their support. “But not you?”
“No. He just stinks.” Johnny answered for Scott with a straight face.
“I said – I wanted – a hot – bath,” Scott corrected with distinct enunciation. But his annoyance was feigned. “Now, if you’d like to discuss odor–”
“We get the point,” Murdoch said over Teresa’s welcome laughter.
“Dinner will be ready in an hour, so you better wash up quick – both of you!” Teresa said as she cheerfully headed back into the house.
“I’ll take care of the horses,” Johnny said.
“And I’ll let you,” Scott said, doffing his hat and following Teresa.
Johnny reached out for the reins to Scott’s horse and made a reflexive grab for his injured side.
“You were hurt?” Murdoch said, noticing the grimace Johnny had tried but failed to hide.
“They didn’t come easy, but nothin’ is broke, just a bit bruised.”
Murdoch sighed heavily and shook his head with regret. “I want to apologize for not trusting your judgment. I should have listened to you sooner.”
The men faced each other, the rare apology suspended between them. Johnny did not let Murdoch off easy. “Scott told me ‘bout your concerns. I’d never do anything to put Teresa in danger.”
“I know that. Now more than ever.”
“And I don’t believe in bad luck,” Johnny added.
“I guess now I don’t, either,” Murdoch said. “Why don’t I take care of these horses for you? You go on ahead and get cleaned up. I don’t imagine you want to be late for supper.”
Johnny smiled and handed off the reins. “Murdoch, you are right about that. Yes sir . . . you are right about that.”