by  Ronnie

Only warning on this story is that there is a not-so-nice man.  I want to thank Con very much for her beta, it is much appreciated.  All mistakes are mine.  There no financial gain on this story – only fun in writing it.  Thanks much.  Comments are welcome and can be addressed to   Ronnie


Chapter 1

Val took the last gulp of the cold, bitter coffee, set the cup down on his desk, and headed for the door to start his early evening rounds.  He hoped it would be a long boring week night of checking doors, much unlike a Saturday night of rousting drunken cowboys sleeping it off in alleyways, prime targets for scavengers looking for an easy mark.   Stepping from the hot box of his office, he noted it was just as stifling outside.  Twilight was starting to edge the eastern sky in the heavy August of the California valley.  A limp breeze of steamy heat struggled for release from the basin of the hills that Green River rested in.  Val took a deep breath, flicked sweat from his forehead and headed down the street.   

The only things disturbed as he jiggled locked doors of businesses along a dusty side street were fat rats and a stray cat or two stalking their evening supper.  Val snorted at the vision of the skinny felines trying to take down rodents that were almost as large as they were.  He wished them good luck, spat dryly into the dirt, and rounded the corner into the main street of town. 

As he expected, not much was going on - fairly typical for mid-week.   A few cowponies were hitched in front of the saloons and cantinas, a couple of strangers ambled from the hotel to the restaurant next door, and storefronts were dark with shades drawn.   ‘Good,’ he thought, ‘too damn hot to be bothered with trouble tonight.’  Noticing Johnny’s palomino tied in front of his favorite Mexican cafe, Val grinned and decided he would take a quick look into the saloons before setting down for a visit with his friend.   A cold beer, spicy tamales, and the pretty waitress that both men admired would go a long way to making the end of the sticky day worthwhile.

The first saloon, The Golden Jewel, was empty except for a couple of tired looking cowboys, a bored bartender, and a drowsy saloon girl idly playing solitaire at a table near the silent piano.  A bright blue feather clipped in her hair looked as limp as the girl appeared.  Val nodded at the bartender from the bat wing doors, tipped his hat accompanied with a short “Emily” to the woman, but didn’t bother to go in. 

Down the street at the Margareta, Val resisted the usual invitation from a group of old men to join them for a warm beer.  He respectfully listened to a couple of stale jokes that he knew by heart, but laughed anyway.  He clapped each on the shoulder before he departed and left them with a ‘behave yourselves’.   Their loud guffaws followed Val across the boardwalk, the whole proceeding as routine as the sun coming up in the morning.

The Dimano Diamond was a dirty building buried in the gloom of a rundown side street.  Val studied several horses tied to the hitching rail, and recognized the Double M brand on three of them.  Val frowned, knowing the Lennons, owners of the ranch, had too much work to do to send cowboys into town mid week and hoped that didn’t mean trouble. 

Also hitched at the rail was the high-energy, long-legged mount that Scott Lancer rode.  ‘Why isn’t Scott with Johnny?’ he pondered.  He shrugged and was turning to go inside the building when he heard someone singing slurred lyrics - ‘and I will always love you, my lovely rose-a-shal.    ‘Pretty song,’ Val thought distractedly, and pushed through the doors.

It was gloomy inside the bar, and long shadows filtered across the room making the stale atmosphere seem more dismal.  The bartender, Ned Jones, wiped a spill up from the bar as he glanced icily at Val.  Jones was hard boned with a cruel edge and Val marked him as a trouble maker who liked to goad men into brawls.  Val didn’t begrudge him the fact that, like some barkeeps, he watered down his liquor.  But he knew Jones wasn’t above slipping tonics into drinks when the price was right, or he was in the mood.  Val suspected that more than one cowboy had been fleeced in this way, but couldn’t prove it.

Four men were sitting around a table laughing and apparently enjoying themselves very much.  A couple of bar maids draped their arms on the shoulders of the men, sharing the beer they were buying and their attentions.  Val recognized the hands from the Double M as Dave Reynolds, a decent young man who had been in the area for a couple of years; Evan Bartling, a drifter who attached himself to nothing; and Steve Kirby, the son of a small grocer who lived a few miles the other of Stockton.  Also sitting at the table with his back to Val, was Scott Lancer.

They didn’t appear to notice Val come in and seemed to be wrapped up in a joke, obviously a funny one.  As Val made his way to the table, he observed that the faces he could see were sober.   Of course, they wouldn’t be breaking any law if they were drunk, and Val reasoned they were probably just rowdy cowboys meaning no harm.  It was when Reynolds caught sight of him and his face changed from enjoyment to apprehension that Val started to get uneasy.

“Hey, Sheriff,” the handsome Reynolds said nervously.  “How’s it going?”

The other two immediately stiffened and eyed Val.   Bartling’s dark looks flicked fearfully. Kirby quickly glanced at Scott, then brought a hard stare to Val.

“Fine, Reynolds, just fine.  What ya boys doing in town?”  Val moved around the table, trying to catch Scott’s eye.  The broad shouldered Kirby sat forward, blocking Scott’s face.

“Just passing through, Sheriff.  We’re headin’ south to pick up some cattle, breedin’ stock for the Lennons - thought we’d stop for a quick beer is all.”

“Uh huh.”  Val circled closer to the table and as he did so Bartling and Kirby stood and moved with him, effectively hiding Scott from view.  “Boys, some reason ya don’t want me ta see Scott?”

“No, no Val.  Why would we do that?” Bartling asked, looking edgy.  He snapped his eyes briefly to the tall, thin Reynolds.

“Don’t know, but seems to be happenin’.  You mind standin’ aside?”

“Sure, Sheriff.  But we gotta get goin’,” Bartling stammered.  “Come on boys, we gotta beat it.”  The noise of chairs scrapping against the floor and hasty footsteps stamping towards the door filled the room.

“Hold up, boys,” Val demanded.  “Don’t you go nowhere!”   They stopped and turned to look back at Val.

“Val, we gotta go.  We need ta be 20 miles south of here right now,” Reynolds protested anxiously.

“Well, whatever was holdin’ ya up ain’t changed .  You stay put til I tell ya it’s okay to go.  Less’n ya want me to tell the Lennons ‘bout your little stop here.  I’m bettin’ they’d be real appreciative of that news.”  He looked hard at each man, wondering why the hell Scott hadn’t made a sound. 

The young cowhands glanced guiltily at one another.  “We ain’t done nothin’ wrong, Val.  You got no call to …..”

“Shut up, Bartling,” Val growled.  “If ya ain’t done nothin’ wrong, ya got nothin’ ta worry about, now do ya?  - Now, git over here and sit.”  Val pointed to the table next to Scott.

“What you come in here rousting my customers for, Crawford?  They weren’t causing no harm.  Just a couple friendly beers.   Lancer there too, just had a few too many.” 

Val glared stonily at the grungy bartender.  “Jones, I’ll talk to ya when I’ve a mind.”

Noticing that the cowboys were sitting at the table as ordered, Val turned his attention to Scott.

If it were possible for Scott to relax more, he would have been part of the chair.  His hands were folded loosely on his lap, palms up, long fingers curled in.  His face appeared dreamy, his blue eyes far away and unfocused, long legs stretched limply before him.  Val thought if he touched Scott, he would fall to the floor and probably not feel a thing.  One thing was clear; Scott Lancer was more than drunk.

“Scott.”  Val said the name faintly; afraid if he said it too loud Scott would tip.   He called his name louder when there was no response, and blue-grey eyes drifted slowly in his direction.  Scott tilted his head and centered on Val.

“Hey, Scott.  How ya doin’?”  Val bent down, put his hands on his knees and peered intently at Scott, looking for any kind of recognition or understanding.  Scott’s blank expression changed slightly as he appeared to concentrate on the man in front of him.

“Can ya talk to me, Scott?” Val said louder, hoping to get a response.

Scott ran his tongue across his lips and sat forward slightly.  He lifted his right hand, and extended his index finger to point at Val.  “Val,” he said softly.

“Yeah, Scott, it’s Val.  How ya feelin’?”

Sitting back in his chair, Scott grinned broadly.  “Good…I’m good.”  Veiled eyes shifted towards the table of cowboys.  “Hey fellas.”  He slowly moved each finger in a wave.

“How many beers did ya drink, Scott?”

After a short time of counting fingers on his left hand, Scott triumphantly said, “Two.”  He started to hum the tune that Val had heard before he came into the bar.  “You are the sunshine of my life.”  Scott stopped, frowned, and stared at the table.  “Oh, yes, - So beautiful and fair, my Rose.”

Straightening up, Val angrily glared at the three men.  “Whatcha give ‘im?” 

“Nothin’, Val.  We didn’t give him nothin’.”

“I know this man and he does not get drunk on two beers!  Now what else was in those beers?”

Val was greeted with cold silence and a shrug from Reynolds.  He was getting real impatient with the whole bunch, but more than that, he was worried about what might have been slipped into Scott’s drink.  Ned Jones hadn’t killed anyone, yet, and Val wanted to make sure Scott wasn’t going to be the first.  But before he tackled the steely Jones, he figured he may get what he wanted faster from the cowboys.  They weren’t a bad lot, just stupid.

“Okay, you fellas wanna play it that a-way, fine.”  Val grabbed up the unfinished beer that was sitting in front of Scott and brought it over to Reynolds.  “Drink it,” he ordered.

Reynolds balked.  “I ain’t thirsty.” 

“Don’t care.  Ya say there’s nothin’ in this beer – show me.  Drink it.”

After glancing fearfully at his friends, Reynolds grabbed the glass and swallowed a small sip of the beer.  “There.”  He grimaced as he swallowed, and then held the glass out to Val.

“What the hell is that?  I said, drink it, not wet your lips.  What ya afraid of Reynolds?”


“Nothin’,” Val said mockingly.  “Well let me tell ya somethin’ you may be scared of.  His brother’s down around the corner and it won’t take but a minute to git him here.  Is that somethin’ ya might wanna think about?” 

There was silence for a few moments as the young men glanced at one another.  It was Reynolds who at last said, “We’re not afraid of Johnny Lancer.”

“Good!”  Val turned to one of the bar maids.  “Serena, would ya go down to Rosa’s and ask Johnny ta come on down here?”

“Sure.”  The small, dark haired Serena glanced at the three young men and hesitantly said, “But will he come, just like that Sheriff?”

“He’ll come – just like that.  Ya go on, Serena.”  Val stared darkly at the cowboys.  “Tell him his brother needs him.”

She nodded and walked towards the door, apologetically scanning the men she had just shared a beer with.

“Wait, Serena.” 

“You wanna say somethin’ worthwhile, Reynolds?  Otherwise Serena can just keep goin’.”

“We didn’t mean nothin’ Sheriff.  Just wanted to have a little fun.  Scott’s a greenhorn and all.  I mean, we wouldn’t do nothin’ to hurt him.”

“If they gave him anything Sheriff, they didn’t get it from me.”

Val glared at Jones, figuring full well whatever was put in Scott’s drink they did get it from him.  Val took a quick look at Scott.  He was humming the same tune and other than appearing to be over-the-top drunk, he seemed all right.  “You’d better hope he’s gonna be okay, Jones.  If he ain’t, I’ll make sure ya pay for it.”  He turned back to the cowboys.  “You too.  Now, what did ya give him?”

Bartling and Reynolds did a fleeting peek to the bartender, before looking uncertainly back at Val. 

“I think I know Sheriff.  But like I said they didn’t get it from me.”

“Well, why dontcha tell me then, Mr. Didn’t Get It From Me?”  Val said gruffly.

The man nonchalantly continued to wipe a greasy rag across the filthy bar, disturbing more fleas than dirt.  “It’s somethin’ the Indians use.  Harmless, makes ‘em happy, makes ‘em see things, forget their worries.”

“What’s it called?”  Val didn’t try to hide the contempt he felt for the man, and it was obvious that Ned Jones held no respect for the Sheriff.

Jones shrugged.  “Don’t know.”

“Ya mean to tell me you know all about how it works but don’t know what it’s called?”  Val drew a frustrated hand across the stubble of his jaw, irritated not only with Jones but the heat that seemed to imbed grit into his face.

“That’s right, Sheriff.”  He spat tobacco into a spittoon, and Val had the impression Jones was spitting at him.

“One a these days, Jones, I’m gonna catch ya at somethin’ and you’ll be servin’ water at the state pen.”

Smirking, the bartender picked up a glass and splashed whiskey into it.  He gulped it down and smiled.

“All right.”  Val turned his attention back to the cowhands. “How long is this cattle trip gonna take ya?”

“A couple of weeks, give or take a day,” Bartling said.

“You git goin’ and hope Johnny forgets about what ya done, and Scott comes out of this fine.  And if ya know what’s good for ya, stay away from town for a couple weeks after that.….  I’d throw the bunch of ya in jail right now, but that wouldn’t do Scott no good, or the Lennons.  They’re good folk and can’t afford more hands gone.  Now git.”

Reynolds hesitated at the door, and glanced back at Scott.  Scott had stopped singing, but every once in a while he’d hum the melody.  “We like Scott, Sheriff.  Like I said, didn’t mean no harm.  He’s just always so, so, well so held in, know what I mean?  We just thought we’d loosen him up a bit.”

“Well, you’d best hope his brother doesn’t loosen you up a bit.  His old man ain’t gonna be happy neither.  You jest better be thankful that Scott’s an easy-goin’ man and cin maybe talk his brother out of shootin’ ya!”  Val eyed them impatiently.  “Serena, honey, would you go get Johnny?  These boys are leavin’ -  now.”

As Serena headed to the door, so did the three men, hurriedly mounting their horses and galloping out of town.

“I ‘spect Johnny’s gonna be comin’ soon, Jones.  Ya wanna make yerself scarce ‘fore he gits here?”

“I’m not afraid of that dandy’s brother,” Jones snarled. 

“Good, cuz I’m thinkin’ he’s gonna ask ya a lot more … forceful than I did ‘bout what happened to his brother.”

“Huh, so what.  He can ask all he wants.  I don’t know nothin’ about it.”

“Jones, you’re a fool and I’ve a mind to arrest ya so’s I don’t have ta lock up Johnny fer killin’ ya.”

“Arrest me, for what?  You got no reason …..”

“For havin’ the dirtiest place in town!” Val yelled, wanting to belt Jones himself.

The big bartender looked as if he’d like to chew Val up, but instead slammed the dirty rag on the bar, and poured himself another drink of probably his best whiskey.  Disgusted, Val walked over to Scott.

The easy part was done – getting the young cowboys out of town for a few weeks.  The hard part was convincing Johnny not to kill Ned Jones. And it wouldn’t be long because he could hear boots running down the wooden walkway towards the Dimano Diamond.


Chapter 2- Rose-a-shal

Val touched Scott’s arm and wherever he was, it was far away from the dirty bar in Green River.  For the most part Scott’s manner seemed peaceful, but something flickered in his eyes momentarily that chilled Val.  He wondered if he even saw it, it passed so quickly, and then Johnny crashed through the doors.

Johnny glanced over at the bar where Jones stood swigging his whiskey, then sighted Val and Scott at the table.  “What’s going on?” he asked tonelessly as he strode over to them.  His features were controlled but cautious.   He stood beside Val and peered down at Scott.  “Scott,” Johnny said as he touched his shoulder.

“Looks like something more than beer got put in his drink.  He seems okay, Johnny, other than a little out of it.  Thought ya might wanta get ‘im home.”

“What got put in his drink?” Johnny asked tightly, bending closer to study Scott.

“Not sure, but Ned thinks its stuff the Indians use.”  Val watched Johnny turn towards Jones and hoped he could keep the situation in check.

“What got put in his drink, Jones?”

“Don’t know.  Ask Reynolds or one of them bunch that came in with him.  They’re the ones bought him the beer.”  Jones manner was indifferent, as if he could care less what happened to Scott Lancer.

“He seems okay, Johnny, just cloudy like.”  Val wanted to get Johnny out of the bar.  “Think its best now ya just tend ta Scott.  I’ll talk to ya later about the guys from the Double M.”

“Who were they, Val?”  Johnny’s tone was clipped and hard.

“They’re gone, Johnny.  Said they didn’t mean no harm.  I don’t think they’ll try anything like this agin.”

“That don’t help Scott, does it?” Johnny said icily.

“Johnny, ya intend ta take off after them stupid cowboys?”

A cold, blue stare shot at Val, then swerved to Ned Jones.  “Where’d the stuff come from, Jones? -  It come from you?”

Ned snorted disdainfully.  “I don’t know where it came from.  Them boys must have had it when they come in.”

Johnny slowly walked up to the bar, his eyes never leaving Jones’ face.  He rested his elbows on the dirty wooden slab and folded his arms.  “Jones, you give ‘em the stuff?”

“Johnny, I’ll take care of Jones, ya take care of getting your brother home.”

Visibly stiffening, Johnny snapped back, “I’m asking the question, Val.  It’s not your brother sitting there with who knows what in him.”  He turned his attention back to Jones.  “I want to know what got put in his drink.”

“I told the sheriff what I thought it was.  Some old medicine man stuff the Indians use to make ‘em feel good, is all.  Ain’t gonna hurt the city boy.”  Jones stared ruggedly at Johnny.  “If’n he can’t hold a few beers or he’s too soft to handle his own troubles without you doing it for him, maybe he belongs back east.”

“My brother is not soft, Jones,” Johnny hissed.  “And he’d be handling his own problems if he wasn’t drugged.  He lived through a year of hell in a Confederate prison camp without breaking.  What have you lived through?”

“Well, is that right?” Jones sneered contemptuously.  “Well maybe them guards made it easy for your brother.”

“What do you mean by that?” Johnny asked in a low voice.

“Maybe your pretty boy brother gave them what they wanted, since there weren’t no women around,” he spat scornfully.

A right fist smashed into Jones’ face, solidly slamming him into the mirror behind the bar.  The sound of glass shattering was followed by the thud of Jones’ bulky body falling to the floor.  Johnny’s spurs scraped the counter as he jumped it to get to Jones.  Clearly enraged, Johnny grabbed the shirt front of the much heavier man and pulled him up, landing several more solid punches before Val dragged him off.

“Johnny, that’s enough!” Val yelled, pulling on his arms to drag him off the now unconscious bartender.

Fiercely wrenching out of Val’s hold, Johnny scanned the scrambled face of Ned Jones.  His nose was crooked and blood seeped from his mouth and above his left eye.  His eyes were already swelling shut and there was promise of bruises to come. 

“Johnny,” Val said calmly, “now’s not the time for Jones.”

Brushing an arm across his forehead, Johnny blotted sweat onto his sleeve.  He glanced at Val, sighed heavily, and nodded.  Rubbing his bloodied knuckles, he walked over to Scott, pulled up a chair and sat down facing him.

“Scott, we gotta go home.  Can you hear me?”

Scott dazedly peered about, as if trying to find the source of the question.  His gaze wandered distractedly, and he reached his hand out and snatched at something that no one else could see.

“Scott!” Johnny said louder.  He grabbed his arm and shook it.  “Scott!  You gotta focus, Brother.  Look at me!”

Blue eyes struggled to concentrate and centered on Johnny.  “Johnny… Johnny?”

“Hey, Scott.  Can you get up?  We need to go home?”

“Sure, Johnny.  But where…where are the others.”  Scott looped his body towards the table where the three cowboys had been, almost falling before Johnny caught his shoulders.

“They’re gone, Scott.  Come on, get up Boston.”  Johnny took Scott by his arms and pulled him to his feet, but his long legs folded to the floor.  “Damn it.  Val, give me a hand, will ya?”

Each taking an arm, Val and Johnny brought Scott up and managed to keep him standing.  They started walking; Scott did not.  His arms and upper body came forward, but his feet remained where they were.  After stepping forward, Johnny realized Scott was leaning into a crumple.  “Hold him up, Val!”

“Damn, Johnny.  He’s heavier than he looks.”

Scott started to hum the ballad once more, his eyes hooded and unseeing.

“Scott…Scott, you hear me?  You gotta walk.”

“Johnny, he’s not hearin’ nothing’ but that song.”

“It’s like he doesn’t have any bones, Val,” Johnny panted, trying to keep Scott from giving way.  “Shit, he’s slippery.  I’ll hold him up.  Would you get a chair?”  Scott hung limply in Johnny’s arms, his face smashed against his chest, his legs wilted and bent at the knees as Johnny tried to keep him from sliding to the floor.  Val quickly got a chair behind him and Johnny lowered him into it.

Standing back and breathing heavily from the exertion of holding up his brother, Johnny watched as Scott lolled his head and started to sing, “My lovely Rose-a-shal, the only girl for me…..”

“How the hell is he gonna sit a horse, Johnny?”

“He isn’t.  We’ll ride double.”  Johnny scrubbed his hand across his face.  A flicker of movement in the corner of the room caught his eye and he saw Serena and the other saloon girl watching them.  He’d been so intent on Scott and beating the hell out of Ned Jones, he didn’t realize they were there.  “Serena, would you get my horse from the Rosa and bring it down?  You know which one he is?”

“Sure, Johnny.  I’ll get him for you.”  Serena came out of the shadows and gazed compassionately at Scott.  “Johnny, if it’s what I think it is that’s been slipped to him, Scott should come out of it in a few hours.  I’ve seen other men on it.”

Johnny licked his lips and considered the girl.  “What will it do to him, Serena?”

“Probably just make him happy, Johnny.  Mostly anyway.  Sometimes it brings memories; makes things past seem real, good and bad.  Know what I mean?”

“Will it hurt him?”

“Not seen it hurt anyone before.”

“Ned give it to him?”

She hesitated and looked uneasily towards the bar.  “Can’t say, Johnny.  I gotta work here, ya know?  I got a little boy to think of.”

“Okay.  Listen, ah, thanks, Serena.”

“Well, I’ll get your horse.”

Johnny watched her walk out the door.  “Val, I can carry him over my shoulder to get him out of here, but I’ll need your help getting him on Barranca.”

“I’ll help ya, Johnny.  Want me to stable Scott’s horse?”

Johnny seemed to think about that for a while.  “No.  Just knot his reins to the horn and put a lead rope on him.  I can lead him until we get closer to Lancer and let him lose to go home.  I’ll tie a note to the saddle and let Murdoch know what’s going on.  He’ll send someone out to meet us.”

“How come you two weren’t together?”

“Scott didn’t want to go to Rosa’s for supper.  We were gonna meet and ride home together.  I don’t know how he ended up in this dump.  Have to ask him when he’s himself.”

“What’s the matter, we ain’t good enough for your fancy brother?”  The other saloon girl came from the shadows, her glare harsh.  She looked haggard and tough, and much older than her years.

“Scott doesn’t think he’s better than anyone, Amanda.”  Then added softly, “I don’t agree with him.”  He eyed her suspiciously.  “You know what got put in his drink?”

Shrugging, she sauntered across the bar and stood in front of Johnny, her look crafty.  “I might.  What’s it worth to you?”

“What’s it worth to you to have a place to work tomorrow?  Cuz if you know you’d better tell me, or I’m gonna tear this place apart.”

She glanced over to the bar; no sound had come from Ned Jones since Val had pulled Johnny off of him.  She seemed to be considering what to say, and then responded angrily, “Hell, I don’t know all the stuff Ned’s got.”

“So, where does he keep his stuff?”

Realizing that she had said too much, she backed away.  “I don’t know anything about what Ned’s got, Sheriff.  You have to ask him.  I just sell drinks.”  Glancing fearfully at Johnny, she quickly backed away and ran from the room.

“She knows, Val.  She knows.”

“I’ll talk to her, Johnny.  And Serena.  Now you get going?”

“You think it’s peyote?”

Val nodded his head.  “Probably.  It’s common enough.   Indians boil it like a tea, be easy enough to slip into the beer Ned sells”

“Why would they want to do that to Scott?  What’s he done?”

“Jones don’t need a reason.  Them cowboys are just young and stupid.  They’re not a bad lot, Johnny, you know that.”

“That why you let them go?”  Johnny snapped abruptly.

Giving Johnny a hard look, Val replied levelly, “That, plus the fact you’d of done somethin’ stupid.”

Johnny flexed his fingers, obviously agitated.  “Johnny, you gotta trust me on this.  I know what I’m doing.  Just give me time to do it.”

“Jones should be dead for that crack he made about Scott.  No one would hang me for that.”

“Maybe not.  But I’m askin’ ya, as a friend, let me do my job.”

Staring intently at Val for a few moments, Johnny nodded his head and turned towards Scott.  “What the hell is he singing?”

“Don’t know, but it’s kinda perty,” Val remarked, immensely relieved that Johnny had let it go.  For now anyway. 

Giving Val a scornful look Johnny remarked, “You’ve heard too many hollering drunks, Val.  I think your listener’s broke.”  Johnny bent towards Scott.  “Come on, help me get him up.”

Grabbing Scott by the arms, Johnny pulled him up as Val took hold of his legs and lifted him to Johnny’s shoulder.  With a grunt, Johnny hoisted Scott across his shoulder and started walking to the door.  “Geez, Val, his belt buckle is poking me to the bone. – Damn, for a boney man he sure is heavy.”

Struggling under the weight of his brother, Johnny made it through the door as Serena brought Barranca in front of the saloon.  “Serena, hold the horse will ya until we get him up there,” Johnny requested and then turned to Val.  “Okay, Val, I’m gonna set him down, you catch him and don’t let him fall.”  They maneuvered Scott until he was held between them.  His blond head drooped forward momentarily, and then it rolled up and he stared vacantly with a puzzled expression.

“Johnny, I’m gonna get this leg and heave him over the saddle.  You grab his other leg and lift when I do.  On three; one – two – three.”

“Ugh, Val, ya got him!”

“Yeah I got him.  You lifting him up?”

“I’m trying.  He’s all arms.  Ooof.”  

“Serena, what ya laughin’ at?  This ain’t funny.”

“Sorry, Sheriff, but you got him on backwards,” she chuckled, barely able to contain herself.

“Whatcha mean he’s on backwards!”

“Val,” Johnny said trying to catch his breath as he stepped away from the horse.  “He’s sitting backwards.”

Indeed, Scott was in the saddle, a leg on each side of the horse, his body horizontal over the animal and his head resting comfortably on its broad rump.   His eyes stared hazily at Johnny.  “Hey, Johnny. … This is… the softest bed ….I’ve ever had.” 

“Damn, I’m glad no one’s around,” Val grumbled, glancing about to see if anyone was watching.

“Well, I can’t ride back with him like that, Val.  We’ve gotta get him turned around.”

Val stood back to study the problem.  “Okay.  I’ll roll his top north, you roll his bottom south.”

“How come I got his bottom?” Johnny protested.

“Cuz he’s your brother!  Now come on.  I’ve got rounds to make.  And if’n ya drop his legs you’re on your own.”

“If you’d do something with Ned Jones, we wouldn’t be hauling his ass over a horse, so don’t yell at me.”  Johnny labored to pull Scott’s long legs to the back of the horse while Val held on to his chest and arms, rotating him over the saddle.

“I’ll do something with Jones,” Val muttered angrily.  … “You gotta teach him another tune, Johnny!”  He barked impatiently.  “I’m getting’ tired of Rose or Shal or whatever the hell her name is.” 

“Yeah, well, I’ll tell him about your request,” Johnny grunted, straining to swivel Scott.  “Just shut up and turn him, will ya?”

Barranca nickered and swung his head around.  “You, too Barranca,” Johnny snapped.  The horse snorted and nuzzled into Serena’s chest.   Serena brought her hands up to each side of the animal’s head and stroked it gently, rubbing her fingers lightly across the velvet muzzle.  The action wasn’t lost on either of the men as they looked enviously at the horse. 

They were finally successful in positioning Scott in the saddle.  He immediately dropped forward into the mane, long arms dangling on either side of the neck, soft puffs of air ruffling the horse hair as he hummed.

With a note tied tightly around the saddle horn on Scott’s horse, Johnny mounted behind his brother, and brought him up against his chest.  Apparently confused, Scott struggled to sit forward and reached for the reins, listing dangerously to the left.   Johnny quickly jolted him back, causing Barranca to dance in protest and almost unbalancing both men.    

“Damn it, Scott.  Hold still, will ya?”

“Humph, ‘pears ta me you’re talkin’ to the air, Johnny boy.  Ya sure you’re gonna be okay?  I can ride with ya a ways.”

Letting out a heavy sigh, Johnny answered, “Thanks, Val.  We’ll be fine.  You need to do somethin’ with Jones and watch the town.  I’ll get him home.”  Johnny took the lead rope attached to Scott’s horse, tightened his grip on his brother and turned Barranca home.  They went a few steps, stopped and Johnny twisted his head to Val.  “Val.”


Val could see blue ice looking back at him in the twilight, and heard the cold tone in Johnny’s voice. 

“This ain’t over yet.”

There was a chilled quiet in the hot night.  “Get ‘im home, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded slightly and gently signaled Barranca forward.  Val watched them make their way down the dusty street, the low hum of an unknown ballad floating back to him.

“Sheriff?”  Serena’s voice startled him and he snapped quickly to the door of the bar.  “Sheriff, Ned’s comin’ to.  I think his nose is broke.”

“I’m comin’ Serena.”

She stepped backed into the bar.  Val moved to the boardwalk, and strode the short distance to the saloon.  He gazed up the road and watched the receding figures of Johnny and Scott, hoping they’d get home without problems.    “Damn,” he said softly to himself.    With a hard set to his jaw, he walked into the building to deal with Ned Jones.


Chapter 3

They had only traveled a few miles, and Johnny was already feeling the strain of trying to keep Scott from pulling them both off the horse.  He shifted between a complacent deadweight on Johnny’s chest to a confused fighter, twisting against the grip of his brother.  Johnny realized too late that they should have stayed in town instead of going home, but they were on their way.  Besides that, Murdoch would probably have sent someone to look for them.

The stifling humidity of the day had not lessened with dusk and Johnny was hot and frustrated.  It seemed the heat emanating from his brother caused his own hot to rise, and the prickly temperature stuck them together with sweat.  His temper was frayed, and it was only the fact that Scott was not to blame that kept Johnny from losing his patience.  At least as far as Scott was concerned, but not the idiots responsible for drugging him. 

Johnny had shared a poker game and a Saturday night with fellows from the Double M more than once and they all seemed decent enough.  He was puzzled any would want to drug Scott.   It seemed some of the cowhands had a grudge or, maybe it was as simple as Val said; they didn’t mean any harm, just young and stupid.  All of that was well and good as long as Scott was okay.  Johnny tightened his hold on his combative brother and once more cussed out the cowboys and Ned Jones.

Scott calmed, his head hardly moving on Johnny’s shoulder as he murmured the same melody that he’d been humming off and on since Johnny walked into the Dimano.  Exhaling softly, Johnny was thankful that his brother settled, at least for the moment.   Johnny’s arms ached, and his left hand was cramped from gripping the lead rope on Scott’s horse.  He was tempted to head Charlie home, but wanted to be closer to the ranch to lessen the chance that the high spirited animal would get side tracked along the way.

Tracking southwest from the main road to a less traveled path, Johnny was relieved when the trail started to meander through a copse of trees.  The sun had not penetrated through the forest canopy and it was several degrees cooler.  He contemplated staying on the primary road, but knew the change in temperature would be a welcome break; not only that, it was a well worn shortcut and would take less time.  Johnny would send Charlie on ahead to Lancer when they once again came to the major road.

He tried to listen to the words of the song his brother was murmuring. The melody was beautiful, what he could make of it.  Johnny guessed Scott was mixing up the lines as there didn’t seem to be any particular flow to the lyrics; but the air was haunting, lingering, and sad – adding to the almost ghostly atmosphere of the shrouded lane.

With their entry into the shadows of the trees the high strung Charlie became difficult to control.   The horse suddenly jumped at an imaginary enemy and almost pulled out of Johnny’s hand.  “Damn it, horse; don’t do this to me now.”    The jerk brought Scott forward and Johnny lost his grip on him.  He grappled for a hold on his brother as he dropped the lead rope.  Charlie heaved into Barranca, and Barranca reared, panicked at the solid thrust of the body slamming into him.  Johnny heard the hard, hurried beats of Scott’s horse galloping away, and tried to calm his own mount.  The only thing Johnny could think of was hooves thumping against his brother’s head if he couldn’t hold onto him.

“Scott,” he yelled, “stop it!”  But Scott didn’t seem to hear as he attempted to twist away from Johnny.  Clutching him tightly, Johnny yielded to the inevitable and fell, trying to roll with Scott out of the way of the panicked hooves.   They bumped against something hard and Johnny tightly closed his eyes, stiffening over the thrashing body of his sibling.  He registered the hollow pounding of staccato beats as Barranca followed Charlie down the road.  With his brother struggling beneath him, Johnny tightened his arms and held on.

 It was several turbulent minutes before Scott quieted, allowing Johnny to get his bearings.   Moving off his brother, he sat back on his haunches and looked around.  They had come to rest against a large tree limb just off the path.  The sun was low in the sky and grey fingers of the looming twilight filtered across the road through black overhanging branches.  Unfortunately shadows were all that was on the road; Barranca was nowhere to be seen.

Cursing softly to himself, he glanced at Scott, who seemed to be hovering between confusion and indifference.   He had managed to bring himself upright with his back against the limb.  It appeared that he was trying to get his legs beneath him, but they weren’t working together.  When he attempted to tuck one under his backside, the other straightened out stiffly.  Johnny watched for a short time as Scott mindlessly repeated the action.   Shaking his head and smiling at the determined attempts of his muddled brother, he grabbed his legs and stopped him.

“Scott, we need to start home.   You’ll need to walk.  Okay?”

A bleary Scott nodded and moved his leg. 

“I’ll help you up, Scott.  Just stay still.”  Johnny stood behind the fallen tree, put his hands in underneath Scott’s arms and with a grunt, lifted his butt to the limb.  Moving to the front of the tree, he took Scott by the wrist, brought the arm around his shoulder, and hoisted him up, catching him around the waist.  Unsteady legs bent and twisted a bit, but finally straightened. 

With Scott leaning heavily against him, Johnny took the first step and waited for Scott to follow.  “Scott, move your leg.”

Scott studied both of his legs.   “Which one?”

“I don’t care which one, Scott.  Just move one of them, okay?”

It appeared that Scott was contemplating which leg to move. 

“Scott, you gotta help me here.  I can’t carry you.  Move the right leg.”

Again Scott considered his legs.  “I’ll move this one.”  He pointed to his left leg.

“That’s fine, Scott.  Good.  Just move it forward,” Johnny replied patiently. 

Scott’s left leg shifted forward – and he stopped.

“Okay, now move the other leg.”

He looked at Johnny as if his brother had asked him to do the impossible.

“Boston, you can’t go forward until you move the other leg.”

Realization dawned on his face, and Scott’s other leg followed. 

“Okay, okay – keep it going, Scott.  Now move the other leg.”

Obviously perplexed, Scott mumbled, “The other leg?” and looked around as if there was another limb floating around somewhere. 

Johnny let out a huge sigh and sweated.  He didn’t think he’d ever been this wet with sweat before.  “Damn,” he muttered.  Then he snorted and started laughing at the impossibility of their situation.  He swung his gaze to Scott who was looking back at him with a large grin on his face, like Johnny had just shared a joke.    A vision of his normally dignified, proper brother popped into his mind and Johnny started laughing again.

“Hell, Brother, what a pair we make.  You’re so damned happy with whatever you’re on, you don’t give a shit, and I’d like to kill Ned Jones and the whole stupid bunch.”

Composing himself, Johnny once again started the trek down the lane, each step a challenge in keeping Scott moving forward.  After several hundred yards Johnny was exhausted and although he did not want to put Scott down, he decided they both needed to rest.  Spying another limb close to the road, Johnny steered for it.   He eased Scott to the ground and sat down next to him.

Johnny drew an arm across his forehead and wished for a drink of water.  ‘Damn horse,’ he thought.  He looked down the path they had just come, and then up the path they needed to go.  Realizing they still had at least a mile before they reached the main trail, Johnny hoped the horses had made it home and Murdoch was on the way to find them.

“My lovely Rose a Sha-al, you’re the sweetest girl I know.  You’re the queen of all the roses, like the pretty flowers that grow,” Scott idly sang, his manner tranquil.  He abruptly stopped singing and looked intently into the trees. 

“Scott?”  Johnny squinted towards the brush where his brother gazed.  “What do you see?”  All Johnny could see was shade, grey tones and overhanging trembling branches.

“We need cover,” Scott whispered suddenly and lunged at Johnny toppling onto him, and frantically pulled dead brush and leaves over them.

Laboring to catch his breath from not only surprise but also the weight of Scott, Johnny sputtered, “Scott, get off me.”

“Shush, shush, shush, shush, shush.”  Scott clamped his hand over Johnny’s mouth.   “They’re coming, coming, coming, coming, coming, coming.”

Staring up at Scott, Johnny was chilled by the sheer determination and almost madness that looked back at him.  His brother’s face was severe, his jaw hard, and his eyes foreboding.  He could feel Scott’s heart thunder against his own chest, and the grip he had on his arm was unbreakable.  Trying to shutter back feelings of dread, Johnny lay still, hoping Scott would calm.

Finally, Scott removed his hand and whispered fearfully, close to Johnny’s ear, “You have to be quiet, Johnny, they’re here.”

“Who’s here?” Johnny murmured back, trying to sound composed.

“The guards, the guards, the guards.  They’re looking for me.”  Scott looked frantically around, his eyes wild.  “You need to get away, Johnny.  Get away.  Get away.  Get away, Johnny.”

“Scott, please, why?”

“You got to get away, Johnny,” Scott spat impatiently, clamping his hand once more over Johnny’s mouth.  “Quiet or they’ll hear.  They’ll hear, hear, hear, hear.”

Scott closed his eyes and held his breath, seemingly trying to be as motionless as he could.  When he opened them several moments later, Johnny saw they were glistening with tears.  His face contained such deep sadness, helplessness and despair that Johnny felt like someone just belted him in the gut.  ‘What’s happening?’ Johnny wondered, suddenly chilled and afraid for his brother. 

Moments passed and Scott relaxed his hold.  Johnny was able to free his arms and brought them to Scott’s shoulders.  Scott stiffened and Johnny stopped moving. 

“Johnny, you have to be quiet,” Scott murmured.

“I will, Scott,” Johnny returned, in a low voice.  “But maybe we need to try to get away.   I don’t hear the guards now.  Maybe they’ve gone.”  Johnny didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but took what information his brother had given him and tried to reason and sooth.

Scott shook his head.  “They’re not gone,” he whispered desperately.  “They’re around and you have to be quiet.  I don’t want them to hurt you.  They will, they will, they will, they will.”  His body became rigid as he repeated the words.

Remembering what Serena had told him that sometimes the drug made people think of bad things, Johnny had no idea how long this particular side effect may last.  He’d seen other men on peyote before, if that’s what Scott was on, and it seemed each person was affected differently by it.  Recalling the short-lived periods on the horse when Scott was combative, Johnny figured if he could get him under control, he may snap out of this nightmare.  Although he had been surprised at the sheer physical strength of his brother, he reasoned he needed to proceed or one of them could end up hurt.

He noted that Scott once again relaxed, and Johnny thought if he acted quickly, he could roll him over and get on top of him.  Johnny shifted his legs slightly checking to see if they were free.  Scott tensed at the movement, but then settled.

Sensing it was now or never, Johnny quickly clamped his arms around Scott and shoved off from the ground.  Scott appeared bewildered and stunned.   Several seconds passed before his features registered surprise, then shock and finally understanding. 

“Johnny, let me up.  We need to get out of here,” Scott entreated.

Johnny was straddling his brother, pinning Scott’s arms on either side of his head.  “Scott, take it easy.  They’re gone, Scott, they’re gone,” he urged trying to reach through to his jumbled mind.

“No, no, Johnny.”  Thrusting his body up and pushing off with his long legs, Scott almost unseated him.

“Scott, stop it.  There’s no one here.”  Johnny held on, hoping his brother would tire.  Amazed at his staying power, he finally started to feel Scott weaken.

The sound of galloping horses brought Johnny’s head around to peer down the road.  He recognized the white blaze on the tall, sturdy mount of his father and felt immediate relief.   Maybe Murdoch could get through to his brother.

As the horses drew near, Scott became more agitated and harder to hold.  “It’s just Murdoch, Scott!” Johnny attempted to reason.

Twisting from Johnny’s grip, Scott quickly drew his left hand back and swung it into Johnny’s jaw, knocking him off.   He scrambled up from the ground and started to run into the trees, but stopped and turned back to his brother.   Indecision and alarm was reflected on his face; he appeared torn between not wanting to leave Johnny and desperately needing to run from whatever demon was chasing him. 

 “Johnny, please, come with me,” Scott softly pleaded, holding out his hand and taking a step towards Johnny.

Johnny’s stomach bottomed out – why did things always have to be so hard?  Scott was lost in a world only he could see; he thought he was in grave danger and yet was willing to jeopardize his life to an imaginary enemy for his brother’s welfare.  And Johnny would be forced to betray him.

“Okay, Scott, I want to come.  But I’ve hurt my leg.  Can you help me up?”

Scott looked down the road at the fast approaching horses, cast a quick glance to Johnny, and ran back for him.  Johnny felt his brother’s hand wrap around his forearm and registered the tight grip and warm clasp of a man he’d give his life for.  Johnny closed his eyes, stiffened and pulled him down, cringing against the unbelieving “No” that echoed over and over again.


Chapter 4

“Johnny, you couldn’t do anything else.  You need to stop beating yourself up about it.”

“I know that, Murdoch,” Johnny replied with exasperation, stopping mid stride to stare at his father.  He scrubbed his hand over his face before saying in a milder tone, “I know that.  But, you weren’t there.  He was so scared, Murdoch.  He was scared but he was willing to face whatever his monster was for me.  Don’t matter if the enemy was real or not, it was real to him.”  Johnny sat heavily down in a side chair, folded his hands together and with a troubled look, surveyed the room.

Murdoch rose from his chair and went to the liquor cabinet.  He poured two generous portions of whiskey and handed one to Johnny.   Taking a healthy gulp, he tried to forget the horrendous ride home and the long, unsettled night.  He could still hear the haunted cry Scott had made when Johnny grabbed him on the road and pulled him down.

Mystified as to what was happening, it didn’t take long for Murdoch to perceive that there was something seriously wrong with Scott.  Lost in a nightmarish world of chaos and ghosts, Scott fought most of the way home.  At one point he was so ill they needed to stop.  Murdoch feared his son was going to throw up blood, he retched so violently.  He sent Cipriano ahead to send a man with a fresh horse to summon Doctor Jenkins.  When they finally reached the hacienda, the dreadful night was far from over.

“Johnny, why don’t you try to get some rest?  It’s been a long night and I’ll call you when Sam is done,” Murdoch said, looking down on his son.

“Why don’t you Murdoch?  You must be as tired as I am.”

“Johnny, you carried Scott quite a ways before we got to you, not to mention these last few hours with him.”

“You too, old man.  I wasn’t the only one up there holding him down, trying to talk him through those nightmares.”  Johnny’s face tightened and he bowed his head, the memory obviously painful.

“Johnny, you did most of the talking.”  Murdoch watched his son clench and unclench his hands, his face tight and strained.  “You knew what to do, Son.  You made it easier for him, if any of these last hours can be called easy.”

Shrugging tiredly, Johnny explained, “I’ve seen men on peyote before.  Most of the time they’re happier than hell.  That’s what I thought would happen with Scott.  I mean, mainly he was smiling and singing that damn song, maybe confused some.”  He rubbed a hand across his eyes.  “I’ve talked a couple friends through bad times, but nothing like this.”

“Johnny, are you saying this was worse than others you helped?”

“Murdoch, I don’t know.  Dios, they weren’t my brother,” Johnny whispered painfully.

Murdoch winced and turned to the window.  He was surprised to see a line of soft pink low on the eastern horizon.  He pulled his hand distractedly through his hair, amazed to realize that they had struggled with Scott for most of the night.  He was both mentally and physically exhausted and imagined Johnny was the same.

Scott’s reaction to the drug was beyond anything Murdoch had ever experienced before.  At times Scott would settle peacefully, humming a lovely Irish ballad that Murdoch remembered hearing many years ago.  His son’s eyes took on a dreamy, far away look and his body relaxed completely.  Murdoch prayed fervently each time Scott was in this condition, hoping from moment to moment that he would remain in this blissful state.  But then he would get a wild, frantic look in his eyes and Murdoch’s heart would plummet.   The battle would begin again and it took both Johnny and Murdoch to keep Scott in bed.

Murdoch had been amazed at how tenderly Johnny spoke to Scott, trying to ease his brother through the terrible ordeal.  Scott screamed about spiders erupting from the walls and ceiling to devour them, twitching violently as the unseen creatures scrambled over his legs.   He rambled about swirling colors and giant heads appearing suddenly around the room.  But the worse was when he thought the guards were coming and pleaded to be let go.  When Murdoch would not loosen his grip, Scott fiercely accused him of being his tormentor.

He didn’t know how he and Johnny managed to hold together until Sam arrived just before dawn, and felt himself fold with relief when his friend entered the room.  Without much preamble, Sam determined that Scott’s symptoms were probably the result of ingesting peyote.  It seemed that Sam had much experience with the cactus and its effects on the human body and mind from not only treating the local native population, but also from soldiers based in the area.

Scott lay unresponsive on the bed as Sam examined him, obviously weakened to the point of complete fatigue.   He seemed in a stupor, his eyes bewildered and hazy.  After learning that it had been some time since the last violent episode, Sam chased Murdoch and Johnny from the room.  He instructed them to try and rest, but knowing they would not, at least go down and get a drink.  He would be down when he was satisfied that the side effects of the drug had subsided to the point that Scott was out of danger.

Murdoch sighed with weariness, and then suddenly recalled the question he had wanted to ask hours ago.  “Why was he at the Dimano tonight, Johnny?  Do you know?”

“No, Murdoch.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know that he’s ever gone in there before.  I’ve been in there once, but wouldn’t go again.”  Johnny got up to refill his glass.  “I don’t even know why those guys from the Double M would be there.  Mostly the only types that go there are idiots too drunk to care what they drink or cowboys who don’t know any better.”  He walked to the fireplace and leaned against the mantle.  “Or people looking for something more than booze.”

Murdoch pursed his lips.  “I don’t want anyone who works for me in the Dimano.”

Johnny stared at his father.  “Murdoch, I don’t think that many of our men go there; but I don’t see how you can tell them what they can and can’t do on their own time.”

Taking a sip of his drink, Murdoch studied his son.  “Johnny, I am not telling anyone they can’t go to the Dimano, but if they want to work for me, they stay away from it.  My son was drugged and if you wouldn’t have been there, who knows what may have happened to him.  I do not want Lancer or anyone tied with it to go into that place.  I don’t think it’s asking too much.  There are plenty of places in Morro Coyo or Green River or Cross Creek that they can spend their Saturday nights at.”

Johnny let out a breath.  “Murdoch, I know you’re upset, and I am too.  I’d like to see Ned Jones and those cowboys go through what Scott just went through.  But maybe you should think about it more.”

“I have thought about it, Johnny.  With every step that we took home tonight; every time I caught Scott from falling off the horse because I couldn’t hold onto him; every time he begged me not to hurt you I thought about it.”  Murdoch stopped and bowed his head.  He swallowed and looked back at his son.  “Every time he looked at me with those tortured eyes; and every minute that we held him down and he pleaded with us to let him go.  You are mistaken, my son, if you think I’ve not given this enough thought.”

“Murdoch,” Johnny started slowly.  “Those were the drugs talking.  Scott didn’t know what he was saying.”

“Exactly, Johnny.  Exactly.”

Johnny’s somber blue eyes looked back at his father, and he nodded.  “Okay, Murdoch.  If that’s what you want.  But you’ve got some pretty independent people working for you.  Some may not like being told where they can and can’t go on their time off.”

“I’ll explain it to them.  I can be pretty reasonable and persuasive, Son.  If they want to work for me, they stay away from the Dimano,” he said with finality. 

Murdoch raised the glass to his lips and took a sip.  “I hope my men think enough of me to do as I ask.  I give them a good wage, I think I’m a fair employer, I respect them and would like to think they respect me.”

“Of course they respect you, Murdoch, as they should.”

“Sam, how is he?” Murdoch asked expectantly as Sam entered the room.

“His heart rate is back to normal.  The nausea he experienced earlier shouldn’t reoccur.   It took a while for him to fully settle, but he is so completely exhausted he should sleep for most of the day and probably tonight as well.  His temperature may fluctuate, so don’t be surprised if you see he’s sweating and then gets chills.  Just a side effect of the drug.”

“Any long term problems?”

“No, Murdoch.  Not unless he intends to make a practice of using peyote.”

“I know you are trying to be light, my friend, but the night has been a long one.”  Murdoch poured Sam a drink and handed it to him.

Reaching out to accept the drink, Sam looked closely at Murdoch.  “It has been, for all of us.  But I do apologize.  The remark was in poor taste.”

“Ahhh, I’m sorry Sam.  Didn’t mean to bark at you,” Murdoch said regretfully.

Sam threw his jacket over the back of a chair and sat down.  His shirt sleeves were rolled up and his face was glistening with sweat.  He took out a soiled handkerchief and ran it across his face.   “Don’t worry about it, Murdoch.  I’ve had much worse said to me.  Now please, sit down before you fall down.”

Murdoch glanced over at Sam and noticed he was frowning with uncertainty, as if reluctant to be the bearer of further bad tidings.

“What is it, Sam?  Is there something you’re not telling us?” Murdoch queried, afraid of the answer.

Finally Sam replied, “Now that I know Scott is over the worst of it, I feel I should let you know how dangerous this could have been for him.”

“How dangerous could this have been for him, Sam?” Murdoch asked, a hint of controlled tension surfacing in his question.

“The effects of peyote are not completely understood, Murdoch.  But I think you should know that in some instances…well, people have succumbed.”

“By succumbed, Sam, I take it to mean, dead?” Johnny asked, his voice dark.

“Yes, Johnny.  In those cases I can only speculate that individuals took the substance in large quantities.  I don’t know how much Scott ingested, but I would guess since he is no longer exhibiting the physical side effects, that he is out of danger and the quantity was limited.   Unfortunately, especially since he was not aware of consuming the drug, I would guess that his experiences were…highly terrifying.”

“But, he will be okay, right Sam?”

“Yes, Murdoch. He will be.  I promise.  The probability of…death,” Sam stumbled over the word, “was extremely low.  Most of the time death or injury occurs due to the individual’s reaction to the hallucinations, such as trying to flee an imaginary attacker and hurting themselves in that way.  Johnny, keeping the room in low light and talking him through his delusions were exactly the correct things to do.” 

Murdoch lowered his large body deep into the couch.  He felt so tired, and this new information was more than he wanted to consider.  In addition, he wondered if any of the men would quit when he made his pronouncement about the Dimano.  Perhaps some of the new hands, but he didn’t think his long-term loyal employees would leave.  But he was determined now more than ever to carry out this order, especially after hearing Sam’s comment about what could have happened.

As if reading his thoughts, Sam remarked, “You know, Murdoch, some men may leave just because you’re telling them they can’t do something.  It’s a matter of principle to them.”

“I know, Sam.  But I think I’ve earned the right.  It’s a matter of principle to me as well.”  Resting his head back against the couch, he sighed.  “Can’t keep the Ned Jones’s away, there’s too many of them.  But, I don’t have to support them, nor my hands.”

“Well, I’m thinking most of them will see it your way.  How about your son?  What was he doing in there?”

Murdoch looked grim. “I don’t know, Sam.  I would never have imagined Scott going there.”  He glanced over at Johnny.  “But now that we know he’s going to be okay, we can deal with how he ended up this way.  Who did this, Johnny?”

Sighing, Johnny sat tiredly back in his chair.  “According to Val, some hands from the Double M.  He didn’t give me their names, but he will.”

“Why?  Why would they do something like this?” Murdoch asked frustrated.  “Did they have a grudge against your brother?”

Johnny’s face hardened.  “I don’t know Murdoch, but I plan to find out. Val seems to think they were just messing around – didn’t mean no harm.”  He fisted one hand into another.  “Wished they could see what their ‘just messing around’ did.”

“Is Ned Jones in jail?”

“Nope.”  Johnny glanced over at his father, waiting for the explosion.

“Why the hell not?” Murdoch demanded.

“Murdoch, peyote is pretty common.  It’s not illegal,” Sam said cautiously, as if he knew it was something his friend did not want to hear.

“How about the fact that my son just went through a night of hell, not to mention Johnny and me!” Murdoch exclaimed indignantly.

“I know, Murdoch, I know.  Calm down.  I don’t want two patients to take care of.”

Pale blue eyes pierced back at Sam.  “You won’t have two patients, Sam.”  He took a healthy gulp of his drink and tempered his anger.  “I’ll talk to Val.  See what he plans to do about Ned Jones.”

“Murdoch?” Johnny said hesitantly.

Murdoch glanced sharply at Johnny, not understanding entirely why his normally hot tempered son was being so calm about Ned Jones.  And those three cowboys!  He hadn’t even gotten their names from Val.  Then he noticed how tired his son looked and pulled back.  It had been a hard night, and they all needed rest.  So, instead of barking, he sighed heavily and gave Johnny his attention.

“Jones claims he didn’t give Scott the drug.  Said one of the cowhands must have come in with it.”

“Johnny, you don’t believe that.”

“No, Murdoch, I don’t,” Johnny said with aggravation.  “But there’s no way to prove otherwise unless one of those cowboys says different.”

Murdoch pursed his lips in thought.  “There’s still the fact that four men deliberately drugged your brother and may get away with it.”

“Well, Jones didn’t entirely get away with it, Murdoch,” Johnny remarked, rubbing at his tender knuckles.

“What happened to Jones?”

“Him and me, well, we had a little talk.”  Johnny eyed Sam, a satisfied grin on his face.  “He may need your services, Doc.  His nose looked a little crooked and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a tooth or two that busted loose.”

“Normally, Son, I’d disapprove.  But not this time, not after the night we just went through.  I’d say Ned Jones got off pretty easy.”

“Yeah, Murdoch, he got off easy.”  Johnny thrummed his fingers against the chair and then stared at his father, an unsettled statement softly escaping.  “Jones made a crack about Scott, Murdoch.  About men in prison, without women.”  He bit nervously at his lip, evidently uneasy about saying more.

Murdoch looked sharply at Johnny, his own unanswered fears about Scott and his time in prison surfacing from the shadows where he concealed them.  He hated the need to ask the question, and the reality it evoked, but this son needed reassurance.  “What about prison, Son?”

Weary blue eyes scanned Murdoch’s face.  “I know what men can do, Murdoch.  You think…,” Johnny hesitated, and then whispered, “You think someone could have hurt Scott like that, in prison?”

Murdoch felt the bile come to his throat, but swallowed it back.  ‘No!’ is what he wanted to shout, but appallingly he couldn’t be sure.  He also knew what vile things men were capable of.  “Johnny, I don’t know.  We all carry with us…the cruelties of others.  But I do know this; your brother has proven to be a strong man, and in spite of whatever he may have gone through, he is kind, giving and honest.  Don’t dwell on it, Son.  It helps no one.”

Nodding his head, Johnny scrubbed back bangs.  Murdoch walked over to him and gently rested a large hand on his shoulder, squeezing it tenderly.

“Gentlemen,” Sam interrupted sympathetically, grabbing his coat, “You need to get some rest.  I’ll check on Scott once more before I leave.  Murdoch, I heard Maria in the kitchen.  I’ll let her know what’s going on so she can look in on Scott.”

“Sam …”

“No, Murdoch.  Both of you.  Now, promise me you’ll at least try.  Scott should sleep.  Maria can wake you if she needs you.  Will you promise?”

Murdoch was going to protest, but realized that what Sam was saying made sense.  Johnny looked like he could pass out in the chair, and he didn’t feel much better.  “All right, Sam.  I promise.  Johnny will go to bed also, I’ll see to it.”  He glanced over at Johnny prepared for an argument, and was surprised when he only nodded in agreement.

“Good.  I’ll talk to Maria and then go up to see Scott.  I don’t want either of you in this room when I leave and will assume you’re both in bed.  Fair enough?”

“Yes, Sam.  And thank you.  I appreciate your help.”

“The worst was over before I got here, Murdoch.  There shouldn’t be any after affects, but let me know if anything out of the way occurs.”

“I will, Sam.”

“Johnny, get some rest.  Your brother will be fine.”

Looking through half closed eyes, Johnny nodded and even managed to give a tired smile.

Sam clapped Murdoch on the back as he passed him on his way to the kitchen.

“Come on, Son.  Let’s take a few hours – we both need it.”

 Johnny rose from the chair and followed his father to the stairs.

“We’ll both go to town after we’ve had some rest and talk to Val about this.”

“If he doesn’t do anything, I will,” Johnny stated coldly.

“Johnny, let’s see what Val has to say.  I think we need to let the law handle this.”

“I know, Murdoch, no harm in trying to help, is there?”

“No, Johnny, not at all, as long as that’s all you do is help.  Besides, I plan to talk to the Lennons about those cowboys.  Get their reaction to this whole thing.”  Murdoch placed his hand on Johnny’s shoulder relishing the warmth of his son’s presence.  “Damn, Son, it’s been a long night.”


Chapter 5

He had never felt so heavy in his life.  He couldn’t even manage to open his eyes, and what was more, he didn’t want to.  He lay burdened, lethargic, and vaguely aware of experiencing something very bad.  It snapped at him like an angry dog, biting at his need to sleep, catching hold just when he thought he was free of it.  But he was so tired and finally, growling, it grudgingly slipped away.  Moaning softly, he folded back into slumber.


Johnny heard his brother moan and got up from the chair near the window.  He walked to the bedside and other than the low groan, Scott was still.  He had not moved so much as a finger since Johnny had come into the room.  In fact, Johnny didn’t think he had moved at all since he had left him several hours before.

He had heard his father in the hallway almost an hour ago as he laid in bed, half in and half out of sleep.  Scott’s door was left ajar in case he stirred, so the sound of the door opening was absent, but Johnny knew that’s where his father headed.  Johnny wanted badly to check on Scott as well, but decided to give Murdoch some time.  So instead he quickly shaved and dressed.  Later, he heard footfalls as Murdoch walked down the hall and the creaking of loose risers as he descended the stairs.   Johnny went to his brother’s room hoping to find him awake.  He was disappointed when he wasn’t, but not surprised.  Scott lay deeply in sleep, seemingly unencumbered by troubled memories of the previous evening.

Bringing his hand up, Johnny’s palm brushed against a sweaty forehead and rested, testing for fever.  It was slight.  Wringing out a rag dipped in cool water, Johnny sat on the side of the bed and drew the rag across his brother’s face and neck and settled it lightly on his brow.  He placed his hand on Scott’s chest and was comforted that the heart beat was steady and strong.  His hand lingered, feeling the rise and fall of his brother’s breathing.  He straightened bedcovers that had not been disturbed and absently fussed at the pillow.

Scott’s arm lay across his stomach and Johnny noted bruising at his wrist.  He touched the discoloration and grimaced, recalling how tightly they had gripped Scott.  The black and blue marks were obviously the results of holding him down.  Johnny idly brushed his thumb gently back and forth across the bruised wrist, a lingering remnant of the turbulent night.

“I don’t think he’s moved at all, Johnny.”

Startled, Johnny jumped slightly, and saw his father in the doorway.

“Sorry, Son.  Didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I’m getting too settled, Murdoch,” Johnny said lightly.  “Wouldn’t have happened a few months ago.”

Smiling, his father walked the few steps to the bed.  “I like the word settled, Son.”

Johnny drew in a slight breath, and grinned.  Turning back to gaze at his brother’s wrist, he drawled, “He’s got some bruising here.  Suppose it was when we held him down.”

Murdoch stepped closer and bent to peer at the wrist.  “He did put up a fight,” he said quietly.  His large fingers skimmed Scott’s hand and took hold of the wrist, lifting and turning the arm to check the damage.  “I expect it’ll be sore.”

“I expect,” Johnny murmured, watching his father push up the sleeve and examine his brother’s arm.  There was more bruising on the forearm.

“Shouldn’t he be moving?” Murdoch worried, stroking the underside of Scott’s arm.

“Maybe not, Murdoch.  Sometimes it takes a while to catch up from the…tussle.”  He almost snorted at the word and how weak it sounded.  He did snort when he remarked, “With those stringy muscles, he sure gave us a run.”

Murdoch gently placed the arm down on top of the sheet.  “Yes, he surely did.  Must take after his mother.”

Hearing humor in his father’s voice, Johnny quickly glanced up.  Murdoch smiled back.  “His mother was stronger than she looked as well.”

Johnny’s heart eased, readily slipping into his father’s comfort.


‘Damn,’ Johnny thought as his stomach jumped.  ‘That’s the second time in as many minutes I didn’t hear someone coming.’  He looked towards Maria as she walked into the room.

“Yes, Maria,” Murdoch replied.

“Sheriff Crawford is downstairs.”

“Ah, good, Maria.  Tell him we’ll be right down.”  Focusing back on Johnny, he stated, “That will save us a trip to town, Son.  Let’s go down and hear what he has to say.”


Val watched Murdoch pace back and forth, obviously trying to control his anger.  He had dreaded the encounter with his best friend’s father, knowing exactly how he would take the news, and he’d been right. 

“Val, are you telling me you’re not going to charge Ned Jones?  He drugged my son!”

“Mr. Lancer, he’s denying it.”

“And you believe him!”

“No sir, but can’t prove it any other way.  Them cowboys said they did it.”

“And where did they get the peyote, Val?” Murdoch demanded. 

“Probably Jones, but it’s not like they couldn’t go south a piece to the desert and get it themselves.  Besides, the Indians use it in their religion; could have gotten it from them.  And there’s no law against peyote.”

“What about attempted murder, Val?  There is certainly a law against that.”

“Mr. Lancer.  You know them boys didn’t try to kill your son.  They’re just young, stupid cowhands got carried away.”  Val trudged lightly, aware that Murdoch Lancer was tightly boxing in his anger.

“You weren’t here to see what happened, Val.  Johnny and I spent all night battling with Scott.  He’s got bruises on his arms and we won’t know until he wakes up what else may be wrong.  And by the way,” he jabbed a long finger in Val’s direction, “I want the names of those young men.”

Val chewed nervously on his lip and glanced over at Johnny.  Johnny was being awful quiet through this whole thing, and Val didn’t like that at all.

“You don’t have to worry about, Johnny,” Murdoch said, as if reading Val’s thoughts.  “He won’t do anything to them.”

A small grin played across Johnny’s lips, and he rested his head against his knuckles.  His eyes sparked in a way that told Val, Johnny didn’t necessarily agree with what his father just said.

“Sheriff, I want their names.  I also think they could be charged with trying to do bodily harm.”

“Yes, sir.  If that’s what you want, I can probably do that.”

Murdoch huffed impatiently.  “Val, what is the problem?  Why didn’t you arrest them right away?”

Scrubbing a hand across his jaw, Val looked from one man to the other.  Exhaling heavily, he finally said, “Mr. Lancer, I didn’t for three reasons.  One, I don’t think them boys meant any spite.  I know each of them and just can’t see them knowing full what could happen.  Two, those boys were going to get stock and the Lennons couldn’t afford to have more men gone.  Now, I know that ain’t my concern, and if those idiots were mean spirited, I would have thrown them in jail.  But…well, the Lennons are good people and they are my business.  As sheriff.  You understand that sir?”

 Murdoch leaned back in his chair and studied the sheriff, his left eye brow raised slightly.  “And the third reason, Sheriff?”


“Johnny?” Murdoch asked obviously perplexed.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Lancer.  I wasn’t of a mind to throw Johnny in jail for taking the law into his own hands.  I had a hard enough time pulling him off Ned Jones, and I figure Ned had it coming.  Not that those other boys don’t need to answer for what they done, I just…well, let’s just say it was a decision I needed to make as sheriff, and I done it.”  Val stood straight, chin out slightly, waiting for the barrage he thought would come.   Surprisingly, it didn’t.  Instead, Murdoch’s rock-like features stared fixedly back at him. ‘Damn, that man can make you wilt and not say a thing,’ Val sweated.

“All right, Sheriff,” Murdoch finally stated.  “I’ll accept that Johnny may have struck out at those who hurt his brother.  However, he is not a man without some semblance of self-control.  But, what do we do now?  Let it go?”

“No sir.  First off, I need to talk to Scott.  See if he wants to press charges against them three yahoos.”

“He’s not talking to anyone now, Sheriff.  Probably won’t be until tomorrow.”

“Okay, then, I’ll be back tomorrow, Mr. Lancer, if that’s all right.”

“That’s fine Val.  And Ned Jones?”

“Mr. Lancer, he’s a slippery fella.  Even if he gave them the stuff, doesn’t mean he was part of putting it in the beer.”

“So, we go back to the fact that Ned Jones can drug people and go on his way.”

“No sir.  I’m trying to do my job, legal like, and I’ll get ‘im.  But like I told Johnny, let me do it.  I’m watchin’ Ned and those gals he’s got working for him.  They know more about what goes on than they’re sayin’ and I plan to keep at it.”

Murdoch turned to Johnny.  “Johnny, you’ve not said much about any of this.”

Eyeing his father momentarily, Johnny smiled and moved his shoulders.  “Murdoch,” he said quietly, “the Cattleman’s Association, which you belong to, made Val the sheriff.  Guess that means you expected he could handle it.  So,” Johnny gracefully moved out of the chair and ambled towards his father, “suppose you should.  But Val, you’ve not told us who those men are.”  He leaned against Murdoch’s desk and addressed his friend.    “Plan to answer my old man’s question?”

“You promise me you’ll leave them alone?”

“Yeah, Val.  I promise.  For now anyway.”

“Johnny, you gotta give me more than that.”

“He’ll leave them alone, Val.”  Murdoch threw his son a ‘you’d-better-listen’ glance and looked back at Val.   “But I do plan to speak to the Lennons.”

“Yes, I understand, Mr. Lancer.  Just so’s ya know, those boys are gone for a couple weeks and I told them to stay away from town for a couple more after that.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Good advice.  Who are they?”

“Dave Reynolds, Evan Bartling and Steve Kirby.”

Frowning, Murdoch looked surprised.  “Dave Reynolds.  He doesn’t strike me as the type to do something like this.  Johnny, what do you think?”

“Yeah, Murdoch.  But you know how people can be.  Get them with a bunch of others and they prod one another on, wanting to go along with the crowd.”

“Do you know the other two?”

“Yeah, but not well.  Just run into them around town.  Played a few hands of poker with Bartling.  He’s a good looser.”  Johnny chuckled and kicked at the rug.  “Heard that Kirby’s sweet on Serena, the little brunette who works at the Dimano.”

“Don’t think I know her.”

“No, Murdoch.  I don’t think you do.  She’s not what you’d call an upstanding lady of the town,” Johnny said softly.

“That’s not what I meant, Johnny, and you know it.”

“I know, Murdoch.  Still, it’s true, isn’t it?  She’s just a barmaid.  Trying to support a kid.”

Val heard the dark tone in Johnny’s voice and wondered if Murdoch caught it.  When he glanced his way, there was no doubt that Murdoch recognized it as well.

“Johnny,” Murdoch gently said.

Picking up a letter opener on his father’s desk and poking it at a stack of bills, Johnny stopped his father before he went further.  “Forget it, Murdoch.  It’s okay.”  Johnny settled on his father’s face, and murmured, “It’s all right.  Let it go.”

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch nodded and looked back at Val, sadness flickering briefly across his eyes.  “Any connection there that you know of, Val?”

“No, Mr. Lancer.”  He cleared his throat before continuing.  “Serena has a little boy.  Don’t know where the daddy is.  I didn’t know Kirby was sweet on her.”  He suddenly thought of something.  “You don’t think Scott and Serena, well, you know.”

“Phff, be like my brother to feel sorry for a forlorn little gal.  He’s always picking up strays like that, trying to help them.  They can draw him like a cowboy to a Saturday night.”

“You think Scott may be interested in her, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny seemed to think about the question for a moment before answering.  “No, I don’t think so.  He’d have told me, Murdoch.”  He frowned.  “I think.”

“Well, I guess that’s one question we need to ask him when he wakes up.  Maybe Kirby was jealous and wanted to get back at Scott,” Murdoch remarked.

“That would explain why Kirby would do it, but not the other two,” Val said.  “Anyway, Kirby don’t strike me as the kind that would mess like that.  More the kind to just punch Scott and tell him to back away.”

“Serena’s a saloon girl, Val.  He’d be beating men off her all week long.”  Johnny shook his head.  “Jones wouldn’t put up with it anyway.  Those girls are paid to be friendly and a jealous boyfriend hanging around doesn’t sell drinks.”

“It’s all speculation at this point anyway.  We’ll just have to wait until Scott wakes up to get some of the answers.”  Murdoch put his hands against his back and stretched.  A sound on the risers brought their attention to the stairs.  “Everything okay Maria?” Murdock asked.

“Senior Scott, he is cold, restless.  Perhaps if you spoke to him, or Juanito, he may calm.”

“Is he awake?”

“No Patron, but he shivers.”

“See you later, Val.”  Johnny punched Val lightly on the arm as he passed him, turned and continued talking to him as he walked backwards.  “We’re not done with this yet, amigo.”

“I heard that the first time you said it, Johnny.  I don’t aim to drop it.”

Johnny nodded, turned and took the stairs two at a time, disappearing at the top of the landing.

“Mr. Lancer, if there’s nothing else, I’ll be going.  Unless I hear different, I’ll be out tomorrow to talk to Scott.”

Tightening his lips, Murdoch rammed his hands into his pockets and approached Val.   “There is one more thing, Sheriff.”

Val wondered what more there could be, but respectfully waited for Murdoch to continue.  Murdoch stopped a few feet in front of him and eyed him seriously.  “What is it, Mr. Lancer?”

“If that would have been Johnny who was drugged instead of Scott, what would you have done?”

Stunned by the question, Val was speechless.  “Sir?” he finally said, his voice puzzled.

“I think it’s a fair question, Val.”

“I’m not sure I understand, Mr. Lancer.”

“You don’t understand the question Val?”

“No, Mr. Lancer, I do.  But why…”

“Why am I asking it?  Because I want you to think of something.”  Murdoch stepped away and walked to the window.  He studied the scene for a few moments before continuing.  “Last night I had a glimpse into a part of my son’s life that I hoped was, if not forgotten, at least not recalled.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.  I understand…”

“No, Val.  Excuse me, but you don’t understand,” Murdoch stated forcefully, then seemed to compose himself.  “Scott was screaming last night that spiders were eating him alive and he believed they were.  He tried to scratch them off, but we wouldn’t let go of his arms; and no amount of talk would convince him otherwise.  But there was something even worse than that.  Do you know what that was, Val?”

Val shook his head, not sure of where this was going.

“He thought he was back in a Confederate prison camp. So as I…as Johnny and I held him down, he accused me of hating him.  Of hating him, Sheriff, because I would not let him go; because I was going to give him over to his tormentors.   And he begged me to let Johnny go.  My kind hearted, giving son thought more of his brother than himself.  So can you imagine how I felt when I learned that these men walked away from what they had done?”  Murdoch scrubbed a hand through his hair, the reminder of the night before obviously very disturbing.

“Now, I know you think highly of Johnny, like a brother, Val, and I appreciate that.  I love my son very much and am grateful he has a friend like you.  But I have another son that I love just as much, and I want to be assured that you would have the same sense of responsibility to him as you would to Johnny.  It’s a tough question but I think I deserve an answer, especially since you let those men walk away.”

Val swallowed dryly, faced with a question he didn’t know how to answer.  Would he have done the same thing if Johnny had been drugged, or would he have wanted revenge against the men who’d drugged him?  “Mr. Lancer, I told you why I let those men go.”

“But would you have done the same thing regardless of who the victim was?” Murdoch stressed pointedly.

“I was afraid Johnny would do something to them fellas.”

“I appreciate that, as Johnny’s father.  But, as the father of the victim, I want justice for my other son.”  Murdoch walked to the front door and opened it.  “You think about that, Val.  I also suggest you think about what Johnny would expect your answer to be.”

Val walked up to the foyer and paused, trying to sort through his own thoughts.  His first reaction to the question was ‘yes,’ he would have handled it the same way.  But would he have?

“Good day, Val.”

He looked up and nodded.  “Mr. Lancer.”  Murdoch’s pale blue eyes held Val’s for a moment before Val looked away.  The door closed softly behind him as he stepped onto the veranda.  He adjusted his hat, put his hands on his hips and surveyed the hills.  ‘What else could I have done?’ he thought, perplexed that the matter had even been mentioned.  Last night the answer seemed simple – get them out of town and away from Johnny.

Angrily, Val kicked at a stone in the path as he walked to his horse.  “If Murdoch Lancer is gonna start second guessing the decisions I make, then Murdoch Lancer can get himself another sheriff,” he mumbled.  He reached his horse and put his hand on the saddle horn to pull himself up, but stopped.  “Damn,” he said out loud, bowing his head.   Murdoch’s words came back to him:   ‘My kind hearted, giving son thought more of his brother than himself.’  Inhaling deeply, he pulled himself up, turned his horse, and giving it a light kick, headed back to Green River.


Chapter 6

It was a long ride to Lancer before he even started.  Val had gulped down his own brew of bitter coffee all morning, which grudgingly didn’t help to settle  stomach.  It wasn’t the interview with Scott that he dreaded.  Rather, it was what Murdoch had asked the day before questioning Val’s decision for letting the men go who had drugged Scott.  That fact, coupled with Johnny’s unexpected visit to Green River later that same day and the resulting exposure of what Ned Jones really was made the turmoil worse.  The reality that Jones may have more than one motive for the drugging broadsided Val, mostly because it was something that never would have entered his mind. 

Val thought himself a strong man, and hoped he was a fair man.  He didn’t have any illusions about being in the same class as Scott Lancer; Scott was a true gentleman whose natural inclination was to give all people the benefit of the doubt.   Val didn’t think he was less than Scott; but they were so entirely different in makeup and background that sometimes the two men just didn’t meld.  He knew Scott as Johnny’s brother; Johnny cared very much about him and that was good enough for Val.

Arriving at the hacienda shortly after lunch, Val’s insides rolled as he approached the door.  But, he would do everything he could to hide that anxiety.  Johnny would probably recognize his unease.  Pffft – Johnny recognized a lot about people; particularly friends he knew well.  But Johnny wouldn’t give him away, even though he knew Johnny thought he should have thrown the three cowboys in jail the night Scott was drugged.  If anything, Johnny may verbally beat the hell out of him in private, but he would never humiliate or undermine him in public; especially in front of Murdoch Lancer.

So, now he stood in the bigger-than-his-shack Great Room, watching a very sick looking Scott try to answer the questions he was asking.  Johnny was hovering close by, silent, folded into himself, but still very much there.  Murdoch was---Murdoch; strong, and unbelievably intimidating without even trying.     His eyes reminded Val of pale, blue knives.

“Scott, do you know which one slipped you the drug?”  Val hoped Scott knew, but wasn’t betting on it.

Shaking his head, Scott confirmed what Val suspected.  “No, Val.  I don’t know.”

“Any of those fellas have a grudge against you that you know of?”

“Not that I know of.  I don’t know them that well; except maybe Dave.  I don’t know why he’d do something like that.”

“How much did you drink?”

“Maybe a couple of beers.  I really don’t remember.”   Scott stared at him tiredly, and then glanced his father’s way.  He rubbed a finger across his eyebrow and seemed to press it into the middle of his forehead, grimacing slightly as he did so.   Blue-black marks could be seen on his wrist at the edge of his cuff before Scott lowered his arm.

‘Damn,’ thought Val.  ‘What the hell are those?’  He stole a quick glance Johnny’s way and saw his jaw harden.  Johnny was quietly watching his brother, and then flicked to Val before he lowered his gaze.  Slipping a quick look towards Murdoch, he reminded Val of a rock statue he’d seen once when he was in Sacramento.  Involuntarily taking a large breath, Val proceeded.

“You have any problems with Ned Jones?”

Again, Scott wearily shook his head.

‘Hang with me Scott,’ he worded to himself.  The man looked exhausted and Val thought maybe it was too soon to try to get information from him.  “You want to do this later, Scott?” he asked.  “We can do this tomorrow.”

“No, now is good.”  His eyes slipped away as hooded lids closed slowly, reopened sluggishly, and then focused back on Val.

Val wasn’t too sure of whether the time was good or not, but he was here and might as well keep going.  Besides, he didn’t want to look like a complete incompetent in front of his best friend’s father, so he continued.  He just needed to take it slow and easy and hope Scott would be able to reveal a motive.

“Scott, you sure you don’t know why any one at the Dimano would want to drug you?  What about them gals?”

Scott chuckled lightly.  “No Val.  It wasn’t the women.  I don’t know who.  I was talking to them and then suddenly, something happened and everything changed.  It was pleasant at first, and then it wasn’t.”  Scott blinked his eyes and shifted his legs.  “I don’t know,” he murmured pensively.

“Why were you in there?”

That question seemed to catch Scott’s attention.  “What does that have to do with anything?” Scott asked tersely.

Surprised by Scott’s reaction, Val responded, “Maybe nothin’ and maybe everything, Scott.  Maybe someone didn’t like why you were there.”

“Why I was there doesn’t have a bearing,” Scott replied, dismissing the question.

“Well,” Val replied cautiously, “why don’t you let me decide if’n it does or not.  If you’d just tell me, Scott…”

“No, you’ll have to trust me.  The drugging and why I was there aren’t related.”  Scott’s lips were in a tight line, mouth rigid, eyes hard and unyielding.

“Listen, Scott.  You don’t know why you were drugged so how can you be sure….?”

Scott wasn’t letting him finish the sentence.  “I said no, Val.”

Val thought of pigheaded when he studied Scott’s face.  He looked towards Murdoch for help in dealing with his son.

“’Son, how can you be sure?”

“They are not related, Murdoch.  I know they’re not and I don’t see any reason to discuss it.”  He bowed his head and crossed his arms protectively across his chest, physically blocking any further discussion about why he was in the Dimano.

Val scrubbed a hand across his jaw and wondered where to go next.  Scott didn’t know why he was drugged and wasn’t about to say why he was in there.  Looking at the man, Val thought he should give him a couple of days to think about it and recover completely.  It was obvious that Scott was beyond tired.  He looked towards Johnny for some sort of input, but was greeted with a light shrug.   He glanced Murdoch’s way and all he saw was tense, edgy rawness.

“Okay, Scott,” Val said, deciding to drop that particular matter for now.  “Them cowboys won’t be back for a couple of weeks, so you’ve got plenty of time to sign a complaint.  Whenever you’re ready, come see me and we’ll get ‘em all drawn up.”

Slate grey eyes drifted slightly to Murdoch, then back at Val.  “I’m not signing a complaint.”

Val was pretty sure that his mouth dropped open at that announcement and it took him a few seconds to collect himself.   He noted Murdoch’s expression was one of shock and Johnny was eyeing Scott as if he were still on the peyote.

“What?”  Murdoch took a couple of steps towards his son, his face stunned; however, he did manage to keep his voice somewhat level.  “You don’t want to sign a complaint?  Why?”

“Not at this time, Murdoch.  I want to think about it.”

“Scott, they did admit that they drugged ya,” Val reminded him.  Murdoch’s question of the day before took on a whole different light with this.  At least that was Val’s first thought; but then decided what Scott did or did not do after the fact had no bearing on his actions as the sheriff on that night.

“I know, Val.  Johnny told me they admitted it to you.  I’d like to get their reasons.”

“Scott, you sign a complaint and I can get their reasons for ya.  Maybe quicker than you could.”

“Val, once I sign a complaint, it’s not that simple to withdraw it. I want to wait.”

Scott seemed to go boneless for a moment, drained, washed away and Val felt a quick wrench of pity for him.   “Well, Scott, why don’t you get some rest and we’ll talk again in a few days.  You look pretty wiped out.”  Turning towards Murdoch, he indicated the same.  “Not gettin’ anywhere here, Mr. Lancer.  Let’s sit on it for a day or so.”

Murdoch nodded agreement, but it was obvious to Val that he was far from pleased at the results.

“Johnny, I’ll talk to you later.”  Johnny slowly nodded, and Val recognized a deep worry on his face.  Picking up his hat, Val walked to the door, relieved he wasn’t followed by a distraught Murdoch.  He wasn’t sure if Scott would think different in a day or two.  All three Lancers were as stubborn as a horny fox after a female; nothing was gonna change that course.   He was glad to be out the door, but knew sooner or later it would have to be dealt with.

He kept his gaze down as he walked to his horse.  He thought about Scott and how played out he looked.  Val could see for himself that Scott had gone through some kind of hell, and that damn question from Murdoch niggled again.  Well, right or wrong, it was done.  But he was ready to give Murdoch Lancer an answer the next time he saw him.


“Scott, we need to talk about this.” 

Scott stiffened; the tone in his father’s voice unmistakable.  Murdoch obviously wasn’t happy with Scott’s decision and wanted an explanation.  The only problem; Scott didn’t know if he entirely understood it himself.    He glanced over at his brother who had been extremely quiet through the whole interview with Val.  Johnny was sitting, arms hugging his chest, head down and legs crossed.  Once in a while Scott noticed he would glance Val’s way, but other than that you wouldn’t know he was there.

The shadow of Murdoch’s large frame loomed over Scott as he sat uneasily in the large, comfortable side chair.  If his father was trying to appear daunting he was doing a good job of it.  If he wasn’t, he was still doing a good job of it.

Scott understood Murdoch’s frustration with his decision.  Everything experienced while under the influence of the drug was brutally remembered by Scott, including his reaction to Murdoch.  And even though Scott deeply hated what his family went through, he knew he was not to blame.  Nevertheless, he felt like a fool to have been duped in such a way as well as thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed of his actions while under the influence of the drug.

“Why Scott?”


“Don’t Scott.  Don’t try to act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.  After all that you went through; after all that we went through, why are you refusing to bring charges against those men?”

Scott exhaled heavily, the lingering effects of the drug still dogging him even though it had been almost two days since the incident.  “Murdoch, for one thing, I would not relish going through any type of court proceeding on this.  Especially since I don’t think they realized what could happen.  I want to confront them first about what they did, see what they have to say.”

“That’s Val’s job,” Murdoch stated shortly.

“I need to talk to them.  I can’t get an impression of their motives through Val.”

“Val should have arrested them that night.  I’m not entirely satisfied with his reasons for letting them go.  He’s the sheriff, with a job to do.  I still don’t have a proper explanation as to why he let them go.”  Murdoch looked grim and glanced out the window as Val rode by the window.

“Murdoch, even if he did arrest them that doesn’t mean I would have signed a complaint.  I just don’t want a stupid mistake to hang over them for the rest of their lives.”

“Well, their stupid mistake could have cost you your life, you know that?” Murdoch said, obviously trying to maintain control. 

Trying to temper his father’s irritation, Scott tried to reason.  “Sir, Sam said death rarely occurs.”

Murdoch turned and looked at his son.  “The word death rolls off your tongue pretty easily, Scott,” he said, his features strained, his voice barely above a murmur.

Realizing his own easy dismissal of something that understandably weighed heavily on his father, Scott apologized.  “Murdoch, I didn’t mean to sound so flippant.    I know it was difficult for you…and Johnny.”   Scott grimaced and bowed his head, anguishing silently over what he had put his father and brother through:  the cries, the accusations, the terror.  How he wished he could make it up to them.  But doing something he felt so strongly about to appease them he could not do. 

“Difficult is an understatement, Son,” Murdoch remarked wryly.  He paced a few steps but then stopped and asked almost as an afterthought, “And why won’t you say what you were you doing in there to begin with, Scott?  That has to be one of the filthiest and dismal saloons I’ve ever seen.”

A tired grin played across Scott’s face.  The thought that his father was in the Dimano suddenly struck him as very amusing.  “When were you in there, Murdoch?”

Johnny snorted lightly and pulled his hat down to cover his face.  Murdoch glared briefly at Johnny and quickly turned back to Scott.  “That’s not funny, young man, and has nothing to do with the matter at hand.  Now, why were you in there?”

“Sir, it doesn’t concern Lancer,” he answered, trying to sound mild after his father’s admonishment.  Scott didn’t think it wise to tell Murdoch, at this point anyway, that it really was none of his business.  He thought the answer he gave would side track his father; the ploy wasn’t successful.

“It does now,” Murdoch stated in a low voice.

Scott looked over at Johnny, hoping that he would feel some obligation to come to his aid; after all, Scott had sided with his brother more than once in past dealings with their father.  However, Johnny sat lazily in the chair not even looking his way.  Scott gazed up into his father’s face, granite features snapping back at him.  “I’m sorry, Murdoch.  I’m sorry for what happened.  But my reasons for being there are my own.”

His exasperation evident, Murdoch turned away from Scott and stiffly stared out the window, hands punched into fists on his hips.  “Four men quit today because I gave the order anyone working for me was to stay away from the Dimano,” Murdoch finally growled.

“They weren’t that much, Murdoch,” Johnny said softly.  “They would have been gone weeks ago anyway if they could have held onto their money long enough for a stake somewhere else.  They were lousy card players.”

“That’s beside the point, Johnny.”  Murdoch glanced at him, obviously not appreciating the remark.  “We’ve still lost four men and we’re short handed as it is.  Scott’s been laid up for almost two days, which doesn’t help.”

“I’ll be out this afternoon,” Scott indicated, realizing his absence from work wasn’t the issue, but hoped to end the conversation quickly.

“Sam said to wait until tomorrow.”

“I’m fine.  I’ll get back to work.”

“You will do what Sam ordered!” Murdoch snapped.

“Will I?” Scott retorted hotly, his patience wearing.  His head was starting to pound not only from the lingering consequences of the peyote, but also from the argument with his father.  He brought his hand up and scrubbed back bangs, resting his forehead tiredly against his palm.

Frustrated, Scott didn’t know if he was making the right decision about not signing a formal complaint.  He knew if he did those men would very probably face prison time.  He had plenty of experience along those lines, paradoxically brought to the fore by the very individuals he was trying to protect.  He didn’t fully understand his own reluctance to let the law handle it; perhaps it was because of his own horrible prison experiences and his feelings that the cowboys were, as Val said, young and stupid.  He wouldn’t know until he talked to them.

Initially, he’d been furious, wanting revenge on these young men for everything they put his family through.  But then Johnny explained to him why Val let them go in the first place.  Ironically, Johnny sided with Murdoch, thinking that Val should have arrested them that night.   Well, Scott would have his talk with them and go from there.  He didn’t relish the whole town knowing what happened, but he wasn’t the first man to have been duped by Ned Jones.  Maybe these cowboys had been used by Jones.  Ned Jones was also on that list of people to talk to and Scott had no illusions of the type of man he was.  

Scott also was reluctant to tell his family why he had been in the saloon, and after the peyote incident, even more so.  As was pointed out to him by his brother, he had a habit of taking it upon himself ‘to help any lost looking female’ that came along.  In the past this custom had proved to be to the detriment of Lancer.  This time, he was determined to handle it himself without involving his family.  And the person he wanted to help – well she was a special case.  He almost smiled to himself with that last thought; they were all special.

He sensed Murdoch’s stare and looked up at him.  Scott discerned a noticeable softening of his father’s features and saw that he was staring at his wrist.  His sleeve had slipped down when he brought his hand up, revealing the ugly bruises.  He lowered his arm and addressed his father.

“I need to handle this myself.”  His tone was respectful but resolute.  “I know you’re upset and I’m sorry for what I said to you…that night.  Those were the drugs talking, Murdoch.  You must know I did not mean it.”

Murdoch grimaced and scrubbed a hand over his face.  “I know that, Son,” he toned soothingly.  He stared at Scott, as if he were trying to banish the hurt all had gone through. 

“All right,” Murdoch said at last, his manner resigned when quiet was the only response.  “It would appear that you are not going to share your reasons for being at the Dimano, nor sign a complaint against those young men.  However,” and he turned back to both sons.  “The rules apply to everyone who works for me, including my sons.  You are to stay out of the Dimano.  Is that understood?”

Scott looked away, not wanting to argue further with his father.  But Murdoch was not aware of what he was trying to do.

“Scott, do you understand?”

“Murdoch,” he started to protest.

“I expect my hands to have enough respect for me to do as I say.  Is that too much to ask from my son?” Murdoch interrupted.  Although his manner was controlled, it was apparent in this particular situation there would be no compromise.  When no answer was forthcoming, Murdoch simply asked, “Will you stay out of the Dimano?”

Nodding his head, Scott reluctantly agreed.  He owed his father that; he just hoped he was able to honor it.

Picking up his hat from the back of a chair, Murdoch slapped it against his leg and walked towards the French doors.  “Jelly and I are going to the Anderson’s to pick up Teresa.  We’ll be home late this afternoon.”  He grabbed the handle and opened the door.  “Scott,” he said worriedly and looked back at him.  “Don’t go to work until tomorrow, okay?”

Remorse slammed into Scott for not giving his father the answers he wanted.  After all, Murdoch deserved those answers, considering everything he had been put through.  And he knew his father cared deeply about what happened to him.  He lowered his eyes but could feel him waiting.  “Yes sir,” he said, not looking at Murdoch but knowing he lingered. 


Scott heard the soft closing of the door as Murdoch walked out.  He listened to the hard clip of his father’s boots and envisioned his long stride as he made his way across the veranda.  The soft earth muffled Murdoch’s footsteps as distance lengthened between them.  When Scott looked up, his brother’s brilliant blue eyes were looking back at him.

“Thanks for the help, Johnny,” Scott said sarcastically, not putting a lot of heart into his comment.

Johnny twirled his hat around his hand until it fell to the floor.  With a soft grunt he hoisted himself from the chair, dipped to claim his hat and strolled to within a few feet of Scott.

“I take it you don’t agree with my decision?”

Tilting slightly at the hip, Johnny eyed his brother.  “No Scott.  I don’t agree with your decision.”

Scott pursed his lips and rested his head on his hand.  How had this happened? Something out of his control had created a rift in his family and the only way he could patch it was by doing what they wanted, something he didn’t agree with.  He felt Johnny’s warm fingers brush against his wrist and remembered the bruises.  Scott folded his arm against the side of his body.

“Murdoch and I have a part in this, Scott.  You can’t tuck that away. You’re not alone.”

Smiling at the irony in his brother’s statement, Scott remarked, “You throwing my own words back at me, Little Brother?”

“Well, I’d like to throw something,” Johnny remarked lightly.  “Guess words are the safest right now.”

“I don’t need another lecture, Johnny,” Scott replied, hoping to avoid any further discussion on his decision.

Johnny tightened his lips.  “Maybe you do.  That old man’s heart near broke the other night.  You gonna let that go?”

“I’m not letting it go, Johnny,” Scott said wearily, his stomach twisting at what his father had gone through, and his brother.  “I just need to handle it in my own way.”  Wanting to change the subject, Scott remarked, “Val seemed on edge this morning.”

“Yeah, well, Murdoch doesn’t agree with how he handled it and Murdoch can put most men on edge if he’s a mind.  And stop trying to change the subject.” 

Chuckling lightly, Scott watched his brother pick up a small statue from the end table and toss it from one hand to the other.  “By the way, how do you feel about Ned Jones wanting to bring a complaint against you for beating him up?”

Johnny caught the statue and faced his brother.  “I think Ned Jones is an idiot.”

“Val obviously thinks so too as he apparently laughed it off.  He also thought you had cause for the beating.  Did something else happen?”

“How about the fact that he drugged you, Scott?” Johnny barked, suddenly appearing very angry.  “And by the way, that beer would have been bitter as hell.  Didn’t you think something was wrong with it?”

“I guess I’ve never had experience with peyote before, Johnny,” Scott said, surprised at Johnny’s reaction.  “I thought it was just bad beer.”  He did not want to argue with his brother as well as his father, but it appeared they were heading down that road. 

“It wasn’t bad beer, Boston.  Bad beer is watered down or flat or tastes like piss.  Brewed peyote chokes going down, and almost comes up as fast,” Johnny said disgustedly.

Trying to lighten the air, Scott remarked off handedly, “And how would you know what either piss or peyote taste like?”  Unfortunately, Johnny didn’t feel obliged to respond in kind.

“I’ve tasted peyote, not piss.  And spit it out just as quick as if it had been piss.”  Johnny’s whole body emanated irritation.

Scott ran a finger lightly along his lips and watched with puzzlement as his brother paced.  He could understand his being upset with him, but Johnny hadn’t ignited until asked if something else had happened with Ned Jones.  It just wasn’t adding up.   

Scott wondered why Jones didn’t pursue a complaint against Johnny.  There was no proof that Jones supplied the peyote, and even if he did, it wasn’t illegal.  The cowboys admitted they were the ones who spiked the beer, not Jones.  No, there was something else.  Jones was too vindictive to just drop the matter.

“Johnny,” he said softly, “why is Jones backing off?”

“Know something, Boston?” Johnny spat.  “You can be such a damn greenhorn sometimes; for someone as educated as you are, shouldn’t take much to figure out why Jones is backing off.”

“Not if there’s more to it that you aren’t telling me, Johnny.  What else happened?  Or do I need to ask Jones myself?”

Johnny fiercely stared at him.  “I suppose you plan to take care of Jones, too?”

“I can handle Jones.  I’m not as helpless as you seem to think I am.”

“A man like Jones would chew you up, Scott.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Johnny,” Scott snapped back, his own temper flaring.  He rose abruptly from the chair and glared fiercely at his brother, his body rigid.

“Listen to me, Scott,” Johnny urged, strong fingers gripping Scott’s arm.   “Jones don’t care about what he does to others.  You think going in and sitting down for a cup of tea and talking it out will settle things?  Not everyone plays by your rules, Scott.  He’s duped you once, he’ll do it again.”

Furious, Scott wrenched free of his brother’s hand.  “I did not realize I needed to have you along to test what I drink before I drink it, Johnny.  How stupid of me!  And you seem to forget I’ve dealt with despicable men before.  I was in a Confederate prison camp for a year.”

“I know, Scott.  I heard about it the other night, remember?  In fact, you screamed it all night long!”

His head was pounding wickedly, and absently Scott pressed his palm against his forehead trying to quell the pain.  He desperately wanted to keep that part of his life from his family, but now they had found out in the worst way possible.  He cursed his own weakness when he felt Johnny’s touch on his arm.

“Hey, what’s wrong?  You okay?” Johnny asked solicitously, his tone soothing.

Squinting through the pain, Scott looked at Johnny.  Whatever anger had been on his brother’s face before was gone to be replaced by concern.  Scott did not want to continue arguing, but needed Johnny to understand he was capable of taking care of himself, and Ned Jones, without his little brother’s help.

“Johnny, listen to me.  I am going to handle Ned Jones and those three cowboys in my own way.  Now, you and Murdoch may not agree with how I do it, and that’s too bad.  But I will take care of it – alone.”

Blue fire glared back at him, his features hard.  “Scott…”

Scott interrupted him.  “I mean it, Johnny,” he reiterated, sounding as resolute as he could. 

“If you think I’m gonna sit back and watch Jones nail your ass, you’re crazy.”  Johnny picked up his hat and stiffly walked to the door, the sound of his footsteps as livid as he probably felt.

“Damn it,” Scott cursed through gritted teeth.  Frustrated, furious, and wanting to hit something, Scott had never been so enraged in his life.   Coupled with the drumming in his head, he was exhausted.  Thinking if he just lay down a bit, he could gather everything back into perspective, he crumpled tiredly onto the couch.  Remembering that Teresa would not be happy that his boots were on her couch, he shucked them off and wiggled his stocking clad toes, trying to relax.  Brushing his arm across his forehead, he sighed.  Deliberately pushing the last couple of days from his mind, he was asleep within moments.


Murdoch entered the great room, dark in shadow from the lowering sun.  He wondered why no lamps had been lit and fumbled for matches in his pocket.

“Don’t light anything, Murdoch,” a soft request came from the chair behind his desk.

Startled, Murdoch peered closely at the form, indistinct in the gloom.  “Johnny?”

“Yeah.”  The voice drifted, slowly, floating over the deep haze of the room.

“Why are you sitting in the dark, Son?”

“Scott’s sleeping.  Didn’t want to wake him,” came back the low reply.

“I’ll lower the wick.  Otherwise your old man could break a hip stumbling around in the dark.”  Murdoch could hear a soft release of air, and knew his son was smiling.  He could even picture the light grin forming on Johnny’s face and smiled at the vision. 

Turning the wick down, Murdoch struck a match and lit the lamp.  He carried it across the room and shined it on Johnny.  “Where is he?”

Johnny glanced in the direction where his brother lay.  “He’s on the couch, near the fireplace.”

Bringing up the lamp, Murdoch quietly made his way to the couch and cast the dim glow on his son’s form.  Scott was limp, relaxed; his face supple.  One arm draped to the floor, his hand resting on the carpet, long fingers curled inward.  Strained features were absent and he looked young – like the child Murdoch imagined him once to be.  The child lost, never to be known by his father.  His heart cramped when he looked at him.  This was his son; finally his son.


Johnny’s voice, understanding, breached the dark walls and brought him back.  “Yes, Johnny,” he replied, and closed his eyes in gratitude.

“Just…he’s sleeping.”

“Yes,” Murdoch whispered, “he is.”  Reluctantly he drew the light away and set the lamp on the desk.  “How long has he been sleeping?”

He could hear the lazy shrug as the fabric of Johnny’s shirt moved with him.  “I left after you did.  Maria said all afternoon.”

Murdoch nodded, realizing his son couldn’t see his agreement.  “It’s been a long two days, Johnny.”

He could smell the essence of Johnny – leather, horses, hot sun and wild.  Scott’s scent was fresh like wind-blown prairie: subtle, elusive, warm.  They were so different, yet fit so well together; like pieces of a puzzle.  You couldn’t force where the edges were wrong, but ease them in and the picture was whole.

“Everything okay?” He murmured, not wanting to wake his elder son.

“I don’t know, Murdoch,” Johnny sighed.  “He can be such a damn stubborn Yankee.”

“Yes.  I know…Did you argue?”

“Yup.  I think he wanted to belt me.”

“He didn’t?” Murdoch quickly asked, alarmed.

“No.  Not this time.”

Ascertaining they had before, Murdoch ventured the question.  “He has?”

Johnny let out a breath.  “Yeah, but I deserved it.  It was the first day – after we got here.”  A light smirk-sound escaped.  “He’s got a hell of a right punch.”

Licking his lips, Murdoch paused, wanting to know more about that first day, but deciding not to pursue.  “And you, today?  Did you feel the same way?”


“I’m glad you didn’t, Johnny.”

The leather creaked as Johnny moved in the chair.   “He wants to take care of Jones.”

Murdoch expelled a worry.  “He doesn’t know how, Johnny.”

“I know that, Murdoch.  He thinks he does.”

“He needs to learn.”  Murdoch hated that reality.  His son did not need to know how to deal with Jones.  One son was enough.

“Pfff, Murdoch.  He ain’t got it in him.  You can’t make a white horse black.”

“He went through a lot in the war, Son.”

“I know that,” Johnny said sadly.  “Still, Scott doesn’t understand some people are just born bad.”

Murdoch realized Johnny was right.  He knew his brother well.

“He won’t let me help.”

Murdoch sensed Johnny’s fear.  “No…I don’t suppose.”

“What do we do?”

Murdoch walked to the window and looked out.  All he could see reflected in the descending night was a tall, grey haired man staring back at him.   “We help him.”  He turned towards Johnny and saw the shine of his eyes.  “Have you had supper?”

“Nope.  Where’s Teresa?”

Murdoch chuckled.  Leave it to Johnny to think of food and Teresa in the same sentence.  “I left her at Lucia’s.  She wanted to pick up some apples to dry.  She should be home soon.”

Johnny gave a low snicker.  “We havin’ apples for supper?”

“No.  She’s also bringing some lamb stew with her.”

“Lamb!  Old man, you gettin’ soft?  Sheep on a beef ranch?”

“Lucia had an old stringy ram she cooked up.”  Murdoch rubbed a hand against his nose and lowered his head.  “I think she’s comparing it to me, if you want to know.  Said her husband got it at a good price; cooked it all day to tender it up.”

Johnny laughed, with humor.  “Yeah.  If it’s anything like you, she’d have to tender it up a bit.”

“Don’t be sassy.  Years pass quickly, my boy.  You’ll be in my shoes before you know it.”

“Well,” he drawled.  “Could be a whole lot worse.”

Murdoch looked over towards the couch where his other son lay sleeping.  “We’ll keep some supper warm for him.”

A light spilled into the hallway from the kitchen.  “Teresa’s home.  Let’s go get something to eat.”

Johnny didn’t stir at first.  Murdoch listened to the soft in and out sounds of his son’s breathing.  Finally, he got up from the chair and moved towards his father.  Murdoch draped an arm over his shoulder and walked with him.

“We could tie him up for a few months.  Keep him at home until something happens to Jones.”

“And what would happen to Jones – or maybe that’s something I don’t want to know.”

“Never know Murdoch.”  Murdoch felt him shrug.  “Accidents happen; people disappear.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch caught himself, suddenly winded.

“Ahh!  Wouldn’t work, so don’t worry.  Scott would be…grumpy.”  He chuckled.

They walked slowly to the kitchen.  “It will be okay, Johnny.”

“Yup.  It will be.”  The statement of ‘something’ unsaid, but surely inferred.

Murdoch’s large hand closed tightly on his shoulder and pulled him close.   As they walked by the couch, the subdued glow from the lamp outlined the silhouette of Scott’s face.  The high cheekbones, straight, narrow nose, and smooth jaw line attested to the inheritance from his mother.  Murdoch closed his eyes as he thought of her.

He took a deep breath and realized he would kill to maintain his children’s safety.  A grandfather had taken his son; Ned Jones was not going to. 


Chapter 7

Johnny stretched over the hot, robust coffee.  He wrapped strong fingers around the heavy cup and bowed over the steam, relishing the smell of the black brew as it drifted up.  ‘Coffee in the morning and tequila at night, what more could a man ask for?’ he thought.  And then he chuckled.  Well, one more thing might make a man’s life worth living.  But that one more thing could sure complicate life.  Trouble was, sometimes those ‘complications’ were worth it.

He rubbed at his eyes trying to get the sleep out of them and yawned.  It was early; the hue of the sun was just starting to rim the eastern sky when Johnny had slipped out of bed.  Even though he was tempted to sleep for another half hour or so, he decided a few idle moments alone in the kitchen would be rest enough.  The ghost-like Maria had perked the coffee earlier, peeled and sliced a bowlful of apples, and mysteriously disappeared leaving Johnny alone to gather his thoughts about the work lined up for the day, and the best way to do it.
Added to those thoughts were musings of the last week and the unspoken truce that hovered between Scott on one side with Murdoch and Johnny on the other.    Since the confrontation in the Great Room with his brother, nothing more was broached about the incident with the peyote.  In addition, Johnny did not venture any comments about Scott’s refusal to sign a complaint until he talked to the cowboys or his stubborn intent to confront Jones; the other side of the silent treaty was that Scott did not pursue why Jones backed off from charging Johnny.   Why Murdoch didn’t pressure Scott further about charges, Johnny had no idea.  He could only surmise that his father had his reasons.

Johnny realized that sooner or later he may have to tell his brother the particulars of his confrontation with Jones, but still carried a hope that it would never happen.  Scott’s softly toned question of a few nights ago had set Johnny off.  His brother’s insistence that something else had happened made Johnny fearful that Scott wouldn’t let it go.  After the haunting experience of listening to his brother’s pleadings while under the influence of the peyote, Johnny was determined Scott would not be hurt anymore regarding that time of his life.  Scott’s appeals and cries of that night wrenched at Johnny and left him feeling helpless.  So, if Johnny didn’t bring up Jones, neither did Scott.

Jones – Johnny detested the very name.  He could have killed him without remorse and may have if Val hadn’t been there.  Johnny’s hand tightened around the cup just thinking about the incident.  ‘Yeah,’ he thought to himself, ‘it’s a good thing Val was there or Jones would be dead.’

Johnny had decided to go to town shortly after Val’s first visit to the hacienda.  The continuing affects of the peyote left Scott weak and shivering, but Johnny managed to successfully ease his brother back to sleep.  The experience left Johnny once again tense and angry and he was determined to find out what Val was going to do about the whole situation.  Jones must have seen Johnny ride into town, as it was just minutes later that he showed up at the sheriff’s office.  He demanded that Val arrest Johnny for assault. 

Johnny was pleased that Jones looked like hell.  One eye was swollen shut and the other open just enough to see.  His nose was obviously broken, his left jaw was puffy and yellow and the rest of his face was bruised and tender looking.   A dozen odd stitches tracked above his left eye where Johnny’s knuckle had split the tissue.  Johnny smiled; pleased with the damage he had inflected on an already ugly face.

“I want you to arrest him, Crawford,” Jones had demanded belligerently.   “I aim to sign a complaint against him.”

“For what?” a dumbfounded Val asked. 

“Assault.  Look at my face!”

“Yeah, well, appears to me it don’t look much worse than it was, Jones.  And I wouldn’t push yer luck on this.  What you said about Scott, lots of people would think you had it comin’.”

“It’s your job, Crawford.  You tellin’ me you’re refusing to do your job?  Or is it cuz he’s a friend of yours?” Jones had growled contemptuously and thrown a scornful glance at Johnny.

“I know how ta do my job, Jones, and don’t need the likes of you tellin’ me about it.”

“Really?  That why you let them three cowpokes go who drugged his fancy brother?”

“You leave Scott out of this, Jones,” Johnny had replied seething, his rage barely contained.  Jones may not have put the peyote in Scott’s beer, but Johnny knew that he was somehow behind the whole ordeal.

“Know what, Lancer, he’s all decoration as far as I’m concerned.  With his learning and high society ways, what’s he doing out here anyways.”

“You’re nothing but crap on the bottom of his boot, Jones.”

Jones had laughed mockingly.  “Like I said, Madrid,” and he spat the name onto the floor.  “He ain’t nothing much but pretty.”

“I hear anymore shit from you about Scott, you won’t have to worry about a complaint. Take Val’s advice and back off,” Johnny tersely advised.

“Jones, you’ve gotta be the dumbest ass I’ve ever come across.”  Val turned towards Johnny.  “Let it be, Johnny.  Don’t let him push you.”

Jones didn’t seem intimidated.  “Ya still fighting for that lily, Madrid?”  An evil smirk snaked across his battered face.  “One of these days I might have to ask him if he was as good as the guards got.”

Johnny dove for Jones and caught him by the shirt front.  Forcing him against the wall, he had drawn his gun and jammed it into Jones’ neck.  Johnny barely registered the grip of Val’s hand on his arm.  He had never felt so much fury in his life, and his need to pull the trigger was overwhelming.

“Sheriff,” Jones choked, “you better make him let me go.”   He looked red faced at Johnny and ran his tongue along his mouth.  “Lancer, you can’t be around your long legged brother all the time.  You let go of me or he might find himself more than drugged.”  The threat came out barely above a whisper, sinister in its implication.

Suddenly, Johnny realized disgustedly why Jones hated his brother so much; he was a man who hated what he couldn’t have.  Johnny had seen the look before; in many men for different reasons.   He swallowed back bile, the knowledge making him almost sick.

“Johnny, don’t do nothing stupid,” Val declared, tightening his hand.  “He’s not worth hanging for.”

“You stay the hell away from, Scott,” Johnny said, his voice black.  “You think I’ve got qualms about killing you, you piece of crap?  I’d take delight in seeing you die belly shot.  In fact, I might do it anyway.”

“You admitting that in front of Crawford,” Jones wheezed, his manner more subdued.  Johnny saw fear swim briefly across his face before loathing resurfaced.

“Maybe, Jones.  You think he’d mind what happens to you?” Johnny whispered menacingly.  He felt Val pull hard at his arm, but didn’t care.  Even the insistent call of his name did nothing to break the hatred that Johnny felt.  “You’re rifling more than pockets on those drugged cowboys, Jones.  I catch you even looking at Scott I’m gonna gut you.”  He crammed his face closer to Jones.  “I can make you disappear faster than yesterday and no one would find your stinking corpse.”  Johnny’s spit splattered on Jones’ face as he dug the colt deeper into the soft flesh under his jaw and pulled back the hammer.

Johnny felt the dry swallow along the barrel of the gun as Jones Adam’s apple dipped, and Johnny knew he had him.  “You wanna bring a complaint against me, you do it.  But I’ll kill you, Jones before the ink dries.”   Shoving him violently against the wall, Jones stumbled.  Johnny picked up a piece of paper and slammed it on the desk.  “Write up your complaint.”

Hatred as well as fear emanated from the bruised face.  His gaze flecked briefly over to Val, but inexorably came back to Johnny.   Johnny knew the look and could smell his fright.  It reminded Johnny of a dog pissing himself as he exposed his belly to a stronger male.  He knew Jones wouldn’t sign a complaint, but needed to make sure he would stay away from Scott. 

“You keep this in mind, Jones.  I hear anything coming out of your mouth about my brother, I’ll cut out your tongue.  And no one would blame me.  In fact,” Johnny moved closer to him and Jones backed to the door.  “How long you think you’d be alive if other men knew what you did.  Now get before I forget the sheriff is here.”

With a fierce glance at Johnny, Jones had opened the door and disappeared into the dusty afternoon.

“You handled that well, Johnny Boy.  I do appreciate ya doing it behind closed doors.  The other citizens of this town might not be as understanding,” Val remarked sarcastically, wiping a hand across his sweaty forehead.

Fiercely Johnny had turned to Val.  “Don’t you know what he is, Val?”

Val was puzzled.  “What you talking about, Johnny?  Other than a stinking, low …” Understanding finally registered.  “You don’t mean…?”

“Yeah, Val.”  Realizing he still tightly held his gun in his hand, Johnny holstered it.  He nervously scrubbed a hand across his face.  “He don’t leave off Scott, Val, he’s dead.  You need someone to hang for it, fine.  And I don’t want Scott to know anything about what happened here, understand?”

Dumbfounded, Val had nodded.  He seemed to finally get his voice.  “Johnny, don’t do nothin’, ya hear?  Stay away from Jones.  I’ve been after a cowboy I know Jones drugged, but he didn’t want anyone to find out.  I tell him what we think Jones might a done to him, he’ll talk.  Just give me time.”

“He’s not gonna want to say anything about that, Val!” Johnny exclaimed.

“Don’t have to, Johnny.  Just the druggin’, that’s all I need.”

“What makes you think that cowboy won’t kill Jones himself?” 

“I don’t know, Johnny.  Maybe he will and I wouldn’t blame him.  No one else would either.  But I got to try.”

Johnny blew out a frustrated breath.  “Then what, Val?  Jones goes to prison for a few years?  That’s not good enough.”

Val looked back at him knowingly.  “How long ya figure a man like Jones would last in prison, Johnny?”

Thinking back on that day, Johnny knew Val was right.  Jones was big, ugly and mean but wouldn’t blend in with the pack and they’d turn on him. 

Johnny closed his eyes and lowered his head.  The aroma of the coffee calmed him somewhat and he took a deep gulp.  Walking away from killing Jones had taken more than Johnny thought he could do.  A few short months ago he would have killed him and ridden away, but there was more to consider now.  He had a father, a brother, a sister and a home.

He contemplated telling Murdoch about it, but hadn’t as yet.  Thinking of his father, he could hear a heavy tread coming down the back stairway and figured it was Murdoch.  Within a few moments his father came into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Morning, Son,” Murdoch said, and took a sip of the hot liquid.  “You’re up early.”

Watching his father lower his large frame into the almost too small chair, Johnny couldn’t help but smile.  The worry lines that had been on Murdoch’s face the last few mornings seemed reduced, and Johnny considered how much easier his father’s life would have been without two fully grown sons suddenly entering the picture.

“Something funny, Johnny?” Murdoch asked absently, as he lowered his face and hovered over the cup.

“Just thinking, Murdoch.”

Sighing with contentment as he drew in a large swallow, Murdoch turned a half-awake eye to Johnny.  “About…?”

“How much easier your life would have been without Scott or me.”

That seemed to wake Murdoch up as he gave Johnny his full attention.  Then he laughed, his deep baritone pleasantly resonating around the kitchen.  “Take the bad with the good, my boy.”

Johnny chuckled, surprised at his father’s answer.  “Well, thanks for the encouragement, old man.”

“Want me to get mushy, Son?”

“Ah, no, Murdoch.  Just a ‘glad you’re here’ would have been nice, though.”

Smiling broadly, Murdoch slapped his large hand against Johnny’s thigh and said, “Glad you’re here.”  He relaxed back into the chair and looked around the room before settling back on Johnny.  “Anything on your mind, Son?  I’m a good listener, you know.”

“We both have the same thing on our minds, Murdoch.  He up yet, by the way?”

“Thought I heard him in his room as I came down.  I expect he’ll be joining us shortly.”  Murdoch stretched lazily.  “Maria will be here soon to make breakfast.”

“Where’s Teresa?  You giving her the day off for being so crabby at dinner last night?”

“She isn’t feeling well, Johnny.”

“What’s wrong?” Johnny asked, concerned.

Murdoch puckered his lips together and frowned.  “After living with two women, I found it wise not to ask all of the time what was wrong when they weren’t feeling well.”

“Oh.”  Johnny looked back down at his coffee.

“Yes.  Sometimes they tell you and sometimes they don’t.”

“So, when do you know when to ask?”

Murdoch reached for a bit of sugar and dumped it into his cup.  Johnny didn’t remember Murdoch ever using sugar in his coffee.  “You don’t, Son,” he replied and swished the dark liquid with a spoon.

Staring at the table as if it contained wisdom within the stained, rough wood, Johnny ran his finger around the rim of his coffee cup.  “Kind of touchy this morning, is she?”

“She is.”  Murdoch nodded and gazed intently at his coffee.

Finally Johnny ventured, “They sure can be complicated.”

“Who can be complicated?”

Both men glanced at the tall, slender man who quietly entered the room.

“Women,” Johnny explained.

Scott quirked his eyebrow and walked to the coffee pot.  He poured a cup, turned, and, leaning against the stove, observed his family.  “Yes, I would agree with that.  Any reason why that particular topic came up this early in the morning?”

“Teresa isn’t feeling well,” Murdoch explained.

“Oh, what is the problem?”

Chuckling, Murdoch replied, “Son, I’ll tell you what I told your brother, and I would suggest you remember this.  It will make your lives easier after you marry, and probably before as well when dealing with the fairer sex.  Sometimes it’s best not to ask.  If they want you to know, they’ll tell you…maybe…sometimes.”

Scott laughed lightly and walked to the table.  Johnny noticed he looked almost normal.  A bit of shadow smudged grey beneath his eyes, but looked more on the pale side than dark.   Scott’s long leg hooked a chair and pulled it out from the table.  He set his cup down and pulled the chair forward as he lowered his tall, slender frame onto the seat.

“Are you speaking from experience, sir?” Scott asked, resting his elbows on the table top.

“For what it’s worth, Son.  In the case of women, experience doesn’t count for much.  They’re harder to read than a high spring sky.  Don’t know whether you’ll get soft rain or bitter cold.  Prepare as well as you can and head for shelter if the wind changes direction.”

 “Don’t understand it Murdoch.”

“What’s that Johnny?”

“That something so small and soft can be so – hard.”  The word tumbled out.
Murdoch smiled and stared absently at his sweetened coffee.  “Well, we don’t understand them and they say they don’t understand us.  I’m not so sure about that.  I think they understand us more than they want us to know.”

“You could be right, sir.  They certainly have a knack of roping husbands without much effort.”

Once more Murdoch laughed.  “I’m going to tell you something, Scott, and this is just my theory.  I think it is culture.  Women are expected to marry.  They are taught from an early age that their lives are not complete without a man and children.  So they are trained to stroke our egos; they learn young how to make us feel important.”

Johnny snorted and grinned, not voicing that he loved his ‘ego’ stroked.  However, Murdoch obviously picked up on his son’s manner and remarked dryly, “And that’s not the type of ‘ego’ I’m taking about, John.”

“I know, Murdoch,” Johnny replied sheepishly.

“At least you have the decency to blush, Little Brother.”  Scott smiled and addressed his father.  “I agree with you, sir.  But I’ve often wondered why women think they need a man.  I’ve known some very intelligent, strong women who could live quite well on their own.”

“Yes, I as well, Scott.  Perhaps women have a strong desire for children, or, it goes back to culture.  Whatever the reasons, I think it would not be to man’s benefit if they thought otherwise.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a bustling Maria as she rushed into the room and started heating pans on the stove to prepare their breakfast.  They watched her lob lard into a cast iron pan, then quickly cut potatoes and onions and add them to the hot pan.  Bacon went next into a sizzling skillet, and she picked up the bowl of sliced apples to fry.  Reaching for the coffee pot, she refilled their cups and hurried back to the stove.  She beat eggs and whisked them into the bacon, scrambling the now crisp bacon into the fluffy yellow eggs.

It was several minutes before she seemed to notice their silence and turned from the stove to find three pairs of eyes observing her.  “Yes, what is it?” was her simple question.

“Nothing, Maria,” Murdoch smoothly replied.  “We are just astounded at how you handle everything so well.”

She looked back, puzzled.  “I do this every morning, Senor.”

“Yes, and we do take advantage of that fact.  We are just appreciating your efforts, Maria.”

Johnny looked at his father and smiled.  ‘Damn,’ he thought admiringly, ‘the old man does have a way about him when he’s a mind to.’

With a smile, followed by a not-so-sure glance, Maria turned back to the stove.

“Maria, may I ask you a personal question?”

Glancing quickly towards Scott, she appeared puzzled.  “Si,” she said before turning back to the stove.

“Do you love your husband?”

Her hand stopped turning the eggs momentarily, but then resumed.

“Please forgive me if that is too personal a question,” Scott remarked when she didn’t reply.  Johnny had a look on his face that asked, ‘are you crazy?’  Murdoch was bent over his coffee, his reaction to the question unknown.

Maria scooped the eggs onto a platter and set it on the table.  “I married him, Senor Scott.”  She turned back to the stove and started dishing up the apples.

“Yes, Maria, you did.  It was an impertinent question.”  Scott was obviously embarrassed he asked the question.

Setting the platters full of fried potatoes and apples on the table, she looked at Scott with a thoughtful expression.  “No one as ever asked me that Senor Scott…if I love my husband.  I have lived with him for more than twenty-five years; I have given him five children, cleaned up after him, fed him, nursed him, comforted him and put up with him.  But love him?”  Sadness came over her worn features as she contemplated the thought.  Then she smiled and said softly, “The choice was not mine to make…and what does it matter now? He is a good man.  And I love my children.”

She walked to the stove, grabbed the coffee pot and set it in the middle of the table.  The men didn’t reach for the platters of food, and she started dishing it out to them.  An uncomfortable silence hung over the room as if a truth had been broached that they had no right to know.

 “Where is Senorita Teresa?” Maria asked, putting a pitcher of milk onto the table and dismissing the previous topic as if it had not been mentioned.

“She is not feeling well,” Murdoch answered for the third time that morning.  He picked up his fork and started eating slowly. 

“I will check on her after breakfast.”

They all watched as she hurried about the kitchen, cleaning up the pots and pans from breakfast, throwing peelings of apples and potatoes into the bucket that stood by the back door, and preparing a dish of food to take to Teresa.  Johnny noticed that both his brother and father were picking at their food.

“Eat,” Maria ordered.  “You have work to do; you must eat.  Juanito, are you ill?  You think I cook for nothing?”

“No Mamacita, your food is very good, as always.”

“Bueno, then show me.”

Unexpectedly, Johnny thought her very brave.  He had always surmised that if a woman married, she was happy.  He knew their lives were probably not always easy, but that their purpose in life was fulfilled.  It never entered his mind that they would want to be more than wives and mothers.  The realization that perhaps they settled because they felt they had no other choice made them more puzzling than before.  Maria always seemed happy – Johnny loved her and hoped she was.

The language of women was something he didn’t think he’d ever be able to figure out.  He looked gratefully over at his brother.  Now that was a language he understood, the language of men; although not always easy, it was at least always understandable.  

“I am taking Senorita Teresa a tray.  I want this food gone when I return or tomorrow you make your own breakfast.”

“Maria, we will certainly eat your wonderful breakfast.  Isn’t that right, boys?”

“Yes sir.”

“Yeah, Maria.”  Johnny forked a mouthful of eggs into his mouth and smiled around his chew.

She nodded, grabbed the tray and started across the kitchen.  Stopping in the doorway, she stared intently back at Scott.  “I do love him,” she said tenderly.  “I have learned to love him.”  Her face was beautiful as she smiled warmly, then turned and left the room.

They were quiet for a few moments until Johnny slapped his brother lightly on the arm and said, “Good one, Boston.  Got anything else you want to ask before we go drown ourselves in the creek?”

“I am sorry.  I obviously was not thinking.  I didn’t realize it would be so…complicated.”

“You’re talking women, Scott.”

“Excuse me, Johnny.  You’re such an expert?”

“I would never have asked her something like that.”

“That, I am completely sure of.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Johnny asked around a mouthful of fried apples.

“Come on, Brother,” Scott said with assurance.  “Your sensitivity to the thinking of women is not what I would call, enlightened.”

“I’m enlightened, Scott,” Johnny protested, not sure what his brother just said, but knew it wasn’t a compliment.

“Enlightened does not mean a ‘come back soon cowboy’ at the end of the night.”

“Scott.”  Murdoch’s tone was a definite ‘you’ve gone too far.’  “We’re at breakfast.”

“Sorry, Murdoch.  But Johnny tends to think he knows so much about what makes women happy.”

“That’s beside the point, Scott.  It is not proper conversation at the breakfast table or any setting in this house as far as I’m concerned.  And I am allowing that both of you are young men.  With that, I would ask that you behave appropriately within the confines of this home.”

Scott blushed, obviously uncomfortable with his father’s chastisement.  “I do apologize.”

Johnny threw him a cheeky grin, satisfied that his brother was in trouble this time with their father and not him.  He reached for a second helping of eggs and potatoes and passed the platter to Scott.  “We’ve got lots to eat, so you’d better take your share, Boston,” he said, smiling his most charming.  Scott frowned at him, took some eggs and passed them on to Murdoch.  

It almost felt back to normal.  Teasing, relaxing over breakfast, talking easily between one another.  Well, almost.  Scott’s stupid question to Maria was a hitch, but then it made Johnny realize something he’d never thought of before.  He’d have to do some studying a bit more on women.  Leave it to Boston to complicate things with a seemingly simple question.  At least it took his mind off of Jones.  But better than that, it appeared that it also took Scott’s mind off Jones, and everything that went with it.

Helping himself to more apples, he was pleased to see Scott take another helping before passing on to Murdoch.  Murdoch thanked Scott and as he did so, his father’s eyes caught Johnny’s.  He smiled at him, winked and plied more apples on his own plate.

Sighing contentedly, Johnny was happy that at least the world and its troubles would give them a few minutes to themselves.  Green River was on the agenda for the day and Johnny hoped that Jones took him seriously and stayed out of their way.  He knew Murdoch had asked Scott not to confront Jones, at least until Scott talked to the Lennon hands.  Scott promised, and if you couldn’t be sure of anything else, you could be sure of Scott abiding by what he had agreed to.

The Lennon cowboys were still days away from home, and Jones wouldn’t dare show himself.  In addition, they got out of doing chores in exchange for a few easy errands in town.  They would enjoy the day together, have a couple of beers, and then head home.  Johnny hadn’t had a decent word with Scott since just before the peyote, and he was determined that nothing would go wrong.


Chapter 8

“Ahh, Scott, that was a good lunch.”  Johnny patted his belly and stretched back into his chair contentedly.  They had completed most of their errands and it was well into the afternoon before they stopped for a very late lunch.  A few customers were scattered throughout the cantina, and the brothers had settled comfortably at a table in a quiet corner of the room. 

“I’ll let you know if my stomach doesn’t disintegrate.”  Scott reached for his third glass of water and swallowed it quickly.  “I don’t know why I let you talk me into eating here.”  He grimaced, placed a hand over his middle, and belched softly.

“Cuz the last time I left you alone in Green River, you got yourself into trouble.”

“I’m not sure this is any better.” Scott frowned and grabbed Johnny’s beer, taking a big swallow of the cool liquid.

“Hey, that’s mine,” Johnny protested.

“Do they cook everything here with hot chili peppers?”

“It’s Rosa’s, Scott.  Of course they do.  People like it that way.”

“This ‘people’ doesn’t.”  Scott belched again, the spice of the peppers drifting up and settling like a hot vapor in the back of his throat.  The food had been very tasty initially, but after it set for a while, it churned.  “I think I’m bubbling inside.”

Johnny chuckled and Scott noted his brother appeared to be having a good time at his expense.  Finding it difficult not to respond to his infectious grin and blue eyes, Scott smiled in spite of himself.

“Tell you what, Boston.  I’ll be right back.”  Johnny jumped up from the table and headed for the kitchen.

“What are you doing, Johnny?” Scott asked his brother’s departing back.

“Stay there.  I won’t be long,” Johnny called over his shoulder.

Within a couple of minutes Johnny returned carrying a tray covered with a white towel that was tented over something.  He placed it on the table, sat down and leaned close to Scott.

“Now, listen, Boston,” he said in a low voice.  “I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of all these folks, so I covered this here glass.   I’ll hold my hat up while you drink it.  Just tell me when.”

Scott looked at Johnny dubiously, but decided to play along.  “What is in the glass, Johnny?”

“Milk, Boston.  It will put that fire out before you empty the glass.”


“Shush, Scott.  You want everyone to know what you’re drinking?”  Johnny said softly.

Scott sat back in his chair, very confused.  “I have two questions.  Why did you bring me milk and why do I have to hide that I’m drinking it?”

Giving Scott a look of ‘how stupid can you be’, Johnny replied, “Milk will cool your stomach off.  And real men don’t drink it.”

“You drink it!” Scott exclaimed.

“Shhhhhhush!” Johnny hissed, obviously exasperated, gesturing with his arms that Scott should keep his voice down.  “Not when I eat at Rosa’s, Scott.  And not because of the chilies.  I drink it cuz I like it.”

Scott twisted his mouth, stared in consternation at his brother, and burped.  The chilies were getting hotter as they fermented.  “Give me the milk,” he responded and reached for the glass.

“Wait, Scott,” Johnny said and laid his hand over Scott’s arm.  “You can’t just drink it like that.”

Although unsure why, Scott was curious where Johnny was going with this.  “Okay, then, how am I supposed to drink it, Johnny,” Scott said slowly.

“So no one can see you, Scott,” Johnny replied patiently.  Then he grinned wickedly at Scott.  “I tell you what; I’ll even take a sip to test it.  You know, make sure nothing’s been added to it.”

Scott gave Johnny a very dirty look and growled back, “That’s not funny.”  He grabbed the container, lifted it to his mouth and drained the glass, feeling the smooth liquid almost immediately drown the hot.  When he set the glass down, his brother was looking at him disgustedly.

“Now everyone will know you have a greenhorn belly.”

“Doesn’t matter – they think I’m a greenhorn anyway so now I’ll be a matched set.”  Scott snorted at his own perceived humor and hiccupped.

“I’m glad you think your funny, Boston.”  Johnny eyed him crookedly and smiled.  “At least you’re losing some of your back-east manners.”

Leaning back in his chair, Scott folded his hands over his now calm abdomen.  “I am a born gentleman, Little Brother.  You can’t lose something that comes naturally.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been listening to you belch and burp and hiccup for the last half hour.  And now you have a milk mustache.  Might want to wipe your mouth.”  Johnny clapped his hands together and laughed; his broad smile lighting up his face.

Scott picked up his napkin and blotted up the milk.  He placed it next to his plate and grinned pleasantly.  “Chilies must affect people differently.  I’d rather belch in a subdued, subtle manner than sound like a howling sick coyote when you belch.”

“I don’t do that…well, not when I eat at Rosa’s,” Johnny remarked offended.

“No, I will agree with that, at least not at Rosa’s.  However,” Scott leaned over the table and said quietly, “there is a definite aroma emanating from your person and it is not sweet.” Scott wrinkled his nose and waived his hand in the air as if trying to dispel a foul odor.

“I am not, Scott,” Johnny vehemently stated.

“Well, I wouldn’t light a match too close to your bottom, Brother.”

A soft giggle caught their attention and they looked up into the very pretty face of Elaina.  The voluptuous, dark haired waitress was holding a pitcher of water in her hands with a sweet smile across her lips.

“Do you have problems, Johnny?” she inquired.  Her manner seemed solicitous but the corners of her mouth quivered with humor.

“No, Elaina.  I’m fine.”  Johnny sat stiffly back in his chair, obviously embarrassed.  “And I ain’t the one with the problem,” he remarked in a huff.  “My brother here, he can’t take chilies.  Got himself a belly ache.”  Johnny folded his arms across his chest and gave his brother a smug grin.  “You know how them Easterner’s are.”

“Oh, Senor Scott, I can get you some milk.  That will help to ease the pain.”  Her voice was soothing, and she placed her hand on Scott’s shoulder sympathetically.  Her big brown eyes pooled with warm, and Scott thought her attentions were worth the ache in his stomach.

“I think I’m okay, Elaina.”  Scott grimaced pitifully and settled his hand on his abdomen, appreciative of the attention.  “Just takes some getting used to, but it’s better.”  He cast a glance out of the corner of his eye at Johnny and noticed his brother’s hard glare.  Scott knew that Johnny was sweet on Elaina.  Hell, most of the single men and half the married ones were sweet on Elaina.

“But you must be careful, Scott.  If you are not used to peppers, they can, how you say, make your tummy on fire.”  Her voice was like honey, and she smelled of apple blossoms and cinnamon.  She traced her fingers delicately over Scott’s hand – the hand that rested on his belly.  Scott felt the touch all the way to his backbone and inwardly shivered.

She lowered her face to Scott’s ear and whispered, “Chilies are not all that is hot in my country.”

Scott choked and blushed, his fair complexion red up to his ears.

Elaina chuckled, and smiling, tracked her finger along the outside of Scott’s ear.  “Blondes.  Hmm, I like the pink.  Men in my country do not show this color. --- If you need anything to help your…belly,” she drew out the word sensually, as if it were the most pleasant part of his body, “please let me know.”  She turned to Johnny and said as an afterthought, “and Johnny, I think you just need to walk and your problem will…be better.  Heh?”  Her hand flowed gracefully across Scott’s shoulder, caressed the back of his neck and twisted a lock of his hair around her finger.   Scott felt goose bumps as she touched his earlobe and pulled teasingly at it.  She walked around the table, gave Johnny the bill and strolled away.

Scott stared at his plate for several seconds before looking up at his brother.  Johnny’s face was rigid, and if Scott didn’t know better, he almost thought Johnny looked like he wanted to shoot him.  Scott smiled sheepishly and cleared his throat.  “Well, she is very…friendly, isn’t she, Brother.”  Scott stressed the word brother.

Johnny glared at him, picked up the bill and slapped it on Scott’s side of the table.  “You’re paying the bill,” he snarled, got up from the chair and walked out the front door.

Blowing out a soft breath, Scott reached inside his jacket and felt the empty pocket.  “Damn it.”  He’d left his wallet on his dresser.  He looked out the restaurant window and could see his brother pacing back and forth on the boardwalk.  Picking up the bill, he approached the counter close to the door.  “Rosa.”  He laid the bill down.

“Si, Senor Scott.  How was your lunch?”

“Um, good Rosa, it was good.  A little spicy…but good.”

She laughed pleasantly.  “Drink some milk, senor.  The food is a little spicy for stomachs not used to our chilies.”  Middle age had claimed her well.  She was trim, and relatively free of wrinkles, except for the laugh lines around her mouth.

“Thank you, Rosa, I had some milk.  But, I need to talk to Johnny.  I left my wallet at home and, well, I’ll be right back, okay?”  Scott pointed outside.  “He’s just outside the door.”

She looked out the door where Johnny paced.  “Si, I saw him leave.  He does not look very happy.  Did he not like his lunch?”

“No, it was fine.  He loves, ah, we love the food here.  He just needed to…walk.”  Scott smiled at her, hoping the walk was not only wearing off Johnny’s anger, but also his intestinal pressure.  Both would help to sooth his mood.  “I’ll just uhm, talk to him, quickly.”

“Si, it is fine.”

“Thank you.”  He said softly, “It will just be a moment.”  He grinned and gestured towards Johnny’s moving form.


Scott stepped through the door and stood to the side of it, watching his brother.  “Johnny.”

“What!” Johnny clipped.

Deciding to just jump in, Scott said, “I forgot my wallet.”

Johnny stopped, turned to Scott and glowered.  “Well, I guess you’d better start washin’ dishes.”

“Come on, Johnny.  You know I didn’t do anything to encourage her.”

“Pfft, you didn’t do anything to discourage her either, Scott - Those sad eyes of yours and patting your stomach.  You know how long I’ve been trying to get her to go out with me?  And you just show up and she almost invites you home.  Hell, she does invite you home.”

“She was just being nice!  I’ll pay you back when I get home.”

“With interest, Boston,” Johnny retorted, delving into the pockets of his tight pants and coming out with a few coins.  He dropped them into Scott’s hands.

Scott looked at the coins and glanced back up at Johnny, his hand still held open.

“What?” Johnny snapped impatiently.

“That doesn’t leave much for a tip, Johnny.”

Johnny stared back dumbfounded.  “You’ve got to be kidding?”

“Did she give you bad service?” Scott reasoned.

“No, Scott, but not nearly as good as she gave you!”  He delved once more into his pocket and slapped a few more coins into Scott’s hand.

“Thanks, Johnny,” Scott smiled and tapped his brother lightly on the arm.  “I’ll pay you back.”

“Yes, you will, or I’ll take it out of your skinny ass,” Johnny grumbled as Scott went back into the restaurant.

By the time Scott returned, Johnny was somewhat cooled.  At least his pacing wasn’t as angry and his face was more relaxed.  Smiling, Scott hated to pass up an opportunity to tease him, although he knew Johnny was probably a bit hurt at Elaina’s snub.  However, Scott recalled the satisfied grin on his brother’s face at breakfast when Murdoch had reprimanded Scott for his remark about Johnny and women.  Figuring Johnny’s ego was only slightly bruised and could probably stand a bit more humbling, Scott forged ahead.

Throwing a long arm around his brother’s shoulders, he remarked, “Maybe she doesn’t like the clothes you wear, Johnny?”  Scott felt shoulder muscles immediately bunch.

“Nothing wrong with my clothes, Scott,” Johnny declared.   “They’re colorful is all.”

“I know, Johnny, but maybe she doesn’t like men who wear pink.”  He tried to hide his chuckle, clearing his throat after he said ‘pink’.

Turning to look at his brother, Johnny’s lips twitched slightly.  “She liked your pink, Scott---especially your little pink ear.  How did that feel, her finger rubbing on it?” Johnny asked, pinching Scott’s earlobe.

“Ouch, Johnny!” Scott batted Johnny’s hand away and flushed a bit remembering Elaina’s touch. “Still, Johnny, my clothes aren’t brighter than hers. Maybe she likes her men more…”  Scott looked up reflecting on the right word.  “Earthy, Johnny.”

Snorting, Johnny grinned.  “I wouldn’t call you earthy, Boston.”

“Listen, Johnny.  I’m just trying to give you some advice about Elaina.  You wear shirts with blue flowers, embroidery, bright pink…and those silver conchos and tight pants.  Maybe she feels you’re prettier than she is.”

“I’ll have you know women like my tight pants.”

“Maybe, but doesn’t it ever…you know, cut off circulation?”

“I’m circulating just fine, Scott. Besides, I’m handsome, you…are…pretty.”  Johnny jabbed his finger into Scott’s ribs with each of the last three words.

Ticklish at the intrusion of Johnny’s sharp probes, Scott laughed, “You want me to teach you some manners, Little Brother?”

Johnny rolled his shoulders and flecked at an invisible speck on Scott’s clean shirt.  “You want to get dirty, Big Brother?”

Scott seemed to consider the question, and then shook his head.  “No, I don’t want to go to Elaina’s tonight all messed up.”  He grinned, waiting for Johnny’s reaction to that statement.

“You’re a dead man, Boston.  Swear to God…you go to her place and brother or not, you are dead.”

Quickly swinging his arm around Johnny’s neck, Scott grabbed him in a headlock.  Wrestling and laughing as they made their way down the sidewalk, they almost bumped into a woman coming out of the mercantile, causing her to drop the package she was carrying.

Releasing Johnny and stepping aside, Scott tipped his hat and apologized.  “Excuse me…”  He stopped when he recognized who it was.  “Excuse me, Amanda.”

She looked up at the two men, her expression cold and remote.  Her face was devoid of the heavy makeup she wore when working at the Dimano, resulting in a much softer look.  In fact, if it weren’t for the emotionless stare she gave them, she would have appeared almost pretty.  Her hair, which normally was swept up on top of her head at the saloon and decorated with gaudy feathers, fell lightly around her shoulders in brown waves.  You could actually tell that her eyes were a light brown, not disguised by the heavy black that lined them harshly at night.  Her lips were a soft pink instead of the garish red that cut her face in half.  Her clothing was inexpensive but modest in color and cut.

Johnny had stooped to pick up the package and appeared to be offering it to her, but then stopped when he looked at her.   His fingers tightened on the package and he held it closer, his expression one of extreme distaste.

The look was obviously not lost on her as she took a step away from Johnny.  Scott noticed that she appeared afraid of Johnny, and guessed something must have happened between them the night he was drugged.  He knew his brother would never physically hurt a woman, but there was no way Amanda could know that.  Scott surmised that in her line of work she had probably run into men with no qualms about knocking a woman around.

“Amanda,” Scott said kindly, “if you have a moment, I would like to talk with you.”

Shifting her eyes to Scott’s face, she replied stiffly, “We have nothing to talk about.  Please ask your brother to return my package.”

“I’m not deaf.  You can ask,” Johnny stated, his tone icy, putting emphasis on ‘you’.

“Johnny,” Scott softly remonstrated.

“She can ask me Scott.” Johnny’s reply was adamant, his eyes flashing when he turned towards his brother.  “What you wanna talk to her for anyway?  She’s got nothin’ to say worth hearing, unless she opens her mouth about Jones.”

“Stop it, Johnny,” Scott insisted, his manner firm.

“No!  You stop it, Scott.  Know what she wanted when you were drugged and I asked her how it happened?  Money!  She asked what it was worth to me.  She don’t care about nothin’ else, so why you actin’ all polite to her.”  Johnny was in a controlled fume as he clutched the package tightly with his hand.

“Johnny, I’m asking you to return the package,” Scott stated, broaching no room for argument.  Johnny didn’t understand and Scott wasn’t about to explain it to him in the middle of town with Amanda looking on.

Johnny clenched his jaw and glared at his brother.  “You give it to her,” he spat and thrust it into Scott’s arms.  Scowling at his brother, Johnny reminded, “We still got errands to do.”

“I’m aware of that and I’ll be with you in a few minutes, Johnny.”  Scott stared back into his brother’s angry eyes.

“You promised Murdoch you’d stay out of the Dimano,” Johnny challenged.

“I did and I will.  I don’t need you to remind me of that.”  Scott’s patience was wearing thin with his brother’s confrontational manner.

After a few moments of strained silence, Johnny finally clipped, “I’m going to the bank, then home.  You take care of this,” he said, pointing to the mercantile.  He barely spared a glance at Amanda before turning and walking away.

Scott watched his brother’s retreating back, recognizing frustration in the stiff bearing and quick pace.  He turned grimly to Amanda and was surprised to see what appeared to be tears in her eyes.  She was looking down, her manner tight and controlled.  Everything about her stance was rigid, tense and almost fearful.

“My brother is over wrought.  That night was not…easy for any of us.”  Scott held the package out to her, and she studied it a few moments before taking it from him.

She swallowed, brought her gaze up to his and stuffed whatever emotion she may have displayed away.  Stepping to the right, she tried to walk past him but he blocked her way.

“I want to talk to you.”

“I do not wish to talk to you.”

“You owe me that.”

“I owe you nothing,” she declared.  “I had nothing to do with what happened to you.”

Once more she attempted to get around him, but he moved in front of her.  When she turned her back on him to walk away, he grabbed her arm.  She swung her head around to look at him and for a few brief moments he saw terror on her face.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, letting go of her arm.  “I just want to talk to you.”

“We have nothing to talk about.  I told you that before.”

Observing that she successfully shuttered away any weakness that may have surfaced, Scott drew out the one thing he thought she may respond to.  “If you’d prefer to talk to the sheriff, that can be arranged.  Or we can take a few minutes and have a quiet cup of coffee at the hotel.”

“I’ve talked to the sheriff,” she said curtly.

“Perhaps, but I have not, at least about you.  I am not at all certain of who did what that night.  I only know that there were six people, besides me, in the Dimano.  How do I know you weren’t the one who added something to my beer?”  He watched for her reaction to that statement, hoping his bluff would compel her to talk to him.  And that’s all it was; he had no intention of making her life any harder than it was.

“I did not add anything to your drink,” she affirmed.  “I’ve told the sheriff that.”

“Can you prove it?”

“Can you?”

He sighed, “Well, then.  I would suppose the only thing to do is talk to Sheriff Crawford together at this point.”  He stepped aside and motioned in the direction of the sheriff’s office.  “I think I can manage to get you there.”

Her composure remained, but the surface was jarred.  She looked around at the passersby and back to Scott.  “All right,” she declared.  “But only twenty minutes.  I have to be at work in one hour.”

Scott nodded.  “Twenty minutes then.  The hotel?”

She stepped in front of him and walked towards the hotel.  He followed and they found a corner table in the nearly empty restaurant.  Scott pulled a chair out for her, and after hesitating for a moment, she sat down.

“Coffee,” he stated when the waitress came to take their order.  He looked at Amanda when the waitress asked if they preferred it black.  “Please,” she requested.

Within a short time their coffee had been served.  Amanda sat with her hands clasped tightly on her lap, head bowed as she stared at the steaming liquid.

“There’s nothing in it, I’m sure,” Scott said dryly, as he took a small sip of the hot coffee.  He noticed she blushed slightly at the remark, and then placed her hands around the cup.  Her fingers were long and almost delicate, but they appeared work worn and dry; the nails were chipped.  It was obvious that not only was she required to sell drinks and whatever else Jones demanded, but also cleaned the saloon.

“Well, we’re here.  What did you want to talk about?”

“You know what I want to talk about, Amanda.”

“I did not drug you, Scott.”

He pondered a moment about what she said, and then remarked, “No.  I don’t think you did.  I think you know who was behind it and why, but that’s not what I want to talk about.”

She brought her eyes up to Scott’s.  “I don’t need nor do I want your assistance.  I’ve managed to take care of myself without asking anyone for help and I don’t intend to start now.”

“Oh, I can see you’ve taken care of yourself well, Amanda.  Working at the Dimano for Ned Jones; the scummiest place in the valley owned by the most despicable man in the county.”  Scott didn’t try to contain his sarcasm.

Amanda stiffened and picked up the parcel she had set on the chair.  “If there’s nothing else, I’ll be leaving.”

“There is something else.  Fifteen minutes to be exact.  Now, I intend to take all of those fifteen minutes, as agreed.  If not, the sheriff’s office is the alternative.”

“Then don’t insult me.”

“I don’t have to insult you.  You seem to be doing well along those lines all by yourself.”

“It’s a job that pays the bills.  And I don’t need you to judge me.”

“What do you call it, Amanda, what you do?”

“What would you know about it?   You’ve always had everything that you needed, wanted.  Have you ever had to worry about what the next day would bring---what you would eat, how you would clothe yourself?” she exclaimed passionately, but maintained a low voice.

Scott traced his finger along the pattern of the table cloth.  Gently, he stated, “You seem to forget that I spent a year wondering every morning if there would be food to eat, if I would live to see the next day, if I could manage to maintain my reason in an insane world.”

She closed her eyes at his words, cringing at his words.  She whispered, “You know I am very well aware of what happened, but I can’t change it.  I need to think of tomorrow.”

“And what of your tomorrows?”  Scott folded his hand over her arm.  “Is this how you want to live your life?  Plying liquor and whatever else Jones wants you to sell to drunken cowboys and cheap gamblers?  What about Danny?”

“Danny is dead.”  She savagely wrenched her arm from his hand.  “And what of you?  Have you never indulged?  You sit there condemning me when you’ve probably been on the other end paying for what I offer.  Do you think you’re better because you’re a man just satisfying your needs or are the rules different between men and women?  Who made those rules, Mr. Lancer?  If you think the well is dirty, just remember that you’ve dipped into it.”

“I don’t deny that, Amanda,” he said, trying to sooth her.  “But, you can’t be happy with your life.  You are obviously an intelligent woman.  Why won’t you let me help?”

“I need no man’s help,” she snapped bitterly, obviously trying to maintain some control and dignity.  She gathered her package and stood up.  “If you think I’ve taken you for ten minutes, you’ve come away with the price of a cup of coffee.  Now, I can either get ready for work or meet you in the sheriff’s office.”  She stood stiffly, her chin up and her eyes fierce.

Scott recognized there was no use in trying to talk to her any further.  “All right.  But please, remember, I am prepared to do what I can.”

“I don’t need your help.”  She grabbed her skirts and turned away.


She stopped, but didn’t look towards him.

“My brother will not hurt you.”

She slowly crooked her head and glanced back at him.  Her eyes filled with moisture as she stared intently at Scott.  He thought she was going to leave, and was surprised when she took a few steps towards him. “Stay away from Jones, Scott.  He is an arrogant, despicable brute who is capable of anything.”

Surprised by the almost pleading tone in her voice, he was at first taken aback by her obvious worry.  “I do intend to talk to him, Amanda, but thank you for your concern.”

She frowned and shook her head.  “As you wish, but you are a fool.”  She clutched the folds of her dress, and walked quickly out of the restaurant.

Scott remained drinking his coffee for a few minutes, distractedly watching the flow of late afternoon traffic outside the hotel window.  He thought of Amanda and recognized the wall of hurt she was carrying behind her bitterness and anger.  Scott’s experience with Johnny’s unease and mistrust when he first came home to Lancer had prepared Scott well and he recognized the same type of pain in Amanda. 

Sighing, he stood, dropped a couple of coins that Johnny gave him onto the table, and set off for the mercantile to finish the last errand of the day.  He was tired; he didn’t realize how tired until he started for home.  It had been many days since the peyote, but he didn’t seem to be able to shake off its effects entirely.  He was bothered by nightmares, although he thought those were due to memories stirred by the drug, and not the drug itself.  Nevertheless, it incurred interrupted nights and intermittent sleep.

As he rode, his thoughts were filled with Amanda, Ned Jones, his insistent father and his angry brother.  When he came to the fork in the road, he halted, unsure of which way to go.  At this point he could take the main road or take the shortcut through the copse of trees.  However, he had not been down that path since the night he was drugged and he wasn’t sure he wanted to go down it now.  He assumed Johnny had taken the quicker way home, and wondered how far ahead he was.

“Hell, he’s probably already there,” he said out loud to no one.  Knowing his brother well, Scott figured that Johnny probably needed to run off some of his anger and no better way to do that than on Barranca.

The sun was hovering at late afternoon.  If he took the shortcut he’d be home well before it set.  He sat there for a few minutes feeling foolish for even hesitating.  He was a grown man; there was no boogey man lurking in the bushes or branches, nor prison guard hiding behind every rock.  Clicking to his horse, he nudged Charlie and headed to the trees.  Charlie seemed to pick up on his nervousness, as he balked and snorted before they entered the dim tree line.  Kicking him solidly in the sides, the animal cantered forward.  Within moments they were in the shadows, swallowed by the leaves and gloom, the hollow sounds of the galloping horse the only thing heard down the still pathway. 


Chapter 9

Charlie’s ears came forward and he snorted softly.  Scott’s imagination could envision faces in the shadows and invent noises where there weren’t any, but his horse couldn’t…well, at least as far as noises were concerned.  The high-spirited temperament of his mount made him prone to a quick flight if the leaves moved wrong, but Scott loved the challenge of keeping him under control.  Listening now to the soft intake of the animal’s breath as Charlie smelled the air, Scott discerned that whatever he was picking up, the horse wasn’t alarmed.

Scott’s nerves had been on edge the first few minutes into the trees; but he tried to concentrate on the many times he’d taken the trail without incident, instead of the one time when it was filled with baffling terror.  The drug induced pleasant images of brilliant lights and Irish melodies would jump suddenly to memories of bloated bodies splitting in the hot Virginia sun and tattered men silently reaching for bread that never came.  The visions of the guards pursuing him had been so real, that even now he could see their faces and smell their stink.  When Johnny pulled him down and refused to let him go, Scott was devastated at the perceived betrayal.  Now he understood---but in these same woods those nights ago, he did not.

The sound of a low nicker could be heard before he saw the flash of a golden tail.  As he came around a curve in the path, he smiled.  His brother was lounging against a boulder, his hat partially covering his face, chewing on a blade of grass.  A poem came to mind when he saw the stem protruding from Johnny’s mouth and he chuckled.

“Something funny, Boston?” Johnny asked without looking up.

“Just thought of a poem when I saw you Johnny.”

“That right?  A poem huh?  Hope it’s not one of those love po-ems you’re always going on about.  Like a day in June or something.”

Scott laughed. “That is not a love poem.  Actually, the piece I’m thinking of is rather cynical.  But it was the grass you’re chewing on that reminded me of it.  The first line is, ‘No blade of grass shall hear the whisper of my leaving, though still the hour be when time to go’.”

“Well, I’ve been hearing your whisperings for the past ten minutes.”  Johnny tipped his hat up and looked affectionately at his brother.

“Wasn’t trying to be quiet, Johnny.”  Scott crossed one arm over the other and rested them on the horn.  “What are you doing here?  I thought you’d be home by now.”

“Just waiting for you to come along and recite me a po-em, Boston. Does it rhyme?”

“It does.  The second line is, ‘No bird’s soft call shall end when I pass in the evening, though close enough to brush where breezes blow’.”

“Hmm, sounds sad.”

“It is.”  Scott studied Johnny before asking, “How did you know I would take this path?  I could have taken the main road.”

“We usually take this way.  Didn’t think one night would make it any different.”

Scott stretched his back and surveyed the surrounding thicket.  “Almost did,” he murmured, before swinging his gaze back to Johnny.  Scott noticed a brief sadness scurry across Johnny’s face before it faded.

“Well, I knew it wouldn’t.”  Johnny pushed himself from the ground and took hold of Barranca’s reins.  He swatted the dirt and leaves from his butt and hauled himself into the saddle, settling deep into the leather.  With a click of his tongue and light nudge with his legs, he directed the horse down the trail.  The byway was too narrow to comfortably ride side-by-side, so Scott followed.  The creak of leather, the clop of hooves, and an occasional snort clearing dust from sensitive noses, were the only sounds mingling with the intermittent bird songs and breezes.  Coming into the clearing, they drew side-by-side, as natural as wheat and rain.  Though so very different, they seemed to give purpose and point to one another.

“That why you were in the Dimano?”

Scott smiled, knowing Johnny had probably been stewing over the question since they parted in town.  “That has a name, Johnny,” Scott replied lightly.  “And, yes, Amanda was the reason I was in the Dimano.”

Letting out a light sigh, Johnny looked over at his brother.  “Sure didn’t figure her.  I was leaning towards Serena, myself.  Val was too.”

“You and Val have too much time on your hands if you’re speculating about why I go where on my own time,” Scott replied candidly.

“Is that so, Brother?  So, we drag your well-bred ass out of the dirtiest bar in the state, you’re loopier than hell, and we can’t be wondering what you’re doing in there?”  Johnny’s tone was sarcastic, but held no anger.  “You seem to forget that Val’s been wanting to get Ned Jones for months and never mind that I’m your brother.”

Taking the reproach for what it was, concern and not prying, Scott regretted his statement.  “Touché, Johnny.  I’m sorry for being an ass.”

“Hell, Boston.  I’ve gotten used to that,” Johnny grumbled good naturedly.  “What’s a tooshee, anyway?”

“Touché.  It’s a…hit, Johnny.  It’s used in sword fighting when an opponent has made a strike against you.”

“Cut ya?”

“Yes, if you’re fighting for real.”

“Why else would you be fighting if not for real, Scott?” Johnny asked in disbelief.  “Seems to me you couldn’t play much with a blade.”

“It’s called fencing.  You can use different types of blades, and…well, I won’t go into all the details but the end of the point can be tipped or capped so it doesn’t cut or penetrate.”

“Hmm.  And the purpose of that is…?”

“Builds skill, proficiency; rather like you target shooting.  You can use cans, paper with a target on it or even a moving object like a deer or bird to practice on; but it wouldn’t be good to practice on people, now would it, Little Brother?  But with swords, you have to learn both defensive and offensive moves, which only another person can provide.  So, you cover the point.  Make sense?”

“All right, Scott.  I’ll buy that; but what’s the whole reason in learning how to fight with a sword now-a-days?  I mean, there’s a definite advantage to using guns instead of fighting hand-to-hand.”

Scott thought about that for a minute.  “I had a saber in the cavalry, Johnny.”

“Did you use it?”

“I held it in the air when I yelled charge.”  Scott grinned, knowing what Johnny’s reaction to that statement would be.

Johnny chuckled.  “Probably looked prettier than holding up a clunky gun and yelling charge, Boston; the sun shining off it just right.  But, did you fight with it, you know, like regular sword fighting with someone else?”

Scott shook his head.  “No, not with a saber.  But people do fight duels with swords,” he exclaimed, trying to justify the art of sword fighting, although he wasn’t sure why.

Johnny crinkled his forehead.  “People use guns in duels Brother.  It’s called a gun fight?”

“What do you have against swords, Johnny?”

“I don’t have nothin’ against swords, Scott!” Johnny reasoned.  “Just wondering what touchy meant and trying to figure out grown men playing with blades is all.”

“It’s touché, and let’s change the subject.”  Scott looked over at his brother and saw that a smug grin lit his face.  For some reason he thought he should be irritated, but couldn’t work himself up to it.  He just shrugged and smiled back when Johnny laughed out loud.  “I’m not the only ass, Johnny,” he retorted wryly.

“Runs in the family, Boston.”  Johnny reached out and lightly slapped Scott’s arm.  “So, how do you know Amanda?”

Scott really didn’t want to talk about the woman, but felt Johnny deserved to know and realized he probably wouldn’t let it go anyway.  “I haven’t known her for very long, just a few weeks actually.”

“Why her, Scott?  I mean, she’s drowning in bitter.”

He bowed his head, memories crowding in of a happy young man in a southern cornfield on a beautiful April day.  “I knew her brother, during the war,” he started softly.  “His name was Daniel Laughlin.  I didn’t know him for a long time, just a few weeks actually, but I liked him.”  Scott grinned.  “It was hard not to like him.”

They rode along for a few minutes in silence before Scott continued with the story.  Johnny didn’t say anything, and it was obvious to Scott that he was letting him tell the tale at his own pace.

“Danny was a few years older than me.  I would guess he was 22 or 23.  He came from a small town in Indiana and joined the cavalry early on in the war; I think in 1862.  Anyway, he was transferred to my unit as a replacement.  So many men had been wounded or killed that it was hard keeping the numbers needed…”  Scott’s voice trailed off.

Clearing his throat, he continued.  “It was the spring of 1864 when he reported for duty.  He was a sergeant, had been through many battles and campaigns and I was glad to have him.  He talked a lot about his family; he didn’t have a wife but he talked about his parents and his three sisters.  Amanda was the youngest of the girls.  I think she was a couple years older than Danny.”

Scott scanned the road ahead of him and judged they were just a few short miles from the hacienda.  He absently lifted his hat and drew long fingers through his hair, before settling the hat low over his brow to block out the slanting rays of the descending sun.  He glanced over at Johnny and noticed he was riding with his eyes down, apparently listening intently to what Scott was saying.

“Danny always sang the same song over and over again, no matter what he was doing.  I’m not sure of the actual title, but he always sang Rose-A-Shal.  He said it reminded him of his home and family.”

“You hummed that tune a lot that night, Scott.”  Johnny’s mouth tilted into an ironic grin.  “I got tired of hearing it after a while, but then as the night went on, I prayed you’d sing it.”  He bit at his lip, obviously still troubled by recollections.  “At least you were peaceful then.”

Scott looked at his brother’s bowed head, once again reminded of what his family had gone through.  “Johnny, I’m sorry.”

He glanced sadly at Scott, blue eyes serious. “That was about the scariest night of my life, Boston.  Don’t do that anymore, okay?”

“I’ll try not to.”  Scott lightly chuckled, grateful for his brother’s support.  “At least I know what peyote laced beer tastes like for future reference.”

“There’d better not be any future referencin’,” Johnny snorted.  “So, you were talking about Danny.  Where is he now?”

Taking a deep breath, Scott rolled his shoulders and said, “He’s dead.  In a field in Virginia on some dusty back road that didn’t have a name.  It wasn’t much of a fight, more of a small skirmish, but it took out three men within minutes.  Danny spotted the sniper in a corn crib and then I saw the barrel of his gun.  It was pointed right at me and I heard the shot. Danny jumped in front of me to push me down and he caught the bullet.”  He looked over at Johnny.  “He saved my life, Johnny.  He just reacted without thought for his own welfare.  I figure I owe him more than I can ever repay him, so if I can help his sister, I’m going to do it.”

Johnny didn’t say anything and played idly with the stampede string on his hat.  “I’m sorry about Danny, Scott,” he said softly.  “But I’m real glad you’re here.”  Again there was silence before he asked, “How did you know Amanda was his sister?  Had you seen her before?”

“No, I have never seen her before.  I overheard her talking to the Widow Hargis when I was in the store.  The Widow called her Miss Laughlin and she asked the Widow to call her Amanda.  For some reason she seemed to have developed a friendship of sorts with Mrs. Hargis.  So, after Amanda left the store I asked about her.” 

“I’ll bet that set the Widow’s nose a going, Scott.”

Scott smiled.  “Yes, it did.  But what was interesting about the whole thing is she didn’t trust my motives.  Sometimes, Johnny, I can’t figure that woman out.  She told me Amanda worked at the Dimano; the Widow knows what some of that ‘work’ might be, but she thought I was out to hurt her.”

“Well, she never has trusted you since you took after Zee, Scott.”

“I did not take after Zee, Johnny and you know it!”  He glanced angrily at his brother, but saw the tease in his eyes.  Scott slapped him roughly on the arm.

“Ouch, Scott!  You got no call for that,” Johnny protested.

“Just consider it payback for trying to tear off my ear earlier.”

“I did not try to tear it off; I just gave you a little pinch.  Besides, you were making eyes at Elaina.”

“I beg to differ.  Elaina was making eyes at me, as well as other things.”

“Ain’t gonna do no good to beg, Scott.  But, you know what, I’ll forgive you anyway,” Johnny retorted haughtily.

Scott threw back his head and laughed, happy to dispel the depression and sadness of his remembrances of the death of Danny Laughlin.  Sometimes his maddening brother drove him almost to the point of complete exasperation, even when he knew that Johnny was doing it on purpose.  But this time it was welcome.

With a huge smile on his face, Johnny was obviously pleased with Scott’s laughter.  He gave Scott a few minutes of ease, then pursued. “How’d she get from Indiana to Ned Jones’s dump?  A lot of miles in between those two points?”

“I’m not sure.    She was not eager to talk to me after she found out I was at the Dimano for something other than drinks and company.”

“Boy, Scott, she’s getting long in the tooth to be working saloons.  I mean, that may sound blunt, but she’s got to be over 30.  She didn’t look too bad without all of that makeup today, but that kind of life ages you fast.”  Johnny snorted disgustedly.  “And plying the trade for Jones, well, I would expect he’d want her to do more than sell watered down whiskey.”

Closing his eyes at Johnny’s latest remark, Scott suspected that what his brother said was true.  Still, it was something he didn’t want to believe, for not only Amanda’s sake, but for Danny’s as well.

“Come on, Scott,” Johnny interrupted his thoughts.  “You’ve got to know that’s probably part of her job.”  Johnny’s tone was gentle, treading lightly as if afraid of breaking through the surface of a half frozen river.

“You know,” Scott said reflectively, “she mentioned something to me at the hotel this afternoon, about paying for what she offered.  She made it sound so hypocritical.  I couldn’t deny it, Johnny.”

“We don’t make the rules, Scott.”

“Pfft.  She mentioned that as well, but who does, Johnny?  Is it the people who disapprove or the men who use them?”

“Scott, why do you have to analyze everything so much?  You think and study and think some more, but it doesn’t change the way things are.  Why can’t it be as simple as women sell it and men buy it?  You think most of those women are forced to do what they do?”

“Some are, Johnny.  Bullied and beaten and sold…”

“And we can’t change the whole human race, Scott.  Yeah, it’s wrong, but it happens.  Do you think that’s what happened to Amanda?”

“No, Johnny.  Not at the beginning, but maybe she doesn’t think she has a choice now?”

“Everyone has a choice.”

“Did you?”

Johnny looked at Scott with a blank expression on his face.  “What?”

“Did you have a choice, Johnny, between picking up a gun or not?”

“Yeah, Scott, I had a choice, if I wanted to live without being stomped on every day of my life,” Johnny shot back. “What the hell does Amanda have to do with me?”

Scott scrutinized Johnny. “Actually, she reminds me a lot of you; when you first came here anyway.”

“You’re crazy,” Johnny replied, obviously dismissive of the comparison.  “I’m a man, she’s a woman.  I was a gunfighter, she is a wh___,” Johnny didn’t finish the word but quickly looked towards Scott.
Scott chose to ignore the last remark.  “I think she’s scared, Johnny.  I think she is bitter, and proud, and scared, and doesn’t want to ask anyone for help.  Does that sound familiar?”

“I was never scared, Scott,” Johnny stated hotly.

“Oh, you were never afraid of Murdoch and what he might think of having a gunfighter for a son?”  Scott knew he’d probably make his brother mad all over again, but didn’t care.  Scott recognized that fear in his brother early on, even though Johnny tried to bluff it away with indifference and swagger.  That was one of the things that drew Scott to him; he recognized that Johnny’s lack of trust had everything to do with not wanting to be perceived as vulnerable.  Scott had refused to back off from helping his stubborn brother, just as he refused to give up on Amanda now.

Johnny scanned his sibling’s face and suddenly burst out laughing.  Scott didn’t know what to make of the outburst, but was grateful he was amused and not angry.

“Know something, Brother; you’ve got a habit of picking up the hardest cases to try and help.”He rubbed at his eyes and snickered amusingly at Scott.  “Ya seem to attract ‘em like birds to bread crumbs.  Why is that?”

“I don’t do it purposely, Johnny.  Besides, what’s wrong with trying to help someone out?”

“Didn’t say there was anything wrong with it.”  Johnny eyed his brother, his manner turning more serious.  “Just be careful, is all.  Some of them birds you’re attracting might be vultures waiting for a death stroke.”

“Johnny, I’m not completely unaware that there are people out there without scruples.”  He grinned at his brother.  “Besides, I think I’m a pretty good judge of character, flaws and all.”

“You saying I’m flawed, Brother?”

“I’m saying you definitely have an imperfection or two.  But I overlooked them and see what you have today,” Scott remarked smugly.  “A handsome, kind, unselfish man for a brother as well as a father and home.”

“Glad you managed to throw father and home in there.  That was real big of you,” Johnny remarked dryly.

“Well, I’m just that kind of guy, Little Brother.”  Scott gave his brother a broad smile.

Johnny just shook his head and looked away with an impudent grin.

Scott waited, knowing that Johnny wasn’t through with his questions; and it didn’t take Johnny long to ask.

“So, I take it she doesn’t want your help?”

“No, she doesn’t.  She made that pretty plain.  You know what’s really ironic about this whole situation?”  Scott paused and glanced at his brother.  “She hates men.”

“I could have told you that, Brother!” Johnny quipped.  “Why do you think she’s at Ned’s?  No other bar would have her with her attitude.  She’s supposed to be friendly and get customers to buy her drinks.  Hell, she’d rather throw one in your face.”

“How do you know so much about her?”

“I was in the Dimano once, Scott.  Was pretty evident she hated it and everyone else.”

“Oh, yes.  I forget how quickly you can ascertain the moral fiber of another,” Scott said mockingly.

“Well, if that means I can size someone up pretty quick, Harvard, you are right about that.”  Johnny glanced smugly back at Scott.

Deciding to pass on the retort that came to mind about Johnny’s inaccuracies when initially sizing him up, Scott replied, “I imagine Ned has a hard time finding people to work for him, otherwise he wouldn’t keep her.”

Johnny nodded, agreeing.  “For one thing, he’s a low life; for another, he’s a low life, and another…”

“He’s a low life,” Scott finished chuckling.  “But, what about Serena?  She’s really very attractive and charming.”

“Serena ain’t been in town that long.  I’d bet she took the first thing that came along to support her kid, and that happened to be the Dimano.  She won’t stay there.  Besides, I hear tell that Steve Kirby is sweet on her.”

“Like in marriage sweet?”

“That’s the rumor.  He hangs around there as much as he can trying to keep the flies away from his sugar.”

“I suppose Jones doesn’t say anything because he’s glad to have Serena.”

“Yeah.  I would say it’s the cheap price of his rot gut drinks and Serena that has anyone coming to the Dimano at all.  Besides, I would bet Kirby spends enough money there that Ned looks the other way.”

“I would guess that Serena doesn’t ‘go upstairs’ with anyone.”

Johnny shrugged.  “Probably a fair guess. --- Ah, Scott.”  Johnny glanced at him out of the corner of his eye.  “Do you suppose that might have anything to do with why something was slipped into your beer?”

“You mean, because Steve Kirby was jealous?  That doesn’t make sense, Johnny.  I never paid any attention to Serena.”  The fact was Scott had gone over and over in his mind why someone indeed wanted to drug him.  The easiest explanation was what Val believed; three stupid young men just thinking it would be fun.  But it didn’t settle with him.  He hoped to know more once he talked to the three as well as Ned Jones.

Thinking about the bartender, Scott decided to try one more time to find out why Jones didn’t bring Johnny up on charges.

“Johnny, why didn’t Jones pursue a complaint against you?”  He could almost feel his brother stiffen with the question.  Scott heard a slight intake of air, and noticed a grim set to Johnny’s mouth.

“Johnny?”  Scott said, when Johnny didn’t reply.

“I heard you Scott.”  Johnny’s tone was distant, as if he he’d rather the question would disappear.

Scott allowed a few more moments to pass before he said anything further.  “Are you going to answer me?”

Johnny stopped the horse, rested both hands on the pommel and looked down.  Momentum took Scott a few more steps forward before he halted, turned his horse, and came back alongside his brother.  He was puzzled that Johnny didn’t want to share the information, and surmised that something happened that was very unpleasant and wanted to keep it from him.

“Johnny, I don’t know what happened between you and Jones, but not knowing is driving me crazy.  Now I told you about Amanda because I thought you had a right to know.  Don’t you think I have a right to know about this?”  Scott tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable, but Johnny’s reluctance to tell was making him very edgy.

Sighing heavily, Johnny gazed at the surrounding countryside before bringing his eyes to Scott.  He held his gaze briefly before bowing his head.  He picked at the reins he tightly held, looping them around his hand before releasing them.  He was so quiet when he spoke; Scott had to strain to hear him.  “Jones made a crack once too often, Scott.  That’s all.”

“What crack, Johnny?” Scott asked, swallowing dryly, foreboding settling over him from his brother’s manner.

Johnny rolled his neck and ran his tongue across his lips.  “Scott, I don’t think you wanna know,” he finally said.

“Let me be the judge of that, Johnny.  What did he say?  Whatever it is, it can’t be as bad as not knowing.”

Cheerless blue eyes stared back at him.  “Don’t be too sure, Brother.”

Scott didn’t say anything further, but he wasn’t about to move until Johnny told him.

“All right, Scott.  I’ll tell you, but you gotta promise me something?”

“Just tell me, Johnny!”  Scott was exasperated and at this juncture was impatient to learn what Jones said.

“You promise me you’ll not go after Jones alone.”

“No!  I will not promise.  Johnny, I need to handle Jones on my own.  We’ve been over that before and I’m not changing my mind.”

“Scott, Jones will…” Johnny started to argue.

“No!” Scott interrupted angrily.    “Johnny, I have a right to do this my way.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, Johnny stated brusquely, “Okay.  But don’t go tonight, Scott.  Promise me you won’t go to Green River tonight…Please.”

Johnny begging caught Scott completely off guard.  He stared at him and knew that only with that promise would Johnny tell him what he wanted to know.  Scott nodded mutely and intently waited for his brother.

“That night at the Dimano, Jones made a crack about you and the guards.”

“What guards, Johnny?  What are you talking about?”  Scott was completely perplexed about Johnny’s statement.

“The guards at the Confederate prison camp, Scott.”

Scott felt his stomach tighten, the dismal reality of that horrible time newly awakened by the drug.  “What about the guards?  What does Jones know about Confederate prison camps?”

“I don’t know, Scott.  Probably nothing.  He’s just a mean son-of-a-bitch who likes to hurt people.”

Trying to collect himself, Scott made an effort to focus on Johnny’s features, now reflecting worry.  “Go on,” he said in a straightforward voice.

“He was just calling you city boy and know, Scott.  That type of thing.”  Johnny was obviously avoiding the point as long as he could.

“Johnny, aside from the fact that I’ve been called that before and it’s no big deal, that doesn’t have anything to do with prison guards.”

Johnny finally seemed to make up his mind to get it said.  He looked at Scott and let it go.  “I told him you had lived through a year in prison when he called you soft.  Jones made the remark that the guards made it easy on you cuz there weren’t no women.” 

Had he heard him right?  For a moment, Scott thought he’d misunderstood, but when he looked at Johnny, he knew he wasn’t mistaken.  Scott had never before seen such a look of hatred on his brother’s face.

‘Cuz there weren’t no women.’  The words came back again as Scott felt a sour shame rise in the back of his throat and threaten to spill out.  He swallowed it back, barely.  He didn’t realize that his nails were digging into his forearm until Johnny touched him.  Scott jerked, surprised that his lip was painful from biting it.  He looked down at the welts that tracked across his arm, wondering how they got there.

“God, Johnny,” he murmured.  He bowed his head and took deep breaths, trying to pull himself together.

“Scott.”  Concern and anxiety registered in the urgent plea, and a strong hand gripped his upper arm to steady him.

He centered on that hand; his thoughts converging on his brother’s warm, strong fingers holding him up when all he wanted to do was fall into the meadow and let night cover him over.  He remembered other hands trying to hold him; rough, cruel, dangerous hands, but he had desperately fought them off---and won.  He had won.  ‘My god, I won.’

“What Scott, what did you win?” The hand shook him slightly, bringing him back to the present.

He had said the words out loud.   Scott looked into Johnny’s warm blue eyes and felt tears and a hard, painful lump in his throat that he couldn’t swallow away.

“Dios, Scott.  What’s happening?  Please!”

Johnny---begging again.

Scott straightened his back and raised his head, bending it back as he looked at the pinks and golds splaying across the western sky as night promised in the east.  The air was beautiful.  August pastures and cut alfalfa embraced him with their smells and he calmed, grateful to be in his father’s country.  He felt silent tears trail down the side of his face, and he didn’t care that his brother saw them.  He closed his eyes and filtered in a lungful of air.

When he opened them, his brother’s hand was still on his arm.  “I’m okay, Johnny.”  He turned to face him and could see that Johnny was unsure.  He wasn’t certain that he could tell Johnny what happened, but he was confident that he was all right.  After all, he had won.

Johnny dropped his hand and brushed his palm against his trousers.  He looked so scared and young, and Scott’s heart went out to him.  Barranca seemed to pick up on Johnny’s anxiety and danced a bit, bumping into Charlie.  The simple act of calming the horses helped to ease the apprehension, but left them still with unanswered questions.

“Hey.”  Johnny’s voice was low and mellow, and maybe a little frightened.

“Johnny,” Scott started, knowing he needed somehow to leave it behind; maybe he could do it now, with his brother.  He had never shared this with anyone before and no one knew, except those men in the foreign world of that long ago misery.  “When I was in prison some men did try to…”  Scott couldn’t say the words. He stumbled but went on.  “They didn’t.  I fought long enough and hard enough that the guards heard it and finally came.”

“Dios, Scott.  I’m---damn, Scott.”

‘Johnny.’  He thought what the name meant and there was comfort.  How had they become so close so quickly?  Drawing on his brother’s unspoken apology seemed enough.

“It was a long time ago, Johnny and those men died in prison.  They were unearthly, and cruel, and despicable, and---they’re dead.  And I want it left that way.”

Johnny shuddered and looked down the road.  He nodded and silently turned Barranca in the direction of the hacienda, seemingly waiting for Scott to do the same.  When Scott turned Charlie and came abreast, both horses stepped off at the same time.

“He’s bad, Scott.  Ned Jones.  Don’t let him take you down.”  His manner was so hesitant and unlike the man Scott had come to know.  The brash, cocky, confident gunfighter was gone and a kid brother was beside him.

“I won’t, Johnny.  But I need to do this.  Do you understand?”

“Yeah, Scott, I understand.”

“Good.  It will be all right.  I’ll work it out.”  Scott looked straight ahead for a short time before adding softly, “Don’t tell Murdoch.”

Johnny didn’t look anywhere but down the road to home.  “Okay.”


Dust rose in gritty, grey puffs as they made their way towards the hacienda.  Dusk was warm and soothing as the lights of home flickered mutely in the valley.  Their silence was easy and secure; it was comforting to Johnny.  For some reason just the fact that his brother was an arm’s length away was reassurance that tomorrow would be all right.

Thinking about what had just been revealed Johnny remembered some of the words Scott had cried the night of the peyote.   Frantic, jumbled, and horrible words; both Murdoch and Johnny thought were ramblings of his hallucinations.  However, with sickening revulsion, they now made sense.  His screams for the guards to help him were uncharacteristic of a man as loyal to his men as Scott, and Johnny twisted with the realization that Scott had been desperately fighting those men all over again.   Those minutes were the hardest of the whole night to keep Scott under control and that’s when Johnny thought they had bruised him. 

Johnny had no intention of telling their father; that was up to his brother, if the tale would ever be shared.  Johnny also would not inform Scott of his confrontation in Val’s office with Jones.  Regardless of what he told Scott, he would be there when his brother challenged Jones.  Johnny knew Scott’s meeting with Jones would involve more than talking.  He recognized Scott understood that as well; but Scott didn’t know what Jones really wanted from him.  After today, Johnny would make sure Jones was dead before Scott ever found out.


Chapter 10

“Johnny, dinner will be ready soon.  You’d better get cleaned up.  Where’s your brother?”

“Murdoch, you’re better than a time piece, you know that?  Your stomach must be set on the hour.”  Johnny had just come through the door from a day mending fence on the east range.  He looked dirty, and tired, but seemed in good spirits.

“It is, Son.  You didn’t answer my question.”

Johnny smiled back at his father as he hung his gun belt on the hat rack just inside the door.  “Last time I saw him he was out in the barn grooming his horse.”  Johnny placed his hands in the small of his back and stretched luxuriously.

The action reminded Murdoch of a big, lazy cat, until he heard his son’s back crack.  He winced at the sound, his own spine tingling uncomfortably at the action and noise.  “Johnny, please, must you do that?”

“It helps, Murdoch!  Takes the kinks and snags out of my backbone.”

“It sounds like you’re breaking something,” Murdoch grumbled.

“You’re just jealous cuz you can’t do it.”

Johnny smiled charmingly and Murdoch found it hard not to smile back.  His son’s natural good looks coupled with his bright blue eyes and brilliant grin didn’t always have its desired effect of tempering his father’s mood, but it did tonight.

Murdoch chuckled lowly.  “You are absolutely correct, Johnny.  I am jealous, mostly because I never could do it.  A doctor once told me my long frame would always give me trouble, and he was right.  That’s why my back goes out every once in a while.”

“Could it be your back goes out cuz you’re doing too much for a man your age?”  Johnny’s voice was halfway teasing and halfway serious.

“I can still take you, Son, any time you want to try.”  Although Murdoch acknowledged silently that what Johnny said probably carried some truth, he wasn’t about to admit it.  Ever since his sons had come home it was an ongoing battle that they felt he was pushing himself too hard.  Fact was, he wasn’t about to relinquish what he thought kept him young; or at least held old age at bay.

Johnny laughed lightly at his father’s remark.  “No, Murdoch, I’m not apt to draw into a sure loss.”  He walked closer to his much larger father and looked up at him.  “Scott, now, he may have a better chance.  Closer to your height.”

“Scott doesn’t have enough bulk, and you know it; and he’s inches shorter than me.  But,” Murdoch’s eyes sparkled with challenge, “I might consider taking the two of you on.”  He wasn’t about to let his upstart of a son think in anyway that he couldn’t match them toe-for-toe.

Sky blue eyes gleamed back at him as if considering the bout.  With a crooked smile Johnny sauntered closer to his father and lightly smacked him in the belly.  “I’ll ask Boston how he feels about it, Murdoch.  Want to lay any money on the match?”

“I wouldn’t feel right leaving you short after working so hard for it.”

“By short, I assume you’re talking about money, in which case Johnny is usually short.  What are you betting on anyway?”  Scott’s entrance brought both men’s gaze in the direction of the foyer where an even dirtier elder son was shedding his gun belt and hat.

“Ah, and who bought lunch last week?  Which, by the way, I haven’t seen any payback for it.”

“It slipped my mind, Little Brother.  Besides, my stomach is still smarting from all of those peppers.  It ought to be worth something that I just agreed to eat at Rosa’s in the first place.”  Scott stopped a few feet from Johnny and smiled pleasantly.

“My word, Scott.  It would appear that the creek you were clearing won,” Murdoch exclaimed, noting clumps of mud in Scott’s hay colored hair as well as layers of muck clinking to his clothes.

Very tired but still mirthful grey-blue eyes gazed back at him.  “Let’s just say the creek is cleared and not go into the details.  However, I think next time I may blow it up.”

“Damn, Boston.  You’re dirtier than I am for once.”  Johnny leaned closer and sniffed the air, crinkling his nose as he did so.  “Whew!  Smells like you rolled in a dead fish.”

“Well, I probably did, Johnny.  I had the misfortune of slipping into a stagnant pool that branched off behind the debris.  I think even my eyelashes are muddy and may have a fish scale or two trapped in them.”  Scott rubbed long fingers across his eyes and up into his hair, disturbing small pellets of dry mud.

“Son, I would suggest you clean up before much more of the creek bed lands on the floor.  Maria would not be happy.”  With that said Murdoch couldn’t help but reach out and pick at a clump or two that clung to his son’s bangs.  He was surprised at the pleasure it gave him to touch his son in this way; something he normally couldn’t do to this often remote, elusive young man.

“Murdoch, who’s leaving a mess now?”  Johnny threw an arm casually around his brother.  “Come on, stinky.  I’ll even let you have the big tub.  You can stretch out those long legs.”

“I’d say thanks, Johnny, but the last time I used that tub I got slivers in my sitter.  You can use it.”

“Oh, so you want me to get wood in my behind, Scott!”

Scott tilted his head and grinned.  “You are a hard ass anyway.  Besides, you’ve probably got so many calluses on your bottom from breaking horses that a bitty wooden splinter wouldn’t stand a chance of puncturing it.”

“Boys, let’s not get carried away,” Murdoch interjected, although he couldn’t help but smile at the banter.

“Come on, Boston.”  Johnny pulled him forward towards the kitchen, his arm roughly draped around Scott’s neck.  “Wouldn’t want your tender, lily-white butt to get stabbed.  But don’t complain to me when them knobby knees are sticking up out of the water.”

“Don’t you worry about my behind or my knees.”  Scott laughed and tried to twist away from the hand that was poking him in the ribs.  Seeming to suddenly remember the question he asked earlier, he inquired, “What were you betting on?”

“Murdoch thinks he can take us both at the same time,” Johnny chuckled, apparently not believing Murdoch could do it.

“And you think he can’t?” Scott asked dubiously.  “I’m hoping you didn’t take him up on the wager.”

“What, Scott!  He couldn’t take us both!” Johnny remarked disdainfully.

“Yeah, Johnny, he could.  Haven’t you noticed how big he is, boy?  Or is your rather large ego blinding you again?”

“Scott, there’s two of us here, and we’re lots younger than he is.  We could take him!”

Scott shook his head back and forth and, with exaggerated patience, said with apparent tolerance, “He’d come up with some rule that he would use to his advantage.”  Scott stopped walking and seriously looked at his brother.  “You didn’t agree to any rules, did you?”

“Pfft, no.”  Johnny eyed his brother as if he’d just insulted him.  He glanced briefly back at his father, appearing a bit unsure, but quickly projected a confident bluff to Scott.  “I didn’t agree to nothing.”

“Good, Little Brother.  Now, let’s talk about our own rules…”

Murdoch smiled broadly listening to the two young men quip and jest as they made their way across the room, finally disappearing into the kitchen.  He could hear their laughter and retorts as they progressed through the house and out the back door to the bathhouse.  Scott explained what they needed to do to get the better of their father; things Johnny protested that he’d already thought of, but once in a while acknowledging that his brother had a great idea.

Walking over to the liquor cabinet, Murdoch took out a bottle of the best scotch whiskey he stocked and poured a generous portion into a glass.  He lifted the glass up to his nose and inhaled, almost tasting the amber colored liquid.   He took a liberal sip, and held it in his mouth, the warm tingling the inside of his cheeks.  He swallowed, feeling the light burn trace down his throat all the way to his stomach.  It was as comforting as the feeling of having his children with him.

Murdoch took a deep breath and settled comfortably into the chair behind his desk.  Twirling the fluid round and round the glass, he closed his eyes and rested his head against the back of the chair.  His mind went over the chance meeting with the Lennons earlier in the day, and he decided he’d bring the incident up after dinner.  He was fairly sure how Scott would react to the news, but hoped that he could at least convince his son not to confront the cowboys alone.  At best, he would listen; at worst…well, Murdoch was prepared to deal with that as well.


Johnny moaned contentedly as he slipped slowly into the hot water.  He rolled up a towel and put it behind his head, resting it against the wooden sides.  Closing his eyes, he sighed heavily with obvious pleasure.

“You’re making a lot of noise over there, Johnny,” Scott laughingly commented.

Grudgingly opening up his eyes, Johnny lazily watched his brother and smiled.  “You’re the only one I know who ‘cleans up’ before they get into a tub, Boston.”

“Taking a bath in filthy water rather defeats the whole purpose of a bath.  I just wanted to rinse some of this mud out of my hair before I get into the tub.”  Scott was in the process of dipping warm water from a bucket and splashing it over his head.  Indeed, the water in the pail was murky by the time Scott finished.

“Could have done that in the creek.”

“I could have, but chose not to.  That creek water was so churned up by the time I was finished it was as dirty as I was.”

Johnny watched Scott scrub back bangs from his forehead, resulting in a sodden disarray of wet-brown spikes.  “Nice hairstyle, Scott.  Improves your looks.  Ought to consider keeping it.”

Scott laughed lightly.  “I could probably use some of that bear grease you use, but it attracts too many flies.”

Chuckling, Johnny cupped his hand and splashed water onto his brother as he passed.  Scott quickly jumped out of the way.  “Afraid of getting wet?  You’re gonna be in the tub in a few seconds anyway.”

“Don’t want to get my towel wet, Johnny Boy.”  He removed the towel that was wrapped around his waist and put a long foot tentatively into the steaming water.

Johnny watched with amusement as his brother almost ceremoniously settled his lean body into the too short tub.  Long legs stood for a few moments in the water before he grasped the sides and lowered himself inch by inch until his bottom hit bottom.  He unhurriedly moved his upper body back until it rested leisurely on the boards of what was basically a very large wooden barrel.  He stretched his legs as far as he could, but two white knees hovered above the water line.  Scott smiled complacently and closed his eyes.

“All I need is a large glass of brandy and a cigar, Johnny. --- Oh, and maybe someone to wash my back.”

“I’ll wash your back for ya, Boston,” Johnny smirked, enjoying his brother’s now familiar ritual of ‘bath time’.

Scott lifted one eyelid and turned it on Johnny.  “I had someone with a smaller hand in mind; as well as one without black hair all over it,” he quipped dryly.  He closed his eyes and smiled again, seemingly picturing the image.  “Long, soft, gentle fingers.  Beautiful, fragrant hair falling on my shoulders while she massages my back.”


“Get a sliver, Johnny?” Scott asked lightly.

Johnny glanced fiercely at his brother who was lounging with his head on the back of the tub, his eyes closed and a small smile on his lips.  Johnny moved his fingers lightly across his bottom, found the offending object and pulled it out. 

“We gotta talk Murdoch into buying one of them iron tubs.  I can’t figure he doesn’t get stabbed.”

“Good point. --- Did you get yours out, by the way, or do you need assistance?”

“Aren’t you clever?  That what they teach you at Harvard?  How to be a smart ass?”

“I come by that naturally.  However, I did take a class on tactics and diversions in the army.  That’s why I’m in the tub without splinters,” Scott replied smugly, giving his brother a charming smile.  “But, I agree.  We need to teach our father how to be more progressive in enjoying the comforts of modern society and get a proper bathtub.”

“Can’t we order one from a catalog or something?  Heard the mercantile in Green River had a picture of one.”

“Yes, excellent idea.  I believe the hotel has added a couple as well, so perhaps they can give us an idea.  We’re going to Green River tomorrow.  If you can distract Murdoch, I’ll see what I can find out.”

“How you gonna get it past him?  You know how he hates to spend money on what he thinks is a luxury.”

Scott contemplated the question before answering.  “We can tell him it’s a water tank for livestock.”

“With fancy legs, Scott!  And it ends up in the bathhouse, how?” Johnny asked skeptically.

“I’ll have to work on that part, Johnny.  If we can somehow get him into it, he’ll love it,” Scott remarked, very sure of himself.  “He must be getting slivers from that tub as well.”

“Well, you work on getting him into it.  Since you’ve been educated in tactics and diversions, and all,” a sarcastic Johnny retorted.

Scott laughed pleasantly and sighed back into the warmth of the tub.

Johnny hadn’t thought about the trip to Green River planned for tomorrow until Scott brought it up.  He had heard the cowboys from the Double M had returned from their trip.  He didn’t know if Scott heard the same rumor but it was just a matter of time before he confronted them.  His brother still insisted on going it alone and Johnny had dropped it, recognizing that the more he pushed, the more Scott resisted.

Recognizing his brother’s need to get beyond what happened, Johnny knew Scott intended to confront Ned Jones and soon.  Johnny couldn’t blame him and was amazed that Murdoch had been able to hold his brother back for as long as he did.  ‘Damn, that old man sure knows how to maneuver people,’ Johnny thought.  He smiled.  ‘Maybe he learned diversions and tactics somewhere along the way, too.’

The bath water was cooling off and Johnny guessed dinner was probably more than waiting.  He was surprised Murdoch hadn’t come pounding on the door yet.  He heard the splash of water and noticed his brother push himself up from the tub and reach for a towel.  Water cascaded down the slim frame, perhaps a bit slimmer than Johnny remembered.

“Better get up, Johnny,” Scott requested easily.  “I would conjecture at this point that Murdoch is sitting at the table with a utensil in each hand waiting.  If we don’t appear soon, he may well use them on us.”

Stretching one more time, Johnny held onto the sides of the tub and pulled up, his back feeling much better after the hot soak.  He stepped out of the tub and started to briskly dry himself off.  By the time he reached for his pants, Scott was dressed and putting on his boots.

“I’ll head him off at the pass and tell him you’re coming,” Scott said, tossing a clean shirt to Johnny as he walked to the door.

“Get a glass of tequila for me, will ya?  I don’t feel like wine tonight.”

“Will do, Johnny.  Would you prefer a worm or a pepper in it?”  Scott stood with his hand on the doorknob, and a smile on his face.

“Boston, make it natural,” Johnny remarked, winking slightly.

Scott laughed pleasantly, slate-blue eyes bright with warmth, and nodded.  He saluted mockingly and walked through the door, closing it firmly behind him.

Johnny idly buttoned his shirt as he stared at the closed door.  He scanned the orderly room with shelves stocked neatly with towels, soap, liniments, bath crystals, talc, shaving equipment, cotton, and the other various supplies used in a bathhouse.  He remembered some of the other ‘bathhouses’ he had come across before he came home and shuddered.  ‘Home,’ he pondered.  He was comfortable with the term, now, and everything it involved including family, friends and all of the responsibilities.

He tossed the wet towels over the line strung at one end of the room to accommodate them.  They would dry and be utilized again as they were only used once to dry a clean body.  The cloth he used to wash off his grime he threw into a basket by the door.  The good ladies would make sure it was clean the next time someone used it.

Family – men and women working together to make life easier for all, supporting one another, each part and piece just as important as the other.  That had become Johnny’s focus, preserving that family, and he was more passionate about that than anything else he had experienced before.  The conversation of a few nights ago on the road home with Scott was not broached again, but it served to strengthen the feelings that Johnny had about protecting his own.  He blew out the lantern, set it on the long nail near the door and went to join his family for dinner.


“Murdoch, do you mind if I go to town with you tomorrow?”

Murdoch gazed fondly at his ward.  “You can give us a list if you need anything, Teresa.  We’ll pick it up for you.”

Johnny groaned, looking up from the checkerboard where he had been contemplating his next move against his brother.  “That means we’ll have to take a wagon, Murdoch.  A list from Teresa means half the store.”

Teresa settled the book on her lap that she was reading and hurled a pillow in Johnny’s direction.  He ducked, but the pillow landed right in the middle of the board, dislodging checkers from their place and sending some tumbling to the floor.

Both Johnny and Scott abruptly moved back in their chairs to avoid the flying pillow.  “Teresa!  Look what you’ve done!” Johnny protested.

“Sorry, Scott,” she remarked, obviously not including Johnny in the apology.  She cast a severe glance Johnny’s way.  “Johnny, most of the items I purchase are for this ranch, your comfort as well as everyone else who dwells under this roof.  Granted, that list may not include wine, women or whiskey, but I’m sure you’d miss it if chocolate cake was made without chocolate or your shirts were hanging half ripped off your arm because I didn’t have thread to mend them.”

“Are we out of chocolate?” Johnny queried with alarm.

“We are, but that’s all right.  We can live without it,” she said with finality.

“We can pick up chocolate tomorrow, Teresa.  Wouldn’t want to run out of that.”

She smiled mockingly.  “Good, then you can bake the cake as well.  Also, you can pick up the thread needed to mend your favorite shirt and…mend it.”  She clipped the last two words out like an axe cutting wood.

“I can mend my own shirt,” Johnny challenged back.

“Ah, Johnny.  I think you should stop while you’re ahead,” Scott warned softly.

“I can, Scott.   I’ve sewn a stitch or two in my life.”

Ignoring Johnny’s remark, Teresa turned towards Murdoch with her request.  “Murdoch, I would just like to ride to town with you.  I would like to see some fresh faces other than those two.”

“Do you know how many women think we’re a catch?” Johnny exclaimed as if she should be pleased she was in their company.

“And most of those women don’t know what they’d be catching, Johnny,” she retorted, staring icily at her ‘brother’.

“You make us sound like a disease or something.”

“A good comparison.  You in particular, Johnny.  I’m sure once the ‘hot’ would cool off, the reality of what they’re stuck with for the rest of their lives would be depressing.”  She shut the book resting on her lap and gazed with a superior pose at Johnny.

“Teresa, I think your comment on wine, women and whiskey was on the borderline of inappropriate; I am relatively sure you’ve crossed the line with your hot remark.”  Murdoch frowned disapprovingly at her over the top of the newspaper.

“But, Murdoch,…”

“No, buts, Teresa.  If you wish to go to town with us, that is fine, but you owe Johnny an apology.  He would never talk to you in such a way.”

She stared at Murdoch silently for a few minutes, her eyes wide and her hands settled placidly on her lap.

Murdoch almost smiled at her ploy of trying to soften him with her big brown eyes, but caught it before his lips moved.  Instead he reminded her, “An apology, Teresa.”

As if knowing she’d failed to turn the tide of her guardian’s heart her way, she glanced at Johnny.  Her counterfeit grin was plainly visible, as well as the false sweet timbre of her voice.  “I do apologize, Johnny.”  She turned an expectant gaze towards Murdoch, seemingly hopeful that he accepted her phony contrition.

This time he did smile, but brought the newspaper to his face before any could see it.  “Very good, Teresa,” he remarked.  “Do you think we’ll need to take a wagon?”

“No, Murdoch,” her clear voice responded.  “I would just enjoy the trip so I can ride Miranda.”

Murdoch was about to protest that as long as they were going to town, they might just as well pick up any supplies needed, but decided that for once, maybe Teresa did deserve a day just for the ride.  She worked very hard and sometimes Murdoch thought that they took her for granted.  She did not rope cattle, mend fence or any of the other duties related to the direct care of their livelihood, but she diligently made their life very comfortable, usually without complaint.  With Maria’s help, she kept them well fed with tasty meals, their house was immaculate and their clothes tidy.  When they were ill, just her presence was a comfort as she tenderly cared for them.

“All right, Teresa.  But we will be busy with errands.  Are you sure you can keep yourself occupied?”

“Yes, Murdoch.  I’ll visit a couple of my friends.  I’ll be fine.”

“All right, then.  We’ll leave right after lunch.”

“Thank you, Murdoch.  Well, I think I’ll go to bed.  It’s getting late.”  Teresa set the book on her lap aside, and rose from the couch.  She walked over to her sewing basket and rummaged in it for a short time before bringing out a pink colored garment.  Her lips were curved slightly as she handed the shirt to Johnny.

“What’s this?” he asked guardedly.

“Your shirt, Johnny,” she remarked innocently.  “You indicated you wanted to mend it.  I’m just complying with your request.  Mend it.”  Smiling, she moved over to Murdoch, kissed him on the cheek, and strolled from the room.

Casting a glance towards his father, Johnny growled, “Appears to me she’s getting pretty big for her britches.”

Murdoch chuckled.  “She’s 16 years old, Son.  She has a mind of her own and if you push, she’ll push back.  You may want to remember that.”

“Well, I can mend my own shirt anyway,” he grumbled, picking up the garment and studying it.  Several buttons were ripped off and a sleeve hung by a few threads.  The damage was the result of a staggering drunk trying to maintain balance and grapping the closest thing within reach.  Unfortunately, that was Johnny’s shirt.

“Touché, Little Brother, on Teresa’s behalf.”

Johnny threw his brother a ‘don’t-need-your-comment’ look and went to Teresa’s sewing basket.  “Wonder where she keeps the thread,” he said, rummaging through the contents.  “Ouch!” he exclaimed, muttering an oath in Spanish.

“Johnny,” Murdoch warned.

“I found the needles,” he explained, sucking on his pricked finger.  He looked at the finger tip as if to insure the bleeding was stopped and started rummaging again in the basket.  He pulled out a spool of thread and carried both needle and spool to the chair.

“You plan to actually mend that shirt yourself?”

“Yeah, Scott.  I can do it.”  Johnny rolled out a length of thread, snapped it off, and, holding the needle close to the lamp, tried to get the thread through the eye.  However, snapping the thread had stretched it, resulting in the end curling tightly.

“It may be easier if you just apologize to Teresa, Son.”

“I ain’t done nothing to apologize to her for, Murdoch.  She’s the one who was calling me diseased and everything.”  He stuck the end of the thread in his mouth to wet it and tried to thread the needle once more.

“Johnny, you can make your life a lot less complicated if you just learn early on to apologize to a woman.”  Murdoch watched his son try to clumsily jam the thread through the needle.  He grinned, thinking of how Teresa’s made it seem so easy.

“I didn’t do nothing wrong,” Johnny insisted, obviously getting very frustrated with the thread.  He bit off the frayed end and started fresh.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, Johnny.  It’s just the way it is.”

“Wahoo, I got it,” Johnny shouted in triumph, holding up the now threaded needle.

“Congratulations.  But, you just threaded it with black thread.”

“Yeah, so what Boston?”

“Your shirt is pink.  The thread doesn’t match.  You’ll be able to see the stitching.”

“Why didn’t you say something before, Scott?”

“Didn’t think of it.  Sorry.”

Looking at the threaded needle, Johnny shrugged.  “I’m not starting over.  Took me too long to thread the son-of-a-bitchin’ needle.”

“John!”  Murdoch stared sternly at his son.

“Teresa isn’t here, Murdoch.”  Johnny stared resentfully at his father, as he nursed the pricked finger.

“You never know when a lady may be within hearing distance.  Please, simply keep that in mind.”

Johnny nodded and went back to reattaching the sleeve to his shirt.

Murdoch watched Johnny as he studiously tried to fit the arm into the hole.  There was more sleeve than opening and it was fascinating observing his son trying to figure out why.  He glanced over at Scott and noted that his elder son was also intently watching his younger brother’s struggles.  ‘Well’, Murdoch thought, ‘now is just as good as time as any to mention the Lennons.’

“I was on my way to the south pasture today and ran into Martha Lennon on the road.  She was on her way into town.”

That statement got the attention of both Scott and Johnny as two pairs of blue eyes glanced his way.

“The Lennon hands got back yesterday. After telling them that Val wanted to see them, Max Lennon immediately fired them.”

Johnny voiced a silent oh, expelling a long breath with the news.  Scott sat back in his chair and drew a finger across his lips.

“I didn’t realize Val was still working on this…I mean, after I told him I wasn’t signing a complaint until I talked to them, I thought he’d dropped it for now.”  Scott’s voice registered an inflection of surprise.

“Scott, Val wants to get Ned Jones bad.  He’s not givin’ up on that.”

Scott momentarily looked Johnny’s way, and bowed his head.  “I guess I forgot I’m not the only one who Val suspects Jones drugged.  But, the hands admitted to doing it.  I don’t know, I just thought…well, I guess I thought wrong.”  He brought his gaze back to his father’s face.  “So, did Mrs. Lennon mention where they went?”

“Only two of the hands came back, Scott.  Evan Bartling wasn’t with them and she doesn’t know where he is.  She knows the other two went to Green River.  She assumed they saw Val.”  Murdoch’s tone was low, concerned.

Scott’s long fingers idly tracked along the arm of the chair, and picked at a decorative tack in the upholstery.  He seemed to collect himself and stated matter-of-factly, “I’ll look for them tomorrow in Green River…alone.”  He added the last word emphatically.

“Son, we are all going to Green River tomorrow, as planned.”

“I understand that, Murdoch.  All I’m saying is that I will talk to those men without my father or brother tailing after me.”

“You plan to take them on all at once, Boston?”

Sighing heavily, Scott stared at his brother.  “Johnny, you know Dave Reynolds isn’t the type to gang up on someone.”

“Well, maybe he forgot that the night you were drugged,” Johnny clipped.

“Johnny, we’ve been over this before.  I have no intention of debating it again.”  Scott stood abruptly.  “I am going to bed and will see you both in the morning.  Good night.”  His long stride took him quickly to the foot of the stairs.


His father’s voice halted Scott and he turned and looked back at him.  “Sir?”

Murdoch rose from the chair and took a few steps towards Scott.  “I understand you need to do this on your own.  Just, please, be careful.  If possible, talk to them one at a time.  We don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Scott’s face softened and he nodded.  “I know, sir.  I’ll be careful.”  A small appreciative smile played across his lips.  “I promise---Good night.”

“Good night, Son.”

Scott glanced at his brother.  “Johnny.”

“Yeah, Scott.  See ya in the mornin’.”

“Sooo, Murdoch.  You gonna hold to what you just told him?” Johnny asked when Scott had disappeared up the stairs.”

Murdoch reached for the paper, snapped it open and spotted the article he had been reading.  “Johnny, absolutely!  And I would expect you to respect his wishes as well.”  He scanned the column of the print and spied another story that caught his interest.  “However, I also plan to protect my interest in this ranch and your brother happens to be one-third of it.”  He glanced towards his youngest.

Johnny grinned understandingly, rested his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes.

They both understood, very well.


Chapter 11

Murdoch sorted through the papers on his desk, organizing them as best he could prior to his visit to Green River to see his lawyer as well as his banker.  There were a couple of bank notes he needed to deposit from the sale of some cattle, as well as a document specifying the terms for the purchase of additional acres on the northern perimeter of the ranch.  He wasn’t sure he needed that piece of land, but the price was excellent.  It was mostly barren rock, but there was a nice meadow protected by the surrounding hills with a small stream running through its eastern edge.  There was a shabby but serviceable line shack up there and enough pasture for a few horses when his men were working close to the area.  It could also make a great get-away when he wanted to spend time with his sons or close friends.  He was so engrossed in his ponderings about the land that he actually jumped when someone knocked on the door.

Collecting himself, he called out to anyone who may be listening, “I’ll get it,” and walked towards the entrance.  He wondered who it could be.  He wasn’t expecting anyone and actually didn’t have a lot of time to spend visiting.  He and his sons as well as Teresa were preparing to go to Green River shortly; in fact, Teresa had just announced that she would meet the other three in the barn as she wanted to saddle Miranda herself.  The little mare was excellent with Teresa but tended to nip at everyone else.

“Who is it?” Johnny yelled from the kitchen.

“I don’t know, Johnny.  I haven’t opened the door yet,” Murdoch shouted back as he swung open the door and stared into the face of Dave Reynolds.  He knew that surprise, shock, as well as disapproval registered on his countenance as he looked at one of the men who had drugged his son.

“Mr. Lancer,” Dave said nervously.  “I wonder if I might have a word with Scott?”

“Who is it, Murdoch?” Johnny asked as he walked in from the kitchen munching on an apple.  He stopped abruptly when he saw who it was, his face changing swiftly from curiosity to scorn.

Dave played nervously with his hat, fingering his hands around the brim.  “Johnny,” he greeted, unsure of himself but looking Johnny in the eye.

“What are you doing here?”  Johnny’s voice was low, controlled, but menacing.

“I wanted to talk to Scott.”  He turned to Murdoch.  “Is he here Mr. Lancer?”

Murdoch cast a glance Johnny’s way before looking at Dave.  “Yes, he’s here.”  He stepped aside and motioned the cowboy in.

Reynolds hesitantly stepped into the foyer.  His face reflected both apprehension as well as determination.  If nothing else, Murdoch gave him credit for the guts it took to knock on that door.

Johnny set the half eaten apple on an end table and started walking slowly towards Reynolds.  Murdoch could see that Dave was getting edgy as Johnny approached, but he wasn’t backing down.  Johnny tucked his fingers into his gun belt and circled; a cold grin on his face as he apparently took pleasure in causing discomfort to the other man.  Murdoch could honestly say he wasn’t disturbed by the cowboy’s anxiety, recalling that horrible night of more than two weeks ago.  He knew Scott still suffered from nightmares of those memories and probably would for quite some time.

“Johnny,” Murdoch said, trying to remind his younger son that he was still present.  Scott needed to take care of this man in his own way, and it was reasonable to surmise that Dave hadn’t come all this way to hurt Scott.

“I’m not doing anything, Murdoch,” Johnny answered softly, sweeping his eyes to his father and then back to Reynolds.  “Just looking, is all.  Just looking.”  He leaned against the back of the couch and crossed his arms across his chest, giving Dave a glance of controlled contempt.

“Would you care to sit down, Dave?”  Murdoch motioned to a chair in the great room.

“No sir, Mr. Lancer.  I’ll stand, but thank you anyway.”

“Well, at least come in, Dave.  I’d rather not stand in the foyer.”  Murdoch noticed Dave glance Johnny’s way.  “Don’t worry.  Johnny won’t do anything.”

Clearing his throat, Dave stated matter-of-factly, “Couldn’t say as I’d blame Johnny, Mr. Lancer.”

“I wouldn’t blame him either, but he won’t,” Murdoch clipped.  He walked into the great room and sat on the couch, waiting for Dave to follow him.  “Scott will be down soon.”

Dave took a few steps into the room and glanced around.  Murdoch knew the area was an imposing one to a man like Dave Reynolds.  He probably had very little in the way of material possessions other than a horse, a gun, and a bit of hardtack to tide him over until he found another job.  Normally he would feel sorry for the man, but acknowledged he wasn’t that forgiving.  Not after what Dave and his two friends had put Scott through.

Dave bowed his head and said quietly, “Mr. Lancer, I’m real sorry about what we did to Scott.”  Brown eyes looked into Murdoch’s.  “I heard he had a real bad time of it.  The sheriff told me.  I just…I was told he’d be…well, I thought he’d just be happy from the stuff.  I’m sorry.”

Murdoch glanced over at Johnny who gave his father a cynical grin.  “I think you need to say that to Scott, Dave.”

“Yes sir.  That’s why I’m here.”  He scrunched his hands tightly around his hat.  “’Pears to me I do.”  He coughed slightly, and then said, “But I know for you and Johnny,---well, I know it was probably hard on you two.”

Murdoch didn’t raise his voice but looked sternly at the cowboy. “Yes, it was.” He perceived that Reynolds grimaced at the statement.

The quick tread of someone clumping down steps two at a time brought their attention to the stairs and the tall, blond man gracefully descending.  “Hey, sorry I’m late, but couldn’t find my….”  Scott halted at the bottom of the landing as he spotted Dave Reynolds standing just within the great room.

Murdoch saw his son pale underneath what had become a normal tan.  Crystal eyes warily stared at the ‘guest’ as long fingers gripped the banister.  Scott glanced at Johnny, who stood solidly with his hand resting on his gun, and then turned towards his father.

“Scott, Dave would like to talk with you...if you’ve a mind.”  If Scott didn’t want to talk to Dave, Murdoch was prepared to show the man the door without further preamble.   However, he knew what his son’s answer would be.

 Scott’s Adam apple bobbed as he swallowed, and then he nodded.

“Johnny, why don’t we leave them alone to talk.”

“No, Murdoch.  You and Johnny both deserve to hear whatever he has to say.  I want you to stay.”

Scott walked into the room, his long stride striking firmly as he closed the distance between Reynolds and himself.  He stopped a few feet in front of Dave, arms stiffly at his side, fists clenched lightly.  Murdoch recognized a rigid set to his jaw which usually meant he was practicing great restraint.  Scott waited as Reynolds fumbled again with his hat before looking Scott in the eye.

“I was in Green River this morning, talking to the sheriff.  He, ah, he said you had a bad time on the peyot.”  He licked his lips nervously and lowered his head.  He passed a hand across his jaw and scrubbed at his chin.  “I just wanted to say, I didn’t know, Scott.”  He brought his gaze up.  “I thought it would just make you happy, is all.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t know.”

Reynolds walked towards the dining room chairs and gripped one of the backs.

“Why, Dave, why’d you do it?”  Scott’s tone wasn’t angry; Murdoch thought it was more wondering.

Reynolds ran a hand through his hair and scratched his head.  “I don’t know, Scott.  Kirby was the one who pushed it, but we were all to blame.  Steve just thought you were a bit stuffy and all.”  He stumbled, perhaps recognizing the term stuffy wasn’t the right one.  “Sorry.  You seemed always so held in.”

Scott took a deep breath and paced a few steps.  “Why did Steve care what I was, Dave?”

Reynolds shrugged.  “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do.  What was it?  You came to apologize, then tell me why,” Scott insisted.

Glancing quickly from Murdoch to Johnny, Dave focused back on Scott.  “Steve thought you were sweet on Serena.”

Scott looked surprised by the answer.  “I never gave her any undue attention or reason to think I was interested in her.  I don’t buy it.”

“That’s what Steve thought, Scott.  He thought if you acted silly and all, that Serena wouldn’t pay you no mind.  You know, if you weren’t so…smooth.  He was afraid you’d take her away from him.  You’ve got money, fancy ways…”

“I wouldn’t do that Dave.  Besides, Serena never made any indication that she was interested.  She was sweet, she talked to me about her son, but she didn’t do more than sell me drinks.  Why did Steve think there was more to it?”

“I don’t know, Scott.  You’d have to ask Steve.  We, Evan and me, we were just going along, Scott.  It was…” Dave bit at his lip.

“Stupid?” Johnny spat disgustedly.

Dave glanced at him looking like he felt only inches tall.  “Yeah, Johnny, we were just stupid.”

“Did Jones have anything to do with it?” Scott asked.

“I don’t know.  Kirby was the one who mixed the stuff in your beer.  Don’t know where he got it, but could have been Jones.  Kirby didn’t say.”

“Where are they, Dave?  Where are Kirby and Evan?”  Scott walked to his father’s desk and played with the papers, unknowingly disturbing what his father had earlier organized into neat stacks.

“I don’t know where Evan is.  We were twenty miles from the Double M and he just took off.  He’d been chewin’ on the worry of what could happen since the night…”  Dave looked uncomfortably at Scott and continued.  “Since the night we drugged you.  He told us he’d gotten us almost home and adios.  Steve Kirby, well, he’s in Green River with Serena.  He wants to marry her, if she’ll have him.”  Reynolds walked closer to the desk and Scott.  “I don’t know where they’ll go then.  He’s got no job here abouts.  I ‘spect they’ll head out after the sheriff says it’s okay.”

Eyeing Scott uneasily, Dave continued softly, “The sheriff said Kirby and me couldn’t go anywhere until you said so.  He said you might sign papers against us.  That’s one of the reasons I’m here, Scott. I mean, I’m real sorry and if you’ve a mind to send me to prison, I reckon you can.  But I’m not runnin’ from it.  I’d just like to know.”  There was nothing left of the hat anymore.  The brim was crushed and the crown broken.  If Reynolds put it on, it would certainly droop well below his eyes.

Scott tracked a finger across his eyebrow and looked out the window behind his father’s desk.  It was so quiet the sound of Johnny’s finger’s thumping against his belt could be heard.  Scott looked at him and Johnny stopped.  Johnny’s lips moved slightly, turning up on the ends in a slight smile. 

“I don’t want you in prison, Dave,” Scott finally said.  “I just wanted to know why.”

“I was only going along with my friends, Scott.  I don’t have an answer for you other than that.”  Dave lowered his eyes, obviously ashamed of what he had done.  “So, what are you going to do?” he asked after several moments.

Scott shook his head as he gazed at the pattern in the rug.  “Nothing, Dave.”  He let out a heavy breath and stared at Reynolds.  “I’m going to talk to Steve Kirby and Ned Jones.  But I’ll not sign a complaint against you.”

“I appreciate that, Scott,” Reynolds said.  He cast a quick and humble eye towards Murdoch and Johnny before glancing back at Scott.  “Do you accept my being sorry?”

Pursing his lips before answering, Scott quietly said, “I do.”  He studied Reynolds intently.  “Where will you go?”

Reynolds shrugged, and then said, “I’ve got a sister in Oklahoma.  May go there.  It’s not as pretty there as it is here, but she’s family and been after me to live there.”

Scott walked over to his father and Murdoch instinctively knew what his son was going to say.  “I can’t say how my father or brother would feel about this, but if you want to stay here, we could probably find something for you.”

Obviously taken off guard by the offer, Dave stared at Scott.  Murdoch noticed that Johnny’s ‘are you crazy’ look faded quickly into an ‘I should have known’, and he visibly shrugged.  Murdoch didn’t quite know how to react, but he wasn’t surprised that Scott offered the man a job.

“Thanks, Scott, but why would you want me around?  Why would you do that?”

“Everyone makes mistakes, Dave.  It would seem to me that you are truly sorry for what you did and I have no desire to carry it with me.  But, you think about the offer.  I know family is important.”

“I’ll do that, Scott, and thank you.”  Dave extended a hand slowly, as if unsure that Scott would take it.  But Scott did and then took a step back.

“Mr. Lancer, I’m real sorry.”

Murdoch nodded, but said nothing.  He wasn’t as ready to forgive the young man as quickly as his son, and he was sure Johnny would have liked to punch him.  But, if Scott was willing to let it go, Murdoch wasn’t about to hold on to it.

“Johnny.”  Reynolds gestured slightly with his head, but wisely said no more.  Johnny’s eyes followed him as he strode to the foyer, and opened the door.  Stepping through, he closed it softly behind him.

After a few silent moments, Scott ventured uncertainly, “I suppose you don’t agree with what I just did.”

Johnny chuckled and walked over to his brother, slapping him lightly in the belly.  “Boston, half the time I can’t figure out why you do what you do, but it’s not stopped you before.”

Scott smiled broadly, the smile that made Murdoch’s mood a little brighter even if the day was anything but.  Of course, Scott didn’t know that and Murdoch wasn’t inclined to give him that bit of information.

“Boys, I think Teresa has been waiting quite long enough.  Shall we proceed as planned to Green River?”

“Yes, sir.  I’m ready.”  Scott visibly relaxed, apparently relieved that his father chose to ignore his offer of a job to Dave Reynolds.

Murdoch picked up the papers that lay scattered on his desk and put them into a small leather satchel.  “I suppose you intend to find Steve Kirby?” he asked Scott without looking up from gathering the papers.

“Yes, Murdoch I do.  I intend to speak to Ned Jones as well.”

Murdoch stopped what he was doing and looked at Scott.  “Jones is a dangerous man, Scott.”

“I’ve dealt with dangerous men before.  I’ll be all right.”

Murdoch, thin lipped, only nodded.  “Scott, would you please let Teresa know we’re coming?  And Johnny, I’ve left a letter on the table in the study I need to bring along, would you get it for me, please?”

“Sure, Murdoch.”

Scott was out the door by the time Johnny came back into the great room.  “Murdoch, I didn’t find a letter in there.  You sure you left it on the table?”

“There is no letter, Johnny.  It was just a means to talk to you alone.”  He folded the valise shut and tied the leather strings together.  “I don’t want him facing Ned Jones alone.  I’m not saying Scott can’t handle him in a fair fight, but I’ve no doubt of what Jones is capable of doing.  I just want his back covered.”

“You think he’s gonna stand for that, Murdoch?”

“I think he doesn’t need to know.”  Murdoch tucked the satchel under his arm.  “Do you understand?” 

Johnny smiled lightly.  “I understand, Murdoch.  But, if he sees me, are you ready for that?”

Murdoch swung an arm across Johnny’s shoulders and clapped him lightly.  “If that happens, I’ll deal with it.” 



It was a dry and dusty ride to Green River, but pleasant.  Conversation centered on everything but Steve Kirby and Ned Jones.  The meadows and pastures were an August brown, but not overgrazed due mainly to good management.  There were nutrients yet to be had in the grassland, but much care was taken to insure that limited numbers of stock were allowed to graze and the fields were rotated and allowed to rest.  Although the animals preferred the grasses of the fields, supplemental feed of hay---wheat grass, brome, and alfalfa---as well as grains for the horses were available.  Much of the stock was long horn or cross breeds of such and hardy in both drought and plenty.  And fortunately, the Lancers’ harvesting of these dry grasses insured their stock would have plenty of food until fall rains greened the land once more.

When they stopped in front of the bank to conduct their first order of business, Murdoch gave Teresa her ‘marching orders’.  “Teresa, I’d say it will take us a couple of hours to finish here and at the lawyer’s.  Where will you be and with whom?”

“Murdoch,” she protested, “I’m not a little girl anymore.  Don’t you trust me?”

Giving his ward a stern look, he replied evenly, “That’s not the point, Teresa.   Is there somewhere you’re going you don’t want me to know about?”

“Of course, not, Murdoch.”

“Then I can assume that Emily Watkins is not on your itinerary?”

She dramatically sighed and rolled her eyes, but didn’t answer him.

“Teresa.  I asked you a question.”  Murdoch felt the pretty Emily Watkins was a bad influence on his young charge.  Although she was polite on the surface, there were rumors that she was giving her parents a run for their money as they tried to control the willful young woman.  Even though Murdoch acknowledged mentally that Teresa was growing up, his heart wasn’t prepared to accept it.  He felt that exposing Teresa to Miss Watkins and her behavior may hurry that growing up process along much too fast and perhaps in a direction not appropriate for his charge.

“Murdoch, Emily is misunderstood.  She is really very nice.”

“I’m not saying she isn’t, Teresa.  I’m saying I don’t want you to associate with her.  We’ve been over this before.”

“Her parents don’t understand her at all.”

“Teresa,” his tone brooked no argument.  “I do not want you with Emily Watkins.  Now, I want to know who you will be with or you can come with us while we attend to our errands.”


“This is not a point for argument,” Murdoch stated.

Teresa looked at both Johnny and Scott for some sort of support, but neither appeared to be willing to offer any.  They looked everywhere but at her.  Finally, with a thoroughly insulted look, she addressed Murdoch.  “All right, I’ll not go to Emily’s.  I’ll go to Ginny Trumbull’s.  Her mother will be there as well as her aunt.  She is staying with them for a few weeks.”

“Will Emily be there?” Murdoch pursued, wanting to insure that Emily was not going to be present.

“No.  I understand her father said she was not to leave the house until next Sunday.”

Murdoch pursed his lips and put his hand on his hips, staring down at the small Teresa.  “What did she do?”

“I’m not sure, but I heard she stayed out very late with Dale Simpson,” Teresa relayed grudgingly.  “But she’s seventeen, Murdoch.  She’s a woman and old enough to know what she wants.”

Recognizing that he needed to be resolved and yet reasonable, he said in a milder tone, “Teresa, she may think so, but she is not of age and needs to respect the wishes of her parents.  Don’t you think she owes them that?  The Watkins are reasonable people who love their daughter.”

She lowered her eyes and agreed meekly.  “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

“All right.  Now, I’m going to trust that you will be where you say you’ll be.  Will you meet us at the mercantile in two hours?”

“Yes, Murdoch.  I’ll be there.”  She started to walk away but was stopped when Murdoch called to her.

“Did you forget something?”

Teresa smiled at him and blushed. Walking back to him she stood on her tiptoes, and gave him a peck on the cheek.

“Thank you, darling,” he remarked, gazing down at her with great affection.

“You’re welcome.”  She ambled off leading Miranda lightly by the reins.

The three men watched her momentarily as she made her way towards the Trumbull’s.  Murdoch and Scott started to lead their horses to the hitching rail and noticed Johnny was still watching Teresa.  Both turned their attention to Teresa, obviously wondering what Johnny was seeing.

“She’s got more of a wiggle than I remember,” Johnny said at last.  He had a frown on his face and didn’t seem pleased with the discovery.

Scott stared at the retreating young woman.  “Hmm.  She does have a certain sway that I don’t recall seeing before, Murdoch.”

Murdoch took in the form of Teresa.  Her long brown hair fell softly to her shoulders, glittering beautifully in the sun.  He saw a swell in her hips that he hadn’t noticed before, as well as a bearing of grace and confidence where before was tomboy and little girl.

“Remember I said she was getting too big for her britches, Murdoch?  Maybe she ought to be wearing dresses instead of them pants,” Johnny suggested.

As Murdoch thought about what Johnny just said, young Mark Tucker called to her from across the street as she walked by.  She glanced his way, and with a charming smile and wave of her hand, greeted him pleasantly.  She continued down the street, the young man following her with his eyes after she passed.  When he looked away from her, he happened to glance in the direction of the Lancers.  With three pairs of different shades of disapproving blue watching him, his face immediately changed from appreciation to alarm.  He took a step backwards and tumbled over a chair that was on the boardwalk.  Picking himself up, he slapped the dust off his butt and quickly walked around the corner and out of site.

Clearing his throat, Murdoch looked at Scott and then Johnny with a cryptic expression on his face.  “I’ll talk to Maria to see if she has any suggestions.”  He could feel his face getting warm with the whole prospect of addressing the matter with Teresa.  Daughters, even those who were as accommodating and wholesome as this young lady, unexpectedly became daunting subjects when talking to them about matters of maturing bodies and feminine passion.

The three men were obviously troubled by thoughts of the sweet Teresa growing up.  They knew how men would look at her, because that’s how they looked at a pretty woman.  They were aware of the stirrings that could be difficult to control.  Suddenly, especially for the two young brothers, those feelings were not to be so easily dismissed; particularly when considering that someone may be aiming them at Teresa.  

Uneasily glancing at one another, Scott and Johnny seemed to recognize what the other was thinking.  A whole new way of looking at a woman was presented, springing from the natural impulse to protect their own from the lecherous advances of the opposite sex.  As a result, fathers and brothers of daughters and sisters held a whole new respect for them.   In the future, it would be a point to consider when pursuing a female for their own physical gratification without taking into consideration that someone could be thinking of Teresa in the same way.

Thoughts of their ‘little sister’ were interrupted by Murdoch brusquely announcing that drafts needed to be deposited.  He delved into his saddlebags and procured the leather attaché that contained the needed papers.

“Murdoch, I don’t think you need me to deposit a couple of drafts.  I’m going to see if I can track down Serena.  I’m thinking Steve Kirby won’t be too far away from her.”

Eyeing his eldest with a hint of worry shadowing his face, Murdoch nevertheless nodded.  “We’ll need your signature on the land documents,” he reminded his son.

“I’ll be there to sign them, Murdoch.  You don’t need me for the details.  Whatever you and Johnny decide is fine with me.”

Although Murdoch did not feel good about Scott going this alone, he felt he had no choice in the matter.  He knew his son would not tolerate interference by either his father or brother.

“All right.  I’ll go from here to the lawyer’s.  Everything should be in order and ready for signatures in about an hour or so.  I’ll expect you by then, Scott.”

“Agreed, Murdoch.  I will see you then.”  Scott slapped Johnny lightly on the arm.  “Little Brother, don’t follow me,” he warned.

Johnny smiled and bowed his head, but didn’t say anything.

Apparently taking that as a yes, or as close as he was going to get to one, Scott started down the street.  As if sensing that he was being observed as closely as Teresa was earlier, he flippantly called over his shoulder, “Are you watching my wiggle, Johnny?”

“You’re an ass, Scott,” Johnny said laughing, seemingly not caring who heard him.

“That’s what you’re viewing, Johnny,” Scott teased, and waived without turning around.  Taking a right at the end of the street, he was soon out of sight.

“Johnny…” Murdoch started.

“Listen, Murdoch.  Scott can take care of Kirby.  Kirby may be an idiot but he’s not a back shooter.  And they’re one-on-one.”  Johnny stepped off into the dusty street and looked toward the livery which gave a clear view of the front of the Dimano Diamond.  “Let’s give him some time.  The Dimano ain’t open yet anyway.  I’ll go to the livery in a bit and watch for him.”

Grimly, Murdoch looked towards the bank and said, “Well, might as well get some business done here.  Care to join me?”

Pulling his hat farther down to block the sun, Johnny walked to the bank door and held it open for his father.  “Allow me, old man,” and he bowed slightly, swinging his arm in exaggeration and motioning Murdoch with his hand to proceed.

“Don’t get cheeky, young man.  Teresa isn’t the only one who appears to have gotten a little big for her britches.”

Chuckling lightly, Johnny held the door for his father as he stepped inside the bank.



Chapter 12

Scott rounded the corner of the street where Serena lived, his thoughts lingering on Johnny and his father.  He concluded that they wouldn’t interfere with his confrontation with Kirby, but realized his stubborn father could be as sly as his brother when he thought he needed to be.  Although Murdoch had backed off about his going to the Dimano alone, Scott knew his father or Johnny would probably be hovering close by.  Thus, he decided he wasn’t going to waltz into the Dimano through the front door.  Buried in the garbage and junk of the filthy alley was a back entrance that he would use.

Ned Jones – now he was an individual who gave Scott nothing but bad feelings.   From the moment Scott had stepped into the Dimano to see Amanda, Jones made Scott uneasy.  And it was more than his harsh and demeaning treatment of Amanda, his bad whiskey, the filth of the saloon or the man himself.  Scott sensed that Jones hated him, but didn’t know why.  Still, at times when Scott caught Jones looking at him…  Troubled, Scott consciously shook off the thought and directed his attention to the boarding house where Serena lived.

It wasn’t the best boarding house in town, nor was it the worst.  The informality of the term ‘boarding house’ in Green River included any habitat where a room was let to another.  Many residents took in boarders on an irregular basis to augment their income, and at least a quarter of the homes in town had regular boarders.  The home Serena lived in was owned by a family of six.  The enterprising husband had put up a large addition onto the back, divided it in half with a curtain to give an appearance of privacy, and rented it out as two separate rooms.  The home was neat, clean, and well maintained without any semblance of frills or luxury.

Disappointed at not seeing a horse out front that may indicate Kirby’s presence, Scott nevertheless went to the porch in hopes that Serena was home.  He knocked on the door and within a few moments it opened and a small red haired girl looked up at him.

“Hello, Daisy.  Do you know who I am?”

She nodded, smiled, and closed the door in his face.

Scott stared at the wooden barrier for a couple of seconds, chuckled, and brought his hand up to knock again when the door opened to reveal the little girl’s mother.

“Oh, Scott,” she said pleasantly.  “Sorry about that.  Daisy has not as yet learned proper manners but she has learned how to beat me to the door.  Please, do come in.”  Mrs. Crider stepped aside and motioned for Scott to come in.

“Thank you Mrs. Crider.”  Scott stepped into the house and removed his hat.  The aroma of warm yeast and rising bread drifted pleasantly around the room.  The furnishings were very modest and evidently had seen much use, but were clean.  And although the house spoke of anything but material prosperity, it was comfortable and most appealing to Scott.  A complete family lived here with mother, father and children, and he sensed unity, support, and caring.  Something he had missed for so many years, but now finally possessed.

Mrs. Crider gave her daughter a piece of bread with honey on it and turned to her guest.  “What can I do for you, Scott?  Myles isn’t home if you wished to speak to him.”

 “I was actually hoping to speak with Serena, if she’s here.”

Mrs. Crider frowned and brought pale brown eyes up to her guest.  She brushed back light brown hair from her forehead with a work worn hand.  “Scott, we don’t allow gentlemen callers to visit Serena in her room.  I know she works at the Dimano, but this is a decent home and I’ll not have it.”  Although her tone was mild, her manner was rigid and maybe even registered a bit of disappointment in the young man before her.

“Ma’am, I am not calling on Serena in a personal nature.  I would like to talk to her about Steve Kirby.  I understand he spends a lot of time with her and I was hoping she would know where he is.”  Scott was relieved to see her face soften a bit with his statement.

She smiled and said, “I hope you understand.  Serena is trying to support her child and I don’t begrudge her doing what she needs to do.  She is a decent woman, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken her in.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I understand.”  Scott felt a tug on his pants and looked down to see Daisy gripping his trouser leg very tightly.  Her little face was serious as she stared pointedly up at him with an intense gaze.

“Daisy, let go of his pants.”  Mrs. Crider blushed with embarrassment as she tried to pull the child’s hand off of Scott’s trousers.  The little girl refused to let go.  “I’m sorry, Scott.  She’s clutches everything so tightly.  She’s only three and it’s the only way she can keep her brothers or Serena’s child from taking things from her.  She’s found she has to grip very hard.”

It appeared that Daisy had no intention of letting go no matter how much her mother pleaded or pulled at the tiny hand.

Finally, after several failed attempts to remove the honey covered fingers from Scott’s pants, he set his hat on a nearby end table and put his hands out in a gesture of picking her up.  She immediately let go of his trousers and extended her arms.  Scott hoisted her up and held her against his chest and she clutched the collar of his shirt with her sticky little fingers.  She stared raptly at him for a short time, and then nuzzled against the hollow between his neck and shoulder.

Scott smiled at the child and lowered his chin to the top of her head.  She nestled deeper into the shadow of his neck and sighed contentedly.

“She looks like she belongs there, Scott,” Mrs. Crider remarked, her brown eyes tenderly gazing at her daughter.  She brought her gaze up to Scott.  “You ever think of being a daddy?”

Chuckling lightly, Scott at first wanted to dismiss the remark as being overly sentimental and womanly.  But he inhaled the spirit and innocence of the little girl and acknowledged inwardly that he loved holding her.  There were honey prints on his pants and shirt, and her hair smelled lightly of child sweat, but the ‘womanly’ remark of her mother was unexplainably intuitive and he could not set it aside.

“Someday, perhaps,” he acknowledged.  ‘Yes, definitely, someday,’ he thought,

Mrs. Crider laughed delightfully.  “Well, you keep hold of her and I’ll go tell Serena you’re here.  I’d appreciate it if you’d talk to her on the porch.”

“Yes ma’am,” Scott agreed; the impact of suddenly desiring a child of his own overwhelming.  As he held this little girl, it didn’t matter whether he fathered sons or daughters.  She was sweet and warm and trusting; and somehow a child would insure that he lived on even after he was gone.

The insulated sound of her voice juggled him from his ponderings of fatherhood.  Serena stood at the other end of the room, warily watching him.  In her arms she held her son; a dark haired, husky boy of around three years, struggling within her grasp to be off on his own unending adventure of boyhood and growing up.

“Serena, I’m wondering if I might have a word with you.”

She seemed reluctant to grant the request and tightened the grip on her child.

“Please, for just a few moments,” he requested softly.  He wondered how he appeared to her, cradling the sticky, red haired Daisy in his arms.  However, he must have seemed nonthreatening as she nodded and looked towards Mrs. Crider.

“I’ll watch him, Serena.”  Jean Crider reached out to take the little boy and settled him in the corner of the room amidst crude wooden toys.  She gave him some honey bread and he laughed gleefully.  He immediately crammed some of the bread into his mouth; honey side edge trailing against his cheek.  She then turned her attention to her daughter and with a stern, “Daisy”, the child seemed to recognize that her mother’s patience would not be stretched further.  Freckled little arms reached for the woman leaving Scott with a sweet imprint of fingers on his shirt front.

“I’m sorry, Scott,” Mrs. Crider said regretfully.  “It appears my daughter has left an impression on your shirt.”

Scott smiled.  “Yes, ma’am, and other places as well.”  He picked up his hat, opened the door and stepped aside to allow Serena to go before him.  “Mrs. Crider, thank you.”  He bowed his head slightly and with a soft, “Good day,” followed Serena out the door.

Wind puffed hotly against his face as he followed Serena to the end of the porch and over to a long bench situated under the only tree in the yard.  A few chickens pecked at the dirt scavenging whatever bugs rambled through the dust or hid in the grass.  A little chicken coop was a few steps from the back door and a lean-to against the east side of the house sheltered a cow and probably horse as well.  The small but healthy looking cow that provided the family with milk was contentedly munching alfalfa in her pen.  A privy was situated in a far corner of the lot.

Serena sat on the bench and looked up at Scott.  “How are you, Scott?”

“Better than the last time you saw me,” he replied, settling next to her on the bench.

“I’m sorry about that.”  She bowed her head and absently straightened the cuff of her dress.

It was obvious to Scott that she was indeed sorry.  He was tempted to ask her if she knew more about the drugging, but decided to address the primary reason he was here.  He hoped to get those answers from Steve Kirby.   “Serena, I understand Steve Kirby and you have been seeing one another?”

She eyed him cautiously, her brown eyes uncertain.  “Why do you ask?”

“I just want to talk to him, Serena, and thought you may know where he is.”

“What do you want to talk to him about?”

“I think you know, Serena.”

Serena stared at the ground, and nervously adjusted the folds of her dress.  “Sheriff Crawford said you had a real bad time of it.  Steve…I know he didn’t mean no harm to you, Scott.”

“I’d like to ask him that myself, Serena.  Where is he?”

She swallowed before answering and looked up at him.  “You gonna send him to prison?”

He sighed and moved his hat further back on his head.  “Serena, I don’t want to send him anywhere, but it depends on what he tells me.  Now either he can tell his story to me or he can tell it to the sheriff.”

“He’s already talked to the sheriff.”  She stared pointedly at him, her eyes somewhere between demanding and pleading.  “He could have taken off, Scott.  He could have run like Evan, but he didn’t.”

“Why didn’t he?”  Scott knew why Kirby didn’t run; he was looking at the reason.

“My son needs a father, Scott.  Steve is willing to be that to him.”  She glanced briefly towards the house and when she looked back at Scott, tears pooled in her eyes.  “He doesn’t care about who I’ve been or where I’ve come from.  Nor about my child’s father.  He wants me; he loves me, Scott.”

Scott got up from the bench and rested his hands on his hips.  He hadn’t wanted to get into the feelings of this young woman, but knew it would be inevitable.  He distractedly watched a hen chasing a grasshopper and after several attempts, was finally able to catch it.  Her efforts attracted other chickens and they eagerly searched for the hopping bug, not understanding the creature had become a morsel for the successful bird.  Their fruitless scurrying to find the hapless insect quickly subsided and they continued on their eternal search for food.

“Lancer, what you doin’ here?”

Startled out of his reverie, Scott turned to see Steve Kirby bearing down on them.

“Kirby, I came here to see you.”

Kirby looked at Serena and scowled at Scott.  “Why would you come here?” he demanded.  “I don’t live here.”

“I realize that.  But I’ve been told that you and Serena have been seeing one another and I thought she’d know how to get in touch with you.”  Scott could see Kirby was unhappy with his being there, but thought it may be that Kirby thought he was looking for a confrontation.

“Is that right?  Well, I don’t believe you!”  Kirby was shorter than Scott, but bulkier.  Normally he was a pleasant enough fellow, but his face at this moment appeared dark and challenging.

“Steve,” Serena said softly.  “What Scott said is true.  If you don’t believe him, ask Mrs. Crider.”

Jealousy flared hot in Kirby’s eyes as he glared at Scott.  “You can get any woman you want, Lancer.  Why can’t you leave mine alone?” he spat.

Astounded at Kirby’s reaction, Scott realized what Dave Reynolds told him was true; Kirby thought he wanted to take Serena away from him.  Suddenly angry, the past days of tensely waiting for the three cowboys’ return closed in on him.  Scott covered the short distance that separated them, drew back his right arm and smacked Kirby solidly in the jaw.  Scott could feel the man’s lip split and Kirby stumbled backwards, falling with a hard thump to the ground.

“Is that why you drugged me, Kirby?  You thought I was trying to take Serena?” Scott sharply demanded, watching the man groggily pull himself into a sitting position.

Kirby blearily glanced up at Scott and rubbed his hand against his bloody lip.  “Weren’t you?  You were always hanging around her, trying to get her to go out with ya,” he accused.

“Steve, that’s not true.  Scott wasn’t in the Dimano but a couple of times.  And he wasn’t there to see me.  He was there to see Amanda.”  Serena had risen from the bench and stood a few feet from Kirby.  Her fists were clenched tightly and it was obvious that she was upset with him.

Serena’s words seemed to have some calming effect on Kirby, but there was still disbelief on his face.  “Why wouldn’t you want him Serena, stead of me; with his money, looks, polite ways?”

“Because I love you, Steve, not Scott.  Do you have so little confidence in that?”  She reached down to help him up, hurt and disappointment reflected on her face.

“Serena,” Kirby said apologetically, “I don’t mean it that way.”

“Then what way do you mean it?  Did you do what Scott said?  Were you the one who drugged him?”  Her manner was one of outrage and whatever he was going to say, she was waiting for an answer.

Kirby took the handkerchief she handed him and pressed it against his lip, trying to stop the bleeding.  He glanced everywhere but at Serena and avoided looking at Scott.

“We’re waiting for an answer, Kirby,” Scott pressed, barely suppressing the urge to hit him again.

“It was Jones said you were after her.  Said you come around all the time, pestering at her, not leavin’ her be.  He said she had no mind for you at first; but you kept smooth talkin’, throwing your money around.”  He took the bloody hankie and balled it into his fist.

“Why didn’t you ask me about it, Steve?”

“I was afraid,” he stammered.  “Afraid you’d tell me what I didn’t wanna hear.”  He stared at Scott.  “She didn’t have nothing to do with it, Lancer,” he stressed.  “She didn’t know nothing about what we were doing.  I talked Dave and Evan into going along.  Told ‘em it would be fun to watch you act stupid.”

“And you thought my acting stupid would turn Serena?” Scott asked, wondering why he still felt something was missing, even though Kirby had given him an answer that had been biting at him for over two weeks.

Kirby only nodded agreement.  He gazed at Serena, hesitation on his face.  “I’m sorry, honey.  I was just so crazy scared you’d leave me.”

“Steve, you could have killed him, you know that?” Serena exclaimed.

“Jones didn’t say anything like that would happen; that he’d just get happy.”  He turned to face Scott, his tone desperate.  “I didn’t know you got sick on it, Scott, not till we got back to town.  Crawford told me and Reynolds about it.”

Kirby’s attitude had changed dramatically from when he initially accused Scott of trying to take his girl to the one he projected now; apologetic and worried.   Scott felt both pity and disgust for him, but wasn’t ready to drop the matter yet.

“Why would Jones lie about me and Serena, Kirby?”

“I don’t know,” he answered quietly.  He looked completely puzzled and confused.  “I guess I didn’t think why, too much.”

Scott could believe that.  Kirby didn’t seem the type to think beyond the next moment.  Scott studied the brave and obviously intelligent Serena and couldn’t imagine what attracted her to Kirby.  But it was apparent to him she was, at the very least, extremely fond of the young cowboy.  She was also alone with a child that needed a father; an exuberant little boy that could have been Johnny some fifteen plus years ago.

“Serena, do you know why Jones would want Kirby to think I wanted you?” Scott queried, hoping she might have insight.

She shrugged and shook her head.  “I don’t know, Scott.  He knew about me and Steve; that we were talking about getting married.  Maybe he thought if he broke us up, I’d stay at the Dimano.”

“Well,” Scott said resignedly, “I guess I’ll need to ask Jones that question.”  He pulled his hat farther down on his head and absently brushed the tip of his nose.

There was one more question that needed an answer before Scott would let Kirby off the hook.  “Serena, has Jones drugged men in the past?”

She blanched at the question, but didn’t look away.  Her manner was fearful, nervous, and Scott decided to push a bit to get the information.  “Serena, you owe Jones nothing.  And think of your future, and your son’s.”

That statement certainly caught her attention as she visibly stiffened and tilted her chin a little higher.  “I always think of my son’s future,” she quipped shortly.

“Then do it,” Scott challenged.  “You and Kirby want to get married; maybe get away from here and start a new life.  I’ll not sign a complaint against him if you tell me about Jones.”

She appeared shocked at first, and then grinned cynically.  “It would appear that the honorable Scott Lancer is not above using blackmail.”

Scott smiled at her.  “And it appears the sweet Serena is not above mocking.”  He realized all carried secrets and although Serena was sincerely trying to make a life for her son, he wondered what secrets she was yoked with.  “It’s a fair trade Serena.  Besides, you may be helping more than just Kirby.  If Amanda means anything to you, closing down Jones may be a way to get her out of there.”

“Scott,” she shook her head with disbelief.  “Why do you try with her?  She’s told you to leave her alone.  She can walk away from Jones anytime she wants to.”

“Can she, Serena?  And where would she walk to?”

“And that’s the point.  Where would she go?”

“I’ll make sure she has a place.”

“She doesn’t want your help,” Serena insisted.

“Well, maybe she’ll have no choice.”

“What is she to you?”

“That’s my business.”

She eyed him skeptically.  “She’s been hurt a lot in her life.  She doesn’t need anymore.”

“That’s not my intent and you know Jones isn’t doing her any good.”

Sighing heavily she walked a few steps away, seeming to consider his request.

“Why do you want to protect him?” Scott said with frustration.  He could not understand why Serena would shield Jones, especially when Kirby seemed more than willing to do whatever he could to make her happy.

She turned swiftly and glared fearfully at Scott.  “Jones has threatened to hurt my son.  He said I’d never know when it would happen, but he’d do it, and no one would be able to prove it was him.”  She clutched Scott’s arm and whispered, “He’ll do it, Scott.  If you don’t let us leave, he’ll do it.  He’ll hurt my little boy.”  She bowed her head and silently wept.

“Serena, why didn’t you tell me?” Kirby asked, evidently surprised at the news.

“Because you would have killed Jones and probably hung for it, or spent the rest of your life in prison.  I didn’t want to see that happen.”  She grabbed for a handkerchief to dry her tears, forgetting that she had given it to Kirby for his lip.  Scott reached inside his back pocket and offered his.

Both men were disturbingly silent as they watched her compose herself and return the linen to Scott.  “Why do you think I stayed there?  He threatened me if I left the Dimano.”

“Serena, …”

“Steve,” she interrupted impatiently, “we would have been out of here in a few weeks anyway, if you hadn’t been so jealous.”  She faced Scott.  “I didn’t know Steve felt that way, Scott.  Jones poisoned him against you, just like he poisons everything.”

“Just tell me about the drugs, Serena and I promise; Jones will not hurt you or your son.  I’ll give you a stake to start someplace else…you can leave today; come to Lancer till you decide where you want to go.”

“We don’t want your charity, Lancer,” Kirby said arrogantly.

“I’m not giving it to you, Kirby,” Scott snapped with exasperation, wondering once more why Serena wanted him, but who knew with women.  “I’m giving it to Serena because I know she’ll make sure I get it back.  Now, I would suggest that you keep your mouth shut before I change my mind and sign that complaint.”

Kirby looked resentfully at Scott, but wisely, and uncharacteristically, kept his mouth shut.

“I don’t know where Ned makes the stuff, but he keeps it in a locked chest in the back office of the saloon,” Serena started.  She ran her tongue over dry lips and continued.  “I know he sells it to some of the men that come in, but I don’t know what all he has, Scott.”

“Do you know if he’s ever drugged men without their knowledge?”

“I’m not sure.  I think so, but, Ned is so sly, Scott.  If he does they’ve already been drinking so don’t realize what’s going on.  Enough people buy the stuff and take it because they want to, that it’s hard to know who wanted it and who didn’t sometimes.”  She walked to the bench and sat down, watching the chickens scratch in the dirt. 

She laughed sadly.  “We don’t always get the most upstanding people coming to the Dimano.  If it weren’t for me, Steve, Evan and Dave wouldn’t have been in there.  Once in a while a stranger will come through who doesn’t know about Ned and the Dimano, but they usually don’t stay long.” 

“Will you tell the sheriff what you know?”

“Scott, that wasn’t part of the deal,” she protested, alarmed.

“Listen, Serena, Jones may end up killing someone one of these days, if he hasn’t already.  Val has been trying to get him but he can’t prove anything.”

“But I told you, Scott, I don’t know for sure what he’s done.  The sheriff won’t be able to prove anything by me.”

“Whatever you tell him will help, Serena.  He may pick up on something you say and tie it to something else.  You’ve gone this far, go see the sheriff.”

She glanced at Kirby as if contemplating what he was thinking.  To his credit and Scott’s surprise, Kirby nodded slightly at her giving his approval.

“All right.  I’ll tell him what I know, for all the good it’s going to do.  But I need to get our things together because as soon as I open my mouth, Ned’s gonna know about it.”

Relieved that she had decided to tell Val what she knew, Scott agreed with a dip of his head.  “My father and brother are here with me.  I’ll explain it to them and you can ride back with us to Lancer.  Kirby can rent a buckboard and we can leave after you talk to Val.”  He reached into his pocket and pulled out some greenbacks.  “I’ll get you more to hold you over until you can get settled somewhere else.”

Serena glanced at the money and held out her hand, gingerly accepting it from Scott.  “Thank you, Scott.  I’ll see you get it back.”

“I know you will, Serena, and good luck to you and your son.”  He should have included Kirby in that, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.  He started to walk away, his thoughts on the last person on the agenda to see.


Serena’s voice stopped him.  He turned and gazed at her, noting the soft hue of her eyes.  ‘She is really a pretty woman,’ Scott thought to himself. 

“You mean to see Ned Jones alone?”

“I do.”

“He’s an evil man, Scott.  Take your brother with you.”

Scott was surprised at the tone in her voice; she was almost pleading with him not to go alone.  “I can take care of myself, Serena, but thank you for the concern.”

They were separated by a few yards, and Serena quickly walked to him and timidly put her hand on his arm.  “Don’t go alone, Scott,” she murmured.  “He is a man with no conscience.  He is a man…” She seemed to be searching for the right words.  “He is a man who is twisted, in everything he does.”

Her words were said so urgently, that Scott was perplexed by their intensity.  Touched by her worry, he put his hand over hers.  “I will be all right, Serena.”

She looked at him as if she were trying to think of words to convince him otherwise.  “Don’t turn your back on him,” she finally said.  “Don’t walk away.  Do you hear me?”

For some unknown reason, Scott shivered involuntarily, but agreed.  “I hear, Serena.”

She squeezed his arm gently before she removed her hand.

Scott turned away from her and once again started on his way to the Dimano.  “You’d better take care of her Kirby, and her son.  She is a good woman,” Scott instructed tersely as he walked past the man.

There was movement on the porch and Scott looked towards it.  Daisy was gripping a doll in her arms as if she was afraid someone would take it from her.   He smiled at her and waived, and her serious little face looked back at him, squinting in the sun.  One hand momentarily let go of the doll, and five fingers spread stiffly and waived back.

‘Some day,’ Scott thought, smiling to himself.  ‘Some day I am going to have one of those.’


Chapter 13

Thoughts of Daisy were quickly displaced by the uglier reality of Ned Jones as Scott came to the end of the block and inspected the street in front of him.  He could clearly see the alley that led to the back door of the Dimano about half way up the opposite side of the street.  Murdoch’s attorney was immediately to his left and up a couple of doors and the sheriff’s office was beyond that.  A block away and around the corner was the Dimano.  Directly across the street from the saloon was the livery.     He surmised that was the most strategic location if someone wanted to see the front door of the Dimano.   Scott smiled to himself concluding that is where his brother would be.

Watching the pedestrians on the sidewalks and the wagons on the road, Scott waited for an opportunity to cross with the traffic and remain unseen to anyone on the left side of the street.  He noticed a small cart loaded with barrels making its way up the street behind him, and recognized Old Man Miller.  Hoping he would turn left, Scott was rewarded when the large draft horse was reined in that direction.  Scott stepped in beside it knowing he was effectively hidden from the storefronts.  As the alley came closer, he quickly ducked between the buildings.

He felt rather silly about eluding his father and brother, but was determined to take care of Ned Jones in his own way.  Scott appreciated the fact that they cared enough to want to protect him.  However, he was more than capable of handling the matter.  He recognized his father was being just that, a father, and a new one at that, despite the fact that his sons were grown men.  The feelings that evoked in Scott were strange, but if he were honest, rather pleasant.

Johnny’s hovering was more of an irritation although he had backed off appreciably from the initial night of the drugging.  In fact, Scott recognized that without Johnny, these last weeks would have been much more difficult to get through and overcome.   His brother’s ever present shadow comforted, calmed, and helped to heal the newly awakened memories of the war and prison.  Moreover, the painful confession to Johnny a few days ago of the attempted assault while in prison resulted in stirring that horrific memory.    He knew the incident and prison would always be a part of him, but sharing it with Johnny eased the remembering.

The stench emanating from the alley attested to the junk and garbage that cluttered the dirty byway, especially the area directly behind the Dimano.  Wooden crates of all sizes lined the passage, and scraps of tin and broken bottles littered the area.  Vestiges of human waste and vomit, both fresh and not so fresh, lay molding and stinking in the damp, shadowy corners and remembrances of prison pushed into his mind.  Although a privy was located a few feet down the alley, it appeared many ‘clients’ of the saloon hadn’t made it that far.  A cracked and rusted wagon wheel tilted haphazardly against a large crate near the door of the Dimano and a broken window pointed jagged spikes heavenward as if praying to impale an unwary victim.  A hot burst of wind dangerously rocked the window, threatening to topple it and send shards of glass indiscriminately across the dusty back-way.

As Scott walked towards the Dimano, he noticed a couple of mammoth rats eating rotting food that overflowed the large barrel outside the saloon.  Most businesses burned their refuse every other day, but the Dimano obviously did not as evidenced by the mass of garbage festering in the August sun.  The large rodents eyed Scott as he approached, but did not move from the decaying heap of fermenting fruit, or the brown, slick mass of rotting vegetables.  Their sharp, yellow teeth were plainly visible as they rose on their back legs and sniffed the air with long noses and twirling whiskers, obviously disturbed by the tall intruder but unwilling to surrender their feast.

The animals stilled, watching silently as Scott drew near.  They appeared as defiant sentries with glittering eyes, standing as victors over the pile of treasured refuse, as sinister as anything Scott had seen.  They reminded Scott of when he had first entered the Confederate prison camp and rats such as this were in abundance.  Many times men too weak to fight them off would scream as the animals scampered boldly over them, leaving droppings and thick yellow urine behind on clothes and flesh.  But the men proved more ravenous than the rats and soon the animals were decimated.

Scott shuddered at the abhorrent remembrance, and picked up a long piece of scrap wood.  He needed to access the saloon and he had no intention of bowing to the menacing presence of the giant rats.  He smiled ironically to himself, realizing how appropriate their presence at the Dimano was.  Getting to within a few feet of the animals, Scott grasped the wood tightly in both hands, raised it high above his head and was ready to bring it down full force, when they suddenly sprung off the barrel and darted between his legs.   Scott involuntarily lurched when he felt the body of one slam into his boot as it ran by.

Jumpy at the touch and abrupt movement of the hated creatures, Scott nervously gripped the wooden board in his hand prepared to do battle if the rats should attack.  He saw them disappear between the crates, knew they were hiding close by and, chillingly, imagined they were watching him.  He eyed the spot closely where he had last seen their naked tails slither between the boxes, repulsed by their nature and the memories they stirred.  Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself he was in the middle of Green River and not the prison camp.  Turning his back on the animals, he focused on the door, the wood plank ready in hand.

As he reached for the knob, he heard a faint sound and darted a nervous glance over his shoulder.  He half expected to see the huge glistening rats in formation ready to clamber up his legs, but the alley was empty.  ‘They’ve got me hearing things,’ he thought and reached once more for the door.  He stopped and listened intently.  There was definitely a noise, soft and whimpering.  ‘Where the hell is it coming from?’ he wondered.

He scanned the area, but could only see refuse and boxes.  ‘There it is again!’  Definitely a low, drone caught in the throat of something human.  Scott looked towards a large wooden box a few steps away, the broken wagon wheel tilting awkwardly against it.  Pieces of a rotting blanket thrown haphazardly over the crate flapped raggedly in the dry breeze.  He cautiously stepped to the side of the crate and noticed a woman’s slipper lying just within the moldy splinters.  It was obvious from the condition of the footwear that it hadn’t been there long. 

Scott moved to the front and bending down, slowly stole a look inside, staring wide eyed at what lie within.  A bare foot lay against the rough floor, toes shifting slightly as Scott drew in a breath at the discovery.  The foot pulled away, tucking into the folds of a brown cotton skirt.

The person was obscured in the shadows of the crate and Scott peered closer to see who it was.   As the face turned deeper into the corner, long brown hair fell over a bare shoulder where the sleeve of her blouse had been torn away.  Knees and arms folded close to the body, like an injured animal withdrawing in fear of another attack, trying desperately to protect itself.  Once more a pitiful murmur escaped, and the woman tightly clenched the ripped shoulder of her blouse with a blood stained hand.

Bending further to get a better look and kneeling as close to her as he could, Scott reached out a hand and gently drew strands of hair away from her face.  He swallowed, his throat constricting and dry, as he softly called her name.  “Amanda.”

She shivered, and turned to look at him.

Scott heard the sharp intake of his own breath as he looked at her face.  Even in the grey gloom of the box he could see blood dripping from her mouth and nose, and a still bleeding gash above a swollen left eye trailed red down the side of her face.  Her white blouse was splattered with blood and torn buttons exposed the frantic rise and fall of her breasts.  “My god, Amanda.  What happened to you?” he asked, shocked at her appearance.

She choked on a muffled cry and reached out to him, collapsing against his chest, weeping quietly.  He wrapped his arms gently around her and stroked her hair, afraid that if he touched her too hard he would hurt her more.

“I couldn’t stop him,” she choked.  “He was so angry.”

“It’s all right,” he soothed, trying to calm her.  “It is all right now.  Did Ned do this?”

“Yes,” she wept.  “He kept hitting me; I thought he would kill me.”

Scott clenched his teeth angrily, outraged at the cowardly act of beating someone unable to defend themselves against a foe much stronger.   He held her close, wanting to protect her against any further hurt this man may cause.  “Come on, we need to get you out of here.  Can you stand?”

Amanda nodded and drew a hand gingerly across her face to wipe away tears.  Holding her as lightly as he could, Scott slowly backed out of the box bringing her with him.  In the full light of the afternoon sun, her injuries were very visible.  The wound over her eye oozed blood and he took out the handkerchief that Serena used just a short time before to dry her tears.  Pressing it delicately against her forehead, he could feel a slight intake of her breath as she flinched in pain.

“I’m sorry,” he said softly.  “I don’t mean to hurt you.”

Amanda held the linen to her face with a trembling hand.  Scott noticed dried blood beneath her nose and wondered if it was broken.  She had bruises and swelling on both eyes as well as her jaw and angry bruises on her neck.

“Did he hit you anywhere else, other than your face?”

“No,” she whispered tearfully.

“Do you hurt anywhere else, your stomach, your ribs, anywhere?”

She shook her head, and then said softly, “My arms hurt where he grabbed me.”

Scott studied the harsh marks on her bare arm.  Oddly, Johnny came to mind as Scott stared at the sleeve held to the blouse by a few fragile threads and distractedly wondered if his brother remembered to pick up red thread to repair his favorite shirt.  His eyes idly drifted beyond her arm, and focused on the slipper. “Amanda, you need a doctor,” and he moved to pick up her shoe.  She clutched at him frantically when he let her go.

“I am right here, Amanda.”  He tried to make his voice as comforting as he could.

She was shaking, and clutched desperately at his shirt, covering the sticky handprint left by Daisy with blood.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered, rubbing the spot with her skirt, trying to get the blood off the fabric.

“Don’t worry about it.”  He caught her hand and covered it with his.

She put her forehead against his chest momentarily, then pushed away from him and nodded as if pulling herself together.

“Here, you need to put on your shoe,” he reminded her.

She took the slipper and put it on.  Looking down at herself, she remarked, “I have to get another blouse, Scott.”

“Don’t worry about how you look.  We need to go to the doctor.”

“No, I’ll not walk through town with torn, bloody clothes. People think badly enough of me as it is.”  Tears started to fall again as she spoke but quickly subsided as she brought herself under control.  “I have some clothes inside.  It won’t take me long to get something.”

Scott touched his hand gently against her cheek and pulled strands of hair away from her face.  She was trembling, obviously in pain, and Scott marveled at her courage and need to still maintain dignity.

“You can take that whore, if you’ve a mind to buy her, Lancer.”

Scott could feel Amanda stiffen at the cruel remark.  He turned and noticed Jones standing in the doorway and tossing filthy water from a bowl in the general direction of the barrel.  It splashed over the top and against the sides, dislodging rancid vegetables that tumbled onto the ground.

“She’s not an animal for sale, Jones,” Scott spat contemptuously, his hatred for this man astounding even himself.

“Well, she ain’t worth much, I’ll give ya that.  Maybe not even worth as much as some of them black devils you was fightin’ for,” Jones sneered, spitting a great glob of tobacco in front of Scott.  He brought up a beefy arm and wiped it across his mouth.

Scott could feel Amanda clutch his arm, but she wasn’t crying.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw her look boldly at Jones, and Scott wondered if through her beating she had shown Jones any tears at all.  But, he needed to get her out of the way.  There was no question that he and Jones would come to blows, and he did not want Amanda in harm’s way.

“Amanda, you get what you need to.  Then, you’re coming with me.”  Scott looked at Jones.  “She is not coming back here.”

He shrugged.  “Hell, she’s more trouble than she’s worth.  Can’t sell enough drinks to keep her fed.  Here tell she’s stiff as a board.”  He smiled evilly at Scott.  “You ever give her a try, Lancer?  She good to you?”

Jones’ statement flared like a wind driven fire, igniting the simmering anger that Scott had managed to control for two weeks as he waited for the cowboys to return.  The tension and rift the drugging had caused within his family exploded, fueled by Amanda’s beating and Jones’ disgusting slur. Scott covered the short distance between them and pulled back his right arm, ramming his fist into Jones’ jaw, feeling teeth crack under his knuckle.  Jones tumbled awkwardly against the wagon wheel and went down in the filthy dirt.  Scott heard a sound of alarm from Amanda as he pulled up the much heavier Jones and slammed him against the crate.  He was vaguely aware that she ran into the Dimano and was relieved he wouldn’t have to worry about her.


Johnny twitched on a piece of straw, his fingers flipping at it on one end while his teeth ground it on the other.  ‘Where the hell is Scott?’ he thought, feeling he should have spied his long, tall brother by now.  He paced a bit and then looked up the street expecting Scott to come around the corner any time.  He looked down the street thinking Scott could possibly come from a different direction to put him off.  Johnny thought of going to Serena’s to try and backtrack, but was afraid he’d miss Scott if he chose those minutes to come to the Dimano.

He sighed loudly, wondering if he could somehow have missed Scott, but he knew that wasn’t possible.  Johnny had been watching the street since he left the bank with his father.  Murdoch had gone on to the attorney’s office while Johnny came to the livery.  People had passed on foot, on horseback, and even a few wagons, including Cyrus Clark, Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, and Old Man Miller.  All had waived as they passed, but no brother.

Glancing at the livery boy, he thought of asking the kid to keep a lookout for Scott, but discounted it quickly.  The kid was nosey and would want to know why.  Regardless of what Johnny told him, he’d make up some fantastic story that Johnny Madrid needed his help to keep tabs on his brother.  As it was now, Johnny could hardly turn around without stepping over the gangling fourteen year old.

“Can I get ya somethin’, Johnny?” the boy asked for what seemed the twentieth time.

“No, thanks, Matt,” Johnny answered trying to keep his patience.

“Ya sure, Johnny?  It wouldn’t be no trouble to get somethin’ for ya.”

Johnny turned a glare on the boy, but looking at the wanting-to-please expression on his face, gave it up.  “Sure, Matt.  Go over to the mercantile and get me some peppermint, will ya?” Johnny tossed a coin and Matt caught it.  Johnny didn’t want the peppermint and was planning to let the boy keep it when he returned.  Better yet, he hoped to have spotted his long-overdue brother by then.

All smiles, Matt exclaimed excitedly, “I’ll be back right quick, Johnny.”  Big feet at the end of lanky, clumsy legs scrambled across the large barn, stirring puffs of dirt and dried manure as they landed heavily on the floor.

Johnny chuckled as the boy almost tripped on a small piece of wood, but quickly righted himself.  Within seconds he was out of sight.  “Should have thought of that before,” Johnny said out loud, looking once more to the street for Scott.

Scott’s disclosure several days ago of the incident while in prison haunted Johnny.  It was a possibility that had surfaced the night of the drugging with Jones’ ugly implication, and had dogged Johnny ever since.  His softly toned question to his father the morning after, ‘You think someone could have hurt Scott like that, in prison?’ voiced the worry then, but Johnny didn’t mention it again.  Trying to push it aside, it nevertheless would pop into his mind unbidden, making him edgy and irritable.  And his brother, the very one he wanted to protect, happened to be in the way when he could no longer control his frustration. The reality that Scott was attacked made Johnny acknowledge to himself that selfishly, he really did not want to know.

He thought of Amanda and how surprised he was at his own aggressive reaction to her when they met her on the street.  Even though she had taunted Johnny with her callous remark the night his brother was drugged, his normal reaction would have been to just walk away.  He saw how afraid she was of him; the same fear he had seen in his mother so many times.  Normally always able to restrain himself, Johnny found this family thing certainly had a way of making you drop your guard and jumble your control.

“Where the hell is he?” Johnny voiced out loud.  Scott should have been here by now and, blabbing kid or not, when Matt got back Johnny was going to give him a few coins to keep an eye out for his brother.  Johnny was going to go to Serena’s and have Matt come get him if Scott showed up at the Dimano.

Having made a decision, he paced impatiently waiting for Matt’s return.  Something definitely didn’t feel right and he needed to get going.  He took a quick glance out the door hoping to see Scott and abruptly stopped.  Squinting his eyes to focus better, Johnny’s heart did a little flip when he spied Serena and Kirby going into Val’s office.  If they were there, where was Scott?

“Hey, Johnny, here’s your peppermints.”

Johnny was so intent on watching the door to Val’s office he didn’t hear Matt return.  He shifted to the side as his hand went to his gun, but he stopped long before it made contact.  An obviously frightened Matt stared wide-eyed at Johnny, his open mouth revealing a peppermint candy sitting on his tongue.  Feeling sweat erupt on his brow at what Matt thought could have happened, Johnny quickly tried to reassure the boy.

“I’m sorry, Matt.  You kind of snuck up on me.  But everything’s okay, you hear?”

Matt mutely nodded, eyes glazed and obviously not okay at all.

Johnny needed to get to Val’s, now, but did not want to leave the frightened boy like this.  He grabbed his arms and slightly shook him.  “I’m too fast to do anything I don’t want to do.  You understand?  Didn’t come near close to drawing….Matt, you understand?”

The boy seemed to be collecting himself.  “Sure, sure Johnny, I understand.”  He wiped a drool of sticky peppermint that had escaped from his mouth onto his shirt sleeve.

‘At least he’s talking,’ Johnny thought.  “Here, Matt.  I want you to do me another favor.”  Johnny pulled out a gold coin and put it in Matt’s hand.  “I want you to watch for my brother and come get me at the sheriff’s office if you see him.  Can you do that?”

Matt stared dumbly at the gold coin and for a minute, Johnny thought he was going to fall over more from the shock of holding that much money than from the slight movement Johnny had made for his gun.

Shaking him again, Johnny made eye contact with the boy.  “You understand?”

“Yeah, Johnny, I understand.  I’ll watch fer Scott.”

Johnny brought his hand up to the boy’s face and rested it on his neck.  “You okay?”

Matt nodded his head.  “I’m okay.  I’ll watch fer him and come git ya at Sheriff Crawford’s.”

“Good boy,” Johnny remarked, satisfied that Matt was completely recovered from both shocks.  Dropping his hand, he patted the boy reassuringly on the shoulder and turned for Val’s office, looking back once to see the kid leaning against the side of the large livery, intently watching the front door of the Dimano.


Johnny didn’t care about the entrance he made into Val’s office; his focus was on why Serena and Kirby were there and where Scott was.  Val was standing beside his desk, coffee pot in one hand, cup in the other and seemed to be in the process of pouring himself some of the awful brew.  His eyes were still looking at the two visitors when Johnny came barreling through the door.

Serena and Kirby stared at Johnny, obviously startled.  Kirby drew Serena protectively behind him and looked towards the sheriff.  Val glanced at Johnny, back at the newly arrived couple, and set the coffee pot and cup down on the stove.

“Well, it seems all of a sudden I’m a pretty popular fella.  Should we all sit down so’s we can figure out why?”

“Val, Scott was at Serena’s earlier.  I need to know where he is now.”

Serena peeked out from behind Kirby.  “He said he was going to the Dimano, Johnny.”

“How long ago was that Serena?”

“I would guess about 20 minutes or so.  I told him I’d come talk to Val here just as soon as I could get a few things together to leave.”

“Where ya goin’ Serena?  Ya know Kirby ain’t goin’ nowhere til Scott says he’s not gonna sign a complaint?”

“I know that Sheriff.  Scott said if I talked to you about Ned, he would drop everything against Steve.”  She stepped beside Kirby and leaned against him, and he put an arm around her shoulders.

“I’ll need to talk to Scott to make sure that’s what he said, ya understand that Serena?”

“Yes, Sheriff, I understand.  Scott said we could stay at Lancer until this was all settled and we decided where we wanted to go.”

“Val, I don’t care about all this stuff,” Johnny stated impatiently.  “I need to figure out where Scott is now, cuz I’ve been watching the Dimano and I didn’t see him go in there.”

“There’s more than one door to the saloon, Johnny,” Val stated simply.

Johnny stared unbelievingly at Val.  “Damn,” he whispered.  “Damn, how could I be so stupid?  Of course, he went through the alley.”  Johnny grabbed the door and threw it open.

“Johnny, I’m comin’ with ya.”  Val reached for his hat and started after an already gone Johnny.  “You two stay right here,” he instructed tersely to Serena and Kirby.

“Well, what are we supposed to do til you get back, Sheriff?” Kirby shouted at Val’s back.

“Drink some coffee,” Val hollered as he tried to catch up to Johnny.  He’d taken several long strides down the boardwalk when he ran smack into the broad chest of Murdoch Lancer.


The wooden chair was intolerably uncomfortable.  For all the money Murdoch Lancer paid his attorney, you would think he could afford something better than what he provided for his clients.  Murdoch grumbled to himself and tried once more shifting his large frame to suit the chair, finally giving up and striding to the window.

He did not feel in control and that made him more than just uncomfortable.  Of course, since his sons had come home that happened a lot; the unpleasant feeling of not having a grip on all of the factors in his life.  Even though he announced unequivocally that ‘he called the tune’, he found there were many different types of ‘tunes’ connected to these two young factors that eluded him.  Scrubbing a hand across his face, he paced, the heavy tread of his body disturbing long settled dust.

“Murdoch, you are the only man I know who can make an apparently clean floor dirty just by walking across it.  Now, would you be so kind as to sit down before you muss the atmosphere and my legal papers get gritty?”

“If your chairs weren’t so torturous to sit in, I would do just that,” Murdoch complained snappishly.  “You’re a successful attorney, Franklin, why don’t you show it and spend some money on good upholstery?  You don’t have to take every spare dime you have to the grave, you know.”

“Murdoch, you’ve sat in those chairs many a time without complaint.  There is obviously more on your mind than this land purchase.”  Marsh Franklin sat back in his chair and eyed his client and friend.  “And I thought your sons would be here as well.  They do need to sign off on this contract as they are one-third partners.”

“I am well aware of that, Marsh,” he retorted shortly.  “They will be here.”  Murdoch turned back to the window, edgy, irritated, and now regretful that he had barked so loudly at his friend.  At this point he was ready to take on Ned Jones himself and had no doubt that he could pummel him severely.

“Murdoch, is everything all right with your boys?”  The question was broached softly, and reflected not only concern, but compassion.

Murdoch sighed deeply, lowered his head, and then glanced back at his attorney of some twenty-five years.  They had both settled in the country at the same time; young, idealistic, excited.  When Murdoch had lost his first wife and son, Marsh was there for him as a friend.  When Maria left with Johnny, Marsh advised Murdoch on connections he had in attempting to locate them.  After Murdoch’s return from Boston empty-handed, Marsh made every effort to gain custody of Scott.  Disappointingly, distance, influence, and the number of attorneys Harlan Garret had on his payroll made the attempt all too futile.

Yes, Marsh had been there for Murdoch and Murdoch had reciprocated, sticking by Marsh when he was accused of unprofessional activities.  They were proven unfounded, but if Murdoch Lancer had not helped Marsh Franklin through that time, he may have taken his own life.

“I’m sorry, Marsh, for snapping at you.”  He walked away from the window and settled into the chair.  “You probably heard about what happened to Scott a couple of weeks ago at the Dimano?”

“Hard to keep something like that quiet in a town like Green River, Murdoch.”

Murdoch nodded knowingly and squeezed his lips together.  He folded his hands tightly over his belly, once flat but now bulging slightly with age, and tilted his head to the summer streaked window.  People passed like shadows by the window, but Murdoch didn’t focus enough as to recognize who they were.  “Ned Jones---he’s involved in some way and my son has it in his mind that Jones will tell him.”

Marsh led out an audible puff of air.  “The sheriff has talked to me some about Jones.  Afraid he is slipperier than a wet frog.”  Franklin had a habit of twiddling his thumbs when he was thinking or uneasy, as he was doing now.  “I’m hoping Scott is not asking him alone.”

“He is,” Murdoch said worriedly.

The twiddling became faster.  “Murdoch…..”

“I know, Marsh, but what could I do?  Scott insisted and he’s not a little boy.  He’s a grown man wanting to take care of his own problems.  I need to respect that.”

“I understand that, Murdoch, but Ned Jones is not a normal foe.  He is sly, but base.  If he were a man of intelligence, he would not be sitting in a filthy bar in Green River.  He reacts violently and quickly if he’s cornered without thinking of the consequences.”

“Why do you think I’m biting your head off, Marsh?  I know that, and Johnny is trying to watch his back discreetly.  If Scott knew, he would not be happy about it.”  Murdoch pulled at his chin and glanced unhappily towards Marsh.  “I don’t know what else I can do.”

Marsh studied the tall man silently, and then asked, “Do you think Scott is at the Dimano now?”

“I’m not sure, but given the time, he should be.”

“Well then, I would suggest we pay the Dimano a visit.”  Marsh rose from his leather chair, grabbed his hat and walked to the door.  “Are you coming, Murdoch, or do I need to rescue your son by myself?”

“Marsh,” Murdoch exclaimed in shock, “Scott will not like our interference.”

“What he likes, be damned, Murdoch.  Do you or do you not want your son to at least have a fair fight with that unscrupulous dog?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Then, let us be on our way.”  Marsh flung open the door and waited for Murdoch to go before him.

Murdoch stared at him for a minute, clamped his jaw tight and grabbed his hat.  “You are right, my good friend.”

They went through the door and bumped into Johnny and Val running down the boardwalk from the sheriff’s office.


“What’s going on, Johnny?”  Murdoch sounded stressed to Val’s ear.  He was holding Johnny’s arm as Johnny tried to twist away.

“Let go, Murdoch,” Johnny exclaimed anxiously.  “Scott went in the back way of the Dimano.  He’s got to have been there at least ten minutes.”

Murdoch released Johnny’s arm and remarked tersely, “That’s just where we were headed.  Let’s go.”

Val was impressed at how quickly Murdoch moved considering how large he was.  Thinking the much younger Johnny would easily outrun his father, Val noted Murdoch could not only keep up, but was ahead of his son.  The smaller and shorter legged Marsh Franklin moved as fast as he could, but was soon several yards behind the three men.

Val noticed that several people were watching them as they ran across the street and did not want a crowd ogling whatever would be in the alley.  Slowing down a bit, he stopped at the entrance to the alley and turned to those who were already just a few steps behind him.  “All right, folks, there’s nothing here ta see so don’t bother coming.”

“How do you know there’s nothing to see, Crawford?  You ain’t even been down there yet.”

“Moran, it’s not yer business, and ya never mind, unless ya wanna be first on my list next time I need a volunteer for a posse.  And keep in mind I’ll look till I find ya.”  Mike Moran was never around when Val needed help, but Val would make good on his promise to come find him if Mike didn’t back off right now.

Obviously deciding the wisest course of action was to disappear, as he was quite good at doing, Moran quickly walked back across the street.

“Now, the rest of ya git.  Nothing ta see,” Val urged as he turned to follow Murdoch and the others, making sure the nosy and curious were obeying his instructions.  It didn’t take long to catch up and Val stopped abruptly, watching a bloody Ned Jones rush like a bull at Scott Lancer.


Scott’s last view of Amanda was a slippered foot disappearing through the back door of the Dimano.  He didn’t have any illusions that the heavier Jones had the advantage of size; but if Scott didn’t win this fight, not only may Jones kill him without qualm, but he would also seek revenge on Amanda.  However, Scott possessed something that Jones would never understand; anger spurred by a need for justice for not only his family but also for Amanda.  When Scott had held her and tracked his hand across her battered face, she became more than Danny’s sister.  And whatever reasons she harbored for refusing his help, whatever hurt had caused her bitterness, he respected her endurance, her courage and her need to make her own way.   As far as Scott was concerned, she had just wandered off the main road for a bit.

When Jones fell into the dirt after Scott’s first punch, it didn’t take him long to come to his feet, black hatred in his eyes.  Scott managed to give him a quick left jab that seemed to stun Jones momentarily, but he quickly rushed at Scott.  Scott was lighter on his feet and easily jumped out of the way, putting out his foot to trip the raging Jones.  Jones slid for a few feet driven by momentum, and clipped the broken window.  The window toppled, spewing glass across the ground, large and small shards prism-like in the sun, the light filtering through dusty film.

Enraged and bloody, Jones charged at Scott and rammed into his belly, taking the slender man to the ground.  Scott managed to bring one knee between them and it disappeared into the soft flesh of Jones stomach.  Long fingers gripped a flabby neck as Jones wrapped his arms around Scott, seizing him in a bear hug.

Trying to break the painful clasp, Scott pushed up on Jones face, pressing his head back as far as he could.  Jones’ hold was crushing, but Scott could feel a weakening as his left hand remained encircled on Jones’ throat.

It seemed to be happening so fast, but in slow motion at the same time.  Scott knew that other men had entered the alley and as he rolled in the hold of the stronger Jones, a shining star, a blue flowered shirt and long, long legs rushed by.  Scott was distracted at the visions for a moment, allowing Jones’ hand to slip down to his thigh.  Jones squeezed.

Dazed thoughts filtered through Scott’s mind.  ‘Virginia – was it Virginia?  Or Carolina?’  Scott couldn’t remember at this point and it didn’t matter.  It was hot and the men were desperate.  Once more Scott heard his own screams for the guards, and knew where Jones wanted to be.  Kicking with all of his might at the moving, enveloping fingers, Scott recognized the harsh ‘oomph’ of escaping air as Jones’ lungs drained under the relentless thrust of scrambling legs.  Scott felt Jones weaken and he pushed him off, clambered quickly to his feet, and inhaled raggedly.

Jones pulled himself to his hands and knees, eyeing Scott hungrily, but full of wrath.  Scott knew the look and a horrid sour bubbled into the back of his throat.  Blood was smeared across Jones’ face, red, dirty; his hands were bleeding from spikes of glass of the fractured window.  But Scott could see that Jones wasn’t finished.  Scott hated what he was going to do, but did it anyway.   Swinging his leg with all of the horrible force of wanting to stop an unstoppable evil, Scott lifted his foot…


Johnny’s first thought as he watched Jones crash into his brother was stopping him.  Val’s hand clamped on his arm, squeezing, hurting as Johnny tried to pull away.

“He needs to do this, Johnny.  Let him try.”

Val’s plea---it was a plea!  ‘Why is he pleading for Scott?’ Johnny wondered, confused and searched the grizzled face of a friend he knew longer than his own family.

“If it goes too far, we’re here for him.”  Val shook the arm he held on to.  “He’s yours, Johnny; he’s your brother.  Don’t take this from him.”

Johnny looked towards his father for help.  His father loved Scott, Val didn’t.  His father would know.  But Murdoch held his eyes and slightly nodded.  “Let him do it, Son.  Let him do it.”

Disbelieving, Johnny held his breath as he watched the bulkier Jones move his hand along his brother’s leg and disappear between their bodies.  Johnny felt a frantic need to kill him!  ‘Please,’ he almost prayed, but knew somehow it wasn’t proper to pray to kill another.  No, he wouldn’t pray, he would just do it.  But he saw Scott fight back, stronger than his slender frame should have been able to, and Jones grunted into the filth and broken slivers of a ruined window.

Like an animal on all fours with blood splotching on the glass shards beneath him, Jones glared menacingly at Scott.  His mouth snarled into a smile and he licked his lips.  Johnny could tell he wasn’t done yet; far from it.  And Scott was a fair fighter---he wouldn’t hit Jones when he was down.

Recollections of words Johnny said to his father many nights before, about horses and their colors came back to him.  Then Scott pulled his right leg back and heaved it towards Jones’ face.  At least, that’s where Johnny thought it was going but it veered towards his belly just before impact.  Jones grunted and folded.  ‘Damn, Boston,’ Johnny thought, ‘I was right.  Ya can’t make a white horse black.’  A head shot would have finished Jones and probably done a lot of damage.  Hitting him in the gut might take him out, but there was too much flesh to hurt him proper.

A breathless Scott bumped into the wall behind him; he bowed his head and put his hands on his knees, inhaling deeply.  He glanced over at the silent Jones and then turned towards the men in the alley.    He smiled slightly, winked at Johnny and with a slight stagger, started walking towards them.


It took everything that Murdoch could muster to keep from running to his stumbling son.  Horrified at the bull-like Jones slamming into Scott when they first entered the alley, he watched tensely, his own fists balled tightly, as the much thinner Scott struggled to overtake his adversary.

When Johnny wanted to go to his brother and Val stopped him, Murdoch wanted to slap Val’s arm away and hit him.  What right did he have to put his hands on this son when he had failed the other one so abysmally?  But there was something in Val’s tone when he said, “He’s yours, Johnny...Don’t take this from him.”  What did he mean?  Why did it seem so right to do as he asked?  And strangely, Murdoch agreed with a, “Let him do it, Son.  Let him do it.”

Letting out a huge sigh of relief when Jones stilled, Murdoch waited for his faltering son to reach them.  There was a look of release and satisfaction on Scott’s face that Murdoch was grateful to see.  It had been a long two weeks, and hopefully everything was over now.  A fishing trip ran through his mind.  Yes, they would go up to that new piece of property they were going to buy.  Documents still needed to be signed, but that wouldn’t take long.  Just a few minutes at Marsh’s and maybe by tomorrow, the day after at the latest, they could take a small vacation and see what fish they could get out of that stream.

Scott was within a few feet of him now, and Murdoch reached out a hand to steady him.  A gunshot resounded; and then another.  Scott’s face registered surprise; he took a couple more steps and fell into his father’s arms.


Scott heard the report of the gun and felt the impact but didn’t realize at first what had happened.  He was faltering but thought it was because of the fight.  It was when he felt something wet on his back that he knew it was more than the fight, and then he was falling.  He thought of Serena.  “Don’t turn your back on him.  Don’t walk away.”

He wrapped into the bulk of something warm and comforting, until a large hand pressed painfully on his back.  He could hear his father; he sounded frantic and so unlike Murdoch.  ‘It doesn’t hurt,’ he wanted to say, ‘only don’t press so hard.’  He thought he was going to be sick and his father barked at someone to get the doctor.  He could smell sweet tobacco, leather, and felt rough cotton against his cheek.  Whatever he was cradled against was strong and reassuring and Scott decided it was okay to go to sleep.


Johnny whirled at the sound of the shot, his gun in hand before the second shot fired.  Jones held a derringer and while Johnny flashed with a ‘where the hell’, the back of Jones’ head flew off.  Johnny clipped the gun towards the back door of the saloon, but stopped before he fired.  He shivered, wondering at the vision.  Standing with arms held out and the gun still pointed at the dead Jones was a woman, hair matted and in disarray, face obscured with bruises and blood, and a red splattered blouse hanging raggedly off her shoulder.

Holstering his gun and tearing his gaze away from the unearthly site, he looked towards his father.  Murdoch was cradling a fallen Scott, holding a large bandana against an ever broadening crimson spot on his brother’s back.  Running towards them, Johnny slammed down on his knees and noted the shallow breathing and pale face of Scott.

 “Murdoch?” he murmured softly.

His father looked up at him, eyes grim with worry and fear.  Johnny closed his own eyes and this time did pray. 

“He’ll be okay.  He’ll be okay.”  Murdoch sounded like he was trying to desperately convince himself of that.  “Help me get him to Sam’s.”


Chapter 14

‘How long has it been?’ Murdoch wondered to himself and glanced at the large grandfather clock.  His eyes saw where the hands were, but his mind didn’t register the time.  He tried to remember what time it had been when he last looked, but couldn’t.

Bowing his head and resting his elbows on his knees, Murdoch distractedly picked at the calluses on his large hands.  Although he had washed, there was still residue of dried blood around his nails and deep in the leathery crags of his fingers.  Turning over his right hand, he contemplated the stained black-red lines on his palm.  He recalled Scott attempting to pull away from his hand as he pressed the bandana against his son’s back, trying to slow the bleeding.  He thought of Scott’s hands and his long fingers clutching at the fabric of Murdoch’s rough cotton shirt.  His face was so pale, and his breathing erratic.  Scott’s head had rested solidly against Murdoch’s chest, silver-blue eyes half closed, the relieved gaze of just a few moments before gone, suddenly dazed and pain filled.

“Murdoch, how long has it been?” 

Johnny’s softly murmured question startled him momentarily and he quickly eyed his son.

“I’m not sure, Johnny,” he answered hesitantly, and looked at the clock again.  “I don’t think it’s been too long though.”  Murdoch’s gaze went to the door of the surgery, wishing Sam would come out.

Johnny sighed and got up from the small couch.  “Murdoch, sit here.  It’s more comfortable than that chair you’re in.”

“I’m all right, Johnny.”  He scrubbed a hand across his face, needing to think of something other than his son in the next room.  “Val didn’t seem to have much to say when he brought the woman in.”

“He has his hands full; trying to get Amanda taken care of til Sam can look at her, and then getting Jones’ body to the undertaker.”

Val had led an extremely quiet and pale Amanda by the arm into the doctor’s office shortly after Murdoch and Johnny had carried Scott in.  He had recruited the Widow Hargis to sit with Amanda until Dr. Jenkins could see to her, and the good Widow agreed, taking Amanda to another room.  Although fairly evident who beat Amanda, Val verified that it had been Jones.  After asking about Scott’s condition, Val indicated he would return after removing Jones’ body to the undertaker.

No sooner had Val left than Teresa arrived, her face anxious.  Clutching nervously at the arm of her guardian, she had asked about Scott.  With no news to give her, Murdoch had requested that she help tend to Amanda.  He knew she saw through his ploy of distracting her worry, and he also recognized that she complied willingly.  With a promise to let her know as soon as Doctor Jenkins was finished, she kissed Johnny lightly on the cheek and joined Widow Hargis and Amanda.  

“She looked pretty beat up, didn’t she?”  Murdoch was shocked at Amanda’s appearance.  He had been so concerned with Scott that he did not notice the woman who saved his son’s life.

“Yeah, she did.”  Johnny rubbed his eyes tiredly. 

“I suppose seeing her like that…Scott wouldn’t have handled it well.”

“Nope.  Boston wouldn’t have handled it well at all.”  Johnny turned towards the door of the surgery and stared at it, then walked back to the couch and forlornly plopped down.  He lowered his head to the back of the couch and focused his eyes on the ceiling.

Several long minutes ticked by as the clock’s hands progressed second by second, making the only sound or movement in the room.   Murdoch’s eyes slipped intermittently to the surgery door where Sam and his wife were working on Scott.  Once in a while he would exchange a glance with Johnny, acknowledge unspoken reassurance with a grim smile and resume the worried wait.

“I wonder how she came to be here, in Green River.”  Murdoch’s low baritone wrapped around the small room, giving it warmth.

“I don’t know.  Scott didn’t know either.”

“She is a long way from Indiana.  What are the chances that she would end up in the same small town as Scott?”  Murdoch once more picked at his hands.

“Maybe…maybe it just happened.”

“Coincidence?”  Murdoch eyed Johnny speculatively.

Johnny nodded.  “Could be.”

“I suppose.”  Murdoch tiredly rested his forehead on his hand before studying his son.  “Johnny?”

  “Yeah?”  His eyes were closed, but his fingers played along the buckle of his gun belt.

“Scott told me a couple of days ago about what Jones said in the Dimano.”

Johnny’s fingers stopped, but he didn’t open his eyes.  “I know, Murdoch.  Scott said he told you.”

Murdoch watched his son, wondering what he was thinking, wondering what else he knew.  “Did Scott know?”

The clock ticked noisily.  “Did Scott know what?”  The voice was hesitant, cautious.

“Did Scott know what Jones was?”

Blue eyes came up to stare pointedly at his father.  “Scott knew what kind of man Jones was.”

“Did he?”  Murdoch scratched absently at his chin.  “I’ve lived a long time, Johnny, and seen all kinds of men.  Even men like Jones.  The look in their eyes, almost hungry.”  He barely voiced the last words.

Johnny was obviously uncomfortable with his father’s observation, and shifted. “No,” he finally admitted.  “Scott didn’t know what Jones wanted from him and I wasn’t going to tell him.”

Murdoch pursed his lips.  “When did you find out?”

“I went to see Val the day after Scott was drugged.  Jones came in, wanted Val to arrest me for beating him up.  I figured it out…some of the things he said, how he said ‘em.”

“Why didn’t you tell Scott?”

“I didn’t see no reason for it!”  With more restraint, he remarked, “After all he’d been through; I just didn’t, is all.”  He ran his hand along the arm of the couch, absently smoothing the embroidered doily.

“Did you think he couldn’t handle it, Son?”  The word son was tenderly offered, with an inflection of kindness and affection.  Murdoch noticed that Johnny’s body stilled, and he lifted his eyes to his father’s.

“I didn’t want him to have to.”

The beseeching manner and sadness in the tone of his voice caught Murdoch’s heart.  “Some reason you didn’t tell me?” he queried gently.

“Oh, Murdoch,” Johnny sighed.  “I don’t know.  Things just got complicated so fast.”

“What complications, Johnny?”

Johnny glanced guardedly at his father, as if he had given away too much.

“Scott’s a strong man.  He could have handled what Jones was.  I could have as well.”  Murdoch gazed intently at his son, wondering what he was holding back.  “Is there something more that I do not understand?”

Lowering his eyes, Johnny ran his tongue over his lips.  “Murdoch, it has to come from Scott.  He asked me not to tell you.”  The words were faint, spoken in a whisper.

Murdoch sat back in the chair, his eyes fixed on Johnny.   ‘What am I missing?’ he thought to himself.  He went over everything that had happened since the night Scott was drugged, all of the conversations, manners, actions.  And then it came to him, the softly toned question that Johnny had asked those many, many days ago: ‘You think someone could have hurt Scott like that, in prison?’  That was the only explanation Murdoch could think of that would keep Johnny silent about Jones.  Something had happened to Scott in prison and Johnny didn’t want to add to an already heavy burden.

Clenching his fists, his nails dug into the hard skin of his palms.  Sickened, Murdoch thought of his innately kind hearted, thoughtful son who went out of his way to help people and cringed at what he may have suffered.  “Johnny?”

“Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted quietly.  “It’s Scott’s place to tell.  Not mine.”

“Just tell me this, without the details.  Did it happen?”  Murdoch looked squarely at his son, understanding if a promise was made, Johnny would keep it.  But hoping a yes or no would not be a betrayal to his brother.

As if trying to gauge if he had the right to give his father an answer, a brief, “No,” spilled abruptly out of his mouth and he lowered his eyes, hooding them in the shadow of his lashes.

Murdoch let out a breath, and relaxed.  “Thank you, Son.”  His words were subdued but grateful. 

Johnny nervously rose from the couch and walked to the surgery door.  He bowed his head, and laughed with muted sarcasm and bitterness.   “You know what tops everything, Murdoch?   We were all hounding after Scott not to go this alone; and even when we were all there, he still got a bullet in his back.”  Johnny scrubbed back his bangs, the movement revealing his frustration.

“Sometimes even the best of intentions can’t stop things from happening.  Who would have thought that Ned Jones would shoot a man in the back with witnesses looking on?”

“Amanda did. She fired at Jones almost at the same time Jones fired at Scott.”

That truth was unexpected.  The closer it drifted, the more ironic the whole scenario seemed.  Amanda knew what Jones was capable of doing and was prepared to deal with it.   Amanda had saved Scott’s life, but would not let Scott save hers.  ‘Who is this woman?’ Murdoch wondered.

The turn of the doorknob brought Murdoch immediately to his feet and father and son watched expectantly as Sam Jenkins entered the room, followed closely by his wife carrying blood soaked linens.  Murdoch swallowed heavily, mesmerized by the stained bandages and the cloying smell of blood they released.

“How is he?” Johnny barked impatiently.

Sam quirked an eyebrow at the young man and laid a hand gently on his shoulder.  “He will be fine, Johnny.”

Johnny expelled a heavy sigh and nodded slightly, lowering his head, visibly withdrawing into the solitary comfort of relief.


Turning his attention to a very worried father, Sam explained, “He’s lost quite a bit of blood, and he will be weak, but the bullet was a small caliber.  Other than being painful, the wound itself is not too serious. It traveled at an angle, and actually is much longer than it is deep. He is sleeping now, and should for another several hours.”

“That’s it?  No long term problems?”

“None that I can see, Murdoch.  He needs to rest for several days and I wouldn’t have him mending fences or roping steers for a couple of weeks anyway.  But he should recover very well.”

“When can we bring him home?”

“Let’s see how he is tomorrow afternoon.  He’ll be weak so you’ll need a wagon, and you know what to look for as far as infection goes.  I’ll give him some morphine for the trip home.  But, like I said, the wound will be more uncomfortable than serious.”

“Thank you, Sam, so very much.”  Murdoch felt himself ease and glanced Johnny’s way.  Johnny acknowledged him with a small smile and lift of his head.  “Well, I guess I’d better let Teresa know.  And, by the way Sam, the young woman who saved his life is in need of your attention in the next room.  She looks to have been badly beaten by Ned Jones.”

“If I may ask, Murdoch, where is Ned Jones?  We were in such a hurry when you brought Scott in, I didn’t get all of the details.”

“Dead, Sam.  Amanda shot him as he was preparing to shoot Scott again.”

“I see.”  Sam frowned before continuing.  “Another bullet may have killed Scott, Murdoch.  I would say this woman has done not only you and your son a great service, but the town as well.  He was a detestable man.”  A look of complete disgust formed on Sam’s face.

“Sam, can we see Scott?”

“Yes, and in fact, you can help me get him settled into a bed.  That surgery table isn’t the most comfortable.  But after that, it would mean an easier sleep if the three of you weren’t crowded in there.”

Murdoch nodded his head in understanding. “Johnny, would you take Teresa home?  I know you’d rather stay, but that way you can get a wagon ready and come back with it tomorrow.”

Murdoch thought Johnny would give him an argument, but surprisingly agreed.  Murdoch could only surmise that it had been an extremely long two weeks and the tension and stress in the family seemed to have taken its toll on Johnny.

When they entered the room the heavy smell of chloroform was evident.  Scott was lying on his stomach, his face pallid but his breathing regular.  A light sweat had slightly dampened his hair, and he appeared peaceful, and comfortable.  If it weren’t for the bulky bandages wrapped around his lower back, he would have looked as if he were just sleeping.  Lifting him carefully from the table, they lowered him onto the bed.

“Put him on his side.”  Complying with Sam’s instructions, they laid him down and Sam put several pillows behind him so Scott wouldn’t roll onto his back.  “I want him off that wound at least until he goes home.”

Scott moaned slightly, leaned into the pillows, and then settled.  Sam checked his pulse and his eyes and nodded with approval.

“Well, I’d best check on Amanda.  I’ll send Teresa in.”  Sam looked back at them from the door.  “Now, please, don’t take too much time.”

Murdoch watched as Johnny walked to the bed and stared down at his brother.  The sheet covering Scott draped below his waist and across his hips.  Johnny brought it up to his shoulders and tucked a bare arm in under it.  “He looks comfortable enough.”

“He’s still under sedation, Son.  He shouldn’t be in any pain.”

Johnny’s hand hovered above Scott’s hair, as if he wanted to touch him, but didn’t.  He brought it back and tucked it into his belt.

“You don’t have to be afraid to touch him.”

Johnny glanced at his father, nodded his head, and skimmed his fingers lightly over Scott’s hair.


They had been so engrossed in Scott, that they did not hear Teresa enter the room.

“Yes, darling.”  Murdoch walked over to her and drew her to him, wrapping her in his large embrace.

“He’s okay?”

“That’s what Sam tells us.  He should be fine, Teresa.”

She walked over to Scott and kissed him lightly on the forehead, her hand gently smoothing back bangs from his brow.

“Teresa, Sam said he wants him to rest.  So, Johnny and you are going home and coming back tomorrow with a wagon.”

“But, Murdoch can’t we stay?  He might need something,” Teresa reasoned.

“Anything he needs Sam can give it to him.  It would help me a great deal if you would do as I ask.”

“All right, but you promise me something Murdoch Lancer.  You promise me that you’ll get some rest as well.  Will you get a room at the hotel, and use it?”


“No, Murdoch.  Now I did as you asked and didn’t see Emily.  Why can’t you do this for me? Please.”

It was the please said so appealingly that brought him down.  “All right, Teresa.  I will get a room at the hotel.”

“Good.  Thank you.”  Standing on tiptoe, she reached up to kiss his cheek.  Murdoch lowered his tall frame so she could reach him.

“Do you need anything from the ranch?  Clothes, shaving equipment?”

“No, Johnny.  Sam always has extra nightshirts of all sizes.  And he has plenty of razors,” Murdoch retorted amusingly. 

Teresa and Johnny walked to the door, but Johnny glanced back at his father from the doorway.  “Take care of him, Murdoch.  Okay?”

“I will, Johnny.”

When he was alone with Scott, Murdoch pulled up a rocking chair from the corner of the room and set it close to the bed.  He lowered his large frame stiffly into it and rocked, watching for any reaction from Scott.  But Scott didn’t move; just the slow, easy in and out of his breathing.  It was almost hypnotic to watch him.  Murdoch could hear the muffled tick of the grandfather clock through the door and between that, the rocking, and watching Scott sleep, Murdoch’s eyes grew heavy.


Val stepped into the waiting room of Sam Jenkins’ office, surprised to find it empty.  It was eerily quiet, except for the loud ticking of the old grandfather clock. He expected to find a hovering Johnny or sour Murdoch, or at least hear the sound of their voices emanating from one of the rooms.  He hoped the silence didn’t mean anything more than that and Scott’s injury hadn’t proved fatal.  The first thing that sprang to his mind was how Johnny would take his brother’s death.

“Hell,” he said out loud.  “I’m worse than old man Tidings.”  Mr. Tidings was well into his 80’s and, thrived on worrying about things that never materialized.  Much to Doc Jenkins annoyance, the old man came to see him at least once a week with some ailment.  Sam had grumbled on occasion that Mr. Tidings would dance on everyone’s grave, he was so damn healthy.

Val was later than he expected to be.  It had taken him a while to find the undertaker and talk to him about what to do with Jones’ body. He also forgot that Serena and Kirby were still waiting for him in his office.  He was halfway to Sam’s when he remembered and cursing tiredly, retraced his steps.  They were able to give him the real motive for Scott’s drugging.  Knowing that Jones had been the instigator didn’t surprise Val, but hearing it from Kirby closed the book on the nasty incident---at least as far as the law was concerned. 

Deciding to find Sam before peaking into the various rooms, he knocked lightly on the door that led to the living quarters of the doctor and his wife.  He could hear footsteps approaching, and the door swung open, revealing a rather harried looking Mrs. Jenkins.  Again, the thought that Scott may have died popped into his mind.

Removing his hat and gripping it lightly in both hands, he said, “Ma’am, I do hope I’m not botherin’ ya any.  But I’d be obliged if Doc Jenkins could talk to me for a bit.”

“Certainly, Sheriff Crawford, but he’s been called away.  I don’t expect him for some time.  Is there anything I can do for you or questions I may answer?”

“Yes ma’am.  It’s awful quiet and I was jest wonderin’ about Scott.”

“Scott will be fine, Sheriff.  His father is sitting with him.  In fact, I was just making some coffee to take to Murdoch.”

Val lightened immediately with the news, grateful that Scott would be all right.  “And Amanda?  Is she okay?”

“She took a horrible beating and Sam said she’ll be a while mending, but she should be fine as well.”

“That’s good to hear, ma’am.”  Sam stood in the doorway, awkwardly wondering if he should look in on Amanda.

“Sheriff, would you care to take the coffee to Murdoch?”

“Well, yes ma’am, I sure can do that.”  He wasn’t anxious to see Murdoch, but realized he deserved an answer to the question he posed those many days ago.

“Thank you, Sheriff.  I’d be much obliged.  It’s been a busy day and I need to get supper started.”  Mrs. Jenkins smiled kindly and quickly put a tray together with coffee and a couple of cups.  “I know Murdoch likes his coffee black, do you as well Val?”

“Yes, ma’am.  Black is fine with me.  I’m so used to drinkin’ my thick brew, that your coffee will be a real treat, ma’am.”  For some reason he found himself flustered at her kindness.  But then he seemed to usually be flustered around women.

“You just take this tray.  Tell Murdoch I’ll have a tray for him in an hour or so.  I don’t expect he’ll be leaving Scott anytime soon.”

“I will Mrs. Jenkins, and I’m much obliged.  Ah, which room are they in?”

“Oh, yes.  They’re in that first room right off the waiting room.  The one nearest that old grandfather clock.”

Val picked up the tray with a smile, and thanked Mrs. Jenkins once again.

“Oh, wait, Val.  I almost forgot the cookies.”  She quickly stepped to the counter, retrieved a plateful of sugar cookies and placed them on the tray.

“Well, ma’am, they look mighty good.  I’m sure we’ll enjoy ‘em.”

“You do that, Sheriff.  Now I have to get started on supper.”  She quickly turned back to the kitchen and her work.

Val carried the tray to the waiting room, hesitating before opening Scott’s door.  He thought of knocking, but then decided if Scott were sleeping it may wake him up.  Balancing the tray awkwardly with one hand, he quietly turned the knob and opened the door.

The room was subdued, the shades drawn to block out as much light as possible. It wasn’t entirely successful as there was still enough filtered sun that Val was able to see Murdoch slumped in the rocking chair, his head tilted and resting crookedly on his fist.  Val wondered how in the hell the man could sleep that way and looked as if one slight movement would send him and the rocking chair toppling to the side. 

Val set the tray on a small side table, and contemplated the best way to wake Murdoch.  He took a few very quiet steps to the bedside to see if Scott was sleeping.  Scott’s fingers twitched momentarily and he frowned slightly, but otherwise appeared to be deep in sleep.  Val could see that he was sweating, and figured that’s why the bed sheets were rumpled around his hips.


The whispered question caught Val by surprise and he guiltily took a couple of steps away from the bed.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Mr. Lancer.  I was trying to be quiet.  Sorry if I woke you.  I guess I’m just jumpy.”

“After what’s happened today, Sheriff, we’re all a bit jumpy.”  Murdoch rose tiredly from the chair and stepped to the bedside.  His large hand drifted to his son’s hair and he skimmed Scott’s forehead, before placing the entire palm against the brow.  “He’s a bit warm.”

“That’s probably why them sheets are pert near kicked off.”

As if in response to the lowly spoken conversation, Scott’s leg moved upward slightly and back down, trailing the cover with it.  The sheet moved farther down his body.

“Maybe if you push it in tight, in underneath the mattress, he won’t be able to kick it off.”

“Good idea.”  Murdoch took the corner of the sheet and pulled, easily tucking the excess beneath the mattress to secure the linen in place.  “That should do it.  Sam said to keep him covered.”  He stepped back and peered at his handiwork.

“Mrs. Jenkins made some coffee,” Val said, feeling ill at ease in the presence of the big man. 

“That was very kind of her.”  Murdoch took a couple of long strides to the table, filled the cups full of coffee and handed one to Val.

Taking a large gulp, the rich coffee tasted as good as the best whiskey he’d ever had.  It eased him, relaxed his nerves and warmed him as much as looking at Elaina.  He pleasantly thought of her.  The last time Val had seen the pretty waitress was just a couple of days before when she asked about Johnny’s brother.  He sure didn’t figure the dark haired beauty would favor the cool easterner over his hot blooded brother.  Just went to show you could never be sure with women.

A low groan came from the bed and Murdoch moved quickly beside it.  Scott seemed to be struggling against the tightly wrapped sheets.  Val was amazed at the Murdoch Lancer he saw, trying tenderly to calm his wounded son.  Strong fingers crept gently through Scott’s hair, hushing him still with the deep, low reassurance of his voice.  And just as amazing was that it worked, subduing the agitation and restless discomfort of the young man, until once more he quieted.

“You’re better than a dose of soothin’ whiskey, Mr. Lancer.”

Chuckling, Murdoch replied, “My sons may not agree with that, Val; at least while conscious.”

“No, sir, I don’t suppose they would.”  This Murdoch seemed not-so-hard, as he fussed with his son.  ‘Hmm,’ Val thought, ‘maybe he’s not as tough as he looks.’ But that was quickly dismissed when Val pondered on the determination and endurance that Murdoch Lancer possessed to have built up his huge ranch.

“More coffee, Sheriff?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”

Murdoch poured more coffee, cast a quick glance his son’s way, and settled back into the rocking chair.  “Have you spoken to Amanda?”

“No.  Figured I’d let her rest a bit.”

“Probably for the best.” He took a sip from his coffee and tightened his lips.  “Johnny said she was quite a site to see when she shot Jones.  My attention was on Scott, so I didn’t see her.”

“She looked like somethin’ comin’ out of a scary story, that’s for sure.  My Pa used to tell tales of ghosts and crazy people.  Lookin’ at her covered in blood, torn clothes and pointing that gun, reminded me of some of those stories.”

“She saved Scott’s life.  I don’t know how I can ever repay that.”  He pinched the bridge of his nose, and squinted his eyes tightly.  “She was the reason Scott was in the Dimano.”  Murdoch turned his face to Val.  “Did you know that?”

“Yes, sir.  I spoke to Serena and Kirby just before comin’ here.  Serena told me.”

“Scott explained a few days ago why he’d gone to the Dimano.  I think Johnny’s known for a while.  I’m surprised he didn’t tell you before this.”

“Well, sir, I haven’t seen Johnny lately.”

“Things have been busy, lots of work to do.  And he has seemed to stick closer to Scott than normal.”

That fact didn’t surprise Val.  He knew Johnny well enough to know that Lancer and his new found family was his center, and he’d do anything to protect it.   Val wasn’t sure that Johnny would have told him about why Scott was in the Dimano, but hoped Johnny would knowing how much he wanted to nail Jones.  Johnny had changed since belonging to this family; a good change, and Val didn’t begrudge him any of it.

Murdoch’s voice interrupted his thoughts.   “Did Serena know that Amanda’s brother took a bullet for Scott in the war and died because of it?”

“No, she didn’t say anything about that.”

“His name was Daniel Laughlin.  It seems that Scott was trying to help his sister get back on her feet, away from the type of life she was in.”

Val pondered this revelation before speaking.  “Wouldn’t expect her to take kindly to charity.  Hell, she don’t take kindly to nothing.”

“I don’t know her story, Val.  I just know she saved my son’s life.”  Murdoch started to rock slowly.  “I also know Scott wouldn’t give up on her.”

Val sat down in a chair by the window and studied the floor. It was starting to all come together as to why Scott was in the Dimano and why he wanted to help Amanda.

“Mr. Lancer, when I talked to Kirby, he admitted he was the one who drugged Scott.”

Murdoch stopped rocking and swung a fixed glance Val’s way.  “Dave Bartling was out earlier today; told us that.  He said that Kirby was jealous.”

“Seems Scott found that out when he tracked down Kirby this morning.  It also looks as if Ned Jones put that idea in Kirby’s head.”

“Why would Jones do that?”  Murdoch frowned bitterly.  “But then, Ned Jones’ didn’t need a reason to do something spiteful.”

“Well, sir.  I think Jones had a reason.”

“And that would be, Sherriff?”  Murdoch’s manner was stiff, cold; completely different from the hovering father he was just a few moments ago.

‘How the hell can I tell him that Ned Jones wanted his son?’ Val thought to himself.  It was hard enough to believe that himself, let alone talk to the man’s father about it.

“Val!”  The tone was demanding, impatient.

Sighing heavily, thinking he might as well get it done, he said it.  “Jones drugged Scott to…a…cuz…”  ‘Damn, this is harder to say than I thought,’ he thought inwardly.  “He drugged him because he wanted him.”

The clock ticked, loudly; Scott stirred; Murdoch glanced his way but stilled when Scott did.

“Val, when they were fighting in the alley, I saw how Jones looked at Scott.  I realized then what Jones wanted from my son.”  Bringing his hand up to his forehead, he seemed tired and spent to Val.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.  Sorry that I couldn’t get anything on Jones.”

“I understand Jones was a sly man.  I don’t blame you for that, Sheriff.”

Val caught the reproach in his voice when he said the word ‘that’, and knew what Murdoch blamed him for.  It seemed they were at the question that was asked those many days ago at Lancer.  Val had an answer, but wasn’t sure it was one Murdoch wanted to hear.

“Mr. Lancer, you asked me the question if I’d do the same thing if Johnny was drugged instead of Scott.  You remember that?”

“I do.”

 Murdoch’s gaze was unbreakable and Val felt himself sweating, much to his irritation.

“I’ve done some thinkin’ on that.  A lot of thinkin’.”

Murdoch stopped rocking and planted his feet stiffly on the floor.  “Go on.”

Val bowed his head, trying to gather his own thoughts before he put them into words.  He still wasn’t sure if he could explain the whole thing so Murdoch would understand.  Hell, he didn’t know if he understood it completely himself.  But he’d give it a try anyway.

“I know Johnny so well,” he started.  “Or at least, the old Johnny.”  Val went to take a swallow of the coffee, but the cup was empty.  He got up and poured another cup, lifting the pot Murdoch’s way in question if he wanted more.  Murdoch held out his cup and Val topped off the cooled, dark liquid.

He took a drink and cleared his throat.  “Since you found him and brought him home, Johnny’s got something in his life that matters; you, his home, Teresa, his friends, and Scott.  Scott matters, a lot.”  Val shot a glance at Murdoch.  “Not that you don’t matter just as much, Mr. Lancer, just different.”

Murdoch nodded slowly.  “I know what you mean, Sheriff.  I take no offense.”

“Well, good, cuz if it weren’t for you, Johnny would have died in front of that firing squad down in Mexico.  He knows that, Mr. Lancer.  And I reckon, he knows that a second chance don’t come to everyone.”

Val paused before continuing.  “When I come across Scott in the Dimano that night, my first thought was about Scott and what was wrong with him.  It didn’t take me long to figure out what happened, and those three stupid young hands admitted to it.  They were stupid, Mr. Lancer, plain stupid.”  He raised his voice with the last sentence and a soft noise came from the bed.  Both men quickly glanced towards Scott, but there wasn’t any movement.

“Please, we need to keep our voices down.”

“I’m sorry.  I will, sir…  Well, like I said, I thought of Scott and how stupid them men were, and then I thought of Johnny.  I wanted Johnny to get Scott home, and I needed those men out of there.”

“Did you think Johnny would kill them?”  Murdoch’s tone was calm, but definite.

That was the question that Val had asked himself before he made the decision to send the three young hands on their way.  “No, Mr. Lancer.  I’ve done some thinking on it and, he wouldn’t have done that.  I think he would have been mad as hell, but he’d of seen to Scott first.”

“Then why did you let them go?”

“Cuz I thought it was the best thing to do at the time.  I know what Johnny used to be, and that’s what I was thinking of.  That old Johnny would have gone at those men and not stopped.  But this Johnny, he’s different.  You and Scott, you’ve given him a feeling of something…something he’s never had before; worth, sir.”

“And what if it would have been Johnny drugged, instead of Scott?  Would you have done the same thing?”

“Mr. Lancer, I don’t know if I can explain this right, but every time something happens in Green River, I always think about who did what to who.  And each time I gotta make a decision on what to do about it.  Now, I thought those cowboys would come back cuz they had reason to.  I was wrong about one of ‘em, but not the other two.  I’ve gone round and round about that decision for two weeks, and I did what I thought best at the time.  I’d be a liar if I told you that Johnny being involved didn’t make a difference.  But not because he was a friend, but because I knew the old Johnny and that’s who I was dealing with; the old Johnny.”

Val purposely kept his voice low, but there was passion in his voice.  He so wanted Murdoch to understand, but felt he was doing a piss poor job of explaining it.  He heard the creak of the rocking chair, moving slowly in rhythm to the clock, and finally eyed Murdoch.  Murdoch looked thoughtful, and focused on Val’s face, his hands resting on the arms of the rocker.

“Would you make the same decision over again?”

“I might of done things different.  But, I’ve had time to think about it.  Two weeks.  Then, I had two minutes and I acted.”

It was quiet again, except for the muffled ticking.  Damn, Val hated the quiet, but he was relieved as well.  Two weeks of waiting; he could understand somewhat how difficult it was for Scott to wait to confront Ned Jones and put an end to the matter.  And although Scott’s situation had been more involved and serious, Val waited with him.

“All right, Sheriff.  I guess I can’t expect more than the answer you gave me.  I do appreciate the position you were in and I know it’s your job to make those decisions quickly.  As Johnny said, The Cattlemen’s Association decided you were capable of doing the job.  I’ve not changed my mind on that.  I can’t say I would have acted in the same way, but I’m not the sheriff, and it’s easy to second guess.”

And that’s why Val respected the man Murdoch Lancer so much.  He was tough, expected much, but gave just as much; and he was fair.  Val knew Murdoch thought he should have arrested the cowboys, but did that mean that Ned Jones, the real problem, would have been charged with anything?  Or that any of this could have been avoided?

“Val, I’d like to spend a few minutes alone with my son before I go over to the hotel.  Do you mind?”

“No, Mr. Lancer.  By the way, Mrs. Jenkins said she’d bring you in some supper.”

“Mrs. Jenkins is a thoughtful woman.”

“Yes, sir, she surely is.”  Val picked up his hat and walked to the door.  “Mr. Lancer, I’m sorry this happened to Scott.”

Murdoch started rocking again and brought his hands together.  “I couldn’t protect him.”  The tone in his voice carried regret and a sense of helplessness.

“No, sir.  Sometimes, with men like Ned Jones, it’s out of our hands, no matter what we try to do.  But, Mr. Lancer, Scott did himself proud.  When I first met him I thought this country would eat him up faster than a frog flicking at a bug, but he’s proved he can take care of himself.  I think sometimes…well, sometimes not everyone remembers that.  But he’s a good man, and one to reckon with.”

“Yes, he is.”  Murdoch’s gaze fell on his son.  “Well, good night Val.”

Val closed the door, pulling it softly behind him, hearing the muted click of the knob.  The sound of the rocking chair followed him out, moving with the measure of the clock.  He wondered how long Murdoch would remain watching over his son, and figured Murdoch would be there when he made his rounds later that night.   


Chapter 15

It was the strong thumping in his back that pushed him out of sleep.  Shifting his leg, sharp strings of fire reached across his hips, down his thighs, and up through his shoulders throwing him into awareness.  It tightened and bullied, and he held his breath, wondering at the pain.

He could hear the steady back and forth rhythm of a clock ticking, but it was muted.  The shades were drawn, but sunshine damned bright behind it.  Scott tried moving his arm against the tightly wrapped sheet, and was surprised that he was too weak to loosen it.  His back soundly protested again, and he clenched his jaw and moaned.

Surrendering fully into the pillow, he counted each breath with closed eyes, centering the pain, willing it away.  He discovered that when he was still, the hurt was bearable.   He concentrated on the ticking clock.  He heard the clip of a heavy boot approach, and stop in front of his door.  The knob turned and Scott opened his eyes.  His back was to the door and he knew better than to move and try to see who it was.  A body stepped within his view and he recognized the form of his father.  He turned his head and Murdoch smiled down at him.

“How are you feeling, Scott?”

Murdoch bent down and touched him, his large hand moving aside bangs and resting against his forehead.  It was strange to Scott to be touched in that way; strange and almost embarrassing.  He felt uncomfortable and wanted to draw away, but saw the look on his father’s face and didn’t.  ‘So, this is part of being a son,’ he thought, ‘and having a father.’   Murdoch’s normally stoic features were – not as hard.  Scott smiled weakly.

“Well, how is the patient this morning?” Sam asked walking solidly into the room.

“I don’t know, Sam.  I just got here myself.”

“Is that right?”  Sam stepped beside Murdoch and glanced up at him with skepticism on his face.  “You use the hotel room?”

“I did.”

“Hmm, you didn’t turn the wick down when you left.  I saw a light burning under the door at 5:00 a.m. when I got up.”

“You asked if I used the room and I did.  I shaved in it,” Murdoch stated abruptly obviously wanting to dismiss the topic.

“Did you sleep?”  Sam stepped between Murdoch and the bed, loosened the sheet and picked up Scott’s wrist.

“You’ve got a comfortable rocking chair,” Murdoch said, moving aside for Sam.

Sam gazed up at Murdoch, and then turned back to Scott.  “You’ll have a sore back,” he foretold, an easy prediction.

“I expect.  How is he?” Murdoch worried.

Scott observed the exchange; it was typical and he was comforted by the normalcy.

“You in much pain, Scott?”  Sam’s hand came to his forehead but the touch didn’t embarrass Scott as Murdoch’s had.  This was a clinical touch, testing; Murdoch’s was…foreign and unexpected.

Scott swallowed, his long throat dry, taking forever to move.  “Some,” he whispered.

“The wound will be painful.  It’s not deep, but you’ve got quite a few stitches.  I’ll give you some laudanum.”

“No,” Scott protested, moving involuntarily, stopping in pain.  He felt a hand on his arm and heard Sam argue.

“I need to dress this wound and I don’t want to do it with you feeling it, Scott.  You also can’t travel home without it.”  His tone was final.

“Home?”  It never sounded more wonderful to Scott.

“Yes, but not before I see how that wound is coming.  I’d keep you here longer, but I know you’ll be taken care of just as well at home, if not better.”

Scott nodded understanding.  “Where is Amanda?  Is she okay?”

“Yes, she’ll be fine.  She took quite a beating and will probably have a scar or two, but she’s healing.”

“Did Jones shoot me?”

“Yes, Son.  He did, but Amanda killed him.”

Scott almost jumped at that news.  He was struggling to piece together the memories.  “What day is it?”

“We came to town yesterday, Son.  You were shot yesterday.”

He stared at his father struggling to understand.  “Why did he shoot me?”

“He was crazy,” Sam stated bluntly.  “He was mean, and driven, and crazy.”

“Murdoch,” Scott closed his eyes, recalling the fight.  “He was…yesterday…he was more…”

“Don’t think about it now, Son,” Murdoch said hastily.  “We’ll get you home and talk about it later.”

Yes, that was a good idea.  He didn’t want to talk about it now.  But Scott finally realized why Jones pushed Kirby to drug him, and shuddered.  “Where’s Johnny?” he asked, needing to think of something other than Jones; wanting the presence of his brother.

“He’s coming with a wagon.  He’s probably on his way.  Now please, let Sam get you ready, okay.”

“I want to see Amanda.”

“Son, give yourself a couple of days.  Amanda isn’t going anywhere.  There will be an inquest in a few days and she’ll need to stay for that.”

“An inquest?”  Scott did move this time, ignoring the pain, and tightened his hands on the arms that reached for him.  “She saved my life, Murdoch!  Jones…he…he beat her.”

“Calm down, Scott.  It’s just a formality.  It needs to be done to clear her name, to get the details into the record.”

“Bring her to Lancer, Murdoch.  Please.  We can take care of her.”

“Scott, she’s with Mrs. Hargis.  She’s in good hands.”

“But I don’t want her to leave without talking to her, Murdoch. I need to talk to her,” Scott urged.

“You will get to talk to her, Scott.  I promise.”

This time when the hand came up and brushed his forehead, Scott didn’t feel awkward.  It was comforting and Scott knew that his father would carry through on his promise.  Relaxing, he allowed his father to lower him to the bed.

He watched Sam mix the bitter laudanum and cringed when he felt his head being lifted.  Sam brought the glass to his lips.  He held his breath and managed to swallow the awful medicine, choking when he tasted it.  Scott could feel it taking hold, making his limbs heavy, his mind muddled.  Hands turned him slowly onto his stomach, and a sweet coolness flowed over his back when the sheet was removed.  He felt his arms being placed above his head and someone settled beside him.   Scott flinched, catching his breath as the bandages tugged at the wound, but then he didn’t feel anything.


He watched from the chair on the veranda as the buggy descended the hill overlooking Lancer.  Scott recognized Val driving the buggy as it approached, and it seemed odd to see him behind a horse instead of on it.  He smiled, and considered the happy look on the good sheriff’s face.  Not only was he bringing Amanda, but the inquest had gone well.

Scott’s smile disappeared when he shifted his gaze to Amanda.  Her face was swollen and bruised, and her hands were clenched tightly on the seat.  She sat stiffly, and he saw her grimace when the buggy hit a rut in the road.  ‘It’s too soon,’ he thought.  And felt guilty, knowing that he should have been the one to go to her.

He grasped the arms of the chair and rose slowly, his back rigid, the stitches pulling angrily.  Impatiently he tried to dismiss the nagging discomfort.  To add to the inconvenience, the wound was starting to itch ever so slightly; a good sign that it was healing.  He was pleased to concede, however, that at least he wasn’t in need of the hated laudanum that made him dull and sleepy.

It had been many days since the shooting and Jones’ death.  At the inquest it was determined that Amanda acted justifiably.  Scott had wanted to attend on her behalf, but there were enough witnesses that it was deemed unnecessary.  Be that as it may, Scott was determined to go until Murdoch insisted otherwise.  Strangely enough, it was Johnny who this time played the role of mediator and was able to convince Scott to stay home.  It was probably his, “You dumb ass, Boston!  You want to pull them stitches out and start all over again?  I’ve been re-stitched and can tell you, the second time around is a lot worse than the first.  Now, sit your skinny butt down or I’ll sit on ya!”  Scott didn’t remember the exact words, but they were along those lines.

He pondered going anyway, but thought Johnny would carry through on his threat and Scott wasn’t in any shape to fight with him.  Pride won out, or the fact that he didn’t want to see it damaged by having his little brother ‘sit on him’.  Prudent as always, Scott insisted that he was bowing to the request of his father and not the threat of his brother and stayed home.

Scott also recognized how horrible it must have been for his father and brother to see him shot.  If it had been one of them, Scott knew how he would have felt: helpless.  So, he allowed them their overprotective reactions, knowing that in time they would diminish.  It was just unfortunate that the drugging and shooting had occurred so close together.
“Hey, Scott.  How ya feelin’?”  Val jumped down from the wagon and quickly went to Amanda’s side to help her down.

“I’m fine, Val.  How was the ride in?”  Scott thought small talk may relieve some of the tenseness that he could see on Amanda’s face.

Val attempted to assist Amanda down.  She seemed to want to do it herself, but unsteadily almost fell into Val’s arms.  She quickly regained her balance, but only with the help of Val’s extended hand.  Not able to do anything else, she grabbed onto him, and clumsily allowed him to settle her to the ground.  Her face twisted with discomfort and Scott instinctively took a step towards her, concerned she may have hurt herself more.

“Are you all right?” Scott asked solicitously.

“Yes,” she answered obviously embarrassed by her almost tumble.  “I caught my dress on the wheel.”

Scott didn’t think that she caught her dress on anything.  He thought she was still very much in pain, but too stubborn and prideful to want anyone to know.  Understanding her attitude, and being a gentleman, he would give her that.

“It’s good to see you, Amanda.”

She tilted her head and looked at him, her brown eyes soft, but with an expression that indicated she did not quite believe the statement.  “How are you, Scott?”

“I wanted to be at the inquest; but Sam, Dr. Jenkins didn’t advise it.”  He lowered his head and smiled.  “My father and brother encouraged me to stay at home.”

“Fathers and sons; it is a close bond.”

“It is coming.  I am sure you’ve heard that my brother and I did not grow up here.  But, please, forgive me.  Would you care to sit down?”  Scott was embarrassed that he was forgetting his manners and offered Amanda a chair.

“Thank you,” she said and sat down.

“Scott is Murdoch and Johnny here?” Val said quickly while Amanda sat down.

“Yes, they are inside.”

“Well, I’m gonna go talk to them.” The Sheriff turned towards the hacienda, but stopped as Scott called to him.

“Val, would you and Miss Amanda be able to join us for dinner tonight?”

“I don’t know, Scott,” Amanda started uncertainly.

“Now, Miss Amanda, you ain’t never tasted anything till you’ve ate at the Lancers.  They’ve got two of the best cooks in the valley, Senora Maria, and Miss Teresa,” Val encouraged.

Scott laughed at Val’s attempt to convince Amanda to stay.  The sheriff did love the food at Lancer.  “Please,” he asked his amusement with Val still lingering.  “It would please me greatly if you would accept.  My family does wish to extend their hospitality and you would be a pleasant contrast to our gruff sheriff.”

She gazed intently at Scott, seemed to think about the invitation, and finally nodded.  “I could hardly deny such a kind appeal. Thank you.”

“Good,” Scott answered, finding it hard to contain his satisfaction at her acceptance.  “Val, would you please let Teresa know that you and Amanda will be our guests?”

“Will do.  Miss Amanda,” Val acknowledged with a tip of his hat and he went into the house through the French doors.

“You really have a most charming smile, Scott.  I am sure in the past it has been very difficult for women to deny you much.”

Although her manner was mostly teasing, Scott speculated she was halfway serious.  He poured a glass of lemonade from a pitcher on the table and offered it to her.  He refilled his own glass and sat down slowly, the stubborn protest of his wound reminding him it was still there.  “You found it easy to tell me no,” he offered back.

“Your injury appears to still be a bother,” she remarked, apparently wanting to change the subject.

“As do yours.”

She self-consciously brought a hand up to her left temple and tracked her fingers lightly across ragged stitches.  Scott was surprised when she smiled.  “It appears we have something in common,” she laughed lightly.

“We have more than that in common, Amanda.”  He twirled the glass and watched a stray lemon seed swim around the crystal.  When he brought his eyes up, she was staring at the glass.

“You have long, strong, beautiful hands, Scott.  Everything about you is strong.  You remind me very much of Danny.”  She took a sip of her lemonade and brought the glass down to hold it serenely on her lap.

He felt himself blush at the comment.  “Danny saved my life, Amanda. He was not only strong, he was unselfish. I can never repay what he did.  And now, you have done the same.  I care very much about what happens to you.”

She looked out over the grounds of the ranch.  “It is beautiful here.  Much different than Boston, I would expect.”

“It is.”  He waited for a few moments as she scanned the horizon of the mountains.  “You knew I was coming to Indiana after the war.  I sent your father a letter.  Is that why you left?  You didn’t want to meet the man who your brother died for?”

She brought her gaze back to Scott’s.  He noticed her hands tighten their grip on the glass.  “No, Scott.  You had no role in my decision to leave.  I can assure you of that.”

“Well, I am pleased to hear that.  I was sorry to hear about your father’s death.  When I arrived there and found you and your sisters gone and that your father had died, well, I thought of many reasons why, that being one of them.”

Amanda bowed her head and traced her fingers lightly around the rim of her glass.  “My father loved my brother.  Danny was his life.”  She raised her eyes to Scott’s, her gaze teary, but direct.  “My father was a domineering man, and my mother a gentle, timid soul.  He was a bully and made our lives miserable.  He blamed her for not giving him a son.  She was told after my birth that she should not bear more children, but my father wanted a son.  So, when she found herself again with child, she was frightened that she would die.  But if she bore another girl, I think she was more frightened that she would not.”

She took a sip from her lemonade and looked once more to the hills before continuing.  “After Danny was born my mother was never the same.  She was sickly, drained, and so unhappy.  She died when Danny was two years old.  My father’s focus was my brother.  And he was a delightful child.  Even though I sometimes envied him my father’s love, Danny was so much like my kind mother that we all loved him.”

Crossing her legs, she adjusted the fabric of her dress.  “I remember one day going to town with my family.  It was a beautiful day; my father seemed happy and even somewhat attentive to we girls.  We happened to meet another family new to the area on the road and were exchanging pleasantries.  The subject came around to my father being a widower and, of course, sympathy was extended.  I suppose they were curious if there were any other children, so the husband asked how many children my father had.  His reply was three mistakes and a son.”  The tears that had gathered silently escaped, trailing down her battered cheeks and over her swollen lips.  She took a handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and wiped them away.  “I loved him so much, up until that day.  I always hoped that he would love me back.”  She lifted her head and stated simply, “But, I managed.  I looked away from him and never looked back.  And I promised myself I would never love any man and feel that way again.”

Scott was saddened by the story, overwhelmed and understanding of the emptiness she would have felt.  He had let her talk, not wanting to interrupt, afraid if he did she would stop talking.  But she was wrong to hate so long.  “I’m sorry, Amanda.  But not all fathers are like that.  Not all men are like that.”

“You are right about that, Danny wasn’t like that.”  She smiled at the remembrance.  “He wrote us about his travels, and you.  He made them sound like an adventure.  Papa couldn’t read.  It’s funny, but the one thing my mother did win was making sure we girls were educated.  It turned out that Papa benefited from that as I read him Danny’s letters.  Rather ironic, isn’t it?”

“So, Danny wrote you letters?  About the war?”

“About everything,” she gleamed.  “He found happiness in whatever was around him. He wrote to us only of the good things, never the bad.  All of the people he met along the way we came to know as well as he did.  He talked about you; how young you were to be a lieutenant, and how kind you were.  He talked about all of the men in his regiment.  He enlisted early in the war; thought it was wrong for people to be slaves to others.”

Amanda bit at her lip and laughed bitterly.  “There are all kinds of slavery, Scott.  I wonder if he realized how much his mother was a slave to his father.  That slavery actually killed her.”

She sighed heavily and collected herself.  “Well, when we received word that Danny had been killed, my father fell apart.  He was always a heavy drinker, but he swam in it after that and never came up for air.  He was dead within the year.  My sisters were already married and their husbands thankfully survived the war.  They wanted change, a new start so decided to move west.  They both settled with their families in Nebraska.  My one brother-in-law had been in a prison camp for a few months, Andersonville, so we found out how horrible they were.  I can only imagine what you must have gone through in that year, Scott.  I’m sorry.”

“We all have prisons of one kind or another, Amanda.  But, tell me, how did you come to be in California?”  Scott was enthralled by her history, and very sad that a father could have felt so little for his daughters.  Thoughts of Daisy entered his mind, and how taken he was with her.  For those few moments that he held her, he fell in love with that little girl.  He couldn’t imagine if he had a child, son or daughter, that he would not cherish them completely.

“I had a job in a general store.  I managed the store very well for the owner, and then the owner’s son came home from the war and I was out.  My sisters invited me to live with them, but I wanted to come to California.  I wanted to make it on my own.  So, here I am.”  She put out her arms and shrugged.  “Killing a monster.”

“How did you come to Green River?  And Ned Jones?”

“You are curious, aren’t you?”  She gazed at him, her head tilted, as if wondering why?
“I do apologize.  Sometimes I forget my place.  Just ask Maria, our wonderful cook?”

“Well, now I am curious.  What did you do to your cook?”

“I asked her if she loved her husband.”

She laughed, and Scott thought her very pretty.  “I am surprised.  That seems very out of character for the very proper young gentleman from Boston.”

“It is,” Scott replied, still wondering why he would ask such a personal question.

“You’re blushing.  How sweet.  And did she answer you?”

“After I apologized, yes she did.”

“I suppose that means that I should answer your much less personal question.”

“Only if you wish, Amanda, however, I would like to know.”

She looked at him, and then shrugged. “Well, I don’t suppose it really matters.  As I said earlier, I’m sure there are few women who can deny you.”

She gave him a disarming smile and continued.  “My destination was Sacramento. I thought with my experience I could work my way into some sort of management position in a business setting.  However, I realized soon how foolish that was.    The choices for women I learned are very few, unless of course, you’re in the middle of a war and the men are gone.  I stubbornly did not want to settle as a teacher; I do not like to teach.  I thought if I took a waitress job in a hotel I might work myself up to a fairly responsible level.  I was wrong.   My determination turned to stubbornness, and my high esteem for my own intelligence turned to bitterness towards those who failed to see it just because I was a woman.  I hated them as much as I despised my father.  I became snappish and disdainful towards those who employed me until I found myself in the fine establishment of the Dimano.  And even the likes of Ned Jones didn’t want me in the end.”  Her tone grew bitter and angry.

Scott noticed that the more she said, the more she seemed to want to say.  He found himself enthralled with her and enjoyed watching her adjust her skirt, pull at her sleeve, and absently push her hair behind her ear.  He wondered if she would tell him about why Ned Jones beat her up as well as tell him more about why Jones had targeted him.

“I would think he could have asked you to leave instead of beating you up.  Why, Amanda?” 

She stood up and walked a few paces to the end of the patio.  “The evening before, I had rejected a filthy, louse ridden man who wanted to take me to bed.  I felt at that point that I could not go any lower and remain alive.  It meant that Jones lost a few pennies, and he was furious.”

She turned around and stared challengingly back at Scott.  “Isn’t that the harshest irony of all?  That I was selling myself to the very thing which I detested the most.  All Serena had to do was smile; that was enough and men would buy her more drinks than I could entice in a week.”  She spat the word entice.  “She is young, pretty, sweet.  I, on the other hand, am not.  Nor am I inclined to pretend.”

Scott watched her pace, amazed that she recognized her failures but didn’t want to change them.  For a moment he thought she was irretrievable from her own bitterness and hatred, but he had faced greater challenges in his life than Amanda Laughlin.  He was not prepared to give up.  And then she gazed at him with unexpected compassion, and he felt small in her pity.

“Jones was a man lost in his own twisted desires,” she said softly.  “He had no control, Scott.  Why else would he shoot you with witnesses around?  He didn’t think about the consequences, only the rage and immediate gratification, or revenge, or whatever else he reacted to.  The only thing he could control, up to a point, was his desire for other men.  And he did that because he knew he could attain that desire eventually by the drugs.”

Scott was uncomfortable with the topic.  It was hard enough to talk about it with his family, let alone a woman.  She seemed to read his thoughts.

“Does that embarrass you, Scott?  I know the subject is hardly one that is easily thought of, let alone talked about, but remember at what station of life I am in: very little matters to me at this point.”

“It is rather awkward.  I won’t deny that.  But why did he target me?  Why did he hate me so badly?”

“You were just one of many, if that makes you feel any better.”

“Did you know what he was doing?”  Scott was suddenly horrified that she may have known and yet allowed it to continue.

Again, she seemed to know what he was thinking.  “You forget what I have just said.”  She lifted her head and contemptuously looked down at him.  “I am a whore.  What power do I have?”

His heart chilled, but he glared back at her.  “Stop it.  And answer me.  Or are you no better than the monster you killed?”  He immediately regretted the last statement as her eyes moistened with tears, but she quickly shuttered them away. What a complicated woman she was proving to be.

“No, I didn’t know.  Not until the night you were drugged.  Some of the things he said to Johnny made me realize why he never personally demanded anything from me or Serena.  Of course, Serena would have quit.  She could have gotten another job in town.  So, to answer your question, no, I did not know.  I suspected he was drugging people to get their money, but nothing else.”

“So, your advice to me at the hotel, not to face Jones alone…”

“I would have told any man not to face Jones alone, regardless of the reason.”

“But you faced him alone.”

“That’s because I am alone.”

“No, you are not.  As I’ve said before, more than once.  Or is your pride getting in the way of doing something more with your life?”

She seemed to crumble into the chair, exhaustion playing across her face.  “I didn’t want to settle,” she remarked almost desperately.  “As Serena has settled with Steve Kirby or my mother settled for my father.  What is wrong with that, Scott?”

He didn’t know if he had the answer for her.  He knew what she felt when she said she was powerless, because he had been, for a year of his life at the mercy of others.  But yet, he was still in control of his own feelings and how he reacted to the circumstances around him.  Amanda seemed to have been defeated by her own response to things she had no control over, whereas he did not allow those experiences to make him hate.  He didn’t know if he could explain it, but he had to try.  Her brother had saved his life and she too, had saved his life.  She knew fully what Jones was capable of and was ready for it when no one else was.  She was worth the effort.

“Amanda, I don’t know if I can explain, but I’ll try.  When I was growing up I thought my father didn’t want me.  My mother was dead, died giving me birth, and I thought my father hated me for it.  There was no other explanation that I could think of why he abandoned me.  So, I grew up hating him.  I wanted his love; I wanted it so badly, but it wasn’t there.  But then one day I discovered my hate was hurting me, not him.  He wasn’t around to receive it, and at the time, I didn’t know if he even would care that I hated him.  I found out that circumstances were not as I believed them to be, but I didn’t know that until much later.”

He looked at her, wondering if she was listening, and could tell by the way she was watching him that she was trying.  Scott so wanted her to understand, and he was encouraged to go on.  “When I was in prison I could have hated as much as everyone else, and at times I did.  I saw a guard crying alone at his post once and was glad.  I didn’t care why, I was just happy that he felt bad enough to cry.  And then I found out why.”

Scott balled his hands into fists at the remembering.  “He was crying for us.  We were starving, and sick, and dying, and he couldn’t do anything to help and so he cried.  I’ll never forget that man, Amanda.  He killed himself.”  Scott scrubbed a hand through his hair and bowed his head, stitches twisting painfully as he moved.  His face grimaced with hurt and he straightened up quickly.

A hand covered his, and he held it tightly.  He pulled it up to his cheek and closed his eyes, the memory of the young confederate guard weeping in the soggy rain of a southern winter so vivid that he thought he could hear his sobs now.  He felt rough, work-worn fingers skim lightly across his forehead, pushing back his bangs, gentle and tender.

“I’m sorry, Scott,” she whispered.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

He listened to the tone of her sincerity and felt a tie that hadn’t been there before.  She did understand, and he understood her.  He looked at her, smiled, and simply nodded his head.

“Hate doesn’t do us any good, or bitterness.  We can’t always control what happens to us.  I couldn’t control Ned Jones and his hate for me, but I won’t let it make me bitter.  I couldn’t control my mother dying, or my grandfather keeping me from my father, but I’ll not hate my grandfather.  Nor blame my father for not fighting for me.  I know he loves me and that’s enough.  We’re not perfect people, and the only thing we can do is not let bad things win.”

“Is that a life’s lesson?” she asked, tears in her eyes, but smiling.  Scott thought she was trying to take his mind off the memories with her simple question.

He smiled back; relieved that his confessions were listened to and hollow words of pretended understanding weren’t offered.  “It is,” he stated.

“Well, then, I suppose I should listen.”

“Have you?” he asked seriously.

“I have,” and she let go of his hand and offered him his glass of lemonade.

“What happened at the inquest?”  He wondered and worried what she was going to do next.  He didn’t want to push her, but he needed to let her know his offer of help was still there.

“Just what Sheriff Crawford indicated.  I was exonerated of any wrong doing.  It’s official and I am good as new.  Well, almost,” and she ran a hand across the stitches on her face.  She looked amusingly at Scott.  “But, I am free to go.”

“Where will you go, if I may ask?”

She laughed, the brightness of her smile making Scott happy.  “I’m not sure.  My opportunities are limited.  The Widow Hargis has offered me a job, but I’m not sure the good ladies, or men for that matter, of Green River would appreciate my touching the merchandise.”

Scott started to remonstrate, but knew what she was saying was true.  The women would look down on her and the men would probably grin and smirk at her every time they entered the store.  And it could very well hurt the Widow’s business.  But knowing the Widow, Scott doubted that would stop her from offering help.  Once Mrs. Hargis got it into her head that someone was worth a try, well damned be the rest of the town and their opinions if they didn’t agree.

“There is nothing wrong with accepting help, if you’ll let me.”

“I don’t think you have much room for talk, Scott Lancer.    After all, your example of not allowing your family to help you with Ned Jones isn’t a good one.”

He was going to protest that was different, but stopped himself.  “Touché, Amanda.  You do have a point.”  He wondered how she knew about that, but remembered Val sometimes had a big mouth about some things along with a lifeline into Lancer family issues through Johnny.

“So, back to my original question; what are you going to do?”

“I am going to Nebraska.  My eldest sister lives not too far from Omaha.  It’s a growing settlement and I am going to see what opportunities may exist.  If nothing else, I can help on their farm.  I’m not afraid of hard work.”

“Do you want to go to Nebraska?”  For some reason, the news that she was leaving made him sad and disappointed.

“We are a family, Scott.  I’ve discovered that’s important.  And who knows,” Amanda shrugged, “If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back and go to work for the Widow Hargis.”

“I will miss you, Amanda.”

“Yes, Scott.  Like a sore tooth.”

She laughed again and Scott felt a soft tug of regret.  He would miss not getting to know better the complicated, intelligent, and wonderful woman that was Amanda Laughlin.  He saw Danny in her smile and in her wounded kindness.  He surmised he might be a little bit in love with her.

“I do have one more question.”

“Oh dear.  I’m not sure I’m up to another one.  But do go ahead.”

“The song that Danny would sing, Rose-A-Shal, what is it?”

Her face softened to a pleasant memory, and eased to beauty.  “My mother would sing me that song when I was a child.  It’s an old Irish ballad called ‘Rose of Clare’.  My full name is Amanda Rose and we lived in Shallows Grove, Indiana.  So, she called me Rose of Shal and replaced the words in Rose of Clare.  I sang it to Danny when we were children.  He loved the song, but I don’t think he knew the original name.  It was always Rose-A-Shal to my brother.”

“It’s beautiful.”

She eyed Scott, her eyes sad but happy at the same time.  “It is,” she agreed.

Scott got up from his chair and offered her his arm.  “Well, shall we go to dinner, Miss Amanda Rose?”

Her hand tucked nicely into the bend of his arm and she walked with Scott into the house.



Val stepped into the brilliant afternoon of late October.  The air was warm, but autumn had settled in the valley and glowed yellow on the mountains. The rains had come a few weeks before, greening the fields and refreshing the livestock.  With it the heat had left, taking summer along.  Everything and everyone was preparing for winter.  Not that the winters were bad here; not like Kansas or Oklahoma or, god forbid, what he’d heard of the Dakota Territory.  He guessed everyone was used to what they were used to, though.

It was mid-week and the day had been slow.  The night promised to be as well.  He rounded the corner and walked by the livery.  He stopped and leaned against the hitching rail, eyeing the silent Dimano across the street.  A stranger asked about buying it a few days ago, but its history followed.  No one knew who would get the money anyway.  Ned Jones didn’t have family popping up to claim the building.  It would probably go to the state or county for taxes in a few years.  No one claimed Ned for burying, so the mortician built a cheap box and put him in a corner of the cemetery.  No marker.  The county picked up that tab.

Rumor was that Scott Lancer staked Serena and Steve Kirby to a new start.  It would be just like Scott to do something like that, Val thought. The judge that presided over Amanda Laughlin’s inquest married the couple and they took off with the little boy and headed south.

Rumor also went around that Dave Reynolds was offered a job at Lancer.  Who could believe rumors though?  Val heard he went to Oklahoma to live with his sister.  Val was sorry to see him go.  He was a decent man; did something stupid and it cost him California.  The man loved California.

 It was anyone’s guess where Evan Bartling was.

Amanda Laughlin still kept in touch with the Widow.  According to Mrs. Hargis, she was doing middling with her sister, working on the farm, getting settled.  The widow said she missed her.  Val shook his head.  The widow was a cantankerous woman, never knew how she’d take you from one day to the next, but if she liked you, she did for life.  Amanda, now she was a woman who was a big question mark as far as Val was concerned.  He thought Scott Lancer was a bit taken with her, regardless that she was older than he was.  But Val figured he was wrong about it.  Still, there was something in Scott’s eyes when he looked at her that night at Lancer.   Val even caught Johnny watching Scott.  There was talk that Scott was writing to her, but Val figured that’s all it was.

Val had learned a lot about the Lancers.  Johnny wasn’t the same man he had been before coming to Lancer.  He found something too important to lose.  Val saw that the night Scott was drugged.  Johnny wasn’t going to give up anything, brother included.  As far as Val was concerned, it was right for Johnny and that was good enough for Val.

He’d seen for just a few minutes a side to Murdoch Lancer that he never thought would have existed.  He knew Murdoch had a soft spot for Teresa, but he never would have guessed he could be so tender to his sons.  That shed a whole new light on the man; made him more human.  It also showed that Murdoch Lancer could be vulnerable.  Now that was a new thought.

And Scott, the easterner, could take care of himself.  He had beaten Ned Jones, and taken care of the cowboys in his own way.  The fact that Ned Jones was a mad man and did what he did no one could have known; no one, that is, except the woman.  Yeah, Scott Lancer was indeed able to take care of himself very well.
Val pushed off from the post and sauntered slowly down the rutted road.  Mud puddles glistened in the lowering sunshine, grease rainbows from wagon wheels skimming the top of the water.  He walked towards the Rosa, thinking of a cold beer and spicy food.  He stepped up to the boardwalk and opened the door, his nose tickled by the aroma of good Mexican cooking.  Walking to the corner of the restaurant, he threw his hat down on the table.

“Hope you fellas ain’t ate all the food up.”  He was glad to see both of them, just back from a few days fishing trip with their father.

“You can have my share, Val.  I am just having the fry bread.”

“Still haven’t got a taste for them chilies, Scott?” Val laughed, slapping the shoulder of the young man.

“No, and I don’t think I ever shall.  Pull up a seat.”

“When you gonna teach him how to eat chilies, Johnny?”

“Not enough milk in Green River.”  Johnny lounged back in his chair and smiled at his brother.

“Sheriff, would you like a beer?”

“Yeah, Elaina, I would.  And the special for the day.  Thank ya.”

She looked at Scott and smiled.  “And you Senor Scott.  More bread?”

“No, thank you.  I’ve had plenty of bread.  But maybe another beer for my brother and I.”

“Si, I will do so.”

“It’s a good thing we’re sitting at the same table with you, brother, or we wouldn’t get any service at all.”  Johnny’s eyes sparkled, following the beautiful Elaina.

“You just have to learn to be a bit more charming, Johnny. Me, I come by it naturally.  The less fortunate have to work at it.”

 “Well, I guess I should just be thankful you’re here to teach me, Boston.”

Val leaned back in the chair, enjoying the cold beer, spicy food and good company.  Elaina hovered, making Scott blush now and then; Johnny made fun of his pink brother.  It was real nice to watch Elaina move.  What more could a man want.

A couple of hours and several beers later he bid goodnight to Scott and Johnny.  Both brothers were feeling very placid.  The tequila chasers that followed the beer seemed to make Scott more ‘relaxed’ than his brother.  Seemed Scott couldn’t take much of that brew.  Johnny helped him on his horse, and Val watched them start for home.

Val shivered unexpectedly as he watched them ride slowly down the street, the remembrance of an August night tugging at him.  Scott leaned too far to one side, and Johnny pushed him back into the saddle, teasing him about not being able to hold a thimble full of tequila.  Scott laughed, reached out and smacked Johnny lightly on the arm.  Then they grew quiet, the plodding clip clop of the horses the only sound.

Looking in the direction of the dark Dimano, Val shivered again.  He figured he must be catching a cold and pulled his arms across his chest.  A puff of wind picked up autumn leaves and twirled them in the diminishing light.  The breeze lilted fresh as only an October wind could but too quickly vanished.  Then a melody drifted back to him; soft, beautiful, familiar.  “My lovely Rose-A-Shal, you’re the sweetest girl I know.”


Traditional (Ireland)
Oh my lovely rose of Clare,
You're the sweetest girl I know, 
You're the Queen of all the roses 
Like the pretty flowers that grow,
You are the sunshine of my life 
So beautiful and fair,
And I will always love you. 
My lovely Rose of Clare. 
Oh the sun it shines out like ajewel, 
On the lovely hills of Clare, 
As I strolled along with my sweet lass, 
One evening at the fair, 
Her eyes they shone like silver streams, 
Her long and golden hair, 
For I have won the heart of one. 
My lovely Rose of Clare. 
As we walked down by the river bank, 
Watched the Shannon flowing by, 
And listened to the nightingale, 
Singing songs for you and I, 
And to say farewell To all you true and fair, 
For I have stolen the heart of one, 
My lovely Rose of Clare. 

The End






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