Thanks go to Cjan for her wonderful beta and Mary O. for the encouragement. And many thanks to the readers and especially writers who keep this wonderful television program alive after all these years.
Chapter One - You Can’t Fix Stupid.
The piercing clang of iron on iron stabbed through his skull. Sharp needles spiked down his arm with each pound of the hammer. Sweat stung his eyes and he could barely stand his own stink. But he didn’t care. The work was a distraction, a release.
Once more he slammed the mallet against the horseshoe. Sparks flew as the metal bent too far. Cursing, he straightened up from the anvil. A sudden spasm drove through his back and almost brought him to his knees.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to calm. Well, it served him right trying to take his anger out on that horseshoe. But damn, he used to be able to pound hell all day long without getting tired. Now it was just up on mid day and his muscles twisted with hurt. He blamed his sons for the loss of sleep that sapped his strength, although in the back of his mind he knew age had something to do with it.
A light breeze brushed across his face, dried the sweat, and brought the smell of green things and apple trees. The easy stirring of freshness that only this land could give soothed him, cooled the anger that had been simmering since Pardee stormed the hacienda.
Pardee had been the enemy to focus on, to defeat. But once that danger had passed, his long lost sons turned their attention, and resentment, towards him. Their barbs and back talk had him ready to toss both of them back on the stage. He considered himself a patient man, but just last night between Johnny’s hostility and Scott’s sarcasm he barely got through dinner without exploding. He figured it would be hard putting this family together, but couldn’t they come part way in making things easier? Murdoch didn’t know what it would take to get past their resentment, but hoped it would be soon or he’d have every horse on the ranch shoed twice.
He sighed and
looked around the paddock at the well fed horses, green meadows with bright,
wild flowers, his fat cattle. No - their fat cattle. He’d have to get used
to being one third owner with tune calling rights. The other two portions
were held by his uppity young sons who didn’t try to hide their dislike for
him. Well, that was the deal and the price wasn’t too high to have them
home. Still, it felt a part of his heart had been cut away. He’d put a lot
of long years and work into this ranch after the loss of his wives and
children. Lancer had been his family in his loneliness, his only comfort.
But he was pleased when he caught their looks of excitement when they didn’t
know he was watching.
Murdoch sensed Johnny’s uncertainty. The timetables, responsibilities, a way of life that demanded commitment from someone who had never answered to anything or anyone could be overwhelming. But in quiet moments, the hostility in his eyes was replaced by wonder as he stared out the great room window towards the mountains of Lancer. As if he couldn’t believe that all of this was his. Well, a third of it anyway. Johnny wanted it. Murdoch hoped that want was strong enough to hold him.
And Scott. Good lord what a cold young man he could be. Aloof, distant, but always mannerly. Innocent remarks were delivered with cold stares and smirks. His mother’s eyes. Humph. His eyes did have the same color and shape of his mother’s, but Catherine had never looked at him with the distaste that Scott could throw his way. Still, Murdoch sensed a muted energy bubbling beneath that control. Scott’s gaze wasn’t of wonder when he looked at the mountains. No, more like a renewal.
Would they stay? They signed the agreement that said two years or nothing. After that, they could walk away with a percentage of the profits, if any. But he gambled they would stay, that family would come to mean something to them. Hopefully, that he would come to mean something to them. No question they had a long way to go. Hostility, distrust, and damnable questions hung in the air unspoken. But hell, he’d been gambling since the day he boarded the ship out of Scotland and he would beat all odds to keep them.
He stretched his neck and tried to nudge it back to where it belonged. It cracked as his fingers worked at the bunched muscles across his shoulders. He guessed he was tilted off center permanent. Too many hours in the saddle chasing after cows and dreams and … sons. Well, one anyway, at first, after Maria had run away with Johnny.
How had she vanished so quickly with a little boy? As she lay in his arms at night after they made love, were her thoughts on how she would leave him? Was he such a horrible husband? How could she have tortured him so? They were questions he’d never know the answers to.
Her handsome lover didn’t fare well when Murdoch finally found him. Murdoch winced when he thought of how close he came to killing him. But he was beside himself then, almost to the point of madness. He had left Boston in despair after failing to claim Scott, and then returned home to an empty house, a run-away wife and another stolen son. Gambler’s luck was with the man - Murdoch believed him when he whimpered through mangled lips that he didn’t know where Maria had gone. After the beating he took, Murdoch imagined he wouldn’t take up with another man’s wife soon.
Hmmm. He found himself thinking about Maria lately. Hadn’t given her so much as a moment for a long time until Johnny came home. Maybe he should have kept looking for them. But then, maybe’s were wasted efforts. Just as useless as if only’s. And Johnny was home now. That’s all that mattered.
He grabbed a pair of tongs and picked up the twisted horseshoe. Nothing to do now but use it for scrap. It hissed as Murdoch plunged it into the water. The steam smelled of iron and blasted hot across his face bringing to mind the piece of lead that had been cut out of Johnny. He closed the bellows on the forge and walked to the house to see how his son was doing.
Pardee’s bullet hadn’t been serious, but painful. Thankfully, Scott had done a good job of digging it out. He shrugged at Murdoch’s “where did you learn how to …?”, and replied with a curt “the war”. Turning his back on Murdoch and concentrating on his brother, Scott shut out further discussion. The full extent of how little he knew about his sons rushed at Murdoch as he had watched those long fingers put a neat row of stitches into Johnny’s back.
Stopping at the pump outside the kitchen door, he splashed water over his gritty face. The water was chilly and little streams coursed down his arms. Still dripping, he combed wet fingers through his hair as he stepped into the kitchen. He smiled at the aroma of yeast and noted several loaves of rising bread setting on the counter. His stomach growled in anticipation.
The coolness of the house was pleasant after the fire of the forge. He walked to the great room expecting to find a sleeping Johnny on the couch, but he was gone. A movement from the patio caught his eye. They were both out there, voices just loud enough to hear. Johnny’s right leg draped over the arm of a patio chair, shoulders relaxed, grinning up at his brother. Scott leaned against a pillar with a glass in his hand. There was a table between them that held a sweating pitcher of lemonade and a half eaten cake. Murdoch grinned at the scene, hoping they were becoming, if not friends, at least partners. No laughter yet, but smug smiles and posturing of young men getting to know one another.
“Why’d you stick your neck out to come and get me, with Pardee?” Johnny asked.
Murdoch had wondered the same, but was grateful. He could still picture Johnny, lying helpless in the open, an easy target.
“I’d attempt to get any comrade out of the line of fire,” Scott replied, and sipped on his lemonade.
“You have practice doing that, do you?” There was a challenge in Johnny’s voice, and curiosity.
“Digging out bullets, too?”
“Some.” They were smiling, but reminded Murdoch of two young bulls eyeing one another across a fence.
“You should duck next time, brother.” Scott held up his glass. “After all, you wouldn’t look so good with ant’s crawling across your eyeballs.”
Johnny laughed and shook his head. Murdoch was sure there was more to that comment than what appeared on the surface.
As he moved towards the French doors, they looked his way and shut up.
“Boys.” He nodded and stepped over the sill. “How you feeling, Johnny?”
“I’m fine, Murdoch.”
He smirked and lowered his head. When he looked up at Murdoch, his eyes were hooded with wariness and caution. Johnny shrugged. “Just a bother, nothing more.”
hear.” Murdoch cleared his throat, discomfort squeezing at it. Damn, why
did it seem that every conversation he had with his sons was edgy? “You,
ah, doing okay, Scott. I mean, with the cattle.”
“Well. I now know which end to pull and which end to stay away from, if that’s what you mean.”
Johnny snorted and slurped his drink, then coughed a bit. “That’s a first step, Boston.”
“And an important one.” Scott filled a glass with lemonade and offered it to Murdoch. “Sir?”
“Thank you. The forge makes the day hotter.”
“Really? And who would have imagined that?” Scott quipped, raising an eyebrow, his tone mocking.
Murdoch clenched his jaw and glared. Not again. Murdoch was getting darn tired of Scott’s jabs. Did Scott think he was too stupid to realize how hot forges could get? And what did this young rooster know about pounding iron? He wanted to swipe the sneer away, but held his stare. Scott lowered his eyes and looked away, his lips tight with obvious resentment.
“You, ah, figure out how much damage Pardee cost?” Johnny pulled out a chair and pushed it Murdoch’s way.
“Not yet.” The chair scraped across the concrete when Murdoch yanked at it, his irritation with Scott smoldering. “I’ve got a crew going up to Harper’s Meadow, as far north as you can go on Lancer. See what damage was done up there.” Murdoch lowered himself into the hard metal chair and sighed. “I think it will be several weeks before we know our losses.”
“I imagine we haven’t lost as much as others.”
Johnny’s statement brought to mind the cruel image of a dead man hanging upside down from his barn, his wife naked and murdered in the house.
They didn’t say anything. Bird song reached them from the branches of a close willow. A cat twitched in anticipation beneath the tree where it flitted. Life went on, regardless of the pains and horrors of men. Murdoch knew that all too well.
Scott interrupted his musings. “You know anything about Caleb Fitzroy, that hand you hired a few days ago?”
Murdoch shook his head and focused his attention back on Scott. “Not much. Just that he’s a strong man and we need muscle. Why?”
“He’s from Georgia. A Confederate.”
“Scott. I know you were in the northern cavalry, but the war is over.” Murdoch didn’t have a lot of patience for men who carried grudges, and hoped Scott wasn’t one of them. No, it was more than a hope. If Scott was a man who didn’t give up the past, he would never forgive a father he thought had abandoned him.
“Oh, I’m well
aware of that, Sir. I just don’t know if the war is over for Mr. Fitzroy.”
“Why do you say that? Has he been giving you trouble?” Murdoch leaned back in the chair and studied his son. In the short time that Scott had been at Lancer, he had never mentioned any problems he was having, or complained of anything for that matter.
“None that I can’t handle.” Scott got that damnable smirk back on his face and frowned at Murdoch. “He may have issues with the past.”
“He needs to let them go,” Murdoch snapped, stronger than he intended. Damn, Johnny could be volatile but Scott was more irritating then a hot itch on a dusty day. But, give him time. Don’t bark so. He doesn’t know. That was the worst part and Murdoch wasn’t about to tell him.
Scott walked to the edge of the patio and raised his face to the sky. Murdoch looked at the silent figure; feet planted slightly apart, a hand on one hip, back straight. Who is he, this son of mine?
back to Murdoch after a few moments. “He lost everything. Wife, children,
farm. Regardless of what you think, Sir, letting go is not that easy.”
“Are you suggesting we fire him?”
“No. Not at all. Just thought I’d keep you informed. We wouldn’t want any surprises, would we?”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “I am not entirely unsympathetic, Scott, nor unfamiliar with … loss.”
Something flickered across Scott’s face for a moment, wonder perhaps? He heard Johnny’s chair shift and Murdoch glanced at him. Johnny was stiff, then seemed to catch himself and relaxed. My god, getting to know these sons was like learning a foreign language.
“Regardless,” Murdoch went on, struggling to say the right thing. “People need to move on from the hurt. Nothing gained in dwelling on the past. Only bitterness and hate is down that road.”
Murdoch set his glass on the table and pushed up from the chair. “I need to get back to work. You have any problems with Fitzroy you tell me right away. Understood?”
“Understood … Sir.” Scott came to a sloppy attention, clicked his heels and threw a half-hearted salute.
Johnny chuckled, obviously amused with Scott’s cheeky gesture. Right about now Murdoch wanted to pick them both up by the seat of their pants and throw them in the water trough. He had no qualms that he was strong enough to do it.
A galloping horse heading as fast it could towards the barn distracted him from the satisfying image of two wet sons. The rider was bent low over the flying mane.
Murdoch stepped forward, hands tight on his hips, his frustration at a breaking point. “I’ve told that young man to stop running horses to the barn. He’ll ruin them coming into the yard.” It appeared that even the hands weren’t giving him the proper respect. “Brighton!”
The rider yanked the horse hard at Murdoch’s yell. A grin popped across his face. “Yes sir, Mr. Lancer,” he boomed back but didn’t move their way.
“Come over here, Brighton. I am not going to shout to be heard.”
The hand nudged the lathered horse into a slow walk towards the patio. “Sorry about coming in so fast, boss, but the horse wanted to run.” He was smiling, broad and cocky.
“Of course the horse wants to run! It means no more work and corn in the feed bin. And get down off that animal.” Murdoch clenched his fists, holding back the urge to pull him off the horse and shake him. “I’ve told you before that you’ll make the animal hard to control when you allow him his head coming in.”
Now, looking up at Murdoch, his cockiness, and smile, disappeared. “Ah, yes sir, Mr. Lancer. And I won’t do it again.”
But the kid had said that before. “Brighton, we need hands.” Murdoch pointed his finger at the red faced boy. “But you do that again and you’ll be heading down the road. No apologies, no excuses, no time to say I’m sorry. Do you understand?”
Brighton seemed to shrink with each word that Murdoch thundered. “Yes, sir,” he stammered. “I do.”
“Then you get this animal cooled down. Hold off his grain and don’t give him much water. Then, get yourself over to the chicken yard and clean out the coop.”
It was plain he wanted to argue the chickens. No cowboy wanted to be off a horse. Especially knee deep in chicken crap. “But, Mr. Lancer,” he finally said.
“Boy, you’ve got two seconds to do what I’ve told you or get.”
Brighton didn’t move.
“One.” Murdoch took a deep breath, amazed that the kid was too stupid to know how much trouble he was in. “Two.”
“Yes sir. I’m going.” Brighton took the reins of his mount and trudged to the barn like he was heading for a switching.
“And I’ll be checking the job you do,” Murdoch yelled after him. He scrubbed a hand across his face, wondering why he kept the kid on. He was harmless enough, and good natured. That’s why. A hard worker when he got it right. And Lancer needed hands to take the place of those that Pardee had driven away.
“He tries, Murdoch,” Johnny said, voicing Murdoch’s own thoughts.
Murdoch blew out a breath. “I know he does, and that’s the only reason why I haven’t let him go. But he rides in like that again, and he’s out.”
“I wonder why?”
“What?” Murdoch turned to Scott expecting another biting remark. “Why what?”
“Why he rode in like that. Chances were better than even that you’d be here, see him do it. Why would he do that knowing he’d get caught?”
“You can’t fix stupid, Scott,” Johnny said.
Scott turned to Johnny and laughed. It was natural, light. Murdoch’s heart twisted at the sight of his smile. The beautiful side of Catherine was in his son.
“That is truly a fact, brother,” Scott quipped.
“Stupid or not, he understands no.” Murdoch’s voice was gruff as he thought of his dead wife and he cleared his throat. For a moment he almost resented Scott for reminding him of her loss. The resentment changed quickly to shame at such a thought.
“I commend you for your patience, Sir,” Scott said, walking up to Murdoch. “He has undoubtedly tried you more than once.”
“Son, you have no idea how patient I can be.” Murdoch looked from one son to the other, satisfied that each knew exactly what he meant. “But, my patience is not without its limits.”
Chapter 2 - A Crack in the Wall
“That path is called Gabriel’s Trail and leads to an old mine shaft that’s been deserted for years.” Murdoch stretched in the saddle trying to get the kinks out of his back. “No one uses it.”
“How come?” Johnny asked. “Is it a dead end to nowhere?”
“Actually, if you follow it far enough, it takes you a few miles into the Conway ranch. But no one uses it from that end either.”
“Would it cut miles from here to the Conway’s?” Scott asked.
Now it was Murdoch’s leg that decided to spasm from his hip down past his knee. He sighed, wondering how he thought he could take a day of traveling with his sons along the north boundary of Lancer. Too far, too long in the saddle, and too much a reminder that Pardee’s bullet was still lodged in his back. “I don’t know, Scott,” he managed to grind out through his teeth. “It’s been years since I’ve been down there and some of the trail could be gone.”
“I thought you knew every blade of grass on this ranch.”
He glanced at Scott, his eyes drawn to the purple bruise high on his cheekbone. It had been several days since Scott had come in with the shiner, and it seemed to be glowing with more color every day that passed. It irritated him that Scott refused to explain what happened. Other than a gruff ‘no’ when asked if it was Fitzroy, all Murdoch got was Scott’s back as he strutted out of the room.
“It’s a long
story,” Murdoch replied.
“Oh, well, that explains it.” Scott smirked and pushed past Murdoch. Scott’s horse lifted his tail and dropped manure when it passed Murdoch as if imitating his master’s disdain. Johnny chuckled and side stepped his mount around the steaming mess. Murdoch’s horse lunged at Johnny’s, and managed to plop its huge hoof into the middle of the large, brown pile.
“Damn it,” Murdoch said under his breath. He didn’t mind the smell of horse crap, but hated the fact that both of his sons thought it a big joke and that somehow, they’d gotten one up on him. “Where are you going?” he barked at Scott.
Scott turned with a superior stare. “As long as we’re exploring OUR property, why not explore a road that may save us time at some point in the future? Aggie Conway’s is the nearest ranch and it may shave off a few miles.”
“No. We don’t have time to do that now. Don’t be fooled by what looks like an easy trail. It’s barren country after you get into the canyon with nothing but a broken-down mine and impassable arroyos.”
“How do you
know if you haven’t been down there for a while? Things might have
changed.” Johnny‘s lip twisted in an insolent grin.
“They haven’t. Others have gone down that path and come out hurt or haven’t come out at all. Or so the legend goes.” Murdoch tried to keep his temper in hand, but
Johnny snorted. “You sayin’ it’s haunted?”
there’s no point. No one uses the trail. It’s rough going and wouldn’t
save any time.”
“I say let’s give it a try.” Scott whirled his horse around and challenged his brother. “What do you say, Johnny? Do you feel adventurous?”
“I’m for it.” Johnny grinned and started towards the path.
“This isn’t up for a vote,” Murdoch declared, and set his horse in the direction of the common road.
“Why not, Murdoch? This is a partnership. Or … doesn’t that count if you can’t have your way?”
Murdoch stiffened at Scott’s arrogance and understood why someone would want to punch him out. Scott was as condescending as Don DeCentro, but the Don was a wealthy, influential, old traditionalist who thought himself better than everyone else.
“Yes, it is a partnership, but if you recall, I call the tune.” It infuriated Murdoch to give an explanation on orders that should be followed without question. Even his Segundo delivered suggestions with respect. But these sons …
He kept riding and in a short time heard the clop, clop of horses following. Well, he’d won this battle. He sighed, realizing that with each run in with his sons, the rift grew wider. He knew he was part of the problem, but years of being in charge was a hard habit to break.
A beautiful spot, one of Murdoch’s favorites, lay a couple hundred yards off the road. He grinned when Toby veered towards the knoll of giant cottonwoods. It was a stop usually made, and the cool little stream that wound through the small meadow bubbled clear with sweet water. Maybe it was a good time to take a short rest, try to have a conversation with his sons without snapping. No better place than this peaceful, little area.
“Boys, my leg is acting up a bit. Mind if we stop a while? And I’ll tell you about the old mine.”
“Whatever you say, Murdoch. You are, after all the tune …”
please,” Murdoch interrupted, weary of the constant bickering, “can we call
a truce? Have a few minutes of peace?” Murdoch glanced at his son not even
caring about the plea in his voice. Scott looked surprised, his mouth still
open with the unsaid insult. Murdoch turned his back and reined Toby
through the stream to the large trees. With effort, he swung his bad leg
over the saddle, dropped the reins and limped over to the nearest
cottonwood. He managed to keep his groans to a minimum as he slid down the
trunk. The sun had warmed the base of the tree; Murdoch breathed with
contentment and closed his eyes.
Toby’s sharp nicker followed by a short whoa told Murdoch that Johnny was near. There was a soft creak of leather as his sons dismounted. Grass crinkled under the weight of receding footsteps - Johnny leading his horse away from Toby.
Something blocked the warmth and Murdoch quirked an eye. “Mind stepping out of my sunlight, Scott?” Scott moved and Murdoch closed his eye once again, relishing the heat. A few seconds later he felt a body slide down the same trunk that he rested against. He held his breath, surprised at the nearness of his son. An arm touched his, then jerked away. A leg bumped against him, and immediately pulled away.
Murdoch opened his eyes and turned to find Scott trying to get comfortable without touching him. “Relax, son. I don’t bite,”
Scott grinned and bowed his head. “I’m not so sure.”
“There is more than one tree, you know.”
Sorry.” Scott turned bright red and moved to get up but Murdoch put a hand
on his arm.
“The tree is big enough for both of us.” He smiled. “No need to be afraid of me.”
He got the
annoyed stare from Scott that he expected and laughed out loud.
“I’m glad I’m amusing you, Sir.” But his voice held no temper.
Murdoch gazed at him, saw the warm fire in his blue eyes, and it pleased him more than the sun heated tree. What had changed in a short time to make his son look almost … comfortable beside him? Was it the simple request for a truce, a few minutes of peace? But he didn’t delve into the reason too much; he just enjoyed the close presence of his elusive son.
“Damn horses,” Johnny said as he walked from where he had tied his mount. “If I don’t tie Barranca, Toby will be after him.” He sat down cross legged facing Murdoch and Scott.
go out of his way to fight. Only if Barranca gets too close.” Murdoch
watched as Johnny pulled together tall grasses and started weaving them
together. His hands always seemed busy braiding pieces of leather, or horse
hair or … cleaning that gun of his.
“They’ve never gotten on. Not since the day Barranca came into the meadow.” Murdoch grinned recalling how a quick nip from Toby had put the prideful newcomer in his place. Unfortunate that it didn’t work that way with humans.
“But Toby’s cut. Funny he’d go after a stallion.”
Murdoch shrugged. “You tell Toby that. First time Barranca tried to push in front of him for fresh hay, Toby took a bite out of his rump.”
“Yeah?” Johnny chuckled and eyed the horse. “Wouldn’t think that big, old gelding had it in him.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised how fast that horse can move. Especially when it comes to some young upstart thinking he can push him around.” Murdoch wondered if Johnny would pick up on the analogy of fathers to sons.
“He possessive around the mares?” Johnny whipped at dry grass bits that floated around his face, either ignoring Murdoch’s remark or oblivious to it.
“Nope, just doesn’t like uppity. And once you get his attention, he’s not likely to forget.” Murdoch glanced at the horse foraging a few feet from him. “He’s a good, solid animal. Dependable.” A fly buzzed around the delicate nose, and Toby snorted. He took the few steps to Murdoch and lipped the pocket on his shirt front.
“You got a treat in your pocket? Horse seems to be expecting something.” Johnny tossed the grass away, brought up his knees and wrapped his arms around his legs.
“Not today, old boy.” Murdoch slapped the side of Toby’s neck and he went back to grazing.
“You’re spoiling him, old man. He’ll be too fat to work if you keep that up.”
“Look who’s talking.” Scott stretched his leg and bumped it against Johnny’s boot. “You sing Barranca a lullaby every night. Probably give him a kiss too.”
“I do not.”
“Boy, I’ve seen you sneaking out of the barn after everyone’s gone to bed. Probably have a bushel of apples stashed somewhere in the rafters.” Scott tapped Johnny once more with his boot and pulled his leg up.
“Hell, Boston. You sayin’ you don’t go out of your way to make your horse comfortable?”
Scott lowered his head, a small smile playing on his lips, and looked back up at Johnny. “A good horse soldier always makes sure his animal is taken care of. It could save his life.”
Murdoch’s stomach tumbled at the soft reply. Even though he knew Scott had been in the war, the reality that he may have been wounded or even killed was unnerving.
“What did you
do in the war?”
Murdoch perked up at Johnny’s question, expectant for the answer.
“Tried to stay out of the way of cannon balls.” He regarded Murdoch. “You were going to tell us about the mine.”
Well, Scott was good at maneuvering the conversation away from his war time experiences. Johnny didn’t push for an answer and Murdoch wasn’t about to pursue. Disappointed but still grateful for the absence of hostilities, Murdoch gathered his thoughts on the legend of Gabriel’s mine.
“The mine was abandoned before I settled out here so the history is from the locals. And it’s not much of a mine. A few timbers holding up dirt with a hole burrowed a few hundred feet into the hill. Still, it’s a dangerous shaft.”
“Was it a gold mine?” Johnny asked.
“People thought so. Enough that people died for it.”
“Hey, where you goin’, Scott? Thought you wanted to hear the story.”
“For my bedroll, brother. Might as well be comfortable.” Scott’s easy rise on his long legs made Murdoch envious. He could do that once, not so very long ago.
“Hell, if your tender butt wasn’t so boney, it would be fine.”
“You do have a lot more padding than I do,” Scott called over his shoulder.
“Hey! I’m well-muscled.”
“I agree. And your head is clearly like your ass. Thick.”
Murdoch smiled, remembering the insults that he and his brothers used to throw back and forth - just like his sons. It felt good.
“Anyone want theirs?” Scott asked while untying the bedroll from the saddle.
“No thank you, Son.”
Scott folded the blanket neatly on the ground, slid his back down the tree trunk and stretched his legs in front of him.
“Yes.” Scott rested his hands together on his belly and gave Johnny a wide smile. “Thanks for asking.”
“Ah, boys, if you’re finished, I can continue.”
“Go ahead, Murdoch. If it’s okay with Boston, that is.”
Scott nodded, and pushed his behind further into the blanket. “Continue.”
“The story starts around the mid to late 30’s. A young Mexican farmer named Gabriel married an Indian girl. He wanted a better life for them, and any children they may have. So they moved away from their families and settled a few miles from the Catholic mission at San Diego. He was hoping to farm, but was hoodwinked into buying poor land. On top of that, the man who sold him the land didn’t own it. So they not only lost the land, but the money they had paid for it.
He had heard
stories from his wife’s people about pebbles of gold lying in the rivers to
the north, near the foothills of the San Joaquin. He made arrangements for
his wife to work for the Jesuits. He borrowed an old mule, scouted out the
area, and panned a few small nuggets out of the riverbed.”
Murdoch watched a big wolf spider scurry past Toby’s hoof. The horse snorted and jumped back when the spider wandered too close to his nose. His ears perked as he watched the hairy legged creature scamper into the high grass.
“I’ve never seen spiders like that in Boston,” Scott said, his voice edged with distaste.
“They are ugly, but harmless,” Murdoch said, amused at the frown on Scott’s face.
“I’ve heard they like to nestle in blond hair.”
“Not funny, Johnny.”
Johnny chuckled and turned to his father. “So, Gabriel found himself a few nuggets. Why does that make the place off limits?”
“I’m getting to that, son. Like I said, Gabriel found some nuggets, thought he would be a rich man and bought up a small stretch of the river. Word got out; others came along and tried, but no gold. Gabriel found a few more nuggets, people offered him some money for the land, but he said no. After a few weeks he was doing pretty good. He dug a hole into the side of the hill for shelter. Some say he found gold in the rock as he went so far back into the hill. Oh, he wasn’t lugging great bags of gold out, but enough to encourage him to stay. Then the Jesuits sent word that his wife had contracted malaria and was very sick.”
Murdoch cricked his neck from side to side and glanced at his sons. They both seemed absorbed in the story, and the plight of this poor young man. “Now, land deed or no land deed,” Murdoch continued, “Gabriel knew that if he left, others would take over his claim. He was torn. He wanted to be with his wife, but at the same time thought if he could get a few more nuggets, they could afford a stake in another piece of farmland. He didn’t know what to do, held off for a couple weeks, but finally decided to go to his wife. By the time he got there, she had died. After he buried her, he returned to the river, and sure enough, a couple of men were working the claim and wouldn’t budge. Crazy with grief and guilt that his young bride had died before he returned to her, he killed them both.”
“Is this a true story? Or just a legend?” From the look on Johnny’s face, he wanted it to be a legend.
“Well, the mine is there, or what’s left of it. The vaqueros say that when a strong wind blows from the south, it unearths human bones and when it blows from the north, it reburies them.”
“Could still be a story someone made up to keep folks away.”
“Oh, I don’t disagree with you Johnny. But I will say this, experience has proven that it is a dangerous area, between the steep canyon road, the lose shale before the road hits the riverbed, plus the mine itself. There have been others who have tried to work it, lured by the gold, and have ended up dead.”
“So, what happened to Gabriel? I mean, did he get away with murdering two people?” Scott rubbed a forearm across a trickle of sweat running down his face and left a line of dirt. Murdoch licked his thumb and without thinking, brought it halfway to Scott’s face.
“Uhm,” Murdoch said, snatching back his hand and clearing his throat as he realized what he was about to do, “you’ve got a smudge on your cheek.” Good grief, had he really almost spit cleaned his son’s cheek? Scott gave him the strangest look, but drew a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at the splotch.
Embarrassed, Murdoch turned away only to find Johnny watching him with a huge smile plastered across his face. If he hadn’t been so mortified by the whole thing, Murdoch would have appreciated seeing the rare show of pure enjoyment in his son’s eyes.
“What? Do you find something amusing?”
“Oh, yeah,” Johnny chuckled and shook his head. “But,” he continued, trying to suppress his laughter, “Back to Gabriel. What happened to him?”
Murdoch darted a glance at Scott who still had a dumbfounded look on his face as he absently rubbed at the smudge. It surprised and pleased Murdoch to see that his self-possessed son appeared almost … befuddled.
“The Mexican authorities didn’t have much of a law enforcement presence in the area and most folks sympathized with Gabriel,” Murdoch continued. “There was a half-hearted attempt to find him, but he was gone and no one ever saw him again.”
“You mentioned that others tried working the mine afterwards,” Scott said. “What happened to them?”
Scott had been unsuccessful in getting rid of the dirt, and managed to spread it around. It offset the bruise on his other cheek.
Murdoch forced his gaze away from the mark. “After Gabriel killed the claim jumpers, a few tried their luck both in the river and the shaft itself. They never got much gold out and didn’t stay around long. A cave in killed a couple of the miners when they dug further into the hill without putting up proper timber support. That’s when the legend started of the area being haunted. Miners reported seeing a vision of Gabriel at the entrance to the old mine, his hands covered in blood. When sleeping they would be awakened by noises; things bumping around in the night. The next morning belongings were disturbed, gold dust bags torn open or nuggets found smoldering in the ashes of the campfire. Or so the stories go.”
“So, what do you think Murdoch? Is that why you don’t go down there? You afraid of Gabriel’s ghost?” A smart-ass smirk accompanied Johnny’s question. Murdoch recognized that the old hostility had crept back in – or more likely it had never gone away.
“No. I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe in dangerous parts of the country, and that mine is one of them.”
“Why, because old men believe in evil spirits?” Scott followed in his brother’s footsteps, mocking Murdoch with his tone.
“What’s the harm in taking a look?” Johnny prodded. “Hell, we can do it on our own time.”
“Why? It’s our time!”
“Because I said so.” He heard the edge in his voice and regretted it. Damn, why did they always have to push? He managed to pull himself up from the ground without too much trouble, signaling the end of the rest. “Time to head back.” He mounted Toby and swung around in the direction they had come.
Murdoch led the way, a quiet Johnny and Scott riding several yards behind him. When they came to Gabriel’s Trail Murdoch kept going, but the sound of two horses following faded to one. Murdoch turned and looked over his shoulder. Scott had stopped and was gazing down at the trail’s entrance. “I told you no, Scott. There’s nothing down there. It’s too dangerous.”
Scott lifted his gaze from the path to Murdoch, and without saying anything nudged his horse forward.
“There are other days … Sir,” he snapped, as he came alongside Murdoch, then kicked his horse into a gallop. Dust bit into Murdoch’s face as he watched the long legs of Scott’s mount eat up the road towards home. Johnny lumbered by, threw a cold look Murdoch’s way, and followed the road several yards until he also booted his horse into a canter.
Murdoch’s heart sank. Only a few moments before they were enjoying what Murdoch hoped was a reconciliation of sorts, a ceasefire. But it hadn’t lasted. Still, it was a start and gave Murdoch hope. He had somehow stumbled upon a crack in the wall with a simple request for peace and his sons had responded. He just needed to set aside his pride and figure out how to make that wall tumble.
Chapter 3 – It’s Complicated
Murdoch settled deep into the chair behind his desk and watched through the window as the big man lumbered across the yard. He had an idea why he was coming to the house in mid-day. Caleb Fitzroy was a strong man, did his job and minded his own business. But he had taken an instant dislike to Scott.
There had been a couple of times in the last few weeks when Scott had come in off the range with bruises on his face and raw knuckles. Murdoch hadn’t pressed when Scott declined to say why. A cold, tight, “I can handle it,” from Scott held Murdoch’s tongue. Scott was a grown man and could fight his own battles. Besides, he expected Scott would have to prove himself to the seasoned cowboys who would test the boss’s fancy son. Murdoch didn’t necessarily think that Fitzroy was the cause, but it was possible.
Still, Murdoch did feel sorry for the man. Losing his family … wife, children. He understood more than anyone the pain of that loss. But with all of the soldiers from both sides that had fled west after the war, it was likely that Scott wasn’t Fitzroy’s first run in.
The hard knock rumbled through the room and Murdoch pushed himself up from his chair. “Damn,” he hissed when his leg cramped. He clamped his hand above the knee and hobbled to the door.
“Mr. Lancer,” Fitzroy said removing his hat when Murdoch opened the door. Tracks of sweat grooved down his cheeks and dirt crusted in the creases of his eyes. “I’d like to settle up and be on my way.”
Murdoch held his gaze for a few moments then turned towards his desk. “Come in.” His leg loosened up as he walked across the room. By the time he sat down and scrolled through the pay journal, the spasm had passed.
“How long have you been out west, Mr. Fitzroy?” Murdoch unlocked the cash drawer in his desk.
“Few years. Come out right after the war.”
Murdoch counted out the dollars, recorded them in his journal, and slid the money across the desk. “We owe you for a half month’s work. Count it, then sign here as a receipt.”
“I thank ee.” Fitzroy scrawled his name next to the journal entry and left a smudge on the paper from his thumb. He stuffed the money into his pants pocket.
“Has anyone done or said anything to you that you took offense at? Any problems?”
“And my son, Scott …?” Murdoch hated the fact that he didn’t know Scott as well as he should and had to ask.
“We tend to keep out of each other’s way.” Fitzroy’s mouth slashed into a thin line.
“You know, Fitzroy, the war’s been over for years. Maybe it’s time you … moved on with your life.” Murdoch wasn’t going to try to talk him out of leaving, but knew the man needed to get beyond the war in order to have a chance at a better life.
“I reckon you be right, Mr. Lancer.” His fingers tightened on the rim of his floppy hat as he stared at the floor. “Maybe one of these days.”
His boots were old, scuffed and Murdoch would have wagered the bottoms were worn thin and coming close to holes. Life could be hard enough without throwing the ugly business of war into the mix. He wondered how that conflict had affected Scott. “My, ah, son, was only one man in the war. Like you. Fighting for what he believed in.”
The muscles in his jaw tightened and hard grey eyes blazed at Murdoch. “Spect so.”
“You’ll run into lots of men who fought for the north in this part of the country.”
Fitzroy nodded, his lips tight. “Spect so.”
Murdoch sighed and leaned back in the chair as he studied the man in front of him. “Okay, Fitzroy. You came in with your own horse and tack, didn’t you?”
“Yes. She be out in the corral ready to go.”
appreciate if you left Lancer property as soon as you can. No reason to
stick around and harbor ill feelings.”
“I be doing that.” Fitzroy flopped his hat on and trudged across the room, back straight and prideful despite his worn and sweat stained clothes. A deep roll of compassion coiled in Murdoch’s stomach, and he lowered his eyes. Murdoch didn’t hear the big oak door shut, and wondered if Fitzroy wanted to say more. When he looked up, Johnny was in the doorway watching the retreating form.
“He quit?” Johnny asked as he walked into the room.
“Hmm. That’ll leave us shorthanded some.”
“I know.” Murdoch suddenly felt very tired.
“Probably for the best. It was only a matter of time before he and Scott got into it.”
Murdoch wondered if his supposition was right, that maybe Scott’s bruises were Fitzroy’s doing. “Why do you say that, Johnny? Did they have any run ins?”
“Not that I know of. Scott seemed to try with him, but then backed off. It was Fitzroy.”
Murdoch thought of the much heavier Fitzroy coming up against his son. “Did Fitzroy make any threats?”
“Nope.” Johnny lounged into a chair in front of the desk. “You could tell though. Every time Scott was around, Fitzroy got a cold look in his eyes. You know. A look a man gets when he’d like to stomp you into the ground till there’s nothing left but a stain in the dirt.”
“Scott hasn’t said anything. I was hoping things had settled down between them.” Murdoch was glad that he had told Fitzroy to leave Lancer right away.
“Why should he, Murdoch? He can handle himself.”
“I’m not saying he can’t. I merely like to know if there’s trouble on the ranch. Doesn’t matter who causes it.” Murdoch watched as Johnny twirled the spur on his boot. “You wouldn’t happen to know who Scott’s been squabbling with, would you. If it wasn’t Fitzroy, I mean.”
The spur stopped spinning. Johnny looked up with a scowl on his face. “That’s something you need to ask Scott.”
Murdoch held Johnny’s stare, not willing to let it go. “Do you know?”
He looked like his mother now when she was upset. Problem was, Murdoch hadn’t always known what set Maria off. But Murdoch knew why Johnny was quick to anger; with him anyway. His mother had lied, told him they weren’t wanted - a young mother and toddler left to fend for themselves when the head of the house threw them out.
“Why do you want to know?” Johnny’s eyes scorched with resentment. “Or do you think he might do something to harm your precious ranch?”
“Johnny.” Murdoch clenched his jaw in frustration. He sat forward and put his elbows on the desk, not wanting another run in with one of his sons. “Why do you and Scott always assume I’m being critical?”
“Well, you sure don’t look too pleased now. Isn’t Scott’s fault Fitzroy don’t like Yankees.”
“I’m not pleased that we lost a man, but I don’t blame Scott.” He scrubbed fingers through his hair, stood up and winced at that damnable knee. Sucking in a breath, he waited till the seizure passed. When he glanced back at his son, Johnny’s face had changed from open hostility to concern.
“You okay?” The question was gruff, but it was the first time Johnny had asked about his welfare. A hopeful sign that maybe he did care … a little.
“This knee.” Murdoch eased himself back into the chair. “You wouldn’t think a back shot would affect a leg, but … well, just something to deal with.” Murdoch waved his arm, not wanting to dwell on something that could not be changed.
“Ah, so you know, Johnny,” Murdoch started, searching for the right words to nudge his son towards a better understanding of what were the most important things in his life. “This ranch was hard won …”
“I know,” Johnny interrupted. “A grey hair for every blade of grass. Isn’t that what you said?”
“Would you let me finish.” Murdoch forced his voice level, aggravated that Johnny had switched from concern to antagonism all too soon. He closed his eyes with a silent ‘please God’. When he opened them, Johnny watched. Nothing on his face betrayed what he was thinking.
“I was going to say, that this ranch was hard won, but it hasn’t always been the most important thing in my life.”
Johnny didn’t say anything nor did a muscle twitch in his face.
“I have proof.” It was a quick decision, the words said before he had time to think about the consequences.
That statement caused a flicker. “Proof? Of what?”
“In this drawer,” Murdoch slapped his hand against the bottom drawer of his desk, “is proof that I tried for years to find you and your mother. If I had kicked you out, why would I try to find you? That’s what you believe, isn’t it? That I threw you and your mother to the road?”
It was quiet
except for the distant bark of a dog. Awkward moments of silence lingered
in the air. Johnny ran his tongue along his lips. “What are you talking
“Bills, Johnny. Dated bills going back to the time your mother left me until a few weeks ago when you were pulled from in front of a firing squad.”
Johnny quirked his head, interest as well as skepticism evident on his face. “What kind of bills?”
“Detective bills. Have you ever heard of the Pinkertons?”
“Yeah. Like you said, the guy who pulled me from the firing squad was a Pinkerton.” Johnny smirked. “Right on time for me to help you fight off Day Pardee. That’s what you wanted from me, wasn’t it? My gun?” He leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other. “But I figure I got paid real good. A third of everything you built.”
“It wasn’t just for me.”
In spite of the fear that his son may not believe him, Murdoch was desperate and he doubted that he’d ever have the courage to repeat those words. But something needed to be done; these past weeks of rejection and hostility had been unbearable. “It wasn’t just for me. This ranch. It was for my children, you and your brother.”
into the drawer and pulled out a folder. Murdoch drew out the top sheet,
brittle with the passing of twenty years. “This.” He pointed to the date
on the receipt. “This was the first time I hired the detectives to find you
and your mother.”
Johnny didn’t move. “Look at it son … please look.” Murdoch knew the pain he was going to cause. Maria had lied and here was the proof. Not only that, but he had grown up with a hatred for his father that could destroy them both. Johnny hesitated, but then stood up and turned the paper so he could see it.
“Here,” Murdoch rummaged deeper into the folder. “This is dated a few months later. And this one.” Murdoch yanked out another bill. “This is when you were around twelve. They’re all here, Johnny. There were a couple of years when I didn’t have the money … I couldn’t afford…” How he had hated not being able to search for his son. By that time, he hadn’t cared if he ever found Maria. He just wanted Johnny.
Murdoch could see the painful realization on Johnny’s face. “I tried, Johnny. I tried to find you and I swear, I did not order your mother to leave.”
Johnny leafed through the stack of receipts, his finger tracing over the date on each sheet. A muscle jumped in his jaw and he pursed his lips together.
“How do I know these are real? Just because you say …” Johnny didn’t finish, but waved an arm and turned away.
“Did she tell you about Scott? Did she tell you that you had a brother?” Johnny couldn’t argue that. Scott was living proof that his mother had kept that truth from him.
“Just because she held something back, doesn’t mean she lied about everything else,” Johnny stammered, anger and doubt warring across his features. Murdoch knew his son was clutching at air, but to see that hurt was worse than if he had been struck himself.
Murdoch stood and rested his hands on the desk, hating himself for revealing
the awful truth. “You know these bills are not false.”
Johnny shook his head and stared at Murdoch, evidence of his mother’s betrayal plain in his eyes. “I don’t believe you.” Hard eyes glared at Murdoch, almost daring him to contradict. “She said you didn’t want us. Why would she lie? It doesn’t make sense.”
know.” Murdoch walked to the liquor cabinet and grabbed the closest bottle,
splashing clear liquid into two glasses. He took a drink, and caught his
breath. He hated tequila but it was a good choice – it was Johnny’s
“Look at some of the bills, John. You can see that the older ones have yellowed with age. Read the comments. Judge for yourself.” Murdoch handed the drink to Johnny.
Johnny took the glass and sipped. As he stared at the bills, his fingers slipped through the pile, eyes scanning each invoice. He picked one up. “Brief isn’t it?” he whispered. “Search ended in Andrade. Client’s funds depleted. No sign of subjects – mother or son. Expenses as follows…” He tossed it back on the desk and it glided to the edge of the folder.
“We were there.”
Johnny nodded. He looked up at Murdoch with a bitter smile. “I think the Pinkertons need to give you your money back. We were there at that time.” He took a big swallow of the tequila. “Got any more?” He held the glass out. Murdoch reached for the bottle and set it on the desk.
“Help yourself. You need it.”
He watched as Johnny refilled the glass and lowered himself back into the chair. Some of his spirit seemed to have wilted and there was a sadness that had not been there before.
“I’m sorry he
missed you. If I had known …” They had been in Andrade! Johnny could have
been home years ago. Murdoch’s heart beat faster at the thought of how
close the Pinkerton may have been to his son.
“I must have been about nine then. Mama had married my stepfather a few months before. We were happy after all the wandering from one place to another. He was a good man.” Johnny bowed his head and twirled the glass. “He was good to us.”
Murdoch felt a swelling lump in his throat, thinking of Johnny being raised by another man. Both of his sons … raised by men they didn’t belong to. The bitterness he thought he had put to rest was almost as deep as the grief of remembering his stolen children. Ah, who was he to tell Caleb Fitzroy that he needed to move on?
“Why?” Johnny leaned his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes. “Why would she leave?”
“I thought Scott may have had something to do with it. I’m not sure.” Murdoch settled in a chair next to Johnny and rested his elbows on his legs, hands wrapped around the crystal glass. “Who knows what goes on in a woman’s mind?”
“Scott? What would Scott have to do with her leaving?” Johnny sat up, his look intense. “He didn’t grow up here.”
“It’s all speculation. I spent long nights after she left, month after month, wandering around this big house, wondering why. I had talked to her about Scott. She knew I wanted him and may have been jealous but maybe that’s not fair either. Scott was a child.” Murdoch let out a deep sigh and took a sip, the tequila almost choking him. God, he hated this stuff. “Maybe … maybe I was neglectful. This ranch took so much of my time. She craved attention. I don’t know Johnny and I’m too blind to see it. Even after all these years. I really don’t know.”
A small snort
came from Johnny. “Well, mama, she did crave attention. And nice things.
She met my step daddy in Andrade and he was willing to give her whatever he
could afford. “
“Did she tell him about being married to me?” Murdoch wondered if she mentioned that small fact.
“Nope.” Johnny glanced over at Murdoch. “They weren’t legal, were they? Being married.”
“No, son. We were not divorced. She was still legally my wife.”
“Hmm.” He bowed his head. “I guess I never thought of that before. I mean, being a kid and all.”
“No, I don’t suppose you would.” Now what? What could Murdoch say to fill in the silence and make Johnny feel better? He was at a loss, like he had been in trying to figure out why Maria left. He could build a ranch, an empire, but he couldn’t comfort his own son.
“Ah, Johnny. Maybe, if you want to talk about anything, you know, well, anything at all, I’d be glad to listen. Or answer any questions you may have.” He sipped again at the awful liquid and gagged. “I’m not sure I’d have the answers though.”
“You don’t care much for tequila, do you?”
Johnny was smiling when Murdoch looked at him. “Is it that evident?”
“Yeah, well, you choke and turn red every time you take a sip. Why do you have it?”
“Because. I have a son who has a taste for it.”
Johnny chuckled, then laughed. It seemed like he was releasing the tension and stress of the past several minutes. Murdoch was like a starved man taking in the sound of his son’s laughter. He’d never heard it before, at least not without bitterness. Johnny wiped his eyes, grinned and studied the liquor.
“Thanks, Murdoch. I’ll pass now on that talk.” He glanced at the desk, and focused his eyes on the pile of bills. “I need to …” He shot up from the chair and drained the glass. “Let up on this tequila before I’m drunk in the middle of the day. You’ve got some powerful agave.”
“I can afford the best.” Murdoch set his glass aside, not wanting anymore and gathered the bills back into the folder.
“I’ll finish that off tonight so don’t throw it away.” Johnny picked up his hat. “Well, best get back to work.”
“Johnny. Everything ok?”
He put his hat on and pulled the stampede string tight. “Yeah. I ah, I just need to work it out.”
Murdoch nodded. “Take your time.” He hesitated, not wanting to push Johnny, but concerned about who was fighting with Scott. “Uh, about Scott.”
“Scott wouldn’t take kindly to a babysitter,” came the soft reply.
“I know and I’m not asking because of that.”
“Murdoch, you need to ask Scott. But don’t expect him to tell you. He wants … he needs to take care of it himself.”
“So, you know?”
“Yeah.” Johnny looked down at the floor. “He’ll be okay.”
“And Caleb Fitzroy?”
“What about Caleb Fitzroy?” Scott asked, coming in from the back part of the house.
“He was just here.” Murdoch was startled by Scott’s entrance and wondered if he had overhead anything else. “He quit.”
Scott gave his father a knowing look. “Oh. Well, his choice, not mine.”
“Scott, why didn’t you tell me you were having problems with Fitzroy?” Murdoch tried to keep his voice neutral. He realized that at times his comments came out sounding critical which was not his intent.
“I did.” Scott looked perplexed by the question. “If you remember, it was a couple of weeks ago when we were talking on the patio.” He picked up the glass that held the tequila, sniffed it and frowned.
“Yes, I do recall that. But that’s not what I mean.”
“I don’t think I follow you, Sir.” Scott set the glass down and turned to face Murdoch. “What is it you do mean? How many ways can you say the man has a problem with me, and make it plainer? Do I need to write it down and sign it?”
Murdoch was tired and edgy from the talk he just had with Johnny, and held his tongue to keep from biting at Scott’s antagonism. “I mean,” he said, straining to keep his voice level, “Why didn’t you tell me how serious it was? The man quit and it’s obvious you are the reason.”
The recognition that the words were wrong was immediate. They sounded critical when Murdoch was in fact, concerned about what may have happened to his son. Scott stiffened and glared with a contempt that grabbed at Murdoch’s heart.
“I cannot control the hatred that one man has for another, whatever the reason,” Scott spat back. “I tried to work with him. He would have none of it, so I left him alone. I am not a mind reader. I had no idea he was leaving.” Scott’s fists were clenched; his back stiff.
Pride tugged at Murdoch not to apologize, as proud as the man looking back at him. But this was his son. His son! Not some hired hand drifting from one place to the other digging for a job. Scott could have been as lost as Caleb Fitzroy or the thousands of other men who left part of their souls on the battlefields of the Rebellion. Hell, Murdoch didn’t even know what he had experienced in that war. The only knowledge that Scott had been a part of it was a picture of a smart looking young cavalry lieutenant standing next to his General.
“Scott, I didn’t mean …” He needed to make Scott understand, say the right thing for once. He hooked his fingers in his belt and took a step towards his son.
“It’s evident what you meant, Sir.” Scott backed away from his father. “I’ll do double duty until you can replace Fitzroy. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.” Scott turned away and tramped out the front door, the solid bang of the wood sounding very final.
It was a few moments before anything was said. Finally, “I’d best get back to work. See what I can help pick up.” Johnny moved towards the door.
“Johnny, I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. Scott can be so hard to talk to and I always manage to say the wrong thing.” Murdoch dropped into the chair and wrapped his fingers around the arms. Johnny stopped in front of him and almost looked sorry.
“Listen, Murdoch. This is all new to us. Scott gets a burr up his butt and has a hard time letting things go. Hell, I’ve had that same burr since I got here.”
Murdoch was touched by the warmth in his son’s voice and softened by the look in those blue, blue eyes. Was it pity? Or maybe understanding?
“Might help if his thinking about you is wrong. Maybe Scott doesn’t know all the facts either, about why he didn’t grow up on Lancer.”
“Oh, Johnny. There’s so much … he doesn’t know.” Murdoch scrubbed a hand across his face and wondered how he could tell Scott that the grandfather he loved had kept them apart with threats of lawsuits and intimidation.
“Like me? Like the things I didn’t know?”
“Might want to share some of it with him.”
“I can’t. Not yet.” He looked up at Johnny. “It’s complicated.”
“Well, some things are old man. But holding off don’t make it any simpler. He’s a big boy, Murdoch.” A loose smile played across his lips. “But, give it time. Boston’ll cool off. He’s a thinking man.”
Murdoch was grateful for the words. A few minutes ago Johnny would probably have joined his brother in the battle. At least he could be thankful that didn’t happen.
“Thanks, Johnny.” Murdoch was spent. How could he reach Scott? He didn’t have any receipts in a folder proving that he hadn’t abandoned him. But had he? When he thought about it, had he given up too easily?
He stood up, placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. It was the first time he felt comfortable that Johnny wouldn’t shove it aside.
“I best go.” The door closed with a quiet click when Johnny left.
Chapter 4 – To Keep the Peace
“Gonna have to shoot it, Boss.” The young cowboy straightened up from the
downed bull and squinted at Murdoch, his eyes slits against the mid-day
sun. He planted a hand against a bony hip and drew his rifle from the
scabbard with the other one.
“No one’s shooting that animal, Everly.” Murdoch felt the tight slash of his lips. “At least no one but me.” He nudged Toby a few steps forward, dismounted and knelt by the heaving bull. Skin quivered under Murdoch’s fingers as he skimmed the shaggy flank. With each hard gasp and release, red dirt billowed and clung to the animal’s nose. The entangled wire had gouged an ugly zig-zag down his blood soaked back leg, exposing tissue and bone. He might have gone on further but the post he’d been dragging became wedged between boulders. Murdoch cursed at the animal’s suffering and wondered at what needless stupidity had caused it all.
He stood up and watched the future foundation of his stock slowly die.
Pulling out his rifle, he stepped up to the bull and aimed. The animal
lifted its head, stared at Murdoch with crazy, pain-filled eyes, and dropped
it back into the clay. Murdoch hardened his heart and pulled the trigger;
the boom silenced everything else in the day.
“We can at least harvest the meat.” Murdoch shoved the rifle back into its case and untied his lariat, trying not to think about the hundreds of dollars that lay dead on the hillside. “We can hoist it over that big branch on that cottonwood.”
“Will it hold, boss?”
“It’ll hold. You have wire cutters?””
“Clip him free of the post.”
Murdoch made a noose and tightened it on the animal’s back leg. “You get the other leg, Everly. Let’s pull him over there.”
The horses strained under the weight, but Toby pushed on taking most of the
load. Everly’s lighter horse was a good cowpony and didn’t balk, but it was
a slow trek to the tree. They threw the ropes over the branch and hoisted
the animal as far off the ground as they could. The branch creaked, but
didn’t break. Murdoch pulled a long knife nestled in a leather holder from
his saddle. “Better take the horses upwind a ways.”
Murdoch rolled up his sleeves and waited a few minutes until the mounts were tethered away from the smell of blood. The belly split with a quick, efficient knife stroke. He’d dressed so many animals in the past that it took only a few minutes to pull out the entrails. They steamed in the grass, testimony that a short time before a heart had pushed life through the big bull. A neat slice to the neck and blood flowed into the soft hair and pooled under the head.
“Everly, signal that we need some help. I think Johnny has a crew not too
far from here.” Murdoch glanced at the blond boy and was surprised. “You
look a little green around the gills. Haven’t you ever slaughtered an
“Yes, sir. But my pa usually took care of the guttin’. I don’t like blood too much.” The acrid smell of gunpowder drifted from his rifle as he fired three shots into the air. He lowered the gun and couldn’t quite meet Murdoch’s eyes. “I mostly did the farming, plowing, weeding.” Shifting his feet, a blush spread over his face. “Pa, well, he knew my stomach weren’t good.”
“Throw me a canteen.” Murdoch caught the canteen and rinsed away the blood
from his hands as well as he could. “You’ll need to get used to it, boy.
Everyone working this spread runs across injured cattle at some time and
dresses them on the spot. Can’t be wasting good meat.”
“Yes, sir.” Everly didn’t sound too convinced. “Ah, what about horses, Mr. Lancer. I’d sure hate to, you know, eat ‘em.”
Murdoch turned to the sound of approaching horses. Three riders were galloping over the hill, one of them Johnny. “Only time I’ve eaten a horse is when I was a lad in Scotland. It was an old pony that my da thought we should eat. He was a frugal man.” Murdoch smiled at the cowboy. “I threw it up. Da never pushed it on me again.”
“I don’t think I could ever eat a horse, Sir.”
Murdoch walked towards Toby and thought the same thing as the animal nuzzled his shirt. “You’d be surprised what a man will do to live.” He pulled himself into the saddle and waited for the incoming riders.
Johnny circled the bull and rode up to join Murdoch.
“You made good time, Son.”
“We were close. Just finished up the bridge repair and were headed over to see if Cip needed some help taking out junipers in Birdie’s Meadow.” He looked back at the bull. “Damn, Murdoch, what happened to Jubal?”
“He got tangled up in some wire, snapped off a post and managed to tow it with him. Leg was so torn up, no way to save him. I had to shoot him.”
“Where was he? Which fence line?”
“I’m thinking it’s the new line Scott and his crew put in yesterday. Everly and I came across a blood trail a ways back and followed it here. I plan on backtracking and see where the bull got tangled.”
“Mind if I tag along? I need to talk to you about something.”
“Sure.” Murdoch’s curiosity instantly stirred and his first thought was that Johnny wanted to talk about his mother. His stomach dropped some at that prospect. Twisting in the saddle he barked orders at the three remaining men. “Baker, stay here with Everly and keep predators away from the carcass. Frank, go to the ranch and bring back a wagon to haul the body home. It should be bled out by the time you get back.”
Nods and yes sirs were delivered and with a last glance at the hanging bull, Murdoch set off with Johnny. It wasn’t long before they reached the spot where Murdoch had come across the trail of the unfortunate animal. Blood splattered the ground and grasses lay torn and crushed. The more they tracked, the angrier Murdoch became at the animal’s suffering.
“Sorry, Son. I’m just so focused on the bull,” he said, ashamed that he’d put aside Johnny’s request to talk. He peered at Johnny through the hot glare of the bleached out sky. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“That’s ok, Murdoch. Seeing that bull hanging head down from the tree could distract any man. You having to kill it, well, I know it cost you a lot of money.”
“Us, Son. It cost us a lot of money … but it’s done. Only thing is find out what happened so it doesn’t happen again.” Murdoch hauled back on the reins and gave Toby a little kick as he lunged at a too close Barranca. “Damn it, horse. Settle down.”
“Think they’ll ever get along?”
“No. Can’t reason with horses like you can with people. And Toby’s as stubborn a horse as I’ve ever owned. But that stubborn sure the hell got the bull dragged across the meadow.” He appreciated that stubborn usually went along with determination, traits that were both good and bad. “So, did you want to talk about your mother?”
Johnny chuckled and glanced at him with a gleam in his eyes. “No Murdoch. You worried on that?”
“Well, Son. Ah, no.” He cleared his throat, irritated with himself for being so transparent.
“Don’t worry. We’ll both be having us a couple belts before I tackle that subject.” Johnny stopped his horse and reached into his saddle bag. “This is what I wanted to talk to you about.”
The shirt was dirty and rumpled and Murdoch recognized it immediately. “I don’t understand, Johnny. Why are you showing me one of Scott’s dirty work shirts?”
“Cuz of this.” Johnny shook out the fabric and poked his hand through a gash in the side. Clothing was torn every day on the ranch, but this was different than a normal catch-on-a wire rip. “Teresa was feeding the chickens this morning and spotted it in the burn pile. Thought it odd that Scott would dump it there, so she picked it out. Figured we should see it.”
Murdoch took the blue shirt and traced his fingers along the slash. It was several inches long, dried blood caked on both sides of the tear and down the side of the fabric. “It looks like a …” Murdoch made a closer examination.
“Knife.” Johnny completed his sentence. “A knife made that slash and from
the amount of blood, it was more than a graze.”
Murdoch fingered the blood-stiff material. “Looks like the cut is from the rib cage down to just above the belt. But when?” Murdoch looked at Johnny, trying to grasp what had happened. “I mean, wouldn’t we have noticed if Scott had been knifed?”
“Not if he didn’t want us to know.”
“How could he keep something like that hidden? No, it’s not possible.” There had to be another explanation. Thing was, it was hard to dismiss when he held the evidence in his hand.
“He came in late last night, Murdoch. Way after supper. Barely said a word other than he was tired and headed for bed.”
“But we would have noticed the shirt!”
“He didn’t have this shirt on. He was wearing one of his beige shirts. You know he always keeps extra clothes in his saddlebags.” A small grin played across Johnny’s face. “I always tease him about packing more important things, like tequila or … tequila.”
Johnny was right. Last night Murdoch thought Scott was in one of his dark moods and didn’t want his father’s company. He didn’t give Scott’s refusal to talk much thought.
“You see him this morning?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Not up close. I saw him talking to Simmons out by
the barn as I came down to breakfast. Then he rode off. I figured he was
telling him where to send the crew … that Scott just wanted to get an early
start.” He rubbed the back of his neck feeling the start of a dull ache.
“Come to think of it, he was wearing a shirt that was loose enough to hide
So many thoughts and feelings buzzed through Murdoch’s mind. Puzzlement as to who would want to cut his son. Worry as to the seriousness of the wound. Frustration and anger that Scott would try to hide something like this.
He stared at Johnny. “Son, if you have any idea of who may have done this, I think I have the right to know. Regardless of what Scott wants.”
Johnny’s cheeks swelled as he blew out a breath and he leaned back in the saddle. “Scott did have problems a while back, but I sure didn’t think it would go this far.” He glanced up at Murdoch and held his gaze. “Lucien maybe.”
The statement was a stomach punch. Murdoch wasn’t blind to the failings of Cipriano’s son-in-law, but what did he have against Scott? “What’s the problem between them, Johnny?”
Johnny nudged his horse and started following the bull’s wretched trail. “You know much about Lucien?”
Murdoch tightened his lips and squeezed the saddle horn. “I know Cip worries about his daughter, as any father would.” An area of beaten down grass and thistle showed where the bull had fallen and labored to get up. Large clods of dirt were ripped from the earth and red splotches spattered the surrounding prairie. They surveyed the area silently for a few moments and moved on.
“He’s an asshole Murdoch. Oh, he’s okay when he’s got a mind to work, but he brags about other women, how they can’t keep their hands off him. Hands don’t like him. He’s real respectful around you and Cip but behind your back, well, he’s a different man.”
That statement didn’t surprise Murdoch. Lucien Mateo had left him with a bad taste in his mouth the first day Conselo brought him to Lancer. He seemed … hollow.
“He bother you?”
“Oh, he stays away from me. Probably figures I’d shoot him.” Johnny chuckled then got real quiet. “He’s got the meanest looking knife I’ve ever seen – long, slender and damn sharp. Looks closer to an ice pick than a knife. Always playing with the damn thing.”
The worry heightened – just how bad was Scott hurt?
“Murdoch?” The whisper in Johnny’s voice was a dark thread and Murdoch glanced at him. “He’s a mean drunk too. Heard he knocks Conselo around.”
“Cip would kill him if that’s true.” Murdoch knew that with a certainty. Cip hadn’t wanted his daughter to marry Lucien, but the more he said no, the more determined she was to have him. When they eloped Cip had taken it hard. Then some time ago Conselo, huge with child, had come back to Lancer with her out-of-work husband. Cip had asked and lord knows, Cip didn’t ask often.
The fence was just ahead and Murdoch could see an open spot in the line. “But why Scott?”
“Frank.” Johnny swung his head Murdoch’s way. “Lucien don’t like Frank cuz he’s colored. And Brother Scott, well, he took offense at that. I think it bothered Scott more than it bothered Frank.”
They’d reached the fence and both dismounted. The fence looked perfect
except for the snapped post. Its jagged remnant reminded Murdoch of a
twisted marker jutting up from a grave.
“Murdoch, why aren’t the rest of these posts bent? If that bull could break off one, you’d think others would be lopsided when he pulled on the wire.”
“He was a strong animal, Johnny. But look here.” Murdoch pointed to the nearest post. “It looks like the wire’s been clipped on purpose, both strands.” He took several steps to the pole in the opposite direction and touched the end of the wire. “Here too. Look how close the wire’s been cut to the wood. Bull came along, got tangled in the wire that was left dangling, and the deeper the barbs bit into his leg, the more he struggled to get away. But God, to snap off the post like he did …” Murdoch shook his head, sickened at imagining what the animal must have gone through.
“I’d sure like to know who did it.”
“Me too, Son. Me too.” Murdoch gazed over the grassland wondering who would purposely cut the wire. He felt like he was losing control – first finding the injured bull, then learning that Scott had been attacked with a knife, and now the cut wire.
“You know, Johnny. Jubal was the only animal in this pasture.”
Johnny thrummed his fingers against his leg and stepped close. “I know. He was just put out here yesterday after the fence was finished.”
“And if Scott was knifed yesterday, possibly the man who did it was working with him.”
“Maybe Murdoch. Maybe not.”
“Well, if they were working together, and if there was bad blood, this fellow could have wanted to get even.” Murdoch pursed his lips and quirked an eye at Johnny. “Who was working with Scott?”
Johnny studied the sky. “Simmons, Brighton and … Lucien.”
“I’ll talk to them tonight.” Murdoch mentally made a checklist of steps to take to find out who had cut the wire and injured his son.
“Might have to wait a couple of days. I think Simmons and Brighton are rounding up cattle in the north pasture for branding. I’m not sure where Lucien is.”
“I’ll ask Cip. I need to talk to him anyway about sending a couple of men out to repair this fence.” He grabbed hold of the horn and swung his leg over the saddle. “But, tell me what Lucien did to Frank. If that’s what started this whole thing …”
They rode side-by-side, the day suddenly cooling when thunderheads started collecting in the east. “It’s been building for a while,” Johnny said. “Lucien always talking down to Frank, getting up from a campfire or table if Frank sat down to eat. The hands didn’t want to cause trouble cuz of Cip, neither did Frank, so they held their temper. Lucien was pretty good around Scott and me, but a couple weeks ago Lucien insulted Frank and Scott happened to hear it.”
“What did Lucien say?”
“I don’t know, Murdoch. Scott told me about it later.”
“Was that when Scott got his black eye?”
“Yup.” A small grin played across his mouth. “That was sure a beaut, wasn’t it?”
“He could have lost an eye.”
“Ah, Murdoch, you need to relax some. Just our way to settle things.”
“And does that include settling things with a knife?”
Johnny bowed his head and lost the grin. “No sir. You got me there.”
Murdoch breathed deep, inhaled the scent of near rain, and calmed. “You’re right, Son. I do need to ease up some. Hard to do though, when it involves my sons.”
“That right?” The grin was back, with a bit of devil.
Murdoch snorted. “That’s right. But, back to Scott … and Lucien.”
“Well, that’s about it. Scott heard the insult, took after Lucien. Got a black eye but Lucien got more the way I hear it. I thought Lucien would back off.”
“You think he’s capable of knifing someone?”
“Oh, yeah. Thing is, he’s too much of a coward to do it to your face. More a back stabbing kind of man. Especially since he got beat by Scott. I just don’t know, Murdoch. You’ll need to ask Scott.”
“And that’s just what I plan on doing. Regardless of whether he agrees, I’m getting answers tonight. I’m also going to take a look at that wound, make sure it’s ok.”
“He’s not gonna like that.”
“I don’t care. I’m done stepping around him, trying to appease.”
“Uhm, Murdoch, your appeasing … well, it don’t always come across like you think.” Johnny put up his hands in defense at Murdoch’s sharp glance. “I know, I know. But sometimes you can be a little … rough. Without meaning to.”
“Humph.” Murdoch set his eyes ahead, not agreeing with Johnny. Then he thought about his son’s remark. Well, maybe Johnny was right – a little anyway. But regardless, Murdoch was going to talk to Scott tonight, and wouldn’t give in just to ‘keep the peace.’ It may be a loud exchange, but so be it. No one was going to cut his son and he not know who it was. No one.
Chapter 5 – Unless you are too afraid.
Murdoch slapped Toby on the rump and turned him into the corral. Big splats of rain plopped in the dust creating small dimples in the ground. Lightening flickered in the black clouds banked over the eastern mountains, but Murdoch wasn’t sure if the rainfall would reach the hacienda.
The ride back
from the pasture had been a somber one. Brief comments from Johnny
indicated he understood Jubal’s loss was a huge blow to the ranch’s breeding
program. But there was a more critical concern - Scott. When the wind
caught the arm of Scott’s bloody shirt, Johnny cursed and stuffed it further
into his saddlebag. It was clear he was worried about his brother. How
was he? Where was he? Murdoch noticed in the past weeks their sparring had
flowed into good natured teasing. He hoped it gave them more reason to
stay, regardless of how they felt about him.
“Johnny, I’m going to find Cip. Maybe he knows where Scott ‘s working today, and talk to him about Lucien.”
“Kind of touchy, isn’t it? I mean, with Lucien being married to Cip’s daughter?”
“Cip doesn’t have any fondness for Lucien.” Murdoch scratched the itchy stubble on his jaw. “If I fired him, Cip could lose his daughter. But if Lucien did these things … I can’t ignore them.”
“I could take care of him for you.”
“No!” He hadn’t meant to bark so, but could guess how Johnny planned to take care of him. As far as Murdoch was concerned, that part of his son’s life was finished.
“Ohhhkay.” Johnny’s eyebrows lifted in surprise.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I shouldn’t have yelled.”
He stood there, hands on hips, an all knowing smile on his face. “You thinking I’ll go out and shoot Lucien?”
Murdoch bit his lip, and yes, he had assumed exactly that. “Well, ah, no … but what did you mean?”
Johnny shook his head. “Well, maybe you’re right,” he breathed out. “A few weeks of fine living don’t change what a man is.”
“It’s what you were, son. Not what you are.” At least, Murdoch kept telling himself that.
“Or what you want me to be?”
Murdoch’s belly twisted at the truth of the question. Johnny squinted into the distance, then glared at Murdoch. Murdoch prayed his loud assumption hadn’t destroyed the small steps they had taken in building a relationship.
“Are you sayin’, Murdoch, you don’t want to do something about a man slicing your son with a knife?”
“No. I’m not saying that at all.” Murdoch made his voice as mild as he could. “But going out and gunning him down isn’t the way to do it.”
“One way to take care of it.” Johnny blew out a breath and shrugged like Lucien was nothing more than a hitch in a routine day. “Ok, then. Your way. What about the law?”
It was a thought Murdoch had contemplated. “Prison wouldn’t change him, only make him worse. But it could give Conselo time to forget him, focus on her child.” Murdoch lifted his face into the coolness of a light breeze. “Ah, women are funny creatures. Some will stick with a husband no matter how bad, while others…” He stopped.
A small, sad smile appeared on Johnny’s face, but he said nothing.
“Conselo’s very loyal.” Murdoch coughed, wondering how he always managed to stick his big foot into his big mouth. He glanced at Johnny who appeared to be enjoying his embarrassment.
After what seemed like several minutes, Johnny finally released him with a crooked grin. “I’m going to wash up. Let me know what you find out.”
“I will - son.” The word rolled off his tongue nice and easy.
With a flick of his hand and half turn in salute, Johnny strolled towards the door, glancing back once. Murdoch watched until he disappeared into the house, shook his head at his own stupidity, and went searching for Cipriano.
After his wife passed two years before, Cip had drawn into himself. When Conselo came back to Lancer, Cip had exhibited a happy change and with the baby’s arrival, Murdoch’s old friend fully returned. Murdoch didn’t doubt that Conselo would leave with her husband if he fired him, as a wife should. But he hated to think of what her departure would do to Cip. He worried about his faithful compadre as much as he worried about his sons.
There was one other important issue to consider – the hands. They respected him but what would happen to their respect if he did nothing about Lucien because of his father-in-law?
“Damn,” Murdoch said out loud. The loss of the bull was a hardship and something might have been worked out, but if he had attacked Scott …
He was jumping the gun, though. Was Lucien the man responsible? Murdoch clenched his jaw, angry that the one person who could give him answers was not around – his son. Scott should have come to him immediately. Why didn’t he? Did Scott dislike him that much? The question hurt regardless of how much he tried to pretend it didn’t matter.
It was still early to come in from range chores, so Murdoch wasn’t surprised when he couldn’t locate Cip. He figured it was a long shot, but decided to stop at Conselo’s. If Cip wasn’t there, he would ask Conselo about Lucien. Perhaps Lucien had let something slip about what happened the day before.
Red geraniums in sky blue planters stood on both sides of the walkway to Conselo’s home and a wild rose crept up an old wire trellis. White curtains ruffled in the breeze and brushed overflowing strawberries in a window planter. A modest and well-loved home – it always amazed Murdoch how a woman could make a hovel seem like a palace.
He raised his hand to knock and heard a child’s voice. He knocked and the voice quieted. There was no answer. He knocked again, harder. “Conselo. It’s Murdoch Lancer.” A chair scraped the floor, the handle turned and the door opened a few inches. She stood in the shadows, her face partially hidden by the frame.
“Is everything all right, Conselo?”
“Si, Patron.” Her voice sounded hoarse like she had been crying.
“I am looking for your father. Have you seen him this afternoon?”
“Papa is not here.”
Now what? It was obvious something was troubling her. And why wouldn’t she come out from behind the door?
“Is Lucien here?”
She shook her head as a muffled sob escaped.
She clung to the door as she bowed and wept. Murdoch pushed the door open and held onto her arms. Guiding her to the table he pulled out a chair. He then noticed the little girl, Magdalene, staring wide-eyed from in underneath the table.
“Conselo.” He shook her a little when she didn’t respond. “Magdalene is frightened. You need to pull yourself together.”
When she turned to her daughter, Murdoch noticed the ugly swelling on the left side of her face. Her black and blue eye was almost shut, and an angry welt ballooned across her cheek. She wiped her face with her skirt and held out her arms to the child. The little girl didn’t cry, but reached for her mother and crawled into her lap.
“Conselo.” Murdoch tried to be as gentle as possible, but when Conselo looked up at him her eyes brimmed with tears. She patted her swollen face again with her skirt and winced. Murdoch burned with anger at Lucien and imagined his fist slamming into his jaw.
He tried again. “Conselo, did Lucien do this to you?”
She nodded and choked out a “Si.”
“What happened? Why would he do this?” Murdoch wanted to add ‘how could he do this,’ but didn’t think it would help. Murdoch realized how he came across at times – gruff, insensitive, oblivious on how his words affected others, but to do this to someone you professed to love, someone who could not fight back, was inexcusable.
Conselo seemed on the verge of another bout of tears, but then stood, picked up her child and went to the door.
“Conselo, please …”
“Patron, a moment. I will ask Benita to watch Magdalene.”
hear the exchange between the women a few moments later. Benita horrified
at Conselo’s face – Conselo sounding strong as she told Benita not now – a
silence, then Benita talking to the little girl. A short time passed before
Conselo stepped across the threshold and closed the door. She walked to the
stove without looking his way, pulled a cup from the open shelf, filled it
with coffee and sprinkled cinnamon and sugar into it.
“Mr. Lancer?” She offered the cup to Murdoch.
“Thank you.” He wrapped his hand around the warm mug and watched as she prepared a cup for herself.
“Please. Sit.” She settled into the chair facing him, determination on her beautiful, battered face.
Cinnamon bloomed in his mouth as he relished the warm liquid. He bent over the cup, savoring the aroma of fresh ground beans before he took another drink. “Oh, Conselo, this is very good.”
“Bueno. Gracias. It is how my mama taught me.” She blew softly on the liquid before taking a small sip. “I should not have married him.”
Murdoch almost dropped his cup at the abrupt confession, and much of the hot liquid splashed onto his hand.
“My papa and mama were right about him. But,” she sighed as she handed him a clean cloth, “it is done.”
Murdoch couldn’t find his tongue and knew he was staring open-mouthed. Her eyes pooled with tears but she focused on the cup in her hands.
“Oh Patron,” she murmured. “He does love Magdalene so much. He is so gentle with her, sweet. But only her. He was like that with me at first.” She raised her eyes to his. “He is a wanted man in Mexico.”
“Wanted. By whom?”
“The policia. The law. He stole money. That’s why we returned to California. He could not remain or he would be sent to prison.”
Murdoch bowed his head absorbing this shocking piece of information. “Does Cipriano know?” he asked and looked back at her.
She shook her head. “Papa does not know. He thinks Lucien could not find work so we came back to Lancer… but Lucien … he is so proud. He blames me for bringing him here. He says I never wanted to leave Lancer and my parents; that is why he fails. But …”
Proud eyes stared at Murdoch as she lifted her chin. “He is wrong. He fails because he is weak. I loved him, but a man should not blame a woman because he does not provide. He should blame himself and try to do better, not beat his wife.”
Murdoch worried she would break into tears again, but her gaze was a reflection of her father – clear, resolute, indomitable. “I’m sorry, Conselo. I’m … very sorry.”
What else could he say? He sympathized with this young woman who made a bad choice. Lord knows, he’d made enough in his lifetime – oblivious to the needs of his second wife; walking away when he should have stood and fought for a son. His reason for being here – Scott.
“Conselo. I need to ask you about Lucien, if you know where he was late yesterday afternoon. If he gave you any … if he spoke to you about anything that happened out of the ordinary.” Murdoch combed fingers through his hair, uneasy about broaching the subject of a knife-wielding husband.
“Something happened, I know that. He came home very late yesterday, after supper time. I had tried to keep his food warm, but it was dry, ruined. When he came in the door … he was bleeding. His left arm … the shirt was torn in many places. His whole arm was ragged and ugly.” She fingered the side of her swollen face.
“He was wild, frightened. I saw that most of all, his fear. He said there was an accident with barbed wire. That the wire had become wrapped around his arm. It took him a long time to get free of it.”
Conselo rose from the chair and walked to the window. Small prints smudged the glass where her fingers touched the pane. Murdoch strained to hear her voice. “I bandaged his arm as best I could, but told him that Papa needed to put in some stiches. I asked him why he was alone, that Papa doesn’t send one man alone to work with the wire.” She stopped and traced her fingers along the delicate white of the curtains. “That’s when he lost control. He screamed, said if not for me he would not have been handling the wire. He started hitting me and hitting me. It was Magdalene’s cries that stopped him.” Her voice broke. “My little girl saw her papa ...”
She turned and faced Murdoch. Except for the bruises her face held no color and stood out against the halo of her long, black hair. “What has he done, Patron? I know it is bad. He threw some clothes and supplies into a bag. He said he would send for me. Please, what has he done?”
Murdoch’s head felt like a drum in a 4th of July parade. He yearned for something stronger than a cup of sweet coffee. But, Lucien was responsible for the loss of Jubal, no doubt about that. And one thing was certain, he needed to be found and brought back. “Do you know where he went, Conselo? Did he say?”
She shook her head. “No. He was frantic to leave. He knew when Papa saw me that he would be furious. But I could not bear for my father to beat my baby’s …” She dropped into the chair, her hands lying palms up on her lap.
The chair creaked under his weight as Murdoch shifted forward. Her small hands disappeared when he folded them into his. Aware of his calluses, he lightly held them. He wasn’t good at words, never had been, and would rather take on ten brutes than wrestle with the emotions of a wounded female.
“Has your father seen you … since Lucien …?” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
“No. I have stayed away from Papa, but I can’t hide until the bruises are gone.” Her fingers trembled within his grip. “I think Papa will kill Lucien.”
And Murdoch couldn’t blame him. If someone had hurt Teresa like Conselo, he’d be hard put not to take the man apart with his bare hands.
“I hope Lucien is far away. For Papa’s sake.”
“Conselo.” He wanted to keep the truth from her, but this was more than just a horrible wrong a husband had committed against a wife. “Conselo, he cut the wire on purpose. One of our best bulls got caught up in it and had to be destroyed.”
“Jubal?” She whispered.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“He told me he was working on a fence line that would pasture Jubal. That’s when he became wrapped in the wire.”
“Conselo, I think … I think he may also have taken a knife to my son. He can’t run away from that.”
Her hands stiffened, then clenched into a tight ball. “Oh, Senor Lancer, I am sorry I brought him here. I knew he could be ugly, but I didn’t think he would do something so bad.”
Removing her hands from his, she took a deep breath and looked at him. “It was Senor Scott.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes, it was Scott. How did you know?”
“Because he would be too afraid to fight Senor Johnny? And…” She didn’t finish her thought. “Is he hurt badly?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Scott since early yesterday. We … I just found out about the attack a few hours ago. I wasn’t sure who did it, but now …”
“Oh, Patron. Your son did not come to you when he was hurt?”
Her compassion was too much to bear and suddenly, all of the days and weeks of living with Scott’s disdain overwhelmed him. Crushed with the weight of his own failure to reconcile with his son, he sat forward with his elbows on his knees and stared at the floor. “No,” he finally said. “It has been difficult … Scott and I.” Trying to maintain control, he could not acknowledge out loud what he knew in his heart, that Scott detested him.
It was now Conselo who touched his hand with sympathy. “I am sorry. It will take time, no?”
He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know how much longer we can live in the same house with all of the hostility and ... I just don’t know.”
“But, he is a good man, Senor. A kind man. It is against his heart to hold onto …” She seemed to be searching for the right word.
Her lips tilted into a small smile and she patted his hand. “No. He is not a man who can hate. I think perhaps, he is hurt. Maybe afraid.”
“Afraid. Afraid of what?” How on earth would Conselo know what Scott was afraid of?
She shrugged her shoulders and hesitated. “I say too much.”
“No. This is important, Conselo. Has Scott talked to you about me?” He leaned forward, all of his attention on her. “Please, Conselo. What has he told you?”
Good lord, a horrible thought snaked into his mind as he realized how she had softened with the mention of Scott. How could she know what kind of a man he was unless … “Conselo,” he demanded, “have you and Scott…!”
“No, oh no Patron. He, we … oh Senor, it is not what you think.” Her eyes were large and earnest and the chair almost tipped over as she jumped up. “My husband, he can be very harsh. Scott, he tried to make things better.”
“Better? How, Conselo? How did he make things better?” He noted she had dropped the formal senor when she spoke of Scott. He tried not to shout, but if she were a man, he would have shaken out an answer.
She stopped and glared, her whole manner going from imploring to severe. “Scott, he is a man of honor.”
“And how do you know so much about my son? Even more important,” he stabbed a finger at her, “how much does my son know about you?”
“What everyone knows. That my husband toys with other women, that he brags about his conquests. That he comes home some nights reeking of whiskey, perfume and sex.”
The drum pounded louder in his head, and he knew that his face was red with mortification. This was not a conversation that a man should be having with a woman, especially one he cradled as a child.
“Do not be embarrassed, Patron.” Her blunt honesty was admirable, almost calming as he caught the spinning web of his own frustration and reeled it back. “I know what Lucien is. It does no good to pretend that he is faithful.”
“So, Scott tried to help.” He almost snorted out the word help. What was Scott thinking? Oh, he had witnessed his son’s charming manner. It seemed almost like a game to Scott, flitting from one person to another with his broad smile and appealing laughter; but he had gone too far with Conselo.
“Si. He listened mostly. We talked about many things. You.” She pulled out a bottle from a bottom cupboard and splashed a healthy amount of liquor into both cups of cold coffee. Grimacing with the first sip, she coughed, but immediately took another large gulp. “Ah, it warms the blood but does not make problems go away.”
Murdoch’s head was a whirlwind. The combination of cinnamon and bad whiskey soured when it hit his stomach. His control of the ranch, of circumstances in his life, of his own feelings had been flung aside with the homecoming of his sons. How could two young men cause such an unraveling of twenty years of discipline and unchallenged command?
Tamping down the bile lodged at the back of his throat, he tried to focus on Lucien, not on his son and another man’s wife. “Did Lucien find out about you and Scott?”
Her shoulders slumped and he knew the question came out as harsh as he felt.
“Conselo. Answer me.” His jawbone throbbed with impatience.
“Yes. He saw us talking a couple of days ago, in my garden. But Lucien has no reason to be jealous. I am not like him.”
He had to hand it to her. Most people would have wilted under his displeasure, but she refused to be bullied. Her voice was steady and unafraid.
“Your son was only kind to me. Nothing else.”
“Did Lucien ever mention fighting with Scott?”
“Lucien always fights, I don’t know who with. My husband is not a man that other men like.” She took another sip of the whiskey and frowned. “I told Scott that it would be better if we no longer talked, that I would be fine. Papa would see to that. I convinced him that it would be easier on me, that Lucien would not be so … unreasonable. But if he attacked your son because of me?” Her fingers tightened around the cup.
At least Scott’s refusal to tell Murdoch who he was fighting with was starting to make sense. He was hiding his relationship with another man’s wife. Johnny told him that Frank caused the rift between Scott and Lucien, but did Johnny know about Conselo? What a convoluted mess. And Scott! How badly was he hurt? Damn it, where was he?
The chair scraped across the floor as he stood up. He had one final question to ask and did not hesitate. “Are you in love with my son?”
She seemed absorbed in the depths of her cup. “It does not matter. I am a married woman.”
The wistfulness in her tone told him the truth. His big hand dwarfed her shoulder and she flinched at his touch. He picked up his hat from the table and started towards the door.
He turned to look at the sad woman staring at the floor. “He does not hate you. He is angry that you do not love him so he tries to hurt you with words.”
The soft statement crippled him – did Scott really believe that? But why should he believe anything else? “I do … care.” He cringed at his own inability to say the word love.
“You men,” she murmured. “You think that words are the realm of women, beneath you. But we bear your children, endure your indifference, tremble at your rage, and go on. Ah, you do not know what strength is.” Her eyes were filled with a mixture of insight, pity and scorn when she lifted her face. “You broke his heart. If you love him, let him know before he says something that you cannot forgive. Unless you are too afraid.”
She pressed a palm against her forehead for a few moments, then rose from the chair. “I must tend to my child.” And with all of the dignity of a queen, she swept past him and left him standing alone in the middle of the little room.
Chapter 6 – Finally the rain
stared at his reflection in the black window. It looked back at him,
still tall and strong. But greyer, definitely,
and maybe a bend in his back that hadn’t been there before.
The clock reminded him of how late it was –10:00 p.m. “He probably decided to spend the night at the line shack.”
“Scott has a lot of sense, Murdoch. He knows enough to come in out of the rain.”
“When you talked to Frank earlier about Scott heading out with Brighton and Simmons, did he mention anything? How Scott may have looked, you know, peaked or …?”
“Murdoch, everyone on this ranch looks peaked to Frank. Stop worrying, will ya? Scott can take care of himself.”
He twisted away from the window and gave Johnny an irritated glance. Stepping to the liquor cart, he reached for the brandy bottle. Maybe that would help to take his mind off Scott … and the image of sliced flesh. A vision pushed into his mind – Jubal, hanging from the cottonwood, blood dripping into the earth, the smell, the steaming guts. It had been so easy to cut out that big heart.
He splashed brandy into the cup. Some of the liquor splattered on his hand and he rubbed his fingers on his trousers. “Have you heard anything about Scott and Conselo?”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t tell you everything about what Conselo and I talked about this afternoon. It appears that Scott has been … comforting her.”
“Murdoch, the way you say comfort … you sound like there’s something between them.”
“As far as Conselo is concerned.” He shrugged and walked towards the fireplace. “To be honest, I feel like the cuckold. That everyone knows what’s going on at this ranch except me.” His gut tightened, hated the weakness of confessing.
Johnny shook his head. “No Murdoch. I don’t know Scott all that well either, but can’t believe he’d mess with another man’s wife.” He snorted. “Old soldier boy, hell, he’s all about honor and noble stuff.”
“Hmm. Maybe, up to a point.” Murdoch filled his mouth with the brandy. Now there was a good burn, all the way to his belly. “Do you know what he was doing when the Pinkerton’s found him in Boston? Jumping off the balcony of a woman’s bedroom.”
“Was she married?”
“No she wasn’t married. But she was living in her father’s house. Scott should have more respect.” He kept his voice controlled, despite his irritation.
A slow smile spread across Johnny’s face and he bowed his head. “Now Murdoch. You telling me you’d refuse the invitation of a pretty girl to spend some time with her … alone?”
“It isn’t funny, Johnny.” Murdoch could feel his face redden. The brandy wasn’t helping.
“I know. I’m just saying it would be hard put to say no to a girl who was offering. That’s all”
“It may be the custom in Boston where ballroom flirtations with married women was how Scott passed a boring evening. Here it could get him killed.” Murdoch was taken aback at how bitter his tone sounded when he spat out the words.
“Dang, Murdoch. Is that what you think of Scott?” Johnny sat back in the chair, open mouthed, looking astonished.
“Don’t be so quick to judge me, Johnny. I’ve seen how Scott charms people. His smile, his compliments. Making them feel special. What must that do to a young, vulnerable woman trapped with an abusive man?”
“Well hell, Old Man. You’re the one being quick to judge. You make Scott sound like a snake in the grass waiting to strike some poor, unsuspecting victim, then slither away after he’s taken a bite.”
Ashamed of his hostility towards Scott, he scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Johnny, that’s not what I meant at all.”
“That’s how it sounds. Listen to yourself, Murdoch.”
He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Johnny. You’re right. It’s been a long day. I just need to see Scott, make sure he’s ok. Damn it, he should have come to me.” He dropped into the chair beside Johnny. “The words … they came out so harsh. I don’t know why.”
Johnny chuckled. “Oh, I think I know why.”
Murdoch waited for an explanation. “Are you going to share your why with me?” he asked when Johnny remained silent.
“OK. But don’t bark at me.”
“I don’t bark.”
“Pfft. Then maybe it’s a loud growl.”
“Just get on with it.”
“I think you and Scott are so much alike, you can’t see your way around one another. Pride, afraid of being bitten so you both bite first. And…” Johnny aimed his finger at Murdoch. “I think Scott’s worse than you are but you have your times Murdoch. You have your times.”
Of course Johnny was right. Deep down Murdoch knew that, just hadn’t heard the words said out loud. He also acknowledged resentment – Scott could be charming with everyone except his father. He pinched the bridge of his nose, massaged his eyes with his fingers. The movement was relaxing, calming. “You think so, do you?”
“Yes sir. I do think so.”
“I will admit there is some truth to your statement. Especially the fact that Scott is worse than me.”
Johnny shook his head and snorted. “Dios. You are a stubborn man.”
“I like to think of it as determined.” He smiled at Johnny and took a sip of the brandy. The spark in the air softened and Murdoch settled deep into the chair. But the thought of Scott and Conselo would not go away. “What about Conselo? And the young woman in Boston came from a good, solid family. What if Scott hasn’t the ability to … control himself? Or doesn’t care?”
This time Johnny laughed out loud. “Oh, Murdoch. That Yank is so in control, I swear he’d topple stiff as a tree if you kicked his feet out from under him.” Johnny stared at him, all jesting suddenly gone. “What if Scott had reasons to be … loose with women? After the war. Maybe he wanted to forget, bury himself in something other than bloody memories.”
Murdoch snapped his head up. “What bloody memories.”
“Come on, Murdoch. Scott was a soldier, a horse soldier.” Johnny helped himself to the bottle of brandy. “You think he wasn’t a part of the fighting, or he sat out the war behind some supply desk?”
“I, I don’t know what he did, Johnny. In case you hadn’t noticed, we don’t talk much.”
“He knew enough about it to understand Caleb Fitzroy’s grief. Scott isn’t the type to back down to any man, but he kept his distance from Fitzroy. And it ain’t cuz he had any liking for him.”
“He ever talk to you about the war?”
“Then how can you be sure what Scott experienced?”
“Yeah, Murdoch. I watch. Listen. I see how Scott tackles everything by steps, on how best to get things done. He’s got a system you know. When he can’t do it one way, he thinks on it and tries another, but he sure the hell doesn’t give up. But he backed off Fitzroy.”
“What do you mean?”
“A while back, when Fitzroy was being such an ass taking orders from Scott, I asked Scott why he didn’t send Fitzroy on his way. Told him I’d back him up with you on getting rid of the guy. Scott looked at me for a bit, like he was pondering on something. Then he said, ‘I can give a wounded soldier some space to heal. Someone gave that to me.’ Then he just walked away and kept out of Fitzroy’s way.”
Murdoch frowned at Johnny over the top of his glass. “What did he mean by that?”
“I’m guessing exactly what he said. That he was hurt during the war some way. I don’t know how, but someone gave him room to heal, whatever the hurt was. Maybe this gal in Boston? Maybe his grandfather?”
“Humph. His grandfather is all propriety.”
“Respectability, whatever is correct – at least on the surface. He wouldn’t approve of Scott taking liberties with young women, regardless the reason. Well, as long as Scott didn’t parade it in front of all the upstanding people of Boston society, the old …”
“You don’t like him much, do you?”
That all knowing look was on Johnny’s face again. Obviously Johnny watched him as well. Murdoch fidgeted under his son’s scrutiny, noticed his mouth quirk in mild amusement. “No, young man, I do not like Scott’s grandfather, but that’s beside the point.”
“Oh, I’m betting Scott’s grandfather is anything but beside the point.” He eyed Murdoch. “He did raise your son you know.”
“I’m well aware of that.” Murdoch took a big gulp of brandy. “And it’s something I don’t wish to discuss.”
“Okay, okay. Sorry if I stirred you up again.”
“I am not stirred up!” He took a deep breath. Damn, Johnny could sure stir him up.
“Well, whatever you are, I’m sorry if I ...” Johnny stopped, twirled the brandy around the sides of the glass, watched it. “I do know this. Scott had some hard times, real hard times. Hell, maybe he was in that gal’s bedroom trying not to remember. Women can sure make you forget everything else. At least for a while.” He glanced up at Murdoch, shrugged his shoulders and finished his drink.
It wasn’t the first time Murdoch had wondered about Scott’s involvement in the war, but it was the first time the declaration that Scott suffered was voiced. He didn’t like to think about that. While he built up his herds, acquired land, or smooth talked his way into a profitable business deal, had his son battled for his life in a field on the other side of the country – a world away?
Murdoch understood the hunger to forget painful memories. He felled trees until his arms twisted with hurt, dug boulders from pastures with fingers as hard as the rocks he towed, hammered fences, bridges, barns – all to forget death, desertion and stolen children. Chilled by the grey wet mist of dark February mornings, he pulled calves from exhausted cows. With each steaming, bloody birth he tried not to think about two little boys, gone from him possibly forever. Oh, he was good at burying the past; his strong arms attested to that.
Murdoch started at Johnny’s soft question. He glanced up at him, saw the concern, warmed with it. “Sorry, Son. I guess I was … drifting.”
“No need, Murdoch. No one’s going anywhere. Including Scott.”
He scratched his head and smiled. “I hope you’re right. But -- it’s late, isn’t it?”
“It sure is.” Johnny sprung from the chair and set the empty glass on the coffee table. “I’m going to bed. The sun will be up ‘fore you know it.”
Johnny was almost to the stairs. “Johnny.” He stopped and turned to look back at Murdoch.
Murdoch swallowed back the pain in his throat. “Why do you think he stays?” It was a question he often pondered. The work was hard, the men harder. No ballrooms, dancing, comfortable living. It would seem a privation for Scott to remain when there was Boston waiting for him, friends … family. Far from his father. “I mean, Scott doesn’t need the ranch, my money.”
A small grin popped on Johnny’s face. “Haven’t you figured that out yet?” He seemed to wait for an answer. “Because. You’re his father.” Slow, quiet steps brought him to the top of the stairs. He hesitated at the landing, smiled at Murdoch, then disappeared down the hallway.
Murdoch stared at the space where Johnny had been, thinking about what his son said. Could it be true? That maybe Scott wanted… needed his father? Murdoch thought of his own father, how he tried to please him in everything he did, always sought approval. And a mother’s love, one that Scott would never know; devoted regardless of failures, disappointments or defeats. His mother had given him support, with tears, as she kissed him goodbye on the highlands of Scotland. He never saw her again, but could still picture her beautiful face and know that she loved him until the day she died.
He scraped a rough hand across his chin and picked up Johnny’s discarded glass. A wet ring stained the well-polished table top. Normally he would have muttered to himself about his son’s sloppy ways, but instead wiped away the mark with a handkerchief and brought the glass to the kitchen sink.
One of Scott’s jackets hung by the door on the hook that Murdoch considered his. His sons were always upsetting the routine – Scott borrowing a book and not putting it back where it belonged; his favorite chair taken after a hard day; his mug sitting dirty in the sink. Coffee didn’t taste the same out of another cup. But now all seemed trivial compared to the lives of his sons. He fingered Scott’s jacket and touched a thread of golden hair on the shoulder. Squeezing the empty arms, he brought the coat to his face and drew in the scent of wind-blown prairie.
“You broke his heart.” Conselo’s words haunted him, a truth no father wanted to bear.
A burst of lightning brightened the window and disappeared. Murdoch stepped through the kitchen door, breathed in the rain, earthy, fresh. He thought of Johnny in his bed, gazed through the dark at the foothills where Scott lay sleeping. Lightning once more flickered far over the mountains and ghosted the bluffs in silver. Several moments later thunder rumbled miles away. He hugged the coat to his chest. Scott should be home tomorrow. And Murdoch would keep on trying.
He walked into the night, lifted his head and felt the drops run down his face, grateful, that finally the rain had come.
Chapter 7 – A Bit Off Balance
“Cip, listen to me. I’ll get some men together and we’ll start tracking. Just don’t go off half-crazy on your own.”
“Patron! You saw what he did to my nina! You think I don’t have the right to do the same to him? What would you do if it were Senorita Teresa?”
Murdoch tried to calm the red-faced man, but understood how he felt. “And if you do find him, what then? With the state you’re in, you could kill him. Then it will be you hanging at the end of a rope for what Lucien did.”
Cip stiffened, his fists tight balls. Murdoch thought Cipriano would explode he was so full of anger and rage. He put a hand on his shoulder, but Cip sloughed it away. “Agh, I will not kill him.” He stomped off in the direction of his home, kicking up clumps of mud in his wake, and then glared back with hands on hips. “Just merely beat him to death! And there is not a man who would hang me for it.”
Well, that didn’t go very well. Murdoch’s intent to pacify Cipriano turned out as he expected – but he had to give it a try anyway. He watched his Segundo stalk away, knowing that it was just a matter of time before Cipriano headed out to find his son-in-law. It was already mid-morning and Murdoch was surprised Conselo had been able to hide her bruises from her father for so long.
Now what? He sighed, thought for a few moments, then decided to saddle his horse as well as Cipriano’s. At least he could keep his friend from killing Lucien if he found him.
He turned as his ward raced across the kitchen threshold. “What is it Teresa?”
She was breathless by the time she reached him and grasped his arm. “Frank needs you. Zelda is having problems. Frank doesn’t think he can pull the foal alone.”
Great! What else could go wrong? Zelda was a beautiful draft, an expensive animal he hadn’t needed but couldn’t resist. This was her first colt and she was probably just scared and would deliver on her own, but Murdoch couldn’t risk the chance of something going wrong. “All right. But Teresa, do something for me. Find Johnny, tell him that Cip is …” He hesitated, realizing that Teresa may not know about Conselo. “Tell him that he needs to go with Cipriano.”
“How do you know about Lucien?”
“I knew there were problems, but Bonita told me about the beating this morning. No one has seen Lucien so I put two and two together.”
“Good grief. Does everyone know what goes on at this ranch but me?”
“Why are you yelling at me?”
He blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m not yelling.”
“Yes you are.”
“I am not …. Okay, so I am and I apologize. How long have you known about Conselo’s … problem?”
Theresa shrugged her shoulders. “For a while.”
“Well, why didn’t you come to me when Conselo told you?”
“Oh, Conselo didn’t tell me.”
“Then how did you know?”
“I had a feeling.”
“Teresa.” Circles, circles. Why do women always talk in circles?
“By the way she acted, her behavior. I suspected.”
He scrubbed a hand across his mouth, stared at the ground, and then at his beloved Teresa. Was she driving him crazy on purpose? She looked up at him, seemingly oblivious to his aggravation.
“Why didn’t you tell me when you suspected?”
She cocked her head as if trying to think of how to explain something to a slow child. “Murdoch, what would you have done if I said I had a feeling about Conselo?”
“I would have listened.”
“Really? Like the time you listened when I told you Adeline Hargis had you in her sites for a trip down the aisle? You said I was being silly, but she had most of the town believing you’d proposed.”
“All right, all right.” He cringed, recalling the day he ran into the reverend in town. The man wanted the date of the wedding to make sure the church was ready. Completely dumbfounded, Murdoch had coughed up some excuse of a doctor’s appointment for an irritated boil or bowel – he wasn’t sure which, but managed to avoid any further conversation. Needless to say, he distanced himself from Adeline.
“Your face is a bit red, Murdoch. Are you warm?”
Pure innocence looked up at him; big brown eyes, a slight hint of a smile. He should have given her his most severe frown, but only managed a “harrumph”.
Standing on tiptoes she kissed his cheek. “Women have ways of seeing things that men are blind to.” Stepping back, she gazed at him with open love and affection. “I’ll tell Johnny about Cip, then see if I can help Conselo.”
She swished away from him in ribbons and flowing hair. His face lightened into a grin, the first one he’d had in days. Whenever he thought that women made life too complicated, one of them did something as simple as making him smile. His father told him they were inscrutable treasures that softened the edges of a harsh world. His father was right.
“Don’t forget Frank in the barn,” she called over her shoulder before she disappeared through the door.
Ah, Zelda. He hurried. He could hear the huffing of the big horse before he entered the barn. Frank’s soothing voice drifted in and out with the breathing of the animal.
“Frank.” Murdoch stepped beside the mare as Frank made room for him.
“Mr. Lancer. I’m sure glad you’re here. I came in to check on her about an hour ago and noticed her sac had broken.”
“Do you know when it happened?”
“No sir. But the straw was dry when I was here at sunrise.”
Murdoch patted the animal’s flank, noted the sweat and trembling sides.
“OK. Let’s have a look.” Murdoch rolled up his sleeves, dunked his arms into a bucket of water, and lathered them with a bar of lye soap. He rinsed the soap off, shivering as the cold water splattered on his shirt. He slid his arm carefully into the warm birth canal and smiled.
“She’s close, Frank. I can feel the nose and feet. Let’s give her some room to move.”
When they stepped away, she circled the large stall, laid down for a few minutes, then got to her feet. She repeated this process several times. At one point she nudged into Murdoch’s shoulder and allowed him to scratch her head before she settled into the straw, legs extended.
“It may be coming, Frank. Move that water bucket.”
A small hoof appeared, followed closely by a second one, with a nose nestled between the two legs. The rest of the head emerged, then the neck and shoulders. Murdoch knelt down and cleared the membrane from the nose, mouth and legs. Two gangly legs with white pasterns twitched. Zelda rested for a few minutes, then pushed out the rest of the foal.
Taking clean straw, Murdoch gently dried the little horse – a filly. With each breath she took, Murdoch marveled at the miracle of birth. Her blaze was as large as her mother’s and she had the four white pasterns of her father. He couldn’t be more pleased and relaxed with the monotonous duty of cleaning her up until her mother took over.
“The afterbirth is out, boss.”
“That didn’t take long.” Murdoch inspected it to make sure nothing had been left behind and the color was good. “Looks all right to me, but check in on her over the next few hours just to make sure.”
“Will do. I’ll bury this.”
After Frank left, Murdoch watched the mare and foal. It didn’t take the filly long to stand and start nursing. For a few moments he didn’t think about Cipriano, or Scott, or Conselo. His shoulders relaxed and when the filly whinnied, his face widened into a grin.
“It’s beautiful, Murdoch.”
He jumped at the soft voice.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to spook you.” Johnny smiled at him, and then put his arms on the top rail and watched the foal. “What is it?”
“A filly.” Murdoch rested his arm next to Johnny’s. When they touched, he was pleased that his son didn’t pull away.
“Pick out a name yet?”
“No, not yet.” He looked at Johnny, wondering if Teresa had given him the message. “Did Teresa talk to you about Cip?”
“Yup. He’s gone.”
Johnny nodded. “By the time Teresa found me, he’d already left. I wasn’t sure which way he headed so thought I’d check with you to see what you wanted to do.”
“Damn.” His shoulders tightened again, replacing the pleasure of the birth. He watched the mare and filly, hoping to regain some of the peace, but it was gone.
“Lucien wouldn’t head to Mexico, but I’m not sure Cip knows that.” He pushed away from the stall and walked into the sunshine. By the sun’s position, it was well past noon. He’d lost track of time with the birth of the colt.
“I can circle around Cip’s house, try to pick up where he might have headed.”
“Might be a good start, Johnny.” He noticed the deep tracks of men and horses in the muddy paddock. “The rain may have washed away any traces of Lucien, so Cip is probably guessing which direction he went. Just riding may help to burn off some of his anger.”
“Would it burn off yours?”
“No.” He grinned at Johnny. “Have you had lunch?”
“Well, yeah, but I wouldn’t mind a snack before I took off.”
Murdoch chuckled and threw his arm around Johnny’s shoulder. “I’d appreciate the company.”
“No hurry on Cip?”
“Cip won’t go far, not with a daughter and granddaughter waiting for him. He’ll cool off and realize there are other ways to find Lucien.”
“You sure of that?”
“I am. I’ve known Cipriano since before you were born. We’ll send out wires to law enforcement in every direction with Lucien’s description.”
Johnny stopped and frowned at Murdoch. “You think the law’s going to do much about a man who beats his wife, Murdoch?”
“Maybe not. But how about attempted murder, or assault? Have you forgotten that he knifed your brother? Not to mention Jubal.”
“I’m thinking if Scott wanted to make something of it, he would have.” Johnny pushed away from Murdoch and stomped towards the house.
“Johnny.” Surprised at Johnny’s sudden change in mood, Murdoch wondered what he had said.
“It’s not up to Scott. It’s gone beyond his approval.”
“And what about Conselo’s approval? Or doesn’t she count?”
So that’s it. A muscle in Johnny’s jaw tightened as he lowered his eyes. Murdoch was getting pretty good at reading this son. “Of course she counts, Johnny. But she obviously didn’t want anyone to know about Lucien before this. Why do you think that is?”
Johnny’s tone softened with Murdoch’s question. “Maybe she was ashamed. I don’t know.” He threw up his hands, then hitched his shoulder and looked at Murdoch as if waiting for an answer.
“You’re probably right, son. But let’s not push her, okay?” Murdoch clamped his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and started walking once more towards the house.
“No man should be beating on a woman.”
“Oh, I agree with you, Johnny. Not much of a man who would do something like that.”
“But lots of men get away with it.”
“Unfortunately, yes. It’s not right though.”
“No. It’s not.”
Murdoch hesitated before he asked the next question, unsure if he wanted to know the answer. “Uhm, was your mother ever …?”
“Before she met my stepfather, she was pushed around some. But she could sure push back when she had a mind.” Johnny smiled and Murdoch felt him relax. “Whew, did she have a temper. Scared more than one man off with it.”
Murdoch hated hearing about Maria and her life after she left him. But she was Johnny’s mother and it was clear that he loved her very much. So, for his son, he would listen. When it appeared that Johnny no longer wanted to talk about his mother, Murdoch turned the conversation back to Conselo. “Well, at least Conselo has a father and friends to protect her. Lucien won’t hit her again.”
“Hey, Murdoch, isn’t that Simmons and Brighton coming in?”
Johnny pointed at two weary looking men plodding under the Lancer arch.
“Yes, it is. But Scott’s not with them.” Murdoch’s unease hitched up. Where was his older son?
“Let’s check it out. Hey, Simmons, Brighton.” Johnny whistled and waved the men over.
“Johnny, Mr. Lancer.” Simmons took off his hat and nodded at both men. Brighton was silent for once, looking as tired as the horse that carried him.
“Hey, Simmons. You two look done in.”
“It’s been a long couple of days, Johnny. Never seen so many hard-to-get cows in my life. You’d think they were part mountain goat the way they climbed up them rocks.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Where’s Scott? I thought he went with you two.” Normally Murdoch would have appreciated the work reports of his men, but right now cattle and goats were not on his mind.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Lancer. He sure did.” Brighton smiled for the first time, his teeth white against the dirt and grime that caked his face. “Heck, with his long legs, he must be part mountain goat too. He climbed straight up a hill full of boulders and plucked out a bawling calf. Not sure how long that little critter was up there, but his mama was sure glad to see him.”
That was all well and good, but it did not answer the question. “Why isn’t he with you two? Is he all right?”
Brighton lost his smile and glanced over at Simmons. A good thing the boy wasn’t a gambling man; his feelings were plain on his face.
“I asked you a question.” Murdoch turned to Simmons, his worry inching higher. “Where is Scott?”
“Ah, well Mr. Lancer, when we was coming back, there was smoke trailing up from a canyon and Scott wanted to check it out.” Simmons wiped the sweat away from his forehead with his arm.
“What kind of smoke? What do you mean? Did it look like a prairie fire?”
“Oh, no sir. It looked like the smoke from a camp fire. You know, with no wind today it was a thin grey line going straight up.”
“The fire, Simmons. Where was the fire coming from?”
“Oh, well, just to the north a bit, Mr. Lancer. Down around Hodges Creek, in that area.”
Hodges Creek ran for miles through the northern part of Lancer. Why wouldn’t Simmons give him a straight answer? He wasn’t the type of man to hem and haw around a question. Unless. Murdoch glared at Simmons. “Gabriel’s Trail?”
Simmons leaned back in his saddle and pursed his lips. “Yes, sir. That’s where it looked to be coming from.”
“Damn it, I have told you men not to go there.”
“But my son …”
“With all due respect Mr. Lancer, it ain’t my place to tell your son what he can and cannot do.” Looking insulted, Simmons settled his hat on his head and held Murdoch’s eyes.
Murdoch bit back his temper, realizing what Simmons said was true. Scott was in charge and knowing Scott, he was going to do what he was going to do.
“I apologize, Simmons. You’re right.” Nothing to do but wait until Scott came home. He toyed with the idea of going after him, but couldn’t bring himself to deal with one more confrontation. Truth be told, Murdoch was tired.
He squinted through the afternoon sun at the two men in the saddle. “Were you two with Scott the other day putting up fence for Jubal?”
“We were.” Simmons smiled. “We got done early so Scott told us we could take a splash in Weber’s Pond. It was dang hot. Real nice of him.”
“Did Lucien go with you?”
“Nope.” Simmons fidgeted in his saddle. “Lucien … well, most of the hands don’t care much for the man. I ‘spect the feelings mutual.”
“When you left, was Lucien still with Scott?”
“Yes sir. Scott was loading up the last of the tools in the wagon and Lucien was hanging around watching. He’s real good at that. Watching, I mean.”
“You didn’t see anything then? Any sort of confrontation between Scott and Lucien?”
“No Mr. Lancer. We sure didn’t. But come to think of it, Lucien seemed tetchier than usual. He weren’t bragging about …” Simmons reddened and looked down.
“Bragging about what, Simmons? Women?”
Simmons eyed Murdoch. “I have a lot of respect for Senore Cipriano, and kept my mouth shut cuz of that, but Lucien Mateo ain’t good for much but lots of talk.” Simmons spat on the ground as if saying the man’s name left dirt in his mouth.
“It’s ok Simmons. You two go get cleaned up, it’ll be supper in a couple of hours. I think I saw Raul bedding down some mares in the barn. Tell him I asked that he take care of your horses.”
Simmons touched the brim of his hat. “Thanks, boss. By the way, about an hour back we saw a mount heading east.”
“Could you see who it was? Cipriano maybe?”
“No sir. Too far away. But I don’t think it was Cip. At least, I’ve never known Cip to run an animal as hard as that one was going.”
Murdoch chewed on his lip, wondering who that could have been. Lucien? “Oh men. One last question. Did Scott seem ok? The reason I ask is he may have been hurt the day you boys worked the fence line.”
“No one was hurt that day Mr. Lancer. Oh I got a few pokes in my hands, but that was cuz I took off my gloves. Boy,” Brighton snorted, “it’s better to have sweaty hands than cut ones, boss. ‘Specially when you’re working with barbed wire. That’s for sure.”
My god. It was more than youth with Brighton. No matter how old he became, he was incapable of thinking beyond the second he was living. But maybe in the long run he was better off. Murdoch stared at him for a couple of heartbeats, then turned to Simpson for an answer.
Simpson watched his partner with something akin to affection. The corner of his lips turned up and he shook his head before looking at Murdoch. “Well, he did seem to favor his left side some. You know, held his arm close to it. But it didn’t slow him down.”
“Thank you, men.”
Simmons motioned to Brighton and they moved away. The only excitement out of the horses at being home was a low nicker from Brighton’s mount as they neared the paddock.
“Still want me to hunt for Cip?”
Murdoch’s head was swirling – between Zelda, Cipriano, the hot sun and now Scott’s disobedience his mind had muddied, left him a bit off balance. He stumbled and bumped into Johnny.
“Murdoch? You okay?” Johnny touched his arm, then his fingers clamped harder. “You ain’t had lunch yet and here it’s almost supper time. Let’s get you something to eat.”
“I’m fine, Johnny.”
“No, you’re not. Listen, I’ll go check out Gabriel’s Trail. Find Scott and kick his ass home.”
“No! I don’t want you down there.” Murdoch wasn’t a superstitious man, but he wasn’t taking any chances and it was a dangerous trail to navigate. “I’ll go.”
He pulled his arm away from Johnny. He wasn’t a fragile old man yet and wouldn’t be treated like one. “I said I’ll go. I’ll grab some food and be just fine.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m not arguing about it, Murdoch. Now I can ride with you, behind you, in front of you, or wherever you like. But you’re not going alone.”
Murdoch stared at the fire coming out of his son’s eyes. “You have your mother’s temper,” he said, and smiled.
“Yeah, well, like I said. She scared a man or two with it.” Johnny shifted his body to the kitchen door. “What do you say? Give it a couple of hours. If he’s not back by then we’ll both go looking for him.”
“Won’t be much daylight left.”
“There’ll be enough.”
It appeared that Johnny wasn’t going to back down on this. Besides, Scott may need his brother after the tongue lashing that Murdoch was going to give him. When he found him – alive and well - not bleeding from an infected knife wound. Murdoch nodded, clasped Johnny on the back of his neck and they stepped together into the cool kitchen.
Chapter 8 – Fixing Broken Things
“No sense in waiting any longer.” Murdoch gripped the arms of the chair and pushed himself to his feet. “Another twenty minutes won’t matter. If we catch him on the trail, at least I can yell at him where no one else will hear.”
“I’m for it.” Johnny grabbed his hat from the table and headed for the door. “But I get a piece of his butt.”
Murdoch snorted. “You agree with me then, that Scott shouldn’t have gone against my orders?”
“Not saying that. Just saying he should have been back by now. No reason for him to cause …” Johnny’s hand beat against his thigh. “You know.”
“To cause … what, Son?”
Johnny blew out a breath. “He could give us some thought.”
“I know, Johnny.”
“Well, just don’t go thinking that it’s for me. He shouldn’t be worrying you like he is, that’s all. Not saying a word about being knifed was plain stupid.” Johnny jerked the door and held it open.
Murdoch bit back a smile but held his tongue and rested a hand on Johnny’s shoulder before he stepped through the door. For the past hour the jingling of Johnny’s spurs as he paced back and forth had edged Murdoch’s nerves up a notch or two. However Johnny tried to dismiss his concern, he was just as worried about Scott.
They were halfway to the barn when the bellman in the tower hailed someone’s approach. A habit instituted during the Pardee raids, Murdoch intended to do away with it, but the raids were still too near a memory. His concession was to man it with someone who could be spared from other jobs.
Moving down the hill were two specks. One of the specks trudged in a straight line along the trail. The other was erratic, sometimes lagging behind, at other times hurrying to catch up, or stopping entirely.
Murdoch shielded his eyes against the late afternoon sun and looked to the watchtower. “Hanks, what can you see?”
A piece of glass caught the sun and flashed from the tower. “Two horses, boss, but looks like one don’t have a rider. It’s just a follerin’ along. The other … a big man … real big. But …”
“I’ll be danged. It looks like he has two heads!”
“Hanks, a man can’t have two heads.”
“I know that, boss. But dang it, that’s what it looks like.”
There was no doubt about it. Hanks was too old to be a look out, but there wasn’t much else Murdoch could have him do except feed the pigs. Hanks hated pigs, wouldn’t even eat a pork chop. He tried chickens, but cracked too many eggs.
“Wait! I see now. Two men, boss. Two men on one horse.” The old man lowered the spyglass, put his hand on his hip and shook a finger at Murdoch. “I knew I weren’t seeing things.”
Murdoch heard the muttering but blocked out the rest of Hanks’ tirade. Two men on one horse meant only one thing – one of those men was injured. He headed to the barn to ride out to meet them, but Johnny had saddled up and charged out the door. “I’ll see to it.” He spurred his horse and galloped towards the riders before Murdoch’s ‘be careful’ was out of his mouth.
Barranca flew up the trail as the horse burdened with the two men seemed to measure each step it took. The unmanned horse skittered as Johnny closed in, circled the riders, then stood at a distance when Johnny reached the men.
“Hanks, what’s going on?”
“Well. Let’s see here.” Hanks fingered the barrel; moved it close to his eyes, then further away.
Murdoch swore out loud and headed for the watchtower.
“Okay. Hold your britches. They’s coming in now, boss. Looks like Johnny be riding real close to the other’n.”
Murdoch glared at the spyglass, wishing to be at the end of it instead of the fragile old man who barely knew how to operate it.
“That lone horse is flying down at a good piece, boss. Looks to be heading straight for the barn.”
Several of the hands had come from their supper to watch. They were mulling in the paddock, by the bunkhouse and close to the trail when the long-legged chestnut barreled in. It was Murdoch who stepped in front of the animal, raised his arms and stopped the horse. His heart thudded – it was Scott’s.
But Scott could be the rider holding the other man up. No law said Scott had to ride his own horse. His mount may have been too skittish to put up with carrying two men. Maybe Scott found Lucien, they fought, and Lucien was hurt. There was no blood on the saddle. Other than sweat on the flanks and chest, the horse looked fine. He handed it off to Raul.
He looked towards the approaching riders and caught flashes of bright red and blue. It was the vest Cipriano wore – this morning and most every day. But it was partially hidden by a beige colored shirt worn by the man who leaned against him. Murdoch bowed his head, closed his eyes and said a prayer. “My God, please.”
Everything ceased to exist except for the deliberate movement of the figures and their slow trek down the hill. Orders went through his head of gathering bandages, water, blankets, medicine. People moved around him; Teresa called his name. But he couldn’t think of anything else but Scott.
As they drew close, Murdoch could see Johnny’s hand on Scott’s arm, supporting him. A quick glance at Cipriano showed a face streaked with dirt and exhaustion, but then Murdoch’s attention fixed on Scott’s bowed head. Sweat darkened strands of hair hung in front of his face. Both hands gripped the saddle horn as his shoulders slumped over the horse’s neck. Johnny leaned in, said something and Scott fell back against Cipriano. Murdoch took a step forward and choked back a ‘no’.
Lines of pain etched across his son’s haggard face; his skin reminded Murdoch of a winter sea – colorless, chilled. He heard Scott groan, then realized he was the one who made the noise. Heart pounding, Murdoch stepped up to the horse as it came near and placed his hand on Scott’s leg.
“That leg could be broken, Patron.”
Murdoch snatched his hand away and gazed at the leg.
“He has much pain, could not stand. It’s best to treat as broken.”
Murdoch nodded, his eyes transfixed on the leg before looking up at Cipriano. “How did you get him on a horse?”
Cipriano shook his head. “Ah, we had a time.” He grimaced.
“What happened?” Murdoch looked up at Scott. Overwhelmed at the reflection of his son’s suffering, he tasted blood before he realized he had bitten the inside of his cheek.
“I do not know, Patron. I found him. It is a long story. Let us get him in the house.”
“Of course.” Murdoch fumbled, reached for Scott, then pulled his arms away.
“Frank. Get a stretcher from the tack room, pronto.”
Murdoch was grateful that Johnny took charge, although he didn’t know why he seemed incapable of giving an order. He felt inadequate, like a spectator watching a horrible tragedy unfold and being powerless to change it. It was when Johnny nudged him out of the way to help get Scott down that Murdoch seemed to come out of his fog. Simmons was in the process of lifting Scott’s good leg over the head of the horse when Murdoch stepped in.
“I’m taller and stronger, Simmons. Let me do that. Try to hold the animal’s head down.” As gentle as he could, he eased the leg up and over the horse’s neck. “Cip, turn him real slow.”
Murdoch hurried to the other side of the horse and reached up for Scott. “Johnny, grap hold of his good leg. Let the other one dangle. It’s going to hurt, but no other way to do it.”
When Scott’s bad leg hung free of any support, he groaned and with a harsh intake of breath collapsed into Murdoch’s arms. Murdoch cradled Scott against his shoulder, attempting to shield the leg from further jostling. Puffs of air warmed Murdoch’s neck as Scott curled into him. But when Murdoch put his arms under Scott’s legs to place them on the stretcher, Scott screamed in pain. Murdoch flinched as Scott’s nails dug into his forearm.
“I’m sorry, Scott,” Murdoch choked out.
The spasm passed and Scott’s head lolled against the stretcher for a moment; then he twisted onto his side and retched into the dirt. Murdoch supported his head to keep it away from the mess and Johnny held onto his shoulders. With an awful shudder the vomiting stopped and Scott rolled into Johnny’s arms. Tears gathered in his lashes as he started to shake.
“Teresa!” Murdoch scrambled up and almost knocked Teresa over. “Are you okay?” He held onto her arms to steady her.
“What do you need?”
Murdoch swallowed. “Warm blankets. He’s shivering.”
“I’ll set some by the stove.”
He turned back to Scott and four men had already grasped each pole of the stretcher. There was no further sound from his son as the men passed through the great room, trudged up the stairs and settled him onto the bed.
Murdoch lowered himself beside Scott and touched his arm. “Scott, are you with me?”
When Scott didn’t respond, he asked the question louder and shook Scott’s shoulder.
A clipped nod was the only reaction.
“Can you tell me where you hurt?”
Scott licked his lips. “Water,” he rasped.
“Okay. We’ll get you some water. Are you hurt other than your leg?”
Long fingers twitched, picked at the pocket of his shirt. “Head.” He groaned as his eyes fluttered open. “My side.”
Teresa hurried in with an armful of blankets and set them on the bed.
“Thank you, darling. Would you get the medicine box?”
“It’s by the night stand.”
“Can you get me some water?”
“There’s fresh, in the pitcher.”
Murdoch should have known that Teresa would have these things ready for him. “I’m sorry …”
“No need, Murdoch. Can I do anything else?”
“Yes. Ask one of the men to get splints from the aid chest in the supply room. There should be long strips of cloth packed with them. Oh, and Teresa,” he added as she headed out of the room. “I need a pair of good scissors, and sharp knife that can cut through leather.”
Murdoch reached for one of the blankets and covered Scott up to his shoulders. He could have stepped on the medicine box it was so close and wondered how he overlooked it. Opening the box, Murdoch drew out a small brown bottle. He didn’t know who put the glass of water in his hand, but he added a few drops of liquid from the bottle.
“Scott, try to drink this. It’s water with some laudanum.” Murdoch lifted Scott’s head and tipped the glass.
“No, Scott. You need to drink it all,” Murdoch said when Scott choked and pulled away. “Come on now, that’s it.”
His hand cupped the side of Scott’s face when he slid it out from behind his head.
“You ever set a broken bone before?” Johnny asked softly.
Murdoch glanced at Johnny. His lips were in a tight line, and a muscle twitched in his jaw.
“I have.” Murdoch turned his attention back to Scott and was heartened to see that the deep lines on his face had eased, as well as his breathing. But his skin was still clammy when he wiped sweat away from his forehead.
“It will take a few minutes for the laudanum to knock him out.” Murdoch thumbed across the sharp edge of Scott’s cheekbone, wiping away a blotch of grime.
“Want to wait for the doctor?”
“I’m afraid it will be a long wait, Son. He’s in Sacramento for the week. We are on our own.” Murdoch tried to relax and collect himself.
“Patron, I would like to clean up if you don’t need me.”
For the first time since they had ridden in, Murdoch took a long look at his Segundo. Cipriano’s clothes were caked with mud. A leather toggle on his vest was torn away, leaving long frayed threads of red and blue. His right cheek was swollen and bloody.
“What happened out there, Cip?”
Cip looked at the floor, pursed his lips and took a deep breath. “I’m not sure Patron. I heard shots, three shots, the signal for help. I rode towards the noise and found Senor Scott.”
“Where, Cip? Where did you find him?”
“He was in the meadow above Gabriel’s Trail?”
“Before the trail drops into the canyon?”
“Si. He was just lying there.” Cipriano wouldn’t meet Murdoch’s eyes.
“How did you happen to be in the area? You look like you’ve been in a fight. Your face … Did you find Lucien?” Murdoch realized he was rattling.
“I was looking for Lucien,” Cip admitted, anger flashing in his eyes. “I saw smoke curling up from the canyon. Thought he could be camping there. So, I went to check. I heard the gunshots.”
“Did you see anyone …?”
“No Patron.” Cip’s chin inched up and he looked Murdoch in the eye. “I saw no one else.”
Murdoch didn’t believe him. He turned to his now sleeping son. None of this was making sense. Scott’s clothes were dusty, with small rips. Lying on a high meadow after a rain wouldn’t cause dirt or tears. And with a useless leg, he couldn’t have crawled far.
“Scott. Did he say anything?”
“He was … not himself. I was just happy to get him on the horse. I did not press with questions. Perhaps it is best to ask your son when he is able to answer.”
It was obvious that Cip wasn’t going to tell Murdoch anything further. At least not now and Scott needed tending to.
“Patron? Do you need me to help with your son?”
Murdoch glanced at his Segundo. “No. But we’ll talk about this again.”
With a tightening of his lips, Cip nodded, looked at Scott, and left the room.
“Johnny, are you able to help me?”
“Sure, Murdoch. What do you want me to do?”
“Help me get his clothes off.” Murdoch moved the blanket out of the way and started to unbutton Scott’s shirt. “Then, I’ll need you to help me with the leg. Can you do it?”
Murdoch waited for Johnny’s answer.
“Not too sure I’m any good at fixing broken things like legs, Murdoch.”
“It’s a good thing to know, Son.” Murdoch unbuckled Scott’s gun belt, trying not to jostle as he slipped it out and handed it to Johnny.
Johnny cleared his throat and took the belt. “I suppose it is … He, ah, gonna feel it much?”
“I won’t lie to you, Johnny. I don’t know. I hope not.” He twisted to scan Johnny’s face. “I can get someone else if you’d rather.”
Johnny shook his head, glanced at Murdoch, then at Scott. “Like you said, it’s a good think to know.”
“Good. You’ll be fine, Son.”
Teresa arrived with the scissors and knife the same time that Frank came in with the splints and cloth to bind them to the leg.
“Need some help, Mr. Lancer?”
“You may have to hold his shoulders when I pull on that leg. Not sure if he’s going to come to or not.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll help with whatever I can.”
“You set breaks before, Frank?”
“No sir. But I’ve watched a few. Held splints in place.”
“Thanks, Frank. Good to know.” There were many things about this man that Murdoch didn’t know. One thing was certain, he was an asset. “Teresa, can you get me a bucket of warm water? I think Scott could use some cleaning up when we’re done.”
“Murdoch, will he be all right?”
He tried to encourage her with a smile. “He’ll be fine darling. You don’t have to stay, just the warm water, please. Oh, and we’ll need another man up here to hold the splints in place. Can you get someone?”
“Sure.” Her lips slipped into a grin. She moved to leave the room, then suddenly came back and kissed Murdoch on the cheek. “With you taking care of him, he’ll be just fine.” She scurried out of the room, leaving a soft scent of lavender in her wake.
“Murdoch, Scott’s gun hasn’t been fired.”
“What?” Johnny held the colt in his hand, the cylinder open.
“The gun. Scott didn’t fire those three shots.”
“Are you sure? Maybe he reloaded.”
“The way he must have been feeling? No, Murdoch. There’s no gunpowder trace or smell. I cleaned it for him yesterday and it hasn’t been fired. I’d bet on it.”
“But then, who fired the shots?”
Murdoch stared at Johnny for a few moments, shook his head and slid Scott’s belt through the loops of his pants. “Johnny, pull off his left boot. We’ll need to cut the other one off.”
Within a short time, they’d stripped Scott. Murdoch was puzzled by the bits of dirt and gravel that sifted from the clothing as they cut them off. There were even pebbles in the boots. Where had Scott been prior to the meadow? What happened?
To Murdoch’s relief the bandage covering Scott’s torso was still snug, even though fresh blood was evident. The knife wound must be minor. Murdoch would tend to it after the leg and left the dressing in place.
Bruises were starting on two distinct places on Scott’s body – a wide, large discoloration across his shoulders and a matching one across his lower legs. The left leg was broken below the knee. The bone had not pierced the skin, but there was a large, hard lump midway down his calf. His foot lay at an odd angle which indicated to Murdoch that the fracture was severe enough that he’d be off the leg for several weeks. The fix should be easy – just pull as hard as he could to snap the bone back into place, splint it and bind it tight. Technically anyway. If Scott remained unaware.
There was a hard knock on the door and Johnny opened it.
“Boss. Heard Miss Teresa looking for a hand - that you might be needin’ some help.”
The old man stood bowlegged in the doorway, chewing on god knows what.
“Hanks,” Murdoch started, “how a broken bone is treated can affect how a man walks for as long as he lives. Have you helped with a break before?” He couldn’t gather eggs without breaking them; how in the hell could he be of help with this.
“Well, fact of the matter, I’ve pulled a few bones in my lifetime – man and beast.”
“Well. Can you hold the splints in place while Johnny wraps them?” Hanks was not going to yank on his son’s broken leg.
“Heck. I can do more ‘n that, Boss!”
“I’m sure you can and I appreciate it, but you’d be the greatest help to me by holding those splints. I need a steady hand to do that.”
“But Boss. I’m tellin’ ya …”
“Please. Just get on this side of the bed and pull in close to the leg.” Murdoch heard the snap in his voice and regretted it, but Scott was his concern. Not the hurt feelings of the timeworn cowboy.
Hanks snorted something under his breath, aimed to spit somewhere but caught Murdoch’s glare. His throat bobbed as he gulped down whatever he was going to spit out. Murdoch cringed, but kept his peace.
“Thank you,” Murdoch said when Hanks settled next to Scott on the bed. Murdoch turned to Johnny. “Ready Son?”
Johnny swallowed, seemed to blanch a little, but stepped up to the bed.
“Frank, hold his shoulders.”
Murdoch waited until Frank had a good grip on Scott then gave Johnny the splints. “Okay. I’m going to pull straight down. You put a splint on each side of his leg, and wrap them against the leg as snug as you can with the strips.”
“Ah, Murdoch. What if he kicks?”
“Hanks is close enough to grab hold.” Murdoch realized that some things were easier said than done and it was obvious Johnny was reluctant to mess too much with his brother’s broken leg.
Johnny picked up the splint, rubbed his fingers against the smooth wood, then looked at Murdoch. “Listen, Murdoch. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, but I’m thinking if Hanks here knows how to wrap a splint, hell, he knows a lot more about how tight it should be then me. Maybe it’s best if he did it. I’ll hold Scott.”
“But Johnny …”
“You remember that heifer that broke her leg a few months back? You, everyone, was all set to shoot it. Hanks took that little critter, pulled the bone and wrapped it all by himself. That animal is walking, Murdoch.”
“This is your brother’s leg, not a range cow.”
“Mr. Lancer. Boss.” Hanks sat back on the bed and fixed Murdoch with a stare as soft as the cattle he’d tended all of his life. “I knows what this boy means to you. Ain’t nothin’ I would do to hurt him. And if I didn’t know whats I was a doin’, I wouldna offered.”
Murdoch studied the old man. He had been so blinded by Scott’s suffering, and Hanks’ bumbling at the watchtower, that he pushed aside the experience of the old hand. Of course they were right. Binding the splints was very important – too loose and the bone could move out of place, too tight and circulation could be affected. Hanks might be elderly, but he’d been around long enough that he probably had set a few bones in his lifetime. “You’re right. I should have thought …”
“It’s okay, Murdoch. Not every day you have to pull on your son’s broken leg.” A kind smile appeared as Johnny handed off the splints to Hanks and took his place at Scott’s side. “At least, let’s hope it’s not a habit.”
Murdoch almost smiled at that remark, until he studied his sleeping son. “Well. Better get it done. Everyone ready?”
Nods and a yes, sirree from Hanks followed. Murdoch positioned himself at the foot of the bed, wrapped his hands around the lower part of Scott’s leg, and held his breath. A trickle of sweat slid down his cheek and he thought for a moment that he wouldn’t be able to do it. Squeezing his fingers against the warmth of Scott’s skin, Murdoch tightened his shoulders, squared his back and pulled.
Chapter 9 – Disturbing Events
God he was tired. He’d never felt so wrung out in all of his life. The cold sting of the water helped. It mingled with the sweat, rinsed it away, left him at least - better. Cupping his hands once more, he dipped them into the basin and splashed his face, not caring that the top of the bureau was wet with splatters. He grabbed the towel from his shoulder, rubbed his face, then attempted to dry the polished wood. All he managed to do was streak the finish.
As he moved the pitcher out of the way, he caught a reflection in the mirror. A ghost stared back, ashen - skin grey, hair frazzled, eyes haunted and vacant. He spread his hands on the bureau and bowed his head. A soft moan caught in his throat as he tried to blot out the memories of the past hours.
There was that first horrible scream of awareness, then the ragged groans of his self-possessed son as he tried to maintain control. Each involuntary quiver of Scott’s body passed through to Murdoch as he doggedly held onto his leg. But worse than the physical suffering was his prideful child, gasping, helpless, at one point pleading to a father he abhorred. The memories were all there - lying just a few steps away with the man on the bed.
Throwing the towel onto the bureau, Murdoch regarded his unconscious son. There was no movement except the up and down motion of his chest. Scott was at rest for the time being. Murdoch had poured another few drops of laudanum down his throat after … everything. With all of the pain, Murdoch knew Scott was past responding to the first dose. There would be no harm in giving him more.
He wondered how Johnny was doing. The last he saw of him, Johnny was stumbling from the room after Murdoch told him to get some air. He suspected Johnny helped himself to a good swig of whatever liquor bottle was the closest.
If possible, Frank’s dark skin looked pale, his normal politeness gone as he swept by Murdoch without asking if there was anything else.
And thank God for Hanks – the steady force who kept everyone focused. His voice everywhere.
“Johnny boy, you’re a doin’ just fine. Keep ‘em straight. That’s right.”
“Tell him that story of the one-eyed hoot owl, Frank. You know the one that kept diving to the left of the mouse. Near scared me out of my drawers when I first got a look at that big yeller eye a starin’ in the night. Hehe.”
“Boss, yous a doin’ good. Just hold ‘er steady like. Steady.”
And most important of all to Scott – “You be doin’ fine, boy. ‘bout done now. Hang on. You be walking ‘fore ya knows it.”
To think he had been ready to dismiss the old coot. A weathered hand had patted his shoulder when it was over, lingered for a moment. “Most men woulda been screamin’ for their maker. He be a good boy, Boss. Be a fine rancher given time.” A comforting squeeze and the hand slipped away. Hanks was gone before Murdoch could say thank you.
A spasm twisted in his back. He ignored it. It happened often, especially when tired, and Murdoch learned to work through it. He nudged a piece of cloth that lay on the floor; part of Scott’s cut away trousers. Where were the rest of his clothes? Scott’s boots lay side by side, one in perfect condition, the other slit down both sides. Scott bought them a day after he arrived. A shame to throw them out, but what good was one boot?
Picking up the ruined clothes and boots he threw them into a basket and set it by the door. The rag he used to wash his son hung on the edge of the still open medicine box. Murdoch tossed it into the bucket that now held cold and gritty water. The bloody bandage that had covered the knife wound already floated in the bucket.
His hand hovered just above the leg, splinted from thigh to ankle, then settled lightly on the bindings. The wrapping was perfect; not too lose and not too tight. It would be awkward getting around with that long, stiff leg. Probably just as well. No reason for Scott to be walking on it for a long time.
He glanced at his son’s face. Traces of unbidden tears still darkened the edges of his blond hair. Murdoch touched his cheek, aware of the calluses on his fingers as they tracked across Scott’s smooth jaw line and down his neck. He palmed Scott’s forehead, checking for fever, and swept back bangs, lingering on his head, reluctant to break contact. Scott did not stir.
Lowering himself to the edge of the bed, he rummaged through the medicine box and found what he was looking for. The sweet smell of the salve drifted up when he unscrewed the jar. He always liked the perfume of the ointment that Maria made from herbs, aloe vera and sweet oil. Better yet, it was the best thing he’d seen for healing.
Sticking a finger into the salve, he dug out a healthy amount and started to dab it onto the knife wound. There were a couple of areas that could stand stitches, but if kept clean and bound properly, it could heal on its own. For now the salve and a light covering would work. Murdoch wasn’t prepared to cause any more pain today.
The gash angled from the middle of Scott’s ribcage to his waist. Ugly, but not too deep. A bit more thrust and Scott would have been a dead man. Murdoch shuddered. Too close.
His hand shook when he applied more salve. God, he needed a drink. Scotch, brandy, even the hated tequila. Anything to sting his belly and replace the fear of how close he came to losing a part of his life.
It was ironic. He’d not given much thought to Scott when he was in Boston; might just as well have been living on the other side of the world. Then he showed up in the flesh with his brother. Scott was definitely far from the little five year old he’d walked away from almost twenty years before. He snorted, recalling his first impression of his grown son – fluffy and arrogant. After months of living with the man, fluffy was certainly not correct. Arrogant, now that was another matter.
A light moan halted Murdoch’s ministering. Scott rolled his head, a frown wrinkling his forehead. It seemed he was trying to shift his body, which wasn’t a good idea. Murdoch placed a hand on his shoulder, tried to sooth.
“Easy, Son. Settle down. You’re all right.” Scott moved his arm across his chest, smearing the salve, and plucked at Murdoch’s trousers for a few seconds. With a light purse of his lips, as if satisfied, his body relaxed. Hmm. Wasn’t as bad as Murdoch thought, this comforting business. Easy enough … when his son was unconscious. What was he going to do with him when awake?
Murdoch looked up at the soft click of the door.
“How is he?”
Balancing a tray on his hand, Johnny came in and glanced down at Scott.
“Sleeping, a bit restless. How are you?”
“Ok. Now.” A sheepish smile crept across Johnny’s face. “Sorry I … well, kind of disappeared on you.”
“No need to apologize. You were here when Scott needed you. When I needed you.”
“Whew. I tell you what, I’ve been through some ugly stuff, but this was a different kind of ugly.”
Murdoch couldn’t disagree with that. He’d been through some dreadful things as well, but pulling on his son’s broken leg while he writhed in agony sickened him. Wanting not to think of it, he nodded at the tray.
“What do you have there?”
“Oh.” A full grin. “Well, figured you could use some reinforcement.” He set the tray on a small table by the window and pulled an armchair up to it. “Come on, Murdoch. Take a break.”
Steam rose from the deep bowl and the smell of peppers and onions filtered across the room. A large chunk of golden brown cornbread was beside Maria’s famous chili. A honey pot, a glob of butter and a block of cheese sat near the cornbread. But what caught his eye was the tall amber glass of his favorite brandy.
“Just what the doctor ordered.” Johnny patted the back of the chair.
With a large sigh, Murdoch nodded. “I need to clean this salve off his arm.”
“I can do that. Come on.”
Johnny, and the chili, was hard to resist. “I suppose. I’ve got the dressing ready. I was just going to cover the wound for now.” Murdoch slowly got to his feet. By the time he walked across the room and sat down, he could bend his knees without pain. Damn, it was hell getting old. The fire of the brandy was just what he needed.
The chili was hot, spicy and loaded with chunks of tender meat. Topped off with some pieces of cheese and bits of cornbread, the simple meal was delicious. Murdoch wondered if Johnny had eaten. He glanced over at the bed to ask, but instead watched his son take care of his brother. Johnny wiped away the salve with a soft, skimming motion as if afraid of rubbing too hard.
“He won’t break, Son.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew how stupid they sounded.
Johnny’s arm halted mid-air, he turned his head and quirked an eye in Murdoch’s direction. A small smile lifted his lips. “Well. Let’s hope not twice in one day anyway. Suppose I could rub a bit harder.” But he didn’t. He ran a finger over the arm and appeared satisfied that the salve was gone. “You want more salve on this cut?”
“Only if you think he needs it.”
“I reckon a bit more won’t hurt.” Johnny dabbed the ointment along the knife wound. “Old Boston must have had an angel over his shoulder. A bit deeper and we wouldn’t have to worry about a broken leg.”
“I noticed.” Murdoch pushed the chili aside and took a large swallow of the brandy.
“It may need stitches. A couple places look pretty … open.”
“Didn’t want to do it today. I think if we wrap it tight enough, the tissue will grow back together all right.”
Johnny nodded and reached for the dressing. “This should be tied on, Murdoch. Did you want to wrap it up now?”
“I’d rather not disturb him. That leg will be pretty painful yet.”
“And it will be for a while. Don’t think tomorrow is gonna be different.”
Murdoch scratched at his day-old whiskers. “Tell you the truth, I wasn’t up to it. But if you think we can do it without waking him up.”
“Well.” Johnny put both hands on either side of Scott, and leaned down close to his face. “He looks pretty much out of it.” He glanced at Murdoch. “But I reckon tomorrow will do.”
The curtain swished in the breeze, and caught Murdoch’s attention. The sun slanted low through the window turning flecks of dust into dancing gold specks. Warm shadows stretched across the floor softening the room in twilight. Murdoch relaxed into the chair trying to capture some of the peace. He closed his eyes for a moment and was surprised when his head jerked. Had he actually dozed?
“You should go to bed, Murdoch.”
He glanced wide-eyed towards his son. The only light in the room was a lamp that burned low by the bed. Where was the sun?
Johnny chuckled. “Well, after that snooze you took, don’t wonder.”
“I was just resting my eyes for a few seconds.” He hadn’t slept, he was sure of it.
“You snore when you rest your eyes, do you?”
“I was not snoring.”
“Then you were sure breathing hard.” Johnny smiled and crossed one leg over the other. He must have brought in the rocking chair from his own room. Murdoch hadn’t heard him leave to get it. He hated to admit it, but he must have slept.
“How long …”
“Oh, not too long. Maybe an hour or so.” Johnny settled back in the chair and commenced rocking.
Murdoch dragged his eyes away from the smooth motion of the chair or he’d be sleeping again. “How is he?” He noted that the dressing on Scott’s chest was snug around his body.
“Not moved or twitched.”
“No problems wrapping that bandage around him?”
“Nope. I only wrapped it a couple of times though.”
“You should have woken me up to help.”
“Oh, so you do admit you were sleeping.” Johnny’s eyes sparked and he had the grin of a satisfied cat.
Murdoch frowned at his cheeky son. Johnny chuckled and turned to Scott.
“Johnny, go get some sleep. I’ll sit here for a few minutes, then turn in.”
“I don’t mind sitting. May even snooze some in this old rocker. Almost as comfortable as my bed. Besides.” He rocked. “My body is younger than yours. Can stand a few hours in a chair. You wouldn’t be able to walk.”
“I certainly could walk again. I’m not ready for the boneyard yet.”
“Good to know.” Johnny continued rocking, obviously not intending to leave.
“All right. But wake me if you need anything. Understood?”
“Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Murdoch pushed out of the chair, stretched his back. He was surprised by the loud crack and glanced at Johnny.
“Hope that was a bone and not something else making that noise.”
“Humph. It was my back.”
Johnny turned up his nose and sniffed the air. He laughed when Murdoch slapped him lightly on the back of his head.
Murdoch stood over Scott, wondering if he should stay.
“Go on Murdoch. He’s not going anywhere.”
“Well, all right. At least for a couple hours. Come get me and I’ll relieve you.”
“Okay then. I’ll see you in two hours.”
“What time is it now?”
“Murdoch! Would you just go?”
Ignoring Johnny’s exasperated huff Murdoch bent over and checked Scott for fever. A slight temperature but nothing to worry about. Scott moaned, shifted and Murdoch withdrew his hand.
“You best not be waking him up.”
Johnny crossed his arms over his chest and frowned at Murdoch. He seemed more like the irritated parent instead of the other way around. Murdoch couldn’t help but smile.
“Wait till you have children of your own, my son.”
“That’s not happening anytime soon. I have my hands full with this one.”
“I’m assuming you mean your brother?”
“Don’t be assuming. You just might be wrong.”
Murdoch patted Johnny on the shoulder as he passed the rocker, and then took one last look before he stepped into the hallway. Despite the disturbing events of the past few days, he couldn’t help but be thankful. Scott would heal, another bull could be purchased, and hopefully Lucien was gone for good. He sighed, relieved, shut the door and lumbered down the hall to his room.
Chapter 10 – All That I Have
Damn, Johnny hadn’t come to get him and it was long past sunrise. He’d never slept so late in his life unless he’d been too sick to do anything else.
Murdoch hissed when he splashed the witch hazel across his face. The cut on his chin stung and his cheeks burned from the sharp razor. If he didn’t slow down, he’d cut his own throat. He bent to look in the mirror and felt a wad of material at his waist. Shirt tails hitched in his belt and he tried to cram them into his trousers. It didn’t work. He unbuckled his belt, stuffed the shirt into his pants and cinched the leather. Another frustrated delay in an already late start.
He smelled coffee as soon as he entered the hallway. At Johnny’s door he lifted his nose to test if it might be drifting from his room. Not wanting to wake Johnny if he was asleep, Murdoch cracked the door. No coffee, just a mop of black hair on the pillow and the soft rumble of his son’s snores. Good. He had gone to bed.
The coffee was definitely drifting from Scott’s room. Murdoch hoped there was a full pot and extra mug. He wondered who was with Scott. Johnny wouldn’t leave him alone, not this soon. Not bothering to knock, Murdoch pushed open the door and stepped in.
The room was in shadows, the drapes drawn tight against the sun. But it was stuffy, any breeze halted by the hangings across the window. There was another smell, heavy and pungent.
“He be sleepin’, Boss.”
“It’s rather close in here, don’t you think?”
“Well. Ain’t noticed much, but you could be right. Drew the curtains there to make it darker for him to sleep.”
“Has he been awake?”
“He has.” Hank snorted. “Full bladder pushes the best of us to wakefulness, don’t ya think?”
“How did he feel?”
“Well, a bit … twitchy. He be a proud man, Boss. But could stand a bit of humbling. And ain’t nothing more humbling to a man than needing help to piss.” Hanks turned and smiled at Murdoch. “I’se seen how he’s uppity with you. Shouldn’t be. You’re a good man.”
That was the odor. Murdoch noticed the covered chamber pot near the door. “Was he able to … ah, manage.”
“Boss, he were long past that. Yes, sir. Didn’t take much for him to eye that there fancy bowl and knows it was that or the bed sheets. He made a wise pick. Do say though, with his leg all hitched up it was a bit tricky to aim.” Hanks chuckled and brought a steaming mug up to his mouth.
Murdoch smiled at the old man knowing that Hanks didn’t set much store in pride and bashfulness. He was who he was. He felt a sympathetic twinge for his son. Poor Scott. No match for this old cowhand.
“The coffee smells good. Is there an extra mug?”
“Well, happen I tried to get Mr. Scott to take a bit but weren’t too successful. He turned a trifle pale at the first gulp. His cup be sitting by the coffee pot yonder. I threw the dregs of it into that pretty pis bowl.”
Murdoch had picked up the cup but hesitated at Hank’s final remark.
“Gettin’ particular?” A wide smirk splashed across the old man’s face. “Hell Boss. You’ve breathed in enough cow crap over the years, that cup aint a gonna kill ya. I were careful about the back splash. No sir. No yeller spots on that cup.” Hanks started to laugh, but kept it low after glancing at Scott.
“How long have you been in here?” Murdoch examined the cup before he filled it.
“Oh. I wandered in sometime between midnight and … early morning. You know I don’t set much by man’s time. I was up. Saw the light. Wanted to check on the bindings. Johnny was sleeping in this here rocker so I sent him off to bed.”
“Thank you. I imagine Johnny was appreciative.”
“He weren’t in no hurry to leave. I think he’s taken a likin’ to that brother of his. But, he was a might beat. I could tell that. So, off he went.”
Murdoch tasted the coffee. Choked.
“I made that myself, Boss. It’ll grow hair on a virgin’s tit.” Hanks cackled, slapped his boney knee, and slurped at his cup.
A horrible vision seared into Murdoch’s brain and he nearly spit the coffee at Hanks. But he managed to swallow the brew grateful for the distracting bitterness. “This is … stimulating.”
“Hee, hee. Don’t have to be polite with me, Boss. I knows it’s not to everyone’s liking. I figured if I could get Mr. Scott to take a couple sips, he’d feel some better. But hell, my figurin’ was as useless as an old man’s pecker.”
Murdoch’s face burned and he knew it wasn’t from the razor or the black brew. He was grateful that Hanks at least knew enough to watch his words around the women.
“I didn’t get an opportunity to thank you yesterday, Hanks. And I apologize for not … trusting your abilities.”
“Ah. No matter. Like I said, not much left in me but I can ties up a bone.” He bowed his head. “Dang, can hardly mount a horse no more. Used to be I could outride and out cowhand everyone in the valley. But.” His face was melancholy when he lifted it to Murdoch. “It’s the way of all of us, man, woman and child.”
“Well, thank you anyway. You’ve done a great job on those bindings. It helps with the worry, knowing that his leg will heal straight and proper.”
“You be welcome, Boss.”
Murdoch moved close to the bed. He didn’t want to wake Scott, but it took effort not to sit on the bed and touch his son.
“You right fond of him, ain’t ya Boss?”
Murdoch nodded. “I am.”
“I can see that. Him and his brother mean a lot to you. You, ah, seem to be a might closer to Johnny though.”
“Yes. Johnny and I have reached an understanding.”
“But not this yeller haired boy of yours? Now, iffn you thinks I’m getting too into your business, you just tell me. My feelings won’t get hurt.”
“No, Hanks. It’s all right. And you’re right. Scott and I seem to have problems connecting.” Murdoch lowered his hand, brushed his fingers across Scott’s cheek. It was dry and cool
“Aye. I’ve seen it. I see that he’s bent to good though, Boss. He be fair, right agreeable to work for.”
“That’s good to know. It really is.”
“Might just take a bit more time. I know’d he weren’t raised by you, but being his pa carries weight.”
“Ah, Hanks. I wish I could be sure of that.”
“Listen, Boss.” The rocking chair creaked and Murdoch guessed that Hanks was trying to collect his thoughts. “Sometimes you just have to hold on no matter how hard it is. Why, think of the town a waitin’ at the end of a long drive. Ain’t it worth all the work and hard times?”
“This isn’t a herd of cattle to push over the next rise or cross a swollen river. This is my son.” Murdoch hesitated, his voice catching. “This is my son.”
“I knows that.”
Murdoch was touched by the softness of the tone, the compassion in those three words. His fingers folded into a fist as he tried to maintain control. Hanks’ understanding battered his resolve not to show hurt.
“But, Boss. Does he knows that?”
Turning to face him, Murdoch realized he had heard that question before. From Johnny, Conselo, and now from Hanks. “I’m his father. He must know how I feel about him.”
“I … I don’t know what you mean? Why what?”
“Why should he know?” Hanks rose from the chair and stood next to Murdoch. “Young uns need their ma and pa. Don’t matter the age, boy or girl, rich or poor. Now this young feller ain’t had neither. His ma died and for all he knew, his pa didn’t want him.”
“How do you know all this? Is my relationship with my sons the talk of the bunkhouse?”
“Oh, now, don’t be gettin’ your back up. You know the fellers, they like to talk about somethin’ more than cows and butt blisters.”
“Humph. They’re gossiping.”
“Well. We likes to call it speculatin’. Ah, boss,” Hanks said in a soothing tone. “Don’t be mad. The men likes you, respects you. Just … well, they be worried some about ya.”
“No need. I can take care of myself … and my sons.”
“Aint saying you can’t. But iffn’ you want my opinion, something is eatin’ at that there boy. Anyone with half an eye can sees it.” Hanks put a hand on Murdoch’s shoulder. “Can you, Boss?”
Murdoch turned away from the knowing eyes of the old man. Was Scott’s unhappiness so evident to the men that it was the topic of conversation around their supper table? Murdoch knew what was eating at Scott, but he wasn’t sure he could fix it. Even if he made an attempt, there was one thing that scared him to death. “What if he doesn’t care?”
“Oh, he cares. Don’t ya be fooled. He wouldn’t be here iffn he didn’t care. And lessn’ I’ve lost my knack to figure out the worth of a man, it’s not in his bones to be so uppity.” Hanks tightened his grip on Murdoch’s shoulder, then pulled away. “And don’t let pride stumble ya. You is just as proud as your boy. But you needs to go to him. Hear me, Boss?”
Murdoch nodded, unable to talk.
“Good. Good. I be goin’ now. Get some food into ‘im. And don’t you take none of his sass. Ya hear?”
The old man walked as bow-legged as anyone Murdoch had seen. He opened the door and slowly bent to pick up the chamber pot.
“I can take care of that, Hanks.”
“Ah. Don’t bother me none. I’ve picked up a lot worse. Iffn’ he fills it with something a might stronger, though, you can take care of it.” Hanks chuckled and winked.
“Well, it’s a deal.” Murdoch moved to close the door as Hanks stepped into the hallway. “Say Hanks. Would you ask one of the ladies to bring up a hot breakfast in about a half hour? He needs something in his stomach. I’ll have him awake by then.”
“Will surely do, Boss. I ‘spect they’ll want this pot here a cleaned out ‘fore it comes back too. Now, if it were up to me, I’d just a throw out the stuff and call it good.” Hanks shook his head as he walked away. “Women. Doggonest creatures the good lord ever created. Pots just gonna get dirtied up again. What’s the point I say?”
Murdoch couldn’t help but smile. Hanks, for all his crude ways, was a good man with a soft heart. But he understood why he’d never married. He’d be a hard man to live with.
The room was too close. Murdoch threw back the drapes and the cool morning rushed in. It was good to feel that fresh breeze. He stood by the window, drawing in the wind and the activity of the compound, never tiring of the ranch’s bustle. He wanted his sons to feel the same way he did about it.
He heard a rustling from the bed and hoped Scott was rousing. When he reached the bed, Scott had settled. Murdoch thought about waking him, but then decided to check on the knife wound. He lowered himself to the side of the bed and carefully untied the strips of cloth that held the dressing in place. The dried blood on the bandages tugged a bit as Murdoch pulled them away from the wound. Scott rolled his head on the pillow, frowned, but didn’t wake up.
If one could say a cut looked good, this one did. There was a small amount of discharge and it was still swollen, but no infection seemed evident. When Murdoch reached for the medicine box, he lost his balance and almost fell. His foot kicked the side of the box and it toppled over, sending a couple of medicine tins rolling across the floor. Cursing softly, he stumbled after the tins hoping to catch them before they clanged any more. He looked Scott’s way and was relieved that his son didn’t appear to have heard a thing.
Once more he eased himself down on the bed and shifted Scott’s arm across his lap to have better access to the injury. Murdoch dabbed carbolic into the gash aware of how tender it would still be. He reached for the salve, glanced at Scott’s face, and jumped when he saw two blue eyes calmly staring at him.
“Son. I didn’t know you were awake.”
Scott’s lips curled into a small grin. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t. I was just, that is … surprised. You were so quiet.”
“Damn box. It tipped over, tins rolled all over, I tried to catch them, they were making so damn much noise …” Murdoch stopped, regarded Scott. His tired, lopsided grin remained. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Scott scanned the room. “Is Hanks gone?”
“Yes. He left a few minutes ago.”
“He’s quite a … character.”
“He is that, but means well.” Murdoch hesitated to dredge up the memories of the day before. “Yesterday … it would have been more difficult without Hanks. He did a good job of wrapping your leg.”
“Well, I’ll remember that the next time he spouts one of his colorful metaphors.” Scott rubbed his eyes with the back of his hands, extended his arms above his head and eyed Murdoch. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.”
Murdoch chuckled knowing exactly how Scott felt. A small, perfect breast surrounded by hair popped into his mind and he tried to push it away.
“How’s the leg feel?”
“Like I wish it weren’t mine.” Scott winced when he shifted his hips. “But, it could be worse.”
“So could this.” Murdoch applied salve to the knife wound. Despite his long sleep Scott appeared drained and no doubt in pain, but the question needed to be asked. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
There were a few long moments of quiet before Murdoch pressed. “You should have you know.”
“Yes. I should have.”
Scott blew out a breath through swelled cheeks. “I didn’t know what do to. Needed time to think. How did you find out?”
“Teresa found your bloody shirt. Gave it to Johnny. It was quite a … worry. For both Johnny and I. And Teresa.”
“I apologize. I didn’t mean to cause … Well, I thought if I left for a couple of days it would start to heal and everything ….” Scott stumbled over an explanation, then gave up. “I suppose you found out it was Lucien.”
“Yes. It wasn’t difficult.”
“Murdoch. Lucien is Cip’s son-in-law. I didn’t want to cause any problems between Cip and you. Or force Lucien into leaving.”
“And taking Conselo with him?”
By the look on Scott’s face, Murdoch hit the mark. He held Scott’s gaze, then went back to the knife wound. “I’ve talked to her.”
“No woman should have to put up with a husband like Lucien.”
“Son, her parents begged her not to marry him. Warned her. But she was determined. Eloped behind their backs.”
“Does that mean she is condemned to live with a man who … degrades her, maybe worse? She deserves better.”
“I would agree. But that still doesn’t justify the fact that you were attacked and kept silent about it. What did you think that would accomplish?” Murdoch thought about telling Scott that Lucien had beat Conselo, but decided to put it off. Scott would probably try to go after the man regardless of a broken leg.
“I don’t know,” Scott said. “I guess it wasn’t the wisest thing to do.”
“Well, that’s evident.” Murdoch placed clean bandages over the cut and tied them in place with strips of cloth. “Breakfast will be here soon.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Doesn’t matter. With a broken leg and this,” Murdoch pointed at Scott’s chest, “you’ll eat.”
“Will I?” The edge was back in his voice.
“Yes. You will.” They stared at one another, then Murdoch remembered how Scott had responded to a simple request for peace. “Please.”
Scott seemed to instantly soften at the please. Murdoch almost laughed at the more-than-puzzled look on his face.
“Well. I’ll see what breakfast is.”
Wanting to save face for both of them, Murdoch didn’t push. But there were some things that Scott needed to be told.
“Son. Lucien is gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“We don’t know. What did he do after he attacked you?”
“He took off. I think all of the blood scared him. Maybe he thought of the repercussions, not sure what I was going to do. Anyway, he scrambled on his horse and rode away.”
“Left you bleeding in the pasture.” Murdoch gritted his teeth. Lucien wouldn’t care if Scott had bled to death out on that lonely prairie. The only thing he cared about was Lucien.
“I, ah, don’t think he intended to knife me.”
“Why do you say that?”
Scott pursed his lips and absently picked at the bandage. Murdoch wrapped his hand around Scott’s wrist and pulled it away from the dressing. He could feel his son’s pulse beat beneath his fingers. “Scott?”
“Murdoch, Lucien isn’t the type of man to confront someone face-to-face. He’s more prone to wait in the darkness and strike from the back.”
“Those are the same thoughts that Johnny had. A back stabber. So, what made him react?”
“I, uhm, threatened him. Told him if I ever heard that he’d hurt Conselo he’d answer to me. He became enraged. Almost … crazy. The knife came out of nowhere. I didn’t realize right away that I’d been stabbed.” Scott’s face darkened and he shivered.
“Scott. You should have let her father handle it.”
“Cip would have killed him! You know that. Then what would have happened?”
“You should have told me. I would have taken care of it.”
“Because you don’t think I can? That I’m not capable?” Scott tried to wrench out of Murdoch’s grip, his face registering pain as his body moved. Murdoch pinned both arms above his head to keep him still.
“Scott, stop twisting that leg. I don’t want to have to reset it.”
“Let me go.” Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead.
“Then calm down.” Murdoch tried to make his voice as mild as possible. “Son, I know it is difficult with Conselo … how you may feel. But it wasn’t your place.”
Scott stopped struggling and scowled at Murdoch. “Then what is my place, Murdoch?”
“Not this. Not coming between a wife and husband.”
“She doesn’t love him.”
“It doesn’t matter. She has a father, brothers, a family. They would have taken care of it. That’s what families are for.”
“Well, I guess you can chalk my ignorance up to lack of experience as far as family goes.”
Murdoch felt like he’d been kicked in the belly with a sharp-toed boot. It was always back to this with Scott. He wanted to shake him, demand that he let it go, that it wasn’t doing either one of them any good. But from the bottom of his heart he did not want to lose his son. Not again. He buried his pride and ignored the hurtful remark.
“Scott, there’s more. Lucien went back to the pasture later. Cut the wire. Jubal got caught up in it. He was so badly injured I had to shoot him.”
Shock and disbelief wrinkled his forehead. “What?”
“Conselo said when Lucien came home it was late; his arm was cut pretty bad. He told her he was working alone in the pasture and the wire whipped around his arm.”
“Oh God, Murdoch. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Scott. The man is no good. Never has been. Obviously he was bent on revenge.”
“And he ran away.” Scott’s jaw hardened. “Any idea where he may have gone?”
“No. I’m pretty sure he didn’t go to Mexico. Conselo said he was wanted there by the authorities. Cip was looking for him when he found you. Otherwise who knows how long you may have lain out there.” Something Murdoch didn’t want to think about. He let go of Scott and sat back. The covering had dipped below Scott’s hips in their struggles. Bruising that wasn’t evident yesterday had started to turn blue across Scott’s stomach. Scott hitched in a breath as Murdoch brushed his hand across the tender muscles.
“What the hell happened to you?” Murdoch asked, his mind shifting to yesterday and Scott leaning against Cipriano, broken.
Scott tried to pull the covering up, but between Murdoch’s position and his stiff leg, the sheet didn’t budge. Murdoch stood up, brought the sheet to Scott’s shoulders, and stepped to the rocking chair aware that his son’s troubled gaze followed him. Murdoch sat down and regarded Scott. “What happened at Gabriel’s Trail?”
Scott’s tongue moved across his lips and his head tipped in exhaustion. “I don’t remember, Murdoch. And I don’t think I can take a lecture about going to that mine. Not today.”
“I don’t want to lecture you, Son. But, just so you know, I wouldn’t approve of any of my hands going into an unknown situation alone. Regardless of the location. I understand the need to check who may be camping on Lancer. But there were two men with you. Why didn’t you take one of them with you?”
“It was just something I needed to do. That’s all.”
“Murdoch, please. I’m tired.”
Grudgingly, Murdoch didn’t press. He would save that talk for another day – the need to always take back up with you. But, if there was a dangerous man still out there, Murdoch needed to know. “Okay. I think you understand … now, how hazardous this country can be. But can you tell me how you broke your leg?”
“I don’t remember. I really don’t.”
Stress lines blanched across Scott’s forehead, tightened around his mouth. The edges of his hairline dampened with sweat. The laudanum was wearing off. Murdoch dropped a bit of it into a glass of water and stirred. “What do you remember?”
“The smoke from the campfire. Going down the trail. It was steep, hard to maneuver across the lose shale. It kept tumbling into the canyon. Someone had been camping there, near the mine, but … I couldn’t see anyone. I went into the shaft to check, then there was a crack like wood splintering, dust. Lots of dust. I couldn’t breathe.”
“A cave in.” Murdoch didn’t say what was on his mind. That he’d warned his sons about the dangers of the mine, how unstable it was. Frustrated, he clicked the spoon around the glass, wondered when they would realize he knew what he was talking about.
“You’re going to break that glass.”
“I want to make sure it’s mixed well.”
“I think it’s good, Murdoch.”
Murdoch chewed on his lip and held his tongue. “Do you remember anything else?”
Scott frowned and scrubbed bangs back from his head. “That’s all I recall, until I came to in the meadow. I don’t know how I got there. There were gunshots – I think they brought me to. I saw a shadow running over the grass. It wasn’t long until Cip rode up. God.” Scott closed his eyes as if remembering was agonizing. “I don’t know how I got on that horse, but Cip wouldn’t give up. Everything hurt, my leg buckled. I think Cip hauled me up through sheer determination.”
“It’s okay, Scott. Here, drink this.” Murdoch slid his hand behind Scott’s head and tipped the glass to his lips. Scott grimaced as he swallowed. There was a light knock on the door just as Murdoch set the glass on the night stand.
“Maria. Please, set the food on the table.”
“Si Patron.” The stout woman placed a tray with oatmeal, fresh fruit and coffee on the small table. “How is he?”
“He has pain, but the laudanum will take care of it.”
“There is breakfast for you as well. Senor Scott’s oatmeal has much sugar and milk. It will be easy for him to eat.”
“Thank you, Maria.”
“Do you need anything? May I help?”
“No. I’ll see that he eats.”
She glanced at Scott, hesitated, but left the room without saying anything more.
“Scott, let’s get this into you before you go to sleep. It’s warm, nourishing.”
Murdoch piled pillows behind Scott so he could sit up to eat. Surprisingly, Scott allowed Murdoch to hold the bowl as he ate spoonfuls of the warm cereal. When Scott’s eyes drooped and the spoon fell from his hand, Murdoch removed the pillows and settled his son for sleep.
“Don’t worry about anything, Scott. You’ll be up and riding herd before you know it.” As Murdoch brushed his hand across Scott’s forehead, he could feel Scott relax with each stroke. Hazy blue eyes gazed at him, free of anger, so much like Catherine.
“Did I tell you that you have your mother’s eyes?”
Scott pushed his head against the pillow and focused on Murdoch. A soft, searching look came to his face. Then he whispered. “And what do I have of my father’s?”
Tears banked and a ball of pain wedged itself deep in Murdoch’s throat. Realizing that his son had just opened a piece of his heart, Murdoch was unable to speak. With a tender caress, Murdoch drew his calloused thumb across Scott’s cheek. He cleared his throat, stumbled for the right answer. The words came out in a broken murmur. “Anything you want, Son … all that I have.”
A small smile played across Scott’s lips, he nodded, then slowly closed his eyes.
11 – The Other Side of the Hill
The wind blew death in sporadic puffs. It bounced around the canyon floor, drifted away, then lunged back on a southern gust.
“I smell it. Seems to be coming from the other side of the mine.” Frank pointed to a rocky hill that rose behind the shaft entrance.
Murdoch dismounted and pain shot up his leg as he headed for the hill. It had been a stiff ride down the jagged trail.
“I’ll see to it Mr. Lancer. No need for both of us to go. That slope is steep enough, and the rain has made it slick.”
The offer was tempting. He knew he’d pay for riding this long in a drizzle-laden day, but it was his responsibility to check out what was decaying. What if it were a man?
“I can make it, Frank.”
“I know that, Mr. Lancer. But it’s likely just a dead animal.” Frank was obviously trying to appease. “If it’s something more, I’ll let you know.”
Hesitating, Murdoch considered the offer.
“That sky could open up any time, Boss. It might be a good time to take a look around down here before it really starts to pour.”
Murdoch studied the smooth, handsome face of one of his best hands and smiled. “You make a good diplomat, Frank. Maybe you’ve missed your calling.”
chuckle escaped. “The color of my skin has its limits. I don’t think I’d
be welcome in those …
“Sometimes those circles aren’t as much as they think they are, Frank. But … unfortunately you do have a point.” Murdoch scanned the stony peak, then nodded. “OK. Go ahead. I’ll check it out here.”
“Yes Sir.” Frank tied their mounts to a scrub oak and started the climb.
“Frank. See if there’s any sign of a camp up there. Someone must have carried Scott to the meadow.”
Murdoch watched him slip and slide to the top, dislodging rock and gravel on the way up. When Frank went down on both knees, Murdoch was grateful he decided to stay on the canyon floor. Frank disappeared over the crest and Murdoch focused his attention on the cave.
He wasn’t sure he’d find anything that would unravel the mystery of who helped Scott. It had been over a week since Cipriano carried an injured Scott home and Murdoch realized elements and time could destroy any sign of who’d made that campfire. He wanted to come before this, but an infection, hot and terrifying, had crept into the knife wound and Scott tossed with fever for days. More afraid than he’d been in years, Murdoch wrested with prayers and worry until the fever broke. When Scott started grousing about staying in bed, Murdoch knew he was on the mend.
The passage appeared blocked, except for a small opening at the bottom of the entrance. Rubble, rock and jagged timbers lay in a heap. Had Scott been trapped at the bottom of this mass of debris? How did he survive the cave in? Murdoch chewed on his lip, stepped away from the entrance, and viewed the scene from a different angle.
Two large wooden beams lay side by side. Their placement seemed deliberate compared to the chaos of the remaining rubble. Several boulders lay in a row beside the two supports. Smaller rocks lay several feet from the cave entrance, far from the main debris field. It appeared that someone had purposely set both the beams and the boulders in place, and threw the lighter rocks away from the entrance.
Murdoch stepped closer to the cavity. A jagged girder angled across the top. He peered into the hole, wishing there was sun to see how far back it went. Pebbles ground into his knees as he knelt down and reached into the hollow. His hand groped, but did not hit anything solid. Lying flat on his belly, he stretched his arm and this time felt stone. The opening went back at least three, maybe four feet – deep enough to hold the lower part of a man’s body.
As he moved to get up, his eye caught a soft yellow among the stones. Sitting back, he brushed away gravel and pulled out a smooth leather glove. His chest squeezed as he realized it was Scott’s. It all came together then. Scott had been trapped at the entrance of the mine, sandwiched between rafters and rock. Likely one of the timbers that had been removed hit Scott across the shoulders. The jagged support that protruded from the gap broke his leg as it fell, but probably saved his life. It held the crushing weight of the mine’s collapse off Scott’s body.
Despite the coolness of the day, he broke out in a sweat. If that top timber had moved a few more inches, it would have broken his son’s back. Squeezing the glove, he whispered a thank you.
Wondering what Frank had found, Murdoch tucked the glove into his belt and glanced at the hill. Just as he decided to climb after him, Frank appeared and waved. Coming down was as difficult as going up. The slippery shale dislodged and Frank landed on his butt – hard. He slid, then managed to stand – for a moment. Arms and legs swirled like a windmill as he pitched the rest of the way down.
Murdoch caught his arm before he tumbled onto his face. “You okay Frank?”
“It’s no worse than a bucking horse, Mr. Lancer.” Breathing hard, Frank rubbed his behind. “Thanks.”
“What’s up there?”
“A dead mule deer. Looks like something’s been eating on it.”
“You see anything else? Any signs of a camp?”
Frank hesitated, his eyes slid away, then he glanced up at Murdoch. “No sir.”
“Well, there were some droppings, could be from horses. I would guess wild horses roam these parts.”
“Hmm. I didn’t think they came into this canyon, Frank. Not much to eat here.”
“The peak flattens out to a wide field and there’s some grasses a ways back, not good stuff, but a hungry horse might pick at it.”
Murdoch rubbed his chin and stared at the cowboy.
“If you want to check yourself, Mr. Lancer, might want to do it on a better day. That shale is tough going.” Frank looked square into his eyes.
It wasn’t Murdoch’s intent to question Frank’s word. He was one of his most loyal hands and had stood by him through the Pardee raids. “No. No need.” Still, there was something off.
“I found one of Scott’s gloves in the rubble near the mine entrance. There’s a small hollow in the rock. I figure that’s where Scott was caught. But look at this.” Murdoch pointed to the two timbers. “Looks like someone set them side by side. And these boulders were moved as well.”
Frank nodded. “It would seem so. You think Scott was pulled out of that hole?”
“That’s what I think.”
“He’s lucky to be alive, Boss.”
Murdoch didn’t need Frank to tell him that.
Frank lowered his head and stepped off a few paces. “I don’t see any tracks but yours, Mr. Lancer”
“I imagine the wind and rain have wiped out any traces.” Murdoch fingered the soft leather of Scott’s glove, then motioned to the hill. “No camp site up there?” He couldn’t shake the feeling Frank was holding something back.
“Oh, there are patches where the ground is darker, like there might have been a fire. But no ashes or burnt wood. On that rock, it’s hard to tell how long ago a fire might have been going. Could be months, even years.”
Murdoch needed to let it go. There was no reason for Frank to cover over anything. “Let’s see if we can find something else down here.”
Murdoch circled one way and Frank the other as they scanned the ground for a trace – any trace of who may have camped or passed through. Close to an hour later, they had found nothing.
“Maybe they set up camp closer to the river, Frank. I’m going to check it out.”
“Mostly mud down there now, some quick sand. Not likely anyone would want to spend a night.”
“How do you know? Have you been here before?” He’d instructed all of his men to stay away from this area.
“Yes sir. A couple, three years ago when Mz. Conway turned up missing. I think every square inch of the valley was searched before they found her.”
“Oh. Of course. I’d forgotten about that.” Murdoch smiled, embarrassed that he assumed Frank had disobeyed an order. This whole matter with Scott was just making him edgy. “Aggie hasn’t lived it down yet. Too much of a horse woman to be thrown by an old mare, unless that old mare is spooked by a rattler.”
“Mz. Conway’s a fine woman.”
“She is indeed. Well, it won’t hurt to check out the river anyway. We’ll just need to watch our step.”
The river was several hundred yards away from the mine. It was barely a stream at this point in its run. At one time it thundered through the canyon, but had been damned several miles upriver to control flooding in the lower valley. Rains eroded the shale from the sides of the canyon and washed it into the river, leaving it barren and murky. In the dry season the wind whipped dust devils across the canyon floor and dropped red dirt into the water. It was a lifeless stream.
Again, there were no tracks. Murdoch spotted what might have been a clump of manure, but it was so mushy he couldn’t determine who or what it was from. The few pale weeds that sprouted on the edge of the water weren’t suitable for a horse. The green water spawned biting flies and mosquitoes large enough to carry a man away.
“Might as well head back,” Murdoch said, disappointed. “I’d like to get home before dark, and these clouds are shortening the day.”
It was a slow trudge to the horses as Murdoch constantly scanned the shrubs and undergrowth. They were almost to their mounts when he spotted a chain dangling from a rotting limb of a toppled scrub oak.
“Frank. I found something.”
The chain was partially buried in mud. Murdoch pulled it out of the muck and a dirty silver cross dangled on the end of it.
“It’s Mateo’s,” Frank said.
“Lucian’s? How do you know?”
“He wears it all of the time. Always bragging that a priest or someone gave it to him. I thought he stole it, but …” Frank turned the cross over. “It’s engraved.”
Murdoch rubbed the mud away with his thumb. The initials LM were etched in simple yet elegant letters. It was definitely valuable.
“Lucien likes to flash it around. Hell, the man is nothing but a bragger, but it’s his wife who provides a roof over his head. He’s an ass.”
Murdoch was surprised at the venom in Frank’s voice. It wasn’t like him, and then Murdoch remembered Lucien’s bigotry towards Frank.
“Johnny told me about Lucien – how he treated you. I’m sorry, Frank.”
“Not the first time, Mr. Lancer. And I don’t foresee it being the last seeing as how men can be. For the most part, I try to shrug it off. But Lucien, he’s not a man worth fighting or I would have kicked him into the next county.” Frank spat on the ground and eyed the cross. “But Cip …”
“Would have understood.”
“Maybe, Mr. Lancer. But I’ve learned a lifetime of holding back.” He stiffened, bitterness in his eyes. “Truth to tell, I was afraid that if I ever started pounding on him, I wouldn’t be able to stop. And I’m not going to hang for the likes of Lucien Mateo.”
“Frank, I’m … I wish you would have come to me. I can’t change the wrongs of the world, but I can do something about them on my ranch.”
He smiled, and the old Frank came back. “Something I’ll keep in mind, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch extended his arm and brought it to Frank’s shoulder. “Good. Good.” He dropped his hand and studied the cross.
“Well, Lucien was here. I just can’t see him trying to dig Scott out of that cave though. Especially after …” Murdoch stopped, glanced at Frank wondering just how much he knew of Scott’s knifing.
“No. He would not have helped Scott. He hated Scott for a lot of reasons, one of them being me.”
Murdoch pinched his nose and stared at the mine, thinking of what Frank had just said. He took a few steps towards the entrance and hooked his hand into his belt.
“I wonder if something could be further back in that shaft.”
Murdoch cocked his head and looked at Frank. “Maybe a man. Could be Scott did find the camper. Maybe it was Lucien. And …”
“And what, Mr. Lancer? You think Scott killed him, stuck him back in that mine, then got caught in the slide?”
The words sounded harsh said out loud. “What if they fought? What if Lucien just happened to be further in the shaft when the cave in happened? It could have been an accident.”
“Only way to know that is to dig out the shaft. Personally, Sir, if Mateo is back there, I don’t think he’s worth the effort.”
“You think then it could have happened? That way, I mean? An accident?”
Frank shook his head and lowered his eyes. He stepped towards Murdoch and looked up at him. “Mr. Lancer, with all due respect, just because you found his cross, doesn’t mean Lucien is dead. I don’t know what happened here. What I do know is your son would not kill a man without reason nor is he the type to push killing to the back of a cave and walk away. I also know that a lot of people hated Mateo, me included. Simmons punched him more than once for making fun of Brighton and his simple ways. He cut Walt with that knife of his and said it slipped. Hell, nothing slipped except Lucien’s aim. He was always after the womenfolk, be they married or otherwise. The only reason the men didn’t beat the crap out of him was because of Cip and his daughter, and Lucien held that over us. Senora Conselo had a hell of a life with that man and if he’s rotting somewhere, I’d say, good riddance.”
That was the most Frank had ever said to Murdoch at one time. It was a calm delivery, but with controlled passion. Murdoch was taken aback by it and didn’t know what to say. He had to admit he suspected Lucien was difficult to work with, but ignored it because of Cip. It appeared that’s what the rest of the men did as well – for Cip. “Frank, I appreciate what you said about Scott. I know that Lucien is .. a weak and ugly man. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find out what happened. If a man is dead …”
“We don’t know that Sir.” Frank didn’t bat an eye at that statement, but under Murdoch’s gaze, he took a couple steps back and looked away.
“Maybe not. But, I’d like to at least know who helped my son out of that cave and up the walls of this canyon.”
“Lots of men drift into Lancer, camp a few days, then move on. It could have been anyone.”
“I know. But why would they help Scott and leave? It doesn’t make sense?”
“Unless they didn’t want anyone to know who they were. Maybe they were running … from the law, the past, someone or something. Could be they ran into Lucien and did something to him.”
“Kill one man and save the life of the other?” Murdoch didn’t believe that for a minute.
“I don’t know, Mr. Lancer. And the land isn’t telling.” Leather creaked as Frank stepped into his stirrup and settled back in the saddle. It was obvious he wanted an end to the conversation.
Murdoch mounted his horse and nudged it towards home. He was troubled at finding the cross; that complicated this whole mysterious situation. He turned to thank Frank for volunteering to come with him on a miserable day, but stopped. Frank’s hand rested on the pommel as he stared at the rocks that rose over the mine shaft. He seemed transfixed and Murdoch once more felt there was something else up there.
“Frank? Everything all right?”
“Yes sir. I was just wondering what was eating on that deer. Hope we don’t have cougar problems.”
“Probably coyotes. Cats tend to stay higher up. Especially this time of year.”
Frank nodded, hunkered into his jacket. “Speaking of this time of year, it’s a bit cooler than normal.”
“Cloud cover. And the drizzle. Wish it would rain and get it over with.”
“Yes sir.” Frank clicked at his horse and the gelding moved onto the trail. It was narrow, and Frank took the lead.
Decay seemed to hang on the wind; the horses snorted and shook their heads. The sickening smell settled in the back of his throat and Murdoch covered his nose with his hand. He stared at Frank’s back as he started the steep climb up the shale. It was ramrod stiff, his face straight ahead. Murdoch glanced at the crest that loomed above the cave. Was a deer the only dead thing that rotted on the other side of the hill? Maybe it was just as well that Murdoch didn’t know.
12 – Sometimes the South Wind
chair to look out the large window, Murdoch watched crews come in as their
work day ended. The hands looked dragged out and ready for a quick bath and
long supper. He searched the men for his sons and smiled when he spotted
their wagon. They were talking. Johnny threw back his head and laughed at
whatever his brother said, and Scott grinned. Something warm settled in
Murdoch’s belly and he relaxed further into the chair.
It was several minutes before he heard their approach on the veranda, and Murdoch turned towards the door in expectation. He could hear them talking and laughing as they drew closer, and he listened for the click of the door knob. Johnny stepped through the door first and threw Murdoch a smile; Scott followed unbuckling his gun belt.
“Murdoch, you look cool, clean and relaxed. How do we get a job like yours?”
“When you get
to be my age, Johnny, then you earn certain privileges. Especially if you
have sons that can do most of the physical side of the work for you.”
“Sons, huh? But that means I’d have to get married.”
“That’s usually how it works, yes.” Murdoch chuckled. Johnny was about as dirty as Murdoch had ever seen him. “How in the world did you get so muddy?”
“We were at Lawson’s Creek clearing brush. I fell in.”
“Oh. Maybe you should rinse some of it off before you share it with the room.”
“Na. I’ll be careful.”
Murdoch wasn’t sure that Johnny’s being careful would appease the housekeeper, but decided not to make a fuss over a little dirt. “Everything go okay?” It had been three weeks since the doctor stated Scott’s leg was fully healed. He said it could still bother now and then and not to go running any races for a while.
“Fine. Had to steer the Yank away from wrangling trees out of the creek though. He don’t pay much attention when his mind is set on something.”
“Rather like his brother, I would say,” Murdoch said.
“You took the words right out of my mouth.” An almost-as-dirty Scott poked a finger in Johnny’s ribs. Smiling, he nodded at Murdoch and walked to the desk. He looked energized despite the noticeable limp.
Johnny grabbed his side and laughed. “Did you hear that, Scott? Murdoch
thinks we should have sons. Hmm. I’ve heard they aren’t all they’re
cracked up to be. Old men seem to dote on their daughters. Maybe girls
would be better.” Johnny’s crooked smile was teasing.
“The closest I’ve ever come to having a daughter is Teresa, and I can attest that she certainly has shown certain advantages to daughters over sons.”
“Quit while you’re ahead, Johnny, before you have him disowning us and moving us into the bunk house.”
“He wouldn’t get any grandchildren that way. He’s stuck with us, Scott.”
“I’m not getting any grandchildren this way either, young man.”
“We’ve got plenty of time, Murdoch,” Johnny remarked as he poured a small amount of tequila into a glass and headed for the sofa.
“But I may not. … Ah, don’t you want to clean up first before dinner?” Murdoch asked as Johnny’s dirty bottom started its descent to the couch.
“Yup, just wanted a bit of sooth is all. Working with long and lean over there ain’t no picnic.” Johnny flopped down on the couch, put his drink on the side table, and grabbed his left boot, pulling it off with a grunt. “No wonder my toe hurt, chaffing against my boot all afternoon. There’s a big hole in my sock. Hey, it looks like a blister’s coming.” He gingerly touched the tip.
Scott walked over and hovered over the toe. He stepped back. “You could have waited to take off your boot. Your foot stinks.”
“Yeah, well, you’re no flower garden either, Boston. Besides, I’m hurt here! You could be a bit more caring.” Johnny looked offended.
“I can care just as well with your boot on. You didn’t seem to be limping or whining earlier. Can’t imagine why not, with the grave injury you have,” Scott said.
“I don’t whine, smart ass! Besides, who’s to say what you would have done if I’d a complained? Probably put me in stocks or something.”
“At the minimum I would have put you in socks.”
Johnny stared at Scott with disbelief. “Where would you get a pair of socks in the middle of the range miles from home?”
“Saddlebags! Unless you’re aimin’ to go somewhere for a few days why would you have socks? I keep telling you that Tequila is more practical.”
“I always carry a pair of socks in my saddlebags,” Scott answered, as if he thought everyone did.
“What would you need clean socks for this close to home?”
“Could have used them today, Little Brother.” A smug smile appeared and he clipped Johnny’s nose.
Chucking, Murdoch rose from his chair and inspected the toe. It did look tender. “He has a point, Johnny.”
“Don’t need you taking his side, Murdoch. Not when my toe’s a throbbing.”
“I think you’ll live, son. How’s the leg, Scott?”
“It’s fine, Murdoch.”
“Good. Don’t overdo it.”
“I did not attempt to move trees, regardless of Johnny’s accusation.” He turned to look at Johnny. “Not so sure about Johnny though. That toe looks like it might just drop off.”
“Well, I agree, sir. Getting it washed will help. Maybe it needs a splint as well.” A small smile appeared on Scott’s face as his hand hovered above the toe.
“Don’t you touch it.” Johnny moved his foot to the floor.
“I meant both of you. Get washed. You’ve carried in enough mud we could build a dam in the carpet.” It was good. The rhetoric was delivered with humor and affection. The surly remarks and cold looks were gone and Murdoch couldn’t have been happier. There was still some hesitation as they found their way with one another; learned the ins and outs of complicated personalities and more complex relationships. It would take time but Murdoch had waited for 24 years. He could be patient when it came to something as important as his sons.
Johnny,” Scott said as he offered a hand to help him off the couch. “You
can lean on me, seeing as how you are wounded. I’ll even buy you a bath.”
Johnny slapped his brother’s hand away, reached for his boot and got up from the sofa. They both started walking towards the kitchen, Johnny’s big toe pointed up.
“Sure you can make it there, Johnny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a mean looking toe.”
“I’ll say it again. You’re a smart ass.”
Scott chuckled. Johnny grumbled something as they disappeared through the kitchen door.
Murdoch poured himself a fresh cup of coffee, dusted the dirt left by Johnny off the couch and sunk into the still warm spot. It had been a tough three months since Scott’s broken leg. The recuperation time seemed to go on and on, but in reality, was normal for a bone to heal. Scott had grown restless, Murdoch tense and Johnny - kept out of the way. Murdoch learned he was good at ducking; beneficial considering his former trade.
He leaned his head back into the soft upholstery and closed his eyes. Thoughts of that day when Scott was carried home pushed into his mind. For all of the digging and questioning, Murdoch wasn’t certain who helped Scott out of that cave in and brought him to the meadow. Oh, he had his suspicions. Cipriano had been evasive when Murdoch questioned him further. Trying to get more information from Scott didn’t lead anywhere. Scott said he heard shots, but with the condition he was in, he could have been confused. Were there three shots signaling help? It was only Cip’s word on that.
Telegrams were sent to surrounding sheriffs, army garrisons and friends asking to keep a look out for Lucien. The man seemed to have vanished. It was just as well and in the end Murdoch dropped it. His able Segundo and good friend was by his side and Lucien Mateo didn’t matter.
If possible, there was a positive to the broken leg. Scott’s attitude towards him changed. Oh, Scott hadn’t thrown an arm over his shoulder, or even said anything that Murdoch could take as a step towards reconciliation. It was little things - a gentle smile, a pleasant remark, and the thing that made Murdoch’s heart jump – an open look of trust.
At times, in the darkest hour, he re-lived that horrible moment when he pulled his son’s broken bone back into place – the scream wrenched from Scott would haunt him forever. But Scott came through it fine, and even though there would probably be rocky times in the future, they were giving family a try. That’s what mattered. That’s what was important. A try.
Johnny propped his foot against the side of the tub and examined his toe. It sure hurt, regardless that it was just a toe. He’d heard somewhere that for want of a nail a war was lost. Or something along those lines. He could get an infection, spread up his leg, into his … dang, it better not spread any further north or the Old Man wouldn’t have grandchildren. He glanced over at his brother. Scott had a smirk on his face a mile wide.
“You’ll be fine, Johnny. A swollen toe usually is survivable.”
“Humph.” Johnny slid his foot into the tub and watched his brother. It was amazing how fast a dirty Scott could look so good. He was already bathed, dressed and combing his hair. “Pretty.”
“What? Did you say something?” Scott glanced at him.
“Never seen a man get so pretty so fast. Something’s definitely wrong there.”
“Yup.” Johnny stiffened as Scott sauntered over to him. “You get any closer and I’m gonna unpretty you real fast. That nice, white shirt won’t look so starchy dripping with water.”
Scott stopped, seemed to think about the threat, and moved away.
“That’s good strategy, Scott. Seems you haven’t lost your army training.”
“Cavalry training. I was in the cavalry, Johnny.”
“Oh. Didn’t know it mattered.” Was his brother being snooty? Scott could get uppity sometimes and Johnny didn’t like him much then. Maybe he needed taken down a peg or two. Remembering a naked-as-a-jaybird Scott as he stepped into the tub, Johnny smiled. He’d never seen anything as lily white as Scott – not even the sweet Miss Cecily from Arabella’s Saloon and Gentleman’s Lounge. Yeah, nothing better to pinch a man’s pride than to point out a defect in his physique.
“Well. It really doesn’t matter. Infantry or cavalry, one is not any better than the other.”
Dang. Johnny had looked forward to prodding his proper brother. And the timing was perfect. But couldn’t do it after the sad smile Scott had given him. And Scott meant what he said. Johnny settled against the back of the tub and watched his brother loop his belt through his trousers.
“Any ideas who dug you out of that mine?” Johnny hadn’t asked before, but didn’t mean he wasn’t as curious as Murdoch. He was part of Lancer now, felt the sting of ownership and the need-to-know.
A blond eyebrow quirked his direction. “No.” Scott went back to buckling his belt.
“That was a short answer.”
Scott shrugged. “I have no other.”
“No idea? Seems like you’d remember something.”
Scott sat down on a bench and started putting on his socks. “I don’t remember much but the grit from the cave in.”
“Hmm.” Johnny stared at the ceiling, thinking.
“Don’t you believe me Johnny?”
“No. That’s not it.” He caught the edges of the tub and pulled himself up. Grabbing a towel, he rubbed his chest. “Funny how Cip was so close.”
Johnny stepped out of the water and wrapped the towel around his waist. Studying his brother’s blond head as he pulled on his boot Johnny thought maybe Scott didn’t want to remember. Maybe he needed a little nudging.
“Lucien must be long gone, don’t you think?”
“It would appear so.” Scott stood, put his hands on his hips and eyed Johnny. “Get it said, brother.”
“Whatever it is that’s eating at you.”
“Nothing’s eating at me, Scott. I’m just curious.” He wished he’d put on his pants before he started this conversation; definitely at a disadvantage without drawers.
“I don’t know where Lucien is, nor do I care.”
“Ohhhkay. Didn’t mean to ruffle your feathers. Just a puzzle. Don’t you ever wonder?”
“The less I think about Lucien Mateo, the better off I am.”
“True. But I was talking more about who pulled you out of the mine, signaled for help, and took off.”
Something flickered across Scott’s eyes. “I’m not sure. There was a shadow …” He shook his head.
“Like, maybe someone you recognized?”
“Maybe … but it was so fleeting.” Scott bit at his lip and rubbed a hand across his chest. “I don’t know.”
“That, uhm, knife wound bother?”
“Itches some. But not usually.”
There was a stricken look on Scott’s face and Johnny felt guilty for putting it there.
“Scott. I’d like to say one more thing.”
Scott sighed. “What is it?”
“Well. It’s just this.” Johnny put his head down before he spoke, then gathered his most solemn expression. “You’ve got the whitest ass I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Scott looked blank, then surprised, and then he laughed. “Boy, you make a habit of looking at men and you’ll need to take the gun up again?”
“Well, it’s only when they blind me brother. Only when they blind me.”
Chuckling, Scott shook his head and threw Johnny his pants. “Get dressed. I’m hungry and don’t want dinner held waiting while you primp.”
“Hey. I don’t need much primping, naturally handsome like I am.”
“Maybe you should rethink that. Hurry up.” Scott smiled and walked out the door.
Johnny threw the towel on the floor and tugged his trousers on. If he had to admit it, there was something about this brother of his, this … whatever it was, that pulled at him. Scott was more than a need-to-know.
He ran a comb through his hair then stopped and studied his reflection in the mirror. “Damn Yankee.”
Scott smiled and shook his head at Johnny’s observation. No one, ever, had remarked on his pale skin, not even his nanny when she scolded him for getting too much sun. His brother obviously didn’t have any qualms about what was appropriate conversation and what wasn’t. Scott would have to set limits, but wasn’t sure if Johnny would care.
His leg protested as he stumbled at the too long step. When the doctor gave him the okay to shed the last of his splints, it didn’t enter his mind that his leg wouldn’t be perfectly fine. But his muscles had atrophied and he fell when he took that first step. In addition, after several weeks of not being contained in leather, his foot seemed to have spread out. Getting it down the shaft and into the shoe with muscles that didn’t work was challenging. But now, except for an occasional pull when he’d over done it, his leg was almost back to normal.
He’d been wrong a lot of times in his life, but never as wrong as he’d been about his father. For whatever reason he was left in Boston he knew it wasn’t due to his father’s lack of love. Murdoch had proven that over and over these past weeks. When in pain, Murdoch was there to sooth. When embarrassed by not being able to take care of his personal needs without help, Murdoch downplayed the situation like it was a natural part of the day. Murdoch appeared with a pair of crutches when Scott could stand bed no longer. Scott declared that “Freedom-From- the-Linens Day.” He smiled, remembering how his father helped him take that first step on those crutches.
But the change had come before that. Fingers, rough from a lifetime of work, had tracked tenderly across his forehead. He smiled, recalled the words of comfort, sincere, but geared to the ranch, so inseparable from his father. “You’ll be up and riding herd before you know it.” His body, full of hurt made bearable as he realized a dream he had hungered for all of his life. “What do I have of my father’s?” It was the ragged “all that I have,” and Scott believed him.
A child’s laughter rang across the yard and he raised his hand to Conselo and Magdalena. Conselo straightened up from the vegetable garden, stretched her back and smiled at him. Scott had never seen her so beautiful. The child she carried was obviously growing. Scott didn’t know much about women having babies, except it could cost the mother her life. He bit his lip, thought of his mother, and prayed that Conselo would be fine. But she seemed delighted with the prospect of a new life. Something tugged at him as he watched her, realizing that he was no longer important to her, no longer a refuge.
Rubbing at the scar on his side, he contemplated how in a matter of days how close he had come to death. Lucien’s knife was lethal and if Scott hadn’t stepped back when he saw the flash of silver, it would have split him open. At Gabriel’s mine moments before the cave in, he’d been at the back of the shaft. He was amazed how a small movement or few seconds could mean his life.
The shadow on the prairie. Who was it? It was familiar, the size, the silhouette, the movement. But no matter how hard he tried to conjure up a face for that shadow, he couldn’t do it. His life saved, a third time, by a flicker in the grass.
Magdalena squealed with joy and Scott watched Cipriano toss the little girl in the air and catch her. He’d been so intent on his own thoughts he hadn’t noticed the big man come into the garden. Another debt owed; Scott couldn’t mount the horse in the meadow. Through the pain, his foggy mind had registered a bruised and bloody Cip. But he’d been beyond the why then. Now, it was a question never to be asked. Scott shuddered, recalled his leg buckling as he tried to claw his way into the saddle, the shooting agony. A frantic Cip, pleading, “Try Senor Scott. Por favor.” Then Cip hoisted him into the saddle with a ragged cry of “Lo Siento”. No, Scott would not divulge his suspicions.
Touching his hat when Cipriano nodded at him, Scott made his way into the hacienda. The table was set for dinner, glasses filled with water, and candles flickered in the ever moving air. He glanced into the great room. Murdoch was bent over a ledger. Scott wondered at the number of grey hairs and chuckled, envisioning grass sprouting from his father’s head.
Was it just a few months ago that he had stepped through the door with a simmering anger and self-righteous attitude that his father owed him something? Well, his father did, but that did not justify his own arrogance. It seemed that Murdoch had overlooked much since that day. Scott had learned to truly respect him for his perseverance in trying to pull them together as a family.
His heart swelled with pride that the big man behind the desk was his father. He straightened his shoulders, smiled and tried to walk without limping. “What’s for dinner, Murdoch?”
Murdoch looked up, leaned back in his chair, and a huge smile swept across his face.
He prayed the child would be a girl. It was a futile prayer, not something that God would approve of, but still he prayed. A girl he could coddle and love but a small Lucien, Dios, that would be too much to bear. And answer for should a boy-turned-man find out what happened to his father. But no one knew for sure, only whispered suspicions.
Senor Scott tipped his hat when Cipriano nodded at him. He noticed the limp as Scott walked to the hacienda. Ah, such a bad break, so much pain. It was good that in his anger to find Lucien, he had found the patron’s son. He admired Senor Scott who proved to be more than a man with soft hands and pale skin. He was a man of strength and courage even if he had treated his papa so badly at first. Cipriano had found it hard not to throttle him a time or two for that disrespect.
Magdalena giggled in his arms and he put her down. He was grateful she no longer cried for her papa. If only Lucien had been … ah, but no good to dwell. “Go, little one. Your abuelo is too old and you are getting too big to throw.” She stuck out her bottom lip but was distracted as a half grown cat sauntered by a few feet away. She squealed and the orange kitten hedged into a crouch. It hesitated as if pondering a caress or a grab then took off for the barn. Magdalena’s legs weren’t fast enough, but that didn’t stop her as she gave chase.
“Nina, be good to the kitten!” Cip was sure if she heard, she wouldn’t pay attention anyway. The kitten was on its own. But a good barn cat could evade the small fingers of a toddler.
“If she is scratched, she will learn. It is a healthy kitten.”
Cip turned at his daughter’s voice. “Si, mi hija. But it is good to warn her.”
Conselo nodded with a smile. “It is.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Good. Better. The first months are always the worst with little ones.” Conselo threw the wilting weeds into a bucket and walked towards the house. “Supper is almost ready, papa.”
“Ah. What have you prepared?” After Lucien disappeared, Conselo and Magdalena had moved into Cip’s home. Cipriano relished their company and since his daughter was with child, it was best she not be alone.
“Chicken with fresh vegetables and tortillas. Your favorite.”
“It is my favorite.” He followed a few steps behind her, noting the graceful beauty of her movement – so much like her mother.
“Senor Scott still limps.” There was a wistful tone in her voice.
“He does. But with time, the leg will grow strong.” Cipriano was aware of the attention that Murdoch’s son had paid to his daughter and it had worried him. Even the most honorable of men could succumb to a beautiful woman and they were both young … and vulnerable. His lovely Conselo was married to a good-for-nothing man and Scott in a new land with a father that he seemed to despise. Perhaps that’s what drew them together; a need for comfort, a refuge. Yet, there was danger. The jealous rage of a worthless husband almost took Scott’s life. If that would have happened, Cipriano could never have remained at Lancer and faced Senor Murdoch day after day.
It was good his daughter was with child. It would take her mind off Senor Scott. There was no proof that she was a widow, free to marry. It would be many years before she could even think about another husband. But not the patron’s son. He loved his daughter with his very life, but it would not be proper for a peasant to marry a prince. Yes, the child was a good thing. If only it were a girl. Please, mi Dios, a girl.
The Missouri Breaks …
The big man rested his arm on the pommel of his saddle and surveyed the buttes and plains of the big Missouri. It was an ugly river, yellow, churning, never at peace. He imagined it could swallow up most of the territory with spring floods if it had a mind come March … no, too cold in March. Probably April, maybe May. He’d be long gone by then, if the Indians didn’t get him first.
At first he thought Montana Territory would be the cure. He was tired of the hate and sadness and heard the northern prairie was littered with gold. Talk was all you had to do was pull up the grass and gold dust dropped from the roots. A new start might buy him peace. But he knew better before he started the trek from California. Nothing would buy him peace, ever. He’d lost his soul when he prayed over those four headstones nestled in the quiet of his Georgia farm. How the war spilled over and gobbled up his wife and children in that lonely holler he’d never figure.
Somehow, he lost his hate the day he dug that Yankee out of the cave. He wasn’t going to. He saw that blond head in the sun, knew who it was right off. Was just gonna ride away like Old Man Lancer told him to the day he quit. But he was just so dang tired of it all, figured no one would be sliding down the trail to Gabriel’s mine. He needed to rest. Then, it sure got crowded all of a sudden.
It was the groan. He shouldn’t have looked. That boy’s long fingers moved, seemed to pull at something mid-air, but weren’t nothing to hold on to. Then his hand curled in and he looked so dang helpless. He wondered how old Scott Lancer had been when he joined the war of northern aggression. Probably not much older than his own boy Daniel who lay beneath a patch of Georgia bluebells. He couldn’t let the war claim another life, even though it was five years gone. And his Mary, the gentlest of creatures, would have been disappointed if he had.
Dang, it was a long haul to the top. He tied that Yank on as best he could, but still he almost fell off when the horse stumbled. Finally he’d gotten the boy to the meadow. Figured that the old Mexican, Cipriano, wasn’t too far away. The Segundo had come through earlier a hunting something and by the looks of him, he’d found it. Never could it be said that Caleb Fitzroy purposely left a man to die. So, he fired off three rounds, and got the hell out of there.
He patted the neck of the animal that carried him. The old war horse never let him down. He’d pushed it hard getting across Lancer, and California for that matter. He’d been wandering enough though. Time to go home, back to Georgia and the people he knew best.
Shuffling through his saddlebag he pulled out some jerky. He was going to bite off a piece, but thought it was tough enough to break a tooth. He drew out a long, slender knife from his belt, sharper than a rattler’s bite and twice as deadly. It looked more like an ice pick than a knife and easily sliced the dried beef. He studied the silver blade, then put it back in the scabbard. Too good a knife to leave in the mud of a dying river. Momentarily he thought of Lucien Mateo but quickly dismissed him; he was a worthless man.
He clicked and nudged the horse southeast, home to Georgia.
Sometimes the South Wind …
The coyotes sniffed at the remains of the deer, nothing left but skeleton and hide. They lifted their noses to the air hoping for a fresh scent, but the wind threw dust and grit at them. A lone male ventured to the edge of the hill that overlooked the mine, spied the green waters of the sluggish creek, and sneezed. Perhaps deciding the water wasn’t worth the trip down the steep rock, it turned back across the plateau and started up a deer trail that wound its way to the meadow. The rest of the pack followed.
It was a lonely spot, the white ribs of the deer bleached in the sun, half buried by the sand. A lizard popped its head up near the carcass and skittered across the ground seeking shade beneath a jutting boulder.
There was a deep crevasse near the lizard’s rock. Red shale and boulders hung over the spot hiding it from view of everything but little creatures needing shelter. The north wind swept dust and dirt into the cranny beating at and burying bits of green and saplings trying to take hold. But sometimes the south wind blew exposing mysteries … and other things.
A southern gust whipped through the chasm and the small reptile flitted back into the overhang. It turned its head, blinked and eyed a strange shape jutting from the sand. No movement, no danger, so the lizard settled in for a long nap.
It was just as bleached as the deer, those human bones. The arm rose out of the sand like it was trying to ward off a blow. Clutched in its skeletal fingers was a toggle attached to a faded patch of red and blue fabric. A northern blast of air churned, swirling sand back over the arm. The fingers seemed to tighten around its treasure before it was buried once again.
Sometimes the south wind blows revealing secrets that only angels and lizards see.