with more than a little help from Linda
Teresa set the letter down on Murdoch's desk, carefully propping it against the base of his lamp...awaiting his return.
Murdoch was in Sacramento, finalizing a contract for the coming cattle drive. He wouldn’t be back for a few days, so she hoped it wasn’t important or urgent. There was something about the letter that seemed important. Call it women's intuition... who knew... but she was sure of it.
It was addressed in sprawling handwriting to Mr. Murdoch Lancer in care of Lancer Ranch - Morro Coyo... with the word PRIVATE - written at the bottom and underlined for emphasis.
The word ‘Private’ intrigued her, but she took a deep breath and ignored the temptation to open it.
She looked at it, wondered about it for a moment, and then went back to her work. She had chores to get done, and they weren't going to do themselves while she mused over a letter that wasn't even addressed to her.
By late afternoon, Teresa was back in the Great Room – darning. Johnny seemed to have a penchant for tearing holes in his shirts and, lately, Scott had fallen into the same habit. She wouldn’t lack for stitching with either of those two around.
She sat on the sofa sewing, but her eyes kept drifting over towards Murdoch’s desk, where the letter marked ‘private’ called to her... With great fortitude she ignored it.
Still its very presence intrigued her. Why bother adding that word? Weren't all letters considered 'private' anyway?
“Ouch!” she yelped, pricking her thumb. She rubbed away the spot of blood with her finger and glared at the envelope angrily, blaming it for her distraction.
Outside, the sound of horses’ hooves pounded into the yard and she heard Johnny’s vibrant voice talking and laughing with one of the hands. She heard Johnny coming into the house - one always heard Johnny come into the house!
“Johnny, will you please take off those spurs?” she called to him before he even got into the Great Room.
“Sure, Teresa,” he drawled lightly, coming in and sitting beside her and pulling off the spurs. He held them up as evidence. “Happy, novia?” he asked with a grin that sparkled in his eyes.
She laughed. “Yes, thank you. I have enough to do darning your shirts without having to repair holes in the furniture from those spurs.”
He got up and walked over to the sideboard where he poured himself a drink and took a long sip from it. There, he caught sight of the letter on Murdoch’s desk. It wasn’t lying with the rest of the mail. Instead, it sat up against the base of the lamp. It seemed to be staring at him.
“What’s this?” he asked, picking it up and turning it over.
“Jelly picked it up in town today. It’s for Murdoch,” she answered, trying to sound indifferent.
“’PRIVATE’,” Johnny read aloud. He lifted it and smelled it. “Wonder who it’s from.”
Teresa tried to return to her mending. “I don’t suppose it’s any of our business.”
“No… guess not…” Johnny admitted and put it back again on the desk where he had found it.
Then he grinned. “D’ya reckon it’s from a woman?” He eyes twinkled with mischief. “Ol’ Murdoch with a love letter. Who’d have thought it?”
Teresa dropped the sewing into her lap and stared at him. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
“What idea?” Scott asked, shucking his gloves and tossing them on the table as he crossed the room.
“Murdoch’s got himself a love letter,” Johnny told him, grinning broadly. He picked up the letter and strolled over to Scott, waving it under his brother's nose. "Didn't know the ol' man had it in him, did you?"
“You know no such thing!” Teresa admonished him.
Scott took it and turned it over, sniffed it and re-read the address. “No perfume… and the handwriting doesn’t look like a woman’s,” he noted quietly. He looked over at Johnny and shook his head. “No, it’s not a love letter.”
“What makes you so sure?” Johnny asked, intrigued.
Scott smiled knowingly. “Experience, my dear brother.”
Teresa put down the sewing and walked over to them. She snatched the envelope from Scott’s hand. “I think you’re both just awful. It’s none of our business.”
She put it back on the desk, leaning it against the lamp so that Murdoch would see it immediately.
“Murdoch will tell us what it is when he gets home,” she told them firmly and left the room to get dinner.
Johnny walked through the Great Room headed for the kitchen to grab some breakfast. The house was uncannily quiet with Murdoch away. No loud arguments… no one to bawl him out… it just didn’t seem natural.
He glanced towards the desk and the white envelope stared back at him, intriguing him. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was that underlined ‘Private’ written on it.
Johnny smiled. No matter what Scott said, he still thought it might be a love letter. He ambled over to pick it up, frowned and turned it over. There was nothing there to indicate who it could be from.
“Didn’t you ever hear what curiosity did to the cat, Brother?” Scott asked as he strolled over to join him.
Johnny’s smile widened into a grin. “Sure, but I ain’t no cat.”
“You wouldn’t be thinking of opening it, would you?”
“Nope, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.”
“Still think it’s a love letter?” Scott asked, taking it out of Johnny’s hands to look at it again.
“Could be,” Johnny said. He pulled his hat onto his head and tightened the stampede strings. Then he lifted his eyes mischievously to meet his brother’s. “Why? Don’t you think there’s life left in the ol’ dog?”
“Oh, I’m sure there is,” Scott said with a laugh. “But this is not a love letter. I’ve seen…”
“Lots of ‘em?”
“Enough to know one when I see one,” Scott assured him. There was a twinkle in his eyes that Johnny didn’t miss.
“Expert, are you?”
“Oh, well now… one shouldn’t brag…” Scott told him, smiling.
Johnny’s fingers fidgeted with the stampede strings distractedly. “Course, it could also be ranch business… somethin’ important maybe.”
Scott’s eyebrows lifted in interest. “Urgent even…” he considered aloud.
“He’s not due back till Friday,” Johnny pointed out.
“Which could be too late.” Scott tilted his head and studied the envelope. “Think we should open it? Just in case?”
“Well, if it’s important, we should know ‘bout it,” Johnny told him, in all seriousness. He stood beside his brother and watched Scott tapping the letter against his hand.
“And we are partners in the ranch…” Scott added.
“Well, I think…”
“I think you should put that back where you found it!” Teresa said, snatching it out of Scott’s hand and putting it back against the lamp. “You two should be ashamed of yourselves. That’s Murdoch’s personal mail.”
“It might be urgent,” Johnny pointed out defensively.
She put her hands on her hips and scowled at them. “It says ‘Private’, not ‘Urgent’,” she threw back at them. “You’re acting like children.”
Scott and Johnny hung their heads until she left the room. Then Johnny looked up smiling. “I still reckon it’s a love letter.”
Teresa passed through the Great Room more times than she could count on any given day, and today was no exception. But every time she passed Murdoch’s desk, her eyes were drawn to that letter. At first, she had ignored it… purposely turning her eyes from it… reminding herself what she had told the boys. It was none of their business.
But it just sat there, taunting her…
By the time she heard Scott and Johnny ride in that evening, her teeth were grinding with frustration just knowing it was still sitting there.
Johnny bounced into the room, dropping his head to let his hat fall into his hands and his spurs still on… again. Scott was right behind him, a little more sedate and pulling off his gloves as was his habit, but with laughter in his eyes.
“Well, you two must have had a good day,” she remarked, beaming. Johnny was just about to drop onto the sofa beside her, so she reminded him… “Johnny? Your spurs…”
Scott tossed the gloves onto the table and strolled over to the fireplace, slapping Johnny on the back as he passed him. “One of these days, you’re going to remember to take them off.”
“Yeah…” he grumbled and dropped his hat onto the sofa beside him, then leaned forward and removed the spurs.
Scott walked across the room to get himself and his brother a drink. The day had been long, hot and dusty, and they could both use one to wash the dust from their throats. He passed the desk and couldn’t help but notice the envelope still leaning against the lamp.
“I see you didn’t get tempted to open Murdoch’s letter, Teresa,” he said with a grin.
“Of course, not,” she answered, innocence echoing in her tone. “I’d forgotten it was even there.”
“Is that right?” Johnny asked doubtfully, turning his head towards her as he leaned over to unbuckle the second spur.
“Yes, that’s right,” she insisted adamantly. “I’m not like the two of you. I happen to respect other people’s privacy.”
Johnny sat up straight and looked across the room to his brother. Scott was part way towards him with two glasses in his hands and stopped in his tracks. Their eyes met and they understood each other immediately.
“Really, Teresa?” Scott asked, a mischievous grin on his face. “It seems to me that you don’t know how to knock on a door before you enter a room.”
Teresa waved her hand dismissively. “Oh, that’s different,” she told them.
“How?” Johnny asked.
“Well, we have nothing to hide from each other, do we?” she answered naively.
Johnny laughed. “I sure do,” he assured her. “An’ I reckon Scott does, too.” He leaned closer to her and smiled. “An’ I expect you do as well.”
“Johnny Lancer!” she exclaimed, blushing scarlet. “You wouldn’t be talking like that if Murdoch was here.”
“Well, he’s not,” Johnny replied with a grin.
“Which is kind of the whole point,” Scott told them, handing a drink to his brother and taking a sip of his own whisky. “That letter could have something important in it. And we won’t know until Murdoch gets home.”
“I’m sure if it was urgent, the sender would have marked it that way,” she persevered. “But it’s marked ‘Private’, so we have to leave it for Murdoch.”
“She thinks it’s a love letter too,” Johnny said with a laugh.
Johnny woke again. It was the middle of the night and the only light in his room came from the silvery strands of moonlight shining though the window. He was irritated with himself that such a ridiculous thing as a letter that wasn’t even addressed to him should be disturbing his sleep.
Why it was frustrating him was more than he could say. But his teasing conversation with Scott was eating at him. Maybe there really was something important in that letter. Maybe leaving it to sit there, unopened, would only end in grief. What if…?
Damn! What if…? It was driving him to distraction and keeping him awake. It just wasn’t worth it.
Angrily aware that he wasn’t going to get back to sleep, Johnny threw back the covers and got out of bed. He grabbed his pants from the back of his chair and pulled them on quickly, then he left the room without worrying about boots or his shirt.
He padded quietly down the darkened hall, then slipped down the stairs and into the Great Room. The moon shone through the big French doors and lit the desk more than enough to see by.
With a scowl of sheer annoyance, Johnny walked over to the desk. He didn’t worry so much about noise down here. Scott and Teresa were still in bed upstairs.
Johnny got to the desk and reached for the letter, then stopped… startled. The letter was gone.
He looked around the top of the desk, then on the floor around it in case the wind had blown it off.
Then he looked up… what wind? The French doors were closed.
Okay, no wind… and that letter had not sprouted legs and walked away. So where was it?
Johnny waited by the desk and listened to the silence around him. It was quiet all through the house. So quiet that he could hear the occasional whinny of one of the horses in the corral across the yard.
Then he heard it… a sound that didn’t belong to the night. It had come from the kitchen and sounded like something had clanged onto the floor. He padded softly towards the kitchen and saw a light under the door. Someone was in there.
Johnny put his hand on the door and pushed it slowly open.
With a squeak, it opened enough to look inside.
“Well, well, well…” he said with a satisfied smile.
Scott jumped about a foot in the air, spun around and glared at his brother. “Damn you, Johnny! What are you doing creeping around the house at this time of night?”
Johnny only grinned at him. “I dunno, Boston… Tiptoeing ‘round the kitchen like you, I guess.”
He looked at the kettle boiling on the stove. “You get a hankerin’ for coffee in your sleep?” Suddenly, Johnny laughed. “You’re kinda clumsy, bangin’ stuff around. Where is it?”
“Where’s what?” Scott asked ingenuously.
“The letter, Brother.”
“I haven’t…” Scott began, then followed Johnny’s eyes to the table. The white envelope laid there, the frustrating handwriting face up, saying ‘Murdoch Lancer’ and ‘Private’.
Scott sighed. “All right. I got to thinking that it might be important…”
“Urgent even…” Johnny added.
“That’s right. It got frustrating, so I thought I could steam it open…”
Johnny’s jaw dropped. “Steam it open?”
Scott shrugged his shoulders. “I could read it and no one need ever know.”
“Steam it open?” Johnny repeated, stunned. “You know how?”
“Well… yes…” Scott admitted, blushing like a school girl. “I opened Grandfather’s letters sometimes… you know… just for fun.”
“Scott! That’s… that’s sneaky!” Johnny gasped. A wide grin burst upon his face. “I didn’t know you were sneaky. You have hidden depths, don’t you?”
Scott frowned. “And just what brings you down here, half-dressed, in the dark of night?” he asked.
Johnny’s grin disappeared. For a moment, words just wouldn’t come. “Well…” he said at last. “I…” He looked at the triumphant expression on his brother’s face and growled, “Like you said. It could be important.”
“I thought you were so sure it’s a love letter?”
Johnny scowled. “Still am.”
“An important love letter, Johnny?” he asked, grinning broadly.
“Ten dollars says it is,” Johnny insisted angrily.
“Ten dollars?” Scott asked, folding his arms daringly.
Scott considered the bet. “A month’s pay? All right, you’re on, little Brother!” He walked over and picked up the envelope, then came back to where the kettle stood on the stove, steaming.
“Watch the door…” Scott whispered to him.
Johnny turned back to the kitchen door and peered into the darkness of the Great Room beyond. His back was to Scott, so he turned to look over his shoulder. “You sure you know how to do this?”
Scott held the letter over the steam, making sure the writing was away from it and wouldn’t run. “Sure, you just watch the door.”
Johnny turned back to look through the door again. Then he frowned and looked back. “Who am I looking for?”
“For Teresa,” Scott suggested, moving the envelope a little closer to the steam.
“She’s asleep,” Johnny whispered.
“Just keep watch,” Scott persisted. “I’ve nearly got it.”
“You sure you can close it again?” Johnny asked nervously. He wasn’t sure who would be angrier… Murdoch or Teresa. He looked out briefly into the darkness, then back to watch Scott gently ease open the envelope.
“So that no one will ever know,” Scott assured him.
“I’ll know,” a small, but angry feminine voice said over Johnny’s shoulder.
Johnny jumped back from the door, startled. “Teresa!” he gasped.
She stood in the doorway, her arms folded across her chest and fury in her eyes.
“Teresa!” Scott gulped and, seeing the envelope in his hand, swept it quickly behind his back. “What are you doing up?”
“What am I…?” she began incredulously. “I’d ask you two the same thing, only it’s patently obvious. I can’t believe you two!”
Both men hung their heads, more embarrassed by being caught than over their plan.
“Give it to me!” she demanded and thrust out the palm of her hand.
Scott and Johnny exchanged reluctant glances before Scott hesitantly pulled his hand out from behind his back and put the now open, and damp, letter into Teresa’s hand.
“Good work, Johnny,” he said, annoyed. “I thought nothing could get by Johnny Madrid,” he growled.
Johnny glared back at him and shook his head in disdain. “Do I look like Madrid?” he snapped back, raising his hands in exasperation.
“Well, even Johnny Lancer should be able to watch a door!” Scott threw back at him.
“If you hadn’t been bangin’ around the room, she wouldn’t have heard either of us… an’ I wouldn’t have had to watch the door!”
Johnny stopped, his attention caught by the frown on Scott’s face. He followed his brother’s eyes to Teresa, quietly standing behind him and turning over the open envelope.
“Teresa?” he asked.
“Hmmm?” she responded distractedly, still staring at the letter.
“It could be important…” he whispered.
“I know,” she answered, still distracted. But, suddenly, she shook off the mood and glared at Johnny. “Oh, no you don’t…”
“You’d never forgive yourself if it was,” Scott pressed her.
“But we shouldn’t…”
“He’ll never know,” Scott persisted, leaning over her.
Johnny put his arm around her shoulders. “No one will ever know.”
She sighed and shook her head in resignation, then handed it back to Scott.
He pounced on it, and Johnny raced to his side to watch him open it.
“‘My dear friend,’” Scott read…
“‘Do you remember Myrtle? Surely, you can’t have forgotten her. I remember how much you loved her all those years ago.’”
Scott stopped reading and looked up to find Johnny and Teresa engrossed in the letter. Both looked shocked. Murdoch had never mentioned the woman.
“Myrtle?” Johnny asked, but Scott shrugged his shoulders.
“Go on, Scott!” Teresa insisted.
Looking back to the letter, Scott continued.
“‘Well, I came across her the other day. The years have not been kind to her. She has aged, but so have we all. Sadly, poor Myrtle has not weathered the years well, but I’m sure it will make no difference to you. I know how you felt about her.
She is in need of somewhere to stay and I felt compelled to send her your way. Be good to her, Murdoch. Remember how much you meant to each other. She’ll arrive on the train at Cross Creek on Saturday morning.
Look after her,
John Christian, Modesto.’”
“Who’s Myrtle,” Scott asked Teresa, looking up from the letter.
“I don’t know,” she answered frowning. “But it sounds like she was someone he was in love with. It must have been years ago, or I’m sure I’d have known about it.”
“Think he’ll be pleased to see her?” Johnny asked, smiling. “I mean, the way the man put it… ‘she hasn’t weathered the years well.’”
“Scott grinned. “She’s probably gray and sour.”
“An’ skinny…” Johnny added, grinning with him.
Teresa scowled at them. “I think you two should be ashamed of yourselves. If Murdoch loves her, we’ll have to make her welcome.”
Scott exchanged a rueful glance with Johnny. He folded the letter and put it back into the envelope, pressing it closed carefully.
“She’s right, Johnny,” he said reluctantly.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny agreed.
“We’d better get this place cleaned up… and quickly,” Teresa told them firmly. “He’ll be home on Friday… that’s only the day after tomorrow…”
“After today,” Scott corrected.
“Well, it doesn’t give us much time to get the house ready,” she pointed out and snatched the letter from him. She walked out of the room to put it back on the desk where it had been and then went back to bed.
“Well, it wasn’t a love letter, Johnny,” Scott said, smirking. “You owe me twenty dollars.”
Johnny grinned back at him and opened the door for him. “I dunno…” he answered. “It might not be from her, but it seems to me like the old dog does have some life left in him…”
“No you don’t,” Scott admonished him. “You’re not getting out of it that way. It wasn’t a love letter.”
“Yeah, all right. You win.”
Scott led the way through the Great Room and up the stairs. There was no need for quiet now. “Has it occurred to you, little Brother, that this woman could end up as our step-mother?”
“A little old ácidita?” Johnny asked, sighing. “Dios… I hope not!”
Teresa set about cleaning the hacienda from top to bottom. She drafted Maria into helping with the dusting and polishing. She inveigled the Lancer brothers into carrying rugs and carpets outside where they could beat the dust from them and then she got the grumbling siblings to carry them back to where they belonged.
Both were assigned tasks from cleaning windows to moving furniture and they soon realized how much better off they would have been out on the range.
“I think the downstairs guest room would be best,” Teresa suggested at dinner that night. “Mr. Christian’s letter makes me think that Myrtle might be… infirm…”
“Infirm?” Johnny asked, holding off on his next bite. With the fork still in his hand, he looked at Teresa. “You mean she might be sickly as well?”
“Well, I thought it sounded like he was hinting at it,” she told him. She sipped from the water glass and then turned her attention to Scott. “Do you think you could make sure the windows in there are cleaned? The room will need airing, of course, and fresh sheets. Some flowers would be nice…”
Scott sighed and looked at Johnny across the table. Johnny was smiling his sympathy at him. “It’s just as well we opened that letter. We’d never have gotten all of this done in time.”
“Yeah,” was Johnny’s curt response. “Lucky!” He put his fork to his mouth and bit the chunk of steak belligerently.
“Is it back on the desk?” Teresa asked nervously.
“Yes, he’ll never know it was opened,” Scott assured her.
“Thank goodness. I feel bad about doing it,” she admitted. “But you’re right. We would never have had time to do everything without warning.”
Johnny made good his escape from the house - and Teresa’s frenzy - sneaking out while the little whirlwind was busy giving Scott a hard time over the guest room windows. He hurried out to the barn looking for cover, but was quickly cornered by Jelly.
“You wanna tell me what’s goin’ on ‘round here?” Jelly asked him, his hands holding his suspenders. It was a habit of his that gave him enough dignity to sometimes reverse their roles… and it worked best on Johnny. Johnny always found himself feeling answerable to the gruff little handyman.
“Just some spring cleaning, Jelly,” Johnny told him evasively.
“That makes sense,” Jelly said sarcastically. “Spring cleanin’… in November! Yeah… that sure makes sense!”
Johnny ducked his head and toed the dust on the floor. “Well, Teresa’s got a bee in her bonnet, I guess.”
“Yeah… I noticed.”
Johnny looked up and around him, hoping that Jelly would give up and go about his business, but he spied the buggy, parked over by the wall. It only came out for church on Sundays and special occasions. And it occurred to him that Myrtle’s arrival probably fit the bill.
The trouble was, last Sunday it had rained.
“Jelly, ain’t you cleaned the mud off the buggy yet?” Johnny asked crossly.
“Since when was you worried ‘bout the buggy?” Jell retorted.
“You never know when we might need it,” Johnny answered, irritated now. “Give me a hand with it, will ya?”
Johnny stalked over to survey the mud, deciding that some polish on the frame and some oil on the leather might not go astray either. Jelly watched him curiously, then shrugged his shoulders and walked away to get water and cloths.
Murdoch rode in late in the afternoon. He was tired. The stage ride had been particularly hot, dusty and rough, so he was looking forward to a bath and a decent meal.
He rode under the Lancer arch and heaved a sigh of relief to be home… home… family. He finally had everything a man could want.
It was a surprise to find Teresa and the boys waiting for him, but it was a pleasant surprise. He’d missed them.
“Howdy, Murdoch,” Johnny called as he dismounted. Johnny stepped forward and took his horse almost before his feet had hit the ground.
“Good trip, Sir?” Scott asked, opening the front door for him and taking care of his saddle bags.
“We missed you Murdoch,” Teresa told him, reaching up to kiss him on the cheek and slipping her arm through his.
Murdoch smiled happily. “I should go away more often,” he commented to them.
Johnny handed the horse over to one of the hands and then hurried in after them. He got there in time to see Murdoch stroll over to his desk and sit down, while Scott poured drinks for them all.
He noticed Murdoch’s saddle bags slung over the back of one of the dining chairs and slowed down to walk into the room to join them. He dropped onto the sofa beside Teresa.
“Do you think he’ll notice it’s been opened?” Teresa asked him in a barely audible whisper.
“Quit worryin’,” he told her, just as quietly.
Scott served drinks all around and then stood by the fireplace. He leaned against the wall, watching Johnny turn the brim of his hat round and round in his hands. Teresa was a little pale and looked back at him nervously.
Silence fell on the room.
Murdoch was looking around him, noting how everything gleamed of polish and scrubbing. There wasn’t even a fingerprint on the mirror above the sideboard. The rug on the floor was so clean that the pile stood up like new.
He looked at Teresa and his sons… and wondered…
“So, did you sort out the contract?” Scott asked, breaking the silence.
“Yes, I got a better price than I thought I would,” Murdoch answered smiling. He was pleased with the contract and itching for the chance to tell them about it.
“Really?” Scott remarked. “Good… that’s good, isn’t it, Johnny?”
Caught unawares, Johnny looked up at his brother and answered lamely, “Yeah… good…”
Murdoch eyed them all curiously. Something was wrong. They all looked healthy, so apparently no one had been wounded in his absence. The house was still standing and the men he’d seen outside seemed happy enough. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be too bad.
Something told him that he should ask them outright what was going on, but he decided against it. He’d let them come to him. Instead, he chose to ignore it and picked up the pile of mail lying on his desk. He rifled through it, recognizing the handwriting on most of it and knowing them to be bills. All the while, he was uncomfortably aware that he was the centre of attention.
He lifted his eyes and found them all watching him, but looked down again at the letters, pretending not to have noticed. When he’d finally finished with the mail, he stood up and pushed the chair back.
“I think I’ll go wash up,” he told his audience.
“Oh… but…” Teresa began, but stopped and looked at the boys as if for help.
None was forthcoming.
“Yes, Teresa?” Murdoch asked from behind the desk.
“Oh… nothing… Dinner will be a couple of hours yet.”
“Yes, I thought it would be,” he replied, smiling. Since it was only a little after four o’clock, he hadn’t expected anything else.
He walked in front of the desk and noticed an envelope propped against the lamp. Picking it up, he asked, “What’s this?”
“Oh, that arrived for you a few days ago,” Teresa said casually, then looked at Johnny beside her.
Murdoch looked at the address… Murdoch Lancer, in care of Lancer Ranch, Morro Coyo, but his attention was grabbed by the heavily underlined word ‘Private’.
He glanced up and found all of them watching him like hawks.
So this was it – sheer, unadulterated curiosity. They wanted to know what was in the letter.
Murdoch bit back the smile that teased at his lips and opened the letter. He read it through, surprised, and a little overwhelmed, by the contents. He was conscious of their interest, but he didn’t feel ready to talk about it yet, so he folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope without saying a word. Then he tucked it into the inside pocket of his coat.
Lifting his glass and finishing off the last of the whisky in one swallow, he took a deep breath. Well, it wouldn’t hurt them to stew over it a little longer anyway, he decided. He’d tell them about Myrtle at dinner.
“Well, I’m going upstairs to get cleaned up,” he told them again and strolled out of the room.
“He didn’t notice,” Teresa said, relieved.
“Yeah, an’ he didn’t say anythin’ either,” Johnny complained. “Didn’t seem to think much of it.”
Scott frowned. “I don’t know. I thought he looked pretty pleased about it.”
“Marryin’ him off already, Boston?”
Scott grinned. “No, but I’m certainly curious to meet her.”
Murdoch came downstairs feeling fresher now that he’d cleaned up. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and frowned. He could smell something… flowers? Intrigued, he followed the scent to its source – the downstairs guest room.
Someone had put flowers in the guest room! The room was spotlessly clean and, when he checked, there was fresh linen on the bed. It seemed they were expecting visitors, but no one had mentioned it to him.
He walked out to the Great Room and found it empty. The boys had made themselves scarce and he assumed that Teresa was helping Maria with dinner.
Just as well anyway, he wanted some time to himself.
Murdoch sat at his desk, poured himself a glass of fine malt whisky and took a sip, savoring it as it burned down his throat. It was hard to get here in California, so he kept it for special occasions. This rated as one.
Myrtle – who would have thought it? He hadn’t seen her in years. It was a miracle that John Christian had found her. He looked forward to seeing her again more than he would have thought possible. He felt younger by fifteen years just thinking about her.
He took the envelope out of his pocket and pulled the letter out to re-read it. Myrtle would be on the train in the morning… and he planned to be there waiting for her.
Absently, he turned the envelope over and over. He took another sip of the whisky and then stopped and put the glass down on the desk. Looking more closely, Murdoch studied the envelope. It was very faint, but he was sure that the ink had run on the address.
Perhaps it had gotten wet in transit? It was certainly a possibility, but he remembered that the envelope had opened particularly easily after having been stuck down for so long.
He opened the letter and scanned it too, finding one small smudge in the writing.
He thought about the unusual behavior of his sons and Teresa… the incredibly clean hacienda… the flowers in the guest room… and a sneaking suspicion took form in his mind.
Murdoch decided not to tell them about Myrtle’s arrival in the morning. If he was wrong, it would be a pleasant surprise for them. If he was right…
Murdoch had told them of his plans to go to Cross Creek to meet the train in the morning when they had sat down to dinner. He’d unobtrusively watched their faces and bit his lip to keep from smiling. There were no questions asked, despite the fact that he could see them looking at each other inquisitively.
He was up early in the morning, grabbed a quick coffee from the kitchen and went out the front door. He had thought that everyone would still be asleep, but, instead, he found the three of them waiting for him out in the yard.
Murdoch stopped in his tracks and lifted his eyebrows in surprise to see Johnny was already mounted on Barranca, wearing his ‘good’ jacket – the one with the fancy silver trimming around the lapels. Scott had on a string tie and his best coat… and Teresa was in her Sunday best dress and bonnet.
Even more curious, Teresa was sitting in the buggy, obviously waiting for him.
The buggy… he didn’t remember it looking that shiny and polished since he’d bought it. Someone had done more than scrape off last Sunday’s mud from the wheels!
“Good morning, Murdoch,” Teresa said cheerfully.
“Good morning, sweetheart,” he answered, still rooted to the spot. “Going somewhere?”
“Teresa has some shopping she’d like to do in Cross Creek, so we thought we’d all go,” Scott explained.
“Is that so?” Murdoch asked, trying not to sound doubtful. There wasn’t much in Cross Creek that she couldn’t get in Green River, and it was a whole lot further to go. The only reason any of them ever went to Cross Creek was for the train.
“And it’s such a nice day, Murdoch,” she added. “Perfect for using the buggy…”
Smothering his smile, Murdoch walked forward and climbed up beside her, taking up the reins and waiting for Scott to mount before setting off.
“Yes, it’s a glorious day,” Murdoch agreed, letting the smile show this time. “A day to remember…”
The train was due any minute and the small group stood on the platform waiting. Murdoch was standing near the edge, looking down the track. He tipped his hat back a little and turned around to where his family stood together.
“Shouldn’t be long now,” he said calmly. “Are you sure you want to wait here with me? I thought you had shopping to do, Teresa?”
“Oh, nothing important,” she answered, dismissively.
Johnny was leaning carelessly against the wall, the end of one of his stampede strings in his mouth. Teresa knocked it away with her gloved hand.
“Johnny, do you want to make a good impression or not?” she snapped at him quietly.
“Dunno,” he answered candidly. “That fella made her sound like an ol’ crowbait… Maybe we shouldn’t be encouragin’ them.”
“Johnny, how could you say that?” she whispered.
“He could be right, Teresa,” Scott added nervously. “We don’t know what to expect.”
“Neither does Murdoch, an’ he don’t look all that nervous to me,” Johnny pointed out. “You think he’s made up his mind already?”
“No,” Scott replied firmly. “I don’t think Murdoch is the type to buy ‘a pig in a poke’.”
“Yeah, well they say ‘love is blind’ too, Boston!”
“Hush, both of you,” Teresa chastised them. “It’s up to Murdoch.”
Johnny shifted from one foot to the other, while Teresa tried to flatten the creases in her dress for the fiftieth time. Scott seemed relaxed, but looked down the tracks more often than his father did.
None of this was missed by Murdoch as he surreptitiously kept an eye on the three. They didn’t appear to have noticed him glancing in their direction regularly, and he turned away from them again and grinned.
Finally, the train appeared in the distance. The whistle blew and the bell rang as it slowly pulled into the station, steam hissing and brakes grinding to a stop.
Murdoch waited for the conductor to appear and approached him, leaving his family on the platform.
Johnny, Scott and Teresa watched him talk quietly to the conductor, then head for the end of the train… to get the baggage, they assumed.
Still, there was no aged or infirm lady stepping off the train.
They waited, growing more and more impatient, until Murdoch called to them.
“Come on boys… Teresa,” he called. “I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”
Scott frowned, Johnny tipped the brim of his hat up to see down the platform, and Teresa looked from one brother to the other, confused.
They walked to the far end of the platform and found Murdoch standing with a sway-backed bay mare… grayed around the nose and her eyes dulled with age.
“Boys… Teresa… this is Myrtle…”
“What?” Johnny cried out first… followed by similar exclamations and protests from Teresa and Scott.
Murdoch grinned happily, stroking the old horse’s nose and nuzzling her with his cheek. “Believe it or not, this old girl was my Barranca, Johnny,” he explained, his voice cracking with the pleasure of seeing her again. “Never did like that name, but she had it when I bought her. We were together for years, but I got shot up one time and she was stolen… I haven’t seen her in fifteen years.”
“That’s Myrtle?” Scott exclaimed. “But…”
Murdoch looked at his sons and pulled his emotions into line. “Yes, this is Myrtle… you sound as if you were expecting someone, or something, else,” he announced. “You sound as if you knew I was expecting to meet Myrtle today…”
“Well… we…” Scott stammered, lost for words.
“Johnny?” Murdoch asked, looking at his younger son, who merely ducked his head and toed the dirt.
“Teresa?” he asked, looking at the girl with disappointment.
“Oh, well, we knew you must be coming for something important…” she began, but her voice faded as she realized that she couldn’t lie to him.
“Yes, well, let me tell the three of you something,” Murdoch said in the voice that they all knew meant they were in trouble. “My mother was a sainted woman, God rest her soul. I loved her dearly, but she had one vice that drove us all mad…”
He waited for the three of them to look at him. “She used to steam open our letters…”
Murdoch was pleased to see that not only Teresa blushed… Scott went a shade of red that he’d never seen before, and even Johnny’s face glowed rosily.
“Now, shall we take Myrtle home?” he said and started towards the buggy, leading the old horse gently. When he knew they couldn’t see his face, he couldn’t resist breaking into a wide grin. “I think she’ll like what you’ve done with the guest room.”