Murdoch's older son turned and walked towards the older man. "Yes, Sir?"
"Are you ready to go? I want to reach Terminous before Wednesday. Jeremiah Leeds is one man who doesn't tolerate any deviation in his plans."
"He sounds a trifle. . .difficult."
The gray-haired man stared at the younger Lancer. "I would say that is an understatement, however, he has been a valued customer for many years so I don't propose alienate him at this point in time. I hope that you'll learn something from watching me deal with the man. One day you and Johnny will be in charge of this ranch and you both still have a great deal to learn."
Scott readily agreed. "I understand that, Sir. At least Johnny has had some experience with ranching."
"Yes," Murdoch admitted, "but he also lacks the. . .discipline that you have learned. A rancher can't just cut out whenever he gets tired of the backbreaking work. Fortunately, I was able to rely on Paul O'Brien for many years. Now, I hope to rely on the two of you. It would be nice to take some time off occasionally."
"I'm sure Johnny just needs some time to find his place here. It's not easy to break a lifetime of looking for a home."
The tall rancher gave his older son a penetrating look, but said nothing as the two Lancers headed into the stable to mount their horses and start for the Leeds ranch near Terminous.
Little was said between father and son as the patriarch definitely wanted to cover ground before nightfall. He had not been kidding about the demanding Mr. Leeds. While many people thought of the Scots as a parsimonious lot, Murdoch Lancer would match up Jeremiah Leeds with even his most closefisted fellow countryman. Still, he had told Scott the truth. Leeds was a good customer and had even hinted that his unmarried daughter would make an excellent wife for one of Murdoch's sons—at some future time.
As nightfall began to settle in, the formidable rancher decided it was high time to stop for the night, have some food and bed down so that they could get an early start in the morning. As the two men took to their bedrolls on the hard ground, Murdoch gave a soft moan.
"Anything wrong, Sir?" Scott inquired with concern.
"No, just my bones are getting a bit old for this kind of thing. I remember when I could ride all day and still be able to do some dancing in the evening. Of course, I didn't really have time for much dancing, but your mother certainly did enjoy it. So did Maria. They were so different, but both of them loved parties and dancing."
Scott was silent for a time. "I'm sure that it must have been lonely for them sometimes."
"I. . .I suppose you're right. I was working all day, every day. I did try to take your mother to church on Sundays, but then I'd come home and work on the books or whatever else needed to be done. Of course, it wasn't that simple with Johnny's mother since she was Catholic. You know her family resented her marrying outside her faith. I. . .I've often wondered if that didn't cause some of our problems."
"Is. . .do you think that might be the reason she didn't take Johnny to stay with her relatives when she left here?"
"I wish I knew. I did send a wire to them, but received no answer which is not surprising since none of them attended our wedding ceremony. Thinking back on it, I remember now that Maria was quite unhappy when her parents didn't respond to letters about Johnny's birth."
"Some women seem to need their families more than others. She was a long way from hers."
"But Johnny and I were her family. She did seem happier after he came along. In fact, there were times when. . .when I was almost jealous of how much she seemed to love him. That's why it's so hard for me to understand why she would let him be raised like that."
"Murdoch, I don't pretend to understand how women think, but perhaps she hoped for something better than what she found. Despite everything, Johnny seems to have managed all right."
The rancher nodded in the glow of the firelight. "I know that I haven't always made it easy on him, but I'm trying to be less authoritarian with him. I can see he doesn't respond well to that. It's just kind of difficult because my father's word was law and both my brother and I knew it. Maybe if Johnny hadn't left when he was two, we'd be less. . .touchy around each other."
"I know you've made an effort to meet him halfway and I think he does appreciate it, but just give him time. One of these days that chip will fall off his shoulder."
"I should live so long!" Murdoch conceded. "I just hope he doesn't have any trouble getting those horses we need. When I first started to build this ranch, wild horses seemed to range far and wide. Now, you see only a few herds like the one Johnny went after." Murdoch's voice lowered as he remembered the time his younger son had left Lancer with his friend, Wes.
"He came back, didn't he?"
"Yes, but I guess I still expect him to do as his mother did."
"Then don't give him the excuse. You have to do your share as well as he does."
Murdoch sighed. "It's not easy learning to be a parent to a boy like Johnny when you're in your fifties."
"Well, perhaps the first thing to learn is that he isn't a boy. Now, perhaps we should get some sleep if you want to start at first light."
In just a few minutes Scott could hear muffled snores from his father. Turning to his side, he tried to block out the sound, but sleep remained elusive despite the length of the day's ride. Not that the blond Lancer was unused to long days in the saddle, but his wartime service in the cavalry had ended over six years before and it had taken him some time to adjust to his new life in California.
At first, he had sincerely questioned his place at Lancer, but in a short time it had become apparent that he was needed as a go-between for his father and his brother. Since he was not as adept at ranching as Johnny, he had tried to keep his mouth shut and his eyes open to learn as much as possible after Pardee's defeat. He had been able to play a small role in that defeat by leading some of the vaqueros out to confuse the issue for Pardee's gang.
Truthfully, Scott did not like remembering that whole incident when Johnny had been shot by Pardee's men since the blond still wasn't sure if his brother had truly understood how dangerous his tactic of leading Pardee's men back to Lancer was—unless he was positive that Scott, Cipriano and the vaqueros had actually returned. Without those ranch hands, Lancer would have been at Pardee's mercy—and everyone knew that Pardee had no mercy. Still, it had all worked out and after some other tense situations, Murdoch and Johnny were finally beginning to feel comfortable in their relationship.
Just before dawn the next day Scott and Murdoch continued on their way to Terminous. After another long day in the saddle, the two stopped again for the night, content that it would be only a few more hours ride to the Leeds' ranch the following day. After making sure their horses were taken care of, Scott cooked up some of the bacon and beans that they had brought with them. For dessert they finished the cookies that Teresa had packed. As the coolness of night overtook them, both Lancers were grateful for their campfire. After a period of silence, Scott broke the reverie, "I wish I had a dollar for every bean I ate while in the Army. Some of them were more like bullets because the cooks just kind of tossed them in hot water. I'll bet some of them are still sitting in my insides."
Murdoch glanced over at the other man with a smile. "I know what you mean. At least they're filling. I. . .I expect you didn't have many beans at your grandfather's table?"
"On the contrary, my grandfather loves Boston baked beans, but of course none of them were like minie balls!"
"Speaking of that, I remember Catherine made them for me one time. She didn't let them cook long enough and they were like little pebbles! She. . .she did become a pretty fair cook before. . .before. . . ."
Scott stared straight into his father's face. "I suppose cooking is just like anything. It takes practice. How old was Teresa when she started doing the cooking?"
"Young--not that's she that old now. Maria showed her how to do some things, but she did go through a period when she, well, experimented on her father and me. One night she made this one dish and I swear neither Paul or I had any idea what it was, but we ate it anyway and said it was good. Thankfully, she never made it again, but don't tell her I said that!"
Scott chuckled before adding, "You must miss him."
"He was a good friend. I still ask myself what I was thinking that night we went after that stallion. If the two of us had been killed, what would have happened to Lancer?"
"We all make our choices, Murdoch. A general makes a choice not to pursue an enemy on a hill outside a little town and the battle becomes a turning point in a great war. You follow a stallion, become wounded, and as a result, need to contact your sons. Kind of makes you believe in fate."
"What you say might be true, but right now the only choice I'm interested in is choosing to go to sleep. I need some rest before meeting up with Leeds. That man is enough to try the patience of a saint."
"I suspect we all know someone like that. Goodnight, Murdoch."
But there was no reply except for some rumbling snores from the tall man.
Unfortunately, the next three days were trying for both Lancers. Jeremiah Leeds displayed his most niggardly behavior as he negotiated for every last penny that he could cut off the price for Lancer cattle. While Murdoch dealt with the miser, Scott had to deal with Leticia Leeds, who obviously was her father's best pupil in parsimony. The meals she served were barely enough to keep a working man alive. Perhaps that was the reason her figure was downright skinny and her manner just as bleak. Still, Scott felt rather sorry for her since she obviously was not allowed much of a social life.
On the second day at the Lucy L, Scott and the young woman took a buggy out for a short tour of the ranch. Here at least, Leeds seemed to be more willing to spend some money, a point which was obvious from Leticia's tone when she pointed out certain things upon which received Jeremiah's largesse. After an hour or so, the two stopped on a hill overlooking the ranch. Hesitantly, Leticia asked Scott to tell her about Boston. Her mother had been from Fall River, but Jeremiah had never told Leticia anything about her mother's family or life in the East. For a pleasant half-hour the blond had talked about his home in the East before the young woman realized that they needed to return to the ranch so that she could prepare dinner. All the happiness in Leticia's rather plain face from their conversation had vanished by the time the ranch came into sight. Sighing under her breath, Jeremiah's daughter headed back to the kitchen.
Thankfully, Murdoch and Jeremiah had finally come to an understanding about the price to be paid for the Lancer beeves so the two men would be heading back to the white hacienda the next day. Alerting the Leeds to the fact that they would be making an early start, Murdoch was not surprised that Jeremiah's only remark was to the effect that Leticia would be up early to make them some coffee before they left--as indeed she was and since her father did not deign to get up at such an early hour himself, she had prepared bacon and biscuits as well as the coffee.
Pressing a napkin full of the fresh biscuits into the younger Lancer's hand, Leticia smiled and thanked Scott for coming to visit. Surprising himself and her, Scott bowed slightly to kiss her hand before waving goodbye. Of course, Leticia told herself that the only reason her face was red was due to the heat in the kitchen.
Several hours later, the two Lancers made a brief stop to give the horses a breather. While munching on the biscuits, Murdoch inquired, "So what did you think of Jeremiah Leeds?"
"Truthfully, I didn't think much of him, but I felt sorry for Leticia. She deserves better."
"She's not really his daughter, you know."
"What? I don't understand."
"Evidently, she was adopted quite young. I don't know the circumstances, but I guess Jeremiah's wife, Lucy, died only a few years after Leticia was taken in so I suppose it was rough for him to raise her alone."
"That's too bad, but I still say she deserves better. He treats her like a servant."
"Maybe but that's not our business. We'd better get back on the road. I want to reach Lancer as fast as possible. Johnny should be there by now and I want to see how many horses he was able to get."
Moving at a rapid pace, the two men pushed their horses and themselves to cover as much ground as possible before stopping for the night. Finally when they knew they could go no farther, Murdoch called a halt. After building a small fire for the night, they were content to eat the last of the biscuits and some jerky before bedding down. This night neither man had any trouble falling asleep, therefore, both Lancers were startled to awake to the sight of a gun pointed straight at them.
All signs of sleep fled Murdoch Lancer's eyes as he looked up into the face of Dex Turner. Voice rough with anger, Murdoch demanded, "Turner, what the hell are you doing?"
"Now, now, Lancer, just shut your mouth 'fore my compadre there," Turner gestured towards a small man with a huge handlebar moustache, "decides he doesn't like you any better than I do. He ain't got much reason to be real friendly t'wards a man who owns a ranch as big as yours. Seems like he lost acoupla members of his family along with his tongue when one of those big owners in Mexico decided he had been disrespectful towards the patron. 'Course he don't need his tongue to do what he does best." Juan Ruiz showed his agreement to Turner's statement by taking out a huge knife. "Don't think that's the one that took out his tongue, but you never know. A coupla years later, he went back and got his revenge. Want me ta tell you what he did?"
Murdoch Lancer shook his head, but said nothing.
"Well, it's your choice," he sneered. "Anyways, we been trailin' you most of the day since you left the ranch where we were workin'."
"You worked for Jeremiah Leeds?"
"Matter a fact, yes. Man respected me 'n my compadre. Pay was good too. Fact is, we're gonna miss takin' the man's money; but when I saw you, just knew we couldn't pass up this opportunity."
"And just exactly what is your intention, Turner?"
"Gotta hand it ta you, Lancer, you're a cool one. Most men'd be shakin' by now so I'll just tell you. I aim to see you dead."
Murdoch took a deep breath. He had been expecting that answer, but tried not to let it rattle him or he knew that there was no hope.
At that moment Scott broke in to ask, "And just what did you intend to do with me, Mr. Turner?"
The tall, dark-haired man grinned at the blond. "Ah, you're the son from Boston, ain't you? Some of the other hands told me that your old man had two sons. Other one's Johnny Madrid, I hear. Too bad the patron here didn't bring him along 'stead of you. Betcha he wishes he had."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Oh, I s'pect I can come up with somethin' entertainin' for you. In fact, after Juan gets your old man tied up nice 'n tight, you and me is gonna have a nice little chat. And don't try nothin' 'cause my six-shooter here is gonna be aimed right at your daddy's head."
It took the man with the knife only a few moments to secure the rancher's hands. To add insult to injury he also produced a filthy rag which he used to stuff in Murdoch's mouth before shoving over near a tree where the tall man could not hear the conversation between Scott and Turner.
"Now, boy, it's your turn." Juan tied Scott's hands tightly together, but did not add a gag. "You gotta be able ta talk ta me and anyways there's nobody around ta hear you scream, now is there?"
Scott said nothing, waiting to hear what Turner had to say.
Dex leaned back slightly, rubbing at the side of one cheek with the barrel of his gun. "I s'pose by now you got it figured that I ain't too fond of your old man. You see he had some notion that I was appropriatin' some of them precious cows of his while I was s'pposed ta be mindin' 'em. Was gonna turn me over ta the law, but I lit out. Was after that me 'n Juan here met up. Like havin' a partner who can't talk back. Anyways, I figure I owe your pa somethin', but I've decided to be merc'ful."
It was all Scott could do not to snort in the man's face, but for the time being Turner held all the cards so he kept his face as impassive as possible.
"Yeah, merc'ful's the word. You see I'm gonna let you be the one ta kill him!"
Scott's blue eyes opened wide at the words before he coolly replied, "You must know I won't do that."
"Oh, I think you will if I tell you what I intend ta do. See if me and Juan do it, we'll start with his blade around a certain area which is kinda sacred ta most men and then if he don't bleed ta death, I aim ta put a bullet in his guts. Ever see a man die from bein' gut shot?"
The blond nodded reluctantly. He had seen and heard several men who had been so wounded during the War.
"Well then, you know what I'm talkin' about. Now, if you're willin' ta go along, I'll put one bullet in your gun and you can finish him off with a clean shot t' the head. See what I mean about bein' merc'ful?"
"Considering how much you hate him, why even offer me the chance?'
"Good question. I just figure there's some pleasure in watchin' you kill your own daddy and him knowin' you're the one killin' him." A malicious grin covered the man's face.
"Let me get this straight. I get a gun with one bullet which I use to kill. . .my father. What happens to me then?"
"Oh, you're just full of good questions, ain't you? Well, unfortunately I'm gonna have to kill you too, but if you go along with killin' that sonuvabitch, I'll be merc'ful ta you and finish you off with one bullet. Otherwise. . .let's just say that Juan likes dealin' with fancy blonds."
"I. . .understand, but you must know I still can't do it!" Suddenly, a sharp pain pricked at Scott's left arm. Looking down, the blond could see a neat hole just beginning to trickle blood.
Turner chuckled. "These here derringers don't have much stoppin' power, but they sure could mess up a man's kneecap. Dex pointedly aimed the small weapon at Lancer's left knee.
Scott sat there quietly for a moment, ignoring the pain in his arm. He knew that there was little choice. There was no one around to effect a rescue and he couldn't let these animals torture Murdoch as they had planned. "Very well, I agree, but could we wait until it there's more light? I. . .I'm not the best shot and I might miss."
Turner looked into the blue eyes for a second and then around at the gloomy darkness. "S'pose you gotta point. Now, if it were Madrid, don't think it'd matter. Okay, soon as the sun 'ppears we'll do it."
"Thank you. Would you mind if I went to sit by my father until. . .until it's time?"
"Suit yourself. 'Course he might not want you over there if you tell him what you're gonna do."
"I have no intention of telling him."
"S'pect that's wise. Of course, I do intend to tell him what you're gonna do just before I hand you the gun."
Scott stood up to slowly move towards the tree where his father sat. The easterner could feel trickles of sweat running down his back, especially since he knew that both Juan and Turner had guns trained on the two of them. As soon as he sat down, his father made a grunting noise through the gag. It wasn't hard to figure out what Murdoch was trying to ask. Quietly, Scott murmured, "He wants you dead, but I've got a plan. Just be ready to make your move when it's time. You'll need that knife to cut the ropes."
Murdoch nodded his head, but Scott could see the confusion in his father's eyes, reflected in the firelight. "Don't worry, I'll get you out of this, but it's too bad that you didn't bring Johnny with you instead of me. He'd never have let them sneak up on him. Guess I'm not cut out for life out here after all."
For the next few minutes Scott didn't say anything, but as the darkness began to wane, he spoke up once more. "If anything goes wrong, I. . .I just want you to know that I'm not sorry I came out here. I. . I don't think I'll ever understand why you didn't contact me in Boston, but I guess it doesn't matter so much now. At least you'll have Johnny and Teresa in your life. If. . .if you don't mind, please let Grandfather. . .know." By this time, the tension in Murdoch's tall body was almost palpable, but he could do or say nothing.
"Okay, Lancer, it's time!"
Scott's head jerked up. It was lighter and he could clearly see the men who had brought them to this point in time. Surprisingly, Turner looked almost non-threatening with lank brown hair and an almost-handsome face until Scott could see his eyes which were filled with hate.
Juan walked over to grab the younger Lancer, pulling him to his feet while shoving him towards Turner. Then, he took out his knife gesturing for Murdoch to rise before positioning the big man in an open spot. From across the circle, Turner watched in delight before boasting, "Well, Patron, time for you to pay for bein' such a arrogant cuss. You see, me and your boy here had a little talk and we agreed that it'd be good for both of us if you were dead. That way he gets more of your ranch and I get to see him kill you!"
Murdoch's head swiveled towards his older son.
"Yeah, that's right. He hates you as much as I do! He told me how you've treated him like dirt so now he gets the pleasure of puttin' a bullet in your heart. 'Course he might have trouble findin' it!" Dex chortled with glee at his own humor.
Walking over to Scott, he handed the young man the gun with the one bullet. Scott took it into his hands which were still tied. "Aren't you going to untie my hands?"
"No way, fancy man, I don't trust you that much and just remember our guns are aimed at you--and your daddy."
Nodding, the blond walked slowly over to face his father, being careful to assess the exact positioning of Turner and Ruiz. Adjusting his stance so that Turner was directly behind him, Lancer halted. Carefully, he brought the gun up to aim it at Murdoch's heart. Moments passed as the steel blue eyes stared straight into his father's questioning eyes.
"Do it!" Turner demanded from four yards away.
At that moment, Scott swung around to fire at Ruiz. The man with the knife went down with a bullet between the eyes. Without hesitating, the blond flung himself towards Turner, who paused for only a second in surprise before firing his gun, taking Scott in the side. Staggered, the former cavalryman continued on, slamming his now empty gun into Turner's left temple. Ignoring the sound of crumpling bone, Scott brought the gun down again and again until Turner's once-handsome face was a maelstrom of blood. Then his body sank down, sliding to Turner's side and lay still.
One week later an exhausted Murdoch Lancer rode up to the white hacienda. Entering, he found his dark-haired son having a cup of coffee in the kitchen with Teresa. "Murdoch, thought you were never comin' back from Terminous. What took you so long?"
The tall rancher looked at the two young people who meant so much to him. "Well, my business with Leeds took longer than anticipated. Were you able to get some horses?"
"Sure did. Sit down and I'll tell you about it."
For the next five minutes Johnny regaled his father with his adventures in securing the needed horses before Teresa interrupted to ask her guardian about Scott's whereabouts.
"Yeah, where is Boston?" Johnny inquired.
"Still at the Leeds' ranch. He. . .he took a fancy to Leticia Leeds so he decided to stay there for awhile. I'm going to take the cattle to Leeds in a week or so. He'll. . .he'll come back with me then." The rancher didn't like this prevarication, but he hadn't decided just what should be told as of yet.
"Whooee! Lucky son of a gun! She must be a looker!"
"Well, not exactly but she is a very nice young woman. Uh, if you'll excuse me now, I think I'll go take a hot bath. I feel like I've been on the road for a week."
"Of course, Murdoch, but don't take too long. Dinner will be ready in about an hour. Welcome home, we've missed you." Teresa gave her guardian a kiss before moving over to the stove to stir something in one pot.
The tall man moved quickly to his room to grab a towel and some clean clothes before going to soak in a huge tub in the bath house. Settling into the steaming water, Murdoch lathered himself before using the towel as a cushion for his head as he leaned against the rim of the tub. The soothing water eased the ache of his body, but not of his mind. How could he ever forget the terror of seeing Scott shot at point-blank range? Frozen in horror, he had finally moved towards the dead Ruiz to awkwardly grab the huge knife. Ignoring the nicks caused by the razor sharp blade, he had quickly cut through the ropes around his hands before leaning down to turn Scott over. To his relief there had been a flickering pulse.
The next hour had passed in a haze. He knew that he had managed to stop the bleeding, even remembering to cover the slender man to stave off shock, but it wasn't until a chance passer-by had stopped to inquire about the goings-on that the Scot regained control of himself. The stranger had willingly gone for help so after a wagon had appeared, Scott had been transferred to the doctor's office in the small town of Webster. After an uneasy night, the doctor had assured him that the wound in the easterner's side was not life-threatening since it had missed the major organs.
While waiting for Scott to wake up, Murdoch had wired Jeremiah Leeds. Even though the stingy rancher was not at fault, the tall man had felt a need to vent his spleen at the miser who had hired the potential killers. That done, he had debated about sending a telegram to Lancer, but had decided against it, feeling that there was no sense in worrying Johnny or Teresa.
To his surprise, just a day later, Leticia Leeds had appeared at the doctor's office, asking if it would be all right if she helped with Scott's nursing care. Still groggy from pain and medication Scott had not said "no" so two days later, Murdoch had felt able to leave Scott in her capable hands.
water cooled, Murdoch shifted himself out of the tub before drying off.
He knew there was much to be grateful for. Over dinner he would be
sure to tell Teresa and Johnny just how much they meant to him before speaking
of the events on the road from Terminous.
A groan of anguish broke loudly into the night. For most of the travelers in the hotel it was not an unusual occurrence to hear yells and moans from fellow travelers in other rooms. The walls were paper-thin and not all of the guests had fine manners, but for the man who had had to endure the dream, it was an unusual occurrence. Indeed Murdoch Lancer could remember only one other such time—during a dark night, not long after he had regained consciousness from the bullet wound in his back.
Sitting up in the too soft bed, Lancer peered around the unfamiliar room. He definitely was not at Lancer. Then it hit him—he had stopped one more night before returning to Lancer from the Leeds ranch. Shivering in the pre-dawn cold, he decided that there was no point in trying to sleep any longer. He might as well collect the wagon and get on the road. By evening, he intended to be sitting at his desk in the great room. Once there in his familiar place, he would be able to cope as he had always done.
Dressing and a quick wash-up took only a few minutes before he descended the steps to find the sleepy owner of the small hotel sitting at a desk. Murdoch hated to wake him, but he was determined to leave this town. At that moment, he desperately needed the comfort of being at his white hacienda.
Not even stopping for a quick breakfast, Lancer collected the team of horses needed to pull the wagon, hitching them up with practiced precision. Obediently, the two horses moved down the street to stop in front of a dismal building where Murdoch rapped on the door. It didn't take long for Mortimer Woods to answer the insistent knocking. After all, he had been well-paid for his services.
Neither man said a word as together the two men loaded the wagon. After a brief handshake, the tall rancher climbed into the seat, setting the horses into motion.
As the miles passed underneath the wooden wheels, Murdoch's thoughts returned to the now hazy images of his dream. It should have been that way. It shouldn't all have gone wrong, however, Murdoch Lancer was nothing if not a realist. There had been no flickering pulse when he had turned his older son over. There had been no need for Leticia Leeds to visit Webster. Murdoch had sent the telegram to Harlan Garrett after telling the Webster sheriff where to find the bodies of Turner and Ruiz. Now, all that remained was to tell Teresa and Johnny.
back over his shoulder, he could see the securely-tied pine coffin in the
back of the wagon. Scott's choice had cost the young blond man everything.