* Death of a major character
Cautiously, the small man moved among the fine, large trees along the slopes of the foothills. The day had started clear and bright, but clouds had moved in as the man had stalked his prey. He had seen the familiar tracks; he had seen glimpses of brown through the undergrowth, but hadn't been able to take a clear shot. He wanted a kill, not just a wounding. Such an offense would not to the liking of a man of his skill.
In the distance he could hear a whisper as a large body moved nearby. This time the hunter would have his prey; he couldn't miss as long as he was careful - - and he would be. This wasn't his first kill after all.
Taking care to stay upwind, the booted man surveyed the area in front of him - - his rifle ready to take the shot as soon as he could see the target. Then just in front of him, the dark body moved presenting a tantalizing target. With an economy of motion, the hunter lifted his rifle, aimed and fired. A heavy thud echoed through the forest while the hunter hurriedly ran forward to claim his prize.
In front of him lay the large animal he had fired at. Its eyes rolled with pain as it tried to struggle to its four feet. Blood dripped from the left rear leg as the horse tried to steady itself.
The astonished hunter walked over to the bloodied animal, using comforting sounds to calm the frightened beast which started to shy away from the stranger's touch. The hunter could see that the horse was badly wounded, but should survive if it could be given care. Pulling out a bandana, the dark-haired man pressed it to the wound, only to have the horse react to the pain, nearly trampling the hunter. It was only then when he jumped back from the deadly hooves that he saw the body underneath a fallen tree branch.
The horse had thrown its rider when the bullet had grazed the left flank. The rider caught unaware had fallen silently under a branch which over time had taken on an inverted U shape, hiding the body until the hunter had nearly fallen against him.
Kneeling down, it was obvious that the deerstalker could do nothing for the man in the blue shirt and light-colored jacket since his head was at an odd angle from a broken neck. Still, he reached out to place one hand on the stilled heart.
Shaking from the sight, the hunter pulled the body up and onto his own horse. The walk back to the ranch where he lived would take some time, but he couldn't ride, not with the body slung over the saddle. The fallen man's pathetic horse trailed after the palomino sensing that was his only chance of help.
By the time the sad party reached the gate of the great ranch, the air of evening was chilly as puffs of heated breath emerged from the hunter's mouth. Reaching the door to his home, he knew the moment of reckoning had come.
The large man, who emerged from the white house, blanched when he saw what the hunter had brought with him. Controlling himself as he was taught when young, the ranch owner came to stand by the body on the horse. Keeping his voice steady he asked of the hunter, "What happened?"
"It was an accident. I was trailing a big buck. I thought I had him, but it was the horse. The bullet grazed the chestnut so he must have fallen off when the horse reared. His neck is broken. It was an accident," the young man pleaded.
The older man's eyes focused on the hunter for a long moment before he placed one large hand on the other man's shoulder. "I believe you, son, but we still have a problem."
The younger man's voice took on a hint of desperation. "What was he doing out there anyway?"
"He said he wanted to find a tree to put up tomorrow night, for Christmas Eve you know. He wanted to celebrate as he did back east."
The dark-haired man stared at his father. "What are we going to do?"
"First of all, we take him inside. I'll ask Maria to take care of getting the body ready for burial. You tell anyone who asks that you found him up in the woods. Someone shot him, but you don't know who."
"Who's going to believe that?"
"I'll make sure they do. I've lost one son and I don't intend to lose another."
The younger man stood there, out of the corner of his eye he could just see the face of the man who had been his brother and a stranger up until a few months before. "It was an accident."
"And I said I believe you. The point is we have to minimize the damage done here. Because of your reputation and the fact that he was an equal partner in the ranch, there might be some people who'd believe it wasn’t an accident. This way we'll prevent that."
"But the ranch hands. . . ."
"Will believe any story I tell them. Besides, you don't see any of them out here, do you? They don't want to know."
The son looked around. His father was right. Not one of the vaqueros was in sight.
"C'mon, let's take him in. Take him straight to his room. I don't want Teresa to see until I've prepared her."
Carefully, the two men carried in the slim body into what had been his bedroom for the few months he had lived at the great ranch. "I'll get Maria. She's done this before. You stay here with him until then. I'll talk to Teresa. She's going to be upset."
The son nodded. "I'll stay here."
The tall rancher glanced over his shoulder. "You do that."
Five minutes later, the young man's reverie at his brother's bedside was broken by a scream and the sound of sobs, but then the house became quiet as the door opened to the room. Maria entered, stopped, crossed herself as she caught sight of the figure on the bed and then quietly announced, "I shall take care of him, senor. I believe your father needs you."
A month after the quiet burial of the older son of the house, life had returned to normal at the great ranch. Life had to go on. Grief couldn't last when so much work had to be done.
The solemn holidays were long past when a man in a buggy drove up to the white house. Dressed in a fine suit, William Tucker looked around the ranch he had heard so much about. It was an impressive sight.
"Can I help you?"
Tucker turned to see a tall man approach him. "Are you Murdoch Lancer?"
"Yes, I am. Is there something I can do for you?"
"I have been asked by the law firm that represents Harlan Garrett of Boston to contact you because of the death of his grandson, Scott."
"I sent him a wire about the sad news."
"Ah, yes, he appreciated that, however, there is some business we need to discuss as a result of that tragedy."
"Won't you come in?"
"Thank you, sir. I'm sure this will take only a few minutes."
Johnny Lancer walked into the white house just as William Tucker's buggy moved out under the gate. "Who was that and what did he want?"
The Scotsman stared up at his son. "He's a lawyer representing Harlan Garrett, Scott's grandfather. It seems that we didn't realize that Scott made a will before he left for the War. He didn't revise it before coming to California so the provisions are still in effect.
He left everything to his grandfather, including any property he owned at the time of his death so we have a new partner. Harlan Garrett now owns one-third of Lancer."