CHAPTER ONEIt had been one of those days when the heat just seared through a body - one of those days when a siesta looked not only appealing, but also downright sensible, when you could taste the dust in your mouth and feel it grating on your nerves.
The day had been even more exhausting than usual, working out in the hot sun. Even the jackrabbits had enough sense to lay in the shade on a day like this, but the higher species knows better. Work needs to be done no matter what.
So sundown had been a welcome relief to man and beast alike. Inside the Lancer ranch house in particular, with its thick Mexican style walls and large rooms, built as a barricade against just this sort of heat, the relief was palpable. It was several degrees cooler in the great room than it was outside, but even with the sun long ago down it was still hot. It was as if even the moonlight was searing the night air and the ground below.
Supper was long ago finished in the Lancer household and Scott sat quietly reading a book and sipping on a brandy, his long legs stretched out in front of him as he sat in the big, comfortable armchair. He had his elbow on the small table beside the chair and leaned his head against his fist, concentrating on the words. He had his father’s fair hair and his mother’s eyes, and the quiet self-confidence of a man brought up to appreciate the finer things in life.
Johnny, on the other hand, lay stretched out on the couch, his legs crossed over the arm at one end, arms folded across his chest and his head resting on the other end. His hat was pulled over his face, revealing the dark hair and features of his mother’s Mexican heritage, and barely disguising the fact that he was quietly dozing. Even asleep he reminded Scott of a cat curled up but ready for the unexpected.
Despite the heat, there was a feeling a peace and quiet in the room that was rare in the house. When Teresa entered the room, she almost sighed with satisfaction. All too often she was called on to be the voice of reason in this family, an intermediary between on or other of the boys and their father and it was hard going sometimes. It was a self-appointed role admittedly, but one she took seriously.
Teresa's father had been Murdoch's foreman for 15 years and, unlike Murdoch’s sons, she had been born here and had lived at LANCER all of her life. She had looked on Murdoch Lancer as a kind of uncle and had loved and respected him since childhood.
After her father's death, Murdoch had taken her in as his ward and took over the responsibility for her. He treated her as the daughter he had never had and in return she fussed over him and saw to his comforts, but she did it out of love and loyalty to him rather than out of gratitude.
She was probably the only person who really understood how much his sons meant to Murdoch Lancer. She had been there when they had first arrived. It had even been herself who had broken the news to them that they WERE brothers. Both had grown up thinking of themselves as an only child, and it had been Teresa who had told them otherwise. Murdoch Lancer had had two wives, and two sons.
Their return to LANCER had been fraught with risk for him. He had not known then whether they would stay and accept him or turn away and leave for good. Unfortunately, he was a man not much given to showing his feelings and his sons often got the wrong idea.
For that matter, his sons were just the same. Sometimes she found them so frustrating. None of them seemed to see that they were all cut from the same mould – stubborn and proud. Scott could sometimes see it, but only when it came to intervening between Johnny and his father. He had the same blind spot when it was himself at outs with Murdoch.
As she came into the room, she caught Scott’s attention as she swiped Johnny’s feet off the end of the couch and scowled at him as he swung his feet to the floor and roused himself.
“Feet off the sofa Johnny,” she reprimanded him, smiling despite herself as she watched him catch his falling hat and look up at her with half-closed eyes that only partially focused on her. “Why don’t you just go up to bed?”
“Too early for bed,” he answered.
“You’d be more comfortable sleeping there than here,” she told him.
“I wasn’t sleepin’,” he replied, sheepishly, “just restin’.”
“If you’d been ‘restin’ any louder, we’d have all had to leave the room,” Scott scoffed.
“All that snoring was enough to wake the dead,” Scott replied, smiling wryly at his brother, and winking conspiratorially at Teresa.
Johnny looked down as he turned his hat over in his hands. “Well now Scott,” he said to his brother, “I happen to know that I don’t snore.”
Scott closed his book and put it down on the table, sitting up and paying attention.
“Oh now, this I’ve got to hear. Just how do you know that?” he asked.
Johnny smiled knowingly, and glanced over in Teresa’s direction before answering “Oh well,” he replied, turning again to face Scott, “I just got it on good authority is all.”
Teresa looked a little embarrassed and Scott smiled broadly and decided to change the topic. “Is Murdoch still in there with the mail, Teresa?” he asked.
Glad of the change she answered, “Yes he is. I asked him if he wanted some coffee but I don’t think he even heard me. He seemed to be pretty involved with something.”
At that moment Murdoch Lancer strode into the room and halted the conversation. He was a giant of a man, with features hewn rough from years of working on the land. But there was still enough about him to suggest that he must have been a very good-looking man in his prime. Although his hair had gone grey watching his ranch prosper, and he had a leg that still played up on him sometimes and was a constant reminder of the bullet he had taken in the back three years ago, he was still a man to be reckoned with.
There weren’t many men who would stand up to Murdoch Lancer; with the exception of his sons, and of course, Jelly Hoskins, the brusque little handyman who had taken up residence and thought he ran the place.
They all knew, by the frown he wore, that something was up.
All eyes turned to him and he briefly glanced in Johnny's direction as he passed him and said abruptly "Good, you're awake. I want to talk to both of you."
"I wasn't asleep," Johnny repeated quietly but his father chose to ignore him and continued into the centre of the room.
In his hand he held a piece of paper. He slammed it down on the table beside Scott and asked "Do either of you know anything about this?"
Scott picked up the paper and Johnny stood up and walked over to stand behind him so that he could read it over his shoulder.
He need not have bothered. Scott read the letter aloud.
If you, your family or your men, should be found on my property, I will take immediate legal action.
I advise you to take this letter seriously and desist from further persecution.
Sincerely, S. Connolly’”
Scott stopped reading and looked at Murdoch. “Nice,” he commented.
Johnny took the letter from his brother’s hand to read it himself.
“Fancy way to say ‘Trespassers will be shot,” was his interpretation. He tossed the letter onto the table.
“Well Lancers anyway,” Scott corrected.
Murdoch looked at his sons and dropped down heavily into the other armchair in the room. “Then it means nothing to either of you?”
“Of course not!” Scott answered quickly.
“Nope,” was all Johnny said, curtly.
“Of course they don’t,” Teresa told him, surprised that he had even asked.
Murdoch sighed and ran his hand through his thick greying hair. It was a habit he had developed over the years when he was worried. “I had to ask,” he told them. He had never wanted to believe that either of them knew anything about the situation behind the letter. He’d been confident that Scott knew nothing, but Johnny? He hadn’t wanted to think so, but with Johnny who knew? He would trust him with his life, but he could never make himself completely trust him in his loyalty to the ranch.
Johnny’s past was so totally alien to his own. He was still hard to get close to. Sure, he was his son. He loved him and he would do anything for him, but somehow they always rubbed each other the wrong way.
“You didn’t make this man an offer for his ranch then?” Scott asked.
“No,” Murdoch told him. “I would have discussed it with you two before going that far.”
Scott picked up the letter and examined it again. “It’s postmarked Hobson’s Crossing. Where is that?” he asked.
“Never heard of it,” Johnny answered.
Murdoch replied to both of them. “I know it. It’s a little town about a day’s ride east of here.”
“East? That would put it right out in the foothills. That’s not even close to LANCER. Why would we be interested anyway?” Scott asked.
Murdoch considered the question. He had been trying to reason this out for hours; from the first time he had read the letter.
“I don’t know Scott,” he told him at last. “But this man seems convinced that we are interested - interested enough to be making things hard for him to make him sell.”
“Then I don’t get it?” Scott said.
“Someone’s using our name to hide behind while they grab his land,” his father explained.
“You mean land pirates again?” said Scott.
“Pretty much,” Johnny told him.
“Then why bother using our name?”
“If everyone thinks it’s LANCER,” Murdoch explained further, “then no-one is out looking for the real outlaws. They’re free and clear while we take the blame. What’s more, they probably think no-one is going to be coming after us, so we would probably never even have found out about it.”
Everyone in the room was aware that there was power and wealth behind the name of Lancer. None of them underestimated it. Murdoch had built the ranch into one of the largest in all of California, and he was a man of undisputed influence. Now that his sons were back home with him, the ranch had become even stronger.
And there were those who were aware that his younger son had also been known as Johnny Madrid. They were even more apt to stand in awe of LANCER. Johnny Madrid had a reputation. As a gunfighter, there were few to equal him.
“Not that unusual,” Johnny added. “Happened to me a coupla times. You know, ‘Johnny Madrid killed someone or other’, when I was really a hundred miles away at the time.”
Murdoch stood up angrily and paced across the room. He turned back to both of his sons and said, “Well this is different. They’re using the Lancer name, and that name stands for something. They’re not going to get away with it.”
Scott drew in a breath quickly as he saw the offended expression on Johnny’s face. Teresa saw it too and almost flinched but his father didn’t seem to notice it. Then again, he seldom did. That was why he and Johnny argued so often. Murdoch sometimes seemed to have no idea of how to handle his younger son.
“So what do we do about it?” Scott asked, hoping that this time Johnny would ignore his father’s insensitivity and worry about the problem at hand.
Johnny said nothing.
Murdoch stopped pacing and said, “I’ll ride over and find out just what the devil is going on is what we’ll do.”
Johnny looked him in the eye and scoffed “Oh now there’s a good idea. What are you going to do? Ride up to the front porch and say ‘Hello, I’m Murdoch Lancer’? You’ll have your head blown off before you get a chance to get off your horse!”
Murdoch looked momentarily flustered but he had to admit that his son was right. There was no way that the man who had written that letter was going to give him a chance to have much to say. He was too stubborn to admit it aloud though. His reaction, though, was to ask angrily, “You have a better idea?”
Johnny stuck his hands in his belt and smiled as he replied. “Sure. No-one would be surprised if Johnny Madrid turned up if they’ve got a range war brewing up there. I could find out what the story is.”
Scott shook his head. “Or you’d be the match that set it off,” he said. “Besides, they might know that Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer are one and the same. It’s not exactly a secret you know.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Johnny admitted, turning his head towards his brother, “but I can handle any surprises,” he added with a smile that was full of lethal implications.
Scott stood up with the others. “Or I could go,” he said.
His father and his brother looked at him in surprise. “You?” Murdoch asked, the shock obvious in his voice. “It would be the same as if I went. They’d shoot you on sight.”
Scott smiled. “I can use a false name. They need never know I’m a Lancer,” he explained.
Murdoch thought about it for a moment, and then shook his head. “No I don’t like it.”
“Me neither, Scott,” his brother agreed.
Scott stubbornly persisted with the idea. “Why not? I could find out what’s going on, come right back and then we can get the whole thing sorted out between us.”
Both Johnny and Murdoch knew he could look after himself. Scott had come through for Johnny as many times as he had for Scott. They knew, too, that he had fought in the war and survived a southern prison camp. He was certainly able to take care of himself, but it was so hard to forget his Boston upbringing sometimes.
Johnny looked towards his father and exchanged a questioning look. “Maybe he’s right Murdoch,” he reluctantly said.
Murdoch sighed deeply and turned away from them both for a moment. He paced across the room again.
“I know he is,” he admitted finally without turning back to them, “but I still don’t like it,” he added.
“Look Murdoch, I’m not a fool,” Scott assured him. “When I get there I’ll send a wire to let you know and then I’ll keep in touch regularly. It’ll probably only take a few days anyway.”
Murdoch relented and turned back to face his sons. “Alright Scott, you go then. But don’t go getting mixed up in anything there. Just find out what’s happening and get back here. We can work out how best to handle it together.”
Johnny spoke up again. “He can’t send a wire to LANCER. What if word got out? Nothin’s a secret in small towns like that.”
“He could send it to me,” Teresa suggested, glad to finally have some way to help. “He could send it to Teresa O’Brien at Morro Coyo, and we can let the telegraph office know to expect it.”
Scott smiled gratefully at her. “You see how easy it’ll be?”
Johnny and his father looked at each other and each could see the unease in the other’s eyes.
“Sure, brother,” Johnny said.
Murdoch had provided him with enough directions to find the small town of Hobson’s Crossing. It shouldn’t be hard but it would be a full day’s ride and with the heat to contend with, he wanted enough time up his sleeve to allow for a couple of breathers along the way.
Teresa had provided him with enough food to feed a small army on the way. It was packed into his saddlebags along with a couple of changes of clothes.
A clap on the shoulder and a short “Watch your back, brother!” was what he had gotten from Johnny. He didn’t anticipate needing to though. He planned to be away only for a few days. Long enough to find Connolly and find out just what was going on. Then he would head back to Lancer and they could take whatever action they thought necessary together.
Scott followed the river for an hour or so. In the three summers he had spent at LANCER, this year it was the lowest he had seen it. Even Murdoch and some of the men who had been there for years admitted it was getting low, but they didn’t seem really concerned yet.
LANCER would be luckier that some of the smaller ranches, if the summer continued like this. The river ran right through LANCER land and provided plenty of water to the ranch. However, many of the others relied on smaller streams and the summer was already taking its toll on them.
Murdoch had already raised the subject of water at supper one night. They had all agreed that if it got bad, they would invite their neighbours to water their stock at the river. Being ‘neighbourly’ was important to Murdoch. He had fought along side of many of the other ranchers in the valley to hold on to their land. Even now, there were times when it was important that they all stick together. Being the biggest in the valley did not always make them less vulnerable.
Eventually the road left the riverside and wound off eastward. He pulled his hat forward to try to keep the early morning glare out of his eyes. He was riding straight into the sun and with it pounding already on his face. It was not long before he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves.
By noon he was looking for a shady spot where he could stop for something to eat, hopefully one with water handy for his horse.
He had taken the added precaution of not riding Charlemagne, his own horse. The horse he was riding belonged to one of their riders and did not wear the Circle L brand of the LANCER ranch. Jelly had pointed out that the brand was well enough known to be a give-away if he was intent on not using his own name.
Scott had given some thought to the name he would use. He had decided that it should be something that would not be uncomfortable and would be easy to answer to, so he chose his grandfather’s name. Scott Garrett would be easy for him to remember and he had told Johnny and Murdoch that that was how he would sign the wire he would send them when he arrived.
He came across a good spot with both shade and water where he could stop for a while. Taking his hat off, he wiped his brow with his sleeve and dismounted. He arched his back and stretched to relieve his aching muscles, cramped from hours in the saddle. He took the canteen from his saddle and took a long drink, then he took the package of sandwiches and biscuits that Teresa had given him from the saddlebag and walked over sit under a tree.
Not for the first time, he silently blessed Teresa for her forethought as he opened the package. She might fuss over them, but you could always rely on her to think of everything.
He decided that he had been making good time. The road had become more of a rutted track as he travelled further from the main stage route, and the going was hotter and dustier as the day wore on.
He sat under the tree, his horse grazing nearby, and wondered again what his first move should be when he got there. As he sat, hot, dusty and drenched in perspiration, under the tree, he thought that his first move should really be a cold drink and then a bath.
Well, maybe the drink would be the only one of the two options he would be able to take up, but it was sure something to look forward to.
He leaned his head back on the tree and closed his eyes. Oh if his friends back east could see him now. Scott Lancer - well bred, cultured and the best dressed man in Boston, and look at him now. There were certainly a number of young ladies who would be taken aback to say the least. The thought brought a smile to his face. Oh yes, he thought, the ladies, and his smile grew wider.
He finished eating and rested up for half an hour then remounted and continued on his way. The sooner he got to Hobson’s Crossing, the closer he was to that drink, and the thought was getting sweeter all the time.
His first inclination was to have that drink he had been promising himself for hours, but instead he looked for what must pass as a telegraph office so that he could send that wire he had promised.
The telegraph office, post office and general store turned out to be all in one so it was not so hard to find. He sent the wire and headed for the saloon, tied his horse to the hitch rail and took his hat off to slap the dust off both it and himself, before going in.
Putting his hat back on he walked into the saloon. He took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the muted light in the room. It was no different from most of the saloons he had seen – rough-hewn wooden tables and chairs scattered around the room, with a few men there already getting an early start on the evening, and the long wooden bar at the far end of the room with one barkeeper behind it. There were no trimmings to the room. In fact the décor, if you could call it that, was pretty sparse, not even the usual mirror behind the bar.
He strolled up to the bar and asked for a whiskey. Before anything else he was going to have that drink he had promised himself hours ago. The barkeep was a tall thin man with a moustache that looked like it was last trimmed months ago and thinning hair that was greying at the temples.
“Hot out there I guess?” the man asked casually as he poured the drink for Scott.
“Sure is. Too hot to ride any further today,” Scott told him. He took a sip of the drink to taste it and then finished it off. Maybe it was not up to his expectations at home, but at this point he didn’t really care. It hit the spot and that was what mattered.
“Another?” the barkeep asked, still standing in front of him with the bottle open.
“Sure, why not,” Scott replied leaning on the counter of the bar and putting the glass down for the man to fill it. He had given some thought, during the afternoon, about how to broach the subject of the Connolly ranch and its supposed problems with the locals. He did not want to just walk in and start out with nosy questions. He could think of no quicker way to arouse suspicion and get himself into trouble than by asking straight out questions. So he had decided on a different tack, and waited for the right moment.
The barkeep filled his glass and waited hopefully with the bottle open again. Scott took this drink more slowly though and the barkeep put the lid on this time.
“Passing through, are yuh?” The man asked him.
Scott nodded. “Just drifting,” he told him. “Running short of cash though. I guess I’ll have to look for some work soon.” Scott held the glass in front of him, looking at the glass but watching the man behind the bar out of the corner of his eye. “Any work going around here?” he asked casually.
The barkeep shook his head regretfully. “No, not that I’ve heard,” he replied. “What sorta work you lookin’ for?”
“Ranch work mostly, but like I said, I’m getting short of money. I can’t be choosy.”
Scott heard the men at the table directly behind him talking amongst themselves in hushed tones. One of them laughed loud and spoke out. “There’s always work goin’ at Connolly’s!” he said loudly, and his companions laughed with him.
Scott grabbed his chance with the opening. He half turned towards the men, three of them, sitting near him, while the barkeep returned with “Now Jess, he’s lookin’ for work, not trouble!”
The three men at the table looked like everyday wranglers, dressed in range clothes and wearing spurs on their boots. They were playing cards and drinking tequila, but it seemed to Scott that it was pretty early for them to be in town if they were working at one of the local ranches. It was still daylight and on most ranches that meant that they should still be working.
The man with the loud laugh sat on the far side of the table facing Scott, rocking his chair back on two legs and he had his hat tipped back on his head in a brash sort of way. Scott took an instant dislike to him, but he had taken the conversation in the right direction for Scott’s purposes.
“What sort of work would that be?” Scott asked the man who had spoken.
The man looked Scott up and down and formed his opinion of the man. He took in Scott’s dusty but tidy clothing and clean-shaven face and decided he could have some fun with him.
“Well now,” the man began with a grin that made Scott think of a cat toying with a mouse, “they’re always looking for a ranch hand out there.” He grinned towards his companions before continuing. “Men just never seem to stay on. Pay must be lousy I guess.”
His friends laughed loudly again. “That’s right Jess,” one of them laughed, “Man’d wanna be paid real well out there.”
Scott turned the rest of the way around to face them, leaning his elbow back against the bar and taking another drink.
“Why would that be?” he asked, as nonchalantly as he could manage to sound.
The man looked straight at him and leered at him. “Well sir,” he said, “a man works hard out at Connolly’s just stayin’ alive I guess.”
The barkeep interrupted the conversation. “Now Jess, give it up,” he said to the man, then to Scott he added, “You don’t wanna go lookin’ for work out there mister. Better to just move on to the next town and look for work there.”
Scott looked back towards the barkeep and asked, “Why? What’s wrong with getting work at the Connolly ranch?”
The barkeep shook his head again, almost sadly. “Just ain’t safe,” he answered.
The man rocking his chair sneered again. “You gotta have eyes in the back of your head to work there.”
Scott watched him lower the legs of his chair to the floor and pour himself another glass of tequila from the bottle they were sharing. The ‘back-shooting’ suggestion had not been lost on him.
“They got some trouble out there?” he asked.
Jess looked up at him. “You could say that. Happens they’re standing in the way of progress, you might say.”
“That’s right mister. Progress.”
Scott looked hard at his protagonist and decided to take a chance. “Whose progress?” he asked.
The expression on the man’s face changed from humour to malevolence. “Can’t say as I know. But progress is progress mister, and you don’t wanna get in the way.”
Scott finished his drink and put it down on the bar. “Never a good idea,” he agreed with the man Jess. “A man can get hurt that way,” he added.
Jess held the glass on the table and gave Scott a warning look. “That’s right,” he said. “A man could.”
Scott decided that he had gotten as much information as he was going to get this way. Not to mention the fact that the atmosphere had taken a decidedly chilly turn. There was no point in pressing his luck this early, but he had learned one thing for certain. While it was not LANCER that was causing Connolly his problems, problems he most definitely had.
should he go from here? Straight to the source was probably the only answer.
He had to find the Connolly ranch, and he was not going to ask Jess for
the directions. There was no point in tipping his hand right from the start.
Jess and his friends would find out soon enough that he was heading for
the Connolly place. He did not want them knowing yet.
he knew that that would not be good. They were not what they looked like.
He had quickly guessed that much. What they really were? Well he had his
suspicions there too. Who they worked for in that case, though, he had
no idea. And that was what he wanted to find out above all else. Who was
using the Lancer name to camouflage their own actions?
Somehow he knew that that would not be good. They were not what they looked like. He had quickly guessed that much. What they really were? Well he had his suspicions there too. Who they worked for in that case, though, he had no idea. And that was what he wanted to find out above all else. Who was using the Lancer name to camouflage their own actions?
He paid the barkeep and said “thanks.”
“Anytime mister,” the man replied, then leaned forward and whispered to him confidentially “be careful mister. There’s a lot of trouble at the Connolly place and you really don’t wanna go getting involved.”
Scott nodded. “Thanks again,” he said quietly and turned and walked out of the room.
The sunlight and the heat hit him immediately. It was getting late, but there was still plenty of light left in the day and he thought that he would find out how far the Connolly ranch was from town before deciding on whether to get a meal and a room for the night.
He headed back to the general store across the street. Someone there would be able to give him directions.
He had thought of putting this off until tomorrow, but he did not like the idea of Jess and his friends finding out that he had been asking for directions to the ranch after all. They might have been tempted to show him just how ‘bad’ an idea it was to come out here.
Scott opened the gate, rode in and then closed the gate again behind him. He rode slowly up the worn and rutted track towards the house.
His enquiries with the storekeeper had led him to believe that it was a very small place with only a few men to work it. That gave him all the more reason to wonder just what it was about the Connolly ranch that made it important enough to cause them so much trouble.
He crossed a bridge over a pretty little stream as he rode up the path to the house. There was good grazing and good water. Sure a man could make a pretty good living on a place like this. Connolly had picked a good position all right, but it was still a small, out of the way, place. It made no sense to Scott yet.
It was a well-built house for such a small homestead. It was neat and he could even see curtains at the windows. There was a hitch rail and a couple of steps up into the house and a small porch in front of the door. All in all, it looked like a nice, comfortable little place.
He was just about to call out to warn them of his approach when the door opened. He was not surprised by the sight of the big old Henry .44 rifle pointing at him as he got close to the house, but he was certainly surprised to see that it was aimed at him by a young woman!
“You can stop right there,” she warned as he got to within a few feet of the house.
He couldn’t see much of her.
He could tell that she was tall and blonde, and that she had a lovely figure that showed to advantage in blue jeans and shirt, but he couldn’t think of that now. She was pointing the Henry at him with a determination that suggested to him that she meant to use it if she had too.
He made no attempt to dismount and without making a sudden move, he took his hat off and held it politely in his right hand while holding the reins with his left.
Well, it was a given that she was not going to answer any questions he had for her right now, so he changed his plans and decided to find a way to earn her trust.
“Sorry to scare you ma’am,” he said politely, “just looking for work is all.”
She didn’t move a muscle and kept the rifle aimed steadily at his chest. The ice-cold stance and the unwavering weapon chilled him.
“Who are you?” she asked coldly, “What do you want here?”
He smiled at her reassuringly. “My name is Scott Garrett ma’am, and like I said, I’m just looking for work. Is Mr Connolly around?”
Her head came up slowly, as if she were taking a better look at him, but the Henry remained where it was, so he stayed where he was and still made no move to dismount.
“You can’t be from around here then,” she told him coldly, “or you’d know that my uncle died six months ago.”
Scott moved uncomfortably in his saddle and said, “I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m still looking for work. I heard you might need a hand.”
“Did you hear that in town?” she asked, with an icy touch to her voice. “If you did, they were having some fun with you. I’ve got no work here for strangers.”
“Look I was passing though town and I’m low on cash.” He shifted uncomfortably again, keeping his horse as still as he could. “I did hear you were having some trouble out here and might need a hand.”
She lowered the gun slightly and looked him in the eye. “I don’t need a gunfighter.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. I’m not a gunfighter!” Scott replied with a disarming smile.
“Well, if you know we’ve got trouble, why are you here?” she asked.
“I guess I don’t have much choice,” he told her candidly, “I need the money. I don’t want to starve, you know.”
“A man would be a fool to come out here looking for work when he knows he could get killed. Are you a fool Mr Garrett?” she asked him frankly.
Scott put both hands on the saddle-horn and straightened up in the saddle.
“I’ve been called a fool once or twice, I admit, but I don’t think I am one,” he told her. Then he smiled again at her and continued, “and I don’t plan to get killed.”
“No-one ever does,” she told him coolly.
This was getting him nowhere, he thought. “Look ma’am…”
“Miss,” she interrupted.
“Sorry, miss,” he corrected, “I’ve been in the saddle all day. I am tired, hot and dusty. If you’re not going to hire me, tell me now and I’ll head back into town before it gets too dark.”
She said nothing for a moment, and made no move. Then she lowered the gun and held it at waist level, but not pointed at him any longer. She revealed to him a lovely face and blonde hair tied back in what Teresa called a ‘pony-tail’.
“Alright then,” she relented and relaxed a little. “My name is Sarah Connolly and I own this place. The pay is twenty dollars a month plus room and board. Pay’s on the first of the month.” She nodded her head in the direction of the small bunkhouse over to the left of the house. “The bunkhouse is in that direction.”
“Thanks,” he told her. “I appreciate it.”
With chilling coolness, she added, “That’s alright, but I wouldn’t walk straight into the bunkhouse without knocking if I were you. If you think I’m jumpy, wait till you meet them.”
Scott dismounted and led his horse slowly over towards them. He tied the horse to the hitch rail outside the bunkhouse and removed the bedroll and saddlebags without saying anything to them.
When he turned back towards the door he found they had gone inside, obviously satisfied that he meant no harm to Sarah. He admired their loyalty anyway, if not their welcome.
He took the lady’s advice, however, and knocked before he entered the small wooden building that passed for a home for the ranch hands.He stood at the open door and let his eyes adjust to the half-light in the room. There were windows on both sides of the door and another on each of the sidewalls; all of them open to let as much air in as possible in the heat of the late afternoon. There was little or no light coming in now though and a lamp on a rough wooden table in the centre of the room was about all the light there was. He quickly took in the deck of cards and the two tin mugs on the table, probably last nights’ entertainment.
There was a washstand with a jug and basin and a towel hanging from a hook on the wall above it, and more hooks by the door where he was standing, where hats and coats could hang. There were six rough wooden bunks against the walls, most of them obviously empty with a flat well-used mattress rolled up on each to reveal the wooden slats of the bunks. However, two of them were all too obviously in use with bedding and personal belongings scattered untidily around them.
Once his eyes had adjusted to the light, he began trying to ignore the uninviting human odour of a room lived in by men who worked hard for their living and had all too much to do with horses all day.
Still, it might not be the most welcoming room he had ever entered but he was surprised to see that the room was reasonably clean. He had seen worse housekeeping in what some people actually called homes out here.
For a moment words failed him. “Good evening” hardly seemed appropriate in this company, so he took a leaf out of Johnny’s book and said “Howdy” with the most affable smile he could muster instead.
The men exchanged glances then the older of the two, a small, wiry man of around forty, replied with a gruff “Howdy” in reply.
Scott stayed where he was, unsure of how to approach the men from here. “Mind if I come in?” he asked at last.
The older man sighed and asked brusquely “You signed on have you?”
Scott took his hat off and walked slowly into the room. “Yep,” he replied and headed towards one of the spare bunks. “This one okay?” he asked.
“Take any one of ‘em,” the man replied curtly, “they’re all empty.” He looked Scott up and down critically. “Why?” he asked Scott.
Scott put his hat and saddlebags on the bunk and turned back to the man. “Why what?” he asked.
“Why’d you sign on here? You musta heard about the trouble we got here?”
“Well, I heard something about it, but not much. I need the money though,” Scott told him. “My name’s Scott Garrett by the way,” he added.
The man nodded towards the tall, skinny man on the other side of the room and said, “He’s Tom Rawlings and I’m Joe Nesbitt,” then he shook his head in wonder. “You got rocks in your head or somethin’ boy?” he said, “Comin’ here?”
Scott smiled at him. “Well you’re here,” he pointed out.
“We b’n here for years. Used to work for Miss Sarah’s uncle. We sorta inherited the troubles you might say. We sure didn’t sign on for ‘em,” he replied.
“Well, I didn’t sign on for trouble either,” Scott told him, “but if it comes I’ll handle it.”
“You any good with that gun son?” Joe asked him.
Unconsciously Scott looked down at the revolver at his hip. He didn’t wear it slung low like Johnny did, gunfighter style, and he sure didn’t have the speed or efficiency of his younger brother, but he wore it with confidence and he could use it when he had to.
“I can handle it,” Scott assured him.
“Let’s hope you don’t have to,” Joe said. He nodded towards the door. “If I was you, I’d go bed down that horse of yours, before it gets too dark. Supper’ll be ready soon anyways, and Miss Sarah likes us to be washed up for eatin’.”
Scott eyed him curiously and the man explained. “Now there’s only us here, we all eat with her up in the house. He winked and grinned broadly. “One o’ the perks o’ workin’ here is Miss Sarah cooks chow. Best eatin’ I’ve had in years,” he said. “So you go see to that horse and be ready when she calls us.”
Scott smiled and left the bunkhouse to take care of his horse, leaving the two men behind alone to discuss him.
“What d’ya think, Tom?” Joe asked his companion when he knew Scott was out of earshot. “We can use the help around here.”
Tom Rawlings nodded agreement again, but he said nothing.
“Yep. It’s getting’ kinda hard to keep this place runnin’ when we’re so short-handed.”
The younger man shrugged his shoulders carelessly.
“Dunno,” he said, “He don’t look like no drifter to me.”
Joe nodded in agreement. “Kinda well-shod for a drifter ain’t he?” he said, not really expecting an answer, “but he don’t look like no gun-hawk neither.”
“Nope,” the other man agreed. “He don’t.”
“Well,” said the older man jovially, smiling across the room at his friend. “Maybe he’s just plain dumb!”
Scott lay on the bunk trying to sleep, but it wouldn’t come. One thought kept going through his mind – the ‘S’ was for Sarah! Not for Sam or Seth or Steve. The ‘S’ in the signature on the letter had been for Sarah!
He could not sleep thinking about it.
And he was not comfortable.
The bunk was hard and the mattress, though is thankfully appeared to be free of fleas and lice, was lumpy and smelled. He’d made it up with his bedroll but he was sure that camping outside under the stars would still have been more comfortable – cooler too probably. He could just imagine Johnny’s reaction if he could see him now. He would find ‘Boston’, in this situation, terribly amusing.
He was tired and still felt dirty despite the rough cleanup he had had before supper.
His mind was full of the events of the day. He went over and over the conversation at supper. Its revelations echoed in his mind with appalling clarity.
Joe had certainly been right about Sarah’s cooking. Supper had been one definite plus in the day. With the light in the room he had been able to see her better too.
She hadn’t changed out of her blue jeans, but they certainly did her figure no harm at all. She was tall and slim and her long blonde hair, still tied back, was escaping its bonds in wisps around her face. He eyes, he discovered in the light, were brown and big enough to swim in. Long, elegant lashes fringed them, and they gave her face a pretty, almost elfin look. Around her neck she wore a plain gold locket that was barely visible under the open-necked men’s shirt she wore.
To his way of thinking, it seemed a shame to see her here, tucked away in this little ranch, far away from society. He imagined how she would look, dressed in fine clothes and jewels and toasted by the cream of society.
He hardly thought she would agree with him though. She seemed to be perfectly at home here with just the few of them around her for company.
The interior of the house was more a less as he had expected it to be after seeing the neat exterior. There were gingham curtains at the windows and a cloth on the table, which had been set neatly with four places. There was a neat kitchen and, where the table and chairs was located and there was a drawing room where he found a couple of comfortable looking ‘easy chairs’ for company and a small table. He was surprised to see two sets of roughly made bookshelves, full to overflowing with books.
She noticed his interest and asked him “Do you like books Mr Garrett?”
“Scott,” he corrected amiably, “and yes I do.”
“You’re welcome to borrow any of them. It would be nice to have someone around here to discuss them with again.” She eyed Rawlings and Nesbitt impishly. “Tom and Joe are not exactly interested.”
“’Fraid not Miss Sarah’” Joe replied, unembarrassed.
Scott had a closer look at the titles and was a little surprised to see Longfellow, Emerson, Dickens and Thackeray – an interesting collection of books to find in a little ranch house in this out of the way part of the country.
“Most of them were Uncle Tim’s,” she explained, “but some of them are mine – the Brontes and the Austens, and some of the poets.”
“An excellent collection,” he commented standing up and walking to the table to join the others.
“Thankyou,” she said and gave him a curious glance, before turning back to take her own seat.
Although the talk around the table started out mostly about what jobs would need to be done tomorrow, Scott decided to take a chance and turn the conversation towards ‘the troubles’.
“So is anyone going to tell me exactly what I’ve gotten myself into?” he asked candidly. “I’ve had a lot of warnings, but no details.”
There was silence at the table, as though he had brought up a subject that was taboo. Then Joe spoke up. “Well you’d better take ‘em seriously son. They mean business.”
“Who does?” Scott asked.
“The Lancers, boy,” Joe told him, bluntly. The conviction with which the man spoke startled Scott, even though he had known that the Lancer name was being abused here. There was no doubt in Joe’s mind, at least, and no one had spoken up to disagree with him. Whoever was doing it, had done a thorough job of convincing them.
Scott feigned surprise, and answered “LANCER? Isn’t that the big ranch in the valley?”
“Yep,” Joe told him as he continued eating.
“What do they want with you?” he asked. “I mean, no offence intended Joe, but don’t they own half the valley?”
“More than half, I reckon,” Joe replied. “But I guess they want more. Men like that have never got enough.”
“But why this place?”
Joe looked at him tolerantly. “Son, you remember that li’l ol’ stream you crossed comin’ up here to the house this afternoon?” he said.
“Yes,” Scott replied, intrigued.
“Well in the spring, that little stream triples in size from the spring run-off up in the mountains. It’s the biggest of the feeder streams for the river.”
Scott stared at him, too stunned by the revelation to reply at once. “You mean that stream is the headwaters for the river?” he asked when, at last, he got his wits about him.
Joe grinned as he watched Scott’s face. “Yep. That water out there, son, is where most of LANCER’s water comes from, an’ there are a couple of others that run into it further down on Miss Sarah’s land too.”
Scott was appalled, though he tried not to show it. He fought hard to appear as disinterested as he could. “Then whoever controls that water…”
“Controls LANCER’s water. That’s right son,” Joe told him smiling.
Scott sat silently for a while, hoping that they did not see through him to the awful reality he was facing. All this time they had only considered that this was a matter of pride in their name. Never had they thought, not even for a moment, that they were actually under any sort of threat. And yet, there it was, the awful truth was that LANCER itself could well be in trouble. If the water rights to that river fell into the wrong hands, LANCER would be at their mercy. That river was the lifeblood of the ranch.
He breathed out slowly and tried to control his thoughts. He didn’t want to give anything away now, because now, more than ever, he had good reason to stay on and sort this out.
“I admit, that gives them a motive, but why are you so sure it’s LANCER causing all the trouble?” he asked at last.
It was Sarah who spoke this time. “Oh, there’s no doubt about it. They haven’t even tried to hide it,” she told him.
To Scott’s surprise Tom finally joined the conversation. He was such a quiet man that one tended to forget he was even there. “Why don’t you show him the letter Miss Sarah?” he said.
“Letter?” Scott asked.
Sarah stood up and left the table. She walked over to one of the bookshelves and took a book from its shelf. She brought the book to the table and opened it to expose a single sheet of paper hidden inside. Scott noticed that the book was “Pride and Prejudice” and thought that, under different circumstances, he might have found it amusing.
She took it out and laid it in front of him. It was an offer to buy the ranch all right, but the signature was not Murdoch’s. Scott immediately picked out the glaring mistake the writer had made, but he said nothing about it. It was a poor forgery and would never have fooled anyone, let alone stood up in a court of law.
The letter was dated six months ago. That must have been when her uncle had died. It offered a small, but what was probably a fair amount that she had obviously turned down.
“Murdoch Lancer sent this to you?” he asked.
“To my uncle’s lawyer in town,” she told him. “It was when Uncle Tim died.”
“I gather you turned him down then,” Scott said.
“Of course, I love this place,” she told him emphatically. “Uncle Tim built it from nothing. Oh, it might not be anything fancy, but it was all he had and he left it to me.”
Scott nodded appreciatively. “Okay, so I take it he didn’t take no for an answer.” Scott surmised that there was more than just this letter to give them such certainty in the guilt of the Lancer family.
Anger filled her eyes and fired her words. “Oh no,” she retorted grimly, “That was just the beginning. They’ve been making our lives a misery ever since,” she told him.
“Like Miss Sarah said before son,” Joe added, “They don’t try to hide it. They pull down fences, run off cattle, why they even slaughtered a couple o’ head a month ago. An’ we’ve been shot at. We’ve had two men wounded in the last few months. There was six of us here when it started, but Tom an’ me are the only one’s left now. The others was just too plumb scared to stay on!”
“How badly were they wounded?”
“Well, Evans - he was the first to take off - he weren’t hurt at all. He just loped off when things started gettin’ rough,” Joe explained caustically. He looked at Scott and added, “Hope you got more sand ‘n that boy!”
Scott smiled. “So do I,” he said honestly.
Joe went back to his story. “Then Manuel, he got shot in the arm. Wasn’t bad but he’d had enough. An’ when poor old Kurt got hit in the shoulder, both him an’ Rosco called it quits. That was last month.”
Scott frowned in bewilderment. “What about the law? Surely when your men were wounded you reported it.”
Joe laughed sarcastically at him. “The Law!” he scoffed. “The tin star sheriff we got is too frightened to take on LANCER.”
“Oh I tried,” Sarah told him angrily. “He said we had no evidence.”
“Evidence!” Joe repeated. “What kind of evidence do you need when the man what did it is right there in front of your nose?”
Scott stared at him. “You know who did it?”
“Sure, we do,” Joe told him expansively, “I was there when Kurt got shot, an’ Miss Sarah was with Manuel when he got hit. It was Lancer’s own son – Johnny Madrid!”
“Johnny Madrid – Lancer’s son!” The words had stopped Scott like a bullet. They seemed to echo around the room, but he knew that it was only in his own ears. He caught his breath and stared at Joe, and he had to force the question out – “Madrid?”
Joe eyed him strangely. “You ain’t gonna tell me you never heard of Johnny Madrid are you?”
“No,” Scott hurried to answer. “No. What I mean is, I’ve heard of him.”
“Well, turns out he’s ol’ Murdoch Lancer’s son. There’s another son too, from what we hear, but we ain’t seen him yet. Don’t know much about him, an’ if Madrid is anything to go by, we don’t want to either.”
“You say you’ve actually seen Johnny Madrid here?” Scott asked incredulously.
“Sure,” Joe told him. “He even had the nerve to come right up to the house one time. Tryin’ to frighten Miss Sarah here.”
Scott knew that Johnny had not left the ranch for any length of time for months. Even if he had, whilst Scott might not know everything there was to know about Johnny Madrid, he knew that frightening women was not his style. Johnny would have found taken umbrage at the very suggestion, and that was never good. He was glad that Johnny wasn’t here to hear these accusations.
He was glad he was at home. He didn’t like to think about what his reaction would have been had he been here. He could almost picture that coldness that came into his eyes when Johnny Madrid took over and, as it always did, it chilled him to the bone.
Scott knew his brother best as the fun-loving young rebel that he mostly was, but he had seen his alter ego come out, on occasion, so he knew him also for the cold blooded killer that he could be.
On those occasions when he had been witness to that transformation, he had even stopped to wonder which was the real Johnny. He did not know Johnny Madrid well. He would never understand him, though he knew about his reputation as a killer. Perhaps, he was even a little frightened of him, if he had to admit it.
But he did know Johnny Lancer. And he knew that in some ways Johnny Madrid made Johnny Lancer the man that he was. So he had come to accept the situation and tried not to question it.
But someone was playing the part of Johnny Madrid here. They were using his reputation to both scare these people and to put the blame squarely at the door of LANCER.
This was getting complicated.
“You said you’ve had men wounded,” Scott said at last, as an awful thought dawned on him, “you don’t mean that your uncle.”
Sarah shook her head, adamantly. “No, he had a heart attack. He’d had them before. It was why I came here to look after him.”
Scott was relieved. At least murder was not going to be added to the accusations against his brother. Of course, he knew already that nothing could be proven against Johnny. If this ‘Johnny Madrid’ had been seen here regularly, they would not identify him as the same man.
“Well, if they come again, there’ll be three of us to handle them now,” Scott told them. Without thinking about it, the decision to stay on to help had been made. Having been made, he was content with it. He was certain that Murdoch and Johnny would understand. They would do the same in his place. Apart from the fact that LANCER was under threat, these people needed some help. And if there was one thing a Lancer was always falling for, it was a lost cause.
“Four,” Sarah corrected quietly but emphatically. “I can handle a gun too.”
Scott smiled at her. “Sorry, four!”
“We gotta watch out for each other son,” Joe told him. “If you’re stayin’, we’ve gotta stick together, an’ plan every move so that no-one is left out in the cold.”
“With four of us, at least we can always be in pairs anyway,” Scott added.
“Startin’ tomorrow,’ Joe agreed. “Tom, you stick around the ranch with Miss Sarah an’ Garrett an’ me’ll go fix that fence down by the west side of the stream again.”
Scott looked at him inquiringly. “Again?”
Joe grinned knowingly. “Sure! It’s a game we got going with ‘em. We put it up; they tear it down. Been goin’ on for a while now.”
Johnny rode up the drive to the house. Murdoch and Teresa were there waiting for him as he swung down off Barranca, and walked over to meet them.
In his shirt pocket was the wire from his brother. It didn’t say much but at least he knew that he was there okay.
“Well?” Murdoch asked him impatiently.
Johnny took the paper out of his pocket and handed it to him. “He’s okay,” Johnny said, smiling cheerfully. “Says he’ll send word in a couple of days if he’s gonna be any longer.”
“Well that’s a relief anyway,” Teresa sighed.
“Did you think he’d get lost or something?” Johnny teased her. “He’s only been gone one day.”
“The ‘or something’ is what we’re all concerned about Johnny,” Murdoch answered seriously.
Johnny looked down at his feet as he kicked at the dust with the toe of his boot. “Sure, Murdoch,” he agreed before looking up at his father, “but Scott’s a big boy. He can look after himself.”
“I know, I know,” his father admitted reluctantly. “I’m just worried he’s walking into trouble up there.”
“Well, I can always go see…….”
Murdoch shook his head quickly. “No, no. He says he’ll be in touch. We’ll wait and see what he says in the next wire.” He thought for a moment, and then added, “I don’t want him thinking we don’t think he can handle it.”
“Yeah, well I told Pat at the telegraph office that if any more of these come in from Scott, he should send them straight out here,” Johnny explained.
“Good thinking, Johnny,” Murdoch said off-handedly, in a moment of rare praise, as he turned back to go into the house. He folded the wire and tapped it again and again in the palm of his other hand, and walked distractedly inside.
“He’ll be alright won’t he?” Teresa asked Johnny, concern written on her face.
Johnny smiled at her with confidence. He put his arm around her shoulders and marched her in through the door. “You know Scott,” he said reassuringly, “that soldier boy would have had his battle plan all laid out before he got even half-way there.”
Teresa smiled gratefully up at him and he stopped and tipped her chin up with the tip of his finger. “He’ll be fine,” he assured her and grinned whimsically. “Now what’s for supper?”
Scott got to sleep eventually, but the morning found him stiff and sore from the hard bunk bed. It felt like every bone in his body was screaming out in protest. He stretched his back and tried to get rid of the kinks, but it only worked for an instant. The kinks were there to stay.
He rubbed his face and would have preferred to be able to shave before starting out. He would have preferred to be able to clean up a little more too. The water had been clean, but the one towel between them, after being used last night by three dirty and dusty men, was hardly sanitary, let alone clean.
It wasn’t the first time in his life that he had been without creature comforts of course. He’d lived rough in the army as well as out here, and the time he had spent in a southern prison camp during the last days of the war had been far worse than this. This was absolute luxury by comparison with that louse-infested hole. But those days had only served to make him appreciate the little things in life – like the feeling of being clean – all the more. He had made sure he had them after that and it was a source of endless entertainment for his brother.
He and Joe Nesbitt had ridden out early and got to work on the fence down by the stream. They spent most of the morning untangling wire and posts and re-digging holes. By noon, they were both looking longingly at the shade thrown by a willow tree near the stream.
They had sandwiches in their saddlebags, courtesy of Sarah Connolly, and they both leaned back against the trunk of the tree to relish the cool shade.
Having finished his meal, Joe sighed appreciatively. “That Miss Sarah sure looks after us don’t she?”
Scott finished the last bite of his own meal and agreed whole-heartedly.
“Just ain’t fair that she should be in this bind,” Joe continued. “Maybe she shoulda gone back to ‘Frisco when old Tim died. At least she woulda had a nice quiet life back there.”
“Are her parents still there?” Scott asked.
Joe shook his head. “Nah, they passed on a coupla years ago. I remember Tim went up to ‘Frisco to try to get her to come live here with him. She said no. She’d already lined up work in one of them big houses. She’s real smart you know?” he rambled on happily. He seemed proud of her, as though she was his own daughter. “She was one of them ‘governors’ or somethin’. You know, she taught the kids in one of the rich families.”
“A governess,” Scott corrected politely.
“Yeah, that’s right. She had a real good job there, an’ nice clothes. She gave it all up when Tim had his first heart attack ‘bout a year ago. She came out here to look after him.”
Scott said nothing. He knew all about governesses. He’d had a couple when he was small in Boston. He had not appreciated it at the time, but when he had been older he had seen the way that they were often treated, underpaid, overworked and held to account for the mischief that their young charges got into. They were held to blame if the children did not succeed in their schooling, and, worst of all, if she happened to be young and pretty, and appeal to the man of the house, well, it could be a real problem for her.
And Sarah was young and pretty! The very thought of her in that position rankled on him. She was full of spirit and that would have soon been worked out of her. A governess was supposed to be well mannered and unobtrusive. He was actually glad she was here instead, though Joe obviously had no idea what her life would have been like there. Scott determined not to disillusion him with the realities of life as a governess.
“She likes it here better,” Scott told him instead.
“Yeah, she does, but this ain’t no life her – livin’ alone with no-one but us cow-hands to talk to, and havin’ to look over her shoulder all the time.”
Scott smiled understandingly. “You mean she needs a man?”
Joe shot back at him quickly, “Wouldn’t be so bad would it?”
Scott laughed. “I wouldn’t tell her that if I were you.”
Joe laughed with him. “She’d take my head off with that ol’ Henry!”
Scott picked up his hat and his gloves and stood up. “We’d better get back to work and leave planning the boss’s future to her,” he told him with a wide grin. “And those posts aren’t planting themselves for us.”
“Wish they would,” Joe growled. “I’m getting’ plumb tired o’ puttin’ ‘em back in the ground every coupla weeks.”
He stood up and slapped his hat on his head and went back to work with Scott.
By the time the sun was beginning to sink behind the trees, they had finished the job. Scott had long ago worked the kinks out of his back. He was feeling tired but surprisingly happy after a full day’s work in Joe’s company.
He liked the crusty little cow-hand. He was easy to get along with and talked up a storm about just about anything. Scott found him entertaining and, even better, he showed no curiosity about himself. He had taken Scott at face value, and judged him by the work he did and the way he handled himself. He liked that.
Over the years, first as the grandson and heir to a wealthy Boston financier, and then as Murdoch Lancer’s son, that had not always been the case. Johnny had had respect at LANCER right from the beginning, and not just because of his reputation with a gun. He had been readily accepted. He had not had to prove that he could ride with the best of them, or handle himself in a fight or on the range just like everyone else. Even Johnny, had not expected much from ‘Boston’ and had been surprised to find out that he was more than capable of looking after himself.
Only in the Army had he had this sort of easy acceptance. It was a welcome change.
When they had finished, they packed up and made it back to the house just before sundown. They had just enough time to tend to their horses and clean up a little – with a fresh towel to his surprise – before Sarah called them all in for supper.
As they sat down at the table, Sarah set their plates down in front of them. “Tomorrow is Saturday,” she said, “so I think we’ll go into town. I need some flour and salt and a few other things. It’s been too long since we last went.”
“Sure, Scott can ride along with you in the wagon and us behind, right Tom?” said Joe.
“Sounds okay to me,” Tom agreed in his usual quiet way.
“Joe, I am perfectly capable of handling the reins myself,” Sarah protested.
“That’s right,” Joe told her, “and Scott can handle the Henry.”
Scott helped Sarah up into the wagon and passed her rifle up to her. He was pleased to see her wearing a dress today and a pretty bonnet on her head. It suited her.
“Thankyou Mr Garrett,” she said politely as she made herself comfortable.
“My pleasure ma’am,” he replied as he turned to walk around to the other side and climb up beside her.
“Miss,” she corrected without thinking.
It amused him. He smiled as he placed his own rifle on the seat and climbed up, and as he took his place beside her and she took the reins in her hands, he said to her, “If you’ll call me Scott, I’ll start calling you Miss.”
She blushed just enough to heighten her colouring and answered him. “I’m sorry, that was very ill-mannered of me. I don’t know why I do it.”
“Not at all, Miss Connolly,” he replied, with a disarming smile that completely charmed her.
She smiled and her eyes twinkled with delight as she said to him, “Please, call me Sarah. Joe and Tom call me Miss Sarah, but that’s because it’s what they’re comfortable with.”
“Thankyou, Sarah,” Scott answered and looked behind him to see if the others were ready. “Looks like we’re all set,” he told her.
She released the brake and gee-ed the horses and they set off.
At first there was little said between them. He kept his rifle on his lap and kept an eye on the roadsides. There were plenty of places on the way that would have been ideal opportunities for an ambush, but eventually, he broke the silence himself.
“Do you have to do this every time you go to town?”
“Yes,” she answered, “they watch the road. We were stopped once when there was only Manuel with me.” She stopped talking for just a moment and then added, angrily “that was when he got shot.”
Scott looked at her sympathetically. “I see,” he said, “and the sheriff did nothing?”
“He’s afraid of Madrid,” she retorted.
“Was it Madrid who shot him?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“And you were there? You saw him?”
“Of course I saw him,” she told him. “I told the sheriff I was there, that I had seen the whole thing. But it didn’t make any difference. The sheriff wouldn’t do anything about it.”
“What did he look like?” Scott asked, trying to appear only casually interested.
“Yes, I mean, I might run into him sometime myself,” he explained, “and I’d like to think I’d know who I was up against.”
“He’s just what you’d expect I suppose,” she said obliquely. “I mean, he just looks sort of evil. He wears all black for a start – black shirt and pants and even a black bandanna - and he looks Mexican, which I hear his mother was. You’ll know him if you see him,” she assured him.
“I guess so,” he replied, and then added, “They say he’s fast. Was he?”
“Yes, oh well, I don’t know if I’m much of a judge. It doesn’t really matter though because he’s never alone. He always has a few men with him to back him up.”
“Hmm,” he mused aloud, “sounds like a man it will be a pleasure to meet.”
“I hope no,” she answered and then she looked at him quizzically. “You’re not like any drifter I’ve ever known.”
She turned back to watch the road and thought about it. “Well your interest in books for one thing. Or, at least, in the books Uncle Tim and I have at home. And you talk differently too.”
“Really,” he said, smiling at her, “how so?”
She laughed. “Well like that I suppose. You sound like a city-boy.”
“Well I did go to school,” he laughed, with her.
She looked at him quickly again, afraid that perhaps she had offended him. His smile reassured her that she had not. “Do you have any family?” she asked.
“I have a father and a brother,” he answered, without thinking and then added quickly, “but I haven’t seen much of them lately.”
“My parents died a few years ago,” she told him sadly. “Uncle Tim was all the family I had left.”
“You’ve got Tom and Joe,” he reminded her.
She looked at him and smiled. “Yes, I do,” she admitted and thought about it. “Joe treats me like I’m his little girl most of the time.” She stopped to consider the idea. ”You’re right. I guess we are like family for each other now.”
They reached town without incident and Sarah stopped in front of the store. Scott got down and walked around to hand her down from the wagon. He was about to escort her into the store when he heard a voice across the street hailing her.
“Sarah,” he heard a man call out with eagerness clear in his voice.
He and Sarah both turned around to see who it was. Sarah smiled when she saw him, and greeted him cheerfully. “Hello Gabe. How are you?”
The man reached her side and stopped. He stood in front of her, holding his hat in his hands. He was tall, and dressed impeccably in a well made suit that seemed a little out of place in Hobson’s Crossing. He was a good-looking man, with dark hair, greying ever so slightly at the temples, and dark eyes and a broad welcoming smile. “All the better for seeing you Sarah,” he told her, “and how are you?”
“Just fine, Gabe,” she answered, accepting the compliment with grace. She gestured towards Scott and introduced the two men. “Gabe, this is Scott Garrett. He’s working for me. Scott, I’d like you to meet Gabe Tessman.”
Scott put his hand forward and Tessman accepted and shook it. “Pleased to meet you Mr Tessman,” he said as they shook hands.
Gabe Tessman looked him up and down and took stock of him. “Likewise, Garrett,” he said sociably. “Working at the ranch, are you? Well, I’m glad to see that Sarah has a little more help.” He turned his attention back to the lady. “I worry about you Sarah,” he told her.
“Thank you Gabe, but I’m fine.”
“Well, I wish there was more I could do to help,” he said sympathetically.
“You’re doing what you can, Gabe and I appreciate it.” She turned to Scott and explained. “Gabe is my lawyer.”
Scott looked him over again, this time with the knowledge that this was the man who had received the letter purporting to be from Murdoch. Despite the suspicions he could not help but feel, the man certainly did not appear to have anything but Sarah’s best interests in mind. He seemed affable enough and clearly thought a lot of Sarah.
Before he could reply, Tessman spoke to him. “Why don’t you join Rawlings and Nesbitt for a drink? I’ll be happy to look after Sarah for a while.”
Joe and Tom had already dismounted and were standing at the back of the wagon waiting for Sarah’s orders. Scott had other plans.
“Well, I have a wire to send first, but thanks,” he answered, and then turned to Sarah for her instructions and asked, “Sarah?”
She smiled at him. “You go ahead Scott, I’m fine.” Then to Joe and Tom she said “You can go for a drink if you want. I’ll order what I need and be ready in an hour or so.”
Joe grinned happily. “Sure Miss Sarah.” Then he turned to Tom, playfully punched his shoulder and said, “let’s go for a drink. It’s b’n a while.”
Tom Rawlings grinned and replied, “You don’t have to tell me twice,” in a rush of words that took both Scott and Sarah by surprise and brought a smile to their faces as they watched the two men cross the road to the saloon.
Scott stood aside to allow Tessman to escort Sarah into the store, and then followed them in. At Sarah’s suggestion, he sent his wire first and then left to join Joe and Tom at the saloon. Sarah certainly did not need him there to protect her while she had Tessman with her.
As he got close to the doorway of the saloon, he heard angry voices from inside. One of them was Joe’s. He stopped at the door and peered into the room to take stock of the situation, before blundering into anything.
Joe and Tom stood side-by-side facing three other men. Two were strangers to him but he recognised the third man as Jess, the man who had had so much to say when he first rode into town, and he just knew that trouble was coming.
He was surprised though, when, not Joe, but Tom threw the first punch. He landed a mighty swing on Jess and from then on it was ‘all in’.
Tom was more than holding his own against his opponent. He might look like a string bean, but he was tough as nails and the length of his arms gave him an advantage in reach. He was landing more punches than he was taking, so Scott ran in to help Joe.
Joe might be just as tough, but he was older and smaller and he was taking on two assailants. Scott grabbed one of the men by the shoulder and spun him around to face his own fist. He smiled roguishly when he saw that he his opponent was Jess, and felt a certain amount of satisfaction as he slammed his fist into the man’s jaw.
Jess reeled back and bumped into Joe’s antagonist, sending him to the floor. But Jess stayed on his feet and retaliated with a clout that connected with Scott’s own jaw with excruciating accuracy and sent him reeling against a chair.
Scott managed to stay on his feet and he charged back into the fray. He landed a swing to the man’s belly that doubled him over and allowed Scott an opportunity to follow with a left-handed uppercut to his jaw that broke the skin on his knuckles when it connected. It had the desired effect though and sent the man to the floor.
Scott then went to help Joe, but found he had already felled his opponent, apparently by fair means or foul. He was standing by the bar ordering three whiskeys for them cheerfully. Scott joined him and leaned against the bar as he surveyed the damage. They watched without concern, as Tom finished off his man.
Jess was out cold on the floor when Scott had left him. Joe’s man was on the floor too, but moaning loudly. The third man finally gave out and fell into a chair, so Tom strolled over to the bar to join them, looking none the worse for the fight.
Scott tenderly felt his jaw. He knew he’d be feeling that punch for a while, but at least it wasn’t broken. The knuckles of his left hand were raw and bleeding, so he took off his bandanna and wrapped it around his hand. He noticed Joe wipe the blood away from a split lip, but otherwise he too seemed none the worse for wear. Joe laughed and passed each of them a drink. “Drink up boys,” he encouraged them. “Miss Sarah’ll be wanting us soon.”
Scott laughed out loud with him, and stopped abruptly to hold his jaw. He still managed a wry grin and finished off the drink.
“So, just what was all this about?” he asked them.
Tom’s face turned red with anger as he told him. “They had too much to say about Miss Sarah is what!”
Scott looked at the three men that they had finished off and replied, “Then I’m glad I got a chance to get in on it.”
“Damn right Scottie!” Joe agreed, with a lop-sided grin and slap on the back for Scott. “’Sides you saved me some time.”
“Yeah, woulda taken me twice as long to finish off both of ‘em!”
“He’s working there?” Johnny thought he couldn’t have heard Murdoch right. “He was only supposed to find out what’s going on up there and come straight back.”
Murdoch handed him the wire that he had just read out. “Read it for yourself,” he told him curtly. Johnny was right. This had not been part of the plan.
He remembered what it had been like to be at the mercy of ‘land pirates’ himself. LANCER had been under siege when he had sent for his two sons, only a few years ago. LANCER was one of the biggest ranches in the state and he had had trouble holding them off. If that was anything like what was going on at the Connolly ranch right now, then he did not want Scott there in the middle of it.
Murdoch Lancer watched as Johnny read the piece of paper and frowned.
All it said was ‘Working at Connolly ranch. Be in touch by Friday. Scott.’
“Not much, is it” Murdoch said angrily.
“We’re in the dark, that’s the problem,” Johnny said. “Could be he thinks he can sort it out on his own.”
“True,” Murdoch agreed, “I just wish we knew more.”
“That’s nearly a week from now,” Teresa pointed out, “anything could happen in that time.”
Johnny looked at Murdoch, an unspoken question in his eyes, and his father understood it. “No, I think we’ll give him the time he’s asked for. I don’t like it either, but he’s not a fool. He must have a reason for staying there.”
Johnny looked at the paper again and replied, defiantly, “well, if he hasn’t sent word by Friday, I’m going up there.”
Murdoch looked at his younger son for a moment, before speaking up. “Agreed,” he said, nodding reluctantly. Did he really want both of his sons in the middle of what sounded like the start of a range war? “You could always take some of the hands with you.”
Teresa could hear in his voice, even if Johnny could not, that he was concerned for both of his sons. She could see it in his eyes too.
“No Murdoch,” Johnny replied, “if LANCER is being blamed up there, then the last thing we should do is turn up looking like some kind of army.”
Murdoch sighed, leaned back against the desk and crossed his arms while he thought about it. “You’re probably right. Until we know what’s happening there, I suppose we should just sit tight,” he agreed, reluctantly. Then he shook his head angrily. “Damn it! I wish he had just come back and told us what’s going on like he was supposed to!”
“He must have a reason,” Teresa protested, in Scott’s defence.
“I know,” Murdoch replied, “I just wish I knew what it is.”
Three slightly chastened cowboys sat around the table in Sarah’s kitchen, submitting themselves to her ministrations and her all too obvious disapproval.
Joe’s cut lip had swollen and, around his equally swollen right eye, his face was beginning to glow in shades of black and blue. Scott’s jaw, too, had the beginnings of a bruise that would soon rival Joe’s eye, and his left hand bore three skinned knuckles.
Only Tom sat back in his chair, unscathed, at least from the fight, if not from Sarah’s displeasure.
Their elation after the fight had been short-lived. Upon their return to the wagon, Sarah had glared acerbically at them, and even the densest man knew that look when a woman wore it. Sheepishly, they had gone about their work and headed home with her having said barely a word to them.
She had herded the three of them into the kitchen after they had unloaded the supplies, and sat them down in the kitchen with nary a word.
Scott watched as she brought a bowl of water to the table and put it down in front of him. Unsure of himself in this situation, he made no move right away and she glared at him and put her hands on her hips.
“Well,” she growled, “are you going to take that filthy bandanna off your hand and clean it or not?”
“Yes ma’am,” he answered meekly and did as he was told. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Joe’s lop-sided smile.
Sarah had turned away and gone back to the kitchen before returning with a raw steak in her hand. She thrust it unceremoniously into Joe’s hand, and noting his amusement, said angrily, “and you can wipe that smile off your face, Joe Nesbitt.”
He did, with a docile “Yes ma’am,” and put the steak over his eye without further argument.
Sarah went back to one of the cupboards and came back with some clean rags and a bottle of iodine. She sat down opposite Scott and took his hand out of the water and began drying it carefully.
“I don’t know what you thought you were going to achieve,” she said angrily. “You could all have been killed.”
Joe squirmed in his seat uncomfortably, before saying “Well, now Miss Sarah…”
She glared crossly at him. “If they’d used guns instead of fists, you might all be dead now!” she said angrily cutting him off.
He decided not to argue. “Yes ma’am,” he agreed instead.
“Not to mention antagonising them when we already have more trouble than we need!” she scolded further. “I don’t know what you could have been thinking of, acting like a bunch of hooligans!”
No one answered her and she gave vent to more annoyance. “Just what was it all about?” she demanded.
The three men looked at each other, awkwardly, but, to everyone’s surprise, it was Tom who came through with an answer.
“We was defending the honour of the ranch,” was his extraordinary claim.
Sarah looked at him in astonishment, but was far from being mollified. “Well, the ranch’s honour does not need defending, thankyou very much.”
She opened the bottle of iodine, and, pouring a little of it onto the rag, she began dabbing at Scott’s injured hand. He winced at the bite of the iodine on his skinned knuckles and she looked up and said unsympathetically, “Serves you right,” before going back to her task.
“Yes ma’am,” he agreed with a wary attempt at a smile, hoping for a positive reaction from her.
It was not the reaction he had looked for though when she replied crossly “Don’t you ‘ma’am’ me Scott Garrett. I thought you would have known better at least.”
“Why?” he asked, amused.
“Why indeed?” was all she answered and dabbed, a little too hard, at his knuckles.
He flinched and pulled his hand away with an outraged “Ouch, Sarah!”
Sarah looked him in the eye and said sternly. “You put that hand right back here and let me finish. The last thing I need around here is one of my men down sick with an infected hand.”
“Well take it easy then,” he answered and gave himself over to her ministrations again.
“Who started it, anyway?” she continued as she went back to work.
Joe and Scott looked towards Tom, who answered nervously, “That’d be me, Miss Sarah.”
“You Tom?” she exclaimed. She stopped and turned to face him.
He sat up straight and faced her disapproval. “There’s just so much a man can take, Miss Sarah,” he told her, succinctly.
“I suppose they insulted me,” she said coldly and knew by their reactions that she had guessed right. Her temper cooled almost immediately and she said to them candidly, as she went back to cleaning up Scott’s hand, “Look, I appreciate your standing up for me, all of you, but I will not have them using my being a female against you. I don’t care what they say about me. I don’t want them pushing you into a fight because of me. Is that clear?”
The three men said nothing so she repeated her question. “I said, is that clear?”
“Yes Miss Sarah,” Tom and Joe replied, almost in unison, while Scott merely nodded his answer.
She tore a strip from a clean piece of rag and wrapped and tied Scott’s hand with it.
“I mean it,” she said emphatically. “I don’t want any of your deaths on my conscience.” She looked at the three of them, “I really couldn’t stand that,” she told them and stood up from the table and walked back to the cupboard.
As she opened it, she said gruffly, “Now get out of here the three of you. I’ll call you when I have supper ready.”
At supper, Scott had learned that, tomorrow being Sunday, Gabe Tessman was coming in the morning to escort her to church. The morning they would have to themselves. Apparently it was a routine they had been following for months, almost since the death of her uncle.
He was not at all surprised, therefore, to see Tessman drive up in a fancy buggy early next morning, dressed in his ‘Sunday best’ and escorting a rather elegantly dressed Sarah into town.
He turned back from his position at the door of the bunkhouse and looked at his two friends relaxing on their bunks.
“So he comes for her every Sunday?” Scott asked them.
“That’s right. Never fails,” Joe replied. “Thinks he’s courtin’ her I guess.”
“She thinks he’s just bein’ nice” he told him.
Scott nodded. “He is her lawyer after all.”
Joe grunted. “Lawyer,” he said sarcastically.
Scott turned to face Joe. “What do you mean?”
Joe sat up on the bunk and faced him. “An’ here I thought you was a knowin’ one,” he said equally sarcastically. “Just how much work do you think there is around here for a ‘lawyer’?”
“I don’t know, not much I imagine.”
“Course not,” Joe scoffed, “got his finger in every pie around here. He owns the hotel and the saloon, and I hear tell he has a share in the Davis ranch on the far side o’ town too.”
“Is that so?” Scott mused. The suspicions that he had had earlier began to take form again. “He doesn’t worry about having trouble with LANCER coming out here all the time?”
Joe thought about it for a minute. “Never heard of him ever having any, now you come to mention it.”
“Seems funny, when Sarah can’t even go to town for supplies without armed guards, doesn’t it?” Scott pointed out.
Joe looked at him through narrowed eyes and asked him bluntly, “Just what are you getting at, son?”
“Only this Joe, it seems odd to me that Murdoch Lancer wrote to Tessman with his offer to buy the ranch. How would he have known he was her lawyer?”
Joe rubbed his chin with his hand and considered. “Never gave it much thought I guess,” he said at last, then continued, “Are you thinking he and Lancer are in it together?”
Scott thought carefully about how to answer. He did not want to give his hand away yet, not without some sort of proof, but it seemed like a good time to set things in motion.
“I don’t know, maybe,” he answered tentatively, and then he looked at Joe and took a chance. “Or maybe LANCER is not involved at all? Maybe it’s a blind?”
Joe shook his head in reply. “I can’t see that, Scott, not with Madrid here.”
Scott sighed and looked down at his feet so that his face would not be seen when he replied. “Yes, Madrid,” he said almost in disgust. This was what Johnny had told him about – other people using his name and getting away with it. It was so frustrating, so ridiculous. The man did not even sound like Johnny, yet all he had to do was say that was his name and everyone believed it. How had Johnny handled it all these years?
“They say that Madrid is Lancer’s son,” Joe continued, “and I can’t see him being here if he didn’t have his old man’s backing,”
Scott wondered how much further to take his argument. There was no doubt at all in their minds that the man was Johnny Madrid. Would Joe actually consider that he wasn’t the real thing? He sat down on his bunk and faced Joe.
He leaned forward and watched Joe’s face carefully as he said, “Joe, what if he’s not really Madrid?”
Amazement fairly exploded on Joe’s face as he exclaimed “What?”
Even Tom sat up now. Though he said nothing, Scott could see his attention was caught.
Scott continued, now that he had come this far. “Just because he says he’s Johnny Madrid doesn’t make it so.”
Joe laughed out loud at him. “Son, you ain’t seen this fella. He’s fast and he’s mean, just like a rattler. He’s Madrid alright.”
“Had you ever seen Madrid, before he came here, I mean?” Before Joe could answer he turned to Tom. “Or you Tom?”
Joe shook his head emphatically. “No you’re grabbin’ at straws now boy. You might not like Gabe much, and I ain’t arguin’ with you there, but you’re wrong about Madrid. You don’t wanna mess with him Scott. He’s real mean.”
Scott hoped that he had at least planted the seed of a doubt in Joe’s mind. Tom looked quizzically at him from his bunk, but added nothing to the conversation.
Scott decided not to pursue it any further. “Alright,” he agreed reluctantly, “and believe me, whether he is Madrid or not, I have no intention of ‘messing with him’.”
He decided it was time to change the subject and get out to leave them, hopefully, to their thoughts.He took a clean change of clothes from his saddlebag and stood up. “You know, with Sarah gone for a while, I think I might go down to the stream and clean off some of this dust,” he suggested.
He was about to head out of the door, then turned around and said to both of them, “And no offence, but you two could do with scraping some of the dirt off yourselves.”
He closed the door behind him, just in time to evade the boot that was thrown at him.
By the time that Sarah returned with Tessman, Scott had cleaned and changed. He felt more presentable than he had in days, despite the fact that the bruise on his jaw had darkened overnight.
Tessman helped Sarah down from the buggy and followed her up the stairs and into the house. Scott was amused to see that Joe, having also watched her return, strolled over and took up a position on the step. He took out his knife and a piece of wood and began whittling. If he was trying to be unobtrusive, he was not doing it well. He looked like a self-appointed chaperone.
Scott pointed him out to Tom, and got a chuckle out of him. “Sure, Miss Sarah’s used to it. He sits there every time Gabe comes calling,” he said.
Scott laughed and the two of them went back into the bunkhouse, leaving Joe to his chaperoning. What neither of them realised was that from where he sat, he could hear everything that was said inside. After Tim Connolly’s death, Joe had appointed himself guardian for Sarah, and he had taken the responsibility to heart.
Inside, Sarah offered her visitor a cup of coffee and he accepted, just as he did every Sunday. She told him to take a seat while she heated it, so he made himself comfortable.
“How’s the new man working out?” he asked her.
She picked up the two cups of coffee and came to the table with them. “Fine,” she smiled and placed his coffee in front of him.
He smiled back at her and said “Thankyou,” absently and then added, “I worry about you out here on your own.”
“I’m not on my own Gabe,” she told him. “I have …”
He grinned and nodded. “I know, you’ve got Tom and Joe. You always say that and it’s not the same thing.”
“And Scott now,” she pointed out. “They’re like family.”
He took a sip of the coffee and smiled again patiently. “Sarah, they’re not family. They work for you. You shouldn’t be out here living alone. And what do you know about this new man, Garrett?”
“Not much, I suppose. Only that he works hard, and he gets along with Tom and Joe,” she replied. “Oh, and he likes books,” she added, impishly.
She noted his disapproval, and added seriously, “Scott’s a good man Gabe, and I need all the help I can get.”
“I know that Sarah,” he answered, “and I hate that you’re in a position where you have to hire anyone that comes along. You’re a beautiful woman Sarah, and you have to be careful.”
She blushed at the compliment but protested, “I am careful, and I know I can rely on my men.”
He smiled. “You think you know him Sarah? Did you know he has a girlfriend?” he asked, watching her reaction carefully.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she answered casually. “How do you know?”
“He’s sent off two wires to some girl in Morro Coyo since he got here,” he told her.
Sarah was shocked. “How do you know that?”
“Don’t be silly, Sarah. Nothing’s private in Hobson’s Crossing!”
“Well it should be. The telegraph is supposed to be confidential. I’m surprised you’d listen to gossip like that.”
Tessman laughed. “I can’t help what I hear Sarah. And I only want you to realise how little you really know about him.”
“Well, I don’t see how that changes whether he is trustworthy or not,” she told him defensively.
“Take it easy, Sarah, I didn’t mean to offend you,” he said. He ran his hand through he hair and added painfully, “I’m doing this all wrong.”
“Doing what all wrong?”
He put down the coffee cup and paced across the room and back, halting beside the chair he had just left.
“Sarah,” he said, sitting back down in the chair, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for months now.”
She was confused. “About what Gabe?” she asked nervously.
“Sarah, you can’t be blind to how I feel about you,” he announced earnestly. “You’re beautiful and educated and I love you. I want you to marry me Sarah.”
Sarah blinked twice and let the question sink in. She was dumbfounded. She had no idea what to say. “Gabe, I.” she began, but could find no words to finish.
He was surprised by her reaction. He had thought that she would be delighted. “You’re not going to tell me that you’ve never thought about it are you?”
Sarah blushed scarlet this time and stood up from the table and turned away in her embarrassment. After taking a moment to gather her thoughts she replied. “Well, yes, I suppose I have Gabe. I just never…”
“Never considered it, is that it?” His voice had an edge to it, and she turned and sat down quickly in her chair again.
“No Gabe,” she assured him. “No, that’s not it at all. It’s just that I’ve always thought of you as my friend, and that’s all.” She smiled sympathetically at him. “I’d never hurt you Gabe. I just don’t think I can marry you. I don’t feel that way about you.”
“Then think about it in practical terms. If you marry me, you won’t have any more trouble with Murdoch Lancer. He’ll soon give up if he knows he’s not dealing with a defenceless woman any more.”
“Oh no, Gabe,” she protested immediately. “I couldn’t do that. It wouldn’t be fair to you.”
Tessman leaned forward closer to her. “Sarah, I’d take you on any terms,” he told her eagerly.
Tears welled in her eyes and she put her hand over his in an attempt to give him some comfort. “I’m sorry, Gabe. It just wouldn’t be fair to you.”
Tessman’s temper broke, and Sarah was appalled by it. He stood up so quickly that the chair scraped back agonisingly against the wooden floor. “So you’re going to just stay here and fight!” he sneered, angrily. “With what Sarah? An old man, a simpleton and a drifter who will turn tail and run the first time things get rough?”
He snatched up his hat and strode across the room to the door, then turned back and finished. “You fight then Sarah. You fight to the death!” he raged and stormed out of the door, slamming it behind him.
Sarah was left still sitting at the table, agonisingly alone.
He all but knocked Joe out of his way as he took both steps at once and strode over to the buggy. He got in and whipped up the horse and drove furiously out of the yard, as the two men in the bunkhouse looked on from the doorway.
Scott smiled wryly and said, “Looks like the visit didn’t go well Tom.” He looked unaccountably pleased about it.
For a moment Tom didn’t say anything, which did not really surprise Scott. Then he turned to Scott and said slowly, “You know Scott, if I had me a pretty gal like Miss Sarah, and she was in trouble, I’d be sitting on her porch there with a shotgun, just waiting for them fellas to try something.”
Scott looked at his friend in amazement. It occurred to him that Tom Rawlings never said much, but when he did, he said it all.
Tom and Scott spent the next day checking the fence-line and looking for strays. Joe had said nothing about what he may or may not have overheard yesterday. He did seem quietly pleased with himself, but he always made a point of keeping Sarah’s privacy, and neither Tom nor Scott pressed him for information.
Sarah had been unnaturally quiet at supper and the meal had been an uncomfortable one for the first time since Scott had arrived. He had been dismayed by the sorrow in her eyes, and the glow that was missing from her face.
When the other two had left, he had lingered for a moment so that he could speak to her alone.
“You look like you’ve lost your last friend,” he said quietly and kindly.
She had attempted a smile and replied sadly “I think maybe I have Scott.”
“No,” he had answered with a reassuring smile, “you haven’t.”
He had left then and joined the others to walk back to the bukhouse, and had not seen the tears well in her eyes as she had closed the door behind him.
She had woken next morning after a fretful night’s sleep feeling as though the world was on her shoulders.
“Fight to the death!” he had said, and the words had been echoing in her mind ever since. She had to be honest with herself and admit that that was exactly what might happen. Even if she didn’t think about herself, she had to think about Tom and Joe and Scott.
The thought of anything happening to any of them weighed heavily on her conscience. Was she being a fool? She had been offered a way out and had turned it down. What if one of her men died now? How could she live with that?
Why couldn’t she just love him? He’d always been kind and considerate to her. He was charming, handsome and educated – everything most women want. He was financially secure and respectable too. Most women would have leapt at his proposal.
He had stuck by her from the beginning and he had never wavered. Now this was how she had repaid him. She felt a terrible guilt at having hurt him so much. She was sure that the raging temper he had left in was only his reaction to her having hurt him.
She could not get his words out of her head. “To the death! To the death!” it echoed over and over and she was more afraid now than she had ever been before.
She had watched Tom and Scott ride out this morning with more trepidation than she had ever felt in her life. Joe had stayed behind to ‘work’ close by the house. She was never fooled by the plans Joe made. She knew that they had a routine now, each taking a turn to stay close to her to protect her while the others worked together at all times. It made perfect sense of course, but now she realised how much it meant to her.
Until now it had all been, if not a game, at best a fight. Now she felt like she was in the middle of the battle of her life, and these men were her responsibility. They were putting themselves at risk for her. Only she had the power to make it all go away. Only she could say yes to Murdoch Lancer, or maybe it wasn’t too late to change her mind. Maybe she could still go to Gabe and say yes after all.
Maybe then the whole thing would go away. Surely she could have put her heart aside and said yes instead of letting pride get in the way.
But something held her back from it. She did not love him, and she wasn’t sure that she could ever learn to love him. Deep down she knew that she could not make that sort of a commitment to a man for the sake of practicality.
She couldn’t be sure that the harassment would even stop if she married Gabe like he thought it would. How much worse would she have felt if she had married him and then he had been hurt, or worse, killed defending her? She might only be inflicting her trouble onto him.
It left her feeling alone and overwhelmed. She felt that there must be something she could do to get her life back, to take the risks away. Should she give in to the persecution and sell to Murdoch Lancer after all?
She hadn’t even received a reply to the letter she had sent weeks ago. She had never told Gabe about that. He would never have approved, but she had felt the need to try to impress her determination on the man. He had not even had the decency to reply though. No doubt he felt no need to, since everything was going his way already.
Maybe if she went to him personally and pleaded with him it might make a difference. She would be prepared to do that if it meant that no more lives were going to be at risk.
She didn’t even feel that she could go to Gabe and ask his advice any more. She felt sure that she had completely alienated him. She didn’t blame him of course. She blamed herself. She felt that she was being ungrateful and selfish. If only she had been able to say yes.
She spent the whole day wishing it would all end and trying to think of a way out. Well, thinking about it and watching the yard for some sign of Scott’s and Tom’s return. She fretted all day, waiting for the end of the day and seeing them come home safely.
God, how could she keep going like this?
At supper that night, all three of the men noticed the change in Sarah. She was drawn and pale and her attempts at smiling were almost pitiful to see.
Back in the bunkhouse, they gave vent to their concern.
“Tessman must have said something to her yesterday,” Scott said pointedly to Joe. “Does she get like this often?”
Joe and Tom both shook their heads. “Never seen her this upset before,” said Joe sadly, but he was not telling them any more.
Tom turned to him angrily. “He didn’t pull any of that fancy stuff on her did he?”
Joe swung round on him with fire in his eyes. “You think I’d a b’n sittin’ on that step whittlin’ if he’d tried somethin’ like that?” he snapped savagely.
“Settle down, Joe,” Scott said calmly. “Tom’s just trying to find out what happened.”
“Well I ain’t tellin’,” Joe told them obstinately. “It’s Miss Sarah’s private business and I ain’t no tattle-tale.”
Scott smiled sardonically, “But you do know don’t you?”
“I ain’t sayin!”
Realisation dawned on Scott like a revelation. “He proposed didn’t he?” He knew by the look on Joe’s face that he had guessed correctly.
“And she turned him down!” Tom exclaimed, also realising Scott must be right.
“I ain’t sayin!” Joe repeated adamantly.
“He probably thought he had her all primed and just waiting for him to say the word, and then she said no!”Scott continued.
“And some men don’t like being turned down,” Tom added.
“So he lost his temper!” Scott guessed.
“I still ain’t sayin’!” Joe continued to declare. “You fellas oughta stay outa Miss Sarah’s business!”
“We’re not planning to interfere Joe,” Scott assured him. “It’s her life. But look at her - she’s hurting.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about that, son. Just give her a little time and she’ll be all right again. You wait an’ see,” Joe told him. “She’s tougher than she looks.”
The tough little cowboy was right. Scott was finding out that he usually was, so he nodded in agreement.
“You’re right, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he sighed.
“Just be here if she wants us, is all we can do, son,” Joe advised and Scott nodded again in silent agreement.
They left it at that and, one by one, went off to sleep.
It was some hours later, in the early hours of the morning, that Scott found himself disturbed by sounds outside.
Something was wrong! He shook himself awake and realised with a jolt that the noise that had woken him was horses screaming in fear. He leapt from the bed and ran to the door to see what was going on.
With a gasp of horror he saw flames reaching high above the barn and rapidly engulfing it. He turned to the others and yelled quickly “Joe, Tom quick! The barns on fire!”
He quickly got into his pants and boots and ran outside. It was immediately obvious that the fire had been going for some time. The flames lit the night like daylight and he could feel the heat from the moment he ran out of the bunkhouse door.
It had already reached the roof and thick black smoke was oozing from everywhere. He ran to the doors of the barn and swung them open, the heat and smoke nearly knocking him backwards. Joe was close behind him now and Tom not far behind him. He could see Sarah running out of the house, still in her nightgown.
One look was enough to tell him that it was already too late to save the building. It was too far-gone and there was only the four of them to try.
Noises and the horrific sounds of horses screaming coming from inside the barn told him that the horses were still alive. He had to try to get them out.
Shouting at the top of his voice to be heard over the flames and falling timber, he called out to the others. “It’s no use! We can’t save it!”
They needed some order amid the chaos and looking around for the other men, he took charge and called out his instructions. “Joe! Tom! You get the wagon out and save whatever you can from the tack room. I’m going after the horses.”
As he ran into the barn, he heard Sarah scream out for him to be careful. The warning was hardly necessary. His own innate sense of self-preservation almost made him stop and go back, and he had to force himself to ignore it.
He put his arm up to protect his eyes from the smoke and the glare of the flames. He let his eyes adjust enough to see where he was going and where the flames were worst. At first, it seemed that everything around him was ablaze and that there was no hope, but as he overcame the panic that was rising within him, he could see a clear path down to the stalls.
Bales of hay were burning around him and fuelling flames that soared up the dry, aged timber of the walls and into the roof. The straw on the floor had long ago burned away, leaving only hot ash and cinders that were hot enough to burn his feet even through his boots. Ash fell like snow and covered him like a hot blanket, and bright orange cinders fell on him from the burning roof.
The fire had not reached the horses stalls yet, but it was spreading quickly and the smoke was thick and hot to breathe. It burned his sinuses and all the way down to his lungs with every breath he inhaled, so he held his breath for as long as he could as he ran towards the stalls where the horses were tethered.
Fortunately, only three of them were in the barn. The workhorses were out in the corral and safe. Even so, there was no way he could control all three enough to get them all out at once, and there might not be time for three trips into the burning barn.
He wondered if he could manage two panic-stricken horses in the middle of all this pandemonium, and decided it was worth the try. If they broke loose from him, at least they would get free of the barn. They could catch them later.
He untethered the first horse and held the lead rein tightly while he did the same in the next stall. He fought to control the two big wagon horses and then, tucking his head down to try to avoid getting ash in his eyes, he ran towards the big open doorway pulling them both behind him.
The two horses, seeing freedom and safety, were not hard to move. As he got through the doorway, he was almost dragged along with them in their urge to bolt.
He gasped in the fresh air and almost choked on it. He coughed and fought for control of his breathing and of the sensation of panic rising within him.
Sarah took one of the horses and he tugged hard on the rein of the one he had left until it calmed enough to manage. Together they led them to the corral and turned them loose with the others.
Through burning eyes, he saw that Joe and Tom had gotten the wagon out though it was smoking where the timber of the wagon had been singed by the flames. It was loaded with saddles and tack that they had managed to get out before the room was lost to the blaze. They had managed to pull out buckets and were filling them from the water troughs and throwing them on the flames.
The futility of their efforts angered him. “Forget it,” he shouted and was stunned by the rasp in his voice and the pain the effort cost him. “You can’t save it now. Look out for the house instead. Make sure it doesn’t spread.”
The men could see he was right and stopped, turning instead to be ready to douse any spotfires that got too close to the house. Satisfied, he turned back to Sarah and said, “There’s one horse left. I think I can still get her.”
As he turned back towards the burning building and started running in he heard her cry out “No Scott, don’t!”He turned back and called out a reassuring “It’s alright,” and went back in.
In the short time he had been outside, it seemed that the fire had taken over completely. The walls were well ablaze and the beams above him were burning savagely. Cinders and ash fell like rain all around him and seared his skin like molten raindrops. He could barely see through the smoke now as he made his way down through the barn towards the last stall.
The stalls were burning now, and the remaining horse was kicking and screaming in terror. He had to be careful not only of the flames, but of the horse as well. He tried soothing the horse with calming words and eased himself into a position from which he could untether her.
Once freed though, the horse’s panic took over. She reared and fought him. He tugged hard on the rein trying to get control, but with the flames all around them and so much smoke, the animal could not see the open doors ahead of them and reared again in terror.
In the battle of wills that ensued, it was Scott who finally got the upper hand and began leading the frightened animal towards safety. They got to within ten feet of the doors when blazing roof timbers began crashing around them and sending the animal into another fit of sheer terror.
He fought once again for control and once again he won. Holding tight and pulling the frightened animal behind him, he ran the last few yards out into the night air and safety.
As he hit the cooler air, he gasped coughing and fighting for breath. He didn’t know who took the horse from him as he fell to his knees in exhaustion. The fresh air aggravated his burned lungs and his eyes were full of ash and cinders so that he couldn’t see anything at all.
He heard, rather than saw, Sarah kneel down beside him. He could make out no more than a blurred shape in front of him. Then he felt the cool bite of wet cloth on his face and eyes as she wiped away some of the ash and soot.
“Are you okay?” she asked with obvious concern.
He nodded and looked around him, still only able to make out shapes and not faces. It seemed to him that there were more people here now, more voices. He didn’t recognise any of them.
Sarah saw the confusion on his face as he tried to focus. “It’s alright now. Rafe Carter saw the flames from his ranch and he and some of his men are here helping,” she explained.
She could see that he had gotten his breathing under control now and wasn’t coughing or gasping as much. She looked around her and realised they were both still far too close to the fire for safety. She had to get him to his feet and move away to a safer distance.
“Do you think you can stand up now?” she asked him.
He nodded and tried to say, “Yes,” but the word grated on his raw throat and barely came out. She saw the effort it took him to speak and helped him to his feet.
“Here,” she said, placing his hand and the wet cloth on his eyes, “hold this on your eyes and I’ll help you.”
She led him by the arm to the water trough, well out of reach of the blaze. She helped him sit down on the edge of the trough and took the cloth from him to wet it again. Wringing out the excess water, she sat down on the edge of the trough beside him and went back to work cleaning away the ash from his eyes.
He began to see more clearly now and managed to say “thanks” even with his rasping voice. He saw the crowd of people working feverishly around the yard, moving the horses from the corral and away further from the fire and trying to keep the fire from spreading to the house. He knew none of them, though he could hear Joe issuing orders somewhere in the distance.
He was glad to see that her neighbours had come to her aid. It was the neighbourly thing to do in any part of the country although he had begun to wonder, since coming to Hobson’s Crossing, whether it even existed around here.
The intensity of the fire itself shocked him. The whole building was one huge towering blaze now, with flames devouring every inch of it. The noise of the fire was deafening, even from this distance. It roared like a train.
He looked back at Sarah. Now that he could see her face, he could see the tears on her face. He wiped them away with soot-covered fingers, and left muddy tracks on her face.
To cover her embarrassment, Sarah checked his hands, arms and body for burns. He was covered all over with cinders. They were in his hair and on his shoulders, and his pants were singed in several places, but she was glad to find that there were no serious burns.
“You’ll probably have a few blisters and you’ll have to be careful of them, but I can’t find any burns,” she told him. She shook her head. “You’re a lucky man.”
“I guess so,” he croaked in reply.
Her concern instantly changed to anger. A flash of fire of a different kind lit her eyes and a scowl crossed her brow. “And you’re a fool!” she scolded. “You could have been killed!”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, with a hesitant smile.
“That won’t work, not this time,” she answered angrily. “I appreciate you getting the horse out, but if you’d been killed I would never have forgiven myself.”
He was saved having to find a reply by a shout in the yard.
“Get back everyone, it’s gonna go!” Cried a voice that Scott did not recognise. From everywhere, people ran away from the barn and stood back to watch.
Sarah and Scott stood up and watched too.
Then, with a thundering roar, the roof collapsed, bringing the walls down with it and sending up a towering cloud of glowing cinders and ash into the night. Cinders fell back slowly back to the ground, like so many fireflies lighting up the darkness, only to die out when the hit the earth and leave a dark stillness behind them. It was like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, and it left nothing but a mass of blackened distorted timber and a few flames to show for its effort.
Sarah looked away in distress. Scott turned to her and took her by the shoulders, turning her to face him.
“We can rebuild it, Sarah,” he assured her comfortingly.
To his surprise, tears rolled down her blackened cheeks and the fight she had always shown seemed to have been drained right out of her.
“Why are they doing this to me, Scott?” she cried in anguish. “Why won’t they just leave me alone?”
Scott put his arms around her and held her close. She sobbed bitterly on his shoulder and he stroked her hair to comfort her.
He just wished he could find an answer for her.