"Sometimes the things that drive us
crazy are the things we'd be crazy to live without."
He'd known then, that evening a lifetime ago, that Murdoch was right. She drove him crazy all right, crazy in a hundred ways then and still did if the truth were known. She was bossy, ornery, pigheaded; just plain annoying yet he could overlook all of this because she was the most wonderful girl he'd ever met...and his younger brother was in love with her. That he couldn't overlook and couldn't make go away no matter how hard he tried. Scott was a man in trouble and he didn't see a way around it. The only thing left for him to do was ignore what was in his head and what was in his heart. And ignore the woman he'd suddenly come to realize meant the world to him.
She had been quite literally the girl next door. Sarah and her father together had worked a small horse ranch tucked in a corner of Lancer since she was old enough to carry a pitchfork. Her mother died soon after she was born and Michael had done his best to raise his little girl but there were times it would have helped to have had a woman's touch. As it was she'd grown up a bit rough around the edges and somewhat of a tomboy but she had a gift with horses and one dark-haired son of Lancer. After her father passed away Johnny had visited the small ranch doing what he could to help her out. Chores, errands, things neighbors naturally do to help each other through the hard times. But what had started out simply as being neighborly had become more than that- at least in Johnny's eyes. Not quite courting in the truest sense of the word. Not yet. But close.
Johnny Lancer found himself in love with that girl next door but not quite sure what to do about it. Experience with cantina girls would be no help here, what he needed was some expert advice and Scott of anyone would know the proper way to woo a girl. Despite the fact that he paid little notice of Sarah and actually seemed to find her a pain in his proper Boston behind, Scott knew her just as well as his brother. Johnny felt sure he could trust his older brother to point him in the right direction.
That direction had resulted in an invitation to spend a few days at Lancer over the Thanksgiving holiday. The first since her father had died and with no other family to speak of, spending the week with his family would help the days pass with a little less loneliness for Sarah and give the two of them what Johnny hoped would be an opportunity to get to know each other better. With family all about no one would question the propriety of the invitation and if he worked it just right, Johnny was sure to be able to find some moments alone with her, time when they would have that chance to get a little closer. Or so that had been the plan. But life doesn't always follow a plan and feelings often sneak up on a fella- and sometimes it turns out to be the fella least expecting them.
Later that Thanksgiving evening, while the rest of the family worked to clear the table, Johnny managed to coax Sarah outside onto the veranda. It was a beautiful night, cool and crisp- perfect cuddlin' weather he'd thought. As Scott saw them leave the room he found himself feeling more than a little uncomfortable. Not because he had eaten too much, in fact, he'd eaten very little finding himself distracted by the girl at the end of the table. Scott had never seen Sarah "shined up" and he had to admit, she shined up fine. More than fine, she looked beautiful. In fact, he'd never before seen this girl the way he had the past few days. They'd spent evenings together in the great room with the rest of the family, reading or just talking. Sometimes engaged in a heated game of checkers. He'd even beaten her once- not that Johnny had given them the opportunity to play that often. Scott loved to hear her laugh, it was clichéd but her voice was music to his ears. He would catch himself watching her constantly, wondering how he had never noticed this girl before. Later as he stared out the French doors into the velvety dark of early evening, Scott wished it was he who was with Sarah, not his brother. And that was a thought he could never share with anyone.
"Penny for your thoughts, Scott?" Murdoch asked as he returned from the kitchen.
"Oh, it's…it's nothing really, just thinking what a lucky man Johnny is, I guess."
Murdoch glanced out the window and paused a moment before replying, "That might be true but I'm not so sure."
"Why?" asked Scott. "The two of them seem to hit it off. And Johnny thinks the world of her."
"Well, I know that Johnny cares a great deal for Sarah, Scott. Maybe even loves her. I just don't know that she feels the same way. Oh, she likes him well enough but it seems to me that she may have set her cap for someone else."
"What makes you say that?"
"I thought it was pretty obvious, Scott. You may not have noticed but since she's been here I've seen the way she looks at you."
Scott turned to his father, confused yet not so much, and with a voice soft and low, he asked "And just how is that Murdoch?"
"The same way that Johnny looks at her."
Murdoch was right- she had set her cap for the older brother. But at that moment neither Johnny nor Scott had any real way of knowing, Sarah had kept that notion to herself not willing to take the chance that Scott would not return her feelings. And sensing how Johnny felt, well, the last thing she wanted was to cause trouble, to hurt either man or come between the two brothers. She knew that soon she had to let Johnny know how she truly felt about him, she owed him that much. So Sarah found herself outside in the moonlight with a man she couldn't love no matter what his feelings for her and it was time. She wouldn't lead him on and take the chance that they couldn't someday be friends again. Only then and only maybe could she ever let Scott know how she felt. So despite his best intentions the cuddlin' Johnny had hoped for was not to be, at least not that evening and not with this girl. Oh, she talked soft and gentle and told him what a good man he was. She held his arm and kissed him softly on the cheek as she thanked him for his kindness and his caring. She was tender, enough so that his heart was bruised but not broken. Sarah stepped away and went inside.
Johnny lingered a bit, not sure what had hit him and counted stars for a while. He wondered why but mostly why not. Thought back on the past few days trying to figure out what he could have done differently to change the outcome of this evening and slowly came to the realization that nothing would have mattered. He'd lost this hand before the first card was dealt. It would seem that in affairs of the heart those instincts that had served him so well, that he had come to rely on for such a long time had been no help, no help at all. He shook his head and gave a little chuckle wondering what took him so long to see what was right square in front of his face. Amazed at how he missed those looks that went right past him, the laughter at another's little jokes, the lingering glances when someone wasn't looking. He'd been blind all right, blind as a bat. But not anymore.
Scott had been sitting in the great room when Sarah returned alone from outdoors. Murdoch's comments earlier had forced him to try and come to grip with the feelings he had for this girl. Feelings that Scott had worked hard to suppress out of guilt knowing how much his brother cared for her. His brother had loved her first and that had to count for something. He couldn't betray Johnny. Yet here alone in the darkness some of the guilt had given way to flickers of hope with Sarah's return. She had lingered for a few moments in front of the fire deep in thought before going to her room and hadn't noticed Scott. But there had been no need to speak with her to know that the outcome of this evening was not in any way what his younger brother had hoped for. The return alone and the look on her face told Scott that and he thought he saw something more. Wishful thinking perhaps or the imaginings of a man hopelessly in love. No matter. Scott knew that for the moment he needed to push aside these thoughts for himself and for Sarah, he would work through them later but right then he'd had a feeling Johnny might need a shoulder to lean on and a big brother to talk with. So Scott had waited for him wanting to make sure he was ok. Some moments later Scott heard the door open and softly close again. Seeing his older brother waiting, Johnny slowly crossed the room to take the drink Scott had poured for him and with a hint of that twinkle back in his eye and a bittersweet grin, Johnny raised his glass to Scott's and simply said "You take good care of her, Boston."
"Dammit, Scott! Listen to me and slow down! You're gonna run these horses into the ground!" shouted Johnny.
Scott seemed to ignore him at first but then slowed his horse and stopped. They'd been riding hard for hours by the light of a full moon but the night had become overcast and the trail was getting harder to follow. He wiped the sweat from his eyes, his jaw aching he'd held it clenched for so long. As much as he hated to, he knew they would have to stop until daybreak or risk losing the trail completely. And there was no way in hell he was going to let those bastards get away…
"Come on, Scott. Climb down and take a rest. I need it, the horses need it, and so do you. We'll start up again as soon as it's light." Johnny unsaddled Barranca keeping an eye on his brother as he did. He was worried about Scott; he'd never seen him this way. Sure Scott had a temper; he'd go toe to toe with any man and not back down if he thought he was in the right. And had the proverbial shit kicked out of him more than once because of it. But this was beyond temper, beyond anger. This was vengeance pure and simple and his brother didn't wear it well. Johnny had seen what this kind of hate could do to a man and he couldn't let that happen to his brother. Pity all of them if he couldn't talk Scott back from this cold-hearted place he had traveled. Johnny had tried but so far to no avail. Scott had barely spoken the entire time they'd been riding, lost in thoughts that Johnny could only guess at. Now as they made a quick camp, Scott kept silent still. But that cold, hard look on his face told Johnny that little had changed. A quick supper and they both settled in to wait for first light. Johnny was worried.
As they rested Scott breathed out slowly and let go of just a little bit of the anger and the hate. Feelings that intense can only be kept up for a short time or you lose yourself in them. But worry filled the void, he kept reliving that dreadful moment when the gun went off and his world came crashing down around him. They wouldn't get away. He'd make them pay for what they had done. A sudden weariness overtook him and he nodded off into a restless sleep, a sleep filled with dreams fueled by memories…
Thanksgiving had passed and the time came for Sarah to return home. The last few days of her visit had been pleasant, she and Scott spent much of the time together but there was still a bit of awkwardness and uncertainty as how best to proceed. That earlier evening by the fire Johnny and Scott had come to an understanding. Both men wanted nothing but the best for the woman they had come to love despite their knowing only one had found a place in her heart…yet Sarah worried that somehow she had been unfair to the younger Lancer brother and was a little self-conscious when Johnny was around. Despite Scott's assurance that everything was fine with his brother, it took a little conversation and a private lesson on the proper way to drink tequila to convince her all was well and that Johnny wished both of them nothing but the best.
The next morning it was Scott who drove Sarah home. Away from the family some of the awkwardness of this new relationship began to fade away. They began to relax and talk flowed freely. Shy glances with downcast eyes gave way to glimpses of quiet anticipation followed by looks filled with longing. Conversation left the neutral ground of horses, cattle, and ranch life and moved on to things more personal. Knowing of a person was not the same as knowing about him- or her and there was much to be discovered and explored. Yet in the short time it took to travel those few miles, friendship gave way to heart-pounding, take-your-breath-away feelings of much, much more. Feelings that had been there for quite some time but had been tucked away, kept safe for just this moment. A moment when the sway of the wagon brings you leaning into one another on the seat, just touching yet close enough to catch the scent of the body next to you, a heady fragrance of sweat mingled with lemon and verbena. To feel soft curves and long, lean muscles beneath thin fabric. Wispy strands of hair blowing in your face, hair you just want to run your fingers through. Cheeks flushed, eyes bright and goose bumps on a warm fall day. It's hard to drive a team of horses over hilly ground and hold the girl on the seat next to you but if a fellow goes slow enough just about anything is possible. A quick, breathless first kiss…stop those horses and that kiss can deepen into passion. And then …well, suffice to say that meadow grasses in fall are infinitely softer than a buckboard's wooden seat.
Winter that year seemed to go much faster than either could remember. By springtime Scott and Sarah had married in a small ceremony on the hill behind her house with just family and a few drowsy horses in attendance, wildflowers in bloom all around and no music beyond the whisper of a gentle breeze in the new spring grass and the soft cooing of doves. The groom was tall and handsome in his Sunday best, the bride bright-eyed and beautiful in her mother's wedding dress carrying spring flowers hand-picked by the groom for the bride's bouquet. With Johnny as best man, Teresa maid-of-honor, Murdoch gave the bride away. And then welcomed her into his family.
Scott awoke with a start at the clatter
as Johnny dropped the coffee pot into the fire while stuffing his newly scorched
fingers into his mouth, mumbling a few select curses at the same time. His
brother's pleasant dream gave way quickly to the harsh realities of yesterday
and the need to move quickly in the early sun of this new day. Johnny removed
the pot and what was left of the coffee from the fire and poured half a cup for
himself and his brother. With no time for a cooked breakfast, day-old biscuits
would have to do. Both men ate silently, deep in thought contemplating what the
morning would bring.
Scott dashed the last few drops of his coffee into the fire and went to saddle the horses while Johnny broke camp. Soon both men were ready to head out with the hope the trail had not turned cold. Neither had spoken.
Johnny broke the silence as he slowed his horse and glanced up the rocky path at his brother. "Hey, Scott. Hold up a minute. Are you sure this is what we should be doing? Don't you think you'd be better off back with your wife?" Getting no response from his brother's back, Johnny urged Barranca ahead. "Come on, Scott! Wait a minute. I know you're worried sick about Sarah; it's eating away at you. We're not too far from Gonzales, you go on back. I'll ride ahead and let the sheriff know what happened. He can handle this just as..."
"No!" Scott turned in the saddle. Eyes flashing face grim, he cut him off, "I have to do this Johnny. Those bastards shot my wife. What would you do in my place?" He paused as Johnny considered his older brother's words. "Come along or not but I'm going. And I'm not coming back until I find them."
Frustration with his brother evident in his voice Johnny shouted, "God, Scott, would you just shut up and listen to me?" His voice softer the younger man continued, "Come on Scott, this is all wrong and if you go through with this it makes you no better than those men we're after. This isn't you talking. You're all twisted up inside. Hell, who wouldn't be but listen to me before you do something stupid!"
"Scott, wait!" Johnny spurred his horse ahead until he rode even with the older Lancer. He grabbed Scott's reins to keep him from pulling away and made one last desperate effort to change his mind. "Come on brother. You've got to stop and think about this, do what you've always told me when I wanted to run off half-cocked with no idea where I was going or what I was gonna do when I got there! You always tell me to slow down and figure things out. You need to do that right now. "
"This is different, Johnny. There's nothing to figure out, I'd rather you come with me but I swear to God I'll go by myself if I have to."
Johnny shook his head with resignation and let go the reins. "All right then… I may not think this is right for you, Scott but I'll come with you, I'll watch your back. I just hope we both live to regret it."
With jaws clenched and eyes hard Scott turned his horse and rode away.
Morning gave way to midday and as the sun continued to climb so did the temperature. Both Lancers rode the trail in silence stopping only for a quick drink and to wipe the sweat from their necks and faces. With hats low over their eyes and shirts clinging to their sweat-soaked backs, they continued. They could taste the dust kicked up on the dry trail. And still the only sound was that of metal-clad hooves on rocky ground and the whine of some unseen insect. The horses began to slow, their heads drooping as the heat continued to build. To the relief of both man and animal, signs of civilization began to appear. As they neared the small town of Gonzales it was obvious to both men that this was where their quarry was headed.
"Hold up Scott. This town's not too big and it's going to be tough for them- and us- to stay out of sight. If my brain hasn't been fried by this damn heat and I remember right there's a cantina, couple of stores, and a livery as you head into town. Rest is just some run down houses off the main street. I doubt these guys will be staying in town for long, probably just there for supplies. Be best if we wait here and follow them a ways when they leave town. Then we can reintroduce ourselves."
"You're probably right but let's circle around and come in from the other end of town. We can tie the horses up out back somewhere then look around a bit. Just to make sure we haven't missed them, that they haven't already headed out again." Scott gave his horse a nudge and headed off.
A short time later found the brothers outside the livery. Scott went inside to see if any horses had been recently stabled while Johnny kept watch from across the street. As he kept an eye on his brother, one of the three men neither Lancer would ever forget appeared on the walkway leading to the stable. Zeb...that was his name. A name that matched a face Johnny wished he'd never seen. Unable to believe their luck and equally unable to warn Scott without giving himself away, Johnny ran across the street but not before the man had gone inside. Johnny followed him into the livery. With his eyes unaccustomed to the darkness, he wasn't sure where either man was. The sound of loud voices told him that his brother had found one of those he was seeking. A loud crash followed as someone was slammed up against the side of the stable. As he got closer to the source of the noise Johnny saw Scott had Zeb's shirt clenched in his fists and the man pinned along the wall.
"Where are they...the others? The son of a bitch who shot my wife and the other one who watched him do it. You can tell me now or wait and I'll beat the shit out of you and then you can tell me what I want to know! Makes no difference to me and to tell you the truth it would make me feel a whole lot better to mess you up a bit."
By now Johnny eyes had adjusted to the dim light, he could see the fury in his brother's eyes as the pent-up emotions of the past day broke free; Scott had lost control and would never get his answer if he wasn't stopped.
"Scott, you're gonna kill him!" As Johnny grabbed his brother by the shoulders to pull him off, Zeb collapsed to the floor. Scott tried to jerk away but Johnny had too tight a hold and as quickly as it had started, the fit of rage ended. Damage had been done but the man's face and Scott's fist would recover. Mere seconds had passed yet as he began to pull Zeb to his feet Scott was brought to his knees when he was hit hard across the head by a lantern that had been hanging just within the outlaw's reach. Blocked by his fallen brother Johnny was unable to stop the man from grabbing Scott's gun. Zeb backed away with the gun pointed at Scott's head while Johnny had his own gun aimed at the spot right between Zeb's eyes. Scott sagged to the floor unconscious.
"Now mister you're gonna stay put right there cause if you don't I'm gonna blow that fella's brains out. You understand? I just came here for my saddle, now it's fixed I'm headed out. I didn't want nothin' to do with shooting anybody `specially that girl. All I wanted was the money. So back off and stand easy. And when I'm gone you best take care of that fella's face `cause he ain't lookin' too good." Unwilling to risk his brother's life, Johnny lowered his gun as Zeb backed out of the livery.
Zeb was right. Johnny kneeled and gently raised Scott's head to assess the damage but at first glance all he could see was blood. Glass from the lantern had laid open a deep gash above Scott's left eye and another on his cheekbone. Johnny laid his brother down ignoring Scott's groggy protest that they needed to go after Zeb. Wiping some of the blood away Johnny was relieved to see that the damage could have been worse, Scott had been lucky. No glass had made its way into his eye and while his head would probably hurt like hell, after a bit of stitching and a little rest Johnny thought his brother would be able continue the search. But first he needed to get him to a doctor.
"Come on Scott, you think you can walk? We need to find a doctor and get those cuts stitched up so you can keep that pretty face of yours."
"You do it."
"We don't have time to look for a doctor, Johnny. He's getting away, you fix it."
"You're crazy Scott, I'm no doctor." replied Johnny as he shook his head in disbelief.
"Doesn't matter, you can sew. I've seen those fancy stitches you make when you work with leather." With as much of a grin as his battered face could muster Scott added, "I trust you little brother even with my pretty face. Come on, Johnny. Do it now. We're wasting time."
Relieved at the return to some semblance of the Scott he knew, Johnny reluctantly agreed. But not without apprehension; leather was one thing, his brother's face another quite and totally different piece of work. He began to search the livery for a needle and thread of some sort. Finding only first aid supplies for patients of the four-legged variety, Johnny gathered what he could use and then washed his own hands and the remaining blood from his brother's face. The bleeding had nearly stopped by this time which would make things easier. Well, at least for Johnny. With no painkiller available the stitching was going to hurt his brother- and hurt a lot. There simply was no way around that.
"Well, brother. Guess I'm ready but I'm afraid this is gonna hurt you a lot more than it does me."
Johnny took one long, deep breath and began to put his brother's face back together as quickly and gently as possible. Scott held still as best he could but every now and then a low moan escaped his tightly clenched lips and he jerked his head just a bit as if to try and get away from the needle that incessantly pierced his torn and bruised flesh. After finishing the cut above Scott's brow, Johnny paused for a moment to close his eyes and breathe again. It hurt him to hurt his brother no matter that it needed to be done.
"You ok, Scott? Ready to go again?"
Scott nodded his head and several pain-filled moments later the job was finished. Johnny wiped the sweat from Scott's forehead, blood from his cheek and wrapped the wounds as best he could. Already dark bruises were showing; swelling around the eye stretched the skin tight and would probably close it by morning. With better luck than what they'd had so far, this hunt would be finished by then and both brothers would be on their way back to the family they'd left behind.
"Here, Scott. Take a drink and then we'll see if we can get you on a horse."
Now if Johnny could just figure out what direction that horse should be headed… while Scott rested for a bit Johnny left the stable to scout for some sign of which way to go. With little to see the only thing that made any sense was to leave town and head in the same direction they'd been traveling. Johnny guessed there would be no reason for the three thieves to double back. It was more likely they would head into the hills and try to lose the Lancer brothers. Returning to the livery Johnny found Scott up on his horse and waiting. The two set off as fast as was possible yet slow enough to keep Scott in the saddle. Despite the need to move quickly it was obvious he could not keep up this pace for long. The combination of heat and dizziness began to make it more and more difficult for Scott to remain upright in the saddle and before long it took all that he had to simply stay on his horse. Too soon that was not even enough and as Johnny turned to check his brother, Scott began to slide from his saddle. Johnny grabbed for him trying to save him from a hard fall to the rocky trail. Unaware of what he was trying to do, Scott tried to jerk away and with the sudden movement his vision blurred and darkness quickly followed...
"What are you doing, Scott?"
As he lifted his head from where it rested on the flank of the cow and turned to reply, Scott saw his wife perched on the top rail of the stall, a cup of coffee in her hands. "Well, I thought that was rather obvious, Mrs. Lancer. I'm here in the barn milking this fine cow so you can have fresh milk for your breakfast."
"I can see that. But you know that's not what I was asking, don't you?" Without waiting for his reply, Sarah quickly continued. "What I meant was, what are you doing today? You see, I've been thinking a lot about your father's birthday. I think I've come up with just the thing-"
"Murdoch's birthday? You're thinking about that now? This morning? Gosh, Sarah. He just had a birthday not too long ago and you're already thinking about the next one?" Scott lowered his head and returned to the business at hand. Voice muffled by the belly of a drowsy Jersey cow he continued, "I'm kind of busy right now. Don't you think it can wait a bit? At least until after breakfast?"
"It's only 11 months and if you don't plan ahead things sneak up on you and before you know it, you've run out of time. And besides, I want this birthday to be special."
Scott gave the cow a pat and removed the bucket of milk, "I understand but can we wait and talk about it at supper? Branding starts today and I promised Murdoch I'd get to the ranch early. My day will go a whole lot better if I don't keep him waiting." As he leaned against the top rail of the stall Scott put an arm around his wife and stole a sip of her coffee. "Just to satisfy my curiosity, though, what is this idea of yours for the perfect gift for Murdoch Lancer?"
Nearly choking on that sip of coffee, Scott managed to sputter "A what?"
"A b-a-b-y. I've been thinking about it for a little while now, why, you should see his face light up when we go to town and we bump into someone with a little one. He even holds them when he gets a chance. He's so gentle and talks so soft. Just imagine how he would be with his own grandchild." A more poignant reason remained unspoken but was now and often on Sarah's mind - "It would be a chance for him to have with your child what he missed with you all those years ago…"
A moment later, as he wiped a bit of coffee from his mouth and chin, Scott gave his wife a look mixed with shock, disbelief and just a hint of downright fear. "A baby...right now? You...and me? I don't know Sarah..."
"Not right now and no, Johnny and I! Good Lord Scott Lancer, it's hard to believe you went to that fancy college as thick headed as you can be! As you very well know it takes months `til a baby comes so we're going to have to start right away. Making babies can take a little while and a little practice before things work out just right."
"Practice..." Scott took another sip of coffee and pondered his wife's proposal for just a moment. "Did you say practice?"
Thoughtfully considering the implication of just all that would entail and with the precision of a man accustomed to command, Scott delivered a measured, informed, and deliberate response- a response that despite his best intentions had brought a gleam to his eye and a wicked little grin to his face. "Practice...I like practice...practice is a good thing." And with no further delay Scott gave that coffee cup a toss, pulled his wife down off the rail into his arms, and headed straight for the house. "As a matter of fact, I think I could use a little of that practice right now!"
Her arms wrapped tight around his neck, Sarah began to whisper little kisses down his cheek. She broke off suddenly remembering, "But Scott, don't forget the milk and what about the branding?"
"Oh, I think it can wait. I've had plenty of practice at that!" Scott then kissed her on those lips that were only his to kiss leaving no doubt of his intentions. Lancer wouldn't see its oldest son until some time much later that fine morning. When Scott finally rode up to his father's corral and was asked "what in the Sam Hill" had taken him so long, a flush of red creeping up his cheeks and the sheepish yet self-satisfied smile plastered on his face left Murdoch and Johnny no doubt about what had kept him away.
"Well, son, can't say I blame you...but now it's time you get to work, you've got some catching up to do."
As Scott got off his horse, Johnny gave his brother a slap across the shoulders and his father a cheeky grin replying, "Oh, I don't know Murdoch, I think it's you 'n me that have the catching up to do!"
Scott's eyes fluttered and as wisps of the dream floated away he groaned and reached for his head. Whatever had been pounding on it really needed to go away. With another groan he tried to sit up but was kept from doing so by a firm grip on his shoulders that could only mean someone had a different opinion about the chance of him accomplishing the transition from horizontal to vertical in the very near future.
"Stay put Scott and drink this. You're not going anywhere right now. You're not in any shape to climb on that horse even if you wanted to."
Scott knew Johnny was right but that didn't help the feelings of frustration and urgency brought about by this untimely stop. He needed to be on his horse and moving fast but the chances of that happening were just about zero. Scott could barely see straight and the dizziness wasn't getting any better. So he closed his eyes and slumped back down hoping things would soon improve and that he and Johnny could be on their way again. How this day had gone to hell so quickly was beyond him and it seemed that despite his best intentions tracking the men who had harmed his wife was turning out to be much more difficult than he had planned. Scott wanted to keep moving, he had to keep moving but was simply too sick to get off the ground.
"Enough of this," he muttered and tried again to stand. But even the attempt was enough to cause him to lose what little was left in his stomach from that earlier breakfast. The pounding in his head increased with a vengeance and once again Scott found himself flat on his back drifting once again toward unconsciousness and restless dreams...
Dessert had followed a Sunday dinner and afterward, the Lancer family had moved to the veranda to enjoy what was left of a beautiful day. The `practice' as she had put it had indeed made perfect and while Scott and Sarah had decided to keep the news of the baby to themselves for just a bit longer, Murdoch had a surprise of his own that he was about to share.
"You know Scott, I was thinking. I never really gave you and Sarah much of a wedding gift-"
"I'd say the wedding and the reception were more than enough, Murdoch."
"Ah, but I forgot the honeymoon! And I believe I've found a way to remedy that little oversight. Johnny and I have been talking and we've decided that now might be a good time for Lancer to look a little harder at raising horses again. Johnny has a friend who owns a ranch near Salinas, down on the coast. He has some beautiful animals, wonderful breeding stock. We thought we might go take a look, see if there might be a stallion worth buying and bringing back to breed with some of Sarah's fine mares. The weather's beautiful this time of year and rather than spend the trip cooped up on a stage we could travel by horseback. Just family. It would do us all good to get away for a bit and the peace and quiet would be a nice break from all that's been going on here. After we arrive, Johnny and I can look over the horses while you and Sarah enjoy those fresh ocean breezes. What do you think?"
"It sounds like a great idea Murdoch but do you really think all three of us can afford to go at the same time? We've got two places to look after now and-"
"Scott if I've learned anything in all my years in this business it's that no one is truly indispensable. No matter how often we tell ourselves. I know, I know. I've tried to convince you two boys more than once that this place would fall down if I left you alone for long but we all know that isn't true. We've got just a bit of down time now and, knock on wood, things are in the best order they've been in a long time. Cipriano and Jelly should have no problem handling things while we're gone and you never know when we'll have this opportunity again. Let's take advantage while we can."
With warm brown eyes gazing coyly into cool blue ones Sarah softly uttered two simple words that no man in love with the woman behind those eyes could resist, "Please, Scott?"
"Looks like we'll be going on a little trip to the ocean, Murdoch. When do we leave?"
Giving his oldest son a hearty pat on the back, Murdoch replied, “Johnny can contact his friend while you and I square things around the ranch. We should be able to leave the first part of next week. That is unless someone has an objection?" As Murdoch looked from his sons to his daughter-in-law he saw no signs of disagreement. "What about you, Teresa? Of course you're coming?"
"Oh, Murdoch. You know I'd love to any other time… but I promised Emma I would be there when her baby comes. That could be any day now so I really need to stay home. I'm sorry, Murdoch. You understand?"
"No need to be sorry, darling and of course we understand. We'll go again another time when you can join us." Murdoch smiled and raised his glass, "A toast shall we? To our trip and time together, may they be fortuitous in every respect!"
What was it Johnny had said then, "Cheers, Scott?"
No, that wasn't it. "Cheer me, Scott?"
Trying to chase away the fog, Scott shook his head which served only to make him dizzier. But a moment later he could finally understand what his brother was saying.
"Can you hear me Scott? I'm going to ride up ahead a bit, see if I can get a handle on what direction those three are headed. If we wait too long we'll lose them and you can't ride. At least not for a little while and even then you'll slow me down." Johnny swung into the saddle and gathered the reins. "You wait here. I took care of your horse so just rest. Once I know for sure where they're headed I'll come back for you."
Not much liking the idea of being left behind but realizing it was the only option with the way he was feeling, Scott nodded.
"Just be real careful Johnny. Okay?"
"Oh, don't you worry `bout me big brother. I'm not the one who almost got his head knocked off. I'll be back before you get a chance to miss me." With a grin, Johnny gave Barranca a little nudge and headed off up the trail.
Scott closed his eyes and drifted
asleep. He awoke a few hours later feeling somewhat less nauseous and more than
a little happy to find the drummer next door had given up and found something
else to occupy his time. Not willing to stay behind he managed to get to his
feet on the first try and made his way to his horse. Getting that horse ready to
ride was another thing altogether. Bending over to pick up the saddle without
falling flat on his face proved an interesting and rather challenging endeavor.
By the time what had been down was back up the older brother found himself out
of breath leaning heavily against his horse. Scott clung with both hands to the
saddle horn, the only thing keeping him upright, his dusty blonde head resting
on one arm and his eyes closed from weariness and pain. God, if only his head
would stop spinning...
A bump from a much larger, shaggy brown head brought Scott back to awareness, "All right, all right. Hold your...well, you know what I mean. I'm getting on, give me a second. " After a few attempts, Scott finally managed to get one foot into the stirrup and pulled himself up on his horse.
Settling stiffly in the saddle, Scott gathered the reins and took one more drink from his canteen before heading off after his brother. Finding the pressure of the bandage uncomfortable, he removed it and settled his hat on his head, tipping it back a bit to keep the pressure off the cut above his eye. A quiet `git-up' was all it took to send Charlie up the trail. With the sun low in the sky the heat was more bearable and Scott began to feel a little better but still worried about what was to come. After an hour or so riding hard on
Johnny's trail, his horse began to move even faster, its ears perked as if sensing something or someone. Scott pulled back on the reins to stop for a moment. Not seeing anything up ahead, he nudged the horse with his heels and moved on cautiously, looking and listening for any sign of Johnny or their prey. Nightfall was fast approaching.
Moments later a hushed but insistent voice was calling him. "Scott! Get down and don't make any noise, they're up ahead just a bit." A few seconds later Johnny appeared from behind a small outcropping of rocks. "Just what the hell are you doing here? Don't you know how to listen when I tell you to stay put? Good thing these rocks are between us and them or you might have spooked `em. God, Scott, you're face looks like you've been stomped on by a horse..."
"Nice to see you, too, brother. Don't worry no one but you heard me coming. So just where exactly are they?"
Johnny moved to take his horse while Scott followed him into the rocks. They climbed up to the top of the outcropping where both could see down into a small canyon. About a hundred yards away beyond a small grove of trees a campsite was visible. Two men could be seen eating while a third was off to the left tending the horses. All seemed quiet. None of the men seemed aware of the two brothers watching them from above the trees. Johnny turned to his brother and saw that the anger of the morning had returned to take hold of Scott. Raw emotion was clearly evident on his battered face, a look of grim determination for the task ahead with the need for vengeance reflected in his eyes. Make that his eye, as predicted the other was nearly swollen shut now yet Johnny could tell his brother was hurting from more than a beating.
"How do you want to handle this, Scott?"
Moments passed with no acknowledgement from the older Lancer.
"Scott, what do you want to do?"
In the fading light of day, Johnny sat quietly waiting and watching his brother. They were at a crossroad he and this man from back East. A man who grew up in a different world yet in a way that was not so different. He had faced adversity, challenged by a war's harsh cruelty and the seeming abandonment of a father. A mother he had never known...living for a time without any real direction finally seeking a new life and himself in the ruggedness that was the West and Lancer. All preparing him for this moment, this choice. This was something Scott had to decide. Johnny knew he couldn't do it for him; he couldn't lead the way or offer advice. This man who was his brother, his best friend and one of the only men he ever looked up to needed to sort this out on his own without help or hindrance from anyone. One more time, Johnny quietly asked the question, prepared to do whatever his brother asked of him no matter what the cost. Because he knew Scott would do it for him.
"Scott, what do you want to do?"
Scott closed his eyes and lowered his head. A moment passed. He breathed in deeply, held it just a moment then breathed back out again so slowly. He took one more breathe before raising his head as he turned and looked his younger brother in the eye. Johnny sensed a decision had been made, he need only wait to hear what it was. Scott gave a little shake of his head then softly said, "Let's go back, Johnny. Let's just go back."
"Okay, Scott. Let's do just that."
Scott Lancer had found himself behind those rocks. He had dug down deep and remembered who he was and what he stood for. Let the law handle the lawbreakers. He had a wife, she was hurt. He needed to see her and to know one way or another how she was. He wouldn't waste any more precious time on the ones who had done the harm. He was going back where he belonged.
The brothers rode as fast as their trail-worn horses could carry them. Once again darkness made riding further too dangerous and despite his need to go on even Scott had to admit once again it was time to stop for the night. After tending to the horses, a campfire warmed their outsides and hot coffee took care of the rest. With little energy left for conversation, both men wearily settled into their bedrolls. It had been a long, long day.
Johnny was nearly asleep when he heard a low voice in the dark, cracking with the strain of emotions barely kept in check.
"She's pregnant, Johnny...Sarah's going to have a baby. At least, she was..."
Hardly awake, it took a moment for the words to sink in. "She's what...she is...a baby? Why didn't you say something Scott?" Sitting up, Johnny rubbed the sleep out of his eyes then ran a hand through his unkempt hair as he gave his neck a stretch to get the kinks out, "No wonder you're such a mess. It wasn't just Sarah you were scared for..."
A moment passed in silence as both men contemplated the implications of the secret revealed. "You know, Scott, you shoulda told me. Guess it explains a bit why you were actin' all crazy and such. A baby...whoo-ee."
"I just need to know...about both of them. God, Johnny, I keep thinking something really terrible has happened. I never should have left her."
"I know you're worried but Sarah's strong, Scott. Murdoch will take good care of her. She'll keep that baby."
A few seconds later Johnny jumped to his feet and began to kick dirt into the fire. "All right then- get up, big brother. We're leaving. It'll be light soon so no sense wasting any more time here worrying. Let's get back and check on my sister-in-law and that baby of ours."
Even with the best speed the horses could muster the ride back seemed so much longer than when they had left just a short forever ago. But by late morning Scott and Johnny finally made their way back to where they had left Sarah and Murdoch. No one was there.
"Johnny are you sure this is the right spot?" Barely keeping his panic in check, Scott jumped down from his horse and began to search furiously for any sign, any hint of where his family had gone. His face etched with worry, pain, and fatigue, Scott turned to his brother. "Johnny, where the hell are they???"
Quickly dismounting Johnny grabbed him by the arm desperately trying to calm his brother as well as himself. "Hold on, Scott. Murdoch wouldn't have just taken off. Look for a note or something."
With both sets of eyes scanning the area, it took only another moment to find the leather pouch tied to a tree branch a short distance beyond a cold campfire. A note in Murdoch's familiar handwriting read, "Remembered passing an old line shack a short distance back. Have taken Sarah there."
"Well, the old man might a told us a little more than- hey, Scott. You ok?" Johnny crossed to where his brother was standing. Scott was pale, Johnny turned his head to look at the day-old wounds frowning when he saw that the cut above Scott's eye had opened some and was bleeding just a bit. "Hold on, Scott. We need to fix you up."
Scott knocked his hand and wiped the blood away, "I'm all right. We need to get to that line shack..." He started to move to his horse but stumbled as his knees gave way. Johnny caught him before he fell and eased him to the ground. It would seem that adrenalin was all that had been keeping Scott Lancer upright the past few hours and suddenly the well had gone dry. Johnny went to his horse for his canteen, returning to give Scott a drink and a few moments rest before they moved on. He gently wiped the remaining blood from the older Lancer's brow, the bleeding had stopped but Scott needed just a bit more time to dredge up the strength for the final push back.
"You want any more to drink, Scott?" Johnny offered the canteen once again.
With a shake of his head, Scott began to stand once more, "No...thanks, Johnny. I'm ok, I...we can go now. Sorry about that."
"No problem, Boston. I don't think that shack's more then a mile back. We'll be there before you know it."
It was no sooner said it seemed than both men caught site of the dilapidated structure a short distance ahead. Suddenly with energy to spare, Scott gave his horse a kick taking the last bit of road at a gallop. As he approached the shack, Murdoch came out the door and gave a wave. Barely giving his horse the chance to stop, Scott flew out of the saddle rushing to his father. Hatless, breathless, Scott grabbed Murdoch by the arm, "Sarah?"
At first taking in only the bruised countenance of his oldest son, a distracted Murdoch Lancer missed the desperation in the question and his son's desperate need for an answer. "My God, Scott. Are you all right, what happened?"
Giving his father a rather rough shake, Scott shook his head, a wild look in his eye. "God, Murdoch don't worry about me- how is Sarah, is she...is she-"
"I'm sorry Scott. Lord sometimes I'm an idiot...I was just-"
"Dammit Murdoch, TELL ME HOW MY WIFE IS!"
And in that moment with just a few short words and a smile that told it all, Murdoch Lancer swept away the pain and anguish of the past two days, cleansed a soul and gave his oldest son his life back, "Sarah and my grandbaby-to-be are just fine!"