Teresa paced anxiously back and forth across the confines of her room. She flicked an impatient glance at the mirror and frowned at the pensive girl who gazed back at her from the glass. With a sigh, she brushed back a lock of her tumbled brown hair, and then with a sudden sense of determination, she strode to the door.
She descended the stairs and headed for the kitchen to check on the housekeeper’s progress with breakfast. At the bottom of the steps, she hesitated, biting her bottom lip with a grimace. She couldn’t face the endless chatter of Maria in the kitchen. Hating herself for her indecision, she spun on her heel and made her way outside instead.
Almost running, she crossed the threshold to the dusty coolness of the barn. She inhaled deeply, savoring the soothing smells of the animals that immediately surrounded her. She scuffed across the hay-strewn floor, and entered the stall of her favorite mare. Murmuring soft endearments, she stroked the silky nose and rested her head on the warm neck.
"Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?" The voice came from the dim interior of the adjacent stall. Teresa jumped with a distressed squeak.
"Scott! I didn’t know you were in here." Her reaction startled the mare giving Teresa an excuse to hide her face against the horse’s side as she soothed her.
"I was checking on Murdoch’s horse. He strained his hind leg the other day while we were rounding up strays." Scott leaned companionably against the stall and eyed the girl with interest. "You seem a little upset about something. Do you want to talk about it?"
Teresa pretended a great interest in the mare’s head, scratching gently behind the soft ears and stroking the long nose. "Who said I’m upset?" she asked forcefully. "I don’t know what you mean."
"Then why won’t you look at me?" Scott asked, the concern in his voiced reflected by the worried look in his eyes. He moved closer to her and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Come on, you know this isn’t like you. Tell "big brother" Scott, why don’t you?"
Teresa flinched away from his hand, deliberately turning her back on him. "There’s nothing to tell." She hesitated and then headed for the entrance to the stall. "It’s almost time for breakfast. We’d best be getting in before Murdoch sends someone looking for us." Still she avoided Scott’s eyes.
Scott watched her go, his eyes puzzled, a frown on his face. It wasn’t like Teresa to dissemble; she was normally one of the most forthright women he’d ever met. He followed her into the house mechanically, his thoughts worrying over the conversation. It was obvious that Teresa was hiding something, but what? He couldn’t force the girl to talk to him, that was obvious. Truth be told, he was a little hurt by her avoidance of his questions. He’d thought that he and Teresa had become very close. To have her deliberately refuse to tell him what was worrying her struck a blow to his confidence in their relationship.
Scott slipped into his place at the table, his expression bland, but his eyes watchful. He saw Teresa slide into the chair that Johnny gallantly held out for her. He watched his dark-haired brother clowning with the girl, and saw Teresa’s feeble attempt to match the younger Lancer’s humor. He didn’t realize that his own silence was growing noticeable until he heard Murdoch speak.
"Anything wrong, Scott?" the older man asked gravely. Murdoch sat at the head of the table, his hands steepled together, a crease furrowing his brow as he pondered his silent older son.
Scott had to chuckle at the question. It was the same one that had started this whole day off on the wrong foot. "No, not that I know of," he replied blandly. He quickly steered the conversation to the day’s activities and assignments to throw his father off the scent, but he was fully aware of Johnny’s speculative look.
Finishing quickly, he pushed back his chair. "Well, Johnny, if you’re through with your third helping, I’d say it’s time to get started," he said good-naturedly. He nodded pleasantly to Murdoch and paused briefly by Teresa’s chair on his way to the door. "We’ll be back around dusk; send someone out to the north pasture if you need anything."
Teresa flushed, the red stain creeping up from her collar to wash over her face. "I’m sure I won’t be needing anything at all, Scott," she replied indignantly, and she rose abruptly, pushing back her chair a little too vigorously. "I’ll be in the kitchen with Maria."
Three men gaped at the girl as she swept grandly from the room, her nose in the air.
"Whoo-ee, brother! You sure riled her up good," Johnny exclaimed cheerfully, as he too rose from the table. He reached out and ruffled Scott’s blond hair with a playful hand. "What are you two arguing about, anyway?"
Scott just shook his head, carefully avoiding the concerned look in Murdoch’s eye. "We’re not arguing," he said calmly. "Teresa just seems a little on edge lately, and I asked her what was wrong. She says she’s fine, and until she tells us differently, we’ll just have to assume that she is."
Scott adjusted his hat onto his head and headed for the door. "Are you coming, brother?" he asked. His tone indicated that he wasn’t going to answer any more questions on the subject, and the two younger Lancers headed for the day’s chores.
Murdoch was left staring at the empty room with a baffled expression on his face. He had the strange feeling that he had missed something important, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was. He sighed. Ever since Scott and Johnny had come to live at Lancer, he’d had these moments of feeling like the odd-man-out. As he walked toward his desk, Murdoch reflected that he would rather be feeling left out than not have his sons at home. With a determined shrug, he pushed all other thoughts from his mind. Whatever it was, they’d work it out or come to him. There were bills to pay and accounts to straighten out, his least favorite part of the running of the ranch. He didn’t have time to worry about what his children were up to.
The sun was dropping toward the mountains before Teresa paused from her chores to notice. She’d pushed herself hard most of the afternoon, in an attempt to keep her thoughts at bay. It was almost time for the men to be returning home, and she wanted to check on the progress of the evening meal. Scott and Johnny would be starving after their long day on the range, and she prided herself on setting a good table for them.
She hurried toward the house from the garden, her mind intent on her mission, when a strong hand reached out and almost hauled her off her feet. Teresa gave a small shriek and fought against the hand that quickly wrapped itself over her lips.
"Shh, honey, it’s just me. Stop making so much noise," a mellow voice said quietly. "Do you want a bunch of ranch hands bustin’ in on us?"
Teresa relaxed in relief, her face breaking into a smile of relief. "Jeff, you scared me," she said with a chuckle. "What are you doing here, silly?"
The man smiled too. "I had to come see my best girl, didn’t I?" he asked. He proceeded to wrap his arms firmly around her slender waist.
As he enfolded her in his arms and lowered his lips to hers, Teresa struggled again, briefly. Her eyes searched the surrounding area to see if they were being watched. Satisfied that they were alone, she surrendered herself into the man’s embrace. With a sigh, she felt his lips leave hers, and she snuggled contentedly into the strong arms. "I’ve missed you," she murmured.
"I’ve missed you too, honey. I didn’t think I could stand it another minute, so I came straight here after I got back to town. I finished my business in Green River so fast that I think the town never knew what hit them." He laughed quietly. Then his smile faded, and his green eyes grew serious. "Did you tell him?"
Teresa frowned. "No, the timing just wasn’t right, Jeff. I’m sorry, I really meant to tell Murdoch about us while you were gone. But there’ve been some problems on the ranch, and he’s been so busy, I just didn’t have the heart to dump this on him, too."
Jeff regarded her intently. "What makes you think that the fact you and I want to get married is going to be a problem for Mr. Lancer. You’d think he’d be happy for us."
With lowered eyes, Teresa spoke without conviction. "Yes, you’d think so, wouldn’t you?"
Jeff put a finger beneath her chin and tilted her head up, forcing her to meet his eyes. "Look at me, honey," he commanded. "What’s old man Lancer got against me, anyway?"
Teresa sighed. "He thinks you’re a gambler with no morals, if you want to know the truth," she said sorrowfully. "I’ve tried to tell him that you aren’t like that at all, but he won’t believe me. I don’t know why he won’t listen to me. But I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be happy about us getting married."
Jeff dropped his hand. He scuffed the ground with a booted foot, and stared off into the distance consideringly. "You want me to talk to him?"
Teresa jumped. "No!" she said quickly. "I’ll do it, I promise. Just give me a little more time, Jeff." She tugged on his arm pleadingly as she spoke, and was rewarded by the soft smile that curled up the edges of the man’s lips.
"I’m taking you away from here at the end of the week, whether you’ve talked to him or not, little girl, you understand?" The cowboy’s eyes were bold with excitement, and he swung Teresa into an exuberant hug. "You’re going to make an honest man of me, Teresa O’Brien, didn’t you know that?"
Teresa giggled helplessly. "Put me down, silly. Someone will see us," she commanded without heat. "It’s a deal. One way or the other I’ll meet you at that old line shack on the edge of the ranch. You know, the one where we met. Hopefully, Murdoch will have given us his blessing. But if he hasn’t, I’ll be there anyway." She spoke convincingly, and Jeff grinned.
"I’ll be waiting," was all he said. After one last lingering kiss, he slipped away into the shadows, with no sound to mark his passage.
Teresa stared at the spot where he’d disappeared, her smile fading rapidly. Her heart was beating faster, and her face was pale. She knew Murdoch wouldn’t give his blessing to her relationship with Jeff Clifford. He’d spoken often enough of the distaste he had for the gambler. It was a problem that she didn’t know how to surmount. Slowly, she made her way to the house. With the end of the week fast approaching, she needed to make some plans.
"Did I see Jeff Clifford riding away from here earlier?" Johnny asked during a lull in the dinner conversation. He reached across the table as he spoke and snagged the last potato from the bowl.
Scott glared at his younger brother; he’d been eyeing the same potato. "Jeff Clifford? What would he be doing here? He knows he’s not welcome at Lancer."
Murdoch looked up from his plate with hooded eyes, his brooding expression a clear indication of his feelings. "Did you see Jeff today, Teresa?" he asked quietly.
Teresa flushed warmly, her eyes glinting in the candlelight. "Yes, I did. He stopped by to say hello." She finished her statement and sat with her hands clenched tightly in her lap. Now was the time to confess her secret to her family, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Murdoch’s steely blue eyes bored into the girl. "Is that all?" The three words hung in the air, sharp and challenging.
Teresa lifted her chin high, her cheeks on fire. "Yes, that’s all. May I please be excused?" Without waiting for an answer, she pushed her chair back and ran from the dining room.
Left at the table, the men sat with open mouths, eyes wide with disbelief. Teresa rarely indulged in displays of temper.
Scott spoke first. "So that’s it," he mused, his voice soft with speculation.
Johnny turned sharp eyes on his older brother. "So that’s what?" he questioned. "Is Teresa in some kind of trouble that I should know about." Johnny’s hand strayed unconsciously to his hip, a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by his father and brother.
Scott turned a blank-faced stare on the ex-gunslinger. "I haven’t heard about any trouble. If Teresa’s having a problem, I’m sure she’ll let us know about it in her own good time."
Johnny ruffed a hand though his hair. He deliberately let out a long slow breath as he tried to calm himself down. "Sure, Brother. Teresa’s such a chatterbox, if she was having any problems, she’d let us know." Johnny’s eyes betrayed his stark disbelief at the statement.
Scott sat back in his chair, his dinner forgotten. "I think I’ve had enough. Excuse me, please?" he asked formally. Then he too left the table, his footsteps echoing on the stairs.
Murdoch exchanged a long look with his dark-haired son. "You want to guess what that’s all about?" he asked grumpily. "I don’t like that Jeff Clifford, and I don’t want him hanging around Teresa." He heaved a long sigh. "Children. They’ll be the death of me yet," he mumbled as he too left the room.
Johnny rocked back in his chair. His blue eyes gazed speculatively toward the stairs. Something was definitely up, and Scott knew what it was. If there was one thing Johnny Lancer hated, it was being in the dark. He stood up, determined to find out what was troubling Teresa.
When his soft tap on Teresa’s bedroom door elicited no response, Johnny turned the handle and pushed it open. He was surprised to find the room in darkness. Obviously, Teresa hadn’t stayed in her room after her flight from the table. He wondered briefly where she was, but a mental rundown of her favorite haunts made him nod in satisfaction. He knew where she would be holed up.
He took the stairs two at a time, then left the house by the front door, his booted feet sounding loud on the paving stones of the porch. He quickly rounded the corner and peered through the shadows of the patio located toward the rear. He wasn’t surprised to see a forlorn figure huddled on a bench at the far end of the enclosure.
He slipped onto the bench beside her and tilted just enough so that his back rested comfortably against the rough stone wall. He breathed deeply and inhaled the scent of jasmine that laced the air. With appreciative eyes, he gazed at the moon, all the while waiting for a word from the girl who sat beside him.
Finally, Teresa rewarded his patience with a soft sigh. "I take it you aren’t going to go away?" she asked in regret. "Why can’t you all just let me think without constantly hovering over me?"
In spite of the fact that the girl didn’t appear to want an answer to her question, Johnny spoke quietly. "Because we care about you. We can see that something’s wrong, and I have a hunch it has to do with a certain gambler that Murdoch isn’t too fond of. Am I right?"
He smiled beguilingly, but the expression was wasted because Teresa wouldn’t look at him. She kept her eyes firmly fastened on the ground, well aware that Johnny Lancer was hard to resist when he wanted to be charming.
"Drop it for now, Johnny," she begged. "Please? I’m not ready to talk about it."
Johnny’s smile faded, and his eyes took on a hard glint. "Is Clifford bothering you? You want me to go into town to talk to him?"
That got the girl’s attention, and Teresa’s head jerked up; her eyes sparkled with suppressed anger. "I said drop it, Johnny! Leave Jeff alone, do you hear me? I don’t want you to go to town, and I don’t want you to talk to him. This is my business and no one else’s." She jumped to her feet as she spoke and stood with her hands on her hips. "And when I want to discuss something that’s bothering me, I will. Pass that on to your nosy brother, too."
The distraught girl turned on her heel and ran for the house. Johnny frowned when he heard the sob that drifted back to him on the night air. In spite of Teresa’s angry speech, he had a feeling that a little chat with Jeff Clifford would answer a lot of questions. He headed for the barn.
It didn’t take long to throw the saddle on Barranca’s broad back and urge the horse into a quick trot. If Teresa wouldn’t talk, Clifford would. Johnny would make certain of that.
The music from the brightly lit cantina drifted out into the night air, accompanied by the tinkling laughter of the saloon girls and the deeper tones of the cowboys who patronized the establishment. Johnny tied Barranca’s reins to the hitching rail and let the familiar sights and sounds wash over him. He loved the cantina’s lively atmosphere and the hint of danger that lurked under its bright exterior. The patrons were a mix of local cowboys out spending their pay, gamblers ready to relieve them of their money, and drifters passing through. The haphazard assortment gave an edge to every conversation. An unthinking word in this place often ended in death for the person who uttered it.
Johnny strolled through the crowd with a nod here and a smile there. He was a popular favorite with the regulars, and he retained enough of his gunslinger’s aura to protect him from all but the most foolhardy of the strangers. Tonight, instead of stopping to talk with his cronies he headed for the corner table where he’d already spotted his prey.
Clifford sat at a poker table, his hands busy shuffling. His eyes were occupied in summing up his opponents, even as he manipulated the cards with an easy grace. The gambler didn’t appear to look up as Johnny approached the table; instead he was dealing out the cards. But his words made it plain that he had watched the other man approach. "Hello, Lancer. What brings you to town tonight?"
With the deal finished, the men at the table picked up their cards, studying them with varying intensity. Clifford swept his into one hand, and gave them a casual perusal. Only then did he bother to raise his eyes to where Johnny stood.
Johnny’s voice was quiet. "You." He rocked back on his heels and stuck his thumbs in his pockets. His casual stance didn’t fool anyone. The icy tone in his voice made everyone within hearing distance blanch.
Several of the men at neighboring tables scooted back their chairs and scrambled for a safer seat. The card players glanced at each other in sudden fear. With a sheepish glance at Clifford, they tossed their cards on the table.
"Game’s a little too exciting tonight, Clifford." The man who spoke was older, gifted with watchful eyes that had kept him alive through many a dangerous situation. "We’ll play some other time." He motioned to his partners and they left the cantina without a backward glance. There’d be another game somewhere else.
Johnny straddled one of the now-unoccupied chairs with a casual grace. He gazed speculatively at the gambler, who looked back without trepidation. Johnny’s icy blue eyes had cowed many a man, but they seemed to have no effect on Clifford.
Clifford gathered up the scattered cards and shuffled them back and forth without thought. "Is this a social call, Johnny, or did you come into town just to scare away my customers?" he asked.
Johnny watched the cards as they shifted, but they moved too fast for him to track their movement for long. He smiled lazily, but the sentiment didn’t reach his eyes. "I hear you were out at Lancer today," he said. "Want to tell me why?"
"Not especially." The gambler dropped his eyes and concentrated on the intricate pattern he was creating with the cards. "I don’t see that it’s any of your business."
"Anything that happens at Lancer is my business." Johnny let his smile slip, revealing the harsh glint of anger in his eye. "Especially if it involves Teresa."
Clifford slammed his hand down on the table. The cards leapt and scattered, but he paid no attention to the mess he’d made. "Look, Lancer," he spat out. "I told your brother, and now I’m telling you. Anything that happens between Teresa and me is our business and no one else’s. If she wants to tell you what’s going on, she will. But you won’t hear it from me."
He stood up so fast that his chair flew backwards and hit the floor with a crash. The crowd in the cantina grew silent, and men moved swiftly to distance themselves from the table. Without a backward look, Clifford strode out through the batwing doors of the saloon.
Johnny shook his head ruefully and uncoiled himself from his chair. He glanced around the silent cantina and noted with sorrow the ripple of dropped heads and averted eyes. Before he could rise, a strong hand pressed him down onto the wooden seat.
The dark head tipped back, and Johnny let a wide grin escape. "Knew you were around here somewhere, Boston. I hear you talked with Clifford and didn’t have any more luck than I did." Even as he spoke, the gunslinger noted with relief that the familiar saloon noises were once again on the rise. He signaled a passing hostess. "Buy you a beer, Brother?"
Scott slipped into Clifford’s recently vacated chair. "You sure know how to wreck a party, don’t you, Johnny?" His easy grin took the sting from his words. "What makes you so sure that I didn’t get exactly what I came here for?"
Johnny grinned at his older brother as he rocked back in his chair. "Straight from the horse’s mouth. Clifford didn’t seem to be in a chatting mood tonight. Can’t think why." He raised his glass in a mock salute and then took a grateful swig from the foaming tankard that the hostess had deposited in front of him.
Scott toasted him back. "With your charming manners, it’s no surprise that Clifford ran out of here like that," he said without heat. "So what do you suppose is really going on between those two, anyway?"
Johnny’s face grew clouded. "I don’t even want to think about Teresa hanging around a man like that," he said, his anger building again. "He’s not fit for her to wipe her feet on."
Scott eyed his brother, a playful glint still sparkling in his blue eyes. "We don’t even know the man," he said quietly. "He might be the salt of the earth."
Johnny made a rude noise and punched Scott’s shoulder with a gentle fist. "Yeah, I’m sure he is." He took a long swallow to finish his beer. "You ready to go home, Boston?"
Scott nodded, pushing aside his half-finished drink. "More than ready, brother. I’ve had enough of this place for one night."
Shoulder to shoulder, the two men left the cantina. Neither noticed the palpable release of tension in the room as they left.
Over the course of the next couple of days it was obvious that Teresa was avoiding Murdoch and his sons. She rose early and went to bed as soon as dinner was over. At meal time she sat withdrawn and silent, her eyes downcast. It was clear that she was worrying about something, but no one had been able to crack through the shell she had formed around herself.
Johnny and Scott had several quiet-voiced conversations about Clifford, without satisfactory results. Johnny was all for running Clifford out of town at the end of the famous Madrid gun, while Scott preached a more temperate course of action.
The week passed its peak, and was winding down toward Friday, when Jelly Hoskins could stand it no longer. Hovering around the barn, he bided his time until he saw Teresa emerge from the house and head for the gardens. Taking a firm grip on his courage, he sprinted after her.
"Teresa!" His voice rang out, and Teresa stopped mid-stride. She turned slowly, her face a mix of exasperation and resignation.
"Not you too?" she asked, when Jelly finally reached her side. "I’m getting a little too old for you all to be following me around. I’m so tired of everyone asking me how I feel." She started walking again, intent on completing her task in the garden.
Jelly trotted alongside her, his hands busily twisting his old felt cap. "Now, Teresa," he began. "You’ve gotta talk to someone. Why not old Jelly? You’ve got the boss all in a state, and Scott and Johnny ain’t none too happy, neither. There’s gotta be something I can do to set this right."
Teresa smiled at the older man. She reached over and patted his shoulder in an impulsive gesture. "What would we do without you, Jelly?" she asked. "You complain a lot, but deep down, you know that your heart is right here at Lancer."
She reached the bench and sat down suddenly, the smile leaving her face as quickly as it had come. The weight of her secret had been growing all week long, and she felt an unexpected need to confide in someone. With a sigh, she buried her face in her hands.
The alarm in Jelly’s voice was enough to pull her out of her funk. "You want me to go get the boss?" he asked urgently. "You look like you ain’t feeling to good."
Teresa would have laughed at the naked panic in the old man’s face, if she hadn’t been so overwhelmed with guilt for the turmoil she was causing. "Jelly," she said quietly. "If I tell you something in confidence, would you promise me that you wouldn’t tell anyone else?"
Jelly worked harder at the cap in his hands, his transparent face reflecting the turmoil he was experiencing. "Not even the boss?" he whispered. His face went a little pale under the ruddy skin, and a sheen of sweat bedecked his bald head. "He’ll have my hide if anything happens to you, and I haven’t said anything."
The girl’s smile was somewhat grim as she regarded the troubled man. "Forget I said anything, then. I don’t want to get you in any trouble." She made a move to stand, only to have Jelly tug on her arm to keep her in her seat.
"Naw, it’s best you tell someone," Jelly asserted. "Least that way, someone’ll know what’s going on with you." He settled next to her, his face taking on an earnest expression that did make her laugh this time.
"Oh, Jelly!" she exclaimed, giving the startled man a hug. "I do love you."
Jelly’s face was suffused with color, and more sweat gathered on the top of his head. Reaching up with a handkerchief, the foreman dabbed at the droplets before giving the pretty girl his full attention. "Well, I’m listening," he announced finally.
Teresa took a deep breath. "I’m leaving tomorrow to marry Jeff Clifford." She felt an immediate sense of relief at having finally said the words out loud. A giddy laugh escaped her lips. "I’m going to marry Jeff Clifford, Jelly," she repeated.
Jelly gulped audibly and tugged at the collar of his shirt. "Have you told the boss?" he squeaked. "Or Scott?"
Teresa came back to earth with a thud. "No, I haven’t told anyone but you," she confessed. "But it’s only because Murdoch and the boys are so unreasonable about Jeff. They refuse to see any of his good qualities."
"That’s because he don’t have any," Jelly responded with some heat. "He’s not good enough for you, Teresa."
Teresa was on her feet in a flash. "Oh, Jelly, I thought I could count on you to see my side of things!" she exclaimed. "I’m going to marry him, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop me. And you promised not to say anything to anybody."
Jelly stood too, his face miserable. "I know I did, but I don’t like it. The boss and the boys ain’t gonna be happy."
Teresa bestowed a quick hug on the little man. "Don’t you worry about me, Jelly Hoskins. I’m going to be just fine," she asserted. "Now, I’ve got lots to do before tomorrow. Remember your promise."
And with that she was flitting back across the garden, her mind suddenly made up. Tomorrow she was leaving to marry Jeff Clifford. If she had looked back she would have seen Jelly standing forlornly where she’d left him, his hat now dangling limply from his hands.
"Now Jelly’s acting strange," Johnny commented, as he and Scott washed up for dinner. "He keeps pacing back and forth and muttering to himself. I think he’s been sneaking into the wine cellar."
Scott laughed, but his eyes remained serious. "I wonder what’s going on. First Teresa, now Jelly. I don’t like it. And I still have a strange feeling that all of this ties into Jeff Clifford’s visit to the ranch."
Johnny stopped splashing and stood stock still, his eyes wide. "You think Jelly knows something about Clifford that we don’t know?" he asked in disbelief. "And he didn’t say anything to us? Wait’ll I get my hands on him."
He started forward, but had only taken one step, when Scott grabbed his arm and yanked him backward. "Oh, no you don’t," he warned. "You’re not going to go charging after Jelly. You’ll only get him so flustered that he’ll forget everything he knows. This is a mission that calls for tact and persuasion."
Johnny glared up at his brother, every line of his body proclaiming his indignation. "Are you saying I don’t have any tact, Brother?" he demanded. "And, I’ll have you know that I can be very persuasive, if I want to be."
Scott grinned and slapped Johnny’s shoulder with just enough force to knock the other man forward. "I’m sure you can be, but we don’t need that kind of persuasion in this case."
He strolled off, leaving Johnny standing behind him, still struggling to figure out just what Scott had been saying.
Johnny broke into a trot to catch up to his brother. "Hey, was that a compliment?" he asked plaintively.
The sound of Scott’s laughter drifted through the air. "Let’s go find Jelly," was all he said.
They found him in his little room adjoining the stables. Jelly saw them coming and bolted for the door, but found his way blocked by two solid bodies.
Looking up at the Lancer brothers, he tried to sound casual, but failed miserably. "Scott, Johnny, nice night, isn’t it?" He ran a finger around his collar, as if it had suddenly become too tight. "Well, I’ve gotta go check on that horse. I think Pete’s waiting for me in the barn."
Johnny put a quick finger to Jelly’s lips, warning the man to silence. "We’ve got a little talking to do first, old friend," he said quietly.
Jelly darted a nervous glance from Johnny to Scott and back again. "Talk?" his gravelly voice rose an octave. "Talk about what?"
Scott leaned back against the door, his arms crossed casually across his chest. He looked the picture of bland innocence, but his eyes didn’t hold their usual warmth. "You’ve been acting a little strange today, Jelly. We’re a little worried about you, that’s all."
Jelly gulped audibly, his adam’s apple riding up and down in his throat in a visible motion. "Well, you got no call to be worrying about me," he asserted without conviction. "I’m just fine."
Johnny leaned in a little closer, earning himself a frown from Scott. "We want to know what’s going on with Teresa."
Again, Jelly’s throat worked convulsively. "T. . . Teresa?" he managed to get out. "I don’t know what you’re talking about."
Scott stepped forward, his movement forcing Johnny to back up a pace. "Calm down, Jelly. We’re all friends here," he murmured. "We’ve just noticed that Teresa’s been upset all week, and now you’re acting a little odd as well. It occurred to us that there might be some connection, and we wanted to give you a chance to get this thing off your chest."
Jelly took a moment to work his way through Scott’s speech. "I don’t know nothing about Teresa, least not anything that needs to be shared now." He took a deep breath. "Now, if you wanted to ask me that question again tomorrow morning . . ." he stopped, allowing a long pause to accumulate. "Like I said, tomorrow morning, ask me again."
Two pairs of blue eyes locked on each other. After a moment of silent communication, Scott nodded. "Teresa’s planning to do something you don’t like tomorrow morning, isn’t she, Jelly?"
Jelly backed away from the men who were hounding him. "I didn’t say a word. No, not a word. I didn’t say nothing about Friday morning to no one. No sir, not me."
This time the brothers let him go, and Jelly disappeared around the corner of the barn as fast as his feet could carry him.
Johnny let out a low whistle of amazement. "That was an amazing performance, Boston. I really didn’t think you’d get anything out of him." His good humor faded, to be replaced by a scowl. "So what’s Teresa going to be doing tomorrow morning that has Jelly so rattled."
Scott shook his head. "I have a hunch, but I don’t like it." He motioned to the house. "Teresa’s got supper waiting; I’ll fill you in while we head up that way."
Falling into step beside his older brother, Johnny listened intently as Scott outlined his thoughts. He didn’t say anything, but his face grew darker with each word. Teresa’s plans for the coming morning were doomed to be interrupted by one very angry ex-gunslinger.
The first glimmers of color were showing themselves in the sky when Johnny Lancer saddled his horse and walked him out of the barn. He was intent on his mission and failed to notice the figure who leaned against the barn door.
"Going somewhere, brother?" Scott’s voice was casual, but his face was grim in the feeble light. "You wouldn’t be going to look for Clifford, would you?"
Barranca shied nervously, as Johnny flinched. It wasn’t like him to be taken by surprise, and he didn’t like it. His sour mood darkened, and he glared at Scott. "What’re you doing? You’ll get yourself killed sneaking up on people like that."
Scott snorted in disgust. "I had a hunch you’d be trying something like this, so I figured I’d better be up early. You’re not going anywhere without me, Johnny."
He pushed himself off the rough planking. Stabbing a long finger at his brother’s chest, he said, "Wait for me. I’ll saddle up and join you." The bark of command was clear.
As he watched his brother’s tall, lean form disappear into the gloom of the barn, Johnny shook his head. "Cavalry," he muttered. "Sure goes to a man’s head." He waited impatiently, the horse at his side picking up on his nervous fidgeting.
Barranca twitched his head and whinnied, almost jerking the lead rein from Johnny’s lax fingers. "Shh," he soothed. "It’ll be all right. We’re just waiting for that bossy older brother of mine."
"Bossy! Who are you calling bossy?" Scott appeared at his side, his own horse trailing placidly behind him.
"You," came the laconic reply. "You’re sure feeling your oats this morning, Boston. What makes you think I can’t handle Clifford on my own?"
Scott laughed; the sound conveyed little warmth. "Your trigger finger is twitching. Have you noticed?"
Johnny flushed. "I’m not known for going off half-cocked. I certainly handled myself just fine when I was Johnny Madrid."
Scott’s look was reassuring. His love for his brother was evident as he spoke. "I know. It’s just that now you have a family to protect and defend. It changes things for you. You’re not Johnny Madrid anymore. You’re Johnny Lancer, and that carries a big responsibility. It clouds your judgement sometimes."
The dark-haired man’s face cleared. He grinned at his brother, the smile lighting his eyes. "And it doesn’t cloud yours, brother?"
Scott had the grace to flush. "Yes, it does. But I figure the two of us together will keep each other in check." He nodded toward the right, and the two men rode in that direction. "Let’s sweep around the ranch house for a couple of miles and see what we turn up," he advised.
Johnny didn’t bother to reply. He simply touched his heels to his horse’s flanks and kept his eyes on a constant scan of the surrounding area. Clifford wouldn’t slip through because of his negligence.
They had circled the countryside surrounding the ranch house several times, and the sun was well over the horizon, when Johnny signaled for a halt. Scott pulled up at his side, a puzzled frown on his face.
"What’s wrong, Johnny?" he asked. "Do you see something?" He put up a hand to shade his eyes, but could see nothing out of the ordinary.
Johnny shook his head in disgust. "Nothing. Either Clifford has another plan or he isn’t coming. Maybe Jelly got the details wrong."
Scott considered Johnny’s words carefully. "No, I don’t think so. Jelly was definitely upset about something that was going to happen this morning. I think we’re just a little too early, that’s all."
A quick hand on his arm stopped Scott’s words. He saw Johnny peering intently at something in the distance, and he squinted to see what the ex-gunslinger was looking at. "What is it?" he murmured.
Johnny pointed at the steep slope that rose up in front of them. "I saw a flash up in those hills," he replied. "Sunlight reflecting off a gun barrel, maybe. Let’s head in that direction and see what’s going on there."
Scott simply nudged his horse into motion, knowing there was no need for reply. It hadn’t taken the Lancer brothers long to discover that they functioned well together in a crisis.
They kept the horses to a walk as they made their way up the slope, stopping frequently to scan the area for any sign of trespassers. When they were close to the spot where Johnny had seen the flash, the men dismounted and tied the horses to a nearby bush. Proceeding on foot, they hoped to take the intruders by surprise.
Johnny took the lead with his gun drawn, Scott following on his heels. A low murmur met their ears and Scott tugged on Johnny’s arm to get his attention. Without speaking he pantomimed his intention to circle around. He didn’t wait to see Johnny’s nod of approval before he was moving into the underbrush in a flanking motion.
The dark-haired Lancer maneuvered himself so that he could see a group of men huddled together beneath an outcropping of rock. He listened intently, hoping to pick up what they were saying. He didn’t see any sign of Scott, but he assumed his brother was even now taking up a position on the other side of the small clearing.
"Are you sure you saw someone, Miguel?" A gruff voice broke the silence, although the speaker was struggling to keep his natural hearty tone to a whisper. "I ain’t seen a sign of any rider passing."
"Yes, I’m sure I saw someone. Two men, one on a palomino. I think it was Lancer’s son, or at least a horse like his," Miguel replied. "I have sharp eyes. That’s what you pay me for." He was clearly disgusted at the other man’s lack of confidence.
"I left Deke watching the trail; if anyone comes near, he’ll pick ‘em off," the first man said calmly. "We don’t want anyone to know we’re here. We need to get those cattle as soon as it’s dark and get out of the territory as fast as we can. Sanders will be waiting for us with the money."
Johnny felt a sharp flare of anger begin to burn in his stomach. He and Scott had inadvertently stumbled onto a gang of cattle rustlers. He was furious that these men dared to invade his home and steal his cattle.
He gathered himself together, in preparation for a pre-emptive strike against the men sitting by the fire. He spared a thought for Scott, and hoped that his brother had worked his way into position by now, but there was no way to find out. He rose slowly, his body making no sound as he moved.
His stomach dropped when he felt the barrel of a gun dig into the back of his neck and heard the distinct click of the hammer as the weapon was cocked. With a sigh of resignation he let his hands rise slowly toward the sky.
"Move," a husky voice whispered into his ear. It was accompanied by a large hand shoving forward against the small of his back.
Johnny moved, inwardly cursing himself for failing to spot the lookout. His face was bland, betraying nothing of his inner turmoil as he was thrust toward the little group by the rocks. He let a small smile drift across his face, but his eyes were like chips of ice in his white face. The effect was chilling, but the men who sprang to their feet at his approach failed to look impressed.
"Who’s this?" the leader demanded. He stood well over six feet tall, and he glared down at Johnny with a ferocious scowl. "How did he get in here?"
The second man peered closely at Johnny’s face. "It’s Lancer, or one of ‘em anyway. Where’d you find him, Deke?"
"I caught him behind that scrub back there. He was spying on you. Looked like he was about to make some kind of move when I got there. Seems like we caught him just in time." Johnny’s captor shoved him again, this time from sheer frustration. "I thought this plan was supposed to be foolproof. How did one of the Lancers waltz right in here?"
"Just my good luck, I suppose," Johnny drawled. He drew himself up to his full height and stood with his hands hovering in the air. It would be all too easy to go for his gun, and everyone knew it.
"Get his gun, Deke. You shoulda taken it when you first got him," the leader ordered. "Miguel, check this place out. There’s more than one Lancer in that big house. Wouldn’t surprise me if there’s more of them around here."
The men hurried to follow the orders of their leader and Johnny watched, the barest hint of a frown creasing his brow, as Miguel moved away toward Scott’s probable location. "You all sure picked the wrong cattle to steal," he offered. "You might want to consider moving on to someone else’s spread. We don’t take too kindly to rustlers at Lancer."
The swarthy man laughed, the harsh sound startling several birds into flight. "We take cattle from anyplace that looks handy. You Lancers are no different than anyone else."
A bullet whined through the air and ricocheted off the rock to Johnny’s right. He dove left and plowed into the body of the outlaw closest to him. He felt Deke’s grunt as the air left the desperado’s body. Another bullet, this one from much closer range, hit the dirt beside him, and Johnny grew still. He looked up to see the angry face of an outlaw staring back at him; the man’s gun held firmly in his hand.
As Johnny pulled himself to his feet, a rustling in the bushes marked the passage of Miguel. He arrived back at the campsite with his gun firmly planted in Scott Lancer’s back.
The sun had passed its meridian and was descending toward the horizon. Scott Lancer surveyed his bound hands grimly, and then bent his head to his shirt sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He felt Johnny stir next to him, and he turned his head just enough so that he could see his brother. The two men sat side-by-side, their backs to the rocks, hands firmly tied.
Over the course of the afternoon they’d discovered that the outlaws, led by Sam McCourt, had spent the better part of the week plotting their theft. They had done their homework well and knew the routine workings of the great ranch as much as possible. The men were secreted in a secure location. It was pure mischance that had led Scott and Johnny to stumble on the exact location of the little camp.
"You think Teresa’s already taken off with that gambler?" Johnny asked under his breath. "I sure did want to stop him."
Scott shrugged. "Not much we can do about it now. I’m more concerned about what’s going to happen to us when these gentlemen get the cattle they came after." He squinted as a shaft of sunlight caught him full in the eyes. "I’m sure they’re not going to want to leave witnesses."
Johnny nodded. "I can’t understand why they don’t just kill us and get it over with." He raised his bound hands to shield them from another dancing shaft of light.
"We’re insurance in case Murdoch or some of the men come up here. If we were dead they’d have nothing to bargain with." This time the light was brighter and Scott squeezed his eyes shut. He started to speak again, but felt Johnny nudge him sharply.
"Shh, Scott. That light’s a signal. Someone’s got a mirror and is reflecting the light toward us." Johnny said in a voice that could barely be heard. He straightened and let his eyes drift to the right and then the left. He nodded imperceptibly. "Got him."
"Where?" Scott strained to see what Johnny was looking at.
"Off to the left. I caught a glimpse of the light again. Wonder who it is?" Johnny mused.
"I don’t know, and I don’t care," Scott replied. "At this point I’d be happy to see Annabelle Murray coming up that trail."
Johnny chuckled. Annabelle Murray was a spinster who’d set her heart on capturing Scott Lancer for a husband. Scott spent an inordinate amount of time dodging her attentions. "We’d really be in trouble if it was Annabelle Murray," he said, his spirits lifting for the first time that day. "Get ready to move."
McCourt and his men were clustered around the fire with the exception of Miguel, who’d been sent out to stand watch. The sounds of a scuffle were heard in the distance, followed by a shout that was quickly muffled. McCourt and his gang sprang to their feet, guns drawn. They headed in the direction of the fight.
As the rustlers disappeared into the brush, Scott and Johnny levered themselves to their feet and slipped into the underbrush in the opposite direction. They moved quietly at first, but then ran full out, in an effort to get as far away from the outlaws as possible. Their movements were hampered by their bound hands, and the treacherous terrain, but still they kept going.
At last, gasping for breath, they slid to the ground behind the shelter of an overhanging ledge of rock. As they pulled back into the shadows, both kept their eyes trained on the surrounding area, determined not to be taken by surprise again.
"Who do you suppose we need to thank?" Johnny mused, as he went to work on the ropes at his wrists.
Scott sawed rhythmically on a jutting edge of rock, his face thoughtful. "I don’t know, but I’m certainly grateful. I hope whoever it was managed to get away as well."
Johnny grunted in agreement, and gave Scott a wicked grin as the ropes on his wrists parted. "I guess I’ll just mosey on back up that way and find out."
Scott nodded in satisfaction as the bindings parted on his wrists as well. "Not without me, you’re not," he stated emphatically. "We’re sticking together from now on, brother." He shivered a little at the wolfish gleam in Johnny’s eyes.
"What’s the matter, Boston? Aren’t you having any fun today?" the younger Lancer asked. He was already up and moving, and Scott hustled to keep up.
As they approached the rustlers’ camp, the two men took care to move silently, their eyes searching for concealed danger. Raised voices were audible from yards away from the encampment, and the Lancers exchanged glances. As one, they crept forward, making sure that they stayed hidden.
"Talk!" McCourt’s voice held a dangerous edge. It was accompanied by a solid thump, and Scott grimaced as he realized that someone was taking the brunt of the rustler’s anger. "Who are you? And how did you know the Lancers were up here?"
The brothers again exchanged glances. As they had feared, their rescuer had fallen into the hands of the outlaws. Pushing aside the brush, Johnny couldn’t help a sudden indrawn breath. Jeff Clifford, his face battered, but with his head up and eyes flashing dangerously, stood against the familiar outcropping. He’d clearly been beaten in an attempt to gain information that he was refusing to give.
Scott’s gasp matched Johnny’s and the two ducked back quickly. "We’ve got to get him out of there," he whispered.
Johnny nodded. He sat back in thought and then leaned forward to speak directly into Scott’s ear. "We’ll rush in together and take them by surprise. They’re all there, no guards in the bushes this time. McCourt’s focused on Clifford, so he’ll be the last to draw his gun. You go for Deke and I’ll take Miguel."
Scott didn’t bother to reply, he was already moving into position. At Johnny’s signal, the two rushed forward. The men grouped around the gambler were taken by surprise, not expecting an assault by two unarmed men.
Scott dove on his man, barreling him to the ground in a flying tackle. Deke’s feeble attempt to fight back was met with a flying fist which sent him plummeting effortlessly into oblivion. Scott grabbed the fallen man’s weapon and hastily got himself to his feet. He saw Johnny sparring briefly with Miguel, but even as he watched, the second man fell limply to the ground. In one fluid motion, Johnny had relieved him of his gun.
The Lancers turned toward McCourt, weapons raised, but Clifford had beaten them to it. While the man’s attention was distracted, the gambler let loose with both fists. McCourt joined his underlings in a heap, and Clifford stepped over his body to face the other men. "Scott. Johnny." He tipped his hat to each of them, a lazy smile curling up his lips. "Pleasant day, isn’t it?"
"How’d you find us?" Johnny blurted out abruptly. He stood with his hands on his hips, his eyes studying the gambler intently.
"Just happened to be passing by," Clifford began, only to be stopped by Johnny’s glare. He chuckled without humor. "Oh, Hell, you know why I was passing by. I’m supposed to be meeting Teresa today. She’s agreed to be my wife."
"Over my dead body," Johnny snarled, his blue eyes flashing. "Teresa’s not marrying anyone, especially not you."
Clifford stood his ground without flinching. "It almost was your dead body," he remarked calmly. "If I hadn’t come along when I did you and your brother would be dead."
Johnny had the grace to flush. He scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt and his eyes followed the movement carefully.
"He’s right you know," Scott put in. He reached out to squeeze Johnny’s shoulder. "I know you don’t like him any better than I do, brother, but he did save our lives. And he helped stop this vermin from rustling our cattle. He didn’t have to do it. He could have just ridden by without stopping."
"I know that!" Johnny’s head jerked up and he glared at the two men. "But I don’t have to like it. Murdoch will have a fit if Teresa runs off with this lowlife. She deserves better than to be hustled from town to town, her whole life depending on the run of the cards. Who knows where she’ll end if he has a spell of bad luck. She’s too naïve to realize what that kind of life is like."
Scott nodded in sudden understanding. Johnny had grown up in a succession of border towns, and had spent more than his fair share of time in the local cantinas. He had seen men like Clifford most of his life. Of all the Lancers, Johnny knew what Teresa was facing.
Clifford stood facing them. He was suddenly confronted by a united front. "How about it, Clifford. It’s not that we’re not grateful, because we are," Scott began. "But we only have Teresa’s best interests at heart. Do you really see her fitting into the life you lead right now?"
Now it was Clifford’s turn to flush and look thoughtful. "I’ll treat her like the princess that she is," he asserted. "She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Probably the only good and decent woman who’s ever looked twice at me. I’d take care of her."
He dusted off his pants, which were caked with a clinging film of trail dirt. Pushing past the Lancers, he headed for his horse. "Why don’t we let her decide for herself," he said over his shoulder. "I think she’ll choose me."
Scott glanced at Johnny in time to see the younger man give a grudging nod. He slapped his brother on the back and pointed a thumb into the distance. "Why don’t you see if you can scare up our horses, Johnny. I’ll tie up these fellows and find our gear." He waited long enough to see Johnny move before he set himself to his task.
While he worked to tie up the outlaws, Scott’s mind raced frantically. What if Teresa chose to leave with Clifford, he wondered. Could he really stand by and watch her make that kind of mistake? With a sigh, Scott poked through the gear that was heaped by the remains of the fire. He found his gunbelt and strapped it to his waist. Slinging Johnny’s belt over his shoulder he turned to find his brother and the gambler waiting for him. It was time to confront Teresa.
Teresa paced to the window of the line shack. She had lost track of the number of times she’d made the journey in the small cabin. A small satchel stuffed with items that she considered essential lay on the cot, and a well-filled saddle bag sat in a heap on the tiny porch. Now all she needed was her future husband to fulfill his promise to meet her.
A tiny frown creased her forehead and she gazed with longing at the empty landscape around the shack. The rolling hills and lush green pastures were normally a pleasing sight, but today the beauty of Lancer was lost on her. A gusty sigh escaped her lips and she flung herself into the room’s only chair. Burying her head in her hands, she let her thoughts dwell on Murdoch Lancer. He’d been so kind to her all her life, and then with the death of her own father, he’d stepped in to become a surrogate parent. The thought of betraying his kindness by running away with a man he disapproved of made her cringe in self-loathing. A flicker of hope surfaced momentarily, and she wondered if Murdoch would come around in time. Maybe he’d eventually welcome Jeff to Lancer with open arms.
Teresa couldn’t help the small snort of amusement that erupted at the thought of Jeff Clifford and Murdoch Lancer smiling at each other in harmony. That would be the day! The distant drumming of a horse’s hooves intruded on her daydreams and Teresa’s head came up with a start. She rushed to the window to look out, and was rewarded by the sight of a horse cresting the hill that led to the line shack.
She ran for the door and was on the porch before she registered the fact that the first horse was followed by two others. She stood in numb disbelief as Jeff dismounted in front of the line shack, followed by Johnny and Scott.
The gambler tied his mounts reins to the hitching post and strode to Teresa’s side. He didn’t seem to notice that she stood passively in his arms when he swept her into a fierce embrace. "I’m here, honey. Sorry I’m late, but I had to stop and rescue these two boys." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Johnny and Scott who were waiting quietly for the couple to include them.
Scott cleared his throat, and Johnny tossed a scowl in Clifford’s direction. They moved forward slowly, both a little nervous about Teresa’s reaction to their presence.
"We would have managed just fine without him," Johnny began, only to stop in the face of Scott’s withering glare. "Well, anyway, we want to talk to you, Teresa."
Scott jabbed a quick elbow into Johnny’s ribs, and the ex-gunslinger’s words ended in a gasp of pain. "What Johnny’s trying to say, is that we know about your plans. And while we don’t want to interfere, we’re very worried about the choice you’re about to make."
The paralysis of indecision and guilt disappeared abruptly as a flush of anger stained Teresa’s cheeks a pretty shade of pink. With a stamp of her booted foot, she stood with her hands planted firmly on her hips and her chin well up. "You’ve got no business following Jeff up here, and whatever decisions I make are my own."
She turned her back on the three men and walked to the door of the line shack. At the doorway, she stopped and flung a hard look over her shoulder. "Thanks for coming to say goodbye, but I’d like you boys to leave now." With that she entered the little structure, leaving three stunned men in her wake.
Scott and Johnny exchanged a quick glance and then both turned to the gambler. Clifford gazed back at them in concern. "Do you think she means me too?" he asked in bewilderment. "Or was she just talking to you?"
"I think we’ll wait out here for a bit," Scott murmured. "You and Teresa need to talk."
"Now wait a minute," Johnny began. "I want to talk to her. Let Clifford stay out here while I go in."
Scott shook his head firmly. "Johnny, she already knows what you have to say. And right now she doesn’t want to hear it. It’s Jeff she needs to talk to." He swung around to look the gambler straight in the eye. "Now you get in there. And remember, if you hurt her, you’ll answer to me."
His feet dragging a little, Clifford headed for the line shack. When he reached the door, he looked back at the Lancers, his face hopeful. Scott quickly shook his head, and Clifford’s countenance fell. With a sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, he headed into the little room.
Left outside to stew, Johnny kicked at a small rock. He watched in satisfaction as it bounced off a tree trunk with a solid thunk. "Why’d you stop me, Scott?" he asked. "She’s going to go off with that gambler and you wouldn’t even let me talk to her. Don’t you care about her at all?"
With a rueful smile, Scott picked out a seat on the ground beneath the spreading branches of a towering tree. "You know I care, brother. But I also know that when Teresa’s temper is up, she isn’t likely to listen to anyone. You’d only drive her away. This way, she’ll hear Clifford out and maybe she’ll be able to make the right decision on her own. We have to give her that chance."
Johnny sprawled on the ground beside Scott. He rolled over onto his back and propped his hat carefully over his eyes. "I sure hope you’re right, brother." He peeked out from beneath the hat brim, a roguish smile on his lips. "But if you’re not, I’m gonna let you be the one to tell Murdoch where she is." With that he pulled the hat back over his eyes. His last sight of his older brother left him with a silent chuckle. Scott was looking just a little green.
Teresa heard Jeff’s footsteps when he entered the little shack, but she didn’t turn her head. She was seated at the table, and she steadfastly refused to look at the man who now stood by her side. When he crouched beside her chair and peered up into her face, she flushed. There was no way to avoid those pleading green eyes now.
"What’s wrong, honey?" Clifford asked. "I came for you, just like I promised. Now you’re acting like you’re all riled up about something. Is it because Johnny and Scott followed me here? I couldn’t help that. Honest, I couldn’t."
Teresa’s heart softened at the worry on his face, and she reached to place a hand on his cheek for moment. "I’m not angry with you, Jeff. It’s just that I was so worried when you didn’t come, and then when you finally did show up, you had the boys with you. I’m angry with them for coming here, and with myself for being such a brat."
Clifford caught her hand in his and held it there. "You aren’t a brat," he said with a chuckle. "A bit hot-tempered, but not a brat. But why were you so angry that the Lancers came up here? Are you afraid that they’ll talk you out of going away with me?"
Teresa flinched a little. Clifford’s words hit a little too close to home for her comfort. "It’s not that," she argued. "I’m just so tired of them interfering in my life. I want to make my own decisions now. And I’ve decided that I want to be with you."
Her voice faded off at the end of her sentence. It was clear she was trying to convince herself that she meant every one of them. Clifford stared at her in speculation. With a sigh, he patted the hand he still held trapped in his. "Have I ever told you what my life is like, darling?" he asked casually.
Teresa shook her head, and she eyed him in bewilderment. This wasn’t exactly what she’d been expecting. She opened her mouth to speak, but was stopped by a gentle finger against her lips.
"No, let me finish. I want you to be clear on the way I live. I travel from town to town, often at a moment’s notice. I never stay too long in any one place, because if I do the locals get a little nasty."
He let go of her hand for a minute while he rummaged in his pockets. He located what he wanted, and triumphantly held aloft a deck of cards. "I make my living with these, Teresa. If Lady Luck smiles on me, I live high. If she turns her back on me, I don’t eat."
He turned and strolled across the room, unable to continue looking at the girl. Teresa had grown pale and still, her hands were clenched in her lap. Clifford shut his eyes to block out the sight, and then pulled aside the curtain so that he could peer through the little window. "If you come with me, you take me as you find me, honey. I’m not aiming to change. I like my life, and I intend to keep going the way I already do. It’s up to you to decide if that’s how you want to live. I’m not going to hold you to anything you don’t want."
The silence grew and thickened, and Clifford felt a tightness in his stomach. With a sigh, he let the curtain drop. He turned to see Teresa still sitting where he’d left her, but now her head was buried in her hands. It only took two strides to reach her side, and Clifford was there in between breaths.
Again, he knelt by her side, gathering her cold hands into his. "So, it’s good bye?" His eyes were sad, but his words were resigned.
Teresa choked back a sob and flung herself into his arms. "I love you so much, Jeff," she whispered into his neck. "Of course I thought about your life, but that could change. Isn’t there any way you’d consider settling down here at Lancer? I’m sure I could convince Murdoch to give you work on the ranch. We could stay here."
Clifford held her close and buried his face against the soft curtain of her hair. "I wish I could," he sighed. "But it would make us both miserable. I’d get restless and I’d make you unhappy. I wouldn’t do that to you. Does this mean that you don’t see yourself living my life?"
Teresa hesitated. "I do love you, Jeff. But I thought we’d settle down. We could travel for a while, just long enough to get together enough money to buy a small spread of our own. Someplace where we could raise our children." She caught a flash of something in his eyes and stopped abruptly.
"You don’t want children?" she asked.
Jeff laughed. "That life sounds grand, honey. But it’s for someone else, not me. I can’t see myself settling down, not anytime soon anyway. I like the excitement of the saloons." His face lit up with an inner fire. "When those cards are running my way, and I’ve got a couple of stiffs on the run, that’s a feeling that can’t be beat. I’m not ready to give that up."
He held the slim shoulders at arm’s length with a firm grip. "Be honest with me, Teresa. Do you see yourself living that kind of life? Because if you could, I’d be the happiest man on the face of the Earth. Who knows, you might even be able to persuade me to settle down eventually."
Teresa stood silently, her eyes searching his face in a desperate hunt for some hint of the kind of man who’d be happy to live on a ranch and raise children. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for her face crumpled, and she dropped her eyes. A soft sob caught in her throat, and Clifford drew her close against his chest again.
They stood clasped in each others arms for a long moment, but at last, the gambler worked to gently untangle himself from her arms. He put his hands on her shoulders and shook her gently. "You take care of yourself, now, you hear?" he ordered. "If you let some other guy come along and break your heart, I’ll come back here to yell at you."
"There won’t be any other guys," Teresa said, and at that moment, she believed it. "I don’t want anyone but you."
Her words were silenced by a lingering kiss that left them both gasping. And then he was gone with a last smile. Teresa stood where he’d left her, tears streaming down her face in a sudden torrent.
Scott and Johnny rose from their seats under the tree, and watched in amazement as Clifford mounted his horse. The gambler tipped his hat once, touched his heels to his horse’s flanks and rode out at a gallop.
The brothers moved slowly toward the line shack. Teresa had made her decision. It would be up to them to help her deal with its aftermath. But for now, they’d let her grieve.
The last sounds of the horses’ hooves had died out, as the Lancers escorted Teresa home. The little line shack lay quiet and abandoned, the sounds of the birds in the trees and a soft hum of insects all that could be heard.
The soft footfalls sounded louder than they should in the quiet that surrounded the little cabin. The tree branches parted, and Jeff Clifford walked into the clearing, his horse’s reins in his hand. He looked somberly at the now-empty shack, and then gazed in the direction of Lancer. In his mind’s eye he could picture the beautiful hacienda sleeping in the sun, while a dark-haired girl strolled through the sun-kissed gardens.
He took a step in that direction
and then stopped. He ruthlessly squelched the sudden surge of longing that
swept through him. It was only a dream. It could never be. With a shake
of his head for his foolishness, he mounted his horse and rode out in the
opposite direction. Dreams were fine for some folks, not for men like him.
Even so, he couldn’t help one last wistful look back.