The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb

 

 

FWhen I See You Again

So let the light guide your way, yeah
Hold every memory as you go
And every road you take, will always lead you home, home

It's been a long day without you my friend
And I'll tell you all about it when I see you again
We've come a long way from where we began
Oh I'll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again

See You Again by Wiz Khalifa w/Charlie Puth

 

Prologue:

The porch rocking chair creaked, and Will Matthews strained to lift himself from it. "I'd better go pitch some hay to the horses."

His grandson grinned up at him from his perch on the steps. "Bent up like you are, you'd be hard-pressed to pitch peanuts into a can, let alone fork hay into the stalls. I'll do it, I'm about to turn in anyway. Pa said it'll be a long day tomorrow with the herd."

Will considered the offer with some hesitation, he was no shirker and it wouldn't do to show the boy otherwise. But Lord, was he hurting tonight. He nodded his boney head a couple of times. "You're young yet..."

"Grandpa, I'm seventeen!"

He gave a wry grin. "Corley, you're young, and it's hell getting old. You'll understand someday." His voice softened. "I appreciate the help."

Sharp barks, one echoing into the next, came from the barn.

His grandson had gone ten steps when there was a flash of black and white at the barn door. Will squinted. It was Ferguson's dog, from the adjoining ranch. Close enough he could see its shaggy head and a feral eye-glow in the reflection of the setting sun.

That old dog knew better. "What's Blackie doing here?"

"Hard telling, Grandpa. We saw him at the pasture, but he peeled off around noon to chase something or other. Just as well, because Pa was fixing to run him off to home anyway. Dog was acting queerly around the cattle. You suppose Ferguson cut him loose?"

"Ferguson likes that dog better than he likes his wife. Huh. Probably taking after me and feeling his age. Go fetch him out, will you? He'll spook the milk cow."

Corley bent down. "Here boy."

It lifted its huge front paw with a guttural growl that sent shivers up Will's spine.

"Don't move," he whispered. He tried to straighten up but couldn't. Folded and feeling older than his years he tried once more and made it to his feet on a burst of panicked prayer.

With a look of pure puzzlement, Blackie cocked his head, as if listening to a sound only he could hear then pivoted and ran.

They watched the dog cannonball his way through heavy bush honeysuckle, high-tailing it for the trees—just a shadow in the dim light.

Will scratched at the wisp of hair on the back of his head. "What's gotten into that animal?"

"Should I go after him?"

He hung on to Corley's arm. "No. If Ferguson wants that poorly-mannered dog then he can just as well look for' em himself."

 

 

Chapter One

"It's the green of the grass. Now we have green in Boston…," Scott waited until the groan was let out, "but I think the area by Tio Creek is the greenest, spring or summer."

Johnny heaved out an aggrieved sigh.

"What? You would argue?"

"I've seen pretty so maybe I can say a thing or two about it."

"I assume we're not talking about the regal Miss Hempstead."

Johnny's grin was halfway there, but only flashed on the left side where he likely thought Scott couldn't see. "She's real pretty, too. But in a different way, nothin' green about' er."

"No, I don't suppose there is."

Scott looked at him briefly, if there was one word to describe Johnny this morning the word was happy. Not a usual occurrence to be sure, because one rarely spoke to Johnny before he had his first cup of coffee in the morning and even after the second, it was dicey. Not if they didn't want the should-be-patented hostile-eyed stare. Forget the gun, the stare was lethal in its own right. It appeared Miss Hempstead was doing something right.

She wasn't the only one. He and Johnny had finished the fencing earlier in the week, ahead of schedule, and were on their way to visit the Red herd. The campagneros y palominos of Lancer had a growth spurt the last year and were now divided into two colorful herds, Red and Yellow. This chore was the last one Murdoch had left before going to Modesto. He would be pleased when he returned home tonight.

"So what about outside of Lancer, Johnny? Anything catch your eye, besides the aforementioned lady friend?"

"Minerva's." It was said quickly, with all the certainty of laying down a straight flush, aces high.

"Another lady friend? I should probably tell you to broaden your horizon, but I'm too busy being scandalized by your social calendar."

"Minerva's isn't a lady, it's a place. Or it was, about five years ago just outside of San Diego."

He waited silently because that's what you did with Johnny when you wanted more. Eventually, on his own time, you'd get it.

"Minerva's was the name of a cantina. The real beauty was about a mile away. A small pool, so green and blue you thought it was part of an ocean."

Johnny wasn't budging much, but Scott recognized the miniscule signs of give, though: a twitch, two fingers raised.

"I was working." He shrugged. "It was a real quiet place, meant a lot at the time." Johnny looked up but kept his face angled away.

It was as close as he'd get to today. They rode in silence for the most part, the rest of the way to the pasture.

After everything that had happened this last year at Lancer: Johnny and Wes, Murdoch and Joe Baker and even Lieutenant Daniel Cassidy, the smell of fir and horses still gave Scott a thrill, made him feel solid, gave him a sense of purpose. A sense of belonging.

They made it over the rise and could see horses in shades of grey, brown and yellow, with a few foals nudging at their mothers. But something was wrong.

He reined up. "We have a problem."

Three of the horses had made a perimeter of sorts in a triangular fashion. Each at one point, they kept the rest of the herd bunched together in the middle. They were the protectors.

Johnny stood in his stirrups. "Probably a deer. Can't see anythin' from here, though."

"Do you want…?" He hadn't finished before Johnny read his mind and rode off to the right. He bunched his own reins and urged his horse down to the mottled grey mare standing stock-still on the left.

Nothing. He couldn't see where anything was wrong. He dismounted and walked slowly towards the worried mare and hadn't gotten more than a few feet when she bolted to the rest of the herd. Suddenly he felt exposed.

From the side, came a harsh breathy, wet noise. The smell of animal overpowering.

He was looking at it in the screen of underbrush, was bending down a little, when he saw Johnny coming towards him at full gallop, pistol drawn.

For a long moment, Scott stood steady then turned in the direction of whatever it was that Johnny was aiming at, saw the dog coming right at him. Tom Ferguson's dog. Hadn't Ferguson and he wildly searched his brain for a name—Blackie—hadn't they both been in town at the granary not two weeks ago?

Scott braced himself for the dog, and for the shot, which he reckoned would converge on him at the same time. It hit him at the same time as the bullet.

The bullet passed through the dog's thick neck, and kept going. Whispered past Scott's shoulder at an angle meaningful enough to draw blood, but not to lodge permanently. It ended up in the tree trunk behind him. Odd, that—Johnny never missed what he aimed at.

It ricocheted off Scott's chest, yelped, and fell back, blood pouring from its neck, but it shook itself and came again. He staggered back on his heels, not feeling the hit to his shoulder and managed to get his hands around its neck, grabbing for something more than skin and fur. It was useless, too slicked with blood.

The dog twisted his head, wrapped gleaming white teeth around Scott's forearm and bit down. Johnny yelled and Scott saw him flail his arms and his mouth might have been moving, but it was all so removed, might as well have been underwater.

As Scott watched, Johnny shot again. The bullet hit the dog on the shoulder, but it was snarling and foamed. It leapt back and flashed away, covered in blood now, parting the bunched frightened horses like Moses, and headed deeper into the woods. The day was hot, Scott realized, he was drenched in sweat, head swimming.

Johnny was shouting, but Scott had trouble hearing him, his ears still ringing from the close gunfire, his nostrils filled with the sour odor of burnt powder.

He stumbled back against the tree and slid down, didn't feel a thing, only a ringing in his ears, and a strange feeling like he'd been running for a long time. Long enough to see grey spots.

Staring where the dog had gone, relief came over him in a wash. He tried to wipe the sweat off his forehead, but his arm wasn't working quite the way it should. And his sleeve seemed torn to shreds.

But it wasn't just his sleeve.

His vision doubled, then blacked out completely.

 

 

Chapter Two

Johnny leapt forward, heard the crash and tumble of the dog, then silence.

"Scott!" Stumbling, he nearly fell into the brush himself. Pulled up in time to stop from hurtling over a hidden root in the pasture floor. Once he was sure there wasn't any sign of the dog, he shoved his still-warm pistol into his holster. He caught a glimpse of movement and found Scott toppled over on his right side, partially covered, lifting a lazy, dazed hand to flap at the undergrowth.

"Don't move!" Johnny called. He sent a wary glance around again. Where the hell was that dog? He ran back to Barranca, remembered it was Scott's saddlebags that carried the supplies and looked for Jack. The bay was standing in a far corner, probably spooked by the dog, but the reins were trailing. He slowly approached the horse and fumbled with the ties until the saddlebags came loose.

A growing sense of unease prickled the back of his neck. Loaded down with the supplies, Johnny had picked a careful route through the uneven pasture when Scott tried to elbow up, and yelled. It was a raw, wild sound, so completely not-Scott that Johnny forgot his caution, and took the rest of the way in clumsy, uncontrolled leaps.

"Damn it to hell!"

Johnny couldn't have said it better himself. He dropped to his knees behind Scott's back. He leaned over and yanked open his brother's jacket, palming his chest. "Where? Where did I hit you?"

"My right shoulder…my arm is on fire."

Johnny sent an exploratory hand inside Scott's jacket, worked his fingers around until his brother hissed and snapped his head back. His hand came back out bloody. "Okay, okay."

Scott twisted around, trying to come up again, and Johnny got another earful of the nerve-jangling yell.

He pinned Scott with a hand against his chest. "Stay still." Shifting his eyes downward, Johnny found the arm. Dios.

"That was Tom Ferguson's dog. Where is it?" The words were labored, choked out.

Johnny was busy pushing strips of linen inside his brother's shirt. "You sure?" He tossed a look over his shoulder, tilted his chin to listen again. He shook his head. "It's not here now."

Scott slapped Johnny's thigh with his good hand. "Blackie."

"What?"

"The dog's name. It's Blackie."

"You think of the funniest things." It made Scott smile, as planned.

After wrapping what he had left carefully around the bad arm, he shouldered the saddlebags. Then he grabbed the lapels of Scott's jacket.

"Sorry, brother, but we gotta get goin'."

#-#-#-#-#

 The doctor opened his door at Johnny's insistent thumps and quirked an eyebrow upward. "Scott, you look like you've been bear-wrestling."

He assumed he looked bad, just not that bad. He had blood over the most of him, though. It wasn't all his, but he really didn't want to think about the how or who.

Johnny steered him by his good arm towards the empty bench propped up against the wall. "He's been shot, Sam."

"What? Good heavens! Come in here." The doctor held the door open to his inner office and table.

As soon as he sat down, Sam peeled off the torn jacket and lifted Scott's shirt.

"Hm. Mm-hm. The bullet made a deep groove through the skin. Not too much damage from what I can tell here, but I bet it hurts. I need to get a closer look at that arm, though."

Johnny visibly relaxed and leaned over beside the doctor.

Scott's lips clamped for a moment. It was getting crowded. "Is there anything better you can do than stand over me?"

"I could go over and check on the mail." His eyes narrowed and swept over the bloodied arm. "Or maybe I'd better stay here, huh?"

Scott waved him away. "Go. And tell Miss Hempstead I said hello."

Johnny grinned a satyr's smile and walked out.

Sam looked at him in puzzlement.

He raised his good shoulder. "We've already gotten the mail for the week."

Sam turned and shuffled a few bottles on the tray, pouring water and powder into a glass, mixing up a potion with the skill of Merlin.

"All right, Scott, drink this then let's get you on the table and I want you to take it easy."

Like he was going to do anything else for the moment. He laid his head back on the hard pillow, smacking the bitterness of the water away, and tried not to think. It was relatively easy: not only did he have lots of practice thinking about nothing, but his body was in rebellion, and seemed to be doing something quite separate from any rational thought.

For the next hour or so, between the stitches and the carbolic acid, Sam's soft tuttings and pointed questions, he drifted along. His mind jumped from pasture to doctor office, from mad dog to the eggs he had for breakfast. Something was trying to rise to the surface, some winking thought, long ago hidden. It was like grasping water.

The next thing he knew the doctor stepped away from the table, and he didn't even remember the bandaging.

Sam cleaned his instruments then took a book down from his cluttered shelves, muttering to himself. Finally, he helped Scott to put his shirt back on, gesturing to the chair beside the desk. And Scott knew from the look on his face—caught in silver and grey from the morning sun—that Sam wasn't looking forward to the next order of business.

The doctor wanted to talk and Scott was trapped. No Johnny to distract and deflect with his earnest concern, only the squeak of an unoiled wheel, when Sam pulled his office chair up close.

Scott rubbed his eyelids with the tips of his fingers, trying to figure out what it was he was supposed to remember. He swallowed hard and felt ill. Rain. Night. Virginia. Rain and wet tarp. Clay's wild screams.

He tried to quiet the noise in his mind, because none of it was helping, but it came around again—a pistol shot, too much blood, gasping pleas. His stomach dropped, making a hot tight ache across his belly. He forced himself to concentrate, to make the doctor's lips fit with the words. Sam was giving him some bad news.

"Do you understand what I'm telling you, Scott? The shoulder wound is fairly minor, it bled quite a bit but should heal given time and attention. Your arm is another troubling matter, entirely. I don't want to alarm Johnny, but…"

"Alarm me for what?" Johnny poked his head around the half-open door.

Head pounding, Scott was grateful for the interruption. "How is the fair young lady?"

"Just fine." He jiggled a square of gingham tied in rabbit ears. "She sent over some cookies. Go on, Doc. I knew he was in trouble from the bleeding. But it's better now, right?"

The doctor's head tilted to the side, lips pressed together. Not happy with Johnny's tone.

"The wound has been cleaned, stitches applied."

"That's good," Johnny murmured, looking at the fresh, white bandage wrapped around Scott's forearm from wrist to elbow.

The doctor inched his chair closer and looked to Scott for permission before starting again. He nodded and Sam began. "Along with the deep scratches is a bite injury." And their eyes met. "There's a chance, if the dog was infected, that you will be, too, Scott."

He had to look away, didn't want Sam to come closer, to say anything more.

"With hydrophobia."

"I know about it," Scott whispered.

"Well, I don't. What is it?" asked Johnny.

"Hydrophobia is a disease that passes from an infected animal to a human."

Scott felt the color leech from his face. "How long does it take?"

"This is a grave concern," Sam shifted slightly, "if you are infected, the period between the bite and the patient showing signs and symptoms of the disease can vary between two and twelve weeks. Perhaps longer." He paused, playing with the earpiece of his stethoscope that hung around his neck like a minister's stole.

"Once the patient shows symptoms the disease is always fatal."

He knew what the four of them looked like: him, Johnny, Murdoch and Teresa together at Lancer. And while Teresa had a strong sense of family, he didn't exactly know just what Johnny and Murdoch might look like. He suspected that his father and brother alone together may be too much like flame and dynamite, although they'd come eons from the incident with the Strykers.

He'd like to think he'd played a small part in that.

He heard the sounds of Johnny moving around, pacing. When they stopped, Scott looked up and saw how big Johnny's eyes were—searching—desperate to make sense of it, but he'd run out of time.

And, Scott thought, so had he.

#-#-#-#-#

They crossed the point where Lancer and the rest of the world converged, and Scott remembered the first time he and Johnny had crossed the invisible divide. His brother seemed content to look back as the view unraveled from behind. That was a difference between them. Where he had determinedly said goodbye to the past, Johnny seemed to keep his closely held. Whether it was a function of his gunfighting or an indiscretion of the man himself, he had no idea.

He stared at the newly budded trees, late because of the harder-than-normal winter, or so Murdoch had said. It felt like spring, though. Was, for all intents and purposes. Fields flashed by, a few broken corn stalks bent over and new growth bursting through. Spring intended to bring life. But it felt like a final spring, an end instead of a beginning.

The white arch came into view. Home. And all the events of the morning closed in around him like a suffocating Boston fog.

He pulled to a stop a few yards away.

"What's the matter? Somethin' wrong?" Johnny asked, and Scott hadn't heard him come up. "Just enjoyin' the scenery?"

"Nothing wrong with the scenery." he admitted. "But…"

It was enough of a pause to make his brother turn. He wanted to tell Johnny about Clay, but couldn't. The words died in his throat. Instead, "I don't want to tell Murdoch or Teresa what Sam said, just yet."

Johnny's eyes were impossible to read under the brim of his hat, but his jaw worked a little, making a decision.

He's going to fight me on this.

"It's your party, brother," Johnny said with a tight smile.

He sagged in the saddle with relief.

By the time they reached the hacienda, his back muscles had seized up, and his arm was agony from wrist to shoulder. He awkwardly dismounted to his feet where he swayed a little. That wasn't good. He cautiously went for the doorway, and Johnny was right there, hand easing him through like he was sick, or an invalid. Scott snatched his arm away, alarmed and ashamed.

Teresa met them coming out the door with a barn jacket over her dungarees.

"What happened to you?"

"A small accident when we were checking the Red herd."

She glanced up at him and he could tell from her expression that she thought he was loony.

"Looks can be deceiving. I'm all right."

"Johnny?"

"What he said, Teresa."

"Well, okay. But Murdoch's home and he'll want to know what happened."

"So where are you goin' all dressed up?" asked Johnny.

"Out to check on my mare, Cipriano said she's close to delivering."

He startled when Murdoch rounded the corner. Doing his best imitation of Grandfather, he pasted on a half-smile. The one reserved for stockholder end-of-month meetings in public and Aunt Elizabeth's

blueberry pie in private.

Johnny bumped his good elbow. "I got things to do. C'mon Teresa I'll walk you out the barn."

#-#-#-#-# 

By the time he reached the pasture, Johnny realized that maybe he'd bitten off more than he could chew by keeping what was wrong with Scott a secret. But anything would be better than telling Murdoch. Because there was no way this was just a hurt you fixed up, got better, and moved along.

The horses of the Red herd were scattered, heads down in the leftover timothy from winter.

He slowed Barranca to a walk. It sent a shudder through him when he remembered shooting Scott and, Dios, the sound he made when he landed on that arm had raised all the hair on the back of Johnny's neck.

He went directly to the tree. The grass around the base was matted, showing signs of the struggle. Drops of dark blood—almost black—were scattered around, as if they'd been thrown there, like someone tossing grain to the chickens. Scott's hat was upended and trampled on. He picked it up, brushed it off and set it aside. Something rustled in the underbrush and he rocked to his heels, listening, rooted to the ground. Nothing really there, but the nickers and snuffling of horses from across the pasture.

He kicked his way through the brush, three strides later found the blood trail. The woods were so quiet after leaving the pasture it took Johnny a few minutes to get settled, to pick out which way the dog had gone.

After a bit, the trail started to wander, got difficult to follow. A slight noise made him turn his head. Ahead of him, a pale gray shadow half-hidden against the darker trunk of the tree. It took him a moment to realize there was a pair of steady golden eyes, low, about knee height. The eyes were trained on him. Intent, like a big cat watching a broken-winged bird.

Except it wasn't a bobcat, Johnny saw as he drew nearer. And he remembered the growl. It was the dog, all burred and marked with blood, a wild feral look to it. Stiff legged, it shuffled towards him.

Johnny didn't hesitate. He drew his pistol, heard the crack of powder as the bullet left the barrel. And this time there wasn't anything to interfere with his aim.

 

Chapter Three

Murdoch gaped, taking in the jacket's ratted sleeve, the round hole tunneled through the right shoulder, the spatters of blood that looked like someone had painted his son in a whitewash of gore.

"What on earth—?"

Scott straightened, and smiled. "How was Modesto?"

"Fruitful. And quiet. Unlike here, it seems."

"Oh, this? A small altercation when Johnny and I were out with the Red herd this morning."

His son was hiding something. Subtle resistance, restrained rebellions. All those words defined Scott, along with one other at this particular point in time: misery. He remembered another time when his son, not more than a month at Lancer, had hid things.

It had been Scott's first round-up: a hellish affair of mud, rain, and anxious cattle. His normally erect posture was bowed to the saddle, shirt halfway undone in the wind, one hand curled around the brim of his hat, using it to chivvy stragglers back to the loose herd.

Then a panicked steer. Too short of a turn. Uneven ground.

A shout dead in his mouth, he could only watch and hope that Scott had some idea of the danger he was in because Murdoch saw it was too far for him to do a damn thing, an impossible long stretch of green between the cows and riverbank. Then Scott and his horse plunged downward through the softened ground and into the swollen river. Disappearing like a rabbit into a magician's hat.

He could ride, so he did.

He reined up short, sending Toby's hooves perilously close to the drop-off, breath short, when his son pulled himself out of the culvert. Scott's hair was askew with water, slicked with mud. He looked at Murdoch as though just noticing him, like he'd bumped into him at the mercantile. Murdoch stared back, though he kept his eyes on the river because that made it easier to keep the fear reined in. A father's fear.

Later, only after liberal doses of whisky, did he learn what his instinct told him all along: Scott hid his injuries.

"Next time," Murdoch said the following day, the hoarseness in his voice the only concession to what Scott had obviously thought about risking his own life for a few cattle. "Next time, you tell me what you have planned."

If Scott had any remorse about the accident, he gave his father no indication of it. Proud, or ashamed? Murdoch wondered.

The difference between risky and reckless was a narrow rope. Although he hadn't known the boy well enough at the time to realize that this son was hardly ever reckless.

Scott ran his hand across his head, absently rearranging hair into spikes. He was pale in the afternoon light, dark circles under his eyes, wavering where he stood.

Murdoch knew about young men this age. Sometimes you had to force an issue. "You got stiff riding back from town, didn't you? Do you need a hand?"

Scott glanced up, nostrils flared. "I'm fine," he said quietly.

The wooden boards in the hallway squeaked when Murdoch shuffled his feet. His voice, when it came, was clipped, annoyed. "Give me credit, son. I can see you need some help. I'm not offering to bring you breakfast in bed for the rest of the week, I just want to know if you need a hand."

From the corner of his eye, Murdoch watched Scott's shoulder come up, the head nod. He got one arm around, prepared to take some weight, if he'd let him. Scott let out a stutter of garbled pain right in his ear and sagged against him.

Together they made it up the stairs.

He stripped the bed of a favored Thoreau, a well-used cribbage board and deck of cards. Cribbage had been the game of the house for the last couple of months, Teresa was up by two—if he remembered correctly. While Scott was nominally upright, Murdoch took off his son's jacket, threw it to the chair.

The checked brown shirt served somewhat as a placard, announcing what events had occurred that morning. A bandage covered the right arm under tatters of sleeve, then higher up, an identical bandage around the shoulder with yellow bruising peeking out from under. The tear in the shirt there showed curious powder burns. Hell of an altercation.

"Who shot you, Scott?" The question earned him another odd half-queasy smile.

"You'll never believe it."

"Try me."

Scott swallowed, eyes glassy. "Johnny."

Murdoch raised his eyebrows.

"We went out to the pasture to check the herd, but when we arrived something was off. The horses had posted their sentries."

He smiled at his son's use of the word 'sentries', such a military thing to say.

"It turned out to be a threatening dog. I got in the way, it jumped, and…" He made his index finger and thumb pantomime pulling a trigger. "Johnny shot. End of story."

"What about…"

Scott blinked hard, mouth tense. "I saw Sam, he stitched me up. The bullet wound is only a groove through the skin. As far as I know, the dog is gone and the horses are safe now." Reporting done, he slumped on the bed.

So the horses were safe, unlike his son. No wonder the boy was out on his feet. One down, another to go. But he'd have to wait because second son was nowhere to be found.

Reaching into his pocket, Scott brought out a thin packet. "I could use some water for this. The doctor recommended taking it when I got home." He shook the shirt off one shoulder and grimaced. "I'm of a mind to follow orders this afternoon."

Murdoch went and got a glass, took the powder and mixed the two together. Watched as Scott threw it back like good bourbon.

He slipped out of the room a few minutes later with the empty glass, listening to the creak and rustle of the bed.

Scott had shown plenty of self-discipline, adapting to the habits and piques of Lancer without question, doing what was required. Maybe too much self-discipline, Murdoch thought, frowning at the door.

#-#-#-#-#

 

A pistol shot woke him. Scott blinked his eyes and tried desperately to figure out where he was. Lancer. Home. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and listened. Nothing. Only part of a dream that fled as hastily as the day, apparently. The afternoon light had dissipated, replaced by a soft twilight, the air coming in through his bedroom window heavy and saturated. Above his thudding heart, he heard the usual sounds this time of evening: the clank of cutlery, muted voices going from one room to another, horses in the corral.

He swept his hand over his cheek feeling sweaty, out-of-sorts. Something tugged him up, despite the aching in his arm and shoulder. He went to the mirror above the basin.

What Johnny thought notwithstanding, he never spent much time in front of a mirror. But now every angle and plane of his face wanted scrutiny. He sent the flat of his fingers across his mouth, then watched them curl and drag beneath the hard angle of his jaw, the stubble there dark and prickling. Up and across his forehead where it was warm. Too warm? Is that where it would start—as a fever?

He looked and looked, but didn't see any signs.

Teresa's laugh floated up from downstairs and suddenly he wanted to be with them. He shocked himself free of his stupor with a handful of cold water and went to the bureau for a clean shirt.

He found Johnny and Murdoch at the scarred mahogany table in the kitchen, pouring over what looked to be two large maps. Scott watched the top of Johnny's head as he leaned over them and noticed—for the first time—how he hunched when he read, like he wanted to eat the words right off the page.

"What's all this?" he asked.

"Scott! We were wondering if you were going to get up." Teresa left her chair. "Hey, may I borrow your book?"

Johnny grinned up at her from under a shock of black hair. "Leavin' the fun, Teresa?"

"I've already given my opinion on the project. And it's a 'yes'. So may I, Scott?"

"Were you wondering if I was going to get up just so you could have my book?" He grinned and hooked a thumb towards the stairs. "On my table, but you keep on borrowing it and I'll have to consider some sort of lending fee."

She stopped beside him. "You're the one to blame. You told me I'd like it. And no, it's not the only reason we were wondering when you were getting up." Squeezing his arm, she whispered, "Are you feeling better?"

"I am. But Thoreau's waiting."

That seemed to satisfy her because she gave a quick nod and went to the doorway.

"Oh, Teresa, did you get your foal?"

She turned around, eyes shining bright. "A colt. Just as sassy as his mother."

He watched her walk out. It hurt to notice things like shining eyes.

Murdoch assessed him, his face furrowed in concern. A look that had far too many questions behind it.

"So, what do we have here?" Scott asked, trying to fend off the inspection, or worse—interrogation—of what he had started to call The Event.

Nonplussed for the moment, Murdoch gestured towards the stove. "Maria left stew and there should be biscuits in the towel. Johnny and I were talking about irrigation."

He got a bowl from the cupboard and spooned it out, trying to concentrate on his father's voice.

"We could implement the new strategies by summer to help us during a dry year. Maybe not of use this year, but certainly the next."

Scott didn't want to think about summer, he wasn't ready for spring, let alone what came after.

He sat down next to Johnny and found he was looking at a map of crisscrossed black lines. Every now and then was a red cross, denoting a river or a structure of some sort. "These are maps of Lancer." He raised his head. "This is what you were doing in Modesto?"

"Partly." Murdoch picked up his pencil. "You've lived through one summer, so you know how hard they can be, both on the land and the people, to say nothing of the horses and cattle. If we can make this work it would benefit the whole of the ranch."

Johnny nodded. "You're right. That bottom land on the western side hardly got wet at all last year."

As if in response to Johnny's statement, a faint rumbling came from outside.

"Can't we get water from previous winters stored in the hills? I've seen it draining." asked Scott.

"Not enough and we can't count on the winter to be wet. In all my years here, I've never seen the same season. But it'll take the ranch to get it to come together. The water will most likely have to come out of the ground."

Scott looked at the map and found two water sources. "What about diversion?"

"You mean from the river or creek?" asked Johnny.

"Yes. Looking at the sources located here and here, we could move the water over land instead of dig."

Murdoch frowned. "It would be costly to build and maintain the outbuildings necessary to store it."

"And boring a well and pumping water would be cheaper?"

"We have the manpower and according to the surveyor I met in Modesto, the tablelands are ripe for drilling. We'd just need a way to bring it up."

"And you already have a way," said Johnny.

"Mm-hm. Wind power."

Scott pursed his lips. "Tilting at windmills?"

Murdoch smiled. "Something like that. If done properly, it could afford all the water Lancer needs for now and the next generation."

The thought of the future tugged a bitter smile and Johnny may have sensed it, because he turned to look at Scott, then altered the unintentional gesture into something deliberate and fiddled with the map edge.

"I was thinking Charlie Wingate could help. Building the jail was a windmill, if I ever saw one, but he has good construction sense. Johnny, is he still in Spanish Wells?"

"Yeah, but maybe we'd better find someone else."

"Why?"

"For one, we'd have to dry' im out. Word around town is that the alcohol isn't doing him any favors. Kirby's death hit him pretty hard."

"All right, go in tomorrow and see how he's doing."

"Kinda fast, ain't it? I mean, what's the rush?"

"The quicker the pump goes into the ground, the quicker the water comes out. But right now, I need to find the original diseño, the land grants for Lancer, to make sure the boundaries there match the ones on the map."

Pencil in hand, Murdoch left for his office.

Johnny let out a soft sigh. "I found the dog. He won't be bothering anythin' anymore."

He didn't say it, but Scott was fairly certain his brother had finished the job he'd started from the morning. His shoulder twanged just thinking about it.

"Does Murdoch know?"

"Yeah. He knows about the dog. Caught me when I rode up to the house comin' back from the pasture. Kind of hard to come up with somethin' on the spot after being asked point blank about it. What'd you tell him, anyhow?"

"About the dog, and how your aim needs work."

Johnny's eyebrows pulled up. "My aim is fine."

Scott shrugged. "He could see what happened. I had to tell him something, and the truth seemed to be the best bet."

"The whole thing?"

He looked away, eyes on his congealing stew. "No. No, not everything."

Johnny ran his finger along a black line on the map. "You might wanna think of letting the old man in on the secret. He's got some mighty big plans." He jabbed his finger where the hacienda was represented by a square with a script 'L'. "And he means to involve us."

Scott nodded his head, only agreeing so his brother would stop talking.

Johnny got up and opened the kitchen door. The air rushing in had weight, almost suffocating. "Looks like we might not need the irrigation, if this storm hits."

He took his bowl back to the sink, ducked his head out the door to take a look at the sullen sky. Two razor sharp lightning bolts zigzagged, connecting with a white arcing light. A few seconds later, the corresponding booms of thunder shook the windows.

His attention had gone down a hole, evaporated like most of Lancer's water last summer. He remembered Grandfather, thinking of the train station, and how Harlan looked when Scott was so set on going to California. Then Johnny sitting in the saloon, talking about heading south and range wars. Without warning, he thought of that wet September and a dead Clay Langdon.

Scott knew what leaving looked like—no matter who did it—and he had to wonder if Johnny was right about telling their father.

 

 

Chapter 4

It wasn't Johnny's bullet, this time. But a bullet from another man, in faded Union wool, his face twisted in surprise and shock.

All Scott could do was watch, helpless.

The beamed ceiling of his bedroom turned into darkened sky, with sheeted rain and tumbling storm clouds. No, not Johnny. Clay. And hanging in the air, unfettered by the storm, were sounds—appalling, feral screams.

It changed. Not sky or ceiling, but a pool of ocean blue and green. He could see a ripple that marked the water from its hidden depths, and his reflection, which he barely recognized.

Then sky again. It was spring and airless, anvil hot. The clouds moved and a shadow fell across his face. He smelled an awful scent of animal that shuddered down his spine, made his breath hitch. The smell of wild.

A shadow blotted out the blaze of sky, and hovered close, right beside him. He couldn't move. It was a huge beast, teeth gleaming white and snapping. It took a rasping breath and Scott thought he just might die there.

The sky turned back to ceiling. And all the while, Clay's screams hung in the air, ripping into him like a blade.

Finally, Scott yelled Clay's name, because his voice was the only thing that would reach his friend. But it was swallowed by the rending sound of a pistol shot.  

When he woke in the middle of the night, he possessed a terrible clarity of mind: the same would come to him. His arm pulsed like a live thing.

The door to his bedroom opened and the scent of wood smoke drifted in.

"You okay?" Johnny asked. "I heard you shouting." He didn't wait for Scott to say anything before continuing, a thread of panic to his voice.

"We got a man missin' in the storm. We're gonna have to go out."

He struggled up to the side of the bed, legs tangled in the sheets. His thoughts were sluggish, weighted with his dreams.

"Hey, where are you goin'?"

"To help search."

Johnny shook his head. "Murdoch just wanted you to know where we'd be. We can handle it."

After a while, he made himself move. He white-knuckled the bedpost to pull on his shirt and pants, then went downstairs. 

#-#-#-#-# 

Two days after the storm, the sun had baked the ground into a fine powder again. It clung to Murdoch's cheeks and hands as he rode to meet Scott. The taste of fine California grit was on his teeth, at odds with the tang of coffee left over from lunch. He felt heavy in the saddle. It was as though everything was flying up, pinging around in his skull, buzzing like a bee in the marigolds. Scott's injuries. The flooding from the storm. Assessing the loss of cattle. Talking to the bank. Burying one of their own who had gotten trapped by falling debris and drowned. The widow who needed visiting. After it all, Murdoch felt out-of-place.

The trail led to a small rise where his son, Isidrio and two strangers stood under an oak. A few cows milled about, snuffling water-damaged grass.

From their worn-at-the-heel boots to their shabby hats, Murdoch memorized every detail, and tucked the knowledge away for a day and time when he might need it. They rode wiry cow ponies, staked nearby. The taller one had his sleeves turned back, hands bloody. A half-butchered steer lay not ten feet away.

He kicked his horse forward.

"What's the meaning of this?" The words were out of his mouth before his boots hit the ground.

The older one turned and met his eyes. "We didn't know it was Lancer land."

"That was Lancer beef. It's worth twenty-three dollars."

The other one spoke. He was younger, with a voice that cracked into a high note. "Mister, if we could pay do you think we'd steal the animal?"

Murdoch fought the urge to grab him by the arm and shake, but was saved when the friend cuffed him on the back of his head, bloody hand and all. So they had manners after all. It was one point in their favor, and the only concession they would get. "Pack up what you've already done and leave."

The tall one looked at Scott and nodded. "Thanks."

They watched as the man and boy tarped the steer and rode out, horses burdened with the load.

"Who allowed this?" He looked from Isidrio to Scott.

"I did." The words came out in a rush, as if they were all penned up inside of Scott just waiting to explode.

"You should have run them off at first sight. Once they get a toe-hold they'll be like fleas on a dog."

"Patrón," Isidrio began, the word a warning. Although Murdoch pinned him with a glare, he held steady. He'd been with Lancer from almost the beginning, and knew Murdoch's moods. Knew when to stand and when to ride and Isidrio wasn't going anywhere. But in this instance he should have known better.

He couldn't bend his own rules, the ranch depended on them. Their ranch depended on them. And without the armor, he was nothing. Just another rancher prone to attack.

"You may not think much of this, Scott, but I've seen what happens. One cow here, two there, soon it gets to be a free-for-all. It's bad enough the cattle have been scattered with the storm, I'll not have them rustled as well. Not under my own nose."

Scott fingered the white bandage at his wrist. Murdoch had seen him worry it over the last day or so, almost to the point of shredding. "Sir, this wasn't any rustling…"

Murdoch interrupted. "Johnny's waiting to go into town."

Scott's mouth opened then closed and he shook his head, but not before Murdoch saw what was in those expressive eyes: betrayal. He'd placed his son in charge then stripped him summarily.

For maybe the hundredth time, he told himself that Murdoch would understand. The need to protect his family. It sounded so reasonable that way. But this wasn't riding watch on a cattle drive or making sure the fence line was intact or holding a rifle to defend against land pirates. This was going away, and Scott knew his father wouldn't approve of going away, not for this. It smacked a little too much of running away.

So he hadn't said anything. Not the best course of action, because Murdoch would be livid. Unlike Johnny who merely stared at him and asked the question of the night: for how long? His brother had a way of cutting to the fine details that was mystifying.

"I'll be at least sixty days." And that did it.

"What?" A fine line appeared between his brother's brows.

His heart felt too big, had expanded in his chest where it wasn't supposed to go. The look on Johnny's face.

"If things get bad, I'll send word." He handed Johnny the letter to send to his grandfather. It seemed much too slender and perfunctory a thing to account for an entire life.

He waited for Johnny to say something, and wasn't surprised with the words when they came. "You gonna say good-bye to Murdoch?"

Scott hadn't been able to come up with an answer to that, not one that was acceptable anyway. Then Johnny had given him his medallion. For luck. And he'd left like thief in the night.

He wandered in the direction of Visalia then to Los Angeles, followed there by the sound of pounding steel as railroad ties were being placed for the soon-to-be Southern Pacific line. Further south towards San Diego, until it became clear where he unknowingly headed.

A hard six days since leaving Lancer, he and Jack shuffled into the town plaza of Del Oro.

He ate in a sad little café and listened to the Spanish and English voices around him over coffee and dubious roast beef with an egg on top, its yolk so bright it sat like a summer sun on his plate. The price of grain is up by nearly ten cents a head, don't know how I'm going to make it this year. Did you hear? Old man Wilkins strung up some of that wire up by his place and almost killed his new horse when he ran into it. Wire! What a tomfool notion. Shooting last night at the Old #5, Harvey was just asking for it when he drew to an inside straight. Lost the bet and it looks like he'll be dropping cards with his left hand now.

Locals, he thought despairingly.

With every day gone from Lancer, he was getting less good at pretending. It wasn't as though he didn't care, he did, but the commonplace had become hopelessly distracting: the way the bright sunlight shafted between the buildings, the splash of color from a woman's dress, the splay of green across an arid field after watering. But especially, the heavy blue sky looking out over acres and acres of town and desert. Always the sky. Because for one year, he'd been without.

The increased awareness of life since the accident was a gift, and he took it without question, but it came with a price. Life had, in fact, sped up.

Over the years, Scott had seen a fair amount of false advertising, from the boarding house in Stockton that advertised clean sheets and he and Johnny had woken up with several, if not hundreds, of itchy friends, to The Grand Elixir Saloon in San Francisco where the whiskey was made right outside the plank-fronted building, and had the additional punitive insult of tasting like turpentine.

So when Johnny mentioned 'Minerva's', it didn't exactly raise his expectations that there would be a monument of sorts to the real Minerva, the one of Roman origin. She was resplendent in helmet, shield, breastplate, and spear, a vision in stone and plaster. All three feet of her, not including the wooden railroad tie serving as her pedestal outside the cantina doors.

He nudged Jack to the hitching rail across the plaza, belly full of beef so salty he hoped a beer or two would quench his thirst.

The sound of voices over the tinny music from Minerva's turned his head.

"Padre, will you pray for me?" The taller man elbowed his companion. "See, Jorge? I told you we have nothing to be afraid of—he is just a man."

The priest clutched his sack closer, but straightened his spine with such force his black cassock fluttered about his shoes. When his voice came, it was calm. "I will pray for you and for others like you."

"Bah! Save your prayers. For the others, as they will need them."

"Then God be with you. Let me pass."

"What do you have there, more offerings for the church?"

The priest's spine straightened more. "You would take away from the church? Why do you make trouble, Ramon?"

"There is no trouble here. I just want to see what you have."

Scott stepped forward.

"I believe he said he wants to pass."

The man called Ramon scowled, dark eyes smoky and full of anger. His companion, Jorge, was grinning like he was looking forward to what was coming next.

Scott's voice pealed out strong and loud, enough to carry into the cantina. "What a beautiful day! Don't you believe, friend, that on a day such as this, a man should be able to take a walk anywhere he wants?"

Soon enough, they had an audience as a large number of cantina patrons—soused and sober—jockeyed for a place above the swinging doors to view the spectacle. The fact that no one made a move to come outside was telling. A bell rang inside his head—perhaps he had made a mistake. Then a sultry female voice shouted for Ramon, begging him to come inside.

Ramon tipped his head slightly as though Scott had just become more interesting. His hands flared out and up in exaggerated acquiescence.

"As you can see, Padre, I'm wanted. Another time, perhaps, gringo."

It wasn't so much of a statement as a promise. A cold, hard truth. Ramon went into the cantina, parting the nosy patrons like Moses, pulling Jorge along in his wake.

The priest looked old enough to have come out west on the original wagon train, all the intervening years sore and unkind. He was a small man, cheekbones like boulders above a neatly kept beard of speckled cotton, eyebrows arched up like he was in a constant state of surprise. And maybe he was. Life could be surprising, even here in Del Oro. His eyes narrowed.

"And what about you? Are you going to steal my pencils and paint?" He cocked his head to the side and peered up at Scott. "No, I would say you do not rob people. Or am I mistaken?"

"No, I don't make a habit of stealing other people's things."

"Just defend those against them that would."

Scott felt the heat from the sun on his shoulders and back, surely that was the reason for his sweating, not the priest's intense stare.

"You seemed to be doing fine."

"Then why step in? Not many would interfere in such a situation. Ramon is a man feared by many."

"I'm new to town, perhaps I don't know any better."

"Perhaps."

The priest studied him under bushy eyebrows.

"If you're still here tomorrow, I would be pleased to see you at mass." His words sounded sincere, and his smile appeared as warm as a summer's night, but Scott wanted nothing to do with it.

"I'm not Catholic, Father."

He pulled on Scott's sleeve like a young boy with a secret, whispering, "I won't hold that against you, my son."

"And I'm not a church-goer, generally speaking."

"Well, I am not fire and brimstone, and I do not bite. There are many fine people here, and most of them show up at church on Sunday morning. Sometimes we even have pistoleros and bankers sitting on the same side." He chuckled deep in his chest, his grey eyes glinting mischievously. "It is surprising what it takes to get some people together and civil."

'Like that man?"

"Ah, Ramon Pérez Rodríguez. I've known him for quite some time. Like yourself, not a church-goer. God persists in many wondrous ways, but I'm not sure if even he hasn't thrown up his hands over that one. Be careful. He is a very dangerous man. You have bested him in front of his companion and the others. It is not something he'll soon forget."

'I'll be gone long before he remembers me." He looked to the cantina, saw no need to bait the bear a second time by going in to have a beer. "Father, do you know of a pool of water near here? I was told it was green and blue, like the ocean."

"Ah, yes. It is located a mile or two out of town. I would take you but I must hurry to the school, classes will be letting out soon."

He reached into his bag and withdrew an orange. "A paltry reward, but it is all I have at the moment, besides my gratitude."

Scott tossed the orange from his right hand to the left. Winced when needles of pain shot through his arm from elbow to wrist.

 

 

Chapter 8

Sam Jenkins sat back in his chair and fussed with the clasp on his black bag. If Murdoch had to describe him in one word, it would be nervous. He'd only seen him look that way once before, when Johnny was born and Maria was having difficulties.

"Scott isn't home, Sam."

"Will he be back soon? I'd like to take a look at him, and those stitches need taking out, too."

"He's been gone," Murdoch resisted looking down at his calendar on the desk with the days marked through in neat pencil, "for almost a week now. I don't know when he'll be back."

Sam's mouth gaped open. "This isn't good. Not good at all. I knew something was wrong when he didn't show up at the office. He should never have left in his condition."

"And what condition is that?"

His head tilted a little in what looked to be surprise. "He didn't tell you?"

Murdoch shook his head. "I know about the wounds, but he seemed to be doing all right with them."

Sam brought his fingers up to rub his chin. "Scott had a bite wound, nothing to brush off. But I have," and he took a deep breath, "I have other concerns."

His voice had gone soft, and Murdoch found himself responding to it, felt his vision swim suddenly, remembering the kindly soft voices of strangers in Carterville trying to tell him about the horrible thing that had happened.

Unmindful of the heat in the room despite the trickle of sweat running between his shoulder blades, he felt the bad news galloping towards him, inexorable as an advancing storm, as implacable as a desert sun.

#-#-#-#-# 

Scott rode up the hill at the end of town as directed by the priest. Dry sandy soil rolled across the road, and was picked up by the breeze, taken away to the south. All around were crumbling walls of what looked to be brick homesteads, but he changed his mind when he spied a rusted cannon. These were the remains of an old Army post. He had an understanding that the Army had built several such outposts then abandoned them for a larger, more secure depot near the bay in San Diego.

Most likely Johnny was here during that time. Surely he'd seen some of the activity. But he hadn't spoken of it, only the pool. Of course, he wouldn't.

He pointed his horse under a tumbled and cracked wooden archway, the weatherworn lettering too faint to read. Here and there were more ruins, fortifications with bullet holes, a two-story house toppled to rafters and slab. Jack was delicately picking his feet around things on the uneven ground. To his horror, he realized they had stumbled into a cemetery. The things weren't bricks or other detritus, they were old bones, showing through the earth from the wind and rain.

He guided Jack away.

Topping out the rise, he turned in the saddle to look around. The view of the town was magnificent from here. A church bell rang once then twice. As if on cue, people moved about the streets and plaza.

But the pool was just ahead, he could smell it in the air.

He rode a bit further until Jack couldn't maneuver any more, then took his orange and dismounted. He jumped down a small incline, skidding a few feet. Johnny wasn't exaggerating. It was exquisite, a small ocean of blue and green too far inland to be the real thing, yet there it was. The color was mesmerizing as it slid from one hue to another. Strange that as soon as he closed his eyes, everything came to a halt: no noise, not even the little voice in his head that always sounded like Grandfather after a few sherries. Just the pool and a notion of solace.

He leaned over the bank and looked into the water. The peace fled. His reflection made him queasy: face bathed in sweat, unshaven, hollowed-out eyes. Mastering his stomach and wishing for the beer he didn't get at Minerva's, he walked in a slow circle around the pool.

With one hand still curled around the bumpy skin of the orange, a loose coil of dread wound its way behind his ribs. This wasn't purposeful. He knew who he was and where he was, but what he was doing? A different story altogether.

He sat, back rigid against white and yellow sandstone.

The shoulder was a mere distraction, the gunshot wound knitting together so the skin pulled taut with any movement. His forearm, however, was worrisome. He reached round with his left hand, and pulled up his shirtsleeve, breath hissing between his teeth. The wound wasn't neat, pinpricked here and there by the indentations of the stitches he had taken out a couple of days ago. It was red, purple and yellow, colored like an odd patchwork quilt. He made a fist and his arm gave an unpleasant twinge.

The heat of the day was dissipating, the sun descending toward the mountains. Scott frowned. Time had a funny way of losing its shape when his mind got busy on something. It was time to gather up Jack and go. The question was where?

He turned his head at faint rasping sound, like that of foot sliding against stone.

A face looked down at him from a small ridge across the pool, half-hidden by rocks and scrub. An older woman, wearing a straw hat festooned with flowers battened to her head. Fine-looking, or once had been. She reminded him of his aunt, wrinkles fanning about the cheeks, mouth, and eyes. Laugh wrinkles she had told Scott, the best kind to have.

"I'd offer you some orange," she said, pushing her thumb into the peeled fruit and pulling it apart, "but I should really make this last. Besides, you already have one, don't you?"

So she could see everything down below. Scott hid a smile, wondered how long he'd been under observation.

"How did you hurt yourself, young man?"

Long enough, it appeared.

"It was an accident, Madam."

"Of momentous proportions, if I'm not mistaken."

He inclined his head.

She ate the segment of orange thoughtfully. "Did the priest send you? Or the one of the Sisters?"

"No. No one sent me."

"Come closer."

He did and she studied him all the way.

"Accidents always happen," she said as a matter of fact, and for some reason Scott felt ill at ease. "You can't trust anyone who wasn't there. Can't rely on the newspapers, they're just people who've figured out how to lie the best and most often. So what does that leave you with?"

Her eyes were bright, a shade of cloudy green. Surely, she wasn't expecting an answer to that, was she?

Maybe, maybe not. After a loaded minute, she sat back, orange forgotten in the dirt, hands laying in her lap like they didn't belong to her. She sighed as though she'd been hoping for an answer.

She slid her eyes to the side, gray hair tied away from her strong-boned face. "You're from Massachusetts, aren't you?'

He gave a short huff of surprise, he thought he'd lost a fair amount of his accent over the last year. "I was raised in Boston."

The woman nodded. "My father was born there. We came out west because the land was cheap. They were almost giving it away. It was under Mexican rule then, they didn't like the whites, but they didn't mind the money more."

"Must have been hard to make it work."

"What's the matter with your arm?" she barked and Scott jumped. The way she had of skipping from one topic to another was disconcerting.

Far away was a sound, like pebbles striking a metal roof. The old woman turned her head slightly. "Shooting, in town. From the cantina, most likely."

She got to her feet stiffly, waving off Scott when he tried to help. In her left hand she carried a small handful of dark roses.

"My name is Mrs. Claire Delaney."

"I'm Scott Lancer."

"You remind me of someone, Mr. Lancer." And with that she allowed him to take her hand and carefully made her way down.

They walked to the cemetery. Scattered stone markers interspersed with wooden ones, all showing wear, sagging with the burden of neglect and forget. Grief had an expiration date.

She bent down to scratch off the green hopscotching across one of the stones of an upturned grave.

"Moss travels far, but it's easy to pull out. It doesn't have any roots."

She brushed away the dried husks of flowers left before and laid down the tired bouquet. "Crimson roses for mourning. It will have to do, it will have to do."

A preternatural silence lay around them like a shroud. He didn't feel the need to fill it. It struck him now as it did so many years ago—something that was driven home after the war's end—human beings were frail things.

As they left the cemetery behind, she cupped Scott's elbow. "I'm not supposed to be away by myself. They don't like it. Will you serve as my escort?"

He led Jack and together they walked through the rest of the ruins and into town as she talked, switching between one thing and another. When they reached the plaza, she greeted passing men and women, inquiring about their state of health, their children. Many more stopped to ask about her day.

He mimicked her sedate pace, and it felt like a very small processional for an important person. A few minutes later they stopped in front of a large adobe standing next to the church. The heavy wooden door swept open before they reached the steps and the priest stuck his head out, eyebrows waggling in surprise.

"Meeting you is starting to become a habit. Of course, you will stay here. As reward for seeing Mrs. Delaney home safe."

It was on his tongue to refuse, but the thought of a room over the noisy cantina or stretched out on the ground in his blanket didn't quite have the appeal of a solid, quiet bed. Stay, he would. 

#-#-#-#-# 

Murdoch kept moving the letters from one pile to the next. Not that it made a difference, because he wasn't looking at the papers in his hand. He dropped them and stepped away from his desk, suddenly afraid. Terrified, in fact.

His eyes flicked to the chair where Sam Jenkins had sat just a few hours ago. It was never a good sign when Sam wore a sad-dog expression and serious eyes. A patented look that said he had news—bad news.

"Do you understand, Murdoch? Scott's injuries will heal, but the disease, the hydrophobia, can still be present. The patient never recovers. "

Scott was strong, had weathered the war and prison, hadn't he? All those years in Boston with his grandfather. Pardee. Daniel Cassidy. I had to bring Cassidy here, you understand that, don't you? I couldn't just-. He smiled a little, thinking of Scott's shaking words, knowing then what his son what made of. And feeling pride, God, what pride.

But Sam said that none of that mattered. None of it.

A horse galloped into the courtyard. The front door opened, then banged shut. Finally.

"Johnny! Come in here for a moment."

His son was pale in the late afternoon sun, dark circles under his eyes.

"What happened to you this afternoon?" Because when Murdoch went looking for him, to reassure himself he had at least one son who was well and at home, Johnny was nowhere to be found.

"What?" Johnny threw his hat into the chair, avoided Murdoch's stare.

"The branding?" He raised his eyebrows.

"Something came up."

"Something came up?" Murdoch chewed on barely contained frustration and took another tack, trying to suss out the facts. "Did you know Scott went in to see Randolph?"

"The lawyer?

"He wanted Randolph to write out a legal declination of his ownership in Lancer."

Johnny's face angled to the ground, all his weight on one foot.

"I thought it had to do with what happened after the storm, with the strangers. Even though he said differently the other night."

"Scott wouldn't leave over that, Murdoch. Sure, he was mad, but figured you were too caught up in everything that was goin' on at the time. That he'd explain things to you later."

Something akin to relief flashed through him. Later had never gotten here, though, for him or Scott. He got up to lean against his desk, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

"Sam Jenkins was here this afternoon, looking for him. He told me about Scott—and what your brother couldn't, or wouldn't tell me. Where is he, Johnny?"

His son had a look about him, like a dog that had been clipped hard up the side of the head. Wary. It struck Murdoch that it was the same look his son had when he first arrived to Lancer.

"He asked me not to say anythin'."

"I understand loyalty, but this goes beyond that. Scott could die."

"Don't you think I know that?" Johnny wheeled on him. "I don't know where he's gone, Murdoch. He didn't tell me. All I know is that he started south. I tried to trail him the mornin' he left and got as far as the road to town, then the tracks blended in with all the others."

Their eyes met, and Murdoch recognized the extent of the misery he saw there, felt it bone-deep, like a big bell had been rung.

"You were looking for him today, weren't you?"

"Just checkin' a few leads is all."

"Did you find out anything?"

Johnny pushed his hand through his hair. "All I know is that he's not in any town near here."

"I know you two talked that night, did he say anything before he left?"

"No, just that he had to go."

Johnny blinked hard, his mouth tense. "There is somethin' else."

"What?"

"That day we were riding to the pasture, we were just talkin' about things and I mentioned a place down south that was real pretty. And the night he left, he said something about goin' somewhere pretty."

"Do you think he might be there?"

Johnny shrugged. "It's a ways down the road. Six, seven days ride from the ranch, almost to San Diego. If he's not there we'd be wasting our time."

"But there's a chance?"

Johnny finally nodded. "But Murdoch, Scott wanted to wait it out alone."

"Why on God's earth would he want to be alone?"

The wariness was back. The words, when they came, were quiet. "He had a friend who was bit by a dog at a camp in Virginia, and Scott watched him die. I didn't get the whole thing, but I think that maybe he didn't want us to see it, if he got sick. That's why he left."

Murdoch's feet felt heavy against the floor. Everything had a new weight now. He sent Johnny to gather supplies, to see to the horses.

He stood in the middle of his office for a long time after his son had disappeared down to the other end of the house. He raked his fingers down his face and opened the liquor door cabinet. Murdoch leaned there, staring at the bottles on the top shelf. He left them untouched, shut the door and wandered back to his desk to take care of the correspondence.

He was angry. Not exactly at Scott—but yes, at him for leaving. Then it wasn't anger but something prickling at the back of his throat, behind his eyes. He blinked it away, swallowed it down. The feeling he had? It was so damn useless.

Murdoch rubbed his chest absently with the side of his thumb. That niggling behind his ribs, it wasn't a surprise anymore—not since the boys had come home. He was almost getting used to the permanency of it.

He ripped through an envelope, fingered the letter he wasn't going to pay any attention to. Then he crossed to the cabinet on the far wall and opened it again, took out a glass and the bottle of whisky from the shelf.

 

 

Chapter Nine

Scott woke with a headache and ringing church bells. So loud he covered his ears. But the sound got through anyway, echoing in his head, his blood, and his bones. Insistent. Or insisting on something. But what? Perhaps they were saying it was time to leave, but he had made a promise to Mrs. Delaney to accompany her to the pool after mass.

Stepping out of his room to find out where the smell of toast and coffee came from, his foot caught on a small bundle of tied flowers outside the door. The yellow tube-like ones were sugarbush. They grew in abundance on a section of land near the ranch that was left to him by Ben Riley. He smiled, thinking about the vein of gold still there, found by Johnny, hidden in the plant roots. But the white, tear-shaped ones? He had no idea. Nor any clue as to what they were doing outside his door. He picked them up and walked towards the kitchen where they had eaten in last evening.

A voice hailed him from behind.

It was Father Miguel Abascal, dressed in his black cassock but with white vestments and embroidered blood-red stole.

"You look a little better this morning, Mr. Lancer."

A clean-shaven face and a fairly clean shirt had done wonders. "I want to thank you for the room last night, I was more tired than I thought."

"You're quite welcome."

"Father, did someone lose these?" He brought up the bundle of flowers. "I found them outside my door this morning."

The priest sighed, fingered the embroidery on his stole. "Ah, yes. I have a feeling they were meant for you. We didn't get a chance to speak of it last night, but I wanted to talk to you about Mrs. Delaney. She is called La Madre, The Mother, by many of the townspeople. She lives here and we help care for her, but she gets mixed up in her head sometimes. Surely, you have noticed."

The odd looks and the scattered conversation came to mind.

"She has few desires, the garden is one, the pool of water at the end of town, another. They are simple enough things we can give to her to make her happy. The flowers mean something, but you will have to ask her."

The bells rang again.

Father Abascal's head came up. "It is time for mass."

Scott nodded absently, thinking about the walk to the pool with Mrs. Delaney. Afterwards he would be on his way.

#-#-#-#-# 

The smell of spicy incense lingered, long after the congregation had left. Scott halted before reaching the sanctuary and looked around. There had been a time when church and Sunday mornings were as natural as bread and jam…before the war. After his eyes were opened in the back hills of Virginia and the swamps of Mississippi, he'd hardly laid eyes on the inside of a church.

"So you came after all."

Father Miguel smiled and gestured to the wooden pew, eyes never leaving Scott, bright and light beneath seams of scarred skin. He lowered himself slowly to the seat, a thin breath escaping from him. "I'm not a young man," he said softly, "these are hard on an old man. But I offer it up. What brings you to the pool?"

Scott blinked. "That would be my brother. He said it was pretty, so I had to see for myself."

"But your brother did not come with you?"

He remembered the storm cloud that was Johnny Lancer when Charlie died, whirling, fists cocked to strike. "Not this time, Father."

"Still, he is wise about the pool. You enjoyed it?"

"Very much so. It's a quiet place, easy to give in to contemplation."

"I thought perhaps you would leave today for home."

"Not home, not there for a long while yet. I am going to leave today, however, after accompanying Mrs. Delaney to the pool this afternoon."

"If not home, then where to, my son? San Diego? Mexico? The moon, perhaps? I've seen many men who flee for various reasons. It is puzzling to me, as peace is all around them, if they would look. Of course some men wear blinders. But I don't think you are one of those. You are a man who carries responsibility. Sometimes it is too much, eh? Maybe that's why you won't stay. Better to run away."

"Sometimes fleeing protects those around you."

"But do the people want your protection? Surely they should make that decision." He grimaced. "Bah, I am overstepping and have not gotten to the real reason I wanted to talk with you. Sister Ambrosia saw you with Rafael last evening. His Latin is not so strong."

Scott nodded. The young student had slid into him coming around the corner, scattering his papers and pencils, late for evening prayers. One of the papers was filled with Latin, and marked with errors.

"You corrected him." It almost sounded like an accusation.

Scott shrugged. "It was a simple matter of improper conjugation. He understood as soon as I pointed it out."

"If I may ask, how do you know of Latin?"

Fitzroy had pounded it into his brain for two semesters. He hadn't knowingly used it since. "Latin was a requirement at Harvard, the college I attended in Boston."

Father Miguel raised his eyebrows, eyes gleaming with anticipation. He smiled broadly, showing a row of white teeth almost disguised by his beard.

Scott stalled trying to think of a tactful way out, but could only come up with one word. "No."

"The school needs a Latin teacher, my son."

He shook his head. "I can't stay, Father."

"Of course you can't, but you can think it over. In the meantime, there is the matter of Mrs. Delaney and the pool. I believe I saw her in the garden."

The priest stood, patted his stole into place.

"I will ask you again this evening. Except you won't be here," Father Miguel grinned over his shoulder as he walked along the aisle, one hand gently tapping each pew passed. "You will be somewhere else. Not here, or home, but somewhere."

"Yes. I'll be gone," he answered.

Those weren't exactly the words Johnny said the first time, but they were close enough. They hadn't tipped the scales back then, because he'd been too caught up in his dreams and the horror of the dog bite. But Father Abascal's words were sharp, like a knife, cutting to the root.

For one moment he stood very still, the light from the stained windows barring the floor underneath his feet with a splay of color. Memories snuck through his defenses: Murdoch's look when he asked for time away, the heft of Teresa's coat pocket when he put his book in it, Johnny's coin in his pocket. The decision to leave was right for him. Had it been right for his family? 

#-#-#-#-#

The open courtyard that held the garden was trellised on either end with honeysuckle, almost two feet thick in some places. Green plants lined tile walkways and flowers festooned clay pots and all sorts of growing areas. In what Scott assumed was a fit of whimsy, a quarter-sized scarecrow stood watch over a field of blue and red. Mrs. Delaney was perched on the ledge of a raised bed with a basket and a few gardening tools, a large sweet-smelling bush almost obscuring her from view.

When he sat beside her, she lightly ran her hand down the side of the bush, like a magician passing a wand over a hat.

"This is rosemary, Mr. Lancer. For remembrance."

He breathed in the fragrance. "How do you know so much about plants and flowers?"

"I was born to it. It's in my blood. My family's blood."

When he looked up, he saw her expression had turned sad, her eyes cloudy.

"Twenty years ago, I buried my son. I was to blame. Over my life, I have done many things to absolve my guilt. I feed the poor. I paid for this convent to be built, the school. And there are times, when the pain is not so severe. Other days, other nights, no matter what I do, I cannot get away from the one thing I wish to escape. Of course, that thing is me."

She pecked at her garden, the quiet slide and friction of steel against dirt. Nothing being planted or pulled though, she was done with that, the ticking in the soil only keeping the old woman's hands busy.

She murmured, then, "It's not right. It's not natural. No parent should have to do that. To bury their child."

Students came and hurriedly left with their smiles and laughter, oblivious, while Scott stayed silent, waiting.

"He was a soldier," came Claire's controlled, schooled voice. He knew his role here. A consoler of the grief-stricken. It was easier than being struck yourself, Scott had cause to know.

"He was a very smart boy." She stabbed the dirt with her small trowel. "But I wanted him to work the land, because that's what we did. He belonged with us."

"It sounded like he could go anywhere, do anything he wanted."

"Don't you see, though? He wasn't supposed to go far. Not my boy." A pause and Scott wished he was anywhere but sitting in a beautiful garden speaking with an elderly woman about her son. The flat California voice of a mother trying to keep what was dear close.

She stopped fussing with the dirt, set her trowel to the side. With a sigh, she braced both hands on her knees and stood up. It was growing sunny in the courtyard and in the bright light, Scott could see her face plainly. She was angry.

"He was shot to death."

"What happened?"

But she shook her head, cut the air with her hand: enough.

Scott held the moment for as long as he could, but she wasn't going to answer that question, maybe not ever. Instead, he asked, "Is your son's grave at the old post?"

Her face was turned from him, her mouth pulled down. With a breath, she raised her head.

"Yes. I paid for it—they wouldn't do it otherwise. I wanted him to have an honorable burial." She was matter-of-fact, no emotion whatsoever.

Then her eyes were full, he realized, brimming. Her mouth opened, and shut. "Deserter," she whispered, lips working. "But he was just coming home."

She stared at him, eyes shuttered, unreadable, as far away as space and years would allow. He watched as the present came home to Claire, and he saw her: impossibly old and alone, the last of her family.

"Mr. Lancer—Scott—I don't feel well, I won't be going out today."

That was that. She'd come so far and no more. She moved more slowly now, her bones stiff with age and extremes. With the burden carried. He felt his own burden pulse to life when he glanced down at the forgotten flowers in his hand.

"Mrs. Delaney, I found these outside my door this morning. What do they mean?"

"Why, those are for courage. And hope."

#-#-#-#-#

Scott took off his hat and he didn't do that often or lightly in the hot sun, but a military cemetery had a way of making a man respectful about the dead. Mostly because there were so many of them. He wandered between the headstones until he found the one with the wilted dark red roses.

He bent down and cleared the rubble from the site, tugging and scraping until the stone marker was more or less upright.

Claire was nearing the end of life, had stayed rooted in this one place for the duration of it, tied by God only knew what chains: memory, love, loss, guilt. The same way his accident had made him wander aimlessly, a disaster had caused Mrs. Delaney to stay put.

His feelings were mixed about the desertion. But the soldier had already been judged and found guilty, sent to his death by a firing squad. It wasn't up to him to decide the right or wrongness of it. It just was. He could do this for the grieving mother, though.

Using a small shovel borrowed from the stables he began to dig. Once the hole was big enough, he pushed the old bones of Private Delaney deep into the earth and filled it high with fresh dirt.

A spate of dizziness caught him by surprise and he blinked to clear his pounding head.

Scott leveraged himself up with the handle of the shovel, and before he came to a stand, a dark blur out of nowhere tackled him hard from the side, threw him to the ground. His back collided with unforgiving stones and wood, driving the breath from him.

The curl his body had protected itself with tightened further, and he felt a hand on his shoulder wrenching him over. Rodriguez grinned down at him, so close the fetid odors of sweat, alcohol and tobacco made Scott sick to his stomach.

 

 

Chapter 10

Scott spanned his forehead with his thumb and forefinger and squeezed to stop his brains coming through his temples. He squinted out the window to see the sun rising. Rising? He grabbed his watch off the bedside table and flipped open the cover. Unless he was reliving yesterday, and he fervently hoped that wasn't the case, he'd been out for over twelve hours. Time to get up, Lancer.

But he laid there listening to the silence long enough to know someone else was in the room. Silence that had someone sitting in it, just being quiet, was an altogether different sound to true solitude. He gingerly turned over in the bed.

"You're in the school infirmary. Sister Roberta will be back shortly. Nothing appears broken, if you're wondering."

In the warm light, the lines on her face seemed to have been applied with paint, her small eyes blinked round, gray hair sticking out in various directions from the loose coil behind her head. Her mouth was clamped shut.

Mrs. Delaney was worried, Scott knew that right away, could tell from the concentration she put into her embroidery. He wondered if it gave her comfort. She paused between one stitch and the next, white thread wound round one finger, long sharp needle poised. "You're a fool."

Not what he'd expected. He smiled a little, licked his split lip. "Madam, you're not the first to accuse me of being that very thing."

She kept his stare, matched it. "Thank you for my boy's gravesite. I knew I liked you." Back to the embroidery, the quicksilver flash of needle, the blur of hand and string.

"How did I…"

"Get back to the church?"

He nodded. "The last thing I remembered was my pistol going off in the general vicinity of Mr. Rodriguez."

"Lorenzo said you shot part of his ear off." If he wasn't so fuzzy-headed, he would swear he heard a suppressed giggle. "Your horse, sensible creature that he is, brought you here, where you dropped from the saddle like a bag of potatoes."

That part came through clear enough from the protestation of his hip when he turned over.

He latched on to the name. "Who is Lorenzo?"

"Why he's my friend, I visit with him at the pool from time to time," she said, as if she'd already told him and he hadn't been paying attention. "His daddy is mean as a snake. Strikes him. He can't go home. But you mustn't say anything."

"He lives at the pool?"

But she wouldn't answer just rolled up her canvas and stuck the needle through the tail end to pin it together. Scott didn't have it in him to force her to more.

#-#-#-#-#

He spent the afternoon in the garden, wanting to rest out the day, because he hurt all over. Father Abascal left after assuring himself Scott was doing well, and afterward, Mrs. Delaney and he whiled away the remaining daylight poking about the rosemary and flowers, talking and watching the sun's shadows lengthen across the small scarecrow. Spring was in abundance here. What had he thought after the accident? A final spring, not a beginning but an end.

He ate dinner and crawled off early to bed. The next morning he walked the perimeter of the church and convent. He studied the plaza from behind the convent, watching the citizens of Del Oro come and go within the bustling marketplace.

By noon, he was at the stable, fumbling with Jack's brush and curry comb. Something was wrong, but he couldn't place exactly what. He spent more time than necessary grooming then made his way back inside.

He found the church empty and stumbled into the pew, sitting down heavily. After a few moments, he took out Johnny's coin and drew his thumb across the well-worn groove, trying not to think how many times it took his brother rubbing the same area, to wear a groove in the metal.

Father Abascal walked into the sanctuary, his eyebrows drawn in tight. "Are you all right?"

Maybe he felt unwell because it was warm and getting hotter and his arm was agony. Scott palmed the coin, holding it tight.

"I don't want to interrupt, my son."

"You're not interrupting anything more than my thoughts, Father. Frankly, I'm grateful."

He pointed to Scott's hand. "What do you have there?"

"Something given to me when I left my home."

"May I see?"

Scott handed it over, but kept his eyes on Father Abascal.

"It's familiar somehow." He turned it in his hands, held it up to the light. "Yes, I know this coin. Where did you get this from?"

"My brother."

He cocked his head to the side as if trying to figure out the joke. "Your brother? That makes no sense. The man I gave this to, Juan Madrid, has no brother."

"Johnny Lancer does." Scott shrugged. "Me."

A quick inhalation and one hand fluttered a little, fell to his side. "An answer to one of many prayers. He is doing well? Has he found peace?"

Scott had to stop a chuckle. "I'm not sure if there's anything peaceful about Johnny, but he was doing well when I left."

"Why leave your home then? I have time and would like to hear the story."

And it seemed all right. To tell the priest what had happened in the pasture, about the charging mad dog, about the argument, about the way out that was taken.

He told him everything. Almost.

When he was done, Scott continued to look at the priest, feeling an ache that had nothing to do with bruised ribs and a sore arm.

Father Abascal took it in, then asked, quiet and respectful, "So, you are waiting to find out if you will die or not." Just because Scott had left it out didn't mean the canny priest wouldn't see it. He unfolded his hands, put them on his thighs. "Is the problem that you left?"

Scott shook his head. "The problem—" and couldn't finish it.

But the priest was already nodding. "The problem was staying, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

They both turned their heads at the sound of the wind buffeting the colored window panes and he thought about spring storms.

"This is what you meant the other day. You are protecting your family." Father Abascal smiled, a little upturned at the mouth, hard to see beneath the beard. "It is difficult to know what the best way is sometimes. But you are a logical man, you have no blinders."

He looked away, embarrassed. "Oh, I have blinders," he said softly. Grandfather, Murdoch and Lancer, and everything else he thought as truth because it was easier to accept that than look underneath. Hadn't the thought that he'd provided the weapon Clay used to kill himself with, colored his reasoning then, and now? And that maybe, if the hydrophobia did come, he would turn to the same?

"I do know one thing, though."

And Scott raised his eyebrows, curiosity not quite dead. "What?"

"You are here and this is a safe place to be. I would welcome you, whether you taught our Latin or not." He looked mournful for a moment, those sharp eyes almost kind.

Lightheaded, Scott managed to get to his feet. "That's not a good idea, Father."

#-#-#-#-#

The coin in Scott's hand was battered and abused like everything else about him, the room stuffy from the closed window, smelling of wood rot and incense. He'd walked as fast as he could: it wasn't that far from the church's sanctuary to the room he'd been assigned, even if he meandered, which Scott hadn't.

He'd walked straight and true and fast, mostly because he was concerned. He couldn't put a specific name to it. This was…different. Felt different. As though time had run completely out.

He tossed the coin onto a bedside table with its chipped ceramic bowl and pitcher where it clattered noisily, sliding to a stop just short of the drop. Scott gathered his saddle bags, threw his belongings into them. He tried to make his mind a perfect blank, a sheet of white paper, willed the odd feelings off him like a too-warm blanket in the middle of the night.

He needed to leave. Quite naturally, Scott thought about what it had felt like to leave the last time. Memories flew backwards to the pasture, and his mind balked. He closed his eyes against the wild dog, the slaver down his sleeve, the pain shooting up his arm.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes again. His heart was hammering too hard. The adobe walls were cracked, the corner stained from God only knew what, but there was no blood, no dog.

What his mind turned to when he was left alone.

He gripped the side of the bureau, certain of what he needed to do, suddenly wishing for Murdoch or Johnny to walk through the door, and he knew he'd have to get used to it not happening.

With an awful hollow yearning, he thought of summer at Lancer: Murdoch drawing up plans, Johnny complaining about the cows, working with Teresa on her studies. He just wanted it the way it was. That was all he wanted.

It was the first time he'd ever prayed for that, and even as he did, he knew the wish was a mirage. Things being the way they were, he couldn't help himself.

Without thinking, Scot looked down at his hands, turned them over. They shook. He unstrapped his holster, took the heavy weight of the pistol off his hip. Coiling the leather into a tight circle, he left them both on top of the bureau, shoved to the far back, as if tainted.

He pulled the door open and as soon as his feet were over the threshold, his vision hopped and skipped. When had it gotten so hot?

And then there was Mrs. Delaney, under his arm, tugging him up, an expression on her lined and fallen face that Scott couldn't quite work out because it held a lot of things: worry, fear, pity, and one he could only identify as love, but that couldn't possibly be right.

His legs buckled, and he flailed, grabbing on to whatever his hand encountered, the sharp-edged frame of a portrait on the wall, the smooth door knob. A moment later, he was on the floor—such a very bad place to be—weight balanced on his sore hip and one hand, fingertips splayed, arm trembling.

"Have to leave," he murmured, and realized his breath was too shallow and too fast.

"Please, stay down," she said when Scott made a move to get up. He met her clear eyes, nothing but hard determination in them.

Outside, the wind pitched to a whole new octave, currents eddying in the drafty hallway. She was saying something again, kneeling not more than a foot away, so close he could smell the jasmine from her garden, but he couldn't hear for the rushing noise in his ears. His elbow gave way and his head bounced on the oak flooring.

She sobbed and clutched at his shirt. He wanted to tell her it was all right.

Couldn't she see it was summer? Look at how green the grass was around Tio Creek.

 

 

Chapter 11

The low, dull rumble was a far-off sound at first, and Johnny might have dismissed it as thunder if he didn't know better. But the sky was clear and he knew better. He'd heard that thunder before—last year, on a peaceful night when a skunk drifted too close and sparked the cattle into white-eyed fear.

The rumble grew louder, and a faint tremor began working its way through the soles of his boots. He looked down the boardwalk, past the last house on the left, and saw the ominous cloud of dust that smudged the skyline.

The cloud swelled and the thundering roar built, and all at once a wall of cows burst over the crest, horns glinting in the sunlight. They pounded down the middle of the street, urged on by yelling vaqueros on both sides.

No stampede, just a drive to the stockyards. He'd been in and around Los Angeles more than a few times, and never liked it. He liked it less now.

Murdoch stepped outside the mercantile. His shirt was dirty and wrinkled from having been slept in for a few days. He cleared his throat, got on his farewell voice. "Thank-you, Mr. O'Malley. It sounds like my son didn't pass this way then."

The mercantile owner tipped his cap back, looked at the cows—Dios, the long snake-like line of them—moving slower now, a few meandering right outside the store, a maze of brown that smelled of piss and shit, and he smiled yellow-toothed as a mongrel.

"He could be just anywhere about in these parts. The city has lots of folks here nowadays, not just the Mex. Might be he ran afoul of something. Damn shame, how lawless it's gettin' round here." He paused. "All over, I guess. Goin' to hell, that's us. Yep, that boy could be just about anywhere."

Johnny had to stop himself from hitting him.

Between the door and the street, Murdoch stopped and anxiously stared at the riders, trying to define the faces beneath the kerchiefs across their mouth and noses to keep out the dust. Only when he figured out that Scott wasn't among them did he turn away. He looked to Johnny and shook his head.

Johnny hid his own worry, and welcomed the chance to leave the city. He shifted in his stance, shoulders creaking. The muscles across his back rippled with overuse when he moved. Only a few days of hard ride and he'd discovered a whole league of muscles he never knew he had. Twinges and spasms in them all. Lancer had softened him. In more ways than one.

As the cattle were pushed away, a whistle blew somewhere, its cry like a baying hound. He checked his timepiece again—it had become a habit—because there was something about the sound that signaled time to leave.

Murdoch walked towards him, both hands raised to his red-rimmed eyes. He pressed the flat of his fingers against the sockets, sighed audibly.

A dozen smaller towns and settlements had been the same. A hundred times Johnny had told himself they'd find Scott in one piece and healthy, but the longer they rode, the harder it was to tolerate the lie. Maybe they'd passed him already. And if they got to Del Oro and he wasn't there?

He grimaced. Now he was talking to himself.

#-#-#-#-# 

Another hour rolled by. The sun lowered and was warm on their backs. Long shadows rippled across the land.

Johnny remained silent during the ride out of Los Angeles. For once, Murdoch had noticed it, wondered at it. Since Scott left, he'd known what was going on for John, how deeply miserable and angry he was, and that was something infectious, too. Because it had worsened the longer Scott was gone. Had spread to Teresa and she'd gone quiet for the most part, too. They all knew he could be anywhere along the road, or nowhere. A cold shiver tickled his spine despite the heat.

He fought the urge to ride faster. The trip was a long one, and it wouldn't do to wear their horses out.

"The time away from the ranch is about two weeks already, Johnny. Maybe at Del Oro for one of them, if he stayed."

"He has too much of a head start, Murdoch, probably sticking to the backwater towns. Not even those, probably." Johnny frowned, his features almost hidden by the dusky light. "I know what you're thinking."

"What's that?"

"Scott could be showing signs already."

"You heard what Sam said."

"I heard." There was a pause, then, "You know he'll be all right."

Murdoch didn't bother with a contradiction. They were a bit past that now.

Dusk darkened the road ahead of them. Aside from the lack of hair and the sloppy yellowed grin, Murdoch knew he wasn't so different from the shopkeeper back in Los Angeles. Layers of dirt and grime covered him, boots once good now near the end of their usefulness. Mostly, though, it was the expression in his eyes when Murdoch had asked about Scott. He recognized it immediately.

O'Malley was a father, too.

One moment, like a break in a relentless rainstorm, came sudden clarity. They weren't trailing some desperado who had robbed, or murdered someone. This was his son. Murdoch tried to stop the vivid memory of a bright blue sky darkened by black crows, but couldn't. He wanted a drink. Badly.

"What if we find' im and he doesn't want to come home?"

Murdoch glanced over, quickly, could only see Johnny's profile against the dark sky now, hat pulled low, then he needed to concentrate on the trail. He hadn't felt this nervous about finding Scott since Cassidy's wife showed up at the ranch, spouting "he's dead, don't you understand that". Not coming home was a bridge they'd cross when they found him.

Making camp for the night could wait for a bit. He urged Toby to a ground-eating trot.

#-#-#-#-# 

Days later, as Johnny and Murdoch rode their horses into the plaza, a boy, not more than nine or ten, peered up at them from the boardwalk. He dragged a sleeve of his tattered shirt across his eyes and sniffed. He stared, his thin cheeks smudged, a dusty cap pulled down over brown eyes. When they passed, his gaze dropped to the ground.

Things hadn't changed much in Del Oro.

Johnny watched his father as he stared wide-eyed at the marketplace. Mouth a little open. He looked down after a moment, sweat already staining his open collar, and scratched the prickly beard along his jawline. He hadn't put any time into shaving the past few days. Was moving too fast and thinking instead, apparently.

"When was the last time we got into an argument? I mean a real one."

It wasn't an opening to a conversation that Johnny expected. But it was what he was dealt, he might as well play it.

"Oh. Well." He threw out a grin he didn't feel. "Wanna narrow it down for me?"

Murdoch became calm, the jittering flowing out like a breath released. The starting was the hardest for him, Johnny knew, and if he could keep the old man talking, he'd be okay. Over the last year or so, he and Scott had become pretty good at getting Murdoch to talk. It usually involved waiting him out.

"Wes came visiting."

"Hard not to remember that. We had a good one there, with the Strykers trying to finish it."

A muscle jumped in Murdoch's jaw. The fingers on his right hand drummed his thigh. He opened his mouth to say something, but shook his head instead.

Then, Johnny thought of something else. He dug into his pocket and brought it out. "You gave me your gold watch, so I could be on time."

"Not the point," Murdoch sidestepped. "The point was," he shook his head again, and Johnny didn't immediately recognize the set of the crooked brows and sad mouth. "You left."

His father was remembering, not sharing. Johnny didn't know if that was important.

"I thought you were gone, forever. I hope to God you never have to feel that way. Not like then. Not like now." The words came out like they'd been walled up inside and a chink in the mortar had cracked and split the plaster.

Murdoch pulled Toby up hard, dismounted. "We'll split up and meet back here. You take the saloon and café, I'll take the market place. If we can't find him, we'll try that pond you were talking about."

Feeling like he'd been scoured raw, Johnny nodded.

#-#-#-#-#

Minerva's trailed along with the rest of Del Oro in that it hadn't changed. Oh, maybe the pool table was shimmed for balance now and the felt patched and they'd gotten few more chairs, but that was it. He wondered if they still sold watered down tequila made in the back room.

Only one man, and he was at the pool table, knocking a wooden cue ball around.

He was a good six feet, rangy. Lean, all bone and sinew. He watched Johnny with dark eyes and a face that was bruised and cut. A stark-white bandage was wrapped round his left ear. It was out-of-place on a man like that, made him look comical, like one of those funny clowns in a sideshow. But the scowl was all mano a mano. A pistolero.

"You want a game?" the man asked.

Johnny shook his head. "I'm looking for someone, a man with blond hair, blue eyes. Tall. You seen' im around?"

"Take a good look around, Señor, we don't get too many gringos in here."

"Then he'd be pretty easy to spot. Have you seen' im?" His sudden anger caught him by surprise, but he didn't have time for games.

The man ducked his head with a sly smile, annoyed maybe, Johnny didn't really care.

"Why are you looking for him?"

"That'd be my business, wouldn't it?"

The man shrugged and moved back to his table, but his eyes remained on Johnny's.

Johnny leaned against the bar, his back to the bartender, not knowing what to do next: go knocking at every cheap hotel and boarding house in town, or try to catch up with Murdoch. Or...the church.

He strode out of the saloon, not giving the one-eared man another thought. Met Murdoch coming the other way. His face stopped Johnny cold.

A long day for both of them, and nothing but howdy folks and coming up empty.

"Nothing from the plaza. It's almost as if people are afraid to talk. I've picked up a straggler, though. He's been following me since I started asking about Scott."

He gestured to the same boy they'd seen when entering the plaza, peeking out from around the corner of a storefront.

Murdoch crooked his finger at the boy and his eyes rounded, head swiveling to keep lookout, because this boy didn't want anyone to notice him. Something ached deep in Johnny's chest. He took a deep breath and held it, willing him forward.

After the boy made sure it was safe, he shuffled forward.

Little eyes could see a lot in a town like Del Oro. Johnny bent down. "You know the man we're lookin' for?"

His small shoulders rolled beneath his shirt and he pointed towards the outskirts of town.

#-#-#-#-# 

The dirt road out of Del Oro connected with a smaller trail that led to the water.

Johnny knew what this was. He'd been here before, after all. Murdoch was close to his shoulder, too close, and he took a step to the side, but kept looking at the scene before him, trying to remember.

Murdoch shaded his eyes with the flat of his hand. "Is this the place you and Scott talked about, Johnny?"

"It's been a while since I've been here, but yeah, it is." He turned to the boy. "The tall gringo. You sure you saw him out here?" The boy's expression didn't change, but he nodded.

As they walked, leading their horses, through a few brittle stalks leftover from some harvest long gone, Johnny wondered what they'd grown here. If they'd grown anything worth having. He and Murdoch followed the old trail, one well-known to him, but the years between had been rough. The land and wind was taking all trace of the old Fort away, and Johnny was walking over bones and old memories.

Wooden posts rotted and crumbling to the ground, brown wire too dull to keep anything in or out, cattle and horses long gone. The land dipped down to the pool and they tied off their horses.

When they turned around the kid had skedaddled.

He and Murdoch walked up the small rise and down. The pool was as he remembered it—as blue and green as the ocean, with a beauty that Johnny hadn't encountered again. Until he got to Lancer. It was the peacefulness that wrapped around him, though, and he was grateful for it. Just as he'd been so many years ago.

Murdoch touched his arm and gestured.

She was sitting under a small outcropping of rock. Catching what little shade there was for a hot day. Her face was grey, the same color as her hair she had tucked up under her straw hat, She looked ill, or maybe just worn out. A tidy bunch of dark red roses sat beside her hip, almost as if they'd been forgotten. The color knocked something inside of him loose. What was it his mama had told him when he'd brought her some one time? Those real dark ones were for puttin' on graves, nothin' else.

The woman's head turned when they approached, but not in alarm or fear. Only in sadness. She'd been crying, but a while ago, because the tracts of wetness from each eye to wrinkled cheek were dried and done.

"Ma'am, we're lookin' for someone. There was a kid with us," and Johnny flung out his hand in frustration, "he's gone now, but he made out that the man we're lookin' for was here."

"You're looking for someone?" She sniffed, made a good effort not to sound surprised. "Hmm. Lots of people around here."

Murdoch smiled. "Not just anyone, Ma'am." He shifted his weight and straightened his spine on a heavy sigh. "My son. We're looking for my son."

His father's voice was different. Soft and sad. Too tired, the both of them, for a heart-to-heart with a stranger. Too tired and beat up these last couple of damn weeks.

"Sometimes, it's like that, isn't it?" the old woman asked, and reached down to her roses. "Trying hard to find something that's lost."

He glanced at Murdoch and saw his own puzzled expression reflected there.

"I don't think you understand. We're just tryin' to find my brother."

Her chuckle was hard and smooth, worn that way with age and hard life. "I think I do know, young man." She slid her fingertips over the roses and back again. "What it's like to love someone and to lose them."

Her voice softened. "Men like him? It's in their nature, to stick out their necks. The rest of us, though. Well, we just have to live with it." She made a small noise in her throat, like she dropped something. "Selfish of them."

She went on, "I don't know how to save him." And Johnny heard how bleak that was, but it was more, it was despair and loss of hope, tied up in one big bundle.

"Who are you talking about?" Murdoch asked, a demand more than anything. "Please, just tell us if the man you're talking about is Scott Lancer."

When Johnny looked into her eyes, they were wet.

"He's dying," she whispered.

 

 

Chapter 12

Murdoch's eyes swept over him, snagged on the impossibly long bandage that looked like a white flag of truce. It said I give up in the worst possible way. He peeled it back from Scott's arm, revealing the red-rimmed jagged dog bite, filled with custardy pus. Angry lines branched out from it, one stretching up past the elbow, reaching out, it seemed, to the healed gunshot wound. He grimaced at the sweet smell and quickly put the bandage back in place.

"He's breathing. That's something at least." Mrs. Delaney's hands shook. "I've been told there's a time for letting go, Mr. Lancer. Letting things take their natural course."

"There's nothing natural about this," Murdoch snapped. Natural was alive and well, sitting down at dinner, talking over a whisky, coming in late with Johnny after town, and stepping over the squeaky floorboard in the hallway thinking Murdoch didn't know.

She stood, started moving to the door so slowly Murdoch was reminded that she was chasing the tail end of eighty years, had walked miles to bring them here from the pool and had just stayed up all night taking a turn with the cooling cloths.

So he didn't curse, though he felt like it.

Mrs. Delaney cleared her throat. "In all my years, I never learned how. To let go, that is." But she was mumbling to herself, walking out the door.

He tapped Scott's hollowed cheek. He'll wake up. And needing some confirmation of this, Murdoch slid two fingers up the groove of his neck like he'd seen the doctor do, and felt the slow pulse of life stir there, soft as the patter of spring drizzle against canvas. Almost not there, ephemeral as cobweb and mist. But something to hang on to, surely.

Looking at Scott so unnaturally quiet, he realized they made him weak, his boys. But he didn't believe that, not really. They tied him to Lancer in a way the land never did, gave him reason to keep going season after season. But to have one without the other seemed so…impossible. There'd been so little time together. And now? Scott was still and white, with ghastly rips tearing the arm Catherine had worked nine months to make. Reduced to a burned-out husk and a series of new memories a year plus long, that Murdoch clutched at with greedy hands.

Mrs. Delaney came back from the kitchen with wet cloths, coffee and a basket of cut flowers, as though they would help. Murdoch wiped Scott's face, but didn't say a word.

The longer his son remained unconscious, the worse the diagnosis. Not hydrophobia, but maybe they'd skirted that diagnosis for one just as bad. A latent infection, the doctor said. Blood poisoning. There was irony there, something about winning the battle, yet losing the war, but he was too tired to find it.

"You should eat," she said, came beside, one hand on his shoulder. "Or sleep." She paused and Murdoch looked at her, bleary-eyed.

"No, thank-you." He was used to going without both.

He wasn't making any progress with the fever and took it as a personal affront. He stood up again, stiff, feeling as though his skin was too tight on his face. No change, Scott was pale as the sky outside, bruises scudding like dark clouds on lower cheek and jaw. Too warm. Breathing, but absent. Just…gone.

Reluctantly, Murdoch accepted a cup of coffee from her, strong enough to take silver plating off a spoon. They sat at the end of the bed and he scrubbed his face with his hands, grateful for the strong cup. Between them rested the basket with its bunches of color, smelling of a too-bright spring.

He turned the chipped cup around on the table, noticed the intersecting circles the dripped coffee made. He wiped the wet with his fingers, because she was taking out the flowers, laying them down on the table like a new card game.

She shuffled the ones that looked like white tears into one bundle and the yellow into another, the orange ones into yet another. Sweet smells, vastly more appealing than the one emanating from Scott's arm, filled his nostrils. Threaded through the perfume was the medicinal tang of coffee, the thump and clink of the cup against the table, and Scott's quiet breathing rising above all.

She stared at him, hard, eyes like glass marbles, contested and hard-won. "Dying is easy. You just go. Living? That's the hard part." Her eyes were dry. She wasn't going to cry anymore. "But I think you may know something about that already."

Without warning, Murdoch thought of that December when Catherine left and never came back. Once you got surprised like that, once you were blindsided, it didn't happen twice. He became harder, inflexible, not willing to get hurt again. Until he met Maria—a whole different set of hurts. And now Johnny and Scott.

He left his unfinished cup on the table and went to check on his son again.

#-#-#-#-# 

Johnny had left his brother a little while ago, shoo'ed out by Murdoch to get some sleep. But sleep didn't come.

He shifted, uncomfortable when he looked up, seeing all the saints staring down at him from their perches around the sanctuary. He remembered the first time he'd seen them, and shivered for what almost was. He gave his reeking shirt a tug, using the act of smoothing it out to help form his words, because he wanted some information and he wasn't sure if Father Miguel would give it to him.

The priest sat beside him. "You know, when I first saw your coin in Scott's hand, my heart wept because I knew then you were dead."

Johnny stretched his mouth and tried for a grin. "Maybe I sold it, or lost it in a poker game."

"No, you would never do that. Your brother must be something to you for you to give it away."

"Well, Scott needed it at the time. For all the good it did him."

"I think it did him some good to have it—a piece of home."

"Who roughed him up?" The bruises on Scott's face had been livid in the morning sunlight.

"Ah, now that is a story. I was accosted by two young men and your brother helped me."

"That sounds like him. Go on."

"A day or so later, he was at the cemetery in the old fort and was attacked by one of them. Your brother found his pistol and shot. Fortunately, only part of an ear was taken off."

Johnny's eyebrows rose. "Oh, yeah? This man wear a bandage over that ear now?"

"The name is Ramon Pérez Rodríguez. Is that what you're looking for, Juanito?"

"You always could read me. Better than I knew myself, sometimes."

"No, it's just easier to see things from where I sit. But tell me why do want this man? Revenge?"

He didn't answer.

The priest leaned over to tap Johnny's chest. "So there is some Madrid left inside that drives you. But I never understood Madrid to be pushed by revenge."

Johnny Madrid never had a brother. He sighed. "Madrid, Lancer it's all the same."

"Yes, I understand. But you can choose to leave this be. Let it go. No good will come of it."

"Always counselin' peace, huh Padre?"

"Ramon didn't cause this horrible sickness that afflicts your brother."

"No, he just bushwhacked him."

"And got an ear taken off for his trouble."

"Why are you speakin' up for this man, knowin' what he did?"

Father Miguel shrugged, a sawing half-movement. "I will never speak for him—only pray. But there are things you do not know."

"What things?"

"Things that I will keep to myself, Juanito."

There was a time to interrupt and a time to let it ride, and Johnny didn't need to fill every moment with talk, even after surprising admissions like this one, besides he needed to see Scott again.

But it had made him curious.

#-#-#-#-# 

The air filled with the pungent smell of an approaching storm. Scott recognized the place, though it took him a moment.

Time stuttered, and a stretch of foothills flickered in, the horses in their makeshift corrals, then a thousand or more unwashed men dallying about camp. For whatever reason this place came into being, Scott was grateful—it was one where he didn't hurt.

The foothills were gratifyingly large, circling the camp like a diamond necklace. Safe, secure. He knew he was in Virginia, a ways outside of Richmond. More to the point, he knew when.

Clay Langdon smiled at him from under his kepi. "Are you ready?"

"For what?"

"Why for leaving, boy." Clay had an expectant look on his face, like he wanted something from Scott. "We're riding. The two of us. So get your haversack and saddle up your horse." He swept out his hand. "What do you say, Lieutenant?"

Scott smiled, stared at the dirt road heading out of camp and felt a stark yearning. Then his smile faded.

"We have work to do here, Clay. It wouldn't do to go haring off."

His friend brought up a sharp mocking salute. "You always were a fiend for duty and country, Sir."

A thrum filled the air, like a thousand angry bees. A black cloud moved across the sky, but it was unlike any he'd seen before.

Crows—he had a healthy dislike for them, a new feeling after Vicksburg.

Clay shuffled his weight from one foot to the other. He looked toward the horizon in puzzlement. Then his eyes flicked upwards—wide and wild. He turned, met Scott's stare. "I can't do it…it's just no good."

It struck something inside, those few words, and Scott had a moment of dislocation so strong his head buzzed. He threw out one hand to steady himself. He shook his head, trying to remember. But it was slippery, no sooner had he caught the edge of it than it fled, silk and light and nothing more.

The thrum came nearer and Scott didn't think. He moved. Crashed into Clay and sent them both sprawling to the ground. The crows dropped so low he could feel the flutter of wings against his cheek as they beat against each other.

He blinked. All of this—rain, camp, crows—it wasn't about accidents or leaving. It was about Clay. About what had happened, and what had been held in for all these years.

"It wasn't your bullet," Clay whispered, and that drew Scott's concentration. "Not yours. Mine."

He gave a little half nod.

"You shouldn't be here, Scott," he said. His voice was light as the wind, almost a part of it. "You shouldn't be here," he repeated.

His lips moved, the words so quiet that Scott didn't hear them at first. Then, as raindrops began to fall, a word drifted to him: goodbye.

#-#-#-#-#

After two more days of warm wet cloths and poultices to the affected arm, a change came, and it began with a slight tremor. It was close to noon and Murdoch sat, trying to tame the fever. As he ran the cool cloth over Scott's chest, a quiver ran through his son, significant enough that Murdoch felt the vibration through the wet cloth.

He stilled, waiting to see what would happen, but nothing did.

He started again. Soon, another vibration rolled under his fingers, and then another.

The ripples intensified, coming on stronger, one on top of the other until Scott trembled non-stop. He moved his head, breath coming rapid and shallow. When he shifted his arm, a wounded animal sound came from him.

Moments later, Johnny swept in, carrying more towels and water. "What's going on?" He rushed to the bedside. "He's shiverin' like he's cold."

Murdoch had prayed for Scott to wake up, but now his sudden twitches and moans were unsettling, frightening.

"Johnny, hand me another cloth." He took it, dipped into the cool water and ran it over Scott's brow. He shivered when Murdoch touched him, muscles bunching and shrinking away from the cold cloth. The shivering increased until his teeth rattled, eyelashes fluttering as he tried to open his eyes but couldn't.

"Shhh," Murdoch crooned, wiping him even as he lolled away from his cloth.

A guttural, involuntary moan escaped.

"What's happening to him, Murdoch?"

"I think he's starting to come around enough to feel how sick he is. We have to keep him cool with the water, no matter how much he protests. The fever's still too high."

Johnny maneuvered some pillows behind him. "Sorry, sorry Scott. But we gotta get you more comfortable."

A thick sheen of sweat coated Scott's body. His moans filled Murdoch with helpless pity. He shook his head, wondering what god-awful pain a person had to be in to make those sounds.

"Shhh…shhhh." Murdoch offered what comfort he could. "It'll be all right, Scott." His son's eyes rolled toward the sound of his voice, unfocused and cloudy.

His left hand jerked over to his arm, trying to protect it. Murdoch grabbed the hand and held it down.

"You can't touch your arm, Scott. You don't want to make it worse."

Murdoch held his hand in his, gripping it when he tried to pull away.

"Keep your hand still," he chided him. And Scott's eyes roved in bewildered sweeps, as if searching the room for some relief.

Stubborn—that described Scott, even now, not dying. Because his son had inherited his stubbornness from someone, and it wasn't Catherine.

 

 

Chapter 13

The white arch of Lancer was only a few feet away, a dark shadow in the early-morning light. He looked up, the sky bright with dozens of shooting stars. It was glorious. Glancing over his shoulder at the hacienda, Scott saw Murdoch's face, a pale oval at the window.

He looked terrified.

#-#-#-#-#

About halfway to Minerva's, Johnny realized he was mad. He was angry, and that's not what he wanted, not what was needed. Because the sounds Scott made when Murdoch gripped his hand away from the bad arm were indescribable, had raised all the hair on the back of his neck in a way that usually involved gun shots and back alleyways at midnight. Afterwards, Scott had gone silent again and Johnny had to leave.

He wanted someone to blame. Barring that, something to drink.

A movement ahead pulled his eye. The man from the saloon, the one the padre called Rodriguez, was standing outside Minerva's, his hand full of the boy's tattered shirt. The same boy who had led him and Murdoch to the pool. The fist tightened and twisted the fabric, Johnny saw a button pop off. He started to run when the man's other fist came up quick and hard.

"Get away from him!"

Startled, Rodriguez dropped his hold on the boy and Johnny stepped between them. "Stop," he said, voice edged with steel. "You don't touch him."

As Rodriguez teetered in the sunlight, the few people in the plaza scattered to various hidey holes in store fronts and behind selling tables.

They stared at each other, and he was reminded of that bible story, David and Goliath, deadly for all the battle appeared uneven. He was averaged sized, but next to the towering mangy dog thinness of Rodriquez and his gun, he probably appeared small. He'd used the distraction before, with good results.

Rodriguez edged around, trying to get at the boy behind him, but Johnny shifted with each step. He paid attention to the man's gun hand. Power was there, of course.

"This kid doesn't deserve to be beat," Johnny continued. "I can bet he hasn't ever done nothin' to you."

The laughter was surprising, it was so low it seemed to come from the ground, from far away, like the vibrations he felt under his feet from the running cattle in Los Angeles. Rodriguez was amused, and that was never a good thing.

Johnny pushed the kid behind him. Certain of what he was about to do, he took a step forward, and Rodriguez backed up. The boy put one hand on the back of Johnny's belt and tugged in warning. He reached around and touched the small fingers, trying to tell him that it would be okay, then took another step.

Finally, Rodriguez took the one step backwards that counted.

Bad men always knew when it happened, when the trap was sprung. Johnny wondered what it felt like, falling into the cacti bed. Rodriguez yelled and writhed like he'd been struck by lightning, lashing out. Johnny jumped back and hauled the boy with him, when his leg swung too close.

He hesitated as the man rolled in the needles, the white patch over his ear bobbing up and down like a gull in the ocean.

"Hey," he said. Rodriguez twisted, raised his head, eyes malevolent. His arm went to the gun at his side.

He felt calm, more so than he had in the past few weeks. "Don't even think about it."

The arm wavered. Johnny hadn't been the target of Rodriguez's fury. And now, he was. "Drop it."

Slowly, Rodriguez placed his gun on the ground near Johnny's feet. He ignored it. "I owe you for the bushwhacking, and I'm paying up."

Rodriguez tilted his head the way a dog did when it didn't understand the command.

"That gringo? He's my brother."

His eyes widened. Widened further when Johnny picked up the discarded pistol and spun the barrel, spewing bullets into the cacti. He slipped the pistol under his belt.

"The boy and I are leavin' now and there won't be any trouble. ¿Entiende usted?"

They left Rodriguez sitting in the patch of thorns and prickles, and Johnny could feel his eyes follow them down the street and into the little cafe.

Nodding to the woman behind the counter, he and the boy sat down.

He timed it, four minutes, twenty-two seconds. Under five minutes and the plate was practically licked clean. Johnny sure as hell hoped the kid wouldn't make himself sick, eating that fast. He was the sort of kid who wouldn't want to call attention to it, Johnny was almost sure of it. Maybe it would be enough to ease him through the night. A full stomach was all it took sometimes. One night, anyway.

The boy pushed a piece of biscuit into his mouth, barely stopping to wash it down with the glass of milk, furtively pocketing the rest of it—for later.

Johnny knew this was how it started.

He didn't even push away the plate, just stared at it when he was done, like he was wishing it full again. Don't be sick, Johnny muttered under his breath, told himself it was because he didn't want the boy to make a mess on the café floor, but it was so much more than that, he couldn't think about it at all.

"You done?" he asked. Because what else was he going to eat, the silverware?

"Sí," the kid said. "Gracias." But his glance was sliding around again, and Johnny noticed how one hand gripped the edge of the counter.

He swallowed. "Señor, I can't…you know…"

Johnny shook his head. "I didn't ask for any, did I?"

He nodded, and the hand that had been holding on to the counter's edge relaxed a little, finally fell on his lap.

"Hey," he said sharply, and the kid looked up, begging him without knowing he was doing it, just had it in his eyes. "I need to get back to the church, my brother's pretty sick."

The kid nodded like he knew.

"Come with me, it's not safe here. And the Padre has soft beds." He wouldn't refuse, not when he'd taken the meal. He wanted to, raised his chin a little, met Johnny's stare. Then nodded again.

Johnny let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.

#-#-#-#-#

"Rodriguez has the run of the town around here, and there's innocent people gonna get hurt. Or, they have already." He could have been speaking about Scott or the boy, or even the padre maybe, bystanders in their own destruction. "He was aimin' to hit that boy. And it wasn't any accident."

Johnny couldn't read Father Abascal's expression. It was hooded, tucked away in reserve like a store of food in a pantry, waiting for a storm.

He continued, "That man won't stop. You been here a long time, you know what's happenin', and you're the only one left who cares. You're the only one who can help him out."

Father Abascal's attention was on the scuffed planks of the hallway, faded from dark wood to a mud color and aged with streaks, his face held so still Johnny didn't know if he was going to yell, cry, or throw him out of the church.

Finally, he nodded once. "Mrs. Delaney has been feeding him, but we could not offer him shelter."

"Why not?"

"The child's name is Lorenzo," and his eyes flicked to Johnny and away. "He is Ramon Rodriguez's son."

Johnny sagged back.

Father Abascal shrugged, a bag of potatoes shifting themselves in black linen. "He would bring his evil to the church and convent if we sheltered the child. I would not take the chance—we have many people here, and students."

"So now you're gonna turn him out into the street? I don't remember you doing that a while back to a boy who needed your help."

He smiled softly. His gaze was long, staring down the years. "Sometimes an old man forgets. And you were well on your way to becoming a young man at the time. We were never in any danger, not from you."

"That makes it all the more important he stay, right?"

"Don't be foolish, Juanito." He nodded, but his eyes were flinty. "Of course he stays. And we will pray."

The padre looked at Johnny then, considered him with some interest.

"You left your gun fighting behind, so you could have this life with your father and brother," Father Abascal started, then caught himself, unsure. Johnny watched him as he tried to smile a little. "Are you happy?"

Johnny couldn't utter a word, had been sliced through cleanly, as though the padre was armed with a cleaver. Happy? What did that have to do with anything? He was alive, and Scott was—for the moment—alive and that was all that mattered, wasn't it?

He had talked to Scott of what it was like, to find a warm place where he was more than okay, where he felt just like regular folks. Where he wasn't putting everything he owned in a gunny sack every few days, weeks or months, tripping down an endless road of gunfights or shady deals or revolutions. He had just wanted to stop. After the first year at Lancer, walking down the street without looking over his shoulder quit being uncomfortable for him, had become a brother asking 'What about a beer after we get the fencing done?' instead of something else: the smell of spent shells, or a friend dead.

Only two years later and that was in danger of being wiped away.

"What about Scott, Padre. How is he?"

"I'm afraid there is no change, my son."

#-#-#-#-# 

His father had walked up from the hacienda, and now stood with his hands held slightly apart.

"I sent Isidrio with more provisions for the strangers." Murdoch cocked an eye at him. "Ah, other than the steer, of course."

Scott's eyes flicked downward. He gave a little shrug like it was nothing. But it mattered to him, in the end. "It was wrong," he said, carefully articulating every word, staring straight at Murdoch, no ambiguity to the statement at all. "You were wrong."

To his surprise, Murdoch was already nodding. "I was. You're right. The whole thing was…" and he looked at Scott, "…wrong."

"The problem is that you hold on too tight. You never take the easy way." He shook his head. "You have to let things go sometimes." He was amused. Had to fight down a chuckle. Because he could have easily been talking about himself. He'd inherited much more than just his mother's eyes.

Scott didn't look at him, his eyes were on the dirt in front of his Murdoch's toes. It was easier that way. "I wasn't planning on coming back."

"Yet here you are." They landed hard, those words, as though his father had just laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I made a decision at Lancer. I can't go back." There was no time for this. But there was no other time for it, so he was stuck.

"You chose this." Murdoch called out and it stopped Scott dead in his tracks. "Remember? You chose to leave."

For one moment Scott stood very still. Was it was the right decision for Murdoch, for Johnny and Teresa after all? Doubts niggled at him. And what about him? Was it the right decision for him?

Then he looked at Murdoch, and his father's voice was low, but Scott didn't have to strain to hear it, his words like a salve. "Come home, son."

Murdoch's right hand turned outwards, an invitation.

The scales tipped, but it wasn't from the words. It was the look in his father's eyes.

Murdoch needed him.

The sunlight swam, and Scott couldn't look at him anymore. The door was open and all he had to do was step through. He twisted around at the noise in the wind.

The crows lifted en masse, wings blocking out the brightening sky, and Scott felt a pull—away from Lancer, away from Murdoch.

 

 

Chapter 14

Murdoch stood outside, took a deep breath of clean air. The events of the past few days—the past few weeks—had left him frazzled. He glanced at the horizon and its pale yellow sun showing through the mountain tops. Another sunrise. The church bell pealed and the school and convent came alive, as if someone behind a curtain pulled a switch.

Scott was somewhere, caught in a limbo that Murdoch couldn't reach.

His son was smart and strong and knew how to take care of himself. But. He imagined Scott like a kite, flying in a brisk wind, and the damn infection was about to cut the string. He'd been telling himself that Scott would be fine, but the longer time passed, he knew his son wouldn't be anything remotely approaching fine.

He remembered the look on Scott's face that evening in front of the fire place. He'd known then what Scott was doing, or at least had an inkling. An intuition.

He slowly walked back inside like he could hold time back. Many years ago, he left Scott behind, and he had felt scared, angry and helpless. No more.

Entering the convent, he crossed the silent incense-scented sanctuary to the spare room, and stared at his son on the bed, bruises livid, pale and unmoving. Murdoch rested one hand on the iron bed frame, unable to go one step further. He sank to the chair, fingers buried in his hair. "I'm right here, Scott," he said softly to the space between his knees. "I'm not going anywhere."

Outside the window, the wind whistled through the tall grasses, caught a door somewhere and threw it back against its hinges, banging out a rhythmic song. A mad argument broke out between two students as they scuffled in the courtyard. Inside, he heard a deep groan from the bed, the springs creaking as the body on it shifted.

"Murdoch," he heard Scott mutter, his voice a mere scratchy timbre. "Murdoch…it's been a long day."

And something about birds, but he was moving too fast right about then, shouting for Johnny, shouting for anyone, and must have imagined it.

#-#-#-#-#

He ought to be dead. But that was a common thought these past couple of weeks. Still, better alive. The bed wasn't exactly comfortable, but that was mostly because his back was sore and a lump had emerged from the mattress ticking like April's first crocus, right where it could dig a groove in his shoulder. He'd dragged himself to upright in the last half hour, back now against the iron headboard, not much more comfortable than the mattress.

One thing he desperately needed was some coffee to wake up.

Scott cradled his damaged arm for something to do. It didn't take much to piece together, even for his muddled brain. The loss of time, days actually, was the worst thing, something he couldn't quite comprehend. He glanced up and saw Murdoch's lips were clamped together in a frown and revised his addled thinking to push the time missed lower on the list.

Johnny stopped at the threshold and Scott nodded to him. His brother was chancing a cup of something, and from the smell it was Sister Ambrosia's coffee, but maybe he'd made it himself. He didn't quite feel like finding his feet yet. Sitting up was hard enough, especially since Murdoch had told him that he should stay horizontal.

Scott felt his chest, ran a hand across his face. Too many dreams. Like he'd traveled hundreds of hard miles.

He'd woken up sweating, shaking. A few minutes of not understanding where he was, somewhere in Virginia, somewhere at Lancer. He walked away. And then, he didn't. He found Murdoch.

Who stared at him now, eyes unreadable from across the room. Murdoch looked like he needed a good sleep, like he'd spent the last night or three at Minerva's. Johnny sighed and he knew something was over, that a bridge had been crossed.

Loud voices came from outside the window, Father Abascal's and another he couldn't identify.

"I'm going see what's going on," Murdoch said, dropping the curtain from the window. "You two stay put."

Scott swallowed the automatic 'yes sir', but Johnny, with a thin smile, didn't. Moving feet shuffled in the hallway, but Johnny didn't budge from his stance in the doorway. Scott didn't like it, knew that his brother was going to make him wait because Johnny was good at that. He wished he'd come in because it hurt to turn his head to look at him.

His pants and shirt were thrown across the chair back and his boots were by the end of the bed, but they were both too far to reach, so he laid back quietly, feeling everything the last few days had dealt.

"So, what happened? How did you two come to find me?" He had to ask.

Johnny told him, bare bones, and Scott nodded. Rodriguez, Lorenzo and Mrs. Delaney and how they all were tied together. There were items his brother left out, but he knew it had to do with how Johnny felt about things. How carelessly Scott had put him in the untenable position of keeping a secret.

"You fought Rodriguez?" But he said it with a smile, which he expected to be returned.

It wasn't.

"Not really a fight."

Johnny shook his head, looked angry, but Scott knew to look through the disguise. "I didn't do a damn thing. You were…gone." And he flung out his hand.

Scott dipped his head.

"You're coming home." Johnny wasn't asking but even so, it was too early for a decision where that was concerned. Scott looked away first, looking for words to fill the silence, but he had none.

He tried to ease himself off the bed. Johnny was by his elbow in a second, the cup of coffee was dropped messily to the bedside table, spilling against a vase of flowers. He thought he heard Johnny say something, but he wasn't sure and he wasn't going to ask. His brother took most of his weight, as Scott leaned against him while the world swam before him.

Johnny repeated it, probably knowing that he hadn't heard him, didn't want to hear him. "You don't leave."

For an instant, he wondered how Johnny would have handled a hundred men in Union blue, because he had no problem handing out orders like they were pennies.

"You're gonna be fine, Scott," he said, but the tone was soft and drawn out, his usual Johnny-voice. It occurred to him then that maybe going home and being fine were related, that one only existed because of the other.

Johnny got him to the chair and helped him into a semblance of attire.

He grinned upwards. "Any chance of getting a cup of that?" He tipped his nose toward the table.

Johnny left, looking happy he had something to do, and came back with a mug. It wasn't the best coffee he'd ever had, but it was the best one in a long line of days, not much more than a few hours old, which was saying something in Sister Ambrosia's kitchen.

After a half hour, Murdoch came back in, hair windswept, eyes ablaze. "The county marshal was here and spoke to Father Abascal."

Scott winced around his cup. "What did he say about Lorenzo?" He shrugged at Murdoch's look. "Johnny filled me in."

"He said that under the circumstances, Lorenzo can stay here."

"Why couldn't he stay here anyway?" Johnny asked. "Rodriguez was lookin' to hurt that kid."

"I have an idea that he was trying to save face for leaving Rodriguez here to terrorize the town. It seems the marshal had accumulated more than a few complaints that were filed from the town, including several from the church. He's out searching for him now."

He peered hard at Scott. "He wanted to question you, but I said you were asleep."

And finally, Murdoch smiled, and for that, Scott was grateful.

#-#-#-#-#

It was full dark when Scott opened his eyes, to candlelight playing on the ceiling, the comforting scent of wood smoke, and fingers of wind running across the roof and between the chinks of mortar around the window.

His eyes were heavy from the remnants of sleep-not sleep. The pain in his arm had subsided and he relaxed back, a dusty pile of quilts on top of him. Soft and warm. Outside the room, he heard the scrape of a wooden chair across tile and the thud and thump of heavy footsteps.

A few minutes later, he heard voices, harsh for all they were trying to be quiet. I need to get up.

Swinging his feet out of bed, he waited for the room to right itself. On legs that didn't quite feel like his own, he wobbled out to the hallway towards the sounds, bare feet whisper quiet.

He couldn't see a definitive thing in the darkness, could only make out two shadows against the spilled moonlight from the garden courtyard.

One of the shadows was Ramon Rodriguez with a large, ugly knife. Just a flash of silver in his hand.

But Mrs. Delaney shook her head, a grim smile on her lips. "You're drunk, I can smell it. Why are you here? To get your boy? You've done enough to him, haven't you? I know you," and something in those words pulled his attention to her, "I know what you do and you weren't made to be a father."

Rodriguez looked over her head and their eyes met. "You, gringo! Where's my son?"

She grabbed the nearest thing to her and swung it with both hands, hitting Rodriguez in the head with a blow that sent him reeling.

Johnny and Murdoch burst in, leading Father Abascal and few of the sisters in nightcaps and nightdresses, puzzled looks on all.

Ramon Rodriguez slumped on the floor, knife still in his hands, head bleeding.

"I wanted him to go away. To leave the boy alone," she said. "I just wanted him back. Him. My son."

Scott caught her against him when she faltered.

"Dear God." Her eyes widened, clear again, and there was fear. But underneath that, pain and years of loss and want.

She drew a broken breath and wept silently in his arms, the kind of crying that hurt. The bottom half of the clay flower pot was in her hand, the top half in brown and red colored bits scattered on the floor.

#-#-#-#-#

Things settled down to a new rhythm in the two weeks following Rodriguez's arrest and subsequent imprisonment. And a cautious hope started to enter his mind that the hydrophobia would not manifest itself, but there was still a long way to go yet.

To no one's surprise, Father Abascal held a celebratory mass, the priest deciding it was to be an outdoor affair, with Mrs. Delaney picking out and presenting the flowers.

With Scott, she didn't talk about her flowers, or the broken shards of clay that still crunched under her feet when she walked through the garden. They talked about the blue-green pool and how well Lorenzo was doing with his studies.

And on this day, his last at the church, she stood straight and surprisingly tall in the doorway, wearing her straw hat and a sweet-smelling handful of something purple in her hands. Scott looked up, recognized the look of peace that was on her face after all that happened, and smiled.

"Hello boys," she said, meaning him and Johnny. "Mr. Lancer, it's nice to see you looking so rested."

Murdoch stood by the door, his grin disguised. "Morning, Claire. Good to see you with your hat on again."

"Tired of looking at my grey head?" she teased, settling into the chair bedside him, watching as Johnny threw down his bad hand. He laid down his own set of cards.

Murdoch sighed. "I think I'll go get some of Sister Ambrosia's coffee. It's grown on me. Anyone else?"

There were no takers.

"Enjoy the coffee," she said with a gentle smile, green eyes glinting in the morning sun. And Murdoch was duly dismissed.

When he was gone, she turned to Johnny, who had gathered up the cards to shuffle again. "You look pleased with yourself, young man."

He shrugged. "I'm happy we were leavin' tomorrow."

Scott moved one hand across to his arm, where bandages had, until recently, covered the horrific wound. Protecting himself, in a way.

Mrs. Delaney nodded. "That is good news." She stared at Scott and he wished there was more between them than air because her eyes were clear, and she wanted to know to know something.

"And you, Scott Lancer, did you accomplish anything?"

It was a straight-forward question, one he'd spent not a little time in contemplating. Johnny stiffened beside him. His mouth opened and Mrs. Delaney's green gaze was suddenly all on him.

"You don't need to protect him right now, Johnny. It's just a question."

Scott laughed. "I learned that I need to go home. Regardless of what may come."

"Quite." Her eyes filled and she patted his hand. "Lorenzo and I will be taking a walk to the pool this afternoon. We would like to invite you to come along as our escort."

"I'd be honored, Madam."

She stood, pressed the small bundle of flowers into his palm, and leaned over to whisper in his ear, "For victory."

 

 

Chapter 15

Murdoch watched him from the sanctity of his office. Impossible as it might seem, the boy appeared taller for some reason. And thinner, for the more obvious one.

Scott had been trapped by the accident, looking into his past, and no good had come of it. He'd made a decision then, and one now. It was the second one that sat best with Murdoch: his son was home.

At a distance, he could see the easy long-shanked sprawl against the bars of the corral, the way Scott ducked his head as something Johnny said made him laugh. Even from across the grassy courtyard, Scott's broad smile made him smile in return.

He turned away from the window and pushed the calendar, with its long lines of neat slash marks, into his desk drawer.

#-#-#-#-#

The only thing Scott conceded was that his arm was stiff. Which hadn't stopped him earlier in the week from driving Johnny and Murdoch northward to home like slow, errant sheep. But things were different between then and now, a sense of peace flowed through him.

He found Johnny and followed his stare, watching Teresa's mare and foal at the far end of the corral with a practiced eye. His brother had his coin out, rubbing absently at the groove in the metal.

On the day they left, Lorenzo wore a grin that hung like a broken sign swinging from one hook, open and laughing. Scott saw his brother in that smile, and something inside of him ached.

"You did a good thing by bringing Lorenzo to the church. Despite Father Abascal's qualms." He paused at Johnny's look. "What's wrong?"

"Not sure it was such a good thing, maybe stirred up a hornet's nest for the boy. Rodriguez is the type to keep a grudge."

"But he's in prison, right?"

"For however long, it'll keep him."

"Johnny," Scott halted, throat closing up. His brother's hand paused, thumb hovering over the coin. "You saw yourself in that boy, didn't you?"

After a long moment, he nodded.

"He belongs there," Scott said, emphatically. "He belongs to Mrs. Delaney and Father Abascal, not with someone who beats him. He has a chance now." He remembered how the priest looked at Johnny when they said goodbye.

As if reading his mind, Johnny began, "A long time ago, I got hurt and found myself in Del Oro."

"How hurt?"

Johnny made a face and angled away. "Enough," he said, and he might have been talking about anything. "It was enough to make me stop at that pool every day for about a month. You might say Father Abascal helped me change my way of thinkin'." A pause and Scott didn't think he'd get any more. But Johnny surprised him.

"And then I went on to do a lot more things, but I always knew there was a safe place I could go to when the going got rough."

"Did you ever go back?"

"Nope." Johnny shrugged. "I changed and got older, forgot about it. Was too far away. Any reason will do." He held his coin up to the sky and squinted. "But I like to think I always had a piece of that place with me in this."

And Johnny had given it to him.

His brother turned and pocketed the coin. "Teresa still not talkin' to you?"

Scott shook his head.

"Well, she'll come around. Maybe."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"You ready to work today? I know for a fact Murdoch doesn't hold with any shirkers."

"Do you think he'll fire me?"

"He might, but if I was to guess, probably not. Unless you don't get goin'."

Scott tapped his chest with both palms. "I'm as fit as I'll ever be."

"You really feelin' okay?"

"Yes, I am. Really."

"We only a got a little while now…to wait."

"No one is more aware of that than I am."

The morning sunlight claimed the rest of the conversation, the tension leaching into the warm air. It was too beautiful a day for any recriminations or regrets. "I've been thinking."

Johnny made a noise in the base of his throat.

Scott ignored him. "I've been thinking we should go to town and get a beer after the day is done."

Johnny cracked a wide smile. "I think you're right."

"I'll meet you and Murdoch at the crew site." He glanced toward the barn. "But right now, there's something I need to do."

#-#-#-#-#

Tears always did him in. All it took was one.

Teresa winced when she saw him and looked away. "Go away, Scott."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing is wrong," she said, and jammed the old can into the feed bin, scooping up grain with a loud whoosh.

"Please don't cry."

"This has nothing to do with you." She let the lid of the bin drop, smacking it against its hinges. "I got a splinter in my finger from the corral. It hurt."

"Johnny wouldn't have said anything to me if it was just your finger."

Her head jerked up. "Johnny said something?"

"He said you were upset."

She had a hard time starting but when she did, the dam broke with a tidal wave of words. "I can't believe he told you. Everyone leaves around here. What right does he have to say anything anyway? He's the one who left last time."

Her loose hair lifted in the shifting air of the barn. She pushed it back, away from her eyes, her lips trembling. "You all leave. My mother left. My father left. Johnny left. Now you."

"First of all, Johnny came back. Second, I'm not going anywhere."

"You left your book." She shrugged, lifting up the damning pocket of her barn coat. "In here."

Teresa had been abandoned, by whatever method, too many times in her young life. She was hurt. So many things made sense now. The epiphany brought him to his knees.

"Don't look at me like that."

"I can't help it," he said, reaching out to touch her arm. He expected her to pull away, but she leaned into his hand.

"I found the book the morning you left. I knew you were gone, but I didn't know why until Doctor Jenkins came to the ranch looking for you. And by then it was too late to tell you to stay."

She pulled back and looked at him, eyes wet with tears and accusation. "You didn't even say goodbye. And you were so, so sick."

Of course, Johnny and Murdoch had sent word. Why wouldn't they? That little bit arrowed straight to his heart and made it thump painfully. He conjured up a smile. "Look, I come bearing gifts."

He pulled the flowers from his coat. Still wet from the morning dew, they made her tears fall.

"You're giving me hyacinths? From the side yard?"

"A wise woman once told me they symbolize forgiveness. I'm sorry, Teresa. Forgive me?" She reached out and punched his shoulder. But she took the flowers, he noticed.

He waggled his eyebrows. "If it'll make you feel any better, I'll take back my Thoreau."

That did it. He wasn't sure if his shirt front would ever be dry again.

#-#-#-#-#

This side of the work site was as good a place as any, and they really had no other plans for the day. The irrigation lines were just in the beginning stages of being transferred from a dream on paper to reality. Scott stretched out on the summer-high grass, felt the heat radiate along his back and it was magnificent.

He might have closed his eyes.

Distantly, he heard his father packing up a few hand tools, rearranging things in his saddlebag, slicking out the rope and reeling it back in. An offer of help was refused, and Scott didn't insist, because he was quite comfortable where he was on the ground, lying under a tree, the remnants of his lunch and the letter from Del Oro Frank had brought him from the morning mail tucked up under his hip.

"Scott?" Murdoch's voice cut in, drifted into his thoughts like a persistent mosquito. "Son?"

Oh, he'd fallen asleep. Scott blinked a couple of times, reminding himself to not make a habit of nodding off after lunch in the middle of the day. His father was right there, an arm hovering at Scott's side, ready to help. He looked at it pointedly, and Murdoch hesitated. Finally, he grinned, grabbed the calloused wide hand that was the same size as his own, and was half hoisted up.

He stretched like a cat in the sun. "Are we ready to go?"

Murdoch laughed. "Unless you need more sleep."

Scott pretended a wound. "Ouch. You don't take a nap every once in a while?"

Then, out of the blue, Murdoch asked, "Where to?"

He didn't know what to say. He'd never been asked the question in his life. Especially by his father.

"What?" he blurted out.

They rode north, then west. He had said Tio Creek, his father had gone along with it. It wouldn't last forever, this letting Scott take point, but he'd take it as long as it came.

Murdoch shifted in his saddle. "What did Claire say in her letter?"

"She wrote about her summer flowers coming in, but Lorenzo mostly. He's not a number-one student but is acquitting himself nicely. His Latin needs work."

They looked at each and chuckled. Scott had told him of the employment offer from Father Abascal.

"Other than inquiring about my health, she seems to be doing well."

His arm felt just fine. Another few weeks, and he'd never notice a difference, never know that it had been injured in the first place except for the still-reddened scars there. Scott grimaced, he had left Lancer and he'd almost died.

He didn't want to wallow in the whys of it, but felt his father had a right to know. He slowed his horse.

Murdoch gave him a curious stare, but didn't ask.

Keeping his eyes on the horizon, he started, "Clay Langdon was a friend of mine. A comrade. We served in the same regiment."

And found he could begin.

 

 

Epilogue:

On the whole, it was a discussion that made the rounds fairly frequently at the Lancer table. It waxed and waned around the celebratory steak and mashed potatoes and gained steam through the apple pie and coffee. It strayed off course a few times, but found its heading and trailed the jubilant party to the sofa where the cause was taken up in rather vocal tones. So much so, the chess game Teresa and Johnny were playing lay unattended on the ottoman.

It was all normal and Scott was coming to love normal in a way he'd never thought about before.

"It's the green of the grass. Now we have green grass in Boston…," he waited until the groans were let out and the eyes were rolled, "but I still think the area by Tio Creek is the greenest, spring or summer."

"But in the winter, it's all oozing muck," Teresa said, nudging Johnny's knee. "It's your turn."

Johnny edged his Bishop out then put it back in the same place. "So, all that green. That's what makes it pretty?"

"Are you arguing?"

"Well, what about that pool down in Del Oro?"

Murdoch came in carrying his coffee cup and ledgers as Johnny asked about the pool. The expression on his face was complex, to say the least, much of it hidden beneath a smile, sharp and wistful at the same time.

Scott leaned forward. "You know I'll never forget it." And Mrs. Delaney, Lorenzo, and Father Abascal, who were equally burned into his memories. "But Johnny, the regal Miss Hempstead?"

"Yeah, she's real pretty, too." He looked up, grinning so wide the white of his teeth was almost blinding, obviously remembering the first time they'd had this conversation, exactly three months ago. "Like I said before, nothin' green, about' er."

Murdoch cleared his throat in warning, but Johnny was already on to the next topic.

"I think that piece of land where we found the stallion is awful nice. Right, Murdoch?"

"Oh, you're not drawing me into this. Someone has to remain impartial to referee the mud-slinging."

Teresa tapped on the board until Johnny pushed his Bishop into a square and let go. "What about that little rise where we stopped the buggy when you two first came to Lancer? It's beautiful in the spring, summer and fall."

Scott looked at Johnny and raised his eyebrows. "Teresa, while it pains me to say, I may just have to concede the point."

Small birds, a nest of them. That's what they resembled. Cheeping at and over one another. Scott rubbed his thumb along the soft, worn edge of his book and listened to the voices. They were different than when it had all started, he decided. He was different.

In many ways, the accident forced his path to diverge from Lancer, yet only one route—back home—was really possible. There were things he kept hidden, even from himself, but this wasn't one of them. Not anymore.

 

 

 

~end~
March/'16

 

Notes:

Chapter Two: In the series, Scott's horse doesn't have a name. In this story, it's 'Jack', named after one of Grant's horses used in the Civil War.

Chapter Three: References an earlier work, Contra Spem Spero. Charlie Wingate is from "The Fix-It Man" episode.

Chapter Nine: An older story, Where the Sugarbush Grows, is referenced. Scott's bundle of flowers were: Protea (sugarbush) for courage and Snowdrops (hope).

Overall: Even though I didn't go into any great details about them, Father Abascal, the church and the school were conceived from the doings of a real-life priest in San Diego named Father Antonio Ubach. During his stay he 'recruited' Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet to help open and teach in his school. The Sisters had actually been in San Diego as early as 1870, but left for Tucson to open a school there. They came back on April 18, 1882, (consisting of Sisters Ambrosia O'Neill, Eutichiana Piccini, Amelia Leon, and Coletta Dumbach). On May 10, they began their day school in a small frame house on a terrace overlooking the bay, registering on that day 28 girls and 2 boys.  

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