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Barb A

 

 

FBlue
A/N: This story is a particular favorite story of mine, if a little convoluted ;-). Originally posted in 2011 under my Mags penname, I took it down to edit then promptly forgot about it. Hope you enjoy. Barb

Chapter One

He wasn't sure what he was looking for, he only knew he hadn't found it. The thought came to him on the rim of exhalation, that oof when the breath is gone and another is on its way.

“Scott? We've got time for one more.”

A beer glass being tapped insistently on the wooden table brought him back to the present. Their eyes locked and Scott swallowed, mouthed the word okay , meant to say it out loud, but his mouth had gone dry. And he knew it wasn't from the lack of beer. He waved Johnny back down to his seat. “I'll get this one.” Looking across the noisy saloon, he was glad they arrived early to grab a back table with shadows deep enough he could watch without anyone noticing.

The careworn sign on the bar counter proclaimed the establishment had Pickled Eggs. Someone was exuberant, but it wasn't Eli Wallace. The bartender turned toward Scott and his eyes looked tired behind wire spectacles. With bits of straw sticking to his pants and sweat rings marring the cotton tic under his arms, he was a man who'd done a full days work already.

“What can I get for you, Scott?”

A world of weariness in that one question. “I can come back, Eli, if it's too much trouble.”

Eli waved his bar rag back and forth like a white flag. “No. no. Mrs. Wallace needed the piano moved from the barn into the house—this morning. Couldn't wait until tonight or even this afternoon. It had to be this morning.” He placed a hand on his waist and stretched backwards, an audible crack sounding across the counter.  It sent chills through Scott's spine. “She just isn't normal when her sister comes to visit. And I'm gonna be stoved up for the rest of the day.” He straightened and his glasses slid halfway down his nose. “So what'll it be?”

“Another two beers. Then we'll be out of your hair.”

“Oh, it's not the two of you I'm worried about, it's them.” Eli pointed past him and Scott turned around. His gaze skimmed the table of four boisterous cowboys the bartender was referring to, but lingered on two other men who'd taken up residence near their own table. “Those boys came in soused and are getting,” Eli looked up to the saloon's ceiling and searched for a word, shrugged when he didn't find it, “soused-er.”

He took the beers Eli handed to him and headed back to the table. Almost there, he felt Johnny looking at him.

“Shoulder still bothering you?”

He had folded his left arm inward, across his belt, carrying the two glasses in his right hand. The last of the bandages were taken off a week ago, but it had become a habit to shift weight. “Not so much,” he lied, “only when I think about getting up in the barn rafters to repair the roof.”

Johnny tcched. “Not likely you'll be up in the rafters anytime soon. I don't think Murdoch's ready for it yet. Not after the last time, and you didn't have a bullet hole in your shoulder then.”

The last time entailed a healthy hank of rope tied between two beams, some free time and a bet—a substantial one—for walking across it. “I believe I still owe you for threatening to untie it when I was halfway there.”

“You were just lucky Murdoch showed when he did. Man's voice fits his height, doesn't it? I think he was scared seeing you up on that jiggly piece of twine.”

“Well, he wasn't the only one.”

Laughing, Johnny ran a finger around the rim of his glass, wiping away some wayward foam. “Yeah, we'll have to figure out another bet for when you're not so disabled.”

Scott tapped the side of his temple and nodded. “My shoulder has nothing to do with it. Half of the battle is mental; you have to think your way across the rope.”

Johnny flashed a crooked smile, pulled it all the way to his eyes. “Like I said…disabled.”

“Why are you in such a good mood?”

“Molly was handin' out the mail today at the depot. Woman talks a mile a minute, but she's real tempting.”

Scott grinned. “Refresh my memory, how far did you get last time?”

“Not so far I couldn't turn around and walk back, but my luck is due for a real change. Her father's out of town, just in time for Iverson's tonight.”

“And her mother will allow you to take her to the social unescorted?”

“There are some upsides to bein' Murdoch Lancer's son.” Something devilish crept into Johnny's eyes. “Not a lot, but some.”

A niggling thought. “You did ask her mother, didn't you?”

“See? That's why you don't have a date tonight.”

He shot a warning look to his brother's smirk and picked up his glass. “Well, good luck with Molly,” he raised his voice over the din of the saloon, “and her mother.” Luck—his brother wouldn't need it. Johnny always landed on two feet, at least in the woman department. It was the smile, Scott thought. Blinding them at twenty paces so when he got up close, they ignored the horse smell.

“So that story in the San Francisco Examiner said the wheat prices are gonna go high this season. And that means Lancer should plant another hundred acres?” Johnny bumped his glass back and forth between his hands, watching the beer slosh from one rim to the other.

“That's right.”

“It means we'll have to add wagons and more men for the harvest. Maybe dig an irrigation system.”

“Details, Johnny. Minor details.” He remembered the article from breakfast, thought he'd been discussing it with himself since their father had left for the barn and Johnny was head down over his coffee cup.

“Uh-huh. You know, Scott, sometimes you get on a tear after reading those newspapers. Murdoch is gonna cut you off one of these days.”

“He doesn't seem to mind the challenge,” he said, distracted by the voices behind him. A baritone and a tenor. The deeper voice was spoken with an eastern accent, like his own, but harder on the “r's”. Perhaps Maine.

The baritone spoke again; his voice was a little quieter in conversation and Scott had to lean a bit back to catch what they were saying.

“…did it right at…quite the hul-a-baloo…”

The tenor answered. “Ben, remember…push towards…Richmond? Hancock called…when the sun came out? Rained so much…webbed feet…”

One sucked in breath. He was shaky and he marked that up to being fresh out of bed and swallowing down a beer and a half, but it was nothing like that and he knew it. Scott slipped out of his chair and swiveled to stand.

They weren't cowboys. One of the men wore heeled boots, had a ruddy complexion above his black beard, but he was no more a cowboy than Scott was when he first arrived in California. The brown fabric of his jacket had grayed out in a few areas, and was frayed around the cuffs. Underneath was Union blue, so faded it was shiny. The shirt bore two eagle buttons, an “I” in the middle of each tagged him—infantry.  Polished bright, they caught some of the sun coming in through the window and threw spots of light against the far wall.

The other had a smiling face burned brown by the sun. He slouched against the table on two elbows and a thick shock of black hair worked its way out from under his felt hat. Nothing military about him.

Ignoring the puzzled look of his brother, he stepped forward. “Have you gentlemen been in town long?”

The man with the beard looked up, wary. “Not long. Although I can't see what business it is of yours.” He nudged his companion. “Are you the welcoming committee?”

“No, not generally. My name is Scott…Lancer.” He paused, but there wasn't recognition of his name. “I couldn't help but overhear you talking about Richmond. Who were you with?”

Eyebrows quirked together and he bristled like a back alley dog going after scraps. “Fifth Maine Regiment, Infantry. We were part of the finest kind hometown Bangor boys, and proud of it.” His hand fiddled with the second eagle button, twisting it one way then the other. “Our regiment was a thousand strong. Almost halved by the time we reached Richmond, though”

A sore point, the tenor tried to ease whatever the man was thinking. “Let it be, Ben. We caught them in the end, didn't we?”

“Not soon enough. We started losing them over at Orange Turnpike in Wilderness on the way.” Scott watched the transformation come over the man as he remembered. There was still wariness, but now sadness had crept in and tinged his words. “Tally and I were closer to Plank Road, then went on to Spotsylvania. Most of those boys caught at Turnpike ended up at Libby or Bell Isle or dead, didn't they? Poor bastards.” He raked his fingers through his beard. “You take part?”

Scott's mouth compressed into a thin line without him trying. “I was with the Fifth Cavalry for the Wilderness campaign.”

Ben stared at him, appraising. “Sheridan's bunch, eh? I expect if you were with the Dandy Fifth, your days weren't all roses and whiskey with Lincoln on the White House lawn.” Then he grinned. “Wanted to go cavalry myself, but couldn't make the weight.” He patted the bulge squeezed tight by his belt. “Rather, I like to think I met the weight and exceeded the standard.” A quick bark of laughter and the man splayed his beefy hand across his chest, grasped the lapel of his coat. “Benjamin Franklin Smith, Maine Volunteers, '62. This is Tally Roberts, the same.”

Roberts pinked around his open collar. “Oh say, that's just a name Ben came up with; one of my jobs was as the band treasurer. My given name is Adelbert...”

Ben stared in mock horror. “Adelbert? My God, if I'd known your name was Adelbert, I never would have let you near the horn section.” He shuddered and fluttered his hand. “Too German for me. All that heavy oom pah-pah.”

“…but I go by Bert. Like I have since the day I was born. Even through the infantry, until Ben decided it wouldn't do.”

 Ben's mouth twitched. “You aren't German are you?”

His alarm bells momentarily silent, Scott felt a smile break loose. “Nary a tuba in the family tree.”

“Trouble?” Johnny asked behind him, surprising Scott.

He shook his head. “Gentlemen, this is my brother, Johnny.”

Johnny's eyes lingered on Ben. The look on his face—it eloquently showed everything that had happened during the last few weeks.

“Actually, Tally and I need work. The fellow at the mercantile said Lancer may be hiring, any truth or just rumor?”

Scott fell silent, weighing the two soldiers against the pain in his shoulder, tried to figure out the odds of it happening again. Two expectant faces met his look, begged him without knowing they were doing it, just had it in their eyes.

Johnny stepped forward, stood hip to hip. “No, we have all the men we need this season.”

Smith hesitated like he didn't want to believe the bad news, but he put on a smile. “So rumor, eh? Then we keep trying, we'll make our way to San Francisco sooner or later.” He turned to Bert. “And if I was a betting man, it'd be sure money on the later.”

“Wait.” Scott wavered then plowed ahead. “The Conway ranch may be hiring. They're out east of town. Tell the foreman that I sent you. It shouldn't be a problem.”

Ben's smile was wide and genuine, practically glowed with relief. “Thanks, thanks for helping out a couple of fellow soldiers.” He captured Scott's hand and pumped. “Even if we are infantry.”

He watched the two men wave to Eli on their way out of the saloon and slid back into his chair, not looking at Johnny.

“You wanna tell me what just happened, Scott?” His name pitched out like a jab.

“What?”

Johnny swung into his chair. “Picking fights in the saloon isn't exactly your style. Thought you were gonna jump' em before they finished their beer.”

He huffed out a breath. “That bad?”

Johnny shrugged and tipped his head to the departing Ben and Bert. “I've seen better starts that ended worse. Just surprising is all, coming from you, Scott. You've been like this ever since Cassidy and his wife left.”

“Lewis and Hardy…”

“Are gone. Besides the truth is on the table now and Murdoch was right…next time there'll be a hanging. Lewis isn't real smart, but even he could figure that out.”

“You heard Sarah mention the letters Dan sent to other people. I won't sit idle and wait for Lancer to be attacked again.”

“You can't keep waiting for something that probably won't ever happen. Murdoch'll think you're…” He made a waving motion in the air.

“Loony? And what do you think?”

“I'd just say you're being careful. But why'd you send them over to Aggie's? You know she'll snap those men up, short as she is this time of year. And if they're gonna work at Conway's they might as well work at Lancer. I thought the point was to get them on their way.”

“It was…it is. But they're not connected to Cassidy.”

“How long are you gonna keep this up? You've been on high point ever since Murdoch called off the perimeter guards. Let it go.”

Scott raised an eyebrow, his best “are we going to argue about this?” expression. It worked because Johnny held up his hand like he was hailing the nine-ten to Modesto.

“I guess I don't need any explanation, but it sure would be good to know what direction you're goin' in sometime. Come on, let's finish up and get home.”

Thank God he didn't have to explain. How could he when he really didn't understand it himself?



Chapter 2

“Scott, are you in there?”

Wonder of wonders, Johnny knocked—a quick tap, tap—before barging in. It was obvious from the start he was trying to write the story as he went along.

Fingers danced along the bureau top. “You want to come with me and Molly to the social?”

“And be a fifth wheel at the Iverson's? No thank-you.”

Johnny's hand snaked behind his neck and rubbed. “Thought maybe you could peel off when the dancin' started.” His eyes went starboard towards the window. “I, uh, think Molly's cousin'll be there.”

It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the sentiment, but he couldn't stifle a groan. Didn't even try. “I'm quite capable of getting my own dates for socials or anything else you might have in mind.”

“You kinda hit a dry spell. Been thinkin' maybe you should try and fix that.”

“Now you're giving me advice? Just. Go.”

Johnny's eyes softened and Scott knew he had something to share. “Frank just got back from town, happened to run into the foreman from the Conway ranch. Told Frank he wanted to thank Lancer for sendin' some men their way this afternoon. Looks like Ben and Bert got those jobs.”

“Well, that's good.” Somehow the thought of two down-on-their-luck soldiers getting ranch jobs didn't bother him. Different than soldiering or bivouacking with a regiment of men, Aggie would be lucky if they didn't run yelling from the place within the week—he almost did. But maybe they'd take to it.

A spasm went across Johnny's forehead, an effort to keep from saying something that would land him in brotherly hot water. But he had his magnifying glass in hand, one big eye looming in and out of the lens.

“Is it? After all that went on, I'm not so sure I would've set them up right next door.”

One more warning, one last poke, and Johnny would quit. The fraternal rules were set and Scott knew them by heart. So did his brother. Johnny's grin returned, however the smile was tenuous. He's humoring me .

“But, okay. I'll be back late. Hopefully.” And he was gone.

The lantern spread a soft fan of light throughout his bedroom. Scott placed his glass of scotch on the table beside the bed and reached behind his head for the pillow. But he didn't feel like sleep, wasn't needing it.

His arm across his face, he pulled his boot off with the toe of the other and let them drop to the floor, trying to push thoughts from his head. He closed his eyes shutting out everything, but it held back nothing.

Rolling over, he came to a stand beside the bureau, uncertain of what he wanted to do, but * something* . He spied the trunk at the end of his bed and approached it as one would an unknown and unrestrained dog. But this wasn't going to bite, not really. He knelt down on one knee to open the heavy lid.

A particularly dreary work of Dickens, Barnaby Rudge , was nestled in white ruffles. The last time the shirt saw the light of day, he was in Murdoch's study half listening to him talk about blades of grass and surreptitiously spying on his new brother. How far he'd come. In fashion, and otherwise.

A knitted red sweater complete with cap and scarf, were next. His maiden aunt couldn't comprehend a place where it didn't snow, nor could she get over the fact he'd aged past twelve, and sized the garments accordingly. The scent of lilac drifted up from the yarn bringing to mind soft hands, stale shortbread and walks in the woods.

A packet of letters tied with string and a pair of dove grey kid-gloves. Then a brown-paper wrapped box met his fingers. It had come a week ago, arriving the day after his bandages removed. Ironic. But then his entire life seemed built on a series of ironies. Never opened, the scrawl on the front declared it was from Mr. Daniel Cassidy, Esquire, sent by way of St. Louis. Not ready yet, he pushed it aside to get to the item underneath.

The trunk was a hodgepodge of things that described his life and what he had made of it, but this was a talisman of sorts. He had thrown his dreams into it and in turn, it had seen him through the worst of times.

Stained tissue paper crinkled when he tugged it apart. The fabric within was fuzzy, smelling faintly of naphthalene. Just like the last time he saw it. Had it really been that many years ago?

The shell jacket was mostly patches, black threads tying each moment of their history together. A few were sewn by his own hand, including the elbow where his first mount had taken quite a bite when denied his carrot. A quick study, he never forgot to carry the damn vegetable again as Mortimer was a most unforgiving horse.

The hospital nurse—a wizard—had wielded one of her finest sewing needles to fix the rest. Among them, a deep rent stitched with a jagged line at the shoulder: Spring, Spotsylvania, 1864. Two smaller ones near the collar: sometime in early ‘65. Or was it late in '64?

He reached into the left inside pocket. If he remembered correctly, the shoulder strap should be there. It was. The only one left of two; the yellow had gone brown with age. One edge was faded and grooved, the gold bar signifying rank almost worn away. A declaration of service. First Lieutenant, Cavalryman. And with it came a large amount of pride.

He should be happy. And he was, in spite of the sixteen men whose memories he still carried. With the Cassidy business over, he was freed forever from the stigma of betrayal. He wiggled the few remaining tarnished silver buttons, outlined the bold eagle and capital “C” with his fingertip. But there was always a question in his mind.

Pride was considered a sin. God and he both knew it because Parson Williams had preached it ad nauseum from the pulpit almost every Sunday at St. Mark's Episcopal. So it came as a surprise to him the taste of it didn't seem sinful at all. Not when it meant you worked together toward a single cause, helping each other as necessary—for the greater good.

The lantern light took a sudden dip and shadows spotted the bureau drawers. He passed his hand lightly over the blue wool, then rubbed the strap, his thumb taking a path over the worn rank as sure as it did for the last year he wore it when there was too much time to spare.

The could-have-beens came tripping back with each stroke. Surprised at the yearning still there, his mind balked. The good Parson had pounded at the lectern that pride goeth before a fall. Well, he fell all right, perhaps not by his own hand, but he took the trip anyway. And he never looked back, not once. He jilted the Army like a bride left at the alter, unsure of who he was or what he was meant to do.

Cassidy coming to Lancer had brought it all to the surface again.

He tucked the strap back into the pocket and folded the tissue paper around the jacket, stuffing it deep into the trunk before closing the lid and going downstairs.

~o~o~o~

Scott was sitting in the great room, watching the dying fire and drinking the rest of his scotch when Murdoch came in and took the chair opposite. It was early spring, yet it seemed to Scott that the air had taken on a colder feel, almost damp, that belied the oncoming summer heat. His book lay open, draped over one thigh. Even Mr. Thoreau was no match for his foul mood tonight.

He closed the slim volume of Long Walks and Ruminations and laid it on the side table.

“It's a quiet evening,” Scott said, “since Johnny's gone out.”

Murdoch cocked his head, one side of his mouth pulled into a half-smile. His steel-gray hair topped a gray face perched in the open collar of a gray shirt and he looked like he wanted to say something. “There's some truth to that, it's Saturday after all. He was talking about the Iverson social.” Each word was softly spoken, but so perfectly enunciated that it made Scott feel like he himself was talking with a mouth full of oatmeal. Or maybe it was only the end result of the second glass of whiskey.

Murdoch fumbled open the table drawer, and pulled out his pipe along with a small penknife. He began to remove the old residue at the bottom of the bowl, scraping with precise movements, then moved to the hearth to tap it out into the embers. “Your brother said you met two men in town looking for ranch work.”

“What else did he say?”

“He said I should ask you.”

He thought about saying something about the war not being over for everyone, but suspected he would have to explain what he meant, so he said nothing. Thought about Cassidy, holding on to his vengeance all these years, spewing lies he had no business telling, or any way of knowing they were lies in the first place. And in a roundabout way, tagging Ben and Bert as enemies, at least until the conversation turned to tubas.

Thought about the blue and its hold on him.

Blame was a hot potato to be passed around, apparently. He hadn't known, wouldn't have dreamed, it was Cassidy. In his mind, it had been a fluke: the guards catching wind of a few snatches of whispered plans, perhaps seeing an extra ounce of dirt where there shouldn't have been any. Instead, fever-addled talk had fueled the rebel guns.

So it was a happenstance after all. As were the men in the store today.

He would like to place all this resurrected shit —because that's what it was—at Cassidy's feet, but found he couldn't throw blame where it wasn't deserved. So where did that leave him now? Nursing a weakened shoulder, downing several glasses of good scotch, and interrogating strangers in the middle of the saloon.

Pulling an old jacket out of his trunk, and contemplating a different life.

His father was talking. “I have an acquaintance, a Frenchman named Ed Delacroix, who lives in San Diego County. He runs a string of Appaloosa's.” Murdoch tamped tobacco from a pouch into his pipe. “Some of his mares have shown pretty well and I was thinking of mixing bloodlines.”

He was expecting a few orders he could reasonably manage with his shoulder: planning the repair of the barn in the eastern meadow or more accountant work that Murdoch wanted to slough off. This, however, dropped out of the sky and landed with a soft plop at his feet.

“With all due respect, Sir, have you been to the corral lately? We're almost full at the inn with horses in every array of color.”

Murdoch smiled and nodded to show he was aware of that very possibility. His match flamed and he sucked and puffed until he was satisfied the pipe was burning.

“There's more to it than color. Part of Ed's herd comes from an old Spanish line; the progeny are tall and rangy. They're excellent stock animals.”

“And the horses are in San Diego?”

“I know, a long ways. Almost to the border.”

“This must be some extraordinary horseflesh.”

Murdoch showed his teeth and took a drag off the pipe. “From what I hear, they are. Some of the best in the state. Should take you about two weeks or so, roundtrip. Mind you, when you get back we'll need to start work on the barn repair.”

There was a wrongness to the conversation. There was a wrongness to just about everything of late. “Johnny would be well-suited for this trip.”

“He is and that's why he's going, too. I want both your opinions. And to bring back a mare, maybe two, if you can get the price down.”

Scott lifted his glass, peering through the light amber of whiskey to the dancing fuzz of orange and yellow in the hearth. “Why now?”

Two choice words and a veritable elephant trundled into the room.

“It's all in the timing. Delacroix has the horses and they're for sale. You're injured and Johnny can break away.” Murdoch took another puff. “And frankly…”

“By all means, let's be frank.”

“I think it would be good for you to get away for a while. You're preoccupied…”

The elephant sat down between them and looked to be staying. The words were mindful of another time, if delivered a bit more sternly, and with a first-class ticket aboard the ocean liner Scotia. For all intents and purposes his grandfather had been right. Even the Champs-Élysées and flowing Bordeaux couldn't ease his sense of being adrift, though.

Maybe he did need to get away from Lancer. But Murdoch wasn't proposing a trip to Europe. Only to San Diego. With a brother in tow, yet.

“Murdoch, about those two men in the store.”

“I'm not asking, Scott.” His brow furrowed for a moment. “But I seem to recall that Johnny did say one thing about them.”

“What?”

“He said the men weren't cowboys.” Murdoch stood and tapped out his pipe into what was left of the fire. “I think Lancer should hire experienced men, don't you?”

His father stopped at the doorway. “I'll send the telegram to Delacroix in the morning.”

The last of the fire sputtered in a shower of sparks and died. Scott wondered, as he often did, where he got his habit of thinking so much, was it paternal or maternal?



Chapter 3

The San Diego Cosmopolitan Hotel had twenty rooms, all of them firmly nailed in place. And to further up the ante it was advertised there were clean sheets on each of the beds. Perhaps the winning hand was that the Selvaggi's, Mister and Missus and the three little ones, were nowhere in sight. Scott sighed. Life was indeed starting to look up.

One room, two beds and bath water, the hottest the establishment could make it. He mentally ticked off other accoutrements the hotel offered, including the nearby Pacific, and waited just outside the main door for Johnny to find the place. It was hard to miss with its big white lettering stamped on the side of the building, but Johnny would probably stand outside for fifteen minutes debating whether to go in or not.

As predicted, his brother sauntered up the hotel steps carrying one set of saddle bags and a scowl. “Why do we have to stay here?”

“Because I just spent three and a half days riding in a stagecoach with Mr. Selvaggi, dry goods merchant extraordinaire, speaker of four languages, and his three young bambinos, that's why.”

“I didn't hear you grouse when Mrs. Selvaggi brought out those honeyed almonds. You had your mouth pretty much popped open, just like those kids. But the Cosmopolitan Hotel? Kind of fancy, don't you think? What if they don't like my…”

“Johnny, I already reserved us a room while you were arranging the horses for tomorrow's ride.”

He didn't like his brother's sudden grin. “Looks like someone else reserved their room, too.”

Scott didn't turn, he could hear them. Especially the screech of the youngest one. A few older scattered nieces and nephews were fine, but babies and children had an unsettling effect on him. Save for little Filomina. Maybe it was their forced cohabitation in the stage, the fact she rode all the way from Stockton to San Diego sitting on his lap and drooling on his shoulder. Albeit the one without the hole. With Mrs. Sevaggi nodding and smiling like it was the most usual act in the world. He was almost part of the family. 

Johnny knocked his elbow. “Your girlfriend's callin'. Aren't you gonna say hello?”

Raising a hand in dismissal at his brother, he ended up waving at the Selvaggi's as the family made their way down the boardwalk. He leaned over and hissed in Johnny's ear, “We're in room number fourteen, the second floor. I'll go ahead and make sure it's been made up. The door will be unlocked.”

“Hey, you're not leaving me out here.”

“Then get a move on, or it'll be your lap Miss Filomina will be sitting on for dinner.”

~o~o~o~

The afternoon had waned and the citizens of San Diego were making their way into the cobbled brick walkways with the onset of the cooler evening. The hustle and bustle of town living drifted upwards to the balcony where Scott was sitting.

Johnny was leaning over the railing, looking out at the market square below. He whistled low in his throat. “There goes your girlfriend, Scott.”

“Once was funny. Twice is juvenile.”

“Yeah, but look, there she goes.”

Sure enough, there was the Selvaggi family, with a tiny white drunk bobbing in and out of a straight line behind her father. Her mother bent down to pick her up and they all hurried into a store. Two blocks farther down the street was a soldier—private by the yellow stripe on his arm—and another man just turning the corner by the stables. The private twisted around and a young face stared out from under the campaign hat.

Their stagecoach had passed a sign for the San Diego Barracks on the way into town this afternoon. Ensconced between Mrs. Selvaggi and Johnny with two handfuls of child, he could only see a brown blur and a red arrow pointing west.

As he sat outside, his back against the firm chair, he closed his eyes and felt a faint breeze on his face. Despite the warmth of the day, it was going to be a cool evening by the ocean.

Maybe he could cajole his brother into walking to the beach and taking a swim in the Pacific while they were in San Diego. He wondered what Johnny, who so flagrantly disavowed himself of clothes whenever there was a handy Lancer lake, would do with a real body of water. Unlike the Atlantic with its squalls of cold wind and rain and snow, the Pacific offered heady warmth. It fit Johnny in a way.

He rattled the San Diego Sun and pointed out an advertisement for thoroughbreds, but Johnny's attention was entirely on the market plaza in front of them.

With a jolt, it occurred to Scott that Johnny knew this part California intimately. He'd been here before, the people and land spoke to him. The Mercado, while colorful to Scott, meant far more to his brother. This was a known territory, perhaps one that held something in particular for Johnny.

He nestled back in his chair, enjoying the twilight, and waited. In the light of the lamp from the street, Johnny looked half-asleep. The chair creaked when he stretched out and formed a triangle with his body: boot toes pointed together, fingers clasped across belly, hat pushed forward. It was the perfect Johnny slouch and drove Murdoch mad on occasion. The one that looked like he wasn't paying attention, but was altogether too alert and thinking about something.

He shook the paper again, eased out a crease. “Well, now I know the difference between pozole and menudo. It's the amount of chile, isn't it? Among other things.”

That elicited a smirk, but Johnny's attention remained on the plaza square.

He had just put the newspaper aside when a few words came.

“Scott,” Johnny breathed out, “what were you going to do if Ben and Bert were the ones looking to collect on what Cassidy wrote in those letters?”

He debated what to answer for a few moments, but really, he didn't have one. “Dissuade them. After I found out that Dan sent more letters, I didn't set up a specific strategy, it seemed more important to prevent anything else from happening. Teresa was there when Hardy and Lewis forced me to go with them. She could have easily gotten hurt.”

“So you were gonna take it all on yourself.”

“If need be.”

Johnny drained out of his chair and looked to the side of the balcony, towards the ocean with its small whitecaps visible in the darkness. “You can't protect everyone, all the time, Scott. A backup plan would've been real good. Besides, Murdoch won't dally with any of' em if they showed at Lancer.” Left unspoken perhaps was that his brother wouldn't either.

Johnny yawned and stretched hands over head, neck going side to side, cracking. “I'm going to bed. It's an early day tomorrow. Maybe we can get a swim in when we get back from Delacroix's, sure would be nice to try out the ocean this time of year.”

He tracked Johnny's back until he disappeared into the bedroom. Frankly, it hadn't occurred to him to invite his brother or Murdoch into the fray.

   ~o~o~o~

Scott slept, caught in a dream where humid air reeked with the ozone of oncoming rain and sweaty, desperate men. A quarter-moon hung in the sky, partially hidden by black clouds. It was the first moon he'd seen in a long, long while and he halted the men to take a good look. The dream was shredded by a fuselage of bullets. Then a scream—a howl—sounded over the carnage, it rose to the moon and fell back. 

“Scott!” Johnny's hand was around his wrist, shaking it so hard his teeth rattled. Light streamed into his eyes from the gas lamp in the room and he blinked, trying to remember where he was. It took Scott a few minutes to recognize the expression on Johnny's face—a mixture of worry and fear disguised as studied nonchalance. That particular expression had been in Johnny's arsenal since the first day he met him.

“What happened?” He pushed his brother's hand away and peered at the open window. Slivers of night came and went with the curtains as they moved with a gentle thump against the sill. Wide awake now, he pressed his lips together to stop the smell of blood and metal.

“You were yellin'.” Concern faded into a folksy half-grin that said * you really don't wanna know, brother* . “But I couldn't tell if it was Becky or Amanda.”

Scott sat up and pulled the sheet around his waist. “Maybe both?” Trying for an eyebrow waggle, he failed miserably. He grimaced, the dream…something about a moon and clouds…bullets. It didn't take too much to figure it out. “I should have had that drink tonight after all.” He looked around the room until he found the table with glasses and a bottle. Tequila, but it would do. “Maybe I should get one now.”

Johnny lay back on his bed and grabbed his pillow. “That cheap stuff will rot your insides out. Stick to Murdoch's scotch, goes down smoother.”

As if his milk-swilling brother could tell the difference. His breathing had quieted down to a steady in and out, but sleep was out of the question. “I think I'll sit on the balcony for a while. It's a nice night.”

“Suit yourself. Put out that light, huh?” Johnny's eyes were closed, one hand fisted into the sheet tugged high onto his chest.

Scott pulled on his trousers, leaving his shirt twined around the bed post. Slipping through the doorway, he dragged a chair along with him then thought better of it and lifted it to the railing's edge before sitting down. No sense in waking the neighbors. There were no crying Sevaggi's yet, and that was a good sign.

The last few weeks had tested him. Worrying about Hardy and Lewis. Worrying about the letters. Fending off the discreet looks Murdoch and Johnny gave him every now and then. His father's eyes, the “I didn't know” tinted by pity, and Johnny trying to peg him, fit a label where there wasn't one previously. Because the Boston one had been slowly chipped away over the last few months. Just like the gunslinger one.

The nightmare was different, though. Sometimes there were skitters of dark-formed shadows just on the edge of his thoughts, his breath caught on a short huh , when awaking. But nothing like this.

He'd just gotten comfortable, one foot on the rail, his chair tipped back, when Johnny padded out. The clink of glasses heralded his approach.

“I thought you said this would rot out my insides.”

Johnny shrugged and hopped up on the railing to sit, his bare feet dangling off the floor like a two-year old. “It's passable tequila and this little bit won't hurt any.”

“Funny stuff, dreams.” Scott shifted and brought the chair down, propping both feet up as he took a glass from Johnny. “But this one was strange. I swear I could hear something above the…above it all.”

Johnny swung his legs up and over the railing, facing the street below. “This mess with Cassidy has got you pretty riled up.”

“That might be the understatement of the year.” He took a sip of tequila and felt the good burn. “There's a bit more to it than that, though.”

“Almost bein' killed isn't enough for you?”

“Quite. Thank you very much.”

“Then what?”

He made a study of the brick building across the street. “I was good at it, Johnny. Soldiering.” He had a disorienting moment of déjà vu, then everything settled into place. It wasn't Boston and Johnny certainly wasn't Grandfather. “This whole ‘mess' as you say, has made me think about it again.”

“How did you ever get in the Army in the first place?”

“I wanted a kiss from a pretty young lady at the train station who was seeing off other soldiers.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“Didn't even know her name.”

“You know, sometimes, those are the best kisses to get.”

Scott took another drink. “Three of us from school—classmates—joined on the same day. Fervor was running high at the time. We fell into it, and its causes.”

“You gonna sit around one day when you're old and grey and talk about the good times?”

“Tom hated to ride—wasn't any good at it, by his own admission—and went artillery. Thought he would do well by the cannons. But he died at Stone's River in January, a month after commissioning. His mother's letter arrived when I was halfway to Richmond. Charles and I parted company at Wilderness. I've kept track of him here and there, over the years. Grandfather said he was starting a new banking venture in Missouri. I wish him all the luck in the world, but I don't think we'll ever see each other again. We grew up. And away.”

“All that and Cassidy, too, why'd you want to stay?” Johnny shrugged. “You said you were good at it, goes to figure you might want to keep at it.”

A little surprised, but then he shouldn't be. Sometimes he wished his brother wasn't so perceptive. “There were a lot of good times among the bad. The feeling of camaraderie. The rules were set, orders formulated and given, follow them and you did well. We all worked to complete the mission. You were in the Mexican army before Lancer, right?”

“That's like comparing Murdoch's pedigreed appaloosa to some bent tail, wild grulla.” Johnny shook his head. “It was a short time and I did not like it. Too organized for my taste and I was never any good at takin' orders.” He made a noise somewhere between a snort and a sigh. “Scott, are you leaving Lancer and going back to the Army?”

Leave it to Johnny to get right to the heart of the matter. Military service was a defining time for him. Wasn't the whole of him, but it had shaped and changed his way of knowing about the world and himself in it. How many of those instances like that does a man get in his life? “Sometimes I wonder about it.”

“Is this somethin' you've had under your hat for a while or a recent thing?” Johnny snapped like a cat-o-nine-tails, and that stopped Scott cold.

He thought back, remembered Grandfather's jubilant face when the papers arrived. ““I think it's been simmering since I was discharged. Everything happened so quickly, there was simply no time to do anything, say anything. It wasn't the way I particularly wanted it to end.”

Scott watched as Johnny's eyelids flickered, and he looked away. Angry. This wasn't going to end well, especially if they continued along the same line of conversation. Truthfully, he wasn't ready yet.

Jupiter was in the eastern sky, winking. “I never thanked you. For trying to stop Cassidy. Murdoch told me about it afterwards.”

“I didn't do it just for you.”

“Doesn't matter.”

“You'd have done the same.”

Scott nodded. It was true, he would for Johnny, for Lancer. It was as simple as that. “So, ever have bad dreams?”

“I always sl…”

He held up his hand. “Wait. Don't tell me. You always sleep well.” The flash of white teeth over his brother's shoulder was steadying in the aftermath of the too-vivid dream. Crisis averted for the time being.

“Tell me a story, Johnny. What was it like growing up here?”

Scott recognized the push and pull, the twitch of back muscles, the slight lift of a shoulder. “You already know mama and I moved around a lot. In and around San Diego a couple of times, never stayed for very long. We headed south, across the border and, well, it's awful funny what you latch on to sometimes.”

Scott edged closer to catch every soft word.

“I was nine years old and we were in Rosarito, a small town in Mexico. Her name was Senora Elena Villanueva de la Delgado—I'll never forget her. I always liked to look at her hands. Bigger than any lady I'd seen. Bigger than Mama's for sure, thick through the fingers and rough where hers were smooth. They were ‘gettin' things done' type of hands.

She was pretty, though, had dark hair pinned to the top of her head, a few loose strands swirling around her ear, wispy-like. Her face was thin, skin pale brown. She always seemed a little sad—her husband had died, I think.”

“Worked in the mercantile and Mama let me help out, because Dona Elena was gonna have a kid.” He ducked his head and smiled. “But I think it was mostly because Mama wanted me out of the house.”

“Wore this dark red apron every day with yellow threads runnin' along the top—her favorite. I half expected it to rip every time she put it on because it was stretched all the way across her belly. The pockets used to smell like cinnamon, from the b iscochitos. They're little sugar cookies, and she made' em just for me.”

Scott raised his head at the wonder in Johnny's voice.

“I liked to brush my hand against that apron—I remember it as real soft—and kind of feel around on it like this.” Johnny pinched his forefinger and thumb together. “I was nine, not a bebé. But it made me feel good and Dona Elena didn't seem to mind.” He looked off to the ocean, bit back a chuckle. “Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to be her hijo.”

Johnny was remembering, not sharing, but after the night's festivities, it didn't seem to matter too much. “What happened to Dona Elena?”

“Mama started to get nervous again, so we left after a while. Never knew if she had her baby or not, but whenever I see a red apron I always think of those big hands and her cinnamon cookies.”

“Do you want to see if we can find her again? We can take a ride into Mexico...” He stopped because Johnny had turned and was staring at him, eyes ocean blue in the night, tough.

“Like I said, it's funny what you hold on to sometimes. But some things are better left alone. It wouldn't be the same. I never want to go to Rosarito again.”

Scott considered the darkness for a moment.

Johnny yawned. “I'm goin' back to bed. You?”

He nodded, but kept to his chair and for the second time that evening watched Johnny walk into the bedroom.



Chapter 4

The horses were ready at Seeley's Stables, saddled and waiting outside near the corral. Scott turned his head as a noise attracted his attention from the hitching post. A tall, thin boy approached, shoved his penknife into a back pocket and swept wood shavings from his thigh.

He pulled out a piece of paper and tapped it against the heel of his hand. “Got your map right here, gents. As requested. It's marked and everything.” The boy shoved back his floppy hat, a stark sprinkling of freckles under wide-set green eyes. “Goin' out to Delacroix's, it's gonna be hot today. Better take it slow and rest the horses every few miles or so.”

Johnny looked up from lowering his stirrups. “I think we know how to take care of horses, but thanks.”

“Just saying a lot of folks don't, Mister. These are good animals; hate to see them get hurt.”

“This is a pretty good horse, but there's few better.” Johnny pointed to the corner of the corral. “Is that dark bay for rent?”

“Mr. Seeley keeps some of his private stock here sometimes. We don't rent them out. Olive is one of' em. Nice, huh?” A tug on an earlobe. “See that pinto over by the trough? He's one of Seeley's, too. Wish I had his money, yessir.”

Scott clapped Johnny on the shoulder. “We should be going. It's only going to get hotter.”

They nodded to the stable boy and pointed their horses east.

Johnny had the map unfolded across his saddle horn and his finger followed the line of the shoddy path they were on. The Delacroix horse ranch was marked with an ‘X', much like a buried treasure, and the words “Colum Blanck”.

“I believe it's supposed to be colombe blanche.” Johnny looked at Scott expectantly. “It means white dove.”

Johnny repeated it, rolled it around a few times like savoring a piece of hard candy. “What's this horse called we're going to buy?”

“‘Delacroix's Cheval de la Paix'. Literally, ‘Horse of Peace'.”

“White doves, horse of peace. Fancy names. Not sure if Betty and Jorge will like the upper crust moving in with' em at the Lancer stables. They might quit workin'.”

A half-hour later, they were on a better road despite the hills. Scott bowed his shoulders trying to get the one drop of sweat in the middle of his back to fall. The Pacific, God it would be good to swim. Funny that Johnny was thinking of it, too.

At fourteen minutes past ten they stood in front of the whitest horse barn Scott had seen.

“Colombe blanche,” Johnny whispered and grinned.

Surely someone was joking. The odd affectation made the building jut out from the surrounding brown, as a whitecap from an ocean wave of dirt. The only semblance of color was the roof, a tiled and faded pink, which was so incongruous with the rest of it the eyes were constantly drawn in that direction.

At first Scott thought the problem was the color of the barn. Johnny had gone quiet, the same way a cat went when there was a rustle in the bushes. An intensity that couldn't—probably shouldn't—be ignored.

“Why would anyone paint a barn all white?” And just to see if his brother was listening, “How many times a month do they have to repaint it to keep it that way?”

No response, which caused Scott to detach his attention from the barn's roof and look towards the corral.

Johnny glanced at him briefly and shook his head, then continued to stare across the courtyard.

A young man was there wearing a tight fitting jacket, much like the one at home in his brother's closet, only this one had intricate green threads across each shoulder and down the arms. Lean and hard, he sucked on a hand-rolled cigarette. Alert, ranch-yard tough with an air of entitlement. He kicked off from the corral post and came towards them, chest high, walking as if he carried all his weight from one side to another, spurs setting off a warning rattle with each stride.

And went straight to Johnny.

Before Scott had a chance to ask, Johnny slid around to face the vaquero, face all hard angles and shadows. Two roosters circling a wire cage filled with hens couldn't have done it any better.

He caught every third word of rapid Spanish and a name, Joaquin Machado. A few more words and the man nodded like an agreement had been met and stuck out his hand. The smile on his face included Scott. “Bueno. I'm Señor Delacroix's vaquero. You're most welcome here.”

Unspoken was, “But I'll be watching you,” although Scott knew that it was there.

Johnny tipped his head towards the barn. “So the mares are kept in there?”

“Si, Señor Delacroix likes it that way. The stallion is kept in the building behind. You must be superb judges of horses to be buying from this ranch.”

The danger passed, Johnny rolled back on his heels. “I'd sure like to get a look at the inside of that barn.”

“The horses are muy bueno.” A hand gesture, accompanied by a flash of teeth, swished in the air. “Magnifico.”

“I bet, but I kind of want to see if the inside is as white as the outside.”

Machado deflated, pulled a final drag from his cigarette and threw it to the ground. “One does what is necessary, Señor.”

Scott looked towards the house and saw a shadow at the window, as if someone was there looking out. The door opened and the vaquero smiled an apology, going to greet the man.

He looked to be older, nearer in age to Murdoch, and met Machado halfway, saying something in a low voice. The vaquero replied in the same fashion.

He's in charge, thought Scott. It was there in the way vaquero straightened. He was no longer smiling, no longer cajoling. He was reporting everything he knew to the portly man.

Machado looked up and motioned for them to come over.

“ Señores, this is Señor Delacroix.”

Delacroix put out his hand and shook Scott's big hand with his soft and pudgy one. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Scott was waiting for a French accent and was mildly nonplussed when there wasn't one. Johnny's glance kept flicking over to him and he couldn't help thinking they were of the same mind. Where did Murdoch meet this man?

The Frenchman stepped back after shaking Johnny's hand. “What can I do for you gentlemen?” Joaquin said you're interested in the Delacroix line? I must admit you caught me at a bad time, I'm to leave on a business trip in a few days.” He wore an indulgent expression, as if careworn travelers stopped at the ranch to buy horses every day. Not at these prices, they didn't.

“My father, Murdoch Lancer, sent a confirmation telegraph regarding a mare. Cheval de la Paix, I believe.”

The indulgent look fled, replaced by a film of hard panic. “What?”

It seemed Delacroix's hearing left as well. He repeated it for him. “Murdoch Lancer? The mare?”

His hand went inside his pocket, fumbled with some coinage there. “No, no, I never received a confirmation that you—your father—wanted the horse.”

Johnny spoke up. “Oh, he does Mr. Delacroix, in a big way. Sent us all the way here, didn't he? Not an easy trip, either. Lots of little things can weigh you down in a stagecoach.” It was a nod to Miss Filomina, Scott briefly wondered whose lap she was sitting on today.

The man turned a shade brighter, the red having worked its way up from his collar to the tips of his ears. “The horse isn't here.”

Scott looked at Johnny and back to Delacroix. “Where is she?”

He strangled out one word. “Sold.”

Johnny interjected. “You sold the horse, knowin' we'd be coming?”

“I didn't know you still wanted her. The Army offered a fair price. Said they were going to start a new breeding program. Two soldiers came yesterday to pick her up.”

The Frenchman rubbed his temple like he'd gotten a sudden headache. “I have a receipt of delivery in my office. And the names of the buyers will be listed on the registry. Joaquin, get the book. Gentlemen, please follow me into the house and get out of this sun. We'll clear this up in no time...”

What had been missing, up to this point, was plausibility. Scott wasn't so sure he found it just yet. There was something else wrong about this whole scenario, but it hovered about in the recesses of his mind, unwilling to come out in the light of day.

Johnny caught his elbow. “I'm going to stay out here, maybe have Joaquin take me on a tour of that barn.”  From the dark look on his face, a tour wasn't the only thing Johnny was looking to get out of the vaquero.

He took a moment to collect himself, swallowing frustration down in one big gulp.

The door opened before they reached the second step of the porch. The shadow at the window. She looked old enough to have been around Napoleon—the First—with the years in between unkind. He glanced at Johnny disappearing into the stable like Jonah into the whale and when he turned back she was looking at him, eyes narrowed. She was a short woman, but as thin as Delacroix was fat, with cheekbones like delicate pink teacups.

Delacroix worried the button on his vest. “Mother, this is Mr. Lancer, Murdoch Lancer's son. He's here about the horse.”

Maman was not pleased. It was then that his earlier estimation of who was in charge turned out to be incorrect.

He was looking at her.

She stepped aside to let them enter.

The front entryway was short and led directly to the parlor where she offered him a seat on the sofa. It wasn't so much an invitation but an order. The feminine version of a board room, complete with rosewater scent and lace doilies under the lamps.

“Idiot! I told you not to sell the horse.” She took no prisoners, berating Delacroix where he stood, in the sing-song accent of old France. David and Goliath going toe to toe in a verbal boxing match. He'd put a twenty on the old lady.

Under the heavy lids, there was fire in his eyes as Delacroix shot back, “Now, Mother…”

“No, I do not want to hear of it. You will fix this.” She descended into a flurry of French that Scott had difficulty understanding, let alone following.

The heel of Delacroix's hand slapped the parlor's doorframe. “If you just give me one minute, I need to find the receipt from the Army in my desk.”

“Are you going to leave for home?” she asked and Scott didn't understand she was talking to him. He'd been looking at the piano by the window, wondering who played between the two of them, trying very hard to ignore their conversation.

Delacroix gave a curt nod to him before taking off to parts unknown.

“Yes, eventually. We'd like to get this matter ironed out, though. My father was looking forward to using the mare in our own stables.”

She grimaced as if the comment caused her physical pain. “Oui, it is understood. Our horses are only the finest. It is…regrettable, that this has happened. Sometimes, I do not know about Edward…” She looked upwards for inspiration. “We will do our best to make this right.”

He believed her. “Your son was saying the military bought the horse?”

One veined hand burrowed into the knitted afghan across the sofa back. “Yes, to two soldiers.”  She frowned again, the wrinkles pulling across her cheeks. “You cannot rely on anyone, Monsieur. Not even family. It's the way of this new world, isn't it?”

Her eyes were bright, despite age, searching his face. What could he possibly say to that?

After a moment, she clasped her hands in front of her waist and sighed like she'd been hoping for some kind of answer. As she looked towards the window; her high-bridged nose reminded Scott of a Greek statue from the only art class he didn't sleep through at Harvard: Diana, goddess of the hunt.

She turned to face him. “Some tea?”

“No…no, I think I'd like to catch up with my brother.” Standing, he tipped his head. “Thank you, Madam.”

She gave an exquisite shrug only the French can do. “We do what we must, Monsieur. I will walk you to the door.”

It was actually a good thing Johnny decided to spend some time with Machado since he didn't get too far with Delacroix, or his mother. Johnny had a savior-faire regarding the local culture while Scott was still trying to turn parlez-vous into habla usted. In addition, his brother could be gracious when he wanted to, and he had that smile. Women and men—mostly women, granted—flocked to him for one reason or another. But here was hoping he had connected with Señor Machado on some level.

The hollow clatter of horse hoofs, the ping of pitchforks against gravel and the stench of manure spread in the adjoining fields all combined to make an unpalatable miasma of smell and hearing after the cloying sweetness of the house. Johnny seemed unfazed; leaning into the corral fence, thumbing through what Scott guessed was the registry book.

Neither man was smiling when he approached. “Mr. Delacroix is trying to find the receipt, but is ah, having a little difficulty,” he blurted out, earning a reproving look from Johnny as Machado's face went blank and he snapped the registry book closed.

“Joaquin!” The shout came from Delacroix, coming down from the porch. “Mother wants to see the registry. Someone has made a mistake.”

Machado looked like he wanted be somewhere else; unfortunately for him Scott was willing to push the matter. He didn't have a clue what was going on here just that it involved a missing horse, exorbitant fees and an owner who was hamstrung by maternal apron strings.  

Scott knew how big a role a profitable horse farm such as this played in the community. How the owner would be elevated to almost God-like stature, with adulation and responsibility included in equal scale. And just how quickly one misplaced piece of paper could taint his reputation. No wonder the Frenchman was in a panic.

His patience was wearing thin. “Mr. Delacroix, I understand how things can go missing. However, my father, in good faith, wired you a confirmation letter for the mare, with receipt of message. I would certainly hate to wire him back and say that the mare was sold out from underneath him. Lancer has quite a large holding in the valley, and the potential bad news could be…detrimental, as they say.” Scott saw the man's shoulders contract under his linen jacket and knew he had hit his target.

“We can clear this up when I go to the post for payment.”

Johnny shook his head. “A prize mare and you didn't get paid when they came to collect her?”

The Frenchman splayed out a hand. “It's the Army.”

As if that explained everything. Something sparked in Scott's mind. It was a hundred degrees in the shade of the white barn and maybe the heat was making his brain muzzy because a piece of the puzzle just dropped into his lap. A little late in coming, but there all the same. “You said they were going to start a breeding program?”

Delacroix was irritated at having to repeat himself, but nodded.

“The Army doesn't mix Appaloosa's, or any spotted horse into their stables. It ruins the conformity of the lines. There is also a small matter of standing out while on maneuvers. Never a good thing in the field.”

Scott raised a shoulder against his brother's look of disbelief. “What? I just remembered.”  He turned to Delacroix. “It's a fair possibility your horse was stolen.”

“Don't you mean ‘our horse', Scott?”

“That too, Johnny.”

~o~o~o~

Johnny grabbed Scott's reins and slowed them both down to a walk far behind the others. “Did Murdoch really get a receipt for the wire he sent?”

“I have no idea. But if Mr. Delacroix thinks so that's all that matters, right? Something's not right here. Knowing our father, Murdoch got that receipt. Even if he didn't, any good businessman would check first with a potential buyer.”

“And Delacroix has too much cash and pride in this place to be anything else but a good businessman.”

“Maybe. Besides, there's always his mother to bring down the ax at the appropriate moment to keep him in line.”

“Something funny about that stable, too. There were only three horses. They were decent, but not enough that I'd put all my money into' em.”  He looked distinctly uncomfortable, like what he was going to propose would have Scott running for the hills. “So, what do you say we stick around and see if we can track down that horse?”

“Murdoch wants that horse and I'm more than a little invested, so the answer is yes.”

“No matter if it takes us workin' with the Army?”

“Sure.” He said it with a smile which he expected Johnny to return.

Johnny didn't.

There were certainly other options. Leaving town, for one. What he told Johnny was the truth; he did want to get the horse back. But that wasn't all. At a crossroads with two diverging paths, he kept seeing only one route. “I'm not going to outrun it,” he muttered.

Johnny's head bobbed up, a fine line between his brows. He looked startled. Perhaps he was startled, it was hard to tell.

Colombe blanche, the Greek symbol of renewal, reminiscent of biblical floods and Arks, of peace. If Johnny's reaction was an indication of anything, it wasn't peace. A harbinger, though. An advance scout of what was to come with Murdoch, Scott supposed. He purposely hadn't thought much about his father. Chose instead to leave that topic on the back of the stove, much like Maria's stew. Simmering. At some point, though, the pot had to come off.

Or was he trying to hang on to a red apron of sorts that he had no business holding on to? “Wait.” He wanted to appease, but settled short. “Was the barn as white on the inside as it was on the outside?”

“Whiter.”

He laughed without any real humor and Johnny rode ahead, the four of them strung out like so many ducklings in a row.

Scott took a deep breath. It had the earmarks of bad theater: a caravan made up of a Frenchman, a vaquero, an ex-shootist, and a Bostonian, all riding to a military post in search of a lost horse. Good times in San Diego. Muy bueno.



Chapter 5

Twenty-three years of American occupation hadn't made much of a difference yet; the trail to the post was as empty as the sky. To the far north, somewhere over the last hill, lay the abandoned Mission San Diego De Alcala. To the left, forty miles away was the Mexican border. Dirt, dust and bawling, skinny cattle destined for the yards, these were the constants in this land. Outside of San Diego proper, they were stepping back into the past, in an area so void of vegetation even God couldn't be bothered.

They made relatively good time, in spite of Delacroix's predilection for riding at nothing more than a distinguished trot. After all, it wasn't so much that it was his horse that was missing, as it was Lancer's.  However, the small sticking point of not being paid yet should have encouraged the man's giddyups to Scott's way of thinking. He looked ahead to see Machado and the Frenchman riding side by side, talking. Bits and pieces of animated Spanish floated back to him.

Johnny's hands had stilled over his saddle horn. His head was cocked to the side in that way of someone trying to listen without looking like it. He flicked his eyes to Scott for a brief moment, enough for him to see the concern. Scott edged closer to catch his whisper. “Machado and Delecroix are arguing. The vaquero wants to handle this without goin' to the Army. Something about keepin' it quiet so the old lady's not involved. Delacroix's refusing.”

There was a time to interrupt and a time to be quiet, and Scott didn't feel the need to say anything. Instead, he took it as another piece in an increasingly large puzzle and thought of Mrs. Delacroix with the clean white barn and the three decent—but not magnificent—spotted horses, and felt sorry for her.

A sign directed them west and the tiny path swelled to a compacted dirt road in a size worthy of a company of soldiers on horseback. They were getting near the ocean now, the air a salty tang that lingered on his lips and hit the back of his throat. One more rise, then sudden green. Scott reined up and stared at the oasis. So the Army had a sense of humor after all.

The post was a series of brick squares sprawled out in a spoke fashion from a center of beige—the parade field. Large open air barns flanked a series of buildings to his left and to the right were two-story frame houses with well tended lawns.

From the sullen sergeant standing under a brush ramada to the equally so inclined private by the flagpole, Scott had the distinct feeling he was entering hostile territory.

Johnny reined up and pointed towards a group of men gathered around a sandy spot at the end of the last barn. A horse was led out and thrown, then blindfolded, a saddle and bridle placed. One of the men, protesting all the way, was pushed out of the mix towards the animal. He gathered the reins and managed the saddle in two attempts. The horse's blindfold was whipped away, and the bridle released. Then the show really began as the men fell back to the corral fence to watch with whoops and jeers.

The bronco's back roached and Johnny started to chuckle when the rider made a desperate grab for mane.

Scott shuddered. “No, no…don't rowel him.”

The soldier sunk his spurs into the horse's flanks. Together, they hung in the air, silhouetted by baby blue sky, then clods of earth exploded when the animal dropped back to the ground. One more spectacular leap and the rider took off on a keening trajectory of his own.

“Look familiar, Scott?” Johnny asked, and though Scott wasn't looking at him, he could hear the smile in his voice.

“The ride or the landing?”

“Yeah.”

Scott inhaled a surprised laugh, glad that his brother was here with him. Glad for his cheek. He watched the fallen rider being dusted off. It was shades of Camp Mead in early 1863. He drew the memories back: gritty sweat, muscle aches, bitter cigars and wood flavored whiskey, the tangy taste of blood. But the images mixed and morphed into more recent ones: fire and ashes and spent cartridges, Murdoch's fine Lagavulin Scotch, Barranca's first ride—and his second, a fine leap over the fence.

“Here, we're here,” Delacroix said, nearly shouted it in his excitement.

Drawing up to the largest of the brick buildings, two soldiers standing on the portico halted in their slow stand to attention when they realized who they were—civilians. They slouched back into a lean on either side of the wooden porch strut and something smile-like played about their faces.

The Frenchman dismounted and hailed them. “You there! We need to see the commander. Is he in?”

The smile disappeared and the one on the right jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “The Major's here, but he's not expecting company.”

“He'll see me. This is a very important matter.”

The soldier screwed up his face as though someone suggested a barefooted walk over cacti. “No doubt, but I'd be real careful, civilian problems aren't high on the Major's list of priorities at the moment.”

Delacroix huffed his way past the men.

They walked into an outer office and a corporal was working behind the desk, but he was no secretary. So young he looked like a paperboy, the soldier licked his grubby pencil lead two times then proceeded with a bold scrawl across the top of the form, eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

Joaquin scraped his foot against the floorboards, sent his spur singing.

The corporal looked up, annoyed. Close to five o'clock by the time they rode to the San Diego Barracks, so it must be dinner time. But the bugle hadn't sounded calling the post to mess, so maybe there was something else on the soldier's mind. He must have sensed their irritation because his eyes went from one man to the next all down the row, stopping to study Johnny and Joaquin in earnest.

Before anyone could speak there was a yell from behind the oak paneled door. “Watkins! I need that form!”

The corporal redoubled his efforts at filling it out before shouting back, “Yessir, it's coming.”

The door opened before his scribbling got halfway down the page. “Well, what's taking so long?”

Standing up, Corporal Watkins lost control of his pencil and they all watched it do a slow roll to the end of his desk, teeter and slip off.

If Scott had to guess, the man was Major Curtis Cavanaugh. The rank was right, as listed on the door beside the name, along with a title: Commander, G Company. The Major was somewhere between thirty-five and forty, but his face was hard, matured beyond his age. Six-feet, lean, all sinew and muscle. Sun-streaked dark hair had recently met the barber, a line of white stood out from the tanned skin around his collar and ears. He walked to the private's desk, bent to gather the recalcitrant pencil. No hesitation, no return of a smile.

“As you were, Corporal. I believe you dropped this.” Watkins blushed to the roots of his brown hair and sat back down. “And speak with Mrs. Delaney about the laundry; I'm missing a button off my jacket. If she isn't able to handle the workload, Mrs. Timmons assures me she is more than capable of taking it on.”

Scott inspected the man's chambray shirt and neat, if faded, blue trousers, and swept the trail dust from his own sleeve.

The Major did not appear to be surprised to find four men, non-uniformed, standing in his office. Going to the pot-bellied stove behind the desk, he lifted the coffee pot and poured himself a cup. “Gentlemen, Mr. Delacroix. To what do I owe the honor of a visit from the civilian community?”

Delacroix, sweating pink from the ride, spoke up. “We want to speak with you about a horse.”

“Always a welcome topic.” Cavanaugh gestured to the pot. “Coffee?” It was barked out like a command, then softened with a shrug when declined all around.

They were ushered into the Major's office. There was nowhere to sit, just a table with four books holding down the corners of a map. A point of particular interest was marked with a circle of thick black. A lone chair, standing in the corner like an afterthought, had a blue jacket thrown over the seat. No one thought to remove it. And although Delacroix sent the chair a few longing looks every now and then, the Major ignored him. 

Scott was reasonably sure very few soldiers spent any real time in the Commander's office, not by choice. And fewer than that probably had the wherewithal to sit.

The desk was Major Cavanaugh's personal territory, and he appeared to be an aficionado of Roman Army tactics. Set up in a wedge fashion, his hat and folded gloves the focal point of the triangle at the front of the desk—most obvious to anyone entering the room. The inkwell and blotter took the right flank; while a daguerreotype taken of Cavanaugh with General McClellan was on the left. Every soldier, it seemed, had their own particular General. Scott wondered if Little Mac was as fond of standing on risers as Little Phil was.  

Behind the desk was the only show of potential flamboyance, the crossed sabers of G Company. The hilts blood red, golden tassels draped almost to the floor. A unit flag between them depicted two rifles and a horses' head on a field of butter yellow. It was pride, not a statement of show.

The officer made a sweeping gesture with his hand, taking in the room. “As you can see the accommodations are sparse. Please make do.” Johnny took it as a cue and leaned against the table, one hip covering southern San Diego and Old California. He took up a perch on the Pacific. Delacroix stood in front of the desk with Joaquin three steps behind.

Major Cavanaugh leaned back in his seat, the chair squeaking on its springs. “Gentlemen, what seems to be the problem? My soldiers spending too much of their hard-earned pay in town, boosting the San Diego economy? Our bugles too loud for the general populace?” He turned his head to look toward the table. “And are these the newest members of the San Diego town council looking to provide oversight for military operations?”

Johnny's stare slipped from studying the sabers on the wall to the Major's face. “No, I'm Johnny Lancer and this is my brother, Scott. We're missing a horse.” He nodded to Delacroix. “This man seems to think it might be here.”

Major Cavanaugh searched under his desk and came up with a weathered leather haversack, the same kind Scott had used in '63, and lost in '64. The bag was stuffed with a sheaf of papers and a few books—the only unorganized thing about him. He found what he was looking for and pulled out a slim ledger then tied the flap closed. The leather was stamped with the Major's name and the company he was assigned during the war. A memory rolled over Scott, tugged hard and sharp. He'd heard of the unit—tough men who had taken on the brunt of front line action at Gettysburg and, later, rode through the Shenandoah Valley.

Cavanaugh ran his finger down a set of figures in the ledger. “My Quartermaster shows no transactions for buying horses within the last month.” He looked up. “Indeed, our stables are quite full.”

“We saw some of your boys wranglin' one of them when we rode in.”

“Did the rider take a jaunt through the air, without his horse?”

Johnny nodded and grinned, looked like he couldn't help it.

“That would be Anderson. A new recruit. God help the cavalry.”

Delacroix cleared his throat. “Regardless, I sold one of my prize appaloosas to the Army this week.”

“An appaloosa? My men can get themselves killed without that kind of blatant help. They might as well be riding a red flag into the desert.”

Joaquin spoke up. “That's what Señor Lancer said.”

Major Cavanaugh directed his look to Scott, it wasn't unfriendly, just interested. “Mr. Lancer happens to be correct.”

Johnny ran a finger down the length of his thigh, flicking off an invisible speck of dirt. “Then you wouldn't need a mare to breed with your stallions?”

“What stallions? San Diego Barracks doesn't have any.”

Delacroix shifted his feet. “There's a matter of payment.”

The major picked up an envelope and shredded its top, keeping an eye half on the Frenchman. “For a horse the Army doesn't own?”

“Your men came to my ranch and picked up the animal for transport here.”

“Not any soldiers of mine.”

There was a timid knock at the door then it opened. Corporal Watkins entered and stood at the back of the room.

Delacroix scowled. Two dogs meeting in an alleyway were friendlier. “A Private and…another man.”

“In a company of one hundred and fifty men, we have thirty-eight privates, Mr. Delacroix. They outnumber the corporals two-to-one. Take your pick.”

“He had dark hair, young.”

“Sir, that might be…”

“Watkins!” Major Cavanaugh crooked a finger to the corporal and addressed Delacroix. “If you look in my barracks, you'll see over half of my men fit that description.”

The corporal bent down to whisper something into the Major's ear. “Gentlemen, I have another matter that requires my attention.” The officer was difficult to read now, masking.  He stood and motioned for the door.

They were dismissed.

Outside, Delacroix addressed them. “I'll get to the bottom of this.”

There was heat behind his words, but whether it was directed at the loss of the horse—or Cavanaugh—wasn't entirely clear. Machado stood off to the side, darting glances at his employer.

Johnny tipped his head to the wooden door of the commander's office and raised his eyebrows. Scott was of the same mind, they would take their chances with the Army.



Chapter 6

Seeley Stables teemed with horses, but few people at the hour of nine in the morning. The lot was almost empty except for a young gentleman looking out of place in a hot-looking tweed suit and bowler. He waited by the barn door, adjusted his tie once, his boutonniere twice, and peered into the stables. A low rumble started inside, becoming louder as it neared the door, echoed by a series of cascading whinnies.

A sleek black carriage with fancy gold-colored wheels popped out of the doorway, two white high-steppers rattling their traces. The man took off his hat and clutched it to his chest, mouth agape.

Scott followed Johnny's smile and watched the tweed suit get into the carriage and seesaw the reins, trying to settle the dancing mares. The stable boy, the freckled one from yesterday, also watched, with thumbs hooked into suspenders and weight balanced on one leg—the absolute picture of patience. Did one minor adjustment of the man's grip and the horses settled. The eager man rushed off in a clatter, elbows akimbo.

The boy turned, saw them standing by the corral. “That's Tim Everett, looking to ask his girl something special.”

“A little early, isn't it?” Johnny asked.

“Not for Tim, he's been working hard on her for the last week and that rig just might sway the vote. Let's see,” he pointed to Johnny, “you're the buckskin.” Swiveling to Scott, he flashed a toothy smile. “And you had Patch, the black with the white forelock. Say, you find what you're lookin' for yesterday, Mister?”

“Yes and no. My brother and I found the White Dove ranch without any problems.”

“How is old man Delacroix anyway?”

“Not so well at the moment, he's missing a horse.”

“Missing a horse, huh? That's too bad, we've got a ton of' em here. Delacroix should come by and pick one out.” He took a deep breath and yelled, “Frank, bring out Gilly and Patch”

Scott looked to Johnny and raised his eyebrows. “Somehow I don't think that would help.”

“So where to today, gents?” At Johnny's look, the boy ducked his head like he was avoiding a blow. “Just making conversation. I like to know where my horses go, because I can figure out what condition they'll be in when they're brought back.”

Scott thought he heard his brother mutter, “Nowhere if we don't stop talking”, but he might have imagined it because Johnny was one big fixed smile. He hurried to intercede. “We're going to the San Diego Barracks, to start.”

Their horses were led from the stables. Scott mounted, waited for Johnny to do the same.

“Road's good from here to the post, you shouldn't have too much trouble. And the Major's a real straight-shooter, looks out for his men.”

Interest piqued. “You know him?” Scott asked.

“Everybody knows him. Had some trouble with the town council last week, they wanted to stop the soldiers from going off post to downtown. There was a little to-do with one of the boys getting drunk, busted a window and table. The major stood up for them, though. Heard there was a lot of yelling and stomping going on, but they backed right down.”

Johnny leaned over his saddle horn. “Did Delacroix happen to be in on that?”

“Yeah. Lead the hunt, so to speak.”

A voice came from within the stables. “Jimmy! We got customers.”

“That's me.” The boy gave a loose salute to the side of his head then found his ear and pulled. “Good day, gents.”

They rode in silence for most of the way to the post, until Johnny's thoughts finally made their way out. “What do you think of him?”

The topic of the morning was Major Cavanaugh, it seemed. Scott cocked an eyebrow at his brother, but kept his eyes to the road. It was a loaded question. “I don't know. He seems to be strong, competent at what he does.”

“He reminds me of you.”

Scott pulled up abruptly and Patch shook the bit with indignation. “What?”

“You heard me.”

Scott counted two spiny lizards out sunning themselves and a lone saguaro cactus standing as tall as his horse before asking his next question, finally understanding that Johnny wasn't going to offer any more information unless prompted.

“And how does he remind you of me?”

“Well, he's kind of particular about how he wears his uniform.” Johnny wore the grin that always looked like he should be arrested for something. “You know, neat and orderly and all that.”

Scott relaxed and didn't know why exactly. There'd been something off about Cavanaugh. Perhaps ‘driven' was the word, but nothing in particularly stood out, just a feeling. He and the major were opposite poles, weren't they?

“He's got that same look in his eye like you do when you're after something. It'd take a stick of dynamite to change your course. But there is one thing that's different between you and him.” Johnny drew his hat down to shade his eyes. “I trust you.”

~o~o~o~

They stopped short in the doorway. The scene in the commander's outer office was not what they were expecting.

Major Cavanaugh circled a nervous soldier from front to back. He placed a firm hand on the private's shoulder and half forced him into the chair. Corporal Watkins watched, standing by the corner of his desk, and grimaced when blue hit wood with a dull thunk.

The officer nodded to them. “Welcome, gentlemen. Right on time.” He addressed the soldier in front of him. “Now then, there are witnesses here to attest I didn't beat you. Will you or will you not tell me where he is located?”

“Sir, I don't know where Monty…Private Montgomery is at right now.” The soldier fidgeted in his chair, one knee bobbing.

“How can you sleep in the bed next to him and not know where he's hared off to? And is he or is he not in possession of an appaloosa horse from Mr. Delacroix?”

The knee stilled for a second or two while the soldier rubbed the back of his neck. “Honest, I'd tell you if I saw Private Montgomery. We want him back to post, too.”

“Private Baker, if I thought for one minute you were lying to me, it would not bode well.” Cavanaugh circled the chair once more then stood with his hand on his waist, one hip cocked forward. The effect was commanding.

Baker brought himself to attention. “Yes, sir.”

The major was faintly amused. “You're dismissed. And Private, you'll tell me if you have any contact with Montgomery, correct? With or without the horse?”

The young soldier snapped his spine into an impossible straight line. “Yes, sir!”

“See that you do.”

Johnny leaned against the edge of the doorframe watching the private trot away. “Were you really going to beat him?”

“The Army has its methods of persuasion, but beatings aren't one of them, at least in this command. No, I get better results by threatening to write their mothers. What the Army can't do, motherhood can.” He swept the chair back against the wall. “Strike that from your memory, Watkins. And have my horse saddled; I'm leading the patrol this morning.”

The corporal nodded and scurried past them to do the Major's bidding.

“You're welcome to come into my office until my horse is brought around. You just missed Mr. Delacroix. He was here to offer his services in finding my soldier.”

“I take it things didn't go all that well?” asked Johnny.

“The day I need him meddling in my affairs will be the day I hang up my spurs, Mr. Lancer.”

“This Private Montgomery, he's absent without leave?” Cavanaugh shot Scott an unguarded look.

“Delacroix said a military man took his horse, and you have one gone. One and one sometimes add up to two.”

“Montgomery's been missing for several days, technically he is AWOL.” The officer sat on the edge of his desk. “You knew about the appaloosa color yesterday and today you know about leave status. Who are you?”

“Cavalry, Second Regiment, out of Massachusetts.”

Cavanaugh put his hand to his mouth and stroked his upper lip, thinking hard. “With the California Battalion? Part of King's Division?”

Scott nodded, could feel Johnny's eyes upon him.

“They were good men, tough as any. Company?”

“I was a lieutenant with B Company.”

“I rode with Gurley's Hawks, D Company out of Pennsylvania. My God, it seems like eons ago.” He looked up. “It was eons ago when I was a shavetail lieutenant. Your unit preceded us at Opequon.”

“We were grateful for the support there and at Cedar Creek.”

Cavanaugh turned to the map, not really seeing it. “A little too late for some. God, what battles.” He shook himself. “But Montgomery, yes. I believe he might be holed up here, Cañón Rojo. Red Canyon, or as the locals like to call it, Devil's Canyon.” Two other circles had joined the lone one on the map from yesterday, marking three different locations.

“Why there?”

“I have no reason to think Private Montgomery is the man who took Delacroix's horse, nor do I have any evidence to the contrary. But the fact of the matter is that he's missing and if he were looking to go to the farthest point in the county and disappear for a while, Red Canyon would be it.”

Johnny ran a finger down the map. “What about the saloons in town?”

“Non-drinker. Doesn't play cards as far as I know. Not a brawler. Negating those three vices leaves me at a loss as to explain what he's doing.”

“Maybe he's got a girl tucked away somewhere?”

“It's a possibility.” Cavanaugh's mouth twitched. “Understand, if I find Montgomery I will drag him back to post for trial here, not wait for the civilian judicial vultures to pick at his bones.”

Fighting words. “How do you intend to do that, Major? Once a crime is committed off post, it comes under civilian jurisdiction. From what Johnny and I have seen of Delacroix, he'll push the issue.”

“They'll have to get to him first.”

Scott didn't rise to it, at least not the way Major Cavanaugh might be anticipating. “Then perhaps we'd better get going.”

But the officer wasn't meeting his eyes; they were focused on the map, outlining strategy. “Army business is kept separate from the civilian sector. You should know that.”

Johnny interrupted. “It's our horse.”

The officer raised his head, stared at Johnny for a moment and assessed. “So it seems.”

Watkins hailed from the outer office saying the major's mount was ready. He turned to gather his hat and gloves from the desk.

“While I'm not saying Montgomery did the taking, you do have a vested interest in seeing your animal is returned. And it would delight me if we were able to accomplish the mission without Mr. Delacroix butting into military business. Besides, I feel I can accommodate a fellow officer of the cavalry.” He tipped his head towards the door. “Shall we ride to Red Canyon, gentlemen?”

The patrol was made up of four grim-faced soldiers who looked like they'd rather be doing anything else than ride to Cañón Rojo. They were interfering and Scott was acutely aware of it, felt like an intruder despite the invitation.

The group headed west into the frontier, forming two short weaving lines.

“Why the San Joaquin Valley?” Major Cavanaugh asked around a mouthful of dust that he spat out behind his shoulder, never missing a beat.

Scott and Johnny flanked either side of him as the officer regaled them with stories of the soldiers in his command and the west, the best place to get bourbon in San Diego and listed the saloons to avoid because the liquor was watered down and the locals were just itching to get a man behind bars—especially one dressed in blue.

Major Cavanaugh talked non-stop, which was a good thing because that meant Scott didn't have to say a word. He rode in comfortable silence, listened here and there to snatches of conversation around him, eventually slipped into the old habit of imagining what was beyond the next ridge. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. A vigilance first honed in battle, then used in the boardrooms of Boston. Forward thinking had saved his life once; here it was something to take his mind off the endless repetition of browns and reds of the trail.

He heard Johnny answer the major's question about the valley. It was halting at first then gained speed and vigor: Land runs all the way to the mountains, with green grass for the cattle and horses. Sweet water flows through the eastern side, it bogs up some, but Scott and I know how to fix it. Trout in it as long as your arm. But mostly it's a good place to come home to at the end of the day.

His brother looked over and winked. A poet, thought Scott, bemused. He, whose eye can integrate all the parts, is a poet . Emerson was right. Johnny could take a thing like the ranch and see all its moving parts and come up with a single image of Lancer.

Cavanaugh sat back in the saddle, held his reins loose through the fingers. “I can't say I blame Montgomery entirely for haring off.”

Took Scott a minute before it hit home. “Why is that, Major? Desertion is a hanging offense. Or, it was.”

“You're stuck in the past, Mr. Lancer, The war is over, at least the eastern one, and we're living in garrison now not bivouacking in the hills of Virginia. Times have changed. While the rules mandate hanging, in reality the Army never finds most of the men.”

Johnny stretched in the saddle and put on his slow drawl—a cat to the major's mouse. “Sounds good for the men who want to stay gone.”

“And in the meantime, the mission suffers, the morale plummets. There have been two desertions in the past two months. Pay was sixteen dollars per month, now reduced to thirteen. Hard to feed a man on that let alone a family. Poor economy brings them in yet discounts the Army's paper money anywhere from fifteen to forty percent. Good economy bribes them out again. And San Diego is booming. You want to know why I have a desertion problem?”

Pelted by the officer's endless ammunition, Johnny ducked his head, already tired of the game. “Not anymore.”

“I'll not have another soldier leave the command, not without papers.”

“So it's the command you're thinkin' of, not the man?”

The major ignored the jibe and plowed on. “A few, like me, don't know any better. This is my life.” He gave a wry grin. “Although retirement will certainly put its hooks into me a few years from now.”

That would not set well with the man, thought Scott. “No wife? No desire for something different?”

“The Army is all I know.” The major's voice roughened and it drew both Johnny and Scott's attention. “What would I do in the civilian sector? Be a banker? Merchant? My spurs have been on far too long for that.”

Being on the other side of the fence—trying to justify a civilian life—was irony at its best. Fate was snickering at him behind her hand.

Johnny had fallen silent as they approached the canyon. He knew his brother was watching, picking out small things, waiting for some kind of sign, probably anticipating Scott signing up for another hitch in the Army at the end of the ride. Truthfully, even after seven years, watching the soldiers processing new cavalry horses yesterday gave him a thrill, made him feel solid, yearning for that same sense of combined purpose.

The sun glazed the side of the canyon walls until it shone like diamonds, almost blinding to the sight. The juniper-studded rimrock towered above him and Scott followed their lines until they disappeared deep within the rock walls. They were insignificant in the absolute vastness.

Major Cavanaugh halted his patrol at the raised arm signal of the sergeant fifty yards ahead and called for a dismount.

“He could be looking at us right now; this area's so wide open.” Johnny was looking up as he made the statement, missed the Major's eye roll.

“I'm well aware of that, Mr. Lancer.” Cavanaugh shook out the map taken from his inner jacket pocket. “These are the areas Montgomery would hide out in this godforsaken place.” He indicated a spot smeared with the crust of something brown and old. “This is the highest. Thompson, Smith, Hanks—go around the backdoor and see what's up there.”

A quick tap on the second circle. “One of the larger caves is here, easily accessible by a horse. Montgomery has been here before and it seems to be the most likely place for him to hide out. McHugh, you and I will go there.” He turned. “Gentlemen, you will wait here for us to return.”

Orders, the officer delivered them quick and easy enough. Scott met Johnny's eyes. “My brother and I have never been any good at waiting, Major. There are three places marked on that map.”

One eyebrow rose, considered. “As you wish. I don't have to tell you this could be dangerous. Montgomery is not the type to shoot at will, but any cornered man will do what he has to for survival.”

Johnny shrugged, that nonchalant look telling told Scott he wanted to get moving, more than willing to take the risk. They watched the soldiers take out for their positions until they were slow-moving blue specks against the rock, then left for the third circle on the map.



Chapter 7

It was all dirt and scrubbed ridgeline. Hints of land dealings and gold strikes were scattered about in the paper, just rumors, but enough to fan the flames of speculation in several articles. And the desert was beautiful in its own right, even though tan dominated the landscape. But Scott couldn't fathom anyone needing, or wanting this area. It seemed like something you'd gladly pass on the way to something else. Which made it excellent for hiding.

The climb up the ridge was short. Glad for the fact it was rock and not forest. But boots were slippery and holds few and far between. Johnny had gotten ahead of him, scrambling like he was born to it. Breathing hard, he turned his head to see across the way, already gaining some view from being fifteen up. There was a colored shadow against the grey landscape, but he couldn't tell what or who. It wove its way along a trail, bobbed in and out of sight around large boulders.

One foot slipped. Scott grabbed the scrub in front of him tighter and looked two moves ahead. Made sure of the path, then hand over hand forward. When he neared the top, Johnny reached out to grasp his arm and pulled him up.

“There's a campsite, looks like we missed him. Left a few things behind, though.”

Ashes inside a ring of rocks had once held a fire, a few days ago. A whiskey bottle lay in two parts, the jagged neck beside the fire ring and the rest scattered in parts about the site. Other supplies were haphazardly strewn about the site. A bag of coffee, the burlap ripped open, spilled beans on the frying pan. A candle lantern tipped on its side next to matches. It told a story of violence—or hurry.

Johnny tipped his head to the opening. As holes went, it looked easier than most—narrow, but tall—its entrance marked by juniper on one side and sagebrush on the other.

A smell hovered inside the lip of the cave, almost choking. It gave Scott pause. On day three hundred and forty-four of being jammed into a dark nook under crossed wooden beams, elbow to elbow with fifty other men, he'd given up. Sixteen men had died two nights earlier. And it smelled not unlike this. Something inside him pulled up, unable to wrap sense around what he was seeing.

“What goin' on?” Johnny whispered at his shoulder—the cave seemed to call for quiet—and relief flooded through him that he wasn't alone. It wasn't the same after all.

Scott shook his head and the memory fled. He opened the lantern and Johnny struck a match. As the candle torched, a tunnel leading off the main room was visible to the right. The smell worsened the closer they got.

He inhaled, accepted the odor and fine grit settling in the air, and brought the lamp up higher, moving slowly into the underground heart of the ridge.

The deep darkness was different than a simple dark night; they'd be blind without the lantern. There was a scratching sound a few lengths away. The thin candlelight bounced off two eyes that turned red in reflection, before it skittered away at the intrusion. This was home for someone not too long ago and he—or they—had shared it with rats and God knows what else. There was worse, he reminded himself.

A few more steps and the smell was overpowering.

 A man, stretched out on his back, his eyes staring at the ceiling of the cavern. Thinning hair was colored grey where sand and grit had fallen. A dark swath ran from the curve of the skull to the neckline. Blood. He'd fought back; there was a bruise on his cheek and scratches across his hands.

Johnny knelt beside the body “Hey, hold the light up.” He covered his mouth with one hand against the stench and lifted the man's shoulder. “Something hit him hard. Not too much left back there. And not that long ago, the man's pretty ripe. S'pose this is the Major's soldier?”

Maybe the killing blow came quick and sure. He'd hoped so. Horse-thief or not, a slow death in this closed off space was something he didn't want to think about. “Hard to tell at this point, no uniform, but that doesn't mean anything. We'd better find Cavanaugh, maybe he can identify him.”

Scott handed off the lantern so Johnny could take lead. A fine spray of silt hit his neck and slid underneath his collar. He took a moment, pulled out his shirt tail. Two pinging sounds—one after the other—echoed through the tunnel and Johnny's light bobbed, blinked once, then died with the sound of breaking glass.

“Jo…?”

The air around him exploded with rock. He jumped backwards towards the tunnel wall—hit hard—and flopped like a rag doll to the floor. He landed on his shoulder—the same one that caught everything, like it begged for trouble—and threw an arm over his eyes to keep out the shower of debris.

More rock groaned then vomited from the ceiling, until it finally petered out to a trickle of sand. Silence, no light—and no sound. His heart fell to his stomach then bounced back to his throat. “Johnny?”

The fingers of his right hand clutched at the tunnel wall and he wrenched himself to a sitting position, gritted teeth against the groan that rushed up his throat. The air was brown with dust, and Scott coughed repeatedly, lungs full. He gagged, spat, then came to his knees, mindful of the sharp rocks pressing through the thin fabric of his trousers.

“Johnny!” His voice rasped out.

Closer than he realized, his brother smiled, showing a row of white teeth. It was the best thing Scott had ever seen.

“I'm here. Better sit still, I'm tryin' to find the lamp.”  Johnny's voice was whispery thin, had a shiver to it.

He heard the low murmur of voice, a few choice curses—those came in clearer—then the welcome scrape of match. A bit of light stabbed the darkness. Broken on three of its sides, the flaked silver mirror that was left reflected poorly.

Johnny looked like a leather-clad Ebenezer Scrooge hunched with his meager lamp, one hand cupped around the candle. And he just thought about that for a moment before his brother stumbled to a halt and half fell down beside him. The flame wobbled, held.

“Shoulda brought a canary.”

“A what?”

“You know, a canary. Miners use them to see if the air is still good. If the canary kicks it,” Johnny's hand cut through the air in emphasis, “pfft, you know you're a goner.”

“Well, that's…positive. But this is a cave, not a mine.”

“Works the same way, air is air, isn't it?”

“I see your point.” Scott turned his head as a slight noise caught his attention. A few pebbles tumbled to the tunnel floor. God he was jumpy. His eyes darted back to the lamp and saw Johnny's hand wrapped around its base, torn and bloodied.

“Caught it on the mirror, lookin' for the candle. You?”

“I'm all right. Landed on my shoulder, but it seems to be in working order. What's next?” he asked, surprised his voice was so calm when his heart was thudding like he'd been running uphill.

“Let's see how bad off we are.” Johnny clambered to his feet.

“Those two sounds before the ceiling came down, they were…”

“Yeah, gunfire.”

Away from the light, it took Scott a few moments to adjust his vision. His boot turned noisily over a few loose rocks and he put one hand out against the wall to regain his balance. As he turned to step, Major Cavanaugh's voice sifted through the tunnel, faint and tinny, “You men! Are you in there?”

He caught up with Johnny, whose attention was entirely on the barrier in front of them, in what used to be the entrance.

“We're here, behind the rock,” he yelled, and hoped the major had some semblance of just what ‘here' meant. Around them, the smell of rotting flesh and old blood. The air was starting to get warm.

He and Johnny listened. Far away some rocks shifted. They fell to the ground and clawed at the debris, pushing it aside.

His head was bent, hands spread apart encircling a small boulder, when a shaft of light appeared by his left boot and the wall came tumbling down knocking him down. Wordlessly, Johnny helped him up and let his hand linger—the flat of hand against his back, as though reassuring himself that Scott was there, that he was all right.

A rush of hot air and the worried faces of two soldiers greeted them. They were free.

Outside, Johnny leaned against the wall, drips of sweat streaking down his cheeks through the dust. His fist clenched against a limb of pinyon, he wore the look of a man not expecting to see or feel sunshine ever again.

Scott paced past the fire ring and lifted his face towards the sky, breathing in pure air with deep gulps.

Cavanaugh came up beside him. “Are you all right, Mr. Lancer?”

His hand itched to grab or punch; he couldn't tell which urge was stronger. He jabbed his finger towards the cave instead. “There's a dead man in there. Looks like he was murdered. Going by the smell it happened a few days ago.”

The officer was brought up, didn't move for a moment. He stared at the disheveled entryway, and something that Scott identified as misery flitted across his face. “It will be okay,” he murmured. And Scott had no idea who he was talking to.

The major took what was left of the lamp and walked into the tunnel, two of his men following at his heels like pups. They came out again, minutes later, one of the young soldiers pale and drawn, looking like he might give up breakfast at any time. “Not one of mine. By the looks of him, he was civilian.” Some of the tightness around his eyes had left and in its place was an old confidence.

Johnny came away off from the wall, stood in front of the small band of soldiers. A bristling presence. “Mind telling us what happened out here?”

Shrugs all around. The men made a show of looking at one another. One, shorter than all the rest, looked down to his boots before speaking. “We didn't see anything, Mister.” The rest muttered in agreement.

“You were out here in this wide open space…” Belligerence boiled in the sun. Johnny's hand swept out to include everyone. “All of you, and nobody saw anything?” A couple of the soldiers looked away after Johnny stopped talking; the rest wore wary, puzzled looks. But Cavanaugh's eyes held steady, his jaw muscles tightening.

Johnny had left the crux of the matter unsaid, but it was hinted at as sure as the sun was hanging in the sky: Cavanaugh and his men were somehow a party to the cave-in.

Scott's stare met his brother's then fell on the officer. He crossed his arms, felt the sweat run down the side of his face. “Gunfire—two shots—brought down most of the ceiling in the cave.”

“We heard someone shooting; we assumed it was you, calling for help.” Standing ramrod straight, the officer put his hands on his hips, let his stance color his barely concealed sarcasm.

“Pretty big assumption, seeing as how we're out here lookin' for a man on the run.” Johnny's voice was low, concentrated. A warning.

Cavanaugh had a frown to his mouth that wasn't going to take much more, wasn't looking to be reasonable.

Scott grabbed Johnny's arm, knew he'd stepped over the line from his brother's black expression. So be it. The light was waning: they'd ridden for half the afternoon and had been trapped— enclosed —in a tunnel with a dead man. This day wasn't going to get any easier. He massaged the knot between his eyes with his fingertips. Surely some kind of food would help. “Come on, Johnny. Dinner. I'm buying.”

~o~o~o~

Scott could see the bounce in his brother's brisk step as they followed the waitress to their table. Not the usual walk to impress the ladies in the room. No, he was spoiling for a fight. The Cosmopolitan Hotel went far to inspire confidence that one wouldn't take place. Too many people and the dining room contained too much Greek-inspired panache for a brotherly tussle. A small thing to be grateful for.

They waited for the coffee to be served and their orders taken before starting.

“Cavanaugh's probably in on the whole thing,” Johnny said.

He batted back. “We don't know anything for sure yet.”

Scott shifted in his seat. He was feeling many things. Tired. Sore. So puzzled it was almost alarming. He looked out the window and saw the waves lapping at the shoreline, just beyond the hotel's patio. He wanted to swim, a night swim in the ocean. Something clean after the cave-in and all the thoughts it brought back .

Johnny tapped his cup with one finger. “Why are you…?” He trailed off in mid-sentence and looked towards the entrance.

There was Corporal Watkins standing by a potted palm.

A schism went through his heart. How old was Watkins? The same age when Scott was taking his first aim at a paper target from a barely-gentled mount? Layers of Army blue wool, flannel underneath. Wisp of fuzz on his chin. Campaign hat scrunched in one hand. The same one he'd probably held on to his toy wooden pony in the not too distant past.

Scott shook his head, snapped his attention to a flurry of laughter from a nearby table. But he couldn't bring himself not to care. “Johnny, catch the waitress and order another beefsteak. I think we'll have company for dinner.”

He didn't bother with niceties, just directed the boy to their table.

He should have timed it. Less than five minutes, and the plate was almost licked clean. He hoped Watkins wouldn't make himself ill. It was probably a race between eating and the bugler's call to formation on most days.

Watkins pushed the last bit of bread into his mouth, barely stopping to wash it down with coffee. Buy him some pie, Scott thought. Maybe cherry.

The corporal pushed the plate away, stared at it as if wondering where the food had gone. And then his glance was wandering around the dining room, one hand gripping the table edge.

“Do you want some more?”

“No, I'd best get going. I was couriering an invitation from post to the hotel owner, thought I'd stop in and grab something to eat since I'd missed dinner. Can't waste too much time, though.”

“Surely you can stay for dessert.”

“The major's been real careful about letting anyone off base, lately. One wrong step and,” he made a slicing motion across his neck, “you'll be cutting firewood for the whole damn post.”

“I expect he might be a little leery after the incident with Mr. Delacroix and the town council.”

Watkins's hand that had been holding on to the table finally relaxed and fell to his lap. “Oh, you heard about that? It was a humdinger of a fight…just words you know, but Major Cavanaugh can cut them down quicker than what's what that way. That's what led to it.”

“Led to what?” asked Johnny.

“The joke. Delacroix got on his high horse about the Major, calling him and the troop all sorts of things. Well, we all got to talking how nice it would be to take him down a peg or two. And now…I don't know. Maybe Monty did take the money…but it doesn't sound like him.”

Scott blew out a breath. This was like pulling taffy with one hand. “Take what money?”

“Delacroix offered Monty some money to take his horse somewhere before everything happened. Monty turned him down. At first anyways…I guess.”

“So what do you know about Delacroix anyway?”

He raised his chin a little, met Johnny's question with an open stare. “I know he practically followed me here. Wanted to know where Monty was hiding. I told him he'd better get in line. The whole company wants to know where he is.

Watkins swallowed, shored up some resolve and sounded tough all of a sudden. “Monty's a good kid. One of the best riders we got. He likes the Army, and that's what makes this whole business so funny. He wouldn't do anything to get the Major in trouble. Miss Alice would sure have something say about it, too, for that matter.”

“Miss Alice?” Scott asked.

“Monty's aunt. She's his only family. They lived together on a farm straight outside of town, until he signed up. Real nice lady, she's blue through and through.”

The corporal threw his napkin on the table, patted his uniform down for change. “Say, I gotta go.”

Scott shook his head. “We'll take care of this. Get back to post before they think you're missing, too.”

Johnny dug into his front pocket and brought out a silver coin. “The way I see it we have two ways to go. Call it. Heads, it's the White Dove. Tails, it's the aunt.”



Chapter 8

He'd never had much luck with coin tosses. The Montgomery farm, located a few miles shy of the city limits, wasn't the most grandest in San Diego, but it wasn't the most modest, either. And that put it right in the middle of the curve—average. Maybe a little less than average. The house paint was chipped, but someone had a fine hand in carving the porch railing with its elaborate curlicues. Scott looked past it and saw an unlit candle in the window.  It was an old practice: keeping the light lit for a returning soldier, so he could find his way home. Perhaps Miss Montgomery kept it lit for her nephew. Maybe he was already home and she didn't want anyone to know.  

House and barn were set off from the road and hidden behind a windbreak of poplar trees. So hidden, if you weren't looking in the right direction, you'd have missed the weatherworn “Fresh Peaches” and “Butter for Sale” signs next to the yellow lump of a dog laying belly up in the sun. If it hadn't been for the upside down growl, Scott would have missed the dog altogether, blending like he did with the dirt. But there it was, lip curled with the effort of canine conversation, one eye straining behind a floppy inside-out ear to see if Scott was worth the time to roll over.

Patch snorted to a stop on the hard packed dirt drive and they all eyed each other. Before the dog could make the twist to right himself, the screen door squeaked on its hinges. Miss Alice Montgomery, he presumed.

It was his week for talking to elderly ladies.

In this case, while older like Mrs. Delacroix, it didn't appear there was anything small about her. Sturdy, pioneer type in red checks with laced, worn boots. Despite the heat, she wore a mealy grey sweater, pulled tight around her, just like her suspicion. Broad face with sharp cheekbones, eyes even sharper, she burned a stare right through him. She wasn't going to invite him—a man she didn't know—into her house.

“Is Private Montgomery here?”

A few moments of scrutiny under grey eyebrows. “Are you from the post?” she asked.

“Yes. I've been working with Major Cavanaugh.” It came quick enough and was halfway truthful, but he winced at the lie, felt it branded on his forehead. His own tiny scarlet letter.

By the time he dismounted and walked to the house, the dog had rolled over and gotten up to take a few disinterested sniffs of trouser. Apparently, Scott wasn't threatening enough to warrant a full out and out investigation because it flopped down at the end of the porch with an irritated groan. The woman took it as a sign and opened the door a bit more.

After introductions were made and he'd explained he was looking for Private Montgomery—just wanted to talk, mind you—she let him in.

The main floor gave the impression of one big room, mostly parlor with peeling rose-on-rose wallpaper. A wood stove and pock-marked kitchen table were shoved off to the side. The table legs offered the same unique look as the porch had, someone had real skill. She offered him coffee, from the frying pan.

The house smelled of wood smoke, herbs and…old. Cluttered, but in a comfortable way. Bric-a-brac adorned the fireplace mantle from stem to stern. A water glass filled with the same posies he had seen in the garden at the side of the house offered a bit of color. The horsehair sofa, set at an angle to get the most warmth from the fire, had hand-sewn lace on each arm. A dent in one cushion showed a favorite place to sit.

He wanted to roam the room, lift up the few knickknacks and peer into the hidey-hole under the stairwell to the second floor, but good manners prevented that. A picture, enclosed in a heavy-looking carved frame had a position of importance beside the lamp on the corner table.

“Are you going to sit?”

“Yes, I'll sit.” He tore his eyes away from the picture and sat at the kitchen table. The first sip of oil-slicked coffee was terrible, didn't have high hopes for the second, but he drank anyway.

Probably used to men who gulped and got, she held the towel-covered handle of the frying pan in one hand, looking expectant. She was going to offer more coffee as soon as he sucked down a reasonable amount.

He drank, let her pour again and finally she sat, only to pop up again to the cupboard for a plate of cookies. They were overly sweet, with a hint of peach, an odd taste hitting his palate on the swallow.

“What's the matter with them?” she barked.

Scott jumped, almost tipped over his coffee, and looked at the half-eaten cookie in his hand.

“I won't stand for airs. This is a working farm. What we have is hard enough to come by.”

He swallowed the rest and swiped the crumbs away from his chin with his hand for lack of a better napkin. “They're good,” he lied. The second one in altogether too short a time.

She beamed. “It's the ginger.” Then the smile left. “Let's get this right out in the open.” She regarded him for several moments, her eyes a shade of cloudy green. “You're not from the post.”

The scarlet letter blazed, it was always hard to fool old people, they'd seen everything. “No, I'm not. My name is Scott Lancer and my father, brother and I own a ranch in the San Joaquin valley. We're looking for a horse, and your nephew.”

Her sharpness was back. Wary. “Think the two are tied together, Mr. Lancer?”

“Quite possibly.” He nodded then looked over to the picture. The afternoon light caught on the frame, changed its color from deep brown to orange.

“What's got you so interested over there?” She expected an answer. Mrs. Delacroix came to mind again. Were all the old ladies of San Diego like this, or did his luck just run in two's?

Scott felt his neck redden at being caught. “It's a handsome frame.”

Her face softened and she appeared younger. “My nephew did that. Handy, like his father,” she said firmly, like he should know. “My brother whittled any wood he could get his hands on, Osage orange and maple were his favorites. Hard wood for a hard man. He started as a young man, carried on in the Army, while on bivouac.” Past tense, brisk matter-of-factness—her brother had been gone for a while.

She fetched the daguerreotype and pointed to the impossibly young-looking Captain sitting outside a white field tent. A penknife was thrust into the log near his boot, curled shavings underfoot. An unfinished project or idle hands? A tattered flag draped his lap, the stripes cascading down one leg, almost to the ankle. He was letting the blue float in his hand in reverence, as careful with it as if it was made of butterflies. The weight of the world was in his vacant eyes, the slouched posture and torn, dirt-smeared jacket. Everything dull and used up, except his conviction.

“This is my younger brother, Captain James Montgomery. Volunteered to go east almost as soon as war broke out.” Patted the frame, lost in thought. “He died in another battle not too long after this was taken. The telegram arrived two weeks late. I had a feeling something was wrong on that day, but I couldn't tell what.”

She looked up. “We liked to think the events of the rest of the country wouldn't touch us, but we were wrong. He believed in what he fought for, a good man in a unit filled with good men, doing what was necessary for the republic.”

Scott couldn't break her gaze, but he wanted to. He wanted to find where the boy was hiding, where the horse was located, wanted to ask a hundred questions of this farm woman and the young Private. But the only thing he could think about was the dead. Her eyes were locked tight with his. “I know,” he said.

That seemed to satisfy her and she gave a surprised nod. “I see that you do.”

She blew out a heavy breath, sent stray cookie crumbs tumbling along the polished sheen of the table. “At first, James didn't mind the being away from home—although his son and wife were here in California—he loved the Army, believed the cause. Then his letters changed.”

“What happened?”

She flicked her eyes to him. A bleakness in them made Scott want to turn away. “A strategy gone wrong, five young men killed. They were the same age as my nephew is today. He was different after that.”

She hunted the loose crumbs and pushed them together in front of her. Changing her mind, she scooped them off the table into her waiting hand and dusted them onto the plate. Her fingers strayed to the rim, lightly rubbing the blue flower pattern. “Some accused him of not being an attentive leader, of causing those boys' deaths. There wasn't supposed to be a battle that day, no engagements were ordered. They were caught off-guard…how could anyone fault him for not knowing?”

Her face was turned away, mouth set in a frown. “Some families have big noses or funny teeth or the fits that run through their generations. The Montgomery's are military, Mr. Lancer. My father and his father before him. James, too. It's what the men of my family do and my nephew is no exception.”

Her hand slapped lightly on the table: enough. Scott waited, but nothing more came. She got up and took the plate to the washing pan on the counter and worked the pump until it wheezed out a thin stream of water, rinsing the dish off. Moving slowly, she gathered a yellowed towel from the stove door handle and dried the china, setting it back in the cupboard with infinite care.

“He was all of twenty-three when he lost those five men, a year later he died.” She teased some flyaway hair back into the bun at the nape of her neck, studied him. “You'd know something about that, wouldn't you?”

Scott couldn't utter a word, had been skewered as if Miss Montgomery was armed with a saber. The scabbard thrown away and the blade thrust to target.

“It's not so hard. I can see it around your eyes. You're carrying something in those shadows. Army?”

“Yes.”

“You were young then. Too young.”

Thunder rumbled in the distance. She cocked her head at the sound, furrowed her eyebrows, fanning wrinkles across her cheeks. In a land filled with sun, it was an abnormality. “Well, it's rain,” she muttered, more to her self than Scott. “I should shut the barn, the milk cow will get out. Stupid animal won't know what to do with this weather.”

She leaned over the kitchen pump, one hand on a sill filled with green-spotted peaches and clay pots of parsley and rosemary. Pulled aside the window curtain. “Maybe not, it looks to be passing by.” Disappointment threaded her voice. “We don't have near enough rain here. Funny, being so close to the ocean. You'd think it'd rain all the time.” She let the curtain fall. “Now that doesn't make a lick of sense, does it? You wanted to talk about my nephew?”

The change in topics was dizzying. He twisted in his chair to look at her and kicked something under the table with his boot. “The horse my brother and I are looking for originally belonged to Mr. Edward Delacroix of the White Dove Ranch. I'm trying to find your nephew to talk with him about it. Or see if he knows the whereabouts of the horse.” It banked against the table leg and rolled. A coin maybe, silver and shiny.

His nose at cookie plate level, he reached under his chair to pick it up. Almost there, a hard curve of metal against his fingertips. It wasn't a coin, it was a uniform button.

Miss Montgomery shifted, just a rustle of gingham against the steel front of stove.

He heard the movement, which should have given him some advantage. But no, his world exploded into sheer white light that bleached everything to oblivion.



Chapter 9

He ought to be dead. That thought was common enough after spending a year in a Confederate prison, right up there with the grass is green in April. Still, better to be alive. Wherever he was at—assumed it was the horsehair sofa—it was uncomfortable. A spring had escaped its mooring, screwed itself into his back. Eyes heavy, head pounding, there was a scrape of chair across kitchen floorboards and a surprising voice.

“Thank you,” he heard Johnny murmur low, perhaps not wanting to disturb, and a slide of crockery across the table. Adding, “It's been a hard time for him lately.”

Alice answered. “He said he was in the Army.”

“Mm-hm. Cavalry, in the war back east.”

A scrape of pan and her voice carried an air of wonderment. “He didn't tell me that he was cavalry.”

I should get up , he thought. He couldn't see into the kitchen, only the brown and grey hairs of the sofa, the peeling roses on the wall and the watchful eyes of Captain Montgomery. A blanket had been thrown over him, the knitted afghan. Gloriously soft and warm.

“Scott's not one to say much about it. He was a lieutenant, in charge of a company.”

“You sound proud.”

Johnny's voice was indistinct; he couldn't make out the answer.

“He's talkin' about going back in…” Louder this time, still some heat there.

“You don't approve?”

“Scott has a place at the ranch, if he'd only see it. Doesn't need to prove himself, I know what kind of man he is,” and Johnny's voice was different. Soft, a little sad around the edges.

Must have fallen asleep, because when he opened his eyes, the shadows along the wall had deepened a bit. A squeak of the front door and musical notes—rolling spurs—roamed into the kitchen. Odd because Johnny didn't bring his this trip.

I should really get up . A white hot poker lanced through his head when he levered to an elbow. He relaxed back, almost melted, into the sofa. Warm...safe.

He must have closed his eyes again, because it was an effort to get them open. When he did, it was to a room of mournful looking people staring back at him. Maybe he'd made a noise. Perhaps the obituary wasn't that far off after all.

Johnny squatted down beside the sofa, cupped a hand behind Scott's head. “Yeah, that's a Number 4-sized knot, all right.”

“A…number four?”

“Size of the frying pan. She walloped you good.”

Scott pulled away from Johnny's probing fingers. “You know that…how?”

“Nothing to talk about here.” He grinned a satyr's smile.

Miss Montgomery's lips clamped together like this whole affair was his fault. Her hands shook, but that was age, the rest of her was rock solid.

Scott squinted up. “Madam, between you, the dog and the frying pan, there shouldn't be any problem with security.”

Her veined hands came together, tightened and squeezed until the knuckles were white. “I didn't know. You mentioned the horse then Delacroix. I thought you were in cahoots with that ugly man. I didn't think, I just…” She pantomimed the act of bringing down her pan on his head, and the throb behind his eyes ratcheted up a few notches. “Then your brother arrived, asked for you. His story matched what you said.”

He tried to ease his way off the cushions, because his back hurt and the whole conversation wasn't making any sense. Johnny was at his elbow in a second pushing him upright while the picture and the peaches and Machado the vaquero—Machado?—swum before his eyes.

Johnny got him moving to the table and pushed a mug of coffee under his nose, then stood brooding by the stove. There was news if Machado accompanied him to the Montgomery farm, but his brother was going to make him wait for it. He wished Johnny would just sit down, it hurt to turn his head to look at him.

He ran his hand up the side of his neck and pushed it into messy hair, closing his eyes since it felt so good, and let the ax fall. “Would you show Johnny your picture, Miss Montgomery?”

A short inhalation of puzzlement, but she got up and went to the side table.

“Brother, meet Captain James Montgomery. See anything familiar?”

Johnny traced his finger around the Captain's sepia image. “Yeah, I do.” A low whistle. “All in the face—the nose and mouth, set of the eyes. It's Jimmy, the kid from the stables.”

Scott cocked his head and she turned towards him. “Miss Montgomery…Alice?” he asked. “Why is Private Montgomery working at Seeley's?”

Her face, milk-white, dipped. “This was my brother's farm. Then he died, and my sister-in-law not a year later. I took it over and raised Jimmy. I owe the bank for repairs to the barn and roof, they'll foreclose without payments. My peaches and butter bring in a few cents, but my nephew shoulders the load. Jimmy started some side work at Seeley's when his Army pay dropped.” She was nearing the end of life, had stayed rooted in this one place for the duration of it, tied by family, memory and love. Loss, too.

“Ma'am, how do you know Delacroix?” Johnny asked.

A little shrug. “He was here yesterday, looking for Jimmy.”

Machado interrupted. “Señor Delacroix left again this morning. Like he has been doing for the past week. La madre was most upset.” It wasn't hard to tell which side the vaquero was on.

“We think Jimmy's involved with the White Dove's missing mare.” Johnny's eyes crooked in like he was holding something back.

“My nephew wouldn't squander his military time by stealing. He…” She stopped, not because she was at a loss for words it appeared, but because she wanted them to understand. “He's a good soldier. He loves the cavalry, takes pride in being a part of it, like his father. There has to be a reason for all of this.”

“Do you know where he is?” Scott caught himself, unsure at first, then forged ahead. “There could be some danger involved.”

With a brisk wave of her hand, she was up and to the window, pinching out withered strands of parsley in the pot, dipping a finger into the soil here and there. She finally braced both hands on the counter edge. “He stops in as his duties allow. But I haven't seen him in the last two weeks.” She looked out through the glass at the peach trees and sighed. “I was doing a bit of mending for him, he'd lost a button off his shirt and his coat had a rip.”

The damn button, it was still clenched in his hand. Scott dropped it on the table. “So Major Cavanaugh hasn't been here?”

Alice turned around, a question in her eyes. “I haven't spoken with him.”

“Maybe one of us better ride to post and warn the commander,” Johnny said. “Jimmy could be on his way to Red Canyon.”

“Or still at the stables.” Scott wobbled to his feet, the room spun dangerously. “Where's the best place to hide a horse, do you think?”

Johnny smiled. “In plain sight?”

“Exactly.”

“ Señores, I know Devil's Canyon like the back of my hand, if the boy is there, I can find him. I'll ride to the post and tell the Major.”

Scott nodded. The room had centered, along with his resolve. “We'll find your nephew, Miss Montgomery.”

Alice looked up, and there was a transformation of sorts—hope blossomed, trust as well. Whatever she found in his face, Scott suspected it was old.

“Bring him home,” she whispered.

Scott saw a longing, so deep and vast it shook him. The dead held close. A familiar sight, mirrored in his own eyes when he'd had too much to drink. It rang him like bell.

~o~o~o~

“We don't take chances, Scott,” Johnny warned. Like a lecture from his grandfather on the evils of going too near the harbor at night, Scott knew the ‘we' was probably meant to be a ‘you'. He'd come across this mood of Johnny's once before. When they followed Cassidy after he fled the ranch in his moment of soul-searching.

“Excellent idea.” In theory. Anger came too easy; the war had made sure of it. He was going to put every ounce he had into getting the boy out safe.

It was early evening by the time they arrived to the stables. The doors were closed, corral emptied. They split apart, his brother going around back while he went through the front.

Scott couldn't see a thing in the stables. That was a problem, a big problem, because he heard a shriek. It wasn't Johnny's voice, thank God, he'd know that anywhere. It had weight to it, like that of a big man. Someone who was located away from Scott, a good distance away. The sound clipped off mid-way, and now silence reigned.

And still he couldn't see for the nervous horses in front of him. He could smell kerosene. A lantern, or torch, had been lit perhaps. The center of the barn soared to a high pitch, its rafters in shadows, but the hayloft was directly above the stalls.

Thready demands from two men wafted over the turmoil of stamping hooves and whinny's. One was Delacroix, but the other voice was deep, had a nasal quality to it. An answer came from Jimmy, thin and higher-pitched. A profound and stern ‘no'. It was a mistake as thumps and thuds mingled with moans.

Johnny came to sliding stop next to him, crouched and silent, gun held high. He'd heard the voices ahead.

The Frenchman started in again, “Ainsworth died an ungainly death in that cave of his, and you'll do the same if you don't tell me where my horse is.” There was silence. The desperation in Delacroix's voice was telling. “How much do you really value the animals in this stable?”

Delacroix was going to set the barn afire if he didn't get what he wanted. Jimmy was stubborn, argued not for his life, but for the trapped horses at stake.

Scott started up; Johnny grabbed his arm and shook his head.

He knew what Johnny was about to do, had signaled as much. Release the horses; let them flood the barn in their panic. He watched him go to the nearest stall.

Easing out of cover, Scott slipped into the next stall up. Something caught his eye, and it took a moment to discern what it was from the shadows. It was a boot heel, protruding from a stall a dozen feet ahead. He tried to get Johnny's attention, but his brother was intent on untying the horse. A few moments passed and he crept forward.

It was Frank, the man who had led out their horses just this morning. Blood ran down the side of his face from a ragged cut above the eye. Alive, but not moving.

There was a rumble under his feet, not unlike a locomotive, and the first horse, a grey percheron, wild eyed and drizzling foam, leapt towards the doorway. Delacroix and the other man turned at the unexpected noise. Johnny was already pushing ahead. No sense in doing things by halves, apparently.

Jimmy, though he didn't look at Scott, was drawing Delacroix away, bit by bit by backing up against the wall. That left only one other. Scott didn't question it, didn't think—he moved. Took the long steps to the bull of a man holding the gun and tackled him around the waist, getting a firm grip on striped cotton and ropey sinews. The ground flew up and hit hard, tumbling both. Headfirst, he bore the brunt of an ancient stall as they crashed through it. Dazed, he rolled to the side, pain shooting through his shoulder.

Meat hooks of hands, reeking of tobacco, curled into his shirt and he was slammed back against a saddle tree. But his attacker wasn't concerned; he was amused, almost smiling.

“We seem to be at a crossroads, friend,” Scott wheezed out. “Why don't we just shake hands and forget about all this?”

The man's first blow plowed into Scott's exposed side like a hammer. Despite all his best intentions, he felt himself falling. He heard Johnny shout, but lost the voice somewhere in the white noise flooding his ears.

Scott was lifted up and hit again, worked over like any good Confederate prison guard worth his salt. He blocked a fist coming at him and took a second for aim and another for luck, then rammed his head into the man's forehead. Yellow stars burst like fireworks behind his eyes, but his opponent staggered back, grip broken. A third second and he flung a haymaker into the broad face and watched the man go down.

“Hold it.” Delacroix emerged from the shadows of the lantern into view. He pushed Jimmy ahead of him. They came a few steps closer and stopped. Jimmy looked half-awake, his left eye almost swollen shut. Blood streaked his forehead, spattered his shirt.

Scott bent, caught his breath. “Let him go.”

“Not likely. He knows where my horse is and if he doesn't talk, this whole barn will go up in flames.” Delacroix shook Jimmy's arm. “You wouldn't want that, kid, would you?”

“Why the charades, Delacroix?”

The Frenchman inhaled sharply. “Her. Always telling me what to do. I'm not a child anymore. You've seen the ranch, Mr. Lancer, the Colombe Blanche isn't exactly flowing with money. Cheval de Pais is my seed money out of here. I never intended to sell her to your father, but the fact I deluded him gives me much pleasure. A pity he didn't simply wire money with the acceptance telegram, no?”

Scott eyed the pistol pressed against Jimmy's side. “And that man in the cave?”

“Ainsworth? Expendable, when I lost the horse. My only mistake was underestimating the Private's canniness. I didn't realize he took the job because of his precious cavalry. Now the joke's on him.”

A board creaked overhead. Delacroix turned his gun away from Jimmy and pointed it towards Scott. “Move out into the light.”

He put his hands up, palms outward. “Who was on the ridge yesterday, firing those shots?”

Delacroix shrugged, not nearly as impressive as his mother, and tipped his chin to the man behind Scott. “A warning from Hudson. The fact he brought down the cave was genius. Too bad it didn't finish the job.”

Scott tensed. He stepped to the center of the aisle, and cast a quick glance to his revolver, lying not five feet away.    

There was a commotion down the dark hall between the stalls. All at once two horses came thundering around the corner, mingled with the sound of Johnny's yells. Delacroix stepped back, knocked over the lantern. Flames caught quickly, hopped and skipped into the hayloft above them.

The Frenchman's gun roared and Scott rolled to the side, snatched up his pistol. He came up around the milling horses and fired, the shot going into Delacroix, throwing him back into the stall.

Smoke eddied under the stable roof as part of it caught fire. He ran to Jimmy, grabbed two handfuls of shirt, and dragged him to the corral.

Far away, the sound of a bell clanging ripped through what was left of the daylight. Local city volunteers able to handle the buckets and ladders. Relief was coming.

But not for Scott. He couldn't see Johnny anywhere. With effort, he stood and swept his eyes to the stables. Anger mounting, he took two steps towards the fire.

Johnny and Delacroix toppled out of the doors, falling over each other, followed by the Frenchman's bully.  He saw the look on Johnny's face and hoped it wasn't the same one he wore, but probably was: rage with a side of mind-numbing fear.

Jimmy grabbed at his pants leg. “Frank…he's still in there.”

Scott broke into a jog, turned it into a sprint.

“No, Scott!” Johnny rasped out.

He hit the flames lapping at the doorway in a dead run.

The horses out completely, it made traveling the aisle in the stable easy until the smoke had him hunched. Finding Frank, he swung the man up and over his shoulder and started back out, nearly coming to one knee with the weight and heat. He gasped and more smoke entered his already too-full lungs. The end of the stable was engulfed in searing fire.

As his coughing fit ceased, he peered through streaming eyes and aimed for the front door, or what he hoped was the door. One step, then another down the dark tunnel. Garbled shouts came from outside in Spanish and English.

The flames less there, he hitched Frank's arm higher around his neck and looked for an opening.

Scott smelled singed hair when he stumbled through the entryway half-dragging, half-pulling his cargo. The volunteer firemen were already taking control of horses and people, water. The area thick with smoke and confusion. Frank's weight was taken off and he listed leeward without the balance.

There was a clatter of boots on cobblestones. “You okay?” Johnny's voice was rough around the edges, a little winded.

His hand was cool on Scott's shoulder. It was only then he realized his shirt was torn. Johnny pulled the fabric away. A bright scrape slashed across the scar left over from Lewis' bullet. It showed lines of scratchy red, but wasn't deep.

His brother's face went hard under the smoke smudges. “What were you tryin' to prove goin' back into that fire?”

Scott looked at him. One moment, held. Johnny finally looked away.

Johnny was his brother—a good one, if he was any judge—but he just didn't know, and Scott could never explain fully. He rubbed his cheek. All he wanted was a bath and a cup of coffee that didn't taste like oil.

He shifted his gaze to Private Montgomery, who'd come up to them. Beaten, but still in one piece. Scott saw it in his eyes: a gnawing grief that the death of Ainsworth and the destruction left behind by Delacroix was connected to him. Frank, too, was wholly together, resting against the wheel of the pump wagon. They were hurting, but safe.

“Jimmy, where is that horse, anyway?” Johnny asked.

The boy took a deep, shaky breath. “Right here, all the time. That dark bay you looked at the first day—Olive?—that's the horse Delacroix hired me to take away for him.”

Scott could see the link now. Jimmy named Cheval de Pais, the Horse of Peace, Olive. As in olive branch. He nearly groaned.

They walked to the corral. Olive was standing placid enough, snuffling for a treat when they walked up. Jimmy took his handkerchief, wet it in the trough, and scrubbed her flank.

In the waning evening twilight, the white beneath the brown stain was clearly visible, a few dark leopard spots thrown in for good measure.

The back of his neck itched where cinders had fallen. “Why didn't you just give him the horse?”

The boy looked down to his boots. “It started as something to get a little extra money.” He brought a shoulder up, his face rueful. “Then the boys started talking about a little payback for that fandango in town. I took the job and found out.”

“Found out what?”

“Olive's gonna have a foal. Figured something hinky was up, so I kept her until I could sort things out. Then Ainsworth was killed.”

“And you went AWOL.”

“Yessir. Not because I was scared or anything, it's just that it wouldn't do to have this brought up against the company or the Major. He takes real good care of us.” Montgomery shook his head. “It wouldn't do at all.”

~o~o~o~

Scott winced at the look Alice gave her nephew, who shifted from one foot to the next in front of the big kitchen table. The look, hitched with quiet sigh, was rougher than any grizzled first sergeant and set her twin points of disapproval and disappointment quite clearly. A deaf and blind man could see it and Jimmy was neither. His battered head drooped towards his chest as he shuffled outside to the waiting Johnny.

Alice was frightened, he could see it the way she kneaded the peach beside a new plate of cookies. It would be mush before too much longer. He wondered what would give her comfort when Jimmy was taken back to post to face an unknown future. The carved wooden porch, baking, her brother's picture?

She cocked her head. “You're a thinker.”

It wasn't what he expected, but he smiled a little, could feel his face pull from the heat of the fire.

She paused, rolled the peach to the very end of her fingertips then back to her palm like a billiard ball. All she needed was a span of green felt and a cue. “Headstrong, confident. Yes, a thinking man.”

He looked away, embarrassed. “Sometimes I think too much,” he murmured. Reached for the plate with soot-blackened fingers, and crammed a cookie into his mouth, wishing he was outside with Johnny and Private Montgomery.

“Honest men don't seem to talk about what happened during the war. Maybe it's the man coming out. Something happened to you along the way, didn't it?”

Scott could only stare.

Hand stilled, her head bobbed back and forth. “Each of those five deaths burrowed deep inside my brother. But I think he was thankful for it in a way, they were a reminder of the cost. I could tell from the tone of my brother's letters it got harder every day to save the integrity of the republic he fought for. Of the men he respected and led into battle. Those deaths, and the others, gave him the courage to forge ahead, to take up again when others couldn't. His words, not mine.”

Her green eyes filled. “Mr. Lancer—Scott, if I may—regardless of what happens with Jimmy, I want to say thank you for your service.”

Shocked, he started to shake his head. “Alice, you know nothing about me.”

She took his hand in her rough, calloused one. “I'm old, Scott. I've seen all kinds of things in my lifetime. I trust my feelings. I think I can understand, perhaps a bit, of what that time was like for you. My brother gave that to me. You brought Jimmy back, most men wouldn't have bothered.”

The curtains bumped against the potted parsley with a change in the breeze, and Scott sat for a moment, considering. Remembering the men caught outside the tunnel. How they looked to him to lead the way, to protect them. They—and he—never asked for any of it. Had their whole lives in front of them, chock full of their own convictions. He still did.

He'd known it all along, but needed to hear it aloud and believe again. Scott looked at her—this stranger—and she smiled her encouragement, patted his arm with both her hands.

His eyes opened wide, rounded—certain.

Alice nodded. A period to the moment. As sure of her thoughts as that peach under her hand. The nod released something in Scott and his what-ifs flooded out, in their stead was something refreshingly clear. With its own kind of sustainment.

Later, when he mounted Patch, he straightened his back with something other than the guilt that had fed him for weeks, for years. He had a way ahead, a definite route to take.



Chapter 10

The sergeant standing under the ramada actually smiled at him and Johnny as they rode to the commander's office. A world away from what it was the other day. Scott reined in his mount and looked around. The mood of the post was different this morning, or maybe he was seeing it through different eyes.

Watkins even greeted them this time. A free, full meal could do wonders. But Scott really knew the bonhomie was because Private Montgomery was back in the fold.

The corporal stood, an eager grin on his face. “The Major said if you were to come to post, that you were to go right in.”

A quick knock with a corresponding bellow of “Enter!”, and they were whisked into the commander's office. This time there were two chairs in front of Major Cavanaugh's desk.

“Things are looking up, gentlemen. You see I finally have seats.” The officer looked a little chagrined. “It turns out I have a master carver in my unit.”

Scott looked closer at the chairs. The decorative patterns on the stiles were distinctive and he'd seen them before. “Private Montgomery?”

“Yes. These two to start, but soon we'll have chairs for every office. Pounding nails and chopping wood keeps him away from the horses. That's his real punishment.”

“No hanging?” Johnny asked.

“I don't question regulations—usually—but the Private has returned to post.” Major Cavanaugh went to the window and looked out. “Montgomery learned a hard lesson this time around, and he's the type of boy who'll carry the consequences with him. As terrible as it may seem, he grew up a little yesterday.”

Beneath the gruff exterior and bluster, the officer had his finger on the pulse point of the post. An extraordinary leader.

“You care for your men.”

“You're accusing me of a heinous crime, Mr. Lancer.” The officer turned around and gave what seemed to Scott, a rare smile. The crinkles at the corners of his eyes erased some of the hardness from his face. “I was asked yesterday if I chose the command over my men. As a matter of fact, I do. But my command is made up of men. If I disregarded them, I wouldn't have one. They make the mission.”

The major reached into his bottom desk drawer and withdrew a bottle and two glasses. “Bourbon, gentlemen? The finest in San Diego.” He tipped his coffee dregs out into a clay pot of greenery on his bookshelf and poured in a healthy amount of liquor, likewise filling up the two glasses.

He held up his mug. “To privates and spotted horses, may they never cross paths again.”

“I think I can drink to that,” Scott said and held up his glass.

“What happened to the horse, anyway?” Major Cavanaugh asked.

“Mrs. Delacroix had no intention of selling the mare, she knew Olive was pregnant and what it could mean for the Colombe Blanche.”

“Canny woman. She wants to hire Montgomery away from the cavalry to care for the horse as unfortunately her son won't be able to do it anymore. After he recovers from his wound, Delacroix will more than likely find himself in jail. Stealing your own property is one thing, but even the council can't turn a blind eye to murder.”

A shadow passed over the major's eyes. “Private Montgomery explained in detail what happened at Seeley's. Because of the two of you, he's alive.” He looked pointedly at Scott. “We could use good men like you in the corps again.”

Johnny flicked his eyes to Scott, almost a dare. A week ago, he would have snapped at the offer, without really knowing why.

“Perhaps sweeten the pot with a little extra rank?”

Shifting in his chair, Johnny made a low noise in his throat, but didn't say anything.

Something inside him tilted. Something known and familiar, although Scott would be hard pressed to actually name it.

“It's tempting, very tempting, but…no thanks. I've a home to return to.”

Whatever the feeling was, it was good and easy and had to do with Murdoch, Johnny and Lancer, but mostly himself. He'd changed.

The major looked into his mug. “Sometimes the risk, the cost, of actions can't be foretold.”

“Experience, Major?” Scott asked.

“We were all young, once, Mr. Lancer. Hopefully it gives me greater insight.”

He, Tom and Charles had all left Boston thinking they would ride into battle, scare off the Confederates and be home within the month, two at the most. Back to a normal life. But it was never normal again and it had taken him this long to figure out why.

He drained the last of his bourbon and stood. It was time to go; he and Johnny had another engagement.

~o~o~o~

The salt water stung, bit at the scrape on his shoulder, but it hardly mattered. He could spend the rest of the day out in the bay, just bobbing with the waves, letting them carry him wherever they damn well pleased. He stretched out his arms, floated.

Tipping his face to the sun, he knew that by this time tomorrow his nose would probably peel. He didn't care.

“Hey, are you gonna eat these?” Johnny shouted from the not too distant dock. After a paltry half hour in the water his brother had given up and gotten dressed, went to the hotel. And now he was back, waving a brown bag.

“Eat what?”

“These cookies. Alice sent' em over.”

Scott dove under the surface, feeling his mind empty of everything. Clean. When his last breath bubbled away, he aimed for the surface and popped out through water. He shook his head free of droplets and imagined he looked like a disheveled, wet spaniel. “No, you go ahead.”

“She sent a note.”

“I'll get it later.”

“Scott? Are you gonna get out of there sometime?”

He sighed, but not unhappily. He was comfortable in his own skin. Sated. Felt he had earned it, finally. Still, the letting go had been difficult.

He'd held on to those sixteen men for seven years without really understanding. Scott thought about that. About the place of things in his life, all the memories, that had no practical purpose anymore. To continue on was the meaning for him; it's what those memories meant now. Whether he decided to keep them close or not was up to him, but he had needed to let go first. Somehow Alice's words had made that happen.

“I'm coming!” he yelled.

“Have a good time?” Johnny asked, but his attention was on the water.

“Glorious. You should have stayed.”

They dangled their legs off the weathered wooden slats of the dock. Johnny opened up the bag and took out a cookie, held it in his hand. “So, you all right?” They both knew he wasn't asking about Scott's shoulder.

He nodded. “I think so.”

There was silence, just the sound of thoughtful chewing, a quiet swallow, the ocean waves lapping against the dock. Scott let his leg swing, knocking his bare heel against the support beam. “About…”

“I don't need to know. But I would like to hear about that California Battalion someday.”

No secrets anymore, but there was still privacy. Johnny would grant him that.

Regardless, his brother was thinking about other things. He held up what was left of his cookie, as if to block the sun. “These are really tasty. Alice is a good woman.” Spoken around a mouthful of crumbs, complete with lip-smacking.

They looked at each other and laughed. Trust him to equate goodness with a sound pastry recipe, but he did have a point.

Johnny rolled the top down on the bag and wiped his hand on the side of his pants. Then he suggested a beer and late lunch at the Cosmopolitan. Afterwards, a ride to the outskirts of San Diego to see a frying pan-wielding farm woman so they could thank her properly.

Scott readily agreed.



Epilogue

He placed his coffee—it was Murdoch's chicory blend, and it was oh-so-good—on his bureau, and knelt down beside his trunk, opened the lid. The brown-paper wrapped package was there, as unmolested as he left it.

He ran three fingers under the twine holding the paper together and it snapped free.

Dan had said he'd send a picture of the company, as it was before it all began. And so he did.

Opequon. It seemed to start there for Scott. It was a mess, the beginning of Grant's attempt to get around Lee's flank. A series of running battles over a crescent-shaped one hundred miles, in underbrush littered with soldier bones from the year before. The first day in that shallow valley was a furnace.

The pad of his thumb caressed the glass. The rows of solemn faces under the unit flag gave a false impression—they'd never been that gloomy in real life. Dan, most of all. He hadn't so much liked Cassidy as respected him, sometimes just tolerated him, but animosities and differences seemed to melt away with the first fired bullets. Brotherhood was cemented in prison.

Johnny stuck his head in through the doorway. “Murdoch wants to talk to us about the barn repair.”

Scott looked up. “I'll be right down.”

Johnny lingered, eyes restlessly touching on the items strewn out from the trunk. Pensive, he tapped the wood of the doorframe, turned to leave.

“Wait…” He wondered if the future scared his brother, if he ever planned beyond his next meal, the next horse to be broken, the next chore to be done. There were different kinds of battlefields, different prisons. He'd always kept his eye on the future, but at one time—several, if he was truthful—it had scared him .

Scott stood and held out the picture. “I want to show you something.”

It didn't anymore.


~end~
09/2011
Revised: 10/2013




Author's Notes:

Chapter 2 : The yellow color Scott is referring to when he looks at his shoulder strap is indicative of the cavalry. Each corps had their own color to identify occupation: infantry had a blue background, artillery was red, etc. The tradition continues in the Army today.

Chapter 3 : The hotel was once a residence that Juan Lorenzo Bandini built it for his family. The home had seven rooms, an entrance hall, an enclosed courtyard, a corral, and several sheds and barns. It was designed with Spanish Colonial architectural features such as thick adobe walls, muslin ceilings, pane-glass windows, and a brick-lined patio.

After the death of Bandini, Albert Seeley, a stage master, was interested in taking over the building to create a place where travelers could have comfort, style and entertainment at the same time. In the fall of 1869, he celebrated the grand opening of The Cosmopolitan Hotel, having added a second level to the adobe structure.

Chapter 4 : Albert Seeley was a real person who owned the popular Seeley Stables next door to…wait for it…the Cosmopolitan Hotel (which he bought in the 1860s). It's now a museum in Old Town San Diego.

And I've taken such liberties with this fic! In 1885, Don Joaquin Machado owned El Rosarito Ranch in Rosarito, Mexico (where Johnny met Dona Elena). The property was first granted to his father, Don Jose Manuel Machado, back in 1825, and he made it into the very first ranch in the modern-day Rosarito area.

Little side note: While it's true about the color of cavalry horses, during the Civil War the Federal Army separated horses by their color (solids, no spots!), assigning each color to an individual Company. General Custer, and other ranking US Army officers, believed that during the stress and confusion of battle it would be easier for soldiers to locate their assigned Company by merely seeing similar color horses.

Chapter 5 : The post really has had a colorful history. The San Diego Barracks was vacated in June 1866, with the last company—Infantry—leaving for Arizona. Reoccupied in 1869 through 1871, it was a supply depot. Then G Company—Cavalry—reactivated the post as the New San Diego Post in 1876. The cavalry was a good bet as there were several uprisings along the border. Finally, the post was fully deactivated and abandoned in 1921 and the property acquired by San Diego for future use.

During the post's several periods of inactivity, the city of San Diego would occupy and put to use the old buildings. The barracks building was turned into a school at one point.

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