The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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BarbA

 

 

Curiouser And Curiouser
Thanks to Shallowz for the beta and to Kali for her thoughts and comments. My sincerest apologies to Lewis Carroll.

1 . Taking a Tumble

Sometimes, a bolt from the blue shook his world with so much force he didn't know how he was supposed to act. Didn't know whether to shout in indignation or ignore the situation altogether and revel in deniability. Capture by the Confederates was one, the Pinkerton agent and his missive was another. This was the third.

“Hey,” Johnny said, sidling up to brush against his elbow. From what he said, his brother had driven cattle before, once to the coast and another to northern California. It may have been a desperate measure at a low point, as he had hinted at, but it was twice as much cattle experience as Scott had.   

“What?” Scott gazed at the torn gloves from yesterday. They would be serviceable if he could re-stitch the fingertips on the right hand.

“Is all this about that well you two were talkin' about the other day?”

He took a deep breath, pondered Johnny's question. Finally spoke, “Last night, Murdoch asked me if I had any experience at accounting.” The thought tugged a bitter smile and Johnny may have sensed it, because he turned to look at Scott, altered the unintentional gesture into something deliberate and picked at the stampede strings of his hat.

“Accounting. Can you believe it?” The well discussion had been lengthy, fruitless. The fact he commissioned a preliminary survey already did not sit well: a step over bounds. And now he had five missing cows to add to the mess.

Of course, I plan on staying. Dying to wipe the smirk off Johnny's face, he blurted out the only words that had come to him that first morning in the bedroom. Sheer bravado, if a bit hasty.   

The cowboys and vaqueros—despite being more hesitant towards the newest resident—had imparted their own particular brand of whimsy to his tally: a sopping wet bedroll, burs under his saddle blanket discovered after his horse steeple-chased its way to the stars, sand in his cookware, piss in his coffee. Called him the Patron's son, never offered a hand, or word of encouragement. Their mothers had been Spartans, of that he was certain. After the sheer panic of the last few weeks, they needed something to engage their frustrations. But they had willingly worked beside him, though. He'd noticed that.

“Scott…”

“If that's what he wants, I should apply at the Green River Bank and Trust. Aside from the odd thief, or rancher who defaults on his mortgage, it would be a fairly quiet existence. Steady work. No cows. No digging.”

Johnny nodded in mock sympathy. “Bound to pay more.”

“With fewer saddle sores. Less blisters.”

“Hours are kinda nice. You'd be able to get up later in the mornin'.”

“Weekends and holidays off, too. It would further your cause for the one man deal. Rather, two-man deal.” He said it jokingly, but there was the rub, because his brother looked up, an easy grin on his face, unaware or uncaring of Scott's inner melodramas. The fact of the matter was Johnny had his own peccadilloes to worry about.  

“Look, don't worry about what the old man said.”

It was easy for him to say. His brother smelled like trash fire, unwashed skin and wild. Of things beyond Scott. Already two drives under his belt, along with a host of other western experiences. But what Johnny didn't understand and what Scott couldn't say aloud yet, was that he feared Murdoch was right. The loss of cattle was just one thing in a long line of things destined to make him look foolish in the eyes of cowboys and fathers alike. Like clerking in a button factory or conducting a train, ranching was a profession he had never considered. That roping a moving anything was a disaster. That he didn't know a Hereford from a Longhorn.

Murdoch wasn't just talking about keeping the books when he mentioned accounting. What he really said was: You'll never make it out here if you can't handle a few steers.

Scott folded the gloves in half, stuffed them into his saddlebag. “I need to get the mail.”

“Wait.” Johnny's hand was warm on his arm. “I'll finish up and meet you there, we can stop at the saloon, get a drink.” 

“I think I'd like that,” Scott replied. “It's been a drought of town life this last month.” He mounted, thought about it some more, “I'll see your one and raise you two.”

Johnny smiled. “Don't start without me.”

His brother had better hurry.

Green River was soon before him, the buildings and houses sprawled out, meandering in every direction like an admiral's wheel at the helm. Scott pulled up and tapped his fingers against the pommel. He had ridden from one season into the next with a definitive line of demarcation: vibrancy of spring withering to a brown sheen where trail met the town limits. Green River—well, it was by a river, anyway. Scott tightened the reins, urging his horse forward.

The town was busy, more so than Morro Coyo, the first one he'd chanced to visit thus far in his adventures. That day had left a sour taste in his mouth—being beaten and thrown into the street. An auspicious start, it made exploring the surrounding towns of Spanish Wells and Green River something less than thrilling. Yet here he was.

He looked down the boardwalk, saw the saloon. On the side of the building—a hastily built adobe and frame affair—was a huge and alarmingly bright mural of a robust young lady reclining on a chaise lounge. Her come-hither look was half faded by whitewash, but remained as demure as one could be with breasts the size of cannonballs.

“Shoot me now,” Scott murmured, his brain addled by its sheer audacity. Surely art was in the eye of the beholder, but this artiste was no Monet. He was mentally crossing off any prospective employment in town when he heard a scream.  

His head snapped up. The scream was more of a high-pitched yell, he decided, and it came from within the depths of the mercantile. Scott left his horse and headed towards the sound of escalating din coming from the dry goods section of the store.

He jerked back in surprise when a creature the size of a well fed harbor rat bolted out between two barrels, bounced off a tripod of brooms, and wedged itself around the door and out. A split second later, a harried man stormed through the same barrels, cast wildly about before lodging his eyes on Scott. Not one of those kindly, grandfatherly—and the picture in his mind was not of his own grandfather—type of retailers with sticks of peppermint or drops of horehound. This one looked as though he'd have no problem finding whatever it was that galloped outside and drop-kicking it through the store's plate glass window. So Scott maintained his composure, forced him to ask. 

“Did you see…” and the shopkeeper trailed off, only to take a great gulping breath. “Did you see a dog?”

Even though he'd known Johnny for only a short while, he knew what his brother's answer would be to that. Instead, Scott nodded. “It's ah…” and waved vaguely towards the door.

“Thanks, Mister.” With a shuddering heave, the man pivoted and trundled off.

Leaving the doorway, Scott passed by a row of lanterns, skirted around a bin of upturned crackers. Eleven o'clock on a Wednesday and the place was deserted. Murdoch had told him the mailroom and the mercantile were somehow attached. Nestled in the back, it was a veritable hole in the wall, advertised by the ubiquitous penciled-in “Mail” sign tacked above the opening. He rang the bell, waited, and was greeted by the sound of expiring canned goods. He tapped again, with more force.

“For chrissake's quit leanin' on the bell! I'm coming.”

The voice came from behind him and in the same breathless tenor as the dog-catcher. Rather, judging by his empty hands, the dog-chaser. Exchanging his apron for a black visor, the storekeeper thumped and thudded his way through a side doorway and onto a tall stool.

“Malcolm McDaniel. What do you want?” He sat back on his perch, folded his arms, looking for all intents and purposes like an angry parrot.

Scott gamely forged on. “I'm here to pick up the mail for Lancer.” 

To his credit, Malcolm's face relaxed. “Murdoch Lancer?”

Wondering where this was all going, he nodded.

Malcolm leaned forward. “Then you'd be one of his new sons?”

Still at a loss, he nodded a second time, although the ‘new' pricked the hairs on the back of his neck. “I'm Scott Lancer.”

“I thought so. I was telling my sister just the other day since the Pardee business was done and over with that we'd see a Lancer back in town soon enough.”

The fatted calf wasn't exactly being trotted out, but it was still a better reception than he received in Morro Coyo. As he looked on, Malcolm shuffled a few papers in a drawer and drew out a yellowed note.

“Here it is.” Malcolm licked his pencil nub and scribbled. “Lancer is overdue on payment for goods rendered on the fifth.” His left eyebrow rose a half inch. “Of last month.”   

The side of him that liked everything neat and orderly wept. He took the proffered note, checked the math and shoved it into a hip pocket. “My mail?”

“Oh, yeah, you got a bundle.”

In this case, a bundle meant two newspapers, four letters, one of which was postmarked from Boston, a single sheet Montgomery Ward mailer and a brown-paper wrapped package. The mailer and newspapers had already been well used if the fingerprint smudges were any indication.

Embracing a hopeful countenance, Malcolm edged forward, his grin Christmas big. “Say, uh, that package came from an awful long ways away. We don't get very many things from back east. Must be something important, huh?”

Scott smiled, not with his teeth, and held it up like manna from heaven. “I'm sure it is.” Then tucked it under his arm.

“Aren't you going to open it? It's addressed to you”

“I hadn't thought about it.”

“But it might be, you know, something you should see to.”

Scott looked at the post mark on the package; it had passed from Boston over a month ago. Whatever it held was well past the due date for anything significant. But he slid a finger under the twine anyway.  

“Need a knife?” Malcolm prodded, producing a small one with disturbing alacrity.

The twine snapped off with a ping in two directions and the storekeeper tipped so far forward Scott could smell the tobacco on his breath.

It was a book, a slim volume he could carry in one hand.

“Is that all?” The stool squeaked in protest with the abrupt return of Malcolm's weight.

An envelope was caught in the string. He'd recognize the thick, wandering letters anywhere: Carter, that reprobate.

Boston, March 15th, 1871

Dear Scott, You will laugh at me, and with some reason, when I tell you of my first visit to Tremont Street since your departure, but that is perhaps best saved for another letter. Fear not, good Sir, I defended your honor! I believe there are certain stereotyped phrases customary to congratulate those who venture away from home and hearth. One of them, according to the Boston pater familias, is ‘utter foolishness'. However, knowing you as well as I do, I shall discard all rules and regulations, and wish you joy in the familiar words our friendship warrants, and assume you will find the book of some use. Not as useful as your Thoreau or Emerson perchance, but helpful in your current endeavors nonetheless. If your new home is half as happy as I desire it to be, you will be content. I have every cause to believe you will succeed. Yours most sincerely,

Carter Willoughby



Scott looked from letter to book, laughed quietly in disbelief.

Malcolm's mouth pulled into a half-grin, not quite amused. “Seems to me it's kind of a trifle to be mailing all the way out west. Somebody's idea of a joke or something?”

“Or something.” He placed the letter inside the book and wrapped them both with the paper. “Thank you Mr. McDaniel, I'm off to meet my…the other new son at the saloon.”

“You'll find it just shy of the granary. There's a pretty picture of a gal with…”

Scott held up a hand. “I've already seen it.”

“…a real fancy way about her. An honest-to-goodness Frenchman painted it in exchange for his whiskey. He said her name's Lisette.”

“He must have received the whiskey as advance payment.”

“Huh?”

“The picture? On the outside of the saloon?”

“Oh, no. Crazy Max painted that one night when he got a toot-ful. I'm talking about the one inside, above the bar. The town council already voted on the one outside, they just ran out of whitewash before the job was done. Actually,” Malcolm said, somewhat wistfully, “that one ain't half bad, either.”

Eye of the beholder, indeed.

A man on a mission, Scott crossed the street. He opened the heavy door with one hand, took a long look inside. Just the bartender, a few patrons and the painting above the bar, like Malcolm had warned.

He had a habit of finding things in the oddest places. Their troop saddler turned out to be a conscripted master chef and from that point on they'd had stew, what Sergeant Tomlinson termed Bouillabaisse de Provençal. It was neither bouillabaisse nor Provençal, but all Virginia rock bass and wild onions.

Unlike its country cousin on the outside wall, the painting—as Tomlinson's fish stew—was superb, but finding it above the bar was akin to finding a cat driving a surrey. It should have been hanging in a museum.   

He stood for a moment admiring it. Lisette, Malcolm had called her. She had light hair streaked with gold, resting beside the bank of a river. Incredibly, she seemed somehow more than the picture itself. Perhaps it was just a trick of shadows and lighting, but she looked in love.

He ordered a beer, and a shot of whiskey, took them to table, finishing both by the time he spotted two barmaids near the end of the counter, dallying with the bartender. One of them, with hair the color of a red sunset, caught his eye and winked. He tipped his head then looked away. Female companionship was not on the top of his to-do list.  

Beer was the first thing that felt good in a long while. Nursing a second one, he sat back, opened the letter from his grandfather. Perfunctory news from the east coast. Harlan's disapproval of Carter's willingness to see that Scott needed to go west was well evident. He could only imagine the conversation between the tour de force that was Willoughby and his grandfather: Carter with his perfectly composed bonhomie face, pulled like a magician's coin from behind an ear, deliberately baiting Harlan into an argument. And to think, the two of them had apparently made it out alive to scrap another day. Today, he wished he was there to referee.

“Aren't you a little old for this?” A chipped fingernail dragged along the leather spine of the book, took it and flipped it open.

She flashed a beautiful smile, pushed back a loose strand of sunset. “How about a room? It'll set you back some, though.”

Scott shrugged, eyed the line of freckles dancing across her shoulders that dipped between her breasts, felt a pang of regret. “I don't need a room.” 

“It's a nice one, with real cotton sheets. You won't want to leave,” she jollied back and fussed one-handed with the buttons making a long stripe down the front of her dress.

He stood and took the book gently from her, placed it back in the wrapper. “I'm afraid I'm not in the mood for company today.”

She angled out a spangled hip, brought up the same hand that had smoothed her hair back and laid it there. Scott waited for the angry retort, but received a steady look instead.

“I guess I shouldn't have touched your things.” Flicked her eyes over him, assessing. “I'm the one who's sorry. It's not going so well is it, Mister?”

The apology was so contrite, so sincere, that Scott retreated back to his chair. “Not at the moment.”

“Woman trouble?”

He hitched a shoulder, dropped low, protecting himself in the way he knew how and tossed out a grin. “No.” The saloon door remained closed. Where was Johnny?

“Well if it's not a girl,” she tapped her fingernail against his half empty beer glass, “and it's not drink, then it must be money.”

“What would you do if you felt like quitting?” There, it was out in the open, far away from the people involved, but out nonetheless. He cringed as the offensive words rolled out. It wasn't his particular style to pack his bags and run.

“If it was bad enough, I'd leave.”

There was the crux. His barometer for measuring the relative badness of things was skewed too far to the left. He'd had the worst of the bad and nothing else could compare. Except, inexplicably, when Murdoch asked him about Lancer's ledgers. He could hand wave all that business back in Boston. But here? Here he was standing at the edge of his known universe, unsure. He gave a cursory glance to the door again. Johnny wasn't coming.  

“We all leave things, right, Mister? Maybe it's a matter of when it gets too hard to go on.” She pulled on her capped sleeve, side-eyed the man pouring drinks. “Or maybe it's a matter of sticking it out for a while, until you're sure.”

The bartender called to her—Belinda was her name—and she graced another dazzling smile. “Keep me in mind if I can do anything for you, sugar.” He'd remember.

Swallowing the last bit of foam, he gathered the mail together and left a few coins on the table. It was a strange world when truth came from a saloon girl who lived upstairs in a nice room with real cotton sheets.  

Scott urged his horse forward, eyes touching on the boggy ruts, then the woods, then the swallows swooping down to pick off the afternoon flies. His new pistol—so different from his cavalry issue—pressed against his thigh, was too heavy to be comfortable, but a relief to have it there just the same. He came to a familiar bend and Scott sat back, stretched out his legs in the stirrups.

It took him a moment to realize there was a pair of eyes on the far side of the trail, steady in the woods, down low about knee height. The eyes didn't move, were trained on him. Intent, like a cat watching a floundering bird. Except it wasn't a mountain lion or lynx, Scott saw as he dismounted and drew nearer. It was the mercantile dog, burred and marked with dirt.

He noticed the animal before he noticed the drop-off.

A difficult thing to miss, the dog, considering its coat was the exact color of burnt butterscotch. One misstep and he fell forward, a yell trapped in his throat, as he plummeted downwards.

He landed hard, one leg going out from under him and he somersaulted over and over, banged into a rock or two, a rolling bundle of bones and fabric there for anyone to see.    

 

2. An Introduction to Mr. Grey

One foot in front of his nose. One damn foot. Somehow the tree branch wriggled and snapped its way out his grasp. Even if he could reach it, which he couldn't, even if he could move, which he didn't want to , it was no good. Pain was abstract, floating somewhere above him.

He probably should look up, see where it was he actually fell from, but it tired him just thinking about it. A blast of sunlight found his face. Too warm. He licked his lips, took a shallow breath.

“That's it. Take another.”

The man's deep voice was close. So close, Scott could hear it over the rush of blood in his ears. Quite a feat that. A memory tugged at him, hard and sharp, but he couldn't pinpoint its origin.  

“You're going to make me late, you know.” There was a soft snick of a pocket watch closing. “That will never do.”

Scott needed to steady himself. “Who…?” he whispered.

“Why me, of course. I can't be late.”

A fist entwined in his shirt and tugged. A few jostled feet later, two thumps on his chest signified he was where the man wanted him to be. Scott's eyes opened and locked with the man. Curious—they were the color of the palest robin's egg. Hands snow pudding over sinew and veins. Almost spectral against the plaid of his waistcoat.

“Thomas Grey, at your service.” He doffed his broad-brimmed hat to the side, showing a head of utterly white hair. “As you can see, I'm not. Grey, that is.” From the quirk of his pale eyebrow, it seemed to be an old joke, perhaps told often. “No black, no red, no purple, definitely no grey. Yes, I'm never one to shilly-shally, I always stay firmly on one side of the fence.”

Grey snapped open a fine gold watch as big as his palm, tsk'ing. “Getting later all the time.” A pat to Scott's shoulder. “Have faith.”

“Wait…”

“I must be off.”

“Which…which side?”

Grey's answer was a distant laugh, his words floating back on a sigh. “Whichever one is right.”

Only humor was holding him together. Pain was coming, he could sense it, Belinda walked—no, sashayed—towards him holding a beer in her hand. Was looking at him, smiling. When she bent down, he saw where her freckles ended, and he smiled back. All red and sun and golden.  

He drifted back slowly, sorry for the headache that wouldn't let him stay asleep. Sorrier that Belinda was gone. Yet the swallows were back, making an unholy clatter in the trees. He tried to roll over, succeeded on the second try. Finally, he managed to sit back on his heels, hands resting slackly on his thighs. He checked for blood and broken bones, but aside from the knot on the back of his head and an ache in his knee, was intact as anyone who had just fallen ass over teakettle.

A boxy silver-something was half hidden by the tree root he'd just vacated. A flask. The word “DRINK” was written with a lilting scrawl on a half-note, tucked around the cap. As if he was a dullard, although at this point it was highly suspect.  

Grey's, obviously. Hopefully. He lifted the cap, took a sniff. When nothing profound wafted upwards, he sipped. The cool spring water hit his tongue and it was good, so good against the heat of his mouth. His skin prickled, suddenly and sharply, when his headache contracted like a telescope, length by length, until it was just a pinpoint above his left eye. He took another drink for good measure and had lips to flask for a third when he spotted the handkerchief.

The neatly wrapped bundle also had a piece of paper tied around its linen rabbit ears: “EAT”. If he had to fall into someone's lap, he was happy it was a man as droll as Grey. He would have enjoyed talking with him a bit more. Lucidly, this time. Chewing the end of a small block of cheese and a piece of dried apple, he found them to be quite good. He set to work and soon finished them both. When his equilibrium balanced with the intake of fruit and water, Scott found he could string together coherent thoughts, could find an oblique answer to the question of why he was where he was: one errant brown dog. 

At the bottom, the hill he had tumbled down was furred lush green. Some distance away, a giant had squashed the landscape, brushed away the trees and left an ocean of smooth valley that led to Lancer. With his horse gone and the dog gone along with most of his pride, the walk back home was predetermined to be long.

Across the clearing, Grey strode past, the brim of his hat flopping up and down with each quick step. It dawned on him that Grey didn't have a horse with him, either. Perhaps he lived close by, had access to one.

Now was the time to think clearly. “Hello!”

The white head bobbed up and something fell from his pocket. He waved one hand in a small circle inconsequential, oddly delicate. “I must be going, she'll be savage if I've kept her waiting,” he yelled back.

Effort was involved, but he stood on his own, brushing the dirt from his trousers. Then swayed so much he had to take a step back. Why didn't he remember? He'd met Grey before, he was sure of it. Was it a memory that had been tucked away with any number of his other ones? He had a library of them, alphabetized and shelved, but this one wasn't shaking free of its moorings.

He stumbled into a jog.

Scott pulled up when he found what Grey had dropped: a pair of gloves. He folded them over his belt and kept going. Getting through the underbrush was a little like navigating the streets of Boston drunk while blindfolded. Not that he'd tried it blindfolded, but any concept of smooth sailing through this foresty area was completely negated. Just as suddenly the trail hugged a blind spot and he was faced with a creek, too big to merely step over.

He found a few stepping stones, managed to get wet to the knees after slipping and sliding his way to the other side. In the quiet air, hazy with afternoon heat, came the sound of weeping. Deep, guttural cries that signaled the end of everything good.

By the time he'd recovered from the shock of hearing such wailing, Grey had vanished. Gone, perhaps even before he had turned the corner to the creek.   

 

3.   A Canvas of Tears  

A handsome property, it was circled by a windbreak of trees. The cabin was used, lived-in was probably a better word, but not cluttered, its door ajar. He thought there was a spatter of blood stains on the step into the cabin, but the red was mixed with yellow and white. Nothing more than paint.   

The shadow inside was impenetrable from the doorway. Scott took a step forward, letting his eyes adjust. Slowly, details began to assert themselves: a soft fold of shirt, a cap pulled low. Dark-colored beard, hands gnarled around a bottle. A crumple of paper pushed carelessly to the side.

“She deserved better.” The man's voice, just a notch above a whisper, vibrated with pain. “C'est la fin.”

He gestured with the bottle. “Sit, if you want, Monsieur.”

Scott took the bottle as it was passed to him. Had to catch his breath when the liquor burned and banged into the fruit and water. Absinthe. He made a face and the bottle's owner laughed, brittle and hard, an expression on his face that Scott couldn't quite work out because it held so many things that were at odds with each other: anger, fear and one that he could only identify as love.

There was a quiet friction of calloused hand against wood, then the soft slide of paper unfolding. “She was…magnifique.” His voice was different. Soft and sad, edges blunted by liquor.  

“What was her name?” Scott asked, knowing the answer before he spoke.

Lisette, he said, and despite being strangers, Scott thought of the painting above the bar and wanted to make it better.  

“I never wanted to leave her. Michel Durand never runs.” As his stained fingers tightened around the neck of the bottle, he whispered like a secret was about to be passed, “But this time, this time I did.” An undercurrent of something so far beyond sadness moved in his words.

“Do you know what it is like to love someone?”

Laughter came to mind with soft brown hair and the barest hint of lavender. “I thought I loved someone once,” Scott said. Of angry words shouted beneath a sycamore tree, arrowed with guilt. “It wasn't to be.”

The licorice smell of absinthe filled the room, vied with the turpentine already there. “It's the way of a young man, I think.”

Michel's attention was on the whorls of plaster between the wallboards, faded to a dull grey from bright white. His face was held so still Scott didn't know if he was going to yell or cry, or throw him out of the cabin.

Finally, he nodded. “Ma Lisette est morte. Is dead.”

There was a time to interrupt and a time to let go, Scott didn't need to fill every moment with talk, even after a startling admission like this one. 

“It was a year ago and I was full of the world. She was eighteen and hadn't been past the edge of her small town. She was everything good that I wasn't, Monsieur. With her, I knew I wanted to make a bed, have a home, stay in one place.”

His eyes came up, ominous. “Sa mère me détestait…her mother hated me.”

“Did her mother,” Scott started then caught himself, unsure. What a thing to ask. Michel watched him as he tried to find the words. Did her mother drive you away?  

“I expected to burn in hell for that single night, the night we spoke of love.” Michel's face softened, Scott saw something of a younger man, but there was too much bleakness. He had to remind himself to remain still, because he wanted out of the cabin, to go outside and take a lungful of good sunshine.

Michel tapped the paper once; face white as desert bleached bones. “Une tragédie, they call it. She…she walked into the cold water and never came out.”

“Her mother did not approve.” Michel's brows crooked together, like he was holding in, or holding back. His mouth opened and shut.  “Whore,” he breathed out, lips working. “Her mother called her that.”  

“I refused to take her away. We argued. I couldn't come between Lisette et sa mere, to take her to another life that was not easy. I had nothing. ” Silent tears tracked down his face. “I let her go. She carried no shame. It's all mine.”

Scott saw a longing so deep and vast that he could scarcely name it. He took the bottle and emptied it into a glass, pushed it forward. Michel downed it in one swallow then tried to stand, falling back to his chair. His lips moved with words so quiet Scott didn't hear them at first.

“Lisette, Lisette…” A lament, as if he'd been waiting twelve months to say it. “Goodbye, my love, goodbye.” He swung his head wildly. “What am I to do?” he demanded.    

Scott wished he could give an answer. What would be the thing to say? He had no answer that wouldn't result in something wrong or condescending or judging, no matter how badly it was needed, instead held out his hand, and Michel's jerked in response, tipping the bottle over. He set it upright, tried not to look at Michel, half afraid the man would read what was on his face.

A narrow bed was aligned against the far wall, mussed with a knot of sheet and tangled blanket. He helped Michel onto it. Straightening, he surveyed the man again, fearful he missed something. As he pushed away from the bed, there was a groan of ropes under the thin mattress as Michel shifted.  

“Monsieur, I never wanted to leave her…I never left her.”  

Easier to leave than to be left. Not a new thought, but strange now thinking about it from the vantage point of being the one who was leaving. The idea sat like a useless third leg, and Scott couldn't think beyond it.

He nodded, even as Michel's eyes closed.

Outside, the sun gave a false pretense of hope with its brightness. In a small clearing, not too far from the end of the cabin, sat an easel tilted up on three legs, a mason jar of brushes. He brushed a spider's web away from the canvas. A thick braid of sleek golden hair fell across her shoulder like a fat kitten, as though it would have a name and eat from her hand. She had a grace about her, a tease of a smile hovering at the corner of her lips. An image someone could easily love. 

In his estimation, dying was easy. You just go. Living was the hard part. All Michel had left were his sketches and memories. Scott looked back to the cabin, wondered if it would be enough.

The third leg kicked. Leaving. Not where he was going or what Murdoch would do with it. He suspected those two items were perhaps the things his father would think about. The hot dry air swirled around him. Clamping his jaw shut seemed to be the only way to deal with it, and the suffocating melancholia that had sputtered to life. It was draped about him like a heavy winter coat. Unnecessary and unwanted.    

 

4. Advice from a Fisherman  

Scott had a walk ahead of him and no plan, which was so much out of the ordinary he looked up, sure the sky was falling. A soft plunk of something hitting the water got his attention.  

He'd set himself up: a blanket, a basket, a canteen and a hat riddled with enough hand-tied lures to entice half the fish in California. His skin was dark, as dark as Thomas' was light, with shoulders ax-handle wide. A little stooped as he sat, but there were still muscles bunched under the faded work shirt. Salt and pepper hair curled down his neck, disappearing into his upturned collar. A fishing pole lay forgotten in one hand.

“Been a good while since you visited, Thomas. Now why is that?” were the first words out of his mouth, which twitched slightly. The voice—a deep baritone—was unexpected.  

Scott looked behind him, but there was no one else. “I'm afraid you have the wrong man.”

The man stood heavily and out of balance, like he'd been sitting a while, and gestured with his pole. “Come over here and hold this for me. I need to see about my string.” His hand patted the air until thick fingers latched onto Scott's shoulder and squeezed. “Damn, boy, you lost weight?”

Scott took the pole and watched him pull up the pegged line. Pink-bellied mountain trout, counted out one by one and, according to the fisherman, were all where they were supposed to be. He tapped a toe against the ground. “I'm not him…I'm not Thomas Grey.”

Turning towards Scott, the man cocked his head as if he suspected something was wrong, but couldn't quite figure out what. A sudden blink of milky eyes. “Huh. Same sound to your words, but a little different, too. Thought sure he was paying me a visit. He's a good man, that Thomas.

“Didn't hear a horse, been walking a while?” He waved towards the bank where the blanket had been spread. “It's a hot day, better have a seat.”

His name was Perch, had lived in the woods for most of his life after a few early years in Kansas. He'd come west for the gold, stayed for fishing. He rooted around in the basket, came out with a paper wrapped sandwich, handed Scott half of it like he'd been expecting him. “What are you doing all the way out here?”

Scott grabbed a corner of blanket and settled himself on the bank. “I don't know exactly,” he replied, stuffing a mix of beef and bread into his mouth, talking around it. Manners didn't seem to matter so much sitting beside a fishing pole and water.

Perch had a pipe in his pocket and drew it out. “Well, who are you?” 

“I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but things have changed drastically since then. On most days, I'm called Scott, among other things as of late.”

The man's grin was quick and bright under seams of scarred skin. “Are you sure you're not related to Mr. Grey?”

Perch was wondering something else, Scott knew that right away, could tell from the concentration he was putting into his pipe. Reached into a pouch for two fingers of tobacco, tamping it in just so. He was mesmerized by the mechanics of putting the smoke together—Perch's fingertips agile in the doing—and went for a matchstick, their hands bumping.    

“If you move things around, I'll never find them. Been this way for a long time, I know what I'm doing.”

Scott dropped the matchstick, felt foolish.

Pausing between one puff and the next, Perch's hand curled around the bowl of the pipe, poised, perhaps judging him.  “You sound like a sensible boy, no blinders.”

It wasn't what he was expecting. Improbably, he felt a flush creep up his neck. “Oh, I have blinders.” Lost cattle and ledgers and just about everything that Scott had received as truth about Murdoch Lancer from Grandfather because it was easier to accept that than to look underneath. A moment, then he crammed the rest of the sandwich into his mouth, brushed crumbs from his chest, wished he didn't smell so much of sweat and desperation.

It was just this accounting business signaled time's up in a way Scott could no longer ignore, meant he had to do something, couldn't keep telling himself that it would be all right.

Perch took a pull from his pipe, let the smoke drift away. “Go on, send it out.”

Scott lifted the fine bamboo pole, light as a feather, and cast. The line arched from the reel, kissed the top of the water. He smiled, knew any fish in its right mind would take the fly and ask for more. 

Perch wore a bemused look. “I used to keep goats at the house.”

He looked over, surprised. Perch was a surprising man altogether.

“Hear me out, now.” A father with a spoonful of horrible tasting medicine, about to tell Scott something that would do him good. “A few acres not too far from here, and every so often the coyotes would pay me a visit. They're mean creatures, tricky. They knew a good meal when they saw one, and I had twelve good dinners snuffling the grass around my barn.”

“What did you do to protect them?”

Perch nodded, like it was the right question to ask. “I got myself a dog.”

“How did that work out?”

Perch rolled out a laugh. “Like fire and water, at first. Dogs have to follow their nose, he scattered those goats. Chasing, having fun.” He might have continued but both were momentarily distracted by the slap of fish in the water.

Scott flicked his wrist, sent the line hopping back and forth.

“Goats are smart, but the dog was smarter. Every day he watched and he listened, took his time to figure out who was who and learned how they got along, their ways. Pretty soon the goats got so used to him, they thought he was one of their own. The dog knew better, it stayed with the goats, but wasn't a goat. It protected and kept them where they should have been kept. And the fact that the dog wasn't a goat didn't matter one bit anymore.”  

“Are you saying I'm a dog?” That earned another laugh. “I think my brother would find that funny.”

He thought of Johnny, curled under the oak tree. Spent and bloody. Of himself coughing through the smoke of gunfire. And Murdoch's sweaty face, demanding— look at your brother— all of them ensnared in Pardee's whirlwind, blown to one side and another like so many scraps of paper.

The Lancer army of three in a bedroom, Murdoch's eyes penny bright, hands stained dark red. Johnny, feverish already around a bone white bandage, no need to look so morose because he'd chosen a side, hadn't he—but he'd been doing so much more. Riding alone. And Scott wanted to be anywhere that wasn't there with either of them. Because he would never be like them.

Perch placed his hand on Scott's shoulder. “That dog didn't know what he was doing at first. Didn't mean it wouldn't work out. Sometimes all anyone needs is patience and the want.” He dropped his hand, picked up his pipe again. Waited for him to catch up.

The line jerked and Scott bided his time until the fish turned downward. There. He palmed the reel, teasing back and forth, then pulled. A second too soon. A flash of tail fin and it disappeared into the water.  

“Thought you had him caught. You'll try again?” Perch was talking about casting, but what Scott had in mind was something else entirely.

 

5. A Second Appointment with Mr. Grey

He'd left Perch with his string of fish some time ago and had limped along the river's path until he came to a bend, executed a column left and kept moving westerly towards Lancer. Even without checking his own watch, he could guarantee his late arrival back to the ranch.    

Scott wasn't quite sure how Grey did it. He occupied enough space that the air pressure got pushed around and made you aware of his presence, without really seeing him. But then he was there, walking along in the forest. His long-legged pace hadn't slowed any, but this time he seemed to be looking around to either side of him, as if he had lost something. Not bothering to think about it much, Scott called out.

Grey looked up. “It's you again. I'd thought you would have found your way back home by now.” He stopped and raised an eyebrow. “Is something wrong?”

Despite Grey being a stranger, especially one who'd witnessed his spectacular tumble, Scott felt at ease, almost familiar, with him. “I think I did injure something,” he sighed, feeling his knee with his fingers. “I've had worse, though.”

A grin popped up on Grey's face. “I'm sure you have, with the style I saw.” His laughter hung in the air.

“I'm just not getting too far along.”

“Are you sure you want to?”

“Well, yes. What do you mean?”

Grey's hand fluttered a little, fell to his side. “I've done that many times—not gotten too far along. Not getting anywhere on purpose is best, however. Lots of work, but absolutely worth it.” He patted his waistcoat. “I seem to have lost my gloves.”

Scott unloosed the pair from his belt. “I've got them right here.”

“Those are yours, I'm looking for mine.”

“But I saw you drop them.”

Grey pushed his hat to the back of his head, puzzled. “You did?”

Scott nodded.

“Let's see. No, the color is all wrong,” he held the pair under his chin, “makes me look sallow. We can't have that. Keep them, I have another pair—somewhere.” Grey pointed to an opening in the forest. “My home is right over there, shall we search? But we'll have to hurry, the Queen will have my head if I'm not on time.”

“Queen?”

“The name of a rather conceited individual. Unfortunately, the lass who claims it doesn't rise to its regal attributes.”

Continuing on, matched stride for stride, the trail narrowed and came out into a clearing where a small house was just visible. As they got closer, Scott saw a bright brass plate near the door, with the name T. Grey engraved upon it.

Scott stepped over the threshold, hesitated. “Do I know you from somewhere?”

Grey smiled at him, as if seeing him in a fundamental way—pried open, his innermost thoughts flopping about in the air. “Do you? Perhaps it's the accent.”

They spoke about museums they both knew, about hopping a streetcar and riding from the west end of Boston all the way to Harvard Square. About restaurants in St. Louis, which one had the best steak, about women—always about them.

And in between, Thomas opened drawers, and looked behind chairs, for gloves. He peered at Scott with sharp eyes. “Tell me you're not going back east.”

Scott rubbed his finger across the fine grain of dark cherry table. “I think about it.”

When Murdoch entered the great room, the sun was already low in the sky, slanting through the window at a steep angle.  Scott sat in a side chair, not as fancy as the one in Boston, but just as uncomfortable. His father clattered around the sideboard for a bit, opened the cabinet, searching. Scott saw him look at the bottle of whiskey, weighing out the need for a steady hand with the need to wipe away the day's events.  

“Scott?” It was past the dinner hour. The stove had been kept warm, so he was expecting an invitation to decide between leftover roast beef or rosemary chicken, but got instead, “I heard from Cipriano there are five cattle missing.”

Straightening, Murdoch leaned against the counter, face serious. Trying so hard, and Scott didn't think he could bear it. Maybe if he held very still, this would just pass, Scott had said all he wanted to back at the pasture, he was tired. But Murdoch looked right at him, so he shifted on the chair, came to a stand because a conversation with Murdoch Lancer demanded the attention. “I lost them.”

His father nodded. Grey whiskers showing at the end of the day, he looked rough, dark marks under his eyes punctuating his weariness. His fingertips grazed the green ledgers sitting on the edge of his desk. He'd been working on them last night, long after Scott and Johnny had gone to bed. Now this new loss was one more item to be marked in the debit column, and there were too many there already.

Looking steadily at Scott, his brows came together as though he were worried, but Scott had learned it was an expression that could mean anything from worry to interested to thinking hard about something that had nothing to do with the situation at hand. “I know your grandfather was an astute accountant at one time. Do you have any experience at book keeping?”    

He scowled a little. “It's quiet here, compared to city life. Or maybe the sounds are just different. How do you stand it?” Scott said, refusing a glass of brandy. He still had a walk ahead of him, a number of miles, probably in the darkness. He was already feeling his muscles seizing up, his knee swelling slightly.

“I seem to manage. As Emerson says, ‘Always do what you are afraid to do'. There's some truth to that, you know.” Grey laughed, held up his hands. “What else can you do?”

He'd been in California for a long time, had come west by train and stagecoach, with all their assorted harried schedules. Friends had stayed where the wind was wild and skies cloudy, but Grey was doing well. Although he still missed the ferocity of eastern storms.

“There are the odd times when civilization calls me,” Thomas said, then joined Scott in maligning Green River and the lack of available whitewash, Morro Coyo and its reputation for hiding out criminals like Pardee and others.

Grey's pale face bore the signs of every day life, lived to its fullest. So too did his eyes, never resting, they traveled over Scott's face like it was a map to somewhere interesting. “Sometimes, though, you get an itch to move.” He looked around the room. “I've been here for a while, the house is too full of memories to leave, this land is mine. What do you have, Scott?'

“The eastbound?” Scott said, only half meaning it. But he had followed the line of reasoning and it registered. Scott wanted it, all right. He cared. Cared more than he could have dreamed of and it didn't make anything better, his wanting, not at all.

Grey was up again to pace the floor, finally pulled open the doors of a mahogany cabinet, one he'd already checked. Scott realized the man was giving him time.

He pulled open a drawer. “Aha! Here they are.” Brand new gloves. He flipped open his watch. “I dare say I will be late to the fandango.” He shrugged. “She'll have to understand, it just can't be helped.”

They stepped outside and it was still warm, cloyingly so. Silently, Scott followed Grey back to the trail near the river where they would split off.   

“You should think about that stagecoach,” Grey said when they reached the turn-off, “ride it all the way back east.”

Scott drew up to his shoulder. It broke him, that bleak suggestion. Suggested that Scott just give up, and despite his original determination, it made him think. If he could babble to a man he hardly knew, then he could carry on a conversation with his father.

   

6. M.A.D.  

The fire, small and carefully built, was burning among a ring of stones. The stones held a coffeepot, being warmed. A red roan, its spade bit decorated with silver conchos, tethered close by. 

Two men were there, and Scott watched them curiously. One looked to be asleep, his head tucked in the crook of his arm. But the other. Dressed in leather leggings Johnny called chaparejos, and an elegantly embroidered white shirt, here was a man who attracted attention, courted it. Especially his wide-brimmed sombrero. The weave around its low crown was outlined with bands of grey and black, interspersed with deep yellow. If the hat held a personality—and it did in a way—Scott would have to say it was ferocious.

The banding reminded him of the rat snake he'd found enjoying a free meal outside the corral one evening. Slithery things had held a certain dislike since he was seven and Victor Hensley had put a simple garden snake down his shirt. Caught in the cloth it writhed there until, in his haste to pull the shirt open, the buttons finally popped off. He didn't know who as more relieved, him or the snake. 

At the moment Scott spotted him, the man was fashioning a small muslin bag. After tying it off, he dropped it into the pot, and moved it closer to the flames. A perfume of coffee had made its way around to where he was standing.

“Come down. Join us.” The voice was soft in a sing-song sort of way, friendly. The horse turned its shaggy head, nickered, and the man answered, “Shh, Adelita, we have plenty of room.”

He stood as Scott approached, doffed his sombrero in an exaggerated bow. “Maximilian Antonio Diaz. Come, have some wine.”  

Scott looked around the camp site. “I don't see any,” he said, not really caring how demented it sounded.

“There isn't any,” Maximilian remarked.

“Then why did you offer it?”

“Why do you spy on me like a common thief? It's a question of civilities, Señor.” He gestured to the fire. “I will show you the proper way.”

Three tin cups, in addition to the two already there on the fire ring, were brought out of his saddlebags. Even if there was one for the horse, there were still too many. Was Diaz expecting more company?

He looked at Scott for a long moment. “You're too white. You need a hat.”

Scott's hand went to his head, fingered the lump on the backside of it. “I happened to lose it earlier.”

Maximilian winked. “Why is a horse like a turnip?”

“What?”

“A horse. You know, the thing that is standing behind me with four hooves. Although my Adelita is not just a thing, eh?” He looked to the trees where Scott had come. “Do not tell me you lost your horse, too?” He wagged his head back and forth in a sawing motion, designed to comfort.

“Well, yes…it's lost. A lot of things are today, it seems.” Scott arranged his face to bland interest, a face that usually fooled no one.

“What's the name?”

“I'm Scott Lancer.”

“No, no. The horse, Señor. You must pay attention.”

Scott cleared his throat, lifted a shoulder and shrugged.

Maximilian stared. “He has no name? No wonder he's lost. Maybe he ran away—a horse needs a good name if he's to belong to someone. Come sit.”

As he sat on a sun-heated rock, his thoughts meandered around to horses and turnips. The former he was well-acquainted with, the latter he took a stance of not caring in the least, so long as they weren't on his plate. “I don't think…”

“Then you shouldn't talk,” said Maximilian.

“You're extremely rude.” Oh, brilliant reply. He was between river and valley, between town and hacienda, between Murdoch and…just between. And being here, wherever here was , felt like one of those frenzies the work crew was obliged to bring him to every now and then, just to prove the easterner wasn't so smart and logical.  

Scott roused himself out of his flummox, gathered his wits as though they'd fallen out a hole in his pocket. He didn't know what kind of man Maximilian Antonio Diaz was, not yet, but he was going to find out. Home could wait a while. He was fussing with the muslin bag and every so often Scott sniped a glance at him, watched what he was going to do.

Acting like rudeness was a foregone conclusion, a trifle not be worried about, the vaquero sloshed the bag around in the water, then flung it away to the grass. “He's asleep,” he said, and dripped a bit of hot coffee on his companion's nose. “Mouse, get up and tell us a story.”

The man's arm flew spasmodically across the space between them, almost connecting with Scott's nose. He struggled to wakefulness, seemed to push a layer of invisible blankets from him. Coming up on his elbows, he blinked around warily, looking confused for a minute.

“Tell us a story,” Maximilian prodded. “¡Ándale!, before you fall asleep again.”

Mouse gave a hitching sigh. “It was a bad beginning all right. Fletch and me were riding night guard, when we decided to take ourselves to the fire to get a mite warmer. It was close to April and still colder than a frog's behind. When all of a sudden,” his eyes bulged, “them bedded cattle jumped right up, took to their feet and stampeded!”

“Señor,” Maximilian called out softly, trying to get Scott's attention from the tiny grizzled man next to him.

“Take some more coffee.”

“I haven't had any yet.”

“Some is better than any. And much better than none. It's very easy to get confused.”

He was going to get a headache—on top of the one already nipping at his frontal lobe—from following Maximilian's shoddy logic. “I'm not confused, I believe you are.”

“I offer you coffee and you resort to name calling? Perhaps you don't know the customs of this land. Who is being rude now?”

Scott gritted his teeth, reached for a cup. “What happened to the cattle?”

Mouse yawned, eyes drifting shut. Maximilian leaned over and kicked the sole of his boot, hard. He woke with a jump. “Me and Fletch, we weren't born in no woods to be scared by an owl, so we took off after' em. Why them cows got so close to the rest of the boys, they felt their hair flutter. Fletch galloped to the lead, gun blazing. Well, sir, he shot them bullets right in front of Old Ezekiel's nose and he turned that steer. We got' em all going in one big circle, like a regular wagon wheel.” Mouse's face went somber and he shook his head. “But then probably the worst thing that coulda happened, happened.”

Scott leaned forward. “Someone was caught under the hooves? The cattle stampeded again?”

“My pal, Fletch…he…he lost his hat. Somewhere between when he turned' em and when I caught up with' im. Bare-headed as the day he was born.”

Maximilian groaned and shook his head. “Say it isn't so, mi amigo.” 

Scott sat back. “You're joking, right?”

“Pard, it was his hat . And that wasn't even the worse of it. The company store wouldn't sell him another, ‘cause them steers had the audacity to stampede on a Saturday night.”

If there was a point, he wasn't getting it and it must have showed because Mouse stared at him incredulously.

“You can't buy nothin' on the Sabbath, he had to wait until the next day before he could get another.”

“Oh, well, I can see where that might be a problem.” Not really, he didn't see anything resembling a problem. But Maximilian and Mouse nodded at each other and somehow Scott felt like he wasn't even sitting there. Had he been fooled? Again? Those five lost Lancer steers came to mind, how he had them secure behind the fence in the north pasture. Or so he thought.  

“Do you have to go so soon?” Maximilian suggested, tagging on to Scott's thoughts, if not the gravity. Hard to be serious when you've equated the solemnity of the Sabbath with a lost hat.

“The Circle Bar W is just over the next rise, they have many fine horses there. I would give you a ride, since we are invited to the fandango,” he said, “but my Adelita is already carrying more than she wants.”

That was his cue, Scott got to his feet. “Señor Diaz, before I go, I have just one question. Why is a horse like a turnip?”

Diaz looked perplexed. “I have no idea. But when we meet again, I will make you a hat, perhaps a Poblano for a gringo like you. In yellow and red. You need some color in all that brown. Adios, Señor.”

 

7 . Chasing a Pig

As the crow flies was always longer than it looked. With the Circle Bar W still some distance away, Scott looked at the house he had lurched upon and shook his head, trying clear the fuzz. Dizziness had come on without warning.

A little girl with tousled blond hair, her arm curled tight around a stuffed animal of sorts, met him halfway to the door. Her mouth curved into a pink “o”, eyes going wide. “Mama! My brother's home.”

Shearing light sliced the yard into a thousand shards of broken glass, glancing through him like warm butter. His head hit something hard and he panicked, flailing out, scrabbling air.  

Noise from inside the house, a slide of heels against wood. “Lizzie, where's your brother? Where's Joel?”

“He's right over there in the grass, Mama. He's taking a nap.”

“What on earth? Andrew!”

Pounding footsteps came across gravel, but he hardly cared, darkness was calling. He welcomed it.

Scott sighed, enjoying the feel of sturdy cushions against his back instead of dirt or grass. The scent was an odd mix of lemon verbena and hay, this time it wasn't Thomas Grey he awakened to.

“Mama? Is he dead?” The tiny voice made a further breach into the darkness, and he opened his eyes.

An older version, with the same hair and eyes, reached out, grabbed Scott's chin with warm, long fingers. He flinched, pulled away. “What happened to you, Mr. Lancer?”

She nodded towards his wallet on the side table at his look. “When a man is laid out in my parlor; I have a right to know who he is.”

He stumbled over his words like a drunk. “Fell, hit my head.” He gestured with his hands, hoping she'd get the rest—no weapon, no horse—without him saying too much more, his headache was pistoning towards lethal stage.

“My husband helped you into the house. I'm Helen Lathey.” The little girl on her lap squirmed to be let down. “Lizzie here thought you were her brother. My son left for San Francisco…a while ago. She got confused.”

He slipped his legs over the edge of the seat, sat hunched until she folded a cold, wet cloth across his neck, then melted back against the couch in relief.  

Farm noises wriggled their way into his hearing: a cow, chickens, the bang of an outside door. But inside it was quiet, and a bit disconcerting to have two pairs of the same green eyes staring at him.

He searched around for a thread of conversation. “How does your son like the city?” Her lips clamped for a moment, and it was like a boil needing lanced, infected, painful. She didn't nod, she shrugged.  

“Joel's due today sometime,” she continued, rolling over his question like it wasn't there, “we expected him before now, though.”  

A butterscotch-colored ball of fur sat beside the fireplace grate. Looking at him with mild expectation, perhaps the dog remembered their last encounter on the trail, since a big canine-grin creased its face. It ptoo'ed a ball out of its mouth, skittered back against the grate in anticipation. Ready . The ball rolled over, bumped against Scott's boot. He angled, punted it out of the parlor. Instead of going after it, the dog stuck his head behind the pool of curtain on the floor below the window and retrieved another.

“You start with him and you'll be here all day. He's got ten more stashed around the parlor. But he's not supposed to be in the house. Lizzie, take him outside.”

While mother and daughter were arguing the merits of dogs and clean houses, he took a chance and stood. Remarkably, the landscape fluttered only once and settled into its usual order. Helen clamped a surprisingly strong hand around his elbow and steered him out of the parlor and across the hall.

She poured, but her heart—and mind—wasn't in it. He moved the cup under the spout to prevent a spill.  

“It's like a greased pig. Have you ever…” She looked at him, came to a conclusion. “No, I would guess not. What I mean to say, you have to chase after it and pursue it. Run it down, tackle it and when it gets away, you go after it one more time. I don't know why men especially, young and old, seem to have a problem with that.”

She sat down beside him and took her own cup, held it captive between her palms. “It's not what people expect from you. Doesn't mean you can't make it happen.” Her rising anger slipped away as suddenly as it had come and she ran her thumb across the back of her hand. Worried, for all her strong words.

Andrew walked into the kitchen, calling a halt to the one-sided conversation. The amber light caught him full in the face and turned him yellow, lit his eyes on fire. He hadn't shaved in a while, looked like he'd be more at home behind a rifle than a plow. “The wagon's almost loaded, if he's not here by then we'll go on to the Heart's.” He looked at Scott, seemed to see him for a second, and his brows came together as though he were angry. “You all right?”

Scott shifted in his seat, realized he was sticky with sweat and it was warm and maybe it was just time to leave, but he sure as hell wasn't going to tell Andrew Lathey the whole mess had been started by his dog. “The short rest and this coffee have set me to rights.”

Andrew raised his eyebrows: you could've fooled me . He poured a cup of coffee, laced it with sugar and scoured Scott with a stare.

None of what caused the bleak overtones in the Lathey house was any of his business, so he searched for some platitudes about the weather until he could choke down his coffee, tell them thank-you and be on his way, via hoof or foot.

A door slammed from the front of the house. Everyone in the kitchen ceased movement, for all appearances a daguerreotype, sepia-toned in the sunlight. Helen caught her breath when the man—boy—came into the kitchen.    

So gaunt he looked like a Belle Isle escapee, he cleared his throat, embarrassed perhaps. A layer of plaid and rough canvas covered him, boots once good now near the end of their usefulness. A spot darkened his left cheek—a wisp of yellowed bruise. Mostly, though, it was the expression in his eyes, and Scott recognized it immediately: a mix of worry and fear, crowned by a hint of guilt.

Andrew drew close and Scott watched the current run between father and son, the direction of it. He knew which way it would go, and it made him prickly with concern.

“How long?” Andrew snapped like a cat o' nine-tails and that stopped Joel cold, arms wrapped around his chest.   

“Pardon?” It was an automatic response, and Scott could tell Andrew hated having to explain himself.

“How long?” Andrew repeated after a long moment, voice grating low. “How long did you plan this?”

Joel blinked once, not understanding. Not getting what it was that his father was asking. Was insinuating.

“Pa,” he whispered. “I…”

But Andrew was shaking his head, the sweet coffee forgotten on the table. “You left without a word.” Not a question at all, but the why was there all the same.

Joel looked at his father, examining him like he found an insect under a magnifying glass, a bewildering new discovery. Andrew stared back, kept his eyes on Joel's bruised cheek, managed to keep his face from crumpling, but fear was written across it.

He lobbed a look at Scott, realized a stranger sat at the table. Close enough to hear. “Next time,” Andrew said, the hoarseness a concession to how long Joel was gone from home. “Next time, you tell me what you've got planned.”

It was scaring the woman and from the little of what Scott had seen that wasn't an easy thing to do.

Joel asked for coffee, but Andrew said they were done, that he needed help in the barn, they were leaving soon and he could get a cup at the neighbor's.

Father and son circled each other like they were at Appomattox Court House, dignified and hackled. The boy didn't look at his father, though everything in his stance was attuned to him. A direct stare was a challenge. And Joel's eyes kept bouncing from the table to the door, while Andrew spoke. He turned his head away. In the reflection of the harsh afternoon sun, he looked ill. Torn.

Only a father threw orders around like that; only a son would follow them without so much as a twitch. He wondered what it would be like having Lathey for a father, knowing nothing but black and white. The right way, the only way, being his. How difficult to live under one roof together.   

Scott polited around, made an inane excuse and stepped outside, collected himself like the dog and his toy balls.   

Didn't matter which way you went as long as you got somewhere. He'd forgotten who had told him that—it was much too vapid for Grandfather—and how long ago it had been. Leaving Boston mirrored Joel's adventure in San Francisco—he wanted something he couldn't find at home.

Scott peeled open his wallet. The Pinkerton card given to him by Agent Kiley was wedged between two bank notes. He carried it like a talisman, that maybe he existed outside the confines of board member meetings and blue uniforms, that he had a place in California, not just a piece of Murdoch Lancer's flotsam, debris from a shipwreck twenty-four years earlier.

Off-kilter, everything was wrong. Couldn't identify what it was making him feel. He didn't have to know; he stretched, all his vertebrae clicking into place like the westbound B & O coming into its wheels leaving the station. It didn't matter.

There was nothing to break his fall, not this time. But it felt clean. Honest. If he failed it would be on his own terms. Not his grandfather's—certainly not his father's.   

 

8. Holding Court at the Circle Bar W

Andrew Lathey released the brake and flicked the reins over a pair of draft horses. With a hitching start, the wagon pulled away from their homestead pointed towards the Circle Bar W. Joel Lathey rode a few paces behind, sullen and quiet. The bed of the wagon, however, was neither sullen nor quiet. He shared it with Lizzie.

“How…” Scott tried, but Lizzie just coasted right over him, as relentless as a riptide pulling in a swimmer.

Helen turned, gave a wobbly smile. “Hush, love, maybe the man doesn't want to talk. Come up here with me.”

Lizzie made a little noise of disgust. He sat back against the side railing as she scrambled to an uncoordinated stand, legs and arms akimbo, uncontrolled as a bag of mice. She reached up and Helen swept her around to her lap.

She nodded to the large house ahead. “Mr. Lancer, this is the Heart ranch. Their fandango is the biggest one around here, held every year. It's owned by Willem and Abigail Heart. Only don't call her Abigail. Lord knows she hates it. She goes by Queenie.” She stopped and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “A most ridiculous nickname, but there it is: the Queen of Heart's.”

It was laughable, but Scott caught the flinch Helen gave and wondered if there was more to it than merely a name. He only had a short time to ponder before they pulled into the courtyard.

Andrew nodded to a lanky cowboy, called him Clark. Heart's foreman.  He wore his yellow hair long, an untrimmed beard, and had bright, serious eyes. With no other information, Scott would have pegged him as dangerous—there was something about his stance he couldn't identify. But Clark was tying off the horses without so much as a glance.    

Heart walked to the wagon, solidly built, a paunch beginning to creep over his belt. He nodded to the Latheys, eyed Scott with interest. “Welcome! Come down to the house, Queenie went all out this year. We'll even have some dancing later on.”

Andrew spoke up, “This is Scott Lancer. He's had a bit of trouble this afternoon. Hoped he could borrow one of your horses to get home. You know my mare is down.”

A softly rounded woman, with the blackest hair Scott had seen, her face flushed with the heat, walked up and stood side by side with Heart. He turned, a happy grin breaking through the wrinkles. “Mr. Lancer, my wife. My dear, this young man has had an accident, needs to borrow one of our horses.”

Queenie wasn't a large woman, but the steady look—almost a stare—under arched eyebrows gave her presence. She laughed, hard and sharp as a slap. “Willem, surely you remember, we'll need the mounts for tomorrow's drive.”

Heart looked questioningly at his wife, but tipped his chin to his foreman standing behind her shoulder. “One horse won't make a difference. Clark, take Mr. Lancer to the stables, get him set up.”

Her eyes narrowed, swept over her husband. “Well. That seems to be settled,” she said, tacking on a thin smile. “I think the rest of us should go down to the house while there's still food on the tables. The fiddler is already getting warmed up. Clark, make sure to stop by and pick up your own plate. Perhaps something for our guest?”

A smile unfolded in segments, it still didn't reach his eyes. “Sure thing, Mrs. Heart.”

Some time later, Scott limped past the corral towards the stable following the foreman, full of beef and Mrs. Heart's greens. He harbored a deep hope that the horse would be incapable of going faster than a walk, anything faster would be debilitating.

Inside the barn, a row of stalls held three horses. Clark shook his head, chuckled under his breath, friendly in the extreme. He'd have to catch one from the corral, tack it out.

Scott waited, walked the perimeter of the barn. Touched a hanging lantern, sent it swinging. He looked out the back door. Five cattle were penned together, cordoned off. Two cowboys stood close by a fire pit, half-heartedly spitting flames. Remnants of horns and bloody calf nuts were strewn about. One of the men held a branding iron. Scott took a half step out the door. The brands were wrong, though. Or rather, they were correct on two of the cows: a circle around an enhanced L. The other three Lancer cattle now held a Circle Bar W brand.     

“Oh, now it's too bad you found our beeves, Mr. Lancer.” Clark's voice came from behind him.  

“My cattle, don't you mean? I could use an explanation.”

“We don't need to explain anythin'.”

Scott threw himself to the ground as a gun boomed. Clark's gun roared again and Scott heard the shouts and sounds of people running. He rolled into an open stall, plucked the rifle pegged on the board behind it. Clark scrambled out of the barn.

He got to his feet, heart thudding against his ribcage, and took a few steps towards the door. Swallowing hard, he couldn't begin to speculate how much trouble he'd just fallen into.

“Lancer!” Heart's deep voice yelled out. “Clark said you were sniffing around my cattle. Looking to take a few home with you.”

There was a commotion in the cluster of party-goers and Thomas stepped out from the crowd.

“Hold on the two of you. Is what he saying true, Scott?” He cocked his head with all the panache of a lawyer for the defense. “I have to admit, you don't look the rustling type to me.”

“You're not from here, Thomas. You're no one to judge.”

“And you are, Mr. Heart?”

Scott fingers danced along the split seam of the window sill while the exchange took place, his taptaptap playing out like a drum roll. “I wasn't trying to take any cattle. They're mine to begin with,” he corrected himself, “Lancer cattle, anyway. The brands have been changed.”

Heart stepped forward. “That's a lie…a dirty lie. There's not much law around here and I'm prepared to deal with men like you on my own terms.”  

Standing just inside the door, he held the rifle in one hand, the other held out wide, non-threatening, like he was giving a handshake. Idiotic because Heart was less than fifty feet in front of him, big forty-four shotgun in his hands, a pistol strapped to his leg—he wanted to shake hands all right. Or something.

Scott scanned near the house, looked for what he wasn't going to imagine—found it. Mrs. Lathey comforted a sobbing Lizzie against her chest, one hand smoothing the girl's hair. Andrew, standing behind Heart, scorched a stare. Newly arrived Maximilian Diaz and Mouse—remarkably awake—stood beside Adelita, waiting. The jury had assembled while the judge was speaking.  

Sunlight blossomed around Thomas, and Scott knew what he was going to do, was going to wade right into the mess without giving it a second thought, because he saw the look on Thomas' face and hoped it wasn't the very same one he had on his own. Rage rammed down the throat of desolate, numbing fear.

Scott drew breath. He knew the rifle in his hands, had been friends with its type since he was fourteen. A birthday present, of sorts. Carter's father had Scott strip it, clean it, put it back together. Clandestine target shooting and friendly competition held behind a wall of clinging roses in the Willoughby's back yard. They hadn't called it a present because it was kept at Carter's house, away from Grandfather's eyes.     

His aim always had been good, even as a boy. He wasn't going to miss if it came down to it. But he'd not make a move, not with the crowd standing there. 

“I'm in no hurry to die.” Calm, he was calm. His words tried to do what Helen Lathey's hand was doing to Lizzie, but it only seemed to stoke Heart's anger. Scott's view went back to Thomas, at the same time catching movement to his right. The men who had gone around the barn had heard them talk, but it was Heart calling the shots. They'd make no trouble until he gave the orders.

He tried another avenue. “You either know what's going on, or have been lead astray. Which is it? I'm guessing not too much goes on around here without you knowing about it.”

Mrs. Heart burst out of the crowd. “Are you going to let him talk to you that way, Willem?”

Heart shouldered in front of his wife. “You've got gall, mister.”

“Your men are using a running brand, changing the Lancer L to the Circle Bar W. Lancer happens to be missing exactly five cattle. I should know I'm the one who lost them.”

A glint of sheer surprise flashed across Heart's face, his rifle dipped in hesitation. “It's not my fault you can't keep hold of your animals.”

A few hands gathered, keeping their distance. “I want payment for the cows or a free and clear way to drive them off.” There'd be trouble if Heart ever gave the word. He tried not to think about that.

“Payment!” Rage flared up in Queenie's round eyes and a bolt of red started around her neck, crawled to the tips of her ears. Something in her shifted to…he didn't know exactly, but the doting wife, the smooth charm fled. She blinked once, nodded.

It changed the mood, that little movement. Told Scott that time was up. He had wrongly bet on the King instead of the Queen.

Cowhands charged in from the back. He wheeled out the front door, slammed it closed and ran. Could think of only one place—to the corral and horses.

Three gunshots in quick succession stopped him. Clark latched onto his right arm. He yanked the gun from Scott's hand and tossed it aside. A second man sprang from the corral gate and grabbed his other arm. Scott wrenched around, launching him to the side rails. His left arm now free, he drove it into Clark's belly. Breath exploded from the man and he folded.

He drew back again but two strong arms caught him from behind. A fierce hit to his cheek from Clark wasn't promising, a blow that probably broke the man's fingers. He hoped it did anyway. In the strangest slow motion, he watched a spray of his own blood color the brown dirt beneath his boots. Beautiful in a way. Like the paint spatters outside Michel's cabin door.       

“Not here, Clark.” It was Queenie's voice, full of hate and fury. “Out by the big elm. Bring a rope.”

The three of them dragged Scott kicking and fighting across the courtyard and hauled him up on a waiting horse.

Queenie looked at him with cat that swallowed the canary triumph: a handy victim, the re-branded cows. All the cards stacked in her favor. She licked her lips. “Off with his head, boys.”

His breathing was ragged, horrified. He tried to find Thomas' eyes, but the man looked like a ghostly ancient warrior pulled from the pages of Scott's college history books. As though he'd happily kill something or someone. Not often Scott was scared, a handful of times during the insurrection, a couple in his childhood. But Thomas scared him in a way—there were depths, what Scott perceived the man was capable of.

His sense of what was reliable—all his thoughts, really—were swirling, moving too fast. But surely it was there, right there, clear as day. “You,” he choked out, “I know you.”

Grey pulled a half-smile out from somewhere. “As well you should, Scott.” It was quiet, now. Loud because of where they were—the ranch hands jeering, Lizzie screaming above her mother's cries—but quiet with him and Thomas nonetheless.

The coil of hemp tightened, grabbed hold like a living thing.

Thomas nodded, his smile widening. “Have faith. Lancer demands it.”

An explosion of gun near his right ear, and the horse jerked out from under him. The rope snapped and snarled, bit into his neck.

 

 9. Scott's Evidence

Strange that for all the commotion, as soon as he closed his eyes, everything came to a halt: no noise, no rope,  no pain, not even the little voice in his head that always sounded like Grandfather after a few brandies.

He took a huge gulping breath. Then another. Buried himself in the sound of quiet. Until a horse nickered—and he knew it wasn't his.  

A sudden pressure on his hip caused him to flinch, then yelp as his head protested. He risked a glance down to figure out what it was, and was surprised to see butterscotch and two big eyes. Lizzie's dog, just passing time, seeing what he could see.

Blinking away the shine of late afternoon sunlight, his hand drifted up, then lay on his chest. He heard the horse again. “Johnny?” he whispered. 

“Hey,” Johnny said, almost as though he'd sat down to dinner and was starting conversation about the roast beef. “You're awake.”  

“Where am I?” His eyes flicked to the side and back again. “Where are they?”

Johnny glanced up. “Well, just here…a ways outside of the town,” and gestured with his nose to the surrounding trees. “See? No one else around.”

A shiver ran over him, though it was warm. Heart's men, Queenie, Thomas…gone, all gone. Only Barranca came into his view, but it coincided with Johnny fingering the back of his head and Scott couldn't talk. By the time he opened his eyes again, his brother had Scott's horse tied beside his own.

“Help me up.” He made it as far as a half-sit, collapsed against a tree trunk.

“Looks like you took a mean tumble. Took a while hauling you up here. Almost thought you didn't want to come back—you wouldn't wake up.” Johnny's voice had gone soft and Scott found himself responding to it, felt his vision swim at the almost . Finally, though, the ground was a much easier place to look than at the expression on his brother's face.

A dream, maybe. Maybe. But it hadn't felt like one.

Johnny chucked the dog behind the ears. “Who's your friend?”

It went down on its front paws, tail wagging like an out of control metronome with the attention. Pricked by a sound only dog ears could hear, it stood stiff-legged for a moment, then ricocheted into the forest. The last thing Scott saw of him was a grin, all toothy-bright. Johnny pivoted, meant to go after him.

“No! Let him go. That's what caused all this mess in the first place.”

Choking out a half laugh, Johnny's eyes followed the invisible dog trail. “That little thing? You're kidding.”

“It's not that funny,” he muttered, and folded deeper into his slouch.

Johnny's face asked why more eloquently than words. Instead, “I got something that might make your head feel better. You know those missing cows?”

“You found them?”

“No, but you didn't lose' em. I found the kid who did, though, that's why I was late. Some of the boys put Adán up to it.”

His eyebrows crooked together. Adán was fifteen years old, a nephew of the blacksmith, and had the benefit of being born out west, but as much practical experience at ranching as Scott did, give or take a few hours. 

“He opened the gate and chased the cows out. Thought it would be a fine joke. Never figured on them getting too far. I'll tell Murdoch when we get home, set things straight.”

The more he thought about it, the more he and Adán seemed to be kindred souls after a fashion. “Don't talk to Murdoch.”

“Why not?”

“What will happen to him?”

“I don't know. Other ranches would put him off with his rig, dock his pay.”

“So leave him to me then. Adán and I will find the cattle; no one needs to be the wiser about his involvement.”

“You mean, Murdoch.”

Scott nodded. 

“You don't think he knows already?

Murdoch seemed to know everything, except him and his brother. “He might. But let me handle it.”

“Okay, it's your funeral.” Johnny bent down to look at something. “You get some new gloves in town?”

Corn silk yellow, they were folded with care, one on top of the other.

Scott stared at them for a bit, then looked Johnny in the eyes: he seemed very calm. Steady, in fact, and Scott took a breath, tried to match it.

A little sound escaped him, from the back of his throat. Denial, maybe. Recognition, more likely. He didn't quite feel like finding his feet yet. Ran a hand across his face, his neck.

Johnny looked puzzled, like he did when he came across a new word he'd never heard of before. Took it apart, put it back together, tried it out a few times and stored it away. He was doing the same thing right now, trying to figure out what happened by teasing out what was in front of him.  

Scott couldn't help. He didn't know himself.

The only thing he conceded was that his head hurt, his knee ached. All other parts seemed intact, including his neck. Johnny pushed, but didn't shove, and gave up in the end. It was a fairly quiet—and achingly slow—ride home.

He dropped off the family mail in the foyer basket and hobbled towards the stairs. Murdoch's study was open, ledgers lying on the desk, neat and orderly. He circled; they'd probably bite if he got too close.  

The smooth leather felt decidedly familiar under his fingertips. He flipped open the top book. Its pages were coated with scribbles and scrawls in what he'd come to know as his father's handwriting. Funny what he liked doing in childhood, had a knack for, was an anathema to him now.

Johnny leaned against the doorframe watching him, a cup of coffee in his hand, questions pursing his lips like he was sucking a lemon drop. Scott shook his head and the questions morphed into a suit yourself shrug and he wandered away into the kitchen, the pot scraping off the stove for a second cup.

Sitting, he pulled the first ledger into his hands.

A half-hour later, he leaned forward, and ran his finger down a particularly long column of figures. Tried to blink away the speckled dots clouding his vision like so many dandelion seeds, turning three's into eight's and seven's into nine's.

The hallway clock chimed out the hour and he closed his eyes for a moment. Then opened them a second later when he heard footsteps.

A pair of boots, Murdoch-sized and flecked with black Lancer soil, came into his limited view. “Scott?” 

“Oh, hello. Have a busy day?”

“Somewhat.” He nodded. “Go ahead, finish what you were doing.”

Murdoch's expression changed, subtle as a cloud's shadow moving across the ground, brows drawn together, opened his mouth to say something else, but then just watched as Scott struggled to read the numbers. Cocked his head to one side, that half-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

“What did you do today?” He walked from the doorway, stopped just shy of the desk.

Shit. Johnny. He tried a grin, almost made it. “Rode to town, got the mail. It's in the foyer, if you're looking for it.”

“Just got the mail. And then you thought you'd sit down, look over Lancer finances.” Murdoch edged closer. “What happened to you?” Their eyes met, and Murdoch's face froze before something else moved in. For one second, one brief moment that Scott was absolutely sure of, he saw it. Silence followed, him trying to sort it out, because this was new and different and not a little uncomfortable.

“Did…”

“I don't need anyone to tell me what I can see for myself.”

Scott looked down and saw the smears of dirt across the pocket and chest, a hole in the elbow, a torn cuff. Took a deep breath, felt the muscles in his legs protest when he stood upright. “I took a fall, but I'm fine,” he said, shuffling a small step around Murdoch.

Who touched his shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. “Wait. That accounting business the other day, it—”

His father paused and Scott knew what was coming. He splayed out his hands, stepped back. “Was colorful? Lengthy? Necessary?” 

Murdoch pulled up like a horse at the gate. The deep line between his brows dug deeper. A gleam came into his eyes and he shook his head. “I made a mistake somewhere and can't find it. Johnny hasn't had much experience.”

A father with orders, but not so black and white after all.

They looked at each other long and hard, Scott gave a half-smile of his own, shrugged a little. “It's in column three, on the second page. You forgot to carry the five.”

~o~O~o~


The portico was as a good a place as any, and Murdoch was tied up with God knows what in the house. Scott straightened his legs and leaned back in the oaken rocking chair, felt the heat radiate along his back. So very good, it was like the chair caressed him. And if he was thinking that about a chair, then he needed to find some female company. Soon. Red hair the color of sunset came to mind, left him smiling.   

He might have closed his eyes. The constant clip-clop of horse hooves from the corral sounded like they were far away, a beat of iron against the anvil near the barn was the same—getting farther away every minute.  

“Scott?” His father's voice and a rustle of paper cut into his thoughts like persistent mosquitoes. “Son?” He'd fallen asleep, mouth hung open like an old man. He blinked a couple of times, reminded himself to not make a habit of nodding off in the middle of the day, and slowly sat up.

His father was right there, arm hovering at Scott's side, ready to help. Scott looked at it pointedly, and Murdoch dropped it with a tight smile.

He stretched like a cat in the sun. “Are we ready to go?”

Murdoch laughed. “We are unless you need some more rest.”

Scott pretended to be hurt. “You don't take a nap every once in a while?”

He slid out of the rocker, assessed his father. Relaxed, he decided.

Murdoch read something in his papers, then looked up. “So, where do you think the best location would be for the crew to start the fencing?”

Scott didn't know what to say. He'd never been asked before. “What?” he blurted out. Like his father had just spoken in Latin.

Murdoch seemed amused, deep creases appeared to either side of his mouth. “Well, you'll recover those five cows in time.” He spread his hands. “And we obviously need a better way to keep them penned in.”

Joking, tenuous humor. Scott crossed his arms, didn't know if he should risk it. Didn't know if he could afford not to. “I want to try digging that well.”

He stopped there. He had all sorts of arguments lined up: the preliminary survey showed an underground pool, according to Johnny the so-called dry season was coming up, it would shave time off the day by having the cattle closer to a ready water source. But Scott didn't use any of those persuasions to tip the scales. Either his father was serious about this partnership, or he wasn't.

Murdoch's face was a study of blankness, but then he nodded like he'd known this was what Scott would say.

“All right, but…”

Scott made a low noise in his throat. “I know. I find the cattle first, then repairs on the barn roof.”

“What I was going to say, is that we need to take Johnny along with us the next time, so he can help survey again before we begin. All of us…begin.”

Couldn't read his face, but there in his voice, Scott heard everything his father had been holding back for a couple of months now. It was new, and therefore frightening, this level of longing.

It hurt, to realize that. Murdoch had made his decisions, then and now. Making them was one thing; living with them another. So Scott stole glances at him as he folded and refolded the survey papers, finally shoving them into his back pocket, pensive, lost in thought.

At last, Murdoch seemed to give himself a shake. “Come on; let's catch up with Johnny and Cipriano.”

They went east then north. Scott mentioned the well, this time in passing, and his father had gone along with it. It wouldn't last forever, this letting him call the tune, but Scott would take it as long as it was being offered. He reined his horse, stretched his neck in a satisfying crick that Johnny found irritating, not seeing anything except grass and poplars.

His head felt fine. A long couple of days spent in the house going over ledgers in between bouts of fitful sleep, and he hardly knew he'd been injured in the first place. He had fallen—nearly breaking his neck—but the reality was, he'd fallen in more ways than one. He often wondered about seeing the mercantile dog in the bushes, mostly he thought about Thomas, especially when he wore the yellow gloves.   

Scott didn't want to dismiss what he'd seen, but he didn't want to wallow in it, either. The whole adventure had disturbed him to the point where he pushed it to the edge of his mind, not forgotten, but not constantly in the forefront, either. A sort of détente, and in this instance, being ensconced firmly in the middle was not a bad place to be.

Murdoch sighed. “Even though the survey found water underground, bringing it up will be an undertaking. It won't be a picnic at the fair.”

Shading his eyes, Scott stared at the open meadow with the same grin he'd given Belinda at the bottom of the hill. Behind him, he could feel his father's eyes on his back, light as a warm hand. In front, nothing but green. And work. Lots of work.  

Murdoch was wrong; digging the new well would be splendid.  

~o~O~o~


 California, April 28, 1871

Dear Carter, Your gift was received at a most opportune time. I had been wrestling with my prior skepticism regarding the journey west and have come to a momentous decision. I'm going to stay at Lancer. Indeed, if nothing more than to learn about chasing pigs or following white rabbits. Gleeful as it might be, I ask that you don't tell my grandfather, as I want to deliver the news myself in a letter.  You may think this a wild effusion, and one strangely at variance with my former callousness on the score of the California paterfamilias, but I have recently undergone a change of heart, or shall I say my faith has been found. If you have no particular engagements coming in the fall, I would request a visit from you to this ‘wonder land', so you can see for yourself. Kind regards,


Scott Lancer

 

 

~ end ~
June 2012

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