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BeckyW

 

 

A Matter Of The Past

This is a story about a person from Scott's past, causing him and the Lancer family a lot of trouble. I started writing it about four or five years ago, it took my betas and me about two years to work everything I had written through. The reason is, of course, that I'm not a native speaker. My betas gave me and my story hours of their life time, without them I wouldn't have been able to write a long story like this. I'll never be able to give them back what they gave me.

Many thanks to Dora, my “1-A-Beta-Mousie”, English teacher and Lancer fan here in Germany, who never lost her patience correcting always the same mistakes. Some things I'll never learn!  More than once her careful suggestions prevented me from making major mistakes in the plot.

Dora wanted me to have native speakers as betas, too, so many thanks to Ronnie and her eagle eyes, she saw the little things and asked important questions, such as: why would Johnny ask a question from behind Scott when, in fact, he was riding ahead of Scott?

And, last but not least, many thanks to Coop, she kneaded the remaining kinks and knots until the entire text sounded very much like native speakers' English, at least to me!

You three are something! 

This is, however, my story. Remaining mistakes of all kinds are mine. The Lancers are not mine, no money is or will be made.

 

 

Chapter 1

Sacramento 1872

The slender, elegant man she had got to know as “Matthew Morgan, Shipowner”, sat in the dining room of her small, tidy hotel in Sacramento having breakfast. He was sitting alone at the table in a corner of the room , oblivious to the bustle around him. While sipping his coffee, he skimmed the newspaper she had brought him earlier.

Mrs. Otis regarded him closely from the door leading to the kitchen. He was an interesting and impressive man, with his grey hair and polite manners. He wore expensive suits, behaved like a perfect gentleman and appeared to be wealthy, as he treated Mrs. Otis's employees quite generously.  When he spoke there was a slight accent to his voice that proved he had come from back East originally, but he had told her that he lived in San Francisco now.

Mr. Morgan had been staying at her hotel for several days and she still didn't know what his business in Sacramento was. That bothered her a lot. What bothered her even more was the fact that he didn't show any interest in her. Being a widow she had tried everything a woman could think of to attract the attention of this gentleman, but all in vain. He was always kind and polite, but he didn't show any more interest in her than necessary.

She smiled to herself. Patience was one of her virtues and he had informed her that he would stay some more days. So there was still hope! Not that she needed him because of his money. She earned enough money herself with her hotel, but she felt lonely sometimes, needed someone by her side. And so much the better if the man she chose to take that place was wealthy!

Casting a glance at the large gold-framed mirror near the staircase, she adjusted her dress. Turning from left to right she took in her appearance. Well, she wasn't young, lithe and lissome anymore. She wasn't that bad looking, though. Elderly men liked women of a more “mature” build. And she looked very mature, with her red lips, cheeks and ample hips, not to mention her bosom...  Biting her lips to intensify the redness, she reached up to her grey hair, fastened in a tidy knot, to smooth straying bangs.

Satisfied with her appearance, she nodded to herself. Now she was ready to approach Mr. Morgan once more.

***

"Mr. Morgan, is there anything I can do for you? Some more coffee, maybe?"

Startled, Matthew Morgan looked up. Engrossed in the newspaper, he had not noticed her approach.

"Pardon? Oh ... no, no, thank you. But your coffee is really very tasty today." He smiled,  but  actually he wanted to get rid of that woman. She had been a pain in his neck ever since he had arrived at the hotel. However, this was one of the better hotel establishments in Sacramento, so he stayed.

He lifted the newspaper hoping that she would take the hint that he wanted to return to reading . While he had been skimming the paper earlier his attention had been drawn to a large photograph of the members of the Cattlemen's Association and to one vaguely familiar face in the group.

However, Mrs. Otis was not so easy to dismiss. She peered over his shoulder, saw the photo and rattled on.  "Ah, yes, that's the Cattlemen's Association, they held a meeting here at the hotel several weeks ago."

Pointing at the man who looked familiar to him, she added in a proud voice, " …and here, that's Murdoch Lancer, the President of the Association. He's a very fine and important man around here. He owns a large spread in the San Joaquin Valley, somewhere near Morro Coyo. He always takes a room at my hotel when he is in Sacramento... ”

She stopped, sighing. Noticing the wistful look in Mrs. Otis's eyes Matthew sympathized with the Californian Rancher who more than likely had also been a victim of the landlady's attentions.

His musing was interrupted by a noise of clattering dishes resounding from the direction of the kitchen.

"Oh no, those girls!" Mrs Otis threw her hands in the air in a gesture of despair. "When I'm not around they are messing up the entire kitchen...  if you'll please excuse me, Mr. Morgan."  With that, she turned on her heels and hurried towards the kitchen, a thunderous scowl on her face.

Matthew closed his eyes briefly and sighed, thanking the hapless person in the kitchen. He was relieved that Mrs. Otis hadn't observed the expression on his face when the name of Murdoch Lancer was mentioned.

He himself was dismayed by the intensity of his feelings when he heard that name for the first time after about twenty years. He had thought he had blocked the man out of his life and locked him up deep inside him. But all the painful memories of that distant past now came back with a vengeance.

Murdoch Lancer and Catherine Garrett.

He wrapped his hand firmly around the medallion containing Catherine Garrett's image, suspended from a chain around his neck. Leaning back in his chair he gazed out of the window, unseeing.

From the ship that had brought him from Scotland to Boston, Murdoch Lancer had descended directly into his life

 

Boston, 1844

Matthew Morgan considered himself the luckiest young man in Boston because, as far as he was concerned, he was engaged to be married to the most beautiful girl in Boston, Catherine Garrett. Every time he saw her he marveled at her curly blond hair, her expressive grey-blue eyes and her sweet red lips. He couldn't believe that she was soon to be his wife.

Both their fathers were very pleased with the prospective match and had supported it vehemently. The marriage would mean the fusion of two powerful Bostonian enterprises.

On that fateful day he invited Catherine to take a buggy ride with him like they often had during their courtship. Like always , when they reached the harbor she wanted to take a walk and watch the hurly-burly on the quays. He knew she loved the harbor. She used to watch the ships and the people from all over the world with a wistful glimmer in her eyes.

One ship seemed to have arrived only minutes earlier. Catherine and Matthew stopped and watched the crowd of people pouring out of it. Catherine's attention seemed immediately drawn to the tall figure of a young man who was carrying a large sack on his shoulder. The man stumbled like a drunk, struggling to walk in a straight line. Matthew shook his head in disgust. Drunk, at this time of the day? The man looked as if he might fall any minute.

Matthew turned to steer Catherine away from the obscene sight.

“Come my dear, this isn't something a lady should be witnessing.”

Just at that moment the man tripped over his own feet and landed sprawled on his stomach, his sack rolling across the quay. Catherine freed her arm from his grip.

“But Matthew, look! The poor man needs help! Quick, catch his sack!”

With that she hurried to the stranger's side. Appalled, Matthew watched her kneel down in the dirt and reach out to touch the dirty man's shoulder.

Shaking his head in disgust, he went to fetch the sack. This was typical of his Catherine. She had a heart of gold and made no difference between rich or poor. Whenever there was someone in trouble she would help. Actually, that kindness was one of the many things he loved about her. Still, it could be embarrassing at times. But as soon as they were married, he would make sure she would no longer show that kind of behavior in public. 

As he turned he saw the man and Catherine talk, the man's eyes never leaving Catherine's face while she smiled at him, her expression soft and compassionate.   

In retrospect that had been the moment when Matthew's life and plans had fallen apart.

Four months later Murdoch Lancer and Catherine were on their way to California .

Nobody had been able to convince Catherine that Murdoch Lancer was nothing but a gambler and that he didn't deserve her love. She knew better, and for the first time in her life she went against her father's wishes . She and Murdoch Lancer married without her father's blessing and soon after the ceremony they left Boston for good.

Matthew was devastated, he had pleaded with her and tried everything he could think of to make her change her mind, but in vain. She apologized and said she was sorry for hurting him, but she loved Murdoch Lancer. In the end, he couldn't blame her for loving another.  After all, he loved her and he wanted her to be happy, so he did the most difficult thing he had ever had to do in his life: he let her go and wished her well.

He went on with his life and worked hard in his father's enterprise , but deep inside he was broken. He tried to forget, but it didn't work , so he buried his sorrow deep within himself.

Two years later Catherine was dead. She had died in childbirth somewhere on a dirty road on her way back to Boston, all alone. Harlan Garrett, Catherine's father, had arrived too late ; her husband had remained in California and Matthew never learned why. Garrett took his newborn grandson with him to Boston to raise him there. To Matthew's astonishment Murdoch Lancer never showed up to claim his son.

 “Scott” was the name Catherine had given the boy before she died, as the woman who had helped her on the road relayed.

Matthew loved the child who should have been his and Catherine's son. He paid the house of Harlan Garrett a visit as often as he could to watch little Scott as he grew older. The older the boy became the more Matthew saw Catherine in his features. Scott liked him and was happy every time Matthew visited him. To Scott he was his "Uncle Matt".

Matthew was at a loss to understand Murdoch Lancer's behavior. Why would he leave the boy to be raised by his grandfather? What exactly had happened in California?

Harlan Garrett had told him that Lancer wanted the boy to grow up in Boston. But Matthew wasn't so sure. What man could abandon his own son?  

When the boy was four years old Matthew's father died, and all of a sudden Morgan's Shipping Company was his.  Although saddened by his father's death, Matthew couldn't help but feel free. He had never wanted to take over his father's business and stay in Boston after Catherine had left, but the weight of expectation from his father had weighed heavy on Matthew's shoulders.  Now that he had lost his father, too, there really was no need for him to stay; he could leave the running of the business with the family lawyer.

In addition it had become increasingly painful for him to see Scott almost every day. He reminded him more and more of Catherine and of what could have been. The more time went by, the more Matthew's pain seemed to grow, and he felt he wouldn't be able to truly let go of Catherine and Scott if he stayed in Boston any longer.  Scott wasn't his son and never would be. 

So, he decided to leave Boston and the memories behind and start a new life elsewhere.

Matthew had spent his last day in Boston with Scott, his heart aching at the prospect of leaving the boy.

After the nurse had taken the boy away to put him to bed he had found Scott's little medallion on the floor. The little boy had always worn it on a chain around his neck.  Inside, the medallion held a miniature image of his mother. They often opened it and looked at the picture together.

Matthew hesitated, then quickly slid the medallion into his pocket. Nobody would know that he had stolen it. Besides, he hadn't really stolen it. He had merely found it and hadn't returned it. That was something altogether different, wasn't it?  After all, it was the only memento he had from Catherine and Scott - apart from that large painting Catherine had once gifted him for his birthday. It was a portrait showing her beautiful face. The picture used to hang over the fireplace in his room.

But the little medallion was something he could carry with him all the time wherever he went; he could look at it whenever he wanted. So, who could really blame him for taking it?

***

Sacramento 1872

Emerging from his reverie, Matthew realized his hand still clasped the medallion with a firm grip, his fingernails digging into his own flesh.  His fingers were so stiff he could barely open his hand, his nails leaving angry red impressions in his right palm. He snapped open the medallion.

Catherine. The pain was still there, deep inside him.

He had moved to San Francisco, established a branch of Morgan's Shipping Company there and had tried to go on with his life. He had met Anna Thatcher, married her and they had a daughter, Martha. He didn't love Anna like he loved Catherine, but they had been content.  Anna never knew about Catherine, he had never told her.

Several years ago he had buried his wife and daughter side by side on the town's graveyard. Martha was only eleven years old. They had died of the same fever.

For the second time in his life, Matthew's heart was broken and once more, he found himself having to go on alone .  

A few weeks after his devastating loss he rummaged through the cases in the cellar of his house, produced the painting of Catherine and hung it over the fireplace of his living room. Her charming smile almost drove him to the edge of madness . Sometimes he found himself talking to her. Once, his housekeeper caught him and he saw her eyes grow wide before she retreated, stammering an apology. 

In the meantime, Morgan's Shipping Company of San Francisco had turned into a prospering enterprise and he was a rich man. He had started investing his capital in gold and silver mines, increasing his wealth.

But the money meant nothing to him. His life was empty in spite of his wealthiness and esteem.

But now there was this photo of Murdoch Lancer, reviving all the sorrow he had hoped to have buried deep inside. Damn the man. Lancer owned  a ranch near Morro Coyo of all places, and Matthew happened to be on his way to Morro Coyo. There were mines in the area around that town he wanted to have a look at. They had belonged to Abe Turnball, an old friend of his who had died and given them to Matthew in his last will. 

But what if he met Murdoch Lancer there? Did he even want to meet that man ever again in his life?  And Scott? What of Scott? He had to be a grown man now. Was he still in Boston? Did Murdoch Lancer know anything about the son he had abandoned?

And could he, Matthew himself, bear finding out about Scott after all those years?

His gaze went to the photograph of the rancher once more. He wasn't sure what exactly he expected, but all of a sudden he was in a hurry to leave Sacramento and continue his journey to Morro Coyo.

Restless, he snapped the newspaper shut.  

 

Chapter 2

In the barn

Humming, Teresa rubbed down her little mare, Pearl, a gift from Murdoch for her eighteenth birthday three months ago. It had been a wonderful ride, over to her favorite spot on Lancer land, Pine Hill. From the top of the hill she had the feeling she could see the entire ranch . She could see so far, she almost fancied that she could make out the Pacific Ocean. Of course, that was nonsense. The ocean was too far away. But in her imagination it seemed to be just behind the next range... One of these days she would convince Murdoch or one of his sons to take her along to San Francisco when they next had business there.

Well, that wouldn't be easy, considering how difficult it had been to convince Murdoch to allow her to ride over to Pine Hill all alone, although the hill was right behind the hacienda. Thanks to her “brothers”, Murdoch had finally given in, on condition that she never rode anywhere else alone, and Johnny was adamant she always took a rifle with her. She had agreed, albeit reluctantly. What did Murdoch think anyway? She had grown up here, in that wild land, among ranch hands and other men. She knew about the dangers the land held, she knew how to handle a rifle. She wasn't afraid. He had given her Pearl, and for what - if he didn't allow her to go for a ride with her? Shaking her head she sighed, scratching Pearl between her ears. Murdoch loved her like his own child and well, like it or not, fathers behaved like this, especially with their daughters. 

A low rustling coming from the opposite corner of the barn drew her attention. She looked up and peered into the dark corner, attempting to discern the the sound. 'Must've been a mouse', she thought.

Turning back to the horse she went on with her task, her thoughts on the boys.

 

At the same time on the range

They reined in their horses on top of the last hill before the path wound down its way into the valley. Deep down they saw the creek glisten among trees and bushes in the afternoon sun. And there it was, at the end of the valley, their destination – the magnificent white hacienda. It lay firm like a rock, as if it had always been there and would remain so forever; promising safety, warmth and peace.

Johnny looked over at his brother. Scott, too, took in the scenery in the valley, his eyes following the course of the creek and then resting on their home. Did Scott share the same feelings about the hacienda that he had? Unlike Johnny his brother had known a home before, in Boston, his grandfather's house. But for Johnny, this place had been the first place in his entire life he had ever called “home“.  And sometimes he himself was surprised at the feelings rising from deep within him when thinking about Lancer and his family. Two years ago he would have laughed at anyone telling him that he would be able to settle down and find peace anywhere on earth.

But now he had found such a place – the Lancer Ranch and a father, brother and sister.

A family to call his own.

 

“Let's go, Brother“, Scott said, kicking Charlie into motion. “Can't wait much longer for the tub, Teresa's stew and then - my own bed.“

Following his brother downhill, Johnny laughed. “Your bed?  You not planning on going into town tonight, then? What about sweet Melissa?“

“I'm sorry, Brother.” Scott chuckled. “Sweet Melissa will just have to wait.“

To be honest, Johnny couldn't blame Scott for being tired and worn out. He was pretty done in, too, and the thought of his own beckoning warm bed was enticing. They had spent two weeks at the northern boundaries of the ranch, assessing the damages the elements had inflicted on the line shacks and fence lines up there. Winter had been unusually harsh and long with extensive snowfall in the mountains. When the thaw had set in, avalanches and swelling creeks had damaged fences, shacks and bridges. In other places, debris had dammed the creeks. It had become obvious that additional work crews would have to be sent up there. Alone, the two of them had only been able to attend to some of the most critical repairs.

“'kay then, Brother, what about tomorrow? You coming to town with me tomorrow night? It's Saturday … “, Johnny asked as he nudged Barranca down the steep path right behind Charlie.

“Don't know yet, Johnny.”  Scott sighed .  “I know tomorrow's Saturday, but right now I feel like I could sleep for about two days or three straight,“

Johnny was a little disappointed at Scott's indecision but decided to drop the matter for the time being. He cherished Saturday evenings in town with his brother and knew Scott   usually felt the same way. They would eat at Alonzo's Cantina or at the saloon. Then, they would drink, have fun with the saloon girls or play cards with the ranch hands gathering in town on Saturday evenings to spend their hard earned wages. They wouldn't return to the ranch much before dawn, feeling totally at ease with each other and everyone else around.

Saturday nights weren't the same without Scott, that was for sure. Every time Scott stayed at home because he preferred to read a book or to turn in early , Johnny felt like something was missing.

 

In the barn

With the boys gone to the North Pastures the last two weeks had been very quiet and there had been many opportunities for Teresa to ride over to Pine Hill. There had been far less work to do with them away. No extra cooking and baking, no extra washing, sewing, cleaning... To think how two young men in the house could create so much extra work!  She smiled as she recalled how quiet and tidy it had all been just eighteen months before!

But now it had become too quiet and tidy, to be honest, especially since Murdoch had also left the ranch a few days before to visit an old friend in Modesto.   

Teresa was suddenly startled out of her musings. There it was again, that rustling. The feeling that she and the horses weren't quite alone in the barn intensified. Straightening, she turned round and listened intently. Everything was quiet once more. Stepping out of Pearl's box she looked up and down the barn. Nothing. Through a slit of the half open doors the afternoon sunlight cast a ray of light into the barn, the doors moving slightly in the light breeze. Teresa shook her head and shrugged, stepping back into the box. “It's time the boys returned home. I'm beginning to see pink elephants because of pure boredom.“ 

Fortunately, Murdoch and also the boys were due back that very night. Extra time on Pine Hill and less work was fine, but having the men back was better. 

Chuckling, Teresa carried on brushing down Pearl's back. “Johnny and Scott are a pain in the neck sometimes, you know, Pearl“, she told the horse. “But I wouldn't want to be without them!“ mAfter a final brushing she patted the horse on the neck.  “Now, that'll have to do for today. I have to finish the chocolate cake for the boys.” Turning round, she replaced the brush into the basket containing all the tack items she used on Pearl. The basket had been a gift from the boys, to accompany Pearl for that same birthday.

This time a movement in the corner of the barn caught her eye and she whirled around, gasping with shock as she finally became aware of a man watching her. Within seconds the shock turned to anger as she recognized Sam Riley, one of the new ranch hands Murdoch had hired several months ago.

Sam Riley had been hired together with his brother, Will. Both men were experienced ranch hands and good workers. But Teresa had disliked both men from the first time she had set eyes on them and felt especially uneasy around Sam Riley. She had the feeling he watched her and followed her, looking for any opportunity to meet her alone. More than once she had caught him stalking her.

She had intended to tell Murdoch but had yet to find the right moment.

 

On the range

When they reached the Lancer Arch, a welcome landmark telling them that they would be home very soon, Johnny couldn't stand the silence any longer. “Hey Scott“, he shouted, startling his brother out of the daze he seemed to have lapsed into.  “The first one home will get dibbs on the tub!“  He urged Barranca into a gallop, racing down the road towards the house without looking back.

He wasn't surprised when he heard the sounds of Charlie's hooves right behind him.  As predicted, Scott accepted the challenge. But this time Scott seemed to be very eager to be the first one in the yard. To Johnny's amusement his brother did something very uncharacteristic, something that wasn't Scott-like at all; he broke the unspoken rules. Scott left the road and began racing across the meadows. Taking the shortcut right towards the barn doors, he jumped the fences at breakneck speed.  Shaking his head in disbelief Johnny did something equally uncharacteristic, he gave in and reined Barranca to a trot, clapping his neck. “Let them stubborn ones go and break their stupid necks, huh? And all that, just for a hot bath... Murdoch will not be pleased...“

 

In the barn

Teresa decided to remain calm but resolute. “Mr. Riley, you alarmed me. Are you looking for something?“

“I'm sorry, Miss“, Sam Riley said, an unsettling smile fixed upon his face, “didn't mean to startle you.“ Stepping closer, the smile on his square-cut face widened into an evil grin. “And I bet you know, I'm not looking for some-thing but some-one...“ 

Teresa backed away slowly, a mixture of fear and anger causing her to break out in a cold sweat. “No, I don't know who you are looking for, Mr. Riley, and I don't want to know. I suggest you leave the barn right now and go back to work.“

“But Miss T'resa, honey, you are disappointing me.“ The man managed a concerned expression, his almost colorless eyes wide open as he slowly advanced towards her. “You, too, must've felt it . You and me, we belong together... I've been looking for ya, longing for ya, waitin' for a moment like this... I know you've been waitin', too, I know you feel the same...“

“Sam Riley, you must be crazy. Get out of here and back to work! Leave me alone!“ Teresa raised her chin and straightened her back, doing her best to look unfazed by the unwelcome advances. After all, she was the boss now that Murdoch and the boys were gone. But it clearly didn't work.

“Aaah! Are you playing hard to get, honey? I like that, darling, I like that very much...”

With an evil laugh he reached out and grabbed her by the arm, drawing her close to him with a violent movement.  “Unruly gals, they inspire me...“ 

His left arm sneaked around her, his big hand grabbed her backside with a firm grip. “I've been waitin' for ya so long...“

She could smell his fetid breath . It repulsed her.  “Let go of me!“ She hissed, squirming in his arms, turning her face away, all the while peering towards her rifle leaning against the wall of Pearl's box - just out of reach…

Instead, the grip at her bottom intensified and Sam's right hand grabbed her hair to bend her head backwards. “Kiss me, honey...“ 

 

In the yard...

Scott waited for Johnny in the yard, a broad grin all over his sweat - covered face. “Howdy, Brother, nice to meet you, finally. I was thinking about sending out a hand, to look for you.“

Johnny grinned, then sniffed the air pointedly. “Well, Brother, you are right, you certainly need the tub far more than me...“

His voice trailed off as a woman's voice was heard from the barn. The voice sounded frightened, but angry at the same time. A man answered; the two seemed to be arguing, even fighting?

Johnny's eyes met Scott's. “Teresa?!“ Acting in unison, they turned and sprinted towards the barn.

As they reached the barn doors, a scream, followed by a painful gasping howl, resounded from the rear end of the barn.

***

Teresa felt nothing but white-hot ire. Gone was the fear, to be replaced by a seething anger. Screaming, she shot up her right knee, jamming it into Riley's private parts. Roaring like an injured wolf Riley let go, sinking to his knees. Tears welled up in his eyes as he gasped in agony.

Teresa jumped to grab her rifle and uncocked it. Lifting the rifle and aiming at Riley she took several steps backwards, breathing heavily. But her hands were steady as she aimed at the whimpering man in front of her.

“Get out of here, right now!“ She almost didn't recognize her own voice, icy as it sounded. He looked up, unable to move, his face contorted in pain. Gasping, he reached out with one arm, as if looking for help.

Teresa was almost ashamed at the satisfaction she felt as she watched the stricken man.

She waved the rifle, gesturing towards the door.

“Hurry up – and don't try me, Riley, I know how to shoot!“

“Yeah, Riley, you can count on that. I wouldn't try her.“

Johnny's calm drawl, accompanied by the uncocking of his gun almost made Teresa jump.

“Johnny!“

Squinting against the sunlight flooding into the barn she made out the silhouettes of her brothers, standing side by side in the open barn doors. Although a sense of profound relief was washing over her, she was not ready yet to commit her captive to the boys.

“I can handle him, please stand aside“, she stated before gesturing once more to the cowering form on the ground.  “Get up, Riley. I said get up! Now!“

The man kneeling in front of her whined.

“Teresa, calm down.“ Scott stepped into the barn. “You can let him go now. Let Johnny deal with him. C'mon. Hand me the rifle, please. It's all over now. “

“Scott, I can handle it! Please, you don't know anything about what he tried to do to me... he... I...“

To her immense frustration, she felt tears well up in her eyes and her voice break. Her composure was faltering.

“Teresa, darling, I know“, Scott's dark voice reassured her. “Give me the rifle. It's ok.“ Drawing closer, he reached out to take the rifle.

“What is all this about?“

Murdoch's thunderous voice boomed from behind the boys' backs.

Teresa had been so preoccupied that she hadn't seen or heard him approach.

“Murdoch!“ She cried, immediately casting aside the rifle and fleeing into her guardian's arms.

***

Deep in thought Murdoch watched the flames in the fireplace as they licked at a large piece of lumber. The grandfather clock struck ten times, comforting him with its familiar chimes.

He was tired, but satisfied. He had dismissed the Rileys, both of them; shocked about what had happened to Teresa. But he still wondered about the fact that he seemed to be the only one who hadn't felt that there was something that hadn't been quite right about the Rileys.  Johnny and Scott had told him about their suspicions concerning the two men. There had also been complaints from other ranch hands. Money and personal items seemed to have disappeared from the bunkhouse since the Rileys' arrival at the ranch. But there was no proof of their guilt. So – what was he supposed to do? He knew he was respected for his fairness, and the Rileys had a right to be treated with fairness as well. Besides, they were good ranch hands, Sam Riley being one of the best horse trainers he had ever met. They desperately needed men like him.

But now Teresa had been endangered because of his good faith. Damn, why on earth hadn't she told him about Sam Riley earlier?

He had asked her that very question at the dinner table. She had smiled, having recovered quickly from the experience in the barn.

“Murdoch, why should I? I wasn't sure if I was right about him. It was you who taught me not to be too quick to judge and that men are assumed innocent until proven guilty. Besides, I thought I could handle him. Remember, I grew up here at the ranch, among the ranch hands. I'm experienced in things like that.”

He had been shocked at hearing that, but as he opened his mouth to ask her about her “experiences“, she leaned forward and clapped his arm, smiling. “It's okay, Murdoch. I'm kidding. I'm fine, no harm has been done. I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I wanted to, but I simply forgot. “

This confession had comforted him a little. Damn, he knew he had probably made a lot of mistakes handling her since her father had died, so it was important for him to hear that she trusted him.

“Murdoch?“ Scott's voice interrupted his thoughts. Looking up he met his son's gaze. Scott was standing behind him, two glasses of Whiskey in his hands. Handing over one of them he asked, “Something wrong?“

“No, Son, I guess not,“ Murdoch sighed, but he was conscious of the indecision in his own voice.

“You did the right thing, Murdoch“, Scott said.

“It was about time you threw those bastards out“, Johnny drawled from his place on the sofa.

“I know.  But I should have done it much earlier! I should have listened to you and everybody else.“

“No.” Scott said. ”'In dubio pro reo', that's the 'right thing' I'm talking about. Therefore, what happened is not your fault. Besides, you've seen Teresa can look after herself.”

Murdoch looked Scott in the eye. In his quiet logical way his eldest son had managed to remind him of one of his oldest credos.

Sighing, he nodded. “Yes, son, you're right. But ... it's difficult sometimes.“

“I know.“ Scott's voice was full of understanding.

Murdoch smiled and squeezed his son's shoulder. “Thank you.“ 

“Wait a minute, you two,” Johnny sat up from his slouching position on the sofa. " 'In du..., du...' what? What the hell are you talking about? What about some of that 'proper' English you're always talking about?“

Scott turned towards his brother, wearing that superior “big brother“ expression that Murdoch knew Johnny hated very much. And he was sure Scott was more than aware of that fact, too.   

“That, Little Brother, is Latin. It means no one should be considered to be guilty of a crime before he is proven to be guilty.“

“And why didn't you say that right from the start, Big Brother, huh? They also taught you English at that fancy school of yours, didn't they? “

Scott's eyes glimmered with mischief. “It's a Latin proverb, Little Brother. Besides, Latin is a very interesting language. For your information, it's the basis for Spanish, Italian and French, and even many English words are based on Latin.”  His eyes flashed.  “How about I teach you some Latin? It wouldn't do you any harm, you know.“ He grinned from ear to ear at Johnny's perplexed expression. “I mean, in return for the roping, branding and shooting lessons you gave me...it's the very least I could do.“

Johnny snorted. “Got along without Latin all my life, Boston. I'm sure I'll continue to do just fine without it. 'Sides, I don't think you could stop any cougar from attacking you with Latin proverbs.“

Murdoch hid a smile behind his glass, but Scott maintained his serious expression.

“There you may be right, but I bet you never tried. Next time you meet a mad cougar I recommend this Latin spell...“

He straightened his tall frame, and with wide-open eyes he stared down an imaginary cougar in the corner of the room. Putting on a dramatic face he swung his right arm and spoke, voice raised and emphasizing each word, ‘Hocus pocus malus locus – you are a mouse!  And – look sharp – the cougar will be a mouse.“  Looking down at the floor, he motioned with his forefinger. „ See?“

Fascinated, Johnny's gaze followed Scott's outstretched finger, as if looking for the conversion to happen.   

Then he sobered and shook his head. “Scott, what did you put into your drink?”  Taking Scott's glass from the table he sniffed. “Must be hard stuff in there.“ He took a mouthful and pulled a face. “So that makes you talk Latin?” He shuddered. “You try that, Brother, I prefer my colt, it's done a good job so far.“

And, as an afterthought, “Hey Boston, you sure are talented . You should have become an actor or somethin'...“

Scott shrugged, his face turning into a mask of regret. “I tried, but they wouldn't take me.“

Before Johnny could answer they heard a muffled noise from the back part of the Great Room. Turning their heads they saw Teresa leaning at the dining table, both hands pressed at her mouth in order to suppress a laughing fit. Her face was as red as a tomato as she tried, unsuccessfully, to repress her obvious mirth. Murdoch smiled at her, and when their eyes met, she dropped her hands, unable to hold back any longer, exploding into an uncontrolled fit of giggles. It was clearly infectious, with Murdoch joining her in laughter.

Scott threw an arm around Johnny's shoulder. “You see that, Brother? They're making fun of us. They're just not taking us seriously…“

“Johnny...“, Teresa managed .  “Johnny, you... you looked like... like you really had... seen a …mouse...“ Gasping, she sank into a chair.

Johnny raised his chin defiantly, wearing his best ‘offended' expression. “And what if I did ?“

For a second her eyes widened, darting over the floor, but when she looked up and noticed the boys' grinning faces she scowled. Putting her hands at her hip she grumbled, “Johnny Lancer, you are a wicked....“

As the brothers broke out in laughter, Teresa gave up and joined them.

Murdoch smiled at their carefree skirmish, relieved to see that Teresa really was okay. God, he was such a lucky man to have his sons back. He almost didn't remember what it had been like without them, and he couldn't imagine life without them ever again. Juvenile and carefree , they had brought happiness and laughter into his, previously, too quiet house. How often had they managed to charm away his foul mood with their easy bantering? Teresa relished their company, too. She had thrived since they were home.              

***

Later, after the boys had left the Great Room to turn in Murdoch sat by the fireside and stared at the flames. As he heard a light footstep he looked up. Teresa appeared by his side, kneeling down and laying her head in his lap. An image of a similar situation popped up in Murdoch's mind - how long ago, about 18 months? Back then Teresa had come to comfort him and to tell him that his sons wanted to love him. Wise girl. She had been right.

Teresa seemed to be thinking of the same night. Lifting her head she looked him in the eye, a soft smile playing at her lips. “You love them, too, don't you?“

“Yes I do, darling,” he agreed, smiling down at her .   “Very much.  And I love you too. I'm a lucky man, huh?“

He had never admitted that aloud before. It felt good.    

 

Chapter 3

Pedro swept the wooden planks of the hotel's porch and boardwalk meticulously clean. He made sure to forget not a single inch, knowing that Señor Mendoza, the owner of the pompous Estrella California Hotel, would give him a tongue-lashing if he wasn't wholly satisfied with his work. Pedro knew Señor Mendoza took a lot of pride in the cleanliness and tidiness in and around the hotel.

While he was working the broom his thoughts were on Marguerita, the hotel's waitress, his fantasy preoccupied with the sight of her sweet little breasts swelling out of her bodice. Dios. How was a man supposed to concentrate on his work while a girl like Marguerita was around? Okay, he was only fifteen while she was eighteen. But he sure felt like a man when it came to Marguerita. If only she would notice him! But whenever their paths crossed, she didn't show the least interest in him. A quick “Hola!“ was all he got. Mierda. He slammed the broom into the balustrade of the porch when the sound of galloping hooves and loud shouts caught his attention.

The stagecoach was coming. Leaning on the broom , Pedro watched how Hank Williams, the driver, ensured he made a big show of its arrival. It was the same procedure every week. The coach flew around the corner of the main street, the two men on the top shouting and yelling dramatically. It approached the way station at breakneck speed and halted in a billowing cloud of dust.

Ordinarily, when his thoughts weren't preoccupied with Marguerita, Pedro was as excited and interested in the arrival of the coach as everybody else in Morro Coyo. For as long as he could remember , the weekly arrival of the stagecoach was the most interesting thing to happen in the sleepy little town. It brought letters, news and sometimes interesting people into town.

And, like always, people came running from all directions to gather around the coach, shouting, laughing and firing questions at Hank. Pedro sighed. How could everybody be so happy and carefree while his life was so hard, filled with the pain of unrequited love?

The door of the coach swung open and he saw a stranger appear in the opening, eyes  squinted against the sun. The man stepped to the ground and took his suitcase from Hank. Turning, he looked up and down the main road of the town, taking in his surroundings.

On first glance, Pedro knew the stranger to be a distinguished man. He was tall and slim, a well trimmed grey beard covered his face and he was clad in an expensive looking suit and a bowler hat. Lifting a monocle to his eye he produced a golden pocket watch from his vest pocket. Then he looked around as if searching for something. Dios, every inch the gentleman. You didn't often see someone like him in Morro Coyo. Most likely he would take a room in the Estrella. A fine man like him would choose the best hotel, wouldn't he?

Sí, he saw the man walk over to little Luisa and talk to her. The girl motioned towards the hotel, the man took his suitcase and started striding purposefully in Pedro's direction. 

Pedro took the broom and rushed into the hotel lobby to warn Señor Mendoza of the arrival of a noble guest, knowing his boss would want to be prepared for a guest like this.

***

From the window of his hotel room Matthew Morgan looked down at the street. So this was Morro Coyo. A small but bustling town, most of its inhabitants seemed to be Mexicans.

The hotel, with its rather pompous sounding name seemed to be adequate for his needs. I t was tidy and more importantly, clean.  However, the owner was a cocky, self-important little man, who clearly had an overinflated opinion of both himself and his establishment .

But Matthew was sure he would be able to manage this man. He'd met many like him before.

He had signed in as Mr. Brian White, White's Mining Company. Senor Mendoza had been eager to accomodate his requirements, especially when hearing that he would stay for an indefinite period of time. Matthew had made it clear that he had business to conduct and that he expected to be left alone whilst awaiting his business partner who was expected to arrive in Morro Coyo within the next few weeks.

Of course, his old friend, the owner of the mines, wouldn't come. But that would have to suffice for now and hopefully until he had an idea what his next move would be concerning Murdoch Lancer and his family. 

***   

He spent the next three weeks on horseback, riding over land and checking the mines, using a map Abe Turnball had furnished him with. What he had seen thus far wasn't promising. The mines were closed and in a state of serious disrepair . According to the townsfolk he had asked no one seemed to believe that it was any use in opening them up again. The older inhabitants of Morro Coyo remembered Abe Turnball, some even had worked for him in the mines many years before. They told Matthew that there wasn't anything left in them but stones and one man's foolish dreams. 

Matthew wasn't too disappointed. To be honest, he hadn't expected anything else. He had known Turnball for years and in all that time had never heard him referring to prospering mines he owned in California.

What bothered him most was that there hadn't been any sign of the Lancer family in town so far.

He used to spend his evenings in the saloon, nursing a beer or two and listening to the town's gossip. People had gotten used to his quiet presence and, after having asked a few curious questions, and been rebuffed by the polite but curt responses, went on minding their own business.

Every now and then he would hear somebody mention the name Lancer. Murdoch Lancer seemed to be a man of good standing in Morro Coyo, if not in the whole valley. That surprised Matthew a lot. As far as he knew, Murdoch had started with nothing but the clothes he wore twenty-five years previously.

He had learned that the Lancer hands and the Lancer “boys“ –  Murdoch's sons, used to come to town almost every Saturday night.

The hands had shown up on the two Saturdays he had already spent in Morro Coyo, but Lancer's sons, and Murdoch Lancer himself, had thus far, not appeared.

As Matthew wanted to avoid attracting attention, he never inquired about the Lancers. He did not wish anyone to know that he was curious about them; that he desperately wanted to learn everything there was to know about the rancher and his family.

***

Lost deep in thought , Matthew led his horse into the livery stable, having arrived back in town from checking out the “Lorelei“, one of the last mines on his list. 

Tomorrow would be Saturday again. Would the boys come this time? He didn't know why he was so curious about the sons of his old rival. What did he expect to see? Most likely Scott was in Boston or anyplace else but here. As far as he knew Murdoch had never shown any interest in Catherine's son. Why should that have changed? Murdoch would have likely married a second time, and those sons he had now would have resulted from that second marriage.

Matthew shook his head at his own stubbornness. Perhaps it would be better if he left this place. The mines weren't of any use to him and, if he were honest with himself, the Lancers weren't, either. If only he could convince himself of that and stop thinking about them.

Crossing the street towards the hotel he closed his fist around the medallion in his pocket.

If Catherine had become his wife he wouldn't be walking down a dusty road in an equally dusty town now. His whole life would have been different. He would live in Boston, Scott would be his son and most likely there would be more sons and daughters... Catherine would be alive and happy...

He gritted his teeth in bitterness.

Mr. Baldomero, the shop owner, was leaning against the doorframe of his shop and nodded towards him. Pulling himself together, Matthew smiled and nodded back, stepping onto the boardwalk leading to the “Estrella“. The Mexican shop owner was a kind man and seemed to be very fond of the Lancer family, according to the remarks he made about them.  Matthew had learned that the Lancer ranch hands or the “boys” used to come to Baldomero with a wagon, armed with a list of supplies to fetch for “Miss Teresa“.

Matthew had already seen the Lancer wagon once on such a mission.

Suddenly Baldomero became animated, straightened and stepped onto the porch, waving his hand and shouting,“ Good afternoon Señor Lancer, good afternoon!“ 

Matthew froze. Señor Lancer .

He pressed himself against the wall of the hotel, hiding in its shadows. Then he looked around the corner to see a big grey horse coming down the street.  The man on its back was big, too. And tall. He tipped his hat in Baldomero's direction. "Hello, Mr. Baldomero, good afternoon!“

Stopping his horse at the hitching rail in front of Baldomero's he dismounted. The two men shook hands and deep in conversation, they entered the store. 

Matthew was rooted to the spot, unable to move, the street seeming to spin around him. He would have known this man amongst thousands . Although, of course, he was more than twenty years older than when they had first met in Boston. 

Still, Murdoch Lancer was tall and had an unmistakingly erect stance. Still, he walked with long purposeful strides. The movements seemed to be a bit stiffer, less elastic, though, due to his age.

And even if Matthew hadn't known the man by his outward appearance, the sound of that voice had stayed the same. Loud, deep, and self- confident.  The voice of a man who knew exactly who he was, what he wanted and who was confident that he would get it. That voice had talked Catherine into leaving Matthew in order to follow him, Murdoch Lancer, to California.

Bitterness and anger rose in Matthew's stomach as he watched the two men disappear into the store. He heard Murdoch Lancer laugh. Lancer was a lucky man. He had a wife, sons, a ranch... but what about him, Matthew? His life had been destroyed; destroyed by that man whose deep laughter resounded through the open door of the store.

Slowly Matthew made his way into the hotel and up to his room.

No, he couldn't leave now. After having seen Murdoch Lancer, leaving Morro Coyo seemed impossible to him. Now that he was so close... But – close to … what? He didn't want to go downstairs and talk to that man. No, not now and maybe, not ever. So what did he want?

He stepped to the window and peered through it just in time to see his former rival mount his horse and gallop out of town.

Most likely Lancer was headed home. Home to his ranch and his family.

Matthew took the medallion out of his pocket, opened it and regarded Catherine's beautiful features. He could have had a family, too... if only…

Making up his mind he snapped the medallion shut. He had to stay until he had seen the family of his enemy. For Catherine and for Scott he had to find out about Murdoch Lancer's new wife and sons.

He needed to know just who these people were, for whom Lancer had betrayed his first wife and his first born son, Scott.

 

Chapter 4

It was early in the morning and Johnny lay flat on his back in his bed, hands crossed behind his head. Today he had woken up much earlier than usual, but that didn't matter. In fact, he liked those early morning hours when everybody in the big house was still asleep.  Johnny simply lay there, eyes closed, and cherished the silent moment before daybreak.  The big house seemed to be asleep, too, breathing slowly. 

From outside came low noises through his wide open window, the whispering of leaves and the twitter of early birds, mixed with the smell of flowers and grass, wet from the morning dew. Johnny smiled to himself. This was his home, Lancer.  The quiet big house held his family, everyone he cared for more than anything else in this world .

Knowing this filled him with warmth and happiness. He felt comfortable and safe, a feeling he hadn't known since his mother had died years before. Sometimes he surprised himself. What was the matter with him? He used to be free as a bird; used to think that he needed nothing more than a horse beneath him and the sky above him – and his gun, of course.

But that had all changed since he had found his father and brother. He smiled. Since he had settled at Lancer he had found out how important it was to him to have a place where he belonged and people he loved and who loved him back. He could never give that up and return to his former life.

Johnny listened as the house came slowly awake. He heard Teresa's light steps in the hallway, then heard her hurry down the staircase leading to the kitchen.  She would always be the first to rise and prepare breakfast for the Lancer men. Next Johnny heard noises from his brother's room. The adjoining door was closed, but he could hear the muffled noises of splashing water and drawers being opened and shut. Minutes later he was conscious of Scott's elastic footfalls on the staircase, shortly followed by Murdoch's heavier tread.

Johnny was stunned. Everybody was up early today. Mierda. He hated to rise this early, but if he didn't want his father to ream him out first thing in the morning he would have to get up too. Sighing, he threw off the bedcovers and swung his legs onto the floor.

***

“Good morning, Teresa”, Scott greeted, entering the kitchen. He side stepped behind his sister and gave her a quick brotherly hug.

“Good morning, Scott.” She didn't even look up as she busied herself frying ham and eggs in a big pan. “Five minutes and breakfast will be ready. Help yourself to the coffee.”  She nodded towards the coffee pot to her left. Scott poured himself a mug and sat down at the breakfast table. Nursing his coffee he watched Teresa prepare the meal. She hummed to herself while flipping the eggs in the pan. He was relieved to see she seemed to be experiencing no ill effects from the incident with Riley the day before.

He leaned back and looked out of the window. Outside dawn had only just started to break . On Lancer they were used to rising at sunup which was still half an hour or so away.

To his own surprise Scott had learned in the eighteen months he had lived at Lancer that he loved getting up early. In Boston he had slept until noon sometimes, especially in those years that followed his experiences as a soldier in the War, when he  just drifted, not knowing or even caring about what direction his life would take. A life that he neither wanted nor felt he deserved after so many of his friends had died. Why did he survive when they did not?.

He loved the breakfasts with his family gathered around the big kitchen table. They were so different from the breakfasts and meals he had taken with his Grandfather. In Boston they had never eaten in the kitchen.

When he had breakfast with his Grandfather, the meal was eaten in the same stiff atmosphere as every other meal of the day. They used to face each other at the opposite ends of the immense table in the dining room. When Scott was a little boy he had the feeling there were miles between them. Later he learned there were in fact miles between them, but not in the physical context. As he grew older, the gulf between Scott and his Grandfather only grew vaster.

How different meals at Lancer were. They, too, usually ate dinner at the dining table in the Great Room, but there was a warm, light atmosphere, filled with laughter and vibrant discussion. He hadn't been allowed to talk when eating with his Grandfather.  

Murdoch's voice pulled him out of his reverie. “Good morning, Scott, Teresa”, his father said, planting a kiss on Teresa's brown hair. Before anyone was able to answer, his eyes scanned the kitchen as he took his place next to Scott. “Where's your brother?” Murdoch inquired, frowning.

Scott smiled. Unlike him, Johnny hated getting up early, especially this early... He hadn't heard a single noise from his brother's room while dressing.  “In his bed, asleep, I'd guess,” he replied. “Murdoch, we are up very early today. And it's Saturday. Let him rest.”

“I know it's Saturday and I know it's early but I've got something for you to do this morning before the two of you go into Morro Coyo for supplies.” Murdoch's voice was soft, but determined.

“Supplies?”

Scott jerked at the sudden sound of his brother's voice. Johnny stood in the doorframe, his hair still tousled and his eyes barely open. His brother really was able to sneak up on people; he hadn't heard Johnny's tread at all as he descended the staircase.

“Good morning, Johnny. I'm pleased to see you up so soon, boy”, Murdoch greeted Johnny in his kindest voice, smiling at him.

“Mornin'  Murdoch, T'resa, Scott”, Johnny yawned.

Scott pulled out the chair on the other side to him. “Come on, Brother, sit down. Have some coffee before you keel over on us.”

“Now, what was that about supplies an' Morro Coyo?” Johnny groused while shuffling towards his chair and sitting down.

“I've made a list”, Teresa said and put the plates filled with ham and eggs on the table. “There are many things that have to be bought from Baldomero's and the general store.”  Having served the men, she took her own seat and  bowed her head as Murdoch said grace. 

Formalities complete, Murdoch picked up his fork. “Enjoy your meal. Oh - before I forget,  yesterday I  placed an order at Baldomero's too.” 

Scott could tell his father was enjoying himself and looking forward to the inevitable discussion he knew would arise. He saw him hide a smile behind his fork, head bowed over his plate. 

But - a list from Teresa - and Murdoch?  Today? That couldn't be true. That was too much.

“Oh no, Teresa, please...”, Scott began. Meeting Johnny's gaze he saw his own thoughts mirrored in his brother's eyes. He knew Johnny disliked Teresa's shopping lists as much as he did, if not more so. Both of them used to try and escape the dreaded trip to Baldomero's as often as they could.  Their success rate was not good.

Johnny rolled his eyes towards him, then addressed Murdoch. “No, please, Murdoch, we can't go. We had a hard week, we ' re tired and sore, aren't we, Scott?  'sides, I'm having issues, Barranca seems to have a sore leg, I wanted to have a look at it…”

Teresa frowned with mock concern. “I'm really sorry to hear that, Johnny. Problem is, I'm running out of everything; like sugar, flour, coffee, spices, dried beans, canned fruits, chocolate powder...” She counted, holding up her fingers.  “That would mean, no more spicy Mexican food, coffee, chocolate cake, lemonade...”

She hesitated, then her face lit up.   “But, no problem at all. We never run out of milk and eggs. There's a lot of oats, too. We can have milk, eggs and grits every day. That'll do for a while. So, don't you worry none. I'm sure we can manage.” 

To Scott, she looked a little too smug as she reached for her mug and took a sip of coffee.

His brother's face was a mask of horror. Johnny's mouth had fallen open in disbelief. But damn. To be honest, he too had listened with mounting uneasiness at the potential menu for the next few weeks if someone didn't go for supplies.

“Grits?” Johnny spat, pulling a face. “How is a hard working man supposed to survive on that stuff?”

Teresa looked up.  “Why, Johnny. Grits are very healthy and strengthening. Besides, I wouldn't want you to overdo it after such a hard time  -  just for Mexican food and a chocolate cake. And then, poor Barranca with his sore leg...”

Her eyes were big, her face all innocence.

Oh my. She was doing a very good job. Scott did his best to suppress his resigned mirth. He raised his hands in surrender. “Stop it, Teresa, will you? You win. We're going, aren't we, Brother?” He nudged Johnny's shoulder. “I hate grits and milk.”

Johnny snorted between mouthfuls of ham and eggs. “Of course we are goin'. Oats... I'm no horse! I will be ready soon to save us from a fate worse then death ! Let me just finish this here breakfast.”

Murdoch shoved back his plate and leaned back. He had listened in silence to the bantering. But Scott could see amusement written all over his face that he now tried to change into an earnest expression.

“Boys,” he said in his deep voice that made everything he said sound important.  “Before you go into Morro Coyo to save everybody I've got something I need each of you to do.  Scott, I want you to catch up with the bookwork of the last two weeks. Johnny, the barn door needs repairing...”

***

To Johnny's relief everything turned out to be fine.

Johnny had repaired the barn door, the roof of the hen house and a broken wagon wheel. Scott had worked through the books. After that, when they had been ready to hitch the wagon for their trip to Morro Coyo, Murdoch surprised them by telling them that he would accompany them to town. He had to talk to Mr. Standish, the owner of the bank of Morro Coyo. He would drive the wagon to town and back again in the evening.

Johnny was satisfied and happy. Finally he and his brother were on horseback, riding into town to spend Saturday afternoon and night in Morro Coyo.  Okay, they had to work through Teresa's list before they could cut the wolf loose, but afterwards, they would cut the wolf loose, together. Scott had agreed to stay in town with him tonight, especially since he knew Murdoch would drive the wagon back to the ranch that evening. There had been occasions when Scott had opted to drive the wagon back rather than stay in town overnight because he was worried about the security of the wagon and the supplies given how rowdy town usually became on Saturday nights when all the hands from Lancer and surrounding ranches converged on the cantina to ‘cut loose'. 

Johnny looked at Scott and smiled. As usual, Scott rode his horse more like a soldier than a rancher. He had become a very good rancher but he still couldn't deny his past. With that straight back he would always stand out. To be honest, that wasn't the only thing that made him stand out here in the West. It was his behaviour in general and his manner of speech that gave away to all he encountered that he was an Easterner, and an educated one at that. But woe betide those who underestimated his brother.

Scott would quickly teach them manners. There was a hard , strong side to his brother that didn't show on the surface. Oh hell, yes. He himself had learned that the hard way,  making acquaintance with Scott's fist that day when Pardee's men had tried to beat Scott up.

At first, when Scott had come to Lancer, no one had expected he would stay.  But he did. With his toughness, persistence and natural authority he had gained everyone's respect and trust, including his, Johnny's. God knew it wasn't easy to gain Johnny Madrid Lancer's trust. But Scott was the brother he had always longed for and dreamed of. Of course, he would never have expected to have a Boston raised brother with fair hair and equally fair skin. He imagined a brother looking more like himself and the Mexican boys from the border towns he and his mother had lived in.

In fact, for a long time Scott had been the only reason why Johnny had stayed at Lancer. His brother was the first one on the ranch who trusted him, in spite of his gunfighter past. Scott was not at all afraid of him, nor impressed by Johnny's cool stance. With his slate blue eyes he seemed to look right past his barriers into his heart. Scott accepted him the way he was, made him feel valued for something other than his gun and made him feel that he actually mattered.

Scott shifted in the saddle as if feeling his gaze. Turning his head, he frowned. “Something wrong, Brother?”

“Nope. Just thinking.” 

“About what?”

“About how you are able to ride Charlie with that ramrod straight back without breaking  your backbone.”

***

Matthew was sitting on the hotel porch, watching the activity on the main street of Morro Coyo. Today was Saturday. Too restless to remain in his room, he had walked down to the hotel porch to watch and wait. Would the Lancers come?  If they came to town today to buy supplies at Baldomero's he wouldn't miss them. From his vantage point he had a very good view of the Mexican's store.

He had been sitting there for hours now, his nervousness  growing. He had reassured Señor Mendoza who had fussed and clucked over him like a mother hen , that he was fine, just needed a break today. He had talked to Pedro with his broom, his eyes never leaving the street. He had nodded and smiled at Marguerita as she entered the hotel to start her day's work; at Señor Baldomero as he opened his store and at Mr. Standish from the bank.

But the hours passed by and still there was no sign of the Lancers.

Just as he was about to give up , a wagon came down the main street to stop in front of Baldomero's.

Matthew squinted his eyes. The man driving the wagon looked familiar to him. Yes, it was Murdoch Lancer!  Matthew bent forwards, holding his breath. Two riders were following the wagon. One of them looked Mexican, most likely a ranch hand. The other one … something about the other one made Matthew rise from his chair, step to the balustrade to place his hands on it and bend forwards to take a closer look.

The other one was tall and slender, his height emphasized by the way he rode his horse. Was it the way he cocked his head while talking to the Mexican that took Matthew's breath away?

The man shoved his hat back on his head and ran a hand over his face. He was fair-haired ; in fact the first blond man Matthew had seen in Morro Coyo since his arrival, the population being predominantly Mexican in origin.

The two riders reined in their horses next to the wagon, dismounted and fastened the reins at the hitching rail in front of Baldomero's. They ambled over to the store, engrossed in their animated discussion. The way the blond man gestured and laughed… just like Catherine had done.

Matthew felt his heart racing in his chest while his hands grabbed the balustrade in order to stay upright.

But it couldn't be Scott … could it?

He couldn't help himself, he was drawn to the hitching rail near the shop. Before he realized what he was doing he was standing near the horses of the two young men, staring at the rump of the palomino that belonged to the Mexican. It was branded with a circled L.

"L" like "Lancer "? The rear flank of the big bay stallion was adorned with the same "L". He ventured closer to the bay that belonged to the tall blond, and gasped at the sight of the saddle. Richly ornamented letters were etched into the leather. His fingers reached out and traced the monogrammed letters.

"SL". His head spun.

"SL".  He stared at the letters.

"Mister, can I help you?"

He flinched and whirled around at the sudden voice from behind him.  Although the words had been spoken in a soft tone , the threat was unmistakable. The Mexican stood behind him, hands on his hips. A half smile played on his lips that never reached the startling blue eyes. 

Matthew nearly winced at the stare, feeling embarrassed.   

"I'm sorry...I...I...was just ...admiring the handiwork of this saddle...", he stuttered. He couldn't remember having felt so exposed ever before.

The Mexican raised his eyebrows to the brim of his hat. "Oh, is that right?", he asked, still that intimidating half smile playing on his lips as he drew closer.

"Hey, Johnny, wait a minute!"  The deep calming voice came from behind Matthew. He turned and looked directly into Catherine's blue grey eyes. Or so he thought.

The tall blond man laid a soothing hand on the Mexican's shoulder and smiled Catherine's bright smile.

"Johnny here is short tempered, and even shorter on trust, Sir, but he doesn't mean any harm. But –may I ask what has drawn you to our horses? Is something wrong?” 

Matthew noticed the challenge in that question. For the second time within minutes he found himself stuttering. "Yes ... no..., like ... like I told your friend here,... I ...  I was admiring the handiwork...”

The young man nodded. “I see. Yes, I agree. It is beautiful craftwork. Now, is there anything else we can do for you?”

The question sounded rather dismissive. This impression was emphasized by the way both men looked at him in a calm, but expectant way, the Mexican with his arms crossed in front of his chest, his eyes dark. With some relief Matthew noticed the blond's hand still resting on the other one's shoulder and he decided it was time to withdraw with dignity before things got out of hand.

Having regained control of his faculties , he managed, “No, thank you. And – my apologies for the inconvenience. I meant no offense . Good afternoon, gentlemen.”  He gave a curt nod.

“Good afternoon, Sir.”

Tipping a finger to his hat brim the blond man turned and left, dragging the dark young man, who shot him a last challenging glance over his shoulder, along with him.

Matthew stood and stared after them. It had to be him. Of course, his features were angular and masculine, but he would have recognized that smile and those eyes among thousands. It had to be Scott, Catherine's son.

***

Behind the next corner Scott stopped to grin at Johnny, eyes sparkling. “Well Johnny, you sure can intimidate people.” 

Johnny chuckled. “You aren't that bad, either, with your - smooth politeness.”

Then he sobered and freed himself from Scott's grip.  “But - what do you mean- 'he doesn't mean any harm ' ? Sure I meant him harm! He was fumbling at your saddle! I don't want anyone to fumble at your saddle, or my saddle or anyone's saddle, for that matter!"

“Sure, Johnny, I know, I know. I saw him, too. But I can tell you, he's harmless, he's a gentleman. He just liked my saddle.”

Johnny snorted. "And how do you know that?”

"I simply feel it, Brother. As you might know", and Scott puffed himself up, "I am a gentleman myself. And a gentleman always recognizes a fellow gentleman when he meets one." He threw Johnny his most serious look.

Johnny pulled a face. “You sure about that?”

Scott laughed and clapped Johnny on the back. "C'mon, Little Brother, lighten up!  Let's have a beer at Alonzo's and then, maybe a little poker in the saloon. I feel lucky today.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. 

Johnny let out a breath and kicked away a tin can that lay in his way. Rattling, the can danced across the street. “That, Brother, sounds like a very good idea. The first sensible thing I've heard from you in a very long time.”

 

Chapter 5

Pedro started sweeping the hotel porch at the very left end of the house, mindful to not disturb the man sitting in the rocking chair at the opposite end. While he was sweeping he watched the man out of the corner of his eyes, nervous and excited at the same time. You didn't often see a man like this on the porch of the Estrella.

The man's booted right foot rested on the balustrade and he slowly rocked the chair back and forth. Hands folded across his stomach, hat drawn low over his eyes he seemed to be dozing. Yet, Pedro was sure he didn't miss anything that was going on around him. He shuddered. The atmosphere around the man seemed to hang heavy with the air of danger.

Dios, Señor Mendoza wouldn't appreciate such intimidating behaviour as this on his porch. No one would dare put a foot on the balustrade of his hotel's veranda. But, on the other hand, no one shooed away a dangerous man like Johnny Madrid. Señor Mendoza wouldn't throw out a son of Murdoch Lancer, either.

Sí, his name was Lancer now, but everybody knew he had been a famous gunfighter. And the ranch hands reported that Johnny Lancer still practised shooting in the hills of the Lancer Ranch.

With his broom Pedro drew closer and closer to the silent man on the porch. His heart thumped in his chest. He was so close to Johnny Madrid!  And he was not afraid, okay, almost not afraid. He looked around. Did everybody see him and the notorious gunfighter? If only Marguerita saw how brave he was, that he was almost talking to the dangerous man...

Thud!

Pedro jumped as Señor Lancer's foot came down on the boardwalk, immediately arresting the rocking of the chair. The former gunfighter readjusted his hat, straightened himself and squinted his eyes as he looked across the street. Pedro followed his gaze. Señor Lancer was watching Señor White ride down the street, towards the livery stable.

***

Johnny rose from the rocking chair and watched the stranger disappear into the livery stable. Yes, that was the man he and Scott had caught fumbling at Scott's saddle. It was time to have a little talk with him.

His uneasy feelings about this man had increased every day since that first encounter on Saturday. It was the stranger's accent that troubled him the most. He had sounded like an Easterner. He spoke like Scott and he had shown interest in Scott.  That was enough reason for a man to become suspicious, wasn't it? Since Johnny had known Scott, no one coming from back East and showing interest in his brother had done his brother any good.

Johnny's restlessness had marred the Saturday night with his brother he had longed for so much, right from the moment he and Scott had headed towards the saloon to have a beer. They had been dealt into a poker game with some ranch hands but Johnny hadn't been able to concentrate. He couldn't stop thinking about that stranger. Something about him didn't sit right. Scott's questioning looks told him that his brother felt his uneasiness, but Scott didn't say a word.

After the second game Johnny had thrown away his cards and told his brother he would go and check on Barranca and Charlie. Scott had frowned but nodded his assent. “If you think that's necessary, Brother...“ Hell, he could tell his brother knew what he was planning!

Of course, instead of checking the horses Johnny had started investigations about the stranger.

He found out the man had been residing in the Estrella California Hotel for some time, checking on the mines around Morro Coyo. His name was Brian White and he was from San Francisco. That was it. Nothing seemed suspicious ... apart from the Eastern accent. But why should that accent bother him? He wasn't the first Easterner to come to California after all.

But damn... still, something sure didn't smell right.

It had kept gnawing away at him until, that morning Johnny had had enough and decided to confront the man. After all, his instincts had never let him down before. In the afternoon he had sent his work crew home to the ranch and told Frank to let his father know he would be late. Then he had turned Barranca and headed towards Morro Coyo.

***

Mr. White climbed the three stairs leading to the porch and stopped short as he became aware of Johnny's presence . Johnny could see apprehension reflected in his eyes. The man obviously remembered his rough behaviour on the street on Saturday. Heck. He didn't want to frighten Mr. White. All he wanted was some answers.

Well. How would Scott proceed? Scott would be polite and kind …. and flash that disarming smile of his… Okay…it was worth a shot.

Johnny gave his most charming smile and tipped his hat. “Good afternoon, Sir. It's a nice afternoon, isn't it?“

 White seemed confused. “Huh? Ah, yes. Oh, good afternoon. Indeed, ah, yes, a very pleasant day...“ He blinked.

Johnny let his smile broaden. “I'm glad to meet you, Mr. White. I've been waiting for you. Can we talk?“

“Talk?“ 

White made a visible effort to pull himself together. He straightened himself and seemed to remember who he was. “Why? Why should I want talk to a Mexican cowhand like you? I don't even know who you are.“

He tried to side-step Johnny in order to gain access into the hotel. 

Mexican cowhand? Johnny could feel anger arise in his stomach. To hell with all those polite phrases. He'd tried Scott's way….now for the more he tried and tested methods he was used to.

“Wait.“

Johnny hadn't moved, but this one word, spoken with a hint of menace glued the other one to the ground.

“I guess I forgot to introduce myself. I'm Johnny Lancer, son of Murdoch Lancer.“

Johnny grabbed White's arm and brought his face close to White's, deciding it was time to cut to the chase.  “And I wanna know what your business is with my brother Scott.“

The colour drained from White's face, his eyes widened and his mouth opened in disbelief. Johnny fastened his grip and drew closer. So, his instincts had been right. Yet the triumph he felt was hollow. “You know my brother, don't you? All right, can we talk now?“

“Señor Lancer, Señor Lancer! What are you doing? El Señor White is a decent man and a guest of my house!“

Señor Mendoza, the owner of the hotel, burst out of the hotel doors onto the porch, wringing his hands in consternation .

Johnny let go of White's arm, giving the other man a little push, and stepped back.

“No problem, Señor  Mendoza. Everything's fine.  Mr. White and I are going to have a little talk inside, aren't we, Mr. White?“

The hotel owner cast a questioning glance at his guest. “Is that right, Señor?“

White looked pale and sick, his shoulders slumped. He nodded. “Yes, Señor Mendoza. I just wanted to invite Mr. Lancer to my room.” He gave Johnny a crooked smile. “Will you follow me, please?” 

He staggered towards the hotel door.

Johnny almost felt sympathy for the man. Almost.

In his room White motioned towards two armchairs. “Please, Mr. Lancer, take a seat.“

Johnny chose the armchair next to the window, White himself sat down on the other one.

Leaning forward Johnny wasted no time as he demanded, “Now, Mr. White. Tell me about Scott.“

***

An hour later Johnny was on his way back to the ranch. He took the shortcut through the hills to save time. It was late and he wanted to find Scott before his brother turned in for the night.   The talk with White had been successful, but not totally satisfying.

Johnny's instincts hadn't betrayed him. White had known Scott, but many years before, back in Boston, when his brother was a toddler. White had also known Scott's mother and grandfather and even Murdoch. He had liked the little boy and had been surprised to see him here in Morro Coyo twenty years later. That was all. Nothing seemed to be amiss with what White had told him.

Yet Johnny couldn't get away from the feeling that there was still something that didn't sit right with him about White.

He shifted in the saddle. He didn't like the flicker he had seen in White's eyes when the man had mentioned Catherine Garrett and Murdoch Lancer. When talking about Scott, White's features had taken on a soft expression that seemed strange to Johnny. His brother was a man, no longer a little boy...He shook his head trying to cast off the uneasiness he still felt .

Well. As White claimed to know Murdoch and Scott, Johnny had invited him to pay them a visit at Lancer .   But White had declined the invitation. He seemed to think Murdoch wouldn't be pleased to see him, and neither was he eager to meet Murdoch. No. The only one he wanted to talk to was Scott. If Johnny would be so kind as to deliver this little note to Scott?

Deep in thought Johnny rode through the Lancer Arch. In the distance he could see the characteristic form of the house shimmering through the darkness ; its white walls highlighted by the almost full moon. He had seen this sight many times since his return to Lancer, but it still filled him with warmth and a sense of belonging. His home looked so beautiful as it stood there in the moonlight.

As he made an enthusiastic movement to spur Barranca to a faster gait , he heard White's note rustle in his shirt pocket.  He pulled out the envelope and stared at it. How he hated to have to hand the note over to Scott! It seemed ridiculous, but he sure as hell didn't want his brother to visit with that man.

Anyway, it was Scott's decision to make, and he respected his brother's right to decide for himself.

But he would keep a watchful eye on Brian White – and watch Scott's back, if necessary.

***

The big house was dark apart from the dim light coming from the lamp in the hallway.  Johnny hurried up the staircase to the first floor, taking two steps at a time. He hoped to find Scott still awake, knowing his brother liked to read a chapter or two of his book before he blew out the light to go to sleep.

Entering his room Johnny exhaled with relief. From underneath the adjoining door to Scott's room a ray of light was filtering through into his own .   Scott was still awake. Johnny rushed to the door to push it open, then stopped short.  No, Scott didn't like him bursting into his room without knocking. He took a breath, then cautiously knocked at his brother's door, opened it and peered inside. “Scott? May I come in?“

Scott was sitting in his bed reading a book, as expected. He lifted his head, eyes wide with surprise. “Come in. Since when do you knock on doors?“

Johnny grinned. “Since I got me a big brother to teach me some manners.“ He entered the room and flopped down on Scott's bed.

“I'm happy there's still hope. I've been waiting for a little success for months.“  Scott laughed at the look Johnny shot him.

“So, tell me“, Scott regarded his brother seriously as he closed his book and placed it on the nightstand. “What did you find out?“

Johnny lowered his head, fumbling with the beads around his wrist. “You know where I've been?“

“Of course, Brother. That wasn't difficult to guess. You have been pacing up and down like a caged lion ever since we encountered that stranger in town. Now get it said!“

Johnny took a deep breath. No need to beat around the bush, then. “His name is Brian White. He says he knows you.“

Scott raised his brows. “He knows me? I can't recall having seen him before. Nor do I know that name.“  He shook his head.

Johnny settled into a more comfortable position on the bed. “Well, that's maybe no wonder, Scott. He said he knew you when you were a little boy, in Boston. He claims he knew your grandfather and your mother and...“ Johnny paused and drew a breath. “...he also knew Murdoch.“

Scott straightened himself and bent forward. “What? Did you say he knew my mother?“

Johnny nodded. “He gave me a note for you.“ He pulled the envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Scott. ”I think he wants to see you.“ 

Scott took the letter and turned it in his hands, staring at it in disbelief and confusion. Then he raised his head and looked at Johnny. The flood of emotions that showed in his brother's eyes gripped at Johnny's heart.

“Johnny,“ Scott whispered. “He said he knew my … mother?“

Johnny nodded and rose from the bed, motioning at the letter.

“Read it and maybe you'll know more, Scott. Good night.“

Johnny padded back over towards his room. At the door he turned, looking back at Scott. His brother was still staring at the paper in his hands. Then he started opening the envelope, his fingers trembling.

Johnny was surprised to see how the sparse information he had given Scott had agitated his normally restrained brother. The feeling of foreboding he had felt ever since he and Scott had met the man was back with a vengeance.

His stomach clenched with sympathy and worry for his brother. If this strange man caused Scott any harm he would pay for it. Oh yes, he would most certainly pay…

Silently Johnny closed the door to Scott's room, leaving his brother to digest the contents of the missive.

 

Chapter 6

“Good morning Señor Lancer”, a dark haired young girl called out in greeting from behind the hotel clerk's desk. Scott knew her name was Marguerita, he had met her before.  “I'm afraid el Señor Mendoza is not here. Can I help you?“

“Hello Señorita  Marguerita.“ Scott tipped his hat. “I don't need Señor Mendoza's help. I'd like to talk to one of the guests of the house. His name is White.“ 

“Mr. White left for the bank a few minutes ago, Señor Lancer, but said he would be back soon. Would you like to take a seat and wait?“

“Thank you, Señorita.  I'll wait for him outside.“  He turned and left the hotel lobby. Outside on the porch young Pedro was busy with his broom. Despite his tense mood, Scott almost laughed. This boy and the broom seemed to be glued together. Did Pedro ever do anything other than sweep?

Scott ambled over to the far side of the porch. Leaning against the banister he noticed Señor Baldomero outside his store, deep in discussion with a client. But his thoughts were on the mysterious stranger.

Scott had left Lancer before breakfast that morning. He had spent an almost sleepless night, tossing and turning in his bed.  He had been unable to stop thinking about Brian White and what connection the man could possibly have with his family. He couldn't recall ever knowing a “Brian White“. But the man clearly knew him, and the fact that the stranger also claimed to know his mother troubled him a great deal. What could Brian White tell him about his mother?

The little Scott knew about his mother was based solely on what his grandfather had told him.  And Scott had the good sense to know that his Grandfather's view of his only daughter was very biased. According to Harlan Garrett his mother had been an angelic, modest young girl, seduced by the villainous Murdoch Lancer who had forced her to go to California with him. It was always the same old, same old. Harlan would talk himself into a rage and it would be best to quickly change the subject.

And his father had not furnished him with any more information. He had never mentioned his first wife again after the remark about her eyes on that very first day.     

When the first pale rays of light had peeked through the cracks in the curtains, announcing the arrival of the new morning, Scott had decided to take advantage of the opportunity to learn more about his mother and accept the invitation of Brian White to meet him at the Estrella Hotel in Morro Coyo.

***

Matthew stopped short as he rounded the corner to ascend the steps of the hotel porch.

Dear God, there he was. Catherine's boy .  Scott.

The young man leaned with his elbows propped on the banister ; hat set back on his head, and seemed to be watching a heated discussion between Señor Baldomero and another man.

Matthew's heart pounded. He had been so sure that he wanted to talk to the boy, he had made notes of what he intended to tell him.  But now his knees felt weak and his head was spinning, the words eddying around in his brain. 

Talk to him, man! This is your chance. This is what you have been waiting for, he chastised himself.

Legs quavering, he took a tentative step forward. It was now or never.

“Mr. Lancer? Mr. … Scott … Lancer?“

The young man straightened and turned to look at him. Matthew thought his heart would stop beating as he met those slate blue eyes he knew so well. He opened his mouth to say something, but the words stuck in his throat.

Catherine's son smiled and tipped his hat.  “Yes, that's me. And you are Brian White?“ 

Matthew managed a nod. Clearing his throat he croaked, “Um, yes, that's right.“

Then he pulled himself together.  “Thank you for coming, Mr. Lancer.

I have some things I need to discuss with you.“

***

In Matthew's room Scott Lancer seated himself in the same armchair his brother had chosen the day before, setting his hat and gloves down on the table.

Matthew busied himself with a bottle and glasses. His trembling fingers made the glasses clatter. If only he wasn't so nervous. But standing so close to Catherine Garrett's son almost sent him over the edge.  “Drink?“ he asked, carrying the whiskey decanter and the glasses to the table.  

The young man shook his head. “No, thanks.“ He seemed to be restless, too. Leaning forward he regarded Matthew with an intense gaze. “I understand you knew my mother?“ he asked.

Matthew poured himself a healthy tot of whiskey and drained the glass with two big gulps. Now or never.

Setting the glass on the table he nodded, licking his lips.  “Yes, that's correct.“ 

“How?“

Matthew cleared his throat and clenched his fingers in order to keep his hands still. Now, finally, the time had come. The time to tell the boy how things should have been ; how Scott should have been his and Catherine's son.  It was time to tell the boy the truth about the rogue that was his father and how Murdoch Lancer was responsible for Catherine's death. 

Now that he and the boy were in this room, so close together, he felt the time was right for the boy to finally hear the truth.  

Exhaling he met the boy's eyes. Catherine seemed to stare right back at him.

“I had known your mother since she was a little girl. We were neighbours, our families were friends.“ He smiled at the memory. “To me, she was the most beautiful girl in town. She was so pretty and so full of life...“

The young man seemed to drink the words from his lips.

“Every young man in Boston admired her“, Matthew continued, his voice hoarse with emotion. “But she loved me. The truth is, Scott, we were engaged to be married.“He felt a lump form in his throat and paused to get his emotions under control.

Scott's eyes widened.   “Engaged?“, he whispered, confusion written all over his face.

“Yes.  And you ought to know we were happy until...until “, the old, familiar sense of bitterness washed over Matthew, “Murdoch Lancer destroyed everything...“

***  

With growing dismay and uneasiness Scott listened as Brian White told about his love for Catherine Garrett and how Murdoch Lancer had destroyed his happiness. How his father had seduced Catherine, made her fall in love with him and taken her away... 

It sounded eerily similar to the version of events his grandfather had told him.

But – Brian White wasn't his grandfather ; he had nothing to do with his family.  White speaking in this way about his mother and father seemed improper, he had no right to judge, had he? 

How dare White talk about his love for his mother, or her beauty?  How dare he criticize his mother's decision to go with his father? Knowing his father Scott was sure Murdoch hadn't forcefully dragged his mother to California. He would never have done something like that. How dare White cast aspersions on his father's character, and suggest that Murdoch was directly responsible for Catherine Lancer's death?

And then, how was he supposed to respond to these accusations?  Frustrated, Scott realized once again that he didn't know anything about Murdoch and his mother because his father preferred to ignore the past.

Well, to be fair to his father, he himself had not asked for answers yet. That had to change today.

Scott felt a knot of fury in his stomach. He wouldn't listen to this man any longer.

But Murdoch would have to answer some questions, very soon.

Scott sat upright and made a movement to rise from the armchair. “Mr. White, I'm not prepared to listen to any more of this. I'm sorry your feelings have been hurt but I'm sure my … parents“, how odd it felt to say that word, “had no intention of ...“

White reached out to grab his arm.

 

“No, no - please, Scott, stay. I apologize, I allowed my emotions to get the better of me. I... I never expected you to look so much like your mother. It threw me a little off kilter.“ He produced a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his sweat - covered face. “You know, this is really not easy for me.“ 

He cast Scott a small smile.  “But there's something more...”

Scott waited, trying to hide his annoyance.

White again reached in his pocket and this time held a medallion in his hand. He laid it on the table. “This is yours. I wanted to return it to you.“ 

“Return it…?“ Sinking back in his chair Scott reached for the medallion. “But...“

“Open it.“ White said hurriedly, his face alight with anticipation.

As the medallion snapped open, Scott looked down at his mother's face. Raising his eyes he met White's expectant gaze.

“Why did you say this was mine? I've never seen it before.“ Scott closed the medallion carefully and put it back on the table.

“You really don't remember me, do you? But no wonder, you were a toddler back then. Forgive my subterfuge; my name is not actually Brian White but Matthew Morgan. You used to refer to me as Uncle Matt.“  White studied Scott's face intensely, his eyes filled with hope and longing.  “Uncle Matt – remember?“

And as Scott shook his head he told Scott how he had visited him and spent his afternoons with the little boy. “That's when you lost that medallion“, he finished, his eyes never leaving Scott's face.

Uncle Matt  - somehow that sounded familiar, there was a flicker of a memory, a kind, bearded  face  –  but as quickly as it had appeared the image was gone.

Scott rose again. He needed to get out of this stuffy room before all of these unexpected news overwhelmed him completely.  

“I'm sorry, Mr. White…or  Morgan, or whoever you are,… I don't remember you or the medallion.”

Morgan's disappointment was obvious. “It's the truth, all I told you is true!“

Morgan also stood, his face contorted in pain and anger.  “I was the man who loved you as if you were my own son!  Murdoch Lancer never showed any interest in you! He left you in Boston, never claimed you! I never understood that man.“

Scott was shocked by this sudden outburst and by the feelings Morgan's words stirred up within him. Yes, that was the crucial question, why hadn't Murdoch ever claimed him? 

“You should have been my son!“, Morgan hissed through clenched teeth.

He stepped closer towards Scott, grabbing him roughly by the shoulders.  “You should leave Murdoch Lancer and come with me. You owe him nothing. I can see that you aren't cut out for a ranch life. Come with me to San Francisco...  I own a shipping company, all that is mine shall be yours!”

Scott didn't like the flicker of desperation that burned in the man's eyes. He shook off the hands and backed away from Morgan, trying to suppress his increasing confusion and disgust. This man had to be mad.

Reaching for his hat and gloves he said, “Mr… Morgan, I'm sorry for not remembering you and I'm sorry for any wrong you feel my father and mother may have done to you.”  He put his hat and gloves on, trying to remain polite.  “But I can't help you, there's nothing I can do.”

He took a deep breath as he felt his emotions get the better of him.  “You have said terrible things about my father and mother, made some pretty powerful and unfounded accusations, and, at the same time, have dared to step in my life... You are intruding, Sir, and I won't let that happen.  It's to you I owe nothing.”

With long strides Scott headed to the door. Knuckles white as he gripped the doorknob, he turned once more. “I'll forget your impertinence and make allowances for that fact that you are overwrought at the moment and not wholly responsible for your actions. However, I think it best, for both our sakes that we never meet again. Good day to you, Sir.”

With that Scott left the room, closing the door behind him with an insistent thud. Outside, he leaned against the wall, inhaling deeply. He didn't like that man and no, he owed him nothing. But nevertheless, Morgan had rubbed salt in his deepest wound; had resurrected the nagging pain that he never could quite suppress.  Why hadn't his own father ever claimed him? 

 

Chapter 7

For days after Scott had left, Matthew was so consumed by frustration and disappointment that he remained confined to his room; and he thought he would never be able to leave his bed again. Everything he had lived for during the past weeks had evaporated in only a few minutes.

Ever since he had seen Murdoch Lancer's picture in that newspaper back in Sacramento he had known his life would never be the same, and when he had seen Scott on the road he had been so sure that Catherine's son would finally be his. God would see to that, God knew where Scott belonged.

How could things have gone so wrong? He had been so well prepared, he had been so sure that he would be able to convince the boy. Didn't Scott believe him? But he had shown him the medallion! He had told him about his mother! He had told him about his visits and his love for him!  And Scott knew that Murdoch Lancer had never claimed him. Why would he want to live with a father like that?

Matthew's thoughts ran in endless circles until, a couple of days after Scott's visit, it all suddenly became clear to him.

He sat up in his bed, eyes wide open.

Why hadn't he seen this earlier ? After twenty-five years history was repeating itself !  Of course, it was Murdoch Lancer again; stealing away that which belonged to him, Scott! This time Lancer had bedeviled Scott. There was no other explanation. He and that filthy dark half-breed son of his must have some sinister hold over Scott.

What decent man would want to live at a place like this, with a rogue for a father and a Mex for a brother, unless there was some untoward influence they were exerting over him? Certainly not someone like Catherine Garrett's son. If he, Matthew Morgan, freed Scott from this burden, he felt sure Scott would come with him. 

Filled with renewed energy , Matthew swung his legs out of his bed.

A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. He considered ignoring it, but, if it was the over- zealous hotel owner on the other side of the door, he knew that a lack of response would only heighten Mendoza's exaggerated concerns for his health.

Mendoza had been very upset when he had learned that his favorite guest was indisposed and had taken to his bed. Every day he would knock and make a point of asking how he felt and offering help.

"Come in!" Matthew called out, unable to hide the irritation in his voice. As suspected, the door swung open to reveal the concerned features of the hotel proprietor. This time he carried a tray.

“Buenos dias, Señor White! It's good to see you are better! I have brought you something to eat. You must eat!” While talking, Mendoza made his way over to the table to set the tray down.

Matthew nodded in appreciation. “Thank you, Señor Mendoza, you are right, I am hungry today.” He smiled his kindest smile to mask his impatience. He wanted to get rid of the man, he had to work out a plan! Mendoza beamed and took a small bow, his hand on the doorknob. “De nada, de nada, Señor! Enjoy your meal!”

Having eaten , Matthew felt better than he had in a long time, but he was restless. The renewed energy he had been filled with when he realised that all he had to do was to get rid of Johnny and Murdoch, was diminishing rapidly as the reality of what he was considering hit home.

How should he get rid of Scott's father and brother? Kill them? He had never killed before,  was averse to even wearing a side arm.

Yet – he wanted them dead. He should have been shocked by this cold-blooded assertion, something he had never before thought himself capable of. Yet he was not. There was no other way, was there? Scott was so taken in, so deceived by his father and brother, he would never leave them. But if they were dead...

Matthew cursed. If only Murdoch Lancer had stayed back in Scotland, where he had belonged.

Frustrated, he slammed his hat on his head and rushed out of the room, without even thinking about shaving or the morning ablutions that he usually observed .  For the first time in his life he wasn't bothered about appearances. There were more important things at stake.

Matthew hastened through the hotel lobby, oblivious to Mendoza's and Marguerita's puzzled stares. Outside, he almost fell over Pedro's broom which was leaning against the balustrade of the porch. He needed a good cold beer at the saloon and, maybe, a whiskey or two.   

At this time of the day the saloon was quiet. In the dim light Matthew could make out a few cowboys slouching around a table, obviously drunk, one of them snoring, his face slack on the tabletop. He rushed past their table and was only stopped by the hard wooden bar that seemed to be in front of him all of a sudden. Behind it the Mexican barkeeper was asleep, too, perching on his chair, arms dangling by his sides. What kind of slothful flea-bitten town was this? Everybody asleep in the middle of the day?

He slammed both hands on the surface of the bar with force.  “Hey barkeep! Whiskey!” His voice boomed.

The barkeeper jerked and almost fell off his chair. “Qué?” He blinked his unfocused eyes. The man was old and had but a few teeth left. 

 “I said whiskey, if you please! Quickly!” Matthew barked, fixing the sleepy barkeeper with a furious glare. How good it felt to bark at someone! He would have liked to grab the man's collar and drag him out of his chair, as the rage he harbored at Murdoch Lancer burned within him.

The barkeeper flinched at his tone and was up in a second, in spite of his age. 

“Si, Señor, of course, Señor, un momento por favor...”, he stuttered, hurrying to fetch the drink, his movements erratic and shaky. 

Matthew watched as he came back with the bottle and poured the drink with trembling hands. He grabbed the glass and drained it with one gulp. That was good, very good. Wordlessly he pushed the glass back to the man across the bar, motioning with his eyes. The second glass tasted even better. The barkeeper looked at him with large wary eyes. How that man tore at his nerves!  “What are you staring at? Is something amiss?”  Matthew hissed, bringing his face close to that of the man.

The Mexican shook his head, trying to back off. “No, no, nada, Señor...” 

Enraged by a fury he was no longer able to control, Matthew reached over the bar and grabbed the man by the jacket.  “Señor, Señor, Señor... don't you call me Señor anymore, it is 'Sir', hear me? Sir! I am an American; an American, do you hear me? Not some smelly Mexican cowhand!”

“Si, Señ.... Sir!” The man's black eyes had become even bigger.

Matthew emitted a disgusted snort and let go of the man.  Hell, it felt good to assert power over someone. He hadn't known he was able to put the fear of God into someone like that, but damn, it felt good!

He reached for the empty glass in front of him and turned it in his hands, the rage suddenly leaving him, to be replaced by a creeping uneasiness. Since when did a Morgan threaten helpless old men? Well, there always was a first time... He quickly swallowed away the shame that was about to rise up within him.

Snatching the bottle from the old man's hand, he strode over to a table and dropped down on a chair. He was really done with this whole town. Mexicans wherever you looked. And Scott in the middle of them. He even had a Mexican half - brother !  What the hell did the son of Catherine Garrett think he would find here? What would Catherine think? Well, she had had a soft touch for the poor, but... Matthew fingered the medallion. No, she certainly would not have approved of conditions like these for her son.

“I'll pull him out of here, I swear”, he murmured to himself.

He raised the bottle and took several swallows as the batwing doors were pushed open and a cowboy entered the saloon. He was small and stringy, with a pointed haggard face and jerky movements, as he checked out the room for perceived threats.  As the man looked around his unsettling colorless eyes briefly met Matthew's and caused a shudder to run down his spine. Matthew set down the bottle and wiped his mouth.  He had seen the man before. He knew he was one of Murdoch Lancer's ranch hands.

A sudden commotion at the table with the drunken cowboys drew the man's attention.

“Hey, hey, hey – look, boys, who do we have here?”, a big, red-faced man shouted, pointing at the ranch hand.

“Iff'n that isn't ol' Sam Riley!”, bawled another. “Come and have a drink with us.”

Swaying the cowboy rose from the table and thrust an arm around Sam Riley's shoulder. “Now that you 'n your brother have been fired by Murdoch Lancer you'll no longer be too fine to drink with us, huh?”

“That wasn't  M-M-Murdoch L-L-Lancer who f-f-ffired him”, a third one barked, barely able to speak clearly.  “Nooo-oo, bb-boysss. That was the LL-LLancer girl, the soft -  brown eyed Lancer girl -  with her rrr-rifle that made him runn-nn.... “ The man hiccupped and giggled, unable to go on.

"Yeah, gave him a good kick in the balls, the way I heard it...”

“You still in town? We thought you had hightailed it to Mexico, Miss Teresa on your heels...”

The men appeared to be having a very good time at the recent arrival's expense, roaring and bawling all at the same time, clapping their thighs and holding their stomachs while riling the man mercilessly.

Riley's face grew red and his eyes flashed. With a sudden movement he grabbed the  cowboy clinging to him by the collar, a scowl on his face.  “I'll never drink with the likes of you, you are scum.”  With an evil punch he sent the man to the ground.  In the next moment a gun was in his hand, aiming at the cowboys. The men sobered immediately, holding their breaths.

“Anybody else?” Riley sneered, his eyes as cold as ice.

They waved dismissively and shook their heads, obviously realizing that no-one of them was in a condition to put up a fight.

 “Naa, Sam, look, we were just funnin', ya know?”

 “Yes, nn-nno off-ffen-ssse meant”, the man with the hiccup hurried to say.

Hauling up their drunken companion from the floor they retreated to their table. 

Riley exhaled and straightened, readjusting his jacket and hat.  “Besides”, he growled, “you'll see, I'm not done with the Lancers yet. They've not seen the last of me. They'll pay.” The menace in his voice was obvious.  “Especially the girl,” he murmured to himself as he passed by Matthew's table on his way to the bar.  

Matthew had watched the scene closely, an idea forming in his mind. Here was someone who still had an account to settle with the Lancers, someone who hated them, maybe as much as he did. Even more, that man was dangerous; he knew how to use that weapon at his hip. What if he hired Riley to help rid him of Murdoch and Johnny Lancer – the two people who stood between him and his future with Scott? Sam Riley looked as if he wouldn't hesitate to kill. And if not right from the start, Riley also looked as if the right amount of money might help to convince him.

As he realized what his thoughts implied Matthew startled. His hands became slick with sweat. Was he, Matthew Morgan, respected Shipowner, really considering hiring a man to commit murder on his behalf? He wiped his hands, grabbed the bottle and took several more gulps. Not bad, that stuff.

The medallion holding Catherine's picture seemed to burn into his skin through the pocket of his jacket. Yes, he would do it, for Catherine, as he had sworn. And for Scott. Scott Garrett was meant for another kind of life. Setting the bottle down, he looked over to the former Lancer Ranch hand. Yes, it was worth a try.

As Matthew quickly rose from the chair to address Riley, his head started to spin violently and the ground beneath his feet seemed to move. Oh. Inebriated in the middle of the day. This was a new, and rather unsettling experience.  Despite himself, he snickered. Damn. He would have to pull himself together if he wanted Sam Riley to take him seriously.  With an unsteady hand he grabbed his bottle, straightened, took a deep breath, concentrated and walked over to the bar. It worked better than he had thought.

“Mr. Riley? My name is Brian White. Can I buy you a drink? I have a proposition for you.”

***

Will Riley was in a sour mood. He and his brother had been so comfortable at Lancer,they hadn't had such an easy ride for ages.

There had been a warm bed for them, in a tidy bunkhouse, tasty meals right on time, and regular payment, to mention only some of the pleasures they had enjoyed. And it had been so easy to steal from their comrades. They all had been such honest trustful men!

Damn. And what did they have now? Scratching his head he looked around.  A dirty little  room in a flea ridden boarding house in a dead end town called Morro Coyo. He spat on the ground, adding his spit to that of several lodgers before him. The blankets on the beds were moth-eaten and lousy. They'd stayed here for several days now and he was sure within only a couple of days nothing of him would be left but his bones. Since sleeping here the fleas and lice seemed to feast on him.

All because Sam couldn't keep his fingers off that Lancer girl.  To hell with him. Although, that girl was a sweet little filly, he almost sympathized with his brother. He would have liked to try his luck himself. But he had learned the hard way it was best to keep his fingers off the girls his brother had laid hands on. Anyway, this time the girl had been the wrong choice.

Will slapped his arm in a quick movement. Ouch! Damn little creatures! If only Sam hadn't...

The door opened and his brother entered the room, whistling a lively tune and slamming the door shut with his right foot.  Will jerked and eyed Sam angrily.  “How come you're so perky? You'll wake up the dead with the noise you're making”, he growled.

Sam regarded him with disgust. “I've been thinking and making plans while you were sleepin', Willie-boy.”

“Sleepin'? Damn, Sam, who'd be able to sleep in this here rat hole?” Trying to scratch his back he cursed under his breath. “I'll never again get rid of these...”

“Shut up”, Sam said, flopping down on one of the beds and stretching out. “We won't stay here for long, you know.” An evil grin appeared on his pointed face. “Lancer will be on his knees and pray for his and his sons' lives, I swear... And the gal, I'm gonna teach her some manners. She'll be mine”, he hissed.

Will shuddered.  Hell, he wouldn't want to be in Lancer's or the girl's place. He didn't know exactly what had happened in the barn, but he had rarely seen his brother in such a rage. And a great deal of that fury was directed at the Lancer girl. What the hell had she done that had riled up his brother like that?

“Sounds like you found something out, got a plan?” Will asked, momentarily forgetting about the fleas and lice. 

“Not yet a plan. But I met a very interesting dude at the saloon this morning.”

Sam folded his hands behind his head and looked at the ceiling with a pensive expression. “An interesting man with a real interesting big sack of money.” Sam winked in his direction. “We're gonna meet that man tonight. You'll see, he has something up his sleeve...” A sly grin crossed Sam's face.

Will felt a growing sense of unease. He knew that grin. But Sam called the tune, even though he was younger than him. He would follow his brother's tunes, as always. It was safer than crossing him . “Money? Sounds good. So, who are we gonna...”

Sam yawned. “Can't you shut up now?”  He closed his eyes. “I'm tired.”

But Will wasn't satisfied yet. “I wanna know what...”

His brother groaned, rolling his eyes. “ We're gonna meet the man tonight, then we're gonna see. Stop pestering now, will ya?” He closed his eyes again and was immediately asleep, his snores echoing in the filthy little room.  

Will was impressed by that brother of his. Sam sure was something. He'd always know what to do, always come up with a plan. You could count on him. Lancer would wish he had never met the Riley – Brothers, that was for sure.

Will's hand snatched out and grabbed a louse crawling over his leg. “You're dead.” Squashing it he listened to the snap with satisfaction.

 

Chapter 8

Dinner was a quiet affair that night and Murdoch could tell that there was an air of tension around the table. Scott had returned from Morro Coyo only an hour before dinner, looking grim, his jaw set firm, and had disappeared to his room without saying a word. He had even failed to acknowledge Teresa calling after him. That was most unlike his attentive son, as out of character as his silent disappearance in the early morning hours, before breakfast. Unlike Johnny at times, Scott would respect his father's right to c all the tune and would keep him informed if he had to leave his duties at the ranch. 

And now his eldest was sitting at the table and picking at his food, seemingly unaware of what he was eating.

Anyway, Murdoch decided to enjoy the meal in spite of the strange mood his eldest son was in because Teresa and Maria had cooked an excellent stew and he was hungry after a long day on the ranch.

Yet while eating and talking to Teresa who still seemed to be the upset with Scott he observed something was going on between his two sons. He could tell from the glances Johnny cast his brother across the table and the way Scott studiously tried to avoid them. Johnny had come home even later than Scott because he had been busy taking care of Scott's chores, in addition to his own.

Watching his sons at the dinner table Murdoch surmised why Johnny was so unsettled - because he knew exactly what was bothering Scott.

Murdoch reached for his glass and took a swallow of the Spanish red wine he loved so much. In spite of his concern he smiled behind his glass. During the months since his sons had come back he had learned to read them better than the two of them would ever realize. He had learned to understand them more and more through observing every nuance, every expression, every gesture because he cared; and so he was determined to find out what was bothering Scott.

Johnny set the fork down on his plate and shoved the plate back , sighing contentedly. He smiled at Teresa.

“Dios, T'resa. That stew was great. Boy, am I ever happy we did go to town with your list. I sure am grateful that we don't have to eat grits now. I swear we'll never again try to escape your shopping list.” He looked at his brother. “ Ain't that right, Scott? Hey, Scott!”

Scott flinched, looking up from his plate. “Huh? Oh, sure Johnny.”  Turning to Teresa he smiled.  “He's right, Teresa, this is delicious.”

Murdoch saw the girl raise a brow at Scott.  “I'm surprised you noticed that considering how little you have eaten Scott”, she snapped with a meaningful look at Scott's plate.

Scott seemed puzzled at her sharp tone. “I'm sorry, Teresa. I – I just don't have much of an appetite tonight.” He set his fork aside with a sigh.  Murdoch felt a knot build in his stomach as he regarded his son. This seemed to be more serious than he had initially thought. Scott looked stricken.

Teresa's eyes widened in sudden concern when she took a closer look at Scott. “Are you sick? You skipped breakfast, too! Have you eaten anything at all today? You sure look pale.” As she reached out to touch his forehead he flinched away from her.

“Teresa! Stop fretting. I'm fine. It's just a little headache.” 

“A little headache, huh?”  That was Johnny, and his tone suggested that he wasn't buying it.

Scott rolled his eyes. “Will you two stop pestering, please?”

“Pestering? We are worried about you is all”, Teresa said, rising from her chair and starting to gather the dishes with a rattle, her worry turning into anger again. “You have been as cantankerous as a rattlesnake all evening. I'd better help Maria in the kitchen. It is rather uncomfortable in here.” She raised her chin and turned, her back very straight. 

Scott rose from his chair and hurried after her, laying a hand on her arm.  “Look, Teresa, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to...”

He looked so contrite that she gave in. “I know”, she allowed.  “ It's alright. You'd best go to bed, you look tired.”  With that she left the room and Scott just stood there, staring after her.

Murdoch watched the scene, perplexed. What was the matter with his son? As he turned his head he felt Johnny's eyes piercing into his.  Johnny could say so much without uttering a single word, and those expressive eyes of his were talking to him now.  They drew him in, they didn't let go, those deep blue eyes that reminded him of his own mother's.  They challenged him, they prompted. This is your business, Old Man, talk to Scott!

The knot in Murdoch's stomach tightened. The old ever present fear that was loitering deep down inside since his sons had come to Lancer resurfaced. Did Scott plan to leave and return to Boston? Had Harlan Garrett finally managed to find a reason to lure him back? He pushed the thoughts aside and lowered his head in a slight nod to let Johnny know he understood. Johnny then broke the spell and shoved his chair back.

“I'm kinda tired tonight, I'm turnin' in. Good night.”

Murdoch noticed the reassuring grip Johnny placed on Scott's shoulder as he passed by his brother on his way to the back stairs.

In the silence that followed after Johnny had left, the ticking of the grandfather clock seemed overly loud to Murdoch. He rose from the table and walked over to the cabinet.

“You'll take a drink with me, Scott?”, he asked his silent son.

“Yes, I'd like that very much, Sir.”

Scott turned to face Murdoch. His brow was furrowed and he looked pensive, but the smile was genuine.  Murdoch poured two glasses of his best whiskey and handed one over to Scott.

“Let's go on the porch, it's a wonderful evening”, he said.

Outside they stood side by side, nursing their drinks and listening to the noises of the ranch as it settled for the night. From the bunkhouse voices and sounds of guitar music floated through the air, a lonely cow lowed somewhere in the distance and nearby in the grass the crickets started their night music.  The air was heavy with the sweet scents from the bed of roses and lavender Teresa had planted adjacent to the porch.

Murdoch closed his eyes, took a deep breath and turned his face to the sky, relishing the warm breeze that caressed his face.

“I love these peaceful evenings. They give me an idea of perfection, a feeling that I'm close to God.”

If Scott was surprised by this intimate confession he didn't let it show. He just nodded. “Me too.”

Murdoch took another swallow of his drink, then sat down on one of the cane chairs, motioning for Scott to take the other one. “Now I want you to tell me what is it that you are chewing on, son? Spit it out, whatever it is.”

Scott raised a brow, then smiled with defeat.  “It shows that much, huh?”   He lowered himself to the chair and stretched out his long legs. The light floating from the Great Room through the French Doors illuminated his fair hair. He stared into his glass, seeming to consider how to begin. Finally he raised his head.

“I need to ask you some questions, Sir.”

“Of course, son. Go ahead.”

“Are you sure? Because… well, you might not like the subject. It's about the past.”

“Try me.”

Murdoch leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest, preparing for the questions to come. Scott was right. He didn't like the subject. Memories of the past were painful, filled with sorrow, failure and guilt. Best stuff them away at some place where they couldn't bother you.  But – after all these months together with his son he knew he owed Scott.

“There's a stranger in Morro Coyo, at the Estrella Hotel. He goes by the name of Brian White. Have you heard about him?”

Murdoch raised his brows. That was not what he had expected.

“Yes, I heard about him. Senor Baldomero told me he was checking on Abe Turnball's mines.” He smiled and shook his head.  “I think that will be futile endeavor, though. The man must be a dreamer. But…I don't understand...”

“I saw him this morning because Johnny found out he wanted to meet me.” Scott took a sip from his drink, then let the whiskey swirl in the glass, watching its movements.  Murdoch waited. Laughter coming from inside the bunkhouse interrupted the silence between them. 

As Scott looked up something had changed in his expression. “Johnny told me that man knew me, my mother, Grandfather and also … you.” 

Murdoch shrugged, confused.  “I don't know him, never heard that name before...”

He saw the muscles of Scott's jaw clench as his son seemed to fight with whatever he had to say next. Scott stared into his drink once more, as if seeking the courage to continue, then looked up, his eyes deep, dark holes in his face.

“Go on, son”, Murdoch encouraged, his heart pounding against his chest in anticipation.

“Well ... no wonder you don't know that name, because that's not his given name. His real name is”, Scott paused, clearing his throat, “... Matthew Morgan. He went by an alias because he wanted to be incognito in Morro Coyo.”

Scott sat straight now and didn't move, his expectant gaze piercing into Murdoch.

“Matthew Morgan?” It took Murdoch a couple of seconds to take in the name and remember the man, then relief washed over him. Matthew Morgan was no hot potato from the past. He let out the breath he had been holding and ran a hand over his face, shaking his head in disbelief.

“How on earth...”

“You know him?”

“Yes, I know him. He was your mother's fiancé before she met me.”

Murdoch slowly emptied his glass, still trying to understand what he had heard. Matthew Morgan. He hadn't spared him one single thought in more than twenty-five years. “But - what on earth did he want from you?”

As he didn't get an answer he looked over to Scott who was still staring at him, a puzzled look on his face. “Something wrong, Scott?”

Scott blinked. “Huh? Err, nothing, Sir, nothing.” He lowered his eyes and shrugged.  “I think I've been expecting...well ... actually … I don't know what I've been expecting.” 

“So, what did Mr. Morgan want?”

“Me. He wanted me.” Scott rose and went over to the balustrade of the porch. Leaning against it he turned to face him. Behind him the full moon seemed to sit on his shoulder, listening. “He wanted me, Sir, because he felt I should have been his … and my mother's son.”

What? ” Murdoch barked, unbelieving.

He was struggling to understand as Scott proceeded to fill him in on all the details about the meeting , and the man Matthew Morgan had become.

A man Murdoch had known once to be a man of honor and integrity. Not that he had liked him. He had seen him for the rival that he was, but he had, at least, respected Morgan for the man he was.  He had been aware that Morgan had loved Catherine with all his heart.  And because of that love, Morgan had conceded defeat and freed Catherine to marry Murdoch, without causing trouble.

And now Morgan had come to claim Scott, had labeled Murdoch a seducer and soiled the memory of his and Catherine's love? The man must have become deeply obsessed . It was little wonder that Scott was confused and wanted answers; wanted to hear the story from his point of view. 

But there they were again, the ghosts of the past Murdoch feared so much.  The demon of guilt bared its teeth, this time coupled with the demon of jealousy when Scott relayed to him the time Morgan had spent with him in Harlan Garrett's house. Time he, Murdoch, should have spent with his little boy...

But how was he supposed to tell Scott the truth about the reason why he hadn't been able to claim him and take him back to California? He just wasn't able to destroy Scott's affection to his grandfather, not yet ...

“Morgan's been lying, you have to believe me, Scott. He hasn't told you the truth about Catherine and me. ” Murdoch was pacing in front of Scott, too unsettled to remain seated any longer.   “I can't imagine what has happened to that man - I used to know him...”

He stopped in front of Scott, taking hold of him by the shoulders. “Catherine married and followed me of her own free will, you have to believe that.”  As Murdoch became aware he was about to shake Scott to make him believe he let go of him and took a step backwards.

Scott seemed surprised by his outburst.  “I do believe you, Sir, I always would. I just need to hear your side of the story. All of it. Please…tell me.” 

So Murdoch told his son the whole story, how he and Catherine found each other, how they fell in love, married and left Boston to build their life in California. He also told Scott how he sent his pregnant wife back to her father to protect her and their unborn child from the land pirates that threatened the hacienda.

Scott listened, in his quiet and attentive way. Every now and then he would ask a question.

Telling Catherine's and his story didn't hurt as much as Murdoch had expected.  On the contrary, it felt cathartic and right to talk about her to Scott. It was, he realized, an enormous relief, as if a burden had finally been lifted from his shoulders.   And he wondered why he had not done so much earlier.

But now came the most difficult part of the story to relay to his eldest son . Murdoch swallowed and exhaled.

 “Your mother … died when you were born, Scott ... in a little town between here and San Francisco.“ He closed his eyes. If only he had been with her...

Opening his eyes Murdoch looked directly at Scott, searching his sons expression for any sign of what he was thinking. “Your grandfather was there, too. He wanted to meet your mother and take her to Boston ... he was too late, though … but … he took you home with him.”

His heart raced and he could feel a lump build in his throat. He turned his face away from Scott, not wanting his son to see his emotions.

“Yes, I know”, he heard Scott whisper.

Silence settled between them and it seemed to Murdoch this time it became heavier with every minute. The ranch had become deathly quiet, men and beasts were asleep, even the crickets didn't give a sound. He stared into the darkness of the yard, sensing Scott's presence beside him. He knew his son wanted to hear more.

And there it came.

“There's something more I'd like to know... why did you never come to take me home?”

Squaring his shoulders, Murdoch turned. “I had my reasons, Scott, very good reasons. That's all I'm going to tell you for now.” His voice sounded harsher than he had intended. “Look, I can't tell you , I need you to trust me on this.  Maybe, some day... You must understand that. Please, son.”

But Scott didn't understand, Murdoch could see that. The hurt that showed on Scott's face tore at his heart. But then the look disappeared and the curtain to his son's soul was closed. Gone was the moment of bonding that had existed between them.

Scott pushed himself away from the balustrade, distancing himself from him.

“No Sir, I don't understand”, he said, his tone even. “But it seems I'll have to accept that … for now.”

He took his empty glass from the little table and strode over to the French Doors. When he turned and looked back at Murdoch his expression was a little softer. “Thanks for telling me about my mother and you. I appreciate that very much. Good night, Sir.”  

***

Left alone, Murdoch sank down into his chair. Someday he would have to tell Scott about Harlan Garrett's selfish methods to prevent him from taking Scott back with him to California. He just didn't know when he would be brave enough to do so. He was afraid the truth would devastate Scott, who, as Murdoch had come to learn, loved his grandfather dearly.

But that wasn't his only concern now. What had gotten into Matthew Morgan? Would he be able to destroy the relationship between him and Scott? A relationship that was tenuous enough? Since Scott had come to live at the ranch, Murdoch had seen that he had learned to like and respect his father.

But still, things were much more difficult with Scott than with Johnny.  One reason was that Scott was so *reserved and aloof. Due to his rigid upbringing he seldom showed what and how he felt. He would withdraw and settle things with his own conscience. He even preferred to call him “Sir”, instead of  “Murdoch”, like Johnny did.

Maybe Scott behaved this way because he had avoided telling him why he never had claimed his eldest? That was a constant barrier that stood between them. Before today, Scott had never asked, nor had Murdoch volunteered an explanation. 

Johnny was another matter. He was not one to wait for offers coming from his father. He had plunged into the heart of the matter and had taken his opportunity when it came. Murdoch smiled at the memory.

While he sat with Johnny during his recovery after his youngest had been shot by Pardee, Johnny confronted him with what Teresa had told him about Maria and that gambler. In a challenging, defiant tone he had demanded that Murdoch tell his side of the story. Murdoch had been taken aback at his younger son's directness, but had complied, and after that the two of them had been able to build an honest relationship. They butted heads regularly, but there were no more shadows of the past cast between them.

Murdoch shivered. It had become cool on the porch and he was tired. Maybe, after a good night's sleep things would look a little better? He could only hope so. He retrieved his glass from the table and stretched his aching back. Stepping into the Great Room, he closed the French Doors carefully behind him. He even turned the key twice, something he hadn't done for a very long time.

He clambered up the staircase, feeling his knees with every step. Damn. He wasn't getting any younger. It was good to have his sons home.  Upstairs, he made his way through the long hallway to his room. Resting his hand on the doorknob he stood and listened.  How peaceful and quiet the large house was. “Please God, let it stay like this.” 

His whispered entreaty echoed through the halls. He took a deep breath and tried to ignore the uneasy feeling in his stomach as he entered his room. 

 

Chapter 9

Scott knew he was dreaming and didn't want to wake up. He wanted the wonderful vision to last. His mother was standing by his bedside, looking at him, talking to him.  “Good morning, Scott“, she whispered. Then she bent down, lowering her face to his as if about to kiss him on the forehead.

“Mother...“, he murmured, raising his hand to touch her face.  He didn't feel anything, instead saw his hand move through his mother's figure as it shimmered and disappeared.

His eyes flew open. Of course there was nothing there but his raised arm, his fingers continuing to grasp at thin air. He dropped his hand and cast a quick glance at the cot on the other side of the small room. In the dim light of the early morning he could make out the long dark form that was his brother, lying motionless on his bed. Thank God. Johnny was asleep. He hadn't seen him gesturing and talking in his sleep.

Scott relaxed and closed his eyes again, recalling the image of his mother. The dream had felt good and he was disappointed it was over. How he would have liked to feel his mother's touch, smell the scent of her hair! He allowed himself to just lie there and relish the memory of the dream while it still lingered.

Finally he sat up and rubbed his face and hair to shake sleep and the dream off. He sighed. After all, a dream was just a dream. He would never feel his mother's touch. 

Again, he turned his head and regarded his brother; or rather the cocooned mound beneath the heap of blankets that he knew to be Johnny. Nights up here in the mountains were cool, and Johnny had wrapped himself up like a mummy.  A mass of dark ruffled hair peeked out at the upper end, at the other end a bare foot.

The sight of that bare foot somehow affected Scott. It looked so innocent, seemed to give Johnny an air of vulnerability. Besides, given the early morning chill, the foot had to be getting cold. Yet Scott resisted the urge to cover it up, knowing he would face the business end of Johnny's colt as soon as he touched him. He and Murdoch had experienced this on more than one occasion.

Scott swung his legs onto the floor and put on his boots, pondering. Johnny had, at least known his own mother who had died when he was ten years old. What was worse? To lose your mother when you were ten or to lose your mother before you ever realized you had one, so you would always wonder what it would have been like to have grown up with her?

Scott shook his head and rose from the cot. Where had all these strange thoughts and feelings come from this morning? Better get up, start the day's work and stop thinking.

When he reached for the doorknob he spotted his reflection in the broken fragment of a mirror that hung at the door.  Grey blue eyes stared back at him. He studied his features,  thinking of the face in the medallion. People said he resembled his mother. Did he? 

He shrugged at his reflection, opened the door and tiptoed out of the room.

Outside the cabin Scott was just in time to witness the spectacular sunrise. Up here sunrises were special and he never tired of watching them.

He watched in awe as the color of the sky changed from red to orange, then yellow, while the lake, the meadows and the cabin still seemed to be covered with a grey blanket.  But suddenly it was as if someone lit all the candles in a ballroom at the same time. For a moment the eastern hills were surrounded by an aureole, then the sun came up from behind them, flooding the valley with its golden light. The sunrays danced upon the waves of the lake like little goblins and made them shimmer. They touched the meadows, the trees and the cabin and bathed everything with the special golden color that was only for this moment.  And they touched him with their light and warmth like gentle fingers caressing his skin.

He inhaled deeply, feeling as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. His heart became wide. Why dwell on subjects that couldn't be changed? Why brood over “could have beens”? He may never have had a mother, but he had a father and a brother now, a family of his own. And he had this day; this day, when he and his brother would gather their belongings and start their ride home to their father.

There was so much to be thankful for.

***

Two days after their talk about Matthew Morgan , Murdoch had started to send work crews to the northern parts of the ranch. They were to fix some of the most urgent damages Scott and Johnny had found up there on their surveying trip a few weeks ago.

Scott and his brother happened to be one of those work crews. Murdoch sent them to North Mesa to fix up Green Lake Cabin, which had been partly destroyed by a fallen tree. Also the cabin had to be restocked with supplies. It was an important base for the vaqueros watching the herds up there because every year the luscious meadows around Green Lake were the first place part of the Lancer cattle herd was driven after the winter. 

Scott had the distinct impression that Murdoch sent him to Green Lake Meadows in order to give him space to think things through. At the same time his father obviously intended to put as many miles between him and Morgan as possible. And when Johnny agreed enthusiastically to Murdoch's directive, Scott knew they acted in concert. But they needn't have worried. Scott had no objections. He didn't want to meet Matthew Morgan ever again.

“What are you gonna do?” Johnny had asked when Scott had told him what he needed to know about the stranger's connection to Murdoch and Scott.

“Forget Morgan”, he had answered. “That man is crazy.”

So working at the cabin was as good as anything else.  He loved that place up in the hills, and, not least of all, he looked forward to spending time with his brother.

A day later he and Johnny had ridden out, each leading a packhorse with supplies for the cabin.  A group of ranch hands, led by Manuel, an old Mexican vaquero who had been at Lancer for twenty years, came along with them.

The group of vaqueros had parted company with them a couple of miles beneath the lake to clear Green Creek, one of the main tributaries of the lake, of the remnants of a landslide that threatened to block the water from flowing downhill. They would have to reconstruct the broken bridge as well.

From here on the brothers had taken the shortcut to the lake, using a steep, small trail that wound uphill. Hours later the trail ended in the wide high valley that was called Green Lake Meadows. The lake with the vivid green color that gave the area its name lay at the rear end of the valley, Green Lake Cabin nestled on its eastern bank.

In the days that followed they had worked hard, laboring side by side, from sunup to sundown. The cabin as well as the immediate surroundings had to be cleared of the remnants of a hard winter. They had removed the fallen tree from the house and chopped it up for firewood, together with several other fallen trees. They had repaired the broken roof of the cabin and rebuilt the small lean-to that had totally collapsed under the weight of the tree. Corral fences were repaired as well as the door of the barn that hung by its hinges.

Yesterday, finally, they had piled the supplies for this summer on the shelves of the new lean-to, then dusted their hands off and grinned at each other. “That's it, we're done”, Johnny had declared with more than an air of satisfaction.

All the time Scott hadn't allowed himself to spare one single thought for Morgan, Murdoch or his mother. Instead, he had enjoyed the hard work and his brother's company.

Until tonight.   Maybe it was because he would be back home at the ranch in a couple of days? Within Morgan's grasp, if the man still was in town? He shrugged. Anyway, it made no difference .  He wanted nothing more to do with Morgan.

Scott watched a small feathery cloud as it floated across the sky. Nothing would spoil this wonderful day.

He strolled over to the pump and splashed water over his head and face. The water was icy cold, but to him it felt as fresh and clean as the day that had just begun. His shaving kit sat on the edge of the trough. Reaching for the soap, a gift from his grandfather, he started lathering his chin. His shaving ritual every morning, no matter where he was, whether on a cattle drive or in a mountain camp, had amused everyone at Lancer since he came to the ranch. Johnny and the hands had teased him again and again about it. He had tolerated their teasing with equanimity, even played along. They couldn't ever know just how much that ritual meant to him. Since his time as a prisoner of the war washing and shaving were two of the most important things to him.

When he reentered the cabin to prepare breakfast Johnny appeared in the door leading to the small bedroom. He still had the blankets wrapped around his body, his hair sleep tousled, and he still wore but one sock.

“Hey sleepy head, good morning! This is going to be a wonderful day”, Scott informed him, opening the stove door and feeding the gleaming remnants of yesterday's fire with new faggots of wood. Johnny mumbled something that sounded like “Morn' yourself”. Scott grinned to himself. His brother was not cut out for early mornings, that was for sure.

When the flames became bigger, licking hungrily at the fresh fuel, Scott rose from the floor, closed the stove door and dusted his hands off. Time to get the coffee going. A mug of strong, hot coffee would lift Johnny's spirits. While pouring water into the coffeepot and putting it on the stove Scott became aware that Johnny was still leaning against the doorframe, motionless, watching his every move.

“What's wrong, brother?”

“Have you seen my sock?”, Johnny asked.

***

They left Green Lake Meadows two hours later. Before they entered the woods to descend the steep trail downhill Scott turned in his saddle and looked back. The lake shimmered in the sunshine like the purest of emeralds.

“That's one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen“, he told Johnny who reined in Barranca next to him.

“Yeah. It sure is beautiful.”

“It reminds me of some of the enchanted places in fairy tales I read when I was a little boy.”

“Even when you were a little boy you liked to read?” Johnny sounded perplexed.

“Yes, I did.  Or Grandfather read the tales to me. I loved that.”

The image of the living room in Boston came to Scott's mind; the large fireplace, the big stuffed armchair in front of it. The smell of pipe smoke was in the air, and he was sitting on someone's lap, listening to a voice reading to him. His grandfather's lap, his grandfather's pipe and his grandfather's voice. Or was it? The man reading had a beard and dark brown eyes...His grandfather's eyes were blue...

Scott frowned and shook his head. “Strange...”, he murmured to himself.

“Something wrong?” Johnny's voice startled him out of his reminiscence.

He shoved the image away. “No, it's nothing. Just thinking. Let's get going.”

Johnny took the lead as Scott followed. Each led his packhorse. Downhill the trail was more difficult to navigate than it had been uphill. It was very narrow, sometimes exposed and demanded full concentration of man and horse. Yet they preferred it to the open ranges where the cattle would be driven because they would be down twice as fast. Murdoch wouldn't appreciate them risking the steep trail. Scott chuckled to himself. Murdoch was miles away.

About noon Scott was exhausted from the strenuous ride, the heat and the heightened concentration required to negotiate the steep trail, taking their toll. Although used to long hours in the saddle he longed for a break. And he was sure the horses did, too.

He stared at his brother's back. Johnny rode Barranca and led his packhorse down the trail unimpressed, as if he never did anything else. He hadn't stopped once to take a breather.

Sometimes his brother had an energy in him that almost frightened Scott. Perhaps it was because he sat with the same slouch in the saddle as he did on the sofa in the Great Room, without seemingly using any of his muscles?  Anyway. Johnny might be able to ride from here to eternity without a break. He wasn't.

They just were crossing a small clearing in the trail. Green Creek purled through the middle of it. That would be the place to rest. He was about to open his mouth and call out to his brother when Johnny reined in and turned towards him. “The horses need a break. Let's rest here for a while.”  With that he gracefully jumped to the ground and loosened the cinch of Barranca's saddle.

Scott sighed with relief. “That's a good idea. I was just thinking the same thing...”  No need to tell his brother his stiff muscles had been crying out for that break.

He strode over to the creek, knelt down and splashed water on his face. It was high noon, they were a lot deeper down than at Green Lake and the heat became more and more oppressive. Would he ever adjust to Californian temperatures? Johnny never seemed to suffer from the heat. 

Scott flopped to the ground in the shadow of a tree and stretched out his legs with a contented sigh. Looking up at Johnny he saw his brother grab his rifle.

“I've seen a lot of tracks over there”, Johnny said, motioning to the right.  “I'm gonna shoot us a rabbit for dinner.” With a wink and a grin his brother disappeared amongst the bushes.

Scott shook his head. Yes, sometimes Johnny's boundless energy was perplexing. He for one would take a little nap. Pulling his hat low he closed his eyes.

***

Scott jerked awake as a rifle shot rang out of the woods and was on his feet in a second.

Bang!

A second one.

The echoes resounded with the surrounding mountains.

 

Chapter 10

Scott reached for his gun and was about to dive for cover when he realized where he was and remembered what Johnny had told him. Phew – the rabbits. Must have been Johnny shooting, out there in the woods. He relaxed, reholstered his gun and walked over to the horses. Scratching the Barranca's neck he listened. Everything was quiet now.

“Your master will cause me a heart attack one day”, he told his brother's horse. 

The ensuing silence was eerie. How long had Johnny been gone? He had lost track of time. Squinting his eyes he looked up.  According to the position of the sun Johnny had left about an hour ago. No need to worry yet. As he prepared to retake his position under the tree he heard movement coming from the direction of the bushes next to him. In no time he lay flat on the ground behind the tree, gun in hand, aiming at who - or whatever - was hiding there.

“Hey, brother, it's me! Don't shoot!”

Twigs wiggled and Johnny emerged from the bushes, hands in the air in mock surrender. Two rabbits were fastened to his belt. 

“Damn, you're fast! You sure have improved your speed on the draw.“

Johnny's eyes sparkled as he strode over to him and reached out a hand to help him up.

“That's not funny“.

Scott took Johnny's hand and struggled to his feet. Reholstering his gun a second time within a couple of minutes he added with a wink, “At least you know now how it feels to face the wrong end of your own brother's gun.“ 

Johnny's grin held a hint of embarrassment as he ambled over to Barranca to fasten the rabbits to the horn of the saddle.  “Um - yeah, I sure do. Don't like that feeling.” He made his way over to his packhorse and reached for its reins. “Let's move on.”

“Why the hurry all of a sudden?  And besides, what took you so long?”, asked Scott as he fastened the cinch of Charlie's saddle.

When Johnny turned back to him, his expression was troubled.

“I found tracks up there, of horses and men. They were a couple of days old, barely visible. I followed them until I lost them on hard ground.” He shrugged. “Doesn't have to mean anything, but I don't like it.” He took Barranca's reins and mounted the palomino.

“Might have been our own men from the camp down at the bridge. This area is not too far away from them. Perhaps they were on a hunting trip?”

“Maybe. We just should keep our eyes open from now on.” Johnny pulled his rifle from the sheath affixed to his saddle and laid it over his knees, then urged Barranca into motion.

Once on Charlie's back, Scott placed his own rifle over his knees, following his brother's example. Since he had been at the ranch he had learned to trust his Johnny's instincts. But would he ever get used to the idea that out here it was better to be leary of people rather than trust them? He smiled as he remembered that day months ago at the corral when his brother had tried to scare him off with his lesson about backshooters. You have to do it to them before they do it to you, Johnny had said.  First shoot, then ask.

He shook his head. That was so abhorrent to his education, to everything he had learned from the nannies and teachers in his grandfather's house.

He straightened. He shouldn't be reminiscing about his life pre Lancer now , but keep a watchful eye on his surroundings. Johnny had already disappeared amongst bushes that framed the opposite end of the little copse .

He urged Charlie into a lope to catch up with his brother.

As they continued their ride , the trail eventually became broader and less steep than before.  There were even times they could ride side by side. They both remained alert; their eyes and ears were wide open. But everything was quiet and they didn't see or hear anything or anyone out of the ordinary.

As they entered a rocky area where the trail wound around a large cliff protruding from the woods, Scott knew they were not far from the place they had left the work crew. Thank God. The ride had begun to set his nerves tingling.

“Hey brother”, he called out to Johnny who was a horse's length ahead of him. “About an hour and we will be down, I guess!”

Johnny turned in the saddle to face him, a happy grin on his face. “Whoo-ee!  And I'm gonna make us the best rabbit roast you've ever eaten!” 

It was then that Scott saw the shape on top of the cliff. A man was standing there, his rifle clearly aimed at Johnny.

“No! Johnny, watch out!”, he yelled, digging his heels into Charlie's sides. Charlie leapt forward and careened into Johnny's pack horse which stumbled, lost its footing on the uneven path and tumbled down the steep slope to the right, screaming.

But Scott did not think of Charlie or the pack horse. He only saw Johnny's face, Johnny's eyes, wide open in bewilderment. Just as he thrust himself at his brother the shot rang out. He grabbed Johnny by the shoulders in order to press him down, when he felt a fierce blow to his back. The impact threw him and Johnny off their horses and over the rim of the slope.

The air around them was filled with the agitated neighing of the horses, the clattering of hooves on rocky ground and the echo of the shot as they rolled over and over down the slope.

His mind was empty. The only thing he could think of was his brother. He wrapped himself around Johnny as they fell. He wouldn't let go of him. No-one would hurt his brother, he wouldn't let that happen.

***

Will Riley sat in the entrance of the cave and threw pebbles down the slope. He watched as they jumped and rolled down. Click. Click. Click.  He was bored. Very bored. And angry.

We won't stay here much longer, his brother had said back in Morro Coyo in that flea- ridden rat hole.

“Alright, brother. And look where we are now”, he growled to himself. He grabbed another pebble and threw it with vehemence. It flew even wider.  Good thing was, though here, there weren't any fleas or lice. He chuckled. Most likely fleas and lice didn't like cold wet caves as their homes. Truth was he didn't either.

And the company here was strange, too. He looked over to the lone man sitting on a rock a few yards to his left. Thanks to that man they had left Morro Coyo and were here now.

He snorted. He really wished he were anywhere else but here, even in Mexico where his brother wanted to go with him. Anyway . He picked up a handful of pebbles. It was a long ways til that would happen. First they had that damn job to do.

He and Sam had met the man his brother had talked about outside Morro Coyo.

Will had been shocked when he realized who the man was. He was the fine gentleman who had been living at the Estrella Hotel for some time. But now nothing was left of that gentleman. He was messed up; his hair uncombed, his face unshaven, his clothes creased.  And he was pretty drunk. Something drastic must have happened to Brian White.  And it had to do with the Lancers, that had quickly become apparent. 

Will scratched at an old fleabite. Goddamn Lancers. They caused nothing but trouble.  White hated the Lancers even more than Sam. White wanted them dead. That night he had hired Sam and him to kill Murdoch and Johnny Lancer. For some reason White didn't explain, Scott Lancer was to be spared.

Darn. Will shuddered. Because of Sam they'd been hired to kill. For a large amount of money, of course.  But as far as he was concerned, no amount of money was worth killing for. He had tried to convince Sam to pack their things and leave. But as usual, Sam wouldn't listen.

“ Shut up, Will”, he had said. “This is the biggest chance we ever had to make some serious money, you fool! You're not gonna let it pass by, huh? We won't leave before the job is done and we got the money, and that's all there is to it.”

“But Sam, murder...?”

“I told you to shut it! Let me do the thinking!”

Will had given in. It was no use. Sam always did what he wanted, whether he liked it or not.  And this time he sure didn't like Sam's plans one little bit. The only good thing was, Sam was smart and would know what to do and how to do it.

The first thing Sam ordered was that Brian White had to leave the Estrella Hotel and stay with them from now on. “Our room is not as fine as the Estrella”, Sam had said to White. “But it would be better for you if everyone thinks you've left town , just in case...”

“And for us it'd be better to keep an eye on him and his checking account, huh?”, Sam had murmured in Will's direction, winking.

White had agreed. At least, he hadn't been in any shape to object.

Sam had then continued his visits to the saloon, listening and watching, playing cards and talking to ranch hands. A couple of days ago he had brought welcome news. Johnny and Scott Lancer were working at a place called Green Lake, up at North Mesa. A place out of the way. This was their chance, Sam had announced.

And here they were now, in this goddamn cave next to a cliff Sam had scoped out as the best place for the ambush.  The only thing they had to do now was to wait for the Lancer boys to come down the trail on their way home and they'd be easy pickings.

While Sam watched the trail it was Will's job to watch Brian White's every move. Not that there were many moves to watch. White hadn't said or done much since he had joined them.  On the contrary, he was introverted and aloof. But still, Sam seemed to fear White might change his mind and run away with his fat checking account . 

Will tossed the pebbles he was holding. They landed close to White. But t he man didn't even flinch so transfixed was he on the medallion he wore tucked under his shirt . He never noticed anything around him when staring at that image.  Who could that woman be? Peering over White's shoulder, Will had managed to sneak a glance at the picture the day before. She was really pretty, that lady. Sam would have liked her for sure.

Restless, Will scooted back and forth on the rock he was sitting on. Damn, he couldn't stand the silence any longer. Who did that man think he was? He could hire them to do some killing but - what?  Was he too fine to talk to them? Well, that just weren't good enough in his book. White owed them some answers, didn't he? He rose, ambled over to the silent man and looked at the image in his hands.

“She's pretty, isn't she?” 

Will jumped. These were the first words White ever had ever spoken to him. White looked up at him, his expression wistful. Before he was able to answer, White added, “I do it for her.” His tone was soft.

Will scratched his head. “What?”

“I promised her I'd take Scott home with me. He's not cut for a life in the wilderness. He's born to be a gentleman...”

“Errr – I - I don't understand...”

“... therefore Murdoch and Johnny Lancer must be eliminated from his life,” White continued, his voice harsh. “Then Scott will be free.”

He stared. “Free?”

“Yes.” White nodded. He looked eager now, as if he wanted to make him understand his plan. “Catherine doesn't want him to live here. I have to do it for her...and Scott. Can't you see that?” 

He shook his head and sat down next to White. “I – I'm not sure...”, he motioned to the medallion. “But who is she?”

White's eyes became soft. “She's Scott's mother. Once, she was mine.  And Scott...”, his voice trailed off as he regarded the image, seemingly immersed in a past only he knew about.

Then, with a sudden movement he grabbed Will's shoulder and brought his face close to Will's. “It has to be done, it's the right thing to do.” Letting go of Will he leaned back against a rock behind him and closed his eyes. “Yes, the right thing to do”, he murmured under his breath, as if re assuring himself.

Will tried to put two and two together, then he nodded. “Now I see. Yeah, she's a pretty lady. A man would do anything for her, huh? She asked you to bring her son back to her...”

But then, Scott Lancer was Murdoch Lancer's son as well.  So, why didn't she live with Murdoch Lancer ? Real strange, this story.

White's eyes opened. “She's dead. She cannot ask me anything, now . Murdoch Lancer let her die, twenty-five years ago, in childbirth. Still, I do it for her and Scott. Scott should have been my son.”

The man's voice was deathly calm now.  “I hope your brother is a good shot.” He closed the medallion, put it in his pocket and walked back into the cave.

Will stared after him. He didn't feel any better than before the talk. This sure was a real mess Sam and he had gotten themselves in to. They would hang because of a lady that had been dead for twenty-five years, and her loco lover who had never gotten over it.

He looked over to the ridge where Sam had disappeared to this morning. Behind that ridge was the cliff.  He knew Sam wouldn't be back before dark, and that was a couple of hours away. But he wished him back. If only Sam knew they had been hired by a madman! He'd know what to do... Maybe he'd finally listen to him and they would leave this damned area while they still could.

As if Sam had read his brother's mind, he suddenly appeared on the path leading over the ridge to their cave. His horse seemed to fly, its hooves not touching the ground, Sam bending deep over its neck. Why the hurry? Something had happened, something wasn't right. He rose from his place and watched the rider's approach, his heart pounding in his chest. 

Lather flew from the horse's mouth. Rearing, it came to a halt in front of Will as Sam tore brutally at the reins. He stepped closer and reached for the horse's bridle to calm the animal down. “Shsh, shsh, easy, boy, easy ... Sam, what happened?”

Sam jumped to the ground and glanced at him, his expression hounded and troubled. Will's stomach jumped. The horse snorted, throwing its head.

”Sam?”

His brother exploded. “Everything could have been fine, just fine, iff'n that stupid boy hadn't jumped right into the line of fire...”, Sam hissed, throwing his hands into the air. “I can't believe it, just can't believe it!”

“... jumped into the line of fire? Who?”

“Why, bonehead, that idiot Scott Lancer! I dunno how, but he spied me, yelled out to his brother and jumped right in front of him...”

Sam paced, raking his fingers through his hair. “That means I dunno who I hit or if I hit anyone at all! Both of them rolled down the slope, couldn't see them no more.” He stopped pacing and grinned at Will. “Whoo-eee! That was a racket!”

Sobering, Sam scratched his head. “Only thing I know is that if that gunhawk isn't hit or dead he'll be on our heels in not time. So, we gotta move on pronto and cover our tracks. C'mon!” He turned to hurry towards the cave.

But Will wasn't able to move. He stared after his brother. Could it get any worse? Johnny Madrid on their heels? Either he would shoot them or they would hang for attempted murder...A painful grip on his shoulder pulled him out of his numbness. 

“Stop gawking, Willie-boy! Move, dammit!” Sam shoved him forwards. ”Where's White?”

“I'm here.” 

Brian White was standing in the entrance of the cave, his face as white as a sheet.

“What did you say? Has Scott been hurt?”

Once more Will witnessed Sam's ability to improvise and work people. His brother's twisted face  changed into a mask of kindness as he walked over to White, thrust an arm around his shoulders and guided him back into the cave.

“Naw, Sir, naw! Maybe he got himself a little scratch, can't be much more, just a little scratch. Things like that are bound to happen in a fight”, he consoled . “One Lancer's dead and we best now pack our things and leave, ‘coz there's another job left to do, ain't there? And we cain't be late...”

Sam's voice was coaxing but also held just the right amount of a threat, daring White to challenge him or ask too many questions.  

White didn't look totally convinced, but fetched his belongings without argument and made his way to his horse.

Will exhaled. As usual, Sam would take control and would know what to do. No need to get nervous. Yep , his little brother sure was something. If anyone could haul them out of the mess it would be Sam.

 

Chapter 11

Something tickled his face, again and again . It was irritating , but he couldn't move his hands to shoo it away. Something held them down. And it wasn't just his hands that were pinned down; something heavy was pressing his entire body into the ground. He groaned under the weight. Heck, his body felt as if a herd of buffaloes had trampled over it.  And one of those buffaloes must have fallen on top of him, pinning him to the ground and making breathing and moving almost impossible.

Was it another nightmare?

Think!

Fact was, he was lying flat on his back, and it sure didn't feel like his bed he was lying in. The ground beneath him was rough and uncomfortable.

His head ached, making it hard to think. He was tempted to go back to sleep. Sort out everything tomorrow.

Concentrate!  

But, concentrating was difficult when the only thing he wanted to do was drift away and return to the welcoming blackness he had just emerged from. But somewhere in his muddled brain was that nagging alarming voice that could not longer be ignored.

Open your eyes! Now!

With an effort he did as the voice said..

He blinked. His vision was blocked by the buffalo on top of him.  And still, something was gently tickling his cheek. He tried to focus. It looked like hair. He frowned. E ven more confusing was that in spite of its heaviness the thing on top of him was somewhat comfortable – warm and soft. And it smelled familiar - of leather, horses, and sweat, mixed with that special flavor of an expensive Bostonian shaving soap...

Johnny gasped. In a second his memory was back. Their ride downhill on the steep trail, Scott, riding behind him, suddenly yelling, spurring his horse and literally flying into him, his face a mask of plain horror. Then they had been falling, falling, falling...

“Scott! Dios! Scott!”

Suddenly he was completely awake and able to move. Frantically he struggled beneath the heavy weight of his brother to free himself from the limp body, his own pain forgotten. Ignoring his protesting ribs and back he sank to his knees at Scott's side, his hands at either side of his brother's face.

“Scott? Scott!”

Scott's face was pale, his eyes closed. He didn't respond.  Blood fr om a large angry wound at his right temple was trickling into his hair.

Fear gripped his heart . It took all his self- restraint to not grab Scott's shoulders and shake him to make sure he was alive. On the edge of panic, he straightened and took several deep breaths, then bent down and opened Scott's collar and bandana to feel for a pulse at his brother's neck, afraid he wouldn't be able to feel anything with his trembling fingers.

”Please, please, please,” he whispered. “Don't do this, brother...”

And there it was, weak but steady. Johnny looked skywards, exhaling deeply. Gracias .

His knees were weak with the profound relief he felt. Shaking, he sank back on his heels.  The world spun around him.  All he wanted to do was lie down next to Scott and sleep. But now was not the time to rest.

Okay. Calm down. Step by step now.

That voice in his head was real helpful.

He removed his jacket, folded it and arranged it under his brother's injured head. Then he started to examine Scott's body with gentle hands. Good.  Apart from bruises and scratches there seemed to be no more serious wounds.

He was worried that Scott had remained quiet throughout the whole examination, but as he grabbed him by the shoulders and started carefully to turn him onto his stomach to examine his back, Scott groaned in protest, his eyelids fluttering.

“Hey Scott!” Enthusiastic that Scott was finally showing some signs of life, he let go of his shoulders, watching his brother's face closely. “Hey Brother, c'mon!  Open your eyes! Hey!” He clapped Scott on the cheek. Scott turned his head away from his hand, his lips twitched and his eyelids fluttered open for a second.

“Yeah, you can do it! Just keep 'em open, Scott”, Johnny coaxed.

With obvious strain Scott opened his eyes and looked at Johnny, bewildered.

“Phew, there you are, brother, thank God”, Johnny grinned with relief.

But Scott's face contorted, his eyes squeezed shut again.  “... hurts…”, he groaned, writhing in pain, his hands clasping the grass beneath him. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. Worried, Johnny laid his hands on Scott's shoulders.  “Shh, Scott. Easy, don't move.”

To his relief he felt Scott relax as the spasm passed. The blue-grey eyes opened once more and settled on Johnny's face. “Johnny... what...?”

“We took a nasty fall, Boston. You got yourself a head wound.”

Scott's hand wandered to his temple, groping. Johnny caught it and drew it away from the wound.  “Don't. You're gonna make it worse.”  He ripped the bandana off his neck while he kept up the dialogue to keep Scott alert.

“But don't you worry. I'll have you fixed up in no time. You'll be as good as new, just wait and see ...”

Hell. He heard himself rattle nothing but bullshit, but he couldn't help himself. He needed the reassurance as much as his brother.

Scott's brows drew together.  “A fall?”

“Down that slope”, Johnny waved the bandana. “You rode into me, remember? Now keep still...”

Bending forwards he dabbed the blood from Scott's temple and examined the laceration.  Under the dabbing bandana he could see Scott's eyes grow wide, even so he wasn't prepared for the panic-fueled reaction that followed his last words. Scott yelled, tried to sit up and grabbed the fabric of his jacket.

 “Johnny – the man with the rifle – where is he?” Wild-eyed Scott looked around, panting from the exertion.  “Did he shoot you? Are you hurt...?” With surprising strength Scott tried to shove him away, his legs struggling in an attempt to stand up.

Taken by surprise Johnny almost toppled over. “Easy, Scott.” Fighting to keep his balance he wrapped his arms around his struggling brother, shocked by the outburst. “Calm down! No-one shot me! I'm fine, hear me?” He started rocking back and forth, holding his brother tight. “Listen! I'm fine! Shsh, take it easy!” 

Scott's struggles became weaker. “...danger...need to get away from here...”, he breathed before his strength finally gave out and he went limp, arms falling to his sides, head drooping to his shoulder.

Johnny exhaled, still rocking back and forth, mumbling soothing words, for his brother as well as for himself.

Finally, Johnny eased Scott to the ground, supporting his head with care. Then he sank down next to his brother, his entire body shaking with exhaustion.

***

Someone touched his face, then tugged at his sleeve. “Johnny? You okay?”

No, he wasn't. He was hurting. Couldn't they let him sleep in - just this once? The ranch would do just fine without him this morning.

There it was again, the irritating tug to his sleeve, stronger this time. “Johnny!”  

Heck. Sometimes the family he had yearned so long for could be a real pain in the ass. Moaning, he turned away from the voice. “Lemme sleep...”

“Johnny, please...” It was Scott's voice, weak, barely more than a whisper, but it sounded urgent. 

“Huh? What...?”

“Water….please?”

His eyes flew open. Damn. How on earth could he lie and sleep while his brother was hurting and needed him? With a jolt he sat upright, his heart thumping in his chest.

Drawing long deep breaths he tried to fight the dizziness and the sensation of exhaustion that threatened to consume him. Scott hadn't moved, he still lay where he had bedded him down, pale faced, a thin sheen of sweat glistened upon his upper lip.

Through bleary eyes Scott watched him with concern. Reaching out, his long fingers snaked around Johnny's wrist.

“You okay? You look terrible...”

Collecting himself he managed a wry grin. “Want a mirror?”

Scott's mouth twitched. “Better not”, he mumbled, clenching his jaw as another wave of pain rolled through his body.

“Scott.” Johnny took his brother's hand to offer comfort. He flinched as Scott's fingers squeezed his with unexpected power.  As the spasm passed Scott closed his eyes, his face ashen. He seemed totally spent.

Johnny's worry increased. His brother looked real sick. Maybe the wound to his head was worse than it looked? He squeezed Scott's hand. “You hang in there, Boston, you hear me?  I'll get us both some water.”

Taking in his surroundings he realized that this was easier said than done. His canteen was fastened to Barranca's saddle and Scott's flask was hanging from Charlie's saddle horn. Both horses were still standing high above them on the trail . He could see them grazing near the rim. With their reins hanging down to the ground they wouldn't go anywhere until someone took them up. If he whistled, Barranca would try to come, but he wouldn't be able to negotiate his way down the steep slope. 

He could hear Green Creek churning several feet below their position. One scrutinizing glance made it clear it would be suicide to try and climb down there. From the ledge that had arrested their fall, the slope fell in a near vertical line down to the creek.

He groaned with frustration. Here they were, wounded and bruised, half way down the slope, desperate for water, with the water high above and deep below them tauntingly close but cruelly out of reach.

“Johnny. Look, over there, I think I can see water there”, Scott whispered, pulling him out of his dark thoughts. 

Following Scott's gaze he turned his head. Several yards away, among rocks and underbrush, he saw a twinkling flash. Yes, Scott was right. There was a rivulet purling down the slope, glistening in the afternoon sun.

On shaky legs he hobbled towards the water as fast as possible, his right knee reminding him of its presence with painful spasms. The rivulet fed a small puddle on the ledge before it reached the rim and ran off in a small cascade down into the abyss. Mindful of his knee he knelt and drank from his cupped hands, then splashed water over his head and back.

Relishing the freshness of the water Johnny allowed himself to relax a little. Out of habit he let his gaze sweep over his surroundings. Scott had said something about a man and a rifle. But he was sure, there was nobody else down here right now . And if the man had wanted to kill them he most likely would have finished them off by now. There had been more than one opportunity.

He loosened the leather strap that held his colt in its holster, just in case... He didn't like inconsistencies and unanswered questions like these, but right now the most important task at hand was getting some water to his brother. Then he would think about how to get him and Scott back up to the rim of the slope where the horses waited.

Thanks to the stampede string he hadn't lost his hat in the fall down the slope. Immersing it into the puddle he filled it and carried it back to Scott with careful steps, mindful to lose as little water as possible.

When he reached his brother again his heart skipped a beat. Scott's condition seemed to have deteriorated rapidly. He lay motionless, his eyes closed and sunken, his eyelids seemingly transparent. The skin tightening over his cheekbones had lapsed to a sickly grey hue, glistening with sweat. He was eerily still - damn, was he breathing at all?

“Hey, Scott!” He startled at his own voice. Forgetting about the water-filled hat in his hands, he dropped to his knees. Some of the contents splashed over his brother's face and Scott's eyes opened.

He sank back on his heels and exhaled. “Dammit, Scott, you had me worried. I thought you'd...”, hell, he didn't want to elaborate what he'd been thinking. Pausing, he dipped his eyes. “Don't do that again, you hear me?” His voice sounded hoarse as he tried to swallow his emotions.

Feeling a touch to his hand he looked up. Scott's fingers closed around his. “Sorry, didn't mean to . ” Scott whispered. The corner of his mouth curved in a trace of humor.    “Remember, the wicked never die young.” 

You remember that.”

“I'll do my best.” Scott shifted uneasily. “May I have some water now?”  

Supporting his brother's head Johnny lifted the hat to his lips to let him drink. After a few sips Scott's head sank back.

“Thanks.”

Johnny frowned. He didn't like Scott's obvious weakness. Something wasn't right. What if he was bleeding inside? Quickly, he shrugged off that thought. No. Scott would be okay, he would see to that. Reaching for his bandana he ducked it into the remaining water. “Now let me tend to that head wound”, he said.

Having cleaned and bandaged the wound Johnny leaned back against a rock and closed his eyes. Rest. Only for a second. His dull headache had increased to a hammering throb that made thinking almost impossible.

What was next?

The slope. You have to go up there.

Right. That was what he had wanted to do. Forcing his eyes open he regarded his brother warily. Scott didn't look to be any condition to make it up that slope without assistance. Johnny would have to support him, although he didn't know how he should manage himself, considering he was barely able to walk himself.

He snorted. “We're quite a pair, huh, brother?“

But they had to go, it wouldn't be long until dusk. And he didn't relish the thought of spending a night out here in the open, wounded, without shelter and blankets. Should he go up the slope alone and bring a bedroll and a blanket to Scott, then climb up again and get help? He moved his aching leg. Damn. He would be lucky if he managed the steep slope once. But - if both of them reached their horses they would be safe. The camp of the Lancer hands was only about an hour away.

They had to try.

He laid a hand on Scott's shoulder.

“Scott?”

“Huh? Don't...tired...” Scott tried to shrug the hand off, his eyes remaining tightly shut.

“Scott. You can rest later.” Johnny shook him gently. “Look at me.” His brother's eyes opened a little.

“Think you can make it up there with me?” He motioned to the rim.

Scott's eyes opened wide in disbelief, an ironic smile curved his pale lips. “Sure. Anytime, Brother, anytime...”

“I mean it, Scott, we have to go up there. Once we are there we can reach Manuel and his men in no time.” 

He grabbed Scott by the shoulders, bringing his face close to Scott's. “Look, I could climb up there alone, but I'm not going to leave you here over night, sick as you are. You need help. Won't you give it a try, Scott? Please.” He paused, waiting for a reaction from his brother.

Scott frowned and Johnny realized that his brother was becoming increasingly less coherent. Scott's cheeks flushed with a rising fever.

“Boston. I gotta get you home, you need a doctor. Murdoch will have my hide if I don't get you home in time.”

That got Scott's attention. He nodded, understanding.

“'kay, couldn't allow that”, he whispered. “Help me up, please.”

Relieved, Johnny scrambled to his feet, grabbed his brother's arm and helped him to stand up. Scott leaned against him, knees wobbling, trying to catch his breath.

“Johnny... I... I...feel sick...”

“Take your time, Scott. Breathe.”

He himself felt like he would collapse any minute as he tried to hold his brother's tall frame upright. He could feel Scott take several deep breaths in order to fight the nausea . Then his brother straightened himself, gritting his teeth. His jaw was set in that determined line Johnny knew all too well.  

“Let's ... go.”

Bracing Scott's left arm over his shoulders Johnny slung his own right arm around Scott's back. He jerked as his hand came in touch with something warm and sticky at his brother's lower back.

“Scott, what...?” He pulled his hand back, regarding it in horror. It was red with blood. “Dios, you're bleedin'!” 

“I … know...”, said Scott, swaying, leaning heavily against him.

Afraid to lose his balance and further injure his brother , he lowered Scott to the ground once more. “Lie down on your stomach, let me have a look...” Realization dawned on him as he lifted Scott's jacket and regarded his brother's back that was drenched with blood. Too much blood.

The man, the rifle...He swallowed hard.  “Damn Brother, you are the one who has been shot!”

Scott didn't answer, he just lay there, eyes closed, trying to control his breathing. 

Desperate, Johnny hung his head as all remaining strength threatened to drain from his battered body. He sank down by Scott's side and wrapped an arm around his brother. Lying there, he listened to his brother's ragged breathing.

“Why didn't you tell me, Scott?”, he asked softly.

“Sorry, I forgot. …Makes ... no difference ... anyway. You go … alone...”, Scott whispered.

Johnny's head came up as if he had been stung. “No difference? What do you mean by that? There is a difference, if not for you, for me, brother, there is.” Despite himself he sat up, full of verve, anger rising in him.  “What were you planning? Not telling me a single word? Huh? Die on me, just like that, here, before my eyes? Mierda, Scott!”

The anger felt good, it flooded his body with renewed energy. He scrambled to his feet. “What were you thinking? I'd leave you here, alone? No way, brother, no way...”

With hasty movements he took off the red shirt he was wearing.“Big – dumb – stubborn – Easterner...” With each word he tore it in long strips. Scratch – scratch – scratch - hell, that felt good.

Finally he regarded the torn shirt that lay at his feet, feeling exhausted but satisfied. He wiped an arm across his face.

Scott had watched from his position on the ground, motionless.  “I liked... that shirt.”, he said with a wry grin.

He grinned back, remembering how Scott used to tease him by asserting that red embroidered shirts didn't fit a hard working man like him. Especially because the shirt and Johnny often used to be of the same muddy brown shade at the end of a hard day's work.   

“That right, huh? Well, I liked it too, very much. But I need it for bandages ...”, lowering his eyes he added under his breath, “...'cuz I like you much more.”

***

It took Johnny two more trips to the rivulet before he had cleaned and bandaged the bullet wound with the strips of his shirt. When he was ready the sun was setting, bathing the hills in a reddish light. A chilly breeze breathed through the leaves of the surrounding bushes.

Johnny sat on a rock next to Scott and regarded his brother critically . Scott had finally fallen asleep. Yet he looked feverish and his sleep was restless. Even now his face was creased by deep lines that indicated he was in a lot of pain.  Scott needed a doctor, as soon as possible. He had lost too much blood, and the bullet was still in the wound because Johnny hadn't dared to try and dig around for it.

Dammit Scott, what am I to do? I don't wanna leave you here...

But he would have to leave Scott and go for help, the sooner, the better. With the back of his hand he touched Scott's cheek and forehead. His brother was burning up with fever, There was now no way he was going to be able to climb the slope, with or without help.  

No, he would have to go alone.

He pulled Scott's colt from its holster and put it close to his face. Then he shook Scott gently. “Brother, wake up ..., c'mon, wake up...”

Scott moaned, his lids fluttered open. Bleary- eyed he looked at Johnny.

Johnny grabbed his hand and bent down over him.  “You awake? You with me?”

Scott nodded.

“Listen. I'm gonna go get help now, so you stay put. You hear? I'll be back in no time.” Hopefully... He spoke in a calm, reassuring voice, trying to sound more confident than he felt.

“Did you get that?”

A small nod.

Johnny motioned to the weapon. “Here's your colt – just in case...” 

Another nod.

Then Scott seemed to gather all of his remaining strength in order to answer, his hand held onto Johnny's. “I'll be here, I promise...  You be...careful...” Scott's voice was barely audible, but his eyes were wide open now, filled with worry – for him, Johnny realized. “The man... was...after you...”

“I'll be careful and I'll be back, I promise.”

Scott seemed satisfied, his eyes closed again, the fingers in Johnny's hand went limp.

“Scott?”

“Huh?”

“Nothin'.”

If only he had a blanket to cover his brother up. Hesitantly, he rose from the rock he had been sitting on. Damn, how he hated to leave Scott alone.

Scott opened his eyes halfway. “Johnny, go on now. I'm not going anywhere!”

Dang, that was big brother speaking. He bent down to squeeze Scott's shoulder. “'kay. You hang on there.”

He turned away and set off.

He didn't look back.

 

  Chapter 12

It was the chattering of his own teeth that woke him. Hell, it was cold. One day, he really would go back to Mexico. He reached out to draw the blanket up to his chin, but there was no blanket. Must've fallen on the floor. Groaning, he turned to grope for the blanket only to grasp a stone instead. “What...?”

He blinked and looked around, disoriented.  A star-laden sky, the dark silhouettes of hills and mountains around, a whispering of leaves, rough ground beneath him... Damn! Remembering where he was he sat up and cursed.  He shouldn't be lying here. He couldn't afford the luxury of sleep. He had to hurry up, reach Barranca and find help for Scott and himself.  At the moment, though, he didn't think that he would ever be able to get up again, sore as he was.

So far, the hike had been arduous and very slow. Every few minutes he had had to stop, to rest his aching body and catch his breath, his heart thundering and the blood whooshing in his ears. The night was dark and chilly. The small sliver of the moon had already disappeared behind a hilltop. Only the stars blinking down on him with cold indifference had watched his lone hike. He had never felt so lost.

Dammit, he had had worse. He kept telling himself that he'd been used to being alone since he had been a boy. But heck, he couldn't remember ever having felt as lonely as he did tonight. This immense feeling of helplessness was new to him. It left him disturbed and uneasy. It was distracting, it made him vulnerable to unseen enemies. Johnny Madrid was not used to feeling so exposed. Heck, what was the matter with him?   

Must be because he wasn't Johnny Madrid but Johnny Lancer now. Must be because his brother was involved. To see Scott wounded and suffering had ripped his heart apart and worried him more than anything ever had before.

As Johnny Madrid, there had always been a distance between him and other people, he had seen to that. No emotional ties or complications to get in the way of what needed to be done. But this time it felt as if he had caught the bullet himself. Dios, being part of a family, having a brother he cared for more than he ever thought possible, was creating an emotional maelstrom within, like nothing he had ever experienced before. It made him vulnerable. Maybe that was the price he had to pay for being Johnny Lancer now.

Thoughts like that had whirled around in his head constantly, and the rim of the escarpment didn't seem to come any closer.

Finally, utterly spent, he had sat down and leaned his back against a rock. He had planned to rest for only a couple of minutes, to catch his breath, maybe close his eyes just for a short while...

He was already fast asleep as his body slumped to his side.

He didn't know how long he had slept, but according to the position of the stars he figured it hadn't been much more than an hour. He found it difficult to stand up with his right knee swollen and his limbs stiff from the chill. It had caused Scott no end of amusement that morning as Johnny put on his woolen undershirt, unused to the cool temperatures in the mountains. But thank God he had done so. It was better than nothing. Because, apart from his pants, it was the only thing he was wearing now, having left his jacket under Scott's head and his shirt as a bandage around Scott's upper body.

Johnny struggled to his feet. Hell, how was he supposed to walk or even climb with that leg? He studied the flank before him. At least, this section didn't seem to be as steep as the sections before. On all fours, favoring his right leg, he continued the hike, every now and then dropping onto his stomach to rest and catch his ragged breath.

Just as he was beginning to wonder if the slope would ever end, he heard sounds from above, to the right, and not too far away. He froze and listened. Yes, there were hoof  beats and voices of several men. That meant he was closer to the rim than he had thought. That was good, very good.

But who were those men? He pressed himself to the ground in an attempt to blend in with the surrounding shadows. He would lie and listen and try to find out who was riding on the trail in the middle of the night. Who would be so crazy and take a risk like that? The path was dangerous enough in daylight. God knew he needed any help he could get, but he wasn't keen on running right into the back shooter, or a mob like him.

He listened as the riders slowly drew closer. Peering upwards to where the sounds appeared to be originating from, he made out the glare of strange lights, dancing eerily in the darkness, vanishing and reappearing in the blackness of the night like ghosts, coming closer in unison with the approaching group.

His skin prickled and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Haunting tales of ghostriders that had been relayed at countless campfires popped up in his mind. Then he realized what he saw. Torches. The men carried torches with them.

Before he could think any further the ruckus above him on the path increased. Clattering  hooves neared from the left, accompanied by loud neighing. Barranca.  And Charlie. It had to be them. There were no other abandoned horses on the path. The men cried out to one another, their horses whinnying in response to Barranca and Charlie. One man's voice boomed above the others in loud Spanish, commanding the group. The men quieted. Johnny's knees buckled in relief. He knew that commanding voice. It was Manuel, the leader of the work crew down at the bridge.

Everything fell into place. Somehow an alarm had been raised, the ranch hands had sensed something was wrong and they were looking for him and Scott. That had to be it.

Johnny felt so weak that, for a moment, he was unable to move.

“Señor Scott – Señor Johnny!”

The men started shouting, again and again while they continued on their way along the trail. The light of the torches moved up and down and veered away from his position.

He wanted to answer, but the only sound he was capable of producing was a hoarse croak. Damn, that couldn't be happening. Manuel and his men were moving away. He had to make himself heard! Armed with a sudden burst of adrenalin his paralysis was gone, he crawled upwards, frantic to reach the rim before the men disappeared. 

The men went on calling. A colt was fired, three times...

The Lancer sign.

Idiot. He should have thought of that himself. He ripped his gun from its holster, almost dropping it down the slope as his stiff fingers struggled to respond. Then he fired in answer. Bang – bang – bang. The sound echoed against the hills.

They reached him just as he was about to scramble to his feet back on the trail. Then they were all around him, talking at the same time in excited Spanish. Manuel reached down to help him to his feet.

“Señor Juanito... gracias a Dios!“

But Johnny shrugged off the helping hand.

“Scott ... we must get to him.  Àndale! He's down there, he's hurt. Hurry, follow me.”

Intending to lead the men to his brother he took a step towards the rim as his right leg gave way. Swaying he fought for balance.

Manuel caught him by his upper arm and dragged him away from the abyss. “No, Señor, Johnny, lo siento, but you are going nowhere. You are hurt yourself. We will go.” Manuel spoke in a firm voice that brooked no argument.

Heat rose in Johnny, borne from the despair he felt. How did the man dare to talk to him like that? He, Johnny, was the man in charge. Scott was down there, bleeding to death – why did no- one understand? There was no time to lose! He struggled to free himself. “Let go of me! Now! Scott needs help!”

But Dios, what was happening? The world suddenly started spinning around him, a strange humming growing louder in his ears. His legs felt as soft as wax and sweat broke out on his entire body while his head threatened to explode any minute. He felt so sick...    Desperate, Johnny tried to focus on the ranch hand's face, but  Manuel's features blurred before his eyes. He saw the man's mouth move. What did he say? He strained to listen in spite of the whooshing in his ears. 

“No te inquietes. We will find him.”

Manuel's voice was deep and soothing, it left no doubt. They would find his brother and care for him.

As he collapsed he was caught by strong hands. Someone lifted and carried him, cradling him like a child. Too exhausted to feel embarrassed he gave in and dropped his head. It was good to finally let go.

“ José, Jim , c uida de él” , he heard Manuel say before blackness closed down on him.

***

Some time during the night Johnny awoke. He felt tired and found it difficult to lift his eyelids, but knew he had to wake up. There was something urgent he had to do. It was the urge to settle whatever it was that pulled him out of his deep sleep and made him finally open his eyes.

He was lying close to a low burning campfire, blankets spread over him.  Manuel was sitting near the fire, his fingers clasped around a steaming mug. In the reddish light emanating from the fire Johnny was able to see the motionless forms of several sleeping men, scattered all over the place. At a short distance he made out a man walking up and down, carrying a rifle in his hands. A guard. Good. It was quiet, apart from the cracking of the fire.  And next to him lay his brother.

They had found him, Scott was safe.  Johnny swallowed. Thank you, God. He propped himself up on his elbow to take a closer look and to make sure Scott was okay.

Scott lay on his stomach, wrapped in blankets. His face was turned towards Johnny, blond hair falling across his forehead. The wound to his temple was covered with a large bandage . Scott's right hand rested close to his face, his fingers loosely curled. He seemed sound asleep, his face soft and relaxed in the reddish firelight. For the moment the lines of pain were smoothed.  He looked so peaceful it was almost impossible to believe what had happened only hours before.

In a sudden need of physical contact Johnny reached out and covered Scott's hand with his own , pressing it slightly in order to reassure himself that his brother was really there. Then he smiled, exhaled deeply and dropped back on his bedroll.

“I gave your brother a strong sleeping powder”, Manuel said, looking up from his steaming mug. “He needs to rest.” He rose and walked over to Johnny, handing him a canteen.  “How d'you feel?”

Johnny grinned. “Sore, but I'll live. How's Scott?” He lifted the canteen to his lips and drank thankfully, only now realizing how thirsty he was.

“I dug the bullet out of his back. He's lost a lot of blood and he's running a low fever.” Manuel took a swallow from his mug. “Could've been worse.  As long as no infection sets in...” He paused and cleared his throat. “Doc Jenkins needs to see him, though.”

God bless Manuel, Johnny thought. The old vaquero had some experience with wounds and sicknesses. He often acted as a doctor for the ranch hands.

Manuel knelt down by his side. “You have been luckier than your brother. Apart from bruises, cracked ribs, and a sprained knee there seem to be no more wounds.” He reached out to touch his forehead. “A little warm. Doc Jenkins needs to see you, too.”  

“Thank you for what you did for my brother and me, Manuel”, Johnny mumbled, struggling to keep his eyes open.

“De nada, Señor Juanito, de nada. You go back to sleep now, I will watch over both of you.”

Johnny closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift away. For now, the nightmare was over.

 

Chapter 13

Scott lived in a world of cold, merciless cold. It crept through his bones and wrapped itself around his heart, making him feel numb and apathetic. He would have given in to the beckoning darkness that lingered behind the icy cold, if only there hadn't been that excruciating pain raging through his head and back. Each time he was about to relax and drift away the hammering in his back would keep him awake.  And there was something else that prevented him from letting go. Someone had told him something, something very important. What had that been? He frowned and tried to concentrate.

“Here's your colt, just in case...You hang on here... I'll be back...”

That was Johnny's voice. Johnny had told him to stay alert. Something bad must have happened, his brother's voice had sounded urgent, and worried. But try as he might, he couldn't remember what that had been. Anyway. He wouldn't disappoint his brother, he had promised to take care of himself. His hand fumbled for the colt. He closed his numb fingers around the cold metal, and continued to wait 

***

The next thing he became aware of were voices, the excited voices of several men.  The men   talked to him, they touched him, their hands were all over his body, probing, pulling at his clothes, turning him around, searching and inflaming his pain once more. “Nooo, please...don't”, he breathed. They didn't seem to hear him.

But he heard them speak, he heard them say his name, several times. Only, through the fog in his brain he wasn't able to make any sense of what they were saying to him.

Leave me alone, please leave me alone, I have to wait for my brother! He wanted to make them understand, but the only noise that escaped his lips was a desperate groan. 

“Shshsh”, someone mumbled and he felt a soothing hand brush across his forehead . Then he was lifted and carried away. Just like that. Frustratingly, no-one noticed his feeble protest, and he lacked the strength to force the issue.

The pain in his back exploded at that movement and finally, almost relieved, he gave in to the darkness, regretting vaguely that he hadn't been able to keep the promise he had given his brother.

***

He had to be sick, real sick. Why else would he be so hot and thirsty? When had he ever felt so spent and heavy? Even his eyelids seemed to be immovable weights that would not give, his limbs leaden, weighing him down. At least the incessant pain was gone.

With considerable effort Scott finally pried his eyelids open. He could sleep later, first he had to find out where he had been taken by the men.  He was lying on his stomach, on a blanket. Too weak to lift his head , he wasn't able to see much, his view blocked by a man sitting next to him. He saw a pair of legs, clad in dark leather pants, one leg bent at the knee, the other one stretched out. A hand holding a large mug rested on the bent-up knee.

Scott blinked. The braided leather ribbon wound around the man's wrist and the row of silver conchos along that pant leg looked familiar... Johnny!

He tried to call out to his brother, but his tongue was nothing but a useless large mass in his mouth. He must have made a noise, anyway. The legs as well as the hand with the mug disappeared to be replaced by his brother's face, the deep blue eyes regarding him with an odd mixture of relief and concern.  

“Dios, Scott, you had me worried”, was all Johnny said.

Just as Scott was about to think his brother had frozen staring at him Johnny became animated. “You must be thirsty. C'mon, let me help you up...”

Expecting the pain in his back to explode again Scott stiffened and gritted his teeth, but there was only a faint reminder of what he had experienced before. He sighed and relaxed, relinquishing himself to Johnny's gentle hands.

His brother must have sensed his tension. “Laudanum”, Johnny grinned as he carefully eased him into a half-sitting position, stuffing a blanket behind Scott's back. Then Johnny supported his head with his right hand, the other hand lifting a canteen to his dry lips. Scott drank in small sips, relishing the cold liquid in his mouth. His tongue seemed to take on its normal size again, and, leaning back against the blanket he was finally able to speak.

“Sorry, brother...”, he croaked.

Johnny raised a brow. “For what?”

“...not waiting for you...to come back.”

“Huh? Bullshit”, Johnny said, dragging a blanket up to Scott's chin. “Go back to sleep, you need to rest. You're talkin' nonsense.”

He wanted to protest, but soon realized he was in no shape to discuss further with his brother. He was so spent that even keeping his eyes open was impossible, they simply slid shut of their own accord. The last thing he felt was his brother's cool hand on his forehead.

***

He was lying in his bed in Grandfather's house in Boston. It was a warm night, the window was open and the curtains were billowing in a soft summer breeze that smelled of salt and the harbor. He was ill and felt miserable, but luckily he wasn't alone in his room. Someone was sitting by his bedside, reading to him from a book. It was a man's voice, strong and deep, making him feel safe and comforted. The man's face was cast in shadow and Scott didn't know who he was, but he loved to listen to that voice and the fairy tales the man was reading to him. If only he wasn't so hot and thirsty! That and his headache made concentrating increasingly difficult. Finally he turned his head, moaning at the pain the movement caused. He touched the man's hand to get his attention. The man immediately stopped reading.

“What's the matter, Scotty?”  He took Scott's hand in his large one, then touched his forehead.

When the man spoke again his voice sounded worried. “Oh goodness, you are burning up, son.”

He took a cloth from a bowl of water that sat on the nightstand and put it on Scott's forehead. When he bent forward his face was illuminated by the lamp on the nightstand.   “Uncle Matt”, Scott mumbled.

The cloth on his forehead was cold and wet. Scott felt the water dribble down his temples into his hair. He lifted a hand to push the cloth away, but the hand was caught and a voice cautioned, “No, Señor, don't. You are burning up. We need to bring the fever down.”

Scott opened his eyes and blinked, confused. It was night, but a fire was burning, providing some light. There was someone looking down at him, but it wasn't Uncle Matt, and he was not in his bedroom in Boston.

“Manuel?”

“Si, Señor Scott, it's old Manuel.” The Mexican smiled and nodded, obviously very pleased. “It's good to see you awake. How do you feel?”

“Terrible.”

Scott shifted in order to find a more comfortable position, but soon regretted the attempt. Pain lanced through his back as soon as he started moving.

Manuel reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Shush. You had better not move. I'll give you some more Laudanum, it will help with the pain.” He didn't like the thought of Laudanum. But then, he felt too tired to protest. Before the Mexican could rise to fetch some water and the medicine Scott grabbed his hand and held him back.

“Manuel, where's my brother?” His voice was sharp with panic as the image of the man on the cliff, his rifle trained on Johnny, sprang to his mind. 

Manuel gestured to the right. “Calm down, Señor Scott. He's here, next to you. He's sleeping. He needs to rest, and so do you.”

Carefully, in order to hold the lurking pain at bay, he turned his head. Yes, there was Johnny, blanket drawn up to his nose and obviously sound asleep. Although Johnny's face was pale apart from an ugly dark bruise to his left cheekbone he looked to be at ease. Scott exhaled and closed his eyes in relief, only now remembering that he had talked to Johnny sometime earlier.

“How is he?”

“Much better off than you. Some bruises and scratches, a swollen knee...”

Manuel chuckled as he rose and went over to the supply wagon. “Of course el Señor Juanito didn't want to go to sleep, he wanted to sit with you all night.”

Manuel retrieved his medical bag from the supply wagon. “But I was able to convince him that he will need all of his strength tomorrow, when we will be heading home.” Rummaging through the contents of the bag Manuel produced a flask, holding it up and regarding it, a smug expression all over his face.  “Maybe some of my special powder here in his coffee helped to convince him even more...”

Despite himself, Scott grinned at the sly expression on the other man's face. “You are sneakier than Doc Jenkins, Manuel.”

Chuckling, Manuel grabbed a canteen hanging down from a hook on the supply wagon. “Maybe. But I am no doctor and Doc Jenkins needs to see you and your brother.  That's why we will start our trip home to the Hacienda tomorrow, Señor Scott.”

Home. That sounded wonderful to his ears.

As the Mexican sat down next to him again another question crossed Scott's mind.

“How did we get here, Manuel? Did Johnny find you?” He remembered his brother leaving him, telling him he would climb up the slope and try to reach Manuel's camp.

“No, it was more the other way round, we found Señor Johnny.  Two of my men were on a hunting trip on the mountain and came across your packhorse . They brought the horse down to the camp and straight away I knew something had to be wrong.” Manuel shrugged. “I was worried and so I formed a posse , to look for you. We found you late yesterday.”

Scott nodded.  “Thank you, Manuel. I guess you saved our lives.”

“De nada, Señor, de nada.” Supporting Scott's head he lifted the canteen he had brought to Scott's mouth. “Drink. You must be thirsty.”

Then Manuel counted several drops of a brown flask into a mug, filled it with water and offered the liquid to Scott.

Scott hesitated, eyeing the mug suspiciously. Manuel laughed. “No sleeping powder, Señor Scott. It's Laudanum. But it will help you relax, you need to rest. The next few days travel will be hard enough on you.”

He was still in no shape to argue with anyone. Opening his mouth he drank the liquid and closed his eyes. He felt Manuel take the cloth from his forehead, he heard the splashing of water, and the wet cloth was wiped across his face, then replaced on his forehead.

His mind became foggy. The cloth was cool and he was sick... Uncle Matt. Yes, he had known an Uncle Matt. Flashes of memory of a man with a beard in Grandfather's house in Boston flitted through his mind. Uncle Matt on all fours in his playroom, whinnying like a horse; Uncle Matt throwing a ball in the garden; Uncle Matt reading a book to him in the living room... 

All of a sudden he was certain. The man in Morro Coyo was his “Uncle Matt”, and about one thing at least Matthew Morgan had been right. He had given him hours of joy and his love while his father had been building his ranch in California not giving his own son a second thought. Perhaps he should pay Matthew Morgan another visit as soon as he was back on his feet.

***

He was woken by the sound of angry voices next to him, barking at each other.

“No, Manuel, I'm not gonna sit in that wagon the whole time, and I'm not gonna take any more of that medicine o' yours!”

“Señor Juanito, el Patrón will not be pleased if...”

He heard Johnny snort. “I can deal with my Old Man.” And in a softer tone, “Look, Manuel. I understand your concern, but there's a madman with a rifle out there, aimin' to shoot my brother and me. I'm not gonna wait 'til that happens, sitting in the wagon like a sick old man!”  Johnny paused and exhaled. “ 'sides, I'm fine. I've had worse, much worse.”

An angry outburst of rapid Spanish followed Johnny's words.

Scott opened his eyes in time to see Johnny hobble away, favoring his right knee, his gait making a liar of him.  Manuel watched him limp away, throwing his hands in the air in a gesture of despair.

When Manuel turned his head their eyes met and Manuel's scowl changed into a broad smile. “Señor Scott, you are awake! How are you feeling?”

“Better.” He cleared his dry throat. “Don't you worry about Johnny, you won't change him. Most times he knows what he's doing.”

The Mexican knelt down by his side and put a hand on his forehead. “He's a stubborn young fool, that is what your brother is, stubborn - very much like his father...”  Manuel stopped as if suddenly realizing to whom he was speaking. “I'm sorry, Señor Scott, I didn't mean to...” 

Scott smiled. “It's okay. You're right.”

He stiffened and held his breath as Manuel started checking his wounds and changing the bandages. After the ordeal was over, he was spent and barely able to drink the broth Manuel offered him.

Dazedly he watched the preparations that were made for the breaking of camp. A wagon was hitched and loaded with supplies for their ride. Men were shouting, horses were snorting and stomping their hooves. Two men lifted him carefully and bedded him down into the makeshift cot that had been constructed in the wagon bed.

Scott felt the wagon move and drifted in and out of sleep until he became aware that someone was shaking him lightly.

“Scott?”  

Groaning, he struggled to open his eyes.

“Drink.”

He swallowed the cool water. Blinking, he saw Johnny sat next to him.   “Are you alright, Scott?” Johnny's hand brushed across his forehead. “You still seem warm...”

Scott shoved the hand away. “I'm fine, don't fret. What are you doing here on the wagon anyway, brother? I was thinking the 'sick old man', that's me, not you, huh?”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Scott, you know someone has to look out for that madman. I'm not gonna take any chances. 'Sides, I feel much better than yesterday.”

Scott raised a brow. “Yes, I can see that”, he said as he watched Johnny lean back awkwardly against the wagon board.

His brother scowled. “I've agreed to rest in the wagon from time to time. Don't want the Ol' Man to come down on Manuel.”

Scott grinned. Manuel had his ways to convince people, even people as stubborn as his brother. Johnny seemed to have found a comfortable position next to Scott and went quiet.

From his position in the wagon bed Scott couldn't see much. In front of him were the broad backs of either Manuel or José, driving the wagon. He watched clouds sailing across the sky, every now and then a bird would cross his sight or trees would greet him waving their branches as the wagon passed by them. The permanent rumbling was as tiring as the heat that rose as the day went on. Scott was on the verge of sleep once more as he recalled his dream.

“Johnny?”

His brother's eyes blinked opened. “Yeah?”

“That man in Morro Coyo was right. I knew him when I was a boy.”

Slowly, Johnny came into a sitting position to look at him. “You sure?”

“Yes. I remember him now. He is the man I used to call Uncle Matt. We had a good time together.” When he looked at his brother he saw a wary glimmer in Johnny's eyes.

 “What's on your mind, Scott?” Johnny asked, his tone suspiciously even.

“I think I should pay him another visit if he is still in town.”

Scott lowered his gaze and picked at a fluff peeking out of his blanket, aware that Johnny was staring at him incredulously. But he had made up his mind. “I feel I should apologize for my rude behavior. I wasn't cordial to him when I met him, you know. I think I owe him that much. Perhaps we can square things and come to an understanding, perhaps get reacquainted?”

He looked Johnny in the eye, waiting for his reaction.

Johnny didn't look pleased at all. He snorted. “ It's no wonder you weren't ‘cordial' brother . That man was behaving pretty strange. If you wanna know what I think – that man's crazy and you owe him nothing - that's what I think!” He took a deep breath.  “But if you feel you must see him once more – well, it's your decision”. 

Johnny's face was blank now, but Scott knew his brother well enough to feel the uneasiness and tension radiating from Johnny's entire body. It was obvious that Johnny didn't like his plan one bit.

 

Chapter 14

“Sam, I think you'd better leave the Lancer gal out of it. Let ‘er be, 'kay? Who is she, anyway? You can have any gal you wanna have. No need to get all excited about that little brat.” Will's voice had a coaxing tone to it as he tried to reason with his brother. “Just get the job done and then let's leave for good.”

Sam snorted. “Since when do you think, Willie-boy? The gal's not your business. She's mine. I'm sure I can convince her to come with us.” Sam chuckled.  “Yeah! That's a mighty good idea, huh, Will?”

“Dammit, Sam...”

“Shut up, Will! Mind your own business.” Sam yawned. “I'm gonna call it a day. You take the first watch. And tomorrow we'll finish this damn job once and for all.”

Matthew lay unmoving on his bedroll in the darkness as he listened to the Rileys' exchange. It was obvious that the brothers thought he was asleep. He knew they would never have discussed their plans in front of him. They had always been very guarded when he was around. Even now they kept their voices low and he had to focus to hear what they were saying. Not that he was interested in the plans they had after their partnership ended. The only person he was interested in was Scott – and Scott's welfare. Scott's future was his business and with the Rileys' help he would be able to care for Scott and enable him to live the life he was meant to live.

Or, so he had thought until the day Sam Riley had fired at that dark Mexican with the strange blue eyes who had claimed to be Scott's brother. Since that day Matthew had the intense feeling that something was wrong.  He hadn't been able to understand completely what Sam had told his brother, but what little he had heard troubled him a lot. Had Scott been hurt? Had the bullet missed the Mexican? What had gone wrong? Sam had tried to reassure him but, although he wanted to believe him because everything else was too horrible to consider, an uneasy feeling remained, churning away in the pit of his stomach.

Adding fuel to his fears was the fact that the Rileys weren't the same since Sam had fired at Johnny Lancer. They were more on edge than before and even Sam, who used to be cool and self-confident, was nervous and jumpy.

The three of them had left North Mesa in a hurry, traveling only at night and laying low during daylight. This behavior did nothing to assuage Matthew's concerns, and he took the first possible opportunity to take Will aside, out of his brother's earshot. It would be much easier to get information from him than from Sam.

“Why this hurry? What's the matter with your brother?”  Matthew asked one evening as they were resting amongst a group of rocks. Sam's snores indicated that he was sound asleep. Will appeared to be startled by the question. His eyes flicked nervously over to where his brother lay before returning to meet Matthew's. The striking pale eyes and the auburn hair were the only attributes he shared with his brother. While Sam was tall and quick Will was of a square build, his movements slow – just like his brains, Matthew thought.

“Ya really don't know why, huh?” Will whispered, his eyes blinking unbelievingly.

“I know we are in a hurry because Sam wants to finish off Murdoch Lancer as soon as possible. That's what I want, too. But there seems to be more to it. What's wrong?” Matthew tried to hide his impatience.

Will lowered his head and started scratching his leg. He seemed so engrossed in the task that Matthew thought Will had suddenly become unaware of his presence. Just as he was about to lose patience Will looked up and leaned forwards. Matthew was surprised at the sudden fury burning in those pale, wide eyes.  

“You've no idea what you and your … dead lady here”, he motioned to Matthew's pocket,  “asked of my brother, and me, Mister. You really don't have a clue what Sam's done... because of you.” He paused, breathing heavily.  “He has killed . Worse, mebbe, he dared to fire a bullet at Johnny Madrid. At Johnny Madrid. You dunno what that means, huh?”  

Will stared at him, then lowered his eyes.  “Anyway. That's what he's done, Mister. Reason enough to be in a hurry, I reckon. Iff'n he has missed...” Will's Adam's apple jumped as he swallowed hard. “Most guys don't survive messing with Johnny Madrid.” He closed his eyes, all energy seemed to have drained from his body. “Since we met you we've had nothing but trouble.”

Matthew was so perplexed at Will's diatribe that he didn't know what to say. There was more behind that facade than he had thought. Had he underestimated Willie-boy? Taken him for more of a fool than he actually was? So far, he had assumed that Will did nothing else but blindly follow his brother out of some kind of loyalty. At least, Will hadn't shown  any semblance of independent thought in front of Matthew prior to this outburst.

Silence lasted between them. Finally Matthew cleared his throat. What did he care if the brothers had disagreements or not? He had offered them a lot of money and they had accepted the job as well as the conditions. Anger welled up from deep within as he realized what Will had said. Johnny Madrid ? So what?   Will was damn right. He didn't know who Johnny Madrid was. And he didn't care.

“I hired you to kill Johnny Lancer, and not this - Johnny Madrid, whoever he is!”

Will raised his head, a defeated look in his eyes. His chuckle sounded almost hysterical. “I knew it. You don't have a clue who you are dealing with, Mister. Johnny Lancer is the famous gunfighter Johnny Madrid. They're one and the same.”

Gunfighter? So what? It was all the same, Lancer – Madrid – gunfighter... He had never heard of that man. And if Johnny Lancer was a gunfighter, well, that was all the more a reason to want him dead. No gunfighter should be that close to Scott. Scott deserved far better than a gunfighter for a brother.

“Well, he should be a dead gunfighter now. Your brother assured me that he is a good shot.”  He had to strain his ears to hear what Will muttered under his breath, more to himself than for Matthew's benefit. 

“For the right price he'd promise and do anything.” Then Will straightened and his demeanor changed, as if a barrier that had momentarily come down had once more been erected around him.  

“Forget it, Mr. White. My brother is a good shot.”  Looking over to his sleeping brother, his eyes became soft and affectionate. “Don't you worry. He's something, my brother Sam, yeah, he sure is. He'll know what to do. He always knows. Everything will work out fine, just fine. You'll see.”

“I seem to have heard that maybe Scott has been hurt…,”

“If Sam says that Scott Lancer is fine he is fine .”

Will lowered his eyes and his face became bland again. It was clear, as far as he was concerned, the matter was closed.

Two days after his talk with Will, Matthew and the brothers had arrived at their current camp, close to the Lancer hacienda. Sam had remembered the area from his days as a hand at the ranch. Thick underbrush and rocks hid a hollow-like opening and it didn't take long to reach the top of a rise from where the hacienda could be observed without being spotted. Matthew had to admit that Sam was very careful. Sam knew most of the hands had been sent to the mountains and he was in a hurry to get the job finished, but still he insisted that they watch the hacienda for a at least a day or two to make sure Murdoch and the “Lancer gal” were indeed alone and unprotected in the house.

When Matthew had seen his rival's large white house for the first time he was surprised and, as he grudgingly admitted to himself, somewhat impressed. This was the house of a wealthy man of some standing, not the hideout of the rogue he thought Murdoch Lancer to be.  

***

Matthew tried to relax as the Riley's finally became quiet. Will had fallen asleep, despite Sam ordering him to take the first watch.

But Matthew couldn't sleep. Too many thoughts ran around in endless circles in his head.  Tomorrow, Sam had said. Tomorrow would be the day the last person who had a hold on Scott would be eliminated. Then Scott would be free. Free - to do what? 

He tossed and turned under his blankets. Scott would certainly open his eyes, see and take the chances Matthew, his oldest friend, his mother's fiancé, offered -  wouldn't he? That day in Morro Coyo as they had talked Scott had been upset – understandably so. Maybe he should have been more sensitive, more careful in telling Scott the truth. It had been his fault. But soon he would be able to get through to Catherine's boy. He would be calm and understanding, he would offer sympathy for Scott's losses and lend him a helping hand...

Just as he was about to lose himself in dreams of the two of them living in San Francisco a   hysterical voice cut through his dreams.

“Matthew! Matthew!”

That was Catherine and she seemed frantic... With a jolt he opened his eyes and looked around, his heart thumping in his chest. But, of course, there was no Catherine. He was still lying in the camp, under the star - spangled sky, and it was quiet around him save the guttural snoring of his two companions. He let out a breath, tried to calm his beating heart. But something didn't feel right.

 Sweating, he threw off the blankets and sat up. Catherine. The medallion. Where was the medallion? Hastily, he rummaged through his pockets and let out a breath as he touched the cool metal. There it was, thank God. He caressed it with his thumb, then snapped it open. 

Leaning towards the smoldering remnants of the campfire for some light he stared at the image and shuddered. In the red flaring light of the flames it looked as if Catherine's beautiful face was streaming with blood, her eyes fluttering and her mouth twitching in pain.  Suddenly Catherine's features blurred, became more angular and masculine and it seemed  to be a blood-covered Scott who was staring at him with eyes full of accusation.

Damn. Matthew gasped and snapped the medallion shut. It had to be his overwrought nerves, playing a dirty trick on him. It had seemed eerily real, though… Cursing, he rose from his bedroll . With his skin prickling all over his body and his trembling limbs he knew he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep again. Running his hands through his hair he started pacing. What did this dream, this image, mean? What had happened to Catherine's son? As if he hadn't felt it all the time...

A twig in the fire cracked as the flames flared up one last time before they died, leaving nothing but a red glowing ember. Catherine's eyes were staring at him from the bottom of the glow, following his every move, reproachful and imploring. “Matthew, what have you done?”

The leaves of the surrounding bushes rustled and whispered with Catherine's voice. “Why, Matthew?”

Groaning, he squeezed his eyes shut and put his hands over his ears. I wanted the best for him, only the best... God, what have I done? What has happened to him?

Filled with panic he left the camp and ran through the darkness, oblivious to the twigs lashing against his face, oblivious to the uneven ground that made him stumble and oblivious to the direction he took.

He had to get away from here. Far, far away. 

 

Chapter 15

He was lying on his stomach on brutally firm ground. He must have been lying in this uncomfortable position for quite some time because his bones ached mercilessly. Why was his bed so hard? Confused, he opened his eyes, only to find himself lying in the grass, face to face with a chipmunk. The little creature sat on his haunches, its little paws clasped around a large nut. Its beady black eyes regarded him, unblinking. Maybe it was as surprised at the sight before its eyes as he. Carefully, he moved his hand towards the animal. “Hey friend”, he whispered. “What are you doing here?” The chipmunk startled at his movement and dashed away with a squeal, discarding its precious prize in its haste.

Disappointed, he dropped his hand. Too bad. He would have liked to touch the shiny soft coat. Watching the big nut roll down the slope he felt sorry for the chipmunk. How much trouble might it have taken the animal to find this bounty? And now it was lost, all its efforts had been in vain, and the chipmunk would go hungry. For some reason this thought made him sad.

Groaning, he rolled onto his back and stared up at the light sky.  Where was he? And where were Sam and Will? It was pointless getting sentimental about a chipmunk, he would be better served to expend his energies finding what had happened.

Gingerly, he sat up and took in his surroundings. This place was unknown to him. He was sitting on a slope, sparsely covered with pines. To his left was a narrow path, winding downhill among the pines. To his right the slope dropped away into a valley that looked familiar to him. He narrowed his eyes to have a better look. Yes.  At its end lay the big white Lancer Hacienda, as a visible symbol of Murdoch Lancer's prosperity.

Perplexed as to how he had gotten here he scratched his head as something golden glinting in the grass next to him caught his eye. Reaching out his hand touched cool metal and he drew a sharp intake of breath. It was the medallion. He had almost lost the medallion. It must have slipped out of his pocket as he had dropped to the ground, completely exhausted... Glancing at the prized possession the events of the previous night came back to him with a startling clarity. Catherine's and Scott's reproachful eyes, their faces bloody; his run through the night until, finally, his legs gave in and he collapsed, darkness closing down in him. 

His thumb touched the lock of the medallion. Gone were the shadows conjured by the night and it seemed ridiculous, but he hesitated to open it, afraid of what he might see. What if her face was still covered in blood?  Holding his breath he pressed the lock. The lid snapped open. With immense relief he saw that she looked like usual, smiling at him, her eyes soft. Nothing in her face reminded of what he had seen during his nightmare.

Still, the events of the days before and especially this last night left him with a sick feeling to his stomach.  Since he had seen Catherine's bloody image and heard her frantic voice he was sure she didn't approve of what he had done, even though everything he had done had been for her and Scott's sake. But what haunted him even more was that he could no longer shake off the feeling that something terrible had happened to Scott.

What was he to do? Should he try to find his way back to the Riley's? There was a job to do, their task wasn't finished yet – whether Catherine liked it or not...

He cast his gaze over the valley and the domain of Murdoch Lancer. Today was the day that man was slated to die. But where was his ire, his old hatred he had been nursing so long? Where were the feelings of joy and happiness about his rival's impending death? Where was his wish for revenge?

Searching in his heart for the deep rooted emotions that had driven him for so long, Matthew found that he just couldn't summon up any of them. Whatever energy had fuelled his hatred had disappeared, replaced an immense worry for Scott.

No. First of all he had to find the boy and make sure he...

“What are you doing here, mister? This is Lancer land.”

Startled by the sudden voice he jerked and whirled around to face a woman on horseback glancing at him, her eyes flashing.  Across her lap lay a rifle, a tiny hand resting on it, ever ready.

He scrambled to his feet, surprised that he hadn't heard her coming. Scrutinizing her more closely he realized she was no woman but a young girl really, about the age his daughter Martha would have been had she survived. She had the same curly brown hair tumbling down her back, and the same brown eyes, except, unlike Martha's, these were dark with mistrust. But here all other resemblances to Martha ceased. To his astonishment this girl wore pants, a shirt and a wide brimmed hat like a man, and she was sitting her horse like a man did, astride.

He would never have allowed Martha to dress and behave like that. Above all, this girl undoubtedly knew how to use that big rifle of hers; certainly not something a decent girl should know anything about. 

Feeling uncomfortable under her icy glare Matthew swallowed and motioned to the weapon. “You won't need that, miss, you can put it away. I'm unarmed.”

She didn't look convinced. “I asked you a question. Who are you and what is your business here?”

He hesitated. This uncompromising girl before him had to be Miss Teresa, the “Lancer girl” Sam Riley was after. He remembered having seen the girl before, albeit from a distance, while he had been watching the hacienda together with Sam and Will. Then, he hadn't spared her a single thought; he couldn't have cared less for her destiny at Sam's hands.  All Matthew had wanted was Murdoch Lancer's head. But now the girl was here. Brave and forthright, yet innocent looking at the same time, a girl like Martha...

Damn. He didn't want to feel anything for her, least of all pity... Her presence threatened to destroy his plans.  It complicated everything.  Or did it? What plans could she destroy? If he was honest with himself, the moment Scott had possibly been hurt all his plans had become redundant. Since that day he had never again slept well.

“Mister? My patience is running short.” Slowly, the girl lifted the rifle.

Matthew made a quick decision. He had to find out about Scott, but he was in no position to do that on his own. He had to swallow his pride and talk to Murdoch Lancer. Damn. If it wasn't for Scott's sake he wouldn't set a single foot into Murdoch Lancer's house. But he needed to know the boy was safe.

Bracing himself he looked up at the girl and forced the warmest smile he could muster, fully aware that he looked anything but trustworthy at the moment.

“I'm sorry, miss, I didn't mean any harm. My name is Matthew Morgan, from San Francisco. I...I was on my way to the Lancer Ranch. I wanted to meet with … Murdoch Lancer.” He cleared his throat almost choking on the blatant lie. “I need to talk to him.” 

Her eyes narrowed. “Then – what are you doing up here? This is not the road to the hacienda. Why didn't you use the main road, down there?” She motioned with her head down to the valley, never loosening her grip on the rifle. “And besides - where's your horse?”

He gave her a crooked smile, hoping he appeared to be embarrassed.

“I...I lost my horse. Two days ago it spooked at something and bolted. I couldn't get it under control again and finally I was thrown. The damned animal ran away, I don't know where. I quickly became disoriented, having no idea where I was.” 

He regarded his feet, no longer able to look her in the eyes. What a good liar he was...

“I tried my best on foot, but, try as I might, I couldn't find the way back to the road.” He hoped that he sounded convincing. Raising his head again he risked a small smile. “I live in a city, miss. I'm not used to finding my way in... in a wilderness like this...”

She hadn't moved during his long narrative, but he saw an amused flicker in her eyes.

Growing more confident, he dared a hopeful step in her direction. Immediately she urged her horse backwards. “Stay put”, she warned, yet her voice had lost some of its harsh edge.

“Look, miss, please help me if you know Mr. Lancer. I know I don't exactly have the appearance of a gentleman at the moment, but I need to meet with Murdoch Lancer. It really is very important that I do so. I have to talk to him about his ...  about Scott Garr... I mean … Scott Lancer.” 

That caught the girl's attention.  “About Scott?” She frowned, studying him very closely.

Then her face lit up and she leaned eagerly forward. “You must be the stranger who came to Morro Coyo several weeks ago. The man who claimed to have known Scott when he was a little boy - and his grandfather – back in Boston! Isn't that right? ”

Totally taken aback, he stuttered, “Yes, that's right. But...”

She stuffed the rifle back into its sheath and quickly dismounted. Extending her hand she stepped towards him. “Mr. Morgan, I'm so glad to meet you! I'm Teresa O'Brien, Murdoch Lancer's ward. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you, but you're right, you certainly don't look too gentlemanly at the moment.” Her eyes sparkled as she looked him up and down. “But it would be my pleasure to invite you to our house, Mr. Morgan, to get cleaned up and await Murdoch's return. He's not at home at the moment, but I expect him to be back before dinner.”

Completely taken by surprise Matthew took the proffered hand and shook it, realizing somewhere in the back of his mind that he had never before greeted a woman in this way. Normally he would bend over her hand and raise it gently to his lips. But this young lady was different from the women he knew. Her grip was strong and self-confident. How could a girl be so delicate and so tough at the same time? And how on earth did she know about him?

Unaware of his bewilderment Miss O'Brien took the horse's reins and regarded him expectantly. “Are you coming? I'll show you the way. It will take us some time to get to the hacienda on foot.”

Matthew collected himself and hurried to her side, trying to overcome the confusion he felt.Thank God she hadn't suggested they rode double on her horse. Maybe even this girl had some sense of propriety.They started walking down the trail side by side. Before he could ask her the questions he had on the tip of his tongue she chatted on, shaking her head in obvious amazement.

“I can't believe that I came across you here on Pine Hill! Murdoch will be so pleased to meet you!” She beamed.

He stared at the girl. That was hard to believe. “Miss O'Brien, excuse me, why would Mr. Lancer want to meet me? And how do you know of me at all?”

Laughing she threw back her head, amused at his total confusion. Her brown locks danced across her shoulders. How vivacious she was!

“Why Mr. Morgan, Murdoch told me all about you. Then I talked him into meeting you! That's why he rode into town this morning. He was looking for you.”

When the girl turned her head and looked at him with her sparkling eyes Matthew believed her every word. No-one could withstand those large brown eyes. Not even Murdoch Lancer.

“Well”, he stuttered, not knowing what to think.  “That's a surprise...after all, we are rivals...”

At that, Miss O'Brien sobered and stopped mid stride, casting him a stern look. “Rivals? No, Mr. Morgan. You are not rivals. I know, you loved the same woman, but that was twenty-five years ago!  It's in the past! Scott's mother died long ago, and Scott is a grown man now.”

Her words echoed in his head, bumping painfully against his skull. Words he didn't want to hear. But she continued .

“Murdoch always worries too much about his sons. He loves them dearly, and he waited for them to come home for more than twenty years. Now he's always afraid they might leave him again.”

She glanced at him, her eyes piercing into his.  “Murdoch told me you want Scott to stay with you in San Francisco. Is that right?”

Nodding, Matthew looked away, no longer able to stand her penetrating gaze.The girl dropped the reins and took hold of his arm, forcing him to look at her again. “Look, Mr. Morgan, Scott won't go with you, never!You'll have to accept that.” Passionately, she shook her head. “Scott will never leave Lancer again. He loves his father, his brother, his new home. He's happy here. I know that!”

Stepping back and dropping her arms she took a deep breath. “I kept telling Murdoch that, too, when he was in a dark mood in the days after Scott met you. I told him to trust Scott with that, and I suggested he should invite you to Lancer and resolve things with you.”

His head echoed with her words, the words tumbling around in his mind in a chaotic jumble. Every now and then one of the words would jump out of the melee.

Never – love – home –happy – father – brother...

These words mirrored what Scott had told him in Morro Coyo. Scott wouldn't come with him. Scott had his family here. Scott's father and brother, they were the problem, hadn't he sensed that and made his plans? If this girl knew...  

Groaning, Matthew bent forwards, pressing his hands against his ears. No more, please. No, he didn't want to hear any more.

He felt a soft touch to his shoulder. “Mr. Morgan? Are you okay?”

He nodded and looked up. “Miss O'Brien...I... ”

“Please, wait.”  Staring down at her feet she whispered, “You love Scott because he is the son of Catherine Garrett. I do understand that, very much. But you caused a lot of trouble in my family, Mr. Morgan. I don't like that; I want the family to stay as it is. We have waited for the boys to come home for so very long.”

When Miss O'Brien raised her head to meet his eyes she looked like the young girl she actually was.

“Therefore I'm so happy to have encountered you here. You were on your way to meet Murdoch and Scott, to square things, weren't you?” Her voice sounded almost pleading.  When she continued she took hold of his arm again.  “You can become a friend of our family, visit us and renew your friendship with Scott! He will like you, I know that! He's such a...”, she frowned, searching for the right word to describe the man, “...good-natured, fair minded man, he'll give you a chance! You see?” She stopped, catching her breath for a moment.  She was so excited that her cheeks had blushed. “There's no need to cling to old rivalries and hostilities... You can make a new start with Scott and also Murdoch... wouldn't that be wonderful?” She looked at him expectantly.

The girl's childlike eagerness, her naïve innocence caused Matthew to feel sick to his stomach. God, if things were really that easy! She was so young and trusting, barely older than a child. What if she knew about his original plans? Plans of murder and destruction, rather than friendship and love? How would she react when she learned that, because of his terrible plans, Johnny Lancer and Scott might both be hurt, if not dead?

He shuddered, realizing that he didn't want her to find out what a monster he actually was. It felt so good that she believed in him. Perhaps some of her purity was rubbing off on his black soul...

Matthew pulled himself together and shrugged off his thoughts. Now was not the time to brood, they had to hurry up.  He had to talk to Murdoch Lancer, albeit for reasons other than those the girl talked of. Scott's welfare was his main focus. Apart from that he had to make sure that the girl got to the safety of the hacienda, there was no way he was going to leave her to the savagery of Sam and Will Riley. 

He realized that she still awaited his response. “Yes, miss, you are right. That would be wonderful”, he replied. No need to start any discussions with her now. Any minute Sam and Will could appear around the next corner.  “Can we make haste? I really have to talk to Mr. Lancer.” 

Miss O'Brien smiled, obviously pleased that he didn't object and was in such a hurry to meet Murdoch Lancer.  

“Don't you worry, we will be there in time”, she said, grabbing hold of the reins again and taking the lead on the path. “As I told you before, Murdoch will not be back before dinner.”

But as they walked around the next corner she suddenly stopped, squinted her eyes and glanced intently over to the hill on the other side of the valley. Matthew's heart started racing, he thought immediately of Sam and Will. Were they that close?

“Look”, she exclaimed, motioning with her arm. “Look, there's a rider coming down the hill...” She craned her neck. “Oh, the man looks like... yes, it's him! It's Murdoch! He's back much earlier than expected.”

Miss O'Brien turned her head. “Come on, if we hurry up we will meet him down in the valley.”

 

Chapter 16

Would the bone rattling wagon ride never end? He had lost track of time and all sense of where he was. He felt the wagon rumble and bump beneath him, he heard Manuel or Johnny speak softly to him, he felt the touch of their hands as they tended to him and he drank what they coaxed him to take.

Somewhere in his muddled brain he was conscious that their worry for him increased with the escalating fever that coursed through his tortured body.

“Dios, Manuel, he's so hot, he's burning up. This trip is too hard on him , it'll kill him.”

“I know, Señor Johnny. But we need to get him home. The wound doesn't look good. He needs Doc Jenkins' help; I do not know what else I can do for him.”

The voices of the two men sounded concerned. Were they talking about him? Was he that ill?  Even close to dying? If so, shouldn't he be worried?

But it was all the same to him; he was drifting into a state of detachment.

There was a lake, a green lake, similar to the lake up in the mountains where he had worked with his brother. It was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. On the far shore of the lake he noticed a woman. She was just standing there, a plaid shawl covered her shoulders, and her arms were crossed over her chest. The wind played with her long blond hair and her skirt. He knew the woman was his mother. She seemed to be waiting for someone. What if she was waiting for him?

A boat lay on the shore on his side of the lake. He dragged it into the water and started rowing across the lake to where his mother was standing. But suddenly she turned around as if to walk away.

“Mother, please wait...”, he cried, desperately trying to row faster. 

Then he saw where his mother was headed. A tall man was striding across the meadows towards her. As he reached her, he put his arms around her and they kissed.

The man was Murdoch Lancer, his father. Scott stopped rowing as he regarded the scene, a warm feeling of joy spreading from the pit of his stomach. There were his parents, they were happy with each other, and he would join them soon! Just as he grabbed the oars again to row towards them he spied a man on a cliff behind the couple. The man aimed his rifle at his father's back.

The man was Matthew Morgan. 

“No! Uncle Matt, don't shoot...”, he cried out frantically, struggling with the oars. But although he tried and tried he wasn't able to move the boat forward even a single inch. It shook and stomped on the waves like a bolting horse. The permanent up and down made him feel sick to his stomach ; the jostling and bumping jumbled his bones and every inch of his body throbbed .

Over the roaring wind he could make out hoofbeats and shouts.

Hoofbeats?

Scott's eyes flew open. There were no lake and no woman, no Murdoch or Matthew. There was a blue sky and Manuel's back on the seat in front of him. The wagon beneath him rumbled and jumped as the wheels hit tree roots as it had done since the interminably long journey had begun.

He shivered, the images of the dream still vivid in his fevered mind. It had been a dream, just a dream. Nothing of what he had seen was real. He tried to reason with himself, but he wasn't able to suppress the growing feeling of worry when he recalled the look in Matthew Morgan's eyes in the hotel room in Morro Coyo. The eyes of that man had burned with hatred for his father.

Too bad Johnny was nowhere to be seen. He would have liked to hear his brother's opinion about what Matthew Morgan might be capable of. Johnny was good at assessing people.

Scott's attention was drawn to Manuel as the man suddenly halted the team and rose from the wagon seat, squinting his eyes at something he seemed to see in the distance.

Then Manuel called out to someone riding next to the wagon. He waved his hand and pointed towards the hill.

“José! Look! Over there! I think I saw a rider over there, on the hill... now he's disappeared... have you seen him?”

“Sí. I saw the man, too”, came José's voice from the left.  Then, louder and with enthusiasm, “there he is again, it's el Patrón!” 

Manuel sat back on the wagon seat and sighed with relief. “Gracias a Dios, es el Patrón.“Then he motioned towards José again.“You hurry up to meet him, boy! Hurry up, bring him here! Venga!”

Scott heard the vaquero's shout and the sound of galloping hooves fade into the distance. A cloud of dust floated over the wagon, coating Manuel. Then it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

The fact that his father was close by consoled and calmed him. Strange. After all, he had lived without that man for most of his life. But right now, confused and weak as he felt, his big strong father was just what he needed.

With the prospect of Murdoch Lancer's voluminous presence , even the dream of the man with the rifle seemed to dwindle to some childish nightmare. Smiling, Scott closed his eyes and tried to relax.

 

Chapter 17

Will followed Sam as he traversed the small trail down the hill on their way to the Lancer ranch. He was totally at a loss as to how to prevent his brother from committing yet another folly.  And one that could well get them both killed. Shouldn't they be more than happy that no one had arrested – or even shot them thus far? Johnny Madrid hadn't shown up. The gunfighter had to be dead or, at the very least, seriously wounded .

Will swallowed hard, not knowing what would be worse . But there was no other possible explanation for Madrid's absence. Johnny Madrid would always hunt his enemies down; he wouldn't stop until they had been dispatched. And he was fast. He would have found them by now if he was able.

In any case Will knew he and and his brother were in a whole passel of trouble because, if Johnny Madrid and his brother were eliminated, then Murdoch Lancer wouldn't rest until Sam and him were arrested and in jail, awaiting the hangman's noose . Of that he was very sure, wasn't he acquainted well enough with the Lancer patriarch? So, as far as he was concerned they should be high tailing it to the Mexican border as fast as possible, not stopping before they were on the other side.

But of course, as usual, Sam had other things in mind. Staring at his brother's back, rigid in the saddle, Will sighed deeply. That “thing” on his brother's mind was the Lancer girl, and the Lancer money, now that Brian White and his checking account seemed to have disappeared.

Sam had fumed with anger this morning when he had realized that White had escaped. They had called out for White, but there had been no answer. They had searched for the man and looked for traces everywhere around the camp, only to find out that the trail of footprints had disappeared on the rocky ground around their camp. Sam had cursed and raged, and for the first time in his life Will had been actually afraid of his own brother.

“You idiot”, Sam growled, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him so hard that his teeth chattered. Then he threw him to the ground with a violent shove, staring down at him with contempt. “So what now? Got any bright ideas?“

“Don't know, Sam”, Will whined, rubbing his head where it had connected with the hard ground. “White was here with me last night, we talked... I'm sorry, Sam, I was tired, just so tired...”

Sam shot him a dark glare.  “Tell me somethin' I don't know Willie-boy.  You're always tired and I know White was here you good for nothin' numbskull!”

Will sat up and scrambled to his feet. “Maybe he'll come back? Maybe he is only looking for something?” Not that he wanted White to return; in fact, he was glad that the man had escaped. Maybe, he could finally talk Sam into leaving California for good.

Sam snorted as he started stowing his belongings into his saddlebags. “Come back?” He shook his head. “Never. That fool will get lost, that's what's gonna happen.” He strode over to the horses. “C'mon, Willie-boy, hurry up. We ain't done here yet.”

His anger seemed to have subsided all of a sudden, and Will could tell from the expression on Sam's face that a new scheme was being hatched in his brother's mind. Hell. Knowing Sam he had the distinct feeling that this plan would have nothing to do with fleeing to Mexico. Darn, Sam was stubborn, he never gave up. But then he, Will, was cut from the same cloth. 

“We ain't done? Sam, I've been thinking... with White gone we're done here, there's no need to stay any longer. We should be heading to Mexico now... before... before someone figures out we're here...” 

Sam, left foot already in the stirrup, turned around his head to look at Will, his face a mask of irritation.

“Will, shut yer pie hole! How often do I gotta tell yer, let me do the thinkin'? Did you forget the girl? You know I'm not gonna let that Lancer gal go! She's mine. I'm gonna take her to Mexico with us.” A satisfied grin crossed his face. “And we'll force the old man to open his safe for us while we're at it...”

Swinging his right leg over the saddle he laughed. “Let that idiot White go to hell, we don't need him or his money anymore!” Grabbing Brian White's abandoned horse by the reins he took off.

Will's shoulders slumped as he stared after his brother. Yep, Sam sure was something when he set his mind to something. Trouble was, he disliked most of Sam's schemes of late. He shook his head as he mounted his horse. How peaceful their life would've been if they had just stayed at Lancer; if Sam had kept his fingers off that girl.  Why wouldn't Sam listen to him, just once in this lifetime?

Brooding over his thoughts Will was pulled back to the present as he almost rode into his brother. Sam reined in his horse. “Look, over there”, he said, motioning across the valley to the opposite side of the ridge.

Will craned his neck to have a better look. “That looks like Murdoch Lancer”, he said, watching the unmistakable form of the Lancer patriarch ride down the hill. His heart started racing as he saw an evil grin spread over his brother's face.

“It sure does”, Sam said and spurred his horse.  

***

Johnny hung over Barranca's neck, his eyes trained on the ground.

Some time ago he had found the track of a single man on foot crossing his path. On foot!. Who would be so crazy as to make their way on foot through the wilderness?  Miles away from any ranch or town? Where was the man's horse? Someone had to be in trouble - or someone meant trouble.

His skin prickled at the strange discovery as he dismounted awkwardly and tried to kneel down to analyze the track. To hell with his knee! The track was several hours old. Not only was the man on foot, but he had passed through here sometime in the middle of the night.  That was strange and most likely no coincidence. Johnny  rose and let his eyes wander over his surroundings, all of his senses on high alert.

He had been looking for something, anything, ever since he and the vaqueros had left the camp at the bridge with Scott and the wagon. This was the first clear track he had found so far.

It had almost driven him crazy to know that the rifleman had to be somewhere out there, but had never shown himself again. Nor had there been any sign of his presence. That didn't make sense and he hated inconsistencies. So, to Manuel's dismay, he had spent more and more hours in the saddle.   

Johnny's growing worry for Scott and the bad shape he himself was in, only served to fuel his sense of unease and frustration. Why would someone want to kill him or Scott and not stick around to ensure the job was done properly? He for one wouldn't have walked away without convincing himself that his targets were in fact dead.

But now, finally, he had found this suspicious trail.  The footprints of the man led away from the direction the wagon was going. Good. So the man didn't mean danger to Scott and the vaqueros at the moment. He would follow the tracks back to their source for a while. Maybe he would be able to determine where the man had come from and what had caused him to trudge across the hills on foot in the middle of the night.

Johnny grabbed the saddle horn and hoisted himself gingerly onto Barranca's back, trying to ignore his protesting ribs. Dios, how he hated to be so stiff and hurting. He took the reins with his left hand, and urging the horse into a slow gait bent down over its neck again to follow the man's trail.

It seemed the man had been in some kind of trouble, given how unsteadily he had walked, stumbling and falling several times.  Maybe he was hurt? Or running from something…or someone?

After a while it dawned on him where the man might have come from. The footprints disappeared between bushes and rocks, trailing away on the rocky ground.  Amidst the underbrush and rocks was an ideal place for a camp, especially if you needed a hidden place where no-one would easily find you.

But wouldn't that mean the man knew the area?  Someone like a ranch hand? Johnny was sure only Lancer men were aware of that hidden opening. Shrugging, he dismounted and led Barranca among the bushes. He would know soon enough.

Reaching for his gun he patted Barranca's neck. “Stay put,will ya?”, he crooned and made his way to where he knew the secret place was.

He grinned to himself as he realized he had been right. The place was abandoned, but someone had indeed recently camped there. He could see that from his position behind a rock from where he was scrutinizing the area, invisible to anyone else who might still be around. No need to run right into someone who most likely had something to hide and therefore wouldn't be happy to meet him.

When he was sure that the place was deserted, he emerged to examine the abandoned camp more thoroughly.    

The ground had been trampled by three men and three horses who had stayed there for  more than one day, that was obvious. One of them had been the man whose track had led him to the opening. Johnny scratched his head. Why had  the man left the camp at night in a hurry, leaving his horse and his companions behind? Had he been fleeing?  But here were no signs of a struggle amongst the men.

The other two had left the camp on horseback, hours later, taking the third horse with them. They had been riding in the opposite direction than the single man had gone on foot. 

Johnny frowned. Heck. They had taken the trail down into the valley, and they would most likely meet the wagon... Who were they? And damn, why would three men hide here?

The reason why sprang to his mind when Johnny had a closer look at the surroundings of the opening. There was a clear track leading up to the top of the next hill. The men had walked up and down there many times.

Madre de Dios. He felt sweat break out all over his body. Wiping his forehead with his shirtsleeve he stared at the trail. From the top of that hill you had an excellent view on the Lancer hacienda lying at the end of the big valley. He could feel the hair on his neck rise as realization struck.

Someone had watched his home. Someone had hidden here to observe Murdoch and Teresa.

Those men weren't ranch hands. No, they meant trouble.  All of this had to do with that damned rifleman. It all finally made sense. It couldn't be coincidence. His family was in danger.

As fast as he could Johnny hobbled back to where Barranca waited, all the while cursing his immobility.

 

Chapter 18

He was in a hurry to get back to the ranch and to Teresa. He didn't like her to be alone there, now that the boys were up at Green Lake and most of the ranch hands were working remotely on the vast Lancer property. Of course she wouldn't take his worries seriously; she'd laugh and tell him she knew how to stand her ground. He sighed. She was right and had proven that much of late. What did he expect, anyway? The younger generation would always think they were bullet proof and nothing would ever happen to them. And thank God, most of the time they were right. There seemed to be guardian angels watching over them. Since his boys had come home he could tell there were times the angels had their hands full.  

Well, whatever Teresa might think about her own mortality and wellbeing, he intended to be home soon; the sooner, the better.

He urged Zeus into a canter. Relishing the even rhythm of the slow gallop he felt the tension in him began to subside. Taking in the magnificent panorama around him, he marveled at the green rolling hills and the blue sky spotted with snow white clouds. The vista was almost too idyllic. The warm breeze touching his face smelled of fresh grass. Every now and then it struck him how different this landscape was from his home in Scotland where a frigid wind whistled persistently around the barren Highlands.

All this land for as far as the eye could see belonged to him. There were still times he found it difficult to believe, even after more than twenty-five years. And since the return of his sons he felt doubly blessed, knowing now he had heirs to whom he could pass on this vast empire. None of his efforts had been in vain. What else could a man wish for?

But since Scott had told him about Matthew Morgan he feared that his new family could well be destroyed by that man. Morgan claimed to have acted more like a father to Scott than he ever had – what if Scott believed him? And Morgan was a shipowner, like Scott's grandfather…

He knew well there were times his son missed his life in Boston. What if, due to Morgan's presence in Morro Coyo Scott felt drawn back to his former life? Was he not, after all, better suited to the office of a shipping company than on horseback, herding cattle?  What if, in the end, the great merger of the Garrett Line and Morgan's Shipping Company became a reality, because Scott decided to become a partner of Morgan's and take over the Garrett Line? Murdoch bit his lips. He could clearly envisage the triumphant smirk on Harlan Garrett's face as his grandson took up his ‘birthright‘. 

Dammit. How difficult it was to remain rational where Harlan Garrett was concerned; especially where Scott was involved. After all, this was not about Harlan Garrett, Morgan or himself and their strained relationships. This was about Scott. He wanted Scott to be happy, but as he admitted to himself, he desperately wished that Scott's happiness would be fulfilled by remaining at Lancer, learning to love ranching as much as he, his father, did.

Thoughts like that had been eating at him ever since he had sent Scott and Johnny to Green Lake, far away from Morgan's influence. But his sons would come back soon enough... and then?

Murdoch was aware that Teresa had begun to sense his brooding mood, but he had had no intention of alarming her by telling her about Matthew Morgan and his plans. Well. He shouldn't have underestimated her.  One morning at the breakfast table Teresa had had enough. He chuckled as he recalled the scene.

*

With a fierce push Teresa shoved away her barely touched mug of coffee. The liquid spilled over the rim and left a muddy pool on the tabletop. Her eyes were flashing with anger.

“Murdoch, please, what's wrong in this house lately? I'm not going to put up with this atmosphere any longer.” 

Surprised Murdoch looked up, but then braced himself. She had to be kept out of this. In an attempt to look as if he had no idea what she was referring to he raised a questioning eyebrow and opened his mouth to say something non-committal. But she leaned forwards and stopped him short, raising her hands in defense.

“No. Don't you dare tell me nothing's wrong. Don't you take me for a fool! Everyone in here has been in a foul mood since Scott was in Morro Coyo last week. What's happening? I'm not a child! I'm a member of this family, and I have a right to know what's going on!”

He had the impression she was about to slap a hand on the tabletop to emphasize her point, but controlled herself in time and crossed her arms, tucking her hands safely under her upper arms. Leaning back in her chair, she dared him to fob her off.

Despite himself Murdoch fought back a smile. Teresa could be a fire cracker at times! If only he could shield her from all this. He didn't want her to experience the same fears he had, knowing how much she loved her new brothers and how much she wanted the fledgling family unit to work.

On the other hand he knew she was right. She was no longer a child, she was a young woman, an equal member of the family and she had a right to know. But when had she suddenly gotten so grown up? And who had taught her to argue like that, to diffuse someone with only a few words?

Running a hand through his hair he took a deep breath and set his coffee cup down on the table.

“Look, darling, I apologize for having been such bad company lately.” He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I – I wasn't aware it showed that much. And I'm sure the boys didn't mean any harm, either. Just that - we didn't want to upset you, I guess.”

She relaxed visibly, nodding her head. “I know, Murdoch, I can see that, but...”

“... but we failed, didn't we? You're upset, and you have every right to feel that way.”

Then, much to his own surprise, he found himself telling her about the connection between Matthew Morgan and Scott and what that man wanted from Scott. She listened patiently, and when he was done speaking, he was stunned to see no sign of fear or worry on her face. Instead, she leaned towards him, her expression eager. 

“I know what to do! We should invite Mr. Morgan to our house,” she said with her eyes sparkling.

Murdoch almost choked on his coffee. “Pardon?” Coughing, he set his cup down on the table.  “That man will not set one foot into my house - never!”

“But why not?”

“He's – he's a rival, he's my enemy, he's causing trouble, he has tried to cajole Scott into…” He paused to catch his breath. 

“But Murdoch, he's no enemy! I understand he was Catherine's fiancé and he was Scott's friend, but all of this happened a long time ago. Isn't it time to bury old rivalries and hostilities, to get reacquainted, don't you think? And as for Scott - well, Scott's a grown man, he makes his own decisions, no-one can talk him into what he doesn't want to do, can they?”

She looked at him, obviously perplexed at his disquiet concerning Morgan. He stirred his coffee, not knowing how to respond because she made sense.

“And anyway, Murdoch, what do you intend to do? You can't hide Scott from Morgan forever, can you? Scott will be back soon. Then what?”

How did she manage to read him so well?

Just as he began to feel uncomfortable under her scrutinizing gaze, a warm tender smile lit her face and she bent forwards, laying her hand on his arm. “Ah, Murdoch, you're worried Scott might leave Lancer – that's it, huh?”

He lowered his eyes, feeling exposed. Teresa shook her head.

“You needn't worry; that won't ever happen”, she said. “He'll stay, Lancer has become his home, I know that for certain. He loves this place, and he loves you – I told you that before. He'll handle Morgan. You ought to trust him with that. There's nothing wrong with them becoming friends again, you know.”

Her hand pressed his arm.

There it was again, that female intuition. She was reading him as if he was an open book.

Teresa rose from the table and smiled down at him, starting to clear away the dishes. “And if you still have any doubts about how things will turn out between Scott and Morgan – so much the better to have the 'enemy' close, where you can keep an eye on him, huh?”

Murdoch couldn't help but smile back at her. Shaking his head he shoved back his chair to stand up.  “Teresa, you have a devious streak a mile wide. Has anybody told you that?”

She laughed. “Yessir. You have. Many times.”

*

When he had left the kitchen he had felt as if a burden had been lifted from his shoulders. Teresa wasn't concerned because she trusted Scott. Yes, it was that easy. That was what he should do, too. He owed Scott that much.

He had spent the next days thinking about Teresa's suggestion to invite Morgan to Lancer. As he admitted to himself he found the idea more and more intriguing. Of course, it wasn't as easy as Teresa thought it would be. She was young, full of hope and trust, ready to believe in the good in people. She talked about friendship and getting reacquainted. She believed it would happen that way because it was the best for everyone. But the ideal outcome didn't necessarily eventuate. She would learn that soon enough; hopefully not the hard way.

The first problem was that Morgan most likely would refuse to come to Lancer. From what Scott had told him about Morgan, it didn't sound as if the man was eager to meet him or anybody else in his household.

However, Murdoch had decided it would be best to clear the air once and for all because the present state of affairs had everyone on edge.

So, this morning he had found himself on horseback, riding into Morro Coyo to face his nemesis–if only to smash a fist into Morgan's stomach, daring him to go near  Scott again.  Ha, how he had relished the thought of his fist in his enemy's belly! It had helped to propel him forwards on his way to town.

Strung tight as a bow and with a pounding heart he had entered the Estrella and asked for “Mr. White” only to learn from Senor Mendoza that “el Senor White” had left several weeks prior, obviously much to Mendoza's regret.

Further investigations had determined that no-one in town knew where White had headed. Empty - handed and with a strange feeling of betrayal Murdoch had finally mounted Zeus and started his way home.

*

Turning his mind back to the present he halted at the end of the ridge where a steep trail wound its way down into the valley. Just a short break before he started the strenuous descent. He straightened his back and glanced to the west. When he squinted he could make out a white spot in the distance, at the end of the valley. That was the hacienda, his home, where Teresa waited for him. She would be surprised if not disappointed that Morgan had disappeared. Urging Zeus into motion he began his careful descent.

Well.  As far as he was concerned – the farther away that man was the better. His heart skipped a beat. If Morgan was far away at all! Why would the man disappear, give up on his intent – just like that? 

Damnit! Murdoch grabbed the saddle horn as his horse stumbled over a root and nearly pitched him to the ground. That had been a close thing, he would have to pay more attention to the trail. Even so he would have to hurry up to reach Teresa soon. He knew he was fretting like a mother hen and Teresa would roll her eyes, but he just couldn't ignore the premonition of danger any longer.

As he reached the wide road at the bottom of the valley he turned into it and patted the horse's neck. “Well done, my boy.”

Steep trails were a challenge for horse and rider alike. The small trail up to Green Lake Meadows was even steeper and more dangerous. He could only hope that the boys would be wise enough to descend by taking the way across the open ranges…but no, that was most unlikely. He smiled. What would he have done at the age of twenty?

Just as Murdoch was about to spur his horse into a canter his attention was drawn to a group of pines to the east. Someone called out to him from back there. 

“Murdoch! Murdoch, wait!”

There was a clear voice calling his name, the voice of a woman. He strained his eyes as he made out two people and a horse walking in his direction. Who would that be? He turned Zeus around and rode towards them.

The woman took off her hat and waved it in excitement.  “Murdoch, hey, Murdoch!” She began to run. Long brown hair flew in a cascade after her. Teresa!  What, for God's sake, was she doing out here? And who was her mystery companion?

Teresa ran all the way towards Murdoch, the man and the horse followed slowly, the man limping badly.

When Teresa reached him, she leaned against Zeus and bent forwards, trying to catch her breath. But then she looked up to him, her eyes flashing.  “Murdoch, look”, she gasped and motioned toward the man.

“Teresa, darling, what happened? Are you hurt?”

Murdoch dismounted and grabbed her by the shoulders, scrutinizing her, not knowing what to ask first.

She shook her head. “No, I...” 

“What are you doing out here? Who's that man?”

His gaze swept to the approaching figure. The man was tall and scrawny, his clothes dangling from his skinny body. When he came closer he was able to make out that the filthy rag the man wore had once been an expensive suit. Hair and beard were unshaven and felted. It had to be some time since the man last had seen a bathtub. He looked shabby like a tramp. But somehow he looked familiar. Murdoch watched him intently, not able to avert his gaze.

The stranger drew closer, his brown eyes answering Murdoch's stare in defiance. Anger welled up inside him. How dare that man be so insolent? Then realization struck. His heart started racing, he let go of Teresa's shoulders and took a few tentative steps towards the figure. Finally they stood face to face, arms hanging by their sides, and stared at one another.

Murdoch gave a curt nod. “Matthew.”

“Murdoch.”

“What are you doing here?” He heard how sharp his voice was. Teresa put a hand on his shoulder.

“Murdoch,” she whispered in his ear. 

Letting out a breath he unclenched his fists. The other man relaxed, too, and gave a small, cold smile.

“I came here to talk to you...”

Hoofbeats and shouting interrupted whatever Morgan was about to say.

“Señor Lancer! Señor Lancer!”

Irritated, Murdoch turned his head. A rider, wrapped in a cloud of dust, came racing down the road. Only when he halted his horse in front of them did he recognize José, one of the Lancer vaqueros. Apprehensively he glanced at the rider, forgetting Morgan for the moment.

“José, what is it?”

The vaquero had all hands full, trying to rein in his spirited horse. It danced and tripped on its hind legs as if disappointed that it was not allowed to race further. José looked at him with an uneasy gaze and it seemed to Murdoch it took him longer than necessary to calm down his horse.

He reached for the horse's bridle. “José! I asked you a question!”

He saw the vaquero swallow.

“It's … it's Señor Scott, Patrón ... he's wounded  -  badly.” José finally had his horse under control and patted its neck, not looking Murdoch in the eyes. He cleared his throat. “Manuel told me to...”

Murdoch saw the mouth of the vaquero move but didn't hear anything. For a second everything around him seemed far away, he seemed wrapped in a fog and there appeared to be cotton in his ears.  A sudden weakness made his legs wobbly.

Then the sensation was over and he grabbed the man's leg. “Where is my son?” he heard himself bark, trying to suppress the feeling of panic that threatened to consume him.

José motioned with his hand. “Señor Scott is on the wagon, back there.  Manuel is taking him to the ranch.” 

Murdoch spun around and on his way to his horse he shouted back over his shoulder, “José, you ride into Green River, get Doc Jenkins to the house, hurry up!”

“Si Patrón!” The vaquero seemed relieved to be released, and with a yell to his horse he raced off.

“Teresa, come on”, Murdoch called, reaching for the horn of Zeus' saddle. But he needn't have prompted her. She was already on Pearl's back, her eyes wide and filled with worry. Murdoch swung into the saddle, and was ready to take off, as he felt a hand on his thigh. 

“Murdoch!”

Turning his head he looked right into Matthew Morgan's terrified eyes. The man's hand squeezed his leg painfully.

“What happened to Scott?” Morgan's voice sounded shrill.

Irritated at the distraction, Murdoch shook off the hand. “That's not your business.”

He had to get to Scott. The last thing he needed was Morgan's worry about his son. Digging his heels into Zeus' sides he took off. From the corner of his eye he saw Morgan stumble backwards as Teresa passed by him.

“Wait here, Mr. Morgan, we'll be back”, she yelled, then she caught up with him. 

 

Chapter 19

Matthew stood and stared after the disappearing riders, for a moment unable to move. The horror and guilt he felt threatened to consume him. Everything had gone wrong. Nothing had turned out the way he had planned it. He had wanted Murdoch and Johnny Lancer to be killed, but it was Scott who had been shot. He had wanted the best for Scott and the worst had happened. His hand fumbled for the medallion in his pocket. Catherine, what did I do?

Only now did he realize that he had hoped Teresa O'Brien was right about his finding a way to renew his relationship with Scott and maybe, even with Murdoch Lancer. Yes, he would have liked to become a friend of the family, maybe he would even have been ready to accept that Scott had decided to live with his father. He would have been ready to do all of this because the Lancer girl trusted him and seemed to like him.

Well, it hadn't been easy to meet Murdoch and see the hostility in the other man's eyes. And, to be honest, his own emotions hadn't been much friendlier, in spite of his intended goodwill. But for Scott's welfare and for the girl, he had been ready to swallow his pride.

Now Scott's injury had changed everything. Matthew's plans had gone badly awry and his stomach clenched with worry for Scott. He needed to see the boy. But again his old rival was the victor. Murdoch was hurrying to his son, cold-shouldering him once more, not allowing Matthew to accompany him, not even aware how acute Matthew's worry for Scott was. Again, he was the odd man out, standing aside, isolated. 

“That's not your business”, Murdoch had rebuffed him. If that man only knew just how much all of this was his business.  A helpless snicker erupted from his throat and culminated in a desperate sob. He was so tired. All he wanted was to lie down right here on the damned hot road, close his eyes and never wake up.

But he had to make sure that Scott was alive and well cared for. He owed him that much. After all, when had Murdoch Lancer cared for Scott properly?

With an effort Matthew pulled himself together and started limping in the direction that Murdoch and the girl had taken. He had only taken a couple of wavering steps when he became aware of hoofbeats and rustling from the bushes at the side of the road. Before he had had time to take stock of his options, two riders appeared, shouting and heading straight for him. Just as Matthew began to think they would ride him down they halted their mounts in front of him, blocking his way.

“Look who we have here”, one of the men snarled, sneering down at him. “We'd almost given up on you. Lost your way?”

The Rileys.

Matthew's shock quickly gave way to anger. The Rileys were the last people he needed right now. Wasn't Sam the one who had ruined everything? He had shot Scott.

Before he realized what he was doing Matthew found himself taking hold of Sam's leg, scowling at the man. “You lied to me! You're a lousy shot, you hit the wrong man! You're dismissed, I don't need you any longer”, he hollered, giving the man on the horse a fierce shove. 

Sam's smirk faded and his face became red with anger. 

“Dismissed, huh? Who d'ya think you are?”

With surprising agility Sam Riley dismounted, took hold of Matthew by his collar and smashed his other fist into his stomach. The blow sent him hurtling to the ground, gasping for air.

Good.  That was what he deserved, exactly what he deserved. He hoped Sam would beat him senseless; maybe even kill him. At least, then he wouldn't have to face the damage he had done, he wouldn't have to account for his actions to Catherine and live with the guilt.

But Sam seemed to have other ideas. He hauled him to his feet again and brought his face close to Matthew's. “Maybe ya don't need us any longer, friend, but we still need you. You owe us money, remember?”

“You didn't do the job properly, and you didn't finish it”, Matthew gasped, still trying to regain control over his breathing.

“Don't you worry none 'bout that”, Sam said, pushing him towards his horse. “We're gonna make up for that soon.  Now mount up!”

Matthew stumbled and reached for the horn of the saddle as a thought crossed his mind.

“I no longer want you to finish that job”, he said in a casual tone, putting one foot into the stirrup and swinging the other leg over the saddle. “I'm going to pay you, so you can leave and go wherever you want.”

Sam grinned. “Is that right? Yes, you'll pay, I'm gonna make sure you do that, White. You'll ride between me and Will. Now let's go!”

Matthew's eyes met those of Will who had remained quiet throughout the entire exchange. Will shrugged, motioned with his head for him to come alongside and spurred his horse.

*** 

“Go, boy, go!”

Murdoch kept urging Zeus on, bending low over his neck. The stallion seemed to be flying. His mane wafted, touching Murdoch's face. The ground beneath the horse's hooves appeared to be moving at breathtaking speed. He couldn't remember when he had last raced at such a breakneck speed. Normally, he left stupid acts like that to his boys.

Pearl was a swift horse, too. Teresa was right behind him. Normally, he wouldn't have allowed her to be so reckless. But at the moment all he could think of was getting to the wagon. Dammit, it was taking too long!

When, at last, the wagon came into view, he dug his heels further into Zeus's flank.

“Whoa!”

Zeus reared as Murdoch tore at the reins, coming to an abrupt halt next to the wagon. Normally, he didn't treat his horse like this. Right now he didn't care.He jumped to the ground, in two strides he was alongside the wagon. 

“Manuel, where's Johnny?” he asked, his eyes looking for his youngest son.

Manuel reached out and grabbed Murdoch's arm, helping him up to the wagon seat. “Senor Juanito is scanning the surroundings, looking for the sniper.”

“Sniper?” Murdoch echoed. Then he spied Scott and his stomach dropped.

Scott's face looked ashen, his hair matted and the skin taut over his cheekbones seemed transparent. Murdoch's gaze wandered to the long slender hands resting on the blanket, white and lifeless like broken wings. His son's entire form appeared frail. Nothing was left of the strong young man who had left his house weeks before.

Murdoch swallowed against the boulder forming in his throat as he climbed into the wagon bed. Squatting down he took one of Scott's hands in his.

“Scott, son...”

Slowly, Scott opened his eyes, his gaze glassy and dull. When he spied Murdoch a ghost of a smile curved his mouth.

“Murdoch. Good to see you...”

“What happened to you, son? How do you feel?” What a stupid question to ask.

But Scott managed a weak grin as he answered. “Fine. Just got … myself ... a little... scratch...”, he took a deep breath and his eyes slid shut again.

“Don't you worry, son, I'll take you home. You'll be fine, I'll see to that .” Murdoch's voice caught in his throat as he drew the blanket up to his son's chin, tucking both arms beneath it.

“Thanks”, Scott breathed.

Worried, Murdoch stood up and searched Manuel's eyes.

“How bad is it?”

The old vaquero turned away and stared in the distance, then took a deep breath and faced Murdoch. “I won't lie to you, Señor. He's lost a great deal of blood, and he's very weak. I dug a bullet out of his back. The wound became infected.” Manuel cleared his throat. “But he's young and strong. I think with Doc Jenkins' help he'll make it.”

Murdoch nodded. Somehow the candor and calm demeanor of his loyal old companion soothed his frail nerves. He climbed back onto the wagon seat and took the old man's hand.

“Thank you, Manuel. I'll never forget what ...”

“Murdoch?”

He flinched at the sound of the thin voice, calling his name. There was Teresa, still on her horse, staring at Scott, then turning her eyes towards him. Her face had taken on a pallor almost as ashen as Scott's.

“Is Scott...?”

Goodness. He had almost forgotten about Teresa. He straightened and gave his best reassuring smile. “Scott will be fine, darling, don't worry. Teresa, I need you to...”

And Murdoch started giving orders, something he was good at and something that gave him back the much needed feeling of control. He instructed his ward to ride back to the house as fast as possible, to alert Maria and prepare everything for Scott's arrival. He sent Manuel back to the broken bridge where he was needed.

Then Murdoch himself took up the reins and continued the slow and careful wagon ride home.

While the wagon rumbled along the dusty road his thoughts turned to Johnny. Manuel's remark about Johnny and the sniper worried him, but at the moment there was nothing he could do. He had to get Scott home. Johnny was able to look after himself; the boy had proven that more than once. Johnny always knew what he was doing. Still, he wished his youngest were here by his side, safe and sound.

***

Teresa galloped down the road toward the hacienda, eager to complete the task Murdoch had assigned her. She would see to it that everything in the house was ready for Scott. In her mind she listed the things she would do: find Maria and tell her to heat some water on the stove, put a fresh sheet on Scott's bed, collect linen, bandages and salve to care for the wound until Sam Jenkins arrived.

The sound of thumping hooves up ahead drew her attention back to the road. Three riders were coming her way, one of them reined up, waving a hand.

“Hey, hey, hey! Whoa, girl, what's your hurry?”

The riders surrounded her, their snorting steeds disturbing Pearl. Teresa fought to stay in the saddle as Pearl jumped to the side. Her eyes widened when she recognized Sam Riley and his brother. She hadn't expected to see them ever again. And - why was Matthew Morgan riding with them? Their eyes met and she felt her stomach clench at the odd expression on Morgan's face. Was it shame? Then the man averted his gaze and the moment was over. Something wasn't right. But whatever all of this was about, she had no time to waste, she had to hurry home. If she could manage to get past these men she knew she'd have a good chance to outrun the Rileys with her spirited mare.

Straightening herself in the saddle and lifting her chin Teresa managed to look down on the men, hoping Sam Riley didn't see her heart pounding under her blouse.

“I'm in a hurry. Move aside. Now!”, she ordered, then spurred Pearl to force her way through the group.

But the bluff didn't work.

With a chuckle that sent a shudder down her spine Sam let his horse dance in her direction, a grin on his face that was confident of victory. Casually, he took hold of Pearl's reins. “What a stroke of luck”, he said. “I was looking for you, anyway.”

Teresa tried to back away and get past Sam, anger rising higher than fear. This couldn't be happening. Scott needed help, she couldn't afford any kind of delay.  

From the corner of her eye she saw Morgan kick his horse and ride into Sam's, trying to push Sam away. “No, Riley! Let the girl go! Leave her out of this! Do what you think you must but leave the girl alone!”

Sam's horse jumped to the side, almost pitching its rider to the ground. Pearl reared and Sam let go of Pearl's reins, ducking away to avoid the deadly hooves.

Struggling to stay in the saddle Teresa tried to make sense of what she'd heard. What was Morgan talking about?

Leave the girl out of this? Do what you must?

“Never mind. Beat it”, a voice in her head urged when she saw that Sam had regained his balance and was fumbling for her reins again.

Just as she opened her mouth to yell at Pearl, Riley let go of her, staring at something behind her, his expression changing in a dramatic way. He reached for his gun, eyes flashing murderously.

“Sam, nooo!”

Confused, Teresa turned her head to look at the man who had called out. It was Riley's brother; he had dared to open his mouth. She couldn't remember ever having heard Will Riley's voice before.

When the rumbling of the wagon reached her ears she knew who Sam Riley was staring at. Desperate, Teresa searched Morgan's eyes, wanting him to help and interfere somehow, but froze at the flicker of pure hatred that crossed Morgan's face as the man watched Murdoch approaching. 

“Morgan, Riley, what the hell...”, Murdoch's voice boomed through the valley as he rose from his seat.

Sam Riley lifted the gun. “Your time has come, Boss ...”

Nobody moved, everyone seemed mesmerized, waiting for what would happen next.

Then Teresa saw with a fatal kind of fascination a hand appear behind Murdoch, reaching for the side panel of the wagon. With obvious effort Scott dragged himself to his feet and stood in the wagon, swaying dangerously. He grabbed his father by the shoulders and tried to push him off the wagon, out of the line of fire.

“No,Uncle Matt!”, he called.

 

Chapter 20

He leaned across Barranca's neck and raced his horse across the hills praying to be there in time, wherever “there” was. Something evil was going on, he felt it in the pit of his stomach. All of his nerves prickled as if he was riding through a thunderstorm, lightning all around him. 

If only his instincts were wrong! But bitter experience told him otherwise.

He hadn't felt this way since he'd been a little boy, coming home after having spent a night at a friend's place. His mother used to send him away to sleep elsewhere when she invited men to spend the night with her. Johnny hated the men and also his mother when she did so. Back then he hadn't understood the reasons for her actions. On that fateful day he had felt that something wasn't right, had felt it all the way home. With his nerves tingling, he had entered the eerily quiet house only to find the lifeless body of his mother, slaughtered by a cruel merciless monster.  

Damn. Where had these thoughts come from? He didn't want to think of that day. He refused to believe such a nightmare could happen again. No, this time he would get there in time...

When he reached the last vantage point before entering the valley he came to an abrupt halt.

Helpless, he stared down at the scene unfolding on the road below him. Again, too late, too far away. There was nothing he could do.

He saw the wagon carrying Scott and, to his surprise, Murdoch at the reins, no longer  Manuel. Teresa on horseback was fighting a man - Sam Riley! The other Riley, Will, was watching, as well as a third man. Johnny looked closer - Damn!  It was Morgan, the man who wanted Scott to accompany him to San Francisco.

Murdoch halted the wagon, stood, gestured. Sam Riley reached for his gun, Scott rose from the wagon bed, pushed Murdoch aside ….

Two shots rang out and Johnny watched with horror as his father and brother toppled off the wagon, hit the ground and rolled over. Someone screamed, men shouted and horses stamped their hooves as all hell broke loose down in the valley.

And there was a cry reverberating around the hills – an anguished cry of despair. That cry had erupted from his own throat. Not able to control himself Johnny ripped his colt from its holster and raced Barranca down the hill, ready to shoot anyone who dared get in his way.

As he reached the bed of the valley he saw his father hunker over Scott's motionless form. At least, Murdoch was alive. But those bastards had killed his brother. Something burst in his chest and left nothing but pain and rage. 

Wildly, his eyes scanned the scene – and there was Sam Riley, also lying on the ground, his whining brother kneeling next to him. Sam winced in pain and pressed his hands against his bleeding thigh.

Johnny didn't bother wasting valuable time wondering what had happened to the man. He jumped off his horse, ignoring the pain that lanced through his sore knee and rushed over to the Rileys to disarm them. He felt Will watch his every move, eyes wide and filled with fear. When he bent down to gather the Rileys' guns Will wailed in panic, trying to hide behind his brother's prone figure.

“Don't touch my brother”, Sam ground out through clenched teeth, “He's nothing but a harmless fool.”

Johnny straightened and positioned himself in front of the two men. The rage had subsided, giving way to an eerie silence - the composed and deathly signature of Johnny Madrid. This silence was vital. It had saved his life several times and it used to unsettle his enemies to the extent that they froze under his icy stare. A bleak bitter smile played at his lips as Johnny realized it was working with the Rileys, too. They stared at him wide-eyed, unable to move, like rabbits facing a snake about to strike. Only, this time his Madrid stance didn't give Johnny any measure of satisfaction.  Maybe he would never change, he would always stay Madrid? Maybe, Johnny Lancer had been no more than a dream? Anyway, it was all the same now that his brother was dead. Johnny Lancer had died with him.

Clamps seemed to squeeze his heart, making it strenuous to breathe. Through a strange fog before his eyes he glared at Sam and raised his side arm, aiming at Sam's heart.

“It's not Will I want”, Johnny heard himself say evenly, “You're the one who killed my brother. You're the one that's gonna pay.”

“No, don't! He's my brother!”  Will began screaming hysterically and threw himself across Sam to protect him.

“John!” Murdoch's voice cut the air like a knife.

“He killed Scott, Murdoch, he has to pay.”

“No. Your brother is alive, Johnny. The Rileys are scum. Don't dirty your hands on them, son.”

Murdoch's tone was calm, but commanding.

Johnny blinked. What did Murdoch say? From behind him he heard light steps and the rustling of a skirt. A hand settled on his shoulder.  “Murdoch is right, Johnny”, he heard Teresa whisper into his ear. “Sam Riley isn't worth it.”

Scott was alive. Johnny's grip on the colt relaxed, his knees threatening to buckle beneath him.

“Besides, Sam Riley is my prisoner. I shot him and he's mine”, Teresa added. He felt her take the colt from his unresisting hand and snake an arm around his waist to steady him.

For a moment, Johnny leaned back, closed his eyes and relished being held by her small strong arms. Then he freed himself and turned around to face Teresa. She was as white as a sheet, her eyes glistening. “And you know something, Johnny? I'm … I'm glad I didn't kill him. But I had to fire … he tried to shoot Murdoch...” Her lips trembled.

Johnny pulled Teresa into a tight embrace. Closing his eyes he rocked her back and forth. “Shush, brave little sister, it's okay, everything's okay, shush...”

Scott was alive. The vice like clamps around his chest that had allowed the steely cold of Madrid to take over released their hold, opened and gave him space. Now they would take his brother home.

Johnny looked up to the sky and took a deep breath. “Thanks again, Oldster, I think I owe you...”

*

Murdoch heaved a sigh of relief as he regarded Johnny and Teresa. That had been close. It seemed his heart had skipped several beats as his son, who was still a stranger to him at times, aimed at the helpless man lying on the ground. He meant what he had said to Johnny. Sam Riley was scum and he would have liked to end the miserable wretch's life with his own hands. But watching his son doing so was a different matter.

Scott moaned, and he turned his attention back to the son lying on the ground. Scott's eyelids fluttered and opened, shimmering feverishly. Flailing his arms he struggled and murmured, trying to get up. Murdoch caught Scott's arms and tried to hold him down.

“Scott, shush, son…lie still.”

With amazing strength Scott fought him, his legs kicking. A fierce blow landed in his stomach and he gasped for air, stars dancing before his eyes. From the corner of his eye Murdoch saw movement. Matthew was running towards them.

“Matthew, help me with him”, Murdoch ground out, setting aside their rivalry for the moment. Wrapping his arms around Scott he mumbled soothing words in an attempt to calm his son. Matthew knelt down next to him, reaching out to help.

Then Murdoch saw Scott's eyes focus on Matthew and grow wide with horror. He yelled and writhed in his arms.

“Uncle Matt... no... don't... don't shoot my father...no...Murdoch, watch out!”

“Scotty, look at me!”

Murdoch flinched at the loud voice and watched with disbelief as Matthew bent forwards and laid his hands on either side of Scott's face, forcing Scott to look at him. Holding Scott's anxious gaze Matthew spoke in a deep, firm voice.

“Scotty, listen. I don't intend to shoot your father, do you hear me?”

Matthew's hands brushed Scott's damp hair and cupped his cheek. Scott's gaze seemed fixed upon the man's face, as he quietened.

“I won't hurt anyone you love so much.”

Matthew took several ragged breaths and added tenderly, “Now, Scotty, go to sleep. You need to rest.”

For a fleeting moment Scott's face showed relief and understanding, his mouth twitching in a small smile. Then, with a sigh, he let go. His eyes rolled back and he went limp, his head dropping.

Over the lax form in his grip Murdoch met Matthew's eyes. His rival held his stare and Murdoch could see the challenge in the man's eyes.

“I used to put him to bed often when he was a child. It was like he was my own son”, Matthew finally said.

“But he isn't”, Murdoch growled, tightening his grip on Scott.

One arm around Scott's shoulders, one under his knees he lifted his son and rose to his feet, grunting under the dead weight. He was aware that Matthew was watching, ready to help. But he would be damned if he wasn't able to take care of his son alone! Panting, he finally stood and straightened himself in front of Matthew, facing the man with new self-confidence, born of determination. Adjusting the weight in his arms he took a step toward Matthew.

“Scott is my son. I may not have been there for him when he was a little boy, but I'm here for him now. And I will fight for him.”

Matthew nodded. “I can see that.”

Scott hung between them in Murdoch's arms like a rag doll; arms, legs and head dangling. Hesitantly, Matthew lifted a hand as if to touch Scott's cheek. The hand lingered in the air, then Matthew dropped it and took a step backwards.

At that moment a loud wailing sounded through the valley.

“My brother's bleeding to death! He needs a doctor! Someone help...”

Murdoch turned his head to see Will still on his knees next to his brother. Ripping the bandana off his neck Will locked eyes with Murdoch.

“It's his fault, all of this is his fault, Boss!”, Will cried, his accusing finger motioning at Matthew. “He's responsible, he hired us to kill you and Johnny... We could've been in Mexico by now...” Sobbing, he bent over his brother's leg and started wrapping the bandana around Sam's thigh.

Slowly, Murdoch turned his head and stared at Matthew, realizing that he was not at all surprised to hear this. Ire welled up in him. His gaze shifted to Scott's pale face, then back to Matthew. “Look what you've done. Are you satisfied now?” 

Matthew's shoulders sagged. He shook his head. “No. God help me, no.”

Fatigue and worry for his son washed over Murdoch as a warm hand settled on his shoulder.

“C'mon, Murdoch, let's take Scott home”, he heard his youngest son say.

 

Chapter 21

Murdoch slowly raised his head as he opened his eyes. His first glance was over to the bed where his son lay –as it had been every time he had awoken in the armchair in Scott's room since they had brought Scott home a week ago. It had been the longest week of his life.

For six long days and nights they had fought for Scott's life. Six long days and nights of uncertainty, not knowing if Scott would live or die.

When they had reached home the makeshift cot in the wagon bed was soaked in blood. The wound had reopened, most likely because of Scott's fall from the wagon. Scott was delirious, persistently begging Uncle Matt to spare his family ; his desperate pleading had torn Murdoch's heart to pieces.

Scott had tossed and twisted in his delirium, making it almost impossible to carry him to his room.

Finally, when they lowered Scott onto his bed he and Johnny were soaked in sweat, almost as much as Scott himself.

It had taken Doc Sam Jenkins hours to get to the ranch, and then it had taken him hours to care for Scott – or so it seemed to him, Johnny and Teresa. Johnny looked almost as sick and pale as his brother, but Murdoch hadn't succeeded in persuading him to rest

He would never forget the sympathetic expression on Sam's face as he had entered the Great Room and told them to be prepared for the worst.

“I did what I could, but he has lost too much blood, the fever is too high. I'm not sure he'll make it.” Sam had lowered his head. “I'm sorry.”  

And so the fight for Scott's life had begun.

They had bathed him in cold water to get the fever down, and they had wrapped him in blankets when he was shivering. They had tried to give him liquids, they had soothed him when he was raging. They had sat with him day and night. They had prayed.

More than once they had feared he wouldn't survive the next hour. But, thank God, Scott was stubborn. He had clung to life and had refused to let go until finally the fever had broken. Then Murdoch had sent everyone to bed to rest. He alone had stayed in the armchair next to Scott.

Yawning,  Murdoch rolled his neck and shoulders and stretched his stiff limbs.

The room was cast in a dim light, the shimmer of the morning sun creeping through a slit of the close-drawn curtains, casting a finger of light across the floor and bed, touching Scott's face with its tip. With a grunt, he stood, swayed and started hobbling over to the window. My, he was getting too old to spend night after night in an armchair. Closing the curtains he banished the intrusive sun and turned towards Scott. Mostly he was getting too old to go through the nightmare of the past days.

Walking over to the bed he stared down at his son. Scott was sound asleep, flat on his back, hands above his head. The pillow Doc Jenkins had stuffed behind his back to stabilize him on his side was lying on the floor.  He felt a lump build in his throat. The resemblance to his mother, when Scott was relaxed was uncanny. This was Catherine's and his son. No-one could ever change that, even if Scott chose to leave Lancer and join Morgan in San Francisco. He shuddered, not wanting  to think about that right now.

Eyes stinging he bent down to pick up the pillow. Should he disturb his son's rest and put it back where it had been? No. Instead, he put a hand on Scott's forehead, then cheek, like so many times before. This time Scott's skin was dry and cool, thank God.

Cradling the pillow in his arms he buried his face in the soft mass. The stinging in his eyes wouldn't stop, the lump in his throat wouldn't go away, either. This had been too close. How would he have been able to go on with his life if Scott had died? Or Johnny? He could easily have lost both his boys up there in the mountains.

He flinched as he felt a soft touch to his shoulder. Raising his head he realized that Johnny had quietly slipped into the room. His son's hair was tousled, his clothes creased from having been slept in them. His right cheek was red with an imprint of the pillow's embroidery pattern. But the ugly bruise on Johnny's left cheekbone from the fall down the slope was fading.

Through sleepy eyes Johnny regarded him with concern.

“Murdoch, you're dead on your feet. Go to bed. I'll sit with him.”

Johnny was right. He was so exhausted that he was barely able to think straight. Hands kneading the pillow he stared at Scott, still reluctant to leave his son.

“Murdoch.” The grip to his shoulder tightened. “I'll wake you if anything changes.”

Sighing, Murdoch nodded. He put the pillow on the bed and pulled the blanket covering Scott higher, smoothing wrinkles that weren't there with his hand.

Johnny caught hold of his hand.

“Go”, he said. “But don't forget to wake me!”

Rolling his eyes Johnny pushed him gently towards the door.

Before leaving the room Murdoch cast a last glance back. Johnny was about to sit down in the armchair. But he froze in the middle of the movement as Scott suddenly shifted, turned his head, stilled again and began snoring quietly.

Johnny peered back over his shoulder at Murdoch, grinning from ear to ear. “He'll make it.”

The gentle even monotone was music to Murdoch's ears. “Yes, he will.”

***

“By the way, Murdoch, where's Morgan?”

It was late Sunday morning a couple of days later and Scott was sitting up in bed, leaning against the headboard, pillows stuffed behind his back. In front of him sat a tray with his breakfast, the meal consisting of broth, white bread, a small heap of scrambled eggs and coffee. It was the first meal Scott had been well enough to take since the fever had broken and Scott was attacking it with an appetite that made Murdoch smile with contentment. He was sitting at the foot of the bed, ready to lend a helping hand if necessary.

At Scott's question the smile froze on his lips. This was, in fact, the first time that Scott had mentioned Morgan since they had brought him home. Thus far, they had only surmised how much Scott had realized about Morgan's role in the drama. If Scott's feverish dreams had been any indication he seemed to sense the connection. Until now, everyone had avoided the issue in his presence. And, as Murdoch now realized, he himself was not yet ready to discuss the matter. To be honest, he doubted he would ever be.

Casting Johnny a quick glance he saw his youngest who had been slouching in the armchair, straighten himself with alarm.

Scott, busy with his breakfast, seemed oblivious to the reactions his question had evoked.

He looked up.

“Murdoch?”

“Morgan's not here, son.”

Scott merely stared at him, raising that questioning eyebrow of his.

Murdoch sighed. “He's in Morro Coyo, at the hotel.”

“At the hotel?”  Scott sounded surprised.

Thud. Johnny's feet thumped down to the floor.

“What are ya thinkin', Boston? That we offer that madman a room in the house? He can call himself a lucky man and thank Murdoch that I didn't shoot him right where he was.”

“Johnny, your brother's not up to this...”

“But he's gotta know what Morgan did!”

Scott put his fork down on the plate and pushed the tray away. He looked from Johnny to Murdoch. “I didn't expect anyone to offer him a room in the house because...”, he paused, taking a deep breath. “…because I think I know what Morgan did.” He lowered his head. “He wanted to kill you... because of me.” His voice was barely audible.

Murdoch reached out to cover Scott's hand with his. “Son...”

Scott looked up again and met his eyes.

“But I'm glad he's not in prison where I feared he'd be. There was a time he meant a lot to me.” 

Murdoch nodded. “I know.”

His gaze swept out of the window, over to the green ridge in the distance. Behind those hills lay Morro Coyo. Behind those hills Matthew Morgan was waiting.

In fact the only reason Murdoch hadn't let Val Crawford arrest Morgan together with the Rileys was the short but affectionate exchange between Morgan and Scott he had observed on the road after Scott had fallen from the wagon. The trust he had seen in his son's eyes had prevented him from pressing charges against the man. It had cost him, though, and he had been more jealous of the connection the two shared than he would ever let on.

Morgan himself had declared that he would stay in Morro Coyo, as close to Scott as possible. He had been sending delivery boys daily, asking for news about Scott's condition. Teresa was the only one in the house who could muster enough compassion to answer the man.

His son's voice pulled Murdoch back into the present.

“That's why I have to talk to him. I had hoped you'd understand. I've got to tell him that I remember him. I owe him an explanation.”

Scott's last words hung in the air between them like an unseen barrier. Murdoch had the feeling he could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Johnny was staring at Scott, disbelief written all over his face.  It was the calm before the storm as he then rose from the armchair and exploded.

“I don't believe it! Scott! You crazy? You owe him nothing! Because of him  you almost died - he could have killed me and Murdoch, too!” He threw his arms in the air in a gesture of frustration.  “We just had a helluva time worryin' 'bout ya this past week or so and the first thing ya think of is talking to Morgan! Talking! Pfff!” He puffed out a breath and kicked at Scott's nightstand. The lamp sitting on it teetered and threatened to fall down.

“John, stop that!” Murdoch stood and grabbed his son by the arm, but Johnny didn't listen. Freeing himself he stalked to the door. Hand on the doorknob he turned around.

“If that man comes anywhere near the house I'm gonna shoot him.”

“Johnny!” The sharp tone coming from the bed stopped Johnny who had already opened the door to leave the room, in his tracks.

“Don't forget – Morgan is my business.”

Johnny hesitated for a second before stalking off, the door slamming behind him.

Murdoch stared at the closed door, then turned slowly towards the bed, not knowing what to say because Johnny had voiced his own feelings towards Matthew. But unlike Johnny he would never have let his emotions show –  at least not while Scott was still so weak and fragile.

Scott seemed to have sunk deeper into his pillows.

“Phew – I think I needed to hear that”, he whispered, lowering his head. “I'm very sorry for the trouble I caused, Murdoch. I wouldn't want anyone to worry about me.” He looked pale and dismayed.

“Nonsense, Scott. Johnny's upset is all”, Murdoch said, anxious to pour oil on troubled water, yet at the same time ashamed that he had to downplay Johnny's feelings.  “Don't get all excited about your brother. He'll level out soon enough.” He sat down on the bed again. “You should rest now, I don't want you to overdo it.”

“But you think the same way as Johnny, don't you?”  Scott studied Murdoch's face with that intense gaze of his, as if he was looking right into his soul. Murdoch shifted uneasily. It was as impossible to dodge those attentive blue gray eyes as it had been to avoid Catherine's identical gaze. Scott wouldn't let him get away with his attempt to brush the truth about himself under the carpet.

“Well, Son. I can assure you I won't shoot Morgan if he dares to show his face here, but I won't lie to you, either. Yes, I think the same and I'm not at all keen on seeing Matthew Morgan in this house.”

Scott sighed and nodded . “I can see that. Thank you for not having Val arrest him.”

“I've got my reasons for that.” Murdoch rose from the bed, not wanting to discuss the matter any further. “You look tired, Scott, you should rest now.” 

To his surprise Scott didn't object, instead he let Murdoch help him lie down. Adjusting the bedcovers around his son Murdoch quickly suppressed his mounting concern. After all, it was to be expected that Scott would still tire easily.

“Thank you, Murdoch.” With a sigh of contentment Scott settled deep in his pillows. Eyes already sliding shut he mumbled, “Please, if you see him, tell Johnny I can see his point, he has every right to be angry. I apologize for having to do so but I must see Morgan once more, whether the two of you like it or not.”

The firm set of his jaw emphasized his last words and brooked no further argument.

***

On the staircase Murdoch almost bumped into Teresa who was running upstairs, her face anxious.

He swayed, balancing Scott's breakfast tray he was carrying. “Whoa, easy, young lady...”

“What happened, Murdoch? Is something wrong?”

Murdoch took hold of her arm, turned her around and led her back down the stairs leading to the kitchen.  

“Why the hurry? Everything's fine, Scott is resting.”

“But what's the matter with Johnny? He all but ran me over, didn't say anything and stormed out of the house.”

He smiled at her indignant tone and decided to cut to the chase. “Johnny's upset because Scott wants to meet with Morgan.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, but that was to be expected. It's the way Scott is, Johnny ought to know that.” She shrugged.  “Besides, I think it's natural that he wants to see Morgan.”

That was just like Teresa. In spite of his own uneasiness about that subject he couldn't help but smile at her small erect back as he followed her into the kitchen.

“Natural? Maybe. But it's not as easy to accept for everyone as it is for you. You trust Morgan”, he said.

“MostIy I trust Scott. And Morgan – I think there's more to him than the killer he seems to be.”  Teresa took the tray from his hands and carried it to the sink. “Remember, I talked to him. He desperately wanted to meet you, for Scott's sake.” She turned to look at him. “He loves Scott, I can't see anything wrong about that. I believe that things somehow got out of control for Morgan.”

“I wish Johnny and I could be as forgiving and sympathetic as you are.”

“No Murdoch, I'm not forgiving”, Teresa said with vehemence. “Morgan wanted you and Johnny dead, I won't forget that and I can't forgive that. I don't want to meet Morgan ever again.”  She sat down on the chair next to Murdoch. “But – it's Scott we are talking about, isn't it? Morgan is – was – his friend.” Waiting for his answer she leaned forward, hands folded on the table, brows arched.

Teresa's reasoning brooked no argument, as usual, when she talked about Morgan and Scott.

Murdoch raised his arms in surrender. “Yes, yes, and yes, you're right. Thanks for reminding me whose business Morgan is. And I know, we have to trust Scott.”

She nodded approvingly and rose.

He leaned back in his chair, his eyes following her. He took in her delicate frame, the slender arms and tiny hands, now busy with the dishes. Those small hands had saved his life. When nobody had been able to do anything to stop Riley she had raised her rifle and shot the man without hesitation. Once again, Sam Riley hadn't reckoned with her, her weapon and her inner strength. Neither had he or anyone else, for that matter.

“You saved my life.” He started as he realized that he had thought out loud.

Teresa looked at him over her shoulder, surprised at the sudden change of subject.

He smiled. “You are a very courageous young woman, you know that?”

She blushed at the praise and lowered her face over the sink, letting the dishes clatter in the water.“Why, Murdoch, Riley was about to shoot you. Anyone would've done the same...”

“But you did it.”

Now she turned around to face him.  “I was afraid I'd kill him … I had never aimed at a human being before...at least, not in order to actually pull the trigger...”

When Murdoch saw a flicker of the horror Teresa must have felt in her eyes, he rose, hurried over to her and took her in his arms. “I'm sorry you had to do such a terrible thing, sweetheart. Luckily you only hit his leg...”

Freeing herself she took a step backward. Her eyes flashed. “That wasn't luck. I wanted to shoot him in the leg, I aimed at his leg. But I was afraid I'd miss and kill him by accident.”

He felt his mouth fall agape. “You aimed at his leg and you hit his leg?” He knew he sounded like a parrot, but he couldn't help himself. That was more than many a man was capable of in a heated situation – to aim at a certain point in cold blood and hit the target.

She burst out in laughter at his obvious bafflement. “Yes I did. I've always told you I know how to shoot. I had the best of all teachers – Johnny.”

He blinked, still having difficulties coming to terms with what she had said.

“Besides, Riley was mine, right from the beginning. Now he got what he deserved.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Teresa, I wouldn't want to have you for an enemy.”

 

Chapter 22 

One week later Scott was lying in his bed and pondering his next move.

It was early morning, he had heard his family rise and prepare for another day of work. When someone had entered his room he had played possum. From the movements he heard he sensed it was Murdoch who had entered, hovered near his bed and drawn the curtains shut before finally exiting the room.

Now he heard the voices of his father, brother and several hands in the yard fade as they made their way over to the barn to saddle their horses and head out to commence their assigned chores for the day.

With a twinge of jealousy he gingerly sat up in his bed. How much he would like to join the men, to work with his father and brother out on the range again! He swung his legs out of the bed and stretched, the burning and twitching in his back reminding him of his still healing wound. He sighed. No need to lose patience, however. He had waited this long, he would be able to wait a couple of days more. Besides, he had to attend to a matter of more importance first.

He made his way carefully to the window, lifted the curtain and peered down into the yard. It was empty. In the distance he could see the dust that had been eddied up by the recently departed group of riders, finally begin to settle. Good.

He wasn't proud of having fooled his father so badly, but he didn't want to face Murdoch or Johnny this morning. Instead, he wanted them far away today, knowing that they would be appeased if they thought he was resting and healing. The former of which he had no intention of doing. No, today he would ride into Morro Coyo to confront Matthew Morgan and clear the air with him once and for all.

***

Matthew was standing at the open window of his hotel room in Morro Coyo, watching the activities down on the busy thoroughfare. Here in this small dusty town things never seemed to change. 

Mr. Baldomero on the opposite side of the street had opened his store and was leaning in the doorframe, arms folded across his chest, greeting the few early passersby with a smile, a nod and, sometimes, a few words for good measure. 

The blinds of the windows of the Bank of Morro Coyo were drawn, a hand appeared and turned a sign hanging in the window, announcing that the bank was now “Open” for business.

The bell of the small school at the end of the street rang, summoning the children to go inside for their first lesson. Two horses trotted down the street, the riders' faces shadowed by wide brimmed hats. Dust whirled after them. A lone dog crossed the road and raised his hind leg at the staircase leading to Alonzo's Cantina. And there, on the porch below him, Pedro was swinging his broom.

Even at this early hour the heat was already unbearable. A searing hot wind blew across his face, making him feel as if he was standing in front of a fire-spitting dragon.

Even now the omnipresent dust was creeping into every crease of his body, causing his eyes to water and his nose to prickle. Coughing he closed the window. How was anyone able to live in a God forsaken place like this? In San Francisco there was always a fresh breeze, courtesy of the wide Pacific ocean that nestled the vibrant city.

Matthew had watched scenes like this many times before, while he had waited for the Lancers to appear; an eternity ago, it seemed to him. Today he was waiting for Scott. A courier had brought a message from the boy. Thank God, Scott had recovered from his injury and now wanted to see him.

He felt his heart pounding in anticipation. “Catherine, help me”, he murmured, wrapping his fingers round the medallion in his pocket. Carefully, he retrieved the piece of jewelry, opened it and put it on the table. Catherine smiled back at him fondly. 

*** 

“Where do you think you're going?”

At the sharp question barked at him from behind Scott almost dropped the saddle he was carrying over to where Charlie stood.

“Johnny!” He leaned the saddle against the barn wall and turned around to face his brother. “I thought I told you to stop sneaking up on me. One day I'll drop dead with a heart attack.”

Johnny snorted. “I didn't sneak. Your groaning and panting was loud enough. You're not up to saddling horses, Boston.”

He ambled closer. “'sides, you didn't answer my question.” Johnny cocked his head and eyed him suspiciously.

Scott rolled his eyes. He hated being cornered like that. “I can't make a move without someone watching over me lately, can I? What are you doing here, anyway? You're supposed to be out on the range with Murdoch and the men.”

Johnny nodded. “We'd been there, but decided to come back. We were thinking you'd been sleeping a little too peacefully this morning.” Grinning, he side stepped Scott's good - natured punch.

Scott grabbed his saddle again. “Anyway”, he said, “I'm riding into Morro Coyo today. I'm overdue for a talk with Morgan.”

But as much as he clenched his teeth, he wasn't able to suppress a groan as he lifted the heavy leather from the ground and staggered over to Charlie. The weight of the saddle seemed to drag him to the ground. And Charlie - had he always been so big? There was no way he could hoist that saddle up there. Panting, he stumbled against Charlie's rump. The saddle slipped from his hands and fell to the ground. He felt sweat break out all over his body and the barn began spinning around him. Damn.

In a moment Johnny was by his side. “Mierda, Scott...” Taking him by the arms he led him to a bale of hay. “Sit down.”

Scott obeyed, for the moment content to concentrate on breathing. Eventually, the swaying barn came to a stop. Looking up he met Johnny's eyes. The expression of concern in them tore at his nerves. Everyone seemed to watch him with worry of late. He waved his hand.  “I'm fine, don't fret.”

Johnny gave him a crooked grin, then his expression changed to one of disappointment.

“Why Scott? Just tell me why.” He shook his head. “I mean – that bastard almost had you killed...”

His brother looked so lost that Scott's heart went out to him, his irritation vanishing like a drop of water in the hot sun.

“Look”, he tried to explain. “You're right, but I was shot by accident. He planned to kill you and Murdoch – because of me...”

“That's not your responsibility – that man is crazy.” Johnny's frustration was obvious.

How could he make his brother understand? Scott took a deep breath.

“But it is my responsibility. If I had listened more closely, if I had tried harder, I might have remembered him on that day in Morro Coyo. If only I had given him something, anything...” He paused, breathing heavily. “But I didn't … instead I pushed him away – and put you and Murdoch in danger.”

The thought of what might have happened made him tremble.

“I'll never be able to forgive myself”, he whispered.

“Scott...”, Johnny reached out to him, but Scott rose from the bale of hay avoiding his brother's hand.

“I feel responsible for what happened, brother, and I have to go. It's that simple.”

“We will all be going”, came Murdoch's gruff voice from behind them.

***

An hour later Scott found himself sitting on the buckboard seat next to his father, on their way to Morro Coyo. Johnny and Teresa were riding alongside, flanking them either side.

Scott sighed. Here we come, Scott Lancer and his entourage. There had been no way to convince his family that he was able to ride into town by himself.

Surprisingly, everyone had things to attend to in Morro Coyo all of a sudden. Murdoch wanted to meet with the bank manager. He had planned to talk to Mr. Standish for such a long time, why not do it today?

And it had been such a long time since Teresa had last met her friend Susan, why not pay her a visit today and see how she fared, with her newborn baby?

And Johnny? He didn't need any excuse. “I'll be going with you. Period.” His expression had brooked no argument.

Scott felt boxed in, he'd had no chance to object to any of them.

But then, if he was honest with himself, he was glad that he wasn't on horseback right now. The jostling of the buckboard was almost more than he could bear, and actually, trying to saddle Charlie had taken more out of him than he cared to admit.

From the corner of his eye he watched his father drive the buckboard with his strong big hands clenched around the reins. The stony profile didn't give anything away, but Murdoch couldn't fool him. Scott had seen his father's anxiety back in the barn. Murdoch's shoulder touched his while the buckboard rolled along. The soft pressure was strangely comforting. Scott took a deep breath. His father was with him because he cared. Teresa and Johnny accompanied him because he mattered to them. Why not accept the silent help from his family for what it was?

Murdoch turned his head as if he had felt his gaze on him. Scott smiled. “Thank you for understanding and taking me to town, Murdoch. I wouldn't have managed  to ride today.”

The stony surface crumbled and his father smiled back. “You're welcome, Son.”

***

There Scott was, arriving in a buckboard. 

With one finger Matthew lifted the curtain and peered through the slit. Scott wasn't alone; he was accompanied by his entire family. Miss O'Brien and the dark looking half – breed who was Scott's half - brother were flanking the buckboard. He shuddered. He'd never understand what Scott saw in that man. And Murdoch Lancer himself was driving the wagon, enthroned on the seat like the patriarch he was. 

Drawing closer the Lancer family occupied the entire road. Everyone in town could see they knew who they were and that they belonged together. Their demeanor was a statement that left no doubt.

Regarding the two men on the buckboard, it struck Matthew for the first time since they had met how much Scott resembled his father. So far he had only seen Catherine in the boy.  Perhaps he hadn't wanted to acknowledge a resemblance to his father? But now he saw both men had the same broad shoulders and strong backs, they were almost the same height, even the way they moved seemed alike. Every gesture told that they were father and son. That stung. He felt his chest tighten.

At the hotel porch the buckboard came to a halt. With stiff awkward movements Scott clambered to the ground, accepting his father's helping hand. The dark Mexican dismounted and fastened his horse's reins to the hitching rail. The girl waved a hand to the three men and continued to ride down the street.

He held his breath. What now? The Lancer men stood and debated, then Murdoch reached out and gave Scott's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, turned to cross the street and entered the bank. With profound relief Matthew watched Scott's half - brother amble toward Baldomero's store and Scott step onto the hotel's porch alone.

He dropped the curtain. Casting a glance in the mirror he raked his fingers through his  hair and adjusted his suit. With a quick glance he reassured himself that the medallion was still lying on the table.

Thus prepared he waited for Catherine's son to knock at his door. 

***

“Aaah, el Señor Johnny”, Baldomero called from the rear quarter of his establishment and hurried to take Johnny's hand and shake it. “How are you doing? And Mr. Scott? How is he?”

Johnny smiled and tried to free his hand. Their friends in town knew that Scott had been wounded and very sick.

“My brother is back on his feet, Señor, a little sore, though”, he said. “Thanks for asking anyway.”

“That's good to hear, very good to hear, best regards to your brother...Well, what can I do for you?”

Johnny felt embarrassed. Actually, he didn't know why he came here and what Baldomero or anyone in town could do for him. He had toyed with the idea of dropping in Alonzo's Cantina or in the saloon for a nice cold beer. But then he had realized he was too restless and not in the mood for anything like that. What if Scott needed him? Better stay close to the Estrella.

He spied a bin filled with dried apples. “Give me some of those, Señor, that'll do for today”, he said. At last, he'd have something to chew on while he waited.

***

When Murdoch left the bank about an hour later he saw Johnny rocking back and forth on the rocker sitting on the hotel porch. The dark expression on his son's face left no doubt that Scott hadn't returned yet. What the hell was going on in that hotel room? Murdoch forced a smile on his face as he entered the porch.   

“Scott's not back yet?”, he asked in a casual tone.

Johnny stopped rocking and looked up. His eyes flashed with anger. “If that madman talks him into something...”

Murdoch put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. 

“Easy, Son. We have to give them time.”

If only that was so easy. Turning, Murdoch leaned his elbows on the balustrade and stared at the street with unseeing eyes. The rocking chair squeaked as Johnny started rocking back and forth again. The noise felt as if someone was tightening a screw deep into his skull.  Hell, what was taking Scott and Morgan so long?

 

Chapter 23

Even though he thought he was well prepared, he jumped as he heard the knock on his door. His heart thumped wildly in his chest, his throat constricting as he tried to respond .

“Come in”, he croaked.

The door opened and Scott entered the room. Matthew inhaled sharply as he took in the boy's appearance. He had lost weight and was as pale as a sheet. Concern washed over Matthew. Scott wasn't well enough to be here, he belonged in bed. Yet, the slate blue eyes that now scrutinized him belied Scott's apparent weakness. They radiated determination.

“Scotty... I'm - I'm glad to see you.” Was this tremulous voice really his own?

Scott gave a curt nod. “Sir. Please, don't you call me Scotty, it's Scott.”

Matthew flinched at the young man's cool response. He cleared his throat.

“Of course, Scott, I'm sorry. You look pale... are you feeling alright?”

“I'm fine, thank you.”

Matthew sighed. Scott seemed determined to make him work for this.

“Please, take a seat.” He reached out to help Scott to the armchair, but Scott flinched and Matthew dropped his arm.

“Can I offer you a drink?”

“Some water would be fine, thank you”, Scott replied, lowering himself into the same armchair he had sat in just weeks before. A lifetime , Matthew thought as he busied himself with the water pitcher. From the corner of his eye he regarded Scott and held his breath. Scott had spotted the medallion on the table. He studied the image, longing etched upon his face.  Matthew could tell it cost Scott all his self-discipline to hold his hands still and not touch it.

He put the water on the table and seated himself on the second chair. Scott took the glass and drank as if he had been about to die of thirst. When he replaced the glass on the table, their eyes met across the medallion. The unconcealed emotions Matthew now saw reflected on Scott's face ran like a knife right into his guts. He leaned forward.

“Scott, I ...”

“Uncle Matt...”

Scott had spoken in a low tone, but the words resonated in Matthew's ears.

“You remember … you do remember me... ”, he whispered, barely able to believe that he  now had definitive proof of what he had felt deep in his heart since the day he had talked to Scott on the road in the valley.

“Yes, I do.” Scott's features softened. “That's the reason why I've come here - to tell you so. I don't recall much…. Just little details, like - you reading books to me, playing with me, throwing a ball in grandfather's garden – things like that. I know you are the man I used to refer to as Uncle Matt.”

Matthew blinked, completely off kilter, rendered speechless. 

A sad smile curved Scott's lips. “You acted to me like you were my father, and I remember asking my grandfather one day why you weren't my father and if he could make you be my father...”

An wave of emotions washed over Matthew. This was the question he had asked himself, over and over again, why, why, why...?  

Scott studied him, his brows knitted. “Yes, I loved my Uncle Matt. That's why I am struggling to come to terms with what you have done.  The Uncle Matt I used to know and love  would never have...”

Unable to sit any longer, Matthew jumped to his feet. “Please, Scott, hear me out! I can't believe it myself. I swear I didn't want to hurt anybody...I'd move heaven and earth to turn back the clock.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “I don't know what took hold of me. I've been asking myself this every day since you were hurt…I only know something sent me over the edge…”

Scott laughed bitterly. “I guess it was not something but someone – me. I was the one responsible. If I had listened to you in the first place, if I had tried harder to think about what you told me, instead of pushing you away; instead of running away from the truth about you and my mother... perhaps none of this would have happened.”  

Scott looked dismayed. His words tore Matthew apart. Collapsing heavily into his chair again, he reached across the table and grasped Scott's hands. The young man tensed, but didn't withdraw.

“You're talking nonsense, Scott. Stop blaming yourself! I am the one to blame, no one else.  No apology will ever be enough to make any of this up to you.” He sighed. “The only thing I can say to make you understand, Scott, is that losing Catherine twenty-five years ago and then finding and losing you at the same time,  somehow was too much...”

Scott freed his hands and folded his arms across his chest, his eyes cool. “You can't lose me, Uncle Matt, I'm not your son. I'm Murdoch Lancer's son. I came here to make this clear once and for all. I'll be staying here, at Lancer, with my family. And we won't meet again. Ever.”

Matthew lowered his head.  “I guess I couldn't expect anything else.” He paused, struggling hard to swallow his disappointment. “You must believe me, all that matters to me is that you're back on your feet. I've been going through hell since the day I found out you'd been shot.”

“Is that so?”

Matthew looked up at Scott's stony face. The barrier that had been there when the boy had entered the room was back.

“Yes, that's the truth.”

He wouldn't tell the boy about the deal he had made with God. The deal that he'd let go of Scott if only God allowed the boy to survive. Scott had survived and he would keep his promise. He wouldn't further jeopardize the boy's health by pushing him again.

“Anyway, thank you for agreeing to come here today and for letting me know you remember the good times we had together.  You'll never know how much that means to me.”

He pushed the medallion to Scott's side of the table. “Before we leave, will you take this medallion, please? It's yours.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “Leave to go where?”

“To the sheriff's office. I presume you'll want to press charges against me.”

Scott hesitated for a moment. Then he shook his head. “No, I don't intend to press charges... because of the good times we had.” He gave Matthew the first relaxed smile since he had entered the room.

Relieved, Matthew smiled back. “Thank you. You give me far more than I deserve”

Scott reached for the medallion and regarded the image, caressing it slowly with his thumb. He seemed far away and looked so lost that it tore at Matthew's heart. “I wish I'd known her….” Scott said after a while. “She must have been special…”

“Yes, she was. Very special.”

Scott looked up as if awakening from a dream.  “Please, tell me everything you know about my mother.”

Matthew didn't hesitate to oblige. Relaxing, he leaned back in his armchair. “Well, we lived in the same street in Boston. I was ten years older than her and I watched her grow up.”

He smiled. “She was a spirited girl, somewhat wild and hard to tame. I can tell you, the household staff of the Garrett Mansion had their hands full.  Mr. Garrett was very fond of her. To him she could do no wrong.”

Matthew paused, remembering the little blonde girl with the affectionate laugh and the mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

“When she grew up it became hard for her to conform to expectations and behave like an educated lady. She always had some mischievous scheme to make life more interesting... I remember one day she persuaded her girl friend to accompany her to a pool in the woods to bathe discreetly. Unfortunately a hunting party came across the young ladies. Well, you can imagine the commotion that caused in Boston!”

He chuckled at the memory.  “And she loved mice; she used to hide them in a box in her room. One day they escaped and scurried all over the house. You should have heard the maids' cries…But  as she blossomed into womanhood, well, she would turn any young man's head. ”

Listening, Scott seemed to be drinking the words from his lips. It occurred to Matthew that obviously no-one had ever bothered to tell the boy details about his mother's life; not his grandfather nor the household staff in Boston, not even his father. But perhaps that was little wonder. After all, he had known Catherine for a very long time, and he knew more about her character and her life than – maybe - even Murdoch Lancer did. He couldn't help but relish that fact.

He watched Scott while he reminisced, contemplating the boy's attentive lively eyes, sand-colored brows and hair, and the curve of his lips. He absorbed the brilliant smile that had the power to brighten a room – so very much like Catherine's smile - and the way he cocked his head, listening to his words.

Yes, there was Catherine in this boy, and also Murdoch Lancer, if he was honest.

But mostly this was Scott Lancer, a strong independent man, no longer the “Scotty” he had known. For the first time Matthew understood that Scott had to live the life he had chosen for himself. The only thing left for him was to engrave this image of Scott, the feeling of closeness to him at this very moment, deep in his heart where it would stay together with Catherine until he died.

However, he couldn't stop himself asking one last question as they parted more than an hour later. It was just too hard to see the boy leave.

“Won't you come and see me after all in San Francisco some day?”

Inhaling deeply Scott met his eyes. “I – I really don't know. You see, I appreciate you telling me about my mother, and I know we used to be friends but… I'll never forget what happened here …you almost destroyed my family.  At the moment I can't promise you anything. I'm sorry.”

Matthew nodded and lowered his head.

“Good bye, Uncle Matt”, he heard Scott whisper as the door closed after him.

Matthew stared at the door. “Good bye, Scott.”

***

“Murdoch, Johnny, I'm sorry you had to wait that long.”

Murdoch whirled around at the sudden sound of Scott's voice. Johnny stopped the rocking chair and jumped to his feet, ready, it seemed to Murdoch, to fight whatever or whoever stepped in his brother's way.

“Hey Brother, you ... you okay? I was about to send out a posse lookin' for ya”, Johnny blurted out.

Scott was standing behind them. Smiling, he took a step backwards. “Johnny, wait a minute, I told you I'm sorry!”

Scott looked pensive and exhausted, but  otherwise alright. In fact, there was an air of contentment about him that hadn't been there when he had left them earlier. Although he was relieved Murdoch felt strangely excluded. What secrets did Scott and Morgan share? Swallowing this question he really wanted to ask he enquired, “Did you get what you wanted, Son? Have you resolved anything?”

Scott met his eyes. “Yes, I have some closure.” Glancing at his right hand that was closed firmly around something very small, he  murmured, “...and I got what I wanted.”

“I'm glad to hear that, Son.” And that, Murdoch realized, was the truth.

Johnny crossed the porch, bootheels thumping on the wooden planks, spurs jingling, a look of steely determination in his eyes. He took Scott by the arm as if afraid his brother would go back into the boarding house any minute.

“'All right, Brother. So can we go home now?. “He pulled Scott toward the buckboard.  

Murdoch glanced at Scott. “Are you done here?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, I'm done here. Let's go home.”

As he drove the buckboard out of town, Murdoch turned on the wagon seat and looked back towards the Estrella Hotel. At a window on the first floor, just above the entrance, he spied a slightly raised curtain and behind it, barely visible, a man's face. Raising his hand Murdoch tipped his hat. The figure returned the gesture, then the curtain fell.  

***

On their way home Scott held onto the medallion in his hand, his thoughts on his mother and Matthew Morgan. It had been the right decision to meet the man. Leaning back in the seat he relaxed and smiled to himself. He was bone-tired but deeply satisfied. Matthew had been his mother's fiancé. So what? She had been a beautiful woman, most likely there had been even more admirers than just Matthew and Murdoch. Matthew had loved him when he was a little boy and still showed interest in him. Why not? It no longer disturbed him to think of Matthew having such a strong regard for him, now that he understood the past a little better.

However, Matthew had planned a brutal murder, and that was something that he would never be able to reconcile.  Therefore his earlier rendezvous with Matthew Morgan would be his last.

Yet, if anything, Matthew's actions had ironically strengthened the bond between he and Murdoch. Once, he had wanted Matthew to be his father. But Murdoch was his father, a father who had proven his deep and abiding love for him throughout the terrible past few weeks they had just experienced. A father who had fought for him against Matthew on the road, who had fought for his life at his sickbed, and who had made it clear once and for all that he wanted him with all his heart. If Scott had previously harbored any doubt about that deep inside – well, now they were well and truly assuaged. With surprise Scott realized that even the question of why his father had never come to claim him, that had so encompassed his thoughts and created an unseen barrier between he and Murdoch previously, now no longer mattered.

Perhaps, some day in the future, they'd talk about that, but for him it was no longer a matter for the here and now. It had become matter of the past.

 

 

~ end ~
July 2015

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