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Cindy

 

 

FCindy's Fiction

Episode Tag for Foley


No. 919
If I can stop one
Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.
xxxx- Emily Dickinson

 
CHAPTER 1

“Here, let me.”

Johnny held out his arms and Polly Foley shyly deposited the baby in them.

This had been the routine since she had joined the family for dinner three nights ago, now three weeks since giving birth to Martha.  Johnny would hold the baby and allow her to eat with her hands free. And she was mighty grateful for his assistance.  The rest of the Lancers, and Teresa, were dumfounded every time he took up the child.  While Polly had to admit her own measure of surprise at seeing this young ex-gunhawk handling a newborn with such adeptness, she did not question his experience – she was just glad to have her hands and lap free of the little bundle for a time.

Not that she didn’t love Martha because she did – fiercely.  But a baby was hard work, a lot of hard work, and there had been a lot of hours in the past three weeks spent in weeping frustration at understanding it all – the feeding, the changing, the comforting; that last was the hardest of all.  Many times she cried when the baby cried. Sometimes no matter what she did Martha would continue to howl, making her feel as though she was the dumbest mother ever planted on this dusty earth.  Teresa was helpful, but could only do so much.  After all, she was just a girl herself, and an innocent to boot.  Maria from the kitchen was a godsend, however, and Polly had all but become her daughter, and Martha her granddaughter.  Maria knew everything about babies and shared it all with Polly, providing clothes to fit her new shape, and blankets and diapers and outfits for Martha.  She had even offered a relative who had recently given birth as a wet nurse when it seemed Polly would never figure out how to get the baby to latch onto her breast.  And there had been some early terrifying moments when Polly believed that her baby would starve.  But that was getting better, at least.

“You look nice,” Johnny now complimented her, tucking Martha into the crook of his left arm.  “That color looks pretty on you.”

Martha squeaked between them.

“No being jealous of your mamacita,” Johnny cooed to the baby, swinging a fresh smile onto Polly.

Polly glanced down at the light blue blouse – borrowed from Maria – and felt her tears threaten.  “Thank you,” she swallowed, one hand nervously running over her shoulder, pushing her auburn hair back into place.

She had taken extra care today, hoping to feel better about herself and her performance before the Lancers.  She’d washed and brushed her hair until it settled into soft waves about her shoulders, and had donned her silver hoop earrings.  With the pretty blue blouse from Maria and a plain skirt loaned from another of the housekeeper’s relatives, Polly thought she finally looked more like herself.  Until she had arrived in the dining room.  Then her nervousness had fluttered back over her, bumping her heart against her tears.

It was the house, she decided. It was too big and fancy, and made her feel small and ignorant.  During the day it wasn’t so bad – she could stay in the kitchen with Maria and help a little, fetch spoons or spices, stir a pot.  If Martha dozed she’d take a turn in the garden to admire the pretty flowers.  And Teresa would keep her company, too, chattering about this and that.  Kind of felt to home – home of a long time ago, anyways.  At least helping made her think she was trying to pay back these women for waiting on her so much in these past few weeks.  It had been embarrassing to have others washing out bloodstained rags and emptying her pot, changing her sheets, washing and wiping errant breast milk and baby spittle – and her tears.  Why, they’d even brought her trays of food, and opened the curtains each morning and closed them each night – just for her.

And she’d cried – oh, how she still cried at the silliest things.  The sunshine making pretty patterns on the floor through the fancy lace curtains in her windows; the quiet call of the evening birds just before she went to bed; the glorious beauty of her baby; the despair – and triumph – of feeding Martha.  Everything and anything – those awful tears flowed even when she didn’t want them to.

But taking up with the family at mealtime – and trying to be social with them afterwards – gave Polly the scares.  There was just too much linen, silver and china on the table, too many rules for eating with all that finery.  Her fingers shook the entire time she ate – did they know she was only pretending to understand which fork and spoon to use, that she sat on the edge of her napkin to keep it from falling out of her lap?  Could they see her burning cheeks and know that she was watching them so intently, trying to copy their dinner behavior?

And while she loved being in the company of more than just her newborn, being in the company of the Lancers after dinner was like not being in their company at all.  She couldn’t knit, or embroider like Teresa; her sewing was a mass of crooked stitches.  She’d played one overly enthusiastic game of checkers with Johnny that had Scott raising eyebrows and frowning with disapproval at her whoops of delight when she’d won.  Johnny had laughed at her fecklessness, but she’d been mortified into silence and had politely refused a game since, especially since the version with which she was most familiar involved removing an article of clothing at the words, “King me.”

She didn’t read well, so she avoided all those books overflowing the shelves.  Scott read and his father read, and talked about writers (authors, they called them); they also discussed articles in the newspapers they hid behind every night, stuff about stock prices, the goings-on in Sacramento, things taking place back East and farther away.  Last night Teresa asked Scott to read from a book he’d taken up. While Polly enjoyed the cadence of his speech she despaired at her lack of understanding the words making up the story – it made her feel dumb again.  Scott had caught her eye as she’d squirmed for what seemed like the tenth time, and she felt some impatience rising from him.  She’d settled into stillness, but the damage had already been done; she’d bothered him.  Polly sensed that he’d regretted bringing her to his home and family, was embarrassed by her lack of manners and her smarts.  It would have helped if he’d offered her some of that fine liquor he and his father often drank throughout the evening.  That would give her some confidence, ease off the trapped up feeling she was getting by staying here.  But no one asked her if she’d like a drink, and she didn’t dare ask for any.

Since Scott had yet to appear at the table Johnny held her chair until she settled into it, then crossed over to his seat and did the same for Teresa, Martha already dozing in his one-armed embrace.  The elder Mr. Lancer, she noticed, was looking grumpy at Scott’s notable absence, as if he’d just tasted something foul; Teresa told Polly that he expected dinner to be on time with all family members present unless work or illness prevented it. This Murdoch Lancer scared her, and she figured it would be easier to keep him in her mind as Mr. Lancer and not Murdoch like Johnny and Teresa and Scott called him. After all, he had been taken hostage because of her, and she still felt guilty about that.  She’d wanted to leave before the Foleys caught up to her and Scott, but Scott would have none of it. And once the contractions came she could not move from the bed at old Maria’s.  Johnny had rescued his father by then, and they had taken a stand against her father-in-law, who wanted to steal her baby to raise as his own.

Teresa and Johnny had taken up their napkins so Polly did the same, grateful that no one seemed to have noticed that she had forgotten to do so.  The potatoes were just being passed around when Scott appeared, offering a polite apology to those at the table and casting an eyebrow aloft at finding his brother again holding Martha.  But Mr. Lancer’s scowl disappeared and some of the tension left the air, allowing Polly to breathe a little bit easier.

“How are you today, Polly?” Scott asked her, smoothing his napkin into his lap and reaching for the glass of wine just beyond his plate.

He still wore a bandage about his right hand, she noticed, and tried not to wince at the sight of it.  He’d been shot when coming to her assistance back in Green River, although, if truth be told, she hadn’t asked him to help.  She’d pulled the trigger on Frank when he’d stormed into her room at the boarding house and then she’d ran outside, only to be halted by another Foley.  Then Scott had come rushing up and a gunfight had erupted.  Though she’d felt a minute of worry when he’d gone down, self-preservation had kicked in; she’d grabbed his discarded gun and an empty buckboard and made fast tracks away from town because there were still too many available Foleys that would not hesitate to chase after her.

What she hadn’t expected was to see Scott again and so angry, demanding his gun and an explanation for what happened.  But then she’d fainted like a ninny.  And when she awoke he had signed on as her protector, despite the threat from the Foleys, and despite knowing what she was and what she had done.  She didn’t want his help, not in the beginning, because it would mean she might be beholden to him, and she didn’t want to be beholden to anyone, she just wanted to get away from the Foleys and have her baby.  But Scott was a persistent sort, calm even when she was yelling at him, trying for a doctor when it appeared that her time was soon, making a stand against Foley even when his own father had been taken hostage, finding refuge at old Maria’s place and giving her a decent place to birth Martha in the middle of a gunfight.

And she was now beholden to him for all his favors and kindnesses, but that bandage was an unpleasant reminder of just how ugly it had all been.

“Fine,” she replied a little belatedly, flushing a little under his stare.  He always seemed to be gazing right through her with those blue-gray eyes of his, and that made her squirm because he knew what kind of woman she was.  Johnny did, too, for that matter, and maybe even now Teresa and Mr. Lancer, but Johnny never gave her the sort of look that made her feel that she was wearing a permanent dirty mark on her cheek.

Dancehall girl.  Tart…chippy…soiled dove – the names taunted her again even as she passed another platter to Scott, feeling a minute of relief as his eyes left her to concentrate on putting food onto his plate.  He’d willingly helped her when she was bloated with birth and on the run, even after her lies to him about her supposed chaste life and search for a better thrill.  But she felt some sort of disapproving look coming from him since she’d managed her way downstairs.  He seemed to have grown increasingly impatient with her presence in the house.  She’d overheard Teresa tell Johnny that he’d complained of Martha’s cries when he was trying to work at the ledgers, even when it was only Maria passing by with the baby.

Those tears were now working back up, laughing at her ridiculous but oh-so-real feelings.  If she didn’t get hold of herself she’d be crying again, blubbering like a weakling, and she’d been so looking forward to tonight’s dinner and the company, even if she felt like a stranger among these people.  And it didn’t help that Scott was right beside her, so close that she could smell the soap he had used for washing up, and the sunshine freshness of the clean shirt he had donned for dinner, could see the still damp ends of his fair hair where it edged over his collar.  He was a handsome man, as handsome as his brother watching from across the table.  He’d carried her in his strong arms, had settled her head against his rock-hard chest.  Twice he’d grabbed her as she’d lurched in contractions, his hands comforting and his face concerned.  And again when he had brought her here to his home, he’d lifted her from the wagon and had brought her to a big bedroom, decorated all fancy, and had put her onto the bed.  She was afraid and had wanted him to stay, but the girl Teresa had shooed him out and then Maria had taken over and she’d fallen asleep before the doctor had arrived.  And that had been the last she’d seen of Scott Lancer until her first dinner at the table three nights ago.

It had been so long – so long – since any man had cared that much.  <<Pity, probably,>> her tears told her.  <<Obligation.  He has nice manners – he’s probably been taught to finish what he started.>>  Maybe he was just waiting until she was well enough and then he’d take her to the sheriff and they’d lock her in jail, call her a killer, take Martha from her…

She blinked hard and forced herself to eat some food, watching the men drink that wine and wishing she had some, too.  But none had been offered to her and she didn’t dare ask, but what a little drink would do to calm her rising nerves.  <<Just waiting to take you to the sheriff,>> her tears sang softly to her.  <<Take the baby from you.  He doesn’t care, not really.  He couldn’t care for a woman like you – soiled – damaged – used…>>

“Anything word on the circuit judge?” Mr. Lancer abruptly asked Scott, his voice booming over the clink of silverware on china.

“Gabe said he’d arrive on Friday,” Scott crisply responded, cutting into his meat.

The old man tilted a glance to Polly.  “Think you’ll be up for a ride to town on Friday, Polly?” he asked.  “You’ll need to give your statement to the judge.”

Polly felt the blood drain from her face, and then just as quickly it rushed up under her skin as the four pairs of eyes settled onto her. Her stomach twisted violently and she almost choked on the upward rush of bile.  She was going to jail…

“It’s okay, Polly,” Johnny told her, his blue eyes trying to soothe whatever was showing in her face.  “We’ll be going with you.”

“All of you?”  She looked around at them, felt her head swivel a little too fast.  Dizziness was approaching…

“We were all involved,” Mr. Lancer told her.  He was staring hard, but his features had softened a little.  “Gant Foley threatened us as well.  In your case it would seem to be an act of self-defense.”

Self-defense…

“You can’t be jailed for protecting yourself, Polly,” Scott told her in his quiet tone.  His left hand moved, touched her sleeve; she started at the warmth of his fingers through the fabric.  “Do you understand – are you all right?”

No jail – thank the Lord, oh thanks be.

“Yes,” she nodded, breathing again as Scott released her arm and gave her a polite smile that made something inside her run warm down to her toes and then back up again to jiggle inside her stomach.  Yes, she understood.  It was all right, then.  It was all okay.

“I can go and hold the baby for you,” Teresa offered.  “Is that all right, Murdoch?”

The old man nodded.  “Polly, I’m still holding that money from your father-in-law,” he told her.

Polly shook her head.  “I don’t want it…it’s not good.”  Foley had tried bribing her with it – just the memory made her sick afresh.

“Foley’s in prison, Polly,” Mr. Lancer pointed out.  “He can’t possibly use it.  He wanted you to have it.  It might be a good investment for the baby’s future.  We could open an account for you at the bank in Green River until you get settled.”

Polly looked nervously to Scott for advice; he smiled and nodded at her.

“All right,” she agreed.  “For Martha then.”

“Good.” Mr. Lancer managed a bit of a smile and speared a piece of meat.  The others followed suit and resumed eating.

Polly allowed herself a smile of relief as she chewed.  A visit to town, with people and shops and activity.  Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to go for a ride and see some things, pretty things?  She had a few coins sewn into her old skirt, maybe she could even get something for herself – it had been so long since…even now her mouth watered as she cast a look at Scott’s glass of wine.  Polly licked her lips, imagining the scent, the taste…

And what would he think of you with whiskey on your breath, her tears demanded before she could swallow them back.  He’ll think even less of you, maybe even still take Martha, just because he can.  He has the money, the power…

Polly glanced at the man beside her, relaxed and eating without even another look spared to her.  Obligation, the tears hissed at her.  You’ll be lucky if he lets you leave with the child… Polly ducked her head and took another bite but the food stuck, caught on the raw burn just beyond the back of her tongue. You shouldn’t even be eating at the table with them, that voice persisted. She gulped her water and forced it down.  It settled heavily in her stomach, sloshing a little as she thought of the way Scott sat so close to her back at old Maria’s bedroom, holding her head while she drank the whiskey, cooling her face with that dampened cloth, reassuring her in a voice that vibrated with just the barest tremble of worry for her.  And his hand covering hers in comfort…

“I sent a telegram to the Army while before I came home,” Scott announced just as Juanita and Maria entered with two pies.

Polly nearly jumped at the sound of his voice so close to her.  The air around the table turned and tensed back up.  She looked up just as Mr. Lancer’s face went to stone.  Across from her Johnny stopped shoveling food into his mouth and carefully laid his fork into his plate with just the slightest tink.

“The reason being?” the old man clipped out.  He said something in Spanish and the pies were delivered to Teresa, who promptly began slicing wedges onto plates.

“I made them an offer of a contract to supply them with horses,” Scott told him, tipping a slight smile at Johnny.  “Since Johnny’s built up the stock so quickly, I thought we should take advantage of their needs.”  Johnny’s face held open surprise but a pleased grin was working out over his lips.  “Our contract with them for beef is our best receivable…”

“What did they say?” Johnny asked, his enthusiasm increasing.  He leaned forward, sparking a nibbling sound from Martha at the jostle.  Polly frowned and stared at her baby.  Martha was beginning to squirm.

“They agreed to read our terms.  While we’re in town Friday perhaps we can get a contract drafted up with the lawyer Randall--”

“I don’t recall that we all agreed to this idea,” Mr. Lancer quickly cut him off.

“We’ve discussed it, sir,” Scott brought back smoothly.  “Johnny’s not breaking those horses just to have them sit in the corrals.”

“We can supply locally.”

“Without a doubt.  But a long-term contract…”

“Scott, we might not be able to commit to such a contract.  Trailing those horses takes time, and then there’s more time needed to break them.  We’d be better off supplying locally and then breeding…”

Scott’s voice deepened.  “They won’t be asking for more than we can deliver, and the benefits of a long standing agreement with them--”

“Not if we can’t guarantee delivery every time!”

Martha urped and mewed in protest at the sudden shout.

“Aw, forget it, Scott,” Johnny cut in, jigging her, his face dark with frustration.  “The old man, he’s just sore because you didn’t get his permission. And now, even if it is the right thing to do, he won’t go along.”

Mr. Lancer dropped his fork; it chattered against the plate.  “Johnny, that’s not true--”

“It’s true, Murdoch.”  Johnny’s eyes cooled into blue fire.  You want to carry the tune, all the time, isn’t that right?  Scott cut you out of the decision and now…”

“It’s only an offer,” Scott tried but his own stare was blazingly blue.  Polly tried not to cringe – Scott had a quiet way of rage that was fearsome.  “If we can stand to gain long-term reimbursements…”

“If, if!” the old man shouted as Martha squawked again.  “This ranch wasn’t built on if’s.  That horse herd needs strengthening, and we don’t have time to fully split our operations…”

“Shh, the baby,” Teresa admonished as Martha protested again.  The infant’s face had gone red and her mouth had opened.  She breathed fast, making staccato sounds of complaint.  Her head twisted and for a second it went quiet, then she let out a plaintive howl.

“Polly, take her, will you?” Scott fairly demanded and she knew he was angry at being twice interrupted, first by his father and then by her daughter, like he’d lose the argument if the distraction kept up.  Polly fumbled with her napkin, but it was caught in the folds of her skirt.  Frantically she tugged at it, maternal need shooting through her.  She had to get to Martha, had to…

“I’ll do it, Polly,” Teresa offered, starting to rise.  “You’ve barely had a rest all day and she’s been so fussy…”

“Scott, we can discuss this after dinner,” Mr. Lancer shot out as the baby wound up again, this time letting out two consecutive wails before taking a breath in between.  Polly almost cried with her – why wouldn’t the napkin let go?  “But let me remind you,” Mr. Lancer went on, “that I don’t appreciate those types of offers without first thoroughly discussing – Johnny, hand her over, will you?  Polly, please…”

The napkin finally pulled away and Polly almost clubbed Scott on the side of the head with her momentum-bound fist.  She jumped up; now the edge of the tablecloth clung to her, collecting china and silver together in a harsh rattle.  Scott grabbed for it, then for the chair as it tipped back. Martha’s cries went frantic.  Johnny stood up, whispering words of comfort but the child would not be soothed.  She was upset and everyone was going to hear about it.

“I’m sorry, please…I – I--” Polly babbled, yanking herself free and practically running for her daughter.

Then she saw the wetness leaking through her blouse.  Her tears, solidly wrapped in embarrassment, triumphantly choked her.  Martha’s cries had done it – now her blouse was ruined and the baby was still shrieking, inconsolable even as the men started shouting once more and they were all angry with her and had probably seen the mess since they were pleading with her to make Martha stop and now she was shaking with shame and she couldn’t see for all the stupid hot tears blinding her…

Polly pressed Martha to her throbbing breasts, her soaked blouse and ran from the room.

“Look what you did,” Teresa fumed to the men as they stared after Polly, temporarily mollified.  “Someone get out there and apologize right now.”  She gave each an icy glare and brandished the pie knife for emphasis.  “Well, who goes?”

Scott tossed his napkin aside and stood.  “I will,” he answered shortly.  “I seemed to have started this fracas in the first place.”

“Scott, we can still discuss it…” Murdoch began.

“No, sir, there’s no need,” Scott replied and swallowed the rest of his wine.  He replaced the glass precisely over the circular indention made on the tablecloth.  “You carry the tune, as Johnny said.  We’re just the – what is the word?” he asked Johnny.

“Peons,” came Johnny’s morose reply.

“I believe that is apt,” Scott continued with a nod of acknowledgement.  “Sorry, Brother, I tried,” he said, walking away, “but apparently our esteemed father has no need of our brains quite yet, just our arms and legs and guts.”

“Scott, I never said…” Murdoch thundered, rising.

“You didn’t have to,” came the reply tossed back over one shoulder.

Murdoch sat back down.  “Where did all that come from?” he asked Johnny.

“Oh, I dunno,” Johnny answered after a moment of watching Teresa resume her slicing of the pie.  He affixed his blue-eyed gaze on his father.  “The baby, I guess.”

“The baby?”  Murdoch frowned.   “Why would the baby make him react like that?”

True, the boy had been a little short-tempered where Martha was concerned, complaining about her cries when no one else had.  Murdoch figured that was just lack of practical experience, but then he really didn’t know just exactly what Scott had been exposed to by way of other children, babies, especially.  Regret took the opportunity to pinch him – he knew so little about his sons, even after nearly four months…

Perhaps, he thought, Scott was still feeling protective of Polly – after all, the baby had been born under his safeguard.  Or was it that he had feelings for the girl?  Feelings that he had yet to sort out – love often made you say no when you meant yes…

Johnny was looking off to the door where his brother had disappeared. Murdoch sensed something from his youngest, something that conjured up slices of the past, of a son that had never known a mother, of another that had known some sort of maternal love – and of a father that had failed them both.

“I guess you’ll just have to ask him that,” Johnny commented, accepting the plate Teresa handed him.

 
CHAPTER 2

Scott arrived in the kitchen just as Maria was reaching for the fretting child.  The remains of dinner preparations crowded about the housekeeper.  Heavy copper pots still steamed savory scents while others sat used and empty on the counters; glasses, plates and serving trays were stacked among them.  Bread was rising under dampened cloths, kettles pumped cloudy breaths, and sudsy water sat ready for washing.  Maria stood calm amidst this controlled chaos.  She was not wilted despite the heated room; her blouse was still fresh, and her face was free of perspiration, and her black hair remained neatly coiled atop her head.

“Here, give her to me,” Maria softly commanded with her soothing accent, her round, brown face holding sympathy.

“No,” Polly shook her head, splattering tears, her auburn hair waving about her shoulders.  “It’s all right – I just – she just – oh-oh…”

Maria clucked softly and gathered the baby from her arms, then saw the ruined blouse.  Scott saw it, too, and took a worried step forward – if the girl was somehow injured…

“It happens, querida,” Maria counseled, propping the baby onto her shoulder.  “Do not worry, there will be enough.  Go to your room and change.  I will give this little one a walk in the garden and then bring her to you.”

Even as she spoke Martha was quieting, fretting with a hiccupping uuuh-uuuh-uhhh that seemed to lull her back to drowsiness.  Scott watched in wonderment as just the touch of the woman’s hands seemed to issue comfort to the child.

“Thank you, Maria, you don’t know…” Polly gushed helplessly.  Tears streaked her reddened cheeks.

“I do know, chica,” Maria smiled broadly at her.  “These hombres are very loud but they mean no harm. Go to change.”  And she gently pushed Polly toward the back stairway.

Scott moved.  “Polly…”

She stiffened and crossed her arms in front of her. “Not now, Scott, please,” Polly answered without turning around, her voice a tremulous mass.

“Leave her alone,” Maria admonished stepping up to him, the baby now a blanketed bundle on her shoulder.

“It’s my fault she’s upset,” Scott insisted, stepping around her.

Maria kept pace.  “It’s not about you--” she corrected then broke off.  Her brown eyes quizzed him.  He frowned back at her.  She glanced to Polly, now warily eyeing them, then down to the baby tucked up near her chin and back up to his face, connecting them with her visual embrace.  “Do not confuse her, hijo,” she told Scott softly.

“I’m not trying to.”  Scott didn’t like that look she was giving him, that stare of wisdom, of a truth that he did not comprehend.

Her free hand squeezed his forearm.  “Beware of what is in your heart, querido,” counseled.

Scott pulled away a trifle roughly but she did not offer complaint.  What could she possibly know about his feelings, anyway?  He hadn’t told anyone what had been niggling him these past few weeks.  He wasn’t even sure if he was even going to broach the subject – it was old but still raw, especially now that he’d arrived at the ranch…But there was nothing between he and Polly, not like she had tried to string together with her eyes.  Not he and Polly – no, not like that…

Scott went her.  Polly let out a little gasp and turned away but he got his hands to her shoulders before she could run.  She resisted, her arms crossing tightly in front of her to hide the mess.

“Polly…” Scott softened his tone because she was shaking. “I shouldn’t have raised that issue at the table,” he told her.  “Not in front of a guest.  I’m sorry…”

“I can’t do it,” she cried, face dropping onto the back of one hand tucked up near her shoulder.  “I can’t do it, Scott.  Everything I do is wrong.  I can’t feed Martha, I can’t comfort her.  I don’t know how to sit at that big table or which fork to use.  I don’t even understand what all you’re talking about.  I’m so dumb…I couldn’t even get married right!”

“Polly, that’s not true and you know it,” Scott responded quickly.

She lifted her face, fresh tears shimmering.  “It is true, Scott.  I hate it – I don’t belong here.”

He searched for encouraging words.  “You’re a new mother and you need time…”

“I’ve given it time!” she wailed in despair.  “Nothing’s better.  I can’t – I just can’t…please don’t be so nice.  I can’t stand you being so nice when you don’t really mean it--”

“We’re not trying to patronize you, Polly.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” she spat out with bitterness and sobbed afresh, turning away.

His heart went out to her, trying so hard in all this strangeness of family and silverware, of manners and the new birth.  Scott again took her shoulders, drew her back against his chest.  She was quaking but did not try to pull away.  “We’re all being sincere,” he amended.  “We all want to help, Polly.  No one’s doing this out of any obligation.  You need help – we’re here for you.” He looked back at Maria staring at him from the garden doorway, her eyes penetrating his skin and bone, warning him.

Slowly Polly relaxed, leaned her head back against Scott’s shoulder.  The scent of her freshly washed hair landed soft against him, along with another scent that tugged him deep inside.

“Do you think I’m stupid?” she asked him in a tiny, worried voice.

His smile curved against her temple.  “No, I don’t think that, and no one else could, either,” he declared.  “You are the most determined woman I’ve ever met.  You’ve got a lot of grit in your heart.”

“Truth?”

“Absolute truth,” he affirmed.

He sensed her smile and released her.  She turned, almost bumping his head with hers.  Her cheeks were splotchy, her nose was red, and her eyes were a blinking, watery green.  She sniffed loudly and dipped her head to wipe off some of the tears onto her crossed arms.

“Better?” Scott asked her with an encouraging smile.

Polly nodded.  “Scott?”

“What?”

“Do you like having me here?”

A prickling sensation crossed along the back of his neck, and Maria seemed to have redoubled the strength of her stare.  “What do you mean?” Scott asked in an even voice.

“You’ve been so busy,” Polly stumbled out over a heaving breath.  “You…”

“What about me?” Scott prompted.

“You’ve barely looked at me since you brought me here – you haven’t talked to me…”

“Polly.”  He said it carefully and then looked down at his boots, feeling the Maria’s chin lift in additional warning.

“Cuidado,” Maria murmured to him.  He understood – be careful…well, he’d opened the lid to this Pandora’s box and it couldn’t be slammed shut so easily.

 “You just had a baby – you’ve been confined to bed…” Scott started.

“Did I lock the door to that fancy room you put me in?” she countered, her own chin coming up.

He re-composed his features. “No,” he told her.  “But the doctor said you needed time to recover.  And it wasn’t proper to…”

"Proper?” Polly grinned as her brows rose.  “Scott Lancer, you’re trying to tell me what’s proper after we…”

“Polly, we’re not out on the trail,” he reminded her, wishing she’d turn from it.  He eased away from her. “This is my family’s home…and there are certain ways a man has to behave with a woman--”

“Johnny came to see me – in my room,” she softly challenged.

That silenced him.  He breathed evenly, thinking about that.  Johnny knew her, of course, had admitted it that day when Scott had quickly introduced them.

Well, his brother’s manners were of his own making.  But Scott forced back his jerk of irritation at Johnny’s callous – or perhaps not so callous – intentions.  Then he shut off his thoughts because he didn’t really know what his brother’s intentions were and speculating was only giving him a fresh burn in his belly that could not possibly be jealousy…

“That’s Johnny’s business,” he finally allowed, and knew it wasn’t enough.

Polly nodded and let her eyes drop again.  She sighed and sagged, wiped at her nose, then straightened.  “Well, no matter,” she said, determination flecking her green eyes with emerald glints.  She swallowed.  “It’s time I think about moving on.”

“Moving onto where?” Scott demanded.  No, this was not right – it wouldn’t work, what with her alone…  “What can you do?  You’ve got Martha to…”

“I know, but I can’t stay here and just take your charity…” Polly’s chin wobbled and tears shined afresh in her eyes but she went on.  “You’ve already done too much.”

He wondered about the meaning of that – in some respects he felt like he hadn’t done enough, but in others it appeared he had gone way too far in ‘helping.’  “It’s no burden,” he told her.  “You can stay as long as you like.  We’re just not used to infants in the house…”

She managed a smirk and he felt a burn touch his ears.  True, he didn’t know his way around babies, but that wasn’t the reason for his frustration.  Hell, he wasn’t sure of the reason for his frustration.  The baby, he supposed, acted the same as any other infant.  Johnny and Murdoch, and even Teresa seemed comfortable enough with Martha.  Johnny and the baby, Murdoch and the infant…Murdoch and children…

Murdoch and a child, his child…

Scott pushed the conjured image aside.

“Martha and me, we’ll be all right,” Polly told him.  “The Foleys won’t be a bother anymore – you all made sure of that.  It’s time I find a place for myself.”

“You can’t possibly do this by yourself,” he ground out.  Just what did she think she could do – haul that baby back to a dancehall?

“We’ll manage, I said,” she insisted over the new frustration sweeping his features.  “Please, I don’t want to talk about it now.”  She glanced down.  “Just know that we’ll be leaving soon – after Friday, when we go to town.  It’ll be best – for everyone...”

Spur of the moment, he decided, scrutinizing her.  Maybe it had been unwise to her back here – old Maria could have looked after her well enough, and had even offered to just that. But he’d wanted to offer her more.  A chance to see that she did not have to settle for someone like Frank Foley, whom he had never even met but knew the kind.  An opportunity to better herself, find some confidence…But how exactly could he offer her that?  And just what did she think he was offering?

“Polly…” He placed quiet hands back onto her shoulders even as Maria’s glare pierced him. He wanted her to know kindness and generosity, friendship...but not what seemed to suddenly stirring between them.

She looked up to him with those large green eyes, her generous mouth open and her breath quickening.  “I – I wish…” she stammered even as his fingers caught her reaching hand, folded over and squeezed, warmth pressing against her suddenly cold skin.

“Polly.”  His voice dragged out her name.  Slowly he drew her hand down, hoping he was letting her heart down gently, too; his own was sagging in his chest with blame.  His eyes bored into her.  “We shouldn’t…”

Polly jerked back, yanked her hand out of his grasp.  And then she slapped him.

“I hate you!” She whirled and tore up the stairway – a door slammed above.

Silence seeped into the room – even the hissing pots and kettles had lapsed into a doze.  Scott stood there, his cheek smarting, and sighed.  Behind him Maria stirred. He dropped his head.  No need to see her face – he knew she was wearing disappointment in her brown eyes.

“Everything all right?”

Johnny was leaning with one shoulder against a cabinet.  His eyes, cool and blue, swept over everything tangible and intangible, and landed on the red mark rising on Scott’s cheek.

“A little too taken with you, is she?” he asked Scott.  He pushed away from the furniture and sauntered forward. “Well, I s’pose that’s not unexpected, considering you saved her life.”

“Hush, Juanito,” Maria scolded on an intake of breath.  She came up to the two of them.  “She does not hate you, querido,” she told Scott.  “She is…¿cómo se dice? No entiende todo lo que le pidan.  El parto hace que se sienta así.  A veces causa daño a la mente, llena el corazón.”

Johnny’s brows rose but he obediently translated. “She doesn’t understand everything asked of her.  The birthing makes her feel this way.  Maria says it harms the mind, fills the heart.”

“Well, she’s pretty taken with your generosity,” Scott countered, the fire in his belly fueling up.  “Private visits to her room, and the like.”

Johnny’s smile turned a fraction curious.  He found something in Scott, or on him, that took a moment to scrutinize, then said, “That’s because me and Polly--”

Scott raised an arm, palm out.  “Don’t, Brother.”  He shook his head.  “It doesn’t warrant an explanation.”  And he strode out the garden door and disappeared around a corner.

++++++++++++

“I don’t hate him,” Polly whispered as Maria slipped a fresh nightgown over her upraised arms.  She sniffed back some errant tears.

“He knows,” Maria told her confidently, gathering her long, weighted auburn hair and drawing it out of the neck of the wide collar.

“How can he?  I yelled at him, I hit him…” she broke off and turned away.

“He does not blame you,” Maria said.  “He knows how hard it has been for you.”

“How?” Polly insisted, moving to the bed and checking her sleeping daughter.  Martha lay in the middle of the wide mattress, covered by two blankets and sleeping peacefully.  “How can he know anything?  He hasn’t been around long enough--”

No, she wouldn’t think of it.  He’d had his reasons for staying clear of her and she now knew them.  She had known them all along.  He belonged here, in this big house and on this big ranch with all its land and its finery – and she did not.  Well, that was all right.  She would move on, she and Martha.  She didn’t need Scott Lancer, or men of his kind.  Men didn’t care; they just didn’t have it in them to care.  Her father hadn’t cared, Frank hadn’t cared…Johnny Lancer hadn’t cared, either…And Scott…

“The young señor knows.” Maria gave her a smile.  She moved about the room, gathering dirty linens and clothing, straightening items askew from Polly’s fingering.  “His heart does not lie,” she continued under her breath but did not translate it to her young charge.

Polly did not move for a long moment, just looked down at Martha.

“How long have you been here, Maria?  How long have you been working for the Lancers?”  Polly edged onto the bed, smoothing the top blanket covering Martha.

“Many years I have worked for El Jefe.”

“El jefe – the old man, you mean?  Mr. Lancer?”

“Sí.”

“But what about Johnny – and Scott?”

“They have only been here unos meses – a few months.  They did not grow up here.”

“What happened?”

“Many things happened, querida.  Los hijos no conocían a su padre –  the sons did not know their father.  Why do you ask?”

“I knew Johnny before…he never said anything about all this.”  Polly lifted her hand and left it drift about.  “And Scott – his manners just don’t seem to fit…”

“Juanito does not belong here in your room,” Maria scolded gently.  “You should keep him away like Señor Scott says.”

“I know…but he’s the only one I know here, Maria.”  Polly came off the bed.  “He’s not like the rest of them.  He understands what it’s like to be out of place…”

“Still, it is not right,” Maria persisted.  “Señor Scott…”

“Do you think I care about what Scott thinks?” Polly scoffed.  She eyed her reflection in the dresser mirror.  “He doesn’t own me.”

“But he does own this house.”  Maria’s image edged into view.

“And I’m soiling it, is that what you mean?” Polly asked crossly.

Maria gave her a sad smile.  “You are too hard on yourself, querida,” she said, placing a consoling hand on Polly’s shoulder.  “You are whatever you believe.  And do not judge the young señor so harshly.  He stays away because he cares…”

She took a breath to say more but a knock at the door interrupted her.  Polly’s heart jumped at the rap on wood.  Scott—

Teresa’s smiling face appeared.  “Is everything all right?  Maria, I brought the sherry…” At Maria’s hand of invitation she came in with a tray bearing a decanter and a small crystal glass.  There wasn’t much of the dark red liquid inside that fancy pitcher, Polly noticed, but it danced inside that glass all the same.  A seductive dance, and one that invited enjoyment.

Polly stared at the liquor then up at Maria – finally, someone understood what she really needed…

“To make you feel better, perhaps?” Maria gave her a quiet smile.  “Just a glass – or two.  Not much…you need to think of your little niña.”

“You didn’t get to finish your dinner,” Teresa began, setting the tray on the bureau top.  “I can get some for you, Polly…”

“No, I’m not all that hungry,” Polly replied.  But her thirst had been huge, and now it was about to be slaked.

“Why don’t I take Martha so you can lie down for a while?” Teresa suggested.  “Then I can bring her to you when she next needs feeding.  It might give you some more time to sleep.”

Polly lifted her eyes from the warm depths of the decanter.  “That’d be real nice,” she replied, wondering if her voice sounded eager. Maria was frowning at her now, and her brown eyes went back to the tray.  Polly settled onto the bed, edging her feet over to the little warm spot left by Martha’s tiny body.  Maria gave her another one of those looks of warning, then collected Teresa and the baby and left the room.

And left her alone.

But not without a friend.

Polly got off the bed and crossed the room to the bureau.  She touched the pretty glass decanter, let her fingers slide along the long smooth neck.  Not much, she decided, but some…

Enough to ease that edginess she’d felt since Scott Lancer had deposited her in this room three weeks ago. Enough to feel like a proper mother to her daughter, and to take on the Lancers, all of them, fancy china, poetry and all.

Enough to be what Scott Lancer would want in a woman, fancy and fine, pretty and smart.  He stays away because he cares, Maria had sad.  Bah!  He didn’t care – he’d told her plain enough.  Scott only cared about one thing – power.  And she needed to stand up to his power, his need for control.  He wanted too much control – she could see that he liked having his way, or negotiating to a spot where he would be satisfied.  And the only way she knew how to combat that was to either come at him with her saloon experience, or leave.

And she wasn’t afraid of leaving.

He’ll hate you, her tears hissed at her.  He’ll throw you out before you have a chance to leave.

“He won’t know,” she said aloud to the room.

He’ll take Martha from you...

“He doesn’t have the right – Martha is mine.”  She looked back at the indentation where her baby had been sleeping.  “She’s mine.  And I don’t need him telling me what to do.  He – he…”

Her heart clenched and the tears clucked and rose up in her eyes.  Angrily Polly swiped at them.  No, she did not care about Scott Lancer, did not care what he thought – about her.  She did not – could not.

Don’t.

It was faint, just a tiny whisper, a plea to stop that came from somewhere beneath her breastbone, a little voice that made her heart flutter.

He cares...

She almost gave into it, wanted to believe it so badly.  But it was so small, so insubstantial, gasping for more than she had in her to give to it.

“The hell he does,” she declared out loud and felt a withering inside her, the quiet dying like a brown leaf falling from an unwatered plant, curled and brittle, raspy and dry, cast aside to mingle with the other detritus already on the floor, to be trod on by uncaring feet, scuffed and crushed into nothingness…

Polly removed the stopper nestled into the decanter, laid it carefully aside.  Then she picked up the stemmed glass and admired the fancy etching.

She filled it--

And drank.

 
CHAPTER 3

Murdoch glanced out over the darkened yard one last time, smiling in satisfaction at the quietude.  His evening turnabouts had shifted from guarding his holdings to inspecting them.  Before his sons had arrived, he and Cipriano and the last remaining vaqueros had split patrols to secure the house and the range for intruders, namely Pardee.  Part of Murdoch’s early recuperation from Pardee’s bullet had been long walks about the yard with a rifle, checking outbuildings and stock for safety, protecting all that he could with a painful limp and a worried heart.  Now that Johnny and Scott had arrived, ample hands hired and the threat of land pirates eliminated, his evening walks were a way to soothe away the daily frustrations of running a vast ranch.  Here in the darkness he could ease his mind away from broken fences and downed cattle, equipment repairs and lack of profits.  And seek objectivity for his recurring arguments with Johnny – and sometimes Scott.  But more and more he was using the time for personal reflections on his life – and his past.

He was infinitely glad, of course, that both his sons had chosen to stay on and run Lancer.  They were official one-third owners now.  And the boys at least seemed to be getting accustomed to the rhythm and life of the ranch, the sweat required to keep it running, the need for fencing and water, fighting sun and rain and heat to sustain their livelihood, coddling ornery and often stupid cattle like their own children….

Children.

His sons, his children.

Grown men but still his offspring, creations of the coupling of he and his wives, first Catherine and then Maria.  Strangers in still so many aspects, but every day brought more knowledge of them, of their backgrounds, of their intelligence, their passions, and their ethical natures…and of their apparent growing trust in each other.

And their apparent scorn for their old man.

Murdoch stepped out of the welcome yellow light of the portico to lean against a colonnade and think about that.  To say that he’d been surprised – and dismayed – at Scott’s dinner announcement about the telegram was accurate.  Since the signing of the deed establishing their equal ownership of Lancer Scott and Johnny had offered suggestions for change or improvement, but had refrained from independent decisions. Murdoch took that as a sign of acceptance that he was in charge – calling the tune, as he’d told them that first day.  Oh, there had been run-ins and plenty of words, especially over Johnny’s desire to establish an equine operation, but that had been more of a difference of belief and opinion than over the operation itself.  Now Johnny was working diligently toward building up the herd from those found on the range.  And their initial sales had been well received, profitable even.

Scott, meanwhile, had acclimated himself to the diverse ranch portfolio, figuring accounts, and suggesting investments and banking strategies.  The rest of his time had been applied to ranch operations.  Many nights Scott had been the last to come in from the range and among the dirtiest of the hands.  According to Cipriano, what the eldest Lancer son lacked in practical experience he more than made up in physical effort by rounding up strays, stringing fence, surveying, repairing bridges, digging wells, and storing supplies.  None of it was easy and all of it guaranteed sore muscles and exhaustion.  But Scott had not complained, even when some of the hands took advantage of his Boston background to offer their crude humor involving manure and broken hay bales, sagging fence and numerous other calamities that required second attention.  Scott had given payback, however, and a few bloody noses and his own clever jokes ensured that the hands were at least more accepting of him.  And his skill with a rifle could not be matched.  Murdoch wondered if that had come with his military experience or something else.  Not that it mattered – between Scott’s prowess with a carbine and Johnny’s ability with a Colt the ranch was well protected.  And at the end of the day Scott still possessed enough humor to participate in a game of chess or checkers, or to read a chapter from the many books he had brought with him, or to engage his father in the latest offerings from the newspaper.  It was these quiet times Murdoch enjoyed the most with his son, when Scott invited a peek into his personal life, his education and upbringing, his affinity for culture.  What Murdoch gained from time in the saddle with Johnny he obtained from a different leather seat with Scott.

Except tonight might not be so comfortable due to that argument at dinner.  Murdoch sighed and ruefully thought about Johnny’s response that the issue was refused just on principle.  Well, the issue had not been completely discussed and the telegram had been presumptuous on Scott’s part.  Had his oldest son intentionally chosen this time to challenge authority?  Or was it something else, something Johnny had so briefly referenced – something about the baby?  Had Scott been acting differently since he’d brought Polly and Martha to the house?  Murdoch hadn’t noticed anything overly amiss but Johnny had apparently seen something.  With that absorbing blue-eyed gaze of his, Johnny managed a loose detachment that allowed him a lot of objectivity.  Scott was more direct in his scrutiny, and his silence usually meant serious contemplation. So was there something about the baby that had him rattled?  Unlike Johnny, who had an easygoing manner with the child, Scott did seem distant, almost aloof, but he had a tendency toward that anyway, if a few scant months at Lancer was enough time to make that sort of judgment.  Upbringing was the most obvious difference between his sons…

Murdoch gave the darkness a last breath and headed inside.  If Scott was still up there could be a discussion about the Army and the sale of horses.   But he wasn’t up for any debate about independence or authority tonight, not just yet.

There were two lamps still glowing in the great room, but the fire was ebbing and the candles had been extinguished.  Scott was not seated in the armchair perusing a chapter as Murdoch expected, but sat upright on one end of the sofa facing the fireplace, tiny bundled Martha held high in his arms.

Murdoch’s brows rose at the sight.  Except for that first day when Teresa had placed the newborn into Scott’s arms as sort of an honor since he had been the one to stand by Polly, he had not held the baby since.  Come to think of it, he had but all ignored the child, and had increasingly complained about her ill-timed wails.  The rest of them eagerly held her for exhausted Polly, and made those silly little cooing noises that babies brought out in all adults – well, not all, it seemed…

Scott was watching the baby; the flickering firelight warmed the skin of his hands and face and silvered his fair hair.  His grip on the child was fierce, however, as if he was afraid that she would somehow wriggle out of his grasp and fall to the floor. Murdoch thought about suggesting that he loosen his hands, let the baby sleep across his lap – Johnny had always liked sleeping that way, without restriction – but he didn’t want to offend his son by bringing attention to his awkwardness and reminding him how his father had earned some knowledge of babies.

“Finally got roped into playing nursemaid?” Murdoch ventured as he approached.

Scott’s head came up quickly, a wisp of tenderness melting out of his eyes.  “Last resort,” he retorted, arranging his features into something less emotional.  “Maria’s gone home and Johnny’s headed to bed.  Teresa wanted to finish with some of the baby’s washing…”

“Yes, they do make a lot of that,” Murdoch commented with remembrance, then jerked himself into silence as his son bowed his head once more.  Murdoch bit his lip and swore inside his mind, but that wasn’t any better since the first expletive that came to mind was a Spanish one.  His past was exclusionary to Scott, and his son was feeling it mighty big tonight.

Scott again glanced his way.  “The ledgers are all completed, sir.”  He nodded to the large desk by the darkened window.  “I left them out if you want to review my entries.”

And still smarting over the argument at dinner, Murdoch guessed, then thought it unfair since Scott’s habit thus far was to always leave the books out for final inspection once he had posted in them.

Murdoch nodded but Scott did not notice, as his gaze had now fastened onto the lowering fire.  He still held Martha high and tight, almost tucked under his chin.  Surely his arms were tired, especially if had been holding her for any length of time.  But Murdoch clamped his lips shut and settled into the chair at his desk to check the books.  Acutely correct, as always, he noted, running a large blunt finger down the neatly aligned rows of numbers recorded in Scott’s confident strokes.

“Looks all in order,” he commented, glancing up as he heard the baby squeak.

It was almost comical the way that Scott shot up off the sofa in one stiff-legged jump, as if a fire-hot coal had burned through the seat of his pants.  He went rigid, planted firmly on his boots, his face naked with terror.  The baby squirmed loose of the blanket, tiny fisted hands pumping at air, covered legs jerking up and down.  That new little face scrunched, eyes clinched shut, and the baby-bird mouth opened.

“Oh, now…” Scott voice wavered.  “Now, now…” He took a panicked step, well, a hop really.  Then another one.  If he had taken a third then Murdoch would be convinced he was dancing a jig.  A jerky sort of jig from a generally graceful man who probably knew the intricate steps of every popular ballroom dance.  “Don’t cry – don’t…”

“Here.”  Murdoch came around to face him.  “She’s fine,” he assured Scott as Martha’s tongue slipped out over her lips.  She squeaked and grimaced.  “Loosen a little.”  His hands came about his quaking son’s arms, counseled with a tap.  “There – that’s better for the both of you, I think.”  He smiled as Scott’s grasp obeyed and lowered to a more comfortable position across his chest.  “All right?”

Scott gave him a tiny, terse smile of thanks and Murdoch dropped his hands, trying to hold back the flush of guilt working into his cheeks.  For a moment his imagination dipped into the future and gave him a vision of his son – this son – holding his own child, a fair-haired grandson to honor the Lancer legacy, and it filled him with unabashed pride…

“I haven’t had much experience with children,” Scott allowed between stiff lips.  He lowered his gaze back onto Martha’s face, now composed again in sleep, then it slipped past Murdoch to stare toward the darkening fireplace again.

A leak opened in Murdoch’s heart and his pride fell into the black chasm.  The past, the damned past and its tortuous regrets.  In its murky mists he saw a lonely little blond boy, still and obedient…sad…

“Did you leave any broken hearts back in Boston?” Murdoch teased to cover up his gaffe.

Scott lifted one corner of his mouth in a smile.  “Maybe one or two,” he admitted, his glance to Murdoch far from boastful, almost shy in the way his eyes did not quite reach his father’s face.  “But I’ve never considered children…the responsibility of them, I mean.  The attention needed to raise them, to teach them…”

“It comes by instinct,” Murdoch said.

Sapphire glitter dashed with purple flashed from Scott’s eyes as he fastened them onto his father.  “Teresa was born on Lancer,” Murdoch reminded his son.  “After her mother…well, Paul and I raised her.”

And Johnny, too, for a while… swirled out in the air between them.

“You’ve done a fine job with the girl,” Scott perfunctorily replied, then softened his tone into forgiveness that Murdoch knew he did not deserve.  “She’s a fine young lady.”

Murdoch swallowed and smiled fondly at Martha.  “And this one is a perfect little being,” he said.

“In an imperfect world,” Scott responded with a contrite sigh. He thrust the baby at his father.

Murdoch took the infant and settled her into the embrace of one long arm.  They really should find something for the child to lie in, a basket or a cradle…

“Polly wants to leave,” Scott told him.

“Was this her decision?” Murdoch probed, wondering about the inflection that had accompanied the tone of his son’s voice.

“Completely,” Scott answered.  Murdoch thought he had erased all the skepticism off his own face but Scott continued, “Murdoch, I’ve no reason to deny her anything she might need. She can’t possibly raise this child without help.  It would be – it could have tragic results.”

“Well, Scott, plenty of women have raised children on their own and without a husband.  The War proved that.”

Scott took a few steps in his long stride.  “But she has no family, no one to turn to for help.”

“Do you want to offer her something here?”

Scott sighed, conflict sweeping his features.  He turned toward the fireplace, raised both hands to the mantle and leaned.  He was considering it, Murdoch guessed, and frowned.  Just how honorable was his son?  Would he marry the girl to give the baby a proper name? Then what?  Opt out with a divorce?  Try to make it work? Or perhaps he and Polly…

Murdoch reached out a large finger to stroke Martha’s smooth head.  “If you’ve got feelings for Polly…” he began.

“I’ve no feelings for the girl, sir,” Scott returned frostily, whirling to stand erect.  “Not in the manner you’ve just insinuated.”  Too much bite in that response, Murdoch gauged, but knew he would not counsel his son over this – not when his own two marriages had encountered similar issues of culture.

Scott gave off a sigh and let his shoulders slope.  “It appears that I have led Polly to believe otherwise,” he continued.  “Tonight she…” He shook his head and sighed again, and his arms crossed over his chest to hold in the rest.

“Perfectly understandable,” Murdoch consoled.  “You’re probably the first one to ever offer her genuine kindness, the kind that doesn’t require compensation.  She’d be drawn to that.”  And to a good measure of handsomeness, too, Murdoch thought to himself.  Scott was a good-looking young man.  That and his one-third ownership of this ranch would make him a good prospect for any woman.  And Polly had so little, if what Johnny had told him was true…

“I do like her,” Scott said to his chest.  “Just not in that way… I admire her for what she is trying to do.  I want to help her – like a good friend would help another…”

Just how much was he not admitting, Murdoch wondered?  Not like Scott to make a lot of fuss over something he deemed casual.  Just from the short time he had been here Murdoch had seen him display a very complete and decisive nature.  Oh, he’d argue his point and passionately so if he felt the need, but he rarely wasted words.  Tonight, however, he seemed to have misplaced his articulate manner, and the words were coming up haphazard in their delivery.

“Well, perhaps we can find Polly someplace to live and work, to earn some money to support herself and Martha,” Murdoch suggested.

Scott’s head came back around. “Such as?”

Murdoch shrugged.  “There are other ranches in the area that could always used extra help.”  Too close by, he thought seeing the look of strain cross his son’s face.  Marriage really wasn’t on his mind, then.  “I’ve investment acquaintances through San Francisco,” he tried instead. “Perhaps one of them could use Polly in their home.”

Scott’s relief was instantly palpable.  “If you could look into that that, sir, I would be grateful.”

“We’d have to ask Polly, of course, and see what she thinks of this idea,” Murdoch reminded him.

“I’m sure Polly would...”

Murdoch chuckled.  “Don’t be too assuming, son, not with any woman, especially one who has just given birth.  They’re about as unpredictable as those expecting.”  Then he clamped his teeth down onto his tongue hard enough to taste the blood.  “Polly has a lot of things on her mind,” he added, swallowing to accept the salty tang as repentance.  “And this might not be what she wants to hear just now.”

Scott stepped over to him without acknowledging the blunder. “But we need to discuss it with her before she decides to leave on her own.”

“I agree.  But remember that this is her decision.  We can’t make it for her.  It’s the best we can offer,” Murdoch said, “considering her plight.  Unless…” He shook his head.

“What?” Scott prompted.

Murdoch hesitated because the idea, while completely sound, had a taste to it he didn’t like, bitter and sour…  “Unless she wants to give the child up – give her to another family, a good family in need,” he said slowly and wished he hadn’t.  But it wasn’t the same, it hadn’t happened that way.  It never should have…  “If she felt she couldn’t – or didn’t want…” he got out, feeling his own grasp of words stumble against his emotion.

Scott considered it with a dip of his head.  “Anyone in the area you know?” he asked softy, looking back up.

Murdoch’s breath hitched at his son’s consideration of the idea.  “Well, there are different family needs, Scott.  There are a number of good families in the area that would be glad to take Martha in, raise her as their own.  She could help any hard-working farm or ranch wife.” He swallowed, trying to ease the idea down into his gut and make it settle.  It landed harshly but he kept it there.  “Then again, we could make inquiries to Sacramento or Stockton, San Francisco perhaps, see if we might not find a place where she can gain a good education…” He nodded to himself; this was better.  “This part of the state still has needs, legal and cultural and economic…I guess it depends on what Polly wants.”

Scott absently paced, ideas still apparently in his mind.  Murdoch watched as his lips twice parted to speak, but both times he closed them together and took another few steps.

“Scott, it has to be her decision,” he told his son.

“I know that, sir.  It just seems that the logical one…”

“All a matter of perspective, son – don’t forget that.”

Scott stiffened a little at that but did not respond. Now he paused by the massive desk, lifted the ledgers and crossed around to put them away.

“Drop that letter into the middle drawer, would you?”  Murdoch, asked, glad for an excuse to change the subject.  He indicated with his chin the envelope he’d left at the top of his desk, an invitation to attend a stockholders meeting later this year in San Francisco.  “Sorry,” he chuckled as Scott worked at the sticky drawer, getting it partway open and thrusting his bandaged hand into the fray of half-released papers.  “Appears I have to clean that out – not much in there…”

“Certainly no pencils,” Scott declared with a smile, accepting the shift of topic with no lingering consternation.  “Tried looking for one once and only found a lot of invitations like this one.  You’re a popular man in these parts.”

“Well, I think has more to do with my portfolio than my personal charm,” Murdoch wryly responded, glad that the friction between them had so quickly subsided.

Scott’s smile held as looked down at his disappearing forearm.  “You’ve got something caught in here…”

Murdoch let him fuss with the unseen item and gave the sleeping baby in his arms an indulgent gaze – such innocence…was that a smile she was giving off?  How could a mother leave such a child?  How could a father--?

“Sir?”

Murdoch’s looked up and their eyes met – Scott locked onto his gaze with a blue burning light.  He was holding something in his hand – Murdoch squinted a little in the lowering light, and his belly went cold.

He recognized the large, blunt frame that filled Scott’s hands, didn’t even have to see the photograph that it held.  And it was apparent from the crush of emotions crossing his son’s face that Scott also recognized the face peering back at him.

And why not? His grandfather would have had some photographs of her about, perhaps even a painting or two – there was the portrait of her that Murdoch had once seen in the drawing room of that cold, imposing house, painted in honor of her debut, she’d said…

Catherine – once his wife, and forever Scott’s mother.

His guts twisted and he had to move.  Murdoch came forward but stopped after only three steps, paralyzed by the chill of the past that had once again swept into the room on an icy breath.  He tried to speak but his mouth had lost all spittle and his throat was thick with a painful lump.  His steps died and he stood there, holding the baby, his arms curiously empty with the past…

He’d forgotten it was there, stashed deep and face down, interred in a morass of bitter success and plunging memories.  The day came back to him again, that brilliantly bright, vibrant October day of clear azure sky and blazing color that only New England could provide.  That sneering house on Beacon Hill, old with wealth.  The party he’d stepped into, the childish laughter rippling the air…the little boy he’d finally met, all of five years old, blond, polite, serious…

That bright and awful day he’d officially given up his son.

Scott was silent, eyes intent upon the image.  He held the frame between his palms, the bandaged and un-bandaged one, a long finger from each hand stroking the thick – and wrenchingly tarnished – frame, seemingly trying to gather a tangible touch from it.  Murdoch watched him, his own breath shallow from a weight in his lungs that refused to let them squeeze.

Slowly Scott looked up; his gaze re-connected with Murdoch.  “Perhaps you should find another place for this,” he suggested in a voice that was not quite his own, too controlled, too thin – and too cool.  This time there was no glitter from his eyes.  They were dark, nearly black, and fathomless.

Murdoch worked his throat, the baby suddenly a weighted stone in his arms.  “Son, I…” Dios, this was not right, it was all wrong…he didn’t even know what to say over the damned lump choking him.  Apologize for discarding the memory of his wife?  Utter some promise for making it better? Talk about her beauty, her faith, and her love for her unborn son?  Offer the picture to Scott – would that be an insult?  Surely he had his own?  But perhaps not…

Scott wiped his fingers over the glass covering the image, brushing at some dust, then carefully placed the frame upon the desk.  His hand lingered but finally let go, releasing him from whatever was working in him, longing, bitterness…emptiness – the truth…

“Good night,” he murmured to the frame and stepped away from the desk.

Murdoch turned and watched him leave, long legs carrying him behind the sofa and well away from his father.  By the time he reached the doorway he was almost running, and hopped up the step toward the stairway.  Murdoch heard his boots pounding up the stairs, then nothing more.

A dense blanket of silence shrouded the room; it combined with the sudden gloom and pressed down upon Murdoch.  The weight pushed him back down onto the sofa.  He eased the baby into his broad lap, forced his hands up to his face and fingered the wetness on his cheeks.

“Oh, Catherine,” he sighed softly to the last light of the fireplace.  “What have I done?”

++++++++++++++

Scott ran up the stairs and down the hall, chased by the unseen thing following him from the great room, that cold, many-fingered thing that had rushed out from the photograph and wrapped around his torso, seeking entrance to his heart.  A filmy, whispery thing, breathing of a past that he did not know and had only imagined, a past where husband and wife were also mother and father, living and loving.  And then in the instant when he had held that dirty frame in his hands, stroking the calm, loving face that stared through him, the eyes so achingly familiar, he’d choked on the cruel reality of a mother never known and long dead, of a father missing, and of a kind and benevolent grandfather that tried to be both maternal and paternal—

And the unbelievable idea that this woman, so beautiful, had been married to the man standing before him – the man he had only begun to consider as his father.

It had rushed over him, demented and twisted, crazy and illogical.  The vast room lost all available air and reached into his lungs for more.  He was suffocating just standing there.  He had to move, had to leave.  He couldn’t even think, only mumbled something – politely enough, he hoped – and fled like a child from a snapping dog.

He paused at the doorway to his room, gasping and winded, sweat coating his brow and prickling the back of his neck.  Slowly the air around him stilled, edging some calm into his brain and slowing his heartbeat.  Better…

A sound, a soft rustling made him start.

The door to Polly’s room was open, a low light illuminating the doorway with a suffused glow.  She must have made that sound.  Sleeping probably, or rolling over.

Or perhaps she was not well.  She’d been fairly upset with him, after all.  And just having a baby…she’d only been up and around for a few days.  Perhaps it had been too soon.

He shouldn’t check.  Teresa would soon be up with the baby.  It wasn’t his business.  It wasn’t right.  He’d chastised her for allowing Johnny into her room, so how could he?

But she was his business – he’d appointed himself her guardian.  And if she was truly ill…

He ate up the space between doorways and had crossed her threshold before he could stop his feet.

She was asleep in the bed facing him, one hand crossed in front of her in a self-hug, the covers drawn over her chest and tucked under her chin.  She breathed softly and evenly, lips barely parted.  Her hair was russet in the lowering lamplight, and a pleasant blush splashed her cheeks pink.

He retreated, feeling guilty.

“Scott?”  Teresa stood at the top of the stairs, Martha in her arms.  She approached.  “Is everything all right?”

“Fine,” he rushed.  “Fine.”  He straightened.  “I thought I heard a noise…she’s asleep.”

Teresa tsked.  “Poor thing – she’s worn out.  And now I’ll have to wake her to feed Martha. I hate to do it…”

She moved forward and Scott backed away, treading air.

“Are you sure…?” she asked.

“Yes, yes,” he sputtered and turned from her.  In a few strides he’d reached the safety of his room.  He closed the door, took a breath that only tightened his chest, and began to undress.

 
CHAPTER 4

Not yet daylight, but it was coming.

He extricated himself from the tangle of sweaty bedcovers and stood; the carpet was now familiar to his feet and cool from the floorboards underneath.  Good, something to quench the burn from that murky dream of heat and bodies, slicked skin and probing lips, sensitized fingers exploring hills and hollows and other shadowy spaces...and the raw explosion that resulted.

Scott made his way to the washstand, poured water, splashed his face several times, the healing scar puckering his right hand rough against his cheek.  The water soothed his flushed skin as it ran down his face and dripped off his chin to trickle down his heated chest.  He sent a handful to the back of his neck and let it spread across his knotted shoulders, finger its way down his spine and spread across his bare hips and thighs, the backs of his legs.  Better – the heat was easing, that throbbing was lessening.  His tumbled thoughts were turning away from the dream.  A full wash was in order but this would do – for now.

He straightened, let the rivulets of water work down and down, shivering with the chill it produced as the trailing beads tickled skin and evaporated.  Water-cooled palms pressed against still burning eyes, soothed the pulse, and soaked up the rest of the fading images behind them.  He raked fingers through his sweaty hair, releasing the heat stored under the coated strands and letting the air slip across his weighted scalp.  He was damned dry on the inside – all the water seemed to have leached through his skin, so he padded back to the bedside table and guzzled a tumbler of water poured from the glass pitcher placed there.  He drank fast to flood his insides and offset the thrum inside him that resisted acquiescence, then made his way to the window.

The sky was a canvas of glowing color; rosy pink pushed into fading blue, and emerging ribbons of orange and yellow announced the emergence of the sun.  Below the horizon the landscape still brooded, waiting for the light to wash it with the golds and greens he so enjoyed.  Scott watched the sun rise from behind that soft horizontal line, breathed with the calm it evoked, the subtle lighting of the sky and blending of colors like a Hudson River School artist’s brush, blending and blending until that perfect blue color appeared and reduced the sun to its single yellow orb.  Light rushed over the grasses and trees, defining them with their proper color again, establishing their existence and fixing them in their permanence.

Until three weeks ago he hadn’t had a dream like that in months, not since he’d left Boston for his journey here.  Not since that final night at home, that farewell party thrown by friends, that last hallway encounter with a pouting Barbara.  Three months, closer now to four.  New months of dust and dirt, of bawling, slobbering cattle and some men no better, of endless bales of hay, sweat and horses, of post rails and piercing coils of wire, of saddle leather and tired joints.  An occasional beer in town, a lot of whiskey in the great room, and some fine meals that made up for the long days out on the range.  A few feminine faces that reminded him that there was more to this than scruffy, stinking men and animals – Teresa, Maria and Juanita, mainly.  But little more – plenty of books that he had no time to read, no music, no outings, no group of friends, no plays or operas, no rides to the ocean in a carriage with a beautiful woman whose lips tasted like the salty air that blew across the sand…

No women, period.

Women…

He hadn’t told Murdoch last night the complete truth about those broken hearts left in Boston. He’d considered marriage at one point, and seriously.  Julie Dennison…

Even now she popped softly – and warmly – into his mind, stirring up snippets of his dream and awakening his dozing nerves.  They’d been engaged, deliriously happy, fully immersed in each other, deeply in love.  She was beautiful, dark-haired and cultured, of a fairly wealthy family.  She wasn’t so different than himself, not so different than all his friends and acquaintances, and of those his grandfather set before him in the name of personal and professional prestige.  Everyone said they were a pair perfectly suited to the other.  Her beauty matched his own fine looks, and her dark tresses and petite stature contrasted easily with his blond lithe form.  Her ready smile and gregarious manner provided the exquisite balance to his more serious nature. They both enjoyed fine music and fine dining, and the classics and the theater.  They were members of well-known and established social circles that gathered at one house or another, at one dining establishment or another, a great camaraderie of friends that seemed to belong together.

He’d thought he could be infinitely happy with Julie.  She was the best part of his life.  Just the thoughts of his once emotional closeness to her and the physical intimacy he’d begun to offer her had the hairs on his skin re-aroused, nudging something else to life.  There’d been stolen kisses of linked tongues in the very back row at the opera, afternoon picnics of exploring hands in a glade deep in the park, salon trysts at the dance…

And they’d had that row.

Remembering that argument of vehement emotion increased the feeling that had been drumming back up in him, but it was now filtered by a measure of remorse.  He’d rebounded first, behaving a little too recklessly for all but his hardiest friends.  Drank a little too socially (and a lot more privately), attended a few too many soirees where the guests employed nefarious backgrounds.  Gambled a little too seriously, worked his grandfather’s accounting books with a lot less enthusiasm.  Met and wooed a few too many eager ladies – and some of them a decade or more his senior.  He’d still been at it when that Pink had caught up to him, just down the street from Barbara’s house.  Any closer and the man would have caught him as he’d hastily exited from that balcony.  But there’d been no women since then.  Well, he hadn’t had any time to even consider any available ladies in the area – he’d been too damned tired, too sore, too hot, too outright exhausted to even put a finger of attention to thoughts of trysts and touches, of seduction – of the rawness of lust.  Except in his re-awakened dreams…

Polly…within two days of her presence at the house he’d fallen back onto those damnable sorts of dreams like some eager and excited adolescent.

He wanted to apologize to her – he hadn’t intended for her to cultivate any feelings for him, had tried to maintain some proper distance from her since he’d first placed her in the guest room three weeks ago, especially after his first sleepless night.  He’d been concerned by the way she’d stared at him back in old Maria’s bedroom, her green eyes wide with emotion.  But there was the baby to think of, and Foley had taken Murdoch hostage – it wasn’t the right time to consider anything other than what was before him.  And when it was over he just couldn’t leave her and the baby with Maria, not when he’d involved himself so fully into her troubles.  Initially he’d only wanted his gun back, and a valid explanation as to why she was being attacked, but once he’d realized she was pregnant, and fully so, he knew he could not just dump her onto the closest sheriff and resume his business.  Especially when she had fainted in his arms.  She needed help and care, and he was the only one available to supply it.  He would not walk way – could not.  There was something vulnerable about Polly, despite her redheaded temper and skittishness.  She needed to know the warmth of concern, of the caring of others.  She needed to trust someone…

So had his kindness transcended into something more?

Scott sighed and pushed the pulsing feelings back into a low quarter of his gut.  His body quivered but quieted, leaving him empty and frustrated.  Julie smiled before him again.  Julie and marriage – such a complicated affair, something beyond love and yet the continuation of love and commitment, of a future, of a legacy…Scott let out a deprecating snort and turned from the window.

Never, in all that time that he and Julie had been together – and after – never had the notion of children given him pause.  Not until now.  Not until Martha had entered the world…

Baby Martha, a tiny human being, helpless in every way.  A fascinating creature, a miniature person of amazement.  He’d scrutinized her completely last night as his terrified arms held her bundled body.  Tiny fingers no wider than a blade of grass, palms already creased with lifelines, translucent fingernails, unblemished skin, barely discernible brows and lashes, shell-shaped pink ears. And an old man’s toothless mouth with a callus crowning the center of her delicate top lip. When Teresa decided that a space on the sofa was the only suitable place to lay the child Scott reluctantly agreed to hold her than witness her fall to the floor, if babies of this size could manage to move that much.  He didn’t even want to entertain that notion of whether it could happen or not, not when he’d worked so hard to give Polly a safe place to have the baby and she was so enamored with Martha, as they all were – well, except for him.  And so Teresa had left him with his stiff arms loaded with this new and unknown person, and he’d been frozen into place with bald terror.  Confederate minié balls and the awful damage they could inflict could not evoke anything like the horror he’d felt at holding this tiny child, this baby.  And yet she’d been so perfect, so exquisite…

Johnny’s relative ease with Martha rankled Scott, but he was loath to admit jealousy.  His brother handled the infant with uncharacteristic comfort, carrying her snuggled in one arm, usually the left, leaving the other free to use – an old habit, Scott noted, since his brother had barely stepped away from his gunhawk trade.  Such a dichotomy – Johnny, the ex-gunfighter who had killed, who had come to Lancer wearing the mantle of death on such young shoulders, and Martha, tiny and new, the epitome of freshness and life.  Johnny had a grace with little Martha that kept her content.  He had even mastered dining one-handed – as soon as Polly could join them at the dinner table he had offered to hold the baby and give the new mother a rest.  Two nights ago his ability was on full display as he sat at the table, jigging the baby to sleep with a busy thigh while he tore through a roasted ear of corn, never dropping to much as a loose kernel into his lap.  With four pairs of eyes on him he’d somewhat shyly explained that he’d spent some time with a lot of old abuelas who always seemed to own a passel of kids.

And while Murdoch was probably wondering whether that was before or after his mother had died, Johnny grinned at his brother and commented, “Guess you didn’t have that kind of life, huh, Boston?”

Not hardly, not at all.  Scott had known nurses to handle babies and children, himself among them.  The relationship between the Massachusetts parents and children he knew was puritanical.  Fathers – and grandfathers – offered a pat on the head or a shake of a little hand, perhaps an occasional smile but little more.  Mothers might have doted on their children, but did not do so in public.  Scott found the contrast mystifying and yet fascinating, and it had him wishing he’d had at least had this part of Johnny’s childhood, where children were welcomed and cooed over, where childish chatter and play was encouraged, where kind grandmothers embraced their grandchildren with freedom, where children held other children and babies were just another part of the family…

Up to now he’d considered children as the product of a successful marriage, solid background material for prominent relationships.

Heirs for continuing business operations.

Seen and not heard.

Quiet and obedient.

Like himself.

In those early days of meeting each other, Scott had acknowledged a rip of unexpected envy at discovering that Johnny had actually spent time in his father’s life, even if his brother was too young to remember it.  Murdoch, this tall white-haired stranger who was his biological father, had been a real father to Johnny, for a few years at least, until the boy’s mother had apparently run off with the toddler one day.  And word about the ranch from those who had been employed there a long time, people like Cipriano and Maria and Juanita, they mentioned the years – and money – Murdoch had spent looking for Johnny.

A father searching for a lost son – an endearing vision of love and commitment…

But…

But never once, to Scott’s knowledge, had Murdoch Lancer trekked to Boston to claim his firstborn.

Oh, his grandfather occasionally spoke of the man and never with any respect, and he invited no questions from his grandson.

“He left you with me, Scotty.  It was for the best,” he’d say and then always shake his head sadly.  “Your poor mother, bless her soul…”

His mother…

It was an understatement to say that he’d been shocked to root around in that drawer last night and come up with that photograph of Catherine– <<Murdoch’s wife,>> he corrected to himself.   He didn’t consider the image as his mother anyway, not really.  Grandfather called her Catherine and Scott took to using the name for her as soon as he understood the relationship of the woman in the drawing room portrait back in Boston. She was just that woman of the painting, slightly lifelike but devoid of life.  But to find her here, in this house, his father’s house, and now his house…

Perhaps his surprise had come because Murdoch kept blundering so badly before that, though the objective part of Scott knew that he was not doing it intentionally.  But it kept sailing out there on that gusting wind of the past, puffed out with the fact that Murdoch’s experience with children had not been made by his first marriage, but by his second.  Because Murdoch had walked away from the child had made from his spilled seed…

Had walked away, turned his back like he had turned that photograph from his life.  Covered it up with the dirt of his past and let it sleep forgotten.  And every action with baby Martha, every bit of knowledge spouted by his father wormed into Scott until he found himself encouraging the black roots to curl about his heart, the slimy vines to snake through him and fill him with more blackness than he wanted but unable to stop it because he wanted to know why.

Why, dammit?

But he hadn’t asked and Murdoch hadn’t offered to explain.  So it hung there breathing between them, swaying like some hog carcass, bloody and pink, wait to be prepared and eaten…

Scott ran a hand over the shiny brown figurine placed on his bureau.  That rearing stallion was always on his highboy back in Boston, safely kept from clumsy fingers, allowed a moment’s play on weekly cleaning day if the maid was of a charitable mind.  Later he would carefully position the upholstered chair from the nursery and climb on stocking feet to retrieve the coveted and mysterious item for further examination.  It was a model of frozen magnificence, rear legs planted, front legs pawing the air, tiny mouth bared to show even rows of teeth.  Two large black eyes separated by a tiny white strip in the broad forehead, and a light mane and tail, permanently flowing in an unseen wind – the very horse he someday wanted to own.  His tin and carved soldiers refused to stay seated on the sleek back of that poised, untamed beast.  But he knew that he could.  Saddled or without, he knew that he could entwine strong fists into that luxuriant mane, wrap commanding legs about its strong sides, knew that he could get the animal to place those front hooves onto bare ground – and run and run until the wind streamed tears from his eyes and he and the horse were gasping for breath, sweaty and exhilarated, knowing and trusting each other in that long single gallop.

This figurine – this testament to his dreams – was a gift from his father.

The only one.

He knew the exact date, of course – his tenth birthday.  Harlan had told him about it at dinner when he’d been caught with the thing in his hand – Murdoch Lancer, his father, had sent it years before.  Scott had peppered the air with questions about it but Harland only responded by saying that the item belonged on the bureau top and would be packed away if found played with again.

“There’s nothing he can do for you that I haven’t already done, Scotty,” he’d added contritely.  “It’s a gift and you should accept it as that, but remember that it holds nothing more for you.  He’s given you your name – that is quite enough.”

His name – Lancer was an oddity among the Garrett relatives, and for the longest time Scott could not fasten himself to it.  It was an empty identity made into nothing by the man who had sired him, a bitter reminder of the way a beloved daughter had betrayed a father, and a father who had deprived a son.  Murdoch Lancer was the man he had grown to hate.

The one gift…and now a new heritage.  And some heft to the name he carried.  And a shift of hate into curiosity.  Scott smiled a little at the figurine, wondering if Murdoch had seen it, if he even remembered it.  His grandfather was wrong, he decided – it held quite a bit more meaning than the old man thought it deserved.  It was a tangible sliver of his birthright.

Would he bring children to Lancer?  For Murdoch’s sake he supposed he might.

But Lancer was a far cry from the environment of his childhood, an environment that held productive ends, two of which included culture and education.  Those were important to him.  California was growing fast, but San Francisco was no Boston.  Boarding school then, once the children were old enough…education would bring wealth of many kinds to this state.  Then Scott nearly laughed aloud at himself.  He’d have to marry first.  Children generally – and properly – came after the nuptials.

But of one thing he was certain – he’d be a father in name and in form.

He would not be an imagined being of daydreams, a longed-for wish to come true…

A one-thousand dollar offer for one hour’s time.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

He had his first cup of coffee in the kitchen where Teresa bandaged his hand again then headed out to saddle the horses for the day, enjoying the lingering coolness of the early morning, the mist rising off the hills beyond the field, the shadowed yard with the laundry already flapping behind the south barn.  By the time he’d led his own mount Sheridan and Johnny’s palomino Barranca to the rail the scent of breakfast was in the air and he realized that he was hungry.  And hoped that the meal would be a quiet one at the table, without the disturbing wails of Martha or the nervous glances of Polly.  Maybe he’d suggest that she trade places with Teresa so that she could be closer to Johnny in case he wanted to hold the baby.  But that thought bit at him and he tossed it aside.  Maybe he’d just eat in the kitchen and suffer Maria’s admonitions in Spanish and then let himself out the garden door and not wait for Johnny; his brother would catch up.  But that was a bit cowardly, he thought ruefully.  This issue needed to be dealt with and soon, before Polly acted on her temper and her tears.  And if he could avoid another table argument then all the better.

He let the front door swing shut behind him, then hung his hat on the rack placed just inside the foyer. The table was set for breakfast and the food was already waiting, but the room was suspiciously devoid of people.  Scott held his sigh of consternation and stripped off his gloves, debating whether to take his seat and stuff some food past his mouth or wait for someone else to appear – Johnny was likely sucking down one more cup of coffee in the kitchen.  He could go retrieve his brother, but that would likely result in an encounter with Maria, and he suddenly he didn’t want to confront the housekeeper with her wisdom-filled eyes.

Movement caught his eye; Polly had emerged from the kitchen area, a silver pot of coffee held in one hand, the other pressed to the space between her eyes as if holding back a pain pounding there.  She moved slowly, a little unsteadily.  He watched, his lips pulled into a frown, as she set the coffeepot onto the table with a thump and just stood there, taking deliberate breaths in and out.

“Polly?”  Scott tucked his gloves into a back pocket.  “Are you all right?”

She managed a look up, tilting her chin and narrowing her eyes.  “Don’t bother with me,” she snapped, then swayed.

He jumped to reach her, hand coming about her waist, momentarily surprised by the feel of the curve between hip and breast, and drew her to the support of his side.

“What’s wrong?” he asked in alarm, slipping a finger under he jaw and tipping her face up for examination. A film of perspiration glossed her cheeks.  “Are you ill?”  He touched her forehead, swept back some clinging auburn strands.  She certainly did look pale…

Their eyes met, locked together – gray blue to clear green, his worried, hers surprised – and for just a glimpse, both pairs tender.

She wiggled then pushed herself away from him.  “Just – just a headache,” Polly told him, face flushing.  “I’ll be all right…”

“Maybe you should…” Scott reached for her again.

“Leave me alone,” she ground out, balling her hands into fists at her sides as sparks of green ire flashed in her eyes.

Damn her stubbornness.  “Polly, I’m only trying to help,” Scott said.

She opened her mouth to retort and he was sure he was going to get an earful, but then she pressed her lips together.  The look softened out of her eyes and she sagged, then looked away.

“I know you are,” she muttered.  “But maybe it’d be best of you left the helping to other folks.”

So much for any opportunity to apologize – she’d just sucked with wind out of his topsail.

Johnny sauntered into the dining area, sipping a cup of coffee, Maria close on his heels.

“What gives?” he asked as Maria shoved past him to reach Polly.  “What’s wrong?” he added, seeing Polly’s stricken look.

Maria took Polly by the hand and led her to a chair. “Querida, era demasiado.  Un vaso, talvez dos, había sido tolerable.”

“Qué tomó – what did she have?” Johnny asked her.

“Estaba tan preocupada, necesitaba calmarse, para la nena, para alimentarle – she was so upset…” Maria pointed toward the great room.  “Ese vino, para las damas.”

“So?” Scott demanded at the exchange that he could not yet interpret.

A little grin poked Johnny’s lips.  “Seems Maria gave her some sherry last night, since she was so upset.  Not much…but enough.”

Guilt slapped Scott, followed by an unruly temper that bit him on the back of the neck.  “She shouldn’t be drinking--”

“Lo siento, lo siento.”  Maria almost curtseyed to him.  “She needed something…” But her disapproving eye fastened onto Polly.  “But not that much.”

“Don’t blame Maria,” Johnny softly rebuked.  “She didn’t know…”

“Right,” Scott drawled sarcastically.  He gestured to Polly, now sitting with her head planted on a fist.  “She comes drunk to the breakfast table and you see nothing amiss.”

“Scott, it ain’t--”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Polly complained, dropping her hand and squinting up at them.  “It wasn’t that much – it’s just been a long time…”

Scott leaned across the table, palms down to prop his bent arms.  She’d probably had it all down when he’d checked on her…anger kicked at him afresh.  “That wasn’t very responsible.  What about Martha?”

“Martha was fine – I didn’t hurt her any,” Polly shot back.  At his sneer of skepticism, she went on.  “I fed her every time she woke up.  I changed her and burped her. I took care of her, Scott. That’s what mothers do.”  She rose, two spot of color tingeing her cheeks.  “D’you think I slept through her cries?  Well, I didn’t. I heard every squeak and move because she was right there beside me on the bed.  And don’t worry – there was a pillow between us so’s I wouldn’t roll over onto her.  Is that what you were worried about?  You don’t know how hard it’s been – you don’t…” she turned and swiped at the air.  “Leave me alone.”

Scott straightened, wanted to tell her that while she might have heard every rustle her daughter might have made, she certainly hadn’t even twitched when he’d entered her room.  Or had she done her drinking after?  Well, before or after, it didn’t matter.  It wouldn’t happen again.  He’d lock up Murdoch’s supply; have the old man hold the key.

Scott turned his gaze onto Maria.  “Don’t offer her any more,” he told the older woman, pointing a finger at her.

Johnny grabbed his hand.  “Don’t, Brother,” he warned.

Maria did not flinch, just stood there with her head up and her stare unwavering, her eyes full of knowing.

“I told you that I am sorry,” she let out between her lips.  “But you would do well to leave the care of this one to me.”  She turned to Johnny.  “Tal vez es major que la lleve a mi casa,” she told him.

Johnny assessed his brother.  “Maria says she’ll take her home.”

“Hay tantos sentimientos entre los dos,” Maria continued in a soft voice to Johnny.

Johnny cast a subtle glance between the two, considering her words – <<there is too much from the heart between them…>>

“I’ll go,” Polly said quickly.

“No,” Scott said.  “She’s a guest and she’ll stay here.”

“You can’t make me…”

Teresa burst through the door from the back of the house.  “Come see, Polly,” she declared.  “I think you’ll be so pleased.  Murdoch’s coming around the other way…” She grabbed Polly’s hand and towed her to the great room, leaving the whole argument dangling over the cooling breakfast.

“Is there anything else, señor?” Maria asked Scott, her face servant-neutral.

His irritation now chafing with new guilt, Scott shook his head at her.  “No, thank you,” he managed with genuine politeness. More apologies necessary – what was wrong with him?  “I’m sorry I overreacted…”

“Esta bien,” she allowed and retreated from the room.

“Scott, Johnny,” Teresa called.  “Come see this.”

Johnny gave him a look of barely melting anger and led the way around the corner.

Teresa turned and greeted them with a wide smile.  “Look what Murdoch pulled out of the attic,” she declared.  “Isn’t it darling?”

Johnny peered.  “Huh,” he said and slowly dropped to a crouch.

“It” was a cradle, small and wooden, hooded at one end, set directly on two rockers.  Martha had already been placed inside.  She squirmed under the blanket tucked around her, eyes blinking and tongue darting in and out of her tiny pink mouth, her soft squeaks of satisfaction echoing from under the little roof over her head.

“You used it.”  Murdoch’s voice was oddly soft, and he had pinned his gaze on Johnny.

Johnny looked quickly up, caught the stare on him.  “Yeah?” he allowed with a crooked smile teasing his lips.  “You make it?”

Murdoch stiffly nodded then his eyes crept to Scott.

Understanding crammed a fist into Scott’s gut.

You used it.  Not it was yours.  Because it hadn’t been made with Johnny in mind, but for another son…the son who had never made his home on Lancer, until now.

The baby that had been swept away from California and raised in Boston because his mother had died on the trail East, sent away to be kept safe from raiders, or so the story went.

Scott’s eyes traveled over to Murdoch’s desk.  It was still there where he had left it, the thick frame ugly with tarnish, vulgar in its display and embrace of the visage of the serious blond woman within – Catherine, she that had perished so quickly after giving him his life.  Her grave was as barren as the container that held her photograph.  He’d stopped at that forlorn place on his way before reaching Morro Coyo and had touched the outsized stone rising up from the sunken mound of thick weeds.

Mine – it was mine, a voice inside him whispered.

Not Johnny’s, not anyone else’s.

Made for him by his father.  His father – this stranger still.  The man who had abandoned him – had never so much as visited…

He’d only offered one gift…that one precious gift.

“Nice work,” Johnny commented and let his fingers slide over the smooth wood.

Murdoch let off a throaty chuckle.  “Don’t lie – I’m no carpenter.”

Johnny gave him a quiet grin and turned back to the cradle.  “Martha looks real to home all tucked up in there.”  He gave it a slight push and it rocked gently.

“Mr. Lancer,” Polly stammered.  “It’s so generous of you to let Martha borrow it…” Her gaze picked out Scott, her eyes deepening in concern at the look on his face.

“Nonsense,” Murdoch gave her a smile faded with the past.  “It was just in the attic – wasn’t being used – twenty years of dust on the thing…”

Twenty years of dust…the blackness squirmed in Scott.

“You can use it all the time,” Teresa was saying in her animated way.  “Now you won’t have to hold her when you eat with us.”

“Who holds her at mealtime?” Johnny teased back.

Polly was staring at him, her green eyes making an apology to him for all the fuss, but also forgiving him for yesterday, for last night – and for just now.  Dammit, he didn’t want any apologies or any of her forgiveness.  There was nothing between them – nothing.  This had nothing to do with her, or Martha.  Scott gave her a returned look that withered any pretense she might be renewing – she set her red lips in a hard line and glared, willing him to walk away.

Crossing his arms to create a wall against the emotion that just wouldn’t work back down under his heart, Scott straightened and trod from the room.

 
CHAPTER 5

They were already at work loading hay into the loft.  Johnny frowned; because of his hand Scott was not completely back to full duties, and storing hay would require assistance.  Apparently his brother had found some reason to start this project without him, even though they’d agreed earlier to do it together.  It was sweat-breaking work, and Johnny knew it was one task his brother did not relish.  Johnny rather liked watching his brother get all dirtied up, however, just to test all that Boston finery he’d brought with him to the ranch.  And surprisingly, Scott wasn’t one to stand back and wipe away dust – he often came back sweatier and dirtier than those who started out that way.  It was the transition from cowhand back to Lancer son that always surprised Johnny.  Scott could look like he’d been dragged in mud, rolled in dust, sweated through every piece of clothing he wore, and then some miracle would happen in the bathhouse and he’d come to the dinner table washed, combed, clean and pressed.  And start the next day in the same clean way.  

Scott wasn’t working alone – three other vaqueros, three that Johnny was sure had been assigned to yard repairs, were transferring bales from the loaded wagon, tying rope around each one and then drawing it up via the block and tackle to the loft above.  Judging from the amount of hay out of the wagon and into the loft, they had been at the task for some time.

Johnny left Barranca with the stablehand Julio and ambled toward the work scene. As he approached the barn he could hear muttering from the small group of Mexican workers.  There was, apparently, concern for El Rubio, the nickname the Mexican hands had given to his fair-haired brother.  Johnny had wondered if Scott had yet picked up on that.  Murdoch was called El Jefe, Scott was now El Rubio and he was just Juan, or Juanito to those he’d grown close to, like Cip and Maria.  That was fine with Johnny; he had developed a friendship with these workers that happily kept him from supervising them.

“¿Hay problemas?” Johnny quietly asked burly Diego.

“He’s working too hard,” came the reply in Spanish.  “He’s taken no breaks, no water – he needs…”

“Comprendo,” Johnny silenced him with a pat to the arm.  He strolled over to Scott, now descending to the ground by the rope used to haul the bale to the loft, his hair clinging to his sweaty head and adorned with bits of loose hay, his face streaked with gritted perspiration, the tail hanging out of his sweat-stained shirt. At least he was wearing his gloves, Johnny noted; that would protect his healing hand.  “Hey, hermano mio,” he greeted.  “Thought you were going to wait for me?”

Scott swiped a smear of sweat off his cheek with the thumb of his left glove.  “You were late.”

“You were early,” Johnny pointed out.

“The hay was waiting, so I started.”  Scott turned and reached for the rope that Frank was snaking around a bale.

It wasn’t about being late or early, Johnny figured.  Something else had his brother so busy.  Though he didn’t know all of Scott’s workings, he had observed that his brother was a man of seemingly infinite patience and even temperament.  When provoked Scott would often chose a verbal recourse to confront bad tempers. Scott’s tongue was about as accurate as Johnny Madrid’s aim – both could kill. Johnny was still smarting over his brother’s comment some few months ago about not making a ripple.  And Scott did not sail out words just to make noise; he often thought about his responses, head down and eyes out of sight in that increasingly familiar dip as he considered them in his mind and on his tongue, strategizing their effect and impact against his own feelings.

Johnny glanced off toward the house and thought about the inhabitants within.  The old man might be the cause for Scott’s irritation; Murdoch had taken none too kindly to Scott’s decision to contact the Army about the horses.  Johnny was secretly pleased, though, that his brother supported his new operation, especially since it had all started with a gunfight in this very yard with Stryker’s boy, a gunfight that had Scott picking up a light bullet wound in the ensuing melee.  But Johnny figured Scott could handle the old man’s displeasure.  His brother would calculate it all up in his mind and then write it all down on paper for Murdoch to see, and prove his point either way.  That little fuss at the table last night was just a test of wills, and even though Scott had reacted with unexpected temper, it was likely over by the time he’d left the table to chase after Polly.

Polly…

Still pretty, even after all this time.  Prettier now that she’d had Martha, with a lot more curves and flesh than she’d had back in that Texas dancehall.  Was his brother taken with her?  Or had sheer lust come calling? Johnny hadn’t seen Scott with a woman in all the time he’d been here. Then again, there’d been precious little time for any womanizing for either of them since signing the partnership with their father; Murdoch pushed hard and expected more every day. Perhaps Polly’s arrival had turned his brother’s eye back onto women.  Well, if his brother did feel something genuine for Polly, he certainly didn’t act too friendly toward her.  More than likely Scott just been doing the honorable thing by Polly, defending her against the Foleys because her father-in-law was illegally chasing her.  His brother was wont to finish whatever he had started.

But maybe Scott’s heart had been snagged along the way. And now that Polly was thinking of moving on he might be struggling with his feelings, despite trying to tell her otherwise in the kitchen last night.  He’d held her pretty close, Johnny recalled, and he’d been pretty stiff about discovering Johnny’s trips to Polly’s room.  Of course, that had been with the door open all the while, with him hanging in the doorway and making sure she was dressed and not feeding the baby or anything like that.  But Scott didn’t know that.

Opposites could attract, Johnny supposed, and Polly and Scott had about as much in common as a bovine and a bird, one fur and one feathers.  Still, his brother didn’t know Polly; her little fling with the sherry had given him a taste of her true nature.  And even though she had changed a bit since marrying into that abusive Foley family, and now having her baby, Johnny figured she still wanted the best she could get – and a good-looking man wealthy with land would be mighty enticing to her, especially since she had so little to begin with…

But there’d been something else, something about the way Scott stared at him whenever he held baby Martha, and that reaction of his this morning about that old cradle Murdoch had hauled out of the attic.

The old man hadn’t asked, but Johnny wasn’t going to tell Murdoch that Scott was showing some rankle about living for more than twenty years in the same city with no apparent word from his father.

A grunt brought him out of his reverie and he looked up to find Scott shaking off a pain in his right hand, flexing the gloved fingers that had just slipped on the rope.  Quickly the other vaqueros moved in to take over, politely crowding him out of the way.

“You okay, Boston?” Johnny called, sauntering forward a few more steps.

As expected, Scott bristled at the use of the nickname– his dark blue glare slid down his nose and his lips pressed together so tight they almost went white.  He dropped his hands to his sides.

“I’m fine,” Scott said curtly.  “Now if you aren’t going to help, then get out of the way.”

Johnny waited until he had half-turned away then reached out and snagged his brother’s right elbow.

“Hey…” Scott wriggled as he was hauled back.  “What’re you--”

With his other hand Johnny yanked off Scott’s right glove; the bandage underneath was soiled – and bloody.

“Don’t start,” Scott threatened, pulling back to no avail.

Instead Johnny just gave him one of those long searching looks of his.  Then his grip loosened. “C’mon,” he said and steered Scott away from the area.  With relief Diego took over.

“How’d you know?” Scott asked him as they stepped over to a bucket and dipper placed in the shade.

Johnny smiled and gestured behind him.  “Why do you think you had so much help?”  He stirred the water with the dipper, then drew it out and handed it to his brother.

Scott looked back over his brother’s shoulder at the work continuing smoothly without him. A rueful grin teased his lips as he took the proffered dipper.  “I see I have to put some more effort into my Spanish,” he quipped, turning not quite smiling eyes onto his brother and taking a full drink.

“Might help,” Johnny agreed with a nod, accepting the empty dipper and knowing the reference also encompassed that dining room conversation with Maria that he’d been left out of this morning.  He stirred another cupful from the bucket and drank it himself.  “Why don’t you get into the house and get that bandage changed?  I’ll help finish up here.”

The change in his brother’s demeanor made Johnny imagine the way that frost covered grass. “It’s a bit early,” Scott responded through teeth that almost clenched.  He awkwardly dug into his pocket for his watch and checked the time.

“Scott, you’re bleeding and the old man is gonna tear my backside off for not seeing that sooner,” Johnny explained.  “Do me a favor and get that bandage changed before he has a chance to work himself up.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed.  “Did he tell you to mother me?”

“No,” Johnny shrugged, “but I know damn well he expects me to, ever since Stryker had you plugged…look it’s no different than you watching me after Pardee decided my back made a good target.”

“That wound was much more serious and you know it--”

Johnny held up a hand.  “It’s the same, no matter how much blood was spilled.”  He affected a grin to turn aside his brother’s temper.  “The old man, he sure does get a cholera when he sees Lancer blood, don’t he?  Probably tallies up all the lost time in his head, seeing as how we’re two extra hands to help him run this place.”

Scott gave a deprecating snort of appreciation to the thought.  “He does care – a lot – for this ranch,” he said with just a trace of softness Johnny did not expect, and stuffed his watch back into his pocket.  But still he didn’t move.   Whatever was going on inside the hacienda was also rattling around inside his head, then, and it wasn’t making it easy for him.

“Scott.”

“What?”

“You want to talk about it?” Johnny offered.

Scott straightened.  “Just what are you referring to?” he asked.

Well, that had touched something – he could have said yes or no, but instead he’d trotted out all those words.  Johnny debated shrugging it off and shutting up – his brother’s interests were his own.  Still, he hated to see Scott get too tangled up in Polly, especially if she hadn’t really changed…

“Murdoch told me about the offer he’s going to make to Polly,” Johnny started, figuring he might as well get his piece said and then let it go.  “About him finding her a place for her and Martha.  Sounds like a real good idea.”

“You think so?” Scott clipped in response.  He yanked off his other glove and slapped them both into his good hand.

Definitely something between the two of them, then.  All that irritation wasn’t just from a pebble in his sock.  The scratch was up higher – a lot higher.

Johnny shrugged.  “Sure – why not?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Scott answered, still slapping his gloves together.  “There’s a lot more to consider than just shelter and a little money.”

Johnny didn’t like the tone, and the insinuation he sensed.  He straightened, careful to keep his face neutral.  “Such as?”

“Such as a good education for Martha, and a good and safe environment for them both…” Scott gestured toward the house.  “Polly hasn’t exactly had a lot of experience in those areas, would you say?”

Johnny kept his face in place.  “She’s done all right.”

Scott snorted.  “Not by half!” he scoffed.  “She prostituted herself for money, she married an abusive man and his family, and almost lost her life – and Martha’s – because of it.”

That was a bit of unchecked temper.  Yes, something…but something else, too, a wisp of the past sneaking in there, trying to ride parallel with this problem. “Some folks don’t have a lot to start with, Scott,” Johnny reminded his brother in his soft voice.

“But they can make choices – the right ones…”

“The best ones they can find, maybe,” Johnny countered, personal feeling threatening his will to remain calm.  “What’s right don’t fit all people.”  He eyed his brother carefully, and found some challenge in Scott’s eyes.

“Why are you making excuses for her?” Scott grumbled instead.   “You know what she…”

“And why did you help her?” Johnny countered.

Scott fisted his hand and parked it on his hip.  “They were attacking her, and no one was helping.  Not a single person in Green River bothered…”

Well, that was his personal sense of honor creeping in there – and what was that other word?  Chivalry… Johnny managed a hollow smile.  “And if you had known, like those folks probably knew, would you still have helped?” he asked his brother.

“Her life was in danger – I couldn’t just stand there,” Scott declared.  “But I wasn’t the cause of her condition.  If she had thought about her choices, really considered what she could do…”

“Maybe she did – did you ask her about it?”

Scott turned away from him and brushed fingers through his sweaty hair, sweeping out some of the hay bits collected there.  “It won’t be easy for her,” he said to the air in front of him.  “Not alone – not with a baby…” His head dropped and he crossed his arms over his sweat-stained shirt.

Johnny’s pulse hesitated; his brother was burrowing into feelings that needed some truth.  “You’ve given her hope, you know,” he tried.  “That she can do better.”

“She can do better,” Scott affirmed, turning back to face him.

Enough dancing around it.  Johnny took a breath and plunged ahead.  “I wouldn’t work up too much feeling for her, Brother,” he advised.

“And why is that?” Scott’s voice went cool.  “Rekindling some of your own…?”

Those damned bedroom visits, Johnny cursed to himself.  “No, I ain’t got no designs on her.  But Polly…well, she ain’t your kind, Scott.”

Scott’s smile was completely without humor.  “And what exactly is ‘my kind’?”

“Somebody other than Polly, for one.  I know her, Scott.  What she said by the creek that day is true.  She married that Foley feller because he had enough money in his pockets to show off.  Polly likes showy things…probably because she never had ‘em.”

“Is it so bad to want something you’ve never had?”

There was something in that, in the way he said it, that had Johnny figuring he meant it to apply to another issue going on – him and Murdoch, and that baby…Johnny wouldn’t touch that – the old man hadn’t offered up any other explanations about the past since that first day they’d met, and both sons knew the father didn’t see a need for going back.  Or maybe Murdoch didn’t want to deal with any guilt…

But maybe Scott wanted to probe at it.  Well, that was his right, and good luck if the old man would give him any time on it because he sure hadn’t offered any further information about his second marriage...

“Polly’s got a lifetime of wanting things,” Johnny told his brother.  “That’s gonna hold her back from really loving any man.”

“She needs to start somewhere.”

“And Murdoch’s giving her the place to start.  A good place.  Maybe even right – for her.”

Scott’s lips thinned as he smiled.  “Well, don’t worry, Brother.  Marriage is not my goal where Polly is concerned.”

Johnny wondered why that statement gave him a crawly feeling at the back of his neck.

++++++++++++++++++

No, not marriage – not to Polly.

Scott lifted his hand out of the bowl of warm water to let Teresa cut away the sodden, stained bandages on his hand.

Not marriage.  He didn’t even have feelings for the woman.  Well, he was concerned.  But nothing personal, not like everything seemed to be thinking…not like he had with Julie.  Well, he had some attraction to her.  After all, it had been months…and Polly was pretty in her own way, despite her temper and her awkwardness.

Concern and compassion, yes.  But not what Murdoch and Johnny were believing.  Of course he cared for Polly – and very much so.  But it wasn’t all out love, not enough to offer his name to her and the baby…

Martha – she needed so much.  She needed so many good things – a warm and loving home, a stable life, good food, education, and protection…

Things that Polly might not be able to give her, not right away.  And if this idea of Murdoch’s did not work out, if Polly resorted to her old life, then what would happen to the child?  Days and nights left alone or in the flaccid care of strangers, subject to every crudity of life.  How soon before that money left by Gant Foley would be used up, or stolen…?

He couldn’t let that happen. 

There was that other option he and Murdoch had discussed last night – adoption…

 
CHAPTER 6

The first buildings of the town were coming into sight.  

Polly leaned around Mr. Lancer to see but pulled back when Martha mewed at the jostling.  She tilted her head instead and tried not to smile.  Spanish Wells, they’d told her.  The judge had agreed to meet them there instead of Green River due to the long ride.  On horseback Green River could be gained in a few hours, but a wagon ride would take all day, allowing for stops in between.  And the doctor didn’t think it best for Polly and Martha to be so long from home, not with just a few weeks after birth.  But Polly didn’t mind the ride; she’d been on her feet right up to the day Martha was born.  And while the Lancer ranch was big, she hadn’t seen much of it, hadn’t taken so much as a buggy ride along what they called the Morro Coyo road.  Her views had been limited to the garden, the barn and the corrals, and even then someone usually accompanied her.  She’d seen a spot, up on one of the low, wrinkled hills that began beyond the house where she thought she’d like to spend time.  There were some trees up on that hill, and the ones surrounding, big, leafy oaks where she could take a blanket and enjoy the grass and the sunshine and the shade.  Perhaps she might pack a lunch and walk there soon, show Martha all the prettiness and openness that reminded her a little of the open spaces of her home of long ago.  Everyone was so busy; certainly she could get on by herself for a few hours.

But the thought of visiting a town excited her, too.  Here there were stores and shops and people, things to look at and to touch.  Teresa had said that they could look for some cloth to make a few clothes for herself and that meant a visit to the general store.  She needed to look presentable, because Mr. Lancer was going to help her find a job and a place to live.  Someplace proper and respectable for her and Martha.

Someplace far away from here and beyond Mr. Scott Lancer’s reach.

“Excited?” Teresa asked her as she craned her neck again to view the town.  They’d made good time with only one stop to blow the horses, and she’d managed to feed and change Martha while they waited.

“Seems like it’s been so long…” Polly shyly confided.  “Not that your place isn’t fine, Miss Teresa, because it is.  But here…”

“I know.”  Teresa gave her arm a gentle squeeze.  “There is a lot to see here, even if some of it isn’t all that nice.”

Places like the saloons, Polly figured she meant.  Well, they weren’t proper for most women, that was for certain.  The men liked them all right, even with the dirt on the tables and the mess on the floor.  There weren’t many places where women could gather, except maybe at a church. Polly figured there’d be a lot of thunderclaps and lightning strikes if she ever decided to shadow a church doorway.  But none of that would matter in a short while, because soon she’d find work and a decent place to stay, and she could take good care of Martha with her own money.  Already she’d asked Mr. Lancer to hold out some of Gant Foley’s money, just a few dollars from the three thousand, so she could pay for necessary things for Martha, fabric for clothes and such.  He’d handed her the money, but told her to charge any purchases to the ranch account and he’d work it out with her later.  Abashed at his generosity, Polly had blushed and mumbled a thank you.

“All right back there?” Mr. Lancer called down to them, slowing the team a bit to navigate the traffic in the main street.

“We’re fine,” Teresa answered.  “Where are we going first?”

“Well, we need to meet the judge and make our statements so the jail ought to be first.  And then the doctor.  Why, are you worried you won’t get to any of the stores?”  He grinned back at them.

“Just making sure,” Teresa laughed and squeezed Polly’s arm again.

“What’s all the excitement?”  Johnny pulled up alongside them, slowing his pretty palomino horse to a jog to keep pace.

“Nothing you’d understand,” Teresa tartly answered but her smile remained.

“You remember not to wander,” Johnny told her, reaching back to retrieve his hat and plunk it on his head.

“We know,” Teresa sighed.

“How’re you doing, Polly?” Johnny asked, his blue eyes settling on her.  “Martha okay in that sling?”

“Just fine, thanks.” Polly looked down at her baby soundly sleeping, lulled by the swaying wagon.  Maria, bless her again, had given her the large blue shawl and showed her how to fashion it into a wide sling to securely carry Martha.  Maria, who had so proudly stood up for her two days ago in that big dining room telling Scott to mind his own business.  How she loved that woman, despite the foreign tongue-lashing she had received in the kitchen afterwards for drinking all that sherry, especially since Maria had ended her reprimand with a hug of concern that had Polly promising not to do it again.  And she hadn’t.  She vowed not to get Maria into trouble – the woman wouldn’t lose her job because of her.   But it sure would be nice not to be so nervous at dinner...

But thinking about that day now made her ears burn with embarrassment.  Added to that were two blue gray eyes boring into her back, specifically the space between her shoulder blades, and the ache from that was getting fearsome.

Damn Scott and his piercing gaze, his disapproving frown and his sneering attitude.  He wanted her gone, didn’t he?  Why wasn’t he glowering in triumph at the prospect of her getting out from under his roof?  He didn’t like her; he made that plain enough.  And Martha bothered him terribly.  So what had him so mad?

Ever since that other morning she’d hadn’t seen anything of him.  He’d been surprised by that cradle that Mr. Lancer had dusted off, she could tell by the way his eyes brightened and his mouth parted before he’d slammed the door on his emotion.  And then he’d just left the room, ever so quietly, but with a back so stiff that she thought he’d snap in half if someone even so much as tapped him on the arm.  He hadn’t appeared for dinner that night, which made Mr. Lancer pretty mad, and then he wasn’t around in that big room afterwards.  And hadn’t been around since, not for breakfast or dinner or anytime else.  The others talked about him but he stayed away.

So she’d raised the notion of leaving last night, over dessert, suggesting that it might be best if she spent some time in another place – with Maria or one of her relatives, or with old Maria out at her home.  She’d made it sound like she wanted to go and try spending some time alone with Martha, not apologize for creating family trouble.  But they would not hear of it.  Teresa begged her to stay, declaring that she loved the company and the baby.  Mr. Lancer insisted that she was a guest and asked her to stay at least until they had word from one of his friends.  And Johnny had only given her that quiet, blue-eyed gaze of his that told her that he’d take her away if she really wanted to go, despite his father’s objection.  But she didn’t want Mr. Lancer getting mad at Johnny too, so she agreed to stay for the time being.  Anyway, as long as Scott didn’t get in her way then she was fine.  It was easier to eat at the table without him there, shifting and staring at her, talking in his uppity way that made her feel dumb.  If he wasn’t around then he couldn’t tell her what to do or how to do it.   And she wouldn’t be tempted to listen to that other tiny voice that kept drawing up over her tears and cutting through her anger to whisper things to her, things about him that she didn’t want to hear, about his strong arms, his fine face, the way his voice could be so gentle and his touch so tender…

And the way his eyes could be so damned sharp, like they were now.  Slightly squinting, she figured, more blue than gray because he was mad, his haughty glare sliding down that nose of his, reminding her that she was a soiled woman in borrowed clothes who’d birthed an unloving man’s baby and was now living off his charity, eating his food and sleeping in his house.  A poor, unlearned widow with a taste for drink…

The wagon lurched to a stop in front of the jail.  Johnny and Scott rode past to tie their horses to the rail.  Mr. Lancer was speaking to a man wearing a sheriff’s star who had come to the doorway.  Polly sat for a moment and let it flow over her, wishing she were alone under those oak trees on the hill because now she was going to have to endure Scott’s stony presence until this trip was over.

Johnny was giving Teresa a hand down on her side, so Polly grabbed the canvas bag of Martha’s extra things and stood to climb out on hers, carefully cradling Martha’s body with one hand as she reached for the wagon rail to steady herself.

“Here…”

Scott held a gloved hand up to her, his face taut under the brim of his hat, those eyes that deep blue color he wore when he was angry.

“I can manage,” she insisted, placing a foot onto the wheel.

He snatched her wrist and held tightly.  “Let me help.”

“You’re pulling me…”

Polly slid her other foot forward and down but now her skirt was caught on a splinter of wood and she was stuck and tumbling backwards.  Scott grabbed her upper arms to right her.

“Let go,” she hissed, drawing her hand away from Martha’s rounded bottom to tug at her skirt.  “If you’d just…”

“Stop wiggling,” Scott commanded in a frustrated tone, his gloved hand brushing hers as he lifted the edge of her skirt to try and free it from the snag.

“Stop telling me what to do…”

She pulled just as he tugged and the combination of momentum and release sent her stumbling into him.  Polly grabbed for Martha and they hit his chest; Scott grunted under the unexpected lurch.  Instinctively his hands went around her and he stepped back.  Her free arm had no place to go but onto his shoulder as he drew them away from the wagon.

For a moment there was no wagon or ground under her feet.  She was just suspended in his grasp, her face close enough to his to feel his breath warm on her cheek, detect the still clean scent of his morning ablutions, notice a stray stand of blond hair in front of one ear, the returning gray hue of his blue eyes.  Then she landed – hard – and she was pushing away, sweeping the hair out of her eyes and wiping the feel of his breath off her skin, her own heart banging inside her chest and making her pant for air.

“Are you all right?” Scott asked.  He was standing stiffly, his own chest struggling to calm.

She didn’t want his help, not now, not anymore.  It was his father that was helping, not him.  Scott had done his part and it had been quite enough.  There was no need for him to hang so close, no need for him to touch her.  His staying away was a fine arrangement, come to think of it.  And as soon as one of Mr. Lancer’s friends replied, she’d leave the ranch and his company.

“Keep your hands off me,” Polly ordered and stalked away. 

++++++++++++++++++++

Well, at the rate they were going, it would be too late to get any work done once they got home.

Scott glanced up at the sun as his stomach rumbled again.  Lunchtime.  All they’d managed so far was the visit to the judge and then a stop at the doctor’s for a check on Polly and the baby, a fresh bandage for his hand, and a reprimand for breaking open the wound again. Scott did not make any excuses.

Now Teresa and Polly were working their way through every aisle of Tabor’s General Store, piling up items on the counter and asking that the Lancer account be charged accordingly.  Murdoch had taken Johnny and disappeared, presumably to make payments on other accounts, but at this hour Scott figured his brother had roped their father into a pre-lunch drink at the bar – anything to keep from playing sentry to the ladies.

Scott peered into the window of the store again but they were still down by the bolts of cloth, two pairs of hands running over the fabric, choosing and discarding and reconsidering in a silent, fascinating dance.  He sighed and dropped back onto Tabor’s “waiting bench,” so named for the many men who had lost a wife or daughter to the beckoning rows of shelves in the store.  Warming bench would be better, Scott thought plucking his hat from his head and dropping it beside him.  Or tally bench, in deference to the poor souls who had to sit here and add up the costs of all those goods purchased within.  Which then reminded him that the ranch ledgers would need updating after this trip to town, once Murdoch emptied his pockets of bills of sales and account totals.  Scott allowed a grimace.  He hadn’t touched those books for at least three days, not since…

The picture was still there on the desk in the same place he’d left it, the frame still tarnished; his eyes went to it every morning when he passed from the kitchen to the front door.  He’d thought about asking his father for it, especially if Murdoch wasn’t going to even polish or otherwise bother with it.  Not as a remembrance, for Scott certainly had none and could not possibly conjure any, but it would be nice to have something that was hers, even if it was just her image.  Something to further connect him to his name, to his father and this family.  Something to calm the burn that kept gnawing his belly every time he heard or saw the baby, every time Murdoch offered up some advice or experience he’d had with Johnny.  He’d had his reasons, Scott kept telling the blackness worming in him.  There had to be something that had kept him from coming to Boston, from contacting his firstborn son before now.  Perhaps Grandfather…

No, he couldn’t believe that his grandfather would contrive to keep them apart.  There had to be another reason – the pain of Catherine’s dying, the loss of Johnny…financial trouble perhaps in those early years…

Or maybe just a dismissal of the past to avoid any notions of guilt…

Scott sighed and slouched further on the bench, booted feet sliding out before him.  Murdoch made it clear at their first meeting that he had no use of the past, and he would not likely offer up anything on it.  And Scott wasn’t sure if he wanted to ask.  What would the truth prove?  His fears?  His anger?  The old man had finally contacted him, welcomed him to one full third of all that he had acquired – what was the use of asking why he’d been silent until just this year?  But there was that figurine on his bureau, that magnificent horse, that gift.  That only gift.

Chattering voices brought him out of his brood; Polly and Teresa were exiting the store, talking and laughing, packages in their arms.  And there was the baby, squirming in that blue shawl Maria had given Polly, blue eyes blinking and a tiny fist clutching a strand of Polly’s loose auburn hair.

“About time,” Scott declared with a little more bite to his tone than he intended.  “I am famished.  Did you leave anything for Tabor to sell?”

Teresa playfully swatted him with a package and added two more to his hands.  “You always say that.”  She held up a receipt.

Scott smiled, shifted the packages to his left hand and pocketed the slip of paper.  “Thank you.  Guess I’ll have to update the ledgers tonight when we get home.”  His gaze tipped to Polly but she said nothing, only tucked her own parcel under her arm and began walking.  Well, fair warning to her that he’d be about tonight.

Martha squawked.  Polly quickly shushed her, slipping a finger to her little lips, smiling as the baby rooted and suckled.  Scott swallowed and looked away – he supposed the baby was hungry, too, and would need to feed…

“Where’s Johnny and Murdoch?” Teresa asked as he steered them toward the hotel restaurant.  The food there was solid and he was damn well going to have his fill before making that ride back home, squalling baby or no.

“They’ll meet us.”  Scott put a hand to her back and hurried her along in time to Martha’s increasing fret.  Maybe they were already holding a table.

“I’ll have to feed her first,” Polly put out, jigging Martha to slow her fuss.  “You don’t have to wait…I’ll find a place…” She flushed under his intent gaze and went quiet.

He held them on the boardwalk, waiting for traffic in the street to pass, and then crossed with them to reach the hotel.  A glimpse of something pink off to his left told him his brother was approaching from farther down toward the livery, the taller form of Murdoch at his side.  Guess they hadn’t had a chance for a beer, then.

“Hey, there.  What’s this sweet cream?”

The women stopped at the sound of the leering voice behind them, but Scott pushed them forward another step before turning around.  He’d angled them away from the saloon as they’d crossed the rutted toad to avoid any sorts of comments from the loungers loitering there, but apparently hadn’t planned his pathway deep enough.  As it was, the little group had walked quite a ways to catch up to them.

The owner of the question was tall and heavy, black bearded and black haired, wearing a lot of dirt on his grayed pants and under the fingernails of the hand that had drifted toward his gun.  His black eyes appraised Scott and he smiled.  Surprisingly, his teeth were white and free of decay.  Two others straightened behind him, one thin and short, the other broad and meaty.  Scott’s subtle gaze took in their rigs – all worn low, just like Johnny – outlaws or gunhawks, or both.

He knew he shouldn’t accost them or even come close to provoking them, but his humor had slunk away days ago and the tone was another insinuation piled on top of the others that had endlessly pestered his mind.  He was tired of backing down and backing away.  This dirty, leering sot had insulted the ladies with his filthy mouth.  Foley had been a similar bully – the kind that considered women little more than servants, baby breeders, a squeeze and a poke, to be crude about it.  And Scott had no room left for this kind of swill.

“Tell me,” Scott began, shifting his packages back to Teresa as the warmth of anger worked into his limbs, “are you working for an outfit in these parts?”

The bigger man eyed him up and down again, and he smiled easily. “Why you askin’, friend?”

“Well, if you do work for a ranch then I’d like to tell your employer about your rude way of addressing ladies,” Scott told him.  “And remind him that this community doesn’t tolerate that sort of behavior.”

The other man gave a hearty laugh that his friends echoed.  “Fancy city boy, are you?”

“And if you are working for one of my neighbors,” Scott continued, “and you’re not chasing cattle or cleaning stalls, then you could be doing some other sort of work that we’d all be real interested in.”  He paused.  “Or maybe you’re passing through?”

“Or maybe we ain’t any of those things, pretty boy,” the man growled and took a step forward, his companions following.  “Now, you step out of the way and let me get a nice look at this sweet cream you got here.”  His eyes ran over Teresa.  He licked his lips and smiled again.  Teresa edged closer to Scott’s shoulder, and one of her hands reached up to grip the back of his jacket.

“Go inside,” Scott told her without looking back, reaching for the thong that held his Colt to the holster.

A hand brushed his.

“You can’t take three.”  Polly’s voice, almost a whisper, floated up to his ear from his left shoulder.

“Get Teresa inside,” he hissed at her.

“Scott…”

Even as he shot her an irritated glance he was shoved hard.  He whipped back around, stepping back to get space between them and crowding the women toward the hotel doorway.

“Pretty boy,” Blackbeard told him, “I don’t want to shoot ya. But I am going to beat ya bloody iffen you don’t get outa the way.”

Polly stepped out from around him.  “Shut up, you big goat,” she said.

For god’s sake, what did she think…? Scott grabbed her arm and pulled her back but she yanked free.

“Go back inside and find some fun,” Polly addressed the man.

“Pretty redhead…” Blackbeard smiled.  “Lotta spunk you’re wearing for this pretty boy.  He yours?”

“No,” Polly shook her head and gave Scott a long, roving look.  “But it would be a shame to ruin his pretty face,” she said and smiled.

“She’s with me,” Scott defended, grabbing her arm again.

“Guess she needs some manners,” the bigger man commented.  “Though maybe where she comes from those are her manners.  You look familiar, Red.  Come from Texas way, do ya?”

“There and a few other places,” Polly told him with a firm lift of her chin.  She glanced at Scott, then back to the bigger man.  “And I can show you a better time than this little girl, here.”  She nodded her head toward a white-faced Teresa.

Blackbeard guffawed.  “I just bet you can, Red!” he declared.  He pointed to the baby.  “That what happened with the last feller?”

Scott stuffed Polly backwards and pivoted to shield her.  Thankfully Teresa had slipped away.  He risked a look back, leaned his face in close to Polly.  “What are you doing? Get inside like I told you.”

He felt it, a brush of air coming his way. Scott dipped back to avoid any connection, his gun coming up into his hand this time even as he took a step to the side to stand in front of Polly.  He cocked the Colt before Blackbeard could reach for his, but his friends didn’t feel so inclined.

“Friend,” Scott addressed the big man, his gaze level and his aim steady.  “This is a bad time for a fight.  At this range I can tear your heart out before your friends can do the same to me.  Is your loose tongue worth dying over?”

“He’s bluffing, Riley,” the skinny one spoke up, easing left to clear his aim.  “He ain’t gonna shoot, not with that woman next to him.”

“Too damned hot for dying, anyway,” drawled a voice behind them on a metallic click.

Johnny sauntered forward from the street side, Murdoch a step behind.  “You boys are bothering the lady and my brother,” he told the group, his stance loose but his Colt secure in his grip.  He turned as he walked to keep his face to them, sidling around a hitch rail and moving into place beside Scott.  Murdoch filled in the gap, his own Colt steady in his big hand.

The three strangers shifted their feet as they noted Johnny’s holster.  “Not sure what you all said to each other,” Johnny continued.  “But I’m guessing that you, Riley, need to be offering up some apologies.  Right?”  And he lifted his Colt just a touch higher.

The silence between them was thick and weighted.  Scott could hear Polly breathing behind him, and wondered how she’d managed to keep Martha quiet.  Beside him his brother was outwardly cool and internally coiled, his concentration completely focused on the three men before them.  Scott wanted to say something, move his feet, but knew not to make any distractions.  Not this close, not with Johnny standing there unblinking, wearing what Scott understood was Johnny Madrid on his face.  But he hated the silence, hated the tension and the waiting.  You couldn’t wait like this when the smoke of battle was stinging your eyes, and minié balls were zinging in from every direction, when men were crying in agony and horses shrilling in death.  Where the crackle of fire made the heat unbearable, and tramping feet in the underbrush meant that the enemy was close enough to make an accurate shot…

Riley’s upper lip curled into something that resembled a smile.  “Guess is sure is too hot,” he said, and his two friends took the cue and uncocked their guns.  He lifted his big hat from his forehead and dropped it back down.  “Sorry for my words about the lady.  Boys,” he called back to his companions.  “I could use me one more drink – let’s go.”  His eyes lingered on Scott in warning, but he turned and headed back toward the saloon, his friends following.

Scott holstered his gun and whirled to Polly.  “Just what did you think you were doing?” he shouted at her.

“Scott…” Johnny started softly, dropping his own Colt back into its leather sheath with a soft swick. “I’m hungry – let’s eat.”

“Giving Teresa time to get inside,” Polly responded to Scott, ignoring him.

“And what about yourself?  About Martha?”

“Son…” Murdoch stepped up.  “Not now…”

“I was trying to help…” Polly interrupted.  “I know those type of men, Scott, and what they’d do…”

“You could have been hurt!” Scott declared with an angry tremor in his voice, grabbing her shoulders and giving her a rattle.  Martha cried but he hung on, piercing Polly with his stare, the aftermath of worry flouncing through his gut.  What was she thinking?  Hadn’t she considered the danger to herself, to her daughter?  She would have been safe inside – he could have held them off…  “Polly, my God,” he ground out over the baby’s wails.

The disbelief on Polly’s face turned to dismay.  Her lips parted, she swallowed but no sound came out.  Martha cried again, and tears rose up into Polly’s green eyes.  She blinked and they clung to her lashes.  Two red spots went aflame on either cheek.  Then with a swirl of auburn hair she ran to the restaurant doorway, crushing an emerging Teresa.

“Nice going,” Johnny commented.

“Shut up,” Scott replied back but there wasn’t any rancor to it.

“Here’s some advice for you,” Johnny continued letting the rebuke go by without comment.  He shifted so he did not have to speak to his brother’s profile.  “Don’t try talking anyone that’s six inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier out of a fight.  Show ‘em the business end of your gun before they show you theirs.”

He waited for a reaction but Scott was gazing off toward the hotel, his face half-closed to emotion, his eyes pooling blue with thoughts.

“Do you know them?”  Murdoch asked quietly when Scott still did not respond.

“Not by name,” Johnny answered.  “Outlaws by the looks of them.  Wearing their rigs too sloppy to be gunhawks.”

Scott turned to look at him, pulling back from wherever his mind had kept him. “There’s a difference?” he grunted, breathing to fade the churning emotion still stirring his gut.

“Big difference, Brother.”  Johnny gave him that little knowing smile of his.  “Gunhawks won’t shoot you until they’ve picked a side to stand on.  Outlaws…well, they’ll turn on anything that smells wrong.”

“Let’s go inside,” Murdoch advised.

Scott followed, but his stomach was no longer rumbling for food.

++++++++++++++++++++

How she hated him!

Polly eased Martha back into the shawl sling, her breasts adequately depleted, her own hunger returning now that she could redirect some attention onto her own needs.

Damn Scott, double damn him!  Just what made him think he could take on those three drunk outlaws?  What in the devil’s name had him think he could just roll those complicated threats out off his tongue and not do anything else?  Stupid man with a stupid sense of honor.  He should have drawn his gun at the first foul smirk coming off that Riley’s lips – that’s what Johnny would have done.  But no, instead he had to try playing with the man’s sodden, dumb brain.  Didn’t he know how it worked out here?  Didn’t he know that a gun spoke better than the mouth in these situations?  And her help wasn’t even acknowledged.  Of course she knew the danger, but better to risk her own neck than let that ugly lout – or his friends – get to Teresa.  Teresa had so much ahead of her – that girl had everything to look forward to in life.

She wandered about the small back room, patting Martha’s bottom to get her milk-sleepy daughter into a good doze that would allow some lunch into her own belly.  By now the Lancers were probably all done eating and were waiting impatiently for her.  Well, maybe they could wrap something for her to eat for the ride home.  She didn’t want them to be waiting just because of her.  Not with Scott standing over her, tapping his feet and glaring.  Oh, how dare he grab her and shout like that!  It was like telling her she was stupid, and in front of his brother and father, too.  He was so mean, so cruel…

Why did he hurt her so?  Why?

Sounds coming from the back alley beyond the small open window drew her notice.  Polly peered out – there were people about, some wandering toward a small store tucked back in a corner, others drifting in and out of the back door of the bar where those three drifters were likely still sitting.  Across the way, a boy the color of creamed coffee swept the front of a rundown cantina that probably served the vaqueros of the area.

The coins in Polly’s skirt pocket came together and clinked softly.

No… fluttered that little voice from her heart, setting up her tears.

But she was beyond those sickly tears, and that little voice had no business whispering to her, not anymore.  She could do what she wanted, and no Lancer was going to run her life.

She pulled open the splintered wooden door and called out to the boy, offering him pay for his task.  He hesitated, then took the money and went into the cantina.

In a few minutes he was back, a bottle in either hand.

Polly tucked them into Martha’s canvas bag, smiled to herself and went back out to the dining room.

 
CHAPTER 7

“The mail, señor,” said Cipriano, handing it over to Murdoch.

“Gracias, Cipriano.” Murdoch’s large fingers rifled through the envelopes and extracted one, then laid the rest on his desk.  “Well, this could be good news,” he said to his sons, holding it up.  “From Joe West of San Francisco.”  He broke into it, scanned its contents and smiled, then looked up at his loitering Segundo.  “Something else, Cip?” he asked.

The older man hesitated and glanced at Maria and Teresa, clearing away the lunch dishes from the table.  Both Johnny and Scott caught his mustached frown and lifted their heads.

Murdoch laid the letter down.  “What is it?” he prodded.

Cipriano took two steps toward Scott, his dark face lined with distress.  “Señor…” He was twisting his large hat in his hands.

“Cipriano, what’s wrong?” Scott asked him, rising from the table.  He placed his napkin beside his plate and came forward.  Johnny remained seated, but his eyes were absorbing the tension.

“Señor, lo siento.” Cipriano dipped his broad head in courtesy.  “I will do it if you wish…” He looked at Johnny in appeal, and lapsed into rapid Spanish.  “La señorita, está afuera, con el vaquero joven, Larry.  Tienen una botella, creo que es whiskey.”

Johnny kept his face impassive, though the words made him tighten. The young lady – she is outside with the young vaquero Larry…they have a bottle – whiskey I think.

The air in the room stilled.  Maria and Teresa halted their motions, their heads turning in unison to Cipriano, their mouths parting, their eyes going wide.  Murdoch, having only partially heard some of it but enough, rose and stepped around his desk.

Johnny rose, his glance flickering to the cradle by the hearth where Martha lay sleeping. “Cip, you sure?” he asked, bringing his gaze back to his brother.

“Cipriano, you’d better translate that right now,” Scott ordered, “because I only caught some of it and I’m not sure I’m right...”

Cipriano nodded apologetically.  “The señorita – she is with one of the vaqueros, señor.”  As Scott went rigid he sighed.  “I heard something by the guardhouse…I went to check…they are there, señor…sharing whiskey.”

Before he’d stopped speaking Scott was moving away from the table with jerky motions, his face swept with anger.

“Scott!”  Murdoch’s hail did not stop him.

Johnny made it to the door before his brother could go through it.  “Scott…” he said, his head dipping even as his hand darted out and gripped his brother’s arm.

Scott whirled a look onto all of them.  “D’you think I’m just going to wait for her to finish and stumble in here?” he snarled at them.  His gaze rested on Maria longer than the others, until the other woman lowered her head.  “She can’t be trusted,” he stated.  “She’s proven us wrong.”

“Maybe she’s got a reason,” Johnny said quietly and did not back down from the glare that poured over him.

“Stop making excuses for her, Johnny,” Scott responded, wresting free of his brother’s hand.  “She’s unreliable.” He turned back to Murdoch.  “Do you really want to send her to one of your friends?”  He pointed toward the cradle.  “She’s not thinking of her daughter, only herself.”

“That’s not true,” Teresa put in.  “She’s taking good care of Martha.”

“Teresa, this is not your place…”

“Scott,” Murdoch barked with warning.  “Curb your tone, son, if you don’t mind.” When Scott dropped his head and took a breath, he continued, “So what do you intend to do – send her packing?”

“I can talk to her,” Johnny put in.

“No,” Scott told him.  “I brought her here and therefore she’s my responsibility.”

“And how far do you think you’ll get all tempered up like this? She’s afraid of you, Scott.”

“And well she should be.”  Scott grabbed the door handle and pulled.  “We’ll be back.”

The door thundered shut behind him.  Johnny took a breath and moved.

“I am sorry,” Cipriano offered with a sigh.

“You did the right thing,” Murdoch told him as the women began collecting dishes again.  “Johnny, this might not be appropriate for you…”

“I’m thinking it is,” Johnny told him.

Maria hurried up to him.  “Juanito…you know why…?”

He nodded to her.  “Yeah, I know.  Too bad either one of them don’t, huh?”  He gave her hand a squeeze and quietly left.  

++++++++++++

Johnny’s shadow was trailing him but Scott didn’t care.  Didn’t care what was said or done, just that it was done and said.  Damn that woman – damn her!  What sort of selfish thoughts were churning in her head?  What?  Passing a bottle of whiskey with a ranch hand?  Here under his nose?  Did she have no more self-esteem than that? Well Brother, Scott thought with deprecation as he marched across the yard, the dust from his booted stride throwing golden motes into the afternoon light. You were right – you were right and all of us were wrong.  She can’t change that much.

“Scott…” Johnny’s call, soft and asking for reason.

Scott did not look back.  “Johnny, don’t,” he interrupted.  Just don’t…”

“C’mon, Brother…”

Scott ignored him.

Polly couldn’t care for Martha – she had more interest in herself than in the child.  Sending her to San Francisco would mean certain abandonment of the baby in favor of the liquor.  For if she could find her way to a bottle here, then how easy would it be to come by it in the city?

After all he’d offered, all the kindness and the help, and she had no other appreciation but to drink herself silly with a hired hand.  The baby – she had no care for the welfare of that child.  But he did, by God; he cared what happened to Martha.

The vaqueros were heading out for their afternoon tasks and no one even offered a wave to him, not that he’d even notice.  He barely saw the yard, the horses, or the buildings. He didn’t hear the snort of animals or mumble of voices, the thud of hooves or boots; he couldn’t feel the sun or the light breeze, or detect the yard smells of dust and manure, grass and hide.  His focus was acutely singular – find Polly and Larry.

They had apparently chosen the outside back corner of the guardhouse to do their imbibing and whatever else the liquor had turned them to. A nice sunny spot this time of day, with a deep alcove courtesy of the thick adobe construction of the end wall.  Hell, they could have taken it into the damned cell located within and no one would have ever found out – the place was used mainly for storage.  But he sure would like to use that cell now, toss her in and lock the damned door behind her. Let her screech and cry and curse him until he could decide what to do with her…

They were talking – and laughing.  The voices pattered over to him on the sunny breeze, churning his gut.  Dear God, if her found her in any manner of undress…

Scott strode around the corner, planted his feet, put fisted hands to his hips and stopped.  Dust from his stride caught up to him and wafted over him like golden smoke.  Johnny had halted somewhere behind him, outside of his peripheral vision.

They looked up together, Polly’s laugh catching into a gasp as she saw him, Larry’s long, clean face sliding into reddened guilt.

Larry was the first to move.  The young, lanky hand shot up from the dusty ground, wiping a nervous hand on his thigh, the other clutching the brown neck of the bottle.  “Mr. Lancer, sir,” he stammered.  “I – I – well, sir…”

Scott’s voice was low, deliberate.  He spoke from that planted position and let the breeze carry his words over to the couple.  “You’re fired.  Pack your gear and see me inside in ten minutes to collect your wages.”  He indicated the whiskey.  “And I’ll take that, if you don’t mind.”

“But…”

“Sorry, boy.  You know the rules of this ranch.  Now go.”

“Hey,” Polly got out in protest as Larry turned to her with a crumpled face of dejection.  She scrambled up, shaking out her skirts but the dust from the yard stubbornly clung to the material.   “You don’t have to do that.”

Scott ignored her.  “Get going,” he told the other man.

She tried again.  “Scott, don’t.”

He turned, following Larry, and stamped away.

“Scott Lancer!” Polly demanded, running to catch up.  She landed in front of him, collided with him, and grabbed for the bottle.  “That’s mine – I paid for it.”

He turned, holding the bottle aloft in his long arm.  “That may be, but you’re not going to have it. No buts, Polly,” Scott insisted as her mouth opened again.  “You’ve already shown poor judgment with that boy and it cost him.  Don’t add to it.”

“So it was my fault, then.”  The breeze caught a thick strand of her auburn hair and blew it across her mouth.  She tore it free.   “Don’t kick him out because of me.”

“Polly, I am kicking him out because he chose to drink on the job – that was his bad judgment.”  Scott glared down at her, lungs burning to release the breath and issue the words piling up on his tongue.  “He took a risk and it failed.  See that you don’t tempt anyone else because quite frankly we can’t afford to lose the help.  It takes a lot of labor to run this ranch and good men are hard to come by. Now, I’ll appreciate it if you stay away from the liquor and the hired hands for the rest of your stay.”  He snagged her wrist, clamped long fingers over it and pulled her forward.    The sleeve of her blouse, a white one – plain and unbuttoned at the collar– was smudged with dirt. “Let’s go – back to the house.”

“And when did you suddenly buy this princely manner, Mr. Lancer?” she retorted, her feet scuffing up dust that settled heavily onto the hem of her skirt.  “You haven’t been the same since you brought me here.  What did I do – soil your pride?  Dirty your hands?  Why don’t you kick me out like you kicked out that boy if I’m such a disgrace to you and your family?”

He whirled and pulled her close, his scowl dark, the goad filling him with ire and another feeling too, this one base, instinctive.  Through his ire he noticed her, noticed how anger made her beautiful – emerald glints sparkled in her eyes, rosy color filled her cheeks, and her full breasts heaved…

Scott swallowed down the rest of those thoughts, but they grinned up at him anyway, pulsing and leering.  “Polly, don’t argue,” he got out.  Words – he needed more of them, needed to taste them and hear them issuing from his lips, commanding and controlling.  “Now, get yourself back in the house and look after Martha and stop wasting other people’s time doing it for you.  They get paid to work here.”

Her chin came up, her eyes glittering fresh green fire.  He saw a spot of dirt resting on her jaw.  “What about Teresa – you pay her, too?”

“You’re drunk,” he told her and yanked her forward again.

She hung back; he was almost dragging her, sure he would snap her wrist if he pulled any harder.  “Leave me alone, Scott,” Polly declared.  The nails of her other hand clawed at him, worked over the all but healed wound he’d received trying to defend her all those weeks ago.  “Just leave me alone.”

“No.”  He’d be fine if he didn’t look at her, at those eyes…

“I’ll get Johnny to bring me to Maria’s,” Polly told him.  “He’ll take me.”

“Not necessary,” he clipped without pausing.

“Well, I think it is necessary.”  She sent her weight to her heels and ground them to a stop.  Dust swirled about their knees, danced away.

“Well, you think wrong.”  Scott tugged her and this time she stumbled.  Dust puffed up again.  Polly bumped into him, her breast grazing the back of his upper arm – the spot took on a tingle…

“Maybe so, but it’s a sure sight better than watching you get so lathered.”  Polly waited but he didn’t answer.  “Look, I know what I am and it ain’t much. You were awful kind to bring me here and share what you have with me, but it was wrong.  I don’t belong here and it’s time we faced that.”

He skidded to a stop just past her and turned back around, the dust following him.  She was surely right about that, but-- “Just where do you think you belong?” Scott argued.  “Back in some saloon? Or some dancehall?”

“I’ll find my way,” Polly told him, determination jutting her chin out.

“Not without help, you won’t.”

“I don’t want your kind of help – not anymore…”

Scott got his feet working.  “You don’t have many choices, Polly,” he said as the edge of his vision caught Johnny, propped against the near corner of the building.  “And I’ll be damned if I will just leave you to your own intentions.”  Well, now he’d made a major societal fall from grace by swearing in front of her – what had made his tongue so loose?  She didn’t deserve his profanity, though it probably wasn’t all that foreign to her.

Polly slipped out of his grasp and took a step back. “What is it about me that you don’t like?” she asked as he whirled.

Scott’s spine stiffened at her verbal stab.  This wasn’t about…  “I didn’t say I didn’t like you,” he got past lips nearly frozen into place.  Those tantalizing thoughts started a dance up the back of his throat, skipping toward his brain.

“You don’t like me, Scott Lancer and it’s fine with me if you admit it,” Polly stated.  Anger, real rage, now slapped her cheeks red, made her voice fast and harsh, like that day when she had confronted Gant Foley.  “I know I’m not good enough for you.  For your brother, maybe, but not for you.  It’s plain to see that you don’t know what it’s like for people like me, people that don’t have much more than dirt to work with.”

No, she had it wrong.  She was confusing the issues.  Scott shook his head and mentally grabbed at those images perking up his mind with hints of color, her colors, reds and greens… “That’s not true…” he sputtered.  “I have – I know… You – you…”

“Well, the thing about dirt people like me, Scott,” Polly went on, “is that we can’t ever be completely buried.  We’re needed in this life – we give society people like you something to kick.”

He grabbed her hard.  “Don’t talk like that!”  He shook her, brought her to him but she got her hands on his chest and resisted.  Even so, their breath was suddenly mingling with the emotion they shared.  “Don’t degrade yourself, Polly,” Scott told her – it wasn’t that he didn’t like her because he did.  She had grit, he’d told her that in the kitchen that day. He admired her for that.

“You don’t have to be anyone like that,” he continued in a softer tone.  “Polly…”

She knew she shouldn’t look up at him, shouldn’t look at that handsome face, those serious blue-gray eyes, that straight nose that pointed to his full lower lip, those high cheekbones held aloft by that firm chin…it was all wrong to think of him that way because he knew what she was, even though he’d been so kind when he’d first found her, so caring through his bossiness.  And for a moment back there in old Maria’s bedroom, when he’d eased her back into the bed, insisted that she take another swallow of whiskey to ease her contractions, he’d revealed just the tiniest bit of his heart to her and she’d clung to it, however briefly.  She wanted to see that part of him now, even though it was wrong.

Polly did look up at him then, though his face blurred from the tears that she was willing not to spill.  And as she blinked them back she saw something on his face, something more than he’d just been wearing. Or maybe she’d seen it before, just never considered that it was right, not after that night in the kitchen.  But maybe it was right, and he’d been trying to deny it, didn’t want to believe it…

One of her hands reached up to him, to his hair.  Pretty soft color, that hair, not yellow blond but almost silver-like, more the color of warm ashes.  It would be so easy to touch it, finger those stray ends that waved to her…

Then his mouth was on hers, bruising and demanding, claiming her breath embarrassed by the smell of the whiskey.  And she wanted to struggle against him, but couldn’t.  And still he didn’t let her go, just held her, held her so tight, and she could feel the span of his wide shoulders, that lean hard chest under his clean shirt – he was kissing her so hard, the taste of the liquor passing between them…

And then it wasn’t right, they both knew that it was as sour as the whiskey fouling her breath, and just as she began to struggle he broke it off.

Scott turned away, dragging the back of his hand across his mouth, wiping the taste of her off of his lips, she knew.  He stood there, chest heaving, head down, refusing to look at her.  And she felt so cheap standing before him, ragged and dusty and reeking of the whiskey and the lust that had been filling her.  Lust, because it couldn’t be love, couldn’t be, she couldn’t love a man like Scott Lancer – and he couldn’t love her.

He couldn’t…

He finally moved.  His breaths slowed and he looked up to her, a blue frost trying to cool his eyes and failing.  He worked his throat, shifted his lips.

“Murdoch got a letter from San Francisco,” Scott said to her.  “He’ll want to tell you – when you’ve cleaned up.”  He glanced down at the bottle still in his hand.

She flinched as he threw it against the guardhouse.  It shattered, prisms of winking brown glass scattering in every direction, a brown watery stain soaking into the light adobe wall.  Scott gave her another look, his features settling a little, and then he walked away.

Polly stared at the brown stain, shaky fingers of it trailing down the wall and into the dirt and felt similar tracks working their way down her burning cheeks.  She felt as broken as those shards of ugly brown glass now glittering on the ground.  Broken and ugly, dirty and used…

He cares, the little whispery voice inside her said.

He hates you now, her tears argued back.

It was both, Polly decided as her tears fell and her heart bled.

A shadow came up to her, made her blink.  “Polly?” Johnny asked, touching her arm, placing cool fingers on her glowing cheek and turning her face to his.  “Hey…” His blue eyes were laden with sympathy.  “I’m sorry, Polly,” he whispered to her.

The sob bubbled up past lips swollen by Scott’s rough kiss, and then the tears spilled harder.  “Johnny… I – I…” Polly stammered. 

He opened his arms and she went into them, buried her shame-filled face into his shirt and cried.

 
CHAPTER 8

The muttered oath brought Murdoch’s head up.  He looked toward his desk.  Scott was seated there, head bent over a ledger and a pencil clutched tight in his fingers.  His fair hair caught a shaft of late afternoon light angling in from the far set of double doors and streaked it white.  Surprisingly, the curse had come from his son’s lips.   Murdoch wasn’t sure if he’d yet heard Scott swear; the boy seemed to avoid profanity.

“Trouble with that?” he inquired.

“No, none,” Scott answered without looking up.  He grabbed another ledger, flipped through it, tossed it aside and picked up another, cramming the pencil between his white teeth to use both hands.

Murdoch checked his sigh and stood to stretch.  Something was definitely on his son’s mind, and it wasn’t the troublesome ledger entry.  Polly, most likely.  Ever since that incident with her two days ago Scott had been curt and aloof, speaking in that damnable polite tone but offering little else.  Polly spoke even less.  The way they sat at the dinner table, turned away from each other but glaring all the same, reminded him of a married couple caught up in a senseless argument, the topic long forgotten but the anger still simmering.  And perhaps that was the problem, he mused.  Their attraction to each other was there, buried under expectations and behaviors…and societal rules.  It was there despite feeling wrong, and holding out was making it worse.  Catherine had initially resisted, he recalled, and he had not chased her – well, not too much, after all, he had so little to chase her with.  But there’d been that night when she’d come to him – and they’d talked and later kissed and touched, and then made plans, wild exhilarating plans that made him dizzy with the thrill of it all.

Conversely, it had been his own resistance that Maria had overcome.  They’d spent nights of reckless abandon down in Matamoros, his torn heart healing every time they came together, her softness enveloping him in the love that had been so cruelly wrested from him.  He had initially rejected her attention.  But she had worked her way into a crack in the wall he’d erected around his heart until it had given way under her passionate touch.  And it had been that way for months, even after Johnny was born, until the little pressures began to build…

But he could hardly tell his son what to do.  After all, neither of his marriages could be considered successful…

No, he silently amended.  The product of those marriages – his sons – that was a success.  And a blessing deeper than he’d ever imagined…

Murdoch glanced at his desk and the frame still perched there. Catherine’s gray image gazed out of the soaring window beyond, at the legacy that was to be theirs, and their son’s.  He didn’t know what do to with that photograph.   He didn’t want to offend Scott by moving it; didn’t want to clean it up in some belated gesture of apology.  So it sat there, tempting him and taunting him – so much so that he was avoiding even the chair.

“Polly gave me her answer this morning,” he said to the unsettled air in the room.

“Really – and what did she decide?” Scott returned, writing furiously.  Still he did not look up.

“She’s taking the offer made by the West family.”

“Fine, then.”

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “Does that bother you, son?”

“Why should it?”  Scott laid the pencil carefully aside, quietly closed the ledger and stacked them all neatly together.  “That was the plan, was it not?  I only hope she can conduct herself properly, if only to avoid any embarrassment for you.”  He glanced up then, but his eyes did not hold onto anything, and then he reached down to put the ledgers away in a bottom desk drawer.  But there was moment enough to see the lines about his mouth and the faint smudges under his lashes – perhaps he hadn’t been sleeping that well…

“I think she may have learned her lesson,” Murdoch lightly commented.

“If you say so…” Scott pushed the chair away from the desk but did not stand.  “But I have my own misgivings about this arrangement.”  His tone was irritatingly condescending, perhaps learned from his grandfather, Murdoch thought with a sour unfairness.

“Didn’t you agree…?” Murdoch began.

“I agreed to give her and the baby a chance to better themselves,” Scott began, looking up and pinning his gaze to his father.  “But Polly seems intent on holding herself back, content to keep reminders of the life that gave her all this trouble, instead of focusing on her future.  Sending her to San Francisco may be unwise, given her present condition.”

“So what is the alternative, son?”  Murdoch asked him.  At least he was talking, and rather passionately so within all that prose.  “Keep her on here?”

Scott curbed his horrified look but not before it had swept his eyes and cheeks with stormy color.  “I don’t think that would be appropriate,” he managed.

“Son.”  Murdoch got up and stepped toward the desk.  “Don’t you think you’re being a little harsh with Polly?  She’s trying…”

Scott folded his arms across his chest. “Trying my patience, certainly, but I am not sure about the rest of her efforts.”

Murdoch pulled his lips together.  “Scott, she’s looking for a little attention from you – she wants your approval.”

“Well,” Scott said, inclining his head, “she’s not going to get either one by behaving this way.”

“Have you talked to her?”

Scott fleeted a grin, but it was hard.  “Funny you should say that because that was my plan for tonight.  And stop worrying, Murdoch, because I am not going to ask her to marry me.”

Where had that been waiting, Murdoch silently wondered?  “Scott, I never…”

“But you’ve been thinking it,” Scott returned accusingly.  “You and Johnny and even Maria.” He took a breath but his snappish tone remained. “You’ve all been waiting for me to give you the news, but there isn’t any to be said.  I have no feelings for the girl, none that would result in a suitable offer of marriage.  This is neither the time nor the place for that.  There’s too much work here…”

“Scott, your feelings are your own business,” Murdoch told him, feeling suddenly thrust into a place that was too tight for all this emotion.  He took a few of his own breaths, tried to ease his way back out.  “I’d welcome Polly or any other woman to this ranch as your wife, and any children that resulted – that applies to Johnny and Teresa as well. You and your children will never want for anything, not while you’re here…”

Scott abruptly stood and the chair skittered away.  “And don’t imply that I wanted for anything, sir, because I did not.”  His eyes turned cold.  “My grandfather was – and is – a beneficent man, and I owe my life to him for his generosity.  He provided all that I needed, a good home, a good education, the best care – he was a father to me in every way.  You weren’t.  That was your business, sir.  You said when we first met that I’d get no apologies from you – well, sir, I am not asking for any.  The past is gone, as you’ve adroitly pointed out.”

“Son, I didn’t mean to imply – of course Harlan provided…it’s obvious that he did a fine job…” Murdoch’s tongue stumbled over his words. How had the conversation turned so quickly? “I only meant to say--”

Murdoch swallowed but still felt the past swelling in him, choking him.  He did not want it to rise.  It was what it was; there was no changing it. His gaze darted to the hearth, but the cradle was gone, toted up to Polly’s room, he remembered, by Johnny that morning.  There was just the photograph, just the two of them, father and son, strangers still, connected by blood and name…and little else so far.  That photograph…old and now dirty, a visual reminder of the past that could not be recovered.  It had opened a rift between them and threatened to suck them into it, into the truth, into his inadequacy, into his failure...

It had all been so even before Scott had discovered that picture, before the baby had arrived.  The boy had been raised right by his grandfather.  There was no need for him to discover the failure, no need to learn the truth of the threats Harlan had made.  What good would it do to sully the boy’s love for the man, to turn his heart?  Murdoch had sworn that he wouldn’t do that, that even if Scott decided to stay here that he would not besmirch Harlan Garrett’s image, no matter how hurtful it was to swallow back that reminder.  Hadn’t it all been for the best, anyway?  Weren’t they all together now, without relying on the past to keep them together?  Even Johnny had left part of his past at the front door, had exchanged his former trade for family.  Couldn’t they all start from the point of their gathering, to build something new, to create new futures…?

“Son…” Murdoch reached out to touch Scott, to pull the anger out of him, to ask him to let go of whatever was chewing at him, to shove the photograph at him, tell him to take it and the past out of this room…

Scott turned, his arm coming up to block his father’s incoming fingers.  His hand hit the frame, knocked it over with a clatter, and then it toppled through the air—

It fell face down between their feet, twitched lightly on the carpet, and rested.

They both stared at it, their breaths passing in the space between them.  Scott crouched.  Slowly he rose with the frame in his hand.  He turned it over, wiped his hand over the unbroken glass, held it.  Sunlight spilled over his shoulder, flashed against a spot of unblemished metal.

But when he held it out, Murdoch crammed one hand into his pocket and forced the other to rub at a pain at the back of his neck.  He didn’t want it, couldn’t touch it…

He felt Scott’s deep blue stare on him but did not look over, just held himself with his hands positioned up and down, his gaze on a fold in the red window curtain, jaws crunched so tightly together he could already feel the ache in the lower bone.

Scott shoved passed him and walked away, taking the photograph – and Catherine’s ghost – with him.

++++++++++++++++

He sat in a chair at the far end of the portico, waiting for her to appear.  He knew she would; her new habit was to take the baby for a stroll about the house before turning in.  The first time he’d seen her by chance.  He’d sought some air and his own walk to the stable and back had landed him in a dark corner underneath the arches, watching the night sky purple to black and the stars blink on.  She’d swayed from around the near end of the house, rocking Martha in her arms and staring up at the same piece of sky.  Scott had examined her restored form, her ample breasts and the hollow of her new waist, the soft curve of her hip and that cloud of auburn hair about her head and shoulders.  He saw her lips move, watched her large eyes drink in something offered from the heavens.  Her womanliness had stolen into him and threaded into the lower part of him, ensuring another sleepless night of hungry dreams. 

It was five weeks to the day since Polly had given birth to Martha in old Maria’s cabin.  Five weeks since he’d carried her into the guestroom and laid her on the bed, her fear making her cling to his hand and beg him to stay.   Five weeks that he’d tried to maintain a respectable distance from her, to be a guiding hand for her and the baby, to let her know that it wasn’t right to have something between them, not like he wanted from a woman that he could be serious with.  Not like what he’d shared with Julie.  He wasn’t sure Polly could even offer that sort of love to a man.  And she’d tried hard not to give in – he knew that – but dammit if every time they were together something made them touch – and feel...

Scott knew her behavior was his fault, that it was a reaction to his uncurbed emotions.  And he cursed himself, countless times a day, for his inability to keep himself in control.  Like that day when he’d found her drinking.  He’d hated her for doing it, and yet felt sorry for her, too.  And felt something else.  A shameful part of him was full of the kind of need she could give and he was attracted to it like an animal seeking scent.

And the other part – that part near his heart…

But it wasn’t love – couldn’t be.  That kiss had been wrong; it had been a test to see what exactly he was feeling.  Something to taste and then reject.  But it hadn’t tasted foul, and he hadn’t quite rejected the feeling that had resulted…

Well, not anymore.  Tonight he’d tell her plain, make it clear.  And offer her one other option for her and the baby.  The option that Murdoch had shied away from, but the one that could most benefit Martha.  The baby needed so much.  And Polly needed time to bring herself together.

A step sounded in the dirt, and Scott lifted himself up off the chair to greet her.  Polly came around the corner, strolling unhurriedly, cooing to Martha.

“Polly…”

She stopped with a little intake of breath, arms tightening around Martha.  Scott came into the light of lanterns lit along the wall, his face composed in seriousness.

Faint relief glimmered in her eyes.  “Scott,” she acknowledged, her tone holding forgiveness that he did not want to hear.  “You gave me a start.  You been out here waiting for me?”  And her gaze went suddenly wary.  She brought her arms around the baby and pressed the child close to her chest.

“Polly, we need to talk,” he told her, propping himself against a colonnade, careful to hold some distance between them.

“I haven’t been drinking, Scott. I swear I haven’t.  Nothing.”  The words tumbled out of her, heartfelt.  “I haven’t done anything to embarrass myself or got anyone else into trouble.  You can ask Teresa, or Maria.  I’ve kept to myself, haven’t bothered anyone.” She shifted Martha from one arm to another.  “That old cradle is in my room, now.  I asked and Johnny brought it up for me.  I’m keeping clean, Scott, like I should have all along--”

“Yes, I know you have, Polly,” Scott nodded.  He’d watched her, had seen her trying so hard to comply, had waited for her to fail and make it easier for him to find fault with her.

Manners kicked in.  “Would you like to sit down?” he asked her.

Her chin came up and a new guarded look crossed her face.  “No, I’ll stand.”  She glanced down then, at Martha drowsing in her arms.  “If it’s about that day…” she stuttered, speaking to the baby, “it ain’t your fault, Scott…”

“Yes, it is my fault,” Scott firmly replied.  “I shouldn’t have done that, Polly, and I am here to apologize for it.  That was wrong, deeply wrong.”

She nodded, her gaze still on Martha.  Something in him twisted.  This was going to be hard, but she had to be told.  It wasn’t about feelings; it was about a greater good.

“Well, it’s over,” she said, fussing with the edge of Martha’s blanket.   Then she looked up to him.  “So what is it you want to talk about?”

“I wanted to talk to you about Martha, about her future,” Scott told her in even tones.

Polly frowned.  “Mr. Lancer sent word to those people in San Francisco,” she said.

“I know,” Scott nodded.  “But I’m afraid Murdoch didn’t offer you all the available options for you and Martha.  He left one out – an important one.”

"What is it?” she asked in a reluctant voice.

He dropped his own gaze, just for a second, then brought it back up to her.  “Adoption.”

She took a step back, the word plainly understood.  “You mean give Martha away to someone?”  Her voice rose, tremulous.  “To strangers?”

“We could adopt her,” Scott said slowly.  “Or we could be her guardians – until you’re settled…”

Polly took another involuntary step back, eyes widening.  “What are you saying, Scott Lancer?”

“Guardianship wouldn’t be permanent,” he explained.  “You could come back any time and visit…”

“Leave Martha – with you?”

“We can provide a home for her, Polly…”

“And I can’t – is that what you’re saying?” she accused.

“No, of course not,” Scott returned, feeling heat creep into his cheeks.  “But it could be hard for you, Polly--”

“I’ve seen hard times before,” she reminded him.

He kept his voice neutral.  “She’s an infant, Polly.  She needs looking after--”

“That’s my job,” Polly defended.

He went on.  “She’s got her whole life ahead of her – she deserves so many good things.”

“And she doesn’t need to be raised by strangers,” Polly lashed back.  She shook her head.  “I don’t understand you, Scott,” she said in a hurtful tone.  “You’re sounding like the Foleys.”  She straightened.  “And I won’t listen to it.”

He snatched at her arm, caught fabric and the warmth of flesh underneath.  “Polly, listen…”

She banged a fist onto his.  “Let me go!”

“Polly.”  Scott’s other hand closed over hers, firm but not hard, not hurting....  “Please try to understand…”

“Let her go.”

Johnny’s voice, low and deadly soft – Madrid-edge soft – spoke out behind him.

Scott’s head swiveled to face his brother; Johnny stood not far from the second set of double doors leading into the great room.  His figure was black in the light glowing from behind him.  But his stance was straight, anticipatory.

“This isn’t your business, Brother,” Scott curtly responded.

Johnny shifted and came forward, and the wall light reached around to illumine his face.  “Well, I’m making it my business, Brother,” he drawled.  “You’ve pushed it too far, Scott.”  His gaze flicked to the woman caught in his brother’s grasp.  “You can go, Polly.”

Scott’s fingers tightened but he said to Johnny, “Now that you’ve inserted yourself into this, Brother, you might as well spit it all out right here.”

Johnny’s interference angered and disappointed him.  Despite his brother’s initial nonchalance toward Polly, Johnny hadn’t kept his heart fully out of it, and now he was exhibiting accord with any decision she might make.  Well, little brother could have his say, but he would not stand in the way.  He of all people should understand what was at stake with Polly and Martha – he had grown up without any loving adults, it appeared, with no one look after him, care for him, see to his interests…

“You’ve made your offer,” Johnny countered quietly.  “Best you let Polly think on it.”

“On the contrary – I hadn’t quite finished,” Scott returned.

Polly peeled herself away from his hands.  “I’ve heard all I need to,” she ground out and stalked away, Martha still clutched close to her chest.

Scott watched her go.  When she had turned the corner he whirled back to his brother, face ruddy in the lamplight, eyes dark and smoldering.  “Johnny, you don’t understand…”

“No, it’s you who doesn’t understand,” Johnny interrupted, striding closer.  The blue of his own eyes had disappeared and the orbs were now all but black.  “Me – I understand it all too well.”

Scott pointed after Polly. “What kind of life do you think that baby will have if they leave here?”

“A life with her ma,” Johnny answered simply, bringing up one hand to rest on his hip.

“And if it gets too hard?” Scott persisted.  “If Polly can’t manage for the both of them?  What will happen then?”  He’d plucked the nerve he was seeking when he saw the moment of grief cross his brother’s face.  But he wanted his brother to see his side, see that Polly was not ready to do this, that Martha would be hurt in the end.

“She’ll manage,” Johnny returned in a tighter tone, schooling his face back into a neutral look.  “ ‘Sides, she knows where we are should she come to trouble.”

“And why let that happen?” Scott demanded.

“Scott, you ain’t thinking clear…”

“I’m not thinking with my heart, if that’s what you mean,” Scott declared. “What guarantees will she have, Johnny?  How can we be sure Polly will make it?  What will keep Martha from suffering the loss of her mother – to drink, or poverty – or abuse…?”

Johnny’s face darkened even as his eyes glittered black.  “Careful, Boston,” he warned, straightening, his hand falling back to his side, “or I’ll think you’re talking about me.”

“Johnny, you’re not blind to your experiences,” Scott urged.  He knew he didn’t know everything about his brother’s past, but he’d estimated that it had been hard, regardless of whether Johnny and his mother had left Lancer or been kicked out by Murdoch.  It hadn’t been easy for Johnny, judging by his brother’s chosen profession.  “Polly has to know that she can make another decision. And it doesn’t have to be permanent.  There could be a contract, with a time limitation…three or five years maximum--”

“Would you listen to yourself?” Johnny quickly shouted at him.  “You want a piece of paper to take the place of the love a mama can give to a niña?  What is in your head, Brother?  What is in your heart?  Is that what your ma’s dying did to you?”

“Johnny, this isn’t about my mother…”

“Why don’t you just ask him about it?” Johnny suddenly suggested.  “Ask Murdoch about what happened to her, to your mother.”

Scott pulled away from the colonnade and edged back into a collection of shadows, distancing himself from his brother and the question.

“It won’t serve any purpose,” he stated to the darkness.

“It might,” Johnny spoke to the faint outline that was his brother.  “It might answer some questions you got turning in your mind about him – about what he did.”

Scott shook his head.  “Knowing won’t change what happened.  Murdoch is right – the past is gone, done with.  No need to belabor it.”

“You jealous of me, Boston?” Johnny asked with soft sadness.  Maybe that’s why he was so resistant to talk about it, why he was trying to hang onto his politeness and refrain from offending.

The question rolled into the quiet darkness and held, hovering, breathing, living between them.

Scott had stepped deeper into the shadows.  “Jealous of what?” came back his voice, hemmed with rancor.

“Oh, I dunno,” Johnny shrugged, wishing he hadn’t opened his jaws.  Now Boston was mad.  But hell, his brother had been mad for days.  Might as well let him get it out of his gut – maybe it would help him some if he got mad.  “Jealous ‘cause Murdoch managed to keep his second family – including me – for a while longer than his first.  Got to see his son, act like a pa…”

“How can I be jealous of something I don’t even know?” Scott scoffed, but his conviction was thin.  “Half-facts and truths are about all…”

“How’d you come to live in Boston, anyway – do you know?”

“Here’s what I know,” Scott intoned, stepping back into the yellowed light.  “My grandfather was more of a father than the man inside this house.  Murdoch Lancer can’t be a father to me because he gave up the chance – and willingly so –  when I was born.”

 

“And you’re asking Polly to willingly give up Martha,” Johnny returned.

“No, it’s not the same.  She can’t care for the child, Johnny.  She has too much of her own growing up to do.”

“And how do you know Murdoch just walked away?” Johnny countered.  “Who told you – your abuelo?” He paced a few steps.   “Maybe he didn’t – maybe something happened.”

“Like something happened in your case?”

Johnny took a breath.  “Maybe,” he acknowledged.  There were apparently two versions to his own life story  - his mother’s and Murdoch’s.  And Murdoch’s had been corroborated by Teresa.  “So maybe your old abuelo told you something different, too.”

“And maybe he didn’t,” Scott rejoined in an icy voice.

“Do you really want Martha to be left all alone?” Johnny asked him.  To be put with some strangers that won’t ever really care enough about her?  Do you really want that for the little niña?”

Scott’s huff of skepticism made him pause.  His brother’s  smile was sardonic in the lamplight.

“It’s better than being an orphan, Brother,” Scott advised,  “and subject to every--”

He didn’t get to finish.

Johnny’s fist landed into the insult, splitting his lip and knocking him to his knees.

“Don’t you tell me your life was better!” Johnny rounded on him, leaning in to hold Scott’s returning glare.  “Oh, you got to live in a fancy house in a fancy town and got a big education but all that was just spit in the wind, Brother.  Because you – and me – didn’t get the one thing we deserved to have…Murdoch Lancer.”

Scott slowly stood, wiping at his bleeding lip, staring at the smear staining his knuckle.  He slowly lowered his arm—

Then swung a savage fist up at his brother, letting the churning anger and the abashed feelings and the god awful need to react barrel down his arm and out through his clenched fingers.

 
CHAPTER 9

Scott returned the favor to his brother, landing a strike on Johnny’s cheek that split the flesh over the bone.  Johnny stumbled from the force of it but came up swinging—

And stopped.

He stood there, blood trailing down his face, right arm drawn back and ready, but his burning blue eyes were caught on something behind Scott’s left shoulder.

As the hesitation lengthened Scott turned his head to look.

Murdoch was standing there.  His face was a model of carved granite in the light, eyes flinty, lips pressed so tightly together they were all but invisible.  If he had spoken Scott had not heard him.  But his presence enveloped them and momentarily stayed their action.

He finally spoke, his disdain dripping like melting icicles.  “Disagreements are welcome in this house but there is no need to use your fists to make your point.  Save your brawling for the saloon, if you don’t mind.”  He pointed first to Scott, and then to Johnny.  “I take it there’s not enough blood to warrant the doctor? Well?”

They both wiped at their cuts and eased into less defensive positions.

“Polly has made her decision to go to San Francisco,” Murdoch reminded them as they straightened.  “We can’t interfere any more than that.  Martha is her child, and we are in no position to control what she chooses to do without taking legal recourse.  And I am not going to step onto that road, do you hear me?”

“With all respect, sir.” Scott took a step forward.  “She needed to understand all of her options.”

Murdoch nodded, his face breaking out of that stony gaze and shifting instead into a scowl.  “Yes, and I can see that you made sure of that, son,” he retorted.  “But you cannot decide for her. This is one instance – one of many, I am sure – where you are going to have to step back and let it go, and whether it turns out to be right or wrong will only be told with time.  Now, if she changes her mind and decides to accept your generous offer – made on behalf of all of us, I might add, which is not how we operate around here, not yet – then you’ll need to make financial arrangements for the child’s future.  I expect you’ve given thought to that?”

Scott nodded. “Yes, sir. I have other accounts…”

He was willing, so confidently willing to repeat history that had been so successful for him, but that had so failed his own father..  The realization pierced Murdoch’s chest, plunged into his heart and poured out his foul past.  Catherine’s image rose up from the darkness beside Murdoch; she raised a transparent hand and it clutched the fingers of a small boy, blond, sad...lonely – their son, his heart longing to understand why... Her lips moved soundlessly, pleading.

What can I do? his mind shouted back at her.

“No!” Johnny declared, taking two steps forward.  The blood from his cut had reformed, coating his cheek with red.  “No, I ain’t going to be part of that, even if Polly changes her mind.”

“Even if she doesn’t want the child?” Scott turned to him.

“I won’t have a hand in splitting them up,” Johnny announced. “Martha belongs with her ma.”

Catherine, what do I do? Murdoch demanded.

Scott managed a twisted smile, his swelling lower lip jutting.  “Then what would you do, Brother?  Escort her back to a saloon or a dance hall, drop her off at the front door…?”

“If that’s what it takes to keep them together,” Johnny said with quiet conviction.  “I’ll take her anywhere she asks me to.”

“Your sudden interest and promises surprise me, Brother.” Scott’s brows rose.  “Considering you don’t think she’s worth--”

“They belong together,” Johnny ground out.

“Right,” Scott scoffed.  “And who will watch the child while she’s entertaining and drinking the night away?  Is that the kind of togetherness you envision?”

He’s not entirely wrong – his offer is a solid one… Murdoch tried silently, weakly.

“It don’t have to be like that,” Johnny flustered.  “Murdoch’s found her a place…she’s got all that money Foley left her.  She’ll make it.”

“All that money won’t guarantee anything,” Scott returned.

I did it for him – for him.  It wasn’t for my own interests – I wanted him back, I wanted him… Murdoch inwardly stuttered and then silenced his inner self.  Catherine hovered, quiet.

“Fine, then, Brother,” Johnny said over his shoulder, walking fast toward the front door.  “You made your offer and I’ll go make mine.”

A collection of smoky black clouds scudded into the sky on a riding breeze, smothering the stars twinkling up there.  A new thick gloom rushed over the two of them left standing in the darkness. The drifting silence settled about them, heavy and deep, discomfiting.

Scott did not move. Murdoch felt bodily frozen, but his mind worked a kaleidoscope of the argument just heard, snatches of words tumbling over each other. Words about him – cutting him down, defending him, words reflecting their loss…words speaking of jealousy, relinquishment, lies.

And the words of truth, buried deep within all those words and all those actions of the past, the long ago past…

The question whispered between them.  Murdoch sensed its plea.  He despaired; in plain truth he had abandoned his son, but not as willingly as Scott believed – oh, he had heard that, so clearly.  Sending Catherine back to Boston had been his idea, and one Harlan Garrett was all too willing to embrace. It was supposed to be temporary, just until the raids could be stopped.  Never had he intended for Harlan to become Scott’s guardian – never.  But Harlan had seen an opportunity to reclaim his daughter and obtained the winning hand right from the start.  And when Catherine perished Harlan still triumphed, winning Catherine back via her son.

Catherine hadn’t wanted to leave – she’d begged to stay, insisted she would not be harmed.  But Murdoch had loved her so much, wasn’t willing to risk her life and that of their child.  She’d go back to Boston until it was safe and then he’d bring them both back here to their home, his wife and his child, and their future would be secure…

That’s how it should have been…

If only he’d had the means to fight Garrett all those years ago.  If only Haney hadn’t started those raids on the ranch, if only Catherine hadn’t been expecting…He’d done his best with what he had, believed that it had been right to let the boy stay with his grandfather in the only home he had ever known.  No doubt Harlan loved Scott, had show him how to be polite, how to be articulate, had given him a fine education, and had apparently had instilled into the boy good and solid morals, but…

But it hadn’t been enough, would never be enough.

Johnny had it right.  The fancy town, the fancy house and big education was no substitute for the love given from a parent to a child, a parent well and alive but too damned poor to fight for the very life of his son…

Scott moved; Murdoch caught his arm, gripped tight.  “Son…” He had to say something, tell his son something, try to explain…

Scott glared at him and then the hand on his arm but did not struggle free. “Goodnight, sir,” he said in a brusque tone.

“Scott…”

“I said good-night to you, sir!”

Murdoch let him go and he walked away, straight and stiff.

He thinks you didn’t care… whispered Catherine’s voice as she retreated with their son.  He’s never known that kind of love…he can’t understand what he doesn’t know…

“And how do I repair twenty-odd years of that?” Murdoch snarled to the clogging blackness descending on him.  He tilted his face up to the gray-black sky. “How do I?” he repeated more softly, with a feeling that he had just passed up his last opportunity to wrestle down this thing between he and his son.

He could have done it – but he’d let Scott go.

+++++++++++++++++

Scott had slept in his bed and the dreams had come, worse than before, visions of heat and sweat, of bare, flushed skin and limbs sliding against limbs, of ripe touches and forbidden tastes, of the very smell of lust.  After the second time he gave up his bed and tackled the day before the dawn’s glow had even touched the sky outside his window.  He made first coffee and drank two cups to wash down day-old biscuits he found under a cloth on the counter, the evening still very much with him as the food worked over his swollen and scabbed lip.

He’d heard them in Polly’s room not long after he’d walked away from Murdoch, heard her hiccuping sobs and his brother’s soothing voice.  Their talk lured him to her doorway and he’d propped himself against the wall and listened, wondering why he just couldn’t seem to understand her when everyone else could; why she made him so angry; why he'd kissed her when he shouldn’t have; and why he’d let such emotion spill over in front of her, in from of Johnny and Murdoch – everyone.

“That’s my offer to you,” Johnny told Polly.  He was sitting right there on the bed with her, one arm about her, fingers of the other hand stroking her hair while she held the baby close between them; they looked like a couple.  “What do you say, Polly?”

She’d sighed shakily.  “I don’t know, Johnny.  I’m – I’m so confused…He had no right – Martha’s mine – she’s mine.”  She sniffed and wiped her eyes with her hand.  Then she’d laid her head on his shoulder, and he’d rested his cheek on her hair.

Johnny touched Martha, stroked her little cheek with his finger.  “Yeah, she’s yours, looks just like you, even if she doesn’t have any hair,” he grinned and she smiled. But then he went serious.   “And he won’t take her away – I promise.”

Polly had looked up at him, her own fingers touching that wallop Scott had given his brother. “Thank you for standing up for me,” she whispered.

Johnny had eased her hand away, but the action hadn’t made her mad, not like she was that day in the kitchen. Scott’s fingers unconsciously brushed his own cheek as he remembered her hard slap.  But she hadn’t hit Johnny…

“I was so tired of that place, Johnny,” Polly said then.  “So tired of what I had to do.  I just wanted to go home – I thought Frank might give me a home, but he – he…” Her voice caught in her throat and she sobbed.  “I’ve tried – I’ve tried so hard to do what he wants and I just keep doing it all wrong…and he gets so mad…”

“Don’t cry, Polly,” Johnny shushed her, pulling her close again, but Scott barely heard the words from the pounding of his heart into his ears and thumping up into his brain.  Her words, her admission, had grabbed him hard, throttled him, rattling him in its haunting grasp.

What he wants…

A great grinning shame broke over Scott, releasing the torrent of regret that had been piling up in him.

What he wants…

Shame for his misplaced anger toward her and the baby.  Shame for his inappropriate behavior toward her, for treating her closeness as something forbidden. For refusing to meet her eyes – for holding her away when all she’d wanted was approval and acceptance.

For barely apologizing for that most improper kiss and then assaulting her again with his suggestions about Martha.

He gets so mad…

He’d made her cry.  Dammit, that hurt worst of all because she sounded so scared – of him.

He’d felt suddenly lonely, so damned lonely and stupid standing there.  He’d quickly taken his sorry self to his room and closed the door on his darkness, groped for the frame and the figurine now side by side on his bureau.  He’d touched them, touched these remote gifts with either hand and tried to draw some emotion from them, something besides his own remorse, something that he knew was there but could not grasp or identify.  But there was nothing but the feel of tarnished silver and the cool softness of porcelain under his fingertips, their connection inaccessible to him despite his longing to bring them together.  Finally he’d flung himself on the bed, not even bothering to undress.  And he’d slept until the dreams had come…

Today he had business to conduct in Morro Coyo and for once he looked forward to visiting the lawless little town; it would nicely complement his roughened feelings.  Plenty of whiskey to be found…Maybe he’d check the freight office – he was expecting some things from Boston. He led Sheridan out of the stable just as Cipriano passed by, gave the Segundo a wave and rode out.

It felt good to leave the hacienda and everything that moved within it behind.  It had been all too long since he’d been out of the house, away from the stares and shouts, the tears and the cries and the heavy thoughts of marriage and children, of fathers and mothers…

Of adoption and guardianship, and of those blows he and his brother had exchanged over a past neither really understood and a present that refused to settle.

At the very least he knew he had to apologize to Polly, had to explain his position.  And then he’d leave her alone, let her make her decision.  He’d just stay out of the way until she gave over an answer.  And when she did give a reply he’d clamp his lips together and say nothing.  Nothing, because she was afraid of him and he didn’t know what to say to ease that.  So saying nothing might be best.

Maybe he’d extend his stay in town, get some personal needs taken care of, a haircut, for example and…other things.  Things to relieve him of his coarse dreams as well as his illicit waking thoughts.  Maybe a good go would wipe it all out of his mind.

He let Sheridan have his head and they streamed through the predawn mists, two ghostly apparitions chased by a tortured past.

++++++++++++++++

“You had nearly the same result the last time he hit you,” Teresa observed, again pressing the cloth to Johnny’s bruised and freshly scabbed cheek.  She shifted to let Maria squeeze behind her and get to the oven.

“Yeah, yeah.”  Johnny’s head sunk for a moment then he lifted it back up to her.  “I just didn’t think he’d hit me back.  I had him on his knees and I was trying to keep him there with words, y’know?  Like when he lets off those fancy sentences of his that can stop a man cold.”  He shrugged and carefully fingered the bruise around the cut.  “Guess I need more practice.”

Maria came around to the table and put down the bowl of brown eggs she was carrying, then took his face between her brown hands.  “Había sido mejor no enfadarlo – you should not have provoked him,” she told him. “El corazón le disconcierta.”

“Yeah, well, my own head’s a little twisted up at his confused heart,” Johnny declared back.

“He loves her,” she replied and glanced at Teresa; the younger girl only sighed.

“Well, he has a funny way of showing it,” Johnny groused, taking the cloth from Teresa and holding it to his cheek again.  “Asking her to give up Martha and sending her away ain’t what I call love.”  He pointed to the eggs.  “That going to be breakfast?”

“It will be as soon as I can move you off my worktable,” Maria smiled and picked up the bowl again.  “Dónde está el pan – where is the bread?” she asked Teresa, then continued, “It’s love, querido, one that he must give away.”

“Why is that?”

“He knows he cannot keep it – that it will not work between them.  They are too different.”  Maria’s hands went busy, cracking eggs into two skillets, checking brewing coffee, gathering up utensils, searching for items on the counter.  “And inside him, he knows that she is not yet ready to accept such love.  The baby must come first.”

“She won’t be down for breakfast,” Teresa told them.  “She didn’t even answer the door when I knocked.”

“She needs time,” Maria counseled.  “Leave her to herself.  And you…” she poked a finger at Johnny. “Habla a tu hermano - talk to your brother, Juanito.”

“And do what?” Johnny snorted.  “Offer him the other cheek?”

“Tell him he needs to talk to his father,” Maria answered, tenderly patting his freshly shaven jaw.  “It will help him…”

“Maria…” Murdoch appeared from around the corner and stopped.  “Would breakfast be anytime soon?” he asked her, fixing his gaze on Johnny.

“Sí, señor,” she nodded, shooing Johnny away from the table.  She muttered to herself; Johnny caught mention of missing napkins and preserves, leftover beef…

“That’s going to turn black,” Murdoch observed, gesturing to Johnny’s bruise as he rose.

Johnny nodded.  “I expect so.  I’ll say this for Boston – he sure can hit hard.”  His fingers again investigated the area and he grimaced.

“Did you talk to Polly?”  Murdoch joined him as they headed into the dining room.

Johnny nodded again.  “She said she’d think on it all…” He dropped his head.  “Even the adoption part.”

Murdoch settled a hand on his shoulder.  “Polly has a lot of determination,” he told his son.  “She’ll make the best decision for herself and Martha.  Scott will come to understand that – in time.”  But there was a detectable amount of uncertainty in his voice.

“Guess it wasn’t as easy for Scott back East as I thought,” Johnny ventured.  “Him not knowing…” He shrugged, thought about saying more, but let it go because the old man was looking like he was going to choke, what with his brows all lowered, his cheeks getting splotchy and his throat working hard.

“It’s in the past, Johnny,” Murdoch replied in low tones.  “No need to bring it all back.”

Johnny watched his father try and swallow it all back.  “Maybe,” he answered in his soft voice.

“Well, he was well cared for,” Murdoch flustered quickly.  “You can see that – has all the education and arrogance Harlan Garrett could afford.  It was more than I could do– and by then you – I had to…I needed time to…” He scrubbed a big hand through his hair and sighed.  “And by the time I could…I’ve always cared--” Murdoch broke off again.  “You’re wrong, you’re both wrong if you think I didn’t care…”

“Maybe you could tell Scott that,” Johnny said, swallowing over the realization that had just been made to him, that the old man had cared, hadn’t walked away all those years ago...

Murdoch muttered something that he did not release from his throat.  Instead he dropped into his dining chair at the head of the table and reached for the silver coffeepot. “You planning on working that south range today?” he asked with an abrupt change of subject that indicated the former topic was closed.

“Well…no…” Johnny checked his sigh – there just wasn’t much give from either his brother or the old man.  He stopped by his chair and traced a finger around the edge of the silverware beside his plate.  “I was thinking of taking a ride to town – Morro Coyo…”

Murdoch scowled and poured his coffee.  “Scott’s already headed that way – Cip told me he left more than an hour ago.”

“I know…” Johnny shifted, laid the spoon on top of his fork.  “But he was pretty mad last night…”

Murdoch laugh was throaty, edged with nervousness.  “Johnny, what are you suggesting?  That your brother has found an excuse to waste a day’s pay on cheap whiskey and--”

“He might.”  Johnny kept his head low, fingers now touching each tine of the fork, back and forth, back and forth.

Murdoch was still smiling with forced amusement. “Son, I’ve never seen him drink himself loose…”

“Don’t mean that he can’t – or shouldn’t.”  Johnny looked up.  “Look, I know that Scott can take care of himself – cavalry officer and all – but there’s something about him that attracts the wrong kind of attention still, like that day in Spanish Wells.  That and a little too much drink makes a man bold when he shouldn’t be…”

“Do I detect the thought of an apology somewhere in all that?” Murdoch raised both eyebrows.

A bit of sheepishness colored Johnny’s features.  “Well, I came at him with some pretty strong words,” he acknowledged.  “About things I had no business saying…” He stopped worrying the silverware and crossed his arms instead.

Murdoch pulled up his own sigh but did not comment.

“If he’s not back by midday…” he finally said to his son, and allowed a small smile at the response of blue-eyed relief and gratitude.  “Maria,” he called in a voice toward the kitchen, “isn’t there something to start breakfast with?”

She came out with bread and preserves, fussing about misplaced laundry and telling him that the eggs were just about ready.

++++++++++++

That’s what he wanted all this time, her tears reminded her.

“Well, he isn’t going to get what he wants,” Polly answered herself aloud.

He wouldn’t take Martha – Scott Lancer was not going to touch her daughter.

He had no right to her, no right to separate them.  And if he did think he had the power to make those orders from his mighty hacienda then he’d be sorely surprised to find that guest bedroom empty.

“I hate him,” she told Martha tucked into the shawl across her chest.

Polly slapped the reins to hurry the team along.  The wagon jounced but she held fast.  Martha squawked her protest at the jostling.  Polly risked taking a hand off the lines to pat her daughter back into a doze.

“Sorry, baby,” she told Martha.  “But we’ve got to get some road between us and that hacienda.  He’ll come looking and I don’t aim to go back.  He can’t take you – I won’t let him.  I didn’t let Gant Foley take you and Scott Lancer won’t, either.  I won’t…”

She turned away from the Spanish Wells road – surely they’d look for her there.  No, she’d try Morro Coyo – Teresa had mentioned that the stage ran through there.  Though she regretted taking the team and the wagon, she told herself that she’d had no other choice.  She’d leave it in town – the Lancer brand would ensure it would be properly returned.

She had enough money for stage fare.  She’d buy a seat and leave long before anyone could come looking.  It’s what she should have done weeks ago.

 
CHAPTER 10

Johnny blew out a sigh.  He thanked Cipriano for his news and turned toward the house, Barranca’s reins trailing from his left hand.

Murdoch met him before he could even tie the horse to the rail.  “You know?”

“Cip says she took a wagon,” Johnny told him and gazed off toward the road.  “Can’t say as I blame her, Murdoch.  Scott made it sound like he had the right to take Martha from her.”

Murdoch crammed his hands into his pockets.  “Well, which way?” he asked in frustration.  “She must have left early – hours gone in any direction.  Do you think she went back to old Maria’s?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Could be.   But I don’t aim to follow her.  This is her way of telling us what she wants to do.”

“Just yesterday she was ready to go to San Francisco,” Murdoch pointed out.  “It doesn’t seem likely that…”

“And last night she was asked if she wanted to give up her little niña!”  Johnny turned brilliant blue eyes onto his father, emotion gathering in the glittering depths.  He took a breath and gathered up the reins.  “I’ll find Scott – and tell him,” he continued in a quieter tone.

Murdoch got a hand on the saddle before he could turn about.  “And if he goes after Polly?” he asked his son.

“I’m hoping he won’t,” Johnny replied.

++++++++++++++++++

Polly heard the rider pass but did not get up to look.  If it was someone from the ranch then maybe they wouldn’t find her here – she’d guided the wagon well behind the trees.  The hoofbeats passed, and did not return.  She sighed; best to get moving before she met whomever it was coming back.

The rest had been welcome – she’d been stiff from driving the wagon and horse and baby had been plenty hungry.  While the animal nosed the grass she fed Martha and then helped herself to the bread and meat she’d taken from the kitchen, trying not to feel guilty about stealing from Maria.  And though the spot wasn’t exactly the same as that place she’d seen out on the hill all those days ago, it was shady and grassy and quiet.  The midday heat soon had them all drowsy and they’d all napped for a time, until that rider happened by.

Now the sun had moved off.  If there was no outbound stage then she’d have to find a room or spend the night in the wagon.  Well, it didn’t matter – she’d found a way out of Scott Lancer’s grasp and she’d keep going.

She settled the horse back into the traces, then gathered up Martha.  The baby blinked once, twice – and then grinned at her mother.

“Sweet baby,” Polly declared, giving the soft tiny cheek a kiss.  “You smiled for mama.  I love you, Martha.”  This time she let the tears fall.  “I love you so much...”

She settled her daughter into the shawl sling and took up the reins.  The wagon bumped as it turned about, and then they were leaving their little grassy space and heading back into the road. 

Say g’bye, say g’bye, say g’bye…the horse’s hooves churned up the chant as it jogged toward town.

If only she could have said a proper good-bye, Polly thought to herself as she scrubbed the back of one hand across her cheek.  The Lancers had been good people – their hearts had been solid, well, except for one of them…

But deep within herself Polly still could not hate Scott Lancer, despite his words of anger and his disapproving blue-gray eyes, that constant frown on his lips.  She wanted to, oh how she wanted to.

But she just couldn’t.

++++++++++++

Johnny shook his head, a mild smile of surprise playing at his lips.  <<Well, Boston,>> he said to himself.  <<Never thought you’d get this kind of dirty, but I guess I figured you wrong.  Looks like you ain’t so different than the rest of us.>>

The object of his scrutiny was just making his way out of Albertina’s place in a slouched and decidedly un-Scott-like fashion, gloves sagging out of his back pocket, hat crushed in one hand, the collar of his jacket folded under.  But he’d picked up a haircut along the way, and if that wobbly walk was any indication, enough whiskey to ensure a mighty big headache tomorrow.  And if one of Albertina’s girls hadn’t picked his pockets then he’d have enough money until payday.  Well, there was no visible blood or bruises, so apparently the liquor hadn’t bolstered his feelings into striking out.  Not that he was the type to pick a fight, anyway.  Johnny watched his brother a moment more.  Though Scott seemed relatively unscathed on the outside, Johnny figured it was the inside his brother was trying to cure with all that liquor and those womanly favors he’d bought.  Well, it would work – for a time, anyway.

Johnny whistled to him just as he stepped off the boardwalk.

Scott turned and waited, wavering slightly, eyes narrow and squinting and lips firm. “Waiting for me?” he asked with a surly edge to his tone as Johnny approached.

“Yeah, waiting for you,” Johnny replied, holding out Sheridan’s reins; he’d rescued the horse from the livery after discovering just where his big brother had spent his afternoon.  The bartender had only been too happy to report how Johnny’s sibling had chosen one of his best bottles and then tossed back most of it before heading back outside.  And Albertina herself had given Johnny a smile and a wink before confirming that El Rubio had indeed bought himself an afternoon with a certain young lady of the house.

Scott took the reins, then reached back to find his gloves.  “Well, that’s very kind of you, Brother,” he said, with just a little fuss fitting fingers to leather that made Johnny smother a chuckle. “But I don’t need looking after…” He flapped a hand and made a sloppy, dismissive gesture.  “You can go on home now.”

“Sure, you’ve handled yourself just fine so far,” Johnny sarcastically returned.  “What’s gotten into you, anyway?”

“What’s gotten into me will surely pass by morning,” Scott smiled wolfishly in reply, testing the cinch.  Well, at least he still had enough wits to do that, Johnny noted.

“That ain’t so funny,” Johnny grumbled, thinking that, depending on how well his brother held his liquor while atop a horse, it might be a long slow ride back to the hacienda.  “Come on – we’d best be heading home.  You could’ve done your drinking there, y’know.  The old man has plenty in supply.”

“Ah, but the ‘old man’ doesn’t have everything in supply,” Scott responded, keeping his smile.

“What, one of Albertina’s girls?”  Johnny gestured at the building.  “Yeah, I saw you coming out of there,” he said as a faint flush swept across Scott’s cheeks.  “Scott…” Johnny shook his head.  “What’s all this about, huh?  What’s got you all jumpy? It’s Polly, ain’t it?”

“How would you know if I was jumpy or otherwise?” Scott demanded, pulling himself into the saddle with relative ease despite his unsteady legs.

Johnny vaulted onto Barranca and turned the horse about.  “Brother, you are nothing but habit and routine.”  He walked Barranca forward and Sheridan easily followed before Scott could rein him back.  “It’s been the same ever since you got here.  Your feet hit the floor at the same time every morning.  You drink your morning coffee out of the same cup always standing up.  You twiddle your fork before you use it.  You shake the newspaper just once, before you turn a page.  You skip every other stair when you head for bed at night.  And I haven’t yet seen you clean that gun you’re wearing.”

“Too predictable for you?”  Scott arched an eyebrow, but his smile had turned harsh.  “Then this must have broken the mold …oh, that’s it.”  Then his smile faded and he looked off down the street.  “Well, Brother, I am not as consistent as you all would like to believe.”

“I know,” Johnny declared, touching his bruised cheek.  “That’s twice now you’ve surprised me with that long reach of yours.”

Scott worked out a genuine grin, but his fat lip made it look like a grimace.  He looked over to his brother and straightened the reins in his gloved hands.  “So, out with it,” he prodded.  “Come to apologize?  Or did Murdoch send you?”

“It wasn’t the old man’s idea,” Johnny grumbled.  Then he shrugged, eyes scanning the street out of habit.  “I said some things…wasn’t my place…”

Scott only nodded.  “Guess we both did,” he said in a soft voice.  He took a breath and continued, “Johnny, I stand by my offer to become Martha’s guardian – I won’t retract it.”  As Johnny worked up a retort he went on, “But I won’t stand in her way if she refuses.”

“No?”

“No,” Scott repeated with a single nod.

Well, that was something.  Johnny settled his gaze on his brother.  Scott hadn’t shaved this morning, he observed.  And from the way he kept positioning his hat on his head, he must be surely starting a headache.  Johnny thought about that consistency sentence Scott had just uttered.  Guess it was true that ol’ Boston wasn’t as predictable as they all thought.  He hadn’t been that dandy that had stepped off the stage those few months ago.  He’d proven himself an excellent horseman and a hard worker.  Though he’d rather negotiate with his tongue, he wasn’t afraid to defend himself – or those he cared about.

Somehow they’d all managed to equate consistency with perfection, and that was wrong.  Scott wasn’t perfect, he was the same as every one else, a man with good traits and some bad.

He made mistakes.

The cheap smell of Albertina’s brothel wafted over to Johnny.  Scott was wearing that smell – of wrinkled sheets and stuffy air, of sweat and cloying perfume and stale whiskey; it gave him an uncomfortable, unkempt look.  He would never wear it well, Johnny figured, even if he could find a way to like it.  Big brother was more like more fancy silks and cigars, fine dark wine and furtive whispers. And that was one part of him that he probably couldn’t change – he’d just been raised too right.  Johnny realized with a little grin that he rather liked that part of his brother, the good manners, the politeness, the quiet intelligence and fair treatment of everyone.

And Scott had tried to treat Polly fairly but other things, things of his past, had upset his reason.  Maria’s pronouncement came back to Johnny, the one about Scott needing to give away his feelings for Polly.  Maybe his offer of adoption or guardianship or whatever he was calling it was his way of fixing it in his mind.

Polly…

“Something else you need to know,” Johnny said as they walked their horses to the end of the street; he’d held off too long already.

Scott squinted up at the sky and rubbed at one reddened eye.  “And what’s that?”

“Polly’s gone – she took Martha and left.”

“What?”  Scott pulled Sheridan up hard and the horse tossed its head indignantly from the pressure on the bit. “When did she leave?”

“Not sure.”  Johnny nudged Barranca forward.  His eyes went out to the street again, seeking out corners and shadows.  It was quiet, but something felt off…

Scott grabbed for the near rein.  “And did you…?” he began accusingly, yanking Barranca into a turn.

Johnny countered the move and stilled the palomino. “No, it wasn’t me,” he said, meeting his brother’s glare.  “No one saw her leave. Cip only found the wagon gone just before noon.”

Quick silence dropped between them.  Scott lifted his chin.  “Say it, Brother – your eyes are already blaming me.”

Johnny sighed. “You scared her, Scott, with all that talk of taking Martha…”

Scott held the blue-eyed stare boring into him. “That situation, if she chooses to accept it, does not have to be permanent…”

“Dammit, Scott.”  Johnny threw up a hand.  “Let it go – let Polly go.  She knows where we are if she wants to come back.”

“You mean no one’s out looking for her?”  Scott swore and put his heels to his horse.

The horse loped a few steps before Johnny cut in front of them, forcing Scott to veer to avoid a collision of animals.

“Get out of my way!” Scott commanded as Sheridan pranced under him, anxious to be free of the bit.

“What are you going to do if you find here – drag her back to the ranch?”  Johnny asked.  “Lock her in her room?  You can’t force her, Scott--”

“I am not going to do anything of the sort!” Scott shouted back.  “She shouldn’t be alone.  She doesn’t know the area.  My God, she’s out there with that baby…” He broke off, but the emotion had already leaked out.

Johnny heard it and waited.  Say it, Boston – get it out.

“She’s my responsibility,” Scott added in a reserved tone, the gray melting out of his eyes.  “If something happens to her…”

He swore then sucked all his frustration back inside.  His head sunk and his hands tightened then quieted on the reins.  He pressed his lips together, working up the words over his tongue, considering them.  Still Johnny waited.

Finally Scott said to his hands, “I – I care about her.”

Johnny’s lips lifted in a little smile of sympathy at the admission had been ever so long in coming.  “I know you do, Brother,” he quietly responded.

“I never wanted to her hurt her, or to drive her away,” Scott went on.  “I just wanted to give her a chance to do what’s right for Martha.”  He looked up, the blue of his eyes deep, turbulent.  “Sometimes the choices are hard ones to make – when they’re for the best.”

“And sometimes you have to let people decide for themselves what’s right,” Johnny reminded him in a gentle tone.  “Even if you think it’s wrong.  You can’t hold them back if they want to go.  The best you can do is help them get there and hope it’s what they really want.  And let them know they got someone to come back to.”  He shrugged, glanced down and let off a grin.  “It worked for me – that day in the cantina, you letting me go…”

That day when he’d tried to leave after that incident with Stryker, and that argument with Murdoch. Scott had talked to him, well, talked at him, but in the end had left the decision up to him.  And after listening to his brother’s words and his own heart, Johnny hadn’t wanted to leave Lancer, hadn’t really wanted to leave in the first place.  He figured Scott had somehow known that.  Now Scott gave him a deprecating smile, and Johnny suddenly wondered how it had been for him deciding to leave Boston…maybe his grandfather, the old abuelo, had ridden him hard about it.  

It came over to Johnny then, that sense of issue, the final internal <<click>> that solidified his earlier feeling of trouble.  He snapped up in the saddle, swept the street with his gaze, hand going to his holster.  Beside him Scott frowned but slowly straightened in response to his brother’s reaction, his own hand sliding over to his right thigh.  Johnny fleetingly wondered just how good his brother was with a Colt.  He’d seen his brother work skill with a carbine, but Scott’s handgun often rode in his holster with about as much use as the belt that held up his pants.  Though Scott had managed to draw on that gunhawk a few days ago in Spanish Wells, and had shot that Foley boy a few weeks ago.  But that had been when he was clear-eyed.  And he wasn’t exactly that at the moment, though he’d managed a good enough discussion on things.

“See him?” Scott murmured.  He reverted to his half-slouch, but his face was alert.

Johnny had already seen him.  Riley, if he recalled correctly, minus his two lunkheaded friends.  Apparently he hadn’t found anything interesting in Spanish Wells and had drifted over to Morro Coyo.  Or maybe Riley had decided that Scott warranted more than just passing interest; after all, Scott had drawn down on him in front of his friends.  Or maybe the name John Madrid had been whispered – Johnny hadn’t kept his former reputation a big secret but had not gone on about it either. The Lancer name was familiar throughout the three towns and across the valley and it would be easy enough to track anyone coming or going from the ranch.

“What do you suppose he wants?” Scott asked in the same low voice.

Johnny kept riding but made the work of his hands clear.  The other man wasn’t making any moves to challenge them, just hanging, half in and half out of the saloon doors, watching.  And Riley was smiling tightly.  He lifted a hand, waved with two fingers and touched the brim of his battered hat in mock salute.

“Come on.”  Johnny kept Barranca moving.  He hoped Scott would stick to the saddle for the long ride back to the hacienda.  As it was they would barely make it before dark set in.

Johnny kept his eyes on Riley and watched as the other man eased through the saloon doors and headed down the boardwalk in the opposite direction at a lazy stroll.  Where were his two friends, Johnny wondered, and let his eyes scan the street again.   Riley wasn’t the kind to just walk away from his cronies and only move one town over.  More than likely the other two were lurking around, planning some job.  Maybe they were brazen enough to try it in full daylight.  Where, then?  There wasn’t any bank in Morro Coyo.  So they’d have to try for a store or saloon strongbox…

Johnny redirected his attention back to the road.  Suspecting Riley of no good wasn’t the same as catching the man actually doing no good.  Better to leave it lie.

“Polly.”

The name from his brother’s lips with surprise and brought Johnny’s head around again.  Scott pointed.

She was coming from the opposite direction.  The team was dusty and drooped and she didn’t look much better, despite being braced by the dual set of reins.  Her hair was wind-tossed about her shoulders, and the blue shawl sling for Martha needed adjusting.  But even from this distance there was a set to her face that held her chin up.

She negotiated the corner to gain the main street and disappeared from view.

“Scott…” Johnny lightly warned as Scott turned Sheridan about.

“She doesn’t have to run,” Scott told him.  “She can come back to the ranch.”

Johnny snorted.  “And how are you going to convince her she wants to go back?”

“I’ll talk to her…”

“I’ll go with you…”

“That’s not necessary.”  At the look of consternation Johnny gave him Scott hurried on.  “I’m not going to take Martha from her.  I just want her to understand what my intentions were.”  Still Johnny hesitated.   “Johnny, I’m not going to force her into anything,” Scott insisted.  “I told you I’ll let her go – if that’s what she wants.”

Johnny shook his head. “You could just make it worse, Scott.  Polly’s real skittish right now.”

“It’s my fault she left,” Scott argued.  ‘I can’t make it right it I don’t talk to her.”

Trying to make it right, Johnny told himself, and allowed a grin – now this was the Boston he’d come to know.

Johnny glanced over where Polly had disappeared. “You could get your eyes scratched out,” he commented.

“I’ll take the risk.”  Scott resettled his hat onto what must surely be an increasingly aching head, then adjusted the reins in his hand. “Tell Murdoch I’ve been delayed.”

“Scott.”  Johnny grabbed for his arm again.  “Don’t you hurt her.”

He cares, too, Scott noted.  He shook his head firmly.  “I won’t,” he promised.

++++++++++++

An hour to wait for the stage.  Polly left the wagon, grabbed Martha’s canvas bag and moved away from the depot.  She’d wait someplace else, someplace out of the way and get back in time to board and leave.  Down by the church, maybe; she’d be able to see the stage arriving from there.  And even though she didn’t dare step inside, it would be a safe enough place to wait outside with Martha.  Besides, no one would look for her there – they wouldn’t think she had enough grit to try and reckon it all with the Lord.  And she didn’t, anyway.  She just wanted a quiet place to sit with Martha, to not be much noticed or overly remembered, though a red-haired woman with a baby in this rough-looking town might not be able to hide too well.

She dropped to the other side of the road, away from the busy freight office and passed by an empty storefront, watching for anyone recognizable from the ranch, especially a tall, light-haired figure.  But there was no one paying undue attention to her…

“Hey there, Red.”

A vaguely familiar voice, surprised but pleased.

He grabbed her arm hard, pulled her into the doorway.  The outlaw from Spanish Wells – Riley, looking and smelling the same.  Dirty, leering, half-drunk and ready for anything.

Polly struggled and he chuckled.

“Got me a free hour, Red,” he chuckled, hauling her in close to him.  “How ‘bout you show me that good time?” 

++++++++++++

Scott left Johnny sitting on Barranca in the middle of the street and loped back the other way, straining his eyes to see where Polly had gone.  All he wanted to do was explain himself to her.  He wouldn’t berate her, wouldn’t demand that she return with him.  He didn’t want her mad at him, didn’t want her to hate him – or be afraid of him. She’d cried last night – he’d caused her great gushing tears.  He wasn’t cold-hearted; those tears had pierced him with shame.

The wagon was parked outside the stage depot.  Scott reined to a stop at the rail across the way and hurriedly dismounted.  She wasn’t there, but the boy behind the desk told him that a woman fitting the hurried and breathless description he huffed out had bought a ticket.  Scott ran back outside, scanned both sides of the street, up and down – cantina, freight office, storefronts, the church at one far end, some ramshackle sheds…

He saw a hint of red.

Angled down from him, by a peeling doorway.

Polly was there – he could see her profile, the blue shawl where a tiny fist waved.  She was talking to someone – a man.  He held her – too close, too tight.  He was smiling...

A man – a stranger, and already she had struck up a conversation.

A swift mix of dismay and suspicion swept over Scott.  Was this her plan, to solicit some man to aid her?

He supposed the baby had kept her from the saloon. 

Guilt kicked him hard.  Was this what he’d done to her, forced her to turn to a stranger for help?  And just what would this man be asking for in return?  Scott’s gut clenched.

Dammit!  She didn’t need to cheapen herself, hadn’t her told her that?  She was a pretty woman, she had an opportunity to support herself in a decent job, but she had rejected that offer as well as the two others the Lancer men had extended.  But to not even consider the baby…

Scott yanked the gloves off his sweating fingers and started walking fast toward her, toward them, his booted feet gaining speed under his stride.  They were going inside – the man had already moved through the doorway, Polly following.  Scott broke into a run.

“Polly!”

She whirled just as he reached them – the man had his hand on her, pulling at her, pawing at her.  He was tall, black-bearded.  If it hadn’t been for his own afternoon of whiskey Scott would have seen the mean manner in which the man was holding her, his grip hard with her resisting.  But he couldn’t detect the difference, not yet, just that they were close together, hands on each other, all over each other…

“Scott!” Polly gaped in astonishment.

“Not this way, Polly!” Scott reached for her, ready to yank her out of the other man’s grasp.  “You don’t have to--”

“Scott, no – look out!”

Something struck his outstretched arm, spun him halfway around.

The man grabbed him, pulled him back.  “Hello, city boy,” he grinned.

Riley.

Riley had been holding her.  But not for favors, Scott saw with rueful and belated realization; there was a look of complete fear on Polly’s face.  She hadn’t approached the outlaw, but he had approached her – touched her, grabbed her --

“You’re interrupting my personal business,” Riley told him.

Scott’s fingers brushed his Colt, slipped over the handle, touched leather.  But he was too clumsy, and his arm hurt where Riley had struck it.

Whatever was in Riley’s hand smashed into Scott’s face, metal on flesh, jarring the bone.

Pain exploded in his head and he sank.  Dimly he heard Polly cry out, and maybe Martha cry, too; he couldn’t be sure.  Another blow landed on his jaw and his head snapped back.  He hit the boardwalk hard on his knees, the blow jolting up his thighs. When the boot sank into his ribs the red-tinged blackness had already come up over him so he didn’t feel it – much.

And then he didn’t feel anything at all.

 
CHAPTER 11

The brightness bit him hard, forcing him to squeeze his eyes tight and turn away.  It seeped through his quivering eyelids anyway, warm but far from soothing.  Scott released the union of upper and lower lashes, hissed at the shimmering light that streaked through.  He had to see, had to.  He’d left something behind, something that needed his attention…what?

“Now, now,” came a soft voice, faintly familiar. Something – a hand, cool fingers – touched him, touched his jaw, the side that did not pound with his heartbeat.  “Easy – that’s it…”

Swollen…the other side of his jaw was puffed and tender – it hurt when he moved it, and he realized that the left side of his face was also throbbing.  That would explain why he couldn’t see too well, then.  Scott blinked with the eye that worked and a face came into view above him  – Polly.

She had been talking to a man – he was gripping her arm in that mean way – that blow and then another –

“Riley…” he mumbled out over a slow tongue to let her know he remembered most of what had happened.

Polly nodded toward his left, but he didn’t yet dare turn his head to follow her glance.  “He’s watching the window,” she reported.  “Guess he’s got other things on his mind now.”

“You all right?” Scott asked, his voice bringing her eyes back to him.  He hadn’t been out that long – but had Riley…?

“I’ve been handled worse,” she told him and didn’t look away.

He swallowed.  “He didn’t…?”

“No,” she said, then under her breath added, “Not yet.”

Then she clucked.  “He hit you – hard,” she said, her stare worried.  She withdrew the bit of cloth she’d been pressing against his cheek – it came away stained with blood.  “Oh, now maybe you shouldn’t do that,” she fretted as he planted an elbow on the gritty, splintered floor and pushed himself up to a sitting position. She dropped the cloth to grip his upper arm, pinching him as she tried to support him.

The room tilted and the edges of his vision turned grayish-black.  A boulder-crushing pain threatened to split his head in two and set up sloshing waves of nausea that had him regretting the afternoon of whiskey he thought he’d enjoyed.  He fought against it, breathing hard, and after an indeterminable time it sullenly subsided.

“Where’s Martha?” Scott asked, pressing the heel of his hand to his good eye; the shawl was no longer about her chest.  Her fingers gratefully eased as he propped himself against the wall at his back.

She pointed and he slowly looked.  The blue shawl was within reach, Martha ensconced in the nest Polly had arranged out of the material, asleep.

Scott eased his head away from the support of the wall and carefully looked about him.  The room was bare of furnishings.  The walls were marked and scratched, the floor scuffed and gouged in places. There was a counter to his right, fronting a recessed area.  A small broken window gaped in the back wall behind him– shards of glass, dull with dust, littered a path from the wall to where he sat.  Another doorway to his left led to another room, dim and dusty.  An old store?

He rose on shaky legs, head threatening to break off from his neck, his nausea resurging.  This time Polly slipped in under his shoulder.  He draped his arm across her just as his knees buckled; she tucked both hands into his belt and tugged.  Scott got himself back against the wall, propped himself in his heels, eased away from her; there wasn’t enough of her to fully hold him, anyway.  But she kept one hand on him, just in case.

They were in the old freight office – the new one had been built almost directly across the street.  The company had just moved into its new headquarters when he’d first arrived in Morro Coyo and this building had been empty since.

Until now.

Scott’s wavering gaze traveled across the grimy floor to a pair of dark and scuffed boots.  Riley, one hip hitched on the narrow sill of the stained front window, peering carefully out, watching the street.  At the rustling the outlaw turned.

“Well, city boy…”

His gun filled one hand and the other was already curled into a fist.  As he approached Scott noticed that his own gun was stuck into the other man’s belt.

“I should have hit you harder,” Riley grinned, peering at the mess he’d made out of Scott’s face.  “Would’ve kept you down iffen I had.  But at least you ain’t so pretty any more.”

“Let her go, Riley,” Scott demanded.

Riley smiled at Polly, eyes roving approvingly over her. “Now, Red here, she won’t give me any trouble, ‘cause she knows what will happen if she does.  And just maybe she’ll give you up and come with me.”  His fist uncurled and he snagged his fingers into Polly’s hair.  “How ‘bout it, Red?” he asked, tugging.  She winced but ground her lips into a straight line and did not cry out.  “Ready to give up your pretty city boy for something better?”  He inclined his head.  “Got a nice room there – that way he don’t have to watch…”

Scott readied a punch but Riley’s gun came up fast.  “I can add a bullet hole to that face if you want,” he threatened, cocking the Colt and leveling the barrel onto Scott’s chin.

“Don’t hurt her…” Scott warned.

Riley chuckled at his weak threat.  “Or you’ll do what?” he jeered.  “Take a bullet for her?”  He glanced at Polly.  “Red don’t mind it rough,” he said, giving her head a shake.  “Probably even likes it some.  Do you, Red?”  She kept quiet, but Scott could see that she’d be more than happy to retort.

“What do you want, Riley?” Scott demanded, drawing the bigger man’s attention back.  Polly’s eyes slid to his with gratefulness.  “Why didn’t you just rob the stage out on the trail?”

Riley untangled his hand from Polly’s hair and she sank back with a tiny sigh.  “Well, I’ve done that very thing before,” he told Scott.  “And it ain’t easy.  Too many people, too many guns.  Everyone carries guns these days, stage driver and passengers alike.  And then there’s all them people to handle.”  He let off a smile.  “But there’s a good haul coming this afternoon from the stage straight into that freight office safe. One of my partners checked it out.”  He shrugged.  “So I talked to the boys and we figured why tussle with all them extras when we can just as easy get that strongbox from the clerk when it’s handed over there?  Freight office closes right after that delivery – won’t take but a minute to slip in and grab it before they lock the door.  Well, that was the plan, of course.  You tearing in here with the fire of the Moses bush in you made me do some refiguring on it.  But it’ll get done, just the same.”

He adjusted the barrel of the Colt, up towards Scott’s good eye.  “Now, we got almost an hour before that stage gets here.  Red and me – we had some ideas before you busted in.”  He grinned.  “And I sure would like to get back to that – I surely would.  But you, city boy…” he shook his head.  “You’re an almighty witness, and I’m going to have to take care of that, one way or another.”  He gave Polly a shove.  “Find me something to tie him with.  So’s you won’t try to get away when I do have to shoot you,” he explained to Scott.

He had it pretty well figured out, Scott silently mused as he watched Polly disappear into the empty storeroom, even adjusting for the unexpected. An hour – then it was about three-thirty.  The stage wouldn’t arrive before four-thirty unless Hank had found some wings for his team.  An hour to plan some sort of offensive against the outlaw.

If Riley kept him alive that long.

Riley ordered him around, hands behind his back, and shoved hard when Scott didn’t move fast enough.  Polly produced a discarded ball of packing twine, thin and fibrous, but strong  – it cut Scott’s wrists when she knotted it tight under Riley’s direction, and he felt the blood well up and drip over.

“Guess that’ll hold you,” Riley told Scott, slipping a knife from the sheath in his belt and sawing off the end from the ball.  In one quick motion he stepped to Polly and laid the tip against her cheek.  She gasped and stiffened, but did not try to retreat.  Scott turned but stood still, ravaging the inside of his cheek with his teeth; he didn’t want to threaten Riley and cause Polly any harm, but if the outlaw even tried to turn the tip of that knife inward...

“Just to let you know that killing a woman don’t give me second thoughts,” Riley said to Polly.

He pulled the knife away, cut off a new length of twine.  Scott spared a glance to Polly.  Her face had paled, but the spot where the knife had touched her skin glowed red. 

“Here…” Riley gave Scott a push that had him stumbling to his knees; the inside of his head all but screamed.  Dizziness swept him and he slipped to one hip, then banged his elbow as he connected with the floor.  “I’d advise you to stay down, boy, and sit still where I can see you.”

“Kind of you,” Scott managed, thrusting his shoulder blades back against the wall.

Riley laughed softly at that and flung the twine at Polly.  “Tie his feet,” he commanded her.  “And then  - well, I’ll give you a choice – him or me.”  He drew his gun and backed away toward the front window.

Polly dropped beside him and did as she was told, then held his throbbing elbow while he shifted his hips and drew up his knees. “Scott, what do we do?”

“I don’t know – yet,” he returned, keeping his stare onto Riley, now looking out the dirty front window.  “Keep your voice down.”  His own sunk.  “I only want to distract him one time – the right time.  But I won’t let him harm you.”

“Scott, don’t you worry about that…”

He struggled against the thin rope.  “I most certainly will.”

She darted a gaze over to the bigger man. “He’s planning on robbing that freight office, then? Alone?”

“His friends must be outside somewhere.”  Scott tried to glance around but the lack of full eyesight and the regular throb in his cheek made him reconsider any unnecessary movement of his head.  He had to take a moment to huff a few breaths and renegotiate the creeping nausea. It was stubborn, so he closed his good eye, eased his head back and breathed very carefully, in and out.

What could he do?  Try to get free of these bonds, of course; his feet weren’t tied as sight as his hands, thanks to Polly’s efforts and Riley’s inattention.  If he could break free he could tackle Riley; that would give Polly time to escape with Martha.  There had to be an alley door, maybe in the other room.  She could get away, alert someone about the robbery.  He might only catch one bullet.  If he stayed low and rammed the man Riley might only hit an arm or a shoulder - might.  That would get him close to the door.  Hell, he supposed if he hit Riley hard enough they could go through that front window and land right into the street – that would attract some attention…

“Scott.”

He got his eye open.  “What?” he mumbled as Polly’s face appeared close to him.

“Maybe there’s something I can do,” Polly said, fingers grazing the bloodied bruise now filling his face.

“Such as?”  He grunted under her probe and she let go.   What could she possibly do?  There was the baby to think of.  Riley had two guns and a knife; they had nothing. If he could hold off Riley, she could get out…

At her silence Scott looked up; Polly’s eyes had taken on a determined glint, one he hadn’t seen since that day she’d confronted Gant Foley as he’d offered her cash money for her baby – his grandchild.

“I might be able to distract him,” she said slowly.

“With what?” Scott asked with a lopsided frown.  Just what did she think…?

“Scott Lancer,” Polly declared softly, her mouth slipping into a smile.  One hand slid to her hip.  “Don’t you ever just see it plain-like?”

His aching head rose a little as her idea eked through his comprehension.  He straightened, squinting, and put his knees down.

“No,” he commanded quietly.

She bristled. “Don’t tell me ‘no’ like that--”

“I just did and it’s going to stick.”  Familiar anger was working back up in him, worry butting in there for good measure – dammit, no.  Not a good idea – not at all…how could she even think…?

“Red, you got two minutes to move away from him,” Riley called over to her.

“I can’t think of any other ideas, can you?” Polly challenged Scott softly.

“Not at the moment,” Scott returned, “but yours is too dangerous – you could get hurt.”

“Scott, what can we do?” Her hand went back to his arm, her touch light but urgent.  “If his friends show up then we’ll all be dead.”  She paused, darted a look over to Riley but he had turned back to the window.  “He’s already thinking on it, that’s why he--”

“No,” Scott repeated.

“Why not give him what he wants…?”

“Polly, you are not going to try and seduce that man!” Scott hissed.

Seduce – the word made it sound religious-like.  As if she were going to do something mean and unholy.  Well, it wasn’t exactly proper the way Mr. Scott Lancer liked it, but it was something.  And if she was lucky it wouldn’t go all the way like he was thinking.  But she at least had some of her figure back, and a little extra assets thanks to Martha.  That should be enough.  And if it turned to other things – well, maybe Scott could stop it – if he was of a mind and not off sulking.  No, she decided, he would not sulk about this – and he wouldn’t leave her to such risk.  He’d find some way…

She reached for the bag she used for Martha’s things, thrust her arm inside and pulled up an item for him to see – whiskey.

The second bottle she’d purchased that day in Spanish Wells.  Full and untouched because after that afternoon with Larry she had vomited every last sour drop and it had taken hours to get the taste from her mouth.  But she hadn’t had any since, had promised herself no matter how hard it got she wouldn’t drink.  Knew that she didn’t want Scott to see her that way ever again.

And she hadn’t even remembered leaving the other bottle in Martha’s bag until she’d tossed it aside to help Scott.  But now she was glad she hadn’t left it behind.  If she could get Riley to drink it, pretend to offer herself to him, maybe she could get his knife, or his gun…

Scott was staring at it, his swollen jaw working – he was thinking it through.  Finally he said, “You might not have enough time.”

Polly smiled.  “I bet he doesn’t have two pennies in his pocket, not if he has to rob the stage.  When do you think he ate last?  Or had a woman?  He’ll be hungry for both but this will be his first treat.  Men generally start with the liquor – makes them feel like they’re better than they really are.”

But he wouldn’t start that way, she guessed to herself.  Johnny might have a tequila or two, but Scott…then she thought again.  He’d keep it high-priced, she figured, make something respectable out of it.  He’d probably do the…seducing, offer up a naughty lady some champagne before she could return any favors.

Well, Mr. Scott Lancer, she silently told him, high-priced or not, back East or out here in this dusty half of a town, fornication is all the same.  And champagne was impressive, but it didn’t make a man any better than another; Frank Foley had offered her champagne and he’d turned into the meanest man she’d ever met.  And now he was dead – by her hand, no less, though he had attacked her first.

“He’ll drink first,” Polly assured Scott.  “That kind always do.  And he’s already had some – this will just make it all the easier. And I ain’t doing it for the enjoyment, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she continued, seeing some dismay creep into his face.

“Polly, that wasn’t what--” Scott began.

She shook her head and glanced at her baby.   I ain’t like that – not anymore.”

It felt good to say that to him, tell him the truth – whether he believed it or not.  She wasn’t going back to that life, had decided that even before all the trouble with the Foleys.  And now that Martha had been born, she wanted more than ever to have her daughter proud of her mama.  Not that Scott had seen much of her attempts, she realized now.  But that didn’t mean she wasn’t trying.  

She moved but he shifted, trapping her skirt with his knees.

“Polly…” Scott’s voice was rough with reluctance. “This isn’t right.”

Their eyes met and held, his showing way more than he’d ever allowed, anger and also some worry – and something else that she didn’t dare name.

Polly’s smile trembled. “You swear to take of Martha if…” she faltered.  She took a breath and the tears faded from her eyes.  “And maybe your family can take over if something happens to the both of us.”  She pulled the whiskey bottle into her hands, scooped up Martha and stood up.

Something crunched under her foot.  They both darted a glance down.

A jagged finger of window glass peeked out from under her shoe.  Polly looked over to Riley, but he was oblivious.  She moved her foot, nudged the broken glass toward Scott’s knee and stepped away.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Scott scoot over, saw his bound hands twist out from behind him and stretch for that glass.  If he could cut that rope and she could get Riley’s gun…

She placed Martha on the floor in the other room, wishing she could push her deeper into the corner, but Riley was already watching her and she didn’t dare step out of sight.  So she slid the baby as close to the wall as possible and then straightened.  Settling some calm into her shaky knees, she approached Riley.

“Well, Red,” Riley smiled at her.  “Glad you’re seeing things my way.  You sure you’re not with him?”

Polly glanced back to Scott and her heart snagged on her lungs – he looked a mess.  His left eye was purpling closed and a streak of drying blood marked the space around his ear.  His lower jaw was red and the swelling had traveled all the way down to his chin.   But there was raw anxiety still in the blue eye that stared back at her, and a tenderness that spoke from his heart.

He did care.

He did care for her.  Knowing that almost made Polly nearly drop the whiskey bottle in her hand.  She had to blink fast and hard to keep fresh tears from spilling.

When she could see again he had claimed control of his visage; he looked away, feigning disgust.

“Him?” Polly laughed softly and turned back to Riley.  “He can’t help me now, can he?”

"Pretty boy like that…” Riley flicked a glance at Scott.  “I bet he has money.”

Polly shook her head. “None of his own,” she replied.  “Wouldn’t even get his family to raise a ransom on him, either.”  She swayed a little closer, raised the bottle in her hand to a position just under her breasts, smiling a little as his eyes went there.  She held the bottle out and waggled it.  “I can share.”

Riley laughed, swiped the bottle from her and held it up.  “Red, I knew you and me was the same, first time I saw you.  That pretty boy, he ain’t your type, never will be.”

She checked her flinch, forced back the sudden tears.  No, he’s not my type…

Riley admired the whiskey.  “Mighty nice of you, Red.  But I ain’t so sure I want to share with you.”

She shrugged.  “Suit yourself, then.”  She moved to the other side of the window, turned but did not look at him.

But he was looking at her, and looking hard.

+++++++++++++++

Well, he was going home without his brother and without Polly, and Johnny figured that the old man wasn’t going to be happy about that.  At least he had found Polly.  And Scott would take care of her, bring her back to the hacienda, or make sure she was settled in town if she didn’t want to come back.

Johnny knew he should move it along and get home – at the least he’d have to make room on the road for the inbound stage before too long – but there was something old and familiar sneaking about his mind that made him keep Barranca to a jog, a sensation of warning that his subconscious would not release.  Something going on back in Morro Coyo – something out of place…

Riley minus his two friends.  That little gang split apart.

Johnny had been a gunfighter rather than an outlaw but the two professions often overlapped, depending on the town and depending upon the side chosen to defend, where the easiest money could be gained, where the best available drink and women were to be found.  Riley hadn’t found what he was looking for in Spanish Wells.  Morro Coyo offered more – more saloons, the whorehouse, the lack of a sheriff…

There was a reason why Riley had made his way over to Morro Coyo – the closed part of Johnny’s mind knew what it was, but the door he was knocking in inside his head wasn’t being answered.  But it was there – he could sense it, could tell by the way the back of his neck itched that he had seen something telling.

Riley without his two friends…alone…watching and then walking away, placing his back to Johnny Madrid and heading – where?

Barranca brought his head up, pulling on the bit, ears twitching forward.  He huffed a breath through his nostrils.  Johnny straightened, hand sliding quickly to the Colt at his thigh, eyes scanning the road to see what his horse had sensed.

Hoof beats drummed through the air – someone was coming.

Johnny heeled Barranca into a lope and guided him off the road to the cover of some nearby brush; his neck was itching furiously.

The rider flew into view, riding purposefully in the middle of the road.  A broad set man on a thin, dun-colored horse – heading for Morro Coyo.  They sped by, their dust rolling up from the track behind them, hurrying them along.

One of Riley’s partners.

Two now accounted for.  So where was the scrawny one?  Holding the getaway horses, Johnny wryly thought to himself, and suddenly wondered why he had thought of that…

And then his head popped up on his neck and he was swiveling it between both ends of the road.  Sensing his master’s emotional shift, Barranca did his own stylish prance, bobbing and side passing in the dirt, trying to gain a cue as to the correct direction to move.

Riley had been heading for the stage depot, and now one of his partners was riding hell-for-leather into Morro Coyo – ahead of the stage.

Why not rob it on the road?

Something else then, something Riley had figured out.

Polly had likely been heading to the stage depot.

And Scott had followed her.

“¡Vamanos!” Johnny shouted to Barranca and they began to run.

 
CHAPTER 12

The twine lashing Scott’s hands together had chewed through the thinner skin at his wrists, and tacky blood was drying stiff above and below, renewed every time he attempted to break the knots.  Worse, the edge of glass that he was using as a knife had split his fingers, slicking the digits with seeping wetness and making his grip slippery.  But concentrating on the stinging pain staved off the banging of the still-rising bruise swelling his left cheek.  And having something to do kept him from watching Riley – and Polly.  Unless he could get free, too much would happen when that stage arrived.  And if by some chance the stage was delayed Scott didn’t think that Riley would just walk away to find another robbery target.  By then his partners would probably arrive and Polly’s plan would be just a vain attempt at saving them.

Riley had pretty well emptied that whiskey bottle.

He’d been careful at first, just taking a quick swallow or two, but the little room had grown stuffy with their collective anticipatory breaths despite the thin breeze edging past the broken window.  Sweat was rolling down Scott’s back under his double layer of jacket and shirt.  Riley was wearing the sheen of liquored sweat on his face, along with a reddened flush that said that Polly had been right about his lack of drink and food.

Luckily the baby continued to sleep peacefully around the corner in the other empty room where Polly had placed her.

Across from Riley, positioned on the other side of the dust-coated front window Polly stirred, swept a hand across her own perspiring face – Riley’s eyes went to her and watched.  She lifted the thick fall of auburn hair away from the back of her neck, held it up against her head for a moment, turned toward the window and wiped at the damp skin there.  A nice long, bare neck for him to see.

“You’re pretty, Red,” Riley grinned at her, his words tipped toward the loud and slurred side.

Polly smiled at him, slowly and generously.  “Think so?” she asked.

“Sure,” he nodded and gestured with his left, bottle-filled hand.  “Wouldn’t have invited you in here if I didn’t.”  And he laughed loudly at his humor.

Polly left her hair fall and ran her hands over her blouse, smoothing the fit across one shoulder, down over one breast – his eyes followed the path.

“Getting warm,” she commented, brushing at her collar and the top button at her throat.  Her fingers worked the button out of the hole.  “Care to share any of that whiskey now?”

Scott chewed his cheek and worked the glass over the twine lacing his wrists but the bile, hot and sour, climbed up his throat anyway.  How much would she have to display?  How much would he have to watch?  And he had to watch, had to know when… As soon as she got close enough, at the first indication she had Riley distracted he’d be up.  He’d be damned sure he was up even if he had to hop across the floor…

Riley’s smile went wide for Polly. He waggled the bottle.  “Well, come an’ get it, Red.”  He wiped the opening against his damp shirt.  “Guess you don’t mind there ain’t no glass to pour it in?”

“I don’t need a glass,” Polly affirmed.  She looked at Scott, her eyes asking if he’d cut his ropes. At the barely perceptible shake of his head she closed her gaze.  She shrugged her shoulders, and her blouse slipped to one side to reveal the white skin of her collarbone.  “Sorry,” she said to Scott.  “But you’re tied up and he ain’t.”

“And you’re nothing but cheap,” Scott returned, hoping his disgust sounded genuine.

Her expression didn’t so much as flicker.  “You ain’t told me anything I don’t already know,” she smiled almost too sweetly.  “Take care of my kid, will ya?”  Her lips stiffened just a little at that but she quickly reclaimed herself and gestured to Riley.  “ ‘Cause when he goes I’m going with him.”

“Straight to hell,” Scott intoned, using mock anger as a cover to pull himself forward and strain the ropes still tied fast.

Polly laughed and he realized it was the first time he’d ever heard her do that – was that a quaver of nervousness he’d detected?  “Sounds like a fiery good time,” she said and went to Riley.

It was all being made up between them as they spoke, but instinctively he knew she’d try to get the gun threaded into Riley’s belt – his gun.  Loaded but unfired in weeks, as Johnny had figured – had that only been a couple hours ago?  Scott spared another rueful thought for his brother, now well on his way home and telling Murdoch with a big grin that big brother had fallen to two of the oldest vices known to mankind and would slink in later.  Oh, and that said big brother was also coughing up an apology to Polly for his intolerable behavior of late.

Well, Brother, Scott silently added as Polly strolled to a stop within Riley’s groping reach, here’s to another round of inconsistency.

Riley stepped in close to Polly.  Scott saw her curb her cringe and turn it into a long slow smile for him.  She didn’t reach for the whiskey bottle but let him hold it up for her to take.  As her fingers closed around the neck of the bottle, his gun pressed into her side.

“Ain’t gonna scratch my eyes out, are you, Red?” he asked appraisingly.

She didn’t flinch.  “I’m too smart for that,” she told him in an easy voice. 

Riley let go of the bottle and Polly raised it to her lips.  She took a good drink, lifting her chin, arching her back a little.  Riley’s free hand crept across her ribs, slid up under her arm, and slid up farther.

“Got plenty here, Red,” he whispered to her, squeezing her breast, his Colt thrusting deeper into a rib bone.

Scott bit back a growl of anger, but she did not look his way.  She knew he needed time to break those bonds.  And he knew that while Riley was plenty drunk, she couldn’t rush and alert the outlaw to trouble.

She knew what to do…

Riley’s rough lips fastened onto her throat just as she swallowed, his beard scratching her skin.  She pulled the bottle from her lips and gave him a muted moan.  His lips sucked her throat.  He bit at her then traveled lower, getting to the gap at the top of her blouse even as his blunt fingers unthreaded the second button.

Scott resettled his folded knees, watching her, watching them, his gut coiled up tight.  His slicked, shredded fingers worked the glass shard furiously, sawing and sawing the twine.  He hated and praised her languid actions, and dammit if he wasn’t both repulsed and attracted at the sight of her seduction.  But he dropped his gaze, breaking the visual contact of them together, swallowing back the insistent hot burn pulsing in the back of his throat.  He shouldn’t have let her do this – what sort of man was he? The new heat of shame mingled with his sweat to produce a flush that leached through his pores, made his shirt cling afresh to his skin and his trousers bunch at the backs of his knees.  The edges of his hair stuck to his glowing face; he lifted a shoulder to scrub it back and kept working at his lashed wrists.

The twine gave – did not break completely.

Scott looked back up.  Riley was still attached to Polly, his lips sliding up and down her throat, then creeping up to mash a kiss onto her; he chuckled deep in his throat at what he must have perceived was her returned passion.  His hand disappeared into the top of her blouse.  Scott clenched his teeth.  How much longer?  How much?   What more would she let him touch of her, have of her while she waited for this rope to break?  How much more?

A grunt, then two, a sucking sound. Scott sawed faster, pulling and twisting.

Heavier breathing, the unmistakable rustle of sweaty hands on clothing…

A little giggle – hers – and then his – a whisper…

How long had it been?  Was the stage on its way?

“You like that, Red?”

Polly trusted him.

Trusted him to get free, rescue her, to keep her from this, even though she hated him, hated him for his constant criticizing of her behavior, hated him for suggesting that she give up Martha.

Hated him…loved him.

And he…just what did he feel for her? Love, too, perhaps…

Scott swung his eyes back onto them.  To hell with it.  He’d rather die now than witness this – this raw display of carnality.  He wouldn’t let her go on…

 “Big man…” Polly moaned, glancing his way as Riley buried his face in her hair.

The twine snapped free and piercing pain followed.  Scott’s bloodied fingers went to his feet, sliced at the bonds around his ankles, watching her, watching them as he sawed.  The thin rope snapped there, too, away from his boots--

He let go of the bloody piece of glass, got his feet underneath him, limbs all shaky, ribs stabbing him, his head trying to whirl as he worked to straighten.

Riley and Polly were pressed close together, his hand still inside her blouse, the skin of her throat scratched and red – by his beard, or his lips or his teeth.  One of her hands was deep on his thigh, stroking, coming closer and then retreating; the other was hidden.

She’d likely need two hands for that gun – she’d used two hands trying to shoot him that day…

Her hand had just trailed up high, higher than before when there was a squeak— the door…

Sodden Riley didn’t get his head around quick enough to see who was crossing the threshold before the head poked in.  Polly’s hand stilled, though, and her eyes went there.  Scott paused in his crouch, thrust his knees back to the floor to hide his feet, slipped his hands back behind him.

Riley’s compadre, the thin one, pale and big-eyed, slipped inside.  His gaze shifted nervously about the room, landed on his leader and Polly, stopped.

Riley stared at him, then his right hand, still holding the Colt, came out from Polly’s ribs and went between them to point at his partner.  “Andy-boy,” he drawled, “Just what’re you doing?  Who’s watching them horses?”

Andy’s mouth twitched.  “Stage ain’t come in,” he reported.  “And Grady ain’t here.”

Riley straightened and some of the red faded from his eyes.  “Maybe it’s late,” he retorted.

Andy bobbed his head.  “Grady should have been ahead of it.”  He gaped at Polly.  “Riley, what…?”

“Get back out to them horses, Andy.  Grady’ll be along.”

Polly’s fingers drifted.

Scott caught the movement, saw her barely glance his way.   She was going for the Colt stuffed into Riley’s belt.

Scott rose.

Saw a sliver of color between the space made by the open door – a strip of pink blurred by…

There was only one person he knew that wore such a loud color…

Polly yanked Scott’s Colt from Riley’s pants, took two steps back, cocked it with both hands…

Scott bolted, pain pouring over his cheek, rushing up past his swollen eye, peeling his head in half.

Andy was pushed from behind – Riley fired that way.

Johnny hit the dirty floor and rolled, his Colt in his hand; he fired back.

“Scott!” he called over the gunfire.  “Down--!”

Andy sent shots Johnny’s way, momentarily trapping him to the floor…

Scott jumped and dove--

Polly let off a tiny shriek —

Scott crashed into Polly just as Riley fired again, the sound of the shot exploding near his already damaged cheek, acrid smell of gunpowder flowing sharp in his nose.  He grabbed the gun from Polly’s hands, bleeding all over it, got his finger on the trigger.  Aimed as he went down, fired in Riley’s direction--

Then he was falling and Polly was coming with him and they hit the splintered floor, his arms full of her, his legs tangling in her skirts.  Riley jerked and cursed, pointed the gun their way.  Scott got his arm free and fired again.  Riley snapped up to his toes, eyes wide, and then toppled.   Behind him Andy was rolling on the floor – Johnny was rising, Colt secure in his hand…

Pain tore over Scott and shoved him back.  He tensed his neck to keep his head up and banged his shoulder instead, but that was better than landing on his throbbing ribs.  His stomach tossed and he clamped his jaws but that only made the inside of his head go dark.

There was some wetness under his hand where it still clamped Polly’s sleeve.  That’s all he could think of, that funny wetness, neither hot nor cold, just wet and fresh, and then his head was slipping back and the darkness in his head was getting blacker but the pain was fading, if that made any sense…

“Scott?  Hey, hermano mio…”

The baby was wailing.

Hands touched him, cool hands. Fingers worked across his forehead, then two palms cupped his jaw and slowly eased his head to the right.  Scott heard his brother’s voice again, sensed Johnny crowded beside him, heard him swear in Spanish…something about bleeding heads…or hands? Manos – or hemanos??  Hard to hear with the baby crying so…

Scott got his good eye open and met Johnny’s azure glitter pouring over him.

“How did you know?” he asked in greeting, blinking away some of the blurriness.  He tasted blood – the scab on his lip must have torn off…

Johnny gave him a little grin, sliced the remaining twine from Scott’s wrists with the knife he carried in his boot.   “Met Riley’s buddy tearing up dirt ahead of the stage,” he said, one set of fingers coming back to his brother’s jaw while the other returned the knife to its place.  “Rattled the story out of that hombre in time to stop Hank and that stage just outside of town.  Saw the other one sneaking in here and took a hazard Riley would be close by.”  He shook his dark head.  “Never thought I’d find this…”

“He had Polly,” Scott explained.  “He hit me as I came through the door after her.”

“Hit you good, too,” Johnny commented, turning Scott’s head to again peer at the bloodied bruise.  “You’re a proper mess, Boston.  Gonna surprise the hell out of the old man when he sees that.”

“Riley?”

Johnny brushed back some hair clinging to Scott’s sweaty temple.  “You got him – he’s dead.  Probably some reward on him…” The grin came back to his lips.  “Guess you do know how to use your Colt, huh?”

His Colt, stuck in Riley’s belt – Polly reaching for it…

“Polly…” Scott started up, rolled over, slipped.  Johnny grabbed a handful of his jacket and helped him up.

She was holding a still-frantic Martha, patting her and cooing to her.  Something was tied about her left arm.  Scott stared down at his own hand – it was stained with blood, Polly’s blood.  She had been shot.

The pain grabbed his head, made him go down, but Johnny got an arm about him and shored up his shaky knees.  “She’s okay,” he assured Scott, towing him forward to where she stood.  Several voices murmured behind them; the curious were edging into the room.  “Riley grazed her – good thing she stepped back…that her idea, to get the gun? She ain’t afraid of much, is she?”

Polly looked up to him as he approached on wobbly legs, Johnny’s hand clutching bunches of his jacket to keep him upright.  Her eyes roved over him, her lips pressed together in worry.  She had buttoned up her blouse, but the skin on her throat was chafed red from Riley’s beard, his lips and his tongue…

Scott stared at that reddened skin and his throat filled with shame; he dropped his gaze.  Beside him Johnny said nothing, for which he was thankful.

No, she wasn’t afraid of much – only perhaps of him…

“I’m sorry,” he worked out over his freshly swelled lip; it matched the thickness of his tongue. The apology dropped onto the floor at her feet.  Scott swallowed, tried again.  “Polly, I’m sorry…” He slowly tipped his head up to meet her, had to squint over the pain banging at him.  Her eyes darkened to that emerald green color he’d so often seen in her anger.  “He hurt you…”

“Not like he could have,” she returned. The look in her eyes softened, easing the intensity of their color – she’d trusted him.  “And you wouldn’t have let him.”

She’d trusted him…after all he’d done to her.

“Polly…”

Scott brought his hands up, gashed fingers seeping red, his torn wrists bleeding all over his cuffs, his one palm still stained with her blood.  He wanted to touch her, hold her, say he was sorry again, sorry for all the pain he’d caused her, sorry for what she’d done for him…

But he couldn’t, knew she’d recoil if he even tried.  Who was he to think he could offer her anything at this point?  Who was he to ask for her forgiveness, after what she’d done for him, for the sake of her baby…

Polly blinked fast.  She shifted Martha to one arm and touched his sleeve, her touch trembling.

“Scott…” she faltered.

Her fingers left his arm, slipped around to the space at his back where he had sweated through his jacket; she took a step in toward him.

His arm crossed over hers, inviting her in, and they drew themselves together, her head on his shoulder, his good cheek against her hair.

They held each other like that for an indeterminable time, just breathing in and out, their heartbeats slowing and his legs still quaking, all the hurt and the anger and the frustration fading and fading until he was just holding her and she was holding him and there was less of the wrong things between them and more of the right things…

“Wagon’s still outside,” Johnny finally spoke.  “How about we head home?”

 
CHAPTER 13

“Polly wants to see you, when you have a chance,” Murdoch told Scott as he came into the kitchen from the bathhouse.

The old man scrutinized him, frowning at his vibrantly bruised cheek and sighing at his abraded wrists, his cut fingers. They’d hardly spoken since Johnny had pulled the wagon up to the front door two nights ago and helped his wobbly brother through the front door and into bed, a scratched and bedraggled Polly following with the baby fretting in her arms.  Scott had been too exhausted to offer any explanation.  He’d endured an examination by the doctor the next day and had slept the rest of the time, eating enough off the trays that Teresa kept leaving him to ward off her and Maria’s worries but inviting no conversation from any of them – the ladies or Johnny or Murdoch – as they peered in to check on him.  This afternoon he’d decided to finally test his dizziness and when it held off, he’d made his way to the bath to wash off the crud that had been accumulating on him, beginning with that afternoon of whiskey in Morro Coyo, and the woman that had followed, and then the damage from Riley.

And his own churlish feelings – they needed the most scrubbing of all.

As usual, the kitchen was warm and busy with dinner preparations, the air fragrantly heavy with the smells of beef and bread, spices and gravy.  Scott breathed it in, appreciated the welcome comfort of informality and familiarity.  He grinned as he watched Johnny, pressed against a cabinet, reach around to filch a strip of meat off a steaming platter without Maria’s knowing.  Or maybe the housekeeper did know and just didn’t call him on it; Maria was stirring a pot but didn’t have both eyes on it.  Instead she was glancing between Scott and Murdoch, but a shift of her head over her shoulder acknowledged Johnny behind her.

Scott’s eyes came back to his father.  Murdoch had an expectant look on his face – he had more to say.  About Polly maybe – about her choices.  Maybe something about Scott’s attitude toward her.  Or maybe something about the argument he and Scott shared a few nights ago, the ones about fathers and grandfathers.

And there was still that question between them – the niggling question that still claimed attention. The one they kept avoiding.

“Are you all right, querido?” Maria asked, stepping up to him.  Her hand, tentative, went to his jaw, her fingers warm as they held in comfort.

“Yes, thank you,” he responded, smiling a little at her motherly intercession; she’d kick his father out of the room and hustle him off to bed if he answered anything otherwise.  Well, that would be one way to duck the impending conversations that were looming over him.

Maria glanced over at Murdoch as her fingers left Scott’s face to close about his forearm, her grip still protective. “I can hold dinner, señor,” she suggested to Murdoch, giving Scott a settled look from her brown eyes and then a gentle smile.  <<She knows what Polly’s decided,>> Scott guessed.

And Scott knew it then, too, and some of the weight that had been pressing on him all these weeks lifted.  Now if only the rest of it would ease…

He felt Johnny’s eyes on him, recommending that he back the old man against a kitchen wall and not let go until Scott had the answers – the truth…  Scott’s gaze flickered away.  He did want an answer, well, many answers, but…

It felt out of place here.  If there was to be any discussion on the past, it would go down better with some brandy in the great room, not here in a kitchen already full of heat.  Somewhere more formal, where the discussion could be quiet and silences could be held and considered.  Perhaps they could use that small study he’d discovered just off the south landing, a room he’d been slowly taking over with more and more deliveries of his Boston belongings.

But not here in the restlessness of the kitchen, where the truth could spoil the relative comfort surrounding him.

“Gracias,” his father murmured to Maria.  Murdoch shifted, raised his chin and waited for the room to clear.

Johnny gave Scott a look of sympathy and moved out to the hallway.  Maria took herself out to the garden and softly closed the back door behind her.

Once more they were alone with the silence the silence thickening between them.

“Son.” Murdoch cleared his throat.  He shifted, frowned again at the bruise on Scott’s cheek, looked like he wanted to touch it or somehow make it go away.  “Whatever Polly decides…”

“I know,” Scott said and held up a hand, trying not to ruin his polite tone with emotion.  He resisted the urge to look down.  “I’m not going to stand in her way, Murdoch.  She – I…” He hesitated, unsure how to explain the animosity that had faded between he and Polly after that day with Riley.  “Well, we’re beyond that now.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Good – I’m glad.”  He swallowed, sucked in a breath.  “Son, about that night – what you said...” A bit of color seeped into his face as he dropped his eyes.  His hand came up to finger an empty bowl on the worktable before him.

The question jumped up inside Scott, eagerly waving to be asked.

“I want you to know…” Murdoch began and coughed this time.

He was struggling, Scott could see that – it was choking him, whatever had occurred in his past with Catherine and his grandfather.  Guilt and shame, maybe – twenty years of dust that had gathered on that old cradle…The photograph he refused to touch…perhaps couldn’t touch…

Murdoch’s eyes were averted but Scott had seen the hurt in them, not just of the past but of what Scott had contributed to the argument that night, about Murdoch choosing to walk away, refusing to be a father to him.  Murdoch’s face reflected the truth of it, the pain of it.  And the regret of it.

How could all those emotions be held within a frozen heart?

They couldn’t, Scott silently decided.

Somehow Murdoch just hadn’t walked away after Catherine’s passing.

Minute comfort after all these years, he wryly reflected, after two decades and more of silence.  But strangely, the belatedness of this unspoken truth before him loosened some of the black worminess that had snaked through him all these weeks.

Perhaps, Scott thought, the horse figurine stationed on his bureau had always been a long-offered welcome—

And not an empty reminder.

Slowly Scott moved, crossed before Murdoch then paused.  He eyed the old man, took a breath, let it out.

Murdoch raised his head, his features barely composed, his flush deepening.

“I’ll go talk to Polly,” Scott said to his father, laying a hand on the quivering forearm.

Relief and gratitude softened the blue of the old man’s eyes.

“Good luck,” Murdoch murmured to him.

Scott gave him a small smile and left the room. 

+++++++++++++++

Wiping a last trace of dampness from the back of his neck, Scott paused before Polly’s door.  It was ajar – perhaps she was ready for dinner.  His eyes peered inside even as he raised his hand to knock, glimpsing Polly by the fall of auburn hair; she held the baby – there was a flash of skin--

She was feeding the child.  Scott’s hand fell back to his side and he turned his head away, embarrassed by the independent jump at his groin.  This was not a tableau for him – or any man – to see, not now, not after that scene with Riley.  Not after his own afternoon in the company of a woman.  He’d talk to her later, tomorrow maybe, but not now.  Definitely not now…

Her heard it then, that soft humming, a little off tune.  Polly was crooning to Martha.  Not words, not exactly, just a low “hmmm-hmmm-little-baby-mine” that she repeated over and over.  Scott shifted and stole a look, his cheeks flushing but his curiosity strong.

Polly rocked quietly and fed Martha from her breast, humming and smiling and watching as the baby suckled the sustenance she offered.  Scott stared, his eyes assessing curious details – the way her hair lightly swung against her shoulder as she rocked, the baby propped on a pillow draped with the dainty patterned quilt that Maria had offered her, pink little head snugged close to her mother’s breast.

And that bare breast, skin all white and plump with baby milk. Full against the rusty color of the blouse she had opened, a garment offered again by Maria, loose and comfortable to accommodate Polly’s emerging shape that no blouse of slim Teresa could fit.  The dark skirt, folds of which draped over the legs of the rocker.  Her feet were bare, Scott noted, propped upon a low stool, toes aligned together in a sloping row.

And around her humming came a soft human sound, an infrequent but seemingly satisfied swallowing of the baby as she consumed the offering.  Then there was the tiniest little pop as Martha let go of the breast, the rustle as she turned her head outward, mouth working, tongue pushing in and out over her delicately callused top lip as she sought what she had lost.

"Silly,” Polly declared with a smile and a laugh as a frantic mewing came from Martha, that “huuuh-huuh-huuh” bleating of helpless panic. “What did you do that for?  Here…here it is…Mama’s right here…take it now – there – there, sweet baby.  It’s all right – that’s better…”

And she settled the baby, lifting herself so the tiny mouth could latch back on and suckle again.

Warmth spread through Scott, fluttered up from his gut and floated outward to suffuse his limbs.  He’d witnessed some births in the short time he’d been at the ranch – calves and foals – had even assisted in one or two, and had reveled in the wonder of new life, slick and dark, the instinct of nature to live and thrive.  But this – this was human instinct, human nature, new human life.  This was the elemental beginning of life, of growth, of the future.  This simple action was essential, live-giving.  There was nothing mature about it, no social trappings bound to it, no conscious application of human ideas.  This baby knew nothing, literally nothing except that borne by instinct, her mother’s scent, the breast that provided her with food, the reactions of the body that made her breathe and sleep and move and see and hear.  The world, the entire world was exposed to her and yet she could scarce participate in it.  There was no right or wrong to be sensed, no questions to be asked or answered, no choices to be made.  Nothing.  She was helpless, entirely reliant on the world to hand her all that she needed – and would want.

And the only person she absolutely needed in this very minute, in all the minutes since she had come into being, and all the minutes for so long in the future – for so very long – was her mother.  Her mother could give her all these things, these essential things wrapped in that instinctive and distinctive feeling he saw passing between Polly and Martha.

Love.  Human love of touch and response, of feeling and emotion, of knowing what to do without having to learn it.  The very feeling wrought by every human sense.  It could be seen, tasted, touched, heard, scented…

Just as Polly was loving Martha right now.

Just as he was seeing it, too, hearing it and feeling it – thrumming deep inside him, warming him, softening his heart, filling his throat.

And dammit if he didn’t want to walk in there and take it in with the rest of his senses, to touch it, to imbibe of its scent, to absorb it fully, to wear it, wrap it around himself and within himself.

This was love at its most delicate, at its most tender beginnings, that which upon the rest of a lifetime was built.

That which he had never known, not like this…

And that which he could not take away from Polly and Martha.

Polly’s soft humming resumed, floating up around him, catching up to him and descending delicately upon his shoulders, a sound of love and life that touched him with the softness of its caress.

Softly he turned away, his footsteps flat and uneven.  He wiped a hand over a cheek that was burning and damp, took a most unsteady breath.

“Scott?”

Her voice froze his feet to the carpeting.  Scott clutched the doorframe of his bedroom for support and pivoted tightly toward her.

“What is it, Polly?” he asked, lips stiff, cheeks aching, his headache renewed and his dizziness returning.  She had left Martha behind, he noticed, but was still working at the buttons of her blouse, covering herself.

“I was hoping you’d come by,” Polly began.  “Scott, I need to tell you…” She glanced back into the room, to her baby, took a breath and then faced him again, her face far more composed than his.

“I thank you for your offer,” Polly said, now approaching.  “I know you want what’s best for Martha.  But she’s mine, Scott.  She’s mine and I won’t give her up.  I didn’t take Gant Foley’s offer when he thought he’d have a grandson, and I can’t take yours, either.”  She looked back toward her room again and smiled.   “She means too much to me, Scott,” she told him with tears clogging her voice.  She stepped forward again.  “Every blessed part of me loves her.  She’s all I got that’s good, and I’m going to make sure it all stays good for her.”

Her nearness swamped him but he could not move, even with his knees freshly quaking under him. He hung there, butted up against the doorjamb, shoulders back, head clanging, lungs all but frozen.

“But I got to do it,” Polly told him, her large green eyes imploring his.  She shifted again, got so close her breast brushed his arm, her fingers following across his rolled up sleeve.   “Me.  No one else.”

She squeezed his bare arm in emphasis, her touch warm with a mother’s feeling for a child.  For a wild moment he imagined another hand upon him, then another, the same still warmth penetrating him, soaking into the jagged space inside him, soothing the old aches of wanting a mother and a father, of wanting to be a beloved son …

“You understand, don’t you?” Polly whispered to him.  “Please say you do, Scott.  Please don’t be mad at me…”

He swallowed once, twice, and then again before he could scrape out a response.  “I’m – I’m not mad, Polly…I – I…” His voice dried up.

“You’ll take me to San Francisco, won’t you, Scott?” Polly asked him.  “I’m so afraid of going there by myself.  You – you can help me say the right things, do the right things…you know so much – about everything – about me…”

“I’ll take you,” he mumbled.

She almost reached up to kiss him but held herself back, seeing his face and knowing something was not right.  Instead she squeezed his arm again.  “Thank you!”

And then she left him, slipping through her door and quietly closing it.

Scott tumbled into his room.  The photograph of Catherine – his mother, my mother – clanked against the majestic horse figurine as he brought them together in his hands.  He bowed his head in supplication before them, his forehead pressed against the bureau top, understanding glimmering in him.

 
CHAPTER 14

Martha looked up at him – and smiled.

A toothless curve of the lips, but a smile nonetheless, and one that filled out her cheeks and slipped her still-blue eyes into tiny little crescents.

Scott patted her swaddled bottom and drew in his outstretched legs.  The station bench wasn’t any more comfortable than the stage seat, but it was easier – and safer – to hold the baby if sitting.  If he sat down then he could use both his chest and his lap as a prop for the increasingly wiggly little thing.  He held her too tightly while standing, it seemed; his grip made his hands ache every time since he froze them into position around her blanketed form.  And it was a long way down if she slipped out of his sweaty grasp.

Martha squeaked at him and he stilled his hand, hoping she wouldn’t let loose a lungful of sound before Polly came back.  Was it time to feed her?  It seemed like she was always eating.  Well, maybe Polly could take care of that before they boarded the train, especially since it looked like there would be many travelers on the 1:20 to San Francisco.  It had been difficult to be discreet on the morning stage ride but Polly had managed, asking him for his coat even as she’d settled a blanket across one shoulder.  He’d obligingly settled his jacket across her and she’d tucked Martha deep inside the layers; the grinding, bumping stage took care of any telltale noises that might offend the other passengers.  Not that they seemed to mind.  The drummer across from Scott practically slept the entire way, snorting awake at particularly vibrant jounces of the coach and quickly resettling his chin on his chest.  The middle-aged couple next to the drummer looked politely away, though the wife gave Polly a slightly sympathetic smile before finding the dust outside the open window unexpectedly interesting.  Her husband settled his face behind a rattling newspaper and peeped out only when the baby gave a frenetic wail as Polly shifted her.  Beside Polly Murdoch dozed, or appeared to, and never once looked their way.

And Scott had kept his gaze on his hands in his lap, his feet firmly planted on the floor until one lurch bounced Polly almost out of her seat.  He’d caught her by the front of her shoulders, forearm bumping her chin in his attempt to keep from crushing the baby somewhere under all that material layered on her chest.  When the coach rocked again she slid into him, and this time he snaked an arm about the back of her and drew her to his side to steady her, whereupon the middle-aged woman turned her head and smiled at him, her expression of approval plain.  Scott didn’t dare explain that Polly was not his wife.  He didn’t explain anything.

“Thank you,” Polly had murmured to him without looking up.  When the next bounce came, her head nearly butted his jaw.  She flickered a glance at the couple and nervousness crossed her face.  “They think we’re…”

“Can’t be helped,” he muttered back to her. 

And then a little sound had erupted from underneath the swath of blanketing covering Polly, a small but distinctive burp, a demonstrative note to punctuate their awkward closeness.

“Guess she feels better,” Murdoch commented in a low voice, opening his eyes and trying to straighten.

The chuckle came out of Scott before he could stop it and Polly’s giggle leaked out past the lip she was biting.  He swiped his jaw with his free hand, fingers momentarily covering his lips, and had to follow the middle-aged woman’s gaze out to the flying dust to compose himself.  Beside him Polly continued to snicker and after a few minutes of fumbling she withdrew Martha and finally took to humming the baby into sleep.  And that tune had sneaked into Scott’s brain and lulled him toward drowsiness.  Even the stage wheels seemed to have found the smooth track in the road.  He one-handedly folded up his jacket that Polly had thrust at him and stuffed it against his head.  And slept.

He’d awoken as the stage was slowing to negotiate the main thoroughfare of Sacramento and found that he and Polly were still pressed together, her head now drooped onto his chest, Martha just beginning to stir in her arms.  But she jerked up quickly at his shift and scooted sideways to put a sliver of seat between them.  The middle-aged woman across from them again smiled.  Polly went red, and Scott was not far behind.  Innocent and oblivious, Martha found her flailing fist and nibbled on it.

Scott sighed and now eased himself up off the bench; Polly was coming across the room from her trip to the necessary.  A few people stared at him as he straightened, some smiled at the sight of the young man with a child in his arms, and not a one knew that he wasn’t Martha’s father.   Part of him figured that was best, and another small bit wondered, just for a second, what it would be like…

“All set?” he asked as Polly made it to his side.

She nodded.  “For now.  When does that train leave?”

He shifted the baby to one arm and dug for his pocket watch.  “Soon,” he reported, then peered over some heads toward the ticket window.  “Where is Murdoch with those tickets?”

She followed his gaze.  “He didn’t have to pay…” she began.

“Don’t worry, it’s good for him,” Scott wryly responded, shoving the watch back into his pocket but keeping Martha ensconced in just one arm.

“I mean, I’ve got my own money,” Polly continued.  “There’s that money from Foley back in the bank at Spanish Wells, and then that reward on Riley…” She glanced down.  “You’ve already been so generous.  You tell him I’ll pay him back.  You’ll tell him, won’t you, Scott?”

And she sounded a little desperate, so he knew she was missing Teresa and Maria, and maybe even the routine at the ranch, however uneven that had been because of him.  Maybe she was even missing Johnny.

“I’ll tell him,” Scott promised, but she didn’t look up.  He touched the sleeve of her new blouse, a pretty bright blue one that Teresa had helped her make.  “Polly, it will be all right.”

“I’m scared,” she admitted to her twisting hands.

“I know you are,” he nodded, reaching out to cover them. They were trembling and cold; the touch tingled his palm.

Polly sniffed and tried a smile, then worked out of his grasp to rummage inside Martha’s canvas bag.  She held up a small round object, woven and beaded, trimmed with dangling feathers.  “I found this in Martha’s things,” she told him.  “Which one of you did this?  And just what is it?  It looks like a spider web…”

Scott took it, turned it over in his free hand.  “It’s a dream catcher.  Comes from the Plains Indians – saw a few when I was in St. Louis.”

“Dream catcher,” she repeated.  “What does it do?”

He nodded at it. “The good dreams go through the hole in the center, and the bad ones are trapped in the web.  There they stay until they perish with the light of dawn.”

She stared at him and he ducked his head for a moment, wishing he hadn’t sounded so poetically silly.

Slowly Polly took it, her fingers still cold where they again brushed his.  “So, it’s like a good luck charm, then?”

He nodded.  “Sort of like that.”

She tipped a tentative smile at him.  “You?”

Scott shook his head.  “No, I didn’t do it.”  And for some reason he wished he had, just to be the reason for her smile.  He touched it again, let his finger slide over the web and brush at the feathers.  “It must have been Johnny – my brother has had a lot of experiences with a lot of different people.”  When her smile went quiet he inwardly groaned.  “Polly, I didn’t mean--”

“You tell him thank you,” she interrupted.  “From me and Martha.  It’s kind of him to think of her this way.”  She carefully placed the dream catcher in the baby’s reticule, her lips trembling a little as she did so.

Scott swallowed back something sour.  He hadn’t made her anything that made her eyes glisten like that, hadn’t bought her anything special for her trip.  He’d just been her mute stage companion and baggage boy.  Hardly a worthy escort.

A woman passing in front of them paused.  “A lovely child,” she declared and smiled up at them.  “You two must be very proud.”

Polly’s mouth opened to protest but could only get out a garbled, “Ummm-hmmm,” even as her cheeks went scarlet.

“Thank you,” Scott murmured quickly for her, willing back his own flush.

Scott thrust Martha back into Polly’s shaking hands as woman smiled and moved on..  “It’d be better if you held her…”

“Yes, yes,” she stammered, busily settling her daughter back into the shawl sling.

“Boarding – now boarding for San Francisco!”

Scott moved, grateful for the diversion.  “Time to go,” he said, grabbing for her additional bag.  “Now, are you sure you have everything?  Blankets and diapers and…”

“Scott.”  Her hand tugged him back.

“Polly, it’s time to board the train,” he insisted, shifting his feet as the other passengers shuffled toward the doorway.  “It’s all right – it will be fine.”

“Scott…” Something in her voice made him pause.  He turned to her.  She was staring up at him, working up something to say to him by the way she swallowed.

“Are you all right?” Scott quickly asked.  She had paled and was breathing fast.  “Do you need to sit down?”

“Scott,” she got out with a catch in her voice.  She smiled with fully trembling lips.  “I’ve asked your father to take me the rest of the way.  You can go home, Scott.”

His mouth dropped open.  Hastily he brought his lips together and looked about.  The room was clearing; Murdoch was standing just inside the doorway, his gaze calm upon them, purchased tickets – two of them – held in one big hand.

Scott’s brows drew together and he turned back to her.  “Polly, I thought you wanted…?”

“Not anymore,” she told him.  “It’s enough that you were willing to take me.  That means a lot to me, Scott – you don’t know how awful much it means…”

But he did know how much it meant.  He did, because there was a fresh rising lump inside of him at the unexpected parting.  He’d miss her and the baby.  He’d miss her bold laugh, her so many questions, her quick temper and her green eyes and her red hair…He’d miss her curiosity, her grit and determination…

He’d miss her, this little firestorm, this made-over woman—

This woman that had turned his heart so many ways…

He didn’t want her to go, as funny as that sounded.  He knew she had to, but now it didn’t seem quite right…

Polly’s hand brushed his cheek, traced the fading brown and yellow bruises there.  “I’ll miss you, Scott Lancer,” she told him, her eyes tortured, and seeing some of the same in his.  “You – you…well, you’ve done ever so much for me – and Martha.  I won’t forget all you’ve done.  Thank you for all your respect – I can’t tell you how much…”

“Polly….” He got out.  His hand crept up to cover hers, drew it to his lips and kissed her fingers.

“You treated me like a lady,” she went on, slipping those kissed fingers into his hair.  “No man has ever not wanted something from me, but you didn’t want those things – you wanted all the right things for me.  At first I didn’t think I could do it, Scott, I didn’t think I could be what you wanted me to be.”  She swallowed back a sob.  “But I thank you for giving me the chance, and for still asking me to get up and be a lady in all the times when I didn’t do it right.  I still got a lot to learn, but…”

He kissed her, cut off her words and maybe even her breath but he had to do it.  Had to let her know how it was for him.

She tasted clean this time, and her lips were full and warm.  Dimly he heard the baby squawk between them but still he kissed her, tasted her, felt her tears as they slipped from her cheeks and onto his skin.

She broke off and awkwardly hugged him, whispered something into his chest.  He held her and knew what she said.

“Time to go,” Murdoch called across the now empty room.

Polly pulled away, let him capture her hand one last time, then broke free and trotted over to Murdoch.  They hurried through the doorway.

++++++++++++

He had removed his hat, ever respectful, ever the gentleman.  His hair fluttered in the fanning breeze made by the hissing, moving train, blond strands shining in the bright light, waving to her, waving good-bye.

Polly saw the belated wishes in his blue gray eyes just as the train lurched and began moving.

Her heart double-jumped inside her and she turned to get a better look at him, bumping Martha’s head against the warm glass separating them and causing the baby to squawk and squirm.  Polly propped herself there, one knee one the seat, and waved to him.

Scott lifted his hand, held it there, the other clutching his hat to his side.  Stood there still as a stone and watched her go.  Still she waved – and waved, even as her vision blurred and his image went fuzzy.  But she would not turn her back to him.

Finally he was gone and there was nothing left to see. Polly dropped her head, let her heart finish softening, then collected herself and sat in her seat.

“Everything all right?” Mr. Lancer asked her with a gentle smile.

Polly took a breath, adjusted Martha in her sling and nodded.  “Yes, I think everything is all right,” she responded.  

++++++++++++
EPILOGUE

It was back on the desk, the frame polished and clean, the glass wiped free of dust.

Murdoch sat heavily in his big desk chair and stared at Catherine’s serious image, at the eyes she had given his son – their son.

“¿Su café, señor?”

He started and looked up; Maria stood beside the tray she had edged onto the table by the sofa.  Her round face was quiet in the evening lamplight, but her dark eyes were assessing him, watching his expression, watching him hold the frame with tightened knuckles; he didn’t even realize he taken it into his hands.

He did not let it go, though he wanted to.  But his fingers would not uncurl from around the thick frame. “Maria,” Murdoch frowned, took another look at his wife and raised his eyes again.  “How did this get here – do you know?”

She poured coffee from the silver pot into a cup from the blue and white heirloom set – his favorite.  “Su hijo, señor,” she responded crisply.  She smiled as she finished pouring.  “The vaqueros – they call him El Rubio now, with respect, of course,” she told him.

El Rubio…the blond one.  With respect, she said.  Confident, strong sounding…yes, that would be Scott…

Maria came forward with the cup and saucer, placed it on the desk in front of him with a satisfied clink.  “He asked me to clean it, señor.  That was all right?”

Cleaned, freshened.  Memories swept Murdoch.  “Yes, it was all right,” he whispered over the crush of them, powerless to push them back now that he held her image in is hands.

Not long enough…just not enough time…and she’d so wanted the baby – a boy, she’d told him, it just feels like a boy.  And we’ll name him Scott – you like that, don’t you?  And a proud Scotsman you are, darling.  A proud man in a proud place – it will be so grand some day…

“Una mujer muy hermosa – a most lovely woman,” Maria murmured, and her brown hand gave his shoulder a brief, light pat.  “Lo siento, señor.”

He tried shrugging in nonchalance but could not look at her.  “Nothing to be sorry about, Maria,” he said, his tone gruffer than he expected, something hot drizzling down the back of his throat.  “It was a long time ago.”

“Many years,” she agreed. “His lifetime…But el corazón no olvídese.”

No, the heart apparently did not forget, even when he’d consciously shut his mind from it.

His jaw tightened – he couldn’t tell Scott – couldn’t tell him how he’d failed.  Couldn’t tell him that he’d given up the fight because he was too poor to go against Harlan Garrett.  Couldn’t fight because he’d seen his son and would not rip the boy away from everything he knew, from the wealth and comfort he was already enjoying and that his father could not yet provide.  Would not fight because he was afraid of failing just as his powerful father-in-law predicted.  And he had failed anyway, twenty odd years of silent failure...

And then it was too late – too late to try and be a father…he’d lost his second son, too – he couldn’t seem to hang onto them, his sons…

The front door slammed, voices arose.  Startled again, Murdoch looked up.  Johnny and Scott, coming in for the night, chatting while they removed jackets, hats and gunbelts.

“I smell coffee,” Johnny declared, blue eyes roving to the tray.  “Any left?”  He swung down into the room, loose and casual.  Scott lingered behind him, carefully re-buckling the gunbelt he’d removed from his hips, eyes on his hands as he threaded the leather through the loops and tested its fastness before hanging it onto the stand beside his hat.

“Talk to him – just a little,” Maria softly counseled and left his side.

Johnny had already poured himself coffee before Scott took a step down into the room.  Maria patted Johnny’s arm and murmured something to him – something about another slice of pie, Murdoch heard.  His ever-observant son took up the cue without so much as a blue-eyed blink, smiled indulgently at the housekeeper and took a sip of coffee.  When Scott got close enough Johnny gave his brother’s shoulder a squeeze, leaned his dark head in to say something.

Scott’s gaze went to Murdoch and his expression slid into something just south of neutral, but he nodded at Johnny’s words.  He and Murdoch both watched Johnny amble out to the kitchen with Maria, and both sighed in the silence that was left behind.

Murdoch took a swallow of his cooling coffee, but it only landed sour in his stomach.  He stuffed some resolve in on top of it and cleared his throat.  “Maria said you…” He lifted the hand holding the photograph.

Scott bowed his head.  “I’m sorry – I should have told you--”

“No, no.  It’s all right…all right.” Murdoch looked down at the picture, forced himself to look at her – Dios, she had been so beautiful - <<my Catherine…>>  “It looks good…shouldn’t have let it go…” There was so much of her in Scott, in his quiet ways, his brittle temper when it came to the surface, his smile and of course, his eyes.  Murdoch lifted his gaze back to his son; Scott was still standing with his head down, quiet and silent.

He got up, brought the picture with him around the desk.  Immediately Scott straightened his spine, crossed his arms, went wary.  Murdoch stopped, not too close.  “Would you like it back?” he asked, and inwardly winced at his blunder – the boy probably thought he was rejecting it, especially after the last time...  “For your room, I mean?” he stumbled on.  “Unless you have…?” Dios, he didn’t know what the boy had of hers; he only glanced into his son’s room as he passed by from his own, briefly noting the constant neat appearance.

The color in Scott’s eyes cooled, the gray lost amid the blue.  Slowly he unfolded a hand to take it.  “If you don’t want it…” he shrugged stiffly.

“Only if you would like to have something – to remind you…” Murdoch clenched his jaws and gave up.  Scott had no reminders – could never have any— “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, thrusting the frame at him and turning away, heat rising up to his ears.  “I just – it’s just that…”

The silence dangled between them, heavy and throat-filling, snatching at his patience, rubbing a raw spot inside him.  He hated it, hated the past – it brought up such wretchedness and for no purpose.  He couldn’t change what had happened, or what he had done.

Behind him Scott shifted. His voice, when it came, was soft.  “Grandfather never--” he began, and stopped.

Murdoch got his head around, saw the fair head bowed again, watched Scott’s long fingers caressing the now shiny frame, felt the air before them soften.

“Well,” said Scott, touching the glass where her face stared back.  “He never said much about her.” He frowned.  “She was beautiful…”

Murdoch’s tongue scraped over his teeth.  “Yes, she was,” he agreed.  “And with a bonny laugh...” His words caught but he shoved them out past his teeth.  “She had a slow temper but once she got mad…there’s a lot of you in her…”

Scott nodded.  “I paid my respects,” he said, his eyes still on the image.  “Stopped there – before I arrived in Morro Coyo…”

That grave – that lonely grave in that lonely place…Murdoch’s heart twisted at the memory of his own visit there, of the emptiness that had greeted him, the hollowness that had carved a hole inside him, the anger and the grief that had all but consumed him for so long, weeks and months…years.

“We fought about that,” Scott continued.  “Grandfather didn’t want to tell me where she was.”

“I’m sorry,” Murdoch offered stupidly.

Scott shrugged again, looser this time.  “We don’t always see eye to eye, he and I.  But I know he cares.”  His fingers swept the glass again and then he looked up, his eyes deep with freshened gray color that almost hid the hope pooling there.  He shifted, cleared his throat. “You – um…you sent me a gift once – a horse figure…” he stuttered in politeness, then bit off the garbled sentence.  Murdoch saw him take a huge, lung-filling breath.

That day – the gift…gaily wrapped in paper he could ill afford, but he’d so wanted to make an impression on his little son, his boy.

“I remember it,” Murdoch nodded, unable to break away from those eyes, her eyes.  Yes, that figurine, on his birthday, that fateful day – he’d received it then. Hand-delivered, not sent, but perhaps he didn’t know that; Harlan might have told him something else…

Did he still have it?  Had he brought it here?

“Yes, well…” Scott looked down then back up.  After a glance away he resettled his gaze back onto his father. He let out a little grin. “I’m surprised the finish hasn’t worn off after all this time.”  He sobered and said, “Thank you – it – it has meant a lot to me, over the years…”

“I’m glad,” Murdoch replied thickly, dumbly.  He waited for the question to come, sure it was there, wondered if he could answer it, could see his son wrestling with it, saw that little blond boy, cared and well, but an orphan just the same…Misery and failure depleted him inside.

It went quiet again, just the ticking of the great room clock plucking at the silence.

Scott slowly set the frame down on the sofa table, next to the model of the ship Murdoch had berthed there years ago.

“I like it here at Lancer,” he said to the framed image.  And a smile flitted across his lips.   He looked up at Murdoch. “I’m glad I came.”

Something burst and faded within Murdoch, allowing selfish relief.  His hand came up, touched his son’s shoulder, settled there.  “I am, too,” he replied, the honesty raw in his throat.  “Very, very glad, son.”

Scott nodded then gestured toward the frame.  “If – if you don’t mind…?”

“It’s a good place,” Murdoch told him.

Because it was – for now.

 

~end~

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