The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Cindy

 

 

FSafe Hands

Chapter 1

 

He’s fevered – and restless.

Twice now he’s elicited a soft sound, something halfway between a moan and a sob, before I can reach the bedside.  Though the flame captured inside the glass lamp burns steady, my hobbled walk shivers the light, causing shadows to awkwardly rise and then fall before me.  It’s my ankle – rheumatism from the rain, old bones in an old body tired from living.  But no matter.  I can walk this house in the blackest dark and have done so for many years.  If and when I go blind I’ll only be half afraid of the constant darkness, for when night comes it’s not the eyes that are important.

The floorboard squeaks as I cross the threshold to my bedroom and he starts, half-rising from the bed.  He reaches out to snatch at the air, eyes that I know are deep blue now black in this gloom.  My light creeps up over him, settling on his pale face.  The sweat of the fever sheens his cheeks and neck, and soaks the ends of his fair hair dark where it touches his skin.  He’s in a miserable way, this boy, and my old heart gives me a kick in my chest to accept a measure of worry for him.  I’m still hesitant about his presence.  Yet he’s here and he’s in my bed, using my water and bandages.  I can’t see turning him out now, though he would leave if I asked. I had seen the understanding and the sympathy around the pain in his eyes at my initial reluctance to help him.  He knew my fear, though we’d never seen each other before.  But somehow he knew and was willing to let me hold it against him.  Damn my fear that was born that long ago day – that day that wasn’t counted in daylight or hours, but in the nightmares that kept occurring…

“Johnny?”

It’s the first name he always utters, followed by the other strange sounding one—

“Murdoch…” sighs from his dry lips.

But as I finally gain the seat of the chair crowded close to the bed another name tumbles out; this one I haven’t heard before.

“Grandfather…”

Not Gramps, or Grandpa, or Grandpappy, but the regal sounding “Grandfather.”

Just who is this boy bleeding in my bed?

He repeats the first two names again and again, asking them to fill the space around him.  Family, I suppose.  No female names mentioned – he doesn’t call for a wife or a mama, just these names, a father or a brother or a son – and that grandfather.

I hope they know he’s missing.

He clutches my hands as I work to draw the covers back up over him; his long fingers are tight, pleading for comfort.  I work out of his grasp, hushing him with soft words.  My hands are so old I almost hide them in embarrassment.  They are wrinkled and spotted, dry and ugly upon his smooth skin.  I suppose I should not be ashamed of them.   They have done so much – sixty-odd years of work tilling soil, tending animals, bringing life and preparing death.  These hands have roamed with passion, offered compassion.  They’ve touched dirt, clothing, food, animal hide.  They have made bread, shucked corn, pressed candles, churned butter, made soap.  Washed, scrubbed, loved – lived.  No wonder they’re worn and dry, fingers blunt and nails thick, knuckles misshapen.  Wrinkled and lined – ugly-awful.

But now they’re at work once more, soothing and tending, yet old and rough on this fresh, strong skin.  I touch this young man, appreciate his fine bones in a fine body, acknowledge a bit of envy for his age and his handsomeness, even though he’s got a nasty tear between two ribs and a gouge peeking rough and red through the fair hair above his right ear.  He came to me with that first wound, but shame pinches me over the second one…

Tobias, fat and white with brown and black spots, meows and leaps up onto the faded quilt.  The old tom butts my elbow and purrs for attention but I nudge him aside to peer under the blankets at the bandages wound round the young man’s middle.

“You might want to curl up and keep him warm,” I say to the cat and he stalks stiffly away, black and pink speckled nose aloft.  Yet he sinks onto the quilt by the young stranger’s knee and begins to wash a paw.

The pad of bandages is clean on the outside – it’s taken a day for the blood to stop leaking through, even though Oliver Childress has been by to place some stitches.  But they’ll need changing again by morning. I make a face thinking about it. Doing that has hurt him.  He’s never cried out, but I can tell by the rigid way he’s held himself, by the way his eyes squint at the moving and jostling, that the wound is painful.  In between all that, though, he always manages a shaky “thank you” after I finish, his voice polite in its hoarseness.  Somewhere he’s been raised right.  I’ve asked him his name but he hasn’t yet told me.  Maybe he doesn’t remember.  That bump on the head – if only Harvey hadn’t been so quick to defend me.

He’s a long and lean young man, strong and fine looking with a sculpted face of good cheekbones and a sloping nose held by those blue eyes that now watch me through a cloud of pain.  Fine blond hair, cut well, darkened now with sweat and dirt.  He was almost clean-shaven when he dropped on my steps but now his long jaw is heavily stubbled.  Maybe when he feels better he’d like a shave.  My Nathan always wore a clean face – said a shave could always pick up a man.  I shaved him every day for his last two months of life just so he could feel perked up, just because I wanted to see him smile and tell me it would be all right for another day.  Forty years of marriage – gone.

For a moment I look up, blinking back the tears that still come after four years – grieving just can’t be asked to quit completely, I suppose.  My eye catches the reflection of the lamplight in the mirror above the bed table – and me reflected there as well.  Old-looking, little better than my hands, with a long face of wind-browned skin and wrinkles, close-set brown eyes held by my goodly nose that perches over my small mouth.  Graying brows with matching hair still long enough to hold a braid.  I was pretty once, managed to catch Nathan Greenwood’s heart back in New Jersey.  Oh, that was so long ago – and now Nathan is gone, and the children are gone, too, one dead, the others scattered North and East…

The young man turns toward the cool cloth that I pass over his face, seems to take comfort in its touch.  I pass it across his knitted brow to try and ease some of the tension held there, use my other hand to sweep back his tumbling blond bangs that are clinging to his skin.  I apply the cloth to one cheek, the bridge of his nose, down and up his rough jaw, move onto the rings of sweat circling his throat.

“Thank you,” he sighs when he hears me rinse the cloth in my old white basin on the bed table.

“No need for such thanks,” I tell him, a little flustered by his repeated politeness; I didn’t want to take him in and his gratefulness plucks at my guilt.

I drape the freshened cloth over his forehead, pushing back the errant bangs.  Probably wouldn’t like that if he saw it, I guess.  He seems to be a man who takes care with his person. He was fairly well dressed and groomed when he appeared; his boots weren’t all that worn, his clothes were store bought.  But that blue shirt and those dark pants have all been ruined by the blood that soaked clear through to his skin.  I have everything in a bucket of cold water and strong lye soap.  It’s left him with nothing but skin under the blanket, but I figure it’s a lot easier to get to those bandages without any clothes in the way.  And I have a few of Nathan’s things that he could have once he’s ready to leave – probably time I part with them, anyway, though I sometimes wear his shirts just to make me feel that he’s close by, hugging me like he used to …

His hand on my sleeve startles me.  “Ma’am,” he says, swallowing.  “Please…where…?”

“You’re in safe hands for now,” I say, trying not to complicate for him, figuring he barely knows what he’s saying.  “Just rest, son – that’s about all you’re good for now.”

He eases back, accepting my words, and his grip relaxes.  I settle his arm back under the blankets, smoothen the coverlet over him.  He closes his eyes; in less than a moment he’s back into a doze.

“If only you’d mind so easily,” I murmur to the now purring cat.  Tobias resettles his feet under himself and lifts his head for me to pat.  I do, stroking the soft dotted space between his ears.  He rewards me with one of those contented looks of sleepy golden eyes, and follows it with a freshened purr.  I continue to pat him, and the slow, rhythmic motion allows my mind to wander back onto this young stranger.  Just who is he?

This young man in my bed…

 

Chapter 2

He arrived two days ago in the late afternoon, just as a breeze pushed about the languid air that had been hanging heavy all day.  The leaves of the big oak in the front yard were finally stirring,  rubbing lazily against themselves.  The last of the roses clinging to my side fence nodded their blooming heads to each other, waiting and hoping for relief, knowing that this might be their last day of life.  The light, already dulled by the uncommon humidity, was fading into grayness, reflecting the color of the clouds pushing up from the south.  You could almost wipe a hand through the air and touch the dampness.

I was peeling a few potatoes to boil when I heard a scuffling sound outside.  Somebody passed by my window, heading for my front door.

“Who in tarnation…?” My neighbor Harvey Locke, who had been by all week to help me with my haying, jumped to his feet, drawing his stocky body up as high as he could.  He was still several inches shy of six feet, and even a few less than me.  “I didn’t hear anyone ride up.  D’you suppose it’s them outlaws Burt told us about? I told you my spring house was robbed yesterday…”

“They took the bank money, Harvey,” I scoffed, half-amused by the worried look that filled his broad, round face and pinked the skin at the top of his head.  But my voice rattled thin and high, betraying my skepticism.  My best laying hen hadn’t been about for two days.  On occasion some of the local boys steal an item or two, but they rarely came in the middle of the day to do their taking.  I reached for the rifle kept loaded and ready in a corner by the door.   “What would bank robbers want with us?”

Harvey shuffled and tugged at his braces. “You know what they want…”

But I had already moved off, leaving him to mutter over the past and that fateful day of mine.

The young man was standing in the shade of my porch, dusty and hatless, weaving like a Saturday night drunk,  blood from that rip in his shirt spilling across his side and down over his hip.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you,” he got out, lifting his head when he heard my footsteps.  His voice was so polite I thought it must have come from someone else. He’d hitched himself against the newel post and now hung there, sweaty and breathing heavily. His eyes were blue, dark, and his hair was short, his face unshaven but not heavily bearded.  The clothes he wore weren’t homemade.  No poor stranger, this. “There were men…” he continued.

He was certainly wounded, probably harmless. He had no gun on him; the holster around his lean hips was empty.  He didn’t have a horse that I could see.  I peered behind him but didn’t see any others.  But no matter; I didn’t take in strangers, not now, not after…my heart was already banging inside me, stuffing back my confidence and replacing it with fear, telling me not to be stupid – again.  Not to be lured by the air of innocence.

“You get off my porch, sir,” I told him with just a bit of a trembly voice this time, raising the rifle, cocking it with sure fingers.  “Can’t help you.”

“Ma’am, could you …?” His voice was soft and far from demanding, but I didn’t yield, not at all.  “Just perhaps some water…”

Perhaps.  That’s what he’d said in that cultured-sounding voice of his.  Not “maybe” but “perhaps.” He was talking in full sentences, or at least trying to.

Perhaps – that word penetrated me, settled comfortably, smiled at me.
Trying for innocence, warned my fear.

“The well’s behind you,” I told him, heaving that pretty and polite “perhaps” up off my heart.  “If you can draw it yourself you can have a drink.”

He nodded and slowly straightened, his blue eyes still on me.  “Does the road head to town, ma’am?” he asked, shuffling one foot to the side.

“It does,” I told him, wishing he’d move out of the shadows that made him seem twice my size, despite my own fair height.  And though he was pained, he wasn’t hunched; his shoulders were straight and broad.

He stiffened, crammed his left fist against his bloody right side, rubbed his grimy cheek on his shoulder.  There was trail dust coating his fair hair, making it almost gray; some of it sifted onto his sleeve. “Would you know how many miles?”
Stalling for time, whispered my fear.

“Almost ten miles to Lone Pine,” I told him.

He took a breath, swallowed hard, and stepped to the sunlight shining full on the edge of the stairs.  Something flickered across his face.  His eyes squinted and I saw the renewed pain in them – and something else.

Something that he couldn’t hide, something that had me lowering my rifle a touch.   I couldn’t name it exactly – it was a mix of things.  Honesty, understanding,  determination – truth…and that word again, tiptoeing back onto my heart – perhaps…

“Thank you, ma’am,” the man then said, dipping his head in acknowledgment.  He turned to go, tread unsteadily down the porch stairs.

“Son…” my tongue spoke out over my dwindling fear.

I saw Harvey then – he’d snuck around from the back.  He hurried up, fist raised, and hit the stranger with a chunk of kindling he’d grabbed on the way.

The boy sunk with a little groan, sprawled in the dirt and went still.

The surprise of it made me move; the butt of my rifle went toward the porch floor.  I hurriedly propped it against the railing.  “God in heaven, Henry!” I hobbled forward, my ankle throbbing.  “You probably just killed him!”

“Better him than you, Althea,” Harvey said, lowering the stick.  “I can drag him off to the barn, tie him up, ride for Burt…”

“Stop!” I cried at all the suggestions.  I was standing close by the man now, watching the blood leaking through his dusty hair, bright against the washed-out day.  “He’s hurt…”

“Well, I can see that, Althea,” Harvey said with complete exasperation, “but that don’t make him innocent…”

Innocent – maybe, maybe not.  But now he was unconscious.  And there’d been that look in his eyes, not pleading or begging, just something that made me want to believe him, despite my fear...

“I’d appreciate it if you could fetch Oliver Childress,” I told Harvey as I knelt by the boy.  He was still breathing, I could see that.

“Ten miles to Lone Pine!” Harvey exploded angrily.  “And with the road almost washed out from the last rain storm.  Ten miles both ways, Althea--” He thrust an arm out to gesture “--for him?”

“For him,” I affirmed.  “And if you start now you might beat that rain.”

“And I think I’ll bring Burt, too,” he threatened.

“If you have to,” I answered, reaching out to touch the young man’s cheek, wipe at the blood working toward his ear.  Burt Ames was the sheriff in Lone Pine, and a friend.  And one who would certainly chastise me for taking in a stranger.

But the look that had been in the boy’s eyes …

Harvey grumbled about wanting to bring the boy to the barn but he didn’t argue any further – I knew he wouldn’t, knew he’d do what I asked because ever since Nathan died he’d been longing to be more than my neighbor.  And at this point I wasn’t ashamed in taking advantage of that.

A probe to the young man’s bleeding side brought him back to consciousness.  I hated to hurt him so, but I had to get him inside. He stared at me with a thick gaze as I told him to get up, but worked himself to one elbow, then his knees, then his feet.  I got in under him, draped his long body over mine and gathered up the rifle as a walking stick.  So joined, we struggled inside just as fat drops of rain gusted across the yard.

Harvey was in for a wet ride.

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

“I’m surprised you let me do my job, Althea,” Oliver Childress had said when he emerged from the bedroom where I had put the boy hours before.  “It’s not like you to pass up a chance to stitch or bandage.”  He stuffed some things back into that scuffed doctor’s bag of his and buckled it closed.

I’d scowled but he smiled and held back his laugh.  “I only tend what I am able,” I reminded him – what was wrong with trying to save your neighbors a little pain and money?  “That boy was bleeding bad.”

Oliver nodded his dark head, and I wondered why in his line of work he hadn’t yet earned any gray hair, and him barely five years younger than me.  “He was and you were right to call me.  Needed stitches. He’s lucky he didn’t break any ribs – plenty bruised, though.”

“Shot?” Harvey had asked around a receding rumble of thunder. “I left word with Burt – he was out with the posse--”

Oliver had nodded.  “Bullet caused that mess – in one side and out the other.  I suppose he might tell you when he comes around.  You damn near gave him a concussion, Harvey.”

“I was only trying to protect Althea.”

“He didn’t have a gun,” I pointed out.

“You sure about him?” Oliver questioned me.

“She is not,” Harvey answered in my stead.  “She seems to have forgotten--”

“I haven’t,” I snapped back to shut them up.

“Mind if I sleep by your hearth, Althea?” Oliver had then asked, wisely staying out of our spat. Well, it would’ve been a spat if we were married, not that Harvey wouldn’t mind me for a wife – he’s asked often enough. But I’m still married to Nathan in my mind.  And trapped by that awful night that still won’t leave me be…

Harvey left and I put Oliver up in my front room, fed him, too, for it was dark, long past supper time.  I passed some praise to the Lord for letting me get the hay in, wished Harvey safety at his place, then settled down to watch the wounded man now in my bed.

The storm that night bothered him.  The long rolls of thunder had him start up, reaching and groping.  In between the lightning flashes he called out names and what sounded like orders to some unseen army, telling them to mount and dismount, fall back and charge, words of anger, words of encouragement, a few curses.  Oliver had offered laudanum but the boy had only taken a little.  I thought of asking for it again, just to give the poor dear thing some rest, but Oliver wasn’t one to make another offer once rejected.  So I dug far into my top cupboard for the bottle of whiskey kept there.

We’d shared the stuff; I fed him small sips and took a few of my own, both of us reliving a similar sort of pain.  By the time the last of the thunder had faded and took the flashy lightning with it, he had drifted into a light sleep under a mounting fever and I was feeling soft and slow, awash in my own memories, the good ones barely better than the bad.

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

Tonight I wish I had enough gumption to drink again, but tonight we are alone, just the young man and me, and I am a little afraid – of him and of myself.

He stirs from his fevered doze.  His lips twitch.  “Johnny,” he calls out softly.  “Don’t go – don’t…”

I freshen the cloth and drape it back over his brow.

“Don’t go,” he repeats with a catch in his voice.  “Please…”

I pat his shoulder, try to quiet him with my touch, and wonder where this Johnny might be and if he’s on his way.

 

Chapter 3

“Althea, you shouldn’t be tending that boy,” Harvey tells me in an exasperated voice.  The day is bright and clear.  My memories have faded, and the shining of the sun puts some confidence in me.  “He could be trouble--”

“He’s been in trouble,” I amend.  “And does he look like any outlaw to you?”

“Althea, don’t be so trusting,” Harvey scoffs, running a thumb up and down one of his braces.

“He’s one man, Harvey,” I rebuke.  “It’s not like before.”

“Outlaws and gunhawks come in all shapes and sizes – could be this one is running from the law, and that bullet what struck him could’ve come from Burt’s posse – a posse of good men fulfilling their legal duty.  Could be this young feller has killed men – lots of men.”

“Well, he didn’t have a gun so I couldn’t look for any notches,” I return sourly.  “And if any lawman comes after him then I’ll do my legal duty and hand him over.  But for now I’m fulfilling my Christian duty and seeing that he’s tended.  And when he’s well he can leave.”

“Ain’t right.” Harvey shakes his head.  “A man of his kind under your roof, and after--”

“Harvey, we don’t know what ‘his kind’ is,” I cut him off.  “Goodness!  Right now he’s no threat.  And I know how to use a gun, don’t forget that.”

I hate what that admission means, because it’s more than putting meat on the table.  I glance down at my old hands, and hate them for what they’ve done…

Harvey again peers into the bedroom at the pale and sleeping young stranger.  “Looks a little like Joe, when he was young,” he says, and gives me a careful look of warning.

Yes, I suppose he does look like my Joe, my first boy, fair-haired and lean.  Killed by the cholera – long ago but too soon for him.  Maybe this is what one of his sons would have looked like, if he’d had the chance.

“I can stay,” Harvey offers at my stillness. “What with Oliver gone…”

I shake my head, my fingers working to inspect the hasty braid I’ve wrapped and pinned.  “No, you need to get to your work.  Can’t take care of your fields when you’re always over here tending mine.  And if someone is stealing your wares then all the more reason to be home.”

Harvey shifts but shrugs. “Ain’t no bother, I’ve told you that.  And as far as my wares, well…I s’pose it could just be some hungry fellers…”  My smile makes him do the same.  “I’ll come back at lunch,” he promises, the top of his bare head pinking again, then he clumps out the door.

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

He’s waking.  I touch his forehead – cooler, but fevers tend to dip early in the day.

He’s suffered some in his young life.  Lucky for him the scars can be hidden under clothes.  There’s those dull, white stripes across his back, not put there by any accident but by cruel hands acting from a cruel mind.  He’s got another goodly scar front and back of his left shoulder, and a curious one high on his right thigh – bullet made, I’m figuring.  And there’s another one, more fresh, on his right forearm just beyond his wrist, a burn that has healed but still puckers the skin thick and pink – accidental, maybe.

Blue eyes are staring at me, curious but not afraid, slightly confused.  But focused, so maybe Oliver’s diagnosis that he’s not concussed is true.  My hand strays to his hair, trying to smoothen it, but it’s stiff with dried sweat so I leave off and adjust the covers as he shifts.  Tobias blinks at me from his spot by the stranger’s knee, displeased with my lack of attention to him.

The young man moves again, frowns and grunts, then slips back into his original position, but not before I’ve seen again some of the marks on him.

“What’s your name, son?” I ask, hoping I can get an answer before he slips off again.

He pulls a hand out of the blankets to press long fingers to that graze near his temple.  

“Scott Lancer,” he finally pushes out on a single breath. He winces, and I know the pain has risen with his awareness.

The name settles around him with ease.

Scott Lancer.

Strong but different.  I wonder if those names he calls in his dreams are also Lancers.  Then I wonder if it’s his real name or if he’s given me an alias – a little fluttering sets up in my stomach at the thought.

“Where you from?” I prompt.

He closes his eyes; the pain is grabbing at him.  “Morro Coyo,” he gets out, dropping his hand to the top of the coverlet.  “My family has a ranch there,” he says slowly as if testing his tongue for reliability.

Somewhere north if I remember.  “Pretty far from home,” I comment, feeling like a sheriff with all my questions.  But since he’s using my bed I figure I have a right to know and to judge whether his answers are truth or nicely made-up lies.

He nods slowly but opens his eyes again.  Some gray edges the blue color, I notice.  I look in them for dishonesty, but can’t detect any.  “I did some business in Visalia…” he is saying.  “Took the stage back to Bishop.  It was late so I bought a horse…I was robbed on the road – they took everything…”

I think about those names he’s called. “You got any family to consider?”

“Yes,” Scott affirms – might as well think of him as that for now.  “How far to a telegraph office?” he asks.

A lying man wouldn’t ask about a wire, would he? “Over to Lone Pine, son.”

“How far?”

“Ten miles to Lone Pine  –  twenty to Bishop.”

He sighs.  “Guess I wandered…how long…?”

“Been in my bed two days – this is Thursday,” I inform him, to which he starts up, alarm freezing his features.

“No,” he says, struggling.

“Now, now,” I soothe, my old hands pressing him back to the mattress.  “None of that – you’ll start bleeding again.”

He resists.  Though weak, I can still feel his strength.  “I’m late…”

“Can’t do anything about it,” I tell him, still holding him.  “And I don’t even know how long you wandered before that.”

He persists a few moments longer, straining against my palms, but then he relents and eases back with a groan – for now his pain takes over from his worries.

“Some men robbed you, you say?” I ask as he closes his eyes again.

“Yes,” he nods slowly.  His hand travels over to his injured side and he grimaces at the press of fingers to bandages through the blankets.  “They shot me off my horse.”

“We heard there was outlaws in the area,” I venture.

“Just my misfortune to have encountered them then,” Scott says ruefully.  I sit back a little at that long statement.  If he is one of those outlaws, he certainly is a smart one.  I think of his call to his grandfather – that doesn’t seem to connect him to the wrong side of the law.  And I haven’t met up with too many men named Scott in my lifetime – refined-sounding name it is.

Don’t be a fool, hisses my flagging fear.

“Ma’am…I’m sorry, did you tell me your name?”  Scott frowns and his hand goes back to his head.  “Someone hit me…?”

“That’d be Harvey,” I admit with a flush before I can stop myself.  “My neighbor – you appeared sudden-like – a stranger and all with no horse or wagon…”

“I apologize for that,” he declares.  Tobias takes this moment to stand and stretch, then butts his head against Scott’s arm.  Scott flicks a smile at the cat and obliges the animal with a pat.  “I’m sure I must have seemed threatening,” he continues.  “I didn’t – and don’t – mean any harm, ma’am.  I’ll repay you for your generosity, Mrs.?”

“Althea Greenwood.”  How can I not tell him my name?  And his politeness is hard to resist.  Again I think of grandfathers, and glance at his blue eyes – nothing seems to be hiding there.
Fool…

“For now you can just rest, Mr. Lancer,” I tell him.  “I’m sure you’ll travel as soon as you can.”

“Yes, ma’am, I will.”

I stand up, trying to shake off those fingers of warning – they seem increasingly silly.  “Are you hungry?  You could likely use something – fever’s been in you for two days now.”

“I’d appreciate it, Mrs. Greenwood – thank you.”

He says my name like it’s important.

That politeness follows me back out to my kitchen, jabs at my fear, bullying it back down.  It cowers, whimpers for attention, but I close the door on it – for now.

 

Chapter 4

Burt Ames showed up just as Harvey was heading back outside from the lunch I’d made for him.

Burt’s now standing at the foot of my bed, arms crossed over his chest, sizing up the stranger – Scott, I remind myself; he said his name is Scott.  Burt’s a pretty big man, over six feet tall, long legged, broad in the chest, powerful and sensible.  Not far past fifty with a bushy, sandy-colored mustache and hair to match, fair skin that’s always ruddy.  He’s been another good friend since Nathan died, though I sometimes think he treats me more like he would his mother.

Scott must have heard Burt talking in my front room because when I open the bedroom door I notice that he’s hauled himself into a sitting position.  He looked better right after I first fed him.  Now he’s pale and his forehead keeps furrowing as he works to keep back the pain.  He’s got the blanket pulled up on his chest but I can see him shivering every so often, and his fingers are curled into his palms as if holding the pain there.

I fret a little as I edge around Burt, hoping the boy hasn’t ripped any stitches moving about.

“You alone, boy?” Burt asks Scott.

Scott nods at Burt, and a stiffening of his lips tells me he doesn’t appreciate being called “boy.”  But he’s polite, just the same, and calmly explains to Burt what happened to him, how he’d been shot off his horse, awoke with everything gone and started walking.

“I’d like to get a message to my family,” he says when he’s through describing his ordeal.  “Before I’m very overdue.”

“Sure, son.”  Burt nods and glances at me  “Who’d that be?”

“My father – Murdoch Lancer.”

His father, he of that strange-sounding name.

“Seems I’ve heard of him,” Burt says, scratching at his cheek. “Didn’t think he had any sons, though.”

Scott smiles.  “Two,” he says, holding up his fingers for emphasis.

“That right?”

Scott nods again.

“And you’d be?” Burt prompts.

“Scott Lancer.”

Again Burt looks at me but this time he holds the gaze.  I nod to confirm the name – at least it’s the same one he used before.  So Johnny must be a brother?

“Well, I’d be right happy to get a message to your pa, son,” Burt tells him, uncrossing his arms to lean one arm on the top of the footboard.  “Can you write it out or would you want me to do that for you?”

I watch as Scott’s jaw tenses.  “I think I can manage it,” he returns with that same polite voice.

“Educated, are you?” Burt asks.

I open my mouth to chastise him for his freshness, but his eyes flick to me in warning and so for the moment I hold my tongue behind my teeth.

“Yes, some,” Scott answers with a grin that looks like he’s got a secret.  I can only imagine that a boy who calls his relative Grandfather and who speaks in long fancy sentences has likely had some quality schooling.  So Burt’s next question does not surprise me.

“Not from around here are you?”

“No, not originally.”

The silence in the room quickly grows.  Burt’s face gets a little red when no more information comes.  They’re both being cautious – I expect it from Burt, but I’m uncomfortable at Scott’s guarded responses.

“Where you from – originally then?” Burt inquires, straightening back up.

“Boston,” Scott tells him.  “That’s back East – in the state of Massachusetts.”

“I know where it is, boy,” Burt snaps out then takes a breath.  “Long ways away.”

“Yes, long ways,” Scott agrees with a trace of softness.

That silence again.  I see Scott swallow, take a measured breath.

“Bank over to Bishop was robbed a few days ago,” Burt announces to him.  “Sheriff over there wired all the towns in the area.  Three men did it.  One got shot but managed to stay on his horse.  Light-haired feller, so they say…”

“He had no horse when he came here,” I interject.  That’s it?  Burt has a description of a light-haired man who was shot?

“So you said, Althea,” Burt nods to me, then turns back to the boy.  “They found a horse yesterday – dead…rode to death.”

“Whomever shot me took my horse,” Scott says mildly.  “And my hat, my jacket, my gun – my money.”

“Hm.  You see who bushwhacked you?”

“I told you no.”  Scott’s voice rises a little; there’s annoyance riding across his face.

“And you was riding alone?”

Burt is pressing.  Light-haired man, shot, dead horse…the facts can be knitted together, I suppose…

“I had business with Bill Henderson of Visalia,” Scott tells Burt.  “You can contact him…”

“I will, son, I will.”  He pauses.  “You was in Bishop last week, wasn’t you? Stayed at the hotel one night.”

Scott’s lips lift in almost a smile. “I took the stage to Visalia for my visit to Mr. Henderson.  Surely you’ve checked that out, too.”

Burt nods. “Stage took you down that way, all right – and back.  Why’d you pick up a horse from the livery, Mr. Lancer? Why didn’t you wait for the stage?”

Scott flushes a little.  “There was a delay – I didn’t want to wait.  I figured I’d ride to the rail station at Fresno and take the railroad up from there.”

“That horse.”  Burt changes the subject.  “A roan, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” Scott nods.  He hesitates, then asks, “And the dead horse?”

“Pinto, boy.”  Burt shakes his head.

“So they still have mine.”

Burt shrugs indifferently.  “Maybe.”  He straightens and glances over to me – I see an apologetic look come into his eyes.  He doesn’t believe Scott, not one word.

I open my mouth to protest but he beats me to it by calmly pulling his gun.

He cocks it.  The sound of that click echoes off the walls, hangs in the air over the bed.

“I’ll take him off your hands, Althea,” Burt says, pointing the Colt at Scott.  “Won’t bother you for a wagon  - will need a horse, though.”

“Burt Ames, he can’t ride,” I declare, speaking fast. It’s been waiting in me so long, it seems, and I have to get it all out now so that he’ll hear me.  Even so, a shivery feeling works up past my knees.

“He’ll have to, Althea.  He can’t stay here – not right.”

“He’ll stay right here till he’s well,” I press, swallowing back my clawing fear.  But my voice has gone breathy and trembles.  Burt’s not convinced – and neither am I, truthfully.  I’m afraid…

“Althea…” Burt’s apologetic look has turned to one of warning.  “That’ll cost me a deputy to watch him and I’ll have to cuff him to the bed – you don’t want that, do you?”

“Sheriff, I’m not one of those men,” Scott tells him in an even voice.  “If you’d just wire my father, I’m sure--”

“Oh, I’ll do that, son,” Burt agrees, interrupting.  “But I’d rather you be in a cell when I do it.  See, that light haired feller I told you about – his name is Sam Little.  Funny isn’t it, that he’s got the same initials as you?  And he’s a mite educated, too.  Good-looking, they say, polite talker.” He shifts his hand and centers his Colt on Scott’s chest.  “And I think I’m talking to him right now.”

Dismay pinches me hard.  Fooled again, leers my renewed fear.

I look at Scott and his eyes are already on me.  I see something unhidden in the blue-gray depths, warm but forthright, that mix of what I saw that first day.

“Burt…” I get out over my clumsy tongue.  “He’s – he’s…”

“Get him some clothes, Althea,” Burt directs me.  “Then fetch Harvey – he can be my deputy for the ride to Lone Pine.”

Scott’s look at me intensifies but I don’t know what to do.  So many things fit – the hair, the talk, the wound…the initials.  Even the story about the horse is against him.

And yet…

“Burt,” I try again over my swirling brain. “You can’t – you just can’t…”

“Harvey told me about his spring house being broken into,” he says.  “And he tells me you’re missing a hen or two.”

“Could be drifters,” I muster. “Could be…”

“Go on, Althea,” Burt says, a little more gently, then adds, “Please.”

“It’s all right, Mrs. Greenwood,” Scott speaks softly; the look is gone from his eyes, and the gray color with it.   His head dips briefly but then he reconnects his gaze with mine.  “I’m grateful for all your help--”

“Althea.” Burt cuts him off.

I break the gaze – Lord, why do I feel like I’ve betrayed him?

“I’ll get the clothes,” I mumble and hurry out.

 

Chapter 5

I run to the edge of the south field to fetch Harvey, who’s working the soil with my team.  My ankle hurts with each step but I don’t care.  I’ve let him down – I’ve let the boy down, and I hate my fear for taking over.

By the time we make it back to the house they are out on the porch, Burt holding his gun on Scott and watching the boy slowly make his way to the steps.

“He don’t look so good,” Harvey puffs beside me, observing Scott’s sway.

He’s right.  Scott looks just terrible.  He’s barely on his feet, trying so hard to lift one foot and put it down a few inches over.  He’s found his boots, I see, and he’s managed a pair of Nathan’s pants that are a few inches too short on him.  The shirt, a blue checked one, hangs untucked, sleeves unfastened.  He probably couldn’t do much beyond buttoning it since the bulk of bandages around his ribs is thick.

Burt hails me with his eyes and I stop some feet from the bottom porch stair.

“Got a horse, Harvey?” he calls.

“Drove over in the buckboard,” Harvey tells him.  “Want to put the stranger in back for the ride to town?”

Burt nods but his eyes go back to Scott’s wavering form.  “Find me something to tie him hand and foot,” he says.  “I don’t want him trying any escape.”

“I won’t try anything, Sheriff,” Scott tells him in a voice lowered by pain.

“No offense if I don’t take your word,” Burt replies.  “C’mon, boy, get down them steps.  Harvey, hitch your wagon.”

Scott’s face has gone white.  Sweat is clinging dark hair to his cheek and already soaking the front of the borrowed shirt.  Yet his eyes burn dark and cold, determined to follow Burt’s commands.  He grabs for the railing, his other hand going to his side.

I glimpse blood.

My heart leaps up, chokes me and lands deep back down.  Quickly I get my mouth open.

“Burt--”

“Not now, Althea.”

“Listen to me--” I plead.

“I’m sorry, Althea.  Now you get inside.”

Scott slips, goes down on one knee.

“Get up, son,” Burt directs, taking a careful step toward him.

He tries, Scott does.  He lifts his knee, his hand white on the railing, pushes up.

Hangs there for a few seconds.

His eyes roll, he goes boneless—

And falls.

I don’t remember jumping over to him but I’m there, rolling him off his bad side and onto his back.  He tosses his head, blinks.  He’s fallen into a shallow puddle that has quickly soaked his hair.  Blood has bloomed on Nathan’s old shirt, dark and wet.

“Hush, lie still,” I soothe, brushing aside some sticky hair from his cheek.  I take his sweaty hand from the puddle, his knuckles stained with blood, press it.  Boot steps scuff near me.

My glare makes Burt halt. “For goodness sakes!  Help me, Burt.”

Burt sighs in consternation.  He’s still holding his gun but uncocks it.  “Althea, I can take him back with me right now…”

Fury spills out past my fear and shame. “You’ll do no such thing!  You’ll help me get him back to bed and then you’ll go back to your posse and look for those outlaws.  And fetch Dr. Childress on your way – he’s bleeding again.”

“Althea,” Burt tries, using his respectful voice.  “Please – you know what happened last time…”

I scramble up, splash water, step on my skirts, furiously yank them free.  “I know,” I almost shout.  I’m so full of feeling I’m shaking.  “But he’s hurt – he’s hurt.  He’ll bleed to death – I can’t have that.”

“He’s no good--”

“I won’t let a man die,” I declare.  “And he’s--”

“He’s what?” Burt coaxes.  “Innocent?”  He snorts.  “How do you know, Althea?  There’s enough against him to jail him – until we know for sure who he is.”

“Then send that telegram like he asked.”

“I will, but it’ll take time.”  His voice softens, respectful again.  “And it could be a sham – man on the other end might be right happy to give him an alibi.”

Everything he says makes sense, but it keeps grating against what I want  - that the boy isn’t an outlaw, that he’s been caught up in a coincidental mess, that he isn’t lying.

They hurt you last time, some furtive voice whispers in my head.  Hurt you – because you trusted them…

Them, I yell back silently.  There were four of them that day – and there’s only one man here.

The others will come.

Can’t be certain.

They will.

No.

I stare down at Scott, lying limp in the dirty puddle of my worn walkway.  His eyes are half-open but unseeing; he’s breathing unevenly, his chest hitching, struggling.

Decide then – and be damned.

Decide…faith over facts.

I straighten my bony shoulders and look Burt full in the eyes.

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

I set the tray on the chair by the bed.  Scott watches me, but his eyes are dulled by the laudanum Oliver has forced into him, and even the lamp on the bedside table doesn’t pick up any shine.  It’s dark now – it seems these past few days have been nothing but patches of daylight and darkness, and it’s made me tired in body and in mind.

Scott still doesn’t say anything, but he watches me.

I reach into the pocket of my skirt, take out the key in there, the one Burt was reluctant to give me.  Luckily Oliver had given me some help with that.

“He’s too weak to do anything more than sleep, Burt, and the laudanum will tamp down any determination he might have.  You can’t cuff him to the bed and walk away – there’s such a thing as being too cruel, you know.”

“Then when can he make a wagon ride to town?” Burt had growled.

“If you want him to make it there still breathing – two days.”

Burt’s face had darkened, darker than I’d ever seen it.  “D’you know how I’ll feel if I have to bury you, Althea?” he’d choked out to me.  Then he’d shoved the key at me and strode out.

“Be careful, anyway,” Oliver warned me.  “Not that I’m any expert at judging a man,” he’d continued, glancing at Scott.  “But he just doesn’t seem like any outlaw to me.”  Then he’d squeezed my arm and left us.

Now I shove Burt’s key into the lock on the handcuff trapping Scott’s left hand by his ear, twist it.  The cuff slides open and I remove it from the rail Burt locked it around.

“You need to eat,” I say by way of explanation to Scott, pocketing the key again.

He slowly lowers his arm, the manacles clicking against each other as he gets his hand down.  I ready some pillows and he struggles forward.  He holds himself long enough for me to stuff them behind him so he’s half-propped and able to take the tray.

“Why are you doing this?” Scott asks slowly, his voice raspy in the shadowy room.  He grimaces and gropes for his side.

I shake my head.  “I don’t know,” I admit.  I don’t know how to explain my feelings to him.  They’re torn in half, one part afraid, and one part believing, and they keep shifting to one side and then the other. Right now a tingle of worry is making my stomach flutter.

I point my chin in the direction of the outer room.  “I’m handy with that rifle out there.”

He nods in understanding.

 “Wrote a telegram for you,” I tell him.  “Signed my name, gave Burt’s too. Asked him to send it as soon as he could.”

He nods again and closes his eyes, shutting off his blue stare.  “Thank you – very much.”  He opens them, but drops his gaze to the quilt.  “I’m sorry to cause you such trouble…”

“Nonsense,” I say briskly, my guilt again nibbling at me.  “Burt and Harvey – well, they’re good friends – look after me--” I smoothen the blankets, though they don’t need it.  “What Burt said…” I begin and hesitate.  “Those things make sense.”

“Yes, they do,” Scott agrees to the quilt, then looks up.  “But none of them pertain directly to me, Mrs. Greenwood.  I cannot help my name – it is Scott Lancer.  I am no outlaw and I did not rob any bank.  I imagine it was those outlaws I encountered on the road – they probably needed a fresh horse.”  He looks like he wants to say more but doesn’t, just drops his gaze back to the blankets.

“Well,” I say, taking up the tray and placing it on his lap.  “The truth will be proved, one way or the other.”  I don’t know what else to add, so I leave him then, to feed himself.

I take myself out to the porch, away from the stuffiness of the house and the feelings pulling at me.  It’s dark and damp out here, but blessedly cool and refreshing.  A breeze carries over the sound of raindrops pattering awkwardly across the yard.  Rain again.  I sigh and the strength seems to slide out of me.  I sit heavily in the old rocker near the door, using the rifle as a cane to settle myself.  My head and shoulders feel weighted down – even my old hands are thick and numb.  I sit there, let the wind blow over me and through me, wishing it would take away all these freshened emotions, these flighty thoughts of terror, of pain, of guilt.

I just can’t tell – I don’t know if Scott is telling the truth or whether Burt is right.  I want to believe them both.  I trust Burt and I know he’s trying to keep me safe; Harvey, too, for that matter.  And I want to trust Scott, but Burt’s claims have rendered me uncertain.  Yet a part of me can’t help but believe that Scott is who he says he is, that he was shot and left to die, that he landed on my porch asking only for water.  The most he’s done is apologize for bothering me.  He’s been polite and respectful – maybe that’s what strikes me as so peculiar. Scott doesn’t appear to need to resort to stealing to make his way.

I wish I could be sure of him.  I’m stretching my faith thin and there’s nothing to back it up.  And the last time I was so trusting – the dark memories pour up and out of me and I barely have time to yank them back down under my heart before they can fully awaken and attack me.  Even so, they continue to claw at me, making me jittery.

“I don’t know what to do,” I tell the darkness in a voice that sounds lost.  “Please don’t let it be the wrong thing.”

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

When I slip back to the bedroom Scott seems to be asleep.  Tobias sleeps curled up close to Scott’s knee; now he mews a protest at my approach.

“Oh, stop,” I fuss to him, refusing to pat his risen head.  “You probably ate right off his plate, anyway.”  The cat sighs in response.  He puts his head back down, his nose deep into his curved tail.  I touch Scott, but there is no fever and he doesn’t react. Exhausted, more than likely, with all the blood he’s lost.  The key in my pocket taps my thigh in a reminder.  He should be locked up.  I pull the blankets up to straighten them and the loose handcuff winks at me.  But I leave it there, take the tray and go back to the kitchen.  My fear barks out a protest over my trust but I close my ears to it.

And wait to see what happens.

 

Chapter 6

He’s hanging in the doorway, the quilt from the bed wrapped loosely about his bare shoulders.  Tobias is leaning against one bare leg, tail high and purring.

“Mrs. Greenwood,” he says softly.  “I don’t seem to have any clothes…”

“Land sakes, son!” I declare, dropping the spoon into the batter bowl and hurrying forward.  I catch his elbow through the quilt just as he slips.  “Here – sit down…”

He nods and leans awkwardly on me, though we’ve already done this once before.  The handcuff about his wrist chatters at me as we position ourselves, but I ignore its call.  Scott totters the few steps to the kitchen chair, sinks gratefully onto it, gathers the blanket across his bare chest and takes a few breaths.  Tobias continues to weave in and out of his legs, rubbing hard.

Another day and night have passed.  Scott spent most of it abed, sleeping and healing.  I haven’t locked him to the mattress but he’s stayed there anyway.  It’s rained off and on, and gray clouds are already hovering outside this morning.  A chilliness has settled across me, making my ankle ache.  There’s a dampness to this house that won’t go away, so I’ve settled for baking in an attempt to warm it – and me – up.

“I’ve scrubbed your clothes,” I tell Scott, pressing my palm against his brow.  Clammy, but no fever.  “I’ll try and patch your shirt.  Pants are dark enough so’s the blood won’t show much.  But you won’t need them right away.”

“Ma’am, I shouldn’t stay…”

“You can’t ride,” I tell him, glancing over at the window – raindrops bubble on its surface but there’s nothing to see out there but dreariness.  I want to bake, to move.  I can stack wood, straighten the stalls, fork more hay, bang some loose nails.  I need to be busy, otherwise my memories are going to catch me and turn me to ice.  And my guilt over hurting the boy is giving me stomach pains.

“The sheriff…” Scott frowns.

My tongue suddenly flaps loose. “Burt Ames is a good sheriff and a good friend, and I know he’s doing his job,” I spit back to him. “If you are one of them outlaws I want you to know straight out that I don’t have anything here worth taking, no money under the mattress or out in some hidey hole in the barn.  There’s me and that fat old cat, one lonely cow and two broken- down plow horses.  I don’t expect you’ll pay the chickens any more mind.  If you need any of that then you can take it now.  I’ll even let you take my rifle – I only hope you won’t use it on me but if you do then so be it.  I’m ready anytime to meet my husband who’s already gone on before.  All I ask is that you make it a clean shot – I’ve suffered enough in the past and I don’t wish to do it again.”

He stares at me while I’m babbling on, his eyes quiet but curious.  Not mocking, not laughing, and suddenly I feel stupid for allowing such a loose tongue.

His calm look and his silence grates – I can’t tell what he’s thinking.

“Since you’re up you might as well eat,” I tell him in a brisk tone.  “I have coffee and I was about to make some flapjacks.  I expect Harvey along shortly – he likes to check up on me,” I add in light warning as my fear overtakes my guilt.

I realize I’m doing it again and I press my lips together this time, then head back toward the stove.  The storm has broken over the house – the rain is pounding afresh on the roof, suffocating me.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Scott says respectfully.

“You’re welcome.”  I grab the coffeepot and a cup, pour him some.  My fingers are shaking and the key in my pocket is heavy.  I curse to myself.

“Harvey…” Scott says, long fingers wrapping around my worn old coffee cup.  His thumb finds the chip at the top of the handle and he rubs it, just like Nathan used to do.  “He’s the man who hit me?”

“Yes, he’s the one,” I snap.  I snatch the bothersome key out of my pocket and apply it to the handcuff still rattling around his left wrist.  It twists open and falls into my hand, and I’m surprised at the weight of it.

“Mrs. Greenwood,” Scott begins, staring at the manacles, “are you sure…?”

“I did it for Burt’s sake,” I tell him in a rush.  Then that truth allows me some breath.  “But I can’t condone it any longer,” I say in a softer tone, and uttering it relieves me a little, for it’s the truth.

But I can’t get through the rest of it; there is this doorway that I can’t seem to cross, and every time I step up to it something keeps me from stepping through.  And I don’t suppose it’s fully his fault.  He’s not the shadow darkening that threshold.

The front door rattles open and a shrouded Harvey steps through; a gust of wind and rain batters the air around him. “Well, that’s it,” Harvey announces.  He plucks at his dark slicker, splattering water.  “Road to town is washed out again – ain’t nobody going to get through for a few days.  I guess it was a good idea that Burt locked the boy up, Althea--”

“Harvey,” I interrupt, nodding to Scott.

Scott has already risen to his feet to greet Harvey, who’s now standing frozen like some squirrel listening for danger.

“This is Harvey Locke,” I say, hoping to get him to move or at least close his gaping mouth.  “Harvey, Scott Lancer.”

Scott shuffles forward a couple steps, right hand outstretched despite having to use his left to hold the slipping quilt.  “Mr. Locke,” he nods.  “I’m pleased to meet you, sir.”

This is spite of knowing he’s greeting the man who hit him.  And all Harvey can do is stare, both hands pressing his wet and battered work hat to his flannel-covered chest.  Finally he shifts, closes his lips, snakes his hand out to shake.

“Mr. Lancer,” he squeaks out, bobbing his head.  He spies the handcuffs on the table and sidles a glance at me.  “Burt ain’t gonna like that,” he says, drawing his hand away from Scott’s.

“Sit down,” I tell him.  To Scott I say, “I’ll get you a shirt.”

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

“In the War ‘tween the States, were you?” Harvey asks in between bites of flapjacks.  He smacks his lips appreciatively and the sound makes me smile despite the awkwardness surrounding us.

I’m not sure how he’s managed to get this information out of Scott, but I admit that I’ve only listened with one ear.  I’m still jumpy.  I’ve changed the sheets on the bed and made it up fresh.  There’s bread baking.  The woodbox has been filled. I’ve collected the old wood ash into a tin pail.  I’ve laid new logs in the hearth and I’ve swept the floors – all of them.  Somewhere in between all that and feeding the men Harvey asked Scott about his past, trying, I guess, to see if he can detect any lies in the boy’s responses.  Scott again mentioned Boston, and then added that he had joined the army in the midst of that awful war.  It surprises me that he offered that, but I suppose it’s his way of trying to relate to Harvey, man to man – Harvey didn’t have much to say about Boston.  I think again about those scars on Scott’s body, hidden now by another of Nathan’s shirts, and wonder if any of them came from battlefields.

“Hardly seem old enough to have been in battle,” Harvey continues to Scott as I take a break and pour myself a cup of coffee.

“Old enough,” Scott repeats, nodding slowly.

“Can’t have made any rank, then.”  Harvey shovels two more forkfuls past his mouth, slurps coffee.  He always eats fast, even when he’s enjoying the food.

“Lieutenant, Second United States Cavalry,” Scott tells him, with what sounds like a pinch of shyness threading through his voice.

“Oh.”  Harvey pauses, considering, but the fork is hovering by his lips.  “Killed many, did you?”

“In the performance of my duty, yes,” Scott answers carefully; a shadow works across his face, deepens the blue of his eyes.

“What about after?” Harvey prods, but gets the fork inside his mouth.

“Only out of necessity,” Scott returns, his gaze dropping to his lap.  He stills.

“Hm,” says Harvey, chewing. “You consider robbing that bank a necessity?”

Scott’s head comes up, and he’s already trying to quell the blue fire in his eyes.  “I did not rob that bank, sir,” he tells Harvey in a very controlled tone.

Harvey gives me a look and then shrugs.  “If you say so,” he mutters and finishes his breakfast.

Scott only sighs.

“Latch on your barn door is broken, Althea,” Harvey announces, rising.  “Noticed it this morning.  Someone went through things, but nothing ‘pears to be missing.  I’ll fix it before I leave.”  Then he eyes Scott again.  “Since this feller is up and around maybe you should move him out there,” he advises, the warning clear in his voice.

Irritation makes me straighten.  “The barn is no place for a wounded man,” I tell Harvey.

“Good enough for the likes of him…”

“That’s enough.” I step up to the table even as Scott rises to his feet.  “Appreciate you fixing the latch, Harvey.  You can be on your way after that – can’t do anything more in this rain.”

Harvey stares hard at me and I can see a little bit of anger working into his brown eyes.  He breaks off the look to pierce Scott with it instead.  Scott sits quietly, but I can feel the frustration rolling off his body behind me.  I think of the handcuffs that have sat on the table all the while they have been eating, and of the rifle that is leaning against the wall not far from the stove.  And of the gun Harvey has surely stuck in the pocket of his slicker.  But Scott has not tried to take any of those guns from us.  He hasn’t tried to make his way out the door and up into Harvey’s wagon.

He hasn’t tried to hurt me.

Then again, he’s mighty weak. And there is that broken latch.  Someone’s been lurking about my place – and Harvey’s…

“Take care of yourself, Althea,” Harvey manages in a strangled voice, then reaches for his slicker.

I nod but can’t say anything – I know he’s mad at me. His anger works me up further but I’m not sure what to do with it.

I turn to Scott.  “About time you cleaned yourself up, Mr. Lancer,” I tell him.  “I’ll get you some soap and water.”

We all part ways.  Harvey clumps out and bangs the door behind him; Scott shuffles back to the bedroom.  I reach for the bucket of water by the stove and wish I could please the world.

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

“There, all done.”

Scott looks himself over in the mirror and slowly smiles.  “Thank you,” he says to my reflection.

He’s washed and clean.  Again I appreciate his fine sculpted features, his straight nose, well-placed cheekbones.

I wave my hand.  “No bother – I shaved my Nathan every day--”

I stop myself, swallow back that hard hot lump that is suddenly resting heavy on my tongue.

His eyes warm with kindness and sympathy.  “I do appreciate it, Mrs. Greenwood,” he tells me, slowly rubbing his jaw with his left hand.  “More than you can know.”

I’m grateful for the moment he’s allowed me to put myself back in order.

He’s too lean, I decide.  Not slight, but he probably never carried any real weight on his frame.  Maybe the War…

“Is there any other way to town?” he asks as the rain gusts against the window.

I shake my head.  “Not unless you’re looking to make your own trail.  River runs awfully high this time of year – and it’s deep.  You can get to Bishop by the long way – adds a few miles…”

He pulls back a sigh and looks out of that window made wavy by rainwater.  “This won’t make the sheriff very happy,” he comments, and I can’t tell whether he means it in seriousness or humor.

“Burt isn’t an overly happy man to begin with,” I declare.  “Guess you can’t be in his line of work.”

A smile flickers at the edges of Scott’s lips.  “I know a sheriff like that over in Green River,” he comments, but he continues to watch the grayness beyond the blurry window.  “Do you think he’ll send that telegram?” he asks with his profile to me.

“I expect he would,” I reply.  “He might not be able to ride right back out with the answer – going to take a couple days for that river to go back down. Though with this weather, the lines might be down.” I pause and consider what looks like wistfulness settling across his features. “Would your family be looking for you now?” I ask.  He frowns.  “You said you were late when you first came around.”

“I’d told them I’d probably take a few extra days…”

“But you said--”

“I had some second thoughts – there are some things I need to attend to at home.”  Scott looks away.  “But no, they’re not expecting me right away.”

I wonder just what happened that he needed time away – and why he changed his mind. And I wonder if that, too, isn’t all a lie. But  I understand his predicament, if it’s the truth.  If his father doesn’t receive and reply to that telegram, Burt will find a way to get over that road and come for him – he could get a message the sheriff up to Bishop to come down the opposite way behind the river – or do it himself.  And with all those facts working against Scott, Burt might have enough to set up a trial. This is the end of the month and the circuit judge is likely in town already.  It wouldn’t take much for Judge Beckett to declare a guilty verdict before any Lancer family could reach Lone Pine.

Unless Scott runs.

I stare at him a moment, wondering if he would, if he’s thinking of it.  Burt and Harvey and a lot of others – those good folks in Bishop who trusted the bank to hold their money – they’d see it as a sign of sure guilt, and have even more reason to jail him, family or no.

Maybe Scott  is guilty, and maybe he’s got that money holed up somewhere just waiting for him to return and dig it up and take it with him.  Maybe it’s his friends skulking about waiting for him, watching my house and Harvey’s, stealing our things, waiting for their leader to join them.  Maybe his name isn’t Scott Lancer but Sam Little who stole Scott Lancer’s horse and left the man dead somewhere.  Scott Lancer might not even exist.

He looks at me and I know he has seen my worry.  Remorse plucks at the gray in his eyes, settles against his mouth; this time he does allow his sigh.

He knows what his staying is doing to me.

 

Chapter 7

Something has awakened me. A voice – a shout…

Fear overtakes me, freezes me with my eyes open.  Someone is here, in my house – my rifle is by the bed, but I can’t reach for it; I’ll make noise and they’ll come, fling open this door, and me in an old nightgown, old and sniveling, weak, so weak.  They’ve come – those robbers, wanting more, always more.  Oh, Lord, not again, not ever again…

I lay in the dark, stuck fast to the bed.  I can barely breathe; my heart is banging against my chest, echoing in my ears, and for a few fierce minutes that loud thumping is all I can hear.  Then it finally starts to fade, and I can make out the persistent tapping of rain against the bedroom window.  Nothing else, no other noise stirs the air.  I swallow back my panic and make to rise, though my shaky limbs give me some trouble.

There’s a line of light showing under the bedroom door, thin and amber but steady.  He insisted that I return to my own bed and he take up space by my hearth.  I didn’t want him to do it – getting up and down from the floor could pull out those stitches – but he insisted in a voice firmer than I’ve yet heard, so I didn’t argue.

And as I went to bed I thought again that maybe he was planning on leaving and didn’t want me to know.  Well, I know now. Guilty, lisps my fear.  He’s guilty…

I shove back the covers and get up, root about for my worn wrapper, somehow get my arms into the sleeves, hoping I’m wrong and feeling I’m not.

He’s not gone.

He’s sitting in the rocker he’s dragged close to the hearth.  The fire is low but steady, and a yellow-orange light warms the room.  Scott sits in the glow, rocking slightly, gazing into the swaying flames.  He’s still dressed, though his shirt is not tucked in, and his boots are placed by the bed of blankets he’s made near the hearth. Tobias is curled in his lap, eyes closed and purring; Scott is stroking him.  Relief and shame wash over me.  The rain, I realize as I step farther into the room, has already slowed to a murmur, reflecting the low churning of my thoughts.  He’s not gone; even though he has reason to.  He’s not one of them. He’s not guilty....

Scott glances up at me.  “I woke you – I’m sorry.”  He looks back down at Tobias.  “I couldn’t sleep.”

“Bad dream?” I offer, thinking of the shout I’d heard.

He nods.  The firelight burnishes his hair gray-gold.  Something calls out for me to touch him so I do, placing a hand on his shoulder.  To my surprise he’s trembling.  My fingers squeeze in comfort at the tight set of his muscles.

“Come often, do they?” I murmur, thinking of my own lurking just under my skin even now.

“Off and on for years,” he says, still stroking the cat.

“Sounds like you don’t get much sleep at night.”

“I’ve learned to live with less.”

Yes, I’ve done the same, though I figure my age is my excuse.  But this boy shouldn’t have so much on his mind.

His face is serious in the firelight, his features deep with concern.   His gaze is within, neither cool nor warm.  He’s frowning and his brows have drawn together.  He’s somewhere in memory, half in and half out, stuck there by the lateness and the darkness, unable to turn fully away from it.  I know this, because I’m in the same place.

He goes back to rocking in the chair as I step away, his hand stroking the cat with a rhythm intended to calm himself.  He accepts the glass of whiskey I nudge him with, but waits to drink until I’m seated with my own measure of the stuff.  He looks like he could swallow it in one gulp, but he takes a sip instead; I do the same.

“Tell me about them,” I encourage.  “Your family – it’s them you’re thinking of?”

Scott stops the rocker and turns to look at me, one eyebrow askance.  A smile tries to quirk his lips but he holds it back; he knows that I believe him now.

“Yes, them,” he says with a little nod, though we both know his nightmares are conjured from something else.  But we aren’t ready for that yet – we both know that nightmares are often too frightening to talk of even when the day is full.

Scott lets out a little sigh.  “He’ll be disappointed…”

“Your father?”

He nods once; his smile has gone wry.  “I don’t usually end up in such predicaments,” he comments.  “That’s generally taken up by my brother.”

“Surely your father can’t blame you--”

“It’s a big ranch, lots of holdings, a myriad of details to attend to.  Walking away to pick up after an errant son…He relies on me.  He has expectations…”

“Sounds like you have a pretty high set of your own,” I say quietly.

This time his smile widens, turns self-mocking.  “Too many years of training to put it aside.”

“And how did that come to be?” I ask.

So he tells me about his grandfather and his father, and how he came to live with the former and then the latter.  It’s clear he loves them both, even though he speaks of them differently; his grandfather with affection from years of living with the man and receiving his tutelage and training; his father as more of a friend than a parent – I bleed for him about that.  A son should know and love his father, if he is deserving.  And it seems that Scott’s father should have been deserving.

Scott talks – a lot – about his brother Johnny, and I sense the closeness they share even with only a few years of knowing each other between them.  He’s proud to be a brother, I note; his voice warms and his eyes gather fresh light as he speaks of this other boy that has had his own bulk of trouble.  But there’s a hint of sadness about him as he talks about his brother, and I gather that something has happened between them that pains him.

He tells me of the ranch they share and of the wrangler Jelly, of Cipriano and Maria, and of the girl Teresa who lives with them.  And by then the whiskey is empty and I’ll have to restock on my next trip to town.  Next trip – Lord, I don’t want to take a trip to town if Burt finds a way to jail Scott.

A notion nudges me then, to give up this farm, sell it to Harvey and find a new place.  There’s not much holding me here anyway, not physically.  Nathan’s grave is out back, but even that has given me less comfort over the past couple years.  It’s my fears then – fear of starting over, fear of failing, fear of strangers…

Scott has gone quiet. The past – I feel it come up around him in the darkness.  While I’ve been in my own thoughts the fire has lowered and the lamp has dimmed.  The only regular sound over our breathing is that of Tobias purring.

“You’ve been hurt in the past,” I say to ward off any talk of myself.  “You carry some fierce scars, son.”

The War, he says with a sigh.  He tells me about that escape attempt and the death of all those men, and the vengeance that man Cassidy swore upon him because of it.  He mentions the whipping without much detail, and I know he has struggled long and hard to keep any emotion out of that explanation.  And then he relates for me Cassidy’s near success with that bullet to Scott’s shoulder before the truth came out.  Terrible wounds, one from war and one because of it.

“And that other wound?” I ask.  “On your leg…?”

In a flare of firelight I see his slight flush.  “Took that for a lady,” he says then grins, his teeth flashing as he looks over to me.

Now it’s my turn to feel the heat rush up over my cheeks.  I turn and work it away, and take note that for all his talk he hasn’t ever mentioned a mother or a grandmother, or any other lady in his life.  No opportunity to have a mother to replace the one that died giving him birth, no loving grandmother in Boston.  No apparent wife.  That further saddens me – such a loss…

He also doesn’t mention that fresh scar on his arm.  Even as I’m thinking about it, he shifts, tugging his sleeve closer to his wrist, covering it.  No, that scar reflects a wound barely healed, one that has worked very close to his heart.  He hasn’t yet found a way to make it fact like those lines on his back.  I think again about the sorrow that accompanied the talk of his brother, and wonder if the two are connected.

“And you, Mrs. Greenwood?” Scott finally asks.  He tips the rocker forward to place his empty glass on the floor beside the chair, shaking off Tobias in the process.  “You’ve been working this farm all on your own?”

Such a polite way to ask, I think.  And he has a right to ask, since he gave up so much of his own story.  But my throat closes all the same.  Nathan, I wish you were here…

“My husband died a few years back,” I manage.  “Lost a boy to the cholera before he was full grown.  Got one boy in the Dakotas, and a girl in Arizona Territory.”

“I’m sorry about your losses,” Scott returns quietly.  “Your children – they didn’t want to stay on?”

“Goodness, no,” I declare, hearing my voice in the room – it sounds too loud.  “They wanted to make their own way.  Both tried to get me to move after – after Nathan died but I…I didn’t want to be so far away…”

His hand, warm, touches my sleeve.  “That was brave of you, Mrs. Greenwood.”

“No such thing,” I retort, pulling away.  No, I’m not brave… “I’ve been living on this land a long time, son.  It’s grown comfortable – I need it as much as it needs me.”  Or does it?

“My father would agree with you.”  I hear the smile in Scott’s voice.  “The land…” he muses.  “It does have an effect…provides purpose for so much.  I never realized its hold until I came to California.  That and family…belonging to both…” He pauses and I’m ready to shoo off his questions surely to come – about how Nathan died, about how I came to be afraid.  But he doesn’t ask.

“Do you know of any lawyers in the area, Mrs. Greenwood?” he asks instead.

I shake my head even though he probably can’t see it.  “You think you’ll need one?”

“I don’t know.  Unless Sheriff Ames can get Bill Henderson to vouch for me, but even then that’s pushing at the truth. Bill knows my father very well, but he only met me for the first time last week.  I had a letter of introduction, but…Perhaps Sheriff Ames might be willing to send another telegram or two before he calls upon the circuit judge.”

He won’t run, then.  He’ll wait for his family, try and fight it from jail.

“If he doesn’t then I’d be happy to do it for you, son,” I tell him.

“Thank you,” Scott responds softly.  “I’ll leave for town as soon as the road is passable,” he says to me then.  “I’ll ask Mr. Locke to accompany me.”

“Son, I…”

“He can use the handcuffs and make it proper.”

Those handcuffs, still sitting on the plank table with the key beside them.

It’s dark now – black.  Again Scott allows me my fear.  But even in the blackness I know he can see through me.

And still he doesn’t ask.

 

Chapter 8

It’s barely light. The clouds are gone. I finish pinning my hair and think about cutting it, but not today.  It would turn too much attention onto myself.  I turn from my withered reflection and matching hands and head to the kitchen, the rifle in my grasp.  I carry it everywhere, room to room to barn to field, through the persistent rain showers and gray dampness and night.  It’s not for any protection from Scott – he’s not a robber, this I know for certain now.  No, the gun is to protect me from my memories, the ones so stirred up by his presence.  I hate them, hate myself for having them, for letting them run me from moment to moment.  They’re worse than they’ve ever been.

I’m afraid again.  I’m a weak old woman who’s afraid of living.  And this gun – master of injury and death – well, it has some measure of comfort in its metal heaviness, and in the bullets nestled in their chambers, like sweet fresh peas held in a pod.  The bullets that can kill, free up the pain, finalize life.

What good am I, anyway?  A lonely old woman wasting time on this earth.  I’ve done my living.  Maybe I should give myself over to my demons since they want me so.  Who would care?  My Nathan, I miss him so much…every day when I see Scott wearing one of his shirts I’m besieged with the longing of our years together, and of his final suffering – and of my cowardice.

I hate myself.

The big room is empty.  Scott’s blankets are rolled neatly and placed in the corner of his sleeping spot.  I wonder if he slept at all?  The quietness is another chord of finality that plucks at me.  He’s gone…

The door rattles and on instinct I pull up the rifle, but not quick enough – I’ll never be quick enough.  I’m too old.

Scott steps through.

He smiles in that slow way of his and holds up my battered old woven basket with his left hand.  “I gathered your eggs,” he says by way of greeting, handing it over to me.

I let the gun sag; relief makes me tremble inside.  “Son, you shouldn’t--” I begin in protest.

“I should earn my keep,” he says, head dipping for a moment.  “Your friends--”

“Don’t you pay Harvey or Burt any mind,” I interrupt, setting the basket on the counter and the rifle on the table.  Does he know what this little gesture means to me?  I feel like crying.  “Besides, you need to heal – doing my chores isn’t the way.”  Can’t figure you for that type, I think silently, swallowing back that lump that wants to choke me. “You sure know a lot for being city raised,” I say.

Scott’s smile returns.  “I spent my summers on an aunt and uncle’s farm,” he explains.  “Ran barefoot, milked cows and slopped pigs, fished in the river, caught frogs, slept out in the hayloft, rode bareback – did everything a city boy eager for adventure could ever want to do.”

“And took in some fine manners along the way,” I continue, working at placing pans and pouring water.

“I’ll credit my grandfather with that,” Scott chuckles.  “Though I didn’t always listen.”

“What young boy could?” I shrug.  My hands are flying, working as if of their own accord.  Don’t cry – don’t let him see you like that…

“He had expectations,” Scott says, pulling out a chair to sit at the table.  Out of the corner of my eye I see him lightly brush the rifle, run a finger along the stock.  The scar on his forearm peeps out from underneath his rolled up sleeve, uneven and angry even though healed.  I can’t help but looking at it – I’ve seen burns and this is one.

He sees me staring, and carefully hefts the rifle in his hand with an ease I recognize from Nathan’s once similar grip.  Scott sets it in the corner away from the stove.  Now only the handcuffs wink at us in the emerging sunlight working across the room.  His lips twitch, attempt a careful line.  He doesn’t have to tell me about that scar, doesn’t have to say anything more about himself – I’m not asking. I don’t need to. But he tells me anyway.  He tells me about those searchers mistakenly identifying him as his brother; how they beat him and taunted him; how they stood him against the garden wall and shot off that awful sounding gun around him just to see if he’d fall from the fear of it.

“We arm wrestled,” he continues, now rubbing at the scar.  “They used coals from the kitchen grate as an extra incentive.”  He shrugs but it’s not as nonchalant as I know he’d like it to be. “I lost…” He looks away for a moment and his shoulders tighten.  “It was a stubborn wound – I didn’t think it would ever heal.”

My fingers reach out, draw his away, glad to do something.  And he seems to need this touch,  thin as it is and foreign as it may be coming from an old woman.  “You’ve surely had your share of ills,” I say.

He makes a deprecatory snort.  “My brother bested me a long time ago.”

I think back to his fevered ramblings of his first night in my bed, how he called for his family, all of them, asking this Johnny not to go.  They need each other, I figure.  They’ve come to be as close as brothers should be, yet the past, the damned past, has come between them.

“I don’t think you asked for any of those scars you’re carrying,” I say.  “Especially not this one.  You did it to protect him, didn’t you?”

“Not at first,” he sighs.  “I told them the truth.  Drago, their leader, he didn’t believe me.  And Violet was afraid that if he realized his mistake he’d kill me, and then still wait for Johnny and kill him, too.”

“So you agreed to the game, took the beatings, to protect them all.”

He nods.  “There was no point in others getting hurt – all those people who could’ve been killed by that Gatling gun.”

“And your brother, too.”

“Yes, Johnny, too.”  Scott swallowed, sighed.  “You see, he can’t walk completely away from his past.  It won’t let him go – and if he turns his back on it he could be killed.  Maybe one day they’ll all forget…” he looks up, tries a smile.  “I’ve had a good life, Mrs. Greenwood, a privileged one, even.  I was fortunate in many ways that my brother was not.  And I am very afraid of losing him to that past of his.”  He frowns.  “This trip – it was too soon after…my father insisted but Johnny – he thinks – this upset him.  He’s tried not to let his past harm his family…”

The good son, I think.  Strong he is, to have that sort of faith to accept the misdeeds of another person.  The good and upright boy who refuses to let himself fail, who’s determined to be the reliable, dependable one because he was taught that way.  The boy who had no father, no brothers and sisters growing up, no mother; orphaned in a way like his brother.  Whose very generosity and honesty have landed him in all this trouble with Burt and the law that might just keep him from ever seeing his family again.

“Might I ask you for a pencil and paper?” Scott then asks.  “I need to write some letters.”

I tip my head toward the battered desk across the room.  “In the drawer there.” Letters to them, I guess silently.  In case they don’t get here in time…

Scott nods. “Would you expect Mr. Locke to be by today?” he questions, and this time he uses two fingers to touch the handcuffs.

I can only nod.

“I’ll ask him about that ride to town then,” Scott says.  He rises.  “Excuse me.”  He goes to the desk, retrieves the needed items, and steps outside to the porch.

My hands grow busy again, though neither of us will likely eat the breakfast they insist on making.

 

Chapter 9

I help change Scott’s bandages, but there’s not much need; the stitches have closed over the gash and the rest is scabbed, but the pad will protect them from ripping open.  He’s healed fast.  If the road is passable then he’ll leave – we both know he has to go.  If Harvey doesn’t show then I’ll drive him myself – he’s insisted upon that.

Maybe there’s a telegram for him in Lone Pine.  Surely Burt would deliver it if he could.  We’ll probably meet him on the road anyway – he has a duty to perform and I understand it.  But I don’t like it.

He hands me three separately folded pages tied with a bit of brown string – the top one reads “Murdoch Lancer, Lancer Ranch, Morro Coyo, Calif.”  It’s written in a bold hand, the pencil strokes long and confident – his writing.  I suspect the other two are for Johnny and his grandfather.

“If I could ask you one last favor to see that these are delivered?” he inquires.  “I would be very grateful…”

I nod and take them, put them on the table where they won’t be forgotten.  Harvey has yet to show, so it’s likely that we’ll be on the town road before long.

Scott is thinking.  His mouth is pulled in a little, his brows are lowered, and his eyes have lost that edge of gray.  I turn away, because I know I am the source of all that, and my shame is creeping in to fight with my fear.

“Who hurt you?” he asks softly.

I whirl in surprise, nearly dropping the bowl of old bandages, and take a step back.  It’s like a knife has just been twisted deep into my bowels.

“What  - what did you say?” my voice squeaks.  I swallow hard but that lump of emotion is too big to get around.

“Someone frightened you terribly,” Scott responds; in one stride he’s next to me, his shirt-half-buttoned and untucked.  His hands burn hot through my sleeves.  “Is that why you are afraid of me?”

Tears well before I can stop them.  I’ve held them for far too long, and they’ve added up to where I can’t hold them back any longer.  And it hurts, oh Lord, it hurts so, because his kindness is drawing it up and out of me and it’s like I’m choking on it all.

“Not of you,” I quaver.

No, not of him, not anymore.  Not ever, really.  I knew he was good and honest.  I knew it, yet my fear refused to believe my heart, protected it against any weakness in my judgment.  But I knew, from that first day when he was willing to walk away and continue his path, even though he was injured and so weak.

“Of strangers, then,” Scott gently corrects.

I wish I could run from the room, but my feet won’t move.  There’s two voices inside me; one telling me to be quiet and not say anything, the other begging to let it all out, to tell Scott.  To finally tell someone how it’s been, how awful it’s been to try and go on when your heart and spirit are broken, when you’ve become so mistrustful of good folks, when you believe that nothing would be better than to have died and not lived.

But Scott knows all this – he knows.

“Didn’t used to be,” I sniff, wiping at my face, working up enough energy to be disgusted with myself.  The first voice has materialized into a dark shape reflective of my fear; it is smiling because it is winning.

“Tell me,” Scott urges.  One of his hands is still on my arm, reassuring in its grip.

I find the gumption to move.  “I need to make a list of supplies for Harvey to pick up,” I say to the thick air between us.  “He might as well do my shopping while he’s in town.”

But Scott has moved with me, and his long, lean form blocks my way.  Both hands fold over my shoulders, their grip encouraging.  “Please tell me, Althea,” Scott says, his voice low, making my name sound important.

It’s bubbling inside me, souring my stomach, asking to be let out, crying to be heard.  I’ve never told anyone, not all of it, anyway.  Harvey knows some and Burt has pieced together the facts.  But neither knows anything beyond that – the hurt and the tears and the humiliation and shame…and the damned nightmares that have carved me up so many times.

I force myself to look up into Scott’s face.  His features swim a little under my tears but I can make out the kindness in his eyes, the compassion, the offer to listen and not judge me.  He knows – he knows the same awfulness.

A sob leaks past my trembling lips.

Scott gathers me to him, holds me gently, his large hands stroking my back in soft comfort. He leads me to the rocker, seats me.  Then he goes to one knee, still holding my hand.  The warmth of the flames and his touch soothe me, give me courage. My voice is old, weak and clogged – but I tell him.

About the two strangers seeking shelter from the storm that night, one badly wounded. How two others burst in, guns drawn.

Grabbed things – had already torn through the barn.

Demanded money – shot Nathan in the arm when he refused to obey.

Hit me when Nathan again refused.  Tore at me when he next hesitated.  But I didn’t cry out, didn’t beg – I trusted Nathan. I had always trusted him.

They shoved the dying boy to the floor and let him bleed away.  Then they put their hands on me, two of them trying to have their way with an old woman.  Put their hands on me in places no strangers should touch – it made me sick.

Nathan told them to stop, gave them the money jar.  They spilled it open and shot Nathan again.

Left us on the floor while the rain poured down.  Ate our food, ripped apart our house looking for more cash.

The boy on the floor vomited a great gob of blood and died. Nathan bled, too, and I kept shoving cloths against the low wound - first my skirt, then my apron, then towels – to keep him from coughing up blood, too.

And I prayed, prayed for salvation, for forgiveness of sins I must have made to cause this to happen.  I prayed for death, for the both of us.  Hours and hours of rain and darkness and blood and sweat and smells of fear and mortality, and I prayed through it all…

And when the rain stopped they left, scooped up what they could find and walked out.

I remembered following them out, cursing them, hating them, damning them for what they had done.  And I’d shot one with that rifle that was in my hands – the horse went down, too…

Burt and his posse found us in the midst of all that gore.  Harvey was there, then Oliver was operating, cutting and sewing, doing what he could.

“He didn’t die, you see,” I choke out to Scott, my nose running so fast I can’t keep it wiped up.  “Nathan – he died slow…the wound ate him – from the inside.  Oliver tried – so hard…” I shake my head; tears splatter, and my braid works loose.  I must look a sight.  Nathan – my dear Nathan…

I’m tired and I hurt.  There’s a great hole in my chest that makes me feel so hollow, so empty.  I can’t see anything for the tears that are blinding me.  All I know is that I am clutching at Scott’s hand so tightly that my fingers are both cold and sweaty.  But he hasn’t let go, not once, and even now he covers my jiggling fingers with his other warm palm. The touch is soft and soothing and I am embarrassed by my confessions and by my looks.  And I am so very grateful, too, that this young man has bothered to listen to an old woman’s cries.

“You’ve held that in a long time,” he says when most of my sobs have been swallowed.

I nod and gulp.  “A long time.”

“I’m so sorry,” Scott says to me in a voice vibrating with emotion.

Then he helps me up, his arm around my shoulders, pressing me against his warm and secure chest like a child.  My old hand creeps up, puts itself over his heart – it’s beating strong and steady, and I cling to the sensation. Scott leads me to the bedroom, makes me lie down. He brings me some cool water to drink and it soothes my raw, aching throat.  Then he covers me up, strokes my forehead, and urges me to sleep.  And I’m so tired and so weak, but strangely relaxed, too.  The heaviness I’ve carried for these years has somehow eased.

It’s quiet and the room is cool and dim, soothing against my burning eyes and my stiffening cheeks.  I see Nathan at the edge of my sleep, bright and smiling in a misty field; he’s waving at me.

I love you, Althea, he says silently to me.  Good-bye, my dear…

And I sleep.

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

My growling stomach awakens me. I’m hungry – and I smell food.

I toss off the blanket, get up and shake out my skirts. I wash my face, fix my hair.  I can hear sounds in the next room.  What is he doing?

I peer out, and my mouth drops open.

Scott has set the table, added two candles that dress up my old plates and makes my battered cutlery shine.  And he’s found a flower, one of my last blooming roses growing alongside the house; this he’s placed in an old blue jug from the cupboard.

He’s cooked, too, and from the scent I’d say he’s done all right.  Coffee fragrances the warm air, and a pan of deep golden biscuits sits on the stove.  Scott smiles at my approach and lifts the lid off the pot for my inspection.  Chicken, yes, and potatoes and carrots nestled in sweet, bubbling gravy.

“Lord, who taught you to cook, son?” I ask, making my gaping jaw work.  “Did your grandfather send you to toil in the kitchen when you misbehaved?”

Scott laughs.  “If anything, he tried to keep me away from there – the cook was often my alibi.”  He sobers to a smile tender with remembrance.  “So she decided that if I was going to spend a lot of time there – pretended or not – she would at least teach me something.  Always too heavy with the sugar, she told me, so I’ve forgone dessert…”

“Who needs dessert with all this?” I declare, and tears again prick my swollen eyes because I cannot remember a time when a meal was ever cooked especially for me.  Me, looking old and worn and shamed from my crying. 

And like a true gentlemen he seats me in my old wooden chair and serves me his dinner, which is delicious.  And we eat by that sweet candlelight with the rose nodding lightly between us.  But somehow we know it is our last meal together.  Fate has given us one more day to know each other.

Harvey hasn’t been by – I hope he’s not mad at me.

The handcuffs, I notice as Scott pours us coffee in place of dessert, have been moved from the table to the counter, the key beside them.  Tomorrow then, we’ll start this all over.

 

Chapter 10

“It’s for the best,” Harvey says in a rarely used, no-nonsense tone as he snaps the handcuffs around Scott’s wrists.

We stand there grouped on the porch stairs, the three of us, that metal hardware winking in the fast fading sunlight between us.  Harvey’s twisted them too tight; Scott is rotating his wrists, trying to settle the weight.  He doesn’t speak.

The weather isn’t promising, even at this early morning hour.  Despite the dark clouds rushing up, Harvey’s made it over to take Scott to Burt. And judging by his mood I don’t think I’d win an argument with him. For good measure he’s backed his attitude with that old Colt in that worn holster of his, clearly distrustful of the boy.

“Maybe we should wait…” my feeble courage dribbles out over my lips.  “The sky…”

“No.” Scott’s voice is quiet.  His gaze is on me, too calm.  After a moment he manages a slight smile.

I nod slowly, feeling freshly defeated.  I let the rifle butt slip to the porch floor, my shoulders suddenly heavy.  I don’t want him to go, not like this.  He has assured me that the law will work in his favor.  His father and brother will vouch for him, and others from his community, too, the sheriff and the doctor out at Green River.  He says that Bill Henderson of Visalia will also speak for him.  He doesn’t mention the loss of the horse, his own wound, or his matching initials to that robber.  Those things that Burt said made him guilty.  But I think of them.

There’s no more to be said but good-bye.  I’ve done all I could, but I keep wishing there was something more I could offer.  I’m too old to be hoping for miracles, but if one appeared right now I wouldn’t question it.   Maybe Burt will catch those outlaws. Maybe he already has.  Maybe…

Harvey steps between us, partially blocking my view of the young man I’ve become so fond of.  Above Harvey’s battered hat I can see Scott’s lean and sculpted face, his freshly shaven cheeks and his serious blue eyes, his neatly combed blond hair,.  My boy…

Thunder rumbles in the distance and a breeze pushes the thickened air around us.  “I’ll need the key,” Harvey says.  “Althea…”

I fumble for it and it snags inside my skirt pocket.  I yank it free and shove it into Harvey’s hand.  His fingers close over mine for a second, squeezing with something I take as sympathy.  I turn aside, not wanting it.  Anger works up over my helplessness.  “Got a list of supplies,” I tell him curtly.  “If you’d feel obliged.”

“Sure, Althea, I’d be happy to.”  His voice is too nice to my ears – he’s trying to make me feel better.

“I’ll get it, and some money.”  I turn.

“Wait.”  Harvey hops up the stairs and catches my arm.  His face holds a sheepish look. “I didn’t bring any rope.”

“Rope?  What for?”

Harvey glances back at Scott.  The boy shifts a little, and clasps his manacled hands in front of him.  He’s still seemingly calm, maybe even a little amused by us old ones fussing so.

“Well, to tie him with,” Harvey says with hushed exasperation.  “Can’t have him sitting up beside me on the seat, can I?  He’s my prisoner.”

“He’s wearing those handcuffs,” I argue back.

Harvey shakes his head.  “He needs to be tied in the wagon bed.  What’s to stop him from otherwise getting my gun?”

I straighten and look down at him.  “Then I’ll just go and watch him while you drive.”

“No.”  Harvey’s hand closes over my arm, holds fast.  His fingers are warm through my sleeve.  His look is straight on me, serious.  “Leave it be, Althea.  This has to be done proper.  If the boy is telling the truth then you can see him again.  But Burt’s waiting for him and I’m obliged to get him there.  We’ll probably meet him on the road, anyway.”

“It’s all right, Mrs. Greenwood,” Scott calls over to us.  “Mr. Locke is right on all counts.  Now…” He glances at the sky; the clouds have blended into a huge mass of swollen gray over us. “We’d better get going before it rains.”  There is a flash as he finishes speaking, and thunder rumbles slowly toward us.  The wind ruffles his blond hair, giving him a boyish look – an innocent look.

Harvey ducks his gaze.  “I’ll get the rope,” he offers, glancing back at me.  “Is it in the barn?”

I nod and look away, bite the inside of my cheek.  I can’t talk.  I’ll cry if I do.

“Someone’s coming.”

I look up in time to see three riders, three men, pull in from around the side of the house, from the direction of Harvey’s place. They stop on the far side of Harvey’s wagon. Two of them are bearded.  The clean shaven one is light-haired, I notice. He hails us, and asks to step down and talk.

“Sheriff’s deputies,” he explains, waiting in the saddle.

We all shift, and I see Scott visibly stiffen.  “Better let him come over,” Harvey advises,.  But his hand goes to the gun at his side and he eyes Scott.  My own fingers curl inward.  I’m trembling too much to do more than hold the rifle at my side.

I nod at the man who called out.  He smiles easily, lets himself off his horse and approaches, coming around the front of Harvey’s team toward us.  He steps by the shoulder of the near horse and looks us over, raises a hand to pat the animal made nervous by the fresh crackle of approaching lightning.

“Ma’am…sir,” he says politely.  He touches the brim of his hat, squints from the grit blown by the rising wind.  “We’re from Bishop.  We’ve been deputized to bring in the prisoner.  A telegram came from Sheriff Ames in Lone Pine.”  He indicates the badge pinned to his shirt.  “Deputy Silas Lang, at your service.”

Harvey glances at me.  “Well, that’s that,” he says, almost apologetically, and then glances away from my stare.

“We’ll take the prisoner back to Bishop – that’s where he belongs, anyway,” the deputy says.  His eyes leave Harvey’s, flick over me and settle on Scott.  “Did he give you any trouble?” he asks.

“None,” I say, redirecting his stare onto me.  My chin lifts.  “And I don’t expect he’ll give you any, either.”

“Well, that’s very good to know, ma’am.  We’ll take him off your hands now.  Thank you for taking the trouble to keep him all this time.”

“Ain’t got no horse for him to ride,” Harvey says then, looking over at the other two riders.  Scott stirs at that, and I look at him and see a quick frown cross his face.  “I can drive him as far as Lone Pine – I’m heading that way,” Harvey suggests.  “I was just going to the barn to get some rope to tie him with.”

The man before us nods slowly.  “That’s a very good idea, sir – thank you.”  He half-turns and calls over to one of the others.  “Vance, this good man is going to ride with us to the Lone Pine road and bring the prisoner in the wagon.  Go with him while he fetches some rope from the barn.”  One of the men slowly swings down, drops his reins, and follows Harvey.

“You might as well get yourself up in that bed,” Lang says to Scott, gesturing with his gun.  To me he continues, “It was a good idea to shackle him, ma’am.  You can’t be too trusting these days.”

I don’t answer, just watch as Scott leaves the steps and awkwardly hauls himself up over the side of the buckboard.  He stands for a moment, his gaze sweeping over the yard, and finally settling on the path leading up to the barn. Lightning flashes again and makes me wince, but Scott stands still.

“Go ahead and sit – it’s a long ride,” the deputy says to him.

Scott gives him a glance but sits, his hands pressed against his side as he eases down.  “I’m not sure I caught your name,” he says to the deputy.  “You said it was Lang?”

“Silas Lang, sir.”  The man smiles easily.  The name – something about it seems wrong but I can’t figure what.  I do know that I don’t like this deputy; he’s too sure of himself.

An uneasy silence falls around us, cut by the latest flare of lightning and warning of thunder.

“Perhaps someone should check on Mr. Locke,” Scott says, and I’m instantly flooded with a reminder of that first day he arrived with that other ‘perhaps’ on his lips. But there’s a funny sort of sound to his voice, almost like he knows something.

The deputy tosses a look at him.  “Oh, I believe they’ll be right along--”

A gunshot cuts him off

It scares me to a shout.  The horses jump, eyes rolling and nostrils flaring.  Thunder breaks over us – the team lurches in the traces, knocking into Lang.  He’s pushed off his feet; I hear his curses as he falls.

Another shot comes – from the barn, both of them.

“Get down!”

Scott jumps my way, one hand shoving me down onto the steps.  I bang my knee, scrape my palm and bump one cheek all while trying to hang onto the rifle.  Scott pulls it from me, stands and twists, fires.  Harvey’s wagon lurches again.  I hear the two deputies call out to each other amid the jostling of harness and wagon, the shriek of horses.  But I can’t see either one of them.

“Back to the house!” Scott commands, getting a hand around my arm and pulling me to my feet.

I freeze.  It all bursts out of me, the sights, the sounds, the nauseating smells of cordite and copper.  Oh, no, oh, Lord, no!

Scott shouts and shouts at me, but I can’t make out the words.  Darkness rushes in, stops to allow a brilliant flash of lightning.  Thunder booms and then it pours, hard and fast.

Bullets – I hear them over the rain.  Every part of me is quaking – I can’t move.  Scott presses against me, gets ahead of me.  He’s leaving me – no, please…

“Come on!” Scott pulls me up the steps, holds me while I stumble over my skirts.  Bullets sing again, harsh against the thunder.  Scott turns quickly and shoots back, then pushes me toward the safety of the house.

I lunge, make it through the door, fall to my knees.  He barrels through behind me and slams it shut.  I can barely breathe.  “Scott…”

He grips my arm.  “Go get help,” he orders.  “Find a way out.”  He scrambles back to the door, presses himself up against it.

The rain slows for a second; the thunder pauses, both gathering strength.  Outside I can hear one of the men call out.  “Sam!  I think Vance is dead  - that feller up at the barn with him must’ve killed him. Sam?”

The barn – Harvey…

“Go!” Scott tells me in a hoarse whisper.

Instead my panic sets me to blubbering.  “What do they want?  Oh, Scott, please don’t tell me--”

He crosses the room, grabs me with one hand, the other full of my rifle.  His gaze locks fiercely onto mine, the blue so dark it’s almost black.  “I’m not one of them, Althea.  The found out I’m alive and they aren’t going to take any chances I might identify them.  Now, go, please.  If they made it down the road then Sheriff Ames can, too.  Quick, before one of them circles around.”

“No, no,” I babble.  “Scott, I can’t…”

He crushes me to him in a hug and I hold on tight, sobbing.  I’m afraid, so afraid.

“You can do it,” Scott says against my hair, then releases me.  “Go.”

I want to stop, lay back down, but Scott’s right – we can’t fend them off with just one gun between us. He knows my fear, and he won’t let anything like that night ever happen again to me.  But I still feel like a coward turning my back on him.  I should stay, help him, die beside him if I have to.  I haven’t taken him in, protected him and defended him, just to watch someone else take him.  But I know he won’t let me stay.  I know he’ll do anything to keep me safe, even if it means sacrificing his own life.  And for what – for me?  An old woman?

I wipe my eyes, still feeling his arms of encouragement around me, and head for the bedroom.  I want to look back at him but I don’t.  I gain the window at the back of the room, get up on my knees and open it.  I tuck up my skirts and sling one old leg over the sill, slip to the ground.  More gunshots come from the front side of the house.  I suck in a breath and head around the corner, duck low and start to run.   Five feet, ten, and I am clear of the house.  I straighten up a little, run a little harder.  I hear a shot.  It comes close and I cry out, but I don’t stop.  I run and run some more.  I run because I have to get help.

It’s pouring still and the lightning is awful close, sizzling as it passes.  I run and fresh panic jiggles in me because Scott doesn’t know where the extra box of cartridges is—

And because I remember that he’s still wearing Burt’s handcuffs.

 

Chapter 11

I’m running and stumbling – my ankle hurts, tripping me.  Still I run, waiting for a bullet to strike me and take me down.

Ten miles to Lone Pine.  Ten miles.

I’m an old woman.  I won’t make it.  Scott will die before I get help.  Maybe I should go back—

I slow down, stagger a bit, wipe at my streaming face, gasp for a decent lungful of air.  I look around and spot the barn looming ahead of me.  Harvey—

I have to know if Harvey’s alive.  I have to.  Maybe he can help…My stomach flips and my feet start a retreat away from the direction of the road.  A gust of wind pushes me.  The rain is still coming hard, washing out any clear view ahead of me.  If I can’t see too well, then maybe they can’t, either. I reach the corral, squeeze between the rails, slog through the softened ground to the splintered door.  With shaking hands I lift the latch, hold it tight against the groan I know will come if I let it swing.  Heart pounding, I step inside.

The rain batters the roof, but I’m grateful to not have it pounding on my head and shoulders.  My body quiets a little and I pause to let my eyes adjust to the darkness.  At a loud boom of thunder I creep forward toward the front stalls.  The cow and the old horse murmur a protest at the weather, and the hens cluck nervously, calling on me to soothe them.  I move slowly, aching and afraid, worried about what I’ll find – or what might find me...

There, on the floor.  “Harvey,” I whisper.

Oh, Lord, there’s blood – he’s bleeding.  I don’t even know how I reach him but I do.  “Harvey, Harvey…”

He lifts his head, his eyes glassy, tries to smile at me.  “Surprised me good…”

“No, no,” I tell him, pressing my hands against the bloody material just above his left knee.  Oh, Lord, don’t let him die, don’t…

His fingers, cold and sweaty, touch me.  “It’s them robbers – come to kill the boy.  No – no witnesses.”

“I know, I know,” I soothe him.  There’s a crumpled heap of clothing beyond him, laying half out of the doorway, a gun inches from white, outstretched fingers.  One of the deputies.  Only he’s no deputy – he’s one of those robbers.  That’s why they shot Harvey.  That’s why they want to kill Scott – and me. It had to be them been watching my house, and Harvey’s, stealing what they could to survive, waiting to come after us, knowing Scott is innocent, willing to throw down on good people.  Them – that Sam Little.

Sam Little – calling himself Silas Lang.

The ground under my knees is suddenly cold.  They’ll kill us and Burt will find us and think Scott tried to make a run for it.  We’ll be dead and no one will know.  We’ll be dead…

“Here…” Harvey’s voice is hoarse.  He’s pale and shaking; there’s a gun in his hand.  “All loaded but for the one bullet I put in that one.  Take it – get them…or save yourself.”  He frowns.  “Should have the key…” His hand trails across his clothes, then drags in the dirt.  “Lost it…”

Burt’s key to those blasted handcuffs Scott is wearing.

Ten miles to Lone Pine – ten miles.  I can’t make it.  Even if I do I’m afraid of what I’ll find when I come back.  Death, more of it, more loneliness.  There’d be nothing.  I hate them – I hate them all.

I stand up, make my way over to the downed outlaw, hesitate.  I can’t see if he’s breathing.  Quickly I pluck the gun from the muddy straw and return to Harvey.  I grab a blanket folded nearby, drop to my knees again.  I yank Harvey’s kerchief from his neck and tie it around the wound.  Then I drape the blanket over him.  He gives me a weak smile when I take his gun.  I’m no expert with a pistol, but a gun is a gun and bullets, no matter the size, do damage.  I want these – these bastards – out of my home.  They don’t belong here.  They can’t be here.

“Stay here – don’t you move,” I tell him, and leave the outlaw’s gun by his side in exchange.  He nods. I pat his shoulder and move back to the side door.

“I love you, Althea.”

I half turn, my stomach fluttering with surprise.  Harvey stares up at me, looking almost as surprised.  But the honesty is shining from his eyes, and it grips my heart.

“Harvey Locke…” I stammer around a throat of fresh, hot tears.

He manages a little grin.  “No more haying two fields after this,” he says in a rough voice.  “All right?”

“All right,” I choke out, and wish there was time to say more.  I could stay here, tend him.  We might even be able to get away.  But I can’t.  Harvey knows it and understands.

I step back into the drumming rain, lift my face to it, let it wash off the tears that are hot on my cheeks.  Then I wipe it all off and move forward.  It’s hard going.  Days of off and on rain have turned the ground muddy and puddled; it pulls at my heels.  I’m already soaked and my skirts grow heavier with each step I take.
Don’t look back, don’t look back…

I hear a shot – I need to get back to the house.  I have a gun.  Scott has my rifle.  There’s a box of cartridges in the desk - has he found them?  I duck as lightning sizzles close, shut my eyes against the fresh clap of thunder.  It’s loud, rattling across the sky and inside my chest, making me realize that I’m nearly breathless.  My heart is pounding and the beating is so loud in my ears I can barely hear.  The rain is still fierce, making it hard to see.  But I can make out the outline of the house on my left and I creep that way.  Maybe I can distract those other two outlaws – or surprise them. A rift of panic makes me shiver and a wave of doubt follows.  I’m not young, I’m not strong.  I want to help but I’m not sure I can.  I don’t even have a plan.  I’ve left Harvey wounded back in the barn.  And Scott—no, I tell myself.  Don’t think what might be.  I swallow, try to find some calm, and keep moving toward the oak tree.  More lightning and thunder.  It hits and I jump, feel the shock under my feet, clutch the bark for support, breathe in and out, in and out.  Then I straighten and edge away—

Something steps in front of me.  Stops and stands.  A man – one of them.

I freeze.  I can’t hide, I can’t run.

Through the sheeting rain he stares hard, then with a grin he raises the gun in his hand.  Lightning streaks a jagged arc above us.  The thunder breaks over us – he aims – I can’t hear the shot but I can see the spurt of flame from his gun and wait for it to hit me.  Wait for death in this damning rain.

But nothing.  He missed.

Shakily I raise Harvey’s Colt, take a breath against my clanging heart, cock it – and shoot.

He staggers but I can’t see where I’ve hit him.  “Damn you,” he growls as the lightning sizzles again and the thunder shakes the ground once more.  He takes a step, another, and the gun drops from his hand into the mud.  He stops, stares down at it, then back up at me.

“Don’t,” I tell him, but my warning quavers in my throat.

He won’t give up.  I see it in his eyes.  He doesn’t think I’ll do it.  Slowly he bends down, his stare stuck on me, daring me, mocking me.

I don’t remember shooting, but he suddenly sits down hard in the mud with a splat.  “Woman,” he gasps out.  Lightning flashes and thunder booms.  He says something else but I can’t hear it.  Then he falls back in a sprawl and goes still.

I start to shiver violently.  I feel sick. The rain is seeping into me, under my clothes and past skin to work inside.  My hair is stuck to the side of my face.  I am weighted, trapped into place, sinking into the ground, melting… Oh, Lord, what have I done?  What have I done?

A gunshot.  Another one in return.  “It’s two against one,” I hear a man shout out – Sam Little, has to be.  He doesn’t know he’s the only one left.  I can’t make out any answer from Scott – has he found the box of cartridges?  “That house will burn, even in this rain,” Little calls out.

I lurch forward, my skirts clinging to my legs, and reach for the other man’s gun.  It probably won’t fire, but this fellow won’t need it.  Don’t think, I tell myself, though my insides are quaking and sourness works up my throat.  Don’t think on what you’ve just done… 

Something grabs my ankle, cold and hard, pulls.

I topple, feel the scream work out of me.  He’s not dead.

He pulls at my skirt, rolls onto me, reaches across to get the gun that fell out of his hand.  But he won’t find it – it’s under my shoulder, digging into my back.  I wriggle hard, trying to squirm out from under him, but he’s heavy and I’m being pressed deeper and deeper into the wet ground.  I strike at him and he curses, knocks his head against my chin.  I bat at him again, then realize I’m still holding Harvey’s gun in my other hand.  I slap him first, then smack him in the head with the butt – hard.

He goes one way and I go the other, rolling out from underneath him as he slips back.  He goes still again.  My skirt rips as I pull the hem out from under him.  I half hope he’s dead and then pray for forgiveness – just who am I to take a life?  I pick up the muddy guns, one in each hand.  The rain has slowed a little; the thunder has just rolled past, less deafening than before, and there’s a goodly space before the lightning flickers again.  Already the air is cooler, less heavy, working over me on a westerly breeze.

I head for Harvey’s wagon.  The team is hunched together; they’ve moved away from the porch stairs, but haven’t bolted.  I can get in behind them, use them to see…

He snags me from behind, clamps a wet and grimy hand over my mouth before I can scream.  “Mighty nice of you to put in an appearance, ma’am,” he hisses in my ear, twisting one of the guns from my grasp.  “You’re just the luck I need.”  He drags me forward, steps on my skirt, curses harshly.  My other hand comes up, the gun muddy in my grasp.  He shoves me, bends me nearly in half, yanks it from me, then punches me in my side.  Pain explodes over me and I stagger.

It’s not Silas Lang, but Sam Little.  My heart jumbles inside me then sinks.  I’m a hostage.

 

Chapter 12

“Lancer!”

He shouts above the next rumble of thunder, his mouth just above my ear, his arm tight around my neck.  My hands beat at him.  He wrenches me back and forth, tripping me, crushing my windpipe.

“Lancer, I’ve got the old woman!” Get out here or I’ll kill her!”

Stupid! I cry to myself.  My hands still pluck at him. I can barely breathe.  The blood is poundng in my ears, and in my temples.  Despite the rain I’m sweating.  Stupid old woman.  Stupid, stupid…

The door to the house opens slowly.  The rifle barrel appears, then Scott behind, his face set.  His eyes rove over me and lock onto Little.  I know what he’s thinking.

“No,” I croak, trying to warn him away.   I don’t want him to protect me, to die for me.  And I know he will.  I’ve forced him to it.

Little presses the gun into my cheek and cocks it.  “I’ll kill her.  Drop that rifle.”

“Don’t harm her.”

“Shut up.”

Scott holds the weapon out away from him,  “You don’t have to involve her – there’s still time.”

I can hear the smile in Little’s voice.  “Not likely, boy.  Not now.  Drop the gun.”  He tightens his hold and I can’t help but make a sound.  I try to tell Scott again, with my eyes, but he gives in, uncocks the rifle and lowers it.

“You’ve wasted your time, Little,” Scott says.  “The fall from the horse knocked me out.  I never even saw your face.”

“I couldn’t take any chances. Get rid of the gun.”

Scott throws it over the railing; it clatters to the ground.  “Let her go,” he says to Little, gesturing with his manacled hands.  “It’s just us, anyway.”

“Step down off that porch.”

Scott takes the first stair.  “I heard you got shot,” he says, his eyes flashing at me.

Little backs up a step, keeps the gun pressed on me.  “Compliments of one good town citizen,” he answers.  I feel him shrug.  “Small price to pay for taking their money.  It’s a risky job.”

“So I’ve been told.”  Scott lowers himself onto the next stair.  Again his eyes connect with mine.  My mind works frantically – what does he want me to do?  “Stop pointing that at her,” he says sharply to Little.  “You’re frightening her.”

Little pulls the barrel of the gun away from my cheek and points it instead at Scott.  “That better?  Not that it makes any difference, in the end.  That sheriff is going to come along and find everything just the way it should be.  He’s going to think that you tried an escape – and that this grandma put up a fight.”

Scott straightens, eyes me, and I know what to do.  I hate to, what with that gun pointing at him, but I know what he wants.  “Oh, she can put up a fight,” Scott asserts with just a hint of a smile.

“Then it’ll--”

He chokes off as I kick him hard in the shin, swears.  He breaks his hold – I ram my elbow into his ribs and spin away as he doubles.  Out of the edge of my vision I see Scott leap toward us.  He tackles Little and the gun goes off.  They go down in the mud and the rain, rolling and hitting, startling the team afresh, knocking into nervous hooves and joggling wheels. They rise, gripping each other hard, straining.  Little’s fist connects – Scott goes down.  He quickly gains his feet, returns a punch with his manacled hands fisted together.  They fly back, toward the well.  The team jumps, cutting off my view.

I creep away from them, farther and farther, around the edge of the porch toward the discarded rifle.  Little’s gun and mine – where are they?  Scott wants me to get away but I have to help.  I need a place, a vantage point, somewhere so I can see.  I have to get back inside the house.  There – I grab the rifle, hug it to my chest and rise.   I start to run around the back, turn the corner.

“Althea!”

Someone calls my name, sounding from a long way off. Harvey? I half-turn toward the barn.  No, it’s coming from the same direction as the others, the back way.

“Althea!  Get away from there!”

There are three of them.  Three more.  They ride past me, wheel, jump down. I take a step, sprawl, cry.  I shove myself to my hands and knees, start to crawl.  The rifle – my hand, ragged and muddy, reaches for it, fingertips grazing the metal…

“Althea, what are you doing?”

Burt Ames.  His eyes, hot with worry, rake over me.  He grabs one arm, gets me upright, steadies me.  I look at him, feeling suddenly limp and sodden.  I feel my mouth working but no sound is coming out.  And I can’t see…

“Land sakes, Althea!” Burt exclaims, holding me up as I sway.  “What’s going on?”

“Outlaws,” I gasp. I feel crazy, all wretched inside.  My head is spinning.   My feet have gone numb. I can hear myself talking, saying words that make no sense. “There, there.  Everywhere.”

I look past him to two other men standing there, a tall older one, and a younger boy with dark hair and bright burning blue eyes holding a gun at the ready.

“Scott…” tumbles from my lips.

The dark-haired boy repeats the name.  In an instant he’s drawn his gun.  He runs toward the front of the house and disappears.

“Ma’am.”  A hand goes to my shoulder, heavy and trembling. I look up at the older man standing before me.  His face is wearing worry.  “Do you mean Scott Lancer, ma’am?” he asks me.  At my wobbly nod, he looks to a silent Burt.  The man opens his mouth as if to ask more, then hesitates.  He backs up a step and glances to where the other boy has run.  “Ma’am, if you could…?”

He needs to be certain, and I know he’s also thinking of the other boy – his boy – that has just run off around the corner.  My mind works frantically, but I can’t think of anything that Burt doesn’t already know…

Gunfire makes me jump, and the man draws his own gun.

“Madrid,” I blurt out.  “His brother – and that Gatling gun…” The story of that scar marking Scott’s arm – it’s all I can think of in the middle of all this.

A moment of relief eases the man’s face.  “Thank you, ma’am,” he says in a rush and hurries away.

This is indeed them – Scott’s family.  The telegram found its way. But now –

Please let it be all right, I pray silently.  Please, for his family…

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

I’m nearly to the porch before I realize that the sun is shining, bright in the clearing sky, making the puddles shimmer in the fresh breeze.  It’s quiet here, too quiet. I can’t see anyone or hear anything.

“Burt,” I hear myself whisper.  He still has a grip on me, and I’m grateful for it.  I’m shaking hot and cold at the same time.  But then he lets me go and strides forward, gets quickly ahead of me.  I totter behind, afraid of what I’ll find…

Scott is sitting on the porch stairs, elbows propped on knees, hands holding his head.  He’s wet and muddy and beaten.  The knuckles of his hand are scraped raw, his lip is bloody, and a bruise is rising up along his jaw.  His father sits beside him, looking relieved, and some of it settles me, too.  I take a breath and my look slides about.  I see the other boy, Johnny, tying up Sam Little with strips of Little’s own shirtsleeve.  Little is a downright mess – muddy, ripped, bleeding.  He is silent.

“Sheriff,” calls the older Lancer as Burt approaches.  “Do you have a key for these handcuffs?”

Burt holsters his gun and digs one out of his pocket.  He takes hold of Scott’s wrists.  Scott looks up at him, starts to slip back.  His father quickly gets a hand around him to shore him up, his lips moving.  Scott nods back.  Burt removes the cuffs and pockets them, and I see the damage they’ve done – Scott’s wrists are torn and bleeding.

“Is that Sam Little?” he asks Scott.

“I believe so,” Scott says and carefully rubs at his wrists.

“Looks like he’ll manage a ride back to town,” Johnny says, hauling the bloodied man to his feet.  He grins at Scott.  “I see he got a taste of your hard fist, Brother.”

Scott manages a smile back.  Then he sees me.

His face turns serious, his eyes going over all of me.  He makes to stand and grimaces, needs his father’s hand to get upright. I look back, look for blood on his shirt but don’t see any.  Still, his wound might have ripped open…

He steps down off the stairs, gently easing his father’s hands aside, and approaches.  “Mrs. Greenwood,” he says in that quiet voice of his.

They’re all looking at me now, watching me.  My hand goes to my hair; it’s straggling and muddy.  I can feel dirt on my face, see it on my fingers, lining the nails.  I look down – Lord, but it’s covering me, and dark blood, too – Harvey’s blood, outlaw blood…  I try to brush at it but it only smears.  Lord, Lord, I’m a mess – what can they think of me?  I back away, still brushing at my skirt.  Everything’s a mess.  I need to clean up.  I need to get inside and make myself presentable.  How can I show myself to Scott’s family like this?  But they’re all standing in the way.  They’re going to find that other outlaw – I think I killed him.  And Harvey – oh, what’s become of him?  I should tell them…

“Mrs. Greenwood…” Scott’s voice, nearer to me.

“Oh, Lord, Lord…” I’m wiping furiously, my hands seeming to work on their own.  I watch them, almost fascinated by the way they are moving and me not really telling them to.  “No, don’t…”

He touches me and I jerk hard.  Oh, how can he stand me, looking like this?  His fingers close over my shoulders.  I try to pull away but his grip is firm.  “Althea,” he says softly.  A hand goes to my cheek, asks me to look up.  I can’t – I’m crying now, and it’s mixing with the dirt on my face, making it worse.  I’m so dirty, so old, useless…

“It’s all right,” Scott says to me.  He strokes my cheek, wipes at a hot tear, forgiving me, soothing me, his tenderness like a balm to my crazy jitters.  Something inside of me turns soft.  This boy, this good boy…

Then I do look up, and see the kindness on his face glowing out from underneath the ugly scrapes and bruises.  He knows, he understands.  He’s understood from the first moment when I asked him to leave my porch, all those days ago, such a long time ago, it seems.  We’re connected that way – him knowing me, trusting me, believing in me even when my own faith slipped.  And yet I’ve trusted him, too, in spite of my old fears.  He let me trust him, let my heart work in the right direction.  Lord, he’s helped with so much.  He’s allowed me to let go of my dear Nathan, to enjoy things again – things like caring for someone in need, quiet conversation, and a precious little dinner cooked especially for me.   And just what have I done for him?  How have I helped? I was no help here today, none at all.  I was just in the way…

“Son, I’m sorry,” I blurt out and the tears come again.

He hugs me ever so carefully.  “And just what are you sorry for?” he asks.

“For this – all this.”  Again his gentleness has it all tumbling out of me.  “I didn’t help – you got hurt – they came…I should have known--”

“Hush – none of this is your fault.  If not for you I wouldn’t be here now.  You’ve saved me over and over.” He pulls back, smiles at me.  “I am eternally indebted to you, Mrs. Greenwood.  As is my family.”

“Don’t be so sure about that,” calls out his brother in a good-natured voice.  Scott turns, still holding me.  “It’s been nice and quiet without you around,” Johnny continues with a smile in his eyes.  “But I guess it’ll be good to have you take your half of the chores back.”

“Don’t let them fool you, Mrs. Greenwood,” says their father as he approaches.  He removes his hat and politely introduces himself, taking my dirty hand in his big one and smiling.   “I’ve had Johnny, here, wearing a hole in the floor since Scott’s been gone.”

Scott lifts a brow at his brother.  “You were worried?” he asks in a teasing tone.

“He exaggerates,” Johnny answers, gesturing to Murdoch.

“Next time I’ll send you two together, if only to keep each other out of trouble,” Murdoch says.

“Sounds like a vacation to me,” Johnny grins.

Murdoch tries a scowl but I can see he’s pleased to have them all together.  “Thank you, ma’am, for keeping Scott safe for us,” he says to me.

Johnny comes up and takes my hand, too, echoing the thanks made by his father.

I’m embarrassed again at their attention.  I want to say something back, tell them about my weak moments and my doubts, but the words don’t come.  I realize I don’t need them.  Scott’s right – it’s over, and put to rest.  Dwelling on it all won’t change things.  And things don’t need changing, anyway, except—

“Harvey!” I suddenly exclaim.  I work out of Scott’s grasp.  Dear Lord, I’ve forgotten him!

Johnny points.  “Is that him, ma’am?” he asks.

“What in tarnation?” thunders Burt as we all turn to see.

And if it isn’t Harvey himself coming toward us, limping badly, a gun dangling from his fingers.  Not one, but two outlaws are staggering in front of him, barely walking any better than he is. “Burt Ames, it’s about time you showed up,” he says between breaths.  “Not that we much needed you – Althea and I managed things pretty well on our own.”

Sweet Harvey, his battered hat slipping sideways, one suspender strap broken and dangling at his side.  I hurry up to him, hug him.  “Harvey, are you all right?”

He pats me awkwardly and hands the gun to Burt.  “Of course I’m all right.  Nothing but a bullet – not half as bad as the time the axe slipped  - you remember that, Althea?”  He’s grimacing, and his pantleg is covered in blood, but he’s standing as straight as he can.  He eyes the men standing there, fixes his gaze on Scott.  “Young feller,” he says.  “I’m apologizing to you right here – I was wrong about you.”  He grunts, and my hands reach for him.  He smiles at me in a warm way, and gets his arm around me, leans heavily on me.  All of a sudden we feel like a couple, and all I want to do is kiss him.

“Thank you, Mr. Locke,” Scott murmurs and shakes the hand Harvey holds out.  He smiles slowly at me, a knowing smile that reveals all we’ve been through that the others will never completely understand.  But they don’t need to know all that.  I know and that is enough.  It truly is all right now, thanks to this boy that touched an old woman’s heart and made it warm again.

 

Epilogue

He’s leaving.

He’s stayed two extra days already.  He and his family have filled my house with their tall frames, deep voices, laughter and closeness.  It’s been good to have someone to cook for, to converse with, to learn from. Harvey’s been here mending from his bullet wound.  I think he’s been a little lonely, too, for he’s talked and talked whenever we are all together.  Murdoch has shared stories of his sons with me and talked to me about crops and cattle.  Together we’ve inspected my land and buildings, debating possible selling prices.  In the meantime, Johnny has run about the place, fixing things up with Scott’s help.  Well, I’ve seen Johnny do a lot of the fixing, and Scott doing a lot of the supervising.  But there’s no discontent between them.  Johnny seems agreeable to doing the work, and happy to have his brother at his side.  So fences have been straightened, loose shingles replaced, equipment sharpened and repaired.  I’m going to sell and move to Harvey’s once I become his wife.  This has been my home for years, but I don’t belong here anymore.  Or rather, it doesn’t need me anymore.  And I’m ready for the change.  A new husband, a new place.  I’m not so old that I can’t enjoy a little bit of freshness to my life. And there’s a lot to live for – I’ve wasted the past four years and that’s enough time to let slip by.

Scott steps up to me.  He’s tall and straight, lean and handsome.  His blue eyes are steady as he takes my old wrinkled hands in his large palms.  He squeezes them and I return the favor, though his grip is stronger and warmer.

“I’ll miss you, Mrs. Greenwood,” he says to me, with a glance downward. “I know we said our good-byes already…”

Yes, we did that yesterday.  He took me for a ride to town, took care of his business with Burt and the circuit judge, then accompanied me shopping, and paid for a new dress for me.  He even took me to eat, but nothing will ever compare to the dinner he cooked special for me.  Even now I can think of that night and smile with the sweetness of it.  And when we got home, well into dark, he took care of the horse and wagon, and I found the men had cooked up a simple supper for us.  Such kindnesses, so much I’ve missed – and so much I’ve regained, thanks to Scott.

I touch his arm so he’ll look back up at me.  And he does, his lips set in that quiet smile of his. The sunshine has deepened the blue of his eyes, and brightened the color of his hair.  Oh, how I love this boy.

“God go with you, son,” I say to him around the lump rising on the back of my tongue.

“I’ll be back for the wedding – we all will,” he says.

“Of course you will,” I say back, though my voice sounds a little overly cheerful.  “That is, if you still want to give away an old woman.”

He nods.  “Yes, I want to.  I’m honored to give you away, Mrs. Greenwood.”  He hesitates a bit.  “Would it be all right if I wrote you?” he then asks me, again dipping his gaze in shyness.

Imagine this young man, bringing me down the aisle at the church, and now asking to write me.  My old heart flutters, flattered.  “I’d surely like that,” I tell him.  “Though you’ve been here long enough to know that things don’t change much.”

“It would be good to hear from you,” Scott says.

“Well, then, I’ll write,” I return, secretly pleased.  Part of me doesn’t want to let him go, but I do.  I release his hands and take a step back.  Harvey reaches for me, holds my elbow.  “Ride safe, son.”

And Lord, but if he doesn’t step in, lean over and kiss me on the cheek – this young and vibrant boy kissing an old lady, and in front of others, too.  My hands cling to him for a fraction longer, my love for him deep and strong.

“Thank you, Mrs. Greenwood,” he murmurs to me.  He smiles at Harvey. “Take good care of Mr. Locke.”

Harvey.  Yes, I will take good care of him.  It’s about time someone did.  And I suspect that he’ll take care of me, too.

Scott mounts easily, sits so straight and tall in the saddle.  They all wave and turn about.  I wave back, my old hand, wrinkled ant spotted, dry and ugly, waving and waving.  My cheek is warm where he kissed it – and wet, too.

Tobias appears from behind me, rubs hard against my skirts, gives a little trill.  I bend down to pat him, and he almost beams back at me, his golden eyes closing, his speckled nose lifting for more.  I smile at the old cat, and know I’m all right, that everything will be all right from now on.

 

~end~

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