The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Dori

 

 

Sins Of The Father

Chapter 1

“JELLY!!”

Stern—exasperated—implacable, it was obvious from the tone of his voice that Scott Lancer was fast running out of patience.

“JELLY!!!!”

Under the circumstances, however, Scott might be forgiven his little display of irritability.  He’d spent most of this long afternoon atop the barn repairing the leaking roof.  More than an hour ago he’d realized that more shingles would be needed to finish the job and had sent Jelly to fetch them.  For the past few minutes he had been perched—empty-handed—waiting for the errant handyman to show up.

While the physical effort required for this chore wasn’t excessive, the hours spent beneath the blazing sun had been grueling.  When the merest whisper of wind finally offered a bit of relief, Scott didn’t hesitate.  His faded work shirt was already unbuttoned—sleeves rolled up to reveal impressively muscular forearms.  Now he stripped off the shirt, grateful for the slight cooling effect produced as the breeze caressed his tanned skin.  Face and torso gleamed with a film of sweat, and he used his discarded shirt to wipe himself down.

He was on the brink of climbing back down and getting the materials he needed when Jelly appeared at the top of the ladder. 

“Here ya go, Scott.”  He tossed a bundle of shingles onto the roof.  “This oughta do ya.”

The younger man was not quite mollified.  “What did you have to do, Jelly, ride all the way into Green River to get these?”

Jelly’s slightly shamefaced expression was belied by his somewhat pugnacious reply.  “Now don’t get your knickers in a twist.  I got back quick as I could—just got a little held up by Walt, there.  He heard I got some news about Hump and just pestered me until I let him know what’s what.”

Unknowingly, Jelly had probably offered one of the few excuses his friend would be willing to accept.  Hump—the Brahma bull that had become such an important part of the old wrangler’s life—had been part of the government breeding program for almost a year.  Scott had witnessed first hand the unmerciful taunting of the local cattlemen when Jelly boasted about starting his own herd.  After coming so close to tragedy, the success of the new cross-breed strain of beef was like claiming the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and none of the Lancers grudged the old man his bragging rights.

Scott was further appeased when Jelly handed over a canteen.  “Well, I suppose I was due a little break anyway.”  Between sips of cool water, he appraised the expanse of rooftop that still needed mending.  “It shouldn’t take long to finish this up.  With Murdoch entertaining guests, I just didn’t want to be late for supper.”

“Oh, it wouldn’t do to keep Murdoch’s company waiting,” Jelly agreed with a snort.

“Now, Jelly,” Scott assumed an air of innocence as he resumed his work, “what kind of gentleman would I be if I failed to fulfill my duties as a host—if I didn’t make Mr. Stanton and his daughter feel welcome here at Lancer?”

“I reckon the happenstance of that lady being ‘bout as pretty as the day is long wouldn’t have nothing to do with you being in such an all-fired hurry, would it?” came Jelly’s cantankerous reply.

But the younger man simply smiled, refusing to be drawn into any further banter.  With a shake of his grizzled, gray head, Jelly retreated once more down the ladder.

 Alone on the roof once again, Scott continued to ply his hammer efficiently.  The mindless repetitiveness of the work, however, left his thoughts free to roam and he soon found himself thinking about Murdoch’s visitors.

Carl Stanton owned a large spread in southern California.  A mutual friend had introduced the man to Murdoch at a statewide meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association about a year ago.  Since that time, the two ranchers had entered into a number of mutually beneficial business transactions.

When Stanton had mentioned in one of his letters that he would be traveling in the northern part of the state with his daughter, Murdoch had immediately extended an invitation for both of them to visit Lancer.  This offer of hospitality had been gratefully accepted, and the Stantons had arrived yesterday afternoon.

Jelly had been totally correct in his assessment of Miss Nora Stanton.  She was, indeed, as pretty as the day was long.  Her warm brown eyes were just a shade darker than the glossy chestnut hair that framed a most attractive face.  Add a trim figure and graceful manner, and the result was close to irresistible.  

But the young lady’s charms were not limited to her—admittedly lovely—outward appearance.  Scott couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent such an enjoyable evening in a woman’s company.  Although Nora had been born on her father’s ranch, she had spent a number of years attending school in Philadelphia.  The combination of Eastern sophistication and the more frank, open manners common in the West was very appealing.

After a very congenial evening with Nora—complete with some particularly successful flirting—Scott would have enjoyed nothing more than spending the day giving her a very personal tour of the ranch.  Unfortunately, Lancer was somewhat short-handed at the moment.  Just a few days ago, Johnny and a number of ranch hands had left on a cattle drive.  The small herd they were moving didn’t require a full crew, but it would take more than a week to deliver the steers.  Once they reached their destination, Johnny would be traveling on to San Francisco to hand-deliver some important contracts.

So Scott had resigned himself to the fact that—for the time being—ranch business would have to take precedence over personal pleasure.  At least he would be able to pursue his dalliance during and after supper tonight, although Nora and her father were planning to leave tomorrow afternoon.

Of course, if he hurried there might be time for him to get cleaned up and suggest that Nora might enjoy a walk in the garden before everyone gathered for the evening meal.  With that motivation clearly in mind, Scott redoubled his efforts, making short work of the remaining repairs.

*********

Carl Stanton sat his horse with the unconscious ease and confidence of a man who’d spent the greater part of his lifetime in a saddle.  While reasonably sure that he hadn’t been followed, he wasn’t willing to leave anything to chance, and had spent several minutes insuring that he was alone in this clearing.  Murdoch Lancer had his hands more than full today, and—after spending an hour or so familiarizing Carl with the lay of the land—he’d returned to the estancia, leaving his guest to explore on his own.

Immediately aware of another rider approaching, Stanton waited cautiously for him to make his presence known.

“Mr. Stanton!”  The man’s demeanor and bearing identified him as ex-military as surely as if he’d saluted and come to attention.  His manner proclaimed a soldier awaiting orders from his commanding officer.

And Carl Stanton was obviously the man giving the orders—concise and businesslike. “Freeman, I need to have this message wired from Stockton to Green River.”  He pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket.  “And it must arrive tomorrow morning so get one of the men on the road immediately.”

Jack Freeman accepted the envelope, and nodded his understanding.

“Put scouts all around the perimeter.  Nothing happens on Lancer land that I don’t know about,” Stanton continued.  “I’ll be taking the stage to Stockton tomorrow afternoon, and I want you waiting there for further orders.”

“I’ll take care of it, Mr. Stanton.”  The man immediately wheeled his horse and headed in the direction of town.

Had anyone been present to observe Carl Stanton at that moment, the pure malevolence on his countenance would have been impossible to disguise.  Slowly, however, his expression changed, and when he urged his horse to return to Lancer, he was once again an affable houseguest eager to spent a final evening socializing with his friends.

 

Chapter 2

 

Nora glanced at the clock on the bureau. She realized with a slight jolt that she’d been standing motionless for fifteen minutes, a silk blouse clasped gently in her hands.  A few swift movements and the garment was neatly folded and deposited in her travel bag.  It would be another two hours before she and her father had to leave for Green River, but even that amount of time wouldn’t be sufficient if she continued to stand around daydreaming like a silly schoolgirl.

There was no excuse for such behavior.  Twenty-four years old, she was neither flighty nor impressionable, and this was certainly not her first experience socializing with a handsome young man.  And while Scott Lancer was undeniably good-looking, the same could have been said of many of her previous suitors.  True, he had lovely manners, but many cultivated gentlemen back east had failed to impress her with their courtly behavior.

Manners could be learned, she decided.  What Scott possessed in abundance was charm.  It couldn’t truly be defined—entertaining but intelligent conversation, a smile that brought a special warmth to his eyes, and a subtly intimate manner that somehow made her feel cherished.  There was an innate strength to this man.  For a moment Nora let herself imagine what it would feel like to be held safe in the shelter of those arms.

Alas, it was a moment that could not last.  Stiffening her spine, the young woman resolutely set her thoughts on the matters at hand.  The past few days had been a pleasurable interlude—one that would hold a lasting place in her memory—but it was ending today.  She’d been pleased and excited—if a bit wary—when her father had invited her to accompany him on this trip.  They’d both been through a very difficult time, but this seemed the perfect opportunity to mend a strained relationship.  In a few hours she would bid farewell to the Lancers and focus once again on that important goal. 

After surveying the room one last time, Nora was satisfied that none of her belongings had been overlooked.  She buckled the straps on her valise and set it down on the floor next to the bed.   Her self-control was once again firmly in place, and it was a poised, serene young lady who joined the rest of the household downstairs.

*******

“Would anyone care for more coffee?”  Teresa settled the heavy tray carefully on a low table and began filling cups.

Murdoch had already spent several hours, completing a backlog of paperwork.  He pushed back from his desk and claimed a comfortable chair near the fireplace.

“Thank you, Honey.”  Accepting a cup of coffee from his ward, he noticed his guest checking his pocket watch.  “Don’t worry, Carl.  We’ll have you to town in plenty of time to catch the afternoon stage to Stockton.”

“Just habit, I’m afraid.”  Stanton closed the gold timepiece with a snap.  “You know how it is when you’re a rancher.  There’s always some deadline you need to meet.”

“Well, this is one deadline you should be able to meet with no trouble.”  Scott entered the room from the veranda.  “The men will have a fresh team hitched to the buggy within the hour.  I’ve sent a couple of the hands to up to collect your baggage.”

“I’m going to put together a nice lunch for you to take with you,” Teresa informed them.  “Maria’s cooking will be better than anything you’ll get at some way station along the road,” she added over her shoulder as she made her way to the kitchen.

Nora couldn’t repress a welcoming smile as Scott joined her on the sofa.  Soon they were conducting a quiet conversation of their own—leaving the two older ranchers free to discuss such mundane topics as water rights and breeding stock.

When Jelly came bustling in, a short while later, everyone got to their feet, anticipating an announcement about the wagon being ready to leave.  Instead, he walked over to Mr. Stanton and held out an envelope.

“Young Marty just rode out from town with this telegram,” he explained.  “They seemed to think it was pretty all-fired important, cuz they sent him on out here lickety-split.”

Stanton tore open the envelope and read the contents of the wire, while his daughter and the Lancers looked on.  It was plain from the expression on his face that this wasn’t good news.  His demeanor became even more disturbed as he crumpled the paper in his fist and uttered an oath.

“Carl, what’s wrong?’ Murdoch asked with obvious concern.

“I was afraid of this,” the rancher growled.  “It’s a message from the manager of my gold mine up near Tenstrike.”

 “We’ve been having quite a bit of trouble up there—had some outside agitators come in and really stir things up.” Stanton began to pace around the room.  “Now it’s come to a full-blown strike, and an ugly one at that.  According to Mason, two men were killed in a suspicious explosion and a large number have been injured due to brawling between the strikers and those who continue trying to work.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any hope of getting help from the authorities—maybe bring in the army to impose martial law.”  Murdoch was well aware of the serious nature of such an event and its potential for more violence.

“That is a possibility, but it would require my presence.  The army isn’t going to move out on the say-so of my hired help.”  Stanton shrugged.  “And if I can’t enlist the help of the United States Army, I’m going to have to hire one of my own to keep a lid on things until we can negotiate a workable contract.”

“All of which is going to take time, damn it!  This simply can’t be handled long distance.  I need to go there and deal with this myself.”  Carl glanced at his daughter.  “I’m very sorry, my dear.  I’m afraid I’ve spoiled all your plans.”

Nora was at his side in a moment.  “It can’t be helped, Father.  Of course you need to take care of this in person.  We can still catch the Stockton stage and simply travel to Tenstrike rather than San Francisco as planned.”

“Oh, no!”  Carl shook his head, shoulders firmly squared.  “This situation is a powder keg waiting to explode.  I’m not taking you anywhere near Tenstrike right now.”

“All right,” Nora said calmly.  “I can wait for you in Stockton, or travel on to San Francisco and you can meet me when you’re done.”

If anything, Stanton appeared even more agitated.  “I don’t like the idea of you traveling on your own right now.”

His daughter bristled a little at this comment.  “Come, Father, that’s just foolish.  I’ve traveled on my own any number of times and I’m well able to take care of myself on a journey from here to San Francisco.”

“But not now!!”  Through gritted teeth he admitted, “There have been threats made—threats not only against me, but against my family.  I can’t take the chance that some renegade might pick you as an easy target.”

After fighting a bit for control, Stanton gave his daughter a beseeching look.  “You’re all I have left now, Nora.  I can’t lose you, too.”

“Sir, you must let us do something to help.”  Scott’s tone left no doubt as to the sincerity of his offer.

“Perhaps if I hired some guards to accompany her on the trip…..” Stanton seemed to be talking more to himself than anyone in the room.  “If I were back home—there I have contacts, people I can trust.  If I have to do a background check on bodyguards—no, that’ll simply take too much time.”

Finally, Murdoch’s voice boomed out, silencing the man’s ramblings.  “Well, there’s only one thing to be done, Carl.  Your daughter is welcome to remain here at Lancer until you feel the situation is safe again.”

Stanton seized his host’s hand, like a man reaching for a lifeline.  “Murdoch, I would be so grateful if you could look after Nora.  I have to warn you, I don’t know how long this damnable mess is going to last, but I would be better able to deal with it all if I knew she was safe.”

“Father, it’s not fair of you to saddle Mr. Lancer with an uninvited guest.  I can simply go on back home if you think it’s best…..”  Nora began.

“Now, Miss Stanton,” Scott interrupted with a grin, “you can’t be regarded as an uninvited guest.  Everyone here heard my father invite you—a room full of witnesses.”

“Scott’s right, Nora,” Teresa had returned in time to hear most of the discussion.  “We’d love to have you stay.”

“Well, you haven’t really been given much choice in the matter.”  But this was a battle she didn’t really want to win. It may have appeared that she was swayed by Teresa’s friendly entreaties, by Murdoch’s bluff insistence or her own father’s authoritarian decree, but Nora was honest enough to admit the truth to herself.  The obvious advantages of a prolonged stay here at Lancer were standing all too near—an endearing smile, warm eyes and undeniably masculine appeal.

A short time later, she was standing on the veranda bidding her father farewell—sending him off with stern admonishments to “take care of yourself” and “send a telegram as soon as you know more about the situation.”

It had been Nora’s intention to accompany him to town and see him off at the stage, but Stanton insisted that he would be poor company and just wanted to use the travel time to make plans for handling the mine disaster.  So, after a final hug, Carl Stanton climbed into the buggy and Nora went back inside to unpack her belongings once again.

*********

The stagecoach ride from Green River to Stockton was a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling experience at the best of times.  Carl Stanton’s journey had included a lame horse, a broken axle and more than his fair share of inclement weather, but his travel woes were the last thing on his mind when he arrived at his destination.

As ordered, Jack Freeman met the stage, and the two men spent some time behind closed doors in the privacy of an expensive hotel suite.  After Stanton’s commands—brief and to the point—had been issued, the ex-military man left to carry out his instructions.

Alone once more, Stanton poured a stiff drink and his eyes grew hard.  He had waited a long time for this opportunity.  His revenge would be complete—all that was required now was patience.  And Carl Stanton could be a very patient man.

 

Chapter 3

 

“Mas cerveza, por favor.”

The request—accompanied as it was by an engaging wink—received prompt attention from the young senorita tending the bar.

Johnny accepted the cool drink with a casual, “da nada,” while his attention remained fixed on the activity at a nearby table.

Once they’d arrived at their destination, the crew hadn’t been shy about making certain demands.  Tradition was clear in this matter—the boss bought the first drink after a trail drive.  While Johnny had accepted this responsibility with his usual good nature, he’d also by-passed a couple of the town’s larger, more prosperous saloons in favor of this small cantina.

None of the hands had any complaint to make about his choice as the establishment had a ready supply of beer and some excellent tequila.  But it was when they noticed the bowls of hot chili peppers on the bar that they’d come up with the basis for their “friendly little competition.”

Now Johnny sat—one table removed—and made no secret of his amusement.  There hadn’t yet been a clear winner in this whole “who-can-down-the-most-chili-peppers” contest, but all the participants were showing obvious signs of discomfort at this point.  Sweating, red-faced and panting, each member of the group took his turn swallowing another fiery mouthful.  Finally one cowboy—with a desperate cry—admitted defeat and began pouring beer down his throat in a futile effort to put out the inner flames.

Thanks to experience and knowledge gained as Johnny Madrid, the dark-haired Lancer knew that a glass of milk would do a much better job of dousing that fire than a gallon of beer.  He also knew that the young cowhand—already receiving jeers from his cohorts for being the first to concede—would probably not be willing to listen to his advice.

After a few hoots of encouragement for the remaining contestants, Johnny turned back to the other man seated at his table.  Walt—the oldest and most senior of this crew—threw a look of tolerant disgust at the rowdy group.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll have’m up and on the trail first thing tomorrow.”

“Sooner you get back the better,” Johnny agreed.  “Lancer’s gonna be short-handed, and they need to clear a mess of rivers and streams before the rains come….. and move all the herds over to the winter grazing.”

Walt nodded his understanding, then he directed a curious glance at his young boss.

“Hey, Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re right, there is a lot of work to be done at Lancer in the next few weeks, and I thought Scott was gonna be the one ta make this trip to San Francisco.  Then—all of a sudden—you’re going instead.”  The glance had gone from curious to suspicious.

“You think I had something to do with that?” Johnny asked in a blatantly injured tone.

Walt simply looked at him—the disbelief obvious in his expression.

“OK, maybe I did have a little something to do with it.”  Smiling mischievously, Johnny went on, “See, Scott and me had a little bet going.  We’d been watching Teresa for a week.  She’d been invited to the Harvest Dance in Green River by two different men and hadn’t decided who to go with.  Scott figured she’d end up with Matt Clay, the assistant at the general store, but I put my money on Pete Hardy, the new hand over at the Jenson’s place.”

Those blue eyes gleamed as he continued with a smirk, “I was right.  Teresa went to the dance with Pete, and I won the bet.  The winner got to make the trip to Frisco.”

But Walt was sure there was more to the story.  “Pretty lucky for you that Miz Teresa decided on Pete!”

“A man makes his own luck, Walt.”  Johnny leaned back in his chair.  “See, the day before I made the bet, I was in town, and I saw Matt Clay kissing that new dressmaker.”

“So you told Miz Teresa about it?”

“Nah, I didn’t have to,” Johnny replied.  “It just so happened that Teresa’s friend Martha saw it too.  All I had to do was wait,” he went on in a smug tone.  “Martha made a trip out to the ranch and the next thing ya know, Teresa’s picking out a dress in Pete’s favorite color and I’m packing for Frisco.”

Walt shook his head as he stood up to leave the table.  “Well, I got the receipt old man Edwards signed, accepting delivery of the cattle.  I’ll give it to Mr. Lancer when we get back.”

“Tell Murdoch I’ll deposit the money when I get to San Francisco, and I’ll be back with the contracts in a couple of weeks.”

The attractive young barmaid was back at Johnny’s elbow, murmuring seductively….. did the Senor have any further needs?

Johnny gave the girl his most attentive, lop-sided grin.  “Hey, Walt?”

“Yeah?”

“Tell Scott I hope he enjoys keeping company with all those cows!”

*************

Nora spread the blanket on the ground and smiled invitingly.

“Why, Miss Stanton, how charming of you to go to all this trouble.”  Scott stretched his long legs out as he reclined comfortably and waved a hand at the meal being laid out before him.  “And what a truly elegant repast you’ve prepared—a feast of lavish proportions.”

“Why, Mr. Lancer,” the young woman replied in the same mock-formal tone.  “It’s my pleasure.  I’m just pleased to be able to repay some of the gracious hospitality you’ve shown me.”

She laughed, then said in a much more natural voice, “But I’m afraid the thanks for this meal should go to Maria and Teresa.  I’m just the delivery girl.”

“Oh, I’ll be sure the ladies know I’m grateful—for the sandwiches, the lemonade, the apple pie and the opportunity to spend some time alone with the very lovely delivery girl.”

Nora found herself blushing, not so much because of Scott’s fulsome compliment, but rather at the strength of her own response to the unspoken and very tempting gleam in his eyes.

Sounding breathless, even to her own ears, she rushed into speech.  “I know what a busy time of year this is on a ranch.  I was rather surprised that Father suggested such an extended trip, but we have a wonderful foreman.  He and his wife have been with us since before I was born.  And we put on a lot of extra help before we left.”

Unwrapping a second sandwich, Scott was willing to follow her conversational lead.  The blush and flustered demeanor hadn’t gone unnoticed, but he was content to bide his time.

“Your father’s lucky—good hands are hard to come by.  But our crew will be back from delivering the cattle soon, and we just hired a new man today.”

“Yes, I saw Mr. Hoskins giving him instructions about where to bed down.”  Nora pursued this innocuous subject even though she realized she was rambling a bit.  “He seemed to know one end of a steer from another.  I think his name was Ethan.”

As they finished eating their picnic, the discussion centered mostly on the demands of ranch life.  But, as Scott was helping Nora to gather up the leftover food, there were several occasions when his hands would brush against hers and she felt a delicious shiver trace its way down her spine.

“Nora?”  After helping the girl to her feet, Scott held her hands firmly, but gently.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a more enjoyable luncheon, and even longer since I’ve had such a charming companion to share it.”

This time, however, Nora refused to behave like a simpering ninny.  “Thank you, Scott.”  She met his eyes boldly.  “I enjoyed myself, too, but I suppose I should start back.  I know you have a great deal of work to finish.”

“Unfortunately, that’s true, but I’d be most grateful if you could join me this evening for a moonlight stroll in the garden.”

Once again those expressive eyes were her undoing, and she took an involuntary step closer before replying, “I’d be delighted.”

*********
 

Scott felt inordinately proud of his self-control.  After one brief, but passionate, kiss, he’d handed Nora carefully into the buckboard and resumed work on the overgrown streambed.  The sound of horses approaching drew him away from some distinctly pleasurable thoughts about this evening’s promised rendezvous.

He identified the two riders as Jelly and the new hand.

“Hey, Scott,” Jelly called out.  “I brung Ethan out ta see if ya needed any help with clearing out this brush.”

“Thanks, Jelly, but I’m almost finished here.”  Scott nodded briefly at the new man, then spoke decisively, “Frank and his crew are fencing that north pasture.  Guess your first job will be digging post holes and stringing barbed wire.”

“Sure thing, boss.”  Ethan looked pretty rough around the edges, but he spoke deferentially enough, “Reckon I could do that in my sleep.”

“I’ll take him on up there and meet ya back at the ranch.”  Jelly was already urging his horse in the direction of the work party.

Scott watched them depart, then turned back to the task at hand.

****** 

Jack Freeman hated keeping a cold camp, but recognized its necessity to keep his presence hidden.

His finger found the trigger of his colt and stayed there until Ethan spoke.

“Just checking in—like you ordered.”

“No problems?”

“I ain’t doing nuthin but watch and listen right now.”  Ethan spat contemptuously.  “Not much for anybody to get riled about.”

The grizzled ex-soldier just nodded.  “That’s just fine.  If you need to be doing anything different, I’ll let you know.”

With a resigned grunt the supposed cowhand disappeared into the trees.

Jack Freeman was—among other things—a man who could keep his own counsel.  If he had any thoughts about his employer’s plans, they would remain his alone, as he resumed his solitary vigil.

 

Chapter 4

Enjoying a pleasant feeling of accomplishment, Nora signed her name with a flourish and blotted the wet ink.  For several days now she’d intended to write this much overdue letter, but simply hadn’t found the time.  Her father would certainly have sent any necessary messages pertaining to ranch business, but Molly would be expecting more.

So Nora had included all the details of her travels north and the time she’d spent here at Lancer.  Scanning the letter, it didn’t seem that there was any more importance attached to her descriptions of Scott than any other members of the Lancer household.  But she had no illusions when it came to Molly’s ability to read between the lines—a technique perfected during the years Nora had attended boarding school in the east—and she was resigned to facing a loving but thorough inquisition when she returned home.

Molly had been employed as a maid in the home of Nora’s grandparents back in Philadelphia.  When their daughter came west to marry Carl Stanton, they’d insisted on sending Molly as her companion.  It was at this point that fate took a hand, and the red-headed, fiery-tempered Irish serving girl fell head-long in love with a handsome vaquero named Juan Carrillo.  Juan and Molly had lived on the ranch since the earliest days of their marriage.  Juan had been foreman for many years now, and his wife was more than just the housekeeper.

Nora had been only ten years old when her mother died of influenza, and Molly—even though she had four sons of her own—had gradually become a surrogate mother to the Stanton children.  Indeed, no birth mother could have been more heartbroken than Molly had been about ………..

When the sudden, brief knock was followed almost immediately by the opening of the door, Nora had no doubt as to the identity of her visitor.  And—sure enough—carrying a large bouquet of lilac sprays, Teresa walked briskly into the room.

Nora smiled tolerantly.

During her time at Lancer, she’d become accustomed to Teresa’s rather haphazard style of requesting permission to enter an occupied bedroom.  Scott—who was obviously familiar with his foster sister’s methods—volunteered to speak to her about the finer points of respecting a guest’s privacy, but he candidly admitted he didn’t expect much success.

But Nora didn’t want the girl to be reprimanded.  Somehow Teresa’s impulsive ways—springing from a warm-hearted spirit as they did—made her feel less a visitor and more a member of the family.

So she listened fondly as the dark-haired girl chattered, apologizing for the sorry state of the fresh blooms.

“I’m all thumbs when it comes to this kind of thing.  Maria usually arranges the flowers for us, but she’s busy roasting chili peppers today.”

Nora’s comment—“Oh, the flowers look lovely!”—was acknowledged with a grateful smile, but the flow of words continued unabated.

“We just got a wire from Johnny, and he’s leaving San Francisco tomorrow.  He should be home in three or four days.  Maria wants to have freshly roasted chili for his favorite enchiladas.”

Again Nora tried to edge in with a response.  “Scott’s brother, Johnny?  I’m sure everyone will be happy to have him back home.”

But Teresa had evidently been struck with another thought, “Oh, Jelly asked about any word from your father, but there weren’t any new telegrams.”

It had been two weeks since Carl Stanton had left for Tenstrike.  He’d sent two wires so far:  one to announce his safe arrival and another to say that the situation was well in hand, but he wouldn’t be able to leave until negotiations were complete.  Nora was philosophical—operating on the pretext that no news was good news.

The crystal vase, with its rather lopsided floral display, had been placed atop the mahogany bureau and Teresa was regarding it critically.  Before she could utter any further disparaging remarks, however, her attention was caught by a small oil painting which sat on an easel next to the flowers.

“Oh, how beautiful!” she exclaimed.

The tastefully framed piece of art depicted a yucca cactus in full bloom.  She examined it more closely, admiring the intricate detail and exquisite coloring.

Nora responded, keeping her tone as casual as possible.  “Thank you.  My brother painted this for me.  It was a gift for my twenty-first birthday.”

“Oh, your brother must be so talented.  Imagine being able to create something so special.”

“Well, I certainly think it’s special.”  This time Nora was unable to keep some of the pain from seeping into her voice.  “He gave it to me not long before he died.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t know.”

At the stricken look on Teresa’s face, Nora roused herself to utter calm reassurances.  “Of course, you didn’t.  How could you?  It all happened three years ago—not long before you lost your father.”

It was so much easier to shift the focus to someone else’s pain—Teresa had spoken of her father’s death during a quiet conversation a few days ago—than to dredge up all your own regrets once again.

A sisterly arm around her shoulder, a gentle hug—Nora could accept these physical expressions of sympathy, but she acted quickly to change the subject before Teresa could ask for details about her bereavement.

“Do you think Maria would be willing to share her enchilada recipe with me?  Our cook does a wonderful job, but I’m always interested to see other methods.  What kind of sauce does she use?”

And the two young women left the room, deep in a lively discussion about the merits of red chili sauce compared to green.

***********

“Now what’s this still doing here?”  There didn’t appear to be anyone near the storage shed, so perhaps Jelly’s caustic comments really were meant for the goose, honking amiably at his side.  This seemed to be confirmed when he went on, “All this barbed wire was ‘sposed ta get hauled out ta Frank and his work crew.  What have I told ya, Dewdrop?  Iffen I don’t do something, it jist don’t get done.”

“Maybe you should try giving your orders to someone other than a goose.”

Jelly swung around, startled.  “Scott Lancer, what do you mean sneaking up on a body like that?  Like ta gave me a pure palpation, you did.”

“I wasn’t sneaking, Jelly,” Scott grinned.  “You were just so busy having a conversation with Dewdrop, you weren’t paying attention to anything else.”

“Seems like Dewdrop pays me more mind than anybody else hereabouts!”  The gruff handyman was well into his tirade.  “I done told young Pete that all this wire needed to get out to the range today, and here it sits still.”

“Take it easy, Jelly.  It’s not Pete’s fault.  I needed his help for the surveying job I was doing.  I left him out there to finish up.  We’ll get one of the other men to haul the wire, “Scott added in his most conciliatory manner.

“Well, I reckon someone else is gonna have to take care of that.  Me, I got other fish to fry right now.”

As Scott cocked one inquisitive eyebrow, Jelly blustered on, “Johnny’s gonna be back in a couple a days—according to the wire we got—and you just know he’s gonna have a conniption fit iffen he don’t find that fancy palomino of his in first rate condition.”

“Johnny sent word?”  Scott picked out the only really important words in this little rant.

“Didn’t I just say that?”  Jelly continued his crotchety retort, “So I got to see to his grooming, make sure he’s getting exercise, and, of course, only the very best feed will do.”  With an exasperated snort he went on, “It’s plain ta see he spoils that animal.  Anybody knows ya don’t treat a horse thataway—makes em uppity and lazy.  They think they’re too good ta do the ordinary work they’re ‘sposed ta do.”

Scott wisely decided against bringing up the subject of a certain Brahma bull who’d received a diet of expensive carrots and had been pampered more than any other animal on the ranch.  “I know Johnny will appreciate all your efforts to see that Barranca is well cared for, “he said soothingly.

At this point, when the two men had left the outbuilding and were standing near the corral, Ethan approached them.  “Jelly--Mr. Lancer,” he waited a moment for their attention, and then went on, “I noticed those supplies didn’t make it out yet.  Ya want me to take care of it?”

Scott cast an appraising glance at the sky.  “That’s a good idea, Ethan.  You can spend the night up at the line shack and come back tomorrow.”

With a respectful—“Yes, sir.”—the man headed off toward the barn.

“So does the new hand seem to be working out?”  Scott enquired with a nod in his direction.

“Tolerable, I’d say, just tolerable.  He’s not as lazy as some, and he kin do most jobs without making too big a muddle of it.”  Anyone who knew Jelly would recognize this as high praise.  “He don’t seem ta be a troublemaker or nothing, but he shore ain’t the friendliest jasper I’ve known.”

Correctly interpreting this to mean that Ethan had been uninterested in any of Jelly’s colorful yarns, Scott suppressed a knowing smirk.  “Well, Jelly, why don’t you join us for dinner tonight?  If I know Maria, she’ll be preparing a welcome home feast for Johnny that will singe our taste buds off.  We may as well put them to good use before that happens.”

“Don’t mind if I do.”  Jelly tucked his thumbs inside his suspenders and followed Scott toward the house, calling over his shoulder, “Dewdrop, would you get a move on?”

********

Bringing the wagon to a halt, Ethan didn’t even bother to climb down.  “The Lancer kid’s due back in three, four days, “he stated baldly.

Jack nodded curtly.  “You’ll get any necessary instructions at that time.  Until then just follow your orders.”

After the wagon had disappeared from sight, Jack made short work of breaking up camp.  His practiced movements insured that only an expert could detect any signs of his short sojourn. He left without a backward glance, recognizing that the days and weeks of planning were almost over—now it was time for action.

 

Chapter 5

 

It appeared that Scott’s normally staunch work ethic had temporarily deserted him.

The task at hand was self-evident.  When Jelly had returned from town yesterday, along with the telegram from Johnny, he’d brought the freight wagon laden with a month’s worth of supplies.  Since there had been no time to deal with them properly the day before, Scott had taken on the responsibility of completing this somewhat onerous task.  Feed sacks, barbed wire, lumber and numerous boxes and kegs were all stacked on the wagon, waiting to be unloaded, inventoried and placed in storage.

But Scott wasn’t working industriously at completing this assignment.  At the moment, he wasn’t working at all.  He was leaning on the top rail of the corral fence, watching Nora.

She may have spent a number of years in an eastern boarding school, but Nora had soon convinced them all she was more than at home on a working cattle ranch.  A few days into her stay, she’d unearthed her “work clothes” from their place at the bottom of her trunk.  Now—clad in dungarees and a simple blouse—she was doing a painstaking job of grooming not only the mare that had been set aside for her use, but many of the other horses in the stable today.  She was also proving to be an irresistible distraction, and Scott seemed unable to tear his eyes away.  Not even her version of ranch clothes could disguise her grace, femininity and womanly charms.

It’s hard to say just how long this pleasant interlude might have lasted if Scott hadn’t suddenly realized he wasn’t alone.

“She’s a beautiful young woman.”

“As I believe I’ve mentioned before on occasion, sir, we do think alike, don’t we?”

“Well, far be it from me to interrupt those thoughts of yours, son, but I was hoping you could undertake one additional job today.”  Murdoch glanced at the still untouched wagon-load of supplies.  “That is, of course, if your duties here would permit it.”

 

With a sheepish grin, Scott acknowledged this slight dig, just grateful that his father was being unusually understanding about his little lapse.  He was pleased to be spared a terse lecture about the demands of cattle ranching and the need for every man to pull his weight.

“Of course, Murdoch, what do you need?”

“Walt mentioned that the bridge at Red Rock Creek look pretty shaky.  Could you take a look and decide if it can be repaired or if we need to replace it?”

“I’ll see to it right after I take care of these provisions,” Scott assured him.

Murdoch placed a conspiratorial hand on his son’s shoulder.  “It’s a nice ride up to Red Rock this time of year.  Maybe our guest would enjoy a little outing.”

“Another excellent idea, sir.  I’m glad we thought of it.”

 

When Nora returned the last horse to its stall, she saw that Scott was now hard at work hauling various boxes, bundles and sacks to the storage shed.  His scrutiny earlier hadn’t escaped her notice.  Indeed she’d found it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand, so aware was she of his every glance.      

But she was determined not to interfere with his responsibilities here on the ranch.  So—attempting to remove temptation for both of them—she wandered off behind the barn.

A lop-eared, half-grown puppy appeared and began frisking at her heels.  Nora obligingly knelt down—scratching behind his ears and laughing when he rolled over, begging her to perform the same service on his belly.

Buster looked to be about six months old.  According to Scott, his brother had found the animal—barely whelped—near an old cabin that had been used and abandoned by squatters.  It had seemed unlikely that the orphaned pup would survive, but young Buster had been a fighter.

Now—thriving and healthy—he was obviously a favorite of the entire household.  Nora had seen Teresa setting aside choice table scraps for him.  Jelly had spent hours making a complicated poultice for an injured paw.  As Scott was brushing the dog one day, he’d pointed out the leather collar Johnny had made.  Even Murdoch himself had searched out an old pillow when the puppy had taken to lying on the cold stone hearth in the evenings.

To Nora, it was a revelation to see a stray dog receive such special treatment.  When she and her brother had been children, they had both wanted a pet desperately.  However, their father had been adamant.  Carl Stanton believed that animals were meant to work, not to be pampered playthings.  And Carl’s word was law.  A few attempts on the part of the Stanton children to circumvent this rule had been dealt with summarily.  When she and Ned had been eight years old, they’d lavished unrestrained love and attention on a scruffy mongrel—not unlike Buster. When the pup had been unceremoniously hauled off to serve as a guard dog at a distant line shack, they had both been disappointed, but Ned had been particularly heartbroken. Perhaps it was because of this connection to her beloved twin brother—perhaps it was just a natural affinity, but Nora had come to love this rascal.

“Enough of this—you need some exercise.”  She looked around until she located a suitable stick, and tossed it across the stable yard.  Buster was more than enthusiastic about chasing this makeshift toy, but constant commands to “bring it here, boy’’ fell on deaf ears.  Over and over, Nora would wrestle the stick from the dog’s mouth.  He would bark with mounting excitement until she threw it again—then would pounce joyously and begin the enjoyable task of evading capture once again.

“Hey, I though you were the one who was supposed to be getting the exercise here,” she laughed indulgently.

Buster darted back and forth—intent on guarding his treasure—and their little frolic rapidly degenerated into a game of keep-away.  For a few moments he sat quietly, wagging his tail with assumed meekness, but as soon as Nora approached he dashed into the nearest corral.  Once out of her reach, he hunkered down and began chewing on his hard-won prize with great relish.

To Nora’s horror, the corral had one other occupant—a very large, very bad-tempered bull.  He was regarded with awe and respect by all the hands, and required very careful handling.  Now she watched in dismay as the brutish animal snorted and bellowed, obviously maddened by the interloper in his territory.

“Buster!! Come here!” she called.  “Come on, boy, come!  Now!!”

While her shouted entreaties and commands had no effect on the vulnerable puppy, the bull was becoming more and more agitated.

Finally, she threw herself over the fence and dashed toward Buster just as the massive steer started to move.  All in one motion she scooped the puppy into her arms and pivoted, racing towards safety with the bull bearing down on them both.

Something—a stone, a rut, her own faltering feet—caused her to stumble, and she went down hard.  Breathless and all too aware of the danger they were in, she attempted to scramble to her hands and knees.

Suddenly she was pulled roughly to her feet, and both she and Buster were heaved violently over the fence moments before the bull crashed into it.

Scott—after achieving this last-minute rescue—had barely enough time to twist his body out of reach of those deadly horns, and then immediately vault the rail, landing with cat-like grace.

In the aftermath of all this sound and fury, Buster made for the barn with his tail between his legs. As Nora gingerly picked herself up off the ground, she was caught in a crushing embrace.

In the heart-stopping moment when the bull had begun its charge, all conscious thought had been driven from Scott’s mind, and he’d acted on pure instinct.  Now that Nora was safe in his arms, he couldn’t rid himself of the image of her fragile body lying trampled and lifeless.  Fear caused him to tighten his grip, but in its wake came another emotion.

He took a sudden step back.  “That bull would as soon kill you as look at you!  How could you waltz into his pen like you were taking a Sunday stroll in the park??”

Nora was still pale and shaken—her explanation sounded weak and disjointed, even to her own ears.  “Buster was in the corral…..I called and called….he wouldn’t move.”

“And all you could think to do was risk your own neck pulling a fool stunt like that?”  Scott was furious.  “Did you even try to get help, find someone who knew how to handle that brute?”

“There wasn’t time…..No one else was close enough.” This time her voice—if not calm—was steady.  “He could have been killed.”

“YOU could have been killed!! Gored….trampled….torn limb from limb like a rag doll—did that thought occur to you before you committed that totally irresponsible act of folly?” came further blistering reproof.

Nora lifted her chin.  With the utmost dignity she replied, “I appreciate your help, but you needn’t be concerned over my welfare.”

“Listen, lady, you’re a guest on this ranch and that makes it my concern.  I won’t tolerate this kind of reckless, foolhardy behavior—is that clear??” The velvet gloves were off with a vengeance.

“And I will not tolerate being treated like a badly behaved twelve-year-old.”  Nora almost spoiled the effect of this haughty pronouncement by stamping her foot in frustration.

“Even a badly behaved twelve-year-old would have more sense than you’ve shown today.  I’m warning you right now that if you ever disregard your own safety in such a blatant, ill-judged and dangerous manner, I will see to it that you regret it!!”  Hardened soldiers had been reduced to making stammering excuses when on the receiving end of that particular glare, but Nora Stanton was made of sterner stuff.

“Scott Lancer, if you think I am going to take orders from an autocratic, dictatorial, bossy……..”

But she was cut off in mid-rant as Scott captured her mouth with his—a kiss that was both fervent and intoxicating, without being gentle in the least. His lips…his tongue—they were unyielding, masterful, and oh, so seductive!!

For a space of time that both went on forever and ended too soon, Nora felt herself responding with a passion she’d never experienced before.

When Scott spoke again, his voice was low and husky.  He whispered in her ear, “I’ve only just found you—I can not, I will not—lose you now.”

“Lose me?  Darling, I’m afraid you couldn’t lose me now if you tried.”  A tender, but amused smile softened her eyes, but the passion remained.  “After that kiss, you may find it almost impossible to be rid of me.”

“Now what the dickens has got into that blamed mutt.  He’s hiding in that corner looking like he’s seen Beelzebub hisself.”  A fractious, cantankerous voice shattered the quiet. “Scott! Scott! You got any notion what ails this sorry hound?”

As Jelly’s shouts became more insistent, the couple reluctantly ended their embrace and headed toward the barn.

“It might interest you to know that my brother shares your views about my overbearing nature,” Scott grinned.  “Of course, Johnny’s language is a bit more colorful than yours.  I’m sure that when he gets home he’ll be able to recommend better adjectives than ‘autocratic’ or ‘dictatorial’.”

Nora chuckled.  “After everything I’ve heard about him, I certainly can’t wait to meet the legendary Johnny Lancer.”

 

Chapter 6

 

As the stagecoach barreled its way over yet another series of crater-sized potholes, the dark-haired cowboy in the corner adjusted his hat, assuring that his face and eyes were completely shielded from view.  It was a tribute to his highly developed reflexes that not even the most violently-jarring of motions succeeded in throwing him off-balance.  Five other passengers—holding on for dear life—regarded him with everything from mild envy to outright hostility.

It may have afforded his fellow travelers some comfort had they known that this apparent guise of relaxation couldn’t have been further from the truth.

From behind the privacy of his well-positioned hat, Johnny recalled a former acquaintance, a woman with whom he had occasionally shared a bed and a bottle.  On those mornings when the bottle had proven to be too much for her, she would crawl from beneath the sheets with utmost reluctance and declare, “I feel like an elephant sitting on a piano stool—hung over!”  Well, Johnny figured it would take a dozen of those elephants to produce a hangover the likes of which he was suffering from this morning.

To be fair, he hadn’t intended to spend his last night in San Francisco getting drunker than a skunk.  Sure, he’d planned to do a little celebrating on his last night in town—the successful conclusion of his business there was cause for some celebration.  Lancer had completed negotiations with several cattle buyers, and this trip had been necessary to see to the contracts and attendant paperwork.

It wasn’t so long ago that Johnny would have balked at the idea of handling any kind of legal transactions.  He was mindful of his limited education—especially compared to his Harvard-graduate brother.  “I’m no good at those paper things,” he would complain, “why don’t you send Scott?”  But neither his father nor his brother was willing to let him off the hook so easily.

“Oh no, little brother,” Scott would insist firmly, but with a twinkle in his eye, “if I have to master roping, branding and stringing fence lines, you are going to learn to cope with the business end of ranching.

Murdoch’s response—whenever his younger son objected to a particular errand that required paperwork—was shorter and more to the point.  “You’re going!”

And slowly—learning from his mistakes—Johnny began to trust his own abilities in this area, until he had actively connived for the chance to undertake this latest business trip. Enjoying this new-found confidence, he believed that Scott and Murdoch would agree that he’d done a good job.

So he’d set out the night before, aiming for a few well-deserved drinks and an early night.  But his plans had gone astray, thanks to one self-described backslidden Presbyterian.

Jamie Frasier was one of Murdoch’s oldest friends.  They’d known each other back in the days when both were pioneers in this wilderness.  Somewhere along the way, Jamie had parlayed his knowledge of ranching and considerable financial acumen into a successful career as the director of a large consortium of cattle buyers.  His job required extensive travel, and when Johnny had called at his San Francisco office to deliver a personal message from Murdoch, Jamie had been out of town on business.

But the homely, raw-boned Scot had returned just in time to sweep Johnny off for one long night of whiskey-soaked reminiscences.  Murdoch had introduced both his sons to this old crony on previous visits, with the two men sharing enjoyable but decorous trips down memory lane.  This time, however, Jamie had been in a mischievous mood and— without the restraining presence of the Lancer patriarch—he’d proceeded to rattle every disreputable skeleton in Murdoch’s closet.

Johnny had listened with growing awe to these tales of wild and wooly exploits.  It seemed his father hadn’t often allowed himself the luxury of time away from Lancer but—if Jamie was to be believed—when he did so, it was with a vengeance.

“Old Murdoch, he only cut the wolf loose once in a blue moon, but when he did,” Jamie chuckled, “it was a sight to behold!”

In a slightly more serious tone, he’d added, “It was those years when he was alone on that big ranch, ya see—after he’d lost both you boys, and your mothers. Sometimes he’d just need to do some forgetting, and kicking up a bit of a ruckus was one way ta do it.”  With that, he’d launched into yet another yarn about a raucous spree involving shots of tequila and a demonstration of roping skills using a hostile skunk as a target.

Of course, all that talking made the old coot thirsty, and Johnny had matched him drink for drink—unable to believe that a man his father’s age could be the last one standing after the amount of whiskey they’d consumed.  But—in the end—it had been Jamie Frazier who’d shepherded his stumbling steps back to his hotel room and put him to bed.  Unfortunately, after just three short hours, he’d had to haul himself down to the depot to catch the stage at daybreak.

Still, Johnny figured it was almost worth it.  He couldn’t suppress a wicked grin at the thought of tweaking the old man, just a little, with some comments about his rabble-rousing ways the next time he tried to give his son a lecture about kicking off the traces. The grin quickly gave way to a muffled groan, however, with the next bone-rattling jolt.

In his current condition, the lurching, tortuous progress of the coach would have been punishment enough but that didn’t begin to cover the true extent of his suffering.

As if to remind him that things are never so bad they can’t get worse, the sound of a hearty belch rang out—closely followed by the nauseating aroma of rancid cheese. Johnny’s rebellious stomach—already writhing in misery—clenched violently as the offensive odor wafted in his direction.

When the obese German farmer sitting across from Johnny had boarded this morning, it was apparent he didn’t plan on starving to death during the trip.  The rattan basket he carried—from which he partook often—contained jars of sauerkraut, pungent sausages, wedges of blue cheese and a jug of stale beer.  Unmindful of the muttered complaints and pointed comments of the other travelers, the big man had been working his way through this odiferous feast.

By calling on sheer, indomitable bullheadedness, Johnny managed to suppress the urge to puke.  But now another of his senses was being assailed, and he wished fervently that he could close his ears as easily as he could his eyes.

“That is another matter I intend to bring to the attention of the management of this stagecoach line.  It is totally unacceptable that people of culture and breeding should have to endure the company of such ill-mannered louts.  Some kind of first class seating should be available to ensure the semblance of a civilized environment.”

The haughty, pruned-faced woman in the corner wore a prim hat, a starched collar and an expression of extreme outrage—outrage that she had been vocalizing, long and loud, for hours now. Nothing about this entire journey had been to her satisfaction.  The coach was overcrowded and poorly ventilated……the driver was rude…..the roads were badly maintained….the schedule was not being followed closely enough.  If there was a fault or shortcoming that she had failed to complain about, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

Johnny decided it wasn’t just the constant stream of criticism—some of which was quite merited—that caused him the most annoyance.  It was the old crone’s voice itself.  He didn’t know if he had ever heard a shriller, more piercing, altogether repellent sound.  His head had been pounding since he’d first awakened this morning, and every word of her strident discourse penetrated his skull like a sharp blade.

Some of the other passengers had attempted to stop her tirade, but that had simply resulted in even more bickering.  Short of stuffing a gag in her mouth or shooting her—entertaining this prospect brought a brief moment of gratification—there didn’t appear to be any way of stemming the flow.

So Johnny Madrid Lancer—respected rancher and deadly gunhawk—pulled his hat even more firmly over his eyes.  Maybe—he decided—if I can’t see them, I won’t be able to hear them or smell them.

**************

After eight hours spent in the stifling confines of the stagecoach, the common room at the way station—crude and rustic as it may have been—seemed spacious and inviting.  But as far as Johnny was concerned, fresh air and wide open spaces were even more appealing.

Leaning against the split-rail fence, he was grateful to find some peace and a little privacy.  Physically, his condition was much improved, and he’d even been able to do justice to the beef stew and corn bread served by the stationmaster’s wife.

He gazed idly at the stock in the corral.  The couple who tended this station evidently kept some of their own livestock on the premises. Along with a half-dozen sturdy dray horses, there were also a few milk cows and a sow with a litter of pigs. Nearby, a healthy looking flock of chickens scratched in the dusty yard.

Those chickens scattered, clucking madly, as the door to the cabin swung open.  Competing with the noise from the barnyard was more acrimonious chatter from the people inside the room.  Johnny glanced over with a grimace and noticed Mrs. Burns, the station master’s wife, struggling through the doorway with a heavy bucket in her hands.

“Let me help you with that, ma’am.”  With a few long strides, Johnny was at the woman’s side.

“Thank you, young man.  That’s right nice of you.”  Relinquishing her burden, she pushed a few strands of gray hair from her face and indicated a trough inside the fence where the pig slop should be dumped.

Emptying the bucket, Johnny watched the squealing, hungry pigs fighting over their meal, and then he looked back at the cabin, where the guests were still arguing loudly.   “I guess things get pretty busy around here when the stage pulls in an you hafta take care of all those passengers.”

Edna Burns didn’t miss the subtle implication in that casual glance.  “Well, some days the critters out here are a lot less trouble than the ones in there.” Peering closely at his face, she added, “Reckon it wasn’t any treat, traveling with them all the way from San Francisco.”

“They sure ain’t the most congenial lot,” Johnny admitted with a rueful grin.  “What are they fussing and feuding about now?”

“We’ve had a problem with one of the horses in the replacement team—it came down with the colic,” she explained.  “The driver was just letting ‘em know that they’ll be late getting to the next stop,” she added sympathetically.

Johnny nodded gloomily, “The way my luck’s been going this trip—that figures.”

Edna regarded this dark-haired young man with inward approval.  Alone among this sullen, rather obnoxious group, he’d thanked her sincerely for the humble meal and had placed his dirty dishes neatly in the scullery.  “You headed someplace in particular,” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am, I’m on my way home—that’s a ranch outside of Morro Coya.”  And as he said the words, it struck Johnny just how anxious he was to get back to Lancer.  He was counting on having Teresa and Maria fussing over him and fixing his favorite foods.  And he looked forward to sitting down with Scott and telling him all the stories he’d heard from Jamie Frasier.  Hell, he even missed the old man. 

For a moment the steely gunfighter’s reserve was gone and the look on his face resembled a homesick boy more than anything else.

Watching him, Edna seemed to come to a sudden decision.  “Come with me, young man!”  She led the way briskly towards the barn and—though puzzled—Johnny followed meekly enough.

Standing quietly in one of the stalls was a handsome black stallion.  Johnny wasn’t sure what the purpose of this visit was, but he couldn’t help but run an eye appraisingly over this nice piece of horseflesh.  While a bit on the nervous side, the animal obviously had spirit.  Edna urged him on with a nod of her head, and he moved closer—running his hands down forelegs, examining teeth and eyes, admiring the shining coat.

“Sure is a fine animal,” he finally said as he stepped back.  “Does he belong to you and Mr. Burns?”

“He has for a few weeks now.”  Beneath the matter-of-fact words Johnny could detect a faint tinge of sadness.  “We had a young man working for us for several months,” she went on.  “Nick rode in one day—down on his luck—and asked for a job.  We didn’t have much to offer beyond room and board for him and his horse, but he took us up on it.  And he worked hard, nary a complaint about being stuck out here in the middle of nowhere with no company but us old folks.”  

It was obviously costing the woman dearly, remembering what happened next.  “He got himself a nasty cut—never did figure how—and infection set in.  I did everything I could.  We even had Doc out, but he died of the lockjaw.”

Johnny’s voice was respectful, “I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am.”

Edna brought herself under control.  “Well, in the end the boy knew he wasn’t gonna make it.  He asked us to sell his gear and send the money back east to his family.”  She shrugged.  “He didn’t really have much of anything except this horse. Nick called him Boone.  There hasn’t been time for Henry or me to do much about selling him and he’s never been broke to the harness, so he’s no use pulling freight.”

‘With the saddle and tack thrown in, we figure fifty dollars is a fair price, and you should be able to get a refund from the stage company—since you wouldn’t be using the rest of your ticket.”  After making this business-like offer, Edna couldn’t help adding, “I think Nick would be real happy knowing Boone, here, had a home with someone like you.”

But the personal plea hadn’t been necessary.  Johnny’s decision had been made almost instantly, but it took into account a number of things—freedom from the misery of this stagecoach journey, the chance to get home earlier than expected and honest admiration for a beautiful animal.

“Miz Burns,” that devil-may-care smile was matched by the gleam in his blue eyes, “you have yourself a deal!”

 

Chapter 7

 

In one corner of the busy Lancer kitchen, a small black-and-white dog lay sprawled atop a tattered rug.  While obviously quite comfortable in his warm, cozy bed, he also appeared to be slightly chastened…… and no wonder.  After the near-disaster in the bull’s pen yesterday, Scott had handed out swift retribution for his disobedience.  Buster had spent the rest of the day and all night tethered to a corral fence in a remote corner of the compound.

Although provided with food, water, fresh air and shade, the irrepressible puppy had been deprived of the two things he cared about the most—his freedom and the company of the people he’d come to love.  So when he was released at daybreak, Buster had immediately sought out and eventually received some token of forgiveness—a friendly pat, a casual bit of rough-housing or a simple “good dog”—from each of his beloved human companions.   

With that accomplished, he’d burrowed contentedly into his accustomed place on the kitchen floor and lazed away a good part of the morning.  But he was aroused from his lethargy by the tantalizing aroma of bacon frying.  Covertly, he eyed Teresa as she transferred the sizzling strips from the skillet to the serving dish.

Subtle changes now indicated the transformation from a simple house pet to an animal more closely related to his predatory ancestors.  Every muscle in his body tensed, and he watched closely as that tempting platter was moved toward the table.  And then—with lightning speed and precise timing—he leapt onto an empty chair, seized one piece of bacon delicately in his mouth, and escaped out the door just seconds ahead of the business end of Maria’s broom.  After a moment of stunned silence, the room erupted in laughter, even Murdoch being amused by the audacity of the feisty pup.

Gradually the conversation returned to a discussion of plans for the day and Teresa repeated a question that had already been asked and answered.  “Nora, are you sure you don’t mind taking care of supper tonight?”

This evening Murdoch was to meet on a neighboring ranch with some of the other members of the Cattlemen’s Association.  By longstanding arrangement, Teresa was supposed to accompany him, spending the day visiting with the rancher’s daughter, and neither would be returning until late that evening.    And it turned out that Maria would be away from the ranch too.  Her skills were needed as midwife to one of the families employed by Lancer.

Obviously Teresa felt a bit guilty about deserting their guest.  Since Nora had already given the usual polite reassurances, this time she tried another approach.

“I suppose you don’t think I’m capable of preparing an edible meal!”  She infused her voice with mock indignation.  “It happens the refinements taught at the Philadelphia Seminary for Young Ladies are not my only accomplishments.  I am also known by many people of discrimination for my extremely delicious chicken and dumplings.”

“Now, that’s a very bold statement, Miss Stanton.”  Scott’s pompous tone was belied only by the twinkle in his eyes.  “Chicken and dumplings can be a very challenging undertaking.  The dumplings have such a tendency to become soggy.”

“Sir,” Nora responded as if mortally offended, “I have never produced a soggy dumpling in my life.  On the contrary, my dumplings are considered to be feather-light.”

“It’s easy to make such claims, I suppose, but the proof is in the pudding—or the dumplings, as the case may be.”

By this time Teresa was giggling, and even Murdoch looked mildly amused.

“All right, all right!”  Teresa threw up her hands in mock surrender.  “I’ll leave the matter of supper in your capable hands.”

Nora was very relieved that their light-hearted banter had settled the matter, because—truth be told—she was delighted about having the opportunity of spending the evening alone with Scott.

After completing the inspection of the bridge at Red Rock Creek the previous day, she and Scott had delayed their return by several hours.  The time they’d spent together had convinced her of one thing—the passionate kiss they’d shared earlier wasn’t a fluke caused by the emotionally charged situation.

No, Nora had to admit the truth.  She’d fallen deeply in love with Scott Lancer.  This realization helped to explain the conflicting emotions she experienced when she’d read the telegram from her father.  It had been awaiting her when they returned to the ranch yesterday.  Although Nora was naturally pleased that her father was safe and would be returning within a few days, she was conscious of a strong feeling of regret.

It wouldn’t be easy leaving Lancer and her new-found love.  And the knowledge of this imminent departure made her all the more anxious to spend as much of her remaining time with Scott as possible.

A deep rumbling voice brought her attention back to her surroundings.  Murdoch was giving Teresa a warning.  “We need to be ready to leave in an hour, honey.”

“I’ll take care of the breakfast things,” Nora insisted, rising from her chair.  “You go ahead and finish getting ready.”

As Teresa smiled her thanks and hurried out the door, Scott tossed down his napkin.  “I’d better go make sure the wagon’s been loaded with all the tools and lumber for repairing the bridge.”

“Don’t bother—I already took care of it.”  Jelly bustled in and made this announcement with all his usual bluster.  “Figured if I waited for you ta take care of it, it’d never get done.”  Thumbs stuck inside his suspenders, he shook his head in reproof.  “Don’t know how you’re planning on getting all those repairs done today, when it took ya most of yesterday just ta figure out what needed fix’n.  Why you should have been back here middle of the afternoon, instead of close to sundown.  If you’re gonna waste your time lollygagging around like that, maybe you oughta take Ethan with ya today to help you get the job done.”

Even as Nora busied herself with clearing the dirty dishes, she couldn’t prevent the tell-tale blush that colored her cheeks at the memory of what had happened during those “wasted” hours.

Scott glanced at her protectively, before coming to his feet.  “Now just a minute, Jelly….,” he began heatedly.

But Murdoch was already standing with his arm around Jelly’s shoulder.  His calm, low voice rumbled, “Oh, Jelly, I’m sure Scott will be able to take care of the bridge today himself.  Nora seems to be a pretty good hand, and I’m sure she can give him all the assistance he needs.  I had another job in mind for Ethan.”

Subtly he began moving both of them toward the door.  “Weren’t you telling me that the road between here and the south pasture needs some work?”

“That’s right, Boss.  If we don’t take care of some of those ruts, the next supply wagon we send out that way will likely break an axle.  Course no one ever listens ta me round here……...”  He was still talking as the door closed behind them.

After both men had left, Scott relaxed his aggressive stance and slid a look at Nora.  The suggestive blush had faded from her cheeks, and she managed a rueful chuckle.

“It was very chivalrous of your father to intervene that way—trying to spare the lady’s blushes.”

“I think that may have been Murdoch’s way of saying that he approves of……us,” Scott informed her with a wry grin.  “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be hell-to-pay if those bridge repairs aren’t finished today.”

Retrieving his hat and gun belt from their resting place on the back of his chair, he headed out the door.  “Meet me by the wagon as soon as you’ve finished up here.”

*********************

Nothing further happened to delay their progress and Scott and Nora had soon covered half the distance to Red Rock Creek.  As they topped a high bluff that offered a panoramic view of the ranch, Nora—seemingly absorbed in her appreciation of this breath-taking sight—suddenly blurted out a question.

“Was it a difficult decision?”

“Decision?”  Scott glanced at her, puzzled.

“Well, you had to make a choice between your life in Boston and all this.”  Her gesture took in the surrounding countryside.  “What made you decide to stay here at Lancer?”

Scott didn’t answer at first.  Just when Nora had begun to fear that he’d been offended by the question, he replied thoughtfully, “You’re right.  It should have been a difficult decision.  I’m not really sure how I made it so quickly and easily.  I’d certainly never pictured myself as a rancher before.”

As he spoke, he continued to handle the spirited team with ease.  “Lancer did represent a challenge; maybe I just responded to that.  Boston meant financial security and a stable future, but somehow I couldn’t deny the connection I felt to this place.”

“And maybe a connection to the people, as well?” Nora asked gently.

“I grew up thinking that my father didn’t care about me,” Scott admitted.  “Coming to Lancer showed me how wrong I was about that.  My relationship with Murdoch certainly played a part in my decision to stay.”

Nora continued to regard him steadily.

“And then, there was Johnny!”  Scott shook his head, smiling.  “The news that I had a brother came as quite a shock—to both of us.”  He paused as if enjoying some private memory.  “But, yes, I think I’d have to say that Johnny is one of the reasons I decided to stay.”

“I don’t know if all of this is really making much sense…..,” he began.

But Nora interrupted, “No! No, it makes perfect sense.  You found a purpose for your life, people you loved and a home—all in one place.  That’s a true blessing.”

Scott cocked his head, as if considering her statement.  “I can’t argue with that,” he finally agreed.

Just then they approached a particularly bad stretch of road and Scott found it necessary to concentrate on guiding the horses around the worst of the ruts.  When he once again turned his attention to Nora, he found her mood had changed drastically.  The radiant smile was gone, replaced by an anguished expression.

“Nora?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, visibly fighting off tears.

Scott brought the wagon to a halt and turned toward her.  “I don’t want you to be sorry,” he insisted.  “I want you to tell me what’s wrong.”

Nora looked at him with pain-filled eyes.  “My brother, Ned….,” she began shakily.

“You said you had a brother who died.  Was that Ned?” Scott asked gently.

She nodded.  “Ned was my twin.  We were christened Edward and Eleanor, but became Ned and Nora before we were out of diapers.”

Her voice was a bit firmer as she continued, “I said earlier what a blessing it was when your purpose in life led you to a home and family you loved.  For Ned, it wasn’t that easy.”

“Ned loved his family and his home, but he just never wanted to be a rancher.  Ned wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember.  When I was sent East to school, I know how much he would have loved to go, so he could study art there, but our father insisted he stay home to learn how to run the ranch.”  She shook her head.  “But art was his passion and his obsession.  He tried to put it behind him and do as Father wished, but it tore him up inside.”

“My brother’s death was bloody, violent and brutal, but the real tragedy was the suffering he endured before he died.”

At this point she was unable to speak further and Scott just gathered her in his arms, holding her tightly. For long moments, neither of them spoke.  Finally Nora disengaged herself.

“I’m all right now,” She resolutely dried her eyes and took a deep breath.  “Thank you for listening.”

“I’m sorry for your pain,” Scott spoke with simple honesty.  “I can only imagine how hard it would be to lose a brother, much less a twin.”

“Of course, I’ll always miss him, but I try to remind myself of the good times.  No one can take away the memories of growing up together, and we did have a wonderful childhood.”  Nora nodded at the pile of lumber in the bed of the wagon.  “Right now, we have a bridge to see to, so we better get a move on.”

Scott looked a bit doubtful, but bowed to her determination.  While urging the team into motion with one hand, however, he used his other arm to draw Nora closer to his side.

Gratefully, the girl laid her head on his shoulder, accepting his comfort.   It was a few miles down the road before she spoke again.  “When Ned and I were eight years old, we spent most of one summer searching for hidden treasure.”  Her voice held a spark of mischief.  “I told you about our housekeeper, Molly, and Juan, our foreman.  Well, they had four sons.  Luis and Patrick were our age. Their brothers, Manuel and David, were quite a bit older and they used to delight in teasing us.  That summer they made up all these stories about Spanish explorers hiding gold up in the hills.  The four of us spent every spare minute digging up likely spots, and getting into all sorts of trouble in the process.  One time…….”

And so the time passed, with Nora sharing a number of adventures from her girlhood.  When they arrived at the site of the bridge, both turned their attention to the business at hand.

Meanwhile in Stockton, Carl Stanton made plans to return to Lancer.

 

Chapter 8

The hotel suite had a solitary, uninhabited feel—as if it had already been vacated.  There were no personal effects to be found anywhere, except the handsome leather valise which stood expectantly by the door.  Actually, however, the room was still occupied by the lone man standing motionless before the window.

Carl Stanton’s gaze was unwavering as he stared down at the bustling street, but an astute observer would have noted from his detached, withdrawn expression, that this intense scrutiny was not directed at the scene below.

A firm knock reverberated in the empty room, not once or twice, but three times, before Stanton managed to rouse himself from his reverie.

“Come in.”

The door opened and Jack Freeman stepped inside.  He stood—respectfully silent—as Stanton continued his unwavering introspection.

“Yes?”

Carl made the inquiry without altering in the slightest his air of intense concentration.

“I just checked, and the stage is gonna be a little late this afternoon.  They need to replace an axle…probably take at least an hour or so.”  Freeman didn’t seem discomposed in the least by his employer’s apparent distraction.  “The front desk will be sending up a boy for up for your bag in a few minutes.  He’ll take it directly to the depot.”

Stanton’s absent nod indicated that he’d understood these explanations.  And when there was no additional comment, the old ex-soldier simply stood—as if at attention—awaiting further instructions.

Finally, with an almost visible effort, the man at the window seemed to shake off his single-minded absorption.  He turned abruptly and, for the first time, gave Freeman his undivided attention.

“I suppose a few hours, more or less, aren’t going to matter at this point.  After waiting almost three years for justice to be served, I can stand to be patient a little longer.”

Jack Freeman obviously didn’t feel it was his place to offer an opinion on this statement, maintaining a deferential silence.  But it seemed that Stanton—after his period of isolated contemplation—was now in the mood for some measure of companionship.

“No point waiting in a drafty stage depot or a crowded saloon, and the hotel lounge has a few too many starched-up, Psalm-singing, pillars-of-society types for my taste.”

A tray on the sideboard held several tumblers and a cut-glass decanter filled with amber liquid.  Stanton grabbed two glasses, but regarded the hotel’s notion of fine whiskey with obvious distain.  Instead, he pulled a sliver flask from his breast pocket.  Seating himself next to a low table, he poured two drinks and indicated with a negligent wave of his hand that Jack was to join him.

Tossing his hat on the bed, Jack took a seat and accepted his whiskey with a nonchalance that suggested this wasn’t the first time his boss had extended such an invitation.  While they weren’t equals in social standing, both were tough-minded men—each battle-hardened in their own way.

After a few moments spent drinking in silence, Jack spoke—his tone and comments, matter-of-fact.  “This whole plan is still a gamble.  There are more sure-fire ways of getting the job done.”

“And I’ve considered those ways,” his employer responded impassively.  “Do you think I haven’t thought about it?  For three years I’ve done nothing but consider all the possible ways and means.”

“The law?” Stanton gave a mirthless laugh.  “Useless!”

Jack nodded in understanding.  “A gun hand good enough to take him on would be expensive, but …”

“Hell, that wouldn’t be a sure thing either.  In a fair fight, God knows who’d come out the winner.  But that’s not the reason I decided against hiring a gunhawk.”  Stanton continued fiercely, “This is my son we’re talking about.  Avenging his death is not some business transaction, like buying a brood mare.  Ned’s murderer will die by my hand—no one else’s”

“And—now that he’s turned respectable and everything—a simple ambush would probably raise too much of a dust-up,” Jack commented.

“Respectable,” Stanton almost snarled, “I don’t give a damn about his so-called new life.  I’ve taken more than a year’s time and spent a lot of money to put myself in this position.  I’ve done it so I can look him in the eye and tell him exactly why he is going to die.”

Taking up the flask once more, he poured them both another shot.  “There is one good thing about his changed circumstances,” he said in a gloating voice.  “When he knows he’s going to die, he can think about the fact that he will be leaving a father behind to mourn him, just as my Ned did.  Let him take that thought to his grave.”

Glass in hand, Stanton offered a grim toast.  “To the death of Johnny Madrid.”

****************

The repairs on the bridge at Red Rock Creek were being completed in very good time. In large part this was due to Scott’s organized and meticulous planning.  During his inspection of the bridge yesterday, he’d taken extremely accurate measurements of any planks and support beams that needed to be replaced.  Before leaving Lancer, he made sure that the replacement parts were cut to exact specification.  They carried extra lumber and tools in the wagon, in case of any miscalculation, but so far their success proved the truthfulness of the old adage—“measure twice and cut once.”

So the actual work was proceeding quickly.  Scott, having already identified the defective segments, threw his back into the process of ripping out the rotten timbers and replacing them with the newly-cut pieces.  Manhandling the heavy crossbeams required to support the bridge was a formidable task, but he labored diligently and made rapid progress.

Nora truly was invaluable.  Proving her worth as a hard-working “go-fer”, she ensured that Scott had the proper tools at hand, kept his supply of screws and nails replenished and helped him position the various boards and planks.  If—in the midst of all this industrious exertion—she found time to admire the sight of that lean, muscular, shirtless torso gleaming with honest sweat, no one was the wiser.  And there may have been an occasion or two when she was a bit preoccupied by a certain—undeniably attractive—rear view as Scott bent to retrieve some needed materials.  But she made sure that none of these mental activities interfered with the work at hand.

Yesterday, Scott had explained the reasons why this particular bridge was so important.  Some of Lancer’s most lush, productive grazing land was on the other side of this extremely rugged terrain.  The most direct route for getting men and supply wagons to that pasture required crossing Red Rock Creek.  This time of the year, fording the stream wouldn’t be difficult.  Much of the creek bed contained only a trickle of water.  The deepest stretch—directly under the middle of the bridge—was no more than a muddy bog.  But in the spring and winter, this same benign little rippling brook turned into a raging torrent, often rising to overflow its banks.  So each year during the dry season, the bridge was inspected and reinforced to insure its safety.

“Nora!”

Scott’s disembodied voice floated up from beneath the bridge, and she responded by scrambling immediately down the steep bank.

“This should be the last of the repairs to the understructure,” he explained.  “I just need you to keep this vertical post wedged in position while I fasten the supporting pieces.”

Obligingly, Nora set her back against the heavy timber and—using her legs to brace herself—held it upright.

Working quickly, Scott began pounding the heavy nails with swift, sure strokes.  The restricted space offered by the wooden framework of the bridge meant that there was very little room for maneuvering.  Nora tried to ignore the heady sensations caused by this close proximity to the man she loved.  The hard lines of his body—near enough for a caress—brought on a warmth that had nothing to do with the heat of the day.  Resolutely concentrating on the matter at hand, she couldn’t help but wonder whether Scott was being affected at all by this situation.

The answer was not long in coming.

As Scott continued to wield his hammer, he shifted a bit closer—closer to the partially completed crosspiece and closer to Nora.  Straining to extend his reach, he couldn’t avoid coming in contact with those tantalizingly soft, womanly curves, and his sudden involuntary intake of breath showed him to be far from immune to the intoxicating pleasure of that contact.

Nora quivered delicately in response to his touch, then gasped as he suddenly sprang back, clutching his hand.

“Son-of-a……..”  He broke off—teeth clenched against the pain.

“Scott, how bad is it?”

Gingerly, he examined his injured thumb.  “Nothing broken—just bruised enough to remind me to keep my mind on business for the time being.”  He grinned disarmingly.  “It might be as well to keep distractions to a minimum.  I’ll finish things down here.  Perhaps you could begin unloading the planks we’ll be using above.”

****************

It took several more hours of back-breaking work, but both Scott and Nora felt a sense of accomplishment as they surveyed their completed project.  All the tools and surplus lumber had been loaded onto the wagon.  Scott used their last canteen of water to clean up a bit before donning his shirt once more.  Then—with a deliberately extravagant flourish—he bowed and offered his arm to Nora.

“Miss Stanton, could I interest you in a tour of the Red Rock Creek Bridge?  It is considered to be an excellent example of local workmanship as well as a stunning architectural achievement in its own right.”

Nora giggled and accepted his offer, pretending to curtsey with as much grace as she could muster while wearing a battered pair of jeans.

They strolled the length of the bridge, exclaiming over their own handiwork and congratulating each other with exaggerated compliments.

“Scott, do you think it will be strong enough to withstand the river when it reaches flood stage?”  Nora had stopped in the middle of the bridge, and this time it was obvious her question was serious.

“Well, we’ve done the best we could—used top quality materials and checked everything twice.”  He pounded the wooden hand railing several times with his fist, as if to demonstrate just how sturdy it was.

Folding his arms across his chest, he added in a confident voice, “I predict that after the spring run-off, this bridge will still be in first-rate condition,” and with an emphatic nod he leaned back against the railing.

The wooden panel immediately gave way under the weight of his body, and Scott simply dropped out of sight.

“Scott!!!”  Nora screamed as she rushed to the edge of the bridge.  Below her, Scott’s motionless body lay covered in mud.  After calling his name once more, with no response, she ran to the end of the bridge and started scrambling down the bank to the creek bed.

“Nora, it’s all right.  I’m fine.”

To her immense relief, Nora saw that he was indeed moving now—his attempts to sit up were being hindered however by the slimy, gelatinous and plentiful mud that surrounded him.  “Scott, wait, let me help you.”  But her progress was also being impeded by the gooey mire that was already up to the tops of her boots.

By the time she was able to fight her way through the clinging mess, Scott had managed to make it to his feet.  He was besmeared with muck and dripping with sludge—but a quick inspection seemed to indicate that he was indeed in one piece.  Over his protests, Nora ignored his filthy appearance and put an arm around his waist.  Together they slogged toward the bank.

“You’re sure you aren’t hurt?”  Nora demanded after they’d reached the wagon.

“Just got the wind knocked out of me.  I probably couldn’t have asked for anything softer to land on than that pile of muck.”  If Scott’s face had been less grimy, it might have been possible to read his expression—chagrined, but rueful.  “Nothing’s the matter with me but hurt pride.  Well, that and the fact that I have mud in places……….well, places that don’t bear mentioning in present company.”

***********************************

Nora stirred the pot with the chicken stew.  It was bubbling nicely.  All the ingredients had been prepared ahead of time, so she’d been able to complete the process and leave the stew to simmer while she went to her room to change.  The dumplings—which would cook in minutes—could be left until Scott was also ready to eat.

Their return to the ranch had been delayed a bit because Scott had insisted—over her strong objections—on going over every inch of the remaining wooden hand rail to check for any further weaknesses.

When they’d finally arrived at the hacienda, Scott had dropped her off near the kitchen entrance, and driven the rig back to the barn.  She’d wasted little time in carrying out her various domestic tasks—one of which included giving orders for a hot bath to be readied in Scott’s room.   Next had come the even more important challenge of transforming herself from a saddle tramp into a—hopefully—desirable dinner companion.

After a dabbing some of her favorite Paris scent behind her ears, she’d started down the stairs only to meet Scott on his way up.  He’d looked tired, bedraggled, filthy and a bit irritated, but she’d been pleased to see his expression change to one of pleasure and appreciation when he greeted her.

“I’m sorry I’ve taken so long,” he’d apologized.  “Murdoch wanted me to check in with the various work crews about their progress.  And, of course, Jelly had to have a complete explanation as to how I came to be in this condition.”

Nora had waved off his apologies, saying briskly, “Don’t be ridiculous.  Supper will be served at your convenience.”  Then—feeling suddenly emboldened—she’d stepped closer, reaching up to straighten the grubby collar of his mud-encrusted shirt.  “After all, we do have the entire evening before us, and we can spend it however you chose.  You have my word.”

“Lady, I’m going to hold you to that promise,” Scott had almost growled, his voice low and husky.

After the one kiss—quick and hard—he’d released her and strode down the hall to his room.

Now—after sampling the chicken stew one more time to ensure that the seasoning was just right—Nora moved on toward the dining area.  The table had been set tastefully for two.  She polished a few dull spots on the silver, but decided to wait and let Scott light the candles.  Finally, satisfied with the appearance of the table setting, she wandered into the great room.

For a short time she flitted from place to place, examining knick-knacks, plumping pillows and doing all she could to keep her hands busy while her thoughts were obviously elsewhere.  Primping in front of the mirror took up a few more minutes of her time. She was standing before the mahogany sideboard examining some of the many choices—brandy, whiskey, tequila, sherry and a few versions of someone’s homemade wine—when she heard the footsteps.

Without turning around, she called out, “Darling, shall I fix you a drink while you decide just how we’re going to spend our evening together?”

Before the words were completely out of her mouth, though, she’d realized there was something wrong about those footsteps.  Spurs—that was it—Scott never wore spurs.

“Why, Ma’am, that’s awful kind of ya—best offer I’ve had this side of San Francisco.”

 

Chapter 9

There was nothing threatening about the words or the voice.  The relaxed, good-humored drawl held no hint of menace, but it wasn’t the clipped New England accent Nora had been expecting.

She whirled around, clutching one hand apprehensively to her throat.

The man who stood there was a stranger.  He’d removed his hat, revealing dark, unruly hair which seemed to resist his casual attempts at finger-combing. Judging by the saddlebags slung over his shoulder and the clinging layer of trail dust, he’d spent quite some time on horseback.

He made no move to come any further into the room, and there was a quality to his stillness that reminded Nora of attempts she’d made to approach some wild animal without frightening it.

“I am sorry, Ma’am, if I scared you.”  With that velvety-gentle voice, he could have been soothing a skittish mustang.  “Didn’t mean ta sneak up on ya like that.”

Nora tried to pull herself together.  “No, of course you didn’t scare me.  I was just a bit startled.”

Moving slowly and deliberately, he tossed his hat on a nearby table and shrugged off the saddlebags.  But there was something in his bearing, as he carried out these simple actions—he seemed totally at home in his surroundings.

Finally gathering her wits, Nora remembered his comment about San Francisco and came to the obvious conclusion.  “You must be Scott’s brother, Johnny.”

“Guilty as charged, I’m afraid.”

Impulsively, Nora gathered her skirts and hurried across the room.  “I am pleased to meet you.  Your family has spoken of you so often, I almost feel that I already know you a little.”

A smile played around the corners of Johnny’s mouth, but—although his eyes lit with amusement—he kept his voice serious.  “I’m real pleased to meet you too, Ma’am…..course I’d be even more pleased if I knew who I was meet’n.”

“I’m sorry.  You must think me sadly wanting in manners,” Nora apologized.  “I’m Nora….Nora Stanton.”

“Oh, I don’t think you’re wanting”—there was a definite note of masculine admiration in his voice, and his smiled widened—“in anything.”

After a slight pause, he went on, “Stanton?  Yeah, I remember.  Murdoch said your old man has a spread down south—close to the border.  He was gonna visit Lancer during some business trip.”

“Yes, that was over two weeks ago,” Nora explained.  “Father was called away because of an emergency and your family was kind enough to invite me to stay here until he returns.”

“Speaking of my family,” Johnny glanced pointedly around the otherwise empty room, “none of them around to greet the prodigal son?”

“Nobody expected you until tomorrow.  Teresa and Maria have been planning a big meal with all your favorite foods,” she assured him.  “Tonight Murdoch and Teresa are visiting friends.  They won’t be returning until late this evening.”

“But you were expecting someone when I surprised you just now?”  The bland question was accompanied by a knowing, teasing look.

Nora couldn’t keep the color from flooding her face as she remembered the rather intimate greeting she’d called out, thinking she was alone with Scott.

Her attempt at an airy reply was marred by a slight stammer.  “I’m…uh...I’m expecting Scott to join me for dinner.”

“And he’s keeping a pretty lady like you waiting?” Johnny feigned disbelief.  “Now that doesn’t sound like my brother.”

Still a bit flustered, Nora blurted out, “Oh, it’s not his fault!  The accident he had—when he fell off the bridge—just put him way behind schedule.  It was ………”

Johnny interrupted without compunction.  “Scott’s been hurt?”

The transformation was instantaneous.  Gone was the tone of genial, slightly flirtatious banter—his words were uttered with deadly intent.  Once casual posture was now taut and alert, and the twinkle in his eyes was replaced by a worried, searching gaze.

Touched by this tangible evidence of Johnny’s deep concern for his brother, Nora hurried to reassure him.  She explained the circumstances behind Scott’s mishap, emphasizing how the mud had cushioned his fall and prevented serious injury.  Loyalty to the man she loved kept her from adding a description of his sodden, mud-soaked condition.

“……examining the rest of the railings took quite a bit of time.  When we got back, Scott had to deal with the rig, the left-over supplies and tools, and questions from Jelly.  So he’s a little behind getting cleaned up for supper.”

As Johnny listened to Nora’s story—her reiterations that Scott really was safe—the tension appeared to drain from his body.  But he also seemed well aware of the humorous aspects of the incident.  His lips twitched, and there was a wicked gleam in his eyes as he glanced in the direction of his brother’s room.

“Sounds like you both had a real busy day, Nora.” Picking up his saddlebags, he slung them over his shoulder.  “I wouldn’t want ta spoil any of your plans.  I can get some grub with Jelly and the boys in the bunkhouse before I turn in.”

“Why, Johnny Lancer, you’ll do no such thing!”  Nora placed her hands on her hips.  “Scott wouldn’t hear of it, and neither would I—the idea of turning you away on your first night back home.”

She stalked toward the kitchen, turning once to wag a stern finger.  “I’m going to add another place at the table.  You go get cleaned up.  While you’re at it, you can tell your brother that I’ll be starting the dumplings soon, and they are at their best when served hot.”

When she disappeared through the door, Johnny let out a low whistle.  “Well, well, brother!  Let’s see what you have ta say for yourself.”

*************************************

The silence in the room was almost complete.  Once or twice it was broken by a moan that could have been caused by either pain or pleasure.  And—so soft it was almost indiscernible—there was the sound of water lapping gently against bare skin.  The flickering lamp cast its soft illumination over the scene, and gave a particularly burnished glow to the tousled blond head resting on the edge of the wooden tub.

From the moment Scott had lowered himself into the blissfully hot water, his avowed intention to hurry through his bath had been abandoned.  A bit more battered by his fall than he’d been willing to let on, he had welcomed this chance to ease aching muscles and soothe bruised, tender flesh.

But now the water was cooling slightly, and he decided it was time to get on with things.  Grabbing a bar of soap and washrag, he worked up a very satisfying lather.  Back, legs, arms, neck—all received the same scrupulous attention.  Finally he immersed his head, and then scrubbed it vigorously, ducking under once more to rinse.

“You might wanna keep working on that, brother.  I’m afraid it’s gonna take a lot of scrubbing to wash away all that mud.”

“Johnny!”  With a good bit of sloshing and splashing, Scott sat up and greeted his brother.  “You made it home earlier than we expected.  How was San Francisco?”

“Well now, that’s a story and a half, if you’ve got some time ta listen.”  Johnny brought his hands from behind his back, displaying two tumblers and a bottle of good malt whiskey.  Taking his brother’s appreciative grin as an answer, he used one booted foot to pull a nearby chair a bit closer.  After deftly pouring and serving their drinks, he leaned back in the chair and placed his feet on the edge of the tub.

“So you were mentioning a story?”  Drink in hand, Scott gestured for his brother to go on.

The conversation that followed—low-keyed and abbreviated—only served to demonstrate how well these two men knew each other.  Much of what passed between them was unvoiced, but still understood by both.

There was a brief discussion about the business portion of the trip. Scott enthusiastically approved the details of the contracts.  He also treated the completion of those successful negotiations as a foregone conclusion.  That attitude showed—more clearly than any amount of lavish praise—just how much confidence and trust he had in his brother’s abilities.  In the same way, Johnny’s careless shrug didn’t betray how much pride and satisfaction he felt at earning his brother’s respect when it came to handling “those paper things”.

Then Johnny started recounting some of the details of his final night on the town with old Jamie Frasier.  His description of the youthful Murdoch’s wilder antics lost nothing in the retelling.

“He tried to rope a skunk?”  Scott asked, greatly entertained.

“Yep, it seems like the Old Man knew how ta howl at the moon back in his younger days,” Johnny replied with a smirk.  “Course, he don’t know we know about that particular little party.”

Scott’s eyes danced.  “It just might be safer if it stayed that way, too.  Now you never mentioned how you got back so early.  The stage doesn’t arrive in Green River until tomorrow.”

“Let’s wait on that until I can show you the nice piece of horse flesh I got eating its fill of oats out in the barn,” Johnny decided.  “Anyway, I’ve been doing all the talking.  It’s your turn to tell me what’s been happening here while I been gone.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary to mention.  While you’ve been off enjoying the agreeable diversions of the big city, I’ve pretty much kept my nose to the grindstone.  There’s been a lot of work to get done on the ranch, and we’ve been a bit short-handed.”  Scott managed to sound convincingly over-burdened, but—since his brother already had a pretty good idea what kind of “agreeable diversions” had been available at Lancer for the past few weeks—this attempt to appear put-upon failed entirely.

“You’ve been short-handed, huh?”  Johnny snorted, “Brother, I’ve seen the ranch hand you’ve been working with lately.  I’d keep my nose to the grindstone, too, if it meant spending time with her.”

“So you’ve met Nora.”  Far from being annoyed, Scott seemed rather pleased by this turn of events.  He held up his glass for a refill and then sat back looking for all the world like the cat who’d swallowed the canary, “She is pretty special, isn’t she?”

“I can’t argue with you there,” Johnny allowed.  “She’s mighty easy on the eyes, and pretty handy in the kitchen, too.”  Then he chuckled.  “The only puzzle is why she’d take up with you.”

But Scott didn’t rise to the bait, his smug expression never fading.  “Pure charm, Johnny boy, pure charm.”

“Well, maybe you’ll have some competition.”  Johnny came to his feet, pushed the chair back and surveyed his brother.  “The lady invited me to have supper with the two of you tonight,” he added teasingly.

“That’s a good idea,” Scott replied confidently.  “It’ll give you a chance to see just how crazy she is about me.”

“I don’t know.  After wallowing in that mud all afternoon, you might need something more than just charm working for you.”  Johnny continued to speak as he headed swiftly toward the door.  “Maybe you should check with Jelly.  I bet he’s still got a bottle or two left of his fancy cologne.  You know—Wildflowers in Spring-for the Complete Gentleman.  Get you smelling like……..”

Fortunately those razor-honed reflexes didn’t fail him.  The sopping wet washrag hit the wall a fraction of a second after he’d ducked out of the way.  By the time his brother emerged—dripping—from the bathtub, he’d made good his escape.

“Sorry, brother, you’ll have to teach me some manners another time,” he’d snickered, just before the door closed behind him.

**************************

“Hey there, fellah.  You settling in all right?”

Johnny approached the black stallion, brush in hand.  The animal needed grooming after their long trek, but—more importantly—he needed the reassurance of a calming human voice, helping him adjust to his new surroundings.

“Didn’t I tell ya you’d like it here at Lancer, boy?  I bet Jelly’s already been in here ta check on you.  Ole Jelly may be a cantankerous so-and-so, but he’ll be feeding ya extra carrots at the same time he’s bellyaching at ya.”

Boone nickered, but otherwise stood cooperatively—still and quiet—as the brisk rub down continued.

“Now Scott’s a real good hand with horses, too.  I sure wouldn’t have guessed that the first time I saw him--all gussied up finer than a ten-dollar whore—but there’s not much he can’t throw his leg over and ride.”

A strident, heavy wheezing came from one corner of the stall.  Buster had greeted Johnny’s return with the frenzy of barking, tail-wagging and general adoration he considered necessary on behalf of the man who’d saved him from death by starvation.  At last—spent—he’d subsided in a heap of straw and now slept the sleep of the truly contented.

Johnny accorded this cacophony of snoring only the most tolerant of grimaces, concentrating on the rhythmic strokes that seemed to be working their magic on the restive stallion.

“I’m afraid you’re gonna have ta wait til tomorrow ta meet Scott, though.  Right now my big brother ain’t got nothing on his mind but that new lady friend of his.  Can’t say I blame him much—she’s real beautiful.”   

Satisfied with the condition of that sleek black coat, Johnny discarded the brush and simply ran his hand lovingly down the stallion’s neck.

“The way I figure, it’s about time Scott met some good woman and decided to settle down.  Murdoch, he’s gonna be wanting a whole flock of grandkids around the place while he’s still young enough to enjoy ‘em.”

A smile—slow but deadly—crept across his face, and he murmured, “I suppose I ought to mention that ta Scott.  You know, just remind him about his duty as the first born son.”

The expression of pure, unadulterated mischief he wore as he gave Boone a final affectionate pat and left the barn was transforming.  Watching this breezy, untroubled young man plotting how to best torment his older brother, no one could have seen the least vestige of the hardened gunhawk, Johnny Madrid—unless they knew precisely where to look.

 

Chapter 10

The gentle sunlight insinuating itself through the curtains of Nora’s bedroom window seemed intent on both prodding her from sleep and enticing her with the promise of a new day.  Eyes tightly closed, however, the young woman resolutely ignored its efforts, preferring to spend a few extra minutes dwelling on her memories of the previous evening.

Dinner with Scott and his brother had been both pleasant and intriguing.  They were very different men—a study in contrasts when it came to looks and mannerisms.  But Nora had to admit, the unexpected sight of the two of them standing side-by-side—one blonde and handsome, the other darkly good-looking—had been enough to steal her breath momentarily.

Scott had insisted on making formal introductions, slipping a proprietary arm around Nora’s waist as he did so.  Nora—who had steadied herself some since that encounter in the great room—was friendly, welcoming and quite charmed when Johnny kissed her hand in an unabashed and courtly gesture.

Their meal—simple and easy-to-serve—had won praise from the hungry men, with Scott acknowledging the validity of her claim to feather-light dumplings.  Conversation—spontaneous and engaging—had ranged from debating the best restaurant in San Francisco, to relating any events of interest that had taken place  at Lancer in the past two weeks, and had ended with Johnny giving a vivid and heartfelt description of his *stagecoach ride from hell*.

Nora had been reduced to a fit of the giggles, and even Scott had been hard put to keep a straight face as the litany of abject suffering continued—“I’m telling ya, that farmer could of brought a full-grown steer to its knees, just by breathing on it.  And that old lady—I’d rather face down a pack of rabid comancheros than listen to her on the warpath again.”

“Well now, Johnny.”  Scott’s response had been laden with spurious sympathy.  “You must be dead on your feet after such a difficult journey.  Nora and I certainly would understand if you felt the need to go get some rest.  I’d be happy to help with the clean-up, and you can make an early night of it.”

Hurrying to clear the table, Nora had been only halfway out of the room when Johnny whispered slyly, “You trying ta get rid of me, big brother?”

She’d been unable to hear the remainder of what passed between the two men, but after a brief time—while she was washing the supper dishes—the younger Lancer had passed through the kitchen on his way to the stables.  “I just wanted ta thank ya for the good food, ma’am.  After I check on my animals, I’ll be turning in.”  And he’d left so quickly, Nora had almost missed the conspiratorial wink he’d aimed at his brother as he left the room.

Then, in an instant, Scott had been at her side.  As he’d plunged a stack of plates into the soapy water, his words had been innocuous.  “What’s that old saying?  Many hands make light work.”  But the look in those slate blue eyes made it, suddenly, impossible to breathe.

The necessary tasks had been completed in very short order, though Nora couldn’t help but wonder, now, if closer inspection would find kitchen utensils that had been disposed of willy-nilly with no rhyme or reason, stacks of good china stored in the larder and—she shuddered—had they actually left that pot of left-over stew sitting out on the stove?

It didn’t take long for her to dismiss such mundane considerations, however, in favor of reliving those few heavenly hours spent alone with Scott.

The lamps in the great room had been dimmed invitingly, with wine and flowers provided to enhance the romantic setting.  Nora had been flattered and touched that Scott had found the time to attend to these little details, but it was the gift of privacy that they’d both treasured.  Murmured endearments progressed to more passionate declarations, and they’d ended up in each other’s arms.

The time seemed to pass in a heartbeat—as is so often the case when you are involved in activities you deeply enjoy—and they soon heard the clatter and rattle of the buggy being driven into the courtyard of the hacienda.  By the time Teresa and Murdoch entered the great room, mussed hair had been smoothed, disarranged clothing had been put to rights, and erratic breathing was once again under control—just two people engaged in pleasant conversation while sharing a sociable after-dinner drink.

But, now, that bothersome sun had grown brighter and more insistent, so Nora rose and completed her morning ablutions—alert, if a bit dreamy-eyed. Soiled work clothes—worn during yesterday’s bridge project—were still lying in a heap where she’d shed them in her haste to clean up.  With a brief sigh, she passed them by and selected a simple cotton blouse and skirt.  Today, Scott—along with his father and brother—was going to be fully occupied with pressing ranch business, and she had promised to spend the day helping Teresa and Maria with preparations for Johnny’s celebratory dinner.

Before she opened the door, she allowed herself to remember just once more how totally at home she’d felt in Scott Lancer’s arms, and—wrapped in that memory—she’d set off to face the new day.

********

“You noticed that the buyers have agreed to a price that’s a dollar a head above market value?”  Scott leaned forward indicating the relevant passage.

“Hmmm………yes.”  There was a pause as Murdoch continued to study the documents arrayed on the top of his massive desk.  “I also noticed that there’s no provision for a penalty against us if we’re late delivering the stock.”

Perched on a sturdy end table, Johnny had apparently been studying the pattern on the carpet beneath his feet.  His head came up at Murdoch’s last remark.  “I looked at some of Lancer’s other contracts.  None of ‘em had any penalties like that.”

“That’s true,” Murdoch nodded, “but I know Cyrus Van Cleet.  There’s nothing he’d have liked better than to sneak in a penalty clause if he thought he could get away with it.”

White teeth flashed, “Guess he figured he couldn’t get away with it.”

Glancing over at his brother, Johnny added, “As far as the price goes, I told ‘em that Lancer is known for its prime beef ‘n if they wanted the best, they’d hafta pay for it.”

“Well, whatever methods you used to handle the negotiations, they were certainly successful.”  Murdoch gathered the papers into a neat stack.  “I’m very proud of you, son.”

Johnny had gone back to staring at the floor, but now met his father’s eyes.

His—“Thanks, Murdoch.”—was given quietly with a crooked half-smile, but there was no mistaking the genuine pleasure behind it.

“Now,” Murdoch cleared his throat loudly, “if we’re going to have five thousand head of beef ready for the trail after the spring round up, we’ve got a lot of work do to between now and then.”

The three men began discussing some overall plans for the next several months.  A number of fields were ready to be harvested, providing them with feed for the winter.  They could also start the men repairing some of the more decrepit bridges, fences and roads. Line shacks would need to be restocked in the outlying areas.

Murdoch had just brought up the issue of how to increase their grazing land, when a man entered through the open veranda doors.  He was carrying a load of firewood with both hands.

“Jelly told me ya needed some more firewood in here, Mr. Lancer.  Is it all right if I bring it in now?”

“Sure, Ethan, that would be fine.  Just put it over there.”  Murdoch waved at the corner near the fireplace.

While the ranch hand was arranging the logs, the conversation continued.

“I think we could get more grazing off that pasture in the northern range,” Johnny insisted.

“It doesn’t have enough water to handle more cattle,” Scott objected, but his brother was ready with a quick answer.

“The stream that runs through that stretch just goes on into some rocky wasteland and peters out,” he argued.  “If we could dam it up before that point, we’d have a nice size pond.”

Scott gave the matter some thought.  “That might just work, but we’d have to be very careful.  Some of those hillsides are pretty unstable.”

Johnny grinned, “Now, see, that’s the beauty of my plan—all it’ll take is just the right rockslide and we’ll have our dam.”

Ethan got to his feet.  “All finished, Mr. Lancer.  Anything else ya need before I head out?”

“No, Ethan.”  Murdoch was concentrating on a map of the northern range.  “You can go join the work crew.  Thank you.”

“New hand?”  Johnny asked after the man had left.

“Yes, we hired Ethan about two weeks ago,” Scott replied.  “He’s been doing a fair job—seems to be pulling his own weight.  Now, as to this dam of yours……”

Murdoch interrupted, “We can’t really decide anything until we have more specific information.  One of you will have to go up there and conduct a detailed survey of the area.  Might be a good time to search for strays, too.”

“I can ride up there and check it out,” Johnny volunteered.  “After all, Scott here has some real special company right now.  We can’t expect him to be leaving her all alone just ta wetnose a herd of mangy cattle.”

“Now wait a minute, Johnny,” Scott bristled.  “I’ve never allowed my personal life to interfere with my responsibilities here on the ranch.  And I’d like to remind you that it is just that—personal.”

It was obvious Johnny hadn’t expected this reaction to his flippant remark, but before he could demand an explanation, Murdoch intervened.

“Nobody is calling into question your sense of responsibility, son,” he admonished.  “We’ll all be working fairly close to home today, since Teresa expects us for Johnny’s welcome home dinner.  You two can go check the fence line along Spencer’s Creek.  There will be time enough tomorrow to decide who should do the survey up on the northern range.”

But as the two younger Lancers collected hats and gun belts, Johnny cast his brother a glance that said the issue between them hadn’t really been settled.   He was willing to bide his time until the two of them were alone, however.  

*********

Ethan had been crouching just outside the open veranda doors on the pretext of picking up his tools.  When he heard the men preparing to leave, he hastily grabbed the last item and made his way back to the tool shed.

Anyone watching would have been impressed with his diligence.  Each blade was sharpened and oiled before being placed carefully in its proper place and he took the time to repair any loose or broken handles.  A job worth doing was worth doing well.

All this careful activity gave him the time he needed to digest what he’d heard while eavesdropping.  So far, all he’d done on this assignment was to gather information—not his usual area of expertise. But Mr. Stanton was paying him top dollar for this job, and since he’d had plenty of ranching experience, his role as a spy was easy to maintain.

Left to his own devices, Ethan could have planned an ambush that would have guaranteed an end to Johnny Madrid, then and there.  He had done so many times before.  But Jack Freeman had been explicit—Johnny Madrid was not to be touched until Stanton gave the word.  It seemed the old man was determined to be in on the kill—in person.

The other requirement was that Madrid’s death had to look like an accident.  Ethan’s job as the inside man was to determine the most feasible way of bringing this about.  He had already come up with several possibilities, including one that had occurred to him this morning as he listened to the Lancers plans for the near future.  If none of those ideas panned out, there were always more where they came from.  After all, everyone knew a working ranch was a very dangerous place—very dangerous indeed.

 

Chapter 11

Stringing barbed wire is a tedious, nasty, back-breaking job, but Scott and Johnny had done it many times before.  They worked as a team to finish their chore as quickly and efficiently as possible. Using a sturdy stick as a lever, Johnny applied tension until the wire was taut, then Scott secured each strand, driving two or three nails into the fencepost with swift, sure strokes.

With an ease borne of much practice, they fell into a natural rhythm—each performing his task in perfect coordination with the other, wordlessly moving from one newly completed section to the next unfinished one.

For a very long time, the only sounds to break the silence in this peaceful meadow were the twang of the singing wire and the pounding beat of the hammer.  Although Johnny eyed his brother occasionally, he made no attempt to initiate a conversation.

Suddenly there was a muffled thud, followed by a loud oath, and Scott threw his hammer to the ground.  Stripping off his left glove, he grabbed his thumb—all the while swearing vehemently and fluently.

After gently easing the tension out of the wire, Johnny released his grip on the lever and leaned casually against the fencepost.  “I’m real impressed, Scott.  You’ve sure learned a lotta new words since Boston.  I swear I heard ya cussing in Spanish there.”

Scott met his brother’s amused gaze with an irate glare, and for a moment the issue seemed to hang in the balance.  But then he relaxed slightly.  “Two times in two days,” he admitted ruefully, examining his hand.  “I guess maybe I do need to start paying a little more attention.”

“Ya do seem ta be a might distracted,” Johnny commented sagely. “When ya bit my head off this morning I wondered if something was bothering ya.”

Flexing his fingers gingerly, Scott replaced his glove and picked up his hammer before responding.  “All right, I have had something on my mind today…….”

When his voice trailed off, Johnny shrugged, gripping the lever and applying tension once again. “If ya don’t want ta talk about it, that’s fine.  I just figured I’d give ya the chance before that thumb really gets mashed to a pulp.”

The two men worked a while longer, but this time the silence seemed a bit more meditative.  It wasn’t until they’d finished the final stretch of fence line and started packing up the tools and leftover wire that Scott spoke again.

“I’ve been thinking about Nora.”

Johnny grinned, “I can think of worse ways ta spend your time.”

“Nora’s father will be returning any day now, and when he does, she’ll be leaving.”  Scott looked off into the horizon for a moment or two.  “I’ve said good-bye to a number of women in my life, but last night I started to realize—I don’t want to say good-bye to Nora.”  Before his brother could make any comment, he added defensively, “I suppose you’re going to say that I’ve only know her a little more than two weeks.”

There was a flash of white teeth.  “No, brother, that ain’t what I was gonna say at all.”

“I’m thinking of asking Nora to marry me.”  Scott directed a searching look at his brother.   “What do you think?”

“Well, Scott,” Johnny smothered a grin, “I think it’s like you once told Murdoch—you’re old enough to get along without our approval.”

“I’m not looking for approval,” Scott snapped impatiently, then went on in a softened tone, “maybe just a little advice.”

Slowly, Johnny nodded, “Seems ta me you never had much problem before, making your own decisions and living by ‘em.  But I will say this…” Those blue eyes darkened—what he felt could no longer be considered pain, but it was a bittersweet memory none-the-less.  “I believe a man knows when he’s found the woman he wants.  A woman to share his life—have his children.  It might take ya a year to figure that out—ya might know it in just one day, but that’s what’s important.”

And then—in an instant—the serious expression left his face.  Climbing up onto his saddle, he called down to his brother, “If you think you got problems now, it ain’t nothing to what Teresa and Maria are gonna to do us if we’re late for their little wing-ding tonight.”

Scott scrambled onto his mount.  By the time he caught up to his brother, the race had begun in earnest.  While each man had the advantage at one time or another during the contest, Scott was the first—by a nose—to cross under the Lancer arch.

*************

It was obvious that the ladies of the household had used this occasion as an excuse for a whirlwind of cleaning.  The great room had been scrubbed, dusted and polished from top to bottom, and looked immaculate.  However—as far as the guest of honor was concerned—the most important preparations were those taking place in the kitchen.

Johnny had already tried all of his time-honored methods in hopes of convincing Maria to give him an early helping of some of his favorite foods.  But cajolery, outrageous flattery and his most winning smile all failed to soften her heart.  Fond and indulgent she might be, but Maria was also very proud of her cooking.  These Mexican dishes were her specialties, and they would be served—with all necessary fanfare—when they were perfect, and not a moment sooner.  So Johnny had retired, defeated, with only a couple left-over biscuits to fend off starvation.

All three male Lancers now gathered in the great room which—thanks to Maria’s efforts in the kitchen—now smelled as good as it looked.  They were discussing the progress that had been made that day by the various work crews, when the two young women made their entrance.

“Good evening, ladies.  You both look quite charming this evening.”  Scott smiled warmly.  “Teresa, is that a new dress?”

“Yes, Johnny brought it back for me from San Francisco.”  She twirled around, displaying the silk frock to its best advantage.  “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It certainly is,” Murdoch agreed, adding with paternal pride, “and so is the young lady wearing it.”

Teresa threw her arms around the dark-haired cowboy.  “Thank you again, Johnny,” she hugged him tightly.  “It’s just perfect.”

“Da nada, querida.”  He kissed her cheek affectionately.  “I’m glad you like it.”

“Why don’t you all have a seat, and Johnny and I will fix some drinks.”  Scott offered politely.

As the two men walked across the room, Scott commented in a low voice, “Very generous, brother.”

Johnny winked, “I figured she ought ta get something outta the deal.  If she hadn’t of gone to the Harvest Dance with Pete Hardy, you’d of been the one making that trip to San Francisco.”

“Maybe you should have brought a gift for Matt Clay, as well,” Scott kept his voice low as they filled the glasses.  “If he hadn’t been caught kissing the dressmaker, you still might have lost that wager.”

“But old Matt, he’d of looked terrible in that dress,” Johnny laughed loudly at his own joke.

Scott threw a cautionary glance over his shoulder, but the women were chatting happily with Murdoch an attentive audience.  “I’d keep that pretty quiet if I were you.  If Teresa ever finds out what we did, we’ll be eating dry rations for the next month.”

“Nobody’s gonna hear it from me,” Johnny smirked.  “Course, now that I think about it, maybe you’re the one who owes Matt Clay some kinda thank-you gift.”

His brother lifted one eyebrow in mute inquiry.

“See, if he hadn’t made you lose that bet, you’d of been off in San Francisco when Nora came to stay at Lancer.”  Johnny watched closely to see if this little jibe would provoke a reaction similar to this morning’s angry outburst.

But Scott seemed much more relaxed tonight.  Instead of flying off the handle, he crooked his mouth and said mildly, “How good of you to remind me of my obligations,” before placing three tumblers of whiskey in his brother’s unresisting hands and picking up the ladies’ drinks.

Satisfied, Johnny hid a knowing smile as they rejoined the rest of the group.

The conversation—familiar and companionable—continued through drinks and into dinner.  The dinner itself might have been considered the star of the evening.  Maria had outdone herself, producing every one of Johnny’s favorites: baskets of warm flour tortillas, platters laden with mouth-watering tamales, a tureen simmering with spicy beans and a choice of red and green enchiladas.

When Murdoch rolled his eyes just a bit and complained about how much his digestion was going to suffer because of this indulgence, Johnny slyly pointed out that it didn’t seem to be stopping him from taking a healthy helping of everything on the table.  Since Murdoch was indeed dishing up a large serving of green enchiladas, there was general laughter at his expense.

“So, Johnny,” Nora asked, in the lull that followed, “Scott tells me you spent a lot of time around the border when you were younger.  Is that when you developed your taste for all of this?”

“Yeah, it seemed like I never could get my fill of it back then,” Johnny admitted.

“Well, you’re sure trying hard to get your fill of it now,” Scott nodded at his brother’s heaping plate.

At that moment, Maria entered the room and placed a small covered bowl at Johnny’s elbow.

“Eso es grande, Maria.  Usted no se olvido de mi favorite.”  Johnny fairly beamed.

“No, Juanito,” Maria patted his hand in a motherly fashion, “es agradable y caliente, apenas la manera que usted tiene gusto de ella.”

Johnny removed the lid, sniffed appreciatively and proceeded to ladle a generous portion of the salsa over the food on his plate. Meanwhile the longsuffering members of his family groaned and shook their heads.

Seeing Nora’s puzzled looked, Scott hastened to explain.  “Maria has to tame her recipes a little bit for the rest of us, so she makes that special sauce for Johnny to use.  I tried it once,” he grimaced, “and I could still feel it burning three days later.”

With a speculative gleam in her eye, Nora leaned forward.  “Would you be willing to share just a bit of that, Johnny?”

“Nora!”  Scott looked appalled.  “That’s really not a good idea.”

But it was obvious Nora was not going to be deterred.  That unmistakably feminine chin firmed and she simply repeated her request.

Johnny hesitated for a few moments, glancing from his brother to the very determined young lady sitting beside him.  Then he shrugged and wordlessly pushed the bowl across the table.

With a folded tortilla, Nora delicately scooped up a generous portion of the fiery salsa.  Popping it into her mouth, she chewed primly and swallowed, then calmly allowed herself a tiny sip of water.

There was an instant of awed silence as the Lancers waited, still convinced there would be some sort of panicked reaction in the aftermath of that act of bravado. Instead Nora patted her mouth daintily with her napkin like a proper guest at a society tea party.

It was Scott who recovered first.  He led the little round of applause that soon had Nora flushed with embarrassment over her impulsive display.  “I’m sorry about showing off that way,” she murmured.  “It’s not a very lady-like accomplishment, I’m afraid.”

“But an impressive one,” Scott couldn’t resist teasing her a little.  “How did you come to have such an affinity for this kind of food?”

“Ned and I made it a point of honor to be able to eat anything Luis, Patrick and their brothers could eat.”  Nora smiled at the memory.  “Maria’s version actually isn’t quite as hot what Molly used to prepare.  As I understand it, when chili peppers are grown in a hotter climate, they actually taste hotter when you eat them.  That might account for the difference.”

“Boy, she’s right about that!” Johnny—who had resumed eating—gestured with his fork.  “I remember this little place on the border, Las Ganitas.  It was a dusty hole-in-the-wall kind of place in the middle of the desert.  I must of passed through it a half dozen times, and the chili there was always hotter than anything I’d had anywhere else between San Diego and El Paso. There was a cantina where……….”

If Scott hadn’t been sitting right next to Nora, he would have missed that sudden, sharp intake of breath.  Looking over, he saw that all the color had left her face and she had closed her eyes as if in pain.

Concerned, he leaned close to ask what was wrong, only to be interrupted by a booming voice.

“Well, I seem to have timed my arrival perfectly.  Do you suppose there’s any way a weary, hungry traveler could be spared a meal and a bed?”

***************

 

Chapter 12

As all conversation ceased abruptly, Nora was the first to react, hurrying impulsively across the room.

“Father!”

Carl Stanton pulled his daughter close for a quick hug, and his greeting was affectionate enough—in the bluff and hearty manner of a self-contained man unable to easily express tender emotions.

“Well now, you look fine, my dear, just fine,” he declared bracingly, holding her at arm’s length.

“And you look safe and sound and all in one piece.”  There was a noticeable catch in Nora’s voice as she smiled up at him.  “I’m very grateful for that.” 

The rest of the dinner party had remained at the table to allow the Stantons some privacy for their little reunion, but now Murdoch surged forward offering a firm handshake and a sincere welcome.  “Carl—good to see you.”

“I’m sorry to arrive at such a late hour, Murdoch,” Stanton apologized.  “It looks like I’ve interrupted some kind of party here. I don’t mean to intrude.  If you could point me to a spare room, I can make myself scarce and……….”

“Nonsense—you’ll join us, of course!”  Any objections were swept aside.  “It is a bit of a special occasion.  We’re celebrating my son’s homecoming.  Johnny just returned from San Francisco after negotiating a very favorable contract with Cyrus Van Cleet.”  Murdoch regarded his younger son with obvious pride as he added, “Knowing Cyrus, I’m sure you can appreciate what an impressive accomplishment that is.”

For a split second the mask slipped.  It was only an infinitesimal chink in Carl Stanton’s protective armor—lips tightened, eyes narrowed, jaw clenched—but it could have been extremely revealing if anyone had noticed it.

As it happened, however, everyone’s attention had been focused on the guest of honor, who was shying away from any eye-contact that might betray how much his father’s words meant to him.

The brief interlude gave Stanton time to recover, and there was no trace of his inner turmoil when he offered his hand to Johnny, remarking jovially,” It’s a pleasure to meet any man who can get the best of old ‘Skinflint Cyrus’, and live to tell about it.”

On that note, the entire party moved back to the dining area.  Teresa had disappeared into the kitchen, and returned with an extra place setting.  Soon everyone was seated at the table, dividing their attention equally between eating and talking.

The conversation soon turned to the conditions at the Tenstrike Mine, how the situation there had been resolved, and when Nora and her father would resume their travels.

Carl Stanton believed the hallmarks of any good plan were preparation and flexibility, so when he’d needed a delaying tactic, fabricating the message from his mine had been a logical move.  The telegram may have been bogus, but the threat of violence was real.  Every gold mining operation in the state—including Stanton’s—was experiencing trouble with outside agitators.  Under ordinary circumstances, he would have simply allowed his underlings to solve the problem—busting heads and breaking legs as necessary.  But—since it had offered him an excuse for being present when Johnny returned—he’d had no problem seeking protection for his daughter and settling the mining dispute himself.

No one who listened to this man talk could doubt that he had the guts and determination to handle rough-edged negotiations with any number of Molly Maguires, scabs, union toughs or just plain hard-scrabble miners.  Naturally, he didn’t mention the fact that—once the crisis had been averted—he’d waited in Stockton until the timing was right for his return to Lancer. But he did address the question of how soon he and Nora would be leaving.

“Since all our arrangements have been shot to hell, I’ve had to send a telegram to my foreman back at the ranch, and we can’t leave until I get an answer,” Stanton explained.  “I can’t thank you enough for taking such good care of my daughter, but I don’t want to impose any further on your generosity.  Nora and I can get a room at the hotel in town for a few days.”

“We wouldn’t hear of such a thing.” Murdoch was quick to object.  “It’s been a pleasure having Nora as our guest here at Lancer.  We’ve all become very fond of her, and we’re not looking forward to seeing her go.”

“We certainly aren’t,” Teresa agreed emphatically.  “There’s no question of you going to a hotel.  You’ll both be staying here and that’s all that needs to be said about it!”

“Now you don’t wanna go getting Teresa mad at ya, Mr. Stanton.”  Johnny leaned back in his chair and regarded the dark-haired girl with a teasing grin.  “I happen ta know she’s got a real special chocolate cake back in the kitchen, but if she hears anymore talk about leaving, you’ll be lucky to get even a crumb.”

Carl held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.  “Nora, it seems these good people have spoken.  All we can do is accept their hospitality and hope we can repay them someday.”

Nora’s glance took in each member of the Lancer family, lingering for an instant on the blonde sitting by her side.  “They already have my heartfelt gratitude and more.  I think they know just how much they all mean to me.”

Johnny rubbed his hands together.  “Seeing we’ve got that outta the way, how about that chocolate cake…..?”

*************

Teresa’s devil’s food cake had turned out to be every bit as mouth-watering as Johnny had anticipated.  After dessert, everyone had made their way into the great room for coffee and brandy.  The evening had become quite chilly, and a brisk fire added to the room’s inviting charm.      

A short time ago—after Teresa had gone to make sure Mr. Stanton’s room was ready—Murdoch had challenged their guest to a game of chess.  The two men appeared to be pretty evenly matched.  Both gave their utmost concentration to the board, the tantalizing dance of those little carved marble pieces and the success and failure of each ploy.       

Scott and Nora were seated on the couch.  Even the most high-minded stickler couldn’t have taken exception to their behavior—they kept a good eighteen inches of distance between them and said nothing that could be construed as intimate or provocative.  If there was a certain ardent spark in their eyes, a tender note of affection in their voices, it wasn’t blatant enough to be obvious to the casual observer.

But Johnny’s perceptive abilities were not those of a casual observer.  Dozing in a comfortable chair near the fire, he was still totally aware of his surroundings.  When Scott reached solicitously for Nora’s coffee cup—using the opportunity to stroke her hand seductively—it didn’t go unnoticed.

// Very smooth, Boston! // 

Johnny grinned inwardly, but there was something else, some other subtle interaction in this room, that seemed to be crying out for his attention.

During his years of living as a gunhawk—relying on his instincts to keep him alive—the luxury of total relaxation had been very rare.  It had taken a long time before he’d been able to truly let his guard down, even in the sanctuary of his own home.  Although he’d gradually come to accept that the fact that he had family now—family determined to stand by him and watch his back—some remnant of that former vigilance still remained.  And right now, that vigilance, that need to identify any possible threat, niggled at the corners of his mind.

Elusive half-thoughts shimmered and shifted, leaving nothing of substance in their wake, but still Johnny searched for some hidden source of discord, if not danger.  Surveying the room with heavy-lidded eyes at half-mast, he considered the two men huddled over the chess board.

Carl Stanton—the only wild card in this deck.  The man had demonstrated that he could be ruthless and single-minded, but those qualities were not uncommon traits in a man who’d carved a veritable empire out of raw wilderness.  Far from displaying any open signs of aggression during the evening, he’d been congenial, gracious and friendly.  But there was something about the set of his shoulders—a certain alert wariness—that struck a cord of recognition.

Predicting an opponent’s intentions could mean the difference between life and death in a gunfight, so Johnny was adept at reading the slightest change in expression, interpreting a man’s posture and stance.  He realized now that Stanton was concealing some strong emotion, and a hostile emotion at that.

So, who was that hostility aimed at?  Johnny watched Stanton with increased scrutiny, trying to figure out the answer to that puzzle.  As far as he knew, the man had never been a part of any of their lives before this visit.  What could have provoked this reaction?

At that moment, Nora giggled and blushed at something Scott was quietly whispering.  Suddenly Johnny realized he might have the answer.  Carl Stanton wouldn’t be the first man to be over-protective when it came to his only daughter.  As if to confirm this, Stanton glanced at the couple seated on the couch, a glint of disapproval in his eyes.

Evidently, paternal concern was the explanation for all this repressed animosity.  Johnny didn’t really find this very surprising.  In his experience, the fathers of beautiful young women were apt to get more than a bit testy when men came sniffing around their daughters.  Even Murdoch was prone to be more stern and over-bearing than usual when some young cub came to escort Teresa to a dance or church social.   

Satisfied that he’d struck upon the explanation for Stanton’s attitude, Johnny chuckled to himself.  // Brother, you better get ready. I don’t think Nora’s old man is gonna be a pushover when it comes to his *little girl*.  Ya might just have your work cut out for you. //

“Thank you, Carl.  I haven’t had the pleasure of such a stimulating match in quite some time.”

“Stimulating?”  Johnny snickered.  “Hey, Murdoch, is that a fancy way of saying—he beat ya?”

“He did, indeed, Johnny,” Murdoch acknowledged.  “And I hope he’ll give me an opportunity to even the score tomorrow evening.”

“Looking forward to it.”  Carl offered his hand to seal the bargain.  “But I’m afraid it’s been a very long day for me.  If you’ll all excuse me, I’m ready for a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ll see you to your room,” Murdoch offered.  “I’m ready to turn in myself.”

Nora, Scott and Johnny had all come to their feet when Murdoch and Stanton started to leave the room.  Now, Nora went to her father’s side.

“I’m so glad you made it back safely,” she smiled.  “Perhaps tomorrow we could find the time to take a walk or go riding together, just you and me.  I’d really like the chance to talk.”

“That sounds like a fine idea, my dear.” Stanton patted her cheek indulgently.  “We’ll do that tomorrow; you have my word on it.”

The two men had barely left the room, when Johnny cleared his throat loudly and announced, “You know, I think Teresa left some of that chocolate cake back in the kitchen.  I’m gonna go see if I can find it.”  With a pointed smirk and a wink, he disappeared out the door.

Finding themselves together and alone for the first time that day, Scott and Nora decided to take advantage of the full moon and strolled into the courtyard.  There was a distinct nip in the air, but they were in each others arms before there was any chance of becoming chilled.  Both of them were content to forego any meaningful conversation until other, more important, means of communication had been fully explored.

Some time later—when the fervor of their enthusiastic and passionate kisses had given way to a warm, cozy embrace—Scott brought up a subject that had been troubling him since dinner that evening.

“Nora?”

“Hmmmm?”

He almost changed his mind—she sounded so blissful and serene.  It was the memory of the pain and despair he’d seen on her face earlier that decided the matter.

“I was watching you at supper this evening, when Johnny was telling his story.” She stiffened, and he gently but firmly lifted her chin so he could look directly into her eyes.  “What is it, darling?  I only want to help if I can.”

Nora didn’t struggle or resist.  She simply stood there, silent and motionless, until he released her.  Her two small, backward steps effectively rejected his implicit offer of comfort.

Scott’s first impulse was to take her in his arms once again, but her detached, remote demeanor gave him pause.  She squared her shoulders, tossed back her hair and met his gaze with a surprisingly defiant glare.

“I was taken by surprise when your brother mentioned Las Ganitas, that’s all.  You see, Las Ganitas is where Ned died.”  She shrugged.  “The details are sordid and ugly, but it’s a story that’s common enough.  A senseless gunfight in a dirty little border town—bullets and blood—and it’s just one more fool who ended his life on the floor of a third-rate saloon………only this time the fool was my brother.”

Before Scott could react to her bitter outburst, Nora’s mood changed abruptly and her eyes were wet with unshed tears.  “I’m sorry, that was completely uncalled for.”

“I think you’ve been holding that anger in for a long time,” Scott murmured quietly.  “It probably did you good to get it out in the open.”

“I cried the last time I talked about Ned, didn’t I?” Her whole body seemed to sag.  “I’m tired of the tears…..the pain.  I loved my brother.  I’ve grieved for him and mourned the pointless tragedy of his death, but now I just want to get on with my life.”  She drew a ragged breath.  “Is it selfish to want to put those memories behind me and concentrate on my own happiness?”

“Of course it’s not selfish!”  This time Scott didn’t hesitate to pull her close.  “I can’t help but believe it’s what your brother would want for you—I know it’s what I want.”

Nora felt a bit disoriented and confused by the jumble of emotions that she’d experienced in such a short space of time, and she clung to the sanctuary she found in Scott’s arms. As she let her head rest on his shoulder, she thought that maybe—just maybe—he’d been right. Ned’s death had brought her trauma, guilt, unbearable sorrow, and secrets she’d never been able to share.  Perhaps the time had come to let her brother rest in his grave—time for healing……time for peace….time for love.

*****************

Carl Stanton stepped back from the darkened window of the bedroom on the upper floor of the hacienda.  His face was illuminated only by the meager light of the full moon, but it was more than sufficient to bear witness to the thoughts revealed there—thoughts of killing……thoughts of vengeance……thoughts of hatred.

 

Chapter 13

“All I’m gonna say is, I know what I know.  Iffen you don’t believe me, it’s no skin offa my nose.”

Half-way down the stairs, Johnny had heard the familiar, hectoring, grievance-laden voice, so the scene that met his eyes when he entered the dining room came as no surprise.  His father and brother were seated—their breakfasts on the table before them—but just now their attention seemed focused on the source of this little outburst.

Jellifer B. Hoskins was in rare form.  Puffed up like a bantam rooster, and crowing almost as determinedly, he wasn’t going to spare anyone the benefit of his self-declared wisdom.

Johnny slid into a chair next to Scott and smiled his thanks when Teresa set a plate with a large helping of pancakes in front of him.  Both brothers looked on appreciatively while Murdoch attempted to smooth the troubled waters.

“Now, Jelly, it’s not a question of believing you.”  With the same firm authority and tolerant patience that he might have directed toward a two-year-old having a tantrum, Murdoch tried reasoning with the indignant handyman. “There are a lot of chores that need doing around the ranch, so we have to………”

“It’s my knee,” Jelly interrupted gruffly.  “With the miseries it’s been giving me, we gotta expect a no-fooling, gully-washer right soon.”

“Really?” Scott commented mildly.  “It seems pretty early in the year for something like that.  I’d have thought we’d have a bit more time before the rainy season was upon us.”

“Huh,” Jelly snorted.  “Maybe the weather back in Boston runs itself on a schedule—like a train—but out here things can be a mite more unexpected.”

“Hey, are you sure about this, Jelly?” Johnny asked in a mock-serious tone.  “Old Granny Hawkins was just telling me that it we was in for a real dry patch—said she knew on account of the plants in her garden were sending down deeper roots than usual.”

The older man’s face turned an even darker shade of red, and he sputtered a few times before he could get the words out.  “Plants…………..roots……..???  Why that’s just a bunch of hogwash!”

“Naturally, a prediction based on the solid scientific evidence of one aching knee would be much more credible,” Scott murmured.

Before Jelly could voice his outrage at this slight, Johnny posed yet another deliberately provocative question.  “Are you sure it’s a downpour that’s coming?  Seems to me the last time you forecast a rainstorm, we got an earthquake instead.  Maybe your knee is for earthquakes, and it’s your elbow that hurts when it’s gonna rain.”

 As Murdoch cleared his throat loudly, his unruly sons subsided, and Jelly grudgingly bit back a truculent, cantankerous retort.   “All right, if you’re all done wasting time, there’s work to be done on this ranch—rain or not.” He thought for a moment and then went on, “We do have a few things that need to be completed before the first rainfall, and it won’t hurt to make them a priority.”

It was apparent that Jelly was about to crow in triumph, but Murdoch quelled him with a glance.  “It’s just good common sense to take care of these matters as soon as possible, in case of an early rain.”

In a businesslike manner, he ran down a list that included taking men off the work parties checking fence line, so they could complete the harvest of several fields of alfalfa and clear the last of the stream beds.

“Don’t we have leaky roofs on some of those outbuildings?” Johnny inquired.

“Oh, I took care of them several weeks ago,” Scott informed him, “while you were still off gallivanting in the big city.”

“Well, it’s nice to know you’re good for something, brother,” Johnny grinned as he snagged a piece of bacon from a platter in the middle of the table. Then he asked, “How about that make-shift dam we were thinking about up in the northern range?”

“I think it’s an idea that merits further investigation……tomorrow, maybe.”  Murdoch glanced at his younger son.  “Are you still willing to volunteer for that job?”

“Sure, Murdoch,” Johnny shrugged, unconcernedly.  “I mean, you got yourself a desk full of paperwork to do, and Scott’s gonna have other things on his mind………...and his hands.  He sure can’t disappoint a pretty girl like Nora.”

On the heels of this somewhat inappropriate comment, Carl Stanton entered the kitchen.  The look Johnny shot his brother was apologetic, since he hadn’t meant to stir up any trouble.

It didn’t seem that Stanton could have failed to hear the remark, but he merely greeted the other men genially and accepted a plate of flapjacks from Teresa with thanks.

A moment later, Nora joined them.  Scott couldn’t help but scrutinize her face, looking for any trace of last night’s show of despair and grief.  Her clear eyes, radiant smile, and buoyant demeanor, however, helped put his fears to rest.

Carl immediately joined in on the men’s discussion of the day’s activities.  His pertinent questions and excellent suggestions were proof beyond any doubt of his years of experience as a cattle rancher.  He also mentioned his willingness to help out in any way he could.

“After all,” he insisted, “I am still greatly in your debt for everything you’ve done for my daughter.”

“Now, I’ve already said that entertaining Nora was our pleasure,” Murdoch said firmly, “but I won’t turn down your generosity.  A ranch can always use the services of another top hand.”

“I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow if you want to take advantage of my father’s offer.”  Nora sounded pleasant, but resolved.  “He has already promised this day to me, and we are going riding together.”

If Stanton had entertained any ideas about postponing his daughter’s plans, they were abandoned after one look at her determined expression.  So he agreed to meet her near the corral in a short while.

As Nora went into the kitchen to fix a picnic lunch, Ethan came into the room and addressed Murdoch respectfully, “Mr. Lancer, Frank is getting the wagon ready to go into town.  Did you have that list of supplies you wanted him to get?”

“Of course,” Murdoch rose from the table.  “It’s in my study.  Wait here and I’ll bring it out.  And be sure to tell him to check at the telegraph office.  Mr. Stanton is expecting a wire from his foreman.”

“We’d better get going too.  Besides all the work Murdoch has planned for us, we have that extra project.”  Johnny nudged his brother.

Scott caught on quickly and added, “Oh, yes, we can’t forget about that project.  It’s very important.”

Grabbing their hats and gun belts, the two men headed toward the door with Jelly in hot pursuit.

“Project? What project?  I don’t remember the boss talking about no special project.”

“Why, we’re just taking your warnings real serious, Jelly,” Johnny explained before ducking outside.  “We’re building an ark!”

 As the sound of mocking laughter and scolding recriminations gradually died away, Stanton chanced a few words with his accomplice, “Has everything been taken care of?”

“All ready to go, whenever you give the word,” Ethan assured him.

Acknowledging this information with only the briefest of nods, Stanton made sure his face contained no hint of the emotions he was feeling and set out to find his daughter.

*****************

If Nora had devoted weeks to planning this outing, she couldn’t have picked a more perfect day.  While the nights had been becoming increasingly colder, the afternoons were still pleasantly warm, and today was no exception.

The two riders covered a lot of miles before stopping for lunch, and Nora realized how many months had passed since they’d spent any time together on horseback.  Her father had taken the lead that morning, but—no matter how rough the terrain or challenging the pace—she’d never faltered, staying close to his side throughout.

It served to remind her of the reason she’d been determined to become an expert rider and worked to remain one, even during her years back east; it was one of the few skills she possessed that had ever earned her father’s approval.  Carl Stanton didn’t give his praise lightly, so the look of approbation in his eyes when his young daughter had managed to ride one of the more difficult mounts in his stable had been a hard won prize.

There hadn’t been an opportunity for much conversation during their ride, and over lunch they had discussed practical, routine topics such as the new itinerary for their trip and the contents of the wire Stanton had sent home to his foreman.

Now, Nora stared into the horizon—oblivious to the panoramic view—and searched for both the words and the courage to broach the subject uppermost in her mind.  She didn’t realize how long her silence must have lasted until her father spoke.

“All right, young lady, suppose you tell me the truth!”

The authoritarian tone, the stern expression and that expectation of instant submission all brought back a flood of memories.  Nora could recall vividly being called on the carpet for some childhood infraction, while her father stood in judgment.  She’d learned quickly that he had no patience for excuses, evasiveness or just plain lying.

In all fairness—lying had never been one of her shortcomings.  Defiance, willfulness, reckless behavior—yes—but the only time she could remember lying had been to protect someone else, usually her brother, Ned, or whichever of the Carrillo brothers had been her current partner-in-crime.  Carl Stanton had never been anything but a strict disciplinarian; however, she’d quickly learned that he respected honesty and courage.

So she took a deep breath and began her explanation.  “There is something I wanted to tell you, something that happened while you were taking care of your problems at the mine.”

“Scott Lancer and I have spent a lot of time together these past few weeks.” As Nora wracked her brain for the most favorable way to express what she wanted to say, one of her old deportment teacher’s favorite phrases popped into her head. “Scott has become very particular in his attentions toward me, as Miss Bradfield would say.”

Stanton snorted in derision, “I suppose she might.  But—in spite of all the money I paid that woman—she never succeeded in teaching you to talk in that namby-pamby fashion, so why don’t you just put it into plain words?”

“All right—Scott has told me he loves me, and I believe him.  I know that I’m very much in love with him,” Nora said, baldly.  “I can’t be certain, but I think he may ask me to marry him.  If he does, I plan to accept.”

“I see,” Stanton didn’t sound particularly surprised.  “Well, it sounds like you have your mind made up.  There’s not much left for me to say, I suppose.”

“That’s never stopped you before.”  The words were out of Nora’s mouth before she could do anything but regret her unruly tongue.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”

“Hmmph, is it any wonder I wore out more hickory switches on you than I ever did on your brother?”  For all his bluster, there was a tender look in Stanton’s eye as he regarded his headstrong daughter.  “I just hope this young man knows what he’s getting into.  He’s not some kind of milksop who’s going to let you walk all over him, is he?”

Nora had a sudden vision of Scott—wrathful and militant—taking her to task after the incident with the bull.  “Oh, I don’t think I’ll be getting everything my own way by any means,” she smiled.

Stanton came to his feet.  “Then, I guess you’ll have to do as you think best.  You usually do so anyway.”

“Father,” Nora came to stand very close, putting her hand on his arm, “I wanted to talk about one other thing—Ned.”

Her father stiffened, and she rushed into speech.  “I haven’t talked to you about Ned’s death in a long time.  That was partly because I didn’t want to fight with you.  You were so angry, and I just couldn’t listen to all your plans for revenge.  But, when you suggested this trip, things seemed so much better between us.”  Her eyes were openly pleading now.  “Please tell me that that’s true, that you’re willing to go on with your life now.  I know Ned would have wanted you to let go of the past.”

In a voice husky with emotion, Stanton managed to reply, “He was my son, and I’ll never truly let him go—but you don’t have to worry about my plans for revenge anymore.  I won’t ever mention them again.”

The ride back was a bit slower and less challenging, but there was even less conversation between the father and daughter.

They were still several miles from the ranch when Stanton brought his horse to a stop.  “Nora, would you mind going back without me for right now?” he asked.  “I’d like to spend a little more time out here alone—you’ve given me a lot to think about, my dear.”

“Of course not, Father.”  Nora leaned over to kiss his cheek lightly.  “Please believe that this is the right thing for both of us.  Ned wouldn’t want us to suffer any more.”

Stanton simply sat his horse, watching until Nora was out of sight.  For the first time since he’d conceived and carried out this plan, he found himself wavering.  He was still a father, and not unmindful of his daughter’s happiness.  But then memories assailed him—memories of his son—and with those memories, the bitter reminder of the future that they would never be able to share.

It seemed he now had another offense to add to the list of Johnny Madrid’s crimes.  If that murderer had never been born, his daughter would have been able to make a very suitable match with a young man who seemed to make her happy.  Instead, Carl Stanton was going to have to see to it that Scott Lancer was removed from Nora’s life.  It wouldn’t be as easy as it had been years ago, when he’d felt it his duty to separate his children from that scruffy mongrel, but he was certain he could manage to make it happen.  And he would make it up to Nora—a trip to Europe, perhaps.

But there was one thing he was more convinced of than ever—Johnny Madrid was going to die for his sins.

 

Chapter 14

Thunder rolled across the valley—long, low-toned, muted rumblings that served as ominous warnings of worse to come.  And, sure enough, they were followed by clamorously, deafening cracks which reverberated even through the thick adobe walls of the great room.

Nora—who’d been pacing back and forth—started, as an almost unidentifiable streak of black and white shot past her feet. The panic-stricken dog dove straight under the sofa, and stayed there, whimpering softly.

“Oh, Buster,” Nora got down on her hands and knees, trying to persuade the frightened animal to come out.  “The thunder can’t hurt you…..it’s all right…..it’s all right, baby.”

But her words of comfort were drowned out as another earsplitting boom rattled the glass in the window panes, and Buster simply cowered all the more.

Then the tumult receded for a few minutes, and Nora heard the familiar clatter of spurs on the wooden floor.  She peered up from her prone position to find Johnny looking down with a bemused expression on his face.

“Lost something, ma’am?”

“No, it’s Buster.  I’m afraid this storm has him scared out of his wits.”

Johnny got down on one knee.  “Now, you come on out here, Buster.”  His voice wasn’t harsh or demanding, but simply carried an air of calm authority.  “That’s it, boy…..come on.”

Buster managed to poke one quivering nose outside his safe haven while he considered his options.  The lure of his hiding place was compelling, but this WAS the man who’d rescued him as a pup.  The next resounding crash settled the matter, and he leapt nimbly into a pair of waiting arms.

With firm but gentle hands, Johnny stroked that soft fur, ruffling those ears as he’d done so often before.  “There’s a lot of things to be scared of in this world, but it don’t make sense to go hiding from the folks who wanna help ya.  That’s what your friends are for.  Having people around who care for you—that’ll get ya through a lot.”

Watching this man handle Buster, Nora was more than a little impressed.  After a little more petting and murmured encouragements, the dog stopped whining, snuggling down contentedly on his accustomed pillow.  Another loud boom rent the air, but—although Buster stirred uneasily—he didn’t flee in terror.  A period of relative quiet followed, and he finally subsided into a fit of vigorous snoring.

Nora didn’t realize that she’d begun pacing again until she felt Johnny’s eyes on her.

“Seems ta me Buster’s not the only one who’s a little spooked by this storm,” he noted sagely.

“Oh…….no, it isn’t the storm,” she stammered.  “I mean……..I’m not afraid of thunder.”  Willing herself to speak with more assurance, she said firmly, “I am just fine, really.  Please don’t concern yourself.”

Johnny simply folded his arms over his chest and gazed at her with total disbelief, waiting silently.

“All right,” Nora finally conceded, “maybe I am a little nervous.  It’s just that my father hasn’t returned yet.”

“Now, I know what you’re going to say,” she insisted, before he could so much as open his mouth.  “My father’s a grown man…..he can take care of himself……he hasn’t been gone all that long……..so there’s no reason to get in a tizzy.”

“Those are a lot of good reasons not to worry.”  He spoke with the same steadiness and empathy that he’d used to soothe Buster.  “But it don’t matter if they’re true or not—you’re still worried.”

“It’s foolish, of course,” she admitted, sheepishly, “but I can’t help thinking that he doesn’t know this area all that well, and I don’t know if the horse he’s riding might be affected by thunder, and………”

“…..and it’s going to be dark before too long, and that storm’s coming up fast,” Johnny finished for her, gathering up the hat and gun belt he’d discarded when he came into the room.  “If you tell me where you saw him last, I’ll do some tracking and see if I can find him.”

“Oh,” Nora’s relief was obvious, but she felt moved to protest.  “Oh, no, I can’t ask you to do that.”

“I don’t recall you asking me…….” he reminded her, “I offered.”

“And just what did you offer?”  Scott—who’d entered the room quietly—was regarding the two of them with mild curiosity.

“Nora’s old man ain’t back yet,” Johnny explained, “and I said I’d go try ta track him down.”

Scott was instantly solicitous. “Nora, of course we’ll go look for him!”  He took time to give her a quick hug, then started toward his brother, asking, “Where did you see him last?”

“See who last?”

Carl Stanton glanced around the room, puzzled by the abrupt silence.

With a resigned sigh, Nora confessed that she’d been on the point of sending a search party out after him.  His reaction was pretty much what she’d expected—he chided his daughter gruffly for what he called “a lot of female nonsense” and apologized stiffly to Scott and Johnny for wasting their time.  With an air of outraged dignity, he excused himself to go clean up for supper.

“That certainly went well,” Nora muttered, biting her lip.

Johnny had no trouble interpreting his brother’s unspoken signal.  “Bet we got a lot of riled up animals out there with all this ruckus.  I should probably go check on’em.”

“That’s a good idea, Johnny,” Scott agreed hastily.  “I’ll be out to help you in just a few minutes.”

But Johnny—halfway to the door—didn’t even turn around.  “Take your time, brother,” he chuckled good-naturedly, “take your time.”

When they were alone together, Scott took Nora gently by the shoulders and gazed intently into her troubled eyes. “What’s the matter, darling?  Didn’t things go well with your father?”

“It was fine, really.  He probably didn’t want to hear a lot of the things I had to say, but we seemed to have come to a fairly good understanding by the time we’d finished.”  She shook her head.  “I don’t know why I caused such a fuss about Father being a bit late.  I guess this storm has me more on edge than I’d realized.  I’m sorry.”

“Now,” Scott laid a finger across her lips, “don’t be foolish.  You have nothing to be sorry about.  I’m just glad you seem much calmer now.”

“Your brother helped,” Nora offered hesitantly.  “He was very kind, and his willingness to search for my father was really quite chivalrous.”

“Oh, that describes Johnny, all right—kind...chivalrous...gallant...noble—the epitome of gentlemanly conduct.”  Scott smiled slyly.  “After all, I taught the boy everything I know.”

Nora giggled, and a little more of the tension from the day’s activities slipped away.  A furtive glance assured her that the room was still empty, so she deliberately insinuated her body just a little bit closer.

“Of course, you were also very quick to volunteer your time.”  Now her arms were around his neck.

“Yes, we’re both just a couple of knights in shining armor.”  The nonchalance of this off-handed quip was belied by the husky voice in which it was uttered.

“Let me show my appreciation for your noble deeds,” she whispered, as she drew his head down and initiated a blissful, smoldering kiss.

Her actions were immediately reciprocated—skillfully, passionately and with great enthusiasm.

“And I certainly appreciate your show of appreciation,” came his breathless response………eventually.

There was no doubt that—for a short space of time—the majesty and grandeur of nature’s awe inspiring display had been eclipsed by the more personal, but equally thrilling interaction between the two people in this room.  An exceptionally loud crack of thunder, however, brought both participants back to a reluctant acknowledgement of the pressing needs of the here-and-now.

Scott allowed himself one more, brief embrace, and then resolutely headed out to help his brother with the livestock.

Stopping for a moment, with his hand already on the doorknob, he turned back.

“Oh, Nora……..?”

She glanced at him, completely taken in by his serious tone.  

“If you should feel compelled to offer Johnny a show of appreciation………..”

Her eyes widened, but before she could say anything, he continued.

“I happen to know that he loves apple pie!”

With a broad smile and a wink, he disappeared out the door.

**********

Scott caught up with his brother out in the barn.  They were familiar enough with most of the Lancer stock to know which animals to be concerned about.  Johnny insisted that Barranca could sleep his way through even the worst thunder and lightning with out a turning a hair.  As a new addition, however, Boone was an unknown quantity, so the two brothers spent some time with the black stallion before they decided he was in good shape.

“You do know what our next challenge is don’t you, brother?”  Scott asked as they completed their circuit of the stables.

Johnny nodded grimly.  “Yep, and I ain’t looking forward to manhandling that ornery bull into his stall.  Son-of-a-bitch is two thousand pounds of trouble on the hoof, and he’s too lunk-headed to figure out we’re moving him inside for his own good.

The mean-tempered bull—agitated by the noisy thunderstorm—was just as uncooperative as they’d feared.  But with a combination of roping skills, agility and plain, cussed determination, the two men succeeded in getting him under cover.

Then they continued making the rounds of the outbuildings—securing shutters, adjusting tarps and generally preparing for inclement weather.  Johnny had discovered a broken latch on one of the doors and was jury-rigging a replacement with his brother handing him tools and supplies.

“Johnny, can I ask you a favor?”

“Hmm……..would you hand me the wire cutter?”  Too distracted to notice his brother’s serious demeanor, he replied off-handedly, “Sure, Scott, what do ya need?”

“I’d like your permission to tell Nora about your past—your life before you came to Lancer.”

If Johnny was surprised by this unexpected request, he gave no indication.  As a matter of fact, it was also impossible to tell if he was hurt, offended or angry.  The ability to hide his emotions—borne of long necessity—was still an important defense for him.

“I ain’t never made no secret of who and what I was.”  The statement was flat and dispassionate.

“Of course you haven’t,” Scott hastened to agree.  “It’s just not some thing that any of us would bring up in the course of a passing conversation—we do respect your privacy.  I have an important reason for asking, if you’ll just let me explain.”

Leaning against the wall with a neutral expression on his face, Johnny simply waited for his brother to continue.

“You see, Nora had a twin brother and—a couple of years back—he was killed in a gunfight down near the border.”

“Nora’s brother……..?” Johnny repeated in disbelief.  “Kinda hard to believe any kid of Stanton’s would turn to being a gunhawk.  Course, making money ain’t the only reason men take up the trade.”

“I don’t know all the details,” Scott confided.  “Nora still gets very upset when she talks about it.  She just said that it happened down by the border—in Las Ganitas.”

"Las Ganitas--that's one of the worst hell holes between El Paso and San Diego, Johnny grimaced.  "Stanton's a pretty important man, though--I guess someone could of hired a gun to kill his boy for revenge or intimidation."  Shrugging he added, "Or he could have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time."

“No matter what the circumstances, Nora was very deeply affected by her brother’s death, and……..”

“And finding out about me,” Johnny interrupted, looking both sad and very tired, “that’d be like rubbing salt in the wounds.”

“She may well be shocked,” Scott interjected, “which is why I’d like to be the one to tell her—to help her understand—but I don’t believe it will change the opinion she already holds about what kind of man you are.  And after listening to her sing your praises just a little while ago, I’ve got a pretty good idea what that opinion is.”  But he could see that his words seemed to be making little impression.

“Ya know, Scott,” Johnny finally said, “maybe it would be better all around if I just left for a while.”

“What!  You can’t be serious.”

“It makes sense,” the younger man reiterated.  “I don’t mean forever, but if I clear out for a bit, you could make things right with Nora without me getting in the way.”

“You aren’t in the way.”  Scott stared at his brother in disbelief.  “And you certainly don’t have to leave Lancer in order for this matter to be settled.”

“Look, you got a real special lady there, and it’s not fair that your chance to make a life together gets messed up because I’m Johnny Madrid.”

Scott put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and made one more effort to use reason and logic to bring an end to this impasse.

“I’m going to talk to Nora—whatever doubts or qualms she might have—we’ll work them through.  If we can’t deal with this matter on our own, there’s not much chance of a future between us anyway.”

But the stubborn light in his brother’s eyes told him he was wasting his breath using reason and logic.  Now, goaded beyond measure, he found himself using a totally different tactic.

“Now, listen to me,” he growled,” this is your home, and I’m not going to listen to any more bullshit about you riding off and leaving it for my sake.”

Getting no response, he gripped that shoulder tighter, “I swear, Johnny, if you leave here, I am going to follow you…….no matter how far or how long it takes.  And I am going to drag you back here by the scruff of your neck, if necessary.”

Looking up, Johnny couldn’t help the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth.  “Hell, Boston, you’ve really got me shaking in my boots, now.”

Scott regarded him suspiciously, “Don’t think I wouldn’t do it, little brother.”

“Aw, quit glowering at me, Scott.  It puts me way too much in mind of the Old Man.”  Johnny’s broad grin didn’t waver.  “I’ll stick around.  You have my word.”

“Good!”  Scott clapped him on the shoulder.  “Just let me worry about talking to Nora, and dealing with any other difficulties.  There’s an art to proposing to a lady—I’d be glad to give you some pointers, if you like.”

“Oh, yeah,” Johnny smirked.  “And is there an art to proposing to the lady’s pa?  I’d sure like to see that little speech.”

“I’m planning to spend some time alone with Nora tomorrow,” Scott explained confidently.  “And if things go the way I’m hoping, I’ll ask her father for a private audience tomorrow night.  But I don’t foresee any problems.”

Johnny might have been unable to resist the temptation of teasing his brother some more, but just then the heavens opened, releasing the deluge that had been expected for some hours.  The two men stood, watching the downpour.

“Now, all the alfalfa got put into storage today, right?” Johnny asked.

“Yes, and the work crews finished clearing the last creek bed this afternoon,” Scott replied, grabbing a rainslicker from a peg on the wall and tossing another one to his brother.

“So, there’s just one thing that we still have to do, I guess,” Johnny decided ruefully.

“Oh, I don’t think listening to Jelly’s *I-told-you-so* would qualify as one thing, brother,” Scott objected, as they prepared to dash out into the rain.  “I think that’s something well be doing over……and over……..and over…….again.”

 

Chapter 15

While intent on getting every possible measure of speed from his flagging mount and watching the trail for signs of fresh tracks, Scott found there was a portion of his mind—one tiny sliver not wracked with dread, horror and fear—that still wrestled with incredulous disbelief over the shocking turn this day had taken.

*****************

EIGHT HOURS EARLIER

 

Scott half-jokingly thought how encouraged a superstitious man would have been by all the omens indicating that fate was smiling on him.  Dawn was always a physical reminder of the promise of a new day, and this particular sunrise seemed especially favorable.  After twelve straight hours of rain, last night’s storm had finally abated, ushering in clear blue skies.  And finally—the most telling portend—an amazingly vivid rainbow now held place of honor, dominating the horizon beyond the Lancer arch.

Cheered by these excellent harbingers of success, Scott had finally set off with a feeling of anticipation—which had lasted about as long as it took him to reach the dining room.

On working days, breakfast at Lancer tended to be a rather sporadic affair.  A hearty repast was available to all, but they didn’t always congregate around the table.  Scott and Johnny were often up and out before anyone else had eaten.  Murdoch sometimes had his meal at his desk while doing bookwork.  Teresa usually preferred to remain on her feet—serving the men-folk their food and keeping an eye on the kitchen.  And Jelly rarely ate at the big house, finding it more convenient to join the men in the bunkhouse cook shack.

On this occasion, however, everybody in the household was already seated when he entered the room, and those half-dozen faces—however welcoming— seemed somehow watchful and expectant.  Nobody offered anything more than a casual greeting, but Scott—taking a chair next to his brother— felt himself to be the target of definite, if well-meaning, speculation.

But as he filled his plate and offered some general inquiries about everyone’s plans for the day, the atmosphere gradually became more relaxed.  Small-talk began to flow once again, with Johnny and Murdoch continuing what had evidently been an interrupted discussion about doing a survey of the north range to decide on the feasibility of a makeshift dam.

“This might be the perfect time to make an inspection of that area,” Murdoch speculated aloud.  “After all this rain, we should be able to determine what the watershed pattern is and plan accordingly.”

“I think I should head over there first thing,” Johnny suggested.  “Get a count of any strays up in those canyons and pick out a cliff or two that might just be waiting for a nice convenient rock fall.”

Before Murdoch was able to make any reply, Carl Stanton interjected politely, “I don’t claim to be an expert, but I have had to listen to a lot of geologists and engineers speak their piece during my years as a mine owner….so I may have managed to pick up a thing or two that might be useful for a job like this.”  He shrugged diffidently.  “Unless you have something else in mind for me.”

“That sounds like a fine idea, Mr. Stanton,” Johnny was quick to take the older man up on his offer.  “I’d sure welcome the company…..and the advice.”

Scott wasn’t fooled by this little exchange.  Johnny—although not particularly anxious to spend the entire day in Stanton’s company—was obviously prepared to do so if it guaranteed his brother a clear field with Nora.

// I owe you one, brother! //

“Thank you, we appreciate your help, Carl,” Murdoch nodded.   Glancing blandly at his older son, he added, “Perhaps you and Nora could ride out to the bridge at Red Rock Creek to see whether your repairs held up after this downpour.  And it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to check the area for any other storm damage.  You might as well take all day and do a thorough job of it.”

Suppressing an impulse to roll his eyes, Scott wondered whether his entire family was aware of his plans, and how much more well-intentioned *help* he could expect to receive.

Teresa’s contribution—an offer to pack lunches for everyone—wouldn’t have been so conspicuous if she hadn’t prefaced it by casting a meaningful glance at both Scott and Nora and giggling slightly.

Jelly had been the only person at the table to remain completely untouched by all these underlying tensions and emotions.  He’d concentrated single-mindedly on his heaping plate of bacon and eggs during the entire meal, but as everyone was leaving to attend to their various tasks, he made sure he got the last word.

“I reckon some people will know better than to poke fun at my knee the next time I say there’s a gol-darn flood coming.  That’s what I reckon!!”  Thumbs stuck importantly behind his suspenders, he sauntered out the door, muttering, “And I better not be hearing anymore blather about arks……….”

**********

Directly after breakfast, Scott busied himself saddling a couple of horses.  Walking into the barn, he found Johnny gathering some supplies.  His original impulse—to thank his brother for helping to keep Nora’s father occupied for the day—was forgotten when he took a good look at the burlap-wrapped bundle that was being thrust into a saddle bag.

“Johnny, the two of you are just going to be surveying the terrain on this trip.  You aren’t supposed to be doing any blasting.”

“Now that’s true, brother, but we ought ta be prepared for any opportunity….and I’m a real good hand with dynamite.”

“There’s a big difference between setting off one stick of dynamite to create a little diversion, and laying the kind of charge that’s meant to bring down a whole mountainside.”  Scott replied, shaking his head, “That’s a job for more than two men, and it involves a lot of planning and logistics to execute it.”

“You know the trouble with you?” the younger man asked amiably.  “You worry too much….you worry all the time.  You’re worse than an old maid.”

“Oh, yeah?” Scott couldn’t keep an answering smile out of his eyes, but he schooled his mouth into a stern expression.  “With you around, I usually have something to worry about.  Those hillsides are already unstable, and all this rain is likely to have made them even more dangerous.  Just make sure you’re careful up there……..and no explosions today!”

“Any other orders, sir?” Hands on his hips, Johnny regarded his brother with a jaundiced eye.  “Ya know, Scott, sometimes you can be awful……”

“.........autocratic?……dictatorial?………bossy?”

Neither of the men had heard Nora’s approach.  She faced them now—brimming with mischief—an impudent smile on her face and an unrepentant gleam in her eyes.

“Those ain’t the words I was thinking of, but they do sound a lot better…in polite company,” Johnny admitted with a conspiratorial grin.

“If you two have finished maligning my character,” Scott placed his arm firmly around Nora’s waist and pulled her with him towards the door, “we have some bridges to inspect.”

“And you stay out from underneath falling rocks, understand?” He glanced back over his shoulder at his brother—who wasn’t even bothering to try keeping a straight face.

“Yes, sir!” Johnny retorted, snapping off a mock salute to send them on their way.

**********

During their morning ride, Scott and Nora had come across a number of instances of storm damage—fallen trees, washed out roads and flooded stream beds—but the bridge at Red Rock Creek had withstood everything Mother Nature had thrown at it.

As they ate lunch together, Scott found himself watching for what he considered the best way to initiate a discussion about Johnny’s past.  He’d done a good bit of thinking about what to say and how to say it and had, at least, come to some conclusions about what not to say.

It would be inappropriate for him to air his own bitter sentiments about Johnny’s mother.  He’d never voiced these—even to Johnny himself.  Scott was willing to concede that his own grandfather had been guilty of misrepresenting Murdoch and using unfair means to retain custody of his grandson.  But while Murdoch’s older son had at least been blessed with a safe, stable, privileged life as a child, Maria had dragged their infant son into a life of poverty and abuse.

Scott also believed that the details of Johnny’s miserable childhood were heart-rending enough to appeal to Nora’s compassionate nature.  But portraying his brother as an object of pity—stripping him of his dignity—would be a betrayal of the respect and honor that characterized their relationship.  Johnny had never offered any excuses for the choices he’d made—even though he’d tried, at various times, to keep others from making those same choices in their young lives.  He may have had regrets, but he took responsibility for his own actions.

Perhaps the best words to describe Johnny Madrid had come from Johnny Lancer’s own mouth—“he did a lot of bad things and he had a lot of bad things done to him.”

So when Nora began to reminisce about the day they’d repaired the bridge, mentioning that it was the first time she’d met Johnny, Scott found an opportunity to present his brother’s story.  It came out as a brief, unsentimental, unvarnished tale of a man who’d been dealt some bad cards in life, and played them as they lay.

Nora made no comments—simply listening intently and without interruption—but Scott was encouraged by the lack of condemnation in those candid eyes.  He finished talking, and there was a moment or two of silence.

“You know, that explains a lot,” she remarked in a conversational tone.  “Sometimes—even when Johnny is acting like a cross between a roughneck cowboy and a rambunctious kid—I feel like there’s something more under the surface, like there’re some hidden feelings that he doesn’t show to the world.  It makes sense now—he cares so much about his home here, his family, because he truly knows what it’s like to be all alone in the world.”

Her eyes softened, “And I’m sure his family sometimes feels the same way when they realize how easily he could have been lost to them in one of those many showdowns.”

Caressing her cheek, Scott asked fondly, “Tell me, how did someone so young and beautiful become such a fount of wisdom?”

His feelings of relief must have been fairly evident, though, because Nora brought a mildly indignant gaze to bear on him.

“You were expecting shock and outrage, weren’t you?  Perhaps a dramatic scene where I’d denounce him as some kind of monster?”

Scott held up his hands in mock surrender.  “Now, it’s not that I expected such a thing.  I just wanted to be open with you, let you hear the truth so you could make up your own mind.”

Nora sighed, “The Bible says he who is without sin should cast the first stone, Scott.  We’ve all done things we regret, but sometimes life leaves us with no other choices.  What matters is the kind of man Johnny is now, and I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”

“Ah, didn’t I just say something about you being a fount of wisdom? “

The discussion took on much more carefree air as Nora responded by demanding why he’d forgotten the part about her being young and beautiful.  After a bit more light-hearted flirtation, they both began making preparations to leave.

“Just out of curiosity,” Nora asked idly, as she packed up the left-over food, “how is it I never heard of your brother before, if he was such a notorious gunfighter?  I mean, living so near the border, the vaquero’s were always recounting exciting stories of famous gunhawks, but I don’t remember the name Johnny Lancer ever being mentioned.”

Scott was examining one of the stirrups on Nora’s saddle, which seemed to be in need of mending.  Without looking up from his task, he answered, “That’s because he went by the name of Johnny Madrid back then.” Still occupied with running through a mental catalogue of the leather repair supplies in his saddle bag, he didn’t immediately register the complete—almost breathless—silence that followed his explanation.

Then—suddenly apprehensive—he turned back.  Nora was standing—mute—the remnants of their lunch scattered forgotten at her feet.  Sorrow etched into every line of her face, her shoulders sagged as if weighed down by a burden too heavy to bear.

Appalled, Scott rushed to her side.  “Nora?……..what?”

She turned grief-stricken eyes upon him and spoke in a barely audible whisper, “Johnny……..Johnny Madrid………that’s who killed Ned.”

Scott almost staggered as if the blow had been physical.  Shock warring with disbelief, he could only stammer, “No……no!”  And then, with more assurance, “No, Johnny would never have lied to me about that.  He said he’d never heard of your brother.”

“He couldn’t have known who Ned was, but there’s no mistake…..Johnny killed my brother.”

The lost, defeated quality of her voice infused that statement with a bitter certainty that Scott found impossible to deny—which still left a multitude of questions unanswered.  Nora’s fragile appearance not withstanding—he was prepared to be as brutal as necessary to get to the truth.

Before he was able to put this plan into action, however, the young woman’s whole demeanor changed before his eyes—wretched despondency gave way to a look of abject horror.

“But that means……….he has to have known…….  that’s the only possible reason……..” She became more and more agitated—less and less lucid.  “Oh God…….no….. please, why can’t it just be over?”

“Nora!”

Scott gripped her shoulders tightly enough to cause her to wince, but it seemed to have the desired effect.  “You need to make sense…….now!” he ordered harshly.

Nora drew one deep shuddering breath to steady herself.

“It’s my father—he knows who Johnny is………he has to.  It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Her fists clenched.  “How could I have been so stupid as to believe that he’d given up his search for revenge?  For three years the only thing that gave any meaning to his life was his desire to find Johnny Madrid and kill him.  And I let myself believe that he’d changed……that he wanted to make a new start.  But this whole trip was all just part of his plan.”

Unflinchingly, she met Scott’s gaze.  “My father is planning to kill your brother.  I don’t know how or when—only that he’ll stop at nothing.”

In the struggle to make sense of all this, Scott forced himself to disregard his need for details, proof, evidence—ignoring all but the one most imperative fact.

“Johnny and your father are alone up on that range today!”  He was halfway to his horse before the words were out of his mouth.  “I’ll find them……you go on back to the ranch and wait.”

“The hell I will!”

He looked up to realize she was already in the saddle and gathering the reins as she spoke.

“This is going to end today…….no more lies……..no more secrets……..no more death!  I’m a part of this, and I’m going to see it through, whatever it takes.”

With no time to waste on futile arguments, Scott led the way, closely followed by Nora—both praying that they would be in time.

************************

The north range covered a lot of miles.  Scott was able to narrow their search somewhat because he knew that Johnny and Stanton were supposed to be surveying the natural floodplain that bordered the riverbed.  It was rugged terrain, however, and there was no guarantee that they hadn’t wandered elsewhere chasing strays—or for some other more insidious reason.

Thanks to Scott’s considerable tracking skills, a few muddy hoof prints, some recently-broken tree limbs and a patch of trampled grass had pointed them in the right direction.  Unfortunately, there had been no sign for several miles, so he signaled Nora to stop so he could determine their next move.

That was when they heard it.  A single gunshot—it’s unnerving echo through the boulder-strewn canyon sounding a death-knoll to their fading hopes.

 

Chapter 16

Johnny regained consciousness slowly—in fits and starts.  A half-hearted attempt to open his eyes resulted in dizziness, seriously blurred vision and the threat of impending nausea.  He closed them and fought to keep from sliding back once again into the tempting comfort of oblivion.

His brain seemed to be wrapped in cotton-wool, rendering him temporarily incapable of dealing with the complex questions of what had happened to him and why.

Tentatively, he tried to simply make sense of what he could feel and touch.  Although his head throbbed excruciatingly, no other injuries were immediately apparent.  It was when he attempted to move his arms and legs that the exact nature of the situation dawned on him; he’d been tied securely—most likely to a tree, he decided, fingering the rough bark.

//Probably the only reason I haven’t fallen flat on my face//

The truth of his wry observation was driven home as another wave of dizzying sickness hit, leaving him weak and disoriented.

“You fool, you were only supposed to knock him out.  If you’ve killed him……..”

“I had to hit him hard enough so he wouldn’t be able to come after me, didn’t I?  I’m not crazy enough to take any risks with Johnny Madrid while he’s still wearing his gun.”

The voices were familiar, but recognition danced tantalizingly just beyond Johnny’s grasp.  He forced himself to concentrate—searching for some clear memory to explain this assault.

With a flash of clarity here and there, a mental picture of the day gradually took shape.  He could recall riding with Stanton most of the day……tallying up strays…….making notes of storm damage……stopping for lunch……inspecting the steep canyon that rose up on both sides of the stream bed.

It was becoming a bit clearer now.  They’d been exploring the rock formations at the base of the canyon, and Stanton’s disappearance behind some boulders had been followed by a single gunshot.  Entering the rocky clearing—gun drawn—to investigate, Johnny had found the older man simply standing there, unharmed.  His last conscious thought had been to ask what the hell was going on, but before he could form the words, he’d been hit from behind.

The ‘why’ of his captivity was still a complete mystery, however.  The conversation he’d overheard not withstanding, Johnny could come up with no reason why Stanton—and he was now convinced that his captors were Stanton and their newest hand, Ethan—would commit this act of aggression.

He was weighing the advantages of feigning unconsciousness a bit longer, hoping to gain more information, when a third conspirator made his presence known.

“I think he’s coming around, sir.”

//Nothing for it now, but to play the game by their rules—and hope I’ve got an ace hidden somewhere up my sleeve//

Straightening as much as his bonds would allow, he lifted his sagging head—ignoring the acute pain that resulted from the least movement—and opened his eyes.  Blinking, he was unable to make out more than the outlines of the three armed men, but still managed to project confidence and certitude.

“Stanton!” Stone-faced, he acknowledged the man and then fell silent.  Threats, demands for explanations, or protests would serve no good purpose now—better to wait it out and let this man say his piece.  One thing that Johnny was able to sense at this point—Stanton’s hatred, kept hidden beneath the surface for so long, was about to be unleashed.

The accuracy of his intuition was borne out as Stanton began his passionate diatribe.  “Three years, Madrid!! Three years I’ve waited and now I am going to make you pay for killing my son.”

Johnny’s first instinct was to spit out a vehement denial, but he found himself holding his tongue.  Among the specters that occasionally haunted his dreams, there were enough nameless, faceless victims to plant just a seed of doubt.  He fought to remember just what Scott had told him about the death of Nora’s brother, but couldn’t come up with a definitive answer.

Able to focus more clearly now, Johnny took this opportunity to size up the other members of the trio.  A grizzled older man—possibly an ex-soldier—was holding his rifle in a manner that suggested he was more than familiar with its use. He did his job calmly and deliberately, displaying none of Stanton’s single-minded need to spew vindictive accusations.  Ethan, on the other hand, had neither nerves of steel nor an all-consuming compulsion.  It was obvious he had no desire to face the kind of danger posed by a man like Madrid—securely bound or not.

Ethan—sweating even more under the intensity of those cold, blue eyes—interrupted Stanton’s rant, complaining, “I said I could take Madrid out from ambush, but you wanted it to look like an accident……..fine.  I didn’t sign on for this, though.  The longer you keep him alive, the greater the chances of something going wrong.  Let’s get this over with!”

The third member of the group ignored him completely, but Stanton tore his angry glare from the prisoner to address him with wrathful disdain.

“I paid for your services and I’m giving the orders,” he growled.  “I’ve waited for a long time to have, not only justice, but this chance to let my son’s murderer know just why he’s going to die, and I’m going to do this my way.  Now you go set that charge of dynamite on the cliff up there, and hold off until I give the signal.”

He held Ethan’s gaze just long enough to be sure his orders were going to be obeyed, before turning back to Johnny.

“I could have hired him, or some other killer, to shoot you down like a dog…..it would have been no more than you deserved.   But I wanted to stand here, face-to-face, and make sure you appreciate the price you’ll be paying for murdering my only son.”

Johnny’s continued silence seemed only to acerbate his temper, and he lashed out, “I’m almost glad it took me three years to find you, Madrid.  I’ve been watching that new-found family of yours.  They all seem to care a great deal for you….rather surprising considering.  But this way, you can spend the time before you die thinking about the sorrow, the heart-ache they are going to endure when I have to bring them the horrible news that you’ve been killed in a tragic accident....buried in a landslide you caused by setting off a badly placed charge of dynamite.”

It was a scene that Johnny could picture all too easily, and he knew better than Stanton how shattering would be the extent of his family’s grief.

“You sure you’ve got your facts straight, Stanton?”  Fighting to keep the desperation out of his voice, Johnny made an attempt to defuse the situation, hoping against hope that Stanton’s allegations were based on some kind of misunderstanding.  “A man gets himself a reputation, sometimes people ain’t too careful what kind of lies they spread about him.  When and where was I supposed to have killed your son?”

“There’s no mistake,” Stanton sneered in derision.  “A saloon full of witnesses saw you gun down my boy in Las Ganitos three years ago.”

“Las Ganitos…….three years ago?”  Johnny squinted, as though picturing the scene in his memory.  “Yeah, I did kill a man in Las Ganitos about that time, but he couldn’t have been your kid.  He…..”

“I am not about to waste any time arguing that point, when it would be better spent explaining just what your heinous actions are going to cost your family,” Stanton went on in a coldly unemotional, matter-of-fact tone.  “It seems your brother and my daughter have taken a real liking to one another.  It’s quite possible they might have made a match and spent their lives together, but I can’t risk Nora finding out who you really are—she’d guess in a second what I’d done.  So I’m going to have to find a way to get her out of here quickly, and if that means a second, unfortunate accident involving your brother—that lies on your head too.”

Johnny responded to this threat by struggling helplessly against his bonds.  Panting, he spoke with contemptuous loathing, “Maybe I was wrong about that not being your kid in Las Ganitos.  He was a back-shooter……..and that seems about right for any son of yours!”

With a snarl of fury, Stanton drew his pistol and took aim.

“Don’t try it, Stanton!”

Scott’s rifle was leveled with uncompromising intent at the base of Stanton’s spine.  Freeman swung his gun around immediately, but there was no way he could act without endangering his boss.

“Scott, there’s a third man on the cliff just above you!”

At Johnny’s shouted warning, Scott took a careful step back—standing under the shelter of an outcropping of rocks.  “I think we have enough to concern us right here,” he said—the barrel of his rifle never wavering.

Stanton hadn’t moved, hadn’t taken his eyes off the dark-haired man who’d been the object of his hatred for three long years, and when he spoke it was directly to Johnny.  “Perhaps I don’t really care if I have to die, as long as I take you with me.”

“Well, I care!”

“Nora, I told you to wait with the horses until I told you it was safe.”  Worry sharpened the tone of Scott’s voice, knowing just how easily this standoff could degenerate into a violent firefight.

“I know, but I decided I’d be of more use here.”  Nora walked calmly among the armed men, coming to a halt only when she was standing directly between Stanton and Johnny.  “Is there no price too high to pay for your precious vengeance?” she asked her father accusingly.

Stanton didn’t holster his gun. “This is him……Madrid…….the man who killed Ned.”

“Nora,” Johnny called out hoarsely, “your old man’s wrong.  The man I shot in Las Ganitos couldn’t have been your brother.  He was a……..”

“…..half-breed drifter named Eduardo Cabrillo?”  Nora turned to face him.  “I’m afraid that part is true, Johnny.  You see, when Ned was younger, he and Luis and Patrick, Juan and Molly’s younger sons, would take off on some adventure or other—sowing their wild oats, I suppose you’d have called it.  Well, the son of the biggest rancher in the territory tends to stand out—where ever he goes.  But everyone in the area also knew that old man Stanton’s foreman had a whole brood of kids—all boys—and no one could be bothered to tell one Mestizo brat from another.  Ned’s Spanish was perfect and his coloring was dark enough to blend in quite easily, so he became Eduardo.  He didn’t do it as often when he became older, but it was still as easy as breathing for him.”

 

“So, Madrid, are you standing by your claim that I’ve got the wrong man?” Stanton demanded harshly.

But any lingering doubts had been silenced—disbelief giving way to heart-felt regret.

“Nora, you gotta believe I didn’t mean for it to happen.”  Even as he spoke, Johnny steeled himself against the necessity of inflicting further pain on the young woman who met his gaze so unflinchingly.

 “When I first walked into that cantina, I took your brother for just another young punk—wanting to build a reputation by bragging that he outgunned Johnny Madrid.  He was drunk, loud-mouthed, and just kept pushing, trying to call me out.”

“But there was something about him…….it just didn’t figure—him being a killer.  So I told ‘em ta go sleep it off somewhere, flipped him a couple of bits for a room, and turned to leave.  I was almost to the door when I heard him clear leather.”  He shrugged.  “If I’d had more warning, I probably could of aimed to wing ‘em, but it all happened too…….”

Stanton had been growing more and more enraged, and now he emphasized his anger by waving his pistol at Johnny while screaming, “Lies….nothing but lies and more lies!”

Johnny was conscious of an impulse to yell back—defend himself against Stanton’s fierce invective—but stifled it, unwilling to let the situation spiral even further out of control.

“Scott,” he managed to grind out between clenched teeth, “you need to get her out of here now—before all hell breaks loose!”

For a moment—behind the unshed tears—a glimpse of that irrepressibly mischievous spirit could be seen as Nora murmured, “….autocratic…..dictatorial…..and bossy.  It must run in the family.”

Then she turned, moving deliberately to place herself directly between Johnny and her father’s menacing gun.

“They aren’t lies, Papa.”  The old childhood name seemed to come naturally to her tongue as she struggled to make him listen.  “It’s the truth, but there is more I have to tell you.  I’ve kept the secret for too long because I wanted to spare you, but I won’t risk more bloodshed. You have to know……….”

 

Chapter 17

 As Scott listened to Nora’s continued revelations, his frustration mounted.  He’d kept Stanton squarely in the crosshairs all through this dangerous confrontation, but knew impossible odds when he saw them.  Even if he was able to squeeze off a shot before Stanton’s henchman fired, he’d be dead in the next instant—leaving Johnny and Nora at the mercy of the remaining guns.

During their frantic search, Scott had managed to sustain some hope that Nora was mistaken about her father’s murderous intentions, but his hope had been dashed when he’d seen Johnny tied to that tree and heard his captors discussing just how he was going to die.

After Ethan scrambled up the steep incline, Scott had bided his time, gambling that if he laid in wait he’d get an opportunity to take out the two remaining gunman.  But Stanton’s sudden loss of control had forced his hand—if he had delayed, Johnny would certainly have been killed.

Watching Nora walk into that viper’s nest was one of the hardest things he’d ever done.  Even though he’d warned her off, in his heart he knew that she was the only one who had a chance in hell of stopping her father.

But Stanton was becoming less and less rational, and Scott’s finger tightened involuntarily on the trigger—if Nora was unable to bring her father to his senses, the final move might still be up to him.

“You have to know…….” Nora was saying, “……you have to know what really happened in Las Ganitos three years ago.”

“I know all I need to know!”

“No, you don’t!”  Refusing to retreat before those hate-filled eyes, Nora was adamant. “When Johnny walked into that saloon, he had no idea who Ned was, but Ned knew Johnny Madrid was going to be there—he was counting on it.”

Shaking his head in disbelief, her father spat out, “You don’t actually believe his story about Ned wanting to build a reputation as a gunhawk.  I thought you knew your brother better than that.”

“Ned had no intention of killing Johnny that day.” Nora squared her shoulders, as though throwing off a burden she’d carried for too long.  “What he was planning……hoping……praying for…… was that he, himself, would be killed.  That’s why he picked the fight, and forced Johnny to draw.”

As the import of her words hit him, Stanton appeared dumbfounded.  “Do you realize what you’re saying, girl?  How dare you make such a filthy accusation about my only son?”

“I’m saying it because it’s true.  Ned knew Luis or Patrick would come looking for him, and he left a letter in the care of the bartender.  It was addressed to them, but he’d written it to me.”  There was a tremor in Nora’s voice as she went on, “He begged me to forgive him, but said he just couldn’t go on living the way he had been.  He trumped up the whole gunfight as a pretense so you’d never know he’d taken the coward’s way out!”

“No……I don’t believe you!  What possible reason could he have had to do such a thing?”

As his daughter regarded him silently, he began to bluster, “Surely you can’t be thinking of that damn nonsense…….a grown man doesn’t go off and spend his life painting pictures.  That was nothing but some childhood fancy.”

“A childhood fancy?.........could you have been that blind?.”  Nora asked incredulously.  “Ned spent every free minute he had drawing and painting.  It was his passion.”

“But he understood,” Stanton protested fiercely.  “I reasoned with him, and he accepted that he had a responsibility as my son.  He agreed to forget those foolish dreams.”

“Yes, I heard about that ‘discussion’ while I was at school,” Nora acknowledged grimly.  “Ned had been saving up every bit of spare cash he could get his hands on and wanted to study art in Europe for two years.  He didn’t want your money or the promise of an inheritance, just your blessing. You told him that if he left, he would no longer be your son and could never again set foot in his own home.”

“I was angry……afraid that I was going to lose him forever if he left.  But I never meant it……he had to know that.  He was my son……I loved him.”

“And he loved you.  What he wanted more than anything was to make you proud.  But I’m afraid, as time passed, he found the cost of being Carl Stanton’s son was just too high.”

At these words, the transformation was complete.  Anger, blood-lust and the quest for revenge had been replaced by guilt, self-blame and inner turmoil.  The pistol that Stanton had kept trained on his captive now slid through nerveless fingers to land unnoticed at his feet.

“My God…….my God……what have I done?”

Wordlessly, Nora stepped closer; with tears streaming down her face, she embraced her stunned and unresponsive father.  After a few moments, however, Stanton’s arms tightened around her, and they clung together in a desperate attempt to both give and receive comfort.

As Jack Freeman watched the grief-stricken pair, his face was impassive and his gun never wavered from the bead he’d drawn on Scott Lancer’s midsection, but he was not unmoved.  He’d come to know Carl Stanton well enough during the past few years to understand how hard he would be hit by this news of his son’s carefully planned suicide.  And even more devastating was the idea that the boy had taken his own life because he couldn’t stand up to his father’s inflexible nature.

Glancing over, he saw that Lancer still had his rifle aimed squarely at Stanton.  Jack could understand the younger man’s quandary; however much he might empathize with the suffering he was witnessing, his main concern had to be getting his brother and the woman he loved out of this alive.

If asked to hazard a guess—just based on his behavior during this little siege—Jack would have pegged this young man as a former officer, an appraisal that was just reinforced by his calm but decisive demeanor when their eyes met.

Without flinching, Scott Lancer drew a cautious breath and—knowing he was taking a calculated risk—shifted the barrel of his gun so it pointed down at the ground.

//That took guts!//

After lowering his own weapon, Jack barely suppressed an impulse to salute.

Lancer wasted no time—pulling a folding knife from his jacket pocket, he hurried over to his brother.

They spoke in low tones, but Jack could hear Scott’s brief, urgent query.  “You O.K.?”

“I will be…..once you get me out of this,” Madrid answered, twisting impatiently against the bindings that held him in place.

Knowing just how stout the rope and how impregnable the knots, Jack wasn’t surprised that it took Scott a few minutes to saw through the loops that circled his brother’s torso.  And Madrid’s arms had been stretched behind him, with his bound hands further securing him to the tree.

Tackling this second bond, Lancer had only succeeded in severing one twisted strand of hemp rope when the first gunshot rang out.  A bullet struck the tree not a foot above Madrid’s head.  Fast on its heels came a second shot, which missed him by mere inches.

Staying close to the ground, Jack scrambled towards his boss.  Stanton was still shell-shocked—unable or unwilling to make any move to save himself.  Fortunately, Nora had acted quickly—pushing her father behind some boulders and crouching over him protectively.  Freeman stationed himself next to the pair, taking stock of the situation.

Tied to that tree, Madrid was a sitting duck—exposed and vulnerable.  But young Lancer had kept his head, Jack noted approvingly.  The knife had been driven partially into the tree trunk near the prisoner’s hands, and Scott was returning fire, aiming high into the cliffs.

He had also positioned his body to shield his brother from the ongoing attack, and Madrid’s reaction was not unexpected.

“Damn it, Scott, find some cover!”

The younger man worked furiously, using the knife blade to slice the rope binding his hands.

“Just as soon as you do, brother,” Scott flung back.  Then he was busy laying down fire as a new volley of shots issued from the rocks above.

From his vantage point, Jack couldn’t see the gunman, but he had no doubt who the culprit was.  He knew that Ethan—a professional bushwacker—had been very reluctant to reveal his identity to Madrid.  Although Jack recognized the necessity for snipers and ambushes in times of war, he believed deep down that if you had to kill a man, he should at least be given a chance to call you a son-of-a-bitch to your face.  Ethan—who preferred to do his killing anonymously—obviously wasn’t going to risk possible retribution by a dangerous gun-hawk.

Suddenly, Madrid pulled his hands free and clapped his brother on the shoulder with a curt, “Let’s move it!”

At that exact instant, Lancer fell to the ground—a large crimson stain spreading rapidly across the front of his shirt.

Stanton’s daughter screamed—“Scott!”—and tried to push past him into the open, but Jack’s solid presence blocked her way.

“You stay put, Miss,” he growled, shoving her back.

Later, he could never decide whether it had been the pleading look in her eyes or his own unwillingness to abandon two men who’d shown such courage and loyalty that spurred him into action.  With practiced agility, he lunged into the middle of the gun battle.  Rolling twice, he came up blasting a barrage of cover fire while Madrid dragged the injured man to shelter.

Pausing only to grab Lancer’s fallen rifle, Jack followed them past a rocky outcropping.  The dark-haired gunman was already ripping his brother’s shirt away to examine the wound.  It was bleeding freely, with no way of telling—at this point—whether any vital organs had been hit.  Searching his pockets, Madrid came up with a semi-clean bandana that he used to staunch the flow of blood.  Only after he’d secured it with several strips torn from his brother’s shirt did he look up.

Jack—who’d been scanning the cliffs above them—pointed with his rifle.  “There!”

Madrid nodded.  If he questioned the motives or allegiance of his former captor, he didn’t let it show.  For his part, Jack reached into a voluminous pocket, withdrew a familiar colt pistol and held it out—butt end first.

The total extent of their planning consisted of a few terse words and a fleeting sidelong glance or two.  Then, with a final—“Take care of him.”—Madrid disappeared from view.

*********

Ethan surveyed the terrain below, cursing as he realized his targets had all gone to ground.  He’d never been really comfortable with Stanton’s elaborate plan, but now it truly had gone to hell in a hand-basket.

Killing was his profession—same as Madrid—but unlike Madrid, his name and face were not the stuff of legends…..and that was fine with him.  His anonymous existence meant no young hotheads looking to make him the latest notch on their gun belt, no fear of retribution and complete freedom to blend at will with law-abiding citizens—benefits he was not willing to sacrifice because of this botched sortie.

Stanton’s sentimental wallowing be damned!!!  Ethan had no intention of letting Madrid live—no intention of spending his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for a fatal bullet.  His boss could afford to be generous—with his girl all but hitched to Madrid’s brother—but in Ethan’s experience, ruthless gunfighters rarely overflowed with a spirit of mercy and forgiveness.

No……killing Madrid—one quick and clean shot—would have been the best and easiest solution, but—failing that—he had one last ace up his sleeve.

********

Johnny was nearly to the top of the steep cliff.  There had been no further gunfire once he’d begun his climb, and that made finding the shooter a more difficult proposition.  It was possible Ethan had turned tail and run off, but he wasn’t willing to gamble on that being the case……not with Scott’s blood still on his hands to remind him just how high the stakes were.  The shots had come from this general area; he would just have to continue searching.

Following a stone ledge, he slid into a large crevice and stopped to listen.  A rustling in the brush……the sound of a pair of boots disturbing some loose gravel……just enough noise to be sure he was going in the right direction.

Step-by-step—watching that there were no dry twigs or unstable rocks underfoot—Johnny made his way along the ledge until he spotted Ethan.  The man was on his knees at the edge of a sharp precipice.  Edging closer, Johnny eased his pistol out of its holster, and—when Ethan had gathered up his rifle and come to his feet—called out, “Drop it!”

It was really no contest.  The man with the rifle spun, bringing the barrel up as he turned, but the colt had delivered death and final damnation before he’d had a chance to squeeze off a single shot.

As Johnny stood over the body, any feelings of relief were overshadowed by the realization that his brother still might die……might even be dead right now.  His only conscious thought was to get back to the stream bed as quickly as possible to help Scott, so it took a moment for the tell-tale hiss to register.  It was the soft but distinctive sputter of a lit fuse, following its path with a relentless and uncompromising singleness of purpose.

The explosion that followed shook the earth—filling the air with dust and debris and leaving in its wake only the most tenuous of hopes.  

 

Chapter 18

For some time after Johnny had left the small clearing, a tense silence held sway.  It was the kind of silence that could wrench your gut like a bout with too many green apples and raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Jack Freeman was familiar with the effects of such a silence, having suffered through many in the course of his far-from-blameless career.  Age and hard-won experience had produced the bloody-minded patience needed to endure the exquisite torture of just waiting, but he still preferred the good, honest terror of a raging gun battle.  There was just something about dodging bullets that got a man’s juices flowing so he could run faster, shoot straighter and fight with a ferocity he hadn’t known he possessed.

 

Of course, Jack didn’t allow any of this frivolous soul-searching to interfere with his duty—keeping everyone down here safe until this ordeal was over.  Besides scouring the rocky bluff for any sign of either gunman, he closely monitored every movement in the clearing—which is how he came to be aware of Nora’s intentions before she’d managed to leave the shelter of her present position.

“No, Miss!”

Voiced pitched just loudly enough to carry across the few dozen yards that separated them, he warned, “That bastard’s not shooting right now because we ain’t giving him any targets.  Let’s keep it that way.”

The girl stilled, but called back, “Then tell me about Scott!  Where was he hit?  How badly is he hurt?”

Although Jack could hear the anguish behind the imperious demand, he knew he’d be doing her no favor by gilding the lily, so he replied with the unvarnished truth.

“He’s holding his own, Miss.  I reckon that’s all we got a right to expect.”

Privately, Jack thought that was actually more than they had a right to expect.  He’d seen a lot of gunshot wounds in this time, and he figured this one could go either way.  The injured man had a bullet lodged in the left side of his chest.  It probably hadn’t found the heart, because he was still alive, and if it had damaged the lungs, he’d be having more trouble breathing.  But Lancer had lost a lot of blood and—judging by the seepage around the make-shift bandage—was still loosing it, although at a slower rate.  Furthermore, that slug was likely to cause a lot more damage if it wasn’t removed soon.

Meanwhile, Nora was—understandably—not much comforted by the brevity of Freeman’s matter-of-fact assurance.  Her desperate desire to see Scott, touch him, tend to him herself, would certainly have outweighed all concerns for her own personal safety, but she was hesitant to leave her father alone in his present state.

When Carl Stanton had broken down in her arms, she’d been deeply moved, but also mildly astonished.  At no other time had she ever seen her father openly reveal his sorrow and pain.  Most often self-contained to a fault, he’d been stoic and reserved when her mother passed away and the emotion he’d displayed most freely after Ned’s death had been anger.

Now—having spent himself in an excess of bitter grief and regret—his face was slack, his eyes vacant and unseeing.  It seemed his heart and mind had been encased in stone, untouched by this present violence and danger.

Nora was grappling with her own guilty self-recriminations.  Upon reading Ned’s letter, her first instinct—born of aching loss and a need to assign blame—had been to confront her father with the truth.  Loyalty to her brother’s wishes had kept her from doing so, however, and in time she’d come to believe that was truly the best decision.

Their father was hard-shelled, obstinate and less-than-generous when it came to outward displays of affection.  Still, Ned and Nora had always felt the love he kept buried beneath the surface.  The man had certainly made mistakes when it came to his dealings with his only son, but Nora had come to see that Ned’s death couldn’t be blamed completely on his father’s actions.

Even when they were young, her twin had suffered from bouts of deep despair that Nora could never hope to understand.  She’d done her best to accept and deal with these bleak periods, and it seemed they’d grown less frequent by the time she returned home from school.

In his normal state, Ned could have dealt with his father’s intractable orders.  From the bottom of what he’d once described as “the black pit”, however, there’d been no other escape.

Thanks to hindsight—with its stark and unblinking perspective—Nora realized how much better it would have been if she’d told her father the truth.  She could have chosen the time and place, helped him to see that many factors had influenced Ned’s fate.

But after those first angry outbursts, her father had made no further mention of his plans for revenge against Johnny Madrid, and she’d been so pleased when their relationship seemed to be improving that she’d kept silent—determined to take the secret to her grave.  Now—she reflected grimly—that secret might be the cause of sending people she loved to an early grave.

A shuddering sob wracked her body.  Just one—but it was enough to bring her up short.  If only…….if only……if only!  She couldn’t afford to fall into that trap right now……right now she had to keep her wits about her.  All their lives hung in the balance, so she needed to be ready when and if the time came that she had to act.

********

Jack was in the process of checking his watch—calculating just how long Madrid had been gone—when he heard the first weak moan.  As he watched, the wounded man’s eyes fluttered open.  For the first few moments, all that could be seen in their slate-blue depths was pain and confusion.  Gradually, however, the confusion was replaced by a spark of awareness, followed by an almost visible struggle to make sense of his surroundings.

So Freeman was prepared for Scott’s sudden, frantic attempt to sit up, accompanied by hoarsely whispered cries, “Johnny??  Nora??”

“Simmer down, Lancer.  You start getting feisty and you’re gonna help finish what that son-of-a-bitch started.”

It took nothing more than the weight of one large hand to prevent any further unwise movement, but at the same time, Jack offered what reassurances he could.

“Miss Nora’s safe.  She’n her pa are over yonder—keeping their heads down.  Your brother was on his own two feet—last I saw him.  He dragged you out of the line of fire, damned your eyes for being a fool and lit out ta try getting the drop on that bastard up there.”

Scott subsided, allowing his head and shoulders to rest once again on the hard ground, but in a raspy voice, he continued his questions.

“That was Ethan……up there…..shooting at us?”

Jack considered ordering the man to stay silent, conserve his strength—but quickly realized the futility of doing so.

“Yep, I reckon he didn’t take to the notion that my boss was gonna let your brother go.  He’s not the kind of man ta leave witnesses behind, so he pretty much exceeded the scope of his orders,” Freeman concluded, with a phrase borrowed from his stint in the military.

“How long has Johnny been gone?” Scott asked doggedly.

“Close as I can figure, bout a half-an-hour.  It’d take him a while to get up there, ya know.”  Jack scanned the upper reaches once again before adding gruffly, “We ain’t heard or seen nothing since Madrid left, but I gotta say—between him and that egg-sucking jackel—I’d put my money on your brother any day.”

The words were barely out of his mouth when a single shot rang out high above them.

In the silence that followed, both men waited intently, but no sign came to indicate that their siege was over.

“Miss,” Jack called out, “You gotta stay put a little while longer, til we can see what’s what!”

Before Nora could make any reply, the sky exploded—a loud, reverberating crack that shook the ground.

Jack was frozen in place just long enough to utter a short, heartfelt, but very vulgar Anglo-Saxon expletive. In the next breath, he bellowed, “Miss!!”

But Nora’s self-imposed vigilance had paid off.  She was already racing across the clearing with her father in tow.

When she reached the two men, Jack thrust the rifle at her and gathered Scott effortlessly into his arms.

“Downstream!!!   Move!!!”

All around them was a cacophony of sliding earth, rocks striking rocks and toppling boulders—an entire cliff side undermined.

Their escape route was hampered by a lack of visibility—dust clouds swirled amid the onslaught—and the panic-inducing rumbling of stone slabs crashing into the rock wall on the opposite side of the stream bed.

Miraculously, they were able to stay one step ahead of the treacherous landslide until Jack deemed it safe to stop.

Moments after Jack settled his burden at the edge of the stream, Nora was at Scott’s side.  She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dipped it in the water.  Her actions—bathing his face and wiping the dirt from his eyes—would have to serve to express her emotions, since she was too overwrought to speak.

It was only when Scott reached up—taking one of her hands in his—that she allowed the tears to fall.  Leaning closer, she alternated between bestowing feather-light kisses and murmuring hushed endearments.

Scott responded by squeezing her hand as tightly as his weakened state would allow.  His only word was not an endearment, however, but a worried inquiry.

“Johnny??”

Nora raised her eyes to Jack in mute appeal.

The grizzled older man had been trying to assess his employer’s condition.  Stanton was physically unhurt, but obviously unable to take any part in their plans.  So it appeared that Jack would have to retain his role as leader of their little group. Hunkering down next to Scott and Nora, he ran a hand over his weary face.

“There’s a couple of ways things could of gone down.  Ethan could of fired that shot.  If he did, Madrid’s most likely dead, and that charge was meant to kill us or drive us away from our shelter, so we could get picked off one by one.”

“But, here we are—out in the open—and no one’s taking pot shots.”  He shrugged, “So maybe Madrid did get Ethan……just wasn’t able to stop the blast in time.  He could be lying, hurt, someplace up there.”

“Guess the odds are about fifty-fifty,” he allowed.

“Now, I can go up there and look around, Miss, but you’ll hafta be the one ta take charge down here.”

Holding the rifle up, he asked, “You do know how to use this?’

Wordlessly, Nora accepted the carbine, cocking it with easy familiarity and resting it on her lap.

“Just keep your eyes peeled, Miss.”

Jack stood and drew his pistol, pointing it at the huge pile of boulders and rubble that now effectively filled the canyon upstream of them.

“I’ll head in that direction.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t go that direction, if I were you.  Nothing ta see but a bunch of rocks!”

Just how he’d been able to approach so silently was a mystery, but there he undoubtedly was.  As bedraggled and dust-covered as the rest of them, and sporting a multitude of bruises, cuts and contusions, he still managed a surprisingly reckless grin.

“Johnny!! You’re…….”

Nora’s cry of delight was cut short when she broke off to remonstrate, “No, Scott, you need to lie still.  You’ll start bleeding again!”

In an instant, Johnny was on his knees at his brother’s side.

“Hey, Scott, you giving this pretty lady a hard time?  I thought you knew better than that.”

Scott summoned up the strength to reply in kind.  “And I thought you knew better than to fool around with dynamite.  Didn’t I warn you about that?”

“You sure did.”

Even as he spoke, Johnny was taking note of the growing bloodstain covering the ragged shirt, and his brother’s pale, clammy skin.

“Just goes to show what happens when I don’t listen to my big brother’s advice.”

His tone was a bit more serious when he added, “Now, how about you follow the lady’s orders about resting, and I’ll figure out how ta get us home?”

Scott seemed content to comply with this suggestion, closing his eyes with a faint smirk.  “I guess I can trust you to keep out of trouble for a little while.”

His earlier decision to trust Jack Freeman—based on gut instinct—had panned out well, so Johnny was prepared to do so again.  It was his best chance of getting Scott the help he needed as quickly as possible.  He and Jack huddled together, considered all the options, and came up with the most workable plan possible.

With on hand laid gently on Nora’s shoulder, he looked down at his brother and explained, “I’m going to get the horses; they’re just downstream a ways.  Then you’re all going to start back, slowly.  Jack will take Scott up on his mount—keep him as safe and steady as possible.  I’m gonna be hightailing it back to Lancer.  I’ll send someone for the doc, and bring a wagon back to meet ya.”

While Johnny was gone, Nora tore some strips from the hem of her blouse and secured the bandage more tightly around Scott’s chest.  He was slipping in and out of consciousness, but she continued to speak softly, encouraging him with both her words and her touch.

Johnny returned in fairly short order, but it took a bit of doing to calm the skittish animals, so maddened had they been by the close proximity of the explosion and landslide.  Luckily, Jack’s stallion was an army-trained, seasoned, old war-horse.  Obedient to a few well-chosen, affectionate, blasphemy-laden commands, he stood calm and stolid while Scott was prepared for this ride.

“I don’t want you ta try moving at all,” Johnny warned his brother.  “You just let me and Jack do all the work.  We’ll get ya up there.”

Scott nodded, set his jaw, and whispered, “Get it done, Brother!”

It was an arduous, painstaking task, but the two men managed to get Scott up in the saddle.  While Johnny held him steady, Jack climbed up behind, immediately wrapping one well-muscled arm around the wounded man’s body.

Nora stood back—out of the way—but every ounce of her attention was focused on these very important proceedings.  Wincing at every perceived jolt, yet willing them to hurry, she hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath until she let it out in a long sigh of relief.

“NOOOOOO!!!”

There was no time to register wonder, shock, or surprise at the naked fear in her father’s voice.  Nora was pushed aside with a force that lifted her off her feet and left her sprawled on the ground.

Half-a-ton of granite—dislodged by the seismic activity upstream—had landed in the very spot where she’d just been standing.

And beneath that lay the crushed and lifeless body of Carl Stanton.

 

Chapter 19

Heart pounding, Nora sat bolt upright in bed.  Once again sleep had meant reliving the harrowing ordeal of her father’s death.  It was some time before she could control her shuddering gasps, but finally she fell back on her pillows, listening intently.

There were no hurried footsteps in the hallway.  The door remained closed.  No worried faces appeared—hovering nearby to offer comfort and solace.

Good!  This time her panicked cries of shock and horror hadn’t been loud enough to rouse anyone.  The members of this household had enough to deal with in caring for Scott.  Nora was determined to cause no further disruptions.

The small clock ticking on her dresser gave the time as three in the morning, so she’d managed to catch a good four hours sleep before the nightmare had awakened her.

Decisively, Nora arose and began dressing, concentrating on mundane and necessary tasks, trying to keep those unwanted thoughts at bay.  But the life-like dream had brought it all back, and the memories of the past few days flooded her mind.

Once again she was in a frenzy, flailing uselessly against that massive boulder until Johnny had taken her by the shoulders.  “It’s no use, Nora,” he’d told her—his compassion overlaid with a more urgent worry.  “There’s nothing more we can do for him.  I’ll send some men to bring him back, but right now we have ta try and save Scott.”

Johnny might have been surprised by how quickly she’d given in—but thinking back—it was at that moment she’d made her own solemn vow never again to put the needs of the dead above those of the living.

Thankfully, when they’d arrived back at Lancer, Dr. Jenkins was waiting.  He’d made the necessary preparations—based on Johnny’s description of Scott’s injuries—and began the surgery immediately.

It was Jack Freeman who’d led a group of men back to retrieve her father’s remains, while Nora paced, prayed and worried along with Scott’s family.

Dr. Jenkins had finally returned, his face grim.  “I’ve removed the bullet,” he’d informed them.  “The good news is that the internal damage was minimized because it was deflected when it struck a rib……broke the rib, of course, which could cause complications down the road.  He’s weak from blood loss, and I’m afraid infection has set in.  Now it’s a matter of round-the-clock nursing and praying that his strength, stamina and that pure Lancer stubbornness can win out.”

The doctor had proceeded to issue detailed instructions on fighting the fever, preventing dehydration, changing the dressing and poultices that could be used to draw out the infection.

After resting in her room for a short time, Nora had come downstairs to find Jack Freeman waiting in the great room with Johnny and Murdoch.  They’d broken off whatever they’d been discussing, and Murdoch had insisted that she sit down and accept a small glass of sherry.

Observing the troubled look on the older man’s face, Nora had wondered if he was trying to word a politely phrased request for her to leave at the morning’s first light.  She couldn’t blame these people if they wanted to see the back of her as soon as possible.

But Murdoch had surprised her.

“Nora, I understand how anxious you must be to return home.  I sympathize with your grief over this terrible accident, but I would appreciate it if you could stay on for a little while at least.”

Feeling thick-headed with confusion she’d repeated, “You want me to stay on?”

Johnny had moved a little closer, sitting beside her on the sofa.  “Murdoch and I have been talking about it.  We want you ta be here when Scott wakes up.  I know my brother, and he’ll be worrying if he can’t see with his own eyes that you’re safe.”

With an overwhelming feeling of relief, Nora had replied, “I really don’t want to leave until I know that Scott is going to be all right.  I can help with the nursing and the cooking and household chores.”  She hesitated, “It’s just……..my father…..I don’t…….”

That’s when Jack Freeman had stepped up.  The hard planes and deeply-etched lines of his face had betrayed no emotion as he’d nodded in her direction.

“I know you’ve been through holy hell out there today, Miss.  There ain’t much I can do about that, but maybe a couple a things’ll help.  I was just telling these here gentlemen that there are some other men out there that were on your pa’s payroll.  They don’t have any idea what the plan was…..just hired ta do surveillance and the like.  I can ride out and pay‘em off.    I

Assuming the ramrod posture and deliberate inflections of a trooper reporting to his commanding officer, he’d continued, “When that’s done—with your permission, Miss—I’d be honored to have the privilege of escorting your pa back home.”

Doubtfully, Nora gazed at the rugged, old soldier.  “But why…….why  would you care about…….”

“When I signed on with your pa, I promised ta see this thing through to the end, and I never have been one ta break my word.”

And then, Jack Freeman relaxed, as much as he was likely to in this company and these surroundings—probably his own equivalent of ‘parade rest’.

“Ain’t no denying that your pa was a cold, unforgiving bastard.  I’ve been called that myself on more than one occasion,” he allowed, with a flash of crooked, yellow’d teeth.  “But after it all turned to shit today, he did figure out what was important, and he played that final card like a man.  I just believe in giving the devil his due.”

Nothing could have been further from a conventional expression of condolences, yet Nora had felt a lump rising in her throat.  But she’d been dry-eyed as she’d accepted Jack’s offer, and without shedding a tear, she’d written a letter of explanation to Molly and Juan, asking them to lay her father to rest beside his wife and son.  Even while watching the wagon—bearing a make-shift coffin—fade into the distance, she’d refused to break down.

From that time to this, the hours had been filled with work or sleep, and the never-ending household chores had seemed preferable to the treacherous dreams that came when she closed her eyes.

There was no light coming from the open door of Scott’s room, but that simply told Nora who she’d find at Scott’s bedside.

When Murdoch held night-vigil over his son, there was always a book in his hand.  A careful observer would note that he read the same two pages over and over again, but as an illusion, it served the fiction that the old man was capable of concentrating on something other than the pale, still form lying in that bed.

Teresa, on the other hand, seemed to make fairly good progress on whatever needlework project kept her company during the long hours of the night.  Nora tended to believe it was because women truly had more practice when it came to doing two things at once.

So if the room was dark, it meant that Johnny was on duty with his brother.  Nora didn’t think she’d ever met anyone with such an uncanny ability to move quietly and confidently through the darkness.  When he wasn’t tending to Scott, he simply sat—outwardly relaxed but completely alert—in one of the room’s two rather uncomfortable chairs.

Standing in the doorway, she heard the soft skritch of a match, and the oil lamp sprung to life.

“Is it that time already?” Johnny nodded at the tray in her hands.

“The poultice doesn’t need to be changed until morning,” she explained, “but I brought fresh water.”

Scott had lapsed into unconsciousness during the ride back to Lancer, and he hadn’t regained his senses prior to the operation.  Since then his comatose state had been interrupted only by brief periods when he was wakeful but not lucid.  His caregivers used these opportunities to fight past his delirium and encourage him to take in as much liquid as possible.  Water was also used for cool compresses to help fight the fever.

“Have you seen any change?” Nora asked as she entered the room.

“He woke up for a bit—about an hour ago—but he was out of his head, just like the other times.  I got’em to drink some of Teresa’s tea though.”

After replacing the cloth on Scott’s head with a newly dampened one, Nora began to sponge off his face, neck and arms.

Rather than leaving the room, Johnny sat back down and watched her gentle but efficient movements.

“I haven’t said it before, but I want ta thank you for staying.”

“Thanks aren’t necessary.  I wanted……I needed to be here to help him through this.”  Without looking up from her task, Nora added, “but I’m not as certain as you are that he’s going to want me here.”

“You really mean that?” Johnny asked in a tone of disbelief.

“I know Scott would want to see me safe.  He’s too compassionate a man not to.”  Nora smoothed the rumpled blankets.  “But look at the violence and bloodshed I’ve brought to this place?  How could any man forgive that?”

“My brother ain’t just any man!” Johnny stated emphatically.  “A few years back, a fellow came here believing he had a real good reason for killing Scott, and he almost did it, too.  When he finally came to see the light, Scott not only forgave him, he saved his life.  If you don’t think he has even more reason to forgive you……” he shook his head, denying the possibility.

“And how about you?” Nora rose to face him, asking baldly.  “My father planned to murder you.  Can you honestly say you can forget about that?”

“Let’s just say I can understand it.”  A shadow crossed Johnny’s face as he went on, “I once called a man out because I thought he’d killed Murdoch.  He tried telling me that it wasn’t true, but I wouldn’t listen.  He was wearing a gun and all, but that wouldn’t have made any difference.  If the old man hadn’t of shown up when he did, I’d have shot him dead.  So I guess I understand more than most what drives a man ta seek vengeance.”

“But you see, that’s why it’s my fault.  If I’d told him the truth instead of trying to protect him…..protect my brother’s memory, maybe none of this would have happened!”

Whatever sympathy Johnny felt—and his heart truly did break for this girl’s struggle—he kept to himself.  Instead he snapped brusquely, “You’re not the only one ta hafta live with regret over the choices you’ve made.”

Nora made no reply, but he saw her chin come up and the flash in her eye put him in mind of the feisty young woman she’d been just a week ago.  Well, it was Johnny’s opinion that sometimes a little anger could be an effective antidote to an excess of self-pity or self-blame, so he deliberately roughened his voice, challenging her.

“I’ve had ta make some choices in my life too.  Maybe if I’d chosen better there wouldn’t have been a Johnny Madrid, gunhawk, for your brother ta use…….”

“That’s not the same, and you know it!” Nora interrupted fiercely.

“Why?  You the only one who gets ta play God?  What about your brother……your father?  Is there some law that says that nobody but you gets ta take responsibility for their own action?”

Whatever blistering rejoiner Nora had on the tip of her tongue died stillborn when a raspy, plaintive voice broke the silence.

“I don’t suppose you two could do your arguing someplace else?”

“Scott!!”

Everything else was forgotten as the two of them rushed toward the bed.

Scott’s eyes had been closed, but he opened them as Johnny patted his shoulder.  “Wake up, brother.  I think you’ve had enough beauty sleep, even for you.”

Pale and gaunt, Scott was never-the-less aware of his surroundings, muttering, “Pretty hard to get any sleep with all that noise going on.”

Then the feather-light touch of a hand drew his attention.

“Nora,” he whispered, “Nora, are you all right?  I remember…….”  He trailed off as though trying to make order of the chaos that remained of his memory.

“Of course I’m fine,” she assured him soothingly, “and you will be too, now that your fever has broken.”  Glancing over at Johnny, she added in an undertone, “Your father……..wouldn’t he want to know?”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right,” he conceded.  “We need ta get him…..”

“I’ll go,” Nora offered, hurriedly heading for the door as she spoke.

Scott chose that moment to make a feeble attempt to push himself into a sitting position.  “Whoa, whoa now!” Johnny admonished, even as his brother gasped in pain.  “No thrashing around or you’re gonna tear Sam’s nice, neat stitches out.”

Slipping a strong arm around his brother’s shoulders, he lifted slightly and held a glass up while Scott sipped greedily.  Apparently the simple act of taking a drink of water was enough to sap the wounded man’s strength, because he sagged against the pillows and lay unmoving for a bit.

When he spoke again though, he seemed a bit more focused.  “I remember now…….it’s coming back.  Stanton…….a bushwacker in the rocks……there was an explosion…….but you came back.  And then……” His eyes widened, “My God, Stanton!!!  That boulder…….is he?”

“Yeah, Scott.”  Solemnly Johnny confirmed what his brother had to already have known.  “He’s dead.  There wasn’t nothing anybody could do……it all happened too fast.”

“And Nora?”

Again Johnny didn’t hedge the question.  “Doing about as well as anyone could expect……blames herself.   But she’s tough……..she’ll make it.”

“I have to talk to her,”  Scott’s breathing became more labored.  “I have to do something to help……”

“Settle down,” Johnny ordered.  “The best thing you can do for that girl is to take it easy and give yourself a chance ta heal.  That’s what she needs more than anything.”

Acquiescing to the justice of his brother’s words, Scott did his best to obey; truth be told, he really didn’t have the energy to do much else.

The sound of a heavy tread in the hall gave them both warning of their father’s approach.  Hair somewhat awry, pants hastily pulled on over his nightshirt, Murdoch’s imposing frame lacked a bit of his usual dignity, but his voice—warm and deep—held its same ring of authority.

“Son…..we’ve been very worried about you.  How are you feeling?”

Scott managed a rueful grin.  “It’ll probably be a while before I’m out roping any steers, but I’m sure I’ll be fine with some rest.”

“Oh, Scott, it’s wonderful to see you awake!”

The bare toes peeping out from beneath Teresa’s nightgown, and the shawl thrown haphazardly around her shoulders showed how little time she had wasted in getting there.

Nora entered the room hard on her heels, and both young women joined the group gathered around the bed.

“Is it just me, or does it seem a bit crowded in here?”  Scott’s little quip was only partly in jest—he felt that he was coming to the end of his ability to even keep his eyes open.

“Yep, and I don’t think any of ‘em remembered ta knock before they came in,” Johnny smirked.

“I think it’s best if we let Scott get some sleep.  You can send for any of us if you need help,” he reminded Nora.

Before closing the door behind him, Johnny tossed back one final retort.  “Next time, brother, maybe you’ll duck when I tell ya to.”

Now that they were finally alone, Scott tried to speak—his words slurred with the effort—but Nora firmly hushed him.  As he nodded off, she sat by his bedside and humbly offered up a prayer of thanks.

**********

As Sam warned them, this return to consciousness didn’t mean an end to Scott’s convalescence.  There would probably be more feverish episodes before the infection was completely cleared up.  He was still very weak because of all the blood he’d lost, and that broken rib might yet cause problems.  But they all kept their eyes on this new glimmer of hope.

Scott slept a lot for the next few days, and when he was awake, he suffered a great deal of pain.  Pragmatically, he agreed to swallow the small amounts of laudanum that Sam had prescribed, finding himself too weak to be anything other than a model patient.

He did exhibit a bit of his aforementioned Lancer stubbornness, however, one afternoon.  He was awake, and determined not to take his next dose of sedative until he’d had a chance to really talk to Nora.  He made several futile entreaties, but she seemed determined to be evasive—fussing with the curtains, spooning the last of the broth into his mouth, plumping pillows and straightening blankets.

Finally he managed to summon a bit of his normal, assertive manner.  “Nora, sit down!”

Stopping short, Nora couldn’t help the tender memory that clutched at her heart.  “I can see you haven’t changed—still autocratic, dictatorial and bossy.”

“Damn right!”  Scott mustered up a stern expression and lifted his hand just enough to point at the chair near his bed.   When Nora was seated, he turned that hand palm up and waited expectantly until she placed hers in its grasp.

“Nora,” he began softly, “I want to tell you how sorry I am for everything that…..”

“It wasn’t your fault!” Nora blurted out.

“That’s not the point,” Scott expostulated.  “This isn’t about assigning blame.  If you made errors in judgment, there were others whose actions certainly contributed more to this mess.  It’s no more your fault than anyone else.”

Squeezing her fingers gently, he murmured, “I’m trying to tell you how much I care about you……love you……and that I’d give anything to take away the pain you’re having to bear right now.”

Impulsively, Nora laid her head on the homespun quilt, and Scott stroked her hair soothingly.  Finally, she looked up and gave a tremulous smile.  “You and your brother seem to share the same opinion on the matter of my guilt, and I can’t fight both of you—so I guess I’ll let you have it your way.”  Then she leaned across the bed and bestowed a kiss—heartfelt and lingering—on his lips.

It was easy to see how much this interlude had taken out of him, though.  He fought the pain, but he couldn’t hid the grey, ashen pallor of his skin.

Immediately, Nora resumed her brisk, businesslike demeanor.  “All right, no more talking.  You drink this medicine, and then I want you to have a nice long sleep,” she scolded as she tucked the quilt securely around his chest.

“Now who’s being bossy?”  Scott mumbled as he let the painkiller blur the outlines of his agony.

“Damn right!” she whispered, and sat unmoving, content to simply savor—at least for a few moments—the heady sensation of just being loved.

*********

A few more days passed, and although Scott experienced a few relapses, he continued to improve—bit by bit.

Johnny stopped by his brother’s room early one evening.  He was pleased to find Scott awake, but not so pleased to discover him struggling to sit up in bed.

“Don’t you ever learn your lesson, brother?” he demanded loudly, easing the injured man carefully into an upright position and adjusting the pillows for better support.  “You rip out those stitches and you’ll start bleeding again.”

Scott’s first impulse was to respond with an extremely vulgar profanity and a rudely worded request for Johnny to shut up and mind his own business.  Unfortunately, when faced with throbbing pain, shortness-of-breath, and the waning strength of a malnourished kitten, his innate sense of justice forced him to admit that his younger brother was right—damn him!  So he confined himself to a terse, “Thanks.”

In spite of his glowering disapproval, Johnny had a very good idea just how much this self-restraint had cost his stiff-necked big brother.  With a sigh, he grabbed a damp cloth and blotted the beads of sweat that clung to Scott’s forehead.  “Just give yourself a little more time before ya kick over the traces,” he said in a milder tone.

“That’s good advice, I guess,” Scott conceded.

“Yeah,” Johnny said with a sympathetic grin, “and ain’t that the hardest kind ta follow?”  Hooking the leg of a nearby chair with a booted foot, he turned it backwards and swung one leg over, dropping into the seat with casual grace.  “How come you’re alone here anyways?  I thought Nora was with ya.”

“Nora went down to the kitchen to get what passes for my supper.”

“Getting a little tired of broth and tea, huh?”  Johnny’s eyes were dancing, but he managed to keep a straight face.  “Well, Sam’s coming back in a day or so; maybe he’ll let ya have some real food, like cornmeal mush or mashed succotash.”

Whatever Scott’s reaction might have been to this bit of provocation, it was forestalled by his father’s appearance in the doorway.

Balancing a large bowl of soup on a wooden tray, Murdoch exclaimed, “Good, you’ve already got your brother sitting up and ready to go.  He can eat this while it’s still hot.”

“I thought Nora was fetching Scott’s supper,” Johnny remarked as Murdoch deposited the tray on his son’s outstretched legs.

‘I met her as she was starting up the stairs with this,” Murdoch explained, meticulously draping a napkin around Scott’s neck.  “I had to put my foot down with that young lady—she looked ready to drop from exhaustion.  I sent her to bed, and she’s under orders to remain there until morning.”

Johnny and Scott exchanged an amused glance.  It was more often than not one of them who were on the receiving end of their father’s no-nonsense ultimatums.

“Well then, if she knows what’s good for her, she won’t be showing her face out here anytime soon,” Johnny smirked.

Spoon half-way to his mouth, Scott hesitated, “She’s still holding it all inside, isn’t she?  We’ve talked, and I’d hoped she was starting to heal a little, but I can see it in her eyes…….how much she’s suffering.”

“It takes a long time for someone to work through their grief after such a tremendous loss,” Murdoch reminded him.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t seem like she’s even letting herself grieve at all,” Johnny observed, “at least not that I can see.”

“Maybe sharing her feelings with us isn’t what she really needs right now,” Murdoch said meditatively.  “I’m sure Nora knows we care for her and would do whatever we could to help, but it’s also true that none of us here have any special memories of her father and brother.  For someone in mourning, those can be a great source of comfort.”

“You saying we should let her go home?” Johnny asked.

“I want what’s best for her, of course,” Scott put in, “but I hate to think of her traveling all that way alone, in her state.  I’d hoped it could wait until I was better and could make the trip with her.”

“It’ll be some time before your health permits that kind of an exhausting journey,” Murdoch stated unequivocally. “I may have an idea or two.  Let me think about it a bit.”  Just then he was distracted by the sight of Scott’s nearly untouched meal.

“Son, you’ve hardly eaten anything.  Do you need some help with that?”  He reached out with the clear intention of feeding the patient by hand, if necessary.

Scott spared himself that indignity by grabbing the spoon and doggedly working his way through the large portion of broth.

Arms crossed over his chest, Murdoch rumbled, “That’s better.  You certainly aren’t going to regain your strength if you don’t eat.  Now make sure you finish and ………”

Johnny folded his arms over the back of the chair and rested his chin on them.  He had never been more pleased by the sight of his old man calling the tune.

**********

It was just shy of a week later, and Nora was in her room freshening up after her enforced rest period.  She felt a bit foolish trying to take a nap in the middle of the day, but Murdoch’s decree was not open for debate.  Philosophically, she’d submitted with what grace she could muster.

This morning, Murdoch had gone into town for supplies.  Nora had seriously considered skipping today’s siesta, but she had a healthy enough respect for the Lancer patriarch to decide that disregarding his orders—even in his absence—would be very unwise.  Besides which, several weeks of night duty at Scott’s beside was taking its toll, and on several instances—such as this afternoon—she’d fallen asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.

She’d just finished rinsing her face and hands and was ready to leave the room, when there was a knock at the door.  She opened it to find Murdoch standing there, smiling.

“Nora, we have a visitor here who’s very anxious to see you.”

With that, he moved aside and a woman took his place.  Petite, if a trifle on the plump side, her strawberry-red hair was generously streaked with gray.  The silk bonnet that perched on top of her head had been the highest kick of fashion ten years ago in Philadelphia.  Nora had scrimped and saved her allowance during that first term at boarding school in order to purchase it.  She’d been too young to realize how that improbable shade of pink would clash with bright red hair, and the recipient of her largesse certainly hadn’t pointed it out.  No article of clothing had ever been more highly prized or worn with greater pride.

“Molly!!” Nora stammered in shock.  “But how……when………?”

Then Molly opened her arms wide, and the questions just ceased to exist.  This same precious embrace had softened childhood disappointments, erased the pain of skinned knees and elbows, and dried the tears of a newly-motherless little girl.  Now Nora once again flung herself into its miraculous depths.

And finally……finally, the dam seemed to break.  With sobs racking her body, Nora clung to this woman, crying with complete abandon.

“There, there, my love,” Molly crooned.  “It’s a terrible thing, my poor lamb, but Molly is here now.  You go ahead and cry, darling.  We’ll get through this together.”

With a brief word of thanks to her host, Molly Carrillo shepherded her charge back into the bedroom.  The two women spent the rest of the day closeted together, talking far into the night.

“I was so worried about you, I almost went out of my mind,” Molly insisted.  “When Murdoch Lancer’s telegram arrived, I was on the next stage north.”

She listened as Nora told the story of Carl Stanton’s terrible quest for revenge, and its tragic aftermath. And she cried all over again when she learned the truth about the death of the young man she’d loved like a son.”

“Ah, my sweet, the hard truth of the matter is that none of the people we love are perfect,” Molly sighed.  “Lord only knows that Ned was as dear to me as my own boys, but he was wrong……..wrong to do what he did and wrong to ask for your silence.”

“And your father…….”  Those blue eyes snapped with righteous indignation.  “…..he always was a hard man, and he has much to answer for—breaking the laws of God and man as he did.”

“”But still and all……” Molly crossed herself and looked heavenward, “…….in the good Lord’s mercy he can find forgiveness for his sins.  He truly loved you, my dear, and his sacrifice proves that.”

So Molly stayed.  She made herself more than useful, performing all manner of domestic chores cheerfully and well.  Maria was a bit wary at first; this woman’s Spanish, while fluent, was strangely accented with a decided Irish lilt.  But Molly displayed a natural diplomacy which allowed her to take considerable liberties without appearing to interfere with the Lancer housekeeper’s domain, and her green enchiladas were above criticism.

And when Nora was feeling low and oppressed, she was amazed at how much it helped to seek out Molly and spend some time reminiscing about the past—remembering happier times, laughing over old family jokes, and sometimes crying over tender memories.

*******

Johnny tossed an apple lightly from hand to hand as he hurried down the hall from his room.  His extra saddle bag was slung over his shoulder, and he’d almost reached the stairs when he heard the voices.

For a moment he stood listening, and then with a wicked gleam of mischief dancing in his eyes, he sauntered over to his brother’s room, eavesdropping unashamedly.

“Now, please be reasonable, Scott.  It’ll only be a while longer, I’m sure.”

“There’s nothing reasonable about it.  It’s patently ridiculous.”

“Dr. Jenkins just wants to be cautious…….”

“Sam Jenkins is an old woman!”

Peering around the corner, Johnny could see that Nora was looking quite harassed and Scott was wearing an expression of mulish determination.  They were both unaware of his presence until he chimed in, “Hey, brother, are you giving this pretty lady a hard time?”

“I’m not giving anyone a hard time,” Scott protested in an aggrieved voice.  “I’m just stating some obvious facts: I don’t need any assistance in dressing myself and I’m more than capable of going down a simple set of stairs.”

“Of course you are,” Nora agreed placating, “but Dr. Jenkins wants to check your wound one more time, and he’s still concerned about that broken rib.”

Grinning broadly, Johnny drawled, “Ya know, if ya really wanna keep him in bed, I’ll tell ya what to do…….ya gotta hide his pants.  See, Scott’s a real fashionable gentleman—he’d never be seen in public with out his …….trousers.”

“Johnny, you’re not helping matters!” Nora admonished in exasperation.

“Don’t you have some work to do…….somewhere else?” Scott ground out between clenched teeth.

“Sure do, brother………yours.  So I’d be obliged if you’d listen ta Sam; another setback or two and I’ll be handling the spring roundup all by myself.”

Lobbing the apple over his head, he caught it neatly behind his back.  “You just remember what I said about hiding his pants………and don’t forget those plaid ones,” Johnny winked at Nora as he ducked out the door.

Quietly seething, Scott muttered under his breath, “My smart-ass younger brother might find his own pants missing sometime in the near future.”

Biting her lip to hide a smile, Nora seated herself next to him on the bed, and spoke firmly but lovingly.  “If you think you’re done with your little tantrum now, I have something important to tell you.”

Gradually the last traces of ill-humor faded away, and Scott reached for her hand.  “I’m afraid I haven’t been the most congenial of patients lately.  I’m sorry.”

Nora brushed a strand of blond hair from his eyes.  “You aren’t going to be any kind of patient for much longer.  We both know that Dr. Jenkins is going to turn you loose soon.  You’ll be up and around before you know it, and I…….. Well, Molly and I are going home tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”  Scott sat up a bit straighter.  “So soon?  I was hoping……..”

“It’s not soon, really…….it’s been weeks.”  Nora shook her head.  “I have to get back, don’t you see?  I have responsibilities………I need to arrange for a memorial service for my father.  There are people who will want to pay their respects.”  She drew a deep breath.  “I think I’m ready for that now.”

Scott touched her cheek gently.  “I’m glad,” he said sincerely.

“The estate needs to be settled, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that,” Nora explained.  “I know my father’s will provided what he felt was adequate compensation for the Carrillos, but I need to do what I think is right.  Molly and Juan and the boys may not be blood, but they feel more like family than the few shirt-tale relations I have left back east.  I’ve decided to deed them one-half of the ranch—Ned’s half.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to be anything less than generous and caring.”

Nora grimaced, “Of course, the hard part is going to be talking them into accepting it.”

“I have every confidence in your ability to be obstinate and pig-headed,” Scott assured her with a sly grin.  Nora responded with a saucy smirk of her own.

The next moment though, they were both serious.

“So I suppose the only important question left is…….what about us?” Scott once again claimed one of her hands.  “That afternoon at the bridge……there was a question I never got to ask…… and now?   Well, this is one of those situations where a gentleman without any pants is at a distinct disadvantage.”

“If you’d asked your question that day……..you must have known what the answer would have been.”  Nora smiled tenderly.  “But now……with everything that’s happened……..”

She looked him in the eye, and he could see that a certain innocence was gone forever—replaced by a hard-won maturity and toughness.

“Scott, this violence……this betrayal and bloodshed……..it’s affected us both.  I want you to take some time before you ask me that question……and then, if you decide that’s really what you want, I’ll know whether I can make a promise that will last for the rest of my life.  Please say you understand!”

In the face of her earnest pleading, Scott felt himself unable to argue.

“And how long must I wait before I’m allowed to try my luck again,” he inquired—resigned yet determined.

“Until the spring,” Nora’s eyes were bright with unshed tears, “I think spring is an appropriate time for new beginnings.”

“You drive a hard bargain, lady, but I guess I can live with that.”  He raised one eyebrow suggestively.  “Might I suggest a kiss to confirm our agreement?”

“Well, that’s rather forward, sir!” Nora giggled.

“Ah, but what else can you expect from a gentleman who’s not wearing any pants?”—were Scott’s final words before Nora melted into his arms and they shared a kiss that was partly fervent ardor and partly hope deferred.

********

According to old-timers, it was the wettest rainy season that the San Joaquin Valley had seen for many decades.  Jelly complained—loud and long—about the *pure misery* visited on him by his poor aching knee when the breaks between storms seemed nonexistent.

Even if Scott had been inclined to put up with the coddling of his family, none of them had that luxury.  It took the concerted efforts of every hand on the ranch to deal with the results of nature’s fury: flooding, mudslides and enough thunder and lightning to spook every head of cattle on the whole spread.

So Scott more than pulled his weight, spending wet, cold, muddy days clearing streams, riding herd and repairing all manner of storm damage.

To begin with, Johnny simply kept an eye on his brother to assure himself that Scott wasn’t pushing beyond the limits of his recent recovery.  What struck him—aside from a private admiration for his brother’s stamina and tenacity—was the number of times Scott’s path took him in the vicinity of the Red Rock Creek bridge.  It was nothing obvious, but if a slight detour—even one involving a bit more riding—would take him through the area, he’d take that route.

But Johnny showed—for him—surprising forbearance in refusing to tease his brother with this knowledge, just as he showed uncharacteristic tact by giving Scott some extra privacy whenever a letter was delivered bearing Nora’s handwriting.

At long last the skies cleared, just in time for the rigors of the spring round-up.  Long days in the saddle hazing erratic steers, beating the brush for strays and the grueling branding process all paid off, however.  In spite of the torrential weather, Lancer’s herds had grown by a considerable amount.

In Murdoch’s study one evening—after a special meal celebrating this achievement—Scott announced that he had some business to attend to and would be heading south in the morning.

“I’m afraid I can’t be sure exactly how long I’ll be gone, Sir,” he warned his father.

“That’s fine, son,” Murdoch fairly beamed with pleasure, but he managed to assume a nonchalant expression.  “We’ll do fine here, now that the round-up is completed.  I’m sure your brother can take up the slack if need be.”

Johnny nodded and raised his glass in mock salute.

“Well, if that’s settled, I guess I’ll turn in.”  Murdoch paused just before reaching the door.  “Have a safe journey, Scott, and if I may……..please accept my good wishes for the success of your *business*.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Scott answered fondly.

“Night, Murdoch,” Johnny called.

For some time the two brothers sat in silence—Johnny sipping tequila and Scott nursing a stiff whiskey—enjoying the comfort of a brisk fire on this cool spring night.

“I really do hope she says yes, Scott.”  Staring into the flames, Johnny spoke with sudden fierceness.  “I’d hate ta think that any of the sins of my past had ruined your chances ta be happy.”

“Now I thought we’d settled this, Johnny.”  Scott tossed back the remainder of his drink and stood with his hands on his hips.  “Your sins…….her father’s sins……….What ever decision Nora makes, it will be because of her feelings for me, and not the result of anyone’s transgressions.”

Johnny craned his neck to meet his brother’s unyielding gaze.  “And you’re not gonna let me forget it, are ya, brother?”

Impetuously, he drained the last of his tequila and came to his feet.

“Ya know, Scott, there’s something an old priest said ta me once—a long time ago.  Back then, I pretty much figured he was talking out of his hat, but that was before I understood what it really meant ta care about someone, and have them care about you.  When I think about it now……..well, it kinda gives me a lot of hope.”

“And?” Scott waited expectantly.

“He said—“love covers all sins,” Johnny quoted.

“Amen, brother…….amen!”

 

EPILOGUE

It wasn’t a conventional wedding by any means, particularly for a bride who had just inherited a considerable fortune and a groom who was part-owner of one of the largest ranches in the San Joaquin Valley.

Some of the gossips would tell you that the reason for such a small wedding party was because the bride hadn’t yet completed the year long period of mourning required after her father’s death.

But not even the most inveterate gossip could come up with an explanation for the location of the wedding ceremony—the middle of nowhere.  The only man-made structure for miles and miles around was the sturdy bridge where the couple stood to take their vows.

No one could deny that the bride was radiant in a simple but elegant dress of sprigged muslin.  The groom also cut a dashing figure in his western-style, tan corduroy jacket.  Nobody watching his calm, confident demeanor could have guessed that it had taken him over a dozen attempts to get that string tie into anything approximating its proper mode.

The matronly red-haired lady—standing next to the bride—shed tears of joy throughout the proceedings.  She was supported by a rugged, but handsome gentleman who tolerantly patted her shoulder as she wept.  The four strapping vaqueros grouped behind this couple had obviously inherited their father’s dark hair and complexion, along with their mother’s expressive blue eyes.

 As requested, the minister had taken as his text, I Corinthians 13:  “Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag, and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice with unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things-----Love never fails.”  This ancient reminder of the power of love seemed especially meaningful today.

And then—after a touching and heartfelt exchange of vows—the minister asked for the ring.

Rather surprisingly—for someone who’d faced down the barrel of a loaded Colt 45 without breaking a sweat—the best man had been extremely nervous about his role in this dramatic and symbolic portion of the ceremony.  He’d secretly practiced for hours, until he could retrieve the small velvet box from his pocket without fumbling, and the hand that proffered the tiny gold circlet was steady.

All that time and effort paid off, however.  He accomplished his task with enviable savoir faire, and then listened with great pride and satisfaction as his brother repeated those all-important words—“With this ring, I thee wed.”

Following the minister’s solemn pronouncement, and a kiss that was as lingering and intimate as was decent before so many witnesses, it was time to throw the bridal bouquet.

With only one unmarried female in attendance, this should have just been a genteel little affair between the two ladies, but the bride decided otherwise.  She ruthlessly corralled each of her old childhood playmates, her new brother-in-law, and one—vigorously protesting—bachelor handyman.

There was the usual amount of jostling and ducking as the floral missive flew through the air, and when the dust settled, a red-faced young man stood clutching an artistic arrangement of yellow roses and babies’ breath.  To his credit, he did some fast thinking in the face of hoots and catcalls from his three older siblings.  Summoning up his most charming smile, he turned to the dark-haired beauty at his elbow and—with a flourish—offered her the flowers.  She dimpled adorably, took the bouquet in one hand and his arm with the other, and led him towards the wagon laden with refreshments.

*********

“Papa, I know it isn’t what you had planned,” Nora leaned against the railing of the bridge, “but if I can forgive you for your sins, I hope you can find it in yourself to wish me happiness.”  With that, she dropped a yellow rose—a single bloom held back from her bouquet—into the swiftly moving stream.

“Mrs. Lancer, I believe you are guilty of ignoring your guests.”

“Mmmmmm,” Nora gave a rapturous sigh.  “Say that again.”

“What?” asked Scott teasingly, “that you’re ignoring your guests?”

“No,” his wife nudged him chidingly, “the other part!”

In a voice husky with love and desire, he repeated, “Mrs. Lancer?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing that,” she smiled up at him.

“And I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of saying it, but we’ll have plenty of opportunity to test that theory……..the next forty or fifty years.”

“You’re probably right; we should be getting back to our guests.”  Glancing over to where a lavish picnic lunch had been spread beneath a large shade tree, Nora commented, “They do seem to be doing just fine though, even Manuel and David and Luis and Patrick.”

“I did get the impression that you were worrying about something.”  Scott drew her closer to his side.

“Ned was such a close friend, almost another brother to them.  I know they’ve had months to deal with the truth about his death, and I think Luis and Patrick had always had some suspicions about the note they delivered to me, but still……..meeting Johnny Madrid………face-to-face……..”  She shrugged, “And I had a feeling that last night’s little bachelor get-together at the saloon in town might add enough tequila to the mix that they’d forget their company manners.”

Scott couldn’t help but chuckle.  “Well, you’re right about the tequila.  They all took turns drinking each other under the table, and Johnny ended up winning the contest.  But he and your adopted band of brothers do seem to have come to a meeting of the mind.”

“Then everything’s perfect………and did you notice Patrick and Teresa?  They haven’t taken their eyes off each other since he gave her those flowers.”  Flushed with pleasure and eager to share her joy, Nora murmured, “Maybe I should give them a little………………”

 

“Oh no,” Scott objected with mock severity. “You have more important things to concentrate on right now than playing matchmaker!”

“What things?”

“A husband……..and a honeymoon!”

Nora decided it was her turn to tease her husband just a bit.  “Hmmm, do you really think that should take priority over being gracious hosts to our family and friends?”

In answer, Scott cupped her cheek and then his probing fingers traced the line of her jaw………..trailed over the sensitive skin of her delicate throat……….and dipped lower yet……………

After a sudden, sharp intake of breath, Nora stammered out, “Perhaps it is time to bid our guests goodbye.  We could explain that we want a good night’s rest at the hotel tonight before catching the train to San Francisco in the morning.  They would understand, wouldn’t they?”

“I think they’d understand all too well,” Scott predicted cheerfully.  “But I also think they’ll be polite enough to accept our excuses.”

And without further ado, he lifted the new Mrs. Lancer into his arms, carrying her across the bridge and into their new life together.

 

~ end ~

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