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Fay

 

 

Preconceptions

This story is based on the TV show “Lancer”. The characters have been borrowed for entertainment purposes. This is not written for profit, just for fun. And fun I had.
Thank you to the wonderful and talented KC for agreeing to beta and show me the error of my ways.  I would like to acknowledge Ros for encouraging me to write.
Rating: PG. Occasional mild swear words with some adult themes and innuendo.
This is really my first story, although I completed a smaller one for the Lancer fundraising magazine before I posted this.

 

Chapter One

Johnny pushed his hat up to the back of his head with his forefinger and glanced sideways at his brother, his face creasing into a beaming smile.

“Whooee! The Old Man is sure gonna be impressed with us, Boston! Two dollars a head more than what he bargained for.”

Scott turned his head towards his grinning younger brother, savouring the satisfaction which emanated from him. Clapping his hand over Johnny’s back, Scott pondered the outcome of their trip to the Stockton auction.

“Murdoch should hurt his back more often. Could be profitable! He is simply not going to believe a word of this until he sees all that money deposited into the bank, though. Can’t wait to see the look on his face,” he commented in anticipation.

The two young men had just spent two days at the bustling town after driving several hundred head of Lancer cattle through the parched autumn landscape. The two siblings had been in charge of the cattle drive, without their father’s dominating presence, for the first time since their arrival at Lancer. Just days before their departure, Murdoch had over-exerted himself during branding, stretching over a struggling steer and twisting his back when the animal kicked out wildly in terror.

Murdoch did not like being in pain and even moreso having his activities restricted. Suffering miserably as a result, being Murdoch, he had also made everyone else around him miserable into the bargain. Every movement caused him twinges of discomfort and even outright agony. And he didn’t let anyone forget it. Even Teresa’s equanimity was shattered. The normally good-natured girl had taken to venting her frustration with him by stomping noisily down the stairs, banging pots and pans recklessly in the kitchen sink, then stalking outside to stab a spade furiously into the soil of her beloved garden beds.

Their trip had been uneventful, and it had given the brothers rare precious time together without being under their critical father’s eye. Both men had an easy relationship with their ranch hands and had enjoyed working as a team with their crew, the friendly banter not preventing them from focussing on the task at hand. To Scott and Johnny, it was a chance to be out on the range, to hone their supervisory skills, and what was more important to them both, to talk and to share aspects of their pasts and themselves.

After a shaky start two years ago, the brothers had formed a close bond, moving from uncertainty to trust and uncompromising faith in each other. However, there was still one main issue between them. Guilt. For his part, Scott felt guilty about the wealth and comfort he had grown up in, which was the utter dichotomy to the squalor, violence, desperation and neglect that Johnny had managed to survive. Not only survive, but from which he had emerged as the most loyal and compassionate man Scott had ever met.

Johnny had only ever given Scott carefully edited versions of his past. Johnny’s unvoiced fear was that Scott’s high opinion of him would be eroded if he knew the full story. He desperately craved and basked in his brother’s high regard, but deep down feared too much detail would lower Scott’s estimation of him, that the pre-conceived ideas the vast majority of the public held concerning gunslingers would swamp Scott, would materialize too vividly for him and would be too great a truth to ignore. While he felt guilt about the path he had taken earlier in his life, Johnny knew that at the time his options had been severely limited.

Scott, in turn, relished these times to get closer to Johnny, to get him to open up ever so slightly. He was an astute man. He knew or guessed what Johnny tried so valiantly to conceal. He understood he was being protected from the harsh truth. If only he could get Johnny to realize that his love for his brother was not going to be weakened by any stark realities thrown his way. If anything, their relationship would be strengthened by acceptance and understanding of the less savoury aspects of their pasts.

 

For Johnny, being together camping out under the stars, sharing a warming coffee over a campfire, was a time to break down the twofold barriers that Scott had erected both about his privileged childhood and about his time incarcerated in the notorious Libby prison. He knew that Scott occasionally felt awkward about the prestigious lifestyle he had led while Johnny had eked out an existence where survival was paramount. He understood that Scott felt deeply saddened that Johnny had not been offered the same opportunities in life that he had: financial security, connections, education. And there was Libby.  The ever-decent gentleman in Scott had been scarred by abhorrent memories deeply hidden from view. Johnny wondered if Scott was concerned that his suffering and repugnance for atrocities witnessed in Libby would be seen as a sign of weakness and lack of backbone.

The trail had a healing effect, each evening offering a time for humour, mateship and reflection. Soothed by the gentle seeping of more information about each other’s pasts, they each had slept well at night, waking ready to face the new day’s demands.

All in all, a profitable few weeks for the Lancer men, in more ways than one.

“Hey, we’d better not forget the rest of our brief, little brother, or no amount of money on that bank draft will make it up to Murdoch.”

Johnny agreed with a nod of his head. “Yeah, we need to go and look at that breeding stock Murdoch is so all fired about. He really wants to increase our Hereford cross-breed herd. Tell you what, though, spending hours inspecting all them cows, with their shapes, lines and bulges, sure gives a man a greater appreciation of the comely form of the two-legged female! Did you see those gals hanging off the arms of the Wilson brothers the other day? Do you reckon there’d be any more of them lurking nearby? Ain’t nothing to compare with a shapely woman’s walk!”

Scott chuckled. “Seems to me you were just that, comparing heifers and the fairer sex! I’d be careful not to allow any of the young ladies in the vicinity hear you, Johnny, or your name will be mud and you’ll be black-listed by womenfolk the length and breadth of the San Joachin Valley.”

“You wish, brother. You’re just hoping to remove the competition so’s you don’t get completely ignored.”

“What competition? I haven’t noticed any!”

“Didn’t you see the hordes flocking around me at the last social at the Borchers’? You must be blind, big brother.”

“Oh, you mean the Wilkins twins, Becky Lawson, Sarah Campbell, Jane Townshend  and Adele Hutchison?  Well, I’ve got news for you, boy. They were falling over themselves to have my arms wrapped around them in a waltz. I bribed each one to dance with you first. Didn’t want you to be left out of the fun. Only then would I give them the honour of partnering them on the dance floor.”

“Scott, the only thing bigger than your imagination is your ego! Everyone knows that I’m more dastardly charming than you…and everything I’ve got is four years younger and is going to last four years longer than yours!”

Scott was prevented from a rebuttal by his name being hailed over the hubbub of the crowd. Glancing over the sea of milling ranchers, bobbing heads and dusty hats, he searched for the origin of the call. It came again, closer this time. Finally, through the mêlée emerged two men, both about Johnny’s height, one around Scott’s age, and the other a good twenty years older with silver hair. The older man’s sprightly gait picked up as he realized that Scott had seen him, while the younger man laboured to keep up, limping on his left leg.

“Mon dieu, c’est pas possible! Scott, comment ça va? Ça fait longtemps!”

Scott warmly shook the hand thrust at him, his face registering pleasure. “Oui, ça va très bien, Pascal! What are you doing all the way out here? It must be more than two years since we last met!”

Not waiting for response, Scott turned to the younger man and shook hands with him, clasping the man’s right upper arm in his left hand as he did so.

The older gentleman was the picture of sartorial elegance. His impeccably tailored charcoal grey suit was in a western style and cut to follow the man’s physique. Sporting a black string tie with embossed sliver clasp and perfectly shaped felt hat, he exuded class. A pale blue shirt with heavily starched collar completed the outfit, constricting the man’s throat and causing his double chin to bulge up in layers over the top of the collar rim, like a waterfall cascading over a boulder-strewn ledge. Alive and friendly eyes sparkled with warmth under the brim of his hat. His genial air was contagious, and the smile below his handle-bar moustache was unwavering.

The slim, younger man was dressed more casually in a cowboy outfit, the cleanest and neatest in sight. Not one strand of chestnut brown hair was out of place on his head, contrasting sharply to the throng of cowhands around them. His brown eyes darted from Scott to Johnny as he smiled and shook hands.

Scott turned to his brother, placing a hand to his shoulder. “Johnny, I’d like you to meet Pascal Buttet and his son Michel. I knew them back in Boston. Pascal is a business associate of my grandfather’s and I grew up with Michel. Pascal and Michel, this is my brother, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded to each, and greeted them by name as he extended his hand.  There was a slight delay before the newcomers responded, the father exclaiming loudly, “But you are an only child, Scott! How can this be?”

”Well, that’s a story in itself, but basically my father Murdoch remarried several years after my mother’s passing. Johnny is the result,” responded Scott with pride.

Michel’s handshake was limpid and brief, as he looked Johnny up and down.

“If you had not informed me, I would have thought that Johnny was one of the local ranch hands. You do not resemble each other at all,” Michel remarked to Scott before turning again to Johnny.  “You look so, er… dark.”

The sneer was not lost on Johnny.

“No, we don’t. And yes, I am. My mother was Mexican.”

“Well, that explains it,” replied Michel, frostily turning his shoulder ever so slightly to Johnny as he faced Scott and his father, who were conversing animatedly.

“I had heard that you had settled out here and found your father. We arrived here six months ago and I had planned to contact you soon if you had not attended the stock sale,” the father was informing Scott.

“Six months ago? But what brings you out here, so far from Boston, Pascal?”

“Michel and I decided to undertake a new enterprise, Scott. I have left capable managers operating the companies I still retain in Boston and we have branched out into ranching on this side of the continent. We have a growing herd, and are diversifying into viticulture. The land reminds me so much of Provence and I have hopes of establishing a vineyard to rival my grandfather’s. I have a splendid idea, Scott. Why don’t you join us for dinner this evening, as my guests? We could reminisce and catch up over a delicious meal and a subtle red.”

Scott agreed with alacrity on behalf of himself and Johnny, making arrangements to meet at the Buttet’s hotel at seven that evening.

The two brothers watched them disappear into the seething mass of ranchers, cowhands, officials, and onlookers.

“What a stroke of luck to run into them. Michel and I shared many a childhood adventure – some were real scrapes! And Pascal was someone I could approach when I needed some adult advice.”

“What about your grandfather?” Johnny enquired.

“There were times when I needed a more objective view of things, Johnny. Pascal was more approachable, I guess you could say. Less judgemental. Less distant, I suppose.”

Johnny nodded his head at the wistful note in his brother’s voice and did not miss the fact that Pascal was possibly quite a few things to Scott that Harlan Garrett was not. Quite a few things that Harlan should have been. All things that Murdoch would have liked to have been.

“I tell you what, Scott. Why don’t you go along by yourself tonight? Talk about the past together?”

“No, Johnny, I’d really like you to be there. I’d like you to get to know my friends.”

Johnny acquiesced with a nod of his head, but groaning inwardly. Making the best of a bad situation, he teased his older brother. “I’m gonna enjoy this. I might hear some interesting secrets to let slip to Sarah, Becky, Jane, Adele and the Wilkins girls!” was the cheeky reply he produced.

Johnny was distracted from further comment by a pesky fly, which decided to plague his nose and mouth, continuing to hover and land as Johnny waved his hand to and fro. It crawled over his cheek, tickling his flesh. Disrupted in its intent by Johnny’s annoyance, it moved position to his ear, irritating its owner. His lips were the next target. Johnny swiped the back of his arm across the itching surface, only to then be met with the challenge of dissuading the fly from using the cliff of his forehead as a mountaineer’s precipice. The insect proved to be a determined creature, but met its match in Johnny, who resorted to vigorous swats around his face and shoulders with his hat, finally claiming success.

The dust swirled as boots and shoes from the passing spectators scuffed the ground. Breathing was made somewhat unpleasant as odours were dominated by the earthy pungency of cow manure mixed with perspiration of passers-by. As the heat of the day diminished, the boys spent the next hour examining more cattle and chatting to various acquaintances. Much of value could be learned by these informal discussions, enabling the ranchers to consider continuing problems, propose possible solutions and to keep abreast of new techniques and practices. Most of all, they sweet-talked old Ramirez into a profitable deal for Lancer with regard to his Hereford breeding stock. Or Johnny did. Johnny’s bilingual charm struck a deal with the old Spaniard which was far better than either of them had dared hope for.

Finally weary of the dust and suffering parched throats, they headed back to the hotel for a well-earned bath and change of clothes before dinner that evening with Scott’s Bostonian friends.

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

Scott surveyed his brother in the mirror as he pulled the comb through his hair, readying himself for the evening meal. Johnny had donned a clean outfit as a concession to dining in the hotel’s dining room, but eschewed the more formal type of suit jacket Scott chose in favour of his tan suede coat. He would have preferred his charro jacket, which was more like a second skin to him, but realized that the dinner arrangements were special to Scott. 

“What have you got the fidgets for?” Scott enquired with a raised eyebrow.

“Just feeling those hunger pangs gnawing a hole in my insides. I can feel the air whistling in already, like them desert winds blowing down a canyon. If you don’t stop tizzying yourself up, you’ll have combed all the hair out of your head and none of the local eligible girls will spare you a glance because they’ll think you’re somebody’s grandpa well into his fifties.”

“Wrong, brother. They will wonder who the immaculately groomed gentleman is and fall over themselves vying for my attention, so rare is it for them to find anyone in the San Joachin who values the art of presentation!”

Johnny’s snort was all he received.  While Johnny maintained a humorous façade, if the truth be told, he’d rather just Scott and he were having dinner together. He felt unsure of himself with these Bostonian friends of Scott’s. Michel had made it plain that Johnny was beneath him, not that Scott noticed, turned away as he talked with Pascal. He carried a life’s worth of slights and put-downs within, but didn’t want to have to deal with more, now, in front of Scott, from friends whom Scott seemed to value highly.

With one last flourish, Scott deposited the comb on the dressing table, adjusted his coat and proffered his left arm to Johnny. “Would my dinner date care to descend the stairs with me?”

Johnny batted his arm away as he stalked past to open the door, but was unable to prevent his mouth creasing into a smile. “Keep that up, Boston, and the local ladies AND men are going to get the wrong idea about you! Heck, even I might start wondering!”

The two men quickly moved across the landing to the stairs. They reached the Buttet’s nearby hotel room in five short minutes and entered the dining room just as Pascal and Michel were seating themselves in a corner by a large indoor potted plant. There was a general air of conviviality amongst the diners and the chink of cutlery on china could be heard interspersed through the various conversations in progress.

Scott greeted his friends enthusiastically as he and Johnny sat down.

“Well, boys, was the rest of the day profitable for you?” enquired Pascal.

“We think so. Nothing beats preparation,” replied Scott, “And the best preparation is often small-talk around the pens. It’s amazing what information you can pick up which just may help get you the best price or offer the best price.”

Just then, a hovering waiter interrupted their discussion, pointing out the house specialities.

Johnny smirked at Scott’s request for the “coq au vin” and decided he’d stick to something he knew, something more palatable.

“Make mine steak. Rare, but not raw, thanks,” was his succinct order.

“So, Scott, how is life for you here? I must admit I was surprised when I heard that you had left Boston to seek your father out. Especially after he had ignored you all those years,” Pascal ventured.

“Truth to tell, Pascal, things were not quite what I was led to believe, shall we say. My father had been to Boston to seek me out when I was five years old, but I was unaware of this. For reasons I won’t go into right now, he was unable to bring me home to Lancer.”

“Lancer? Home?” was Michel’s startled enquiry.

“Yes, Lancer is home. It’s a home I didn’t realize I was missing all my life. It’s a home because of the family I have there. Not just my father, Murdoch, but also my father’s ward, Teresa, and most of all I discovered I had a brother.”

At this point, Scott looked over at Johnny, saluting him with his wine glass before taking a sip.

“That must have been a shock!” commented Michel, as his father sent him warning scowl while glancing askance at Johnny who sat immobile.

Scott eyes sought Michel’s, as the latter’s drifted from Johnny back to his older brother.

“Yes, indeed, it was a shock – one that turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of my life and one for which I am eternally grateful. I am forever thankful that my father found himself in love and was able to marry for a second time.”

The crispness of Scott’s reply was not lost on Michel, who essayed to backtrack.

“I am so happy for you, Scott. Remember how we would talk about our lives and wonder what it would be like to have brothers?”

Scott visibly relaxed, and as he replied he noticed that Johnny’s wooden expression was replaced with one of interest as he focussed on learning something of the Scott he had never known.

“Yes, I do. We would make up for that by getting up to some mischief together, didn’t we?”

“Do you remember when we spied Widow Tregarn kissing Mr Winslow behind the candy store in Beacon Street? We wrote her love letters, claiming to be from Mr James and Mr Edwards, and put them in her mail box.”

Scott grimaced wryly.

“Yes. I can’t believe we had the cheek to interfere like that. It could have ended disastrously.”

“But it didn’t, did it?  At the next dance she was all aflutter whenever she was near the three gentlemen. As a result, Mr Winslow got jealous and after two year’s dithering he finally proposed!”

Johnny’s earlier discomfort evaporated as he joined in the laughter.

He eyed his brother quizzically.

“I can’t imagine you doing anything so audacious, Scott. I thought ol’ Harlan kept you on the straight and narrow with a tight lead and choker collar.”

With amused exasperation, Scott countered “Yes, he could be controlling and he expected nothing but the best as far as manners went, but I was a boy, just like any other. Anyway, it wasn’t my idea!”

“No, but you sure came up with the goods, Scott. I think I was close to falling in love with you myself, so romantic and flowery was your prose. A most convincing ardent admirer!”

“What other adventures has Scott hidden from me, Michel?” Johnny queried.

“Now, hang on. You divulge any more and I will be at Johnny’s mercy!” Scott protested.

Pascal entered into the fray, “I seem to remember a little incident concerning cakes at a certain important business meeting, Scott.”

Johnny enjoyed Scott’s grimace of discomfort. “This sounds like a winner, Scott. Care to enlighten me?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Never fear, Johnny, I can give you all the savoury details. Scott was being punished for a minor misdemeanour. Sent to his room on frugal rations for a few days after an altercation with the cook. Knowing how much she liked baking cakes for her own consumption, let alone anyone else’s, he sneaked into the kitchen, replacing the sugar with salt. Unfortunately, he did not realize that Harlan had organized a special afternoon tea for his business associates and their wives to be held the day after. To say that Harlan was not impressed would be an understatement. I was there to see the fury on his face….and to be a victim of a most foul sponge cake. I couldn’t get the salty taste out of my mouth for hours!”

“Yes, I paid for that escapade!”

“So you should have, my boy! What was the quarrel with the cook about, anyway?”

“She claimed that I had stolen some money from the housekeeper. She said she saw me sneak into her rooms and steal it from her purse.”

“And Harlan believed her over you?” asked an astounded Johnny.

“Well, Grandfather believed her as she put up a good argument, but she had threatened one of the kitchen hands with losing her job if she didn’t corroborate what she said.”

Scott’s recount of the events was temporarily halted by Johnny’s raised eyebrow and quizzical look as he silently mouthed ‘corroborate’. Scott smothered his developing smile at Johnny’s unvoiced question. As was often the case. Scott rephrased his speech to help Johnny out without making it obvious.

“Even though the kitchen maid backed up her story, we found out only two weeks later it was the cook. She was caught red-handed with Grandfather’s wallet as she rummaged through the pockets of his coat, which he had left in the hall closet. She was summarily given the sack, and I must admit, although Grandfather apologized, it rankled with me that he didn’t believe me. During that time I was banned from representing my school in a fencing competition, and as I was captain of the team, I let everyone else down badly.”

“Hey, Scott, you didn’t let everyone else down. The cook and your grandfather did. It wasn’t your fault and you shouldn’t think that way,” Johnny quickly interjected in defence of his brother.

Scott looked at Johnny with gratitude for his support, but nevertheless added, “The team lost. There was a lot of prestige associated with the contest. I couldn’t carry on my duties, so yes, I am responsible nonetheless for the disappointment they all suffered.”

The arrival of their meal put paid to this reminiscing, as the four of them set about assuaging their hunger pangs after a long day at the auction. Their initial interest in their food slowed after a brief while, conversation picking up as a result. Scott swallowed a mouthful of superbly tender chicken, wiped his mouth on his napkin and picked up his wine glass, studying the colour before taking a sip.

“So, tell me, what brought you out here? It’s a long way to come to raise some cattle and establish a vineyard.”

Pascal, in turn, sniffed the bouquet of his wine before swirling it in his glass and examining the colour changes as it reflected the light from a lamp nearby.

“It was time for a change, Scott. I have only sold some of my enterprises. The bulk of them I have retained. The day to day operations I have entrusted to a few long term friends. We keep in touch by telegraph. An extraordinary thing, this invention. One wonders what will be next in modern communication methods. I digress. This is proving quite satisfactory. We have purchased a property north of Modesto. It is an established ranch, but I wish to diversify. Not put all my eggs in one basket, comme on dit. And you, Scott? Are you happy here?”

Scott did not need to pause. He looked at Johnny as he commenced speaking. “Yes, indeed. It has been an education and a half. Learning ranching. Learning that I have a lot to learn! Learning to live with my new family, unexpected as it was to find out the exact composition of it.”

At this, Scott tilted his glass in Johnny’s direction, before turning his attention back to Pascal and Michel, and continuing.

“And I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Michel, who had been absorbed in his burgundy wine, glanced at Scott, then Johnny.

“So, you must have been rather perturbed, Johnny, to find out that you had a brother arrive out of the blue. You must have had reservations about sharing everything you owned with this newcomer. The repercussions of Scott’s arrival must surely have concerned you?”

Like the others before him, Johnny studied his drink, collecting his thoughts.

“Yes and no. No, I didn’t mind sharing my property, but Scott just wasn’t interested in my things. He’s not partial to salmon pink, conchos are too showy for him, and as close as we’ve become, that doesn’t extend to Scott wanting to ride double on my saddle.”

Pascal and Michel were perplexed at this decidedly odd statement, but before either could ask any questions, Johnny continued.

“But, yeah, those repercussions you mentioned, they had me worried. Had me worried for a long time. They struck me that first morning at Lancer. Like a blow to my forehead, knocking my eyeballs around in their sockets, making me all dizzy. I tried real hard not to think about them, but every time I closed my eyes, they were staring me in the face. Getting bigger, brighter and harder to deal with by the minute. Kinda blinding me, like a morbid fascination, you know? Couldn’t rest proper at night until I saw to the problem once and for all.”

Here Johnny paused, head bent, pensively examining the drink in his glass. Then his head shot up, his cheeky grin warning Scott that he was going to be targeted in some way for some fun.

Michel, missing the spark of humour between the brothers, broke into the silence. “What problem, Johnny? What did you do?”

Shaking his head from side to side, Johnny reprised his story. “I knew I’d be the laughing stock of the whole valley if I was seen in public accepting Scott dressed like that.  Plaid just ain’t the style, here or anywhere else. It never was and it never will be. Once I put them to a useful purpose on old Parkins’ scarecrow, I felt a mite relieved. Old man Parkins ain’t had any trouble at all with birds eating his grain since then. The birds are terrified of Scott’s Boston elegance and Mr Parkins has just had another bumper crop!”

Johnny finished with his trademark grin plastered all over his innocent face.

Johnny’s obscure statements puzzled Michel and Pascal, whose foreheads were creased in bafflement. Scott, on the other hand, was chuckling good-naturedly at his brother’s prank.

Frustrated with Johnny’s incomprehensible nonsense, Michel pursued his original agenda.

“I meant that you must have been worried that everything you had worked for since you were a child would now need to be shared with a new-found brother. Your whole past no longer yours alone. Unsettling to say the least, I should think.”

This cut deep. Unwittingly, Michel had pinpointed a source of concern. Sharing his past. That was hard for Johnny. It did unsettle him. While he had told Scott some things, he couldn’t bring himself to tell Scott just how sordid some aspects of his past really were. He couldn’t face the disappointment he might see in Scott’s face. He knew Scott was fair and non-judgmental, but he craved Scott’s high opinion and despaired that if he told Scott everything, every dirty element of his childhood and gun-slinging days, Scott just might not be able to hide his disgust. Heck, Johnny had a difficult enough time hiding his own disgust from himself.  How could he expect more from Scott, when Scott hadn’t even been there to see the circumstances of each miserable fact? Nevertheless, at least knowing he was not alone any more took a real weight off his shoulders.

The Madrid self-defence mechanism slipped into place. Diversion had saved him more than once.  “Less so than it was unsettling for Scott to find me,” answered Johnny with an amused smile of remembrance.

Pascal and Michel were still none the wiser as to what Johnny meant, but Scott’s interruption here provided them with a little understanding.

“Only Murdoch, our father, was expecting us. We weren’t expecting to find each other. We didn’t know the other existed, and arrived coincidentally on the same stagecoach. Johnny was born at Lancer, but his mother left before he was two, taking him with her. It was a three-way surprise reunion…and I really don’t know who got the biggest surprise.”

“If your mother took you away, where were you brought up, Johnny?” queried Pascal.

“In Mexico and along the border towns,” was Johnny’s brief response.

“Not quite the same genteel environs as Boston,” Michel commented, peering down his nose at Johnny.

“No. Quite different.”

“We may have had very different upbringings, but it is extraordinary how much we are in tune with each other,” Scott was quick to add.

An “If you say so,” was all that Michel offered.

Not liking his son’s patronising attitude, Pascal turned the conversation to the boys’ departure.

“We’re heading off tomorrow,” Scott informed his friends. “We are busy at the ranch and Murdoch is short-handed without the both of us.”

“Well, your father lasted all these years without you, so why don’t you come and stay at our ranch as our guest for a few days first? I can show you our stock and how we are setting up our vineyard. We can catch up and relive old times at the same time,” offered Pascal.

Scott considered the invitation, looking at his brother in the process, but slowly shook his head.

“No, we can’t both be away any longer. However, we do appreciate your offer, but…”

Here Scott paused pensively, then continued as he looked at Johnny hopefully, “Although we both can’t be away any longer, one of us could. What do you say, Johnny. Would you pick up my load as well as your own chores for just a few days while I pay them a visit? I’ll make it up to you.”

Johnny was inwardly dismayed. He didn’t feel comfortable around this Michel. He didn’t like his smugness and barely concealed condescension. He really wanted to get Scott away from them, but Scott’s eyes were sparkling in anticipation of spending time with people from the same Boston background. Johnny realized that Scott had also had a hard time adapting to life out west, no matter how hard he attempted to conceal it, and he could understand that yearning to be immersed once again in the society he felt comfortable in.

“Sure, Scott. I’ll smooth things over with the old man. You have a break and enjoy yourself. It’s not often you get Boston people to talk to.”

That settled, the four men continued with their meal. For Johnny, it was seemingly interminable.

When they bade each other goodnight, Johnny was glad to be parting company with them. He was even more glad that he would not be meeting the overbearing Michel again.

 

French Phrases:

Mon dieu, c’est pas possible = My God, it’s not possible

Comment ça va? = How are you?

Ça fait longtemps = It’s been a long time

Ça va très bien = I’m very well, thanks

Comme on dit = as they say, as is said

Note: There were fencing masters in America, notably in Virginia, around the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Modern fencing, however, was brought to America by the German Turners in the late 1840’s. Gradually, colleges and athletics clubs adopted the sport. The first national championships were in 1880.

I was going to have Scott as captain of the polo team, but according to Google, polo didn’t come to North America until 1876!

 
Chapter Two

PG       Warning: Mild cuss words!

Johnny rose early the next day, eager to be on his way. As he was shaving, a brief knock sounded at the door before Scott’s head appeared in the gap between the oak panelling and the doorjamb. The cheery greeting from Johnny was not returned. Johnny, concentrating on careful strokes over his top lip, only looked up as he completed the job to his satisfaction. Wiping some white lather tracks from his cheeks with his damp towel, he regarded his older brother’s reflection in the mirror. 

“What’s eating you?”

Scott was downcast and unusually hesitant. “I’m sorry,” he uttered.

“Why? For being older and uglier? Not your fault, Boston.”

A weak self-deprecating grin flittered across Scott’s mouth, briefly lighting his eyes.

“No, not that. But I prefer ‘more experienced and distinguished’. A more apt description in my opinion, and one with which the ladies would certainly concur.”

“Concur? As long as it’s not something contagious, I suppose it won’t matter if the ladies concur, Scott. Tell me, if the ladies concur, can this liven up an otherwise deadly dull evening?”

Scott couldn’t help the chortle that escaped his throat  as much as he desperately tried to contain it.

"Oh, yes, indeedy. You get a lady to concur and the world is your oyster…within limitations, of course. Fathers with shotguns and angry husbands being two of them.”

Scott leant his arms on the highboy, and picked up Johnny’s shaving brush, twirling it between his fingers. He watched Johnny as he ran a comb through his errant locks. Johnny continued his ministrations, mentally counting the seconds before Scott reprised the conversation. He gave him ten at the most. On the count of nine, Scott spoke.

“I’m sorry about the trip home. I had been looking forward to just the two of us being together without Murdoch or any of the crew. We don’t get together, just the two of us, all that often. Now I’ve spoilt the opportunity and you’ll be going back by yourself. I forgot that last night when I got caught up with the thought of spending a few days at Michel’s ranch. I was thinking that maybe I should just go tell them I’ve changed my mind.”

Johnny slapped his elder brother on the stomach with his comb.

“Heck, no, Scott. You’ll have a great time and you can consider it a working holiday. I’ll square it with Murdoch. He’ll have nothing to complain about. I’ll make sure of that. Don’t you worry about me on the trail. I’m used to it. Done it for years…and alone without a brother to watch over me.”

“But that’s just it, Johnny. You shouldn’t have to do it alone any more. And I kind of like doing what big brothers are supposed to do, and that’s keeping an eye out for their younger, less experienced siblings. I was being selfish last night.”

“Scott, you must be the most unselfish man I know. Now give it a miss, will you? I’m heading out for home after breakfast, and you’re setting out on your working holiday. OK? We’ll catch up again next week. Don’t fret none. You’re just having second thoughts ‘cause you don’t want me making any headway with any of those local ladies we were talking about yesterday!”

Scott’s smile was warm with affection. “OK, Johnny. And thanks, huh? Just be careful that none of those ladies concur with your suggestions when they should dissent, or you could be getting yourself into hot water, brother!”

Not really understanding all his brother’s vocabulary, Johnny was nevertheless shrewd enough to get the gist.

“Don’t worry about me. I don’t aim to get myself in any sort of pickle with any of the local women that I can’t get out of real fast. A quick dabble is about as far as I’m ready to go. Not one of them has that special appeal, you know?” Here, Johnny paused before adding, “But that don’t stop a man just sampling a tiny bit of what’s on offer, in case his first impressions were wrong!” His self-satisfied grin blazed cheerfully, sparking mischief in his lively, blue eyes.

“That’s what I’m worried about, brother. Just what you sample, how much you sample, with whom you sample and where you might choose to do your sampling!”

They both chuckled at their own mischievous thoughts. Scott clapped Johnny over the shoulder and steered him to the door.

“Come on, boy, let’s get you fed good and proper. Breakfast’s on me!”

With that, the two of them headed to the dining room, the aroma of inviting dishes tempting their noses and stomachs invitingly as they descended the stairs together.

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

Johnny’s day in the saddle seemed long without Scott at his side. All those years in the past he had been self-sufficient and independent. It had taken a man called Scott, a man he had known just less than two years to change all that. To change Johnny’s life totally. The camaraderie he shared with his friends in the past bore no resemblance to the relationship he had with his brother. If the truth be told, he actually shared fewer life experiences with his brother than he did with some of his former ‘associates’. However, the quality and depth of his bonding with Scott was no comparison. It wasn’t just the big things like branding together or riding the trail side by side, it was sharing a daily routine…and livening it up sometimes. Like sneaking up on his brother while he was soaking in the bath and dunking his head. Or short-sheeting Scott’s bed. Racing him through the Lancer arch on the way to town to see who got to buy the first round in the cantina. Or playing checkers after dinner in the Great Room in front of the fire. Eating a lunch together, after a hard morning’s toil re-wiring fences. Dangling feet in a creek to cool off. Gradually sharing parts of their past, parts that they would have known about had they been brought up together on the ranch. Yet the great irony was that these parts of their past never would have existed had they been brought up together.

The day had indeed been long. Much longer in solitude. Johnny pushed Barranca as late as he dared, but not wishing his horse to stumble in poor light, he finally decided to make camp near a bubbling stream with good graze to reward his steed for covering a solid distance that day. He saw to Barranca’s needs, then set about seeing to his own requirements. There was plentiful firewood, so he soon had a fire blazing away, a meal heating and a coffee pot on the boil. He leaned back against his saddle and stared at the bright night sky. If Scott were with him, he’d continue instructing Johnny on the correct names for the stars and constellations. A regular encyclopaedia was Scott, but it was much more interesting hearing a talking one than reading a page crammed with thousands of big, dull words.

Johnny was missing Scott. Why did those people from Boston have to show up now? The two brothers always learned so much about each other when they just had the campfire for company. To Johnny’s mind, the return to Lancer with Scott would have been the highlight of their trip. A short taste of freedom before once again facing the rigours of the ranch work and the peremptory demands of their father. Johnny also recognized, though, that life in the west must be tough for his brother away from all the niceties of Boston civilization. And he couldn’t blame him for wanting to catch up on news and share gossip about people he knew.

It took a while for Johnny to fall asleep that night. Unaccountably out of sorts at being alone, he pushed himself and Barranca hard on the last day, leaving at sun-up. If he picked up the pace, he could maybe reach Lancer at nightfall instead of spending another night in the open, alone, as was his original intention.

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

A sigh of satisfaction escaped Johnny’s lips as, with eyes fixed on the township below, he lowered his canteen. Green River was ahead. He had just enough time to get that bank draft deposited at the bank and head home. Thoughts of a hot bath, a warm meal and a soft bed lingered tantalisingly in his mind as he gently kneed Barranca forward.

The town was shutting down at the approach of nightfall. Few people were on the boardwalk. The bank loomed to the right. Johnny dismounted and tied Barranca securely, talking soothingly to the animal as he did so. He paused, placing his hands on his hips and leaning backwards, arching his back to stretch the aching muscles, which had begun to cramp up on him. He circled his shoulders, then threw in a few hip swivels, before the admiring glances of the Misses Kellehan caused an abrupt cessation to his callisthenics. Embarrassed, he doffed his hat politely, as they strolled past, tittering. Looking around to see who else he had entertained, he was relieved to note that everybody else was too intent on winding up their day’s business to pay him much attention.

 

He lithely bounded onto the boardwalk, jingling spurs resounding on the almost deserted thoroughfare. Just as he reached the bank, the ‘Open’ sign behind the glass panel of the door suddenly became ‘Closed”. He swore softly under his breath in Spanish, before deciding he would push his luck. He rapped sharply on the door and called out to Mr Hird, the bank manager. The sign in front of him jiggled and swayed, as the surrounding curtains were brushed aside by a disembodied finger. Eyes and a face then followed, peeking out prudently. Bushy eyebrows sprouted wildly from silver rimmed spectacles. Mr Hird nodded a curt greeting. A fish mouth breathed clouds of condensation over the glass pane, smearing the panel in bursts as Mr Hird explained, nervously, that the bank was closed. Mr Hird had not taken to having a gunfighter living in the midst of the good folk of Green River. He was not keen to permit Johnny to enter alone without the restraining forces of the lad’s imposing father or mannerly brother.

Damn! Johnny had been looking forward to telling Murdoch that the money was safely deposited in the bank.

Johnny pushed the brim of his hat back, letting the storm strap catch it so it dangled comfortably along his spine. Placing all his weight on one leg, he stood lopsided, his right leg slightly extended, foot tapping an absent-minded beat on the dusty boards. Head down, Johnny’s cheeks hollowed as he sucked them in and pursed his lips. Suddenly, Johnny’s head snapped up as he withdrew the bank draft from his jacket pocket and held it in front of the glass pane. “Just let me deposit this draft from the auction. It’ll only take a minute,” he pleaded.

Mr Hird jumped at Johnny’s swift hand movement and his bulbous eyes blinked in fright. “Oh, no! Company policy. It’s past closing time. No exceptions.”

Johnny snorted in disbelief. “No exceptions. You only just closed the door! You can’t have packed up yet.”

“No, but I’m about to. I’ve got money to count and lock in the safe.”

“Yeah, and most of it’s Lancer’s! How about I add some to that pile we’ve got hoarded away in there?”

“No, Mr Lancer, you’ll have to come back tomorrow.”

Johnny paused just a fraction, already annoyed by the supercilious Mr Hird, a stickler for regulations if ever there was one.

“It’ll be too late tomorrow. I’ll be in Spanish Wells opening an account at that new bank that just opened there. Murdoch has been saying lately that the service here ain’t what it used to be. The new bank’s offering good rates and has been angling for Lancer’s business. Why, the manager, Mr Goodacre, he called around just a couple of weeks ago. He was asking us what he could do to help us. How the bank could assist us in the best possible way. A mighty fine gentleman. He understands how much a person appreciates the personal touch. Why, he…”

The rest of Johnny’s discourse was disrupted as bolts could be heard being hauled back and the door jerked open in a noisy rush.

“Well, for a valued customer, I don’t think it would hurt to bend the regulations just a tad. I was waiting for the boardwalk to clear a little. I didn’t want too many people seeing certain customers being given privileged treatment…and it certainly is a privilege to serve you and your father, Mr Lancer. Why, we go back twenty years.  This bank provided much of the early credit for Lancer, you know.”

“Yes, and it made a tidy profit out of us, paying your wages and building your fancy two storey home in the process!”

Johnny’s right upper arm was gripped by a pink, fleshy vice. He found that his hand was being pumped up and down vigorously. The hand that had seized his arm slid around his shoulders and propelled him through the double doors and to a deep padded leather armchair in the manager’s office. A hot coffee was thrust into his hand, a cream jug hovering above it, suspended, ready to pour its rich contents into the cup should it receive a nod of acceptance.

“You must be parched after your long ride, Mr Lancer. I hope that helps wet your whistle,” Mr Hird’s obsequious tones sounded.

“Not bad, but I was thinking something a bit stronger might hit the spot a lot quicker.”

“Of course, of course.”

This response was muffled by the depths of the large filing cabinet drawer which had swallowed the bank manager’s head. The man’s face surfaced just as suddenly as it had disappeared, but now it was dominated by a row of uneven teeth trying to create an ingratiating smile. The trophy he had been fossicking for proved to be a whiskey bottle. Malt whiskey. Just like Murdoch’s best sipping whiskey. Johnny extended his cup, into which the manager poured a good measure of the brew.

“This is more like it, Mr Hird.”

“Indeed, Mr Lancer, just what the palate craves after the privations of the trail. Now, if you would like to hand the draft over, I could take care of it for you so that you can relax. It’s good for the soul to get business dealings tidied up, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Most certainly.”

“So if you would just...”

“Yeah, I’ve driven them cows all the way to auction, got a good price for them, secured some decent breeding stock for the ranch, returned with enough money to tide us over for a while and now I just need to make that money work for us by investing in something profitable. Now, it clear slipped my mind, but the Spanish Wells bank manager… such a friendly and knowledgeable man, you know…well, he was talking about us getting 5% interest if we deposited in his bank. If memory serves me correct, you only offer us a mite over 3%. I think I might just keep this draft and mosey on over to Spanish Wells tomorrow. I could re-acquaint myself with Mr Goodacre.”

“Now, Mr Lancer, Spanish Wells is a little bit inconvenient for Lancer’s business. Green River is closer and therefore more beneficial to you.”

“Oh, I enjoy riding Barranca over to Spanish Wells. It takes longer, I grant you, but that serves a purpose in getting me out of some of the more tedious ranch chores. There’s good everywhere if you only look for it. Sometimes it’s not obvious on the surface.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” a perspiring Mr Hird rejoined. “And sometimes a bank manager forgets to reward long term customers. It’s an obvious thing to do, but one gets caught up in the every day demands of one’s work, you know. I have a proposition, why don’t you let me deposit that draft for you and as a gesture of appreciation, I’ll match Mr Goodacre’s offer of 5% interest on your account, paid in six monthly instalments?”

Johnny sipped his coffee pensively, elbows leaning on his thighs.

”I don’t know. I’d end up doing more chores if I don’t have to go to Spanish Wells. The girls at the saloon there are mighty pretty…and they’re friendly souls. I was looking forward to seeing them more often. I have to admit, it sure rankles that I might have to deprive them saloon gals of more frequent visitations of my company. I sure hate to let a person down”

Mr Hird sat tensely. Beads of perspiration merged, running down his temples in rivulets. He vainly attempted to mop them up with his silk handkerchief.

“But you know this bank. We are far more convenient. We understand Lancer’s needs. I’m sure we could perhaps revise our arrangements if Murdoch would like to call in next week.”

“Well, I suppose seeing you and Murdoch go back such a long way, I could leave the money here.  Five per cent, huh? How about you put that in writing before I go on my way?”

“Sure thing Mr Lancer. Won’t be a jiffy.”

The scratching of the bank manager’s pen on the bank’s stationery was the only noise to be heard as Johnny finished up his fortified coffee.

“There you go, sir. Have a pleasant ride back home.”

“Why, thank you. I intend to. Goodbye, Mr Hird.”

“Goodnight, sir. It’s a pleasure doing business with you.”

Johnny nodded, reached for his hat and headed outside. Closing the door behind him, he paused with his hand on the brass doorknob. Barranca had been waiting patiently for him He nickered in pleasure and anticipation when he spied Johnny. They could both now go home. Home. He stepped up to his mount, stroking him between his eyes and down his nose, before reaching behind his ears to scratch that special spot. Barranca nudged him in gratitude, provoking Johnny to smile and whisper into his ear, “Come on, compadre. If you take me just a bit further tonight and get me to Lancer, I’ll make sure there’s a long rub-down and a good feed of oats in it for you.” Barranca nodded his assent, blowing warm air from his nostrils onto Johnny’s face and prompting him to reach for the reins.

He did not get as far as untying them, however. A faint sound, a boot scraping on the dusty boardwalk, caused him to tense up. His hand hovered over his right thigh, close to his holster, as he attempted to determine the origin of the noise. Nothing. Nothing until he heard the word that chilled his spine. The tone that brooked the necessity to respond. The challenge that tensed all the muscles, sinews and nerves in his body.

“Madrid!”

 
Chapter Three

PG

Warning: Mild swearing

 

It came from behind, on the boardwalk, but he sensed another pair of eyes watching him from the edge of the roadway, to his rear and slightly to his right.

“You deaf in your old age, Madrid?”

Johnny raised his hands visibly clear of his gunbelt. The pivot he executed was slow and smooth, his eyes darting to widen his field of vision.

The man on the boardwalk moved forwards, coming into focus from the obscurity. He stopped in front of Johnny. The insolent look he gave Johnny was not disguised. Another shape emerged form the shadows to stand shoulder to shoulder with its accomplice.

There was a pause in all sound except for the breathing of the three of them. No town sounds could be heard by Johnny. No noise from the saloon. Not even a dog barking.

The action exploded from all three men at once.

The two strangers lunged forwards, grabbing Johnny, slapping him on the back and shaking his hand. Johnny in turn returned the handshake and pummelled their arms with lightweight punches.

“Johnny boy! I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t work out if that was you or not,” exclaimed one of his assailants.

“It must be four years since I last saw your sorry hide!” added the other.

“Hot dang! Brendan! Ross! What are you boys doing so far north?” was the sum of Johnny’s response.

“About to ask you the same question. You’re a long way from those border towns, eh boy?”

“Come on,” enjoined the first speaker whom Johnny had identified as Brendan, “Let’s go into that saloon and catch up on old times. It’s been a while, Johnny.”

Johnny hesitated. He was weary. He wanted to get back to his own soft bed in his own room, but darn it if a mug of cool beer wouldn’t be a touch of paradise right now.

“Sure thing!  My throat’s as dry and dusty as a creek bed in a summer drought.”

That settled, the three men headed for the saloon, all talking at once.

On entering, Johnny paused to glance around, checking all avenues for possible future conflict. There were several drinkers at the bar hunched over drinks, one foot perched on the bar rail below. A friendly poker game in progress under the left window was the source of good-natured ribbing and cajoling.

Johnny headed to his customary table to the right where he could sit with his back to the wall, surveying newcomers entering the premises.

Ross and Brendan sat either side of him. Brendan was taller than Ross. He had brown hair worn quite long, wafting past his collar as he moved his head. Smooth-skinned and oval faced, he looked younger than his years. While placid by nature, his dark brown eyes sparkled with life and expectation of a drink with friends, coupled with some serious catching up. The smaller of the two, Ross had thick blond hair to his collar. His light brown eyes took in Johnny and assessed the differences evident since the last time he had seen him.

The cool beer quenched Johnny’s thirst. Most of the first glass went in one gulp as he tipped his head back and let the liquid slide down into the welcoming depths of his throat. As they settled into their second beer, their conversation started full swing.

“We haven’t seen you since Nogales, Johnny. You left after that fracas and the last I heard was that you’d been killed. Shot in front of a firing squad by the rurales.”

“Nope. Not me.”

“Well, we can see that!” countered Ross.

“But Jake swore you’d been arrested and saw you herded out into the wagon to be taken to the execution site!” added Brendan.

“Yeah, that much is true, but let’s say I got lucky for a change. So what happened to you boys after we split up?”

Ross took a sip of his beer, then ran his finger around the rim, wiping off the froth before sucking it off his finger and supplying the information. “We headed out to Texas. There just didn’t seem no point, you know. It was just too hard to keep goin’, knowin’ it was getting closer to be our turn to be cut down. After Pete’s death, it just knocked the stuffin’ out of us. If it weren’t for you, we’d have been dead as well. And it cost you. We didn’t think you were goin’ to make it. Hell, no-one did. You fooled ‘em all, Johnny. That shadow that had been doggin’ us for the past year couldn’t stop the sun from risin’ again for you. Looks like you’ve still managed to avoid it.”

Ross met Johnny’s eyes, but the glance knew too much. Johnny did survive that brush with the hereafter, and several more after they split up, but he had also known that he had been on borrowed time. Time would have run out for him, sooner rather than later.

Johnny’s pensive “Yeah, I’m still here. Still alive and kicking,” hung heavily in the air for a moment before Johnny deflected the topic of conversation.

“Are you boys riding through or working in these parts?”

“We’re workin’ over at the J Bar S. Been there six weeks, but don’t expect the work to hold out much longer. If we can’t find more work, I guess we’ll have no choice but to move on.”

“Which is a pity,” Brendan commented. “We like these parts. Anyways, Johnny, what the devil are you doin’ here? How’d you get lucky?”

Before Johnny could reply, a neighbouring rancher, Ted Wilcox, paused at their table. “Hi, Johnny! How was Stockton?”

“Just fine, Ted. What you could call a successful business trip.”

“Glad to hear it. Would you mind telling your father for me that it appears his bull did the right thing by my little ‘ladies’. It’ll be interesting to see how the bloodline looks in a few month’s time.”

“Sure thing, Ted. I’ll pass on the message.”

Bidding each other goodnight, Ted left while Johnny returned to his beer. He was suddenly alert to the fact that Brendan and Ross were silent and immobile. His eyes flicked upwards to find that they were both staring at him slack-jawed. Finally, Brendan posed the question they had both been pondering.

“Did he just say father?”

“Yep.”

“And just how many fathers do you have?”

“One.”

“Is this one father the same one you were hellbent on killin’? The one who was gonna get his comeuppance?” Brendan pursued.

“The one you used to pretend was the target when you did your shootin’ practice?” Ross added.

“The very one.”

“Well, if that don’t beat all! So how long’s he got on this earth before he meets his maker…or did you come to your senses and decide to find the man and listen to him?” Ross queried.

Johnny clenched his jaw. Just being reminded of it was painful. Yes, he had spent most of his life wanting to kill Murdoch. It had been the one desire that had even kept him alive.

“Are you goin’ to tell us how this came about, Johnny?” entreated Ross.

Johnny closed his eyes for a brief moment, then breathed deeply as he leaned back in his chair, his right hand playing with a concho on the seam of his pants. Reaching a decision, he sighed and next gave a small snort. He still couldn’t believe the story himself.

“Don’t know if you’ll believe me, boys. Heck, I don’t know if I still believe it. I was facing a firing squad. It was my turn next. I was kneeling in the dirt, getting ready to be the next target when this buggy comes tearing over the hilltop. Out hops this man all duded up in a three-piece suit. It turns out he was a Pinkerton agent and he had all this money to bribe them not to shoot me. We got outta there fast before they changed their minds. My old man had been looking for me. He was facing a range war and needed my gun. He was willing to pay off the rurales and pay me one thousand dollars for one hour of my time. One hour’s listening money. I figured maybe I’d get my dues and then kill him, but it didn’t quite work out that way.”

“Why not?”

Why not indeed? It had been his ambition in life to cut down Murdoch Lancer, the man who forced him to have the life he was not supposed to have. He had come for three reasons: the money, curiosity and revenge. But it didn’t work out like he had thought.

“Along with my new found father, I discovered I had a brother.”

A disgusted response was uttered by Brendan. “What! You had a brother, living a sheltered life, while you had to survive, abandoned, the way you were? He got to live in comfort while you were in poverty? Your father was happy with one son and never bothered to go and find you until he needed a hired gun? I bet that just about drove you crazy. What did you do to the brother?”

Johnny’s face lightened and he chuckled deeply in his throat at the memory. “Not what you think. He did something to me, though. He slugged me the day after I arrived!”

“And did he see the business end of Johnny Madrid’s Colt? Did you shoot him then?” asked Ross hopefully.

“Nah! From his point of view, I deserved it. And I can see why. I didn’t help him out in a brawl in town when he needed me and when I could have. I had my reasons. To cut a long story short, boys, I found out the story I’d been told as a kid wasn’t quite the truth.”

“So you stayed around here?”

“Yeah. My old man, he promised that if we stayed to help him fight land pirates, he’d give my brother and me a one third share in his ranch. We did and he did. In fact, if you boys need a job, come on over to Lancer when you’re ready and I’ll fix it for you.”

“You mean that, Johnny? You ain’t joshin’ us are you?” enquired Ross warily.

“Johnny Madrid, landowner. Responsible businessman. Yeah, pull the other one.”

“No. I’m dead serious.”

“Whooee! OK, the next round’s on me,” whooped Brendan. “I knew we could rely on you to get us out of a fix, Johnny boy!”

Several drinks later Johnny asked what they had been up to in the intervening time, since their last escapade.

“Well, we got to thinkin’, Johnny. It seemed like we was getting’ closer and closer to bein’ fried in hell for eternity and it was lookin’ less appealin’, you know? We didn’t know how much longer we could keep cheatin’ our Maker. In Texas we got ourselves some honest work, mostly ranch work, and kept our heads low. It might’ve lacked excitement, but it sure as hell was a lot safer. And it was honest work. And I feel better for it. And somethin’ else….we’re still alive! We didn’t think you were gonna make it last time. We wanted out before it was the last time for any of us. We’d had enough. And we don’t miss it. We kinda like this new lifestyle.”

Johnny saluted silently with his beer. “Yeah, I can relate to that. So, tell me about life in Texas.”

The evening wore on as stories were told, swapped, embellished on and laughed at. Each story was washed down with a plentiful supply of alcohol, leaving the three men somewhat the worse for wear as midnight approached.

They parted noisily, with shouts of, “See ya soon!”. Ross and Brendan rode clumsily back to the J Bar S, while Johnny crossed the road towards Barranca, who was still hitched out the front of the bank.

Barranca had been resting, one hind leg crooked, his weight on the other three. He awoke as Johnny approached, whinnying in pleasure. Johnny made it as far as Barranca before the cold night air, combined with too much alcohol on an empty stomach, hit him. He reached for Barranca, clasping his golden mane and burying his head in the horse’s neck. This provided some steadiness in his world, which had unexpectedly tilted and swum after he had traversed the main thoroughfare. He concentrated on breathing smoothly. In. Out. “Forget about that roiling stomach, old boy!” he urged himself on.

How long he stood hugging Barranca, Johnny was unsure. At last, he felt capable of mounting, his good friend standing still patiently. Johnny lacked his usual agility and grace, but was successful on his third attempt. He headed Barranca for home, but through the fogginess of his blurry world, Johnny sensed he was not going to make it.

Barranca ambled along, not really quite sure what was expected of him, as he had no guidelines from his rider. As Johnny passed out of the main street of the town, even his befuddled brain realized that riding at night in his condition was not a good idea. Thoughts of a bed and an undisturbed sleep provided his sole goal. Then he hit on a solution. The cottage opposite the schoolyard. It was empty and had been for three months.

Johnny pulled the reins to the right. The cottage soon loomed in front of him. Tethering Barranca under a large dogwood tree to the side where there was a water trough and some green grass for the animal, Johnny noisily climbed the stairs and reached for the doorknob. It did not turn and open as expected despite Johnny’s vain rattling of it.

With a sigh, Johnny staggered along the verandah to the window to the right of the door. It was closed, but Johnny slid it open with a crash. He leaned in, wiggled his hips and hitched one knee up onto the sill to provide some propulsion for him. This did the trick, but too effectively. Momentum carried him forward with a clatter. He fell face first onto an item of furniture, which gave way in a rolling motion. Flailing his arms, he tried to break his fall. He succeeded in clutching something loose and soft, which fell with him onto the floor. Just as the rest of his body unceremoniously joined him in an undignified heap, the piece of furniture rolled back, connecting just below his left eye. With an “Oooph”, Johnny turned onto his back.

He lay there stunned for a moment. He would have succumbed to sleep, but a tickling sensation across his top lip proved an annoyance. A soft glow greeted him when he gingerly opened his eyes. He could make out what appeared to be the edge of a quilt or counterpane hanging from a bed, which must be above him. Reaching up, he grasped the quilt, but his attempts to pull himself up failed as the fabric merely fell down on top of his face. He swatted it uselessly away and heaved himself to his knees, inching his way upwards. It may as well have been a cliff face, as he couldn’t seem to find any purchase at all. In an uncoordinated effort, he surprisingly found success. Hoisting himself over the rim, he sprawled forward face first in an ungainly manner.

Soft, so soft. So fresh. No rocks to torment his bones tonight. No more cares. He was falling peacefully and contentedly into heaven, when he suddenly felt a sharp jab in his back immediately followed by the deadly words, “Move and I’ll shoot.”

 
Chapter Four

PG Warning: Mild profanity. Adult themes.

Heaven was gentle. He was wafting into caressing arms of cottonwool clouds. He really didn’t care any more about anything until that hard edged warning. Self-preservation took over. Wildly, his senses fought to react. He could sense danger, but it was as if he was in another realm. With a concerted effort he turned his head, partly rolling onto his side. His hand brushed his holster, but too late he realized that his gun had been removed. Bleary eyes attempted to focus on his assailant as he tried to jockey into an effective attacking position.

Gold. A golden halo in the soft light from the lamp. A golden angel. Harbinger of death? Johnny didn’t know and didn’t care any more as darkness once more descended, this time with a thump.

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

Val Crawford, sheriff of Green River, was in a foul mood. He didn’t take kindly to law-breakers working out of hours. Seven in the morning until ten at night was a reasonable expectation, but any later or earlier invoked a multitude of colourful oaths from the bastion of law enforcement in the township.

He had been blissfully asleep, engrossed in a promising dream, when he had been startled awake by pounding on his door.

“Hold your horses! Give a man a minute to make himself decent!” he shouted abrasively through the door. Pulling on his clothes as fast as he could, he opened the door while still fastening his buttons. The sight in front of him embarrassed him to silence, with the words he was about to utter deserting him. He turned around hastily and checked that his outfit was reasonably adjusted before facing the person again. “Good evening. What can I do for you?”

“Sheriff! I need your help. There is an intruder in my cottage. He broke in through my bedroom window and won’t leave.”

“Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”

“Yes, I’m fine, thanks to my shotgun. He’s still there, though.”

“Do you recognize him?” asked Val.

“No, I’ve never seen him before. He’s very scruffy and dirty. He looks like he hasn’t had a shave in several days. He needs a good wash, too. Maybe he’s a drifter.”

“Hot dang! Don’t you worry none. I’ll sort it out.”

Val did not appreciate being woken from his slumber, but he had a sense of duty. He kept the crude epithets invading his mind to himself, particularly in light of the company by his side. He would sort out this problem … and fast. Dishevelled, shirt buttoned into the wrong buttonholes, hair in disarray and chin bristling with new beard growth, Val was nevertheless not a man to be meddled with. This sort of unbridled disrespect for the law and common decency would not be accepted by the lawman. He aimed to see that the offender did not have the chance to repeat this outrage again.

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

Johnny was swimming. He was wet. Water pooled around him. He struggled to stay float, but was drowning as rivulets poured into his mouth and nostrils. It was so cold. He had been warm, cosy, wafting. His breath caught as he floundered. Noise came to him, indistinct, but louder with each second. Rescue was near. All he had to do was keep swimming. He coughed, choked, spluttered and tried to focus on reaching the river’s shore. But it was always out of reach. Finally, the sun burst through the haze and his panic subsided as a familiar voice bored through his ears, drilling a painful hole that had him frantically covering the sides of his head trying to clog up the dual pits of pain.

Through it all, reassurance finally settled over him. That familiar voice. He would be saved.

Or so he thought.

He felt himself lifted up roughly by his shirtfront. Venturing to open one eye and then the other, he spied Val’s familiar features. Familiar, but not so familiar. Features shrouded by anger, rage even. Johnny blinked and began to focus on the furious words aimed at him.

“What in tarnation do you think you are doin,’ boy? Breakin’ and enterin’, accostin’ a person in their own home, sleepin’ in their bed? Have you taken leave of your senses?”

“Stop yelling! What’s got into you? Person? What person? Hold on a minute, Val. I’m just getting some shut-eye until I head back to the ranch. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

Placing the now empty jug of water he had used to revive Johnny on the nightstand, Val responded cuttingly.

“Nothin’ wrong? Are you plain drunk or blind blind? Molestin’ a lady in her own bed. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“Lady? Ain’t no lady in here. Unless there’s something you ain’t been telling me. You got a secret you don’t want to share?”

Johnny struggled to a sitting position, feeling decidedly woozy. His head drooped onto his chest. His downcast eyes spotted some footwear. Pretty crimson velvet slippers with gold braid around the ankle. Around a slim ankle. An extremely feminine ankle.

“Hey, Val. You have been hiding your assets! Hope you don’t think you’re gonna be leading a posse in them riding boots! You’d distract everyone from the quarry!”

Johnny stopped. Something wasn’t right. He followed the ankle up to the hem of a floral satin peignoir. He watched the folds gently waving with a movement from the wearer. The movement around the hips captured his attention for an inordinate amount of time, before his gaze roved up to the slender waist, admirable upper torso and lastly to the face which completed the ensemble. A face showing anxiety, with lips pressed together and a deep frown furrowing a forehead shrouded in burnished gold.

“You an angel?” was his succinct question.

“Far from it, mister. I’m from a lot further south than there. I am on fire and you better not get near me or you’ll burn. Your cinders will turn into charcoal by morning and I’ll take pleasure in cleaning them out of the grate and shovelling them into the outhouse pit.”

Johnny was saved from any more pondering of this fate by Val’s intervention. “On your feet. You’re spendin’ the rest of the night in the cells and you better have a good story cooked up by mornin’ or I’m throwing the book at ya!”

With this, Johnny was summarily hoisted to his feet and hustled out of the home, half dragged, half pushed by an ill-tempered Val.

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

Barranca was sitting on his head. No, it had to be Barranca AND Charlemagne. Johnny’s head was unable to move. It was weighted down and they were both drumming their hooves on his skull and into his brain. If he moved, it was like all the cattle at Lancer joined in with them, stampeding over his forehead and into the canyons of his eyes sockets.

Another noise added to the cacophony. Unidentifiable. Softer, but closer. It was only after several minutes that he realized that this second noise was emanating from his own mouth as he groaned under the weight of all the livestock in the San Joachin Valley.

A pleasant aroma wafted into his nostrils and helped lift the load from his head. He ventured to open one eye and was greeted with the sight of the scruffy sheriff sitting on the opposite bed in the cell, leaning forward onto his knees and cradling a steaming cup of coffee.

Johnny closed his eye, then tried to focus with both. The morning light blinded him, making him squint and raise his arm to cover his eyes. Moaning and cursing in colourful Spanish, Johnny placed his feet on the bed and pushed his body back so he could adjust to a sitting position, sliding his back up against the wall and resting it there. Wordlessly, Val passed him the coffee. Johnny grasped it and stared into the contents of the cup.

“It’s all right, Johnny. I made it fresh this morning.”

“That don’t mean it’s gonna taste any better, Val. I’ve yet to drink any of your coffee that is welcomed by my taste buds or that sits comfortably in my stomach.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, Johnny. I suggest you have a big swallow and then we get to talkin’.”

Johnny winced as the bitter brew hit his mouth. It did, however, have the effect of clearing the fog permeating his brain.

“Now, how about you tell me what you thought you were doin’ last night, crawlin’ through a lady’s bedroom window and makin’ yourself at home in her bed. Have you gone stark starin’ mad?”

“Oh hell, Val. I thought the house was empty. Has been for months,” was Johnny’s defence for his actions.

“Well, it ain’t no more. New tenant arrived a couple of weeks ago. You’ll be lucky if she don’t press charges against you.”

“I didn’t do nothing. Just wanted a place to sleep after being on the trail. I was tired.”

“You were drunk.”

“That, too.”

“You can’t go enterin’ a house where there are young ladies and just help yourself!”

“ Didn’t help myself to anything. Didn’t touch anyone. Is she saying I did?”

“No, she ain’t sayin’ that, but you gave her a real bad fright last night the way you barged into her home and bed. How would you feel if you was a female and all alone, when a drunk cowboy with a loaded gun forces his way into your residence?”

“I wouldn’t like it, Val. But as I said, I didn’t realize anyone had shifted in. I might call in on the way and explain.”

“You’ll do no such thing! Besides, I ain’t figured out yet if I’ll let you go before she signs her statement.”

“Aw, heck, Val. You know where I live. I ain’t running nowhere.”

“All right, but you’d better stay on the ranch. I don’t wanna have to go lookin’ for you and I don’t want any more accusations of trouble from anyone else about you. Now you drink that coffee and get some more into you before you leave.”

“OK. Thanks, Val. Is Barranca still at the cottage?”

“No. I took him to the livery stable for the night. You owe me one.”

Johnny regarded his friend and rewarded him with one of his brightest smiles of thanks. After another half an hour of Val’s coffee and a good head dunking in his washbasin, Johnny felt a little less delicate. Drying his wet hair and face on Val’s questionable excuse for a towel, he tidied himself up and strolled over to the livery stable.

Barranca greeted him eagerly, keen to be out in the open air. Minutes later Johnny was on his way. He was passing the cottage when he suddenly made up his mind. Pulling on the reins, he turned Barranca around. Lightly dismounting, Johnny fussed over his clothes making sure his shirt was tucked in and brushing off any residual trail dust from his pants. Determinedly, he ascended the stairs and knocked loudly on the door. He waited. No sound could be discerned from within. He rapped again. Nothing. He had hoped to smooth over any ruffled feathers and turn on his undeniable charm. Now he would have to wait and probably then his encounter with the woman would be in company, most likely Val’s company.

An hour later he rode through the Lancer arch. He spotted Murdoch in the yard near the corral and gave him a vigorous wave.

“Hey, Murdoch!”

“Hi, son. Where’s Scott? Is everything all right?”

Johnny sprang down and pushed his hat back from his forehead. Holding Barranca’s reins and caressing the side of his neck, Johnny responded.

“Just fine. He stayed on at the ranch of some friends he knew from back east.”

“He what? And you let him?”

Johnny’s head jerked up in annoyed surprise at this unexpected attack.

“Let him? What do you mean let him? He’s a grown man. He can make choices and decisions for himself.  He commanded troops in the army, if you’ve forgotten. It wasn’t a case of my letting him.”

“This is a working ranch. We need to work it. You were both expected back here tomorrow, not just one of you.”

“That’s right. I made good time. I’m earlier than you thought and I will pick up the slack while Scott is gone.”

“Now he’ll have to come back alone. It’s not safe. It’s irresponsible of you not to think that I would prefer the both of you to come home together so that if Scott got into difficulties, there would be two of you to help each other.”

“Well, Scott wanted to stay with these people. We couldn’t both stay, so I made the responsible decision and came home to help with the chores.  And before you ask about my welfare, I managed OK alone all by myself on the trail on the way back with no one to watch out for me.”

Johnny’s sarcasm angered Murdoch further as it was designed to do.

“Well, that’s to be expected. You’re used to it. Scott is still learning about life out here. I wanted that money from the auction this week. If Scott’s going to be away, we won’t be able to bank it. I have some payments due on that parcel of land I bought out past the South Mesa and I have commitments. The interest we earned on our savings over the past year has not helped us as much as I’d have liked. I’m seriously thinking of going to Spanish Wells and seeing if I can talk that new manager into giving us 4 per cent on our deposits.”

“We have commitments, Murdoch. And don’t you worry none about that money. It’s already in the bank earning us five per cent.”

A pleased look settled on Murdoch’s face.

“Did Scott swing a deal before he left town?”

“No, I swung a deal after I returned with the bank draft,” corrected Johnny.

Murdoch looked steadily at Johnny, momentarily lost for words as his mind calculated the extra income this could mean for Lancer.

He nodded absently. “Well, that will come in handy. How much was the bank draft for? Did you get the nine hundred dollars we hoped for?”

“Nope.”

This news worried and annoyed Murdoch. “Why not? I knew I should have gone with you! You don’t know enough about business dealings or the people involved. I‘m sure you tried your best, but you’re a novice at negotiating.”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair in exasperation. After a sigh, he asked his next question, obvious dread discernible on his face. “How much did you get, then?”

Disgusted with Murdoch’s condescension, Johnny began to lead Barranca away to the barn. “Eleven hundred,” he threw over his shoulder.

This stopped Murdoch for a fraction as he smiled, contemplating what he could do with the money.

“Excellent! I bet they were impressed with your brother’s Boston charm and manners. I don’t suppose he worked his magic with regard to getting our hands on some of Ramirez’s breeding stock?”

Johnny stopped, looked down and kicked his toe in the dirt, before glancing up at his father. He exhaled long and bitterly.

“Yeah, a good deal was struck there,” Johnny informed him disconsolately before leading Barranca off to his stall for a rub down and a decent feed of oats.

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

As the day drew to an end, the Lancer family gathered in the Great Room prior to dinner. Johnny and Murdoch were nursing pre dinner drinks, while Teresa sat browsing with a magazine. With both Scott and Johnny gone for the past several weeks, Teresa had missed the boys’ presence. Even though she and Murdoch had spent companionable evenings together, the house had seemed empty without the boys’ humour and bantering. She had been thrilled to see Johnny arrive home unexpectedly in the late morning, but had barely got past giving him a hug in greeting before Murdoch sent him out to help in the south pasture where the men were short-handed doing some fencing.

This was the family’s first chance to relax and catch up for several weeks.

“So, Teresa what have you been up to while we’ve been away? Anything new happening?” Johnny enquired, perching on the arm of the settee and knowing full well that she would give him a complete run-down, from ranch problems to all the latest gossip, such as who was going out with whom.

At his invitation, Teresa launched forth with her prattle. It was her last statement, however, which brought him up short.

“What? We’ve got company tonight? We’re having dinner with the new schoolmarm?”

“Yes, she arrived while you were in the bathhouse, so she is just getting changed now.”

“So you have just met her and have been spending time with her. And then you take it into your head to invite her to dinner, here, at the ranch? And I’m suppose to sit there making polite noises?”

”Yes, Johnny,” she explained, perplexed. “She’s been here several times already. Just the day after you left, I was at Mr Baldemero’s store when I saw a newcomer purchasing some material. She and Mrs Baldemero were discussing the design on several bolts of cloth, and Mrs Baldemero called me over, introduced her and asked my opinion on the fabrics. We got talking and to cut it short, I offered to help her make new curtains for the cottage she is renting. My new sewing machine made it so much easier. We had them up in no time. Elise has visited the ranch the last two weekends. She helps me out with the cooking and other chores. She’s so kind and so much fun. I can’t wait for you to meet her.”

Teresa was unprepared for the scathing look Johnny sent in her direction.

“A schoolmarm. Fun? Kind? You must be joshing. Well, don’t that beat all? Well, I ain’t ever met a schoolmarm or teaching sister who was fun to be with or who was kind to anyone.”

Johnny continued before anyone else could respond. “They don’t care about children learning. They don’t care about sharing knowledge. They just want to find out the ones who find learning hard. The ones who are slow on the uptake. The ones who find it hard to sit still all day on those hard benches that dig into your bones. The ones who can’t sit still ‘cause they’re hungry and they’ve had nothing to eat. Or because their minds keep thinking about the night before, the voices in the middle of the night or the thrashing they took just because they were there. Schoolmarms just want to twist the knife and make these poor little children even more miserable with their taunts and sharp tongues. After all, if you do it often enough, you just break their spirit. Crush them in spirit and body. Like ants underfoot on the trail. The schoolmarms and nuns… and even the priests were no better… take away all curiosity. Curiosity or questions are just ammunition for a smoking gun…and you become the target. Again and again.”

Johnny’s breath caught, but then he ploughed on. “Either toe the line or you’ll be brought down. Be obedient. Don’t speak. Above all, don’t enjoy anything in life. Don’t find pleasure anywhere. Not in a bird calling from a branch nor a bee on a flower. Not in the sun’s rays warming your face after a heavy downpour.”

“I could tell you a story, one sad and sorry story. You know, the Anglo teachers were the worst. And the worst of them was Miss Shaw. She didn’t take to the Mexicans, and especially not the half breeds. The mestizos. There was little José Martinez. He came to school when he could. He was often late. There was just him and his mama, and she weren’t the sort of lady you’d see in polite company. We all knew that he was beaten by his mama’s menfolk. We could see the bruises. So could she. He came one day and we could see that he was hurting bad. A hide-out behind some crates in an alley was all the shelter he had found that night. He turned up starving, so I gave him a tortilla I had in my pocket. When she rang the bell, old Miss Shaw, well she got stuck into him. She tore strips off him for eating in line. He made the mistake of trying to explain. Then she tanned his hide, where we all knew he was already suffering something horrible. She knew, too. She was plain mean and nasty.  Ain’t never gonna forget her. She couldn’t understand that it was a miracle that José ever even got to school at all. He just needed the friendship of the others in the class. He needed to belong.” 

There was a shocked stillness in the room. Neither Murdoch nor Teresa had ever heard Johnny say so much at one time. And he made no effort to hide the hurt evident in his words.

“Why, Johnny! Elise isn’t at all like that. She would never be unkind to the children. She wants to encourage them to learn and to make something of themselves, make the most of their opportunities!” spluttered a shocked Teresa.

“They’re all tarred with the same brush, Teresa. Faces so hard I swear you could strike a match on them. They would crack and drop off if they so much as thought about smiling at anyone. Disapproving mouths puckered like shrivelled fruit left too long in the sun. It’s as if they suck on lemons every morning, souring everything they see, everyone they contact and every happy feeling a body might enjoy on a perfect spring day. They’re all full of misery and hatred because life, and a decent man, have passed them by.”

Johnny shook his head and pressed his lips together for a moment before continuing. “I ain’t got no time for ’em, Teresa, and I’m downright annoyed that I made good time heading back to Lancer, looking forward to s decent meal, only to find out I’m supposed to eat with this schoolmarm. They’re …”

Johnny’s vitriolic diatribe was brought to a halt by the simultaneous reactions of Murdoch and Teresa: a thunderously explosive “Johnny!” from the former and a stifled gasp of horror from the latter.

Johnny’s voice petered out as he looked at their eyes and followed the direction of their stares, turning his head to peer over his shoulder.

 

Chapter Five

Standing in the entrance foyer, on the threshold of the Great Room, stood a slender woman in her early twenties. She was taller than Teresa, about five feet six inches in height. While not beautiful in the classic sense, her high cheekbones and smooth skin placed her above being merely plain. Her teal green dress with its lace-threaded sweetheart neckline clung to her slim waist, before cascading over her hips into delicate folds. Her golden blonde hair was piled up loosely, but becomingly, without fuss. It arrested his attention as it shimmered in the soft glow of the lamp in the wall bracket, until he was finally diverted by her eyes glaring unwaveringly at him. Her green eyes, reflecting the hues of her dress, but imbued with gold, bizarrely almost matched her hair.

There was utter silence in the room.

This was broken by the woman, who began to walk steadily towards Johnny. Feeling at a disadvantage as she approached, he pivoted on his hips, stood up and turned towards her. She came to a stop about a foot in front of him, tilting her face up the extra four inches, before uttering her first words.

“Not all schoolmarms are as you described. We are not all like that. Many of us do care, passionately, about the children in our care, from all walks of life and from all racial backgrounds. You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, Mr Lancer, nor should you judge a person from their occupation.”

Johnny stood mute as she continued. “Why, before I came out here I faced my father’s opposition. Do you know what he told me? That the west was a lawless land, that…” Here she broke off with an apologetic grimace in Murdoch’s direction, “That all ranchers were nothing but modern day pirates and opportunists, that every cowhand was nothing but riffraff who’d get drunk on his week’s pay in the saloon and take advantage of any innocent lady in the vicinity, and that every gunslinger would shoot you between the eyes as soon as look at you, and not even bother to ask questions later.  Now, Mr Lancer, I’m happy to say that my father has been wrong on all three counts. So far I have met ranchers, cowhands and I have even had a brush with a gunslinger, yet nothing untoward has happened to me.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as she emphasized the word ‘gunslinger’, while unwaveringly holding his gaze. There was an insolent tone, which rubbed him the wrong way, taunting him. The Madrid mask descended, veiling his eyes and setting his mouth into a grim, hard line.

“That sort of attitude can get you dead, lady. Real quick. Just because it ain’t happened yet, don’t mean it’s not going to happen. For your own safety, I suggest you mind what your pa said. A lot of what he told you is true and downright common sense.”

Not at all deterred by his coldness, she replied matter-of-factly, “Well, I admit that I don’t take chances. I’m not naïve. I ensure I have a loaded shotgun with me at home. It proved invaluable last night.”

Johnny’s forehead creased with a vague memory, but before he could pursue it she surprised him with a sudden giggle, which welled up in her chest before suddenly spilling out in a contagious fashion.

“Not that I really needed it. The cowhand in question was beyond manhandling the cushion on my rocking chair, let alone holding his gun by the grip!”

Johnny stood motionless, that vague, niggling feeling taking shape in his mind.

“Anyway, I’m sure that I have nothing to fear at your ranch with your family. I’m not likely to meet any such disreputable and unsavoury types here!”

“Well, you just never know, Ma’am. You never know who you might meet, or in what situations. It pays to be prepared, but even then you sure can meet up with some surprises in life.”

“Oh, I didn’t say I haven’t had any surprises! I’m pleased to say that so far they have merely been harmless…and amusing.”

She was teasing him. Mirth lurked behind her eyelashes and at the uplifted edges of her mouth, before bursting forth unbridled again.

“None the least was your description of your schoolmarms’ complexions. Are you sure that none of them were called Mrs Hardcastle?  A perfect match for my grade two teacher. I always compared her face to a clay dam wall, though, rather than dried fruit. All cracked and dry from exposure to the sun. All thick and hard. Totally lifeless. And pock marked from the indentations of cows’ hooves.”

The Madrid mask slipped as Johnny considered her analogy, finding both approval of, and humour in, her description. She continued on, however, before he could speak.

“But I don’t find humour in your Miss Shaw and I abhor her and her abuse of authority over any poor child in her care. I aim to see that every child is well cared for, nurtured and respected in my class. I regret that your experiences in schools have been so profoundly dreadful. I hope that my students are not marked in such a negative and enduring way.”

Her sincerity was obvious. Johnny was unusually lost for words and was saved from replying by both Teresa and Murdoch who rushed, fearing Johnny could continue to vent his spleen on all those employed in the teaching profession.

“Johnny, you haven’t been properly introduced yet,” gabbled a flustered Teresa. “This is Miss Elise Collins. She will be seeing the school year out, replacing Mrs Poulson.”

At the same time, Murdoch demanded, “Johnny, I think you apologize to Miss Collins immediately for your grave insults to her profession.”

“Why?”

This question did not come from Johnny, but from the schoolteacher in question.

“Why should he apologize for having been a victim of such terrible teachers, for having to endure an unfair and prejudiced education system. He was speaking the truth and I am sure that he did not say those things to be merely malicious and hurtful to me.”

“Nonetheless, I will not have a guest in my home treated so abominably.”

Johnny flicked an unreadable look at his father, before addressing her.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, for hurting your feelings and for putting down your occupation, but I ain’t apologizing for what I said about the schoolmarms who taught me.”

As Murdoch opened his mouth to censure Johnny, Elise quickly cut in.

“Neither should you apologize for them, Mr Lancer. You are right to condemn them….but perhaps you should not judge us all only by those you have met.”

“That’s the only way to stay alive and ahead of the game. I wouldn’t be here today, Ma’am, if I waited to see if someone calling me out was just in a tetchy mood because he got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, or whether he was dead serious about bringing me down. The emphasis on ‘dead’, Ma’am. My whole life has been dictated by first impressions. I ain’t about to change now.”

“We all need change, Mr Lancer. Often it is a way of growing as a person, and a way of starting out afresh, turning your back on the bad times and making something positive. Or learning from your mistakes.”

“Johnny, Ma’am. It’s Johnny, not Mr Lancer. That’s my Old Man here.”

“And it’s Elise, not ‘Ma’am’. That’s Mrs Hardcastle.”

Their duel was broken by Maria announcing that dinner was served. Murdoch cast Johnny a foul look and offered his arm to their guest. The four of them made their way to the dining room and settled down to Maria’s expertly prepared dishes. She had cooked mostly Mexican fare in honour of Johnny’s return, but Johnny’s appetite had almost deserted him. The past came back. His misery at school and the slights he had suffered from someone who should have taken care of him, not denigrated him. His mouth had a sour taste as his mind ran over numerous unhappy events as he was ‘educated’.

He only half-heartedly listened to the general conversation, absent-mindedly reaching for a tortilla, which he rolled up expertly and dipped into the bowl of chilli sauce. Seconds later he was brought out of his reverie by a yelp of surprise and panting noises. Glancing up, he saw his father bending over Elise and Teresa offering her a glass of water. Elise was bright red in the face and perspiring. She was waving her hands in front of her mouth, which was hanging open, her lips forming an “O” shape. Strange, guttural noises could be heard. Johnny couldn’t help himself. He grinned at her suffering, shaking his head from side to side. Barely suppressed chuckles followed.

“Johnny! That is enough! Can’t you see that she is in pain! Why didn’t you warn her?”

“What are you talking about? I was supposed to stop her eating the food put before her?”

“You’re the only one who eats the chilli sauce.  You should know how spicy it is. You should have warned her to use less, instead of waiting and watching to see the effect it would have.”

“What do you mean? I didn’t even see her take any! I wasn’t watching. And if I had, how was I to know she wouldn’t like the taste? Am I some sort of mind reader or something? She is a grown woman and quite capable of choosing what she wants to eat!”

“Please, Mr Lancer. I had not tried this sauce before. I merely copied the amounts that Johnny put on his tortilla. I followed his example. He wasn’t to know that this was a new taste for me. I am not used to Mexican food.”

“Maybe not, but he does know that Maria makes that salsa extra hot for him!”

“Well, I came to this part of the world for new experiences, so let’s just say that I’ll put this down to experience and either never eat tortillas again …or find a milder recipe instead!”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile, particularly as Elise was continuing to down copious amounts of water.

Teresa and Elise provided most of the conversation at the dinner table. Murdoch was pointedly ignoring Johnny, a fact which suited him fine. Conversations with his father seemed to lead nowhere at the moment, except to a dead end. They always seemed to finish with something Johnny hadn’t done right.

After the meal, Murdoch could no longer be avoided as he requested Johnny’s company on the verandah so they could discuss the trip in greater detail. The ladies left them to it, setting about clearing up the table, washing the dishes and tidying the kitchen.

It was an hour before Johnny could make his escape. Heading to the barn was his prime interest. He always liked to check on Barranca after a hard ride, just to make sure that his trusted friend was doing all right and was comfortable for the night.

The glow of a lantern, emphasizing deep shadows in the recesses of the barn, caused him to stop at the door, hand hovering over his right thigh. A soft murmuring crooning to the night air accentuated the peacefulness of the barn and its occupants.

Johnny approached slowly, watching Barranca nudge the hand offering him a carrot. Barranca must have scented him. He nickered and twitched his ears in expectation. Sensing the different mood in the animal, Elise turned around, not missing the location of Johnny’s right hand.

”I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I hope you don’t mind my giving him some dessert. He’s come a long way and I thought he might like a treat.”

Johnny did not respond. His mind was drifting back to the previous night, when he had seen her rich golden hair gleaming by the light of another lantern, the one in her cottage.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I should have thought that you might not like other people feeding your horse.”

She swallowed and made a small moue. “I didn’t mean to overstep my place.”

Again, Johnny did not reply to her comment. Instead he made his own observation.

“You didn’t say anything to Murdoch and Teresa.”

It was not phrased as a question. Merely a statement.

“Why?” he continued.

“I wasn’t sure if you recognized me. You were, after all, somewhat under the weather when you came calling on me.”

At this, Johnny could not refrain from a quirk of the lips. “Any normal man could hardly forget you.”

That this sounded flirtatious was only obvious to Johnny after the event. Trying to mend the situation, he added, “After all, you did have a shotgun pointed at me and a knee in my back.”

“Remember, I said that I was not naïve and believed in being prepared for all eventualities.”

“I still don’t know why you didn’t say anything” persisted Johnny.

“Well, I suppose it didn’t matter. You didn’t do anything threatening to me. And the sheriff explained to me this afternoon that you were a model citizen, just celebrating his return, albeit a little too fervently, to the bosom of his family. He said that you were not prone to breaking and entering, but apparently you do class train robbing as a reasonable alternative. He did not expand on this, but seemed to accept this as perfectly acceptable behaviour on your part. Surprising coming from the local representative of the law.”

“Yeah, well, that’s another story.”

“I bet it is.”

Johnny moved closer, pulling a carrot from his belt and offering Barranca a second serving of dessert.

“Thanks, anyway.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“I know, but I must admit, I didn’t quite know what your intentions were. I didn’t realize that you were the brother that Teresa had told me so much about. But then again if I had realized, I guess knowing how good you were with a gun might have frightened me even more!”

“I thought the house was empty. Don’t worry, I promise I won’t do that again in a hurry.”

“Given your fondness for schoolmarms, I believe you. Anyway, you’d better not for your own sake. I’ve removed the cushion from the rocking chair. Your landing will be a lot harder next time.”

At this, he gave a small snort of laughter. “It’s a deal, then.”

The two of them watched Barranca enjoying this special attention until they both felt a discomfort between them, neither quite knowing what else to say.

“It’s getting late, I’ll leave you to it, Johnny. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Johnny listened to her light footsteps recede as his hand found Barranca’s favourite spot behind his ear.

“I don’t know, amigo. Just when you think you might understand something about women, they up and surprise you. Contrary creatures. We do fine with each other, don’t we boy? Just fine.”
 

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

Tired as he was, Johnny made sure he was up just before dawn so he could get an early start on the chores. He was hoping that this might get his father off his back for Scott’s delayed return.

He worked a long morning fixing fences near Deep Creek. The pasture had browned off and shimmered distantly in the heat. After six hours, his stomach was letting him know he should have eaten more breakfast. He had removed his shirt an hour ago, hoping the occasional hints of a breeze would cool his perspiring torso. Head bent, he wound barbed wire tightly, using a crowbar to create leverage and take up the most possible slack. As he worked on securing the wire, the noise of hoof beats caused him to look up. Coming over the crest, was a buckboard with two occupants. His keen eyesight perceived one to be Teresa, so he reasoned that the other would be the schoolmarm.

The ladies pulled up, the horses tossing their heads and flanks heaving from the ascent and descent.

“Hi,Teresa. Elise.” Johnny inclined his head as he reached for the nearest horse, talking quietly while scratching its cheek.

“Hi, Johnny. You left so early, we thought you might like to have something to eat which hasn’t been melting in the heat for the past few hours.”

“Hey, thanks, little sister. I was just wondering how much longer I’d last.”

Teresa was already hopping down on the far side, so Johnny automatically reached up to help Elise. She landed lightly at his feet, and just for a moment he considered her small waist encircled by his hands. An awkward second later he dropped them, suddenly conscious of overstaying the required contact time. And of his half dressed state.

Wiping his chest and back with an old rag, he quickly donned his shirt, turning his back on the women to do up the toggles and tuck the shirt flaps into his pants. On facing them again, he realized that Teresa had already spread out a blanket while Elise was opening packages with tempting fresh beef sandwiches, fruit and what appeared to be some chocolate cake, which survived the bumpy ride over the ruts of Lancer in a relatively intact state.

Johnny was ravenous and tucked in to the unexpected meal. He vaguely listened to the girls chatter, and as his eating slowed down he took more notice of their conversation. They were discussing the dance to be held in a few weeks and Teresa was filling Elise in on everyone she might meet.

“Who’s taking you to the dance, Teresa?” asked Johnny, head on his side.

“I don’t know. Ted Standard was talking about it the other day. Then last week while you were away, Peter James called over and took me out on a picnic to Crystal Brook. Then again, Jock McDonagh helped me carry a whole lot of packages to the buckboard when I fetched some supplies on Monday week. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.”

Teresa scrunched up her face as she considered her possible suitors and pondered the possibilities.

With his hand hovering over his holster, Johnny informed Teresa, “Well, in that case, when Scott gets home, we’ll go calling on the three of them and just make sure that they know how to treat a lady and that they understand the high standard we expect of anyone escorting you out. Any liberties will not be tolerated.”

Teresa sucked in her breath sharply as her cheeks paled in horror. She was about to respond sharply to Johnny’s implied threat when the teasing glint in his eyes became apparent.

“Why, you…big bully! Just for that, I am having the last of the chocolate cake!”

She did, too. Before Johnny could react, she had snatched the last piece with remarkable aplomb rivalling the quickest of fast draws that Johnny had seen. Her shriek of triumph was short lived, however, as the cake crumbled in the throes of her fervour, crumbling into a landslide of boulders and pebbles and tumbling down the front of her frock to settle onto the dirt of the creek bank in a pile of scree.

Her joy of victory was immediately replaced by disappointment at the lost advantage.

The comical look on her face was too much for Elise who broke into peels of laughter. Chuckling himself, Johnny locked his deep blue eyes with Elise’s golden green ones, as they shared the joke at Teresa’s expense. Elise laughed with simple joy at Teresa’s misfortune, her face animated and relaxed. Johnny noted no pretension here, only a down to earth sense of humour.

The laughter lines around Johnny’s eyes spread into myriads of mini smiles. He was enjoying the companionship the ladies had brought and the carefree respite from work.

After a moment’s annoyance, Teresa was also infected by their contagious merriment, succumbing to a fit of giggles before admonishing her ‘brother’.

“Well, Johnny, that was the last of the chocolate cake. It looks like I won’t have any time at all to make any more in the near future, what with preparations for the dance and so on. I guess anyone hoping for any more will just have to make sure they don’t step out of line for a while…for quite a while, in fact.”

With a haughty toss of the head, Teresa began packing up the remnants of the meal.

The comic little boy crestfallen face of Johnny was enough to set Elise off again. Johnny darted her a glance of displeasure, but brief as the look was, he didn’t fail to notice her fascinatingly long neck bent backwards as she submitted to the throaty giggling overcoming her.

Somewhat brusquely, he threw a ‘Touché’ at Teresa. “As Scott would say,” he dryly added.

The meal broke up shortly afterwards, as Johnny wanted desperately to finish the job that day and the girls needed to return home to begin preparations for dinner.

He set to work with purpose in a contented frame of mind, not really quite understanding why he was so happy to dig so lustily and hammer so rhythmically.

 
Chapter Six

Johnny continued to work long hours the next two days to make up for Scott’s absence. He missed the companionship of his sibling. Continual banter marked their day’s work. This banter was a sign of their deep affection for and acceptance of each other. Johnny had never thought he would ever be truly comfortable around anyone, yet Scott and he had forged such incredibly strong bonds in such a short space of time. He had had friends he rode with in the past, but none had reached in and touched his soul the way his big brother did. Ross and Brendan had come close. They had been dependable and trustworthy and he had experienced close ties with them at the time they rode together. He hoped his brother was enjoying himself with his Bostonian friends, and he also hope he would see him home at Lancer very soon.

Heat shimmered off the hillsides in the still air. Working on the west fence line, he was busy tightening some barbed wire around a newly sunk post. He twisted wire around a metal bar, straining to make it taut. His concentration was interrupted by his sixth sense. That sixth sense which had saved his life on more than one occasion.

He was being observed.

Johnny feigned working, considering his options. His gun was in its holster, hanging off Barranca’s saddle. Too far to reach in one leap. He completed work on stringing that wire, then casually headed towards his patient steed as if to reach for his canteen. Before he could do so, a voice called out.

“Don’t even think about it.”

Johnny paused, bent his head for an instant, then raised it to look at the speaker. His smile was broad with welcome.

“What took you so long?”

“Had a few jobs to finish at the J Bar S first.”

Reaching for his canteen, Johnny took a long drink while Ross and Brendan rode their mounts underneath the large oak tree providing shade for Barranca. The refreshing drink cooled his parched throat as it trickled down. Johnny poured a little over his head, relishing the liquid dribbling down his face, chest and back, soothing his hot skin. He shook off the excess, just like a dog, leaving his hair spread out in all directions. He replaced the cork on the canteen, hung it back on the pommel and then ran his fingers through his hair. Brendan and Ross had also quenched their thirsts from their canteens in the meanwhile.

“So, what are you boys up to?”

“Well, Johnny boy, we called in at the ranch just as you suggested. One of the hands said you were out here. I suppose we wanted to see if your offer was still good.”

Placing his hands on the small of his back, Johnny arched backwards. He studied the fence line he had repaired, then turned his attention to the stretch still requiring his attention. It stretched another few hundred yards before it swept up over a hillcrest and disappeared over the rise.  His eyes then moved to the faces of his two friends.

“Oh, boy, did you two arrive at the right time. And there’s no time like the present!”

Ross and Brendan didn’t waste words. Ross grabbed a spade and commenced digging holes, while Brendan and Johnny planted the posts, stomped down the earth and strung the wire.  They worked solidly as a team and covered a good distance before supplies ran out and the suns rays fell low over the horizon. Exhausted, they packed up their equipment and made tracks for the hacienda.

On arrival, Johnny introduced them to Cipriano and told him that they were two new, but reliable, hands. Shaking hands warmly with them, Cipriano made them welcome. Ross and Brendan were impressed with the layout of the hacienda and outbuildings.

“You sure got it made, Johnny!” Brendan commented. “What a spread!”

“Yeah. I got lucky.”

The depth of feeling behind the hesitation that followed was not lost on his friends. Johnny wanted to say more. “This place gets under your skin. It becomes a part of you. Despite the hard work, or maybe because of the hard work, it gets a hold of you.”

“Well, we’re glad for you, Johnny.” Ross’s comment was sincere.

“I know. And I’m glad you’ve come.”

“Thanks for not forgetting your friends.”

Johnny inclined his head as acceptance of the thanks, then helped them see to their horses and settle into the bunkhouse. After that a long soak in the bath was called for. His bones had deep aches, which the warm water might alleviate to some extent. Bidding his friends goodnight, he headed for the hacienda.

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

“Johnny!”

He started awake, then took note of how cold he felt in the now decidedly cooled bathwater.

Standing up, water cascaded down his well-toned torso. His muscles rippled as he reached for a large towel to dry himself off with. The white towel contrasted sharply with his deeply tanned skin.

There was a peremptory knock at the door, and a demanding “Johnny!” was repeated.

He wondered what Murdoch was on the warpath about now. It never seemed to take much if Murdoch thought it had to do with Johnny.

“Yeah? In here, Murdoch. I’ll be right out.”

“See that you are. I’ll meet you in the Great Room,” was the curt reply from his father.

Johnny sighed deeply, then racked his brains. Just what had he done wrong now?

He dressed hurriedly, lastly dragging a comb through his unruly locks. The mirror reflected his anxiety. The corner of his mouth lifted and he gave a snort as he shook his head. He was getting to be more anxious about facing his father than he was about facing some of the desperadoes who had called him out in the past. The Old Man wasn’t likely to draw on him, he figured, so he might as well get it over with.

Johnny found his father at his desk in the Great Room, his head lowered over some of his incessant paperwork. Murdoch looked up as Johnny approached.

”Hi, Johnny. How’s the work going?”

“Fine. I’m making headway.”

“If you are doing ‘fine’, as you put it, why did you hire two more hands today?”

“Because we are going to be busy the next month. Because they’re friends of mine, they’re good workers, they’re reliable and I owe them. Enough reasons, Old Man?”

Murdoch bridled at the insolence.

“No. Any hiring goes by me first. I call the tune here, remember?”

“Oh, I remember, all right. And that chorus is getting mighty monotonous. Well, I don’t think that two more hands would hurt. And as I said, things are going to start getting hectic again soon. At least I know what we’re getting.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Johnny bristled as he stood stiffer.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Johnny, you don’t need to associate with people from your past any more. You have a family. And you need to protect that family. We don’t need drifters and gunhawks here. It will bring nothing but trouble.”

Johnny stood immobile. Tension emanated from his stance. His feet slightly apart, his rigid posture spoke volumes, but Murdoch seemed oblivious to the deep impact of his words. Johnny intended to put him right on that score.

“Just like I’ve brought nothing but trouble?”

“No, that’s not what I mean, son. You just can’t escape the past if you invite it here. It’s been dogging you for the past two years. Why on earth would you want to have any reminders here? I don’t understand.”

“No, you never do. I told you. I owe Ross and Brendan. They’re good men.”

“I don’t want your past here!”

“I am my past. Everything I am now is because of my past. And those leftovers of my past that you refer to out in the bunkhouse just happened to save my butt more than once so that I could actually make it to the present! So, tell me, if you don’t want my past here, does that mean you don’t want me here, too?”

Murdoch looked at his son. He flinched at Johnny’s question. Yes, Johnny was the sum of his past. A past Murdoch had no input into. If only he had had some influence, Johnny would be a different man now. The man Murdoch hoped he would be. Those hard edges would not have been so evident, Murdoch was certain, had Johnny grown up here under his tutelage. And he didn’t want any of Johnny’s past associates influencing him unduly and luring him away in the same manner that Wes had done.

“Of course, I want you here, son. I just want your past life to leave you alone so you can have a future here.”

“Well, I guess it’s a package deal. As I said before, my past made me. If you can’t take it, Old Man, I won’t waste any more of your time.”

Johnny’s gaze held Murdoch’s unflinchingly. Murdoch was mesmerized by their deep blue and the frankness radiating from them.

Murdoch’s voice softened. “You’re not wasting my time. I just don’t want you hurt any more, son. The past seems to do that a lot to you.”

“There were some good things in my past, Murdoch. Ross and Brendan were two of them. I want them to stay as long as they pull their weight.”

Murdoch sighed with exasperation, running a hand through his hair. “All right, but the first sign of trouble and they go. Understand?”

“Oh, I understand all right. And there won’t be any trouble. Not from them, leastways.”

Johnny abruptly turned and left. Why did conversations with his father always leave him empty? Would Murdoch ever come to accept the person he was? Would he ever be good enough?

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

Two more days passed, with Johnny working side by side with Brendan and Ross. Even Johnny was pleasantly surprised out how well they worked as a team on ranching duties.  He started extra early and finished at sundown, trying to placate his father who was still unhappy at Scott’s absence.

Another full day’s work complete, Johnny loped into the yard as the sun’s rays dipped over the far hills, casting long shadows over the pastures and creating a softening effect which seemed to mute all the lively sounds of the day. The animals were mostly silent with contentment as they grazed on a final feed before nightfall. A peaceful time of day for Johnny as well, after the frenetic energy expended for seemingly endless hours.

He deftly unsaddled Barranca, and brushed him down thoroughly before offering his amigo a healthy helping of oats. His duty of care complete, he scratched his mount one last time behind the ears before heading inside. Next on his itinerary was a good soaking in a bath. With purpose, he set out on his mission.

On entering the door, Johnny threw his hat unerringly onto the hatstand. As he did so, the presence of Scott’s hat registered in his brain. Turning, he spied his older brother seated on the couch, reclining comfortably, whiskey in hand, feet on the ottoman, entertaining Teresa and Elise with lively tales of his recent holiday.

Now Scott was not in the habit of remaining in the Great Room during the afternoon whenever he came in from the trail or from business in town. Johnny’s sharply honed observation skills immediately picked up the scene and all interactions occurring. Scott was under the spell of the local schoolmarm and was attempting to dazzle her with his Boston charm.

“Hi, ladies. Hey, brother!” interrupted Johnny, “When did you get in?”

“Oh, about two hours ago. I would have joined you, but I thought you would have been in earlier. Besides, Teresa introduced me to her new friend and I thought it would be churlish to arrive then disappear immediately after.”

“Yeah, right. Well, brother, I was out later than usual because I was doing the work of two men. Johnny AND Scott, if you remember!”

“And I’m sure you were doing it well, too, little brother. Far be it for me to come in at the end and claim any kudos for work completed by you.”

“I can see that, Scott. Especially seeing as how you’d have to get up off that sofa if you were going to come outside and help. It wouldn’t be right to disturb you after all the hard hours of travel you’ve endured today. Anything I could get you to make you more comfortable?” remarked Johnny with what appeared increasingly to be a sneer in his voice.

“Well, now that you mention it, that cushion over there would be perfect behind my neck. It’s a bit stiff. I fell asleep at an awkward angle on the stage.”

“Oh, we can’t have you falling asleep at uncomfortable angles, Scott! Here, you just lay your pretty head back on this soft material,” suggested Johnny as, with a quick flick of the wrist, he threw the cushion towards Scott.

In a reflex reaction, Scott reached for the cushion, spilling his drink over the crotch of his pants in the process.

Hooting with glee, Johnny fled for his bath, leaving Scott smothering curses under his breath in deference to the ladies’ presence, while dabbing ineffectually at the embarrassingly located stain with his handkerchief.

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

The evening meal was a lively affair that night at Lancer. Scott was excited about his stay with his Boston friends and was eager to share the details.

“They have quite a spread, you know. They inherited a premier bloodline of livestock when they purchased the property, but also they hope to diversify into the growing wine market. I learnt so much from them. Information I hope to put to good use,” finished Scott staring pointedly at his father.

“Don’t waste your breath, Scott. I’ve been suggesting to Murdoch that we get into horse breeding, but you know how he feels. This is a cattle ranch, it always was a cattle ranch and it will always be a cattle ranch,” summed up Johnny, semi saluting Murdoch with an ironic tilt of his wine glass.

“Other interests will just take time and energy from our prime source of income. Vineyards take years to become viable. The vines are subject to disease. They are expensive to establish and require heavy capital expenditure,” Murdoch intoned his litany of objections.

“Horses don’t. And what’s more, we have hundreds of them running free on the range. Not only a cheap source of income, a free source of income. And the army is crying out for good horseflesh.”

“That’s enough. We’ve had this discussion before. Just remember who calls the tune around here!” expounded Murdoch with finality, reminding Johnny painfully of his recent conversation with his father.

“I hear of more and more farmers and ranchers diversifying. It acts as a buffer when times are tough. If one market is down, another is usually buoyant,” added Elise firmly to the conversation.

“Well, we’ve done well enough over the years. It it’s not broke, there’s no need to fix it,” was Murdoch’s dour response. Murdoch defiantly steered the conversation elsewhere. “So Scott, are we going to see your friends in the near future?”

“Well, to be honest, I am hoping that they could come here. They are anxious to see our cattle and holdings and Pascal has some impressive breeding stock. A visit from them could be beneficial to Lancer.”

“We’d welcome your friends here, Scott. Feel free to invite them. And this could indeed be advantageous to us financially,” Murdoch commented.

“How long have you known them, Scott?” queried Teresa.

“Since I was a boy. They arrived in Boston when I was about eight. Michel and I grew up together, went to the same schools and mingled with the same group of friends. He had a tough time initially, though.”

“Why was that, Scott?” Elise wanted to know.

“Well, he spoke French when he arrived and it was difficult at first. He was an outsider in conversations until his English fluency picked up. It was alienating for him to not understand the language being used around him. And there was his limp.”

“Limp?” Teresa prompted.

“Yes, he is somewhat lame, having fallen off a horse when he was about seven years old. He took a horse galloping and it didn’t clear a fence. It was a bad break, which never mended properly. He suffered some bullying at first. Sometimes children can tease anyone who is a bit different.”

Johnny’s snorted “You don’t say!” brought Scott up with a start. He could have kicked himself, but was saved by Elise’s interjection.

“I taught a young lad one year. He was also from a different culture, being from an Italian family. He had a paralysed arm after getting stomped on by a horse. The children tended to ostracize him until they got to know him.  He had a sense of humour, which just won everyone over. It took a little while, but he earned their respect and received firm loyalty in return.”

“Michel was quite withdrawn and shyness made it hard for him to break the ice, but we got on well and had some good times together.”

“Yeah, sounds like a right pairing from the little you let them say in Stockton,” remarked Johnny. “Just who was the instigator of all your hi-jinks?”

Scott smiled at Johnny. “Oh, I’d say it was about half and half.”

“You seem to have toned down in your older age, then. Must be my stabilising influence!”

This quip from Johnny earned him gasps of astonishment from Teresa and Murdoch.

“You, the stabilising influence! Pull the other leg, Johnny Lancer! Just how many times has Scott got you out of a fix?” admonished Teresa.

“Big brothers hate to be useless, Teresa. They need to feel useful, and there are two ways for them to feel useful. One is to be allowed to occasionally boss their little brothers around. The second is for little brothers to pretend to get themselves into difficulties so that the said big brothers can play the hero and flaunt their older, and supposedly wiser, brains,” Johnny reasoned.  He turned to Elise. “Do you happen to have an older brother, Elise?” Johnny asked.

“Why, yes, I do. Ian.”

“And does he like to have his opinion of himself uplifted, being allowed to show the world that whatever you did was plain stupid, while whatever he does is sheer brilliance?”

Elise met Johnny’s twinkling eyes with a humour-filled look of her own.

“Now that you mention it, there’s nothing he likes better than telling everyone how he helped me out with a problem, which was usually of my own making and only solved by his superior intelligence. However, whenever he’s in a fix, the problem was always created by someone else and any solution I come up with is obvious.”

Johnny grinned conspiratorially. “Sounds like big brothers are the same the country over. So have you come here to escape this overbearing brother?”

“He’s not overbearing, more protective. We get on really well and I am lucky to have him as my brother. Friends of my parents wanted to travel to France to visit a married daughter. They invited me to accompany them. I took the opportunity of a lifetime and spent twelve months there. When it came time for me to return, another couple known to my parents’ friends were immigrating to California to settle near their son and they invited me to travel with them. This way, I have seen much of the world and my father was appeased because I had suitable chaperones. I have visited such exciting destinations”

Scott looked over at her as he sipped his wine, arched an eyebrow and asked incredulously, “Morro Coyo, an exciting destination? How does it compete with Paris?”

Elise laughed at this. Once again Johnny noticed that a deep laugh, starting low in her chest before pleasantly trilling outwards. Quite unlike the raucous braying of some women he had met over the years.

“It’s a tad smaller!” Elise agreed, referring to Morro Coyo.

“Why Morro Coyo, Elise?” Johnny inquired with a tilt of his head towards her.

“Quite simply, I like California and I decided that I could perhaps get a job to earn my keep and to tide myself over for a while before I return to Virginia. I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a new school teacher, and here I am!”

“So getting back to your trip to France, does this mean that you speak any French?” asked Scott hopefully.

“Yes, I do. My parents friends taught me from a young age and living there for the twelve months really did wonders for my accent and fluency.”

“Well, I’ve been here all my life, surrounded by Mexicans,” complained Teresa, “And I still can’t master a good Spanish accent, no matter how hard I try.”

“That’s because you can still resort to English here. I should drop you south of the border, surround you in the language and let you fend for yourself for a few months. You’d speak like a native in no time,” suggested Johnny.

Teresa blanched. “You wouldn’t?”

Johnny regarded her with fondness, before adding “No, I wouldn’t. And you have a very good accent anyway.”  His genuine smile added further weight to his praise, which left Teresa immensely pleased. So much so, in fact, that she leapt up and gave him a brief peck on the cheek before beginning to clear the table.

The meal over, the family retired to the Great Room. Scott engaged Elise in an in-depth discussion about the marvels they had both seen in Europe, while Johnny and Teresa warred over a checkerboard. Even making the most deliberate of mistakes, Johnny wasn’t able to place a win her way.

Teresa was just asking Johnny for a rematch when Murdoch interrupted stating firmly that he wanted all of them to get an early night that night as the men would be out late at the council meeting in town the next night.

Johnny groaned in dismay.

“You said something, Johnny?” glared Murdoch.

“No, not at all. Nothing I like better than to spend my evening talking around in circles as everyone tries to push their own barrow and line their own pockets.”

Johnny was surprised at the giggle erupting from Elise. Peering over at her, he noticed her grinning.

“Sounds like council meetings and politics the world over!” Elise echoed Johnny’s thoughts.

“Yep. Waste of time. They always find some way to make a profit from circumstance and everyone else,” Johnny agreed.

“You need a more mature attitude, Johnny! Council meetings are a necessary evil, much the same as the Cattlemen’s Association meetings. You need to take an active role and learn to be a leader. Local and state politics can have a huge impact on Lancer. Take an interest, Johnny, your economic future can depend on it,” lectured Murdoch.

Johnny pursed his lips, sucked in his cheeks and concentrated on packing up the board game. As he glanced up he noticed Elise shoot him a look of commiseration before he fixed his father in his sights.

“Last thing I’d want to be is a leader of that group of prissy, pompous wheeler-dealers.”

“Nevertheless, I expect you to attend these meetings and take notice of the way they are run. If you don’t show an interest in what the council and other businesses are doing around you, your own business can go under. Lancer needs to have an active say in decisions.”

“You mean Murdoch Lancer needs an active say in everything,” muttered Johnny indistinctly under his breath.

“What was that, Johnny?”

“Nothing, Murdoch, nothing important at all. It’s late. I think I’ll hit the sack so that I’ll be at my best for that meeting tomorrow night. I want to be bright eyed and bushy tailed so I can take notice of all them interesting details.”

With that, he bade everyone a goodnight and headed for his room, followed not long after by the rest of the family.

 
Chapter Seven

The next evening saw the courthouse turned into council chambers for the monthly meeting. Ranchers from the surrounding area had started to flow in during the late afternoon, providing booming business for the cantina and hotel dining room. The town’s business people swelled the ranks. Each person had come with his own agenda as a safeguarding measure to protect their own personal interests.

The township had increased in population to the extent that a more formal council than in the past was required to manage it. The newly elected mayor, however, had split the local citizens to some degree, being too progressive for some and too reactionary for others.

Murdoch arrived before dusk set in, his two sons flanking him in an impressive show of strength from the premier ranch in the area. The three men, so differing in physique, all cut an arresting sight. Murdoch’s massive frame almost dwarfed his two sons. Both tall and broad shouldered, he was a man who exuded authority. Scott was a tall man who measured a good six feet, but still appeared small in comparison to his father. His erect posture in the saddle, learnt at the best riding schools in Boston and perfected in the cavalry, marked him as somewhat of an outsider to the region. Johnny was the smallest in stature, sitting with lithe ease in the saddle. He was the most compact of the three men, but by no means the least imposing. His nimble grace and deceptive nonchalance masked a man of icy, formidable determination when the need arose.

The Lancer men reined in their mounts outside the courthouse, dismounted in varying idiosyncratic styles and tied their steeds securely to the hitching rails. Murdoch arched backwards to allay some pain from his back. Scott tugged at his lapels to adjust the sit of his coat, while Johnny adjusted his rig, ensuring that his gun was comfortably resting in its holster against his muscled thigh.

Mingling with the various locals, the Lancers enjoyed catching up with acquaintances before finding their seats in the gallery. The mayor, Isaac Milford, was a pretentious man who waffled on and laboured his opening address. Johnny lasted all of ten minutes before his head began drooping. Scott’s elbow reminded him that Murdoch wanted him alert and mindful of interesting details.

Johnny tuned in again as Isaac finalized his argument for the community to pay for the reconstruction of the bridge over Willow Creek, the first item on the agenda. Johnny snorted to himself. Yep, self-serving officials are the same no matter what country you’re in. Borders and languages don’t make no difference.

Somehow the gullible citizens became caught up in this necessity, and before he could blink, the good folk were in agreement with their humble mayor. The fact that this bridge was on the road to the mayor’s property seemed to have escaped the perception of many of those present.

Next, Johnny had to cope with the extended discussion on the site of the new well and the feasibility of various locations. This was the subject of hot debate from self-interested parties, twenty minutes passing before a vote finally took place. The evening wore on, with more seemingly endless discussion and spending of the good citizens’ money, until at last the final item on the agenda was out of the way.

There was a collective sigh of relief at the thought of being released from the hard wooden seats. The scuffling of feet was interrupted suddenly by the clear, high tones of a female voice.

“Excuse me, Mr Mayor, but I had also included an item on the agenda. It has not been discussed or dealt with.”

The room stopped. Those who were shrugging on their coats turned to look at the interlocutor.

The mayor looked over at the speaker. “I’m sorry, but we have no time left.”

Glacial eyes from a frozen face met his as a frosty response was directed to him.

“Rubbish!”

“I beg your pardon? Just who do you think you are talking to?”

“The Mayor.”

“Precisely. Who do you think you are to query my decisions? I expect more respect.”

“You get what you earn. I went in to your office today and added something to the agenda. It was skipped over and was not discussed.”

“As the elected official, it is up to me to see that precious time is not wasted on bagatelles. I amend the agenda as I see fit. These people are hardworking and all of them need to rise early to see to their jobs and farm chores. They have no wish to be kept out of their beds any longer than necessary.”

“So, therefore, you amend the agenda to suit your own purposes and interests?” commented the lady interrogator.

“Now, see here! That is uncalled for!”

“Why? Just because an agenda item may not have direct relevance to you, this does not mean to say that others may have not an interest in it.”

“Nevertheless, we have allocated all available funds. It is too late. You will need to wait until next time.”

The mayor was stopped by a firm, “I don’t think so.”

Johnny was fascinated by the repartee between the two parties. His lips lifted at the corners, enjoying the pompous mayor being nailed by the local schoolmarm. She had guts, he had to admit. And admire.

With a bustle of skirts and determined voice, Elise made her way to the floor space in front of what was usually the judge’s bench. Sensing an evening’s highlight after the deadly dullness of the proceedings, there was a general reversal of activity. The spectators removed coats they had been putting on and resumed their seats in expectation of some entertainment.

“My agenda item preceded the last three, therefore it will be aired tonight. I will not wait another month.”

Noticing that she had the attention of the crowd, Elise began her address. Isaac had no choice but to take his seat as well. This he did, but with a show of petulant bad grace which had Johnny widening his smile.

“As you know, I am the new school mistress. I have been here for four weeks and in that time I have had nothing but promises to have the roof of the schoolhouse repaired, heating installed, slates purchased and new schoolbooks ordered. Several panels are missing from the walls. Children cannot learn if they have one slate per four. I have a class which contains six to 14 year olds. They can’t achieve if I don’t have books aimed at their level. The schoolhouse is in general disrepair and it is plain and simply dreary. It needs to be a place which welcomes children. As the weather starts to get colder, we will face the prospect of cold winds blowing through the walls and rain pouring through the roof. This is simply not good enough.”

“I was born in a tent. Modern children are too soft, is all,” retorted Isaac.

“Times have changed. We expect better for our children as the years pass. This situation is unacceptable in this day and age.”

“It’s not my concern. Tommy is just about finished with school, anyway. He don’t need no more education.” called out one of the farmers.

“Tommy? So you would be Mr Woods?” enquired Elise.

“That’s right.”

“And you intend removing Tommy from class soon?”

”Yeah, what of it? The boy’s twelve. That’s already four more years than I had.”

“And you want him to be successful in life?”

“Of course. He’ll be taking over my farm. He can read and write good enough and what he needs to be a good farmer can’t be taught in a schoolhouse.”

“What do you class as a good farmer?”

“Well, someone who can support his family and make a profit.”

“Oh, like you did last month when you signed over your east paddock to Clive Peabody for a song? One of your most productive farm sections with available water and all you could see was the short term benefit of paying off a loan early.”

This remark riled the farmer brilliantly. Red suffused his face.

“That ain’t none of your business! I don’t need you pokin’ your nose into my family’s private lives. I ain’t got no truck with nosey busybodies.”

“This is all common knowledge, Mr Woods. I wasn’t sticking my nose into anything. This snippet of information was shoved at me from all quarters. It was the main piece of gossip over the past month. You lost your land because you didn’t have the schooling to read the paragraph Mr Peabody inserted into the water rights contract. Is this running a sound business? Wouldn’t you want Tommy not to make a mistake like that? Wouldn’t you prefer that he made a profit and didn’t lose money unnecessarily because he was cheated out of it by unscrupulous dealers who recognize a lack of learning when they see it?”

“Now, listen here. Just what do you think you are doin’, puttin’ me down like that in front of everybody?”

“That is not my intention. Everyone already knows about the unfortunate contract you signed. And nearly everyone here has made similar mistakes over the years because of a lack of formal schooling. I am merely emphasizing that the children must be given better opportunities to make choices. And the schoolhouse itself needs to be welcoming and in a good state of repair as a starting point if the children are to value their education.”

“You’re just an uppity woman who don’t know her place.”

This retort was backed up by another of the local farmers.

“We don’t need no woman tellin’ us what to do. Tryin’ to get our kids to look down on us and give them ideas that they are better than us, just ‘cause they can read a few words and do a few sums.”

“Mr Grant, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Mr Grant, weren’t you just hit with a bill from the supply store for purchasing twice the amount of grain you needed at the moment?”

“What’s that got to do with you?”

“What it has to do with me is that if your sums had been correct, you would have ordered what you needed and could afford to pay. You owe twice the amount of money that you should at the moment. I heard your conversation at the store last week. You can’t send the bags back, because some of them have split. You need fencing wire, but now you can’t afford it. Young Pete could help you with the sums and avoid this sort of situation. Your whole family could benefit. The children are less likely to be taken advantage of in their lives if they have basic schooling. Surely, you don’t want them to make costly mistakes which are so easily avoided?”

Her final plea was met by a low murmuring from the crowd. Johnny could see that her arguments had swayed some of those present who were nodding their heads in agreement.

“Well, Ma’am, we have allocated all the funds. The weather should remain fine for the moment. We will discuss this issue at the next meeting,” advocated Isaac with finality.

“Of course most of the funds are allocated! The bulk of them went to reinforce that bridge over Willow Creek, which will benefit no-one but you!”

“There is talk of a new rail siding out my way. It will be well travelled then.”

“Talk, exactly. Nothing else. There are other proposed sites for that siding. This meeting has agreed to the bulk of available funds being used to repair a bridge, which is important to you alone. I am requesting funds for all of the children. It is their futures which are more important. And the future of this town lies parallel with the futures of the children.”

“This discussion is over,” fumed the smug mayor as he donned his hat and began to turn away.

As he did so, Murdoch hoisted his large frame to his feet.

“Well, if coffers are that dry, Lancer will provide a loan to the town for emergency repairs and purchase of essential supplies for the school. It can be paid back next month at the next meeting. Would that be agreeable to everyone?”

Pleased to have the issue dealt with by anyone other than themselves, this solution met with the approval of the vast majority of the observers.

Like children released from the clutches of an over-zealous schoolmarm, the audience charged for the doors and tumbled out into the night.

Inside, Elise was left contemplating their backs with her mouth set in a thin line. She turned as the three Lancer men approached. Extending her hand, she thanked Murdoch warmly.

“That was extremely kind of you, Mr Lancer. I have been badgering Mr Milford since I arrived here. It’s like hitting your head against a stone wall. That man has tunnel vision and doesn’t like to deviate.”

“Well, the children are important and I don’t like to see that man run everything to suit himself. Order what you need and charge it to Lancer.”

“I’m much obliged and I know that the children will be very pleased.”

Murdoch nodded and turned to leave, Scott accompanying him after bidding Elise goodnight and promising to visit soon for a French lesson. Johnny lingered behind, rotating his hat in endless circles along the brim. Considering his toes for some length of time, his thoughts were finally interrupted by the schoolmarm. “I hope you appreciated all those interesting details at the meeting! Did you find it all so captivating that you can’t tear yourself away, Johnny?”

Johnny looked up, meeting her eyes briefly, before ducking his head again. He scuffed the floorboards with the toe of his boots for several seconds before once again glancing up at her.

“The only captivating part was the last segment.”

Realizing that he had voiced thoughts better left silent, he pushed on hastily.

“I just want you to know that you won’t have to worry about labour for the repairs. Lancer will see to it.”

“Thank you, Johnny. Your family has been mighty good to me since I arrived.”

“You’re welcome, Elise. Goodnight.”

That said, Johnny hastened after the others, wondering just why he had volunteered Lancer labour for the schoolhouse repairs without checking with Murdoch first. That wasn’t all he was wondering. He hurried after his father and brother, putting a firm lid on very unsettling thoughts.

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

The following day, Johnny rose early and was blessed with witnessing a stunning sunrise of reds and pinks bathing the Lancer landscape in a warm glow. His chores accomplished in record time, the early afternoon saw him loading the wagon with shingles, lumber, other essential supplies and tools, then heading out to town. He ate as he travelled the miles, determined to try to get as much work done in town before dusk made work difficult.

Driving into the schoolyard, he stopped near the building a little nonplussed to realize that school was still in session. He manoeuvred the buckboard to the side of the schoolhouse and set the brake before nimbly hopping down. He thought that perhaps he should unload now, but would wait to commence work until after the bell sounded the release of the inmates. Reaching into the back, he pulled out one of the planks he intended using to patch up some of the gaps in the walls. Some of the wood in the structure had rotted away, leaving large holes and the odd nail projecting out of the beams, no longer serving any useful purpose whatsoever.

As he hoisted the plank, he turned and glanced into the window, the lumber resting on his shoulder. Several sets of eyes followed his movements with interest. He grinned at the captives, whose longing to be released was evident, even through the smudged window panes. The captives grinned back. This short-lived communication was broken when an extra head appeared out of nowhere. Johnny’s audience registered an array of surprised and guilty expressions as their schoolmarm joined them in their sightseeing endeavours.

Elise smiled warmly at Johnny, accompanying her greeting with a wave. As suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared, only to emerge onto the porch.

“Johnny! How good to see you!” she welcomed him.

Johnny smiled, but found himself surprisingly tongue-tied. He was also well aware that his audience was once again peering intently at the scene.

“Ma’am,” was all he managed as he tipped his hat.

Unaccountably, he felt unable to continue under the watchful gaze of the students. He shifted from one foot to the other, before Elise took command and rescued him.

“That timber looks heavy. Do you need a hand with it?”

He felt himself redden, so dipped his head in order to cast a shadow over his face.

“No, thanks,” he muttered as he deposited it near the wall. Settling it to his satisfaction, he looked up at her again.

“I thought I’d bring some supplies over and get a start, but I’m earlier than I intended. Would you like me to go away until your lessons finish before I start clambering over your roof?”

“Oh, no need. It’s only half an hour until the bell. The children and I are just discussing some improvements to the school. You get started and do whatever you need to.” 

“All right. If that’s OK with you, then,” replied Johnny.

He watched her enter her domain with a cheerful smile. He could hear her voice as she got back to her disturbed lesson.

Taking a deep breath, he headed to the buckboard, removed the ladder and set to investigating the condition of the roof. It was indeed in a sorry state, he discovered. Shingles were loose and split. The first downpour would see them all drenched inside. They sure provided plenty of ventilation, he thought. As he contemplated the roof and the amount of shingles required to repair it, he heard her musical voice floating up to him. What stopped him short, though, was the sound of laughter from the children. Good-natured laughter. The sort of laughter you hear from people who like the people they are with and who are comfortable in their surroundings. He didn’t remember ever hearing any laughter at any of his schools. He found himself focussing on the words being spoken below him.

“All right, from the list we’ve drawn up and the voting we’ve just done, you’d like to see the walls painted first of all and some curtains up to stop the sun glaring in during the afternoon. Well, to do that, we’ll need to purchase some materials. What should we get first?”

“Paint.” Johnny heard from one of the children.

“How much? Yes, Matt?”

“We could just buy some pots from Mr Baldemero and see how we go.”

“We could, but what if we buy too much and waste our money? Or we don’t get enough and he has no more in stock?”

“Well, those big pots he has paint one hundred square feet he told my Pa last week. The small ones paint sixty square feet.”

“What’s a square foot? Timmy?”

“Twelve inches by twelve inches.”

“Good boy. But how will we work out how many square feet we need? Anna, what do you think?”

“We could draw square feet all over the walls using a ruler and chalk and then count them up.”

“Yes, that’s true. It might take a while, though. Then we’d need to get the chalk off the wall. Is there any easy and quick method?”

Johnny waited to hear the response. He strained and realized that he was actually holding his breath, waiting to see if anyone knew the solution. There was silence down below.

“No takers? Well, I’ll show you a dead easy simple trick. Measure the height of the wall. Then measure the length. Multiply the two together and there’s your answer.”

Johnny stayed still, head bent as he concentrated on her elaborated solution. His lips twitched into a smile as he heard several of the youngsters murmur words of amazed approval like “Wow!” and “Gosh darn!”   He chuckled at their intent interest in the problem. A deeper voice broke in.

“But Miss ... what about the windows. The windows take up some of that space. We don’t need to paint the windows! That would be stupid.”

Giggling erupted uncontained. It stunned Johnny was that it was allowed to continue. What astonished him more was that he heard Elise giggling with them. In his day such an outburst would be considered impudence and would have earned him a thrashing.

Elise’s voice, still laughing, replied “Yes, it would be stupid, Zeke. Quite right. So what should we do?”

Silence again. Johnny found himself scratching behind his ear, wondering which of the pupils might stumble on the correct answer.

Zeke’s voice again piped up hesitantly.

“Could we do the same thing with the windows? Measure their height and length, work out how much space they take up like you did with the wall and then take the window space from the whole wall space?”

There was no immediate answer, but Johnny heard footsteps, unmistakenly Elise’s, approach the boy. He could picture the anxiety on the poor boy’s face, wondering if he had made a fool of himself by suggesting something ridiculous.

Elise’s voice broke the silence. “Zeke, for that piece of brilliant arithmetic, you get to go home fifteen minutes early with a friend of your choice. Marvellous! You have hit the nail on the head. That is exactly what we will do.”

Johnny chuckled at the sounds of delight from Zeke. This deepened to laughter as he heard Elise reprimand him.

“Well, what are you waiting for? It’s already ten minutes to the bell!”

Abrupt scrambling noises could be heard from below. Johnny snorted and shook his head in amazement, before descending the ladder to fetch new shingles, some nails and a hammer.

All the while he pondered an arithmetic lesson that had the children engrossed. Where was Elise when he had spent his limited time at school? Maybe it wouldn’t have been so limited had he had a teacher like her.

Johnny set to work replacing the worn and useless shingles. He worked rhythmically, swinging his arm up and down as he hammered in nails into the new shingles on the schoolhouse roof. It may have been late afternoon, but the sun still had a sting in it. His hatband was dark with dampness. Perspiration beaded his forehead and began to run downwards, forming drops as the flow slowed down on meeting his eyebrows. The odd drop was shaken off as his hammer struck wood, the jarring effect clearing the build-up on his brow for a short while, before the process began repeating itself all over again.

A din from down below distracted him for a moment. The rest of the children were released from the confines of the classroom and made good their escape. He watched them as they fled as fast as they could. He couldn’t help thinking that even if the children seemed to like Elise, they were still going to get away from the schoolhouse as fast as they could. He smiled to himself and returned to his task.

Deep in concentration on the job at hand, he was startled when a voice spoke to his right. Miss-timing the blow, his thumb was the unexpected target for the hammer. He yelped, swearing in Spanish as he dropped the hammer.

A full-throated laugh finally took his attention from his unfortunate digit. Sucking at it, he glared at the disembodied head at the top of the ladder.

“What sort of darn fool woman climbs a ladder and distracts someone using a hammer?”

“A kind and considerate one.”

“What’s so kind and considerate about causing a man to hit himself?”

That remark had her chortling unashamedly.

“Don’t blame me if your aim is off! I thought you were supposed to have deadly accuracy?”

“That’s with a gun, not a hammer.”

“So I see. You should have seen you jump! Just as well I am only armed with lemonade!”

At this, she reached forward offering the pouting Johnny a glass filled with the refreshing liquid. She then took Johnny unawares again by proceeding to climb up onto the roof. He held the glass with his left hand and immediately reached to offer her his right hand in assistance. She settled next to him, wiggled to get comfortable and reached down to cover up her legs where her dress had risen up a little from the climb.

Johnny stared fascinated at her slim ankles which were too soon, in his opinion, covered over.

“Well, Johnny?”

“Oh, thanks for the lemonade. That’s right kindly of you,” he commented, taking a long draught. It felt so cool sliding down his parched throat. Just what he needed.

“That wasn’t what I was thinking about.”

“What then?”

“Do you still need my hand or can I have it back?”

Johnny sat immobile for a second. Glancing down, he noticed his large tanned hand enveloping hers. What was worse is that it was resting in his lap. His eyes met hers. So green. That peculiar golden green. They were unflinching. They were also smiling at him, crinkling at the edges. Having a joke at him and relishing in his discomfort.

He delivered her hand to her own lap.

Dropping his eyes from hers, he gazed intently at his half consumed lemonade, embarrassed at his slip.

“Sorry. Just concerned you might slip and fall, you see.”

“Yes, I see.”

Her ironic reply was not lost on him.

He stole a glance at her, then grinned. One of his stunningly radiant efforts.

“Well, you see, if you fell off this roof, what do you think is gonna happen? The town would be short a schoolmarm once again. I got roped into helping out in a schoolhouse last year. I wouldn’t want them knocking on my door again.”

He paused, then looked across at her once more. “Besides, from what I just heard, they seem mighty happy with the teacher they got.”

Elise smiled back at Johnny. “I hope so. They are good children. I just want them to realize that they can apply everything they learn here to real life. That they can get some use out of reading and arithmetic and that these subjects are tools to make life easier, not something designed to inflict torture. I try to make things relevant.”

“I suppose it depends on how the work is presented.”  Here Johnny stopped again. He looked over at the view from his vantage point before adding his approval. “You sure had those kids eating out of your hands. You are a born teacher.”

“Why, thank you Johnny! But I wonder if I will have them eating out of my hand when I pass them a paint brush to do the work?”

They both laughed. For the next five minutes they sat companionably, enjoying the view and each other’s company.

“So, tell me. How did you end up teaching school? I thought you were allergic to them?” Elise asked.

Johnny smiled at the dig.

“The schoolteacher son of an old friend of Murdoch’s went missing. He’d been attacked. His wife used to be a schoolmarm, so she took over but had a rough deal handling some of the difficult pupils. She asked for my help seeing they seemed to respect men a bit more.”

“How long did you teach?”

“Only about a week. Her husband survived, returned to the classroom and I came back to Lancer. She was the only teacher I ever met that I had any time for.”

Here Johnny broke off, somewhat wistfully contemplating the distant hills visible from the rooftop. He drew his knees up, planting both elbows on them and dangling his hands downwards, then dropped his head to stare at his hands as he rubbed his right thumb across his left palm.

“Until I met you, that is,” he suddenly added, glancing sideways at her with his head still bent.

Their eyes locked, then Johnny quickly turned away and dipped his head further.

“Thank you, Johnny.”

She sensed his sudden shyness, so added mischievously, “It’s good to know that if I get out of my depth while you’re doing these repairs I can call on an experienced academic to haul these children into line!”

“Elise, facing a showdown in the main street outgunned by ten to one can be a lot less scary than stepping foot in a classroom full of children!”

“Don’t tell me Johnny Madrid is chicken?”

“When it comes to teaching, you betcha!”

And surprisingly Johnny did not mind her reference to his alter ego. He caught himself wondering why.

Elise made to leave. Johnny helped her to the ladder and handed her the glass as she descended.

He watched her walk over the road to her cottage. Her skirt swished and swayed from side to side in tune to the swing of her hips. The view sure was interesting from up above. He didn’t recall the rear end of any of his schoolmarms looking remotely like the one which so enthralled him at the moment.
 
Chapter Eight
Warning: PG. Adult sexual innuendo

The next few weeks flew as ranch activities consumed the men and thoughts of the upcoming dance occupied the ladies’ minds.

Johnny and Scott spent a thoroughly exhausting time working the west fence line, checking for weak spots and repairing breaks, until it finally neared completion. Brendan and Ross had joined them on the last morning, before meeting up with Cipriano in the afternoon. Johnny felt strangely gratified that his brother appeared to get on with his old friends. They had worked smoothly as a team, their efforts interspersed with friendly discussions and ribbing of each other.

As the sun dipped over the hills, streaks of rose-coloured rays streamed from the horizon, coating everything in a warm glow. They wearily packed up their tools and decided to head for home. Before stepping into the saddle with his agile grace, Johnny stretched his tired muscles. Scott was also doing similar limbering exercises in a vain attempt to get some relief form the day’s exertions.

“Toss you for the bathhouse, Johnny,” suggested the elder brother.

Johnny sucked in his stomach and reached into the pocket of his pants, withdrawing a coin.

“Your call, Scott.”

“Tails.”

Johnny tossed it and watched it spin in the air before catching it deftly with his usual dextrous reflexes.  He placed it over his tanned forearm, hand covering it. He paused, letting the expectation niggle at Scott until his sibling gave a heavy sigh. Two heads craned over Johnny’s arm, blonde hair touching blackish brown, then drew apart as the result was revealed. Johnny made no attempt to commiserate with his brother. He was downright delighted, and was determined to rub it in.

“Well, it looks like I’m going to be enjoying my bath tonight. A good hot soak in clean, fresh water. Shall I pull the plug, or are you happy with my lukewarm leftovers?”

Scott’s look said it all.

“Don’t forget, brother, what goes around, comes around. I wouldn’t leave me waiting too long for my turn and I’d make sure that there was some hot water left. You never know what might happen next time the tables are turned,” Scott’s tone mock threatened his younger brother.

Johnny looked thoughtful before wickedly taunting him with a parting shot as he gave a little hop and gracefully settled onto Barranca’s back.  “We’ll see, brother. We’ll see!” he threw over his shoulder as he headed towards the hacienda and all the comforts of home.

Scott caught him up well before the Lancer arch came into view. They loped together and then slowed to a trot as they reached the yard. The hacienda was a welcome sight and together they dismounted and saw to their horses’ comfort before heading in to see to their own needs.

Johnny made a beeline for the bathhouse after collecting some fresh clothes. Scott, meanwhile, headed to the kitchen to see if he could filch some lemonade and cookies from Maria or Teresa. Hanging his hat and gun-belt up on the stand, his nose traced a direct path to some delectable odours emanating from the kitchen. Passing by the dining table, he noticed a letter addressed to him resting on a corner. Opening it with curiosity, he soon discovered that it was from Michel and Pascal. They had indeed decided to accept his offer to host them and would be paying the Lancers a visit in the following week.

Scott was elated. He wanted to show them this property, which had got into his blood. Something not tied to his grandfather. His father’s creation. Johnny’s and his birthright, which they worked long hours nurturing.

He announced the news at the dinner table that night. Amid murmurs of interest and pleasure at the thought of foreign guests in their midst, Scott perceived Johnny’s stillness. Not wanting to discuss whatever it was that was bothering him, he decided that later in private might be a better option.

The opportunity arose immediately after the meal while the ladies were still in the kitchen clearing up and while Murdoch was reading an article from an agricultural magazine he had received that day.

Scott scooped up the crystal decanter in one hand and two matching glasses in the other. He jerked his head towards the French windows and verandah in an invitation to his younger brother. Settling on the porch chairs, Scott poured Johnny a decent measure, then did the same for himself. Reaching over, he extended his arm and chinked his glass against Johnny’s. Johnny looked up at him and as always, Scott was arrested by his eyes. He could never put his finger on it. A deep and vivid blue, which reached into his very soul. His eyes reflected the many facets of his character. The facets he had been forced to create in order to survive. They changed at will. Tonight was not the teasingly mocking jeer of their first stage coach ride together nor the ice shutter oozing the anger of that first meeting with Murdoch, but a calm deep sea blue on a glorious summer day. The light from the lamp in the wall bracket nearby brought out the depth of colour. It also brought out the trust and warmth Johnny experienced when in his brother’s company.

“OK, little brother. You were quiet at dinner tonight.”

Sure enough, his eyes changed to a slightly murkier colour, reflecting his consternation.

“Just tired is all, Scott. Plus the two ladies prattling on about fashion for the dance was not my idea of ideal dinner talk.”

“Truer words were never spoken, Johnny my boy,” agreed Scott who let his probing drop for the moment.

“Still, I guess Teresa must get sick of our ranch topics. It sure is nice to see how happy she is to have a woman to talk to. I guess it gets mighty lonely for her out here.  None of us particularly want to talk about the merits of silk compared to cotton or satin, eh?”

Scott took a sip, considering his brother’s words.

“I suppose you’re right. Perhaps we should do something about it. Make more of an effort to bond with her on womanly matters. I could order in some catalogues and you could study them up so you could have some knowledgeable fashion conversations with Teresa. You could help sew her new dress for the dance,” suggested Scott.

Johnny’s dour look had Scott smiling into his glass as he took a further sip. Johnny continued Scott’s conversational thread.  “Yeah, and we’ll use you for the model. You can stand in the middle of the Great Room and swan around in cascading red satin and I’ll practise my pinning … with you inside the dress … just to make sure I get all the seams straight and snug, of course. No unsightly and unnecessary bulges, you understand,” finished Johnny with a snort as crude connotations invaded his mind.

There was a pause, then what could only have been called hastily stifled manly giggles were smothered in generous mouthfuls of Murdoch’s finest sipping whiskey. Both men felt that any further discussion on the scene they each had pictured in their heads was unnecessary.

Another pause, one that bespoke of their ease with each other, ensued. Scott was the one to finally break it after considering his brother for some seconds.

“Tell me, brother. What is it?”

“What’s what?”

“Your quietness at dinner.”

“Nothing, Scott. Just tired is all, like I said. Just letting everyone else do all the talking.”

A further silence as Scott contemplated the merits of pushing further.

“You seemed to get quiet after I announced that Pascal and Michel were coming.”

“Just coincidence, Scott. I am real happy for you that you have some of your friends from back in Boston come and visit. Honest.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Well I am. I’m fine with it, Scott. I really am.”

Then Johnny managed to do what he so often did. His change of topic was abrupt and accompanied by him downing his drink and getting to his feet.

“I promised Jelly a game of checkers, so I better get it over and done with before it gets too late.”

Scott knew when he was defeated.

“And I have a letter to write.”

“Letter?”

“Yes, to Pascal and Michel’s friend who is helping them set up their vineyard. I’m hoping he’ll help me, too. Only one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“I need to write it in French. I’m rather rusty, to say the least.”

“Does the Old Man know about this?”

“I broached it the other day.”

“And?”

“I think that he thinks that I’ll think it’ll be too much bother once I find out what it entails.”

“Better be careful of all that thinking, brother. It’s not good for you. Well, sometimes I don’t think Murdoch knows you as well as he thinks. Good luck, then. You better get started and I’ll go chase up Jelly.”

Johnny held the door open for his brother and waved him through ceremoniously, looking forward to seeing if his deceptively mild mannered brother might succeed in rankling Murdoch, the tune caller.

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

The Great Room provided a tableau of assorted activities that evening. Murdoch had abandoned his agricultural magazine for a novel. He was engrossed once again a work by his precious Homer. Johnny lay sprawled on the floor, arms resting on the ottoman. Jelly was seated on the other side of the low table on which lay their hotly contested game of checkers. Elise, who was once again spending the weekend at Teresa’s and Murdoch’s open invitation, was reading fashion magazines with Teresa and discussing the latest styles with a view to adding flair to their new dresses.

A thud and groan of frustration broke everyone’s concentration.

All eyes turned to Scott who was muttering under his breath. Seated at Murdoch’s desk, paper and books surrounded him. His head was in his left hand and a grunt of despair escaped his lips. He threw his pen down in disgust and rapidly ran his fingers through his hair backwards and forwards, leaving hair strands all askew in wild disarray.

“Why don’t you give it a miss, Scott? I don’t see that it is a sensible move anyway,” suggested Murdoch.

“I’m convinced you are quite wrong, Sir. It is an eminently sensible decision and I want to see it through and investigate the possibilities.”

“Ain’t no point, Scott. You won’t get the Old Man’s backing,” contributed Johnny.

“Aren’t you the one harping on about diversification, Johnny? There is every point in this. For everyone’s benefit,” griped Scott.

Teresa looked nonplussed.

“Every point in what exactly?”

“I’m just following up on those discussions I had with Pascal and Michel about viticulture. I’m writing a letter to Monsieur Lacouture, who is advising Pascal and Michel. I knew him vaguely from Boston, but he is somewhat of an Anglophobe and prefers to speak and deal in French. Pascal suggested I write to him and to do so in French, but my French is proving more rusty and laborious than I realized. I’ve completed this letter, but I know it’s not quite correct.”

“So you want to go ahead and establish a vineyard at Lancer? Where would you put it? You know nothing about growing grapes,” protested Teresa.

“No, but I could learn … if only I could get this letter right.”

“Murdoch ain’t gonna let you grow any grapes any more than he’ll let me get into horse breeding, brother. And believe you me, horses are a lot simpler proposition. They don’t get fungus growing on them, bugs don’t eat them and you don’t need to prune them!”

Elise had been following the conversation. She hesitated slightly before finding her voice. “Perhaps I could be of assistance?”

Everyone turned to Elise, then back to Scott when he answered.

“I wanted to see if I could do it myself, but it is really proving hard. You have already given up enough time to my French lessons in the last few weeks, so I didn’t want to bother you, especially on a weekend. But assistance is precisely what I need, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t mind. Could I have a look at what you wrote?”

“Certainly,” responded Scott. He passed the letter to Elise as she reached Murdoch’s desk.

Elise tilted her head down. Her eyes moved back and forth as she scanned his missive. Half way through and then as she reached the end, Johnny detected a slight twitch at the corner of her mouth.

“Your French is very good, Scott. There are only a few errors,” was Elise’s initial comment.

Curiosity provoked Scott’s “Where? What have I said wrong?”

“Well, there are a few little mistakes, for example a ‘vineyard’ is not a ‘cour de vigne’.”

“But when we have two nouns together in English, the French reverse them and put ‘de’ in between. ‘Yard of vine’ or ‘cour de vigne’,” was Scott’s protestation.

“Yes, that’s certainly true, Scott. However, there happens to be a specific word for ‘vineyard’. It’s a ‘vignoble’.”

“Oh, really? Thanks for spotting that. Anything else?”

“Well, when you say you hope to ‘come back’, the word for ‘back’ that you wrote is the same as the part of someone’s body. They use ‘revenir’, which really literally means to re-come or come again.”

“OK. I’ll fix that up. How’s the rest? Is that all?”

Here, Elise faltered. She busied herself with the letter and remained silent, yet to Johnny’s astute reckoning there was obviously some form of dithering taking place in her mind.

She took a breath and moved her lips as though to speak, but remained silent for a good while.

“Scott don’t want to send a letter with mistakes in it, so why don’t you just spit out what you are wanting to say?” prompted Johnny.

A blush coloured her pale pink neck, blossoming up through to her face, like a new rose opening to embrace the day.

“You’ve finished off the letter referring to his grand-daughter, Natalie, and sending kisses her way.”

“Yes, I know her and my tutor told me that French people often use this type of expression.”

“Yes, indeed, it is a very French way of expressing oneself, but the word you have used has two meanings.”

Scott’s arched eyebrow was the only query he offered.

The petals of Elise’s cheeks bloomed into an even more striking red.

“The word baiser can mean kiss, but it can also mean …um…relations,” Elise informed him.

“Relations?” pondered Scott.

Johnny elaborated for Scott as though he was a moron, “You know, Scott, relations. She means fathers, mothers, brothers and so on. Like you and me.”

After some hesitation, Elise supplied more information, “Not exactly. Er…a rude word for relations.”

“I can relate to that. I often think rude words in relation to my relations,” quipped Johnny, throwing a cheeky glance in Murdoch’s direction, then hastily dropping his head. Strange, suppressed sounds could be heard as his shoulders shook, and he lost himself in appreciation of his exceedingly clever pun. Scott’s withering glance would have speared his too smart mouth closed, but was lost on Johnny who was engrossed in his own merriment. Once somewhat under control, he looked up to see that Elise was still struggling with what she wanted to say.

Elise’s eyes looked at him, then Scott, glanced briefly to Murdoch, and continued to Jelly and Teresa.  Her lashes fell. She remained still, took a gulp of air and seemingly decided to come out with it.

“Not quite that, Johnny. It’s a word… a crude and vulgar word….for…um…relations between men and women. Having those sort of relations. Physical ones.”

A pin dropping could have been heard in the stunned quiet of the room. Everybody was wrestling with what Elise had said and silently figuring out exactly what Scott may have unwittingly written in the letter. After grappling with this, they all came to very similar conclusions.

It was all too much for Johnny. A guffaw overtook him as he thought about the possibilities of the translation efforts made by his all too proper Boston bred, Harvard educated, genteel older brother. He rolled onto his back, rocking backward and forwards, clasping his knees to his chest, then releasing them to flail uncontrollably in his glee. His actions were reminiscent of a beetle caught on its back and unable to right itself.

Johnny gradually regained some composure. Sitting up cross-legged, he wiped his eyes.

“Do you mean to say that if a man were to use this word…what was it? Baiser? And if he wanted a kiss and said to a girl, ‘Come on, give me a baiser!’, she might think he meant something entirely different? Oh, boy, that would be one way to have that handsome face of yours slapped well and truly, Scott. Why, you could end up with every angry gun-toting pa in the valley chasing your sorry hide right over the Sierra Nevadas. You …”

Johnny’s mirth was interrupted as Murdoch roared “Johnny! That will do!”

Johnny stopped and looked at Teresa and Elise sheepily.

“May I remind you of the company we have here? Mixed company,” continued Murdoch. The severity of his tone was compromised, however, by the hint of an upward curve of his mouth.

Johnny coughed and apologized to the ladies, “Er, sorry. I was just thinking what sort of a mess Scott had got himself into.” His apology could not hide his smirking mouth, which he tried to camouflage with a wide-eyed, innocent look.

“I think we could safely say that Johnny has understood the nuance of the meaning, Mr Lancer. Perhaps I…”  Elise’s voice quivered at this point. She was failing in her attempt to keep her face bland. Chortles of mirth overtook her as she bent over to hide her lack of composure. Her body shook and her breaths hitched as she fought for air. When finally she raised her face, it was streaked with tears, which she attempted to dry on the back of her hand. She looked at Johnny, then smiled her apology to an embarrassed and flustered Scott.

“Excuse my lack of composure. I was going to say perhaps I could redraft the letter for you, Scott?”

Scott acquiesced happily. “I assure you it would be my pleasure. And I do appreciate your taking the time to practise with me recently. I have neglected my French and now that Pascal and Michel are living not far off, I would really like to become more fluent again.”

“I enjoy our conversation practice. Anyway, let me help you with that letter and put you out of your misery.”

Elise moved around to the desk. Jumping up, Scott fetched another chair for her, which he placed next to his. They spent the next half an hour huddled over the letter pad, talking quietly and laughing often.

Johnny observed them from his seat on the floor. Two similar blonde heads almost touching. Both working together with a common purpose. Occasionally stopping to smile at each other.

It hit him as though he had been gut shot. Two people with similar knowledge and education. Two people sharing a common accomplishment. They were perfect for each other. A perfect pair.

Then why did this leave him feeling so devastatingly empty?
 
Chapter Nine
PG: Adult innuendo

Scott paused, muscles straining before he finally heaved the offending branch from the creek bed where it had come to rest after a heavy downfall the previous day. He glanced at Johnny, sitting astride Barranca.  Ross and Brendan were securing a rope around a larger log, which had proven too difficult to budge. The other end of the rope was bound around the pommel on Barranca’s saddle. At a signal from Brendan, Johnny began urging Barranca away. The rope pulled taut and muscles rippled along Barranca’s sleek neck and back. Johnny spoke softly in Spanish, encouraging and guiding his mount. The log started to give, slowly at first, before finally inching its way up the embankment.

The four men had been working all morning. Scott admitted to himself that he had been pleasantly surprised at Brendan and Ross’s strong work ethic. He thought, wryly, that perhaps he wasn’t unlike Murdoch in presuming that any of Johnny’s associates from the past were worthless vagrants. Brendan and Ross had indeed proved their worth in the short while they had been at Lancer. He also enjoyed witnessing the easy camaraderie between his younger brother and his friends. He actually felt relieved that Johnny had had some people he could depend on, littered among the wasted years of his youth. While initially feeling like an outsider in their friendship, increasingly he felt more comfortable with the three of them.

“That darn log remind you of anything, Johnny?” Brendan enquired.

Johnny dismounted with his customary light grace, untying the rope from the saddle’s pommel.

“Nope.”

“You sure about that?” Brendan insisted.

“Like we believe you Johnny,” Ross sniggered.

Scott looked from one to the other, and then finally his gaze rested on Johnny. “Are you going to fill me in or do I just get left wondering?” Scott queried.

“Nope.”

“Well, we were workin’ down near Del Mar…”

“Okay, that’ll do. Scott don’t need to hear any more, Brendan,” Johnny intercepted.

“Oh, yes he does,” Scott chimed in rapidly in riposte.

“Yeah, well it’s like I said. We were workin’ clearin’ some creek beds down south. Johnny was doin’ exactly what he’s doin’ now, only the rope slipped off the log. His horse was pullin’ hard and suddenly there was nothin’ holdin’ it back. It stumbled down and forward, flinging Johnny over its head and Johnny crashed fair square into the boss’s daughter who’d come to bring lunch for the hands. He knocked her off her feet, sent her sprawlin’ on her back and landed on her front in what you might call a compromisin’ position.  Of course she’d been eyein’ him off for weeks and Johnny had been avoidin’ her like the plague, as a man could tell she was Trouble with a capital T. She thought all her Christmases had come at once and clung on sorta tight, just as her Daddy rode up to check on us and grab a bite to eat.”

Johnny rolled his eyes as Scott’s grin grew broader.

“Quit it, guys, will you? We got work to do,” entreated Johnny.

“Not before I hear the rest, we don’t!”  Scott complained.

Ross couldn’t hold back any longer and contributed his share.

“There she was, her dress ridin’ up a bit, Johnny pinnin’ her to the ground, she was clutching at his back not lettin’ him get off of her and shriekin’ in delight. Her pa, though, didn’t quite see it like that. He had his gun outta his holster and pressed in the back of Johnny’s head before you could say ‘jack rabbit’. Pretty nimble for an old fella. He hauled Johnny off of her and very nearly let him have it then and there.”

“I guess you could say that this was one of the times that Brendan and Ross saved my hide, Scott. They did some sweet talking and got us out of that predicament,” Johnny drawled an amused smile of remembrance tugging at his lips.

“Didn’t get our last week’s wages, though.”

“Better than endin’ up visitin’ Johnny in jail or seein’ him at the end of a barrel at a shotgun weddin’ Thought her Old Man was goin’ to force the issue and his little gal wasn’t too keen on tellin’ the truth!”

Scott joined in their laughter at his sibling’s expense. Johnny was generally uneasy when talking about his past, and it didn’t escape his notice that while Johnny had been smiling broadly, he nevertheless made moves to get on to the next task.

“Well I guess I ought to thank you boys for saving his bacon so I actually got to meet my kid brother.”

“It’s a lot less than he did for us on many an occasion.”

Brendan’s earnest look and suddenly sombre tone informed Scott that there were many more dire straits his brother had been in. None as light hearted as this, he would bet.

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

Scott and Johnny headed out early next morning in the buckboard to collect supplies from Morro Coyo. The early morning chill had already evaporated with the lingering embrace of the sun’s rays. A warm, but still quite refreshing, breeze caressed their bare arms where rolled up sleeves exposed their skin. Dust billowed out in a plume behind them as the team ploughed ahead eagerly, devouring the miles.

They sat side by side, the ruts in the track causing their bodies to occasionally jostle and bump into each other. What was a secret to each, but common knowledge to both had they but been aware of it, was that each silently revelled in this enforced contact. Somehow it soothed them both, this wordless conversation, helping to make up for all the lost years. Sometimes it led to the words actually forming and revelations being provided.

It was Scott who broke the silence.

“So tell me, brother, how long did you run with Ross and Brendan?”

Johnny didn’t answer straight away. Scott was well aware he was figuring out just how much he should or could confide. He didn’t prompt him, but waited patiently. He learnt early on that this was the best way of getting anything out of his brother.

“About two years.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“So, how did you meet? Why did you separate?”

“It’s a long story, Scott.”

“I’m not going anywhere different from you!”

Johnny’s mouth creased into a smile of acknowledgement.

“There was range war. We signed up, separately. I didn’t like the way things were going. Didn’t like the … tactics, I think is the term my military brother would use. I did something about it and Brendan and Ross were the only others to have the guts and ethics to back me up.”

“So, militarily speaking, did you engage the enemy and defeat him?”

“Oh, yeah, we sure did. It didn’t go down too well, though. We got enough on them to put them behind bars good and proper for a long time. The three of us kinda clicked, you know? They liked helping out the families being forced off their rightful land. They didn’t just give their loyalty to a fist of money. I liked that in them.”

“So you stuck with each other?”

“Yeah, for about a year and a half after. They had souls. I didn’t meet a lot of people like that in my line of work.”

“What caused you to go your separate ways?”

“They got sick of being around the border towns. They wanted to do something less risky. They got sick of the scum. I guess they just wanted a new start. Something safer.”

“Why didn’t you go with them?”

Again that pause. This time, Scott did not think that Johnny would answer him at all. He had just about given up hope of a response, when Johnny simply and starkly, with a sigh of defeat, uttered his quietly chilling words.

“I didn’t much care about wanting anything less risky or safer. Or a new beginning. I just didn’t care any more about much of anything. I just wanted it all to end.”

Scott was dumbfounded. Was Johnny really admitting this? That he had given up all hope of a decent life? That he had given up any hope of a life at all? That maybe he was pushing the limits hoping that someone would put him out of his misery?

Scott felt poleaxed and found it hard to breathe. His brother, his very precious brother could easily never have made it to his twentieth birthday. That his brother’s life could have been so empty that he had been tempted to nudge fate a bit…or a lot… appalled Scott.

He tried to get his emotions under control, but in the end all he could come up was a facetious, but nonetheless heartfelt, quip.

“I’m glad that it didn’t end then and in that way, Johnny.” As he faltered, Johnny glanced over at him, looking him full in the eye, giving him the support to continue. “Otherwise you’d have missed out on meeting the world’s most perfect brother!”

Johnny’s smile blazed at him.

“You mean to say there’s another Lancer offspring lurking around these parts?”

Scott felt a load lift from his spirit as he grinned back and then deliberately nudged shoulders with his younger sibling. Johnny’s six-shooter was not his only weapon of protection. His incredible humour, Scott was in no doubt, had saved his hide many a time. And this time Johnny had used it to protect his older brother from the grim realities of Johnny’s existence. Before Lancer. BL, as Scott had mentally labelled it. Not only to protect Scott, but to make sure that Scott was all right and to ensure that he knew that Johnny was all right.

They continued on eating the miles, relishing the chance to be alone with each other. Scott held the reins competently, but in a relaxed way, matching his mood. Johnny sat with his feet up on the kickboard and his arm draped casually along the back of the seat, hat pushed back as he talked to Scott and simply enjoyed the landscape and the sense of peace it gave him.

Morro Coyo loomed. A few scattered cottages gave way to the commercial hub of the tiny township. It may have been small, but Scott was always surprised at just how bustling it could be when the local ranchers and farmhands were in town.

They pulled up in front of the general store. Scott set the brake and tied off the reins, then hopped down energetically. With effortless grace and agility, his brother did likewise, just as Elise came walking down the boardwalk, her class straggling along behind her in a crooked double line. The brothers lifted their hats as they called a greeting to her. The wide expanse of her smile as she returned their greeting was not lost on Johnny. Her interest in Scott was confirmed as the two engaged in conversation.

“Good morning, Elise. Are you taking the class to town today?” enquired Scott.

“Yes, we need to buy supplies for the schoolhouse refurbishment and we are going to choose together. We’ve worked out the amounts we need, but we are all going to have a vote on colours. What about you boys? What are you up to?”

“Oh, banking, fetching supplies, the usual,” Scott offered. “Speaking of which, I’d better get started. If I can get away, may I call in tomorrow for another French lesson?”

“Of course, Scott. I’ll look forward to it,” she assured him.

Having split the jobs amongst each other beforehand, Scott headed off to the bank. Johnny was left alone with Elise and her pupils.

“What chore did your father dish out to you, Johnny?”

“Supplies, endless supplies,” he grinned back at her, taking in the contrast of her blue dress, which subtly enhanced her womanly assets, with the golden sparkle of her hair in the sun’s rays. He mentally shook his head and berated himself. His thoughts were not appropriate at all.

“I guess I’d better make a start, too, or Murdoch will be madder than a bull caught in a muddy creek bed with a whole herd of pretty little heifers just out of reach.”

At Elise’s laugh, he suddenly realized that this was not perhaps the most genteel analogy for him to make in front of an unmarried woman, especially one who could be forming a bond with his brother Scott. For some reason, he had said what first came to his mind and now felt gauche as a result.  This was not the sort of mistake his sophisticated elder brother would make, he mused.

Bored fidgeting from the class broke into their awareness.  Two minutes had been long enough for them to investigate the wares set out on the boardwalk or peruse the items in the shop window. Johnny took the hint.

“Well, I guess you better get started, too, before you have a riot on your hands.”

So saying, he opened the door for her and held it as she ushered her students through. Elise did this in the usual competent way he had come to expect from her, shepherding them over to the various bolts of cloth on display where Mrs Baldemero hovered, anxious to help.

Johnny gazed at the multitude of goods on offer, from the utilitarian to the decorative. Brooms, clothes, buckets, crockery and axes mingled incongruously, but happily, with foodstuffs, ornaments, vases, colourful scarves and jewellery. Johnny greeted Mr Baldemero, who replied heartily. Johnny was a favourite of his. The story of Johnny’s sad childhood and sordid past as a gunslinger was well known and Mr Baldemero admired the man before him for turning his life around. He also, like so many others, had fallen under Johnny’s charming spell.

“How’s Murdoch, Johnny? I haven’t seen him for a week or more.”

“Just fine. Got everything under control as usual.”

“So, he hasn’t got any less demanding?” fished Mr Baldemero, a smile lessening his impudence.

“Nope, but you knew that anyway. Hell ain’t frozen over yet!”

Mr Baldemero chuckled along with Johnny. “Let’s get started then. We don’t want to give him anything to complain about.”

As Johnny and the proprietor gathered together the supplies, Johnny couldn’t help but listen in to the hot debate going on at the other side of the store.

“You’re not going to let the girls choose pink, are you, Miss Collins?” whined Jed Cooper. “I’d rather have the sun shining right through the window at us.”

“Well, Jed, your opinion might just change when summer comes and that sun bores into your eyes and you have no shade to sit in. I said we would vote to be fair. So, have a good look and talk about which patterns you’d be least likely to get sick of and which ones might feel cool. Then, we’ll have to work out how much to buy, because some of the bolts are wider than others. We’ll need to look at our measurements once we’ve decided on the pattern, as the length we’ll buy will depend on the width of the fabric. We’ll work it out on this slate I brought with me.”

Johnny was quite fascinated by this mathematics in practice session. Even renowned troublemakers in the group were engrossed in the task.

As his mound of purchases piled up, Johnny added some licorice for Teresa and a bag of peppermint sticks to the top.

Purchases complete, Johnny loaded up the buckboard. Lastly he took the peppermint treats and strolled over to Elise, who was in the final stages of organizing her troops to carry their parcels.

“All finished?”

“Yes, Johnny. We’ve also chosen some paint, so we’ll be able to get started on fixing up the schoolhouse soon. And thanks for replacing all those boards for us.”

“You’re welcome and hey, that’s good news. Did they all agree on the material and paint?”

“Not quite, but majority rules! And the children have accepted that.”

“Well, if that’s the case, it sounds like they were pretty co-operative. How about you give these peppermint sticks to anyone you think is deserving for being helpful?”

Choruses of, “Gee, thanks, Mr Lancer!” heralded this statement.

Peeking inside, Elise noted that he had purchased enough for everyone.

“Why, thank you, Johnny! That is so kind of you!”

“Any time. Bye kids. Bye Miss Collins.”

Tipping his hat at her, Johnny left the store pondering the astonishing scene he had just witnessed. A class full of happy students? Surely that was a contradiction of terms. Definitely different from anything he had endured as a child.

These thoughts were interrupted as Scott hailed him from the other side of the road.

“Hey, Johnny. How’s about a beer before heading back?”

“Brother, there is some hope for you. Occasionally you have simply outstanding ideas!”

Grinning at his younger sibling, Scott threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulder and herded him towards the saloon. As always, Johnny entered first, pausing at the doorway initially. Madrid took over as he surveyed the room for possible trouble. Deciding all was well, he entered and headed towards the bar. Scott followed, opening a letter he had in his hand.

Johnny turned to Scott, a beer in each hand. Being engrossed in the letter, Scott did not see the proffered drink, so Johnny nudged his upper arm with the glass. Scott glanced up, extended his arm to take the beer, exclaiming with pleasure at the same time.

“Great news, Johnny! Pascal and Michel have written to tell me what stage they will be on. I’ll be able to show them Lancer and we can discuss that breeding programme with Murdoch. Plus, I can milk them for more information about their viticulture.”

Johnny sipped his drink then placed the mug on the counter, running his finger around the rim. This letter obviously made Scott extremely happy. What made Scott happy also made Johnny happy. Swallowing his reservations along with another swig of beer, Johnny made appropriate noises of pleasure as well.

“That’s good news. I’ll look forward to it, brother. If we impress them enough, they might get word to old Harlan that we’re not as backward and uncivilized as he thinks!”

Scott snorted at the thought and also at his brother’s humour. There was no love lost between Harlan and Johnny. Scott downed the last of the cool liquid in his glass and urged his brother on. He was anxious to get home with the supplies. Reading the signs, Johnny good-naturedly did as he was asked. He just wasn’t sure he was looking forward to the following week as much as his older brother.

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

At dinner that evening, Scott informed his father about exact time of his friends’ arrival.

“They should be in at Morro Coyo on the early afternoon stage on Tuesday. I double-checked that the schedules were unaltered while I was there as well.”

“So you’ll pick them up?”

“Yes. You know, it will be interesting to see their views on our water management. They have done so much at their property. If we could also clinch a deal with their breeding stock, we could come out for the better. Their stock and Ramirez’ stock mixed with ours could be a formidable combination. It should be a worthwhile visit and I think you’ll like Pascal, Murdoch. In some ways he has similar business acumen to you.”

Unused to flattery, Murdoch was a little flustered at this unexpected accolade from his elder son.

“Well, I suppose you have to take some calculated risks at times if you want to get ahead,” he admitted.

“Well, that makes Johnny a veritable chip off the old block.” Scott turned to Johnny. “That was some deal you wangled out of Mr Hird at the bank, brother. I didn’t realize the arrangements you had made with him. Smooth, Johnny, very smooth. I think we might need you calling the tune a bit more,” Scott praised him.

Johnny was uncomfortable with Scott’s comparison of him with Murdoch. The last thing he wanted was Murdoch on his back thinking Johnny was trying to replace him.

After fidgeting with the stem of his glass, he merely shrugged his shoulders.

“He was too used to our business and the benefits we give to his bank. Taking us for granted. It didn’t hurt to rattle his coffers a little.”

“And just how did you ‘rattle his coffers’, Johnny?” demanded Murdoch, somewhat perturbed and concerned that Johnny may have resorted to standover tactics.

Johnny sighed, a deep tired sigh. Here we go again, he thought.

He counted to ten under his breath before responding. He raised his eyes, veiled with the Madrid mask to protect his inner soul and those feelings which had been boxed up for most of his life.

“I didn’t use a gun, if that’s what you’re thinking, Murdoch.”

“Well, then?”

“Well, what?”

“How did you swing that deal?”

“I merely pointed out that there is a bigger bank in Spanish Wells ready to do anything to get our business away from Morro Coyo.”

“But they haven’t approached us at all that I am aware.”

“Nope. But he didn’t know that.”

Scott marvelled at his brother’s audacity.

“What if he has conversations with the Spanish Wells Bank manager? He’ll find out and revert to the same interest rates.”

“He can’t.”

“Why can’t he?”

“I got it in writing.”

Murdoch stiffened in surprise. He did not expect his younger son to have any sense with business matters, particularly of such gravity, and so this news was totally unexpected to him.

Scott tilted his glass at Johnny’s, chinking them together on the rim.

“Very astute, Johnny. When I was at the bank today Mr Hird was falling all over himself to please me. I think he’s taken a crash course in grovelling.”

Johnny smiled briefly at Scott and gave a curt nod. “Yep, he’s pretty good at that, come to think of it! Did you get cream in your coffee?”

“Sure did. And a dash of mighty fine whiskey.”

The brothers drank a toast to each other, Murdoch’s thunderous silence deafening Johnny.

“That deal with the bank coupled with the deal you swung with Ramirez has sure given us an edge, brother.”

Murdoch received his second surprise that night.

“What do you mean about the Ramirez deal, Scott?”

“Well, Johnny fairly charmed the pants off him. Got talking to him and really made like the old man was the centre of the universe. I think the Spanish is what did it. He liked dealing with a rancher who spoke his language instead of just English. Johnny reached him the way you or I couldn’t. The added touch was his flattery to Ramirez’ wife. Johnny made sure he ate everything she put before him, then had seconds of one dish which was, apparently, her pièce de résistance. She thought the sun rose and set in him.”

Murdoch, slack-jawed, regarded Scott as he spoke. It was only after he finished that Murdoch turned to Johnny. He seemed at a loss for words. After several moments, he addressed Johnny.

“I thought you said that Scott masterminded it?”

“No, I said that a good deal was struck.”

“Why didn’t you tell me it was you?”

“I did what needed to be done. Scott and I work as a team. I don’t need to claim anything as mine alone. Besides, you think what you want to, as always.”

This silenced Murdoch, who quite simply didn’t know what to say.

Johnny pushed his chair backwards.

“I’m not too hungry. I think I’ll get an early night.”

A quick goodnight and he was gone from the room, leaving the rest of his family to their meal.

“You really don’t give, do you, Murdoch?” ground out a frustrated Scott.

“What do you mean, Scott?”

“Not once did you say anything to Johnny tonight about the way he handled himself in Stockton. No praise at all. Do you know how much he craves just one positive word from you? He wouldn’t admit it, of course. Too proud. Couldn’t you encourage him for once in your life? Everything that went well in Stockton was because of him. It was like he had been doing it all his life. I was impressed, Murdoch. And so were others. What a pity that the one man in the world whose opinion matters to Johnny doesn’t share in that pride.”

With a sudden movement of disgust, Scott threw his napkin down next to his plate. A curt goodnight nod and he too was gone.

His footsteps receded, leaving the dining room sadly empty of the two young men’s vigorous presence.

Murdoch and Teresa sat immobile for some seconds, with the ticking of the grandfather clock being the only audible noise until Teresa also moved her chair back.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ve lost my appetite, Murdoch. To be quite frank, I am sick to my stomach.”

She bolted for the archway leading to the stairs, but as she reached the banister she came to a stop. Taking a large gulp of air she turned to her guardian and moved a few steps closer.

“You spent a lonely twenty something years without your sons. You paid a pretty penny to the Pinkertons to track Johnny down and get him here. Yet, you often treat Johnny as an embarrassment or an imbecile. He hasn’t had Scott’s advantages, but he’s just as sharp. And what’s more, he has a whole lot of fine qualities…if you’d just care to look. Fine qualities despite your treatment of him and despite his miserable upbringing. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Sometimes I don’t know why he bothers to stay. Whatever he does is just not good enough for the mighty Murdoch Lancer. I often wonder whether you just brought him home to use as a hired gun to get Pardee, not because you wanted him here at all.”

Murdoch looked up at her in shock.

“You know what else, Murdoch? I also sometimes wonder whether you expected him to be on his way after the Pardee fiasco and whether his unexpected continued presence is an embarrassment to you. I really don’t know why he persists in trying to please you.”

 

The rising sobs prevented her from continuing to berate Murdoch. She fled and he was left in solitude, stunned at Teresa’s outburst and perplexed by Scott’s comments.

 
Chapter Ten

Yet another working day saw the Lancer brothers needing to go to town to fetch interminable supplies. They had not been able to carry all the supplies they needed in the buckboard on the previous trip to town. Lancer land consumed fencing materials voraciously, as if once a fence was planted in the soil it created runners popping up in ever increasing locations demanding maintenance. However, their trip would serve a dual purpose. When Teresa heard that Scott and Johnny would be going in with the buckboard, she asked them to take in her new sewing machine for Elise’s use.

“Hey, Scott, you got ants in your pants or something?” teased Johnny, dawdling over his breakfast.

Scott did not deign to answer, merely cocking one eyebrow and making a face at his somewhat annoying sibling.

“No, I just like to get going when I’m ready. Watching you eat endless portions of food tends to get monotonous after the fourth helping.”

Johnny’s reply involved him spearing yet another pancake, lathering it in butter and then smothering it in a sea of honey.

“And wanting to get to town early has nothing to do with checking out the schoolhouse? You and Elise sure had a deep and meaningful literary discussion on Saturday evening. She might just have some primers to expand your horizons, Scott. She could fill in any holes that Harvard didn’t cover.”

Scott rolled his eyes. 

“Just because we like reading books doesn’t mean she has any interest in spending her free time with me, Johnny.”

“Whatever you say, Boston, whatever you say.”

Polishing off the last of the pancake, emptying his coffee cup, patting his stomach and making a show of wiping his mouth on his napkin, Johnny finally stood up.

“Come on, Scott. What’s keeping you?”

Scott stared at his brother’s unbelievable cheek.

“You’ll keep, Johnny, you’ll keep.”

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

Their trip went quite fast as they basked in each other’s company, being able to share observations and talk about things in general. The forthcoming visit of Pascal and Michel dominated the conversation, but when Scott steered the conversation to the social to be held the next week Johnny deftly avoided the topic. Scott let it lie, knowing his brother’s general dislike of social gatherings and unease when it came to being on show in polite company.

The township soon came into view. Arriving at the schoolhouse, they applied the brakes and tied off the reins. The horses were happy to have a rest and nickered playfully to each other as they stood patiently, swishing their tails from side to side.

Elise came out onto the porch. Wearing a pastel pink slim fitting dress with cream lace bordering the neckline, she looked a picture of femininity without undue excess. Johnny caught his breath. Her hair, piled high and serviceably out of the way, glowed golden in the morning sun. The term ‘pretty as a peach’ came to his mind. Soft, velvety, rounded where it should be, juicy and succulent in the right places. These thoughts came to an abrupt end as he suddenly realized he was heading into dangerous territories. Scott certainly was on a winner here and he was not going to do anything to jeopardize Scott’s blossoming relationship with her.

He was brought out of his reverie by her cheerful greeting and smile directed at them. A radiant smile, causing a dimple in her right cheek, he noticed, but not so much in her left. A smile that didn’t stop at the mouth, but radiated from her sparkling eyes.

“Good morning, boys. Thank you so much for bringing the sewing machine out. Perfect timing. We’ll be able to use it today to make the schoolhouse curtains.”

After a return greeting, Johnny left it to Scott to do most of the conversing as he figured that Scott might just not have a lot of time to spend with her over the next week.

“Good morning, Elise. It was no trouble whatsoever. We both had to be in town. I need to see our lawyer over some contracts.”

Elise turned to Johnny.

“And what will you be doing while Scott is spending a rivetting morning with our local solicitor, Johnny?”

“Oh, using all my muscle power slaving in the hot sun to load the wagon with yet more fencing materials while he sips coffee and nibbles on cucumber sandwiches, comfortably seated in a velvet padded chair,” Johnny replied, tipping his head up to her and squinting his eyes a little into the sun. With a quirk to his lips he replied, “Of course, what I’m going to be doing the next week is more crucial. With Pascal and Michel arriving the day after tomorrow I’ll be working twice as hard again doing Scott’s chores as well as mine. I’m keeping track of his debts and he’s going to owe me something chronic by the time they leave.”

Johnny and Elise both laughed simultaneously at the look of shock on Scott’s face. Once again, Johnny noticed that her laugh was natural and melodic, not like the harsh cackle of some of the womenfolk he had met over the years

“That’s news to me. When was this bargain struck?” Scott demanded.

“You said yesterday that you owed me. What’s the matter? You getting senile and forgetful?”

“I said I owed you the first beer next time we went to the cantina and you know very well that’s what I was referring to!”

“Well, I have to agree with Johnny, Scott. That’s twice in a month he has covered your chores at the ranch. Sounds like a big-time debt to me.”

Elise glanced at Johnny, thoroughly enjoying sharing Scott’s discomfort with him. Winking at Johnny, she made it obvious she was Johnny’s accomplice in ganging up on Scott.

“I’d say that Johnny would have a right to some big asks further down the track. He’s lucky his brother is such a man of honour. There’s no way you’d try to renege on your agreement, would you, Scott?”

Scott glared at the two of them for conspiring against him and noted the teasing grins plastered on both their faces.

“Well, we might just have to re-define what the terms of our agreement were. In the meantime, where would you like us to put the machine?” asked Scott, adroitly changing the topic.

“If you could take it up into the schoolhouse, the children and I could get started this afternoon.”

The two men climbed into the back of the buckboard, hoisted it up and manoeuvred it over the back of the buggy and up the few stairs to the schoolhouse. Holding the door open for them, Elise motioned them to a space at the back of the room where the machine could stand. After an initial scuffling noise as students rushed back to their rightful seats, an immediate hush fell from all of the occupants who had taken advantage of their teacher’s exit from the room. The Lancer boys set the machine in the indicated spot, then turned to face the intrigued stares of the children.

Johnny gave them one of his trademark smiles.

“Hi, everyone! Hope you all are being real good for Miss Collins.”

He was greeted with a chorus of hellos and various replies to his question.

“She’s gonna let us paint them walls this week,” Tommy Woods supplied.

“We’re gonna learn how to use Miss Teresa’s sewing machine. She says it’s real fast. It’ll only take us one or two days,” contributed Bessie Bowcroft.

Cheerful smiles abounded, which nonplussed Johnny to some extent. Try as hard as he could, he just could not equate school with any form of happiness and contentedness. The joviality increased tenfold when their schoolmarm announced that they were free to go out for a break. A noisy dash for the exit followed, leaving the adults alone.

“Well, I’m going to head off as well. I want to see to those contracts,” Scott informed them.

“Hey, Scott, I can do that for you if you want to stay here for a while to chat with Elise,” Johnny suggested.

“No, thanks. I’m keen to get it done and Murdoch and I discussed some of those clauses in depth yesterday afternoon when you were out with Ross and Brendan. I know which clauses are of concern to us. I’ll see you both later.”

With those few words, Scott raised his hat in respect for Elise and walked off briskly.

Johnny was about to go as well, but a suggestion from Elise stopped him.

“Come on, Johnny. We can go out on the porch and supervise the children from there.”

Johnny opened the door, ushering her through first. They strolled out to the porch where they could survey the various activities in the schoolyard. Seated on the bottom step was a little girl whom Johnny did not recognize. About eight years of age, thin legs protruded from the bottom of her gingham dress.  Red, crinkly hair was tied back in a ponytail, but nevertheless most of it had escaped the confines of the ribbon wound around it. She clutched a rag doll under her arm and her thumb was firmly planted in her mouth.

“Hello, Amy,” Elise greeted her. “Why don’t you go and play?”

“I can’t. I want to play on the swing that Mr Lancer fixed up for us last week, but Lucy is a bit scared and I don’t want to leave her alone.”

“I tell you what. How about you leave Lucy here with us and we’ll look after her,” Elise suggested.

Amy considered this proposition from her teacher, but then shook her head. “I don’t think that Mr Lancer would like to play with dolls.”

Earnest eyes stared fixedly and soulfully at him. There was something else at play here, but what it was Johnny could not quite make it out.

“Oh, I like dolls just fine. Now, if I put little Lucy here on the banister rail, she can sit and watch over you. She’ll be able to see all the fun you’re having and she can help us keep you and all the children safe. She’ll be right here with us,” Johnny proposed.

Her rather doleful face lit up. “Really? Would you look after her? I know she’d be real safe with you. My pa said you’re the fastest draw in the west.”

Johnny glanced down, unnerved that such a little girl had heard of his reputation.

“Yeah, Miss Collins and I will both look after her real good. Now you run along and have a good time.”

Her sad little face brightened up immeasurably. Thrusting her precious Lucy at him, she scampered down the steps. Johnny studied her a moment before turning to Elise.

“Is there something amiss there?” Johnny asked Elise.

Elise shot him a look of surprise. “Can’t she just be a little girl attached to her dolly?”

“No, it’s her eyes. They’re haunted. A little lost.”

Elise drew in her breath sharply. She regarded Johnny intently.

“How can you be so sure?”

“I’ve met plenty of people in my life with ghosts shadowing them from their past.”

This admission saddened Elise deeply. She had heard about some of Johnny’s past from Teresa and rumours in town. Her heart went out to this fine man who could be so generous and compassionate, yet who had lived a life of such deprivation.

“Yes, you’re right. Last spring her sister was swept away when she fell in Grover’s Stream. It was swollen after heavy rains and she slipped on the edge. Little Amy was there and saw the whole thing. Her mother told me that she was in shock and wouldn’t speak for weeks. She only wanted Lucy and screamed unmercifully if the doll was taken away.”

“I remember now. Scott and I were away when that happened. I’ve never met the family except for her father, Chet, who was at a sale three months ago.”

“She wouldn’t come to school and hadn’t been here for months before I came, so I suggested that she be allowed to bring Lucy to school with her. She wouldn’t put it down at all at first, but now she does some work after she’s propped Lucy up in full view and she will go and play with the children for short spells. She’s a special little girl.”

“Maybe you’re a special woman and a special teacher.”

It was out before Johnny could stop himself and he regretted it immediately. He was not going to encroach on his brother’s territory. He loved and respected him too much for that. He wanted to escape, but he had made a promise to Amy that he would stay and look after Lucy. Elise broke into his discomfort.

“Why thank you, Johnny.”

“You’re welcome,” was his inadequate reply as he bowed his head and toed the crack in the floorboards.

“But that’s not what you thought when you met me at Lancer!”

Her teasing tone prompted him to look up and he was blessed with an impish smile that was for him alone.

And just then Amy came back to claim Lucy.

This gave Johnny his cue to depart, which he did hastily before his mouth ran away with him again. Heart pounding, he briskly said goodbye, before leaping into the buckboard and heading towards the general store. He did not like the direction in which his feelings were taking him. He needed to maintain some space and maintain it he would.

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

The next morning the Lancer house was a flurry of activity preparing for the new guests. All the men shared a common purpose in wanting to escape the house a soon as possible and hide behind the day’s chores.

Plates were heaped with food to give them energy for the gruelling day of labour ahead. Conversation was limited as they ate steadily. As the pace slowed, Teresa gave a last reminder for them to wash off the surface dust at the outside wash stand before coming in the house that night as well to dust off their clothes as well as possible, regardless whether they were headed to the bath house or not. Inwardly, the men groaned. As if it wasn’t bad enough answering to Teresa and Maria on a normal day if they transgressed, they knew that woe betide any of them to step out of line for the next week.

“I’m so pleased that they will be here during the week of the social, Scott,” gushed Teresa. “They’ll be able to meet the locals and experience a real country dance. It will be so different from anything they have been to in Boston.”

Johnny laughed good-humouredly. “Ain’t that the truth, Teresa! It’s different from Mexico, too.”

This comment was followed by a snort of amusement before he continued.

“Boy, all those local dances with a mind of their own. Seems to me you need to graduate from Harvard to be able to follow all the steps. Or they are so complicated, rules and orders are bellowed at you!”

“That’s the beauty of it, Johnny. Someone is there to tell you what to do.”

“There’s more than one person there to tell a person what to do. I remember at the last social that Scott was being looked at askance for dancing the waltz just a mite too closely with Audrey Francisca. Boy, did that set the tongues wagging amongst the old biddies. Old Widow Tompkins was disgusted at such manhandling.”  At this, Johnny turned to his elder brother. “Or should I say woman-handling?”

Scott took a sip of his coffee and sighed in pleasure before putting forward his slant on the events of that evening.

“The widow was downright jealous. It was probably so long since a man held her around the waist that she got the vapours merely thinking about it. Did you see her fanning herself so she could get enough fresh air? She kicked up a fuss because if she couldn’t dance with the elegant Scott and feel those tremors of delight, no-one was going to be allowed to experience that thrill!”

Johnny fairly choked on his coffee. Spluttering, he shook his head from side to side.

“Scott, if you want to cause some tremors and thrills for the ladies, I suggest you learn some Spanish dancing. Now, those dances, like the Flamenco, would send Widow Tompkins into a dead faint. Talk about provocative. Not like your tame waltz where all you do is twirl a woman around a bit. Spanish style dancing is a real seductive art.”

“Johnny!” bellowed Murdoch. “Not in front of Teresa!”

“Oh, for goodness sakes, Murdoch! I’ve seen and done all those dances and Johnny is quite right. The Spanish style is far more dramatic and romantic! He’s not saying anything I don’t already know!”

“Hmph!” was the sum total of Murdoch’s reply.

Teresa gave a slight smile of triumph when Murdoch did not pursue the subject. She then tuned to Scott. “By the way, what time did you arrange to meet Sarah for the dance, Scott?”

Murdoch surprisingly continued to remain silent after being chastised by Teresa. Her change of direction cleverly helped remove the chance for him to once again express his opinion.

“I said at about six o’clock for an evening picnic by the river and then we’d head to the dance afterwards.”

Johnny stilled, hand poised halfway to his mouth with the last of his coffee about to be drunk.

“Sarah?” he queried.

“Yes, you know Sarah from the new dress store. I’ve been calling in to see her after my French lessons with Elise. When I saw her after my errands at the solicitor’s office yesterday, I discovered she didn’t have a date. I thought she was going to the dance with Angus McCready, but that’s not the case. Otherwise, I’d have asked her earlier.”

“So, you’re taking Sarah?” Johnny repeated inanely.

“Yes. Why?”

“No reason. Just asking is all.”

Johnny finished off his coffee with one final gulp, pushed his chair back, thanked Maria for the breakfast and headed out with a nod of goodbye to Teresa. He halted when Murdoch called out to him. Johnny looked at him enquiringly, but didn’t speak.

Murdoch suddenly seemed awkward. He fiddled with his coffee cup and cleared his throat before finally speaking. “Don’t overdo it, son. You’ve worked hard lately and with Scott’s guests here, you’ll have a full week ahead.” Murdoch clenched his lips together and gave a curt nod.

Johnny stared at his father. He wasn’t sure where that came from, so he just inclined his head in return and bade Murdoch goodbye.

”That was sudden,” Teresa commented. “I thought he would polish off these flapjacks. Maybe he wanted to get started as soon as possible to get as much done as he can seeing he’ll be working without Scott after today.”

“Maybe you’re right, Teresa,” commented Scott, wiping his mouth perfunctorily with his napkin. “I’d better join him. He’ll have enough to do over the next few days if I’m looking after Michel and Pascal. See you at dinner.”

This last comment was directed straight to both Murdoch and Teresa and he exited before they could prolong the conversation, swiping both lunch tins prepared by Maria.

Hurrying outside, Scott found Johnny harnessing the buckboard. Scott joined him and they worked wordlessly, each knowing what was required. Completing the job, they loaded the tray with supplies for the day’s work and departed.

Scott peered sideways at Johnny whose face was a blank mask. What had happened since the joking tomfoolery over breakfast?

The silence continued as Johnny led the team towards their destination.

”What’s the hurry, Johnny?” asked Scott?

“Just trying to get an early start is all.”

“You weren’t so keen yesterday. I seem to remember you taking forever over breakfast.”

“Today’s another day.”

Curt, unresponsive, simmering even. Scott couldn’t make it out. He decided to let it ride for the moment and hoped that the hard toil ahead would loosen his brother’s tongue to the extent that Johnny would tell him what was eating him.

The whole day continued thus. They worked as a team, each knowing what the other would be doing next without need for words. But that was the crux of the problem. Normally they used the days together to talk, to banter and to discuss the past and the future.

Today was not one of those days. Johnny was uncommunicative, downright surly.  The lunch break was no different. They ate in silence, Johnny grim and abrasive.

The afternoon did not improve matters and by the time they had run out of supplies and needed to pack up, Scott was at the end of his tether with his younger brother. Just before they climbed back on board the wagon, Scott stepped in front of Johnny.

“Talk to me, Johnny. What’s eating you? Whatever it is, maybe I can help.”

The look Johnny gave him would have made another man quake in his boots, but Scott was immune. “Don’t give me that Madrid look, brother! You’re upset and we’re not leaving here until you get it off your chest.”

“Upset? What makes me think I’m upset?”

“You’ve been staring daggers at me all day. You were all right at breakfast, so what happened?”

“Nothing, brother.”

“It’s not ‘nothing’! Whatever it is, it’s a big something. Now spit it out, or so help me, you are not getting back on that buckboard!”

Johnny’s face was livid.

“What happened? I’ll tell you what happened, brother. I thought you had some class. I thought you had been instructed in the niceties of polite society. I thought you were mannerly and dependable. If you must know, I’m downright disgusted and disappointed in you!” Johnny snarled.

Scott’s face registered total surprise and incomprehension. “Johnny, I have no idea what you are talking about. You are not making any sense.”

“Neither is your behaviour. I thought you were considerate and knew how to deal with womenfolk. I don’t know how you could do it to her and still live with yourself,” Johnny continued.

“Well, explain my lack of consideration so I can do something about it in the future!” Scott urged.

Johnny shook his head as though to clear it. He sucked in great lungfuls of air, then viciously kicked at a branch lying near his foot. He turned on his brother, shaking a fist at him in rage.

“How could you lead her on, Scott?”

“Who?”

“Oh, don’t be cute with me! You know precisely who I mean!”

“Actually, I don’t, so how about you enlighten me?”

Johnny glared at him, nostrils flared as he sucked in air for his pent up body.

“Elise. How could you lead her on and then invite Sarah to the dance?” Johnny demanded.

“I did NOT lead Elise on!”

“Yes, you did! She helped you with that letter. You’ve been calling in on her for French lessons after school. When she comes around you spend ages talking together about books and learning, your travels and life back east. What else was she supposed to think?”

Scott looked at Johnny in shock. “Did she say that she has an interest in me?”

“No, but she don’t need to say it. Just one look at that smile she beams your way is enough to get through the thickest skulls that she is interested. What other signs should you look for, brother? Does she need to resort to smoke signals or a telegraph?”

 

Scott looked at him aghast. He thought back to all the times that they had been together. He examined their past conversations and actions. No, he was sure. She was not interested in him at all.

“Not as far as I am concerned, but maybe she will need to in order to get through to you.”

Johnny glared at him, face scrunched up in puzzlement.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s not me she is interested in. It’s you, Johnny!”

“Oh, don’t give me that, Scott!”

“That radiant smile you were talking about is quite true. She smiles at the two of us when we enter a room, then positively blazes a beacon of welcome when she sets eyes on you, Johnny. You’re the one who has tampered with her heartstrings, not me.”

Johnny looked at him in amazement. “You’re out of your mind.”

“Oh, no I’m not. You know, for someone who has spent his whole life relying on his ability to read people in order to simply stay alive, your obtuseness is mind-boggling.”

“But it’s you she likes! She has everything in common with you. You are both from the east, you both have education, you both like books and you both speak French!  Heck, Scott, you’re both blonde, even!” Johnny tried to convince Scott.

“Yes, but that special feeling is not there, brother. That chemistry of mutual attraction just doesn’t exist between the two of us.”

Johnny stood still, head bowed, turning over in his mind what his brother was saying.

“So you honestly don’t feel anything for her at all?” Johnny queried Scott.

Scott did not miss the desperate hopefulness in Johnny’s voice.

“I think she is one of the finest women I have met in my life. She is smart, beautiful, kind and fun. However, I don’t feel any romantic notions towards her whatsoever. I don’t know why not. I just don’t.” Scott confirmed.

Johnny continued to look at Scott, wanting to convince himself that Scott was indeed telling him the truth, not sugar-coating his feelings in order to please him.

Finding what he was looking for, Johnny heaved a sigh of relief and pleasure. Straightening his shoulders, he threw the first smile his brother’s way since breakfast. Throwing his arm around Scott’s shoulder, he guided his brother towards the buckboard.

“Well, on our way home I guess you’d better tell this obtuse brother of yours all about you and Sarah and just how much she has tampered with your heartstrings, brother!”

 
Chapter Eleven

The visit from Pascal and Michel was soon upon them. Scott drove the carriage he had bought the family for Christmas. It was well sprung and had comfortable, padded seats along with an elegant canopy to shield the occupants from both sun and rain. He wanted to give a classy impression to his friends, knowing full well that Harlan would have exaggerated any inconveniences of living in the west. If Pascal and Michel had further contact with his grandfather, he didn’t want reports to reach Harlan of them living like barbarians.

Scott made sure that he arrived in good time, but instead of heading straight to the stage depot, he drove towards the school. He had timed his arrival to coincide with the school lunch break, so he applied the brake and made himself comfortable. He didn’t have long to wait. The silence around the courtyard was broken by the din of high-pitched children’s voices and the thumping of shoes on the wooden porch and steps. Scott watched the children jostling elbows and calling out excitedly as they raced for favoured lunchtime seats. His mouth quirked up in a smile as he enjoyed their exuberance. He noticed Elise step out onto the porch to watch them. He squared his shoulders and lithely hopped down.

Elise spied him walking across the yard and called out a warm welcome to him. “Scott, what a pleasure to see you here! Are you waiting for the stage?”

“Yes, I thought I’d get in early,” Scott replied as he mounted the steps.

“Well, how about a lemonade while you are waiting?” she suggested.

“Thank you. That would be very welcome.” He had removed his hat and nervously banged it against his leg.

“Come and sit here in the shade. I can watch the children while we talk.”

Scott made himself comfortable and gratefully accepted the glass she pressed into his hand, but he waved away her offer of some of her sandwich and fruit. He drank thirstily, eyes on the children. His hands turned the glass methodically as he continued to watch them at play. He was jolted by Elise’s words, which broke into his thoughts.

“I’m sorry?” he directed at her, having missed her question.

“What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing,” he evaded.

“Nothing? You’ve sat there not uttering a word. I’ve counted 24 times you’ve rotated that glass. It’s the sort of thing I’ve noticed Johnny do when he is thinking about something. And something’s bothering you, so get on with it.”

Scott looked at the glass in surprise, then glanced sheepishly at Elise, his mind working overtime on how he could broach the subject. When he caught himself turning the glass again, he stopped abruptly and blushed in embarrassment. “I guess I’m guilty as charged,” he confessed.

Scott fell into silence again.

“Well?” she prompted, a worried frown beginning to crease her forehead.

“It’s … well, it’s rather awkward.”

Again Scott lapsed into silence as he debated in his mind just how to proceed. His thoughts were interrupted as Elise made her anxiety felt.

“It’s more awkward that you won’t just get it over and done with, Scott. What on earth is the matter? Have I done something to offend you?”

“No!” Scott exploded. “No, don’t think that. It’s not anything like that. It’s me.”

“I’m not with you,” she continued, her puzzlement reflected in her eyes.

Scott looked at her fully for the first time and swallowed, before finally broaching the subject.

“I’d like to ask you a question, but I want you … no, I need you to answer honestly, from your point of view. I don’t want you to give me an answer just because you think it’s the answer I want. All right?”

Now fully intrigued, she agreed to his request.

“I need to know something. And I really need the truth.” Scott paused, eyeing her steadfastly, then continued before he lost his nerve. “I suppose I need to know whether you harbour any special feelings for me,” he confessed. “Romantic feelings.”

Elise stared at him, wide-eyed and totally immobile. An “Oh!” was all she uttered.

It was her turn to remain silent. Scott watched her as she folded her lace-edged handkerchief into ever tinier squares. He saw her glance at him, then look hastily away. Her hands were becoming more agitated, and then she stilled them in a deliberate fashion, clenching them together.

“Scott, I think that you are one of the nicest men I have met in my life. Probably the second nicest, in fact. You are clever, dependable, courteous and handsome. I really enjoy being with you and talking with you, and you are very special to me. But I’m so very sorry.  I just don’t feel that way about you. Please forgive me if I am hurting your feelings. I…”

Here Scott’s broad grin broke into her speech. She stopped and took in his joy.

“I don’t understand. What is going on, Scott?”

“You know how the dance is coming up and I have asked Sarah to go with me?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“Well, I sort of realized that maybe we had been spending a bit of time together with you being at the ranch so often and with you helping me with my French. I thought that perhaps I had hurt your feelings by asking Sarah to the dance. I wanted to apologize if that was the case.”

“Scott Lancer, don’t you ever do that to me again. I’ve been sitting here petrified that you were going to come out with some dreadful news. I was imagining all sorts of terrible things you were trying to say!” Her last sentence was accompanied by several swats of her hankie.

They both laughed and sat back, dual weights lifted off both their shoulders. Suddenly, Elise stilled. She turned to Scott, wide-eyed, studying him intently. “Are you merely being polite, Scott, so I’ll feel better? Do you harbour any romantic feelings for me? Have I upset you deep down?”

“No,” he reassured her. “And I don’t really understand it myself, Elise. I keep thinking I should maybe have special feelings for you, but I don’t. I like you immensely, but as a dear friend. I just don’t feel anything deeper than that.”

“Honest?” she persisted.

“Honest,” affirmed Scott, hand raised as though swearing on a bible.

They smiled at each other in relief.

“Well, I guess I have a stage to meet.”

Scott stood, as did Elise. She offered him her hand. “Friends?” she asked grinning.

“Friends,” agreed Scott, shaking it gently. “I’ll get going. See you later.”

“Bye, Scott,” she called after him.

Scott strode towards the carriage, wondering that if he was the second nicest man she had ever met, just how correct was his guess regarding the nicest man of her acquaintance.

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

The stage was on time. Its arrival was heralded by the thundering of the horses’ hooves, which stirred up the dry earth to the extent that clouds of dust eddied in the air for several minutes, shrouding the coach and passers-by. As the inconvenient dust settled, the stage door was wrenched open by the co-driver and passengers began to descend to the ground. Several couples alighted first, followed lastly by Michel and Pascal.

Enthusiastic greetings were exchanged before Scott helped them install their luggage in the carriage. As his visitors looked around, Scott enquired if they would like to have any refreshments in town before starting the hour’s drive to the ranch.

“This is certainly different from Boston, Scott. No, we will be fine until we get to your ranch, thank you,” commented Pascal.

Michel took in the dusty road, haphazard conglomeration of buildings and most of all the Mexican influence on architecture and local dress. Dusting down his clothes with his handkerchief and then pulling his lapels straight, Michel added his opinion, “Mon dieu, Scott, if this is all your local town offers, I am surprised you stayed here. At least there are more amenities closer to Stockton, Sacramento and Modesto.”

“Well, the town provides the essential services. We spend most of the time on the ranch, anyway. If we need something special we can always go to the larger towns you’ve mentioned.”

“I suppose so. Come on, we are anxious to see your new home.”

The men were soon on Lancer property. Reining in the horses, Scott drew to a stop on his favourite crest. Spread out below was Lancer. Paddocks and hills merged into one another, changing colour as they did so. That the land was prosperous was evident from the sturdy fences and cattle grazing on the plentiful pasture. In the foreground stood the hacienda, with Teresa’s green garden, outbuildings, corrals and the barn surrounding it.

Pascal’s praise was from the heart. “Oh, Scott! What a magnificent home.”

“We like it,” smiled Scott.

“It is Mexican in style,” added Michel. “Your brother would feel quite at home then.”

Scott looked at him curiously. “It may be Mexican in style, but it was more foreign to him than it was to me when we both arrived here.”

Scott stopped speaking to watch a horseman, leaning low over his steed’s neck, jump several fences and head cross-country. The rider’s hat came off, the breakneck speed inducing the wind to capriciously flip it up and over his head.  It bounced from side to side across the rider’s back, tugging furiously on the hat strings caught around the man’s neck. His black hair was flattened back by the wind much as the palomino’s golden mane flew horizontal to the ground. He smiled at the scene, a brotherly fondness he never expected to feel when he was a child tugging at his heart.

“Oh là là! What a consummate rider. Is that one of your hands?” enquired Pascal.

“No, that’s Johnny.”

Michel felt compelled to provide further comment. “Does he always ride so fast? Surely he is being negligent to that animal, forcing it to take such risks?”

Scott continued to watch the ever-decreasing image of his brother and Barranca before responding. “One thing you’ll soon learn about my brother is that he is never negligent with an animal. He has a sixth sense about them. I can assure you that it would be a fifty fifty bet as to who is enjoying himself more down there, Johnny or Barranca. I sometimes wonder if they were twins separated at birth, they are so much in tune with each other.”

“This horse is special?”

“He is the first thing that my father gave to Johnny. Johnny broke him on our first morning here. They are a team,” Scott answered with pride.

“Where is he headed?”

“I think he is taking the short cut to town. He must want to get something done before dinner.”

And I can guess what that is, thought Scott with amusement. “Anyway, let’s get going. I’m sure you’re anxious to stretch your legs and meet the rest of my family.”

Scott took control of the team, leading them through the imposing Lancer arch and into the yard. Pulling up in front of the house, Scott noticed the French doors were opening. Murdoch and Teresa came out onto the verandah, bestowing smiles of welcome on their guests.

Introductions were soon performed and the guests herded inside. Scott was pleased to see that his Boston friends seemed to fit in well with his family. Murdoch had greeted Pascal and Michel warmly, before ushering them inside and offering them seats on the plush sofa. Conversation flowed over Teresa’s fresh lemonade and afternoon tea of cakes and sandwiches as they all relaxed in the Great Room.

Scott was going to have the best of both worlds for the next five days.

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

Johnny had reined Barranca in long before he reached Morro Coyo. The two amigos had settled for a comfortable lope and it wasn’t long before the township came into view.

Johnny headed over to Elise’s cottage and tied up Barranca at the hitching rail in some shade. “Cool down some compadre, then I’ll get you a long drink,” he whispered into the animal’s ear, affectionately stroking Barranca’s long neck in the process. Mounting the steps two at a time, he knocked at the door. After there was still no answer a second time, he descended the steps and strolled over to the schoolyard. The children were long gone and he didn’t really expect to find her still in her classroom, but he thought he should check before doing the rounds of the town shops.

Mounting the porch, he heard voices coming from within. The sound of Elise’s voice reached him, but the other voice was less easily discernible. That it was a man’s voice was obvious, but what was being said was muffled by the door and walls. Only the odd words could be discerned, such as ‘Saturday night’, ‘dance’ and ‘see you’.

Johnny stood immobile. He couldn’t breathe and his stomach twisted into sudden cramps. She was with a man. It did not occur to him that she would have met anyone other than Scott or him. Yet the valley was full of eligible young men. How could he be so stupid?

He knew he should leave, but he could not. He heard the beautiful timbre of her laugh and his gut clenched again. He was transfixed with dismay and kicked himself for even daring to presume.  He wasn’t good enough for her and that was all there was to it. He never could be with his background. He knew it and she knew it.

Bile rose in his throat. Disappointment weighed him down. Anger, too. Anger with himself for being weak enough to let himself get his hopes up.

He leaned his forehead against the door and closed his eyes tightly. Taking a steadying breath, he then turned around, descended the porch steps and returned to Barranca.

 
Chapter Twelve

PG: Mild swear words

Johnny let Barranca have his head. He was in a black mood and he wanted to lose himself out on the range with his horse. He didn’t want to think and didn’t want any thoughts about whom she was with and what she was doing to crowd his mind.

Before he knew it, and before he was ready for it, he was back under the Lancer arch. He noticed Brendan and Ross by the corral with Cipriano. Hoping to avoid them, or anyone for that matter, he headed for the barn and dismounted. After unsaddling Barranca, Johnny took some solace by giving him a good brushing, the rhythmic motions of his arms providing him with little of the usual comfort he would normally derive from these actions.

On leaving the barn, he was hailed by Ross and Brendan, who were still leaning on the corral talking to Cipriano. Unable to ignore them, he strolled over.

”Hey, boys. Did you get the new fence line finished?”

“Hi, Johnny. No, but it will be finished by midday tomorrow,” advised Ross.

“Good work, boys. Then we need to get stuck into strengthening the bridge over Morris Creek before the next downpour washes it away.’

As they discussed what was needed for the bridge, Scott’s voice called out to them. Johnny turned around and groaned inwardly when he spied Pascal and Michel with him. The three men approached and Scott clapped Johnny on the shoulder by way of greeting. As always, contact with his brother made Johnny appreciate the special bond he shared with Scott. He just didn’t want to have to put on a polite face for Scott’s friends. Nevertheless, he gritted his teeth and extended his hand in welcome. Scott introduced the other three men.

“I’d like you to meet Cipriano, our foreman, and Brendan and Ross, two of Johnny’s friends who have been working here as ranch hands.”

“You look like you have had a busy day,” commented Pascal, after exchanging handshakes with the men.

“Yes,” replied Brendan, “We’ve been working a new fence line near South Mesa. It’s almost finished and should be done by tomorrow lunchtime.”

“Have you worked on ranches before with Johnny?” enquired Michel.

“I guess you could say that,” responded Ross with a slight smile. “We worked together for a couple of years.”

“I see. That must have been before Johnny came back to Lancer?”

“That’s right,” answered Johnny, unaccountably annoyed. “We go back awhile.”

“So you brought your friends along with you?” Michel persisted.

“No, we came along recently. Sorta caught up accidental like,” explained Ross.

“Yes, and they are proving to be good hands, too,” praised Scott.

“Ain’t that the truth,” Johnny smiled at them. “They work hard. Speaking of hard work, I think I’ll take a soak in the bath before dinner and freshen up some. See you at supper.”

With that, Johnny headed off to the hacienda, collected the change of clothes Scott had asked him that morning to wear for dinner and set off for the bathhouse. Once there, he quickly unbuckled his holster, hanging it on the chair back within easy reach. Old habits died hard with him. He just didn’t like to be unprepared. He pulled off his boots, dropping them haphazardly on the floor. Undoing his belt, he shucked off his pants, then undid the toggles on his salmon coloured shirt. It, too, hit the ground along with his other discarded clothes.

He stretched his taut and lean body, then slid into the water. Right under the water. He was hoping that the dunking would wash away the disgruntlement he felt. It was more than that, though. He felt cheated, and he knew it. He folded up a washcloth to use as a head rest, then hooked his toes over the rim at the far end of the tub. The water lapped at his well-defined chest, just below chin level. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply. But he couldn’t close his ears. He kept hearing her voice accompanied by the muffled, masculine tone of an unknown man.

Grinding his teeth, he tried to block out her laughter and images of her looking deeply into his eyes in the barn, on the schoolhouse roof, in town. Images of her eyes piercing his protective shell, worming their way into his subconscious. Her golden green eyes that melted the very core of his being and eroded his defences.

He slammed the water in frustration with his fist, splattering sprays of water over his clean clothes and sending cascades over the side of the tub, which pooled on the floor.

Dammit to hell!

He abruptly stood up, water spilling off his body, contouring his muscled physique in rivulets, before dripping onto the already sopping floor. He grabbed his towel and rubbed it vigorously, but perfunctorily, over his honed torso and limbs. His attempt at shaving should have been left until he was in a calmer state, as he paid for his haste and irritation with several small nicks to his skin. He dressed, then left his clothes in the basket for Teresa to collect the next day.

The last thing he wanted to do was to have dinner with these Bostonian visitors, but he owed it to Scott to make an effort.

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

Dinner went smoothly, with Johnny keeping a low profile. He used his best manners for Scott’s sake, but he was in no mood for socializing. As they adjourned to the Great Room, Michel enquired what they did for entertainment in the evenings.

“To be honest, Michel, we are usually too tired to do much. A game of chess or checkers is about all we manage to fit in,” Scott informed him.

“Well, if that’s the case, who feels up to a game of chess?” asked Michel.

“Your father and I were going to discuss the vineyard layout and facilities, so that lets me out, I’m afraid. Johnny plays a mean game. He’ll give you a run for your money,” Scott answered, gesturing to Johnny as he spoke.

Michel regarded Johnny in surprise before asking, “You’re a chess player?”  Johnny detected a note of condescension in the question. Whenever Michel was around, contempt did not seem far behind, Johnny had come to notice. Tonight this rankled. He was sick of not being good enough. Tired enough of it tonight to take the bait and throw it back in the face of the tormentor.

“Yeah, I play a bit. Checkers is more my game, but Scott’s taught me enough to get by,” Johnny offered as a response.

Scott looked a little sharply at him, then smiled. Michel was a bit overbearing to Johnny. It wouldn’t hurt him to be a victim to Johnny’s chess skills. It might make Michel think twice about pigeonholing his little brother.

Scott, Murdoch and Pascal retired to armchairs around Murdoch’s desk, while Johnny and Michel commenced their chess game. Michel was enjoying himself and was already gloating over his impending victory when the others completed their discussions and gathered around to watch the end of the contest. Johnny knew that Michel was becoming complacent and played into his hand, increasing his sense of superiority. Michel moved his rook, then sat back sipping his whiskey and waiting to enjoy Johnny’s discomfort and inevitable capitulation.

Johnny’s hand dithered over several pieces. It was all Scott could do not to burst out laughing. He recognized the ploy and knew his brother was toying with his opponent. Johnny suddenly abandoned the moves he had been hinting about, grasped his knight and boldly sat it two spaces and one across from Michel’s king. “Checkmate,” he announced negligently, tossing back the last of his drink.

Michel looked and then looked again. He puzzled over the moves Johnny had been toying with and then studied each piece square by square. He was indeed checkmated. He clenched his glass tightly, horrified that he could be beaten by this uneducated, half breed Mexican. He gulped and ground his teeth together, aware that the others were watching his humiliation. He would bide his time, but he would get his retribution.

“It does indeed look like checkmate. It seems I will need to request a rematch before I leave,” admitted Michel, hiding his fury and embarrassment from prying eyes.

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

The next day saw Scott take the morning to show his guests the property. He took great pride in the well-maintained land and its thriving stock of cattle. After two hours they met up with Johnny who was working with Cipriano and Frank on the Morris Creek bridge.

“Hey, brother, how’s that bridge looking?” enquired Scott.

“Hola. Not too bad, but we need to do some shoring up. A few of the supports aren’t as stable as they should be. We’ll need to get a move on. It’s been threatening to rain the last two days and we don’t want the whole thing collapsing and washing away on us.”

“All right, then. We won’t hold you up.”

“Why, that’s mighty considerate of you, brother,” drawled Johnny good-humouredly, as he removed his hat and wiped his face on his sleeve. “No doubt you’ve got a busy schedule of sightseeing lined up. That’s mighty tiring work for a man and we wouldn’t want to keep you from it.”

Scott’s arched an eyebrow in Johnny’s direction. “Damn straight, boy. By the time we look around the ranch and then discuss a possible location for a vineyard, I’ll be well and truly ready for that chocolate cake I saw Teresa getting ready to bake.”

“Nah, not if I get in before you!” Johnny replied, a wicked grin lighting up his sapphire blue eyes. He brushed his shaggy black hair off his forehead and replanted his hat firmly on his head, tipping his face back in the process to make sure his errant hair remained out of his eyes. “See you tonight,” he added. He then turned to Pascal and Michel. “Don’t let Scott bore you to death. He’s mighty proud of his ranch!”

Johnny’s cheerful wave sent them on their way to the South Mesa area where they caught up with Brendan and Ross. Scott was impressed with the team they created. They were proving to be a reliable and talented duo.

As they headed on to the river, Michel broached the subject of Johnny’s friends. “Can they be trusted to do a proper job unsupervised without slacking off?”

Scott glanced sideways at him, surprised at the question. “They’ve only been here a few weeks, but they are a capable team. They get on with a job, they know what they are doing and they are trustworthy. They don’t need us watching over them the whole time.”

“I just wondered, that’s all, Scott. If they are friends of Johnny’s from his past, I thought perhaps their reputation could be dubious. You told us during your visit that he rode with some unsavoury types.”

Scott took his time in responding. Truth to tell, he wished he hadn’t said quite so much about Johnny to them during his visit to their ranch. He was proud of Johnny and had wanted them to see how Johnny had turned his life around. All he needed was a chance. He began hesitantly. “Yes, he ran with some rough types, but he didn’t have the choices then that he has now. Ross and Brendan seem different from other people he worked with. They have scruples. They are a lot like Johnny. Maybe that’s why they stayed together so long and maybe that’s why I like them.”

Michel persisted. “You don’t ever feel worried for your own security?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean people from Johnny’s past coming back, trying to drag him back to his old ways, maybe thinking you could be an obstacle to getting him to leave. Or even people Johnny has crossed. People who want vengeance. You, Teresa and Murdoch could get hurt. Is it really worth having him around?”

Scott gritted his teeth. He was unable to reply at first. His fists clenched the reins as he fought to retain his equilibrium.

Pascal intervened. “Michel, I think that is uncalled for. Perhaps an apology is in order.”

Scott waved his hand to negate this suggestion. He needed to explain to Michel, who really didn’t seem to grasp the situation and the depth of feeling he had for his brother.

“Michel, Johnny is the best thing that ever happened to me. I wasn’t whole until I met him. If anything happened to him, I don’t know how I would cope. Johnny made the choices he had to make in order to survive. Yes, he lived with some lowlife, but if ever there is a threat from his past, we will face it together. It’s what families do. I will protect him from any threat with the last breath in my body. It’s the least I can do to try to make up for the miserable life he endured while I lounged in comfort.”

 

Michel remained silent, while Pascal reached over and patted Scott’s shoulder. “Johnny is a lucky man to have you for a brother, Scott.”

Scott looked steadfastly at Pascal. “No. I am the lucky one. Lucky and privileged to have Johnny for a brother.”

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

After lunch, Pascal and Scott sat in the Great Room to discuss the viticulture proposition. Michel pleaded tiredness, stating he would rest his leg for a while, then maybe go for a ride.

The day passed quickly for Scott, but less so for Johnny, who was constantly haunted by images of Elise with her unknown beau. He had hidden his misery in front of Scott and he had hoped that he could lose himself in the hard day’s toil, but that was not the case.

As dusk set in, the Great Room was alive with animated discussion as they waited for their meal to be served. Just as they were moving in to the dining room, the pounding of hooves could be heard outside. Whoever it was, was in a hurry. Peremptory knocking pounded the door. Scott reached the door first, opening it to one of the ranch hands who stood at the door.

“Good evening, Jake. What’s the trouble?”

“Evening, Scott, Johnny, Mr Lancer,” he greeted them. “When I was returnin’ tonight by South Mesa, I found a patch of that new fence had given way. We’ve lost some cattle, Mr Lancer, but I’m not sure how many head. It was gettin’ dark, so it was a bit hard to see for sure. You might want to send a team out there tomorrow to see to roundin’ them up.”

“Thank you, Jake.” The Lancer patriarch wheeled on Johnny. “Who was working that stretch today?”

“Brendan and Ross. But they finished that stretch.”

“Right! Jake go get those two and tell them to meet us in the courtyard.” ordered Murdoch.

“Yessir!” replied Jake, immediately turning to fetch the two hands.

Murdoch headed for the courtyard, with Johnny, Scott, Pascal and Michel in tow.

“Hey, Murdoch! It may not be their fault,” pleaded Johnny.

“He’s right,” enjoined Scott. “We were there today and they were doing a mighty fine job of it.”

“Well, I prefer to speak to them directly," commented Murdoch as he began pacing.             

Almost immediately, the two men arrived. Murdoch did not waste time on pleasantries. “You two were working on the fence line near South Mesa today. Is that right?”

“Yes, sir,” they chorused.

“Why weren’t you able to finish the job? You said you’d be done by midday,” interrogated Murdoch.

Brendan and Ross looked at each other in surprise. “We did complete the job, Mr Lancer. Then we joined Cipriano and Johnny,” volunteered Ross.

“Well, if that’s the case, how could we lose cattle through a completed fence? Unless they sprouted wings, of course!”  Sarcasm dripped off Murdoch’s last words.

Brendan was not too pleased at having his work ethic questioned. “We finished the job, sir, and we did it properly. I don’t know what happened, but I can’t see it being our fault.”

“Well, maybe that’s it. Maybe you can’t see. Maybe you left a stretch incomplete or maybe you did shoddy work.”

“Murdoch, we don’t know what happened until we go out there. What I do know is that they were doing a good job,” Johnny defended his friends.

“We’ll find out in the morning. You two will go out early with Johnny and Cipriano. Johnny, take some extra men with you. Get those cattle rounded up and get that fence fixed before we have a disaster on our hands. When you’re done there, go to the bridge and continue with that.”

Johnny shot Brendan and Ross a sympathetic glance as they bade everyone goodnight. Scott led his guests inside, leaving just Murdoch and Johnny in the courtyard. Johnny was simmering with anger at his father’s brusque attitude to his friends.

“You came down pretty hard on them when you aren’t even sure of your facts, Murdoch,” challenged Johnny.

“Fact one: we have lost cattle! Fact two: there is a problem with the fence. Fact three: I warned you earlier that I wouldn’t put up with your friends loafing or causing trouble!”

Johnny had now reached boiling point. He spat at his father. “Well, they haven’t loafed and they haven’t caused any trouble! Just ask Cipriano! He’s been mighty impressed with them.”

“We have trouble and it comes from where your two friends were working … unsupervised. I warned you before that you should cut ties with your past. Look what happened when Wes came here. Same thing. Hiring him on was a mistake. When are you going to realize that your friends are from a different life? They don’t belong here.” Murdoch’s voice softened as he added, “You just end up getting hurt, son.”

Johnny stood rigidly still, fists clenched at his sides. The only movement came from his rapid breathing and the muscle working along his jaw line. When he spoke, it was quietly deadly, his fury barely suppressed from becoming physical. “It’s not always people from my past who hurt me, Old Man. And I realize the state of things more than you know. That’s why my friends are sleeping in the bunkhouse and Scott’s friends are welcomed into the main house!”

With that, he turned on his heel and left.

Chapter Thirteen

Johnny, Cipriano, Brendan and Ross were out at sunup, investigating the scene at the fence line. From horseback, it appeared as though part of the fence had been trampled. Dismounting, they all surveyed the scene. Johnny followed the fallen fence. Suddenly, he stopped and bent down. His lack of movement drew the others.

“What is it, Juanito?” Cipriano asked.

“The wire. It’s been cut. Look. Clean as a whistle. Several strands, in fact.”

Ross then called out to the group. “Johnny, look at this post. It looks like it’s been removed. It doesn’t actually look like it’s been knocked over by the cattle at all.”

The men gathered around, each contemplating the fence post. “He is right, Juanito. This is not an accident,” Cipriano confirmed.

“No, quite the opposite. This has been deliberate. The question is who and why?” agreed Johnny.

Johnny stood fingering the wire as his eyes raked the surrounding hills and he racked his brain for an answer. After several moments, he faced the men. “I don’t suppose we can do much else other than to get on with it. Let’s round up the cattle and repair the damage.”

The men spent a tiring morning rounding up the strays, then repairing the fence. The job was not complete until after midday, but they only had a short break before riding over to the bridge to complete that job as well.

All the while, Johnny mulled over the significance of this deliberate damage to the Lancer fence line.

On his return, he reported to his father. “The wires were cut, Murdoch, and the posts deliberately removed. There was no sign as to who did it. And it doesn’t make sense for Ross and Brendan to spend all that time installing a fence, only to destroy it on purpose. So don’t go looking for answers in that direction.”

Murdoch gazed at Johnny as he spoke, then agreed with him. “Yes, I admit, that wouldn’t make any sense at all.” He had been hurt by Johnny’s final statement to him last night and could see that there was a grain of truth in what Johnny had said. He recognized the need to offer an olive branch to his younger son. “I guess I may have been a bit hasty last night, John. I’m sorry.”

Johnny looked at his father. He could see that he was trying, but last night still rankled with him. “Well, I guess you’d better apologize to Ross and Brendan, then.”

“Yes, I guess so. I’ll do it after dinner.”

“They won’t be here tonight. They’re going to the cantina for dinner and a few drinks. I’m going with them.”

Johnny waited for the onslaught, but for once Murdoch held his tongue. “I see. Have you told Scott?”

“Yes, he was all right with it, but he is going to stay here at the hacienda with Pascal and Michel,” confirmed Johnny.

“Perhaps Michel would like to join you?”

Johnny’s snort of derision was softened by the comical look on his face. He raised both his eyebrows, causing his forehead to wrinkle, then stretched his mouth into a genuine grin. “The cantina doesn’t quite compare to Boston’s finest establishments, Murdoch!”

Murdoch smiled in return, having to agree with his son on this point.

A hearty “Johnny!” from Teresa interrupted their conversation.

“Hey, Teresa!” replied Johnny, returning her greeting.

Teresa approached, carrying a small paper bag in her hands. “Scott told me you were going to town tonight. I need a really big favour.”

“That depends. Will you make me another chocolate cake?”

Teresa laughed. “OK, I promise! I need you to take this in to Elise. She left this lace trim for her dress behind and I know she’ll be running out of time to finish it.”

Johnny’s heart leapt into his mouth. He didn’t know if he could face her. It was just too hard knowing that she was keen on someone else.

“Why don’t you take it in tomorrow?”

“Because she’ll want to work on it tonight!”

Teresa pressed the packet into his hands and gave him a quick hug before disappearing towards the kitchen.

Johnny was left standing there, turning the bag over in his hands, hoping desperately for a way to avoid the task she had given him.

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

The trip to town went fast. Too fast for Johnny. The boys were in a jovial and light-hearted mood. Their wit finally broke through Johnny’s shell until even he was going with the flow of jibes and jokes. A good part of their levity originated from the feeling of being vindicated. They had not liked Murdoch accusing them of shirking their duties.

Johnny left Ross and Brendan as they hitched their mounts outside the cantina, promising to be with them in a short while.

As he made his way over to the cottage, he began to feel uneasy. His mouth was dry, yet his hands were sweating on the reins. To take his mind off his nerves, he focused on the moonlit night, which was turning out to be quite beautiful. Silver light reflected off the many varied surfaces and shimmered off the leaves waving in the gentle breeze. Darkening shadows, offered by the walls and tree trunks lining the road, contrasted with this bright glimmering. Quite the romantic night! mused Johnny miserably.

On arriving at the cottage, he found it to be in total darkness. Twisting in the saddle, he glanced over at the schoolhouse. Sure enough, a lamp was visible, casting a glow through the window.

Deciding it was best to get it over and done with, Johnny dismounted nimbly and tied his trusty steed to the school fence. “Be back in a moment, compadre,” Johnny promised his horse. A final scratch and pat on Barranca’s nose gave Johnny the courage to complete Teresa’s request.

Mounting the steps, he was about to knock, when he heard voices coming from inside. Once again, Elise’s voice was obvious. What was also obvious was that she was yet again with a man. Although the voice was muffled by the door, it belonged to the same man as on the previous visit, Johnny was certain of it.

He stood there. He found it hard to breathe. He couldn’t bear her to be with another man, but he couldn’t do anything about it. Leaving the package on the front porch of her cottage seemed to be the best solution, Johnny decided.

He did not get a chance to act on this decision. So wound up in his thoughts, Johnny was totally taken aback when the door was suddenly thrust open and his rival filled the frame, staring him in the face with equal consternation and shock.

They stared at each other, eyeball to eyeball. The man was older than he expected. That Johnny recognized him gave him pause and then a sense of relief. After an initial stillness, Elise’s companion began fidgeting with the books in his hands, his discomfort palpable.

“Mr Woods,” acknowledged Johnny.

“Johnny,” Elise’s companion countered with a nod of the head.

Again an awkward silence. Elise came to the rescue.

“Mr Woods, I’d like to thank you for your support in dealing with Tommy. It was good of you to drop by. Perhaps you could call in next time you are in town and we will discuss how things are going?”

“Sure thing, Miss Collins. And thank you for everything.” Mr Woods positively beamed at her. Shaking hands with Johnny, he swiftly left.

“Hi, Johnny! Come in. I was just tidying up.”

Johnny stood still, unable to move at first.

“Hello, Elise. Is … um … Tommy causing you trouble?”

Elise did not at first answer, busy as she was sorting through some books on her table. She looked up at Johnny. Regarding him solemnly, she took a breath and asked, “Can I trust you with something private, Johnny?”

“Of course. What is it?”

“Tommy isn’t causing any trouble. You know how I’ve been holding adult classes once a week and how Mr Woods blew that contract and lost money? Well, his wife convinced him he needed to see me to improve his reading and arithmetic, but he is one proud man. He couldn’t bring himself to go to class with people he knows. He’s embarrassed. So I offered to help him after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays when he comes in for supplies. He’s making progress, too. But I’m trusting you, Johnny. He’d never come back if he knew anyone knew that he was having private lessons. He wants his boy to be proud of him and he’s scared of being a laughing stock around town.”

“Well, my impression of Bob Woods just went up a notch or two. It takes a mighty fine man to know he needs help and to ask for it.”

“Yes, I just wish a few more of the men would come in. I have more women at my evening class. Anyway,” she continued, abruptly changing the topic, “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Johnny was nonplussed at the change in subject matter. “Teresa asked me to give you this,” he explained, offering her the bag.

Johnny swallowed, drinking in the sight of her. The moon’s rays shone obliquely through the window, the silver tints highlighting the gold of her hair and altering the enchanting colour of her golden green eyes.

“Why, thank you. I thought I was going to have to ride into Lancer to pick it up!”

He couldn’t speak. He was not normally shy with the opposite sex, but the courage he had built his gun-fighting reputation on totally deserted him.

Elise stepped up to him, concern etched in her eyes and face. She reached for his arm, stroking it gently. “Johnny, are you all right?” she asked him softly.

Her eyes were luminous, but shrouded in anxiety. Her smooth skin was smattered with freckles, especially over the bridge of her nose. He watched the rise and fall of her chest and then focused on the definition of her voluptuous pink lips.

His continued silence provoked her into action. She shook his arm urgently. “Has something happened back at the ranch?”

This jolted him into awareness as he suddenly realized that his lack of response was worrying her.

“No, nothing like that at all. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“That’s all right, but something is bothering you, so what is it?” It was not lost on Elise that this was the second Lancer brother to seek her out with something on his mind this week.

“I was just wondering if there are any more jobs you want done around the school?”

Elise was stunned at this. She regarded him in amazement, then placed her hands firmly on her hips. “What utter rot! You were thinking nothing of the kind. Get it said, Johnny!”

Johnny was not used to ladies calling his bluff. He ducked his head and began tracing patterns with the toes of his boots on the floorboards. He realized he needed to bite the bullet and spit it out, but he felt afraid of her reaction and more importantly of her rejection.

His eyes sought hers. Licking his lips, he spoke tentatively, “I was just thinking that whoever is escorting you to the dance had better appreciate the effort you put into your dress. I was watching you and Teresa the other night. Making it was more like one of Scott’s military manoeuvres.”

She folded her arms as she smiled at him. “Well, I don’t have an escort, so that will give a chance for all the locals gents to appreciate my sewing ability.”

“Why don’t you have a partner for the dance?”

A look of stupefaction crossed her face. “Isn’t that obvious? No one has asked me.”

It was now Johnny’s turn to be taken aback. “Why not?”

“How do I know? I’m not pretty enough, I’m new to the area. Maybe people are like you - scared of schoolmarms! Take your pick, Johnny!” This last was accompanied by a glare as she abruptly moved back to her desk and began noisily rearranging already tidy piles of books.

Johnny cursed his gaucheness. Striding after her, he leaned over her shoulder and removed the books from her grasp. Plonking them down, he took her arm and gently turned her around. Lifting her chin with his forefinger, he fixed his incredibly blue eyes on her.

“I’m sorry for upsetting you. I’ve been wanting to ask if you would be my partner for the dance … if there’s no one else you had set your heart on asking you, that is.”

Elise’s gaze was unwavering. “Johnny, you don’t have to feel sorry for me and ask me. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t have an escort and I’m not a charity case. There must be other girls you would prefer to be with. You don’t have to be a martyr and suffer on my behalf.”

“I’m not feeling sorry for you. I think you’re the prettiest woman in the valley. There’s no one else I’d rather dance with. I’d be real proud to have you on my arm … and I’m not scared of schoolmarms. Well, not any more, at least,” confessed Johnny bashfully.

Elise stared at him. “Oh,” she uttered for the second time that week.

It suddenly struck her that this was inadequate. “Do you mean that?” she asked in a hushed tone.

“That I’m not scared of schoolmarms? Well, I stretched the truth a little there,” he responded with a cheeky grin and chuckle before he quickly sobered. “But yes, I meant it. I meant all of it.”

He studied her face anxiously as she contemplated his request. She appeared solemn at first, but then he noticed a little smile lifting the corners of her mouth. Her answer was direct. “Why, in that case I’d be delighted to go to the dance with you, Mr Lancer!”

Relief washed over him, as did a dazzling smile illuminating his even white teeth. Her grin matched his and took his breath away. She was standing very close, directly in front of him. Of its own volition, his head moved down a little towards hers. Halfway, he stopped. Her eyes were locked on his and at no stage did she attempt to move back. He dipped his head further, once again stopping, this time just short of her mouth. Her heightened breathing fuelled his senses. His head continued the final stage of its descent until his lips met hers in a feather soft caress, which she accepted and returned.

He withdrew his head enough to be able to see her eyes again. They regarded him without coyness. Indeed, he read the invitation in her eyes. His mouth met hers again, massaging her lips gently, but sensually. Slipping his arms around her slight waist, he pulled her in closer. She responded by reaching up and looping her arms over his shoulders. One of her hands found its way to the back of his head. He could feel the soothing kneading of her fingers at the nape of his neck as he drank in her compliant mouth.

It was some time before they loosened their embrace. Both were breathing hard and somewhat disturbed at the power each held over the other. And both were unable to tear their eyes away from each other.

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” confessed Johnny. “A very long time.”

“Since when?”

“Since that night when you first came to dinner and you were standing there listening to me let fly about schoolmarms.”

She tilted her head at him, then smiled brightly. “Well, what took you so long? Are you a bit slow on the uptake? I’ve been wanting you to kiss me for a long time. A very long time.”

“Since when?”

“Since that night when I first came to dinner and you were not holding back on your opinion of schoolmarms.”

They both laughed, light hearted and happy.

Then Johnny was most pleasantly dumbfounded when she reached up to him, instigating a lingering kiss which increased in fervour, leaving them both with senses spinning.

“Boy, do all women from Virginia kiss like that?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never kissed any … and I don’t intend to, either!”

They laughed again, enjoying the moment. Johnny felt his heart do somersaults. He had been so very nervous about approaching her. He did not usually feel timid with women. Indeed, he was generally quite self confident, but he had been hesitant to take the first step from the very start. How much of this was due to her occupation he really didn’t know, but memories of his time at the mercy of his schoolteachers had left its mark. The comparison of Elise with them was ludicrous. It didn’t stop him commenting on it, however.

“You know, you sure are different from any schoolmarm I ever met.”

“Thank the good Lord for that!’ she replied in mock horror.

And Johnny silently agreed, blessing his lucky stars.

Johnny helped her lock the schoolhouse up, then walked with her hand in hand to her cottage. They settled on the porch swing seat, a new feeling of companionable silence settling over them. For the past week, Johnny had felt increasingly tense and out of sorts. Now, it was as though a soothing balm had been poured over his worries. He had never felt so suddenly at ease with a woman and he wasn’t really certain why. But it sure felt good.

He reached up, placing his arm around her shoulders and pulling her in to him. She nestled comfortably into his shoulder, her head tucked under his chin. He absently brushed his cheek back and forth along the top of her head, appreciating the silky smoothness of her hair against his skin. She in turn put her hand on his chest. The warmth of her skin radiated heat through the thin shirt material. After a while, she inserted her finger in the gap where his shirt fabric met between two of the toggles, and idly stroked his chest with the lightest of caresses. Johnny closed his eyes. He felt ironically both at peace and tinglingly alive.

They stayed silent for quite some time, both relishing the pure comfort of touching each other as they sat side by side. Finally it was Elise who broke the tranquillity. “Did you really come out here tonight just to deliver that lace for me?”

Johnny sat straighter as he remembered. He groaned as he recalled his two friends. Somewhat shamefaced, he told her the truth. “To be honest, I came in town with Ross and Brendan. We were going to have a few drinks at the cantina. Teresa asked me to drop the lace off for you while I was in town.”

“So you didn’t come into town to ask me to partner you to the dance after all?” she pouted.

“Yes, I did, but that was Tuesday.”

“But you didn’t ask me to be your date on Tuesday!” protested a voice muffled by his shirt. Her head then moved back a little, tilting up to look at him in the eyes.

"No, I didn’t get that far.”

“Why not?”

He sighed. Why not indeed? Because I thought you had someone else? Because I didn’t think you’d want me? Because I didn’t think I was good enough for you?

Johnny decided on a partial truth. “I came to the schoolhouse to see you, but I heard you and a man talking. I just presumed you had met someone else that you were interested in. It could’ve been kinda embarrassing to knock on the door.” Embarrassed, himself, at this point, he evaded her eyes.

“How could I have met anyone else when I spend most of my weekends at Lancer?”

“I know. I even thought that at the time. Guess I wasn’t thinking too clearly. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’d been wanting to ask you for the past few weeks. I suppose I thought I’d left it too late when I heard Mr Woods’ voice.”

He felt her shoulders shake, then that little giggle burst forth.

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

“The thought of Mr Woods and me being a couple!’

The humour of it hit Johnny, deep chuckles emanating from his chest, the movement causing a ripple effect as her body leaning on his moved in synchronisation with him.

Elise spoke again, hesitantly and very softly. “If you wanted to ask me for weeks, then why didn’t you?”

When Johnny didn’t reply, she moved away from his shoulder, sat up and gazed at him squarely in the eyes. The moonlight bathed the side of her face, highlighting her smooth skin and high cheekbones. It also lit up her eyes, which demanded the truth. “I … um … I thought that maybe you might like Scott to take you.”

She canted her head and regarded him quizzically. “Just why did you think that, pray tell? And just when did you get the impression that you could start thinking for me?”

“Well, you and Scott have got a lot in common. You’ve been spending time helping him brush up on his French. I just thought he might want to escort you to the dance. I didn’t want to butt in, I guess.”

“So, what made you decide that you were going to ask me after all?”

Johnny did not respond. His mouth became dry and he swallowed hard.

“Johnny?” she prompted.

“When he said he was taking Sarah to the dance.”

She sat up even straighter and moved further apart in order to see him better. “So when your big brother Scott didn’t want me, you thought you would take a chance. Do you always wait for his leftovers?”

Johnny was shocked at her cutting tone. “What do you mean?”

“I mean do you always defer to Scott? Does he always take precedence? Do you only go for things he’s rejected?”

Anger welled up in Johnny. He replied, not masking the savagery of his raw emotions. “Of course not!” he spat. “What do you think I am? Some sort of lily livered cowpoke who doesn’t know his own mind?

“That’s just it. You’re not. Far from it. So why didn’t you ask me if you wanted to?”

She was like a terrier with a bone. She wouldn’t let go of it. He just couldn’t bring himself to explain.

He leant forward, resting his elbows on his thighs, rocking slightly. The rigid set of his hunched shoulders confirmed the battle going on within.

“Why, Johnny?”

Her persistence goaded him. The tenseness, which had enveloped and constricted him all week, loosened its hold and erupted, spilling forth his simmering feelings. “If you must know, I thought you’d find Scott a more polished partner. I don’t have his education. You both love the French language. I thought you’d prefer to be with someone a bit more cultured.”

Johnny stared at her, appalled that he had shown such weakness and horrified that he had revealed his insecurities to her. Where’s Madrid? Why isn’t he taking over? This woman beside him had penetrated his defences and Johnny didn’t like it one little bit. He had felt so at ease earlier, now she was finding the cracks in his armour and levering them open, exposing him to emotions he preferred to keep a lid on.

“Well, maybe next time you could ask me first what I wanted, instead of presuming what I would like.” She eyeballed him, her chin jutting forward belligerently. “If there is a next time, that is.”

She continued to glare at him, while he glowered back. Both bodies were wrought up and still.

Finally, she reached for his hand. He didn’t resist, but allowed her to take it. She placed it in one hand, while she tenderly stroked his fingers and palm with the other. Her eyes were lowered. She played with his hand for several minutes, lost in thought, before clasping his fingers firmly. Despite his anger caused by this uncomfortable topic, Johnny was enthralled by her profile. Her eyelashes cast shadows in the pool of moonlight on her cheeks. He stared intensely at her jaw line, following the angle and noting where it met her delicate neck, just below her ear.  His reconnoitring of her assets was interrupted when she looked up, meeting his gaze boldly. Her soft words removed the last vestiges of his irritation.

“You know, Johnny, it was always you from the start. I like Scott, but I don’t have that special feeling for him.  And yes, you are different to Scott, but not inferior. You are remarkable in so many ways. You have so many gifts. You haven’t had Scott’s formal education, but you are one of the smartest men I’ve ever met.  You have many fine qualities. I like them and I like you. Well …. to be honest, I more than like you. And just because one person has different interests or talents from another, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t suitable for each other. Don’t doubt yourself ever again. You are too exceptional a man for that.”

His eyes were locked on hers. He didn’t move, but his breathing calmed enormously.

“Can I ask you something?” he ventured.

“Of course.”

“May I kiss you?”

“Do you really need to ask?”

He paused, lowered his head for moment and pursed his lips before replying. “Well, a minute ago you told me that in the future I should ask you what you wanted instead of presuming what you wanted.”  His cheeky impudence and broad grin brought a blazing smile from Elise in return.

He gathered her up into his arms. She looked up at him expectantly. “I’m waiting,” she prompted.

Johnny didn’t disappoint.

It was some time before he released her. He recognized the need to take his leave. It was getting late and the moon was now hidden in gathering cloud cover.

Johnny reached for her hands, holding them in front and stroking them gently with his thumbs. “See you Saturday night, then?” he asked tenderly.

“Tomorrow night,” she corrected. “Teresa wants me to come to dinner to meet Scott’s friends.”

“See you then,” he confirmed, pecking her on the cheek.

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

It was an extremely cheerful Johnny who made his way to the cantina to pick up his friends. They didn’t let him off lightly and gave him a hard time for his late arrival, but their good-natured barbs did not penetrate his good cheer. He hurried them on, however, as he didn’t like the momentum with which the clouds were gathering, obliterating the previously bright moon’s rays.

They almost made it home before the heavens opened.  The downpour started as it seemed bent on continuing: copious and heavy. Driving rain pelted their faces and soaked them instantaneously. They rode through the Lancer arch, all thoughts centred on stabling their mounts and getting into some dry clothes.

 
Chapter Fourteen

PG: Mild swear words

 

“Juanito!”

Johnny looked up from the creek bed he was clearing. The deluge the previous night had been unremitting, but swift. As usual after heavy rain, it was imperative to clear debris from waterways. Johnny had collected Ross and Brendan early in order to complete the monotonous task and they had been working ceaselessly for the past three hours. It was Cipriano’s voice which hailed him, however.

Cipriano pulled his horse up abruptly. The animal was breathing heavily, its flanks covered by flecks of foam. The rider was agitated and out of breath from the fast ride. “Johnny, the bridge is damaged. We will need to get it repaired straight away before it collapses!”

Johnny looked at him in surprise. “That bridge should have held! The struts and supports were all strengthened!”

“It has held up, Juanito, but only just.”

“OK, Cip. You’ve seen it. You hightail it back to the ranch. Pick up a wagon, any equipment needed and some extra men. Pull them off another work detail if you have to. Get Scott, too. I’ve tried to give him a free week, but we’re going to need the extra help.”

“Si, Juanito! I will be back as soon as I can!” replied the Segundo.

Johnny, Brendan and Ross spent another hour finishing hauling the logs and branches out of the way, before heading over to the bridge. There was not much point in arriving too early, as they knew they could do little until they had tools and equipment to work with. They were wet and muddy and not looking forward to more heavy work on the bridge.

They arrived as Scott, Murdoch, Pascal, Michel, Cipriano and the team of hands turned up. The men examined the site and the structure, before deciding what to do. Johnny wandered to the far side of the bridge, lost in thought. Scott, ever watchful of his brother, walked up to him. There was a look on Johnny’s face, which he’d seen before. “Johnny? What is bothering you?” he asked quietly.

Johnny regarded him intently. “Take a look, Scott. What do you see?”

Scott arched an eyebrow and cocked his head. “The obvious, little brother. This is one sick bridge. With some tender loving care and some quick repairs, though, my prognosis is for a full recovery.”

Johnny returned his bland look, then tugged his mouth up in a smile at his brother’s attempt at humour. The smile did not last. His grim countenance reappeared almost immediately. “It’s been tampered with, Scott. Look! This support has been deliberately interfered with. Take a look at some of the wood on the struts. There are axe marks, cutting across the bolts. It’s the same on the other side. This bridge wasn’t meant to survive.”

Scott looked more closely. Like the others, he had taken it for granted that the damage was a result of the storm. Johnny’s sharp sight and quick brain had picked up what was manifestly apparent if a person chose to look past the weather conditions of the previous night.

Scott pushed his hat back from his forehead and crinkled his forehead in concern. The sun caught his fringe as it danced in the light breeze, the golden strands contrasting sharply with the ebony of his younger sibling’s hair. Scott placed his hands on his slim hips, emphasizing his lean frame descending from his strong shoulders. He balanced one foot on a beam, then bent forward, leaning his sinewy forearm on his tautly muscled thigh.

Glancing up at Johnny, he cryptically sought his opinion. “Coincidence or the same dab hand at work?”

Johnny’s piercing blue eyes met his brother’s slate blue counterparts. “Don’t you think it’s kinda strange that in the two years we’ve both been here, this is the first time completed jobs have suddenly become uncompleted? Twice in one week makes for one hell of a coincidence, Scott.” Johnny’s soft voice stated what was an obvious, but unwelcome confirmation to Scott.

“Who do you think it is, Johnny?”

“I wish I knew who and why. Something’s afoot and I’ve got a bad feeling in my stomach, like this is only the start,” confessed Johnny, anxiety running rampant over his face.

“Well, I guess that ‘start’ is the operative word. Let’s begin the repairs. The sooner we start, the sooner we can finish and head home for supper.”

At that moment, Murdoch, along with Scott’s French friends, made his way to that side of the bridge. The brothers showed them their findings. They were all aghast that the damage had been deliberately caused.

“Mon dieu! C’est du sabotage!” exclaimed Pascal. “Has this ever happened before, Scott?”

“Only when we had a full scale range war. Not in the normal course of events, no,” confirmed Scott.

“But who would want to do this, Scott? Lancer is a well-respected ranch. Why would anyone take it on?” asked Michel in puzzlement.

“I wish we knew, Michel. At the moment, the most important thing is to get repairs under way.”

“Yes, of course. I will get out of your way and return to the hacienda. I don’t wish to slow you down.”

The men watched him navigate the rubble left by the storm and head back to the other side of the bridge, his limp more pronounced on the uneven surface.

Murdoch summed up the situation. “There’s one thing in our favour, at least. Whoever it was didn’t do a good job of it. It held and basically all we need to do is to check the foundations and replace the bolts and some of the struts. It may not take all that long.”

Murdoch was right. They commenced mid morning and had completed the repairs to their satisfaction by late afternoon.

It was a weary work party which headed back to the house. Leading their mounts into the stable, Johnny felt suddenly light hearted when he noticed Elise’s horse in the stall next to Barranca’s and on the opposite side to Charlemagne’s. He groomed his four-legged friend and offered both animals a healthy helping of oats. A last minute pat for both and he was on his way to the hacienda, Scott at his side.

The two men entered their home and hung their hats and gun belts on the rack at the front door. An animated conversation could be heard taking place from within. A French conversation. They walked into the Great Room where they found Michel sitting next to Elise on the sofa. Sitting a damn sight way too close in Johnny’s opinion. Michel was leaning in to her and waving his arms about in a typically Gallic way, accidentally brushing against her arm as Johnny watched. At that moment, the two on the couch looked up.

Elise’s smile of greeting wrapped delicate fingers of delight around Johnny’s heart, just squeezing enough to cause him some breathlessness. She was twelve feet away from him and still she overwhelmed his senses. Her eyes arrested him, making it difficult for him to pull them away from her. He felt like a fish on the hook, knowing he couldn’t escape as he was being reeled in. The only difference between the fish and Johnny, being that Johnny was rapidly becoming a willing catch who really didn’t want to fight this fate at all. He was increasingly welcoming it, encouraging it, even.

Michel’s look pierced his spellbound state. It brought him out of his reverie. It was a look he couldn’t quite fathom and it was quickly hidden, but it put Johnny’s senses on the alert. It reminded him too much of the low life vultures he had met in his past, ready to take advantage of any situation, at any cost. Chills tingled down his spine and gripped his stomach. That fleeting look left a residue of niggling unease in Johnny’s consciousness.

“Good evening, Johnny, Scott,” Elise called to them.

Scott and Johnny returned their greetings just as Michel asked about the bridge.

“The bridge? What bridge?” Elise queried.

“The bridge we repaired earlier in the week. It was damaged last night, but we’ve fixed it before any real troubles occurred,” answered Scott, leaning against the fireplace.

“Yes, that storm sure was sudden. I’m not surprised the bridge was weakened,” remarked Elise.

Scott looked at Johnny. Receiving a virtually imperceptible nod from his brother, Scott continued. “It wasn’t the storm. It was deliberate. We found axe marks on the timber supports and the bolts.”

Elise gasped. “Oh, no! Surely not! But who would do that?”

Sighing deeply, Scott answered her question. “That’s what we need to find out. The damage could have been catastrophic had the storm not been so brief. The whole bridge could have collapsed and anyone on it would not have had a chance.”

Murdoch entered the room as Scott made this statement. “Exactly. This is deliberate and calculated. We need to know who is the target or whether it is the ranch and the Lancer family as a whole. We also need to consider any newcomers to the area to see if they could have something to do with this. To that end, Ross and Brendan will not be working alone without direct supervision from Cipriano, Frank, Jelly or you boys. In fact, they won’t be doing anything without someone keeping an eye on them.”

“Oh, come on, Murdoch! I told you the other day. It ain’t them. They’ve been working harder than most of our seasoned hands. Just ask Cip. The threat is not coming from them!”

“I’ll be the one to decide that. I’ll not have anyone’s safety put at risk from any recent blow-ins or anyone with a known dubious past!” Murdoch ordained.

“Well then, Murdoch, that sure gives you a headache. Who you gonna order to dog my tail to make sure my dubious past isn’t wiping out fences and causing bridges to crumble?” Johnny made no attempt to hide his disgust. His contempt was heightened and compounded by the derision in his voice as he added, “I won the toss for the first bath. Who are you delegating to watch that I don’t deliberately wreck the bath tub?”

With that, Johnny stalked out, his spurs resounding on the wooden floor and resonating in the still room, emphasizing his profound indignation and fury. His tread on the stairs as he took them two at a time was no less forceful. As his footsteps receded, it appeared as though the occupants collectively began breathing again.

Concentrating on the staircase and his annoyance with Johnny’s impudence, Murdoch was impervious to the glowering look he was receiving from Scott. A loud thump brought his thoughts back to the room. Rising to her feet, Elise had dumped a pile of magazines with quite some force on the coffee table. She pulled her shoulders back and dealt Murdoch a frigid glare, so icy it chilled Murdoch the core. “Well, I need to go help Teresa and Maria in the kitchen. Are they qualified to supervise me, or do you want to choose a musclebound henchman to check that I don’t poison your next meal?”

Murdoch was totally taken aback.

“My dear, of course we don’t suspect you!”

“Why not? No one has checked my credentials. Ross and Brendan have Johnny to vouch for them. Pascal and Michel have Scott to back them. You didn’t bother to reassure Johnny, so why should you reassure me? Surely I’m the unknown quantity here, not Johnny!” she threw at him with a toss of her head.

“But no one is suggesting Johnny has anything to do with this!” protested Murdoch.

“Well, you could have fooled me! ‘Dubious past’ was an out and out slur on Johnny’s prior life and the friends he had at that time. I don’t see you placating Johnny or bolstering his feelings!”

Elise created a formidable image, one hand on her hip, the other forming a tight fist with one finger protruding and being shaken in Murdoch’s face. Her face was suffused in red as her annoyance boiled over. Not giving Murdoch the chance to say anything else, she grabbed two cups sitting innocently on the coffee table and thundered off to the kitchen to deal out their fate.

Reverberations from the slamming of the kitchen door made Scott jump. In the aftermath of her wrath, the room then seemed deathly still.

“Beware a woman with a newly awakened cause on her mind,” muttered Scott.

Murdoch merely raised an eyebrow at him, fixed him with a black scowl, then stalked over to the whiskey decanter where he poured and downed one enormous measure of the liquor.

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

The meal that evening was clouded by concern over the deliberate acts of vandalism, as well as by the tension between Johnny and Murdoch. It was apparent that there was tension between Elise and Murdoch, too. While Elise exhibited her usual good manners to the guests, Scott detected a frostiness towards Murdoch which had not been there previously. To say that she was in a huff with him might have been more accurate. Scott noticed Johnny shoot her several puzzled looks. Having missed her outburst, Johnny was unaware of her defence of him to Murdoch.

Scott observed the tension in his brother. Tension caused by another incident. Johnny was attempting to conceal it and Scott gave him his due for this. He even felt some sympathy for Johnny. The incident in question occurred just as they were to go in to dinner. As Maria announced supper, Michel immediately offered Elise his arm. Scott saw her hesitate and glance briefly at Johnny before accepting the proffered arm. As they proceeded to go into the dining room, Johnny’s face was impassive. Too impassive. Too studied. Scott could see that Johnny was not pleased, even though he held his counsel.

Scott was, however, delighted to see that both Michel and Pascal were taken with Elise. She had a knack of being able to talk to anyone. This had been evident in town when he had seen her talk with a variety of people from all backgrounds. During the meal, Michel spoke to her in French at every opportunity. Scott was impressed, both with her accent and fluency. He was even a little envious, if the truth be told. He noted, though, that she consistently attempted to return to English so as not to exclude anyone from the conversation.

As the meal progressed, Johnny appeared to find it increasingly harder to hide his annoyance, and Scott could truthfully not blame him. This was especially so when the dinner table conversation turned to European history. A lively discussion between the Frenchmen, Scott, Murdoch and Elise concerning wars and changing political boundaries over the centuries led the topic of conversation to the Spanish Inquisition.

Teresa and Johnny had been observers throughout the exchanges, but this changed when Spain’s history was reviewed. As causes and results of the Spanish Inquisition were examined, gasps of dismay were uttered by Teresa. Michel turned to her in sympathy. “Yes, indeed, it was a dreadful time. Innocent people were denounced and condemned to death. There was no loyalty to anyone as the accused and accusers sold their souls.”

“Oh, I had no idea. What a horrendous thing to happen!”

“Certain countries are marred by the barbarism of its people. The cruelty of the Spanish inquisitors, with the approval of the country’s rulers, is legendary. Such distastefully brutal traits are still evident in its unrefined Spanish descendants and in other countries colonised by Spain,” expounded Michel.

The silence that greeted this was immediate and immaculate. That Johnny’s heritage was being denigrated by Michel’s blithely derogatory comment was obvious to everyone, but nobody quite knew what to say.

Scott was annoyed and felt he needed to make some sort of comment. “Michel, every country has barbaric and shameful acts in its past. You could say that the white man’s treatment of the native American Indian is not without reproach.”

No one else spoke and for several seconds, Johnny continued to trace patterns on the tablecloth with a spoon. His eyes were focused on this task. No emotion was visible. Then he raised his eyes, a penetrating gaze with lethal potential freezing Michel into immobility as he attempted to take a sip of wine.

“Well, at least the Spanish didn’t sell a little girl to the enemy to be burnt at the stake after she saved her country from that same enemy … and after she helped the rightful king get crowned. Some loyalty she was shown by her countrymen. The Spanish did their own dirty work, leastways, unlike the French.”

A smothering silence descended again. The verbal duel had sliced through dining etiquette, leaving the Lancers and their guests naked without the mantle of protocol. Everyone present, with the exception of Johnny and Scott, looked acutely uncomfortable. Scott was too busy admiring both his brother’s composure as well as his comeback. He was also rather chuffed that Johnny had actually been listening to his recently recounted tale about Joan of Arc and her brave adventures. He was, however, also disappointed in Michel. He had hoped that Michel would get on with Johnny. This was not proving to be the case and he could not blame Johnny for this. It was Michel who was being continually abrasive and difficult towards his brother.

Murdoch broke the silence by clearing his throat excessively, before offering a post dinner drink in the Great Room.

The mood lightened then. On retiring to the Great Room for a snifter of brandy, Michel and Pascal took great pleasure in discussing places in France that Scott and Elise had both seen during their visits.

Despite his occupation with his guests, Scott was aware that it wasn’t long before Johnny made an escape.

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

Johnny curried Barranca rhythmically. As he did so, he kept up a litany of soft Spanish, supposedly to comfort his horse. Tonight, though, he was attempting to comfort himself. He was agitated and coiled as tight as a spring. Michel got under his skin no matter what he tried to do to prevent it.

The recent events at Lancer had Johnny worried. Someone was going to get hurt if things started escalating. And now he found Michel’s attention to Elise galling him no end. Nobody in the family knew how he felt about her, although Scott might be able to make a reasonable guess, so he did not feel that he could make any public claims on her.

Michel’s deliberate attention to her, his attempts to exclude others from their conversations and his proprietorial actions tonight had Johnny chafing to shove his knuckles down the Frenchman’s throat. He didn’t, though. Michel was Scott’s friend. He didn’t want to disappoint Scott. Elise had shot him many a look during the night and he felt that she may have been thinking along much the same lines. Nevertheless, Johnny had been neatly railroaded, as had Elise. In Johnny’s case, though, railroaded and relegated to the sidelines.

Johnny’s intense despondency transferred to his hand. Barranca suddenly moved and turned his head to butt his master as the strokes became uncomfortably forceful.

“Whoa, fella. I’m sorry, boy. Just my thoughts taking my mind away from my job.”  Johnny scratched Barranca in his favourite places by way of apology. Barranca nickered his approval and nudged his head at Johnny’s shoulder. All was forgiven.

The slight scuffing of a shoe on the hay strewn dirt floor of the barn had Johnny whirling around, gun whipped into in his hand in the one fluid motion.

He groaned audibly when he realized what he had done. He stood frozen to the spot, appalled at his reaction.

Elise stood stock still before him, about twenty paces away. She gazed at him, but apart from her initial fright, she appeared unworried. What he detected seemed to be more compassion and empathy. Her look melted his core and all he wanted to do was to slip into her arms and let her hold him. She had that way of making him feel sheltered from daily concerns.

He holstered his gun, but gave no apology. None was needed. None was expected.

He wanted to go to her, but he didn’t dare move closer.  He didn’t trust himself to control his feelings. That awesome effect she had over him was proving to be too tough for even Johnny Madrid to handle discreetly.

Instead, Elise walked calmly and steadily towards him, stopping about two feet away. Neither one of them broke their gaze from each other.

She didn’t refer to him drawing on her. Her opening gambit was concerned with another issue. “You came out here to get away from Michel, huh?”

The ghost of grin infiltrated his mouth, giving it a crooked tilt. The smile permeated his face, expanding to the laughter lines around his eyes and spreading into the very essence of their vivid blue depths. “Now, why would I want to do that? Just checking on Barranca. Besides, you and Scott were having a good time speaking French to Michel. I thought I’d leave you to it.”

“What rubbish, Johnny! You groomed Barranca before supper. You couldn’t stand listening to Michel manipulate the conversation and prattle on any more.”

There she was, at it again, calling a spade a spade and not afraid to do so.

“Those are your words, not mine.”

She snorted. Johnny thought it quite strange that she could snort in a ladylike and becoming way.

“They are my words, but they are your thoughts as well. He is ingratiating and a little too pompous for my tastes. I saw the way he gloated over controlling a conversation that only he, his father, Scott and myself could contribute to.”

Johnny stood there, his grin dazzling.

Elise regarded him solemnly. “Are you going to tell me what’s so funny?”

Johnny ducked his head for a moment and hooked a thumb into the waist of his pants. “I guess it’s just nice to know someone else thinks the same way I do.” A pause, marked by a deep sigh, broke into his answer before he continued. “That don’t happen too much around here.”  This last sentence was stated somewhat sombrely and marked by the tense set of Johnny’s shoulders.

Elise didn’t comment. Instead, she surprised him. Reaching forward, she hooked her forefinger down into his belt and gently tugged on it. Following the irresistible force of the pull, he was compelled to shuffle forward until he stood just inches from her.

She withdrew her finger then and gently, ever so gently, she stroked the material of his shirt across his abdomen with the back of her finger. Backwards and forwards. Back and forth. And again. So softly. Gossamer light touches. Weaving a web he could not escape from. Enthralling him in a spell he wanted to continue forever. So innocent a gesture, yet so utterly sensuous. Lighting a fire in his belly.

It was too much for his self-control. Moaning unchecked, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to him. The kiss he instigated was neither placid nor chaste. His heated emotions unleashed themselves. He kissed her ardently and extensively. His lips fired hers, and she in turn responded lustfully. She did not balk when he made initial tentative forays with his tongue into her mouth. Accepting his advances, she returned them in kind without timidity.

Johnny explored her neck, nibbled on her ear lobes and grazed her forehead with ever massaging lips. He melted into her flesh as his desire grew.

Fearing that he would lose all restraint, he finally tucked her head under his cheek, rested his head on her hair and enveloped her in his arms, swaying slightly to some inner rhythm. They were both panting hard due to their excess emotions and he continued to hold her while their breathing slowed. He knew that she must be able to feel, through her dress, the effect she had on his body, but she made no effort to pull demurely away from him. So they stayed there. They stayed there a long time, finding comfort in each other’s embrace and the touch of their bodies.

By unspoken mutual consent, they broke apart simultaneously. Elise regarded him seriously, reached up to brush his long hair to one side off his forehead. Then she grinned cheekily. “Yes, I agree, it is nice to know someone who thinks the same way about things!”

They chuckled together softly. Johnny reached for her hands, turned her palms over and kissed them tenderly one after the other.

“I think that Frenchman could learn a few things about the refined art of seduction from a Mexican gentleman I know,” Elise commented.

“Yeah, well you just remember that next time he starts flirting with you!” Johnny reminded her, before kissing her gently once again.

She kissed him back and grinned. “You jealous?”

“Nah! You’ve got better taste than to fall for him.”

“You’re pretty sure of yourself,” she teased.

“What can he offer you that you haven’t already got? At least I can teach you a language you don’t already know.”

“Good point. Do you want to start lessons after the dance tomorrow night?”

“Oh, little lady. You are on! You know you have to get the tongue just right to make the correct sounds. I reckon I could give you a lot of help there!”

This had the effect of causing a giggle fit in his companion. When she finally had it under control, she stood on tiptoes and kissed him goodnight. She confirmed their arrangements with what Johnny was sure was actually a smirk. . “I’ll be looking forward to tomorrow, Johnny. My mouth and tongue will sure need that help! And I’m sure you’ll make it ‘hands on’ assistance. Sleep tight!”

She turned and walked away. Johnny watched until she was out of sight. He knew that it would be a long time, a very long time, before he would be sleeping tight that night.

He turned towards Barranca, wanting to compose himself further, unaware of the silent watcher taking it all in and storing the knowledge away for future use.

 
Chapter Fifteen

The next day saw everyone at the ranch complete tasks with unusual speed. Murdoch had given all hands the afternoon off in order to relax and get ready for the dance.  Most were hoping to finish their chores before noon so they could ready themselves and get into the swing of things.

Johnny had stated at breakfast that he would take some hands and do a security patrol to verify that everything was as it should be and that there had been no more tampering with Lancer property. After that, he intended to break some horses. Johnny left immediately after breakfast, leaving the others to their business wrangling.

Murdoch, Pascal, Michel and Scott spent most of the morning hammering out details of a contract, which would be mutually beneficial to both parties. Murdoch clearly wanted access to Pascal’s breeding stock.  Their guest had inherited prize-winning cattle when he purchased his property. Their fame was widespread. Murdoch was hoping to use strains from Pascal’s herd, along with the stock Johnny had negotiated from Ramirez, plus Lancer’s own stock, to create a breeding programme with vision. Lancer stood to profit enormously. In turn, Pascal had heard of the prime quality of Murdoch’s cattle. Dollars were dancing in front of both their eyes.

Michel and Scott were amused at the haggling and both enjoyed the wily efforts of their fathers to come out in front. It was a business lesson of some merit for both young men. Scott was gleaning many a new tactic, which he hoped to put to use at a later date.

Johnny, Ross, Brendan and Cipriano took as many hands as they could spare and checked all recent work accomplished to make sure that there had been no more tampering with property. They discussed the situation as they rode, but none of them could shed any light on the culprit or the motive behind the vandalism.

“Well, whoever he is, I get the feeling he’s just toying with us all, biding his time,” commented Brendan.

“Yeah, something bigger is going to happen,” agreed Ross. “But what?”

“I don’t know, boys. The most important thing is that everyone works in a minimum of twos for the moment. That way we can all look after each other as well as the property,” advised Johnny. “I don’t want anyone getting hurt. I just wish I knew what was on this person’s mind. I don’t like not knowing who the enemy is and I don’t like waiting for him to make the first move.”

Their security patrol finished by mid morning, they headed back to the hacienda. There, life was far less peaceful than in the saddle. The women were putting the finishing touches to their marathon morning’s baking session. The suppers at these local socials were legendary and the aromas emanating from the kitchen told Johnny that he would not be disappointed that night. He tried his luck at wangling some samples from the ladies, but his innocent boyish charm failed to impress the womenfolk. He even tried outright stealing on the way out and paid for his impetuosity with a sharp whack on the knuckles from Maria’s wooden spoon. This left Johnny somewhat put out. His ingratiating smile and sucking up had never let him down with Maria before.

Johnny headed to the corrals to see what he could do about breaking some of the new horses which had recently been rounded up. He began in his usual subdued way. His mere presence in the corral was the starting point of the trust between horse and beast. He had chosen an imposing stallion to begin with, hoping that by breaking this horse, the more meek of the herd would be more submissive to his demands.

As always when Johnny was at work, a crowd of onlookers began to gather around the fence. Scott had been one of the first to arrive. His brother’s skilled gift at this task never ceased to enthral him. Michel and Pascal flanked him while Murdoch sat on the seat of a nearby buckboard. The girls also ventured out, having completed their baking and wanting to witness Johnny gentle the horses.

The mute dance between the black stallion and the cowboy was poetry in motion. The horse would take several hesitant steps to Johnny before stronger survival instincts quashed any curiosity. Retreat was dictated before curiosity again surfaced. Soon the horse succumbed to intrigue and pranced around Johnny, blowing loudly out of its flared nostrils. The stallion bowed to Johnny’s mesmerising presence, allowing him to pat its neck, then hindquarters.

Bit by bit, halter, blanket and finally saddle were placed on the horse. The saddle proved to be the final invasion, which sparked off a fury of kicking and bucking. Spent, the horse leaned into a corner of the corral, watching Johnny warily as its sides heaved. Johnny approached slowly, his lilting Spanish never wavering. Johnny decided that it was time to try his luck.

Gingerly, he hoisted himself into the saddle. The stallion reacted as expected to this intrusion over the natural state of things. The inside of the corral resembled the furore of a tornado as the horse spun, bucked and twisted. Its earlier bout of temper had tired the horse, however, and it appeared that Johnny was gaining the upper hand.

Suddenly, this was not the case. After one almighty leap from the stallion, Johnny became airborne. Projected into the air, he sailed, saddle and all, high above the horse’s head. Somersaulting in mid air, he landed heavily with an audible ‘ooph’ as the hard ground knocked all oxygen out of his lungs. Winded, he lay still.

The girls screamed as he fell, then rushed forward with the men. Cipriano grabbed the horse, leading it out of the enclosure, while the others gathered around the prone form of Johnny. His eyes were closed, but he was breathing heavily. They were all calling his name, hoping for some response, and waited for what seemed like an eternity for him to acknowledge them.

Moaning at first, then groaning more forcefully, Johnny rolled his head from side to side. He opened his eyes to a group of heads joined as one as they leaned over him, blocking out the sun’s rays. “Hey, I’m all right. Give a man a little room, will ya?”

Leaning back as one, his family and guests regarded him with concern. As he struggled to sit up, Scott was quick to assist.

“Johnny?” he asked, anxiety almost causing his voice to break.

Johnny was rubbing his neck and ribs while counting off a mental inventory. He paused when his brother’s worry penetrated his actions. “I’m OK, Scott. Just a little winded is all. And maybe a bit bruised. Nothing’s broken.”

They sighed with relief. He was helped up by Scott, but it was Elise he looked at. His smile was meant to reassure, but he could see that she wasn’t satisfied.

Johnny walked over to the saddle, which had parted company with him in mid air. He squatted and examined it closely. He felt his brother’s presence next to him and heard his sharp intake of breath when Scott sighted the leather Johnny was fingering.

Johnny looked at Scott, whose return gaze was just as solemn.

“So, someone is continuing his dirty tricks,” Scott commented bitterly. “You could have been killed.”

Pascal’s voice broke in. “What is it?”

“It’s been cut. Just enough was left to keep the saddle on for a while,” Scott explained.

“Yeah, well, whoever did it must have done it late last night or very early this morning. I checked out all the tack: saddles, leads, everything, last night before I hit the sack,” Johnny commented speculatively.

Murdoch placed a heavy, but comforting, hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Thank God you are all right, son. We’ll have to get to the bottom of this, but in the meantime, let’s get you inside and those scratches and bruises seen to, or you won’t be able to move tomorrow.”

Johnny acquiesced, but lagged behind the others. He took Elise’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you. I guess I provided some entertainment, huh?”

“Not the sort of entertainment I care to see,” she answered grimly.

Johnny was fixed up with some liniment to ease his aches and his cuts were washed out just in time for lunch. He saw Elise and Teresa off just after the meal. Teresa was going to Elise’s for the afternoon so she could help decorate the church hall. This also meant she could freshen up and change in town, with less threat to her new dance frock from any dusty encounters on the way in.

The ladies had a buggy loaded with food, tablecloths and decorations. They were in high spirits and Elise’s delightful laugh lifted his morale no end. He had not confided his feelings for her to anyone, so he chastely kissed both girls on the cheek goodbye. Elise’s eyes were expressive, the teasing depths nearly his undoing. The next time he kissed her, he vowed that he would make sure that they were alone and that it was memorable for all the right reasons. An entirely platonic encounter was not something he planned on.

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

Johnny took care with his appearance that night. He had seen first hand how excited the women had been about making sure they looked just right, and he didn’t want to let Elise down. He had bathed away the stench of perspiration, dirt, cattle and horses. Never had he taken such acute care that he did not nick his face while shaving. And while Scott was in the bathhouse, he had sneaked into his room and availed himself of some of the expensive cologne which Scott had ordered in especially from San Francisco.

He chose to wear a new teal green shirt, similar in style to his coral coloured one. Like this favourite shirt of his, it had toggles rather than buttons to close the opening. It, too, had embroidery on the front panel, but in a darker shade of the exotic green. He had cleaned his charro jacket and wore the newest pair of his silk-lined concho pants.

His ride into town with Murdoch, Pascal and Michel had been full of nervous anticipation. He wanted to hold Elise in his arms and dancing with her gave him the excuse to do so publicly, but dances made him feel awkward. There was never a time in his adult life where he could go to a dance and not feel concerned about being hemmed in with no way to escape if he were set upon unexpectedly or if things got difficult. If he were called out, innocent bystanders could be hurt. Since his arrival at Lancer, he had never been able to leave this legacy of fear behind. Tonight, though, he was going to try his darndest to do so.

He parted company with the other men as they headed to the hall and he made for Elise’s. He stood on the porch and when she opened the door, she simply took his breath away. Garbed in cornflower blue in a dress which enhanced an alluring bust line and clung to her narrow waist, she looked stunning. The interior light from behind her outlined her comely shape and shone on her golden hair. She seemed so ethereal, he was at first totally mute and unable to react overtly.

Elise took care of this, however, in her usual forthright way. She greeted him exuberantly, throwing her arms around his neck and as he came to life, he wrapped his arms around her and twirled her around. Planting her back on her feet, he made up for his initial lack of reaction. He stroked her face and smiled as she nuzzled his hand with her cheek. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever met,” he informed her, sealing his declaration with a delicate kiss on the lips. She responded in a far more restrained way than the previous evening, no doubt as aware as Johnny that small towns have eyes and ears in the most unexpected places.

The two made their way to the dance hall, Johnny feeling like a king to have her on his arm. On entering, they made their way over to Scott and Sarah. Scott had left the hacienda before the other men to pick Sarah up in the buggy. Teresa and Ted joined them at the same time. Exchanging greetings, Scott cocked an eyebrow at his brother and whispered quietly in Johnny’s ear while the girls were otherwise engaged in conversation. “You smell mighty good, brother. Tell me, what’s the name of your cologne? It certainly is both manly and subtle, not to mention no doubt expensive, extremely expensive. Perhaps I should order some for myself?”

Johnny turned his head to glance at Scott, meeting him squarely in the eyes. Feeling a little awkward at having been caught out dandifying himself, he was nearly going to try to bluster his way through when he noticed the teasing good humour in his older brother’s eyes. He had the grace to colour slightly, then grinned back boldly. “I decided that maybe there might be something in this perfume stuff. I thought I’d test run your new bottle. Wouldn’t like to see you get your hopes up for a good night, Boston, only to find that you reeked so badly that the ladies took to the hills to escape from you!”

“How good of you to be so considerate, Johnny. Perhaps you might like to test run your own cologne next time?”

Johnny was saved from replying by Michel, who returned from the dance floor. He had taken advantage of a slower tune, which was easier to handle with his limp, and had asked Sarah’s friend Becky for the honour of dancing with him. Just a little out of breath, he greeted them all. Removing his silk handkerchief from his breast pocket, he delicately dabbed at the perspiration on his brow.  Scott introduced him to several of the other local ladies who had wandered over, all rather put out that the two most eligible and handsome men in the valley had found other partners for the social. Michel, however, deflected their attention from the Lancer brothers, his French accent seeming to enchant the womenfolk.

Johnny took Elise to the dance floor. They tried a mixture of styles based on Scottish reels, square dancing, Irish jigs and Spanish steps. Some they were more competent at than others. They didn’t care as long as they were together. It was the waltz Johnny enjoyed the most. Holding her close and fully aware that he would be giving Widow Tompkins fodder for gossip the next day, he swirled Elise around the hall as gracefully as he could muster.

Fetching Elise a drink of punch after that particular dance, Johnny was joined by Scott at the punch bowl. “Well, little brother, with that display you have just successfully diverted all attention on the part of Widow Tompkins and her cronies from me. Here’s to you … and thanks!” Scott and Johnny chinked glasses to seal Scott’s toast and they both drank thirstily. As Johnny turned to take a glass to Elise, he noticed her being led onto the dance floor by Michel. Decidedly glum, he stood on the sidelines watching and catching glimpses of them through the whirling mass of bodies. Brendan and Ross joined him, but he was unable to focus on their conversation, so intent he was on watching Elise dance with Michel.

Near the end of the dance, he saw an uncharacteristic cross look on her face, but then it was lost as her body was turned away from him. He stiffened and was relieved to see them come towards him as the music ceased.

He passed the drink he had been holding and followed Michel with his eyes as he made for Teresa to ask her for the next dance.

“What was that about?” Johnny queried softly.

Elise looked up at him. “What was what about?”

“That look on your face. You didn’t seem happy about something while you were dancing. In fact, you looked downright annoyed.” Johnny prompted.

Elise averted her eyes and then drank some more. “It was nothing,” she insisted.

“Well, it sure must have been something if you got all ornery looking!” insisted Johnny.

Elise had to smile at that. “Since when have I ever looked ornery, Johnny!”  She fiddled with the glass, turning it around in circles. “It was nothing. Just a misunderstanding.”

“What sort of misunderstanding?”

She sighed, then. “Johnny, … he … his hand brushed against me while he was dancing. He apologized immediately.”

“Just where did his hand brush against you?”

She held his eyes. “Against my … chest. He didn’t mean to, I’m sure.”

Johnny stiffened and his eyes looked chillingly veiled. Elise tugged at his arm. “Johnny, it was nothing. Let it be. It wasn’t intentional on his part. Let’s not spoil the evening.”

He looked down at her. “I don’t take kindly to other men being too free with their hands on my girl.”

“Well then, don’t give anyone else the opportunity to. Come on, let’s dance!”  With that, she pulled at his hand and led him on to the dance floor. Johnny had to admit, her ploy worked wonders in changing his frame of mind and keeping his thoughts otherwise occupied for the rest of the night.

As the dance neared an end, Johnny was champing at the bit to get Elise away to a private corner somewhere. Anywhere for that matter. This was the longest he had lasted at a dance and even he had to admit that being with the right girl made all the difference to one’s enjoyment of the affair.

His plans were thwarted by Teresa, of all people. As they made moves to leave, she came up to them, Ted on her arm. “Elise, I have a terrible headache. Too much excitement, I think. Would you mind if I spent the night at your cottage? I really couldn’t face the ride back to Lancer now. We could ride back to the ranch together tomorrow morning.”

“Of course not. You are welcome to stay. I’d enjoy the company!” confirmed Elise.

Johnny groaned silently in dismay. Elise caught his glance, however, and grinned impishly. As Teresa bade Murdoch a good night, Elise turned and whispered softly to him, “Just who’s looking ornery now?”

He glared at her before breaking out into his trademark grin. Leaning forward, he whispered just as softly in her ear, “I was just thinking that it was your loss for the evening!”

She began laughing then, as a rose blush crept up her throat. Murdoch looked over quizzically. Aware of his sudden interest in her welfare, she rapidly composed herself and took her leave, lightly placing her hand on Johnny’s arm as she headed for the door.

The presence of Teresa and Ted was not at all what Johnny had in mind for after dance events, nor was the chaste peck on the cheek he offered Elise on depositing her at her front door. Elise did not help his mood. She seemed to find the situation quite humorous and the too innocent expression on her face left Johnny in no doubt that she knew he had hoped to have some quality time alone with her that evening.

So Johnny and Ted left the ladies and joined their respective families to return home. Johnny’s mood soured further when he caught sight of Michel. Michel was definitely not the company he thought he would be keeping at this time of the night. Gritting his teeth, he spurred Barranca on, setting a pace which took the others quite by surprise and which took quite some effort on their part to keep up with.
Chapter Sixteen

Warning: Adult themes and sexual innuendo

 

Sunday morning saw most of the Lancers at church, while Johnny spent a quiet morning catching up on some minor chores. Ross and Brendan saw him on the roof of the barn and soon Johnny had company suitably armed with hammers.

“Hi, guys! I thought you’d be sleeping late after the dance last night?” Johnny mumbled through lips clenched over a nail.

“Johnny, if you’d been in the bunkhouse hearin’ all that snoring from the crew, you’d have got out just like us!”

Johnny removed the nail from between his lips and shook his head. “Hearing Murdoch snoring from down the hallway is enough for me. I swear that there are times he loosens the tiles on the roof with all the vibrations he causes.”

“Maybe his snores have reached the barn and that’s why there’s so many loose shingles here?” suggested Ross. The three men laughed at the image. They set about checking, then repairing or replacing, loose tiles while talking companionably as they went.

“You sure seemed to have a good time at the dance, Johnny,” commented Ross, eyes sliding slyly to Brendan.

Johnny glanced up and was snagged by their knowing smiles. 

“Yep.”

“That all you can say? Just ‘yep’? You two fairly burned up that dance floor. I’d rate that more than a plain ‘yep’.”

“Yes, I had a good time,” Johnny elaborated.

“And Elise seemed to sure enjoy dancin’ with you, Johnny. Dancin’ real close to you.” Ross dug Brendan in the ribs, a movement not unnoticed by Johnny.

“Yes, she seemed to,” Johnny confirmed.

“She seemed to? Didn’t she make sure you knew how much she enjoyed your company?” A snigger from Ross was not even stifled as Brendan joined him in some raucous laughter.

Johnny looked at the two of them having such a humorous time at his expense. And he couldn’t help but feel a tug at each side of his mouth. He shook his head as his smile grew broader.

“When are you two gonna grow up, settle down and find yourselves a decent woman?” Johnny enquired humorously.

Brendan looked knowingly at Ross. “That might be sooner than you think, Johnny boy. We met ourselves two mighty pretty signoritas last night. Lucia and Louisa. Two sisters from Spanish Wells. We’re meetin’ them this afternoon for a ride.”

Ross was nodding his head, his wide smile indicating just how much he was looking forward to the event.

“Ooh, yeah!” was all he was capable of uttering.

“Them’s two fine samples of the womenfolk around here,” Brendan added. “They know how to make a man feel good about himself. That ride this afternoon should be interesting, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I think I get your drift, Brendan. But a word of warning, their papa is the meanest cuss I ever met. I wouldn’t let them make you feel too good about yourself or you just might find yourself eating a rifle barrel for supper!”

The two men were startled, but laughed anyway. The sort of laughter that starts with bravado, but ends up coming to a ragged, unsure end. Johnny smiled inwardly at the unease which settled on them. Their unvoiced thoughts were loud and clear. He could hear their silent debates raging as to how far they could go without upsetting the sisters’ father.

After a moment’s lull in the conversation, work and good humour picked up. The two hours they spent on the roof flew as the three friends worked solidly, comfortable in each other’s presence.

When they finished, Johnny thanked them warmly. “You didn’t have to help me today. It was your morning off.”

“Yeah, Johnny, we know. But we like working, with just the three of us.” Brendan paused, and Johnny was surprised to see him drop his head shyly. “And we thought the morning might pass quicker if we were busy.”

Johnny nodded in understanding. He had done precisely the same thing. He had worked to pass the time until Elise arrived.

“Thanks, anyway. I enjoyed the company. You two have a good time with the girls.”

“Oh, we will, Johnny,” Ross winked.

“Not unless we get cleaned up we won’t” grumbled Brendan. “You reek of sweat and stale drink, Ross.”

“Just smell your own armpits! They’d make a skunk happy!” retorted Ross.

The two men bade Johnny goodbye and walked off grumbling at each other. After checking his own armpits, Johnny decided that he, too, needed to follow their example with some ablutions before the ladies arrived from town. It didn’t hurt to enhance one’s chances.

At midday the family arrived home, the ladies driving the buckboard they had taken to town the day before, with Sarah as an added passenger.

To mark Pascal and Michel’s last day at Lancer, a picnic had been arranged for the whole family by the river, so they wasted no time at all in setting out. The hot day was marked by hills shimmering a lazy dance in the distance as the sun seared the already dry earth, belying the fact that there had been such heavy rains only several days ago. Their journey was unpleasant, though thankfully brief, with the heat prickling their skin and causing their clothes to cling uncomfortably.

On arrival at the river, the men made quick work of unloading the buckboard of blankets and food hampers. They then scurried off as fast as they felt they could politely take their leave of the womenfolk. Finding an ideal location, just a hundred yards away around a bend in the river, they removed their shirts and stripped to their long johns behind some boulders.

Johnny, ever the physical man, was first into the refreshing depths of the water. He was like a fish, darting in and out, elusively shy of being caught. And the others were no match for this slippery eel, which would surface silently and unexpectedly from the water, but would refuse to take the bait. Scott thought he had him hooked several times, but Johnny would escape with a flick of his legs, turning sharply in a glistening burst of speed. They suffered dunkings galore, rarely being able to get their own back at him. Scott, however, mustered his troops, and after a while led several charges and masterminded their few successes. Michel was able to join in as an equal, his limp unnoticeable in the water. Even Murdoch, Pascal and Jelly participated, although they left most of the more rambunctious play to the three younger men. Murdoch even felt invigorated as the water supported and soothed his aching back.

The ladies, meanwhile, had headed downstream to an equally protected section of the river. Removing their too copious outer garments, they waded in, wearing their pantaloons and camisoles. They, too, were exhilarated by the water. All restraint was forgotten as they cavorted in the cool depths. Spraying and splashing each other, their squeals of delight travelled to the menfolk several hundred yards away.

Conscious of rumbling stomachs and the time they had neglected the ladies, the men finally emerged from their cool aquatic interlude. While Murdoch and Pascal chose to don fresh, dry underclothes, the others lay in the sun for a short while to let evaporation take its course and then proceeded to merely place their clothes on top on their damp undergarments. On such a warm day, it was one way they felt they could remain refreshed for longer.

Johnny, being the individual he was, chose to compound this cooling system, ambling over to the riverbank to dunk his shirt into the gently flowing water. Lifting out, he expertly wrung it and gave it a sharp couple of shakes and flicks. He lazily put it back on, stretching to insert his arms. The sodden shirt clung to the flesh of his torso and outlined the muscle definition created by the daily manual work on the ranch. He adjusted his shirt collar and fastened half of the toggles of his shirt. He left the top several undone, hoping to encourage some form of breeze to cool his skin.

Michel was ready first and set off to join the ladies. Johnny leapt up from wrestling with his belt and grabbed Michel’s arm unceremoniously, pulling him around to a halt. Michel glared viciously “Just what do you think you are doing?” he growled.

Johnny released him. “I was just about to ask you the same thing,” he countered in his familiar lilting drawl.

“What do you mean? I was going to join the ladies for lunch.” Michel’s anger was barely concealed.

“You know our system for the swimming hole. You heard me explain earlier. I said that I would whistle to warn the ladies when we were about ready.” Johnny eyed him steadily before continuing. “And I don’t aim to give them any unwanted surprises!”

“Johnny, settle down. Michel just forgot, that’s all,” Murdoch commanded.

“Yeah, sure, Murdoch. No problems,” Johnny placated Murdoch. “I was just making sure that we didn’t get the girls offside. Otherwise a man could end up real hungry. They’ve got the food over their way, remember!”

Johnny’s humour defused the tension which had suddenly been created, although Johnny did not miss Scott’s raised eyebrows aimed like arrows in his direction.

Johnny turned his face downstream then, and licking his lips he let fly with a shrill whistle, which fairly pierced the eardrums of those standing nearby. Scott had seen the preparatory movements of Johnny’s lips and tongue, so had turned and blocked his ears in time. Michel and Pascal were taken unawares. Michel, who was closer, jumped visibly in fright and pain, while Pascal merely cringed in surprise at the deafeningly high-pitched signal.

Taking several more minutes to tidy up their appearance and haul on boots, the men made haste to rejoin the ladies. Michel and Scott found themselves side by side.

“How was the swim, Michel?” enquired Scott.

“Just what I needed with all this heat,” responded Michel appreciatively.

“Yes, we don’t get to swim often enough. We should do it more often. I hope the ladies enjoyed it as much as we did.”

“I’m sure that the ladies made the most of their time, Scott. Speaking of the ladies, I was somewhat surprised that Elise partnered Johnny to the dance. I really thought you would have set your sights on her,” commented Michel.

“Well, she sure is one attractive and intelligent lady, but the fire’s just not there for either of us,” Scott replied.

“If that is the case, why hasn’t another eligible man in the valley made a move?” Michel persisted.

Scott looked at him, both surprised and amused. “He has.”

“Who has?”

“Johnny.”

“But surely their partnership at the dance is not truly serious?” Michel seemed blatantly surprised.

Scott glanced at his friend, a pleased smile curving his lips. “Oh, I think that it is definitely heading in the serious direction. I’m just curious to see how long it takes my little brother to get himself fully snared – hook, line and sinker.”

Scott finished with a laugh. He was enjoying watching his brother’s inevitable steps towards this serious relationship. Johnny’s growing happiness, which his brother thought he was concealing so well, gladdened Scott’s heart immensely. He wanted so much for his brother to find contentment and fulfilment.

“I guess that I am a little surprised. I thought that Elise would not find a lot in common with Johnny,” confessed Michel.

Scott stopped walking and looked at Michel unwaveringly, before replying evenly and icily. “Johnny hasn’t had our advantages, but no woman will find a more astute, loyal and dependable man than Johnny. He’s more than a match for her in all ways. And he’s smart. Not book learning smart, but he has one quick mind. They are good for each other, Michel.”

Michel gave an ingratiating smile. “If you say so, Scott. After all, you know your brother better than anyone.”

Michel’s smug look was too much for Scott. His ire was raised. “Damned right I do! Get this straight, Michel! Just stop with the disparaging marks and lay off Johnny. I don’t know what has got into you or what problem you imagine you see, but he is my brother. He is special to me the way no one has ever been. You put him down and you are attacking me. Keep it up and you just might cause me to retaliate, because I will NOT have my brother denigrated any more! Do you understand me?”

Scott’s avid defence of his sibling appeared to startle Michel.

“I … I am sorry, Scott. I suppose he is different to any brother I would expect you to have. It has been a surprise for me. You are quite right to be annoyed with me and my slow acceptance of him. I apologize.”

Michel did not wait for a response. Discretion being the better part of valour, Michel dropped the topic and once again began walking to the picnic area.

Scott continued to stare after him thoughtfully as Michel covered the remaining section before meeting up with the womenfolk.

The women greeted the men cheerfully. Having heard Johnny’s shrill warning, they had readied themselves hastily. As everyone all settled down with anticipation to investigate the contents of the hampers, Johnny became aware that he was under surreptitious surveillance. Glancing round, his arrestingly blue eyes locked with a pair of golden green ones looking somewhat embarrassed at being caught out. That they had been keenly perusing his damp shirt was evident to him. His eyes teased her, aware of her discomfort and he chuckled inwardly when she suddenly became engrossed in clumsily unwrapping a towel from a bundle of food.

The picnicking group did Maria proud. She had prepared thick beef and cheese sandwiches, plastered with her spicy relishes. To keep everything fresh, it had all been wrapped in towels and packed in hampers. Accompanying this were fried chicken pieces, grapes from the vines in Teresa’s garden, hard boiled eggs, watermelon and chunky apple pie. Little was left by the time their appetites were sated. Lemonade, which had been left in the river to cool, was gratefully appreciated as it washed down their casual feast.

The hot day combined with the large meal had its effect. Conversation became desultory and one by one they found places in the shade to lie languidly. The stream gurgled in the background, its soothing bubbling having a somnolent effect. The peaceful birdcalls provided a muted chorus to accompany the snuffling snores of Murdoch. Deep and even breathing settled on the group as an impromptu siesta became the order of the day.

About an hour later, Elise woke. Not wanting to disturb the others, she picked her way quietly through the group and headed out of sight into the trees for some privacy. As she made her way back to the group, the still forceful heat from the sun prompted her to sit on a flat boulder under the canopy of a nearby tree. Removing her shoes and stockings, she dangled her feet in the water, gently swishing her toes in circles and relishing in the cooling effect it seemed to have over her whole body. So intent was she on the sheer pleasure the refreshing river gave her, she jumped when an unexpected body sat down next to her.

She turned to Michel, greeting him. Feeling rather cramped on the rock with his body touching hers, she moved over a little to allow him some more space. He, too, dangled his feet in the water. Both enjoyed the sheer creature comfort of the water flowing between their toes and swirling around their ankles before either spoke again.

“Do you know that this is the first time we have had a chance to speak to each other alone?” queried Michel.

Elise turned to him, surprised. “I hadn’t really thought about it, but yes, you are right.”

Michel glanced over at her, smiling confidently. “So, we should make sure that we have an interesting conversation. None of the usual superficial niceties, don’t you think?”

Intrigued at where this was leading, Elise frowned. “What sort of interesting conversation are you thinking of?”

“I suppose why such a lovely lady has chosen to work here instead of in a larger town like Sacramento or San Francisco, or even why you have set out on an adventure without your family.”

Elise chewed her lip thoughtfully. “I’ll answer in reverse. I was chaperoned to start with. I travelled with couples I knew. It was only when I got to San Francisco that I saw the advertisement and decided I would like to see what the real west was like. And I am at Morro Coyo only for twelve months, unless the contract is extended.  It is certainly different from what I have known in the past, but I love it. The people are wonderful. It feels good here.”

“You don’t wish to return to San Francisco or back east?”

“Oh, I presume I will. At the moment, I just want to make the most of it. You never know what’s in the future.”

“No, you don’t. When I accepted Scott’s invitation to come here, I never suspected that I would meet such a beautiful, intelligent and cultured woman so far from civilization.”

Elise sat still. This declaration unsettled her, but more so she found it unwelcome. “Well, thank you, but I’m sure you know many such women in Boston and near your ranch.”

“No, I do not. It took a trip here to meet such a prize.” Michel ploughed on, seemingly unaware of the shudder she experienced. “Indeed, I thought that Scott would have snapped you up,” he commented matter-of-factly.

With forthrightness and not just a little indignation, Elise responded. “Well, seeing I am not a prize at the fair and I am not an object for sale, I am not about to let myself be ‘snapped up’, as you put it, like a bargain.”

Michel turned his head and smiled across at her. “You may not want to be an object snapped up by a man, but women really don’t have that much say in the matter. A woman needs a husband to care for her and guide her. Security is far better for a woman than any ideas of independence and choice. She needs a man to provide for her and tell her what is good for her.”

After pontificating his viewpoint, he reached over and planted his hand on her thigh. Shock and revulsion overwhelmed her. Elise recoiled, jumping up quickly in her haste to escape these unwanted attentions. As she scrambled over the rocks, she bumped into the firm body of Scott. Johnny stood by his side, an intensely concerned look on his face.

“Whoa!” said Scott as he grasped her by the elbows. “You’re a lady in a hurry!”

She stopped, strengthened and settled by his touch. Elise looked up at him, then glanced over at Johnny. She swallowed and took a breath to hide just how flustered she felt. “Yes,” she bluffed, “I just realized that I have been here for a while and I was concerned that the shade may have shifted. I wanted to check that Teresa and Sarah were out of the sunshine.”

“No need. They are awake and packing up,” Scott reassured her.

“Well, if that’s the case, I’d better go and help.” With that, Elise pulled away and graced the boys with a strained smile before returning to the tree line.

Johnny watched her go, eyes narrowed, but not from the sun. Elise was moving like a skittery rabbit who knew a hunter had it in his sights. Hopping erratically from boulder to boulder, her movements were not those of the assured woman he knew.

Johnny turned his pensive gaze to Michel. He was chatting to Scott who had walked over to the river’s edge to join him. Scott, too, had removed his boots for a quick and refreshing paddle. There was a burst of laughter in response to something amusing. Nothing appeared to be amiss. Not from Michel’s viewpoint at least. But Johnny did not come down with the last shower of rain. He would make sure he found out just what had rattled Elise so badly.

Bending over, he picked up Elise’s shoes and stockings, left abandoned in her haste. Johnny knew that she would be mighty uncomfortable without her footwear, yet she made no attempt to come back to retrieve her shoes. The big question was why?

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

Dusk wrapped its cocooning cloak around Lancer as they returned to the hacienda. The general mood was carefree after the relaxed day away from chores in honour of Pascal and Michel’s impending departure.  Two of the group, however, were more tense than when they had left in the morning.

On arrival, Pascal and Michel made their way to their rooms to finalize their packing. The ladies unpacked the picnic items and helped Maria with the final supper preparations while the Lancer men saw to the buckboard and the horses.

Scott and Johnny worked side by side, words unnecessary due to habit. It wasn’t until they had finished grooming the horses that Scott spoke to Johnny. “Care to talk, brother?”

“What about?”

“About whatever it is that’s eating you.”

“Ain’t nothing eating me, Boston,” Johnny denied.

Scott sighed. Leaning his arms on the top plank of the stall, he studied his brother putting away the last of the brushes. A man of rather sloppy personal habits, there were few things Johnny was methodical about. The currycombs were one of those. His beloved Barranca, his gun and his saddle and tack were amongst the others.

“You’ve been quiet since just before we left the river,” Scott insisted.

“I’ve been busy on the ranch, Scott. I guess I just got a bit plumb tuckered out with all that food, fresh air and swimming.” Johnny’s easy grin slid over his face, but failed to reach his eyes and did not deceive Scott.

Scott persisted. “Anything I should know, Johnny?”

“Nope! Ain’t nothing wrong, brother.”

Scott dropped his head with a sigh, then snapped it up.

“Has Michel stepped out of line? He’s been rather stand-offish with you.”

Johnny’s eyes flickered and Scott detected the minuscule pause in Johnny’s movement as Johnny closed the stall door.

“No,“ Johnny lied. “Things are fine, Scott.”

“Are you sure, Johnny?”

Johnny looped his arm over Scott’s shoulders. “Yep.” Slapping Scott’s chest with his other hand, he continued, “Come on, let’s get inside. This is Pascal and Michel’s last night. You don’t want to waste any time you could spend with them … not to mention the lovely Sarah!”

Scott was not fooled, but he allowed himself to be led back to the hacienda. It didn’t stop him wondering what was on Johnny’s mind.

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

A festive air dominated the supper that evening. As they were about to start, Murdoch called for attention. The hubbub died down as his family and guests turned towards him.

“Just before we start, I’d like you to all charge your glasses. We’ve had the pleasure of Pascal and Michel’s company for the past week. We’ve enjoyed meeting Scott’s friends from Boston and hope that they have enjoyed staying here. Tomorrow morning when we sign the contracts for the breeding programme, both families should also benefit financially. It has been a prosperous encounter for us all. I’d like you all to join me in wishing them a safe return home.”

The Lancers and their guests drank a toast to the two Frenchmen, which was followed by a brief thank you from Pascal. Dinner conversation flowed as the meal was consumed heartily by all diners.

Retiring to the Great Room afterwards, they all set about various activities. Pascal and Murdoch continued their in-depth discussions on ranching and politics, which had governed most of their conversations, while Scott and Michel’s tactics clashed over a game of chess. Johnny was happy to lead Jelly a merry dance over the checkerboard, a situation producing much muttering and ‘harrumphing’ from the handyman. The ladies made the most of having some female company, fashion being high on the priority list to discuss.

A while later the three ladies left the room to assist Teresa in some suggestions for trimming a new Sunday dress she had been sewing. Elise then left them to it as Sarah became sidetracked exploring Teresa’s collection of ladies’ journals.

Taking the back stairs through the kitchen, she strolled out into the garden, enjoying the combined fragrances of Teresa’s lavender, roses and jasmine. The night was still warm, but the scented air was refreshing.

She heard steps behind her. At first she presumed it was Johnny, but she then distinguished the unmistakable uneven sound of Michel’s limp. As he drew even, she turned around.

“Aha,” he said by way of greeting, “I have found the most delightful rose in the garden. A rose that eclipses all else for beauty. A rose to be appreciated. A rose bud just ripe for the plucking.”

Elise took an involuntary step backwards as the fervour of his words hit her. His compliment barely managed to veil an unsavoury undercurrent. Once again, she was unsettled by this man.

Electing to try humour to deflect the man’s odd comments, Elise made light of his remark. “Well, I don’t think that Teresa needs any more flowers in the hall vase. Picking anything in this heat is a waste of time, anyway!”

Michel smiled smoothly. “Oh, that is where you are wrong! The heat of passion in the plucking process can cause a flower to bloom in a most becoming way.”

Elise stared at him, feeling nauseous at his innuendo. She made to brush past him, but he reached out and gripped her hand. She twisted and pushed against him, surprised at the strength of the man.

“Just where do you think you are going?” he enquired, his face uncomfortably close to hers.

“I’ve had enough fresh air for the moment, thank you.”

“That’s fine. I will see you later tonight, then.”

Elise attempted to put a stop to his attentions. “I don’t think so, Michel, I will be retiring shortly.”

“Precisely my point, my dear. I will join you later when everyone is asleep. You can bid me a more intimate farewell then.”

Elise’s sharply indrawn breath seemed to please Michel, a leer of desire settling over his features.

Furious at the effrontery of the man, she raised her other hand to strike him, but with unexpected reflexes he caught it easily, twisting it behind her back.

“How dare you! How dare you presume! Get your filthy hands off me!” she hissed malevolently at him.

“Oh, I can presume, my dear. If you do not do as I wish, I will dissuade my father from signing the contract in the morning. Is this how you would repay Murdoch Lancer for all his hospitality to you? And if you are thinking of mentioning this to anyone, I will simply say that you flaunted yourself at me and then sought revenge for my rejection of your advances. After all, any woman travelling alone in the west and working for a wage is really nothing but a strumpet. What else can she expect, giving men the come-on and parading herself unchaperoned in front of all and sundry?”

Elise was frozen to the spot, appalled by his blatant intention to molest her. He released her hands with a sneer of anticipation, which served to strike fear into the depths of her soul. Absently, she rubbed her wrists, mute shock evident on her face.

Michel confirmed his expectations. “I will see you later then, chérie, n’est-ce pas?”

Turning to leave, she had nearly made it to the porch when she came face to face with Johnny. Head down, she had not seen him until too late.

“Getting some fresh air?” enquired Johnny pleasantly.

Elise stopped, at first unable to reply. She found her voice, but it was quavering. Giving a slight cough as though to clear her throat, she then replied. “Yes, but I’ve had about all I need at the moment. I was just heading in.” After a pause, she added, “Good night, Johnny.”

He reached for her arm and held it gently. “Would you like to go check on the horses with me?” Johnny suggested, caressing her with his voice and knowing that she would comprehend his true meaning.

“No, thanks. Not tonight. I guess I’m more tired than I realized and I want to get back to town early in the morning. I may have given the children a mid term long weekend, but I have some work to do over at the schoolhouse.”

While Johnny in turn bade her goodnight, he was surprised that she did not look at him or wish to linger. She seemed distracted and even uncomfortable. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the lurking shape of Michel over by the garden bench had something to do with it.

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

Johnny had retired early as they all had. The Lancer lawyer from Green River was coming over early in the morning to oversee the signing of the contract with Pascal and Michel. This would allow Scott’s friends enough time to get to Morro Coyo for the mid morning stage.

But Johnny found sleep elusive. His instinct told him that something was wrong. He just couldn’t put his finger on it. Elise had not been herself since they left the river. Johnny knew that Michel was the cause of it, but was unsure what had actually occurred. There was something about Michel that he didn’t like, and it could be merely rooted in the racism that Michel had difficulty in concealing. Whatever that something was, it continually niggled at Johnny as far as the Frenchman was concerned. He just wished he knew what had transpired between Elise and Michel.

He had hoped for some time alone with Elise this weekend. It had not happened last night after the dance as he had hoped. A month ago, no woman had the power to keep Johnny sleepless, but now things were different. So Johnny tossed and turned, partly out of desire for Elise’s company and partly due to his unsettling concerns about Michel.

At about midnight, a faint noise put his senses on the alert. Johnny held his breath and concentrated. Someone was moving with the utmost care along the corridor. Johnny hastily donned some pants, but had no time for further clothing other than to accessorize with his gun. Opening his door a fraction, he peered along the corridor, just in time to see a figure disappear down the top of the stairs. He eased the door fully open, and entered the hallway, following with catlike grace. The figure left through the kitchen door and headed for the barn. Johnny stuck to the shadows and reached the barn door unnoticed.

A lamp was lit and the wick turned down low. One of the horses was being saddled. A blanket lay over the creature, which stood placidly even if it was displeased at having its repose disturbed. A saddle was lugged awkwardly and the figure lurched to one side and grunted as it threw the equipment over the steed’s back. It was at that point that Johnny stepped into the light directly behind the prowler and issued his challenge.

French phrase:

… Chérie, n’est-ce pas? – …dear, isn’t that so? / dear, won’t I?

 
Chapter Seventeen

“Just what in tarnation do you think you are doing?” His voice was sharp with anger.

The person whirled around to face him and drew in a terrified gasp of air as lightning fast hands withdrew a vicious carving knife from her belt. The arm arched up to strike in the same motion, but Johnny’s reflexes were far superior. He grasped the wrist and looked at her dead in the eye. Her face registered both consternation and dismay, then her shoulders sagged.

“Oh, Johnny, I’m so sorry. I thought you were someone else!” Shock was evident in her voice. After several beats she continued. “I could have hurt you!” she whispered in remorse.

“And I could have hurt you! What the heck are you doing prowling around at night-time? And why on earth are you saddling a horse now?”

This last question gave her a jolt. She drew in a deep breath then turned to the horse and began fumbling with the cinch, trying to get it fastened. Johnny looked on in amazement at her shaking fingers.

“Do you really want to get away from me that bad? You’re shaking like a leaf.” His comment, spoken so wistfully, stopped her dead.

She half turned to him. “No, Johnny. I don’t want to get away from you at all. I just need to get back to town tonight.”

“Well, that ain’t about to happen.” With that said, Johnny reached over for her shoulders and swivelled her around. “I think you’d better come clean and tell me what is so all-fired important in town that you have to make a midnight ride to return there.”

 

Johnny waited, but she said nothing. She seemed to be staring at a spot past his shoulders, but her eyes were unfocussed. Her concentration seemed to be on chewing her lip instead.

“Or maybe you could just tell me what has got you so upset,” he suggested.

Her head snapped back to him. “I’m not upset!” she denied.

“Could have fooled me. Your behaviour ain’t that of someone in a real happy frame of mind.”

“Look, Johnny, I just have to go. OK?” she pleaded.

“No, it ain’t OK. I’m not gonna let you ride off in the dark and injure yourself and your horse. I’m also not about to go back with you and risk Barranca getting an injury without a real good reason. So I’m all ears, little lady.” This last sentence was said so softly and lovingly that it was Elise’s undoing.

Her lips quivered and her face crumpled as tears welled in her eyes. Johnny was taken aback as they fell, coursing down her cheeks.

“Honey?” He reached for her and pulled her to him. Rubbing his hands on her back and muttering a soothing mixture of Spanish and English, much as he did when gentling a fractious horse, he held her as she sobbed quietly on his shoulder. Several minutes later, her shoulders had stopped heaving. He continued to hold her until she lifted her head. He loosened his hold and tried again. “Querida?”

She looked down, then bent to wipe her tear-streaked face on her skirts. When she finished, her mouth was set in a firm line and her face had a closed-off look to it.

“It’s nothing, really,” she blatantly lied.

Johnny sighed. “Yeah, I can see that. You always saddle a horse in the middle of the night. You always cry your heart out over nothing.” This did not earn him a reply. “Mi corazón, I am going to keep bugging you until you tell me, so you might as well just spill it!”

Elise started wringing the material of her skirts.

“Have I done something to upset you?”

She looked at him, startled. “Of course not, Johnny!”

“Well, that’s a relief at least!” Johnny smiled encouragingly at her. “So?”

Still no response was forthcoming.

Johnny decided to take a gamble. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with Michel, would it?”

Paydirt. She jumped as if he had slapped her. Her stricken look was too much for him.

Reaching for her hand, he led her to a nearby hay bale. He sat her down, but did not relinquish his grip on her hand.

“Now, what has Michel done or said to you? Don’t worry about niceties. Just get it said!”

She swallowed convulsively. Instead of wringing her skirts, she now brought her other hand to his and clasped his hand in both of hers. She kneaded his hand, totally unaware that she was doing so. She pleaded with her eyes.

“I can’t, Johnny!”

“Yes, you can. You’ll feel a lot better afterwards, believe me.”

Her hands still continued to unconsciously squeeze and rub his. Finally, she looked up at him, pleading. “Promise me you won’t do anything rash?”

“I ain’t promising anything until you tell me what is going on.”

She stared at him, Johnny’s steadfast return gaze bolstering her confidence. “Yes, it is Michel. He seems to think that I should be … entertaining him tonight. If I do not agree to do so, he will prevent the contract from being signed tomorrow morning.”

Johnny stared at her. A prolonged silence ensued before Johnny was capable of speech.

“Let me get this straight, he expects to … spend the night with you?”

She merely looked at him miserably. Johnny felt like the air had been stomped out of his lungs.

“What! That sleazy, low down b...!” Johnny chopped the words off, but only just.

He stood up suddenly and began to pace the floor, clenching his fists. Running his hands through his hair, he turned back to her. Realizing her distress, he quickly strode back to her, sat down and put his arms around her shoulders.

“Why?” he asked simply.

She jerked away, glaring at him. “I didn’t encourage him if that’s what you are thinking!” she spat.

“Oh, honey, I know that!” He wrapped his arm about her shoulders again and cupped her face with his free hand. “What I meant was why would he want to force himself on you or anyone for that matter, and especially when he knows that you and me’s got a thing going?”

“I don’t know, Johnny! All I know is that he started making advances today at the river. Well, actually, it probably started on the dance floor. I never gave him any cause to think I was interested in him!”

“Hey, I believe you!”

“Johnny, your father has been wonderful accepting me into his home, but I won’t be sacrificing my …um … chastity … for a Lancer contract!  If I get out of the house tonight, he can’t do anything to me.”

“Oh, sweetheart, Lancer can do without the contract!”

“Maybe, Johnny, but Murdoch said it would be lucrative and it’s awkward with Michel being Scott’s friend and all. I don’t want to make any fuss.”

“You got every right to make a fuss! By the time I’ve finished with him, he won’t be forcing himself on any more women!”

“No, Johnny. I don’t want you to confront him!”

“So I’m supposed to let him bully a defenceless woman? I’m just supposed to let him have his way with my girl? I don’t think so!”

Elise pleaded, catching his arm. “There has to be another way, Johnny. I don’t want this getting ugly and I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“This got ugly the moment he thought he was free to force unwanted attentions on you!” Johnny stopped, his voice catching. “I don’t want you getting hurt.” He stroked her cheek. “I’m going to stop him one way or the other.”

“Johnny, they are going in the morning. Don’t spoil their visit for Scott.”

Johnny looked at her incredulously. “When Scott finds out, Michel won’t be any friend of his,” he intoned grimly.

“Please, Johnny. I just need to get away.” Her eyes begged him to help. Her beautiful eyes. He leaned forward and kissed her gently on each eyelid, then rested his forehead on hers.

“Well, I ain’t about to let you ride back to town alone and even if I went back with you, it really is too dangerous for the horses. That cloud cover is blocking all moonlight. I think I will just face Michel now and tell him to pack his bags and get out.”

“No, please don’t make a scene. Whatever happens, Murdoch will blame you for things going wrong.”

“Well, I don’t care about that. And I think you’re wrong. Murdoch would not want the contract at the expense of you … suffering at the hands of Michel.”

“I just want to get away. They are leaving in the morning.”

“Aw honey, you shouldn’t have to run and you ain’t going to.”

Another silence followed as they both pondered the situation.

“There is another solution,” he suggested.

Elise moved to better see him. “What’s that?”

Johnny looked her boldly in the eye. “How about you sleep in my room tonight?”

Elise stared at him in surprise. She swallowed, then spoke with difficulty. “I … I … don’t know if that is a good idea, Johnny.”

“Don’t you want to stay with me?” Johnny nuzzled her cheek and ear.

“Um, I just .. um …couldn’t, Johnny. Not in your home with your family. It wouldn’t be right.  I … ” She broke off, realizing that Johnny was grinning mischievously. His eyes glimmered in a teasing fashion, bringing a tentative smile to her trembling lips.

“This is no time for joking, Johnny!” She completed her admonishment with a push to his ribs.

“Ouch! They’re still sore!” complained Johnny as he rubbed them gingerly.

“Sorry!” Her contrition struck him and he decided he should explain himself properly.

“Oh, I’m serious, Elise.  We could swap. How about you sleep in my bed and I sleep in yours? Can you imagine his face? Not quite the intimate occasion Michel had intended, but I’ll try not to disappoint him.”

Despite her distress, Elise giggled.

“What do you say?” Johnny urged.

Her brow wrinkled as she considered the repercussions.

“I guess that makes sense. It might just work. Thank you, Johnny.”

“If you change your mind at any time, just let me know!”

Elise looked at him askance. In a prim voice she assured him that that would not be the case. “In your dreams, Mr Lancer!”

Her mock schoolmarm severity did not last as he drawled seductively in her ear. “Oh yeah, my dreams have been mighty pleasurable lately! Ain’t you just a tiny bit disappointed on missing out on the real thing?”

“Not in the least!” Her dour answer was spoilt, however, by an impish smile curling at the edges of her lips that just maybe hinted at things to come.

Johnny brought her to him in a tight hug. “Come on, Elise, let’s get this poor beast back to his stall and us back inside.”

The animal bedded down, they quietly made their way to the hacienda. At the base of the stairs, they listened for any unusual sounds. Satisfied that all was well, they mounted the steps and headed to Elise’s room. Here she collected her nightgown, robe and hairbrush. He took her hand and the two of them padded quietly to Johnny’s room. He in turn picked up his holster, boots and shirt. Turning to her, he leaned in to give her a goodnight kiss. What began as a light, but tender, kiss endured for some time. Johnny lingered, his face just above hers.

“You sure you’re gonna be all right?”

"I will be now, thanks to you.”

“You make sure that you lock the door after me. Don’t open it unless you know who is on the other side. OK?”

“OK,” she murmured as she reached up for a longer kiss. “Just to keep you going to morning,” she explained. His dazzling grin was her reward.

Johnny left, closed the door and listened until he was satisfied that the lock was turned. He quickly arrived at Elise’s bedroom. Entering swiftly, he closed the door, but left it unlocked. Johnny donned his shirt, sucked his stomach in to tuck in the shirt-tails and then grabbed his holster. Jiggling the buckle until he had it aligned just right, he then quickly threaded the leather through and buckled it comfortably. He checked his gun, before settling down to wait.

Looking around the room, he could see that she kept it neatly. His eyes were drawn inexorably to her bed. Moving over to it, he stood and contemplated it. He reached down and smoothed out the quilt, allowing his hand to rest there, finger trailling the embroidered pattern on the material. Something glinting drew his eyes. Gold. His hands were drawn to it. Delicately, he picked it up and examined it. A strand of her golden hair lay against his fingers. Pure and sparkling, it glimmered in his palm, reminding him so much of the woman he had just left. A pure woman with a sparkling soul whose eyes reflected her hair colour and shone with vivaciousness. A woman who had managed all too easily to get under his skin. One very special lady.

Sitting abruptly, he picked up her pillow and held it to his face. He could smell the lavender scent she used. It permeated his senses. He lay down on her bed, clutching her pillow, letting his mind run rampant for a bit. The bed smelled of her. A very beguiling smell which brought a faint smile to grace his lips. But as his mind continued to work overtime, he was assailed by not so pleasant images. Those of Michel forcing himself on her in this very bed.

He suddenly sat up, grimfaced. Going to the blanket box at the bottom of her bed, he pulled out several spare pillows stored there. Next he rifled through her chest of drawers to see if she had a spare nightgown. Inserting one pillow into the nightgown he had discovered, he crossed back to the bed. Throwing back the covers, he placed the pillows in the shape of a human body, leaving the top of the nightgown visible near the pillow. Quickly rearranging the quilt, he eyed his handiwork. Satisfied that it would suit his purposes in the dark, he approached the armchair by the window and moved it to the corner to the far side of the door. A less comfortable chair, he placed opposite the armchair.

Johnny settled in the armchair, removed his gun and held it loosely in his lap. Jaw clenched, he began to wait it out.

It was just over an hour later that Johnny’s senses came on the full alert. He heard faint sounds coming from the landing, then he perceived surreptitious, uneven footsteps stop at the door. There was a pause before the handle turned and the door gradually opened. By the faint glimmer of the hall lamp, Johnny saw a silhouette emerge from the hallway. After closing the door, the figure stood still for several seconds and then made its way cautiously over to the bed.

No sound could be heard until Johnny cocked his gun, the clicking of the hammer amplified by the stillness of the night. The shape whirled around, but froze at Johnny’s hissed command.

“Don’t move and hands up!” Johnny leaned forward, struck a match on his boot and lit the wick of the table lamp. Taking care to keep Michel covered, he turned it up slightly. Johnny crossed one leg over the other and leaned back. To all intents and purposes he was calm and relaxed, but his manner belied his fury. He said nothing more for the moment. He just bided his time.

Michel broke the silence. “Johnny! I am so sorry. Have I accidentally entered your room?”

“No on both counts, Michel. You’re not sorry and you haven’t accidentally entered anywhere. You know full well whose room this is!” All Johnny’s years as Johnny Madrid were letting him down now as his true feelings surfaced. He stood abruptly, unexpectedly enough to cause Michel to jump and take an involuntary step backwards.

Keeping his gun levelled, Johnny walked up to him, slow and deliberate steps drawing him closer to his prey. Michel appeared to shrink further.

Just in front of him, he stopped. And stared. His fixed gaze transmitted all the disgust and rage welling up inside him.

“So, is this the French way of doing things, or just the Michel way? You see someone you like and you have your way? Just like that. Let’s just forget about the young lady’s opinion on the matter!” His last words were punctuated by sharp jabs to Michel’s chest.

“I don’t know what you are talking about!” blustered Michel.

“Oh, yes you do! Just how many other ladies have you done this to in the past? Is this the only way you can get the attention of a decent female?”

“You are not making any sense. Excuse me, it’s late. I need to retire!”

“Yeah, you’ll retire all right, to that chair over there! And in the morning, you and your father are going to sign that contract and then leave. You will not darken our doorstep again. Do I make myself clear?”

“I really don’t see how I could sign any contract given the way you are treating me. You can kiss your contract goodbye, Johnny. Your father and Scott will be none too pleased with your usual display of violent rashness!”

“Oh, you don’t want to see me violent or rash, Michel, I can promise you! You will go about everything as normal tomorrow morning. If you don’t, Pascal, Scott and Murdoch will find out how you treat the women of your acquaintance and what you threatened to do with Elise in particular.”

Michel made a move to leave, but Johnny halted him with a gun barrel to the belly. “Oh, no you don’t. You are going to sit and wait until dawn. I would hate you to get lost around the house in the dark again!”

Michel turned to sit on the bed, but was stopped by a single “No!” from Johnny. “Not on her bed. Get over to that chair in the corner!”

Indicating with a wave of his gun the ladder back chair he had previously repositioned opposite the armchair, Johnny’s menace forced Michel to take a seat.

Johnny sat as well. His glare did not falter, his hostility securing Michel as sure as handcuffs would have done.

It was only when the night sky altered, welcoming the grey invasion of the new dawn, that Johnny allowed Michel to rise. “Right, I will escort you back to your room. No sense in your getting lost again.” The sneer in Johnny’s voice, with the heavy emphasis on the last three words, made Michel visibly cringe. Motioning with his weapon, Johnny indicated that he should move to the door.

Johnny opened it silently and accompanied him downstairs to his room. As they reached Michel’s door, Johnny whispered, “Open it!”.

Once inside, Johnny again laid down his conditions. “Let there be no mistake about what is going to happen. You will stay in your room until you hear lots of household movement. Make sure you are packed. You will say nothing to your father and you will sign that contract. Then you will get the hell out of here. We don’t want your sort around our women! Understood?”

Michel gave a shaky nod of the head. He clenched his jaw shut and pure hate emanated in waves from his eyes.

Johnny returned upstairs. He knocked gently on his own door. Hearing a rustling of bedclothes, he waited patiently for Elise to reach the door. “It’s me, Johnny,” he informed her. The rattling of the key in the lock could be heard, then the door opened a crack. Elise peered out. She opened the door wider to admit him, in the process dazzling him with a smile that caused his breath to hitch. Her hair tumbled in a golden cascade over her shoulders and clung to the slight décolletage of her robe. Sensuous sleepiness still shrouded her being, but her smile alone acted like the sun evaporating a morning fog.

She looked at him expectantly. “Did he show up?”

Johnny took her hand. “Yeah, he showed up all right.”

“And?”

“And I told him what I thought of him.”

At this, Elise drew in her breath. Her eyes reflected her worry.

Johnny gently rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb, then caressed her wrists with delicate strokes of his sensitive fingers. “Don’t worry, querida, I didn’t do anything you’d be ashamed of.”

“So what did you do?” As always, Johnny noticed that she was succinct and to the point.

“I stayed with him in your room all night. I don’t think he found your chair too comfortable.” At that, Johnny gave her a brilliant grin. “But I didn’t let his discomfort get to me none!”

He continued when he noted her return smile. “I didn’t want him getting to you, Sarah or Teresa. I don’t trust that snake in the grass one hoot. I told him that if he didn’t sign the contract in the morning I’d tell his father about his intentions. He sure didn’t seem too happy about that.”

Elise nodded her head in approval, but a frown on concern appeared on her brow. “But did you get any sleep, Johnny?”

He looked at her. A shake of his head was his response, but on seeing her worry lines deepen, he added. “Hey, I had a good time seeing him squirm. I can catch up tonight. Anyway, we need to get you to your own room before everyone wakes up. Come on!”

Elise collected her few things, took his hand and followed him to her room. On entering, Johnny checked out her room, much to her amusement. Noticing her humour, he deadpanned, “Just making sure there are no foreign bugs around, especially frogs.”

She laughed softly, then pleased him no end by wrapping her arms around him in a hug. “Thank you. I don’t know what I did to be lucky enough to meet you, Johnny Madrid Lancer.”

Johnny didn’t know, either, but never one to forego an opportunity, he made the most of it. He returned the hug, his arms undulating along her contours as he swept them over her shoulders, waist and hips. He finally moved apart a little and gave her a gentle and subtle kiss, with a promise of much more to come at a later date. “You’re welcome.”

She sighed contentedly, the soft exhalation of pleasure arousing both his protective and primal instincts.

“I’d better get going to my own room. We don’t want to be caught in an embarrassing situation.” Giving her another brief kiss he turned to the door. Pulling it so it was just ajar, he peeked around it so he could survey the hallway. Satisfied it was empty, he bade her goodbye and closed the door softly.

Johnny straightened up and faced the direction of his room. As he did so, his eyes met those of his father who was just leaving his own bedroom. That Murdoch was shocked was obvious. His face was chiselled granite, set in a look of disbelief. He straightened his shoulders and glared at Johnny. But there was more than that. There was disgust and disappointment registered in his eyes.

Johnny did not avoid his father’s scrutiny. It was Murdoch who broke eye contact, making for the top of the stairs.

Johnny sighed a deep sigh. He seemed to be doing this a lot around his father lately, a habit he would like to break. Johnny cursed his bad timing and then cursed Michel extra. A few more hours and he could be rid of this slimy creature for good.

 
Chapter Eighteen

Warning: Adult themes and sexual innuendo. Mild swear words.

Johnny’s wordless brush with his father left him even more disgruntled. He headed out into the fresh air and spent a few moments with Brendan and Ross before they set out with Frank to deliver one of the Lancer bulls to its new home.

“You seem mighty quiet, Johnny. You OK? Say, why don’t you come with us? Relive old times, eh?” Brendan invited him.

Johnny refused. “No. Sorry boys. I’d like to, but I got a heap of things to do here.”

“Yeah, well I can’t say as I blame you. Elise is a lot kinder on the eye than this bull!”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile agreement with Brendan’s opinion.

“When do you expect to be back?” he asked.

“Should be Friday at the latest,” Ross answered.

“OK, see you then.” Johnny watched them leave before squaring his shoulders to join his family for breakfast.

Before he could head indoors, he found that he had still more company. Pascal had been watching from the porch. The Frenchman strolled over to join him. He leant his back on the corral and watched Frank leave with Johnny’s friends.

“I guess we will be the next ones to take that road this morning, Johnny,” Pascal observed.

“I guess so,” affirmed Johnny.

“So how will you be filling in your day after we leave?”

“Well, I might just play hooky and go for a ride with Elise … while Scott catches up on some of them chores he owes me!” Johnny suggested, a wicked grin plastered over his face.

Pascal gave a genuine laugh. “And I bet you’ll make sure he pays you back with interest.”

Johnny laughed, letting it rumble deeply in his chest. “Oh, I’d want him to think that I was extracting my just repayment, but if the truth be told, I actually prefer to work with him rather than separately.”

“Yes, it shows.”

Pascal appraised him and considered his words.

”You know, Johnny, when we saw Scott and he said he had a brother, I was very pleased for him. But that was then, before I got to know you.”

Johnny’s head snapped over to Pascal, eyes piercingly blue, eyebrows cocked, a frown clouding his handsome features.

“We saw little of you in Stockton, but I have observed you while you weren’t watching here at Lancer.”

“Oh, I was watching all right.” Johnny’s voice came out quiet, smooth and controlled. Its deadliest form.

Pascal looked him in the eye. He nodded absently, but oddly with approval. “Yes. Not much escapes you.”

“And just what did you observe, Pascal?” Johnny asked, almost daring Pascal to be negative.

“I observed Scott Lancer’s brother. In some ways almost the antithesis of Scott, but in other ways a mirror image. A proud man with ethics. A hard worker. A man with compassion. I have seen a man who is a true friend, confidant and rock for Scott. And I have witnessed a very happy Scott Lancer, who seems to have grown as a man. A more confident, capable and relaxed man.”

“Yeah, well you should never let that dandy exterior fool you! He was confident and capable when he arrived here.”

“Maybe, but more so now. He’s different. He is more at ease with himself. More self assured. And he’s content. He owes that to you. It gladdens my heart to see him with you. You are good for him. So now I am more than pleased that Scott has you for a brother. And you are not just any brother. Your relationship is special. Treasure it and nurture it, Johnny. It may sound strange, but I am relieved he has this bond with you. He is a remarkable man and he deserves a remarkable brother to help him make up for all those lonely, missed years.”

Johnny’s face registered surprise, but Pascal continued before Johnny could speak.

“You see, in some ways I felt like a surrogate father to Scott. Not that I would presume now, of course. He has Murdoch in his life now. He spent a lot of time with us growing up. He didn’t get to laugh much as a youngster. Harlan, while a friend of mine, is a rather austere man. Not given to frivolities and spontaneous bursts of affection, you know.”

“Oh, you ain’t telling me nothing I don’t know. What gets me is that Scott has any sense of humour at all with that old goat for a grandfather!” Johnny stopped, suddenly aware that he was talking to a friend of Harlan’s.

Pascal smiled a wry smile. “A very apt description in some ways. He could affect some people like that, but he also has his good points. He did raise Scott to the best of his ability.”

Johnny dipped his head and nodded.

“Yeah. Scott would be the first to say so, too.”

“Yes, Scott is a generous man. He was always so good for Michel, who was so shy and unsure of himself when he was younger. His crippled leg and his early language limitations set him apart from the other young boys. Scott was responsible for drawing him into his local circle of friends. But I often thought that there was something lacking in his life, and I don’t mean just parents.”

Pascal reached out with his hand to pat Johnny on the shoulder. “That missing something turns out to be you. He not only has a brother, but a brother to be proud of. A brother he can lean on when needed. A brother he can laugh with and work with side by side to consolidate his birthright. It has pleased me no end to see him joking with you and so comfortable with life. So, from someone who may have helped guide Scott when he was younger, I thank you.”

Johnny was tongue tied. He had not expected this. He was both embarrassed and conscious that he could hardly return the compliment to this man about his own son. He finally thought of something to say.

“Well, it’s me who’s giving thanks that he’s my brother. We’ve missed out on so much, but better finding him later than never at all. And you never know who I could have ended up with for a sibling. It could have been any one of the prize galoots I’ve come across over the years. Now, THAT would have been a real let down!”

Johnny’s lopsided grin infected Pascal, who joined him in his merriment.

“I take your point, Johnny. Well, breakfast is served, I believe, so I am going to take advantage of my last sumptuous repast here before we leave. Oh, and the lawyer arrived around the front some minutes ago, by the way. See you at the breakfast table.”

“OK, I’ll be in soon.”

Johnny stood there, his mind racing. He had been contemplating telling Pascal about his son’s morals, but felt like the wind had been whipped right out from under his sails. The top rail of the corral supported his forearms as he leaned forward. He cushioned his head in the pillow created by his arms and took several deep breaths.

As he had done all night, he considered possible actions. Elise wanted him to leave it alone, knowing that Michel and Pascal would be gone in just a few hours. But Lancer would now be tied to them financially for a time to come. The thought of dealing with this scum at a business level at a later date made his stomach churn. Yet he also knew that Scott would not want anything to do with Michel if he knew what Michel had threatened to do to Elise. And he did not relish being the one to take one of the few happy links to Scott’s childhood away. Maybe they could just deal with Pascal, rather than Michel, if there were any future contracts. Johnny didn’t know quite which was the best option. What he did know is that he felt unable to deal with it the way he would like to do so and felt hamstrung as he considered the impact on them all individually.

It was Elise’s supplication that came back to haunt Johnny and which made up his mind. He would see this through her way and then see them off the property.

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

The Lancer lawyer, Thaddeus Greenslade, had indeed arrived early as promised. Joining the Lancers and their guests for a hearty breakfast, he made the most of his opportunity to replenish the energy expended on his unaccustomed early morning ride. Breakfast talk was lively, but not enough to hide the subdued demeanours of Johnny and Michel, and the barely suppressed antagonism of Murdoch towards Johnny. After the meal, the men went to the Great Room in readiness to sign the necessary papers. Scott pulled Johnny aside as they left the kitchen.

“Hey. Talk to me, brother. What’s going on?” Scott probed.

Johnny looked at him in surprise. “Sorry, Boston. I don’t know what you are talking about.” His younger brother feigned. He tried to move past his too observant sibling, but Scott barred him with his arm.

“Well, let’s try this for size. Michel is clammed up tight. He’s not a happy guest at all. Murdoch kept flinging daggers of anger at you all through breakfast. You steadfastly ignored both Michel and Murdoch. But the main cause for my concern is that you didn’t eat one mouthful over breakfast. You mangled, squashed, butchered, hacked and mutilated your food, but none of this occurred with your teeth. Your fork was the sole utensil to claim this happy experience. This means that you are either sick or you have had a run in with the aforementioned. So, what’s up?”

“Nothing that a signed contract and a few hours won’t fix.”

Scott looked sceptical and remained fully aware that he was being left deliberately in the dark. Johnny backhanded Scott on the chest. “Come on, brother, let’s get this done. Sealing a good deal will put the Old Man in a happier frame of mind.”

Of that, Scott had no doubt. He just wanted to know why his father was in a sour frame of mind to start with. Or a sour frame of mind with Johnny, to be more accurate.

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

Signing the contract took little time. The men perused them to check for any errors, then put ink to paper. Johnny watched carefully when it was Michel’s turn to sign. The Frenchman took the pen, dipped the nib into the ink, fastidiously wiped the excess off on the side of the inkwell, then poised the pen above the paper. His hesitation lasted long enough to cause Johnny’s heart to race a little, but then he signed decisively. With meticulous care, he blotted his signature and raised his eyes to Johnny. Johnny flinched inwardly at the visible malevolence surging towards him.

Goodbyes were also accomplished swiftly. Both men had packed and their bags had been brought down before breakfast. Hands had already loaded them onto the buggy. The two families shook hands warmly. Johnny and Michel did not. Neither man offered his hand to the other and vibrations of dislike between them were palpable to all.

Jelly was seconded to drive the visitors into town, there being a backlog of ranch chores for Scott to see to. They drove off on time to catch the mid morning stage from Morro Coyo, a flurry of waves diminishing as they proceeded along the curved road to the local town.

Silence fell on the porch. Not for long, however.

“Johnny! Inside the Great Room. Now!” This bellowed command from Murdoch could not be ignored. The patriarch thumped his way inside, leaving Johnny to follow. Johnny bowed his head and counted slowly, enjoying the few seconds’ peace before the inevitable explosive interview with Murdoch.

The others looked at him. They had picked up that all was not well with Johnny and Michel, but apart from Elise, no one was any the wiser as to the reasons for the escalation of this enmity. Johnny looked back at them, gave a tight grimace and a tiny shrug of his shoulders before tracing his father’s steps into the hacienda.

When Johnny reached the room, Murdoch was facing the large picture window, hands thrust deeply into his pockets. Keeping his back to Johnny, he did not let any subtlety get in the way of finding out the truth behind the morning’s surly attitude from his younger son.

“Just what the devil did you think that you were doing this morning? Your churlishness could have sunk the deal! Explain yourself!”

“There ain’t nothing to explain.”

At this, Murdoch whirled around. “What? You think in the world of business you can afford to treat people like dirt? A good businessman chooses not to let any personal feelings get in the way of a good deal if it’s for the good of the whole enterprise. Your uncivil attitude, not to mention your appalling lack of manners in not shaking hands with Michel, could have cost Lancer dearly. Not just me and Scott, but you, too. You are a partner in this. You have a responsibility to see that a good contract is not jeopardised.”

Johnny calmly held his father’s gaze. “I didn’t jeopardise anything. The contract was signed, just like we arranged.”

“No thanks to you! What if they had had second thoughts? If you are going to pull your weight around here, you are going to have to be a little more perspicacious! Otherwise you are just going to be a liability to Lancer!”

Johnny would have been dense not to have understood Murdoch’s meaning, but he couldn’t resist goading him. “Well this uneducated son doesn’t have the refinement to understand that ‘pers’ word. Why don’t you try plain English?”

“It means being able to discern what is happening and the best way to go about things. Having insight. Everything you do is gung-ho and ham-fisted.”

“Well, Old Man, sometimes there’s a right and a wrong way of doing things, and other times the best way just might be a different way. Your insight ain’t necessarily foolproof by anyone’s imagination.” Johnny paused, head down and breathing sharply through his nose before lifting his head and continuing. “But let’s get this straight, I don’t ever aim to do anything to harm Lancer or my family. I look after my own and those I care about. I just might not do it quite the same way you would.”

“No, you most certainly don’t. I wouldn’t call sneaking out of a young lady’s bedroom at dawn under this very roof any decent way of looking after those you care about! Compromising a lady’s reputation is hardly the way for any well brought up man to behave.”

Johnny’s blood boiled. His fists clenched in rage and his flared nostrils were pinched as he sucked in enough air to calm himself down and keep him from slamming his fist into his father’s face.

“Well, I ain’t your average well brought up young man. Nobody brought me up. I did it all by myself, remember? And how dare YOU sully a lady’s reputation or comment on my private affairs anyway!”

“And how dare YOU have the contempt to treat my home like a brothel!”

Johnny moved forward, his self-control snapping. Only a hefty pull by Elise on his arm drew him to a stop.

“Enough!”

The shouted order caused both men to pause. Both had been so wrapped up in their altercation, they were unaware of the audience had been watching all the while.

Elise made her way determinedly forward. Murdoch, however, was in no mood for any interference. “If you will excuse us, this is between my son and me.”

“No, it’s not, especially when you drag me into it!” Elise glared, but did not give him time to respond. “You are incredible. You have the gall to smugly flaunt perspicacity as an attribute, yet the only one displaying that in this whole family is Johnny. He is the one who made sure that the contract was not jeopardised. He was the one you should be counting your lucky stars had the insight to solve a problem in a way which caused no unfortunate repercussions to anyone.”

“Elise, my dear, I repeat that this is between Johnny and myself. I would ask you to leave the room, please.”

“No, not until you hear a few home truths.”

Elise continued. “Yes, Johnny spent the night in my room,” Gasps of shock from Sarah and Teresa met this bald and unashamed statement, interrupting Elise. This gave her time to survey the distaste and embarrassment on Murdoch’s face. She pursued her explanation after a pause. “… while I spent the night in Johnny’s room.”

Murdoch’s discomposure gave way to puzzlement. He couldn’t help himself. “Why?”

Here, Elise glanced over apologetically at Scott. “Because Michel threatened to come to my room and …um … seduce me in the night while everyone was asleep.”

The single word “What!” was echoed by several of those present, none so loud as by Scott. “What do you mean?” Scott demanded, as he drew level with them, facing Elise.

“He made mild advances to me at the dance. Nothing obvious, just out of place contact. Then at the river, he made overtures to me. Last night when I took a turn in the garden, he followed me and was blatant. He told me that he would be visiting my room that night and if I did not let him … have his way with me, he would not sign the contract and would get his father to pull out of the deal. He said that I owed you, Murdoch, not to mess things up for you.”

While Elise had blushed in embarrassment, it was Murdoch who went a deeper shade of red from shame that this encounter had occurred in his home.

Noting the shocked expression on his face, she continued. “Johnny guessed that Michel was making unwanted advances to me. He followed Michel.” Here Murdoch went an even deeper shade of vermillion as the implications of the tawdry situation struck home further. “He didn’t hear what was said, but he did prevent Michel from acting on any propositions then.”

She looked at them all then, before continuing. “I didn’t know what to do, so I thought the best thing was not to be here. No matter how kind you have been to me, I was not going to sacrifice my virtue to further your business interests. Johnny caught me saddling my horse at midnight. He wouldn’t let me ride out in the dark, so he suggested that we swap rooms.”

An ‘Oh!’ was all Murdoch muttered. He glanced to his son who had dropped his eyes to the floor.

At that, Elise turned to look Murdoch fixedly, clear eyes unflinching. “It’s ironic that you have been berating Johnny for not having insight and for being too gung-ho, yet he was the one to find a simple solution, without relying on violence, which did not impinge on the success of the contract. He looked after Lancer. He looked after your finances. And he looked after my welfare into the bargain.”

Elise speared Murdoch with her eyes. “And just to put you straight about your son’s propriety, Johnny has always treated me with the utmost respect and courtesy. He is a gentleman through and through. I could think of a few people who could take lessons from him. The trouble is, it seems that whatever Johnny does is just not good enough for you. Even when he doesn’t do anything wrong, it’s like he doesn’t meet your high expectations because he has done something differently.”

Murdoch was acutely uncomfortable. He was shaking his head. “I’m so sorry,” he uttered. “I had no idea.”

“Damn straight!” she swore. “You never really seem to have much of an idea when it comes to Johnny. And it’s not me you should be apologising to.”

“Yes, it is,” Johnny spoke up, ignoring the reaction to Elise’s strong words. He stared at Murdoch. “What you insinuated about Elise’s morals was unforgivable.” His face was hard, his desire to punch his father ate at him like acid poured on flesh.

Murdoch was devastated that he had so badly misread the recent events. “Johnny is right, Elise. I had no right to jump to conclusions about your … nocturnal activities. I can only repeat how clearly sorry I am.”

“Yeah, you got that right, Murdoch. You had no right. Condemning other people’s morals is a bit rich coming from you. Just who was gung-ho when he compromised my mother’s reputation? You didn’t exactly wait until the wedding band was on her finger, did you?”

Johnny’s challenge stunned the ladies in the group. This was news to them.

Murdoch looked like he was about to explode, his face seeming to inflate with fury. Here, Scott intervened before any more regrettable words were spoken. “Elise, I did not realize what Michel was up to. How can you ever forgive me for bringing him here? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s your friend, Scott. I didn’t want to cause trouble and Murdoch had said how important that contract was to Lancer.”

Murdoch, choosing to ignore Johnny’s previous outburst, took his turn to interrupt. “Not more important than your welfare, Elise. I would never have signed if I had known.”

Elise smiled at him, linking arms with Johnny at the same time. “But you did sign. Because Johnny looked after things, you got your contract and I was protected. So I guess you could say all’s well.”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, that’s not the case at all. It seems like I need to speak to my son man to man. Perhaps if everyone would leave us alone for a while?”

The forthright schoolmarm expressed her scorn, eyes flashing sparks of molten gold. “Oh, so you chew Johnny out in public, but apologize in private when you are wrong?”

“No, that’s not the case. I have to admit that I owe Johnny a huge apology. He thought on his feet and did it well. I was wrong to condemn his actions. In fact I don’t know if I could have handled it as well if a lady I was attached to was under such a threat.”

Johnny did not speak, but gave a slight dip of his head in acknowledgment of the apology.

There was an awkward pause, broken by Scott who suggested that he and the ladies retire to the kitchen for a cool glass of lemonade.

This left Johnny and Murdoch in the room. Murdoch walked over to the drinks cabinet and poured a healthy slug for each of them. He offered one to Johnny, who took it, although he queried it with a raised eyebrow. “I know it’s a bit early in the day, John, but lemonade doesn’t really appeal to me at the moment.

They drank in silence. Johnny’s jaw was clenched, a muscle making itself visible by working spasmodically.

Murdoch ran his fingers through his hair. He was uptight and scowling through his agitation. His brow cleared a little as he addressed Johnny.

“I seem to have underestimated you, Johnny. In fact, it seems that I have been doing so for a while. The Ramirez contract and the bank deal have brought some things home to me. I don’t know why I haven’t given you the recognition you deserve.”

“Don’t you? Just think about it some.” Johnny’s terse response had Murdoch staring at his profile.

He honestly pondered Johnny’s suggestion and took up the challenge.

“You said earlier that you brought yourself up. Sadly, and you don’t know just how sad this makes me, this is true. You had nothing. No material wealth. No one to guide you. Scott had everything. I suppose that I have never really expected you to have any savvy in the world of business deals, Johnny. Scott has studied law, accounting and contracts. He has had mentors and guidance in brokering. I automatically presume he knows what he’s doing and that you don’t. I’m sorry for not seeing your innate talents and your potential. I’m sorry for not letting you use them.”

A snort of derision interrupted Murdoch. Johnny was shaking his head. “Murdoch, every time I took on a new job I was brokering a deal, and I don’t just mean for money. Every time I confronted someone, bartering of some type would take place. I had to assess real fast what was a liability and what was an asset. Or who, for that matter. Scott’s experience was related to book learning, mine to a simple matter of life or death. It kinda makes a person a real quick learner. It’s the quick and the dead out there.” Johnny paused to take a healthy gulp of the alcohol before continuing. “Hell, Murdoch, my whole childhood was spent brokering and negotiating. I just didn’t use Harvard rules.”

It was so obvious, but Murdoch had never considered this before. His stomach lurched at the stark truth of the difference in lifestyles his sons had experienced in their youth. While Scott had been battling columns of figures, Johnny had been battling for his life. The practicalities of staying alive had indeed made his younger son astute.

“Son, for what it’s worth, I am proud of you. Proud of what you achieved in Stockton, proud of the way you looked after both Elise and the contract and proud of you as the man you have become. I know that I am going to need to revise my thinking and actions. I know I need to include you more in the decision making at Lancer. You and Scott both. ”

Johnny did not respond. He seemed lost in thought. He appreciated what his father was saying, but hated it that he felt that Murdoch was being forced into such admissions.

Receiving no reply, Murdoch continued. “And now we have this damned contract. We need to talk about how we can get out of it. You, Scott and me. We need to discuss the possibilities. I would never have signed if I had known, son. I would never want anything bad to happen to Elise.”

“I know, Murdoch. So does Elise. Just let it stand, OK? But don’t expect me to deal with Michel. Pascal is all right, but that son is a different kettle of fish.”

“Yes, entirely. I just can’t believe he would have the temerity to do that to Elise … and as a guest in this house.”

Murdoch stopped, shaking his head in dismay over the situation, before continuing. “Your young lady doesn’t pull any punches. She shows a lot of grit when she believes in something … or someone.” Murdoch’s voice softened as he looked hard at his son.

This time there was a response. A tiny secret smile graced his son’s lips, then Johnny looked up, nodding his head slightly. “Yeah, she’s really something.” The grin got broader. “Don’t know that she’s actually my young lady, though.”

Murdoch smiled in return, genuine humour lighting his blue eyes. “Well, maybe you ought to do something about that. Broker some sort of deal there?”

Johnny laughed at that. The first real light-heartedness he had felt that day. “That’ll be some deal. She’s pretty shrewd.” Then, more sombrely, he added, “But I don’t know that I’m much of a bargain.”

This jolted Murdoch. While he had been guilty of undervaluing Johnny’s intellect and insightfulness, it had never occurred to Murdoch that Johnny himself held doubts over his ability to hold his own.

“You are more than a bargain, Johnny. You would be a prize to the right woman.”

Johnny’s face registered pleased surprise at the unexpected compliment. “Thank you.” He started to move off when he turned to face his father once more. “Murdoch… I’m sorry about what I said. About you and Mama. I was out of line.”

His father held his gaze. “I had insulted your relationship with Elise, and if anyone had the right to call me a hypocrite, it has to be you in this case.”

Murdoch fidgeted uneasily with his collar and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry we didn’t wait, son. I loved Maria very much and you were always loved and wanted. You might have arrived a little bit earlier than we anticipated, but you received the welcome and adoration every child deserves.”

Johnny was startled at his father’s frankness. It certainly gave him a mellow feeling to know that Murdoch had somehow lifted the seal on this taboo topic. It also gave Johnny a new perspective on his father. It was refreshing to see that Murdoch could admit to having any sort of foible, let alone one involving the sins of the flesh.

Johnny’s patented grin eased previous tensions. “I know, Murdoch. And thanks.”

Murdoch looked at him, wanting to say more.

“Are we OK, Johnny?”

Johnny searched his father’s eyes. “Yeah, we’ll be fine … Old Man.” The cheeky nickname had them both chuckling. “I think I’ll just go see what that little lady is up to, if that’s all right with you.”

“That’s fine. Bye, son.”

As Johnny left, he was oblivious to the contented smile emblazoned across his father’s face.

 

Chapter Nineteen

Johnny went searching for Elise, but it was an unhappy Scott who snared him instead. Scott reached for his arm. “You still in one piece then?”

Johnny’s smile relaxed his brother. ‘Heck, yeah. The Old Man’s bark’s worse than his bite. Haven’t you figured that out yet?”

“Nope. They’re both pretty bad.” They both gave a laugh of common understanding. “What did you two talk about?”

Johnny took a breath and looked down. It was a moment before he raised his head. “Oh, this and that. Your education.”

Scott looked at him quizzically at that remark. “My education?”

“Yep. Sorta how I learnt from practice and you learnt from books, but how somehow you basically still came out all right despite that handicap.” 

Johnny’s deadpan expression did what he wanted it to. Scott was left completely in the dark.

“I see. Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Scott stopped for a minute, dropping his gaze. It was only when his blue-grey eyes met Johnny’s vivid blue that he continued. “Johnny, I had no idea that Michel had made unwelcome advances to Elise. I’d have done something about it if I’d known.”

“I know, brother. Don’t beat yourself up about it. It wasn’t your fault.”

Johnny held his gaze, willing his sincerity to soothe his brother’s conscience. He clapped Scott lightly on the shoulder to further ease is obvious tension. “By the way, where is she?” he enquired.

“I think she took her horse and headed out.”

“Back to town?” Johnny asked, anxiety obvious.

“No, I just think she went for a ride. She headed south. Try the river”

“OK. Thanks, Scott. See you at lunch.

“If you get back early, I’ll be working around the barn.”

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

Johnny saw her horse first, tethered in amongst the trees by the water’s edge. The light shining through the wavering leaves made her mare’s coat appear dappled. It ate placidly, but paused when it noted the rider approaching. Both horses greeted each other with friendly nickers, then settled down to enjoy the pleasant interlude in companionable bliss.

She was seated on the river bank, legs drawn up under her skirt. The same dappled light from above glowed on her hair, making it appear as if she had a mother lode of gold flecking through her tresses. Her arms were wrapped around her knees and her chin rested on top. She had her eyes closed, but Johnny sensed she wasn’t asleep.

Without a word of greeting, he came up behind her and sat with one leg around each hip. Reaching forward, he encircled her body with his arms. Elise leant back, perfectly at ease and comfortable. Johnny lay his head on her hers, and he, too, closed his eyes and let his mind drift. He could hear the indolent lowing of cattle interspersed with the light chirp of the birds, which darted in amongst the tree limbs.

Her fingers gently massaged his forearms, having a somnolent effect on him in the warmth of the morning sun. Moving his cheek over her hair in a light caress, he kissed her, just behind the ear. A giggling bundle jiggled in his arms.

“What’s so funny?”

“That tickles,” she explained simply.

Johnny’s “Ah” of comprehension was followed swiftly by deft movements from him, as he ascertained just where else the lady in question was ticklish. Giggles turned to squealing as she begged him to stop. She struggled ineffectually to control both herself and his tomfoolery, but before they knew it, they were flat on the ground. Being Johnny, he didn’t stop. Suddenly, the level ground shifted and they were rolling over and over down the grassy bank, coming to rest with a thud on a flat ledge just above the water’s edge. Elise was firmly pinned underneath him, her breath just a little knocked out of her.

Johnny was immediately contrite. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”

Panting a little, she peered up at his face close above hers. “Yes, I am, no thanks to you! And you are not the slightest bit sorry, Johnny Lancer.” A slight pause later she added, “How about your ribs? Did you bruise them further?”

His wicked grin answered her. “No, but perhaps I should check you out and see that everything’s working all right?” he offered. Not waiting for a reply, he investigated her mouth with all the care and thoroughness he prided himself on.

Once he was satisfied that all was in working order, he gently broke away from her increasingly fiery response and gazed at the gold flecked eyes he found so fascinating.

Her smile, so like that of a cat’s which had gorged on cream, threatened to pull him into a zone where he just might lose control. She spoke, however, giving him time to get his senses in order and bodily urges back on track.

“So, what did you and Murdoch have to say to each other?”

Johnny dipped his forehead onto her chest, his reply coming out muffled. “Oh, we talked about a bit of the past, a bit of the future.”

”That’s vague.”

“Yep.”

“Are you two all right with each other?”

“Yeah, we’re fine. I think that things might be a bit better now.”

“Until the next time he blows his stack?”

“Well, maybe he might think a little more before he does from now on.”

“I hope he does, Johnny. He needs to trust you more. And he needs to trust himself to trust you.”  Elise broke off, her fingers playing with the toggles fastening his shirt. Not at all an unpleasant sensation, Johnny decided. His thoughts were interrupted as Elise continued. “Thanks for looking after me last night. I really didn’t know what to do.”

“Why didn’t you come to me about it? You know I wouldn’t let anything happen to my girl.”

She didn’t respond to this for quite some time. Moving to one side off her body and raising himself on one elbow, he asked her point blank. “You thought I’d do something stupid, didn’t you?”

“To be honest, I didn’t know what you’d do. I was worried that by telling you, you’d feel you’d have to do something … and that whatever you did could get in the way of your relationship with Scott, seeing Michel is Scott’s friend.”

“Scott would expect me to put your welfare first in such a situation, Elise.”

“Maybe, but what you have with Scott is so special I could never bear to jeopardise it.”

“And you haven’t.” Johnny reached over and cupped her chin. “So, why didn’t you answer me a second ago?”

It was several seconds before she replied.

“Because I was thinking that this is the second time in twenty four hours that you have called me your girl.”

Her frank response, threw him for a short while.

“And how do you feel about that?” he ventured.

“I rather like the sound of it. Very much, in fact.”

Johnny smiled, all of a sudden quite shy. He picked up a leaf and began trailing patterns in a patch of dirt near her thigh.

He looked at her, the great Johnny Madrid inexplicably timid in face of the question he wanted to ask her. He looked away again into the distance as he considered how to say it. Oh, hell, get it said, Madrid!

“Um … I’ve been thinking … I was wondering … um … if you would step out with me. If I could … um … come calling on you, official like?”

“You mean be my beau?”

“Yes.”

Her grin lit his soul. “Oh, yes, Johnny! I couldn’t imagine a man whose arm I’d be more proud to be on, official like or not!”

“Do you mean it?”

Her reply was mute, actions speaking louder than words.

Pulling away from her, Johnny had another question. “What about at home? How do you feel about … um, open displays of affection … in front of my family?”

“Like this? Well, affection is one thing, but I really don’t think it would be proper to go rolling around on the Great Room floor! Such lack of decorum could send Murdoch to an early grave!”

Johnny laughed along with her. “I don’t know. I don’t think the old man is as staid as he lets on. Hey, maybe that’s why he comes down so hard on me? He remembers what he was like when he was younger!”

These mind-boggling thoughts set them laughing again, but only for a short while. Johnny again reached for her. She clung to him and they rolled over, with Johnny on top. They lay as one, each perfectly matched and moulded into the shape of the other. His mouth captured hers and he devoured her, his tongue intertwining with hers as he investigated and explored. Their panting became louder and finally broke into his awareness. Something else did, too. She had started to squirm a little.

He stopped. “What’s up?”

“Your belt buckles. They’re digging into me. Why do you need three anyway?”

“Well, I need to keep my gun belt on and my britches up.”

“But TWO buckles on your pants belt? Isn’t that a bit excessive?”

“The only thing excessive are my feelings for you, honey.” He dropped a kiss on her forehead to make his point. “Anyway, this two buckled belt acts like armour to protect me from women lusting after my body.”

Her body undulated under him as she giggled once again.

“How so?”

“Well, it’s a lot harder for women to have their way with me if they have to stop to undo a whole heap of cinches. Now you wouldn’t want them doing that, would you sweetheart?”

“Humph! So is it so often that you get such a stampede of women after you that you have to slow down their advances? Your head must have got a bump when you got thrown, after all! In your dreams, my love!”

“You’re jealous, ain’t you?”

She thumped him and none too gently.

“I most certainly am not!”

“Well, it’s true, anyway! These belts work like a chastity belt!”

Her snort of derision had him explaining further.

“If you make access difficult enough, they lose interest.”

“Johnny, only women wore chastity belts!”

“I know, Scott was telling me all about them. But it doesn’t matter who does the wearing. The effect’s the same!”

“Well, they’ve worked. You’re safe from me, Johnny. Those buckles have diverted my attention well and truly.”

“And they’re digging into you.” Wicked to the core, he waggled his eyebrows lasciviously and offered a solution. “How about I take my belts off? You’ll be more comfortable then.”

“I thought that the belts protected you from unwanted ardour?”

“Ah, but yours wouldn’t be unwanted!”

“Remember that I’ve not too long ago this morning told your father what a perfect gentleman you are, so how about you just hop off instead?”

Defeated in his quest, a contrite Johnny moved off so that he could lie on his side next to her. He couldn’t help, however, smiling his inviting best. “Well, that was then. This is now.”

“Johnny, you are incorrigible!” She thumped him playfully again and he feigned being hurt. Her throaty giggle, which so intrigued and aroused him, broke forth unbridled. He bent down to lightly kiss her neck. Moving slowly, his lips made their way down to the base of her throat and then to her chest, tracing the neckline of her blouse.

“Mmmmmm!” he murmured before gently turning his head and resting it on her breasts. They lay, perfectly comfortable, arms randomly entwined. She idly reached for his head, combing her fingers through his hair across his forehead. “Mmmmmm!” he repeated as he succumbed to her delicate touch.

After some time, Johnny moved and sat up. He looked down at her as she peered at him through barely open lids, a lazy smile gracing her lips. She also moved and sat facing him. Johnny shuffled back and leaned his back on the nearby tree trunk. He beckoned and Elise, too, shuffled over. He guided her around so her back was to him and she was able to melt back into his chest. His arms encompassed her in a cosy hug as he propped his chin on her shoulder.

“You know that the sun’s rays coming through the leaves bounce right off your hair? It’s like a whole lot of sparks bouncing around a fire. It’s so pretty.”

“Thank you, honey. Yet it’s funny how the sun seems to make your hair look blacker. It gets that blue black colour when the sun shines on it.”

“Got my mama to thank for that, I suppose. What about your folks? Are they blonde, like you?”

“No, I’m the only one! My parents and brother all have brunette hair!”

“So where did you spring from?”

“I take after my aunt, my father’s sister.”

“Funny that. You know, how children inherit different things from their family. One of the first things that Murdoch said to us was that Scott had his mother’s eyes.”

“While you got your blue eyes from your father.”

“Yes and no. He told me once that the deeper blue is more like his brother’s eyes.”

“What did he say about you at that first meeting?”

Johnny swallowed and paused a beat. “He said that I had my mother’s temper.”

“The cheek! Talk about pot calling the kettle black!” she protested.

Johnny was relieved to detect the affection tempering her remark. “Yeah, he ain’t exactly the quiet, placid type, is he?”

Laughter broke into their conversation. Johnny dropped a light kiss on her ear.

“You ever thought what your kids might look like, especially if you married someone quite different looking? Like a man with really dark looks?”

Elise didn’t answer immediately. She twisted her head to catch a glimpse of him. “The thought has crossed my mind. I suppose it would be a bit like Russian roulette. You could never guess what each child was going to be like in the looks department.”

Johnny’s eyes smiled at her, nodding. “Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Your fair features mixed with darker colouring would sure make some pretty babies. Imagine your golden green eyes with maybe black hair. Or a blonde haired child with brown eyes ... or maybe blue.”

She nodded. “I might be biased, but I reckon that those children would be made of mighty fine ingredients,” she concurred.

A light kiss ended their discussion and they left it at that, both feeling relaxed and content.

The late morning sun prompted them to head back reluctantly to Lancer.  Arriving in the yard, Johnny took both horses to the barn while Elise headed in to the kitchen to help with the serving of lunch.

Johnny made quick work of unsaddling and grooming both horses, then helped Scott with several loose railings on the corral.

“Been here all morning, have you Scott?”

Yes. Seeing you’ve been doing overtime for me the past week, I thought I’d get stuck into a few jobs while you were having a break with Elise.”

“Oh, and what was Sarah doing while you were so all fired busy?”

“Oh, this and that, I suppose.”

“Well, I just hope she took more care than you did to remove all the pieces of hay stuck on her person after she’d finished doing this and that!”

Scott’s immediate red flush and frantic swiping at his hair and body brought a burst of mirth from Johnny. “You missed some stuck in your belt, Scott.”

“I had to shift some of the bales,” explained Scott lamely.

“Yeah, sure you did, Scott. I bet you were glad to have Sarah help you out, huh?”

Ignoring Johnny’s pointed jibes, Scott gathered his tools together. “I think that lunch should be ready by now. Come on!”

Johnny dutifully followed Scott when he realized he could not draw his brother out on his activities that morning. Bowing to Teresa’s rigid regimen, they washed up at the basin she had placed at the back door. Feeling clean enough to pass inspection, they made for the interior, but not before Johnny flicked the towel with incredible force and dexterity to catch his brother unexpectedly on his rump. The yelp that accompanied this feat delighted Johnny no end. He quickly took advantage of Scott’s halted steps to scoot past him unscathed.

The boys entered the kitchen to find that lunch was being served. Murdoch was seating himself, folding his immense bulk to fit his legs under the tabletop. Sarah was already waiting, while Teresa and Elise were placing the last of the dishes on the table. Johnny swaggered up, figuring he would share his good cheer. Placing both hands on Elise’s hips, he bent his mouth to hers and planted a resounding and possessive kiss on her lips. She responded happily, if a shade self-consciously.

The faces of the spectators to this public display reflected different reactions. Teresa was startled, but this did not prevent her being intensely engrossed in the whole proceedings from her nearby vantage point. While bemused, it was evident that Murdoch accepted the situation. Sarah blushed furiously and enviously, heart palpitating and wishing that Scott would claim her in a similar fashion. Scott merely folded his arms and enjoyed watching the obvious pleasure his younger brother was experiencing.

As the two pulled apart, they became aware of the scrutiny that their preprandial activity had generated. Eyes riveted on them gave Johnny only a moment’s pause. Unabashed, he held the chair out for a more coy Elise. A short silence held them all in its grip, but was broken by the routine passing around of dishes and the picking up of cutlery. While the general dinner table noise passed to and fro over the table, Johnny slipped his hand under the table to place it on Elise’s thigh. Brief answering pressure from her own hand filled Johnny with an immense feeling of well-being.

All was right for him in this world.

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

The chores and duties of the long week had appeared interminable, but Johnny and Elise met up late most afternoons for a brief ride. They were both anxious for the weekend where they could have more extended time together. It was with anticipation that Johnny set out to meet her on her way to the hacienda late on Friday afternoon.

Johnny’s heart surged when he spotted her on the crest of the approaching hillside. He swept his hat off, giving it a hearty wave, and a tide of warmth rushed through him as she waved back. Spurring Barranca on, he began to ascend the slope, eager to be with her again.

It was then that he jerked in agony as a white hot, searing pain exploded in his body, like a fissure splitting his flesh. He gasped and sought her shape outlined on the hilltop as a way to connect him to consciousness and to this life. The excruciating volcanic eruption poured molten lava through his veins, robbing him of his already fading hold on awareness. He loosened his grip on the reins and slid to one side. His world became inverted as his head plunged towards the ground.

The finality of flesh and bone crushing against rock paralysed all senses in a black void of nothingness.

 

Chapter Twenty

PG: Mild swear words

Whirling and swirling. A nauseous whirlpool pushed him against the outer rim of alertness, but prevented him from having the strength to combat the force sucking him into a vacuum of non-existence.

Wretched in his island of misery, the world beyond was an unattainable obscurity. Muffled sounds, too tenuous to grasp, intermittently pierced his being. It was Scott’s voice which finally gave him a concrete anchor to grasp onto.

The strange rumbling sound would not go away. It was with some shock that Johnny realized he was moaning. Familiar tones interspersed with the groans.

“Hey, brother. Come on. Let’s see those baby blues.”

Johnny opened an eye and wished he hadn’t. A dagger sliced through his eyes, the torment unbearable. He tried again. Blurred images were tantalisingly out of reach. His eyelids fluttered once more. His brother’s voice providing a bearing he could aim for. His persistence paid off. This time he was able to keep his eyes open for a longer period.

“It’s OK, Johnny. You’re home in bed. You’re all right.”

Johnny made to move onto his side, but immediately regretted it. He leant back on the pillow, holding a hand to his brow, a low moan escaping his lips.

He felt his head being lifted gently and a glass held to his lips. He sipped gratefully, luxuriating in the cool liquid refreshing his parched mouth and throat. He nodded, signalling Scott that he had drunk enough. His head was carefully placed back on the pillow. He left his eyes closed for some time, until the worried voice of Scott broke through. “Johnny? Are you still with us?”

“Yeah, but it’s a bit of an effort.” The pressure of Scott’s hand on his arm was reassuring. Johnny tried a bit harder. “So, tell me, Scott. What’s the damage?”

“Well, you have a bad gash just above your ear. Sam doesn’t think it’s too bad, but you’re likely to be concussed and a bit woozy for a while. Then there’s the bullet hole in your side. It grazed a furrow several inches long above your hip, but it didn’t go into you.”

“How bad?” Johnny then realized what Scott had said. “Sam’s already been here?”

“It’s not bad if we can keep infection at bay and yes, Sam’s down below having a drink with Murdoch. I’d better go get him. Be right back.”

“Wait, Scott. Who did it?”

“We don’t know, Johnny. We will find out, but first of all I’m getting Sam.”

With a comforting squeeze on his shoulder, Scott stood up to leave. What seemed like immediately, Sam was looming over him.

“Hey, Johnny!” Sam greeted him gently. “Let’s get a look at you now that you’re awake.”

Sam’s request was met reluctantly by Johnny. Sam looked into his eyes, holding the bedside lamp above him. This caused Johnny to avert his head in discomfort. After checking the reaction of his pupils as well as completing some general prodding and poking of Johnny’s side, Sam straightened up.

“You are one lucky man, John. If you stay in bed for a few days and keep that wound clean, you should be all right. I don’t want anything much in the way of activity from you. I’ve inserted several stitches in your side and I don’t expect to see them pulled or the flesh torn. Have you got that straight young man?”

The way Johnny felt, he wasn’t about to argue, but the contrary side of him still didn’t want Sam to think he was going to follow orders easily. “Yeah, well, I had plans for tomorrow.”

“Postpone them!” Sam barked.

Johnny smiled inwardly, for some reason pleased that he had made some sort of point. Not that he was really too sure what that point was. At that moment, sleep offered him some respite from the nagging pain in his side and head. It claimed him suddenly and completely.

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

It was barely dawn when he awoke, his brother dozing awkwardly in a chair by his side. The pre-dawn light bathed Scott’s face in shades of grey interspersed with the soft gold of the lamp which had been left burning and the dark shadows of the night which lingered stubbornly.  Scott’s posture reflected discomfort, giving a hint of the stiff muscles he would be suffering from when he roused from his slumber.

The object of Johnny’s gaze jerked suddenly, as if sensing he was under scrutiny.

“Morning, brother. How’re you feeling?” Scott queried as he rubbed his face with his hands and rolled his neck to ease the kinks.

“Well, Scott, I admit to having one helluva headache and my side’s not too flash if I move, but I’ve had worse. I’m … “

“Fine,” finished Scott for him. “I don’t know why I bothered asking. The answer is always the same.”

Johnny smiled weakly, enjoying aggravating his big brother. “Hey, you don’t look like you slept any too well. Why don’t you hit the sack?”

“I’m not leaving you alone just yet. You’re probably still a little concussed.”

“Well, why don’t you see if Elise is up? She can spell you. She’s a darn sight prettier on the eyes than you and she just might stop my eyes from aching!”

Scott looked at Johnny, perplexed. “She’s not here, Johnny. She didn’t come to Lancer last night.”

A buzzing sound invaded Johnny’s ears. He felt stuck in a prism of gut-clenching fear, totally removed from his surroundings. Cold fingers of premonition squeezed his lungs until he could breathe no more. Frantic sounds from Scott brought him back to the reality in his room.

“Johnny! What is it?” Scott’s worry finally penetrated the convolutions of his mind’s thought patterns.

“What do you mean, ‘she’s not here’? She was there yesterday. I waved to her. She saw me and waved back, just before I was attacked!” Johnny’s wild-eyed statement clarified a certainty that had merely been jockeying to take shape in his brain.

Scott looked at him appalled. Neither needed to discuss what the other was thinking. If Elise was there when he was shot, she would have immediately gone to him and looked after him, unless…

Johnny threw back the covers with a hiss of pain. With some difficulty, he swung his legs over the side. He swayed for several seconds, but even though dizzy, he registered that the hand holding his arm in a vice like grip was not there to offer support for his vertigo.

”No, Johnny, you can’t get up now. We’ll see to things.”

Johnny took a deep steadying breath, laced with the stinging hell that was his side. Madrid’s mask descended, like a shutter keeping the inner world private from prying eyes. “I don’t think so, brother. Something’s happened to her and I aim to find out. Right now!”

Scott knew it was useless to protest, and if he were honest, he couldn’t blame him. He would do the same thing if he were in Johnny’s shoes. Biting back his dismay, he got Johnny’s clothes ready and went to find Murdoch.

Scott returned to help Johnny with his boots and then assisted him downstairs. Johnny repeated to Murdoch what he had told Scott. They all knew that Elise must have seen him being hit and that she would not have voluntarily left him lying hurt. Murdoch wanted Johnny to stay at the hacienda while he and Scott checked out the scene of the shooting, but he knew he was wasting his breath.

Three grim faced Lancers rode out under the arch, all praying fervently that they would not find a lifeless female near the scene of the attack on Johnny. Johnny was nauseous with fear and dread. It was all he could do to prevent himself leaning over Barranca’s side and heaving out the contents of his stomach. His side was on fire, his head pounded and he could barely breathe from anxiety.

After what seemed like an interminable length of time, the men arrived at the hillside. They stopped where Johnny was shot, blood patches still evident on the ground. Johnny showed them where Elise had been. Before they reached the spot, Johnny indicated for them to halt. Dismounting with awkwardness, he checked for clues. He could see the hoof prints of her horse. Two horseshoes stood out with visible marks on them. Johnny’s heart beat painfully. He himself had re-shod her horse. In a quixotic mood, he had tried to engrave love heart emblems on them. It had been rather amateurish, but the two of them had laughed over Johnny’s gift of affection to her horse.

It appeared that her horse had waited where he had seen her, then made to go towards him. But another set of prints leading diagonally from a rocky, tree protected outcrop had met up with hers, seeming to cut her off. There was a general scuffling of both feet and hoof prints half way down the slope, before two sets of horse prints set off at a right angle to the south.

Bile rose in Johnny’s throat, catching him off guard. He doubled over and retched, triple attacks of pain assaulting his body. In a trice, he found strong arms supporting him until he could puke no more. Legs wobbling, he leaned against his father’s sturdy shoulder, gratefully recovering his equilibrium.

Johnny took command and would have done the cavalry proud with his leadership. “They went south. We need to send someone to town to check in case she is actually there. Ross is a fast rider. We’ll leave an easy trail for him to follow. He’ll catch up to us quickly if we are tracking. We’ll have to get going quickly as it’s been over twelve hours.”

Scott spoke up. “Johnny, we need to get some supplies, canteens and bedrolls. We’re only two miles from home. It won’t take long. We can’t leave without being prepared.”

Johnny’s head shot up, striking blue meeting slate grey-blue eyes. “No! We go now!”

Scott studied his brother’s distraught face, before offering his compassionate suggestion. “Johnny, we don’t know how long it will take. If we are under-prepared, it may mean a hold-up which we could regret later.”

Johnny’s desperation was palpable, but Scott’s common sense pierced the maelstrom of emotions that marked Johnny’s distress. Anguish radiated from his rigid posture and the taut planes of his face as Johnny ground out his agreement to the suggestion. “Let’s make it fast, then!”

Murdoch intervened just then. “Son, you’re in no condition … “

Johnny cut him off. “Don’t even think about trying to talk me around! Let’s get going and find Ross.”

“Son?”

Johnny glanced up, surprised at Murdoch’s hesitancy.

“What?”

“Ross and Brendan didn’t come home yesterday.”

“But they were due back. They wired us to confirm it!” Johnny remarked.

“I know, but the fact is we haven’t seen them.”

Johnny tried to read his father’s eyes, but it was too hard. Further unwelcome thoughts crowded his mind and threatened to overwhelm him.

“Send Diego to town, then.”

This said, and not commenting further on Brendan and Ross’s disappearing act, Johnny mounted and headed home.

Fifteen minutes after arriving back, the Lancer men and three hands were ready. Diego had been dispatched with strict instructions to check the town for Elise, to contact the sheriff if necessary and to catch up to them with any news.

Nerves were frayed and the air tense, but for Scott it was the sight of Johnny voluntarily gulping a mouthful of laudanum which brought home to him the desperate stakes they were playing for.

They set a blistering pace. Johnny was relentless in his efforts to make up for the delay. His only hope of catching them was if, after covering enough distance from Lancer the previous day, their quarry had decided to make an early camp for the night.

The hours wore on. Johnny had no time for rest or comfort stops. It was when Diego caught up to them at mid morning that a half-hour’s break was imposed. Elise had not returned to town that night. She had been seen leaving to meet up with Johnny and had spoken to several locals on the way out. Her cottage and the schoolhouse were empty. There was no trace of her or her horse in town.

The news was as Johnny had expected, but it hit him hard. He had been hoping for some sort of miracle.

The laudanum was wearing off, but he didn’t dare take any more. He wanted and needed to be sharp. So he persevered, bound in a miasma of pain and sickening terror.

Several hours after their break, a campsite was discovered. Near a stream and well protected, it had not been long deserted. Six hours seemed the consensus of opinion judging by the campfire remains.

As a new sense of urgency overtook the group. Johnny tracked unerringly. Their luck had held out as the sand provided perfect conditions for their hunt. Several times they thought that they had lost the way, but Johnny and Cipriano’s skills triumphed. At one stage frustration set in as the hoof prints entered a creek bed and it was some time before they were rediscovered. After that, however, their prey became more careless. Johnny’s pace was unremitting, causing both his father and brother to cast many a concerned look his way. But Johnny blocked them out, as he did everything that was not of significance.

The day’s shadows lengthened to thin fingers of darkness, like night oozing into daylight’s cracks. The impending nightfall had them all at heightened emotions. A second night out here with whomever did not bode well for Elise. Johnny hung onto the reins with sheer determination, forbidding his body to give up on him. The journey was a sea of pain, each step Barranca took jolting his head and his side, as though waves were throwing him on coastal rocks which ripped at his wounds as he surged back and forth. His physical agony was exacerbated by the not knowing. Not knowing what had happened to Elise. Not knowing how she was suffering. Not knowing what enemy they faced or why.

Murdoch leaned over to Johnny. “Son, let’s make camp soon. You’re all in. You can’t push yourself any further.”

“No!” The refusal was abrupt and forceful. It did not encourage further attempts of persuasion.

Murdoch looked to Scott. Scott’s mouth pressed into a flat line. As he glanced at his brother, he too decided to try. “Johnny, dusk is setting in. I think we should look for somewhere suitable to camp.”

“I said no! I’m not leaving her out here with whoever it is. I can’t let her spend another night out in the open. I can keep tracking for as long as it takes.”

His response was adamant and over-shadowed by desperation. He was pleading for their understanding and support without actually saying so.

“OK, Johnny, but when it gets properly dark, you are going to have to consider that you could lose the trail well and truly. We could be delayed for hours if we went the wrong way,” his father reasoned.

Johnny knew all too well that this was the case, but he couldn’t stop while even the most feeble light was available.

Johnny continued to lead them for a further two hours, until even he admitted that it was useless to continue. He dismounted in an uncoordinated fashion, so unlike his habitual fluid grace. As he hung on to the side of the saddle, forehead leaning against it, Scott came up to him. He placed his arm on his brother’s back, then slid it up to massage his neck.

“We’ll find her, Johnny.”

Johnny looked up at him bleakly. “This is the second night for her, Scott.”

Scott bowed his head, searching rapidly for something positive to say. “We’ve closed right in on them, Johnny. We’re not far behind.”

“I know. I feel them, Scott. I feel them real close.” Johnny’s knuckles were white as he clenched the stirrup and Barranca’s saddle blanket. “And there’s no damn light left!”

Scott felt had nothing to useful to say, but he tried anyway. “We need to rest and eat, Johnny. They will have to do the same. They won’t be going anywhere at the moment. We’ll get up early so we can leave by dawn. We’ll get her back,” he promised.

Exactly what sort of condition she would be in when they found her, Scott did not care to dwell on.

“Why, Scott? What is all this about?”

”I don’t know, brother. But we’ll find out and more importantly, we’ll find her.”

Johnny stared at Scott, willing Scott’s positive words to transform into fact. Taking a breath, he moved slowly to sit on a fallen log. Once there, he did not seem to know what to do. He hovered, indecisive. Scott moved over, wrapping his brother in his strong embrace as he began to lower him onto the log.

 As he did so, a shrill scream rent the air. Its piercing pitch reverberated around them, overwhelming in the night stillness.

 
Chapter Twenty One

Strong warning – Adult themes and sexual innuendo, but no graphic acts. Some violence.

The men froze. The screams invaded their senses again, surrounding them, suffocating them, disorienting them. It was Johnny who first identified the direction of the source.

Immediately, Johnny transformed from a sick, disheartened man into a decisive leader. His gun appeared in his hand. He gave succinct directions and then set off at a run through the trees. The sounds had seemed close, but the deceptive night air had teased them. What had at first appeared to be a distance of merely fifty yards soon turned into several hundred yards. After several minutes, the group perceived a glow penetrating the vegetation. Slowing their pace, they realized that they were on the verge of a clearing. Johnny instructed the men to fan out, so surrounding the circular space in the woods.

As Johnny inched forward, he was assaulted by the sight in front of him. He took it all in while simultaneously scanning the whole scene to ascertain the opposition. Relieved that there appeared to be just the one enemy, he bolted forward.

As he moved, he willed his body to reach her to stop this violation in time.

Elise lay on her back on the ground. A man’s shape was wedging himself on top of her. Johnny saw the exposed skin of her thighs where her dress had either been pulled up or had ridden up as she struggled. Relentlessly moving forward, he could discern the pale flesh where her bodice had been torn open. Wanting to use his gun, Johnny was deprived of reliance on it. He just couldn’t trust himself to be accurate on this most important of occasions. Screaming in anguish, Johnny launched himself at the figure, tackling him. The man rolled to one side with the impetus of the assault. Johnny held nothing back as the perpetrator was slugged mercilessly. Only when Scott and his father reached him, did Johnny leave his attack to see to Elise, trusting them to control the man.

She was curled into a foetal shape, arms crossed over her breasts. Sad whimpering emanated from her prone body. Johnny scrambled over to her to embrace her quivering form. In desperation, he crooned a lulling mixture of Spanish and English. Somehow, he shrugged off his bolero jacket and wrapped it gently around her. He efficiently did up the buttons so she was appropriately covered, then, sitting cross legged, he leaned down to scoop her up and enfold her in his arms. Hoisting her ever so tenderly, he deposited her in the lap created by his crossed legs. Next Johnny delicately covered up her legs and laid her head on his shoulder, clasping it soothingly with his own. A litany of sentences designed to pacify could be heard as he rocked her oh so lovingly.

Johnny’s world consisted of Elise and himself. All other sounds were blotted out as he focused solely on comforting her and keeping her safe. His eyes closed, he softly massaged her back and arms, mumbling endearments the whole time.

A nearby voice invaded his realm. Johnny raised his tear-filled eyes to Scott’s. Scott’s voice betrayed him, hitching as he spoke the inadequate words. “We’ve got him, Johnny. He’s tied up. We’ll make sure he doesn’t cause any more problems. All right?”

Johnny could only nod mutely.

Murdoch joined them, his face expressing the pain they all felt. “Is Elise injured, Johnny?”

Johnny stared blankly at his father, not comprehending. The shaking of his head was infinitesimal. “I don’t know,” he whispered.

Then panic reflected in his features. “I don’t know!” he repeated in fright as he suddenly realized she could be hurt and require attention. He sat a little straighter, pulling himself together. “Give us some privacy and I’ll check for anything obvious that we should tend to.”

Both men nodded, moving off and making sure that they weren’t disturbed.

Johnny turned his face to Elise. “Honey, I’m just gonna check that you don’t have any injuries we need to look after. Do you have any wounds we should bandage? Do you think you have any broken bones?”

Blank eyes merely stared into the distance.

Johnny sighed unevenly. “Querida, I’m going to have to look at your ribs, back, legs and such. I’ll be real gentle, I promise. OK?”

No response was forthcoming. Johnny set about removing the jacket he had only just covered her up in. This tiny inconvenience aggravated Johnny more than was warranted. Starting with her arms and then proceeding onwards, he checked her over. One minute bright spot was that she appeared outwardly to have no wounds requiring bandaging or bones requiring setting. Bruising was already appearing over her ribs, but none appeared to be fractured. Her face was swollen across her left cheekbone and her eye was puffy and nearly closed. She had been struck forcefully, most likely by a fist. Blood smeared her mouth and oozed slowly from her split lip.

His examination complete, he again ladelled her onto his lap and gently rocked her to and fro.

Scott approached several minutes later and squatted next to him. “Does she have any injuries, Johnny?”

“None that you can see,” was his brief response.

Scott nodded in understanding. “We can’t do anything about returning tonight. We’ll have to stay here. How about you try to eat something? We’ve got a bedroll ready for Elise. She’ll be more comfortable lying down.” Johnny shook his head, still incapable of unnecessary speech.

Scott stared into the depths of his brother’s eyes and sighed. Walking over to the fire, Scott poured some coffee into two mugs. He offered one to Johnny, pressing it into his hand. “Here, maybe Elise might like some.” Johnny’s head bobbed up and down in acknowledgment.

Cradling her face, Johnny offered her some. She baulked at the hot liquid, so he blew on it and took a sip himself. He offered it to her again with encouraging words and a tender smile and he was gratified to see that she took a little. And so they shared the cup in turn. But otherwise Elise did not look at him or speak. She refused food as well, but it was her unwillingness to communicate which frightened Johnny the most.

He tried to get her to lie on his bedroll, but she clung to him. Johnny felt waves of panic hit him as he failed to make her feel better.  He lay down, pulling her with him. Working the blanket over her shoulders, he cuddled into her curved back, arms around her waist and chest. Still speechless, she nevertheless held onto his arms in a tight grip.

Someone, Scott or Murdoch, placed another blanket over the two of them, but Johnny did not glance up. He stared unseeing into the inky depths of the night and continued to talk to her as he would when gentling a horse and creating that sacred bond of trust. He didn’t even know if he slept that night. He willed the dawn to arrive so they could get back to Lancer and to some vestiges of normalcy.

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

As the grey streaks of dawn chased away the night’s grim shadows, the camp came to life. Elise again refused to eat. Scott forced a biscuit on Johnny, but that was as far as Johnny was willing to accommodate his concerned brother.

The weary party set out just after dawn. Johnny helped Elise into Barranca’s saddle. He then mounted and reached around her from behind to take up the reins. He held the reins with one hand and the other was firmly around her waist. She leaned back onto his chest and clasped her hands over his on her stomach. Johnny continued to murmur his special mixture of Spanish and English, but for once it did not have the desired effect. The soft cadence of his voice continued, nevertheless, in an attempt to lull and comfort.

Murdoch and Scott rode forward with Johnny. By unspoken consent, the men did not want Elise to have the prisoner constantly in view in front. Instead, the prisoner was bound to the pommel of his horse and rode behind them with Diego and the three other hands.

The strain was beginning to tell on them all by the time they broke for a late lunch. After prising her fingers from his, Johnny slid backwards off Barranca. He encouraged to her to dismount as well. She leaned over and slid into his outstretched arms, wrapping her own arms around his neck and shoulders. He carefully embraced her, then set her down. They had only a brief rest period. Nobody wanted to bother to light a fire, so they contented themselves with jerky, biscuits and the increasingly tepid water from their canteens.

When it came time to remount, Elise protested. She was uncooperative and pulled away from Johnny who was trying to assist her. Not knowing what to do, Johnny put his hands on her hips and asked if she would prefer to ride behind him. She would not look him in the eye, but she nodded her assent. So Johnny mounted and Murdoch and Scott helped her up. She wrapped her arms tightly around his middle, rested her head against his back and closed her eyes. The tiniest bit of hope surged through Johnny when she grasped a handful of his shirt, which she clenched tightly in her fist.

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

It was late afternoon when they arrived at the estancia. Murdoch and Diego saw to the prisoner, leading the struggling man off to the cell in the old guardhouse.

Scott helped Elise down before Johnny dismounted. Elise just stood still, seemingly disoriented under the protection of Scott’s arm. Picking her up, Johnny cradled her gently to him.

Scott hovered, trying to help. “Johnny, let me carry her. You’ll pull those stitches out.”

Johnny merely sighed. “No, I’m fine and it’s OK, Scott. Just get Teresa and Maria.” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than Teresa burst through the front door. Her words of welcome died on her lips as she spied Elise lying in Johnny’s arms. Scott shook his head in a word of warning to her.

“I’ll go turn her bed down,” the practical Teresa informed them. She glanced at the three of them, but finding no enlightenment, she set off to complete her errand.

Johnny hoisted her up gently to obtain a better hold on her and then turned to go inside. Scott stuck to him like glue, should Johnny find he had taken on more than he was capable of doing. Tenderly carrying his most precious cargo, Johnny wearily mounted the stairs. Teresa had already turned the bed down, but returned with Maria as they reached her room. Johnny put her down onto the bed, but when he went to straighten up, Elise did not relinquish her grasp around his neck. She clung to him stubbornly.

“Johnny, please don’t let me go. Please stay!”

Johnny squeezed her tightly as he rocked her. He was at first unable to reply, her first words in so long overwhelming him. Finally, he pulled back a little so he could see her face. For the first time since they had found her, she looked right at him. He had thought he would never see the beauty of her eyes regarding him so longingly again.

He placed his hands on either side of her face. “I’ll be waiting in the hallway, right outside your door. Maria and Teresa are just gonna help you get changed into some clean clothes. Murdoch’d have my scalp if I stayed. OK? I’ll come in as soon as you’re changed. All right?”

Elise continued to look at him steadily, lips quivering, then gave a little nod to be followed by a tremulous smile. Johnny’s heart melted at this headway. Bending forward, he kissed her delicately. “I’ll be back as soon as I get the all clear.”

Johnny and Scott departed, closing the door behind them. Immediately leaning back on the hall wall, Johnny closed his eyes and simply slid down to a squatting position. Resting his elbows on his thighs, he sighed deeply and put his head in his hands. Scott squatted down in front of him, placing his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Johnny. I’m so sorry for everything.”

Johnny’s bleak eyes met his brother’s. He reached up and put his own hand on top of his brother’s. “I know. None of this is your fault, Scott. It had nothing to do with you. So don’t fret, please. I was just glad to have you with me.”

Scott breathed in sharply before inclining his head and offering a tight smile. “I just don’t understand why he did it.”

“Me neither, but I’ll be finding out.”

The door opening interrupted the two men. Johnny gratefully accepted his brother’s help in standing, then strode in to be with Elise. She looked so small and frail in the bed, dwarfed by the voluminous quilt draped over her. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he grasped her hands and stroked them with the utmost care. She lay still, her eyes closed, the only sign of awareness being the tightening of her grip on his.

He stayed that way until Sam arrived and he was in no mean circumstances removed from the room.

Ousted from her bedroom, he had only one destination on his mind. Descending the stairs, he marched across the entrance foyer and out through the front door. Observing him doing so, Murdoch and Scott’s senses were alerted. The two men made haste to follow him, seizing their guns from the hall stand as they did so. They knew where he was headed, but were filled with trepidation as to his purpose.

Catching up to him, they flanked him and tried to get him to stop. Murdoch’s arm was summarily brushed aside in anger. Both Lancers noted his hand resting on the butt of his gun, an omen which was blatantly obvious to them.

Entering the guardhouse, Johnny hefted the keys from the hook by Diego’s head and marched to the door. The rabid fury and seething wrath, which he had held in check for two long days, threatened to break loose with disastrous consequences. He slipped the key into the lock, yanked open the door and entered the tiny cell. His victim was seated on the cot, back to the wall and knees drawn up. Terror emblazoned across his face the moment he spied Johnny.

Without bothering with any niceties, Johnny reached for his shirtfront, heaved him to his feet and flung him against the wall, pressing his neck into the cold stone mercilessly with his forearm.

“You got any good reason why I should let you breathe?”

Michel’s lack of response prompted Johnny to be more abrasive in his approach. Lightning fast reflexes saw his gun in his hand and pressed against Michel’s temple. The click of the hammer going back and the chamber revolving saw Michel’s legs begin to crumple. At the same time, shouts from Scott and Murdoch broke through to Johnny.

He remained poised, so tempted to blast this man to damnation. So tempted to reciprocate some of the torture he had put them through. He wanted to obliterate this man from the surface of the earth. Breathing raggedly, his body shook with emotion and rage. He stayed poised to shoot, his intent lingering in the tense air. He finally let the hammer fall forward harmlessly, but released some of his pent up frustration by shoving his fist into Michel’s already damaged face. Turning away, his own shoulders slumped.

Michel’s reprieve did not last long. Johnny spun around, facing Michel again. “Why?” Johnny begged for an answer.

Michel moaned and licked the blood off his lips as he rubbed his smashed face. Glancing from Johnny to Scott, he addressed Scott instead.

“You didn’t want her. I did.”

Scott’s face registered his shocked disgust. “What? She wasn’t yours to take!”

“Why couldn’t I have her?”

“Because she didn’t want you. She wanted Johnny.”

Michel looked at Scott as though he were a cretin. “But Johnny doesn’t count. He’s no one. He’s a low class Mexican.”

“He’s my BROTHER!” Scott bellowed.

“WE are brothers. We’ve always been brothers. Remember when we cut our fingers and swore to be blood brothers? You don’t need another brother. You’ve got me!”

Scott’s face dropped in horror.

“But we were children! We were boys playacting. We knew we never really could be brothers! And my having Johnny for a brother now didn’t mean we couldn’t still be friends.”

“Him! He’s not worthy enough to be your brother! He has no culture. He is nothing but a half breed who is contaminating you and dragging you into the gutter with him!”

This time it was Scott who grabbed Michel. “Just watch your mouth! Johnny is my brother. I’ve learnt more from him than any other man in my life. I’m proud to be his brother, don’t you understand? He’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. I love him.”

“No! He’s corrupted you! It was always you and me. Together. Just the two of us. I am everything you need! We didn’t need anyone else.”

Scott let go of him in abhorrence and stared at him flabbergasted. “That was then. We are men now,” he commented.

“But you were the big brother I never had. And we still did things together when we were grown up men. We still needed each other. We went camping and you remember going to social gatherings and outings together.” Michel broke off, a faraway look in his eyes as his mind lingered on a past long gone. “We’d look over the women and work out who we thought we would approach. And I would choose whomever you didn’t want.” Michel seemed to snap back to the present. “You didn’t want Elise. Why shouldn’t I have her?”

Johnny felt ill. To hear his most precious lady be spoken about as though she were a possession to be subdued and used, turned his world upside down.

Meanwhile, Scott answered Michel’s question with a hiss. “Because she didn’t want you. She wanted to be with Johnny. And never once did we prevent the ladies of our acquaintance from making a choice. We asked the ladies if they wanted to dance or go on a picnic with us. They had the option of refusal. A man doesn’t take a woman by force merely because he wants her!”

Michel snapped viciously from apparent hero worship to bitter resentment. “That’s easy for you to say! The handsome and debonair Scott. The WHOLE Scott! You didn’t have people sniggering over any handicap! The hero, with his military bearing, courtly manners and bounty of cash. The girls came flocking to you. They only wanted me so they could be near you.”

“That’s not true, Michel. Many of the girls genuinely liked you for you. It was you who couldn’t accept that.”

“Yet you say Elise didn’t want me? Make up your mind!” Michel sneered.

“No, she didn’t want you. I said some of the girls you courted truly liked you. Maybe it was you who couldn’t give them the respect that they deserved and that’s why none of your relationships lasted very long.” Scott returned sadly.

“If Elise was walking out with Johnny, it was to get close to you, Scott. She doesn’t really want Johnny. Why would she? He is uncouth and coarse. He has no refinements. He’s a killer. He comes here with his seedy past and lack of morals and brings his no-good friends to cause trouble as well.”

This last nonsensical accusation was too much for Johnny. “Well, looky here. Just who is it that lacks morals? Well, for your information I don’t force myself on young women who don’t want me!”

“She doesn’t want you!” taunted Michel. “She wants Scott, they all do! Scott just can’t see it. Just like he can’t see through you and your drifter friends. They couldn’t even be relied on to do their chores properly. Look at the trouble they caused!”

“Just what trouble did they cause, Michel?” For the first time it was Murdoch who interjected.

“They sabotaged the bridge and left the fence line unfinished. And look what happened to Johnny’s saddle!” Michel supplied in triumph.

Johnny snorted. “We know that they didn’t do anything of the sort! It was you and we have proof.”  Johnny was curious to see if his gamble paid off.

Michel seemed suddenly too far gone to even care about any subterfuge. No longer denying anything, he turned to Scott. “I had to show Murdoch. I had to show him that allowing Johnny and his filthy scum buddies to stay was a mistake. I didn’t want you tainted any further, Scott.”

Scott’s face was grimly immobile, the appalling actions of Michel shocking him totally.

Michel pleaded whimsically to Scott. “And Johnny was supposed to die when he came off the horse so we could be brothers again. Just like before. Don’t you see?”

Michel’s satisfaction with this summation utterly repulsed the three Lancers.

“No, we don’t see, Michel. And neither would any sane man!” Murdoch growled. Hearing enough, Murdoch couldn’t take any more. And he didn’t want his sons to hear any more of these lunatic ravings, either. With no thought of any basic courtesy, Murdoch seized the man and hustled him viciously away from his sons.

“Boys, there’s no point in staying here. Let’s go in.”

Johnny and Scott were immobile, distress and disgust paralysing their bodies.

“Scott? Johnny? Let’s get out of here.” Murdoch raised both arms to gently shepherd his sons out of the cell. So distraught, they docilely obeyed their father. They were almost at the door when Scott wrenched his shoulder away and whirled around. Three firm strides and he was beside Michel. Michel did not sight the fist which drove into his jaw, crunching into his bone and flesh.

“That was for what you did to Elise!” Scott spat.

The second blow to his gut had him doubled over, clutching his abdomen. He was scarcely aware of the third blow which rained on his left kidney.  “And those are for hurting Johnny and for what you did to me by hurting my brother.”

He went to swing again at the prone form which had slumped to the ground, but found his arm imprisoned in Murdoch’s fierce grip.

“Leave it be, Scott. He’s had enough … for the moment,” Murdoch urged.

Scott turned glazed eyes to his father before nodding silently.

Murdoch locked the door with finality, before turning sad eyes on his sons.

“Come on, boys. Let’s find out if Sam is ready to see us.” One arm around each man’s shoulder, Murdoch ushered his devastated sons protectively through the door and back to the hacienda.

Once inside, Murdoch guided them to the Great Room. Pushing them down compassionately onto the couch, he made for the drinks table. Murdoch filled generous measures into three tumblers and carried two of them to his boys. Neither were watching and so both started when Murdoch nudged Scott’s shoulder with one glass and thrust the other under Johnny’s face.

Both men had been staring blankly, lost in their own thoughts. Johnny was overcome by thoughts of Elise’s time at Michel’s mercy and his designs for her. Scott brooded over his part in this. Whether he could have changed some event in his childhood or whether some present circumstance during Michel’s visit could have been altered, he didn’t know. He searched his mind, wondering if he could have thwarted Michel.

Johnny accepted the drink offered by Murdoch and downed it in one belt. It was only as the fiery alcohol burned its way down his throat and brought him out of his reverie, did Johnny notice that Scott was still frozen. Scott was haggard. It hit Johnny that the honourable Scott felt responsible.

Johnny bumped Scott’s thigh with his knee. It brought a reaction of sorts. Scott’s empty gaze turned to him, questioningly. “Drink up, Scott,” Johnny suggested softly.

Scott looked numb and did not seem to even realize at first that he had a glass in his hand. He contemplated it, then swallowed the contents in one gulp. He leaned forward, his head buried in his hands.

Johnny placed a firm hand on his sibling’s shoulder. “Hey, Scott, it was a chain of events we couldn’t predict. We can’t change anything.”

Scott lifted bleary eyes to Johnny. “You’re wrong, I should have seen this coming. I DID promise him we would be brothers! I didn’t know I would have you in my life.”

“That’s right, you didn’t know and you couldn’t have known as a child. I told you before, none of it’s your fault. You weren’t to know he was off the deep end.”

“But I should have picked up on it. A few little things he said. He was jealous of you. I just thought he had difficulty … with your past.”

“Well, we’d all be rich if we could play poker with the benefit of hindsight, Scott,” Johnny placated him. “I just want to say thanks.”

Scott sat up straighter, surprised. “What for?”

“For saying you were proud of me … and that you loved me. It means a lot to me,” Johnny confirmed.

“How can you say that after what I have done? If I hadn’t brought him here, this wouldn’t have happened!” Scott’s last statement was full of anguish.

“You can’t go around wasting your life over ‘what ifs’, Scott. Believe me, I know. You supported me back there. I want you to know that that support is mutual.”

Scott was regarding Johnny with gratitude when Sam’s footsteps descending the stairs pulled both men to their feet.

Johnny’s fists clenched, knuckles white against his tanned skin. His eyes yearned for good news. He regarded Sam, willing him to say anything that could make this situation better. Willing him to wave a healing wand and make it all go away.

Murdoch moved rapidly to fetch him a whiskey. He offered it to the doctor, and all three waited expectantly for him to speak. Accepting the drink gratefully, Sam took several small sips.

Johnny could wait no longer. “Sam?” he queried tentatively.

 

Chapter Twenty Two

Warning: adult themes and sexual innuendo

Sam let out a deep sigh. “Well, John, she received some blows, as you know. Her physical injuries are superficial, however. She has that laceration on the side of her mouth where he hit her, her cheekbone is bruised and blind Freddy can see the swelling around her eye. She has bruised ribs. Nothing appears to be broken, thank goodness. Her jaw, cheekbone and ribs may not be fractured, but will feel sore for a time. Thank goodness you arrived when you did. You saved her from a catastrophe. Physically, she’ll be fine. It is the emotional side which is so fragile. She is in shock. The whole ordeal has been extremely distressing for her.”

Sam stopped for another sip before eyeing Johnny and continuing. “She is going to need love and support. Lots of it. Are you up to that, John?”

Johnny nodded dumbly. He continued to stare at Sam for some time before he spoke. “Are you saying that she has no other injuries? That he didn’t … have his way with her? That she wasn’t … raped?”

“Yes, John, that is what I am saying. You boys arrived literally in the nick of time. She is one very lucky lady indeed. The situation could so easily have been beyond redemption.”

Johnny found this news too good to comprehend. Dizziness set in and the room receded for a fraction. It was the warmth of Scott’s hand on his shoulder which drew his attention back to those around him. He fought back the tears welling in his eyes. “How is she, Sam? Did she talk to you?”

Sam looked at Johnny compassionately. “Only a little bit, Johnny. When a person has suffered such a shock, sometimes the mind shuts down. It hides its memories to protect itself from the terror. Try to get her to talk. It can help her put the ordeal behind her, but don’t force it.”

Johnny blindly nodded his head. “Thank you, Sam. Can I go and see her?”

“Of course. But Johnny, no one knows how long the effects of her trauma may last. She may snap out of this tomorrow or she may be withdrawn for some time. If she is, it won’t be your fault. What happened to her can undermine her trust in any man. But I’m warning you, as hard as it may be to take, be prepared for rejection. It may take time. If you love her, you’ll need to be patient, very patient.”

Again, Johnny nodded. “Thanks again, Sam.”

“Oh, Johnny, I’ve given her a sleeping powder. I doubt she’s slept much for the past several days. Sleep is her best medicine, then she will be relying on you heavily. Even if she pushes you away, she’ll subconsciously be wanting to rely on you.”

Johnny closed his eyes and sighed deeply. He then turned to leave, patting Scott lightly on the shoulder. Scott accepted the gesture with a weak smile of appreciation.

Johnny mounted the stairs quickly. Knocking softly, he peeped around the door before entering. Teresa was seated next to the bed. She gave him a feeble smile of greeting before standing up and moving over to Johnny.

“She’s asleep, Johnny. Sam gave her a sleeping powder, so he doesn’t expect her wake until tomorrow. You must be exhausted. Why don’t you get some rest and I’ll stay with her? I promise I’ll get you if she wakes.”

Johnny stared longingly at the woman who had stolen his heart. Elise was breathing tranquilly and for that he was eternally grateful.

“No, Teresa. Thanks, but I want to be with her. I’d like to be alone, if you don’t mind.”

Teresa perceived what he did not say. He was close to breaking point and needed some privacy with Elise.

“OK, Johnny. I’ll leave some food out on the table and coffee on the stove. Elise may want something if she rouses. See that you eat something, too, all right?”

“I promise, Teresa,” responded Johnny, gracing her with a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for caring.”

Teresa took that as her cue to exit, closing the door softly on the couple.

Johnny approached the bed and stood still. It was as if his whole world had narrowed to this room. She lay asleep, turned on her side with one hand clutched onto the blanket border and the other curled next to her pillow. Her face was still and untroubled by bad dreams. But for how long?

Pulling up the chair that Teresa had used, he leant both elbows on the bed, gently lifted her hand, turned it over and kissed her palm. He then softly enveloped it into his two strong hands, so starkly tanned against her fairer skin.

Emotions that he had been holding in check surfaced as Johnny’s veneer started to crack. They seeped through gradually, like water droplets escaping through a fissure, merging and coalescing into a larger body of water, whose presence could no longer be denied. He bent his head to her hand clasped in his and wept. He wept from sheer relief that she was indeed physically unscathed. He wept for the outrageous situation forced on her. He wept for the future, fearing how this would affect her. And he prayed. He prayed that she would recover emotionally and that the horror of her ordeal could be successfully put behind her.

Hours later when Murdoch checked on them, he found Johnny asleep. Seated next to the bed, but slumped forward, he shared her pillow. Murdoch reached into the chest at the end of the bed to locate a blanket to place around Johnny’s shoulders. As he draped it over his son Murdoch noticed that while Johnny gripped one of her hands, her other lay over his neck just below his ear. Murdoch watched silently for several seconds before turning away, annoyed with himself that he had intruded on this intimate gesture. Along with that annoyance, however, lay the hope that Elise and Johnny both would be able to cope with the aftermath of Michel’s treachery.

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

The next day was lost to Elise and Johnny. She slept as Sam’s sleeping powders kept her sedated. Johnny rarely ventured from her side, keeping a vigil should she wake.

On one of his few occasions outside to answer Nature’s call, he witnessed Frank, Ross and Brendan enter the yard. Weary and dishevelled, they had obviously spent too many hours on the trail. They explained that Brendan’s horse had come up lame and delayed them the couple of days. Noting that they were out on their feet, Johnny sent them off to the bunkhouse. He didn’t bother to tell them about Elise. They would soon find out from the other hands and he was not up to discussing it just yet.

On the third day, Johnny was finally convinced to leave the room for a meal. Grudgingly he agreed to leave Elise, who was dozing lightly, and descended the stairs to find his family already seated and finishing their breakfasts. The sounds of cutlery on china plates ceased when the sound of his boots on the stairs registered in their minds. Maria was the first to act, giving him a tight hug and pressing him to her ample bosom, successfully cutting off any escape route. She then pushed him into a chair and scurried off to find anything and everything which just might tempt his appetite.

Johnny took his seat, but was too preoccupied to notice the relief on his family’s faces when he sat with them. He accepted his food with desultory interest. He could see that Maria had piled his plate with his favourite breakfast fare, but his appetite continued to desert him. He pushed his food about, the conversation around him a non-event as far as he was concerned. A coffee appeared in front of him and for this he was grateful.

Johnny heard his father speak to him. He looked up. “Sorry, Murdoch. I wasn’t listening,” he apologized.

Murdoch seemed to find it difficult to broach what he wanted to say. “Johnny, I received a wire from Pascal. It was in response to a letter which Scott wrote.”

Johnny raised an eyebrow and looked quizzically at Scott.

Scott shifted uneasily. Squirming under his brother’s gaze, he finally squared his shoulders and eyed his brother forthrightly.

“I wrote to Pascal the very day that they left, after you and Elise told us what had happened the night he propositioned her. I made it to town in time to deliver it for the next scheduled coach.”

“What was the rush? Why didn’t you telegraph him if you were in such a hurry?”

“Because a telegram wouldn’t allow me to say everything I wanted to say. I sent a letter to each of them. I wanted Michel to know what I thought of him and I wanted Pascal to know what his son had done.”

Murdoch took up the conversation. “It appears that Michel has caused problems before. Both with women and with their business interests. Pascal came out here hoping a new start would change Michel. He is desperately upset about what happened.”

Scott added his own information, speaking barely above a whisper. “He has acted inappropriately with women before in Boston, but not to this extent. Apparently, though, he importuned a lady of his acquaintance who spoke up to her father. This was the last straw for Pascal. That’s when he decided to move out west.”

“Well, nobody would really know what he has done, would they?” Johnny could not avoid the sarcasm dripping from his words. “Maybe that last lady from Boston was merely the last of many and he’s been doing this and worse for years, leaving a trail of misery behind him! Maybe his other victims were too scared or embarrassed to speak out!”

Both Murdoch and Scott nodded in agreement. Murdoch answered for them both. “Unfortunately, you are right, son. Anything is possible, and we may never know the extent of his indiscretions.”

Johnny stared at his father and then nodded, before shutting himself away again in his own private hell.

He was roused from his thoughts by his brother’s deep voice. He looked up, suddenly realizing that the question had already been repeated. Johnny’s half smile was all the apology he needed. Scott recognized his distraction and repeated himself yet again.

“How is she doing, Johnny?”

“Still sleeping, Scott. Those powders of Sam’s sure seem to be doing the trick.”

“Has she been conscious at all?”

“Yeah, on and off, but I’ve slipped her a little more of those sleeping powders from time to time to keep her relaxed. She seems … OK … but distant. I dunno.”

Johnny gave a disconsolate shrug of the shoulders.

Scott nodded, his jaw noticeably clenching and eyes anxiously seeking any comfort from Johnny.

Johnny was not so self-absorbed that he could not discern this plea from his guilt torn brother.

“Hey, she’s got one strong character for a female, Scott. Heck, before we know it she’ll be back to giving us all sass.”

Scott chuckled a little at this and was relieved to see an answering smile on Johnny’s face.

“I’ll be giving you sass all right, Johnny Lancer, for sneaking off and feeding your face while you left me behind to starve!”

The clattering of Johnny’s fork broke the silence which had greeted her words. Hopping up, he bounded to the bottom of the back stairs. He placed his arm about her waist, wanting to support her in case she felt faint.

“Hey, what are you doing out of bed?”

“Good morning to you, too!”

Johnny looked at her sheepishly. “Good morning, Mi Corazón.  Come on, how about I get you back to bed?”

He then coloured, flustered that his clumsy words could be misconstrued and would upset her. Her smile, if a little weak, allayed his fears. “How about you get me some breakfast instead?”

Johnny’s eyes were lost in hers and entranced in that smile that he didn’t think he would see again.  “How about I bring some up to you?” he countered.

Her look was answer enough. Bowing down to her formidable glare, he led her as though she were a porcelain doll to the table and sat her down. While greetings were tendered by the rest of the family, Maria set about tempting her palate with an array of dishes.

It was soon evident to Johnny that although Elise had ventured downstairs, her appetite was virtually non-existent. Her initial cheerful confidence, in fact, was possibly mere bluff. Teresa broke into his thoughts.

“Do you want to go back upstairs to have a rest after breakfast, Elise?” Teresa enquired.

“No, thank you. I just want to get some fresh air and get outdoors – after a good soak in the bath, that is. I’ve been shut in long enough.”

Johnny turned towards her. Unselfconsciously, he grasped her hand in his and observed her face. Her pallor contrasted with the dark rings under her eyes. Her enforced sleep had obviously not been as restful as had been hoped.  “Why don’t you have that long soak? I’ll get a couple of chores done around the house and we’ll head out for a picnic lunch.”

She looked back at him, the ghost of a smile playing around the edges of her mouth. “That, Johnny, is a perfect suggestion,” she agreed, appreciation for his idea evident in her eyes.

“I’ll go make sure that there’s plenty of hot water, then.” Kissing her gently on the forehead, Johnny rose from the table. The rest of the family also departed, leaving Scott alone with Elise.

He sat, unusually slumped, regarding his hands around his coffee cup.

“Are you all right, Scott?”

He glanced up, surprised that she would ask him that. He considered the usual polite response, but opted for honesty as he lowered his gaze and studied his cup.

“No, I’m not really. I bear a good deal of responsibility for what happened.” At this, he lifted soulful eyes to her. “I’m so sorry for bringing Michel here. I wish I had been more astute in realizing what sort of man he really is. If I had, you would not have been put in that situation.”

"Nobody is responsible for his actions, save himself, Scott,” she comforted him.

“But I should have picked up on something, been more aware!” The rising pitch of Scott’s voice betrayed his anguish.

“How? He was quite unpredictable.”

“I don’t know. I’ve known him the longest. I should have seen this coming.” Scott’s voice petered out.

“Scott, he’s actually unbalanced. Mad, even. No-one, absolutely no-one, could have picked that from his general behaviour.”

Johnny’s footsteps could be heard approaching. He entered the kitchen, the recent ever present little worried frown creasing his brow. On sighting her, the creases eased somewhat.

“There’s plenty of water whenever you’re ready.”

Elise sighed in anticipation. “Thank you, Johnny.” Standing up, she bent to brush a light kiss on Scott’s cheek before heading upstairs to fetch a change of clothes.

Johnny looked at Scott, one eyebrow raised. “Are you making a move on my girl, Scott?”

Somewhat abashed, Scott looked at him mortified, but then the realization that some of Johnny’s sense of humour had survived the harrowing past few days acted like a tonic.

“No point, brother. She seems to think the world of you.” Scott draped his arm over Johnny’s shoulders and steered him outside. “Don’t ask me why, though. She’s not usually dense. So while she is enjoying the bathhouse facilities, how about you join me on some of those chores you were talking about?”

The normalcy of this banter and the support of his brother took Johnny one step closer to putting the past few days behind him. Johnny just hoped that the outing with Elise would be the next positive step for her.

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

Johnny and Elise had taken the buckboard for the picnic. Johnny was unsure how well Elise would cope on horseback and whether it would all be too much. This way she could lie down in the back if she became tired. His wound was still mighty uncomfortable as well, but he wasn’t about to admit that to anyone.

He headed for a different part of the river from where they had swum the other day. It was warm, but not overly hot. A perfect day to be outdoors. Light, fluffy clouds skipped jauntily across the sky, only occasionally throwing a cape of gauze over the sun’s rays. Leaves rustled overhead in the gentle breeze and the carefree birdcalls matched Johnny’s optimistic frame of mind.

Optimistic up to a point, that is. He wasn’t sure just how to help her and support her. He didn’t want to get too close in case a man’s touch was repugnant to her after her ordeal. But the yearning remained. This need he had to hold her and physically shield her from the harsh realities of the world was a hankering of desire that he was having difficulty in suppressing. He had noticed, though, that when their bodies met and touched due to the jolting of the ride, she at no time attempted to shuffle over on the bench seat to allow more space between them. He hoped that this was a sign that she still craved his attention as much as he craved her.

He stopped under the canopy of some willows. Hopping out first he reached for her to help her down. She did not cringe when he made his intention clear to lift her down by holding her waist. So relieved was Johnny that he bestowed a brilliant smile which was returned, if a little tremulously.

Johnny solicitously spread a blanket out on the grassy ground for her to sit on, but she chose to stand, leaning one shoulder on the tree trunk as she idly regarded the water. Tending to the horses took several minutes, with all the while half his attention being focussed on the forlorn figure of the young woman he had grown to love so quickly and deeply.

Jobs finished, he strolled over to her. “Do you want to sit down?” he asked softly.

Without looking at him, she shook her head. “No, thanks. I’ve been sitting on that hard seat for nearly an hour and before that I was drugged in bed.” Johnny flushed as she turned her head and an accusing glare was aimed at him. “And before that I was stuck a saddle.”

Johnny winced inwardly at the mistreatment she had suffered, but before he could say anything, she continued. “I really want to go for a long walk.”

This they did. Johnny tentatively held out his hand. She took it and nodded her gratitude. They set off in silence and stayed silent for what seemed like miles to Johnny. Except for the odd cautionary word from him regarding loose stones or for her to mind her head as she ducked under low hanging boughs, nothing was said. Johnny stole many a look at her profile. She did not appear to be upset or emotional. Her face merely seemed bland.

Sam had had a good chat to Johnny. He had asked Johnny to draw her out on what happened, to get her to talk to someone, anyone for that matter, to prevent her bottling it up. He wasn’t following Sam’s orders too well, Johnny thought wryly to himself. Success nil at that point.

After an hour of following the river upstream, Elise stopped and looked around her. She seemed engrossed in the view of the rolling hills and paddocks, which formed the patchwork that was Lancer. She spoke just the two sentences. “It’s beautiful here, Johnny. So peaceful and calm.”

Not thinking that she needed a response, but giving one anyway, Johnny agreed. “Yeah, it got under my skin that very first day. Even after Murdoch and I argued over the wild horses that time and I made up my mind to leave, I couldn’t turn my back on it.”

She looked at him then, with compassion in her eyes for him, knowing that his Lancer birthright had been withheld from him for so long. He mentally shook his head that she should unselfishly be worrying about his feelings at this time.

Elise didn’t volunteer any more conversation, so Johnny reached for her hand again. “Do you want to go back now?” he asked gently, as one would do when dealing with a frightened and unpredictable child. She simply nodded her head and they retraced their steps. That she did not once let go of his hand made his heart want to break out in song.

Back at the picnic spot, Johnny fussed over her, all the time surreptitiously estimating how well she was managing on this first outing. It was her sudden giggle which broke the ice.

“Johnny! I am not a hot-house flower about to wilt if it doesn’t get full attention and care! You must have been taking lessons from Maria, with all the fussing she does over you!”

After that, they managed to talk some, mostly about the ranch, people they knew and events taking place. Johnny studied her during a pause in their conversation. Her head was bent down as she examined her hands. At the nape of her neck, tendrils of hair had escaped the pins meant to hold them captive. They wafted in the breeze, playfully skimming across her skin, then lifting to undulate in the current. Her whole chignon was in danger of falling down, the energetic morning providing plenty of opportunity for twigs to play havoc with her coiffure.

“Here,” he offered, “Let me fix up your hair.” That being said, Johnny scooted behind her and inexpertly, but effectively, caught, twisted and pinned her trailing locks. The sight of her vulnerable neck did amazing things to his belly, deep down. Making up his mind, Johnny sat behind her, sliding one leg each on the outside of hers. With just the faintest of pressure on her shoulders, he pulled her back to lean on his chest. Wiggling his own back, he settled as comfortably as he could, using the tree for support. His legs parallelled hers, forming the double V shape of a chevron. His breath hitched at the exquisite touch of his inner thighs against her hips and legs. Taking her hands in his, he wrapped them around her belly, pinioning them tenderly.

Again there was silence and they stayed still until Johnny felt water droplets fall onto the backs of his hands. Dismay hit him with a thump. He attempted to let go of her hands so he could sit in front of her, but she clung to them. After a deep, soul-searing sigh, she finally articulated what she was thinking.

“He sat like that and held me like that, except we were on his horse.”

Johnny cursed his insensitive stupidity. He tried to move to take away the bad memories he had involuntarily evoked, but she clung harder to him.

“He sat real close behind me on the saddle. I could feel … everything. He knew it and he enjoyed my discomfort. And he breathed down my neck like you are doing. He was having his fun and I just wanted to vomit. And he rubbed my hands like you do when you’re not thinking about anything in particular. Like you, but so much different.”

“Oh, Querida!” Johnny breathed, eyes closed in anguish. “I’m so sorry. But he won’t hurt you ever again.”

She appeared not to hear him, continuing her monologue. “All I could think of is that he held me the way you have in the past, but it made such a difference. He wasn’t you, Johnny. I don’t want any other man holding me. I only want you!”

Her voice was rising, taking on tones of panic. He tried to quieten her with endearments, but she continued.

“Then that night when you saved me, he decided he was going to have his way with me. It didn’t matter what I wanted. And all I wanted was you, Johnny. I wanted to have you making love to me, not him. All I could think of is that I’d never feel you hold me again. And I’d never feel you make love to me, that we would never have the chance to have that experience together.”

She finally stopped speaking, tears flowing unchecked down her cheeks and sobs causing her words to hiccup as they tumbled out. He did free her hands, then. Turning her body, he scooped her up sideways onto his lap, and cradled her. He rocked her and soothed her as her sobs became more ragged and anguished. Her chest heaved as she fought for air in her lungs and his shirt became tear soaked as the burst dam continued to release its pent up contents. Johnny poured out his feelings for her in a mixture of English and Spanish, his hands caressing and rubbing the tension out of her muscles.

About fifteen minutes later, she had quieted apart from the erratic hitch and sob, which still broke out. Once again, she had grasped his shirt, forming tight balls of material in her fists.

“He was obsessed with Scott.” This came out of the blue as she once again seemed to want to talk about her ordeal.

“In what way?” Johnny asked softly.

“It was like he thought that Scott was a god or a hero to him.” She sat up a little and moved her head slightly, as if she wanted to watch his face while she continued. “He called him his big brother.” She stopped here and Johnny recognized that she was not going to add any more to this, no doubt wanting to shield his feelings. He continued for her.

“He told us that he and Scott were blood brothers and that Scott didn’t need me. He was hoping to get Scott disappointed in me and to get Murdoch to send me away. He didn’t think any brother, let alone a half-breed, was necessary for Scott as long as Scott had Michel.”

She nodded, relief evident that he was aware of this. “Yes, he wanted Scott just for himself. But he adored him and resented him at the same time. He thought that Scott was better than him– more handsome, more educated, more intelligent and he had a distinguished army career to boot. He was also jealous that Scott had no handicaps. He felt inferior. He wanted to BE Scott! Johnny, he both loved and hated Scott. It was sickening.”

Johnny nodded. “I know, Querida, and Scott is having a hard time dealing with this right now. He feels like he was the cause of all this. It was real nice of you to consider him this morning.” Johnny stopped, and teased her with mischief in his eyes. “But a handshake would have done. He didn’t merit a kiss!”

Relief washed over Johnny when she chuckled. After a moment, her smile faded. “Michel told me that he was used to Scott’s seconds and the fact that Scott had rejected the idea of courting me meant that I was his to do with as he wished. It was even better for him that I belonged to you. If he could do anything to hurt you or drive a wedge between you two, he was out to see to it.”

“Well, no one is about to break my relationship with Scott. Neither of us will let that happen.”

Elise looked at him with a genuine smile of understanding. “I know. It’s one of the things I like about you. The way you and Scott are so close and the way you watch out for each other.”

Her smile was suddenly lost to a haunted look of anguish. “He told me that his shot had been fatal. I saw you fall, but couldn’t get to you before he cut me off and grabbed my reins. He forced me into riding double with him in case I tried to bolt. He said that you were dead and I just wanted to die along with you!”

Her sobs erupted again. It was another twenty minutes before she quietened and lay still in his arms, cuddled up snugly to his chest.

He continued to hold her, still gently whispering his words of love and support.

Suddenly, her voice intruded into his thoughts. “How do you feel about things, Johnny?”

This he had not expected. He hadn’t even examined his feelings other than to know he was seething at Michel and grateful to have this woman back in his arms.

“What do you mean?” he queried cautiously.

Quite bluntly, she told him. “How do you feel about what happened? About him groping me and trying to seduce me? How do you feel that Scott and some of the hands saw what was happening at the campsite? How do you feel that I have been sullied?”

Johnny was not prepared for this forthrightness. He looked at her in horror, words deserting him. As her eyes left his, he detected a hint of disappointment in them. He kicked himself for not saying what he felt immediately. He decided that she deserved the truth.

“For starters, you ain’t sullied. Just get that straight! Furious don’t even begin to describe how I feel about Michel trying to seduce you. And Scott, Murdoch and the hands didn’t see much. It was dark. Michel was …” Johnny stopped, groping for a euphemism. He started again. “Michel was in the way.”

He licked his lips, took a breath and then let his feelings spill out.

“I was sick with worry for you. The whole day I kept wondering if you were all right or whether he had killed or ravished you. When we came across the campsite, I couldn’t bear it that he was forcing himself on you. I couldn’t bear thinking about what indignities you might have already suffered. I felt like he was violating our love. I just wanted to protect you from that depravity and wished I had got there earlier before he hit you and tore your clothes. I wished I could have turned the clock back so none of it had happened.”

Johnny’s voice quavered as he continued. “When I saw you on the ground, I thought we were too late.” He was unable to go on as tears welled in his eyes. He swallowed hard, then took a deep breath. “And although I thought we were too late, I wanted to be able to tell you that whatever had happened, I still wanted you. That I hoped you’d let me get close to you again to show you that all men aren’t like that.”

Elise’s mournful eyes held his. “I know that, Johnny.”

“Knowing it and believing it are two different things.” Johnny held her eyes, before adding honestly, “Most of all, I’ve just been selfishly scared witless that you wouldn’t want me any more.”

She was still, so still he thought that he had reawakened her nightmare by reopening the door to all the bad memories which had so overwhelmed her for the past few days. Terror clenched at his gut.

Then she moved. Her arms were around his neck and she was whispering in his ear. “Oh, I want you all right, Johnny Lancer.”

His answering hug was fierce. Then he chose to try his luck for a kiss and was rewarded with her response, which was just as passionate and lively as his own.

Once again, all was finally right in his world.

Or it was until Ross came thundering in from town a week later.

 

Chapter Twenty Three (Final)

The week had brought a mixture of highs and lows for them.

Pascal had arrived to see to Michel’s legal representation. While there had been some initial awkwardness, both he and the Lancers smoothed over any anxiety caused by their mutual trepidation. He had stayed in town at the hotel, despite being invited to the ranch, but had spent some time with them. He was deeply regretful for the trouble Michel had caused and all of the Lancers were concerned to see the worry lines etched on his face. It was evident to them that he had aged considerably in just a few weeks. He conceded that Michel would be spending a long time behind bars for the abduction and attempted rape of Elise. But it was his son’s mental deterioration which brought home to Pascal that life would never be the same for him again.

For Johnny, however, the week had brought him a new contentedness. He had caught up with Elise most afternoons after finishing his work. Early starts and solid application to his chores had usually provided him with enough time to see Elise. Their relationship was stronger than ever and Johnny was at a stage where he had some serious decisions to make. The more he spent with her the more natural it seemed to him that their attachment was special and was destined to be long lasting.

Until Ross delivered his news.

Ross galloped in from town as the Lancers were having lunch at home. It was one of the rare occasions when all their morning chores put them within range of the hacienda for the midday meal.

The mood was light hearted. Johnny had been working overtime trying to get Scott’s mind off the damage that Michel had tried to inflict on the family.

“You and Sarah sure seemed to stop what you were doing real fast when you saw me arrive with Brendan and Ross,” Johnny commented.

“She just had a piece of grit in her eyes. I was trying to get it out,” explained Scott with exaggerated patience.

“Is it easier to get grit out if you lie on top of someone?” Johnny’s innocent look of wonderment did not pass muster with his older brother.

“I was not lying on top of her. Having her lie down was just the easiest way to see her eyes in the sunlight.” Johnny was sure he could discern Scott’s teeth gnashing.

“Oh, OK, but I thought it would be easier just to get her to bend her head backwards.” Johnny’s heaving shoulders were a dead giveaway as he succumbed to his mirth.

Murdoch knew he should stop this indelicate repartee given Teresa’s presence in the room, but he was so enjoying seeing that spark of humour alive in Johnny that he didn’t have the heart to put a damper on their fun.

It was Ross who did so most effectively.

Knocking and entering at the same time, Ross stood before them in the kitchen, hat twisted into shapeless blob by nervous hands. The Lancers all felt a premonition of trouble.

Scott was the first to find his voice after an abrupt silence descended on them. “What is it, Ross?”

Ross addressed himself to Johnny. “Johnny, it’s Elise.”

After a heartbeat, Johnny asked a question he didn’t think he wanted to know the answer to. “What about Elise?”

“She’s gone.”

Johnny’s chair flew backwards and as he bounded to his feet. “What do you mean?”

“She’s gone, Johnny. She took the eleven o’clock stage for Cross Creek and left with all her gear.”

“What do you mean, ‘She’s gone’? Why would she do that?”

“I dunno, Johnny. All I know is, I saw her leave. I went to see George at the depot and he told me she had bought a one way ticket.”

Johnny’s face was ashen. Beads of perspiration oozed from his forehead as a molten heat seem to course through his body, ironically leaving him chilled to the marrow. He felt like his lungs were clamped down, where no amount of effort could suck in any life-giving oxygen. Dizziness overtook him. It was a vertigo that left his ears buzzing and the room spinning on it axis with him and Ross as the focal point.

He felt an arm offering support, then he was urged gently back down into a seat. Scott was pressing a coffee into his hand. He gripped it tightly, but made no effort to drink.

“Why?”

Johnny’s voice was bereft.

The others glanced at each other, concerned expressions reflecting their anxiety for Johnny.

He stayed immobile for several minutes, staring at nothing and unresponsive to them all. Then his face set in a mask of determination, which lent him new drive. He stood abruptly, striding purposefully towards the front foyer where his gun belt and hat hung on the hatstand.

Donning his rig, he opened the door and bolted for the barn. After what seemed like only seconds, Barranca galloped from the barn, Johnny leaning forward low in the saddle and urging his mount on as fast as possible.

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

Johnny was in a vacuum. There was Barranca and him. That was all. The wind whipped past his face, battering his hat dangling by its stampede strings and lifting Barranca’s tail and mane into horizontal streamers. Apart from that, the countryside around him was an indistinct blur of nothingness.

He rode on, cutting across country and pushing Barranca as hard as he felt the brave horse could safely endure. His heart was beating in rhythm to Barranca’s hooves. A thumping that travelled up into his skull, jarring and lancing through him as each hoof touched ground. Air seared his lungs and parched his throat as he panted and gasped in desperation.

He wasn’t going to make it unless he could keep going. Even traversing the land diagonally, he was unlikely to close the gap sufficiently.

Dios. Let me be in time!

Barranca valiantly continued following his command, but Johnny could tell that his mount’s energy was flagging.

Just one more hill, old fella, and we’ll see what’s on the other side.

Barranca crested the rise, sides heaving. It was then that Johnny sighted it. A minuscule smudge on the horizon, which was increasing in size and transforming into a cloud of swirling dust. Johnny paused, gulping air and sending a prayer of thanks heavenwards. Patting Barranca’s shoulder and promising to make it up to him later, Johnny urged Barranca on downwards at a more leisurely pace.

He waited on the side of the track, tense and nervous. The stage was now audible, the rumble of wheels and thudding of hooves increasing in volume. The stage rounded the last bend and came into full view. Johnny stepped in the middle of the road, arms waving. He stood fast as the horses were pulled to a sudden, inelegant stop. Johnny found himself looking down the barrel of a shotgun held by the co-driver.

“Put the gun down, Dave, before you spook the horses! That’s Johnny Lancer,” the stage driver commanded his assistant.

Dave reluctantly lowered his firearm, a sceptical look on his face.

“What in tarnation are you doin’, Johnny? You got a death wish or somethin’? A dang fool thing to do if ever I saw one!’

“Sorry, Seth. I just want to talk to one of your passengers.”

“Well, we got a schedule to keep and we ain’t got no time to stop so you can have a parley. Meet us in Cross Creek. Get your talkin’ done then. Come on now, out of the way.”

“No, Seth, I need to speak with her now!”

Johnny looked over to the side, suddenly realizing that they had an audience leaning out through the windows, but not the audience he hoped to see there. He advanced to the stage door and peered into the carriage. She sat there in the middle, sandwiched between the widow Tompkins and an unknown man in his fifties, with a couple and their small child facing her.

He looked at her searchingly. After initially staring at him, she turned away and faced forward, biting her lip and pretending to ignore him.

Johnny swallowed, puzzled. “Elise, will you please get out so we can talk?”

Elise at first appeared not to hear him. Tension was apparent in her rigid bearing and white knuckled fingers. Her answer was unexpected and it shocked him to hear it from her lips.

“No, Johnny. I’ve decided I should head back. It’s for the best.”

“It’s for the best? For who? Since when? And were you even going to tell me?” Johnny blasted his pent up emotion at her.

The middle aged man jumped in fear, while the young mother seized her child and clutched it protectively to her breast, shielding his eyes from the potentially violent scene. The widow Tompkins was staring, rapt at the dramatic scene unfolding before her.

 

“I left you a note.”

“A note? Well that was considerate of you. Just when was I going to get this note? And I suppose you explained in a logical fashion why you took the notion into your head to disappear?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that makes it all right then. As long as I have a note, everything is hunky dory!” Johnny sarcasm was not veiled as he glared at her, his heart crumbling and falling into a pile of rubble which settled heavily in his gut.

His voice softened. “Come on, Elise, talk to me. Please.”

“No, Johnny, I’m leaving.”

“And so is this stage. Johnny get your head the heck out of that window and get out of the way,” Seth demanded. Seth made to move the horses on, but it was the Widow Tompkins who provided the next obstacle to the continuation of the journey.

“Sorry, Seth, but Nature is calling. I need to leave the stage,” the elderly lady called up to the driver.

“Well, you can wait until the next scheduled stop!”

“Not if you don’t want me to disgrace myself in the stage. I can’t imagine that you would enjoy cleaning it up!” Widow Tompkins looked at the occupants. “Well, I should be a while, so you may as well all go and stretch your legs.” Her suggestion came out as a command. The man seated next to Elise rose to exit on his side of the coach, but the order fell on deaf ears as far as the young mother was concerned.

“We’ll just stay here in the shade,” the young woman ventured.

“Nonsense!” exclaimed the widow. “If you don’t let that young boy run around he will be driving us all mad with his energy. Hop out and I’ll follow.”

Having successfully cowed the woman and her docile husband, she ushered them out of the carriage, picking up the child herself to encourage their departure. Pointing to a shady canopy of trees about fifty yards away, she directed the passengers to assemble there on the grassy ground.

Before hitching up her skirts and following, she turned to Johnny and Elise. “I’ll be quite a while, so you two take your time.”

With that, the widow took two paces, hesitated and returned to Johnny’s side. Peering in, she addressed herself to Elise. “Why don’t you listen to him, girl. You won’t get finer than the Lancer boys. And everyone knows Johnny’s head over heels in love with you. Believe you me, life is long and lonely without a good man by your side. And when you not only meet a good man, but the right man, don’t be rash with any decisions that can leave you with an empty heart full of regret for the rest of your life!” 

The elderly lady studied Elise to see if her point had been taken. Apparently dissatisfied, she continued. “Being without your soul mate can make a person bitter and shrewish. Don’t I know it! Only I got no choice in the matter when my husband up and died.”

She stopped and glanced at Johnny before turning her attention back to Elise. “I heard the talk in town and I’m surprised you took it so hard. Didn’t take you for a scaredy cat. I guess what I’m saying is that you have the chance to change your mind and make a new choice. Listen to your heart before it shrivels into dust.”

She fixed Elise with a long look, hoping her message was understood. With a brief nod to Johnny, she headed into the anonymity of the scrub.

Johnny sighed, squared his shoulders and reached for the handle. With a hop, he grasped the doorframe and lithely sprang into the confines of the coach.

He sat opposite Elise and contemplated her. She was looking out the window and he absorbed the details of her profile. It was only as he realized that he was storing up this exquisite image in case he never saw her again, that he gave himself a mental shake.

“Elise, talk to me. What happened?”

It was her turn to sigh. “Nothing happened, Johnny. I just think that it would be better if I returned back east.”

“Well maybe I don’t agree with that line of thinking and just maybe I should be let in on this decision making!”

Elise dropped her eyes to her lap. She did not reply. Johnny was just about to speak again when he noticed a lone tear trace a line down her cheek.

Johnny changed seats. Sitting next to her, he wrapped his arm over her shoulder and pulled her to him. “Honey, I love you. I want to be with you. I thought we had it good. I don’t understand what’s happened. Explain it to me, because whatever it is, we can overcome it together. Let me fix it up.” Johnny paused and then begged softly, “Please.”

“I just don’t want you to be hurt any more.”

“I’m hurting now, Sweetheart. The thought of you leaving me is cutting my insides to shreds.”

Elise looked at him, shocked. “You don’t understand.”

“No, I don’t and I won’t until you tell me.”

“The talk around town is that Michel … had his way with me. And that makes me ‘second hand goods’, to use their words. I don’t want you having to defend yourself simply because you’re stepping out with me. You’ve had enough taunts in your life without people denigrating you because of me.”

Johnny was stupefied. “Is that what this is all about?” he asked incredulously. “You took off because you wanted to spare me my feelings? Well, that worked fine and dandy. Just what were you thinking?”

“If I’d have stayed around, you’d have heard nothing but people commenting on the night Michel kidnapped me. Speculating. Presuming the worst. Just being with me would make you  the butt of smutty comment,” she explained.

“Oh, querida, I’ve had that all my life. It’s nothing new to me. But then I didn’t have you by my side to make life bearable.”

“And if I stay by your side, you’ll never have any peace, never be left alone by the vicious gossip mongers! You’ve only been getting your life back together for the last two years. You don’t deserve to suffer nasty barbs any more. And you shouldn’t have to!” She broke on a sob, which she tried desperately to master.

“No, you’ve got it wrong. If you LEAVE me I’ll never get any peace. I’ll be searching for your face in every crowd. It is true, though that I’m only just getting my life back together. And until I met you, I thought things couldn’t get much better for me. I had found me a brother, a family, a home. There’s only one more thing a man needs to make his life whole. That’s a good woman to share it with, one who he loves and who loves him … and to have babies with that woman.”

“You don’t need any more burdens in your life, Johnny.”

“No, I don’t, so don’t do this to me. You have been through a lot and you are really not thinking clearly. Listen, honey, I’ve heard the talk in town. You didn’t quite say it all. I think you left out the bit about a half breed gunfighter from the gutter like me only deserving soiled merchandise. Well, you ain’t soiled and you ain’t trash and you ain’t second hand goods. In a few months when people start realizing your belly isn’t swelling none, they’ll find another victim for their mean spiritedness. And you’ll have left for nothing.”

Johnny looked to see if his common sense was penetrating her obviously muddled thoughts.

“And even if your belly had swelled out from here to Morro Coyo, I’d have been proud and happy to stand by your side, and it would have been none of their business!”

Johnny stroked the side of her face with his fingertip. “That is, unless you don’t love me at all.”

Her sharply indrawn breath gave him hope. “Of course, I love you. That’s why I have to go.”

Hopes denied again, he graced her with a sardonic look. “Boy, for one smart lady, you really are not making any sense.”

He then tried to jolt her with different tactics. “So, is having a half breed Mexican beau more difficult than you thought? If it is, and if people have slighted you because of me, then I understand your wanting to leave.”

Partial success.

“No! Race doesn’t come into it! If anything, your Mexican heritage makes you more attractive to me. Nobody has ever scorned me for spending time with you! And how could you think that if they had, it would make any difference to how I feel about you?”

“Exactly, nobody is going to cause me to think differently about you, either. So, your argument is shot to pieces!” he exclaimed victoriously.

“It’s not the same, Johnny. A man can’t be expected to put up with people calling his girl … or his wife … the sort of names that are being bandied around about me at the moment. How could you hold your head up in the community with me by your side when everyone thinks I am a whore?”

“How can I hold my head up if you are NOT by my side?” He shook his head and tried again. “OK, so you are going to leave me. For the first time in my life I finally get a chance to have what every other man can expect and you’re going to take it from me?”

 

“No, Johnny, I’m trying to give you a chance to have what every other man has. You won’t have it if people think I’m not … chaste.”

“Well, I could call them all out and blow them to smithereens!”

Her look of shock brought a grin to his face. “Just tell me which ones have been making rude comments to you. If you don’t tell me, I’ll shoot them all! The whole town.”

His grin broadened to a blazing smile. With some self-satisfaction, he noticed that his most devastating weapon was still capable of disarming the thickest of armour. He detected a tentative smile crack her defensive shield.

“We don’t need to live our lives worrying about others. The two of us together can fight them off. We make a pretty good team. You know, if you leave, we might in time fall in love again. But will it be as good as what we have now? The Widow Tompkins used the term ‘soul mate’. That’s what you, are, Elise, my soul mate. Maybe I’d be able to move on with my life, but would I ever have these feelings for anyone else?  Catherine died and Murdoch got over it enough to marry my Mama, but you know something? Murdoch would never say so to me or to Scott, but as much as I know he loved my Mama, I think it was Catherine who was the love of his life. She was his soul mate. I really don’t think that he ever really recovered from her passing. He’s missed her for a quarter of a century and he’ll continue missing her for the rest of his life.”

Elise was looking at him intently. The depth of sadness in her eyes urged him on as he tried desperately to break down her irrational reasoning.

“Come back with me to Lancer. What do you say? Don’t break my heart. Don’t destroy what we have because of some stupid comments that I don’t even care about. I love you and I want you by my side.” He stopped, then begged, “Please, Honey?”

Elise hesitated, her golden green eyes locked on his vivid blue eyes, before they became indistinct through a veil of tears.

She moved then, flinging her arms around his neck. Her murmured “I love you so much, Johnny!” was music to his ears.

He cut off whatever else she had to say. The mute reply of her kiss was all the confirmation he needed. She intoxicated him as no woman had done before. Her fervent kisses were an equal match to his lips, delving deeply into his soul, promising as much as they were giving.

Until Widow Tompkins’ shrill tones pierced and shattered the fragile shell of their private world, that is.

“Now, that’s more like it. Glad you came to your senses, girl. Now, if you’ve made up your mind, you’d best get going with Johnny here. The rest of the passengers are getting mighty fed up waiting.” That said, the widow opened the door of the stage for them to exit.

Not wanting Elise to bring up any further arguments, Johnny took her arm and guided her down the steps.

“Seth, drop Miss Collins’ bags off at the next stage post. I’ll send a hand over with the buckboard this afternoon.”

Seth eyed off the couple. It didn’t take much to guess that his mind was working overtime to work out if they had been canoodling in his stage. “Sure, Johnny. See you next time I’m back in town.”

Johnny turned to help the widow into the stage while the other passengers mounted from the other side. As she placed her foot on the step, the Widow Tompkins gave an uncharacteristic smile which took years off her appearance. “Johnny Lancer, that must be the most romantic thing I have ever seen!”

She nodded at his inadequate reply, then concentrated on mounting the steps again. Just before she ducked her head inside, she seemed to decide that she had more to say. Swivelling her shoulders around to face Elise, she added her final words of wisdom.

“I’ve been dreaming for years of a decent man to ride up on his steed and rescue me from my miserable existence. It was almost as good watching it happen to someone else. Make sure you appreciate him. He is a rare gem.”

The stage lurched before Johnny had even closed the door properly. Seth was obviously anxious to make up for lost time.

As the stage pulled away, Johnny turned to Elise, inverting her palm to bestow the lightest of kisses.

“Would milady care to join me on my trusty steed?”

Her giggle was enough of an answer. As they settled double on Barranca, Johnny finally felt the contented glow of a man who really did have the best that life could offer.

 

~end~
February 2006

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