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Fliss B

 

 

Then There Were Two

This is an AR, taking place very soon after Scott and Johnny first get to Lancer. No warnings needed and all the usual disclaimers apply. 
This story would not be here without Lacy who juggles the potentially conflicting roles of dear friend and munificent beta with aplomb. Any errors that remain are due to my tinkering.

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 1

In the heat of the day the three men did not wish to overly fatigue themselves or their mounts so their ride into Green River was a leisurely one. The banter that had begun while still on Lancer land had since subsided and the gentle rocking in the saddle had lulled Murdoch into a pleasant reverie. He knew how blessed he was to have both his sons with him. And each day that passed led him to cautiously believe they would remain at Lancer – where they belonged. It was as if his past sins had been forgiven and they could finally start to make up for lost time.

He surreptitiously glanced in Johnny’s direction. Nothing in the way his younger son rode would have anyone guessing that such a short time ago he was battling for his life. Even during his recovery Murdoch expected him to get up and ride away, never to be seen or heard from again. But Murdoch clung to his hope that Johnny was coming around. He still wasn’t sure how much he trusted this dark-haired son. There was too much bubbling away, under the surface. Beyond sight. Beyond comprehension. Yet he knew that it was only with Johnny at Lancer that they had any hope of continuing the relationship, the bond, that had been cruelly ripped apart when his second wife had fled with their infant son.

Tossing a casual look over his shoulder he caught sight of his fair-haired son. In truth, perhaps he should fear Scott’s departure more. He could acknowledge to himself how wrong he had been to leave his son in the care of his wife’s father. Would he ever be able to broach the subject with Scott? Who could ever have known how difficult it would be to make a family out of three grown men, each harbouring suspicions and doubts and unease. He wondered if his sons would ever truly bond – with each other and with him. Though both shared his blood, at times all he could see were the differences that created a yawning chasm between them.

He could understand Johnny’s dismissal of the fancy Easterner who shared a stagecoach with him just scant months ago. He had to confess he had the same misgivings when he first laid eyes on Scott. Yet he hoped Johnny had seen how admirably Scott had acquitted himself from the first decisive moves he had made to secure the ranch and make a place for himself. However, he wondered if this wasn’t just a temporary adventure for the young man. From the report he’d received it appeared his elder son’s lifestyle had turned him into a dissolute youth, always looking out for the next conquest, the next exploit. Though scant news of his time in the army had been available, Murdoch hoped that it had strengthened his son’s character and turned him into a man. Once again, he cursed Harlan Garrett and, truth be told, himself too, for allowing Catherine’s father to raise his son.

As they neared the town it was Johnny who broke the silence, and thus Murdoch’s reverie.

“Listen, I got some things I need to do. How ‘bout we meet up at the saloon in about an hour or so?”

“Suits me fine,” replied Murdoch. “My business at the bank should be over by then. How about you, Scott?”

“I would appreciate the chance to have a haircut. And I think I can manage to fill in some time on my own. An hour it is. At the saloon.”

They went their separate ways.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Precisely one hour later Scott made his way into the darkened saloon and cast his eyes around for his father and brother. In the far corner he caught sight of his brother and made his way towards him. There was a time, not so very long ago, that he’d have been deceived by his brother’s posture. The bowed head, hat pulled low, chair rocked backwards, projected languor but Scott had observed how quickly all that could change. As he headed towards the chair on his brother’s right Johnny lazily kicked it out for him and rocked forward to pour his brother a drink from the half full bottle sitting on the table.

“Thank you. Care to tell me what it is I’m drinking?” Both men deposited their hats on the table before them.

“What’s up, Boston? Don’t like surprises?”

“I’ve experienced a few of your ‘surprises’, Little Brother, and it appears to me their sole intent is to give you a laugh at my expense.”

“Try it. It helps to have it with the salt and lime.”

“Maybe next time. I think I’ll settle for a scotch.” He turned around to attract the attention of the barkeeper when suddenly all eyes were drawn to the entrance of the saloon as Murdoch crashed through the batwing doors.

Johnny covertly eased his semi-drawn weapon back into his holster as Murdoch angrily pushed over a chair on his way towards them.

“Things not go well at the bank, Sir?” It was rare for Scott’s composure to be shaken.

“Bank’s got nothing to do with it. I want to know which one of you boys thought I would find it the least bit amusing to go searching all over town for my horse.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Old Man.”

“Or perhaps you were in it together.”

“Murdoch, I haven’t been near your horse since we got into town. Now what happened?”

“Are you trying to make out my horse has been stolen? A man would have to be pretty desperate in these parts to risk stealing a horse. It’s less of a crime to steal his wife.”

“Perhaps it would help if you started from the beginning, Sir. Around the time we split up and you made your way to the bank.”

“Fine. I tied up my horse outside the bank. Went inside. Conducted my business. Came back out. My horse was gone. I have looked everywhere and wherever it is you’ve hidden him I think you’d better come clean because my patience is beginning to wear thin. And if it does so happen he’s been stolen I need to know now so I can inform the sheriff.”

“Want us to all go help you find your horse, Murdoch?” The cool, contemptuous look Johnny presented his father made Murdoch see red.

“Despite what you may think of me Johnny, I am not a doddering old fool. I know where I left my horse and he’s not there now.”

“Why are you getting so upset, Murdoch?” Scott’s soothing tone cut through Murdoch’s mounting anger. “This should be pretty simple to get to the bottom of.”

“I’m upset because someone is playing stupid games. One thing you boys had better learn  fast is that I don’t find this kind of thing at all funny.”

Johnny pushed back from the table and stood up. “Let’s go.”

As they left the saloon the three men turned left and headed towards the bank, only to be brought up short by the sight of Murdoch’s horse, in clear view, tied up outside the bank, exactly where he had been left just an hour before.

“Mystery solved. Your horse didn’t go anywhere. Now can I finish my drink?” Johnny started to head back inside.

Murdoch stood there slightly slack-jawed before spinning around, ready to chew out his sons. “There is nothing remotely funny about this kind of cheap practical joke.”

“I agree. So are we goin’ back inside or not, ‘cause I’m too hot to hang around out here all afternoon.”

“I’ve lost my thirst. I’ll see you boys back at the ranch.” Murdoch turned on his heel and strode across the road to where his horse was waiting for him. They watched him ride off, pitying the horse who was obviously feeling the rancher’s ire.

“So, Boston, that your idea of fun back East?”

“No, Johnny. In fact I thought making our father look foolish like that would appeal more to you.”

“Shows how much you still have to learn, Brother.”

“Likewise.”

They drifted apart, Scott unhitching his horse as he decided whether to make the effort to catch up to Murdoch.

Johnny went back into the saloon and the bottle he had been neglecting.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 2

As they reached the hacienda Murdoch swung himself laboriously from the saddle and accepted, with a curt grunt, Javier’s offer to tend to his mount for him. Scott threw a disgruntled look in his father’s direction before refusing the ranch hand’s offer to also care for his horse. He led his own horse into the cool of the barn and started removing the saddle. As he did so he cast his mind back over the events of the day.  It was times like this that he questioned his decision to remain – at least for the time being – at Lancer.

What perplexed him most was his father’s reaction to what had obviously been a harmless joke. He knew his father to be a proud and stubborn man but he despaired for anyone who could not, at times, afford to laugh at himself. His train of thought was interrupted as a shadow fell across the door to the barn.

“Scott, are you in here?”

“Yes, Teresa. Is there something the matter?” He had heard an edge of concern marring the usual light-hearted timbre of the young woman’s voice.

“It’s Murdoch. What happened in town? He’s storming through the house like a bull at a gate.”

“It seems our father has yet to learn how to take a joke. I believe Johnny hid Murdoch’s horse in town today then returned him to where Murdoch had left it. But not until he’d had Murdoch searching high and low for him. An infantile prank perhaps, but hardly warranting such an extreme reaction from Murdoch, I’d have thought.”

“Oh, I see.” Teresa remained pensive for a moment as Scott expertly plied the curry comb. “Well Scott, I think I know why he wouldn’t have found that funny. You see, lately he’s been misplacing all manner of things and it’s beginning to irk him. He can’t understand why he’s suddenly being so forgetful.”

“Still, Teresa, we all forget things from time to time. All you need is for your mind to be on one thing while you’re doing something else. I don’t think that entirely excuses his reactions. Nor his subsequent anger.”

“I agree, Scott. But you need to realise he’s not used to losing control of a situation. He’s been the boss for so long that he can’t possibly accept he isn’t in charge of everybody and everything.”

“So you think his anger is just a mask for his fear?”

“Maybe, Scott, that’s just what I mean.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Three days later things appeared to be no better.

Frank looked up to see his boss barrelling down towards the work crew. Not wanting them to witness any of their employer’s increasingly irrational rages he quickly sent the men off to their jobs before spinning back ready to face the anticipated onslaught.

“Frank, I want you to call the men back here this minute.”

“Sure thing, Boss. Something the matter?”

“Of course something’s the matter. I need to find out who sent that telegram for me last week.”

“Boss, we don’t need to bring all the boys back for that. I can tell you right now that it was Hugo and Javier who went. I figured it would only take one of them but we needed some more fencing wire too so they both went and one sent the telegram while the other started loading the supplies. Why? What’s the problem?”

“They obviously sent the wrong message. I expected to receive confirmation by now that the bull would be on its way. Instead I get this telegram reminding me of my legal obligations in the sale. I want to get to the bottom of this. Right now.”

“Can you leave it with me for the moment, Boss? I’ll talk to the men and let you know just what happened.”

Murdoch paused for a moment’s thought. He knew that he had to support his segundo’s authority if he wanted to maintain proper order on his ranch.

“All right, Frank. I expect a report on this tonight, straight after dinner.”

“Sure, Boss, you’ll have it.”

Murdoch turned and headed back towards the hacienda, leaving Frank to once again wonder just what was happening to this man he had worked so well beside for so long.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

An hour later Murdoch observed Frank heading towards town at a brisk clip. His knitted brow was testament to the worry he was experiencing. He had the unnerving feeling that things were starting to slip from his grasp and that he was struggling to maintain his grip on them. The trouble was, he wasn’t quite sure what it was he was losing.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The light was angled away from him slightly, leaving Murdoch mostly in shadow. Frank was standing in front of the desk, hat clasped nervously in his hands as he once again ran through the sequence of events leading to the telegram in question. Scott was seated to his right and Johnny was propped against the fireplace.

“No, Mr Lancer, that envelope was definitely sealed when Hugo delivered it to the operator. And O’Connell there could swear it was written in your hand. He’s sent enough messages from you to be able to tell, I reckon.”

“But it makes no sense. Why would I write that? That wasn’t my intention at all. I know what I meant and I know what I wrote. I’m sure of it.”

Murdoch’s voice was slowly losing the conviction with which he had begun the evening’s meeting.

“You know, Murdoch, telegrams can be real easy to get wrong. You’re tryin’ hard to use just a few words and sometimes meanings come out all wrong. Words can be tricky like that.”

“Johnny’s right, Murdoch. I think we just have to accept it was a genuine mistake and set about making amends.”

“But I’ve never, in all my years, had any problem with something as basic as the wording of a telegram. I was so sure…”

At that point Teresa bustled in with coffee and, as Frank declined the offer to join them, Johnny saw him out while Scott met the inquiry on Teresa’s face with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

They settled down to their coffee, each in their own way aware of the shift in the way Murdoch now viewed his place in the scheme of things. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Days passed, each one producing more examples of Murdoch’s apparent declining lucidity.

Dinner that night was a strained affair and it seemed that every topic raised had somehow drawn Murdoch’s grip on reality into question.

“You all think I’m losing my wits.”

Though uttered as a statement it came out sounding like a plea for contradiction.

“That’s not true, Murdoch. Is it boys?” Teresa’s avowal brought a small smile to the eldest Lancer’s lips.

“Thank you, sweetheart. I knew you’d stand by me. Can’t say as I expected any more from the two of you though.”

Johnny’s anger bubbled to the surface, setting his eyes ablaze. He leapt out of his chair, heedless of its threat to topple to the floor behind him. “I don’t know, Old Man, it seems to me you been forgetful all your life. Like forgetting you had a couple of sons?”

With those cruel remarks Johnny strode angrily from the room. Scott stood and excused himself, determined to go after his younger brother, leaving Murdoch and Teresa alone.

“He’s right, you know. I spent so much time working to make Lancer a success when really I should have been working to bring home my sons. Whatever was I thinking?”

Teresa rushed to kneel by her guardian’s side. She gripped his massive hand in both her small ones and laid her head upon them. “Murdoch, you mustn’t be so harsh on yourself. Everything was fine before. The two of us coped well. You did what you thought was best. There’s nothing to be gained now by second-guessing your actions. Everything will be all right again. You’ll see.”

He stroked her dark hair with his free hand.

“You’re right, darling. I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’ve always been there for me.”

“And I always will be, Murdoch.”

“It’s too much, honey. Too much to ask. You don’t know what you’re offering. I’ve seen this happen to others. Usually it’s when they’re old but just occasionally it happens before you’d expect it to. It’s not so bad on the person suffering the malady. It’s infinitely worse on their family.” His voice trailed off, considering with despair what he believed was in store for him. “Much, much worse…”

“It’s okay, Murdoch. I’ll always look after you.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 3

Lunchtime a fortnight later saw Murdoch prowling around the great room, a frown marring his features. Once upon a time it would have been a scowl.

“Teresa? Teresa, honey!”

Teresa bustled into the room, wiping her floury hands on her apron as she hurried over to him.

“What is it Murdoch? What’s wrong?”

“Sweetheart, I can’t find the sandwich you left me.”

Teresa’s shoulders sagged as anxiety gave way to exasperation. It was the third time today he’d misplaced something and his mounting apprehension was causing her concern for him to wear a little thin.

“Murdoch, I’m sure it’s where you left it – over there on your desk. I handed it to you when you said you were going to finish going through the ledgers then we left you to go bake some fresh biscuits.”

“No, you don’t understand. My back was aching so I got up to come and sit here by the door. I left my sandwich on that table right there.” He was jabbing his finger in the direction of the small table by the armchair. “Frank came over to ask a question about… about something and I went outside for just a moment and when I returned my sandwich was gone.”

Hearing raised voices, Teresa’s friend Renee had left the kitchen and was now nervously hovering at Teresa’s shoulder.

“Murdoch, nobody took your sandwich. Why would they when they could have their own?”

“Then where is it, eh?”

Teresa looked over to the desk but had to admit it was not there. Three sets of eyes raked over the room.

“Mr Lancer?”

Murdoch looked up, momentarily perplexed by the presence of Teresa’s girlfriend before regathering his wits. “Yes, Miss Cassat?”

“Would that be your sandwich on the mantle?” Three sets of eyes gravitated to the fireplace.

Murdoch shuffled over and peered at the plate. “That’s not where I left it.”

A smile sigh escaped Teresa’s lips, though whether of irritation or despair could not be discerned.

“Murdoch, you obviously got up from the desk and put it down here before being called away by Frank.”

“But I know I didn’t. I was definitely sitting down on that chair there and that’s where I left it.” He struggled to remain adamant.

Renee sneaked a peek at her friend and observed the tears beginning to prickle her friend’s eyes.

“Well,” declared Renee cheerfully, “the main thing is you have it now.” She and Teresa moved towards him, one on each side as they guided him back towards the chair he had ostensibly vacated recently. “Teresa and I have to finish the baking now. Is there anything else you’d like before we go, Mr Lancer? Coffee? Lemonade?”

“No thank you,” mumbled Murdoch as he took a cautionary bite of his sandwich, “I’ll be fine.”

Renee led Teresa by the elbow back to the kitchen and waited, as they passed through the doorway, for her friend’s carefully erected façade to crumble. At the sign of the first tear streaking her friend’s cheek she gently laid an arm around her shoulders.

 

“It’s okay, honey. He’s just a little forgetful, that’s all.”

“No, Renee, you don’t understand. This isn’t Murdoch Lancer you’re seeing. You grew up around here. You know of his reputation. This man bears no resemblance to the Murdoch of old.”

Her friend had to acknowledge the truth of those words. She nodded sadly.

Suddenly, the dam burst and Teresa sagged into her friend’s arms.

“Oh Renee, I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’ve been so good to me, helping me face this. I try to be strong but it’s so heavy a weight to carry. Scott and Johnny don’t understand. They’ve only known Murdoch for two months and I feel all the time like I’m trying to keep everyone together. For all I know they’ll take off anyway, even after Murdoch has given them so much. They haven’t put the time and energy into building up this place that Murdoch has. Their connection is just not as strong. Any day now I expect Scott to weary of his time playing cowboy and go back to his fancy clothes and fancier life in Boston. And Johnny has made it clear he only came for the money. He’s already making noises about how this is the longest he’s ever stayed in one place. Why, if they go it would destroy Murdoch in his current state. And I don’t know how to make them want to stay.”

“Shh, Teresa, honey, it’ll be okay. You’ll see, it’ll be okay. You don’t have to face this alone. I’ll always be here for you.” She tenderly rocked her friend until her tears subsided.

But how long it would be until Murdoch’s next outburst, and Teresa’s next challenge, was anyone’s guess.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The biscuits cooling by the kitchen window led Johnny to detour on his way to the barn. His hand snaking in to grasp a still warm biscuit was abruptly slapped away.

“No, Johnny Lancer, you can wait like everyone else.”

“Aw, come on, Teresa. Just one. I haven’t eaten since lunchtime.”

“What’s that? A whole three hours?” The mocking voice did not belong to Teresa and caused Johnny to snatch his hat from his head as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom within. “Miss Cassat.”

“Mr Lancer.”

“Nice to see you again.”

“I’m pleased to be here again.”

“So, T’resa got you working?”

“No, I just came to spend some time with her. The baking was for fun.”

“Sure would be fun to try some.”

“Johnny, I told you to wait like everyone else.” Both Johnny and Renee seemed somewhat startled to realise they were not alone.

“You sure are a hard woman, T’resa. If I’m not going to get my way here, I may as well get on with what I was doing. Good day to you both,” he mocked as he settled his hat back on his head.

“Good bye, Mr Lancer,” Renee fairly purred.

He turned on his heel and stalked off, spurs jangling. “The name’s Johnny,” he called over his shoulder.

Renee’s response brought a sharp jab to the ribs from Teresa. “Whatever are you doing, Renee Cassat?” hissed Teresa softly. “You wouldn’t be interested in Johnny, would you?”

Renee shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. Perhaps.”

She looked sideways at her friend and laughed at the surprise on Teresa’s face.

“Oh come on, Teresa. Look at him. He has ‘bad boy’ written all over him. You’ve got to admit there’s a certain appeal to that. He’s not exactly unattractive either. In a dark, smouldering, break your heart kind of way.”

“Renee! That’s not what I’d have expected of you. You’re a good girl.”

“Oh, maybe I’m just tired of being a good girl. Maybe I want something a little more exciting than ‘good’.”

“Well I think Johnny may be a little too exciting. Be reasonable. What we do know of Johnny’s history so far is just scratching the surface. And there’s enough there to encourage caution anyway. Don’t go playing with fire, Renee. I don’t want to see you hurt.”

“Don’t be silly, Teresa. Johnny wouldn’t hurt me. Now come on. Maybe we should be looking in on Murdoch again.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =                                              

Not finding Murdoch anywhere inside they ventured out towards the corral. They could see, before they could hear, an animated discussion between Murdoch, Scott, Frank and Hugo. As they drew closer they could make out words which made Teresa’s heart grow heavy.

“I’m telling you. I had him saddled and tied up right here. Someone removed his saddle.”

Frank drew Hugo aside and whispered something to him as Scott’s distinctive resonance cut through the growing confusion.

“Murdoch, the saddle’s in the barn, your horse is here, if you want to go for a ride just let Hugo know and he’ll prepare your mount right away.”

“You don’t understand,” Murdoch wearily shook his head as the fight went out of him.

“What’s the matter, Murdoch?” Teresa slipped her hand easily through her guardian’s crooked elbow.

“Sweetheart, I was ready to go for a ride. I’d saddled… my horse and went back to get my hat but when I got back…” His growing confusion was troubling them all. He seemed to be losing substance before their very eyes.

“Mr Lancer, Sir, if you’d like to go for a ride I’d be happy for you to come with me. I was just headed over to one of the work crews. You could see how they’re going with clearing the stream. Check they’re going about it right. I’d be happy to fetch your horse and saddle him for you.”

Murdoch looked up at the hand with mounting uncertainty. “Hugo, is it?”

“Yes, Boss.”

“Hugo, I think I would like a ride.”

Much relieved to be able to return to their work, Frank turned away as Scott reassured Murdoch on the benefits of fresh air and stimulating exercise. He watched as Hugo prepared the horses and led the way with Murdoch in tow. Only when they disappeared over the rise did he seem to realise that Teresa and her friend were still there, watching as well.

Abashed, he lifted his hat. “Good afternoon, Miss Cassat. It’s nice to see you again. I’m sure Teresa has been enjoying your company.”

“And I hers, Mr Lancer.”

“So what have you ladies been up to?”

“Nothing that wouldn’t be brightened by company.”

Teresa was slightly slack-jawed as she watched her friend simpering. Both brothers? She stepped in to grip Renee by the elbow, ready to propel her back towards the house. She responded for them both. “Well what we’ve actually been trying to do is keep Johnny from finishing all the biscuits before anyone else can get near them. That reminds me, Renee. Come on, we’d best get back inside. The wind is picking up a bit.”

“Of course. We can’t keep you ladies out in inclement weather.” The smile playing at Scott’s lips left no doubt as to his true beliefs about the weather.

“Well, Mr Lancer, it’s been nice meeting you again.”

“The pleasure, Miss Cassat, has been all mine. I trust you’ll be staying for dinner. Perhaps then you can regale us with tales of your busy day, thwarting the nefarious deeds of my younger brother.”

“Thank you, I’d love to.”

“Until then.”

Scott tipped his hat and turned to go in the opposite direction, before recalling his manners.

“And please, Miss Cassat, I’d appreciate it if you’d call me Scott.”

“My pleasure, I’m Scott,” Renee words stumbled over each other. “I mean, my pleasure, Scott. I’m Renee.” Her flush rapidly crept up from her bosom to her cheeks.

He smiled gently at her flummoxed reaction. “Then I’ll see you at dinner, Renee.”

As he departed Renee slumped against her friend and gave a low groan.

“Oh Teresa, how embarrassing! How could I be so stupid? He must think I’m a dolt.”

“Well, I think you’re a dolt,” Teresa laughed.

Renee pretended offence. “A dolt?”

“Yes. Throwing yourself at Scott like that.”

“I don’t think I threw myself – it was more a leisurely cast in his direction. Testing the waters, if you will.”

Teresa smiled. “My, my, whatever will Johnny say.”

“Oh, don’t be like that. A girl has to keep her options open. And I can’t think of anyone I’d be more open to than Scott Lancer. He has charm enough to bring the birds down from the trees.”

“My dear, I do think you’re swooning.”

“Teresa, what’s wrong with you, girl? You live with two gorgeous men yet you seem oblivious to their charms.”

“Hmm, I see two men who act like brothers. They tease. They protect. They expect. And to think, up until a couple of months ago they were just names. Names and faces I never expected to see. And now they’re owners of all this.”

“Oh Teresa, honey. We have got to talk. Come on inside. It is getting chilly out here.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 4

“Johnny, hold up a bit,” Scott called to his brother who had appeared from around the side of the barn.

Johnny hesitated, turning towards his brother. “What is it, Scott?”

“We need to talk.”

“About?”

“Murdoch. I’ve just witnessed another example of the trouble Teresa warned us about. I think it’s gone beyond mere forgetfulness and we’re going to have to deal with this.”

Johnny shrugged. “Don’t know what there is to talk about. Doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it. For all I know he’s probably always been forgetful but it’s just starting to get on Teresa’s nerves now.”

 “You’re not listening, Johnny. I said I think it’s more than forgetfulness.”

“Well what’s your point, Scott? What do you reckon we can do about it? I figure as long as he’s wanderin’ around not hurtin’ anyone, where’s the trouble?”

“That’s just the point, brother. One day soon he just may hurt someone or something. Maybe Teresa. How would that make you feel?”

“Look Scott, so the Old Man’s losing his wits. The way I see it I don’t owe him anything. Part ownership of this ranch is the least I should get for not blowing his brains out the first chance I got. He sure had it coming to him. But now I’m here, I’m gonna make the most of it. If he gets to where he can’t pull his weight anymore I say we send him off somewheres and get this place runnin’ like it oughta.”

“Such filial devotion is admirable, Johnny.”

The glare shot in Scott’s direction could have frozen flames.

“I made it clear where I stand, Boston. Now what exactly brought you here? The way I see it you got as much to hate him for as I do. So what brought you here? And what made you stay?”

“Easy. I came out of curiosity. I stayed as a business venture. Grandfather and I have been diversifying our business interests. When I saw Lancer I considered the potential for growth. Being gifted with a third share meant earning interest without the initial outlay of capital. That seemed worth some of my time and effort.”

“Still don’t see as how you’d get yourself all fired up over the Old Man going crazy. It’s not like we owe him much. ‘less of course you got something else happenin’ we don’t know about.”

“It’s simple concern for a fellow human being, Johnny. Or is that beyond your sphere of comprehension?”

The two men glared at each other.

“I’m checking the fence line from here south to the first line shack. The Old Man needs me to nursemaid him you be sure to let me know.” He strode off towards Barranca and hurled himself into the saddle without a backward glance. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Despite the frostiness between brothers earlier in the day, dinner that evening had been a very pleasant affair with Renee Cassat the centre of attention. She had turned on her charm, her feminine wiles in full swing. And her audience was lapping it up. As Teresa headed into the kitchen Renee excused herself and joined her.

“Teresa, how can you stand it?”

“Stand what?” asked Teresa, indulgently.

“Living under the same roof as those two men.”

“Renee, behave yourself. Whatever do you mean?” Teresa was whispering now and Renee bowed her head closer to Teresa’s ear.

“I mean if I were in your position I think I’d be taking it in turn each night to slip into one or the other’s room.”

“Renee Cassat, you hush right now. That kind of talk can get you into trouble. What if the boys heard you?” They bowed their heads closer and giggled uncontrollably.

Suddenly there was a crash of glassware from the dining room. They rushed in to find Murdoch standing imposingly over both his sons as they tried to placate him.

“Scott, Johnny, what happened?”

Murdoch cast wild eyes in the direction of Teresa’s voice.

“Teresa, you have to help me. These sons of mine are trying to convince me I’m going insane. I’m not, you know.”

Teresa hurried around to his side and eased him back into his chair. “Here, sit down and let me fetch you a drink.”

“But that’s just the point. I had a drink. I didn’t finish it. I know I didn’t. One of them did it and now they’re trying to make out I don’t know what I’m doing. You tell them Teresa. Tell them there’s nothing wrong with me.”

Teresa looked to Scott and Johnny in turn but her mouth dried up and the words Murdoch longed to hear stuck in her throat. Murdoch looked up at her sorrowfully.

“It’s no good. Even you believe I’m going insane.” His overbearing frame wilted and he seemed to melt into the chair. “Maybe you’re all right. Maybe I am. What’s to become of me?”

Teresa’s nurturing side came to the fore. “Don’t be silly, Murdoch. Nothing’s going to become of you. You’re tired, that’s all. If the boys will help you upstairs I think you just need a good night’s sleep.”

He wrenched his arm from her grasp. “I’m not an invalid. I’m perfectly capable of getting myself to bed. Now if you’ll all excuse me, I’ll leave you to attend to our guest. Good evening, Miss Cassat.” He lumbered out of the room, his step heavy as he climbed the stairs.

No-one seemed eager to break the silence that followed his departure. Each was deep in thought and not at all keen to discuss the possibilities.

Renee cleared her throat. “I think I’ll go get the cake if anyone’s still interested.”

This shook them from their reverie. Johnny smiled and nodded as Scott voiced his enthusiasm at the prospect. Teresa stumbled dejectedly after her.

In the kitchen Renee took her friend’s hand. “Teresa, are you okay, honey?”

“I don’t know, Renee. I’m so confused. Thank you so much for being here for me. It means so much to me. Are you sure you’re okay to spend the night?”

“Of course, honey. I’ll stay as long as you need. I told you before. You’re like my sister. When Cassie died I missed her terribly. I never thought I’d feel the same again.  But then your friendship won me over. I’ll always be here for you.” Her sincere expression took on a mischievous glean. “Now, you may be like a sister to me, just don’t expect me to treat those men in there as brothers.” 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

Scott waited a little after he had heard Teresa bid her friend good night then made his way down the hall to her room. He tapped lightly on her door and called softly through it.

“Teresa, it’s me, Scott. Are you decent? I think we need to talk.”

She pulled open the door a crack and looked up at him, the concern etched clearly on her face.

“I’ll meet you downstairs in a moment.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

“All right, Scott. Let’s say I accept that it’s possible that someone is trying to convince Murdoch that he’s going insane and that his dejection is a natural response to that. What I can’t understand is the leap you’ve made to thinking that Johnny’s to blame.”

“It all adds up, Teresa. One, we know enough of Johnny’s past to harbour doubts about his character. Two, he’s made no secret of the fact he’s here for the money and that’s all he cares about. Three, with Murdoch out of the way he’d have half a ranch instead of only a third.” Seeing her still undecided he played his trump. “And four. I know Murdoch was right when he said he hadn’t finished his drink tonight. I was watching him pretty closely and he’d barely taken a sip. Yet after you and Renee left the room he ended up with an empty glass. I think in the commotion of you ladies leaving Johnny disposed of the drink. You know how stealthy Johnny can be. It’s only a small thing but on top of everything else Murdoch’s misplaced or forgotten, it’s wearing away at him.”

“Guess I could say the same thing about you, Scott.” Johnny’s disembodied voice echoed through the room, startling them both.

“Johnny, we – we were …” Teresa tried to explain their discussion.

“I know exactly what you were doing.” He appeared from the shadows beside the fireplace. “What I can’t understand is why you think I’d go to all this trouble. Why wouldn’t I just shoot him, Scott? After all, it’s what I do best.”

“Don’t you think that might be a little too obvious, Johnny?” asked Scott.

“Nah, Scott. Obvious works. It gets the job done. Trouble is, blaming me doesn’t explain the incident Hugo reported back to Frank about after his little ride with Murdoch this afternoon. But you on the other hand. I’m of a mind you just might be sneaky enough to think of this as a way to get more of your ‘business venture’ for yourself. Maybe that old man back in Boston put you up to this.”

“Stop it, both of you,” Teresa interjected. “This isn’t getting us anywhere. I don’t believe either of you would do this to your own father.”

“Teresa, you may know the Old Man, but you sure don’t know us.”

 “That’s not true. You’ve been here two months now. I’ve watched you both. And whether you like it or not there’s a lot of Murdoch in both of you. I won’t for a minute believe either of you could be responsible for such deceit. There must be some other reason behind all this. It’s one of two possibilities – he’s either going mad or someone’s working hard to make him think he’s going mad. Question is, how do we find out which it is? I’m inclined to believe that after all he’s been through this past twelve months that he’s just bone weary and needs a rest. He’s faced losing this ranch that he’d put all his heart and soul into building up. He’s still recovering from the wound he received when… when my father was murdered. He’s faced the prospect of the return of his sons and then the prospect of them leaving again. Some days I think it would have been better if you’d both never come back. We were doing just fine before.”

At those words she felt a sob rise to her throat and she fled the room, hurrying up the stairs to the safety and comfort of her room. She did not want them to witness her distress. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

 And Then There Were Two – Chapter 5

 The next morning, as both young women had their heads bowed over their sewing, Renee broached the subject that had been vexing her.

 “Teresa, I heard you and Scott last night.”

 Teresa looked up sharply, guilt washing over her face.

 “I thought you were in bed.”

 “I was. But I heard him ask you to meet him. Now I want you to know that it’s okay by me. In fact, I’m truly delighted for you. He’s a perfect match for you, my dear. And I’d already decided that it was Johnny I was more interested in anyway. I told you his smile just turns my knees to butter. Imagine waking up next to him every morning.” Her lips curved up in a smile that was far from pious.

Relief flooded through Teresa. She thought she had offended her friend by not already disclosing the latest developments regarding Murdoch’s decline. It was, after all, the least she owed her friend for all the support she had freely offered. To discover instead that Renee thought there was something between her and Scott was a relief, if a laughable one.

“Oh Renee, you’ve got it all wrong. He just wanted to talk about Murdoch. There’s definitely nothing between us.”

“Oh?” She paused for a moment’s thought. “Well, it really doesn’t change anything. I have decided that you’re right, it’s time to choose and I choose Johnny.”

Teresa shook her head and smiled at her friend’s resolve. “I sure hope you know what you’re getting yourself into, Renee. You’re only a couple of years older than me. That doesn’t exactly make you an old maid yet.”

“Oh, I think I have an idea of what’s ahead for me.”

“Renee? Something’s just occurred to me. If you did marry Johnny that would really make us sisters.”

“And then I’d never have to go home again. Oh, Teresa, I could stay here at Lancer forever and ever.”

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Of course, I think the hardest part of all this might be convincing Johnny. From what I’ve seen I don’t think he’s quite the marrying kind. In fact, I half expect to see him ride out of here any day without a backward glance.”

 

“Really?” What was the look that momentarily flashed across Renee’s eyes? “Would you miss him dreadfully?”

“It’s hard to say. Life has been so difficult since the brothers turned up. I just wish everything would settle down.”

Renee patted the sofa beside her. “Come over here, honey. I see how tired you are. You’re being so strong for everyone else. Let me take some of the load for you.”

Teresa deposited her sewing on the arm of her chair and sat down next to her friend who put her arm around her shoulders and held her close.

“We’ll be all right, Teresa. You’ll see.”

Teresa rested her head on her friend’s shoulder and accepted the comfort offered. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Since the night Johnny had surprised Scott in the great room both men had avoided each other as much as possible. They opted for different jobs around the ranch and made their way into town at different times. Shared meal times were unavoidable but since these occasions were generally morose affairs in any case, nobody seemed to notice the growing unease between them. All other concerns were being dwarfed by Murdoch’s increasing dementia.  His initial assertion that someone was setting him up had worn down to a weary acceptance of his fate.

No-one was more surprised than Johnny when Scott appeared at the stream he was clearing.

“Time for a break?” Scott dangled a canteen in Johnny’s direction.

Johnny shrugged. “Sure.” He climbed up the bank and pointedly walked past Scott’s outstretched hand, instead heading over to the shade of a nearby tree and his own canteen, hanging from Barranca’s saddle horn. After several swigs he poured a liberal amount over his head and face. As he was wiping it from his eyes Scott joined him in the shade.

“I think we need to talk.”

“Didn’t figure you came all this way to watch me work. What’s up, got nothing else you can find to do around here?”

Scott ignored his brother’s jab, knowing by now that it was Johnny’s way to deflect talk for as long as possible.    

“About Murdoch.”

Johnny’s cool look left Scott in no doubt as to his brother’s thoughts on the matter.

“Johnny, we have to do something and I’d like your support. This is becoming too hard on Teresa, too hard on the running of the ranch and too hard on Murdoch as well. I’ve decided to take him to Sacramento, to see if I can find specialised medical assistance for him.”

“You decided, huh? Then what are you tellin’ me for?”

“I need to know if you’ll keep the ranch going in our absence.”

“What did you think I’d be doin’ instead?”

“Johnny, I’m not out for an argument with you every time we talk. Can we just try to get along for a while? Something has to be done about Murdoch’s condition.”

“All right. Sure, I’ll be here. Keepin’ the ranch going.”

“Thank you. I intend taking Teresa along as I doubt she would be happy being left behind. She’s been doing a fine job of caring for Murdoch and maybe she can find some time there to relax and enjoy herself. There’s a lot to see and do, a lot of distractions. It might help take her mind off her worries.”

Johnny just nodded.

“I should also tell you I intend asking Renee to accompany Teresa. She’ll need a chaperone and, depending on what the doctors have to say, she may well appreciate having her there. She seems to be drawing a great deal of comfort from her friend. Unless, of course, you have a problem with that?”

“What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“It’s not hard to see there’s something between the two of you. I just hope you’re treating Miss Cassat with dignity.”

“I don’t see when that became any of your business.”

“Miss Cassat is a guest, staying under our roof. That makes it my business. She’s a good girl, Johnny, and you’d better be treating her right. If you’re playing with her affections…”

“Now listen here, Scott,” Johnny was now mere inches from the taller man’s face, “I don’t need you butting in to my affairs. You don’t know half of what you think you know. Take her to Sacramento, take all of them to the moon for all I care, just stay out of my way.”

Johnny roughly jolted Scott’s shoulder as he passed on his way back to the stream bed. Scott reined in his anger and decided to ignore his brother’s provocation. He had not decided yet if Murdoch was truly suffering dementia or if he was being set up but he’d decided that separating his father and brother would be a good way to continue his investigations. He remounted his horse but Johnny’s voice arrested his departure.

“Scott!”

He turned to face his brother, wondering what was left to be said.

“Watch Teresa.” Johnny turned back to the task at hand so Scott rode off, mulling over his brother’s words. Did Johnny sound worried? Or was it more of a warning? 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As Scott rode off his thoughts were heavy. The more he considered it the more uncertain he became. His head was spinning from his contemplation of all the possibilities. Would the others be suspecting him? Had he given away to Johnny a motive when he had told him of his search for profits in staying at Lancer?

He needed to talk to someone, to share the possibilities. But who to turn to? He had tried Teresa that night in the great room. Now he had tried Johnny. Perhaps it was time to involve someone beyond the family. He ran through the possible scenarios once again in order to determine which was most likely.

The first possibility was that Murdoch truly was suffering dementia. It had been developing slowly but Scott recognised signs of it from the first day they had met in the great room just scant months ago. He had come to recognise his father’s gruffness and harsh assertions as to who was calling the tune as his way of dealing with the self-doubts he refused to face.  He was certainly young to be facing this cruel malaise but Scott knew that, while rare, it had been known to strike the young as well as the elderly. At least seeking the advice of the medical experts in Sacramento should help him ascertain as to whether this was indeed Murdoch’s problem. If the doctors there were convinced Murdoch was suffering dementia then they could find a place in a facility for Murdoch before they returned home. That would leave Lancer to himself and Johnny. And that was likely to raise a whole different set of problems.

If, however, Murdoch was being duped into believing he was going insane then Scott’s money was still on Johnny. Who knows how a lifetime of adversity had interfered with his brother’s beliefs? Johnny couldn’t hope to shoot Murdoch and still hold on to his share of the ranch. Not unless he ambushed him. Scott, however else he felt about Johnny, could not bring himself to believe his gunslinger brother would do that. No, there would be too much shame. By exposing Johnny as the culprit, Scott figured it would mean Johnny losing his share of the ranch and making Scott a half owner.

But now Johnny’s parting comment had him troubled. Perhaps it was a warning and he was taking the problem with him. Teresa’s world had been turned upside down by the arrival of himself and Johnny. Losing her father, she had naturally come to see Murdoch as his replacement. But what could she gain by having Murdoch committed? Perhaps she saw him as the only thing keeping his sons at Lancer and having him gone would give them less reason to stay when both were so obviously ill-suited to the life. After all, she could always wait until they left then bring Murdoch back and pick up life from where it had let off just a few months ago.

But why stop there? Renee Cassat had certainly been around a great deal of late. Perhaps not for every incident but still she could not be dismissed as a suspect. Not by a long shot. Her presence was just too convenient. Was it possible that she was aiding Teresa? Perhaps her talk of ‘sisterly’ concern was all a front. Still, the main reason to dismiss Renee as a suspect was the lack of a motive. With the others motive was clear but Renee had nothing to gain as far as Scott could see.

Perhaps there were two of them working this scam together. But if so, who? Perhaps Johnny and Teresa. Perhaps Teresa and Renee. Perhaps Johnny and Renee. Perhaps someone else entirely.

And while he was going through these thoughts he spared a moment to consider whether any of the others could be suspecting him of the same evil intentions. A third share to a half share significantly increased profits. And an eventual move to a whole share was better yet again. Would any of them realise that? He feared he may have given Johnny more than he intended to when he admitted the reason he had stayed at Lancer.

Feeling the weight of bewilderment building he made a decision to take it one step at a time. First things first – Sacramento and medical advice. They’d soon find out if Murdoch would be returning to Lancer with them.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 6

It had taken some time to organise the trip to Sacramento. Scott wanted to ensure they had ready access to the finest doctors available. And Renee, who had accepted with alacrity the invitation to accompany Teresa, had to convince her father that a trip to Sacramento was really no different to her spending time at Lancer. In the meantime, Murdoch’s forgetfulness had escalated to the point where he could no longer remember where he was headed or where he had been. He’d think he was on the way to the bath house only to be reminded that it was in fact the barn he had declared an interest in visiting. All signs of the fight in Murdoch vanished. He no longer believed he was being entrapped. He calmly accepted what he was told and did as he was bid.

It was this tractability that made the trip to Sacramento and visiting the various doctors a relatively easy task.  

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

They had been in Sacramento for some days now and had dutifully accompanied Murdoch to his numerous examinations and assessments. On this day, however, Scott had insisted that Teresa and Renee spend the day shopping and that he be allowed to hear the prognosis and relay it to them that evening. As he sat in Doctor Buskell’s office listening to him speak he congratulated himself on sparing Teresa this grim news.

“It was clear, Mr Lancer, from when you first presented with your father that he was displaying the typical signs of dementia. The fact he is not yet sixty years of age make his case regrettable but not singular. His memory loss was well documented by yourself, as was the subsequent confusion, anxiety and restlessness. His ward described his change of personality admirably and his apathy and withdrawal are quite apparent to us all. In his short time with us we have observed many of the behaviors you have described. Now you say he is still able to perform everyday tasks for himself?”

“Yes, Doctor, he’s still dressing himself, feeding himself.”

“Well I don’t want you seeing that necessarily as a good sign. Deterioration in these cases is swift and inexorable. You could take him home tomorrow and find out next week that he can no longer feed himself. The following week he could be having trouble remembering how to bathe himself and in no time after that he’ll be neglecting his bodily functions. I don’t mean to be harsh, Mr Lancer, but I won’t offer you false hope. Your father’s life span is significantly shortened by this disease. I’m sorry but your only hope, to be fair to your father and your family, is to find a place for him in an institution.”

“I don’t imagine such a place can be found in Morro Coyo.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Scott looked up for the first time since the doctor began his prognosis. “What I mean to say is, I don’t know where to begin finding such a place for him. I’m only slightly familiar with institutions that cater for people in Murdoch’s position but I do know I am not anxious to place him in such care.”

“I’m sure we can help you out. I’m only sorry the news isn’t any better. I’ll write out a letter of introduction for you. There is a monastery not far north of here. They see it as their mission to help those who cannot help themselves. Demand is high but they have never turned away a patient of mine.”

As Dr Buskell scribbled out his letter Scott reflected on the choices left open to them. He felt they should take Murdoch home and care for him – at least for as long as possible.

Dr Buskell methodically folded the letter, enclosed it in an envelope and handed it over to Scott.

“Mr Lancer, let me advise you of one more thing. I have seen too many cases like your father’s. Don’t be tempted to care for him yourself. It is much too difficult, far too time-consuming and dreadfully distressing. I don’t imagine that ranch of yours would be able to run itself. That means you’d be condemning Miss O’Brien to a life of servitude. I can see devotion in her eyes when she looks at your father but I believe you must make this decision for her sake. Watching your father deteriorate and being unable to do anything for him would destroy that poor young girl. Even with able assistance. She deserves a life, too. In these cases it is the loved ones who eventually suffer more than the patient. Your father will be well taken care of by the monks. And they are able to do it dispassionately. That’s a critical skill in these circumstances.”

Scott stood as he took the envelope and shook the doctor’s hand. “Thank you. I appreciate all you have done for us.”

“You’re welcome, Son. I’m only sorry it couldn’t be more.”

Scott stumbled out into the bright sunshine, wondering why the weather did not match his internal gloom. The unfairness of finally meeting his father and so quickly being robbed of the opportunity to get to know him was casting a pall over Scott’s demeanour. He decided a walk back to the hotel was in order. A very long walk. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Johnny read the telegram then screwed it into a ball and flung it into the fireplace, watching as sparks drifted up the chimney. So his father would not be returning with the others. He knew he felt angry at that but couldn’t quite pinpoint the source of his anger. Was it that Scott had made that decision independently? Didn’t he, too, deserve a say in the future of their father? Reflecting on his past actions and attitudes he decided he had probably forfeited that right. But perhaps it was that he still didn’t trust Scott. He had long considered the possibility that Murdoch’s decline was orchestrated by his older brother. Did he feel that Scott had succeeded in his plan and had already started plotting against his brother as well? Or perhaps, deep down, if he truly thought about it, he felt cheated. Since arriving at Lancer he had frequently bumped heads with Murdoch. Frequently, that is, until Murdoch began his decline. Maybe even a little after that decline as well. Much as he wanted to hate his father in the short time they shared together, he had felt a grudging respect growing in him. There were so many questions still unanswered and now it appeared that those answers would never be found. Johnny didn’t like feeling frustrated. Scott’s telegram had rankled him.

He turned his back on the fire and strode over to the window which would have afforded him a panoramic view of the ranch – had it been daytime. As he gazed out into the darkness he recalled the events of the day and hastily moved aside, hauling the curtain closed as he went. No point tempting fate, he figured. If today hadn’t been an accident then who knew what was awaiting him out there.

His mind once again reviewed the possibilities. There was always the chance that the rock slide had been an accident. He had, however, made no secret to the hands that it was that particular outcrop he was headed for later on. Unfortunately, too many of the men were unaccounted for at the time it occurred. Narrowing down the list of potential perpetrators was difficult at best. That was assuming it was someone from the ranch and not a stranger. At that Johnny smiled, grimly determined. He knew how patient he could be. If someone was out to deny him his share of Lancer they had just made a fatal error. They had tilted their hand and now Johnny would be on the watch. They wouldn’t be getting a second chance at him.  

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Dinner the night of their return was a subdued affair. The three of them painfully aware of the hulking figure of Murdoch Lancer missing from his chair at the head of the table. Teresa broke the doleful silence.

“I’ve asked Renee to move in permanently.”

Both men looked up in surprise.

“She’s at home now telling her father. We’re sure he’ll agree. He hasn’t been able to deny her anything since her sister’s death. And he knows that she’ll be better off here than there with them. He knows I’ll treat her as a sister. She can still visit her family as often as she likes – it doesn’t take so very long to get there.”

“Scott, did you know about this?” At his brother’s shake of his head Johnny continued. “Teresa, I thought she was only here helping you care for Murdoch. Now that he’s… no longer here, why would you ask Renee to come back to stay?”

“Johnny, do you really think it’s a good idea my living here with two young men, neither of whom are kin to me? I’m not comfortable with the idea and I believe I have to protect my reputation. I can see no alternative as I have no intention of leaving this place. It’s been my home for a lot longer than it has for either of you. So I’m staying and Renee will be my companion.”

“It appears, Teresa, that we have little say in the matter,” murmured Scott, as he winced at her insensitive words. “What you’ve pointed out is entirely true. This is your home and we need to consider your reputation.”

“Thank you, Scott. I knew you’d see reason.” At this she glared at Johnny, defying him to argue with her.

“Guess we got ourselves someone new to fill that empty chair,” was Johnny’s only remark.

“But what about tonight, Teresa?”

“I’ve asked Maria to stay. If you can spare someone tomorrow I’d like them to take me over in the buckboard to pick up Renee and her belongings.”

“Not a problem. I’ll do it myself.”

“Thank you, Scott. I think that it will be better for all of us this way.”

At that Johnny pushed back from the table and strode out of the room.

“It appears as though you may have trouble convincing Johnny of that.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Eventually life at Lancer settled into a new routine – it wasn’t as though the old routine was so very firmly fixed in Murdoch’s sons’ minds.  The brothers danced around each other, working out how to share the responsibility of running a spread the size of Lancer. Slowly they were establishing different areas of expertise and interest although there was always an undercurrent of unease as Johnny waited for the next move to be made on his life. Renee, meanwhile, had moved into her new role at the ranch and made herself indispensable to Teresa and now both young women had what they wanted – a secure place at Lancer.

In fact, everything seemed to be going quite well until the day Scott was shot. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 7

The thunderous look in Scott’s eyes as he strode angrily into the great room just in time for dinner left no room for doubt as to what sort of a day he’d had. In fact, it was the look that drew their attention before the ripped sleeve and fresh bandage on his upper arm. Teresa’s hand flew up to her mouth as Renee let out a squeak.

“Looks like you hurt yourself, Boston.”

“Hardly.”

“Scott, what happened?” Teresa uttered breathlessly as she rushed to his side, inspecting the bandage and the job that had been done on tending his wound.

“It appears someone thought I’d be good for target practice. I’d almost reached the crew out by Black Mesa when a shot hit the ground just beside me. That gave me enough of a warning to take off towards a stand of trees just ahead of me.”

“Near those boulders?”

“That’s right, Brother, right near those boulders. Anyway, there was another shot and I tried to return fire as I hit the ground but I couldn’t see anything to shoot at, couldn’t get a bearing because he’d stopped by the time I’d found cover, though it sounded like he was working alone. After a while I figured I’d be better off getting away from there in case he was making his way around for a better angle so I caught up with my horse and rode on to the crew and they tended my arm. I hadn’t even realised I’d been winged until I was almost there. The men spread out and scouted around at the time but saw no-one and there was just a mess of tracks all around. We posted some of the men as lookouts all afternoon but nothing else happened so we figured whoever it was had long gone. Still, when I came back with them this evening we were watching but there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary.”

The concern was evident in Renee’s tone. “But who’d do that to you Scott?”

“If I knew for sure, Renee, I wouldn’t be sitting here now. But the way I see it, Johnny, I think your past has finally come to catch up with us. I always figured it was only a matter of time.”

“What’s that s’posed to mean?” Johnny’s eyes glittered with menace.

“Just what I said. You didn’t think I was accusing you, did you, Brother? No, I think someone’s heard where Johnny Madrid has been hiding out these past few months and has decided to come gunning for you.”

“You think that, huh? Well it sure doesn’t sound like my usual challengers,” snarled Johnny. “They tend to have better eyesight than to mistake me for someone else. And they tend to call me out – make it fair. An audience doesn’t hurt either. That’s the way they build their reputation, you see.”

“Perhaps not if they’re trying to make you angry, upset. Soften you up so you’re not thinking clearly. Start picking off your friends and family before they have to face you.”

“Then they sure don’t know me real good if they think that’s the way to get to me.”

“How nice of you to let us know how you feel about us, Johnny,” declared Teresa coldly. “Come on, Renee, I’m sure taking dinner in the kitchen has a more welcoming ring to it at the moment.”

After the women left the room Scott was keen to continue the discussion. “Johnny, I can’t think of anyone who would want to kill me.”

“Then, Scott, you’re not thinking.”

“Please, go on.”

“I don’t reckon it was a stranger. A stranger could’ve picked you off much easier on your way into town, say. But choosing a place for an ambush right near the work crew? Nah, I reckon it was someone here from the ranch. You said you were near them when it happened? Well maybe one of them managed to slip away and wait for you. They knew when to expect you.”

“That makes no sense Johnny. I’ve done nothing to upset anyone.”

“Makes as much sense as someone trying to catch me in a rockslide, don’t ya reckon?” Johnny’s grin belied his annoyance at not having identified the culprit as yet.

Scott’s eyes narrowed. “When?”

“While you were in Sacramento with Murdoch. Seems to me, Scott, we gotta find out who was unaccounted for at the time of your ambush.”

“I know the answer to that already, Johnny. Hugo was delivering some fresh supplies to the east line shack, Javier was in town picking up some things for Teresa, and Frank had come back here to the barn. He returned to the crew a while after I reached them. And before you ask, yes, his story checked out. Other than them, I suppose any of the men may have slipped away unnoticed.”

“Then we’d best start by keeping watch on those three especially.”

“Oh come on, Johnny. You can’t be serious. Frank’s surely out of contention. He’s been here for years. And when Cipriano was murdered he didn’t hesitate, he stepped right into the role of segundo and you couldn’t ask for a better man to do the job. And Hugo’s been here almost as long as him and, by all accounts, there’s never been a moment’s doubt as to his reliability. These are men who stayed when Pardee was doing his best to drive them off. They’ve proven their loyalty.”

Johnny slowly nodded as he took another mouthful. “You sayin’ you think it’s Javier then?”

Scott stopped and considered the options. “I guess I’m saying we watch all of them but, yes, my money’s on the new man.”

Johnny shrugged. “I won’t be turning my back on any of them.”

“And I still won’t be dismissing the idea that it’s someone else entirely. So just where exactly were you today, Brother?”

“Now you’re thinking, Boston.” Johnny hunkered down over his plate and resumed his meal, closing himself off from any further discussion on the matter. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Lying in bed that night, a cooling breeze playing with the curtain at his open window, Johnny went back over the ground he and his brother had covered during dinner. As he played out each scenario he came to a conclusion. His brother was not the problem. Tomorrow he would seek out Scott and do whatever he had to in order to convince him they needed to work together. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Johnny caught up with Scott as he was heading out after breakfast. “Hold up, Scott. I want to come along.”

“Just the two of us, Johnny? Do you think that’s wise?”

“I think we’ve got to talk and we need to find somewhere to do it.”

Scott looked his brother in the eye. “Then you can catch up with me at the bend in the river at the South Pasture. That’s about the most open part of the ranch you can find.”

“All right – I’ll be there in half an hour.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

“Let’s say, Johnny, that I’m convinced someone is trying to get Lancer for themselves – by driving us off, killing us off, whatever – then what has you convinced it’s not me? Perhaps I planned that ambush to deflect suspicion. After all, I got away with only the tiniest scratch.”

“Nah, from where he had to be positioned in order to stay hidden and still make a safe getaway in case help came from the work crew, a shot from that distance would be far too risky.” Johnny grinned his trademark smile. “I reckon only you and me could reliably hit what we were aiming for at that distance.”

Scott raised one eyebrow.

“Then why, Little Brother, do you think I should dismiss the idea that it was you?”

“Easy. If I wanted you dead – you’d be dead.”

“Well, I must admit your logic seems faultless. All right then. Let’s say we can only rely on each other. We’ve got to work together if we’re going to get through this. The way I see it, once you remove us from the equation, then it has to be a combination of people at work here. And I can’t see what Frank, Hugo or Javier could hope to gain from it.” His brows knitted in consternation before he continued. “Unless, of course, they were really doing it at someone else’s bidding.”

Johnny smiled in agreement.

Scott continued. “It makes sense. No single person could be responsible as they haven’t had the opportunity. And the prime offender has to have a motive.”

“Right. And it raises another question. Was the first step in all this setting up Murdoch to get him out of the way?”

“I think maybe it was. Although, I also think that they worked so hard at making Murdoch convinced he was losing his sanity that it reached a point where he ended up doing the job for them. He just gave up. And once the brain gives up the body follows.”

Johnny frowned as he chewed thoughtfully on a stalk of grass. “Then d’you reckon now that he’s away from here he’ll recover?”

“I don’t know, Johnny. As I said, his mind was affected and he became so confused and disoriented that they really didn’t have to make much of an effort anymore.” He pushed his hat back from his forehead and gave his brother an appraising look. “What if he did recover, Johnny? And came back to the ranch? How would you feel about that?”

Johnny shrugged, but the silence made him realise Scott expected more of an answer. If they were going to be able to work together they needed to develop a certain level of trust. He decided to give Scott the truth.

“That old man’s been no father to me. I came back here ready to hate him and maybe take it further for what he did to my mama. Once I’d heard the other side of the story… well… let’s just say I reconsidered my actions. But Scott, I never really got to know him. Didn’t have time. T’resa says he’d changed. Guess you gotta know a man before you can say that and I never knew him. If he comes back and he’s okay in the head then I reckon he has a right to be here. He took a gamble when he gave us a share of Lancer but he still made it clear he called the tune. If he ever came back I don’t reckon it would be under the same conditions.” He paused, considering whether to go on or not. “How ‘bout you?”

It was Scott’s turn to shrug. “He built this place from nothing. For a man to have done that in those days he’s got to be pretty formidable. But, like you, I don’t feel I owe him anything. I don’t know him really except from what Grandfather has told me and I realise now that was…  coloured…  by their history. Like you, Johnny, I know this ranch is his and if there’s a chance he can recover then I think we have to bring him back and find a place for him, a role he can fill.” He hesitated briefly, considering what that role could be. “But back to the business at hand. Where to from here?”

“Well, we know who the culprits might be. What we need to do is smoke ‘em out, take the fight to them.”

“I always figured you for an upfront approach, Johnny. It sounds like you have a plan. Care to share it? Or is it a one-man show?”

“Nah, Boston. You’ve got a role. Might even give you a say in it,” he grinned mischievously, enjoying riding his brother.

“Good – because I think it’s time we started setting them up for a change. I don’t intend to be a sitting duck. Little Brother, ever heard the expression ‘United we stand, divided we fall’?”

“We’re united, Scott.”

“Then let’s divide them.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 8

“It’s about time you got here.”

“I didn’t think you’d want me taking any chances being seen. Nobody’s saying anything but any behaviour out of the ordinary is likely to be noticed and considered suspicious.”

“Yes, you’re right. I just don’t like being out here any longer than I need to. So what’s been happening?”

“The plan is going ahead.”

“Too slowly for my liking.”

“These things can’t be rushed. As Day used to say ‘Fools rush in where angels fear to tread’.”

“He used to say a lot of things. But all it ended up getting him was dead.”

“You don’t need to remind me of that. But that’s not going to happen to us. We’re much too smart. If we play our cards right Lancer will be all ours and ours alone and no-one will be able to point a finger and say we came by it dishonestly.”

“So you keep saying but I don’t see that we’re getting very far.”

“What’s wrong? Don’t you trust me anymore? Have I ever let you down?”

“Reckon not. But nothing much has happened since the trip to Sacramento. I think it’s time to move things along a bit.”

“I don’t think I like the sounds of that. The original plan is good. It’s working. We don’t need to change anything.”

“We’ll see.”

“Just what is that supposed to mean?”

“Just that. We’ll see. But I reckon if we get a chance at any of them, we take it. No more sneaking around. That might have worked for the old man but …”

“I thought I made it clear that this plan is mine and if you want any part of it you do as I say. Is that clear?” There was no response. “I need to know you’re with me on this.”

“All right. For now, you call the shots. But we’d better see some action soon or I’m likely to get bored and then who knows what might happen.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Renee watched through the window as the dark-haired Lancer sauntered across the yard towards the corral. If he was going to try breaking any of the horses they had waiting for the army contract she wanted to be there to watch every fluid movement he made. And in the eventuality he came off and needed nursing, she was going to be there on the spot. She grabbed her shawl and a basket and made her way out to the vegetable plot, inspecting the rows of plants in a desultory fashion. She chanced a look in the direction of the corral and saw several of the hands gathering. It was enough to give her the excuse to deposit the basket on the wall and make her way over to see the cause of such commotion.

She reached the rails and climbed onto the first one so she could see more clearly. The hands were whooping and hollering as Johnny held fast. The paint had put up a good fight but by the time Renee reached the corral it looked to be almost over. With one final buck and a last ditch effort at twisting, the mare dropped her head and stood there calmly snorting, blowing hard. The hands erupted into raucous cheering as Johnny directed the horse towards the fence where Renee was perched. He lithely dropped to his feet and handed the rope to Javier who led the horse away. Renee was disappointed that he appeared to be finished with horse-breaking yet pleased that he had made his way towards her. She dropped back down from the rail so he had to lean over the top to see her. With head downcast she felt his eyes burrowing into her and liked the response that elicited. She wondered when he’d say something. She looked up to see him smiling and felt herself groan inwardly. How she hoped she had groaned inwardly. Her mouth was dry and she tried swallowing several times before she could manage to say anything.

“That was really something.” Another inward groan. Could she be any more inane?

He still wasn’t speaking. Just smiling.

She felt herself blushing under the intense gaze of those blue eyes.

“Have you done it much?” At that absurd question she wished the ground would open up and swallow her. Her blush rose to the level of a florid flush. His grin had turned her knees weak and she involuntarily reached up to grip the post in an effort to stop herself from swaying and possibly even falling. She cursed him silently for being able to do this to her still. The intensity of his gaze never faltered. He reached up and casually placed his hand ever so gently on top of hers.

“Renee, would you care to come for a walk with me?”

Not daring to voice her acceptance, she merely nodded. He leapt nimbly over the top rail and took her hand, placing it in the crook of his arm. He led her towards the orchard. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Teresa, starting preparations for the evening meal, was distracted by Scott’s unexpected appearance by the kitchen door. She watched as he removed first his hat and then his gloves which he tucked into his waistband. He washed his face and hands before entering. 

“You’re much too early for dinner, Scott Lancer. Haven’t you anything better to do than hang around here?” She softened her words with a smile.

“I’m just on my way in to go over some receipts and thought a cup of coffee might be in order. Can I fetch you one too, Teresa?”

“Why thank you, Scott, that would be lovely.” She wiped her hands on her apron and placed a cloth over the meat she’d been cutting, then balanced on the edge of a stool while Scott finished pouring the coffee.

“I’ve just noticed Johnny and Renee heading off, arm in arm. Were you aware of this development?”

It felt like his eyes were boring through her. She turned aside.

“Teresa? Were you?”

“Well, I know Renee’s been throwing herself at him for a while now but I just thought he was immune to such attention.”

“Evidently not. It must make you wonder how things would change if your long-time friend ended up becoming the mistress of your home.”

Teresa felt herself blanch.

“I can’t see that would be any problem. We’ve always gotten on so well. There was that short period a few months ago when she was distant and hard to get on with. But we got over that.”

“Are you quite certain of that, Teresa? I can imagine a great deal of friction resulting from the change in your positions which would naturally result if Johnny decided it was time to settle down and start a family. You couldn’t blame him for wanting something denied him for so long. I think it highly likely that when Johnny decides he wants a wife that he won’t be waiting for spring before he asks. And I can’t see any more likely candidate than Renee. Just imagine her as the one making the decisions that up until now have been yours. I’m sure she’d feel the need straightaway to make her mark. Maybe just little things to begin with but enough so that you’d know your place had been usurped.”

She licked her lips and swallowed hard before responding. “Renee’s not like that, Scott. I trust her. She means so much to me and I know she loves me in return. She’d never hurt me that way.”

“I hope you’re right, Teresa. But I’ve seen how power can change people. I just don’t want to see you hurt, Honey. Please tell me you’ll be careful. That’s all.”

He picked up his coffee cup and headed in to the great room. She watched him go and wondered what she felt.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

He watched his brother from a distance make his way towards their planned rendezvous at the South Pasture. As he waited he went back over the progress he had been making with Teresa. Could he really call it progress?

Johnny drew Barranca to a halt and slid easily from the saddle, reached into his saddlebag and joined his brother by the river’s edge.

“So how’s it going with Renee?”

Johnny offered his brother an apple and bit into his own before answering. “I gotta tell you, Brother, I don’t like it. I don’t like takin’ advantage of a woman like that. It don’t sit well with me.”

“Johnny, I don’t think you need to be going that far. All you need to do is keep her close, watch her movements, listen to her talk.”

“That’s just it, Scott. I don’t want to use her. And she sure thinks there’s more to it than just keepin’ company.”

“You’ve got to think about what’s at stake here. It’s not just the ranch, it’s our very lives. If Renee’s involved in this, then we have to expose her.”

“I know you’re right. Just wish there was another way.”

Both men fell silent as they continued eating. Scott finished and tossed away the core, wondering once again how his younger sibling could make the job of eating an apple such a prolonged event.

Before mouthfuls Johnny posed a question. “So how’s it going with Teresa?”

“Not as well as I’d have liked. I get the impression she’s either not involved or else a very good actress. Sadly, I think she’s very loyal to her friend and if it turns out Renee is to blame and Teresa has been unaware of it I think it will be very hard for her to come to terms with it.”

“Is that what you think is happenin’ here?”

“I’m still not prepared to say one way or another. We’ve got to be certain before we take any action.”

“Then I reckon we keep separatin’ Renee and Teresa and see where that gets us. Meanwhile it’s probably time we started on the hands.”

“I’ve been thinking about that and this is where it could start to get dangerous.”

“Don’t hold back on me, Scott. What’ve you got planned?”

“We start splitting them up and giving them opportunities on our lives.”

“Sounds like a real good plan, Boston.”

“I recognise the sarcasm, Johnny. But hear me out. What they won’t know is that we’re really setting them up. One of us is bait, the other is waiting and watching, ready to lend a hand if things get a little close.”

“Mind if I do the waitin’ and watchin’?”

“Now, Brother, I think it’s only fair we take turns. I’d hate you to miss out on all the fun of leading them into a trap.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

At the sound of hoof beats approaching Frank looked up from the fenceline he was stringing. He’d sent the rest of the crew back with Jelly after lunch as he’d decided he could easily finish this stretch alone. That way the others could start rounding up the calves so they could get an early start on branding the next day. He drifted over to the buckboard and reached for his canteen as Johnny drew closer.

“Looks like you’re just about through with this section. Good job, Frank. You’ve made good time.”

“Thanks, Boss. Yeah, I figured we could really do with fixing this paddock up so it could be part of the stock rotation.”

“Always thinkin’ of how to do things better, huh Frank?”

“Course. Your father taught me well and I aim to repay him, whether he knows it or not.”

Though his eyes were shaded by the brim of his hat, Frank could see Johnny nodding in agreement.

“So, want a hand? Two of us could finish in half the time.”

In reply he tossed the younger Lancer the pliers he’d been using and rummaged in the buckboard for another pair of work gloves. At the same time Johnny removed his gunbelt and draped it over the seat. With that simple action he felt unusually exposed and his flesh crawled.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

From where Scott was positioned he had a good view of the two men working on the fenceline. From time to time he repositioned himself to ensure that there wouldn’t be any telltale flashes of sunlight off metal but other than that it appeared to be a fairly uneventful afternoon’s work.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Frank frowned as once again Johnny picked up the length of wire and clambered the long way around to position it for the next post. It was the third time in a row he had done it that way. At first he had just assumed that he wasn’t quite in the swing of the job but as he’d repeated the awkward action twice over Frank had to ask himself just what was going on. He looked around in suspicion but nothing else was raising his hackles. It appeared that they were alone. He put his head down and concentrated once again on the task at hand. Just this last post to go.

“Hold up a minute, Frank. I gotta relieve myself.”

Frank straightened and stretched and made his way back to the buckboard as Johnny headed for a clump of bushes nearby. Rather than go around behind the greenery he stopped with his back to Frank. 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As he watched Johnny positioning himself Scott grew more alert. He shifted the rifle slightly. Now or never, Frank, he thought to himself. He tensed as the foreman leaned under the seat and pulled out a rifle. This is it. He inhaled slowly and started squeezing the trigger ever so gently.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Johnny wondered just how much longer he could stand there, still, his back a target. Every fibre of his being was screaming at him to move. As he heard the noises coming from the buckboard he felt himself stop breathing. His every instinct screamed at him to throw himself to his left and come up shooting. A bit hard to do with his gun yards away. Whatever had possessed him to go long with this scheme? Yet deeper inside was another very small voice which he struggled to hear. Could he really trust his brother, to quite literally watch his back? As calmly as he could he kept his back turned and readjusted his clothing. I’m trusting you Scott. Like I’ve never trusted anyone before.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 9

The tall yet stooped man, grey of hair and face, slowly padded across the monastery’s enclosed quadrangle. He passed the fountain and plodded on through the gateway leading out to the cemetery. In the weeks since his son had brought him here he had developed a fondness for spending time alone amongst the gravestones. The solitary monk, lost in thought, watched his progress from the enclosed arched corridors surrounding the courtyard. So engrossed was he in his contemplation that he failed to notice the swish of a habit as he was joined.

“Brother Francis, you seem preoccupied.”

The younger man turned. “Forgive me, Padre Stefano. I am on my way now.” He made to scurry off to the chores awaiting him in the monastery’s vegetable patch, all too aware of the padre’s belief that idle hands are the devil’s tools.

“No, my son, you misunderstand. I am not concerned for the vegetables. The weeds will still be there waiting for you whether you go now or after mass. I was referring to your concern for our latest guest.” He motioned in the direction of the gate to the cemetery, through which the man had recently passed.

“Padre, I know it is not my place, that Brother Luis cares for our infirm, but this man disturbs me. He is still so young yet he acts like one so old. He seems to have given up on life. The sadness pours out of him. I feel there must be more we can give him, more we can do for him.”

“My son, without hope there is little left for any of us in life. And hope is what this man has lost. Our mission is to care for him. Physically, I believe Brother Luis is doing a fine job. But we must also consider our charge’s spiritual well-being. I have been meditating on this very subject lately and have come to a conclusion. You deserve help in the vegetable garden. I believe this man would be both of help to you and helped by you. I therefore charge you to consider the care of his spirit your duty henceforth.”

The young man looked up with gratitude at mention of this assignment. It was the first time he was being entrusted with care of anything more than turnips or apples or barley. “Padre Stefano, I will do my best.”

“God willing, my son, it will be enough. Now off you go. There is much work ahead of you.”

“Thank you, Padre. Yes, God willing.” The slap of Francis’ sandals echoed across the quadrangle as the eager young man made his way out to the cemetery and his new charge awaiting him there.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As they finished the washing and drying up Renee took the cloth from Teresa’s hand and gripped her arm, forcing the younger woman to meet her gaze for the first time that day. “What is it, honey? What’s going on?”

“What do you mean? There’s nothing going on,” Teresa stammered.

“Oh yes there is. I don’t know what’s happened but something’s changed and I think I deserve to hear about it. I assume, after all, that it has to do with me. Why else would I be getting such coldness from you?”

Teresa shook her arm free and grimaced. “There’s nothing wrong.”

“Uh uh, not convincing enough. Tell me what it is so we can work it out together. You know you’re my dearest friend and I don’t want anything to come between us. But you’ve got to tell me what the problem is. How else can I help you?”  Renee could see in her friend’s eyes that her entreaties were encouraging the dawning of trust. The decision to confide followed swiftly.

“I need to ask a question, Renee, and I want an honest answer from you.”

“Go on.”

“Do you want to be the mistress of Lancer?” 

“If you mean, do I want Johnny to marry me, then yes… I do.”

“But what if Johnny married you but decided to leave here? Would you go with him happily?”

“Has Johnny said something to you, Teresa?” She felt the furrow creasing her brow but could do little to stop the worry that was causing it to appear. “Something about leaving that I should know? That I have every right to know? If this is my future we’re discussing then I ought to know what’s going on. A true friend would tell me.”

“Nothing’s going on, Renee. I’m just speaking hypothetically.”

The older woman wasn’t sure she believed her friend entirely but she also felt she had no choice. “Then of course I’d go with him. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I was just wondering if it was Johnny or Lancer you were more interested in.”

“Teresa! That’s a horrible, mean, hurtful thing to accuse me of. I don’t deserve that.”  Renee flung the cloth on the bench and fled the room, hoping her friend had not realised she hadn’t left her with an answer.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Scott could see Frank, the rifle and Johnny’s back still turned. He was squeezing the trigger but couldn’t bring himself to let off the shot. Something was not quite right. Something about the way Frank was holding the rifle. Ready but not about to fire. He had to be certain before he would shoot. Yet if he hesitated too long it could mean his brother’s death. A slow trickle of sweat made its way down his forehead to his eyebrow. He daren’t move to mop it, trusting it would not run into his eye. Instead, it traced its way along his eyebrow and started down his cheek. Every inch of its journey was an agony. Time stood still. He had to be certain.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Johnny could stand it no longer. He turned and though he had expected to see Frank with the rifle hoisted it still caused his skin to crawl. “What are you doing?” Strangely, he felt calmer now that he faced the man. He’d have felt calmer still wearing his rig.

“Don’t rightly know.”

“What’s that s’posed to mean, Frank?”

“Somethin’s not right. Been feeling it all afternoon. This place is cursed and now I got a bad feelin’ about bein’ here. Nothing’s been right since Mr Lancer left. Things weren’t right before he left, too. Miss Teresa’s tried so hard but...”

“What are you gonna do with the rifle, Frank? If Lancer is cursed, like you say, then how are you gonna fight that with a rifle?”

“Don’t know. But at least it feels like I’m doin’ something.”

“Frank, I want you to head back to the bunkhouse now. You’ve done a real good day’s work and you deserve a break before dinner. I’ll finish up here. You take the buckboard and gear back with you.” He kept his tone low and measured, willing the older man to relax. Johnny watched the man’s eyes flickering left and right, trying to isolate the cause of his concern. Much as he tried he could not come up with a way of reaching his gun without alarming Frank and possibly causing him to panic and fire. All he could do was trust in his brother. A moment’s doubt washed over him. What if Scott was going to take advantage of this? He mentally shrugged away his misgiving. Too late to think of that now. His main concern now had to be getting Frank to back down.

Frank abruptly threw the rifle back into the buckboard. “I’m sorry, Boss. Don’t know what got into me. So much has been going on around here lately it has me spooked.”

“It’s okay. I know what you mean. Now head back, take it easy. See you after dinner.”

Johnny moved to retrieve his gunbelt as the foreman proceeded to pack the buckboard, head held low avoiding the penetrating gaze of his employer. Once finished, he climbed up and turned for the estancia without another word. Watching him leave Johnny let out a long breath. He felt he’d been on the edge of a canyon and only now could he step back from it.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

His brother was late for their regular rendezvous. Not late enough to worry. Just late enough to be irritating. He leant back against the tree, hat tilted over his face yet every sense on full alert. He could tell when Scott arrived that his brother hadn’t been at all fooled by his relaxed stance. Hearing his words confirmed it.

“So, Brother, not happy at being kept waiting?”

Johnny pushed his hat back on his head and looked up balefully at his brother who had not dismounted. “What took you so long, Boston?”

“I thought you might appreciate me following Frank and making sure there were no problems.”

Johnny pushed himself away from the tree he had been leaning against. “And?”

“And there were no problems. Care to tell me what went on down there today?”

“Wish I knew for sure. I’d have sworn Frank had that rifle out ready to shoot me. Then I’d have sworn he was the last person whose loyalty we had to question. I just don’t get it.”

“That’s kind of how it looked from where I was positioned, too. One moment I was ready to shoot him. The next I just felt it was all a big mistake. But I can’t tell if it was a big mistake or if he was just wily enough to figure it for a setup and cover himself.”

“So much for out first attempt at luring the culprits into the open. Sure glad next time you’re the bait.”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, Brother…”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 10

“So why did you come back? I’m going to keep asking until I get an answer.”

“Curiosity.”

Renee raised herself to rest on her elbow while remaining stretched out on the blanket.

“Oh come on, Johnny.”

He shrugged. “I had nothing better to do at the time.”

“But you’ve stayed.”

He grinned. “Still got nothing better to do.”

She enjoyed his teasing but couldn’t let him get away with it. She took a swipe at him but found her hand immediately held gently, yet undeniably securely, in a vice-like grip. At her gasp he tenderly placed it back on the blanket by her side then repositioned his hat as a shield from the fierce afternoon sun. She reclined again and gazed up through the leaves sheltering them as she resumed her probing.

“You know, Lancer ought to be all yours, Johnny. Scott’s not really interested in it. He’d much rather be back in Boston. I’ve heard all about his inheritance and it’s obvious that he’s just spending some time here because he has nothing better to do.”

“You sure we’re talking about Scott? Seems like I already had this conversation just a little while ago.”

“Stop mocking me, Johnny. I’m trying to be serious. A proper ranch like this one needs a strong boss. Someone who understands what’s needed and is ready to do the hard work it takes.”

“And I suppose that ‘someone’ needs a wife, too.”

“Of course he does. It’s the wife’s place to support her husband. Make sure he has all needs at home. It’s always been my desire to find the right man and make him proud to call me his wife.”

“Sounds like something to look forward to, Renee. Not that I ever saw myself as the ‘right man’.”

“Oh, but you are. You’re right in so many ways. Lancer needs you.” And then more softly, almost under her breath, she added, “I need you.”

“Hmmm, might have trouble convincing Scott there’s no place for him. Teresa, too, for that matter.”

“Not at all. Scott just needs a little more time to grow bored with this life. It’s not for him. The getting up at the break of dawn, the dull and dreary social calendar, the dust that gets into everything, the calluses and dirty fingernails.” Renee became aware she was frantically rubbing her hands together and quickly pulled them apart. “I don’t know if you realize this or not, but there is a growing attraction between Scott and Teresa.”

“That so?”

“Yes indeed. Though being a man I doubt you’d see it even though it’s as plain as the nose upon your face. I think it would actually be a kindness to help them get together. We could do that for them. Set them up. They could make a life together and not be tied to Lancer. This place is too full of bad memories for Teresa.”

“Bein’ as it’s where she grew up I think there’s probably some good memories here too.”

Renee’s eyes narrowed as she perceived she may have overstepped her mark. “Yes, you’re probably right. It was just a thought.” She leaned across and raised his hat from his face. As he squinted up at her she added, “I’ve had another thought too.” Snatching his hat, she leapt to her feet and scampered off, leaving him fully aware he was meant to offer pursuit.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Both men were so enthusiastically tearing up the weeds as they passed down parallel garden beds that a casual onlooker would have surmised they were engaged in a competition. Eventually the older man straightened up and stretched.

“Done!” he pronounced, then thoughtfully perused his fellow gardener’s progress. “Brother Francis, I believe you’ve missed a few back there.” His grin as the monk turned back to examine his handiwork was evidence enough that he was teasing his friend.

“Where?” demanded the younger man, a frown creasing his brow until he turned back in time to see a joke was being made at his expense. Before he could complain, Murdoch poured forth his apology.

“Forgive me, Brother Francis, but you take this much too seriously.”

“Oh really? And you don’t, Mr Lancer?”

“Not at all. And once again, let me remind you to call me Murdoch.”

“Murdoch. Well, Murdoch, I think we deserve a drink after that. I’d race you to the well but I don’t want you to feel bad about losing.”

Both men headed to the well where they drew fresh water, sharing the cup hanging from a hook. It was cool and just what they needed after a hot afternoon’s work. After a long drink they made their way over to the bench in the dappled shade of the grape vine. They sat in companionable silence for some time as Brother Francis drew together his thoughts.

“You know, Murdoch, it is one of God’s great revelations that a tiny seed knows all that it needs to know to grow, to flower and to provide fruit. That there is more intelligence in that tiny grain than in most people who try to rely on themselves.”

Murdoch nodded thoughtfully. “On my ranch I witnessed the wonders of life time and time again. It’s only now that I realize how ashamed I should be for letting the pressures of ranch business stop me from considering how blessed I have been. My focus was all wrong.”

“Then that, Murdoch, is the beginning of true wisdom. You know, when I am troubled I seek refuge in the garden. Before long an answer always appears. The solution is never mine. Nor is it Padre Stefano’s sage advice that comes to me. It is a higher voice.”

“Brother Francis, I wish I could hear that higher voice.”

“Dear friend, together we will listen for it.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

“Renee, are you listening to me?”

“Oh, I’m sorry Teresa. I was preoccupied.”

“That hardly begins to cover it. You looked to be miles away. What’s got you so distracted?”

“I was just thinking about some things Johnny and I were talking about this afternoon. You know, I’ve never been happier in all my life. Being here just feels so right. Even the loss of Cassie seems easier to bear when I’m here with you.” She smiled as she reflected on her lost sister. “Did you ever wonder about her name? You know, Cassie Cassat does have a funny ring to it.”

“No, I guess I never thought about it. I’ve heard stranger names before, that’s for sure.”

“Cassie was the name I gave her. Until I came along she was ‘Cathy’ to our parents. But you see, when I was little I couldn’t say Catherine Cassat. It just came out as ‘Cassie’ so it stuck. Like so much else we did together. She was my other half. When she died I felt as though I was lost, too. But you were there for me, Teresa. I can’t tell you how grateful I am. To this day. I couldn’t ask for a better sister.” The eyes brimming with tears, threatening to fall, suddenly creased into a mischievous grin. “Well, I can think of one thing that would make life even better. A double Lancer wedding to bring us all together!”

“Stop such nonsense, Renee,” uttered Teresa, mildly shocked at her friend’s effrontery. “I agree such a future would be perfect but you seem to have forgotten that Scott shows not the slightest interest in me.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Appeased by her friend’s apology, Teresa quickly regained her equilibrium. “Yes, there may be little progress on that front but you and Johnny certainly seem to be making up for it.”

Renee laughed with mock indignation. “Whatever do you mean, my dear?”

“You know exactly what I mean. If you two progress any faster we’ll have to tell folks not to worry about making it to the wedding – just come to the christening.” Her light-hearted giggle, displaying just a touch of girlish wickedness, lightened the mood significantly. She slapped Renee on the behind with the fry pan she had been putting away before tossing it carelessly onto the bench and running out the door, Renee in hot pursuit, wooden spoon expertly wielded.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 11

Renee knew something was brewing – she could feel it in the air. As a consequence she had decided it may be an occasion worthy of the family’s good tableware. In support of her insistence, Scott had brought out the best crystal wine glasses, filling them with a fine wine from Murdoch’s cellar.

All evening Johnny had been most attentive to her. Her hopes were soaring.

“Teresa,” said Scott, “I’d like to talk to you tonight after dinner.”

“That sounds like our cue, Renee, to make ourselves scarce. How would you feel about a moonlit walk?”

So, a moonlit walk. How romantic a setting. Then back to the family for an announcement. She sighed. “A walk is just what I need, Johnny.”

They excused themselves, Johnny taking Renee’s arm in his.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Murdoch lay on his cot, his thoughts distracting him from the usual discomfort of sleeping in a bed that was both too narrow and too short for his frame. As weary as the day’s labour had left his body, his mind was working overtime. Time and time again he had asked himself – what was it he truly wanted from this life? What had he gained from this life? How could he make amends for his mistakes? Could he just walk away and spend the rest of his life in prayerful contemplation? How does a man achieve forgiveness? He longed for the voice Brother Francis claimed to hear so readily. He longed for peace of mind.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Renee was slightly perplexed that things were not playing out in quite the way she had anticipated. Lost in her thoughts, it took her a moment to register that they had once again reached the patio doors and that the noise they were hearing was the raised voice of her friend.

“You can’t make me. I won’t go.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Teresa. It really will be for the best all round. And quite frankly, you don’t actually have that much of a say in the matter.”

Renee reached for the door handle but Johnny drew her hand back, one finger to his lips.

“This is my home, Scott Lancer. It’s been my home all my life and you can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“We’re not getting rid of you, Teresa. We’re making life better for you.”

“You’re only part owner of the ranch. I’m sure Johnny’s going to feel differently about it. Wait ‘til he hears about this.”

“Johnny and I are in complete agreement about this.”

Renee glanced in his direction and saw his brows knitted in consternation, as if this was the first he’d heard of a plan to send Teresa away.

“Besides which, the situation as it now exists between Johnny and Renee means it’s no longer a good idea for her to be living here in such close quarters. I think the same must be said for you, too. Be reasonable, Teresa. If Renee is to have a fair chance at making a place for herself by Johnny’s side, she really should not have to consider the risk of offending you. You may perceive your role to be mistress of Lancer but if Renee marries into the family then that would be her position and she should not be made to feel bad about supplanting you.”

Renee let out a tiny, involuntary gasp.

The sound of Teresa weeping seemed to force Johnny’s hand. He opened the door and together they stepped inside the room, taking in the scene before them. Teresa was sitting on the sofa, head bowed, sobs wracking her delicate frame. Her head flew up at the sound of their entrance and she leapt from the sofa and flung herself into Johnny’s arms.

“Johnny, tell me it’s not true. Tell me you don’t want me to go away. Don’t make me leave.” Her distress made even these simple statements a challenge for her.

“Hey, T’resa, don’t cry honey. It’s okay.” He smoothed her hair as he held her to his chest. “Stop crying, honey. No reason to cry.”

Renee moved aside and discreetly took a place in the armchair by the fire. She was curious to see how this was going to play out – knowing that her position at the ranch was also in the balance.

As Teresa was gaining control of her emotions, she missed the looks exchanged by the brothers. Renee hadn’t. When Teresa at last stopped weeping Johnny held her at arm’s length. “Good girl.” He gently wiped a remaining tear from her cheek with his left thumb. “Sweetheart, you know we love you like a sister and only want what’s best for you.”

“But Scott wants to send me away to school. I don’t want to leave Lancer. It’s my home. Mine.”

“Querida, you’ve been here a long time – now maybe it’s time you did get to see a bit more of the world.”

Teresa’s face fell. The battle lines were drawn and Renee knew which camp she wanted to join.

“Teresa, honey.” Renee’s voice was smooth as silk as she drew the younger woman’s attention. “I reckon time in a big city is worth giving up a lot for. Why, I reckon you’d find yourself a real nice, rich fella in no time. All you meet around here are cowboys and drifters. That’s no life for you.”

Teresa cast desperate looks at the three faces surrounding her then hurtled out of the room, up the stairs to her sanctuary, the echo of the slammed door casting an exclamation mark upon the discussion.

“Don’t worry,” assured Renee. “I’ll go talk to her soon. She’ll be fine once she gets used to the idea.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Struggling to find sleep, Johnny had reviewed their plan and had come up with a slight amendment he believed would offer them greater assurance of success. He was anxious to catch his brother in his room before the rest of the household awakened but he was thwarted as Scott had risen early and already made his way downstairs.

Not finding him in the kitchen either, Johnny headed out to the barn, and caught Scott as he passed by the forge. Checking they would not be easily overheard, Johnny laid out his change of plan for his brother. They were speaking in low tones but made an effort not to look too furtive at the same time.

As he listened Scott’s apprehension grew, almost giving him away as he hissed “…Are you sure?” just a little too loudly. Once again Johnny looked around to confirm their solitude. He thought better, though, of taking a swipe with his hat at his older brother. Instead, he settled for calmly and succinctly pointing out the benefits of his latest proposal.

Reluctantly, Scott agreed. It was not too different from their first attempt with Frank but this time it was more secluded and there was greater cover for Johnny, allowing him to be closer to the action. Plus, if all went well, they hoped it would smoke out whoever the guilty party was, rather than just set up one targeted individual.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

That afternoon, while the hands were milling around the hacienda before dinner was called and Teresa and Renee were seated on the porch shelling peas, Johnny strode up and made a pronouncement to all present. He would be travelling to Hepburn Springs the following morning as he was curious to meet the saddle maker who had been making quite a name for himself of late. He intended to be gone all day and anticipated being home in time for dinner however they weren’t to wait for him as it was quite a distance to travel in one day. Scott then announced that since Johnny wouldn’t be around he would go check out the rumour that a pack of coyotes had moved into the ravine at the south end of the ranch. He said that he preferred to go alone and make a quiet day of it and that the hands should use the day to catch up on those little jobs that never seemed to get done, like mending their gear. With that the Lancer men retired inside, their ritual pre-dinner drink beckoning.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

“Please tell me more about your ranch, Murdoch.”

“Don’t you grow tired of hearing me ramble?” Once again he marvelled at the extent of Brother Francis’ patience.

“Never. You speak of that land with such love and pride. It is a joy to hear.”

“Yes, it is fine land, but it’s my sons’ now. They are working it. At least that’s what the letters indicate. I don’t belong there anymore. I’m a danger to them and I couldn’t forgive myself if anything bad happened because of my…” At this he hesitated, searching for the appropriate word. “… forgetfulness.”

“I know this condition is why you came to us, but I have to tell you, friend, that I have seen so sign of it in all the time you have been here.” He saw the look of disbelief on the older man’s face but ploughed on. “Oh, yes, you were sorely troubled, disheartened, overwrought, uncertain. But never forgetful. It seemed to me you were just dispirited and needed a little time in the peace and security of our monastery to recover.”

Murdoch stared at his friend with what began as confusion then changed to comprehension and finally broke into a glimmer of hope. It lasted just a few seconds, though, before sadness reigned once more.

“Brother Francis, I hope you are right,” Murdoch sighed, “but even if that is the case, it’s too late. I no sooner recovered my sons than I lost them again. They don’t want me back at the ranch. They don’t want me back in their lives. I don’t deserve it.”

 

“Murdoch, dear friend, perhaps that decision is best left for them to make?”

Thoughtful silence ensued.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Immediately after breakfast Johnny had noisily headed north. Scott had let everyone know he was in no hurry to get moving but that when he set off, the first place he would look would be in the cave under Settlers’ Rock on the eastern edge of the ravine. All present agreed that that would make a good den for coyote. He then took his time preparing food, ammunition, supplies and his horse and a short while after that Scott rode out south toward the ravine.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Johnny knew exactly where he was going to secret himself. After ensuring that Settlers’ Cave was devoid of anyone already set up to ambush Scott, he planned to lodge himself between two boulders which he knew created a deep, entirely shaded crevice that would make him invisible. The niche offered a wide-angled view of the whole ravine, especially the cave entrance and its flanks. All he would need was his water canteen, patience and a little help from his Winchester. Six miles out from Lancer, just as these very thoughts were crossing his mind, a badger reared up, startled by Barranca’s approach. Within a heartbeat the horse had also reared. Frozen in a moment of time both animals stood proudly defiant on their hind legs, trying to mask their fear from each other. Distracted in that paralysed second, Johnny commenced a graceful reverse tumble which could only end in grief.

Dust settled.

A disgruntled badger made tracks, trying to retain its dignity. Barranca, trying to do likewise, headed briskly in the other direction, but soon returned to Johnny’s side, unsure what to do with the unmoving heap that used to be his confident master.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

At last Scott arrived at the ravine. He tried to appear relaxed and not betray the fact he was desperately trying to locate both Johnny and their adversary, wherever they may be hiding. Taking a deep breath, Scott dismounted and removed his rifle from its scabbard at Shiloh’s side. Mustering faith in his brother’s ability and resourcefulness, Scott took his time and went about his charade as convincingly as possible.

Within moments he felt two hostile eyes boring into his back. He wanted with all his essence to spin around and let off a couple of rounds, but he was disciplined. He knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he hit Johnny by accident. And, besides, he didn’t have to make a move. He had the best man available on point duty. Now it was his turn to play the bait. Johnny had willingly placed himself in danger, and sure as hell he wasn’t going to be the one to back out and give the game away. With each passing second, however, those hostile eyes were boring holes through his shirt. He swore he could feel the white hot burn of an antagonistic eye peering along gun metal, through the sights and taking a bead on him. This was madness: aching chest, sweaty palms, pounding head. Scott was in too deep now. Resolved to see it through, he warily approached the entrance to Settlers’ Cave.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

From the left hand side of the cave, behind a stand of saltbush, two wide eyes were focused on Scott. Whether it was fear, crazed elation or the adrenaline high, the face did not show any emotion. There was none left. The eyes had stolen it all.

While he had a clear shot, Scott’s assailant was so overwrought he couldn’t keep the gun’s barrel still enough. His finger shook on the trigger. But he knew well enough not to waste the opportunity by acting hastily. No, he would wait for Scott to enter the cave and return outside before firing. That would give him time to steady himself.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Murdoch had been showing Brother Francis how to maximise the irrigation of the garden plots. Already all the plants were greener and taller, and the tomatoes were getting the extra water just when they needed it. A small group of monks now gathered around as Murdoch explained how the wind could be harnessed to bring the well-water up into the makeshift channels that he had created, and how the design could be improved when the adjoining garden bed was laid for the next season. A little way off Padre Stefano nodded with satisfaction, partly for himself and partly for Brother Francis who had risen to the challenge and succeeded in mending Murdoch’s soul. Stretching his aged joints, he entertained the thought that one day the youthful Brother Francis might indeed be ready to take his place as spiritual leader of the monastery.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

A burning white pain in his side roused Johnny from unconsciousness. The pain was coming in waves, each wave punctuated by a snorting, burbling sound that confused him. He was soaked with sweat yet deathly cold. In contrast his face, which has been exposed unmoving to the morning sun for quite some time, was burning. Another wave of pain and snorting. As his vision slowly returned a large dark and menacing silhouette resolved itself into faithful Barranca. A prod of his horse’s enormous head soon revealed to Johnny where the pain and snorting were coming from. Desperate to stop the next wave, Johnny called reassuringly to Barranca and tried to roll over and take stock of his surroundings. A world of pain and brightly coloured lights told Johnny that he had hurt some ribs and his back. But he forgot his pain when he remembered the predicament he had left his brother in.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Relieved to have made it inside the cave Scott sat on a small boulder and panted hard. From the shadowy interior he tried to peer outside but the limited field of view gave him no encouragement. He checked his rifle and wondered how long he should stay in the cave. After a short while he knew he could delay no longer. A few deep breaths later saw him walking as slowly and as casually as he could back towards the exit of the cave. He knew that to flush out the culprit he could not hurry. He had to give all concerned the time and opportunity to make their moves and play this game out once and for all.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

On seeing Scott emerge from the cave’s shadow the assailant, composed and breathing evenly now, raised his rifle, took aim and shifted his feet slightly to gain greater stability. His finger slowly squeezed the trigger.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

 

And Then There Were Two – Chapter 12

“It is a miracle, Padre Stefano! Surely God has smiled on this one and given me the privilege of being the vessel for His handiwork.”

“That may be true, Brother Francis,” said Padre Stefano “and I do not doubt the good work you have done for this man, but how much was miracle and how much was a matter of time and attention in a peaceful environment remains to be seen. Let us be humble over small miracles.”

Suitably chastened, Brother Francis lowered his head.

With that Murdoch approached saying, “I want to thank you both for the kindness and care you have shown me. I don’t know what was wrong with me, and I don’t fully understand how you’ve done it, but I’m grateful and I’m in your debt. I hope that my donation will help with your expansion plans, and if you think of any further way I can help just get word to me.”

Padre Stefano responded, “You are a kind and generous man, Murdoch Lancer. There is great responsibility in your life and you must return to it. Remember your time here and all you have learnt. And come back if you ever find the need. Go now in peace, my son.” Murdoch bowed his head to receive the benediction then hoisted himself nimbly into the saddle and headed out the gates. He didn’t dare look back lest his resolve to return to Lancer weaken.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As his finger squeezed the trigger a tell-tale rattle struck up on his left. Glancing downwards he saw the viper curled in readiness to spring. Reflexively leaping to his right the rifle discharged, surprising himself, the snake and Scott, all now in motion and confusion. His bullet struck the rocks about 30 feet from where Scott stood, its high-pitched ricochet echoing around the ravine.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Scott returned fire blindly in the direction he thought that the gunshot had originated. But where were Johnny’s return shots? Should Scott have trusted him, or did he just find out that he had been suckered into this whole deal? Or were the original shots Johnny’s? Perhaps that was too harsh. Perhaps his brother had been discovered before Scott had even made it to the ravine.

The assailant had apparently already run to his horse and mounted before Scott composed himself for the shootout because the next thing Scott heard was a horse galloping away over the uneven terrain. After minutes of waiting for his brother’s reply to his calls Scott arose, unable to tell if he was more furious, confused or concerned. He started scouring the area for signs of Johnny.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

With a monumental effort Johnny raised himself off the ground with the help of the bridle straps. Lightning flashes of pain alternated from his ribs and spine, sometimes conspiring to arrive together, and nearly sending Johnny unconscious whenever they succeeded. But because he could never forgive himself for letting Scott down - Scott who might right now be lying dead – he would endure anything to get back on Barranca and make his was to his brother. Once mounted every hoof-fall was a painful messenger reminding him of his injuries. He found that the only way to endure the ride was to lie forward with his arms around Barranca’s neck, like a novice about to be unseated by a grumpy mare. The ride to the ravine was one of the hardest trials of Johnny’s life but somehow he managed it. By that time, of course, his brother was no longer there, but Johnny felt an enormous wave of relief wash over him at not finding Scott dead or hurt. And so he commenced the long trip back to Lancer, in pain and embarrassed. He figured the wisest course of action was to stick as close to the truth as possible though he reminded himself he’d have to skirt around the hacienda to reappear from the north.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Johnny rode directly to the barn and slowly and painfully lowered himself from Barranca’s back. Readily accepting Javier’s offer to unsaddle his horse, Johnny gingerly made his way to the hacienda, each limp causing waves of pain to radiate throughout his body. His hope of reaching his room undetected was thwarted as Teresa rounded the side of the house and called out in alarm.

“Johnny, what happened?”

“Nothing much. I’ll be okay.”

“Well, I’m not convinced,” she chided him. “Hugo,” she called to the nearest hand, “go fetch the doctor.”

“Hugo, don’t,” countermanded Johnny. “I said I was fine. It’s no big deal. Quit fussin’, will ya.”

She looked into his steely eyes and with a “suit yourself” turned on her heel and went back in the direction from which she had come. Johnny continued on into the house. As he gingerly entered the great room he saw his brother standing gazing out the large window behind the desk, obviously unhurt. Relief mingled with embarrassment for the younger Lancer. He was in no doubt that Scott had heard the entire exchange with Teresa.

“Glad to see at least one of us is okay.”

Scott spun around, his face a mask. “Are you? Is that the best you can do?”

“What’s that s’posed to mean?”

Scott looked at his brother with scorn. “Figured out your story yet?”

“If you mean you want to hear what happened, yeah, I can tell you.”

Johnny proceeded to tell Scott just what had happened. As the story unfolded Scott slowly felt his resentment evaporate. He wanted to hold on to his doubts but he felt himself drawn in by Johnny’s apparent sincerity. Perhaps he was being a fool but he chose to believe his brother. Reluctantly he began to look at things more objectively. He knew that the risk to his life had been brought about more by the weakness of their plan than the fault of his brother. He sighed in relief that nothing worse had eventuated.

“Well, brother, perhaps I should organise for Teresa to give you some riding lessons.”

Shamefaced, Johnny dipped his head, accepting Scott’s peace offering. “Yeah, reckon maybe you should. But do you mind if I get myself a hot bath and some firm strapping ‘round these ribs of mine first?”

“I think that had better wait until we try to figure this out. We may not have any answers yet as to who is to blame but we do know one thing for certain – someone’s definitely out to get us and if we don’t do a better job of this they just might succeed. There have been too many close calls.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The new day had barely begun and Renee was still feeling half asleep as she made her way back to the house with her basket of eggs for the family’s breakfast. She knew she should be hurrying back but something about Teresa’s tone as she’d sent her to do this chore had rankled. She decided to walk back through the herb patch and gather some parsley. Anything to delay rejoining her friend. As she neared the garden wall she heard Teresa talking. The urgency and stridency made Renee pause, just out of sight. It was hard to hear what Teresa was saying but the words ‘not yet’ and ‘listen to me’ stood out.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

“El patrón! El patrón!”

The calls drew their attention outside long before the noise of the horse drawing up in the yard. Of the multitude of reasons which had passed through each brother’s head for such voluble cries, the truth that greeted them had in no way been one of the more viable alternatives.

“Hullo boys. I noticed on the way in that you’ve let that creek start backing up again. Other than that, have you managed to keep this ranch going while I was away?”

He strode past them, unbelievably tall and upright and nothing like the man they had last seen a few short months before. They looked at each other with more than a little surprise before following him through the open French doors into the great room. He was already seated behind the huge desk, dwarfing it with his authority. As he shuffled the papers on top, seemingly taking in at a glance all the current business that needed attending to, they looked on in amazement. Finally Scott found his voice.

“You’re looking well, Sir.”

“That’s because I am well. Never been fitter.” He looked up from the work in front of him. “You boys look kind of confused.”

“Well, Murdoch, you gotta admit this is a bit of a surprise. We didn’t know you were coming back.”

“Well it would appear I am back so how about you boys start filling me in on what has been happening in my absence.”

“We managed the stock round up…”

“And signed a new contract with the army…”

“… and moved them to better feedlots.”

“… making sure we got the deal you’d been after.”

“Whoa, whoa. Perhaps I should have been more explicit. What I want to know is, who’s trying to get their hands on our land?”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

“What sort of an addle-brained scheme is that? Setting yourselves up to flush them out? Whose idea was it?” Both brothers subtly indicted in the direction of the other. “And did it work?”

“Well, it didn’t seem to work too well with Frank,” offered Scott.

“Frank?!”

“Yeah, and then we tried the same sort of thing again with the other hands and all we got there was another maybe.”

“Though we did verify that someone was definitely trying to kill us,” interrupted Scott.

“I suppose I should be thankful I’ve come back to find anything left at all.” Murdoch shook his head in dismay then cast a look in his younger son’s direction. “And somehow it doesn’t surprise me to see you hurt. And it wouldn’t surprise me to hear you’d refused any doctoring too. Well, if you don’t need a doctor then you’re fit enough for work.” He strode around to the other side of the desk. “All right, we’ll talk more about this later. Meanwhile I have a lot of paperwork to get through.” He looked back down at the sheets before him, leaving his sons hovering in indecision. Sighing, he looked back up. “Well, haven’t you boys got anything to do? I can suggest that creek won’t be clearing itself any time soon. How about you get onto it now? There are still a few hours of daylight left.”

Despite Johnny’s still painful ribs they almost fell over each other in their hurry to be first out the door. As they scrambled onto their horses Scott uttered the thought uppermost in his mind. “Would you say that went well?”

“No, Scott, I don’t think I would.” A grin spread slowly across his face. “But it sure felt good anyway.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As he heard the light footsteps making their way down the stairs he looked up expectantly. Eyes downcast, she was well into the room before she noticed his presence. The shock, the gasp and the slight stagger were more than he could have wished for.

“Hello, Miss Cassat. I heard you had moved in more or less permanently.”

“M, Mr Lancer. I didn’t know you’d returned.”

“How remiss of everyone. Now tell me, do you think Teresa will be joining us soon? I’d like to talk to you.”

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

“What’s goin’ on?” 

“Shhh, someone will hear you.”

“Don’t shh me. The old man’s meant to be out of the picture permanently. Yet, oh lookee here, he’s back!”

“Calm down. I’ll figure this out. We just need to stay calm for a while and give me time to come up with another plan.”

“I’m plumb wore out with waitin’. Fix it now or I will. I don’t like the way things have been goin’ and I’m not about to hang around and watch this all fall to pieces around our necks. I’ve had enough of this.”

“Don’t do anything stupid. One false move and you’ll blow everything. Stay calm, I tell you.”

“You better just give me reason to stay calm.”

“That sounds like a threat.”

“You read it any way you like. I’ve only gone along with this whole scheme because of the promises you’ve made. You promised we’d be together. Well I don’t plan on waitin’ forever for that to happen.”

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And Then There Were Two – Chapter 13

The sudden cold snap was so intense that Johnny wished the pain in his chest would ease up so he could be more vigorous in the grooming he was giving Barranca. He decided to leave the cold and dark of the barn and head to the corral to finish the job in the bright, morning light. He’d no sooner moved Barranca past the barn doors than he felt his arms pinned to his sides and hot breath whispering in his ear. The pain from his hurt ribs somewhat held him captive, discouraging him from fighting free.

“Are you going to come along quietly or have I got to get rough with you?”

His eyes darkened. His face became a mask.

“You sure like living dangerously,” he drawled. His constricted ribs were making it hard to draw breath. “I’ve told you before not to sneak up on people. You’re going to end up getting hurt one day.”

Renee loosened her grip, swooped under his arm and stood barring his way. “Don’t be cranky with me Johnny. I just want to be with you.” Her childish pout left him unmoved.

“Then you can come and watch while I finish brushing down Barranca.”

She moved beside him, holding his hand and laying her head against his shoulder as they made their way towards the corral. He juggled the reins and the brush he was carrying as a means to discreetly disengage himself. She merely let him finish what he was doing then snuggled in again. He looped the reins over the nearest corral post and started brushing.

“Renee, you sure are makin’ it hard to get this job done.” He hoped his smile would get his message across without causing her too much hurt.

“Here, let me help. You’re in too much pain to be doing that anyway.” She started brushing Barranca’s mane but soon wearied of the task and rested the brush on the top of the nearby post. “I was thinking we might go on a picnic later on today. I can get a basket of food together and we could find a nice quiet spot away from here. Then …” She raised herself on tippy toes to whisper in his ear. But he never did hear what it was she wanted to propose.

“Lancer!” The voice was filled with frustration and fury.

Senses heightened, he turned to see whose anger had been raised, his right hand hovering over his thigh but cautious not to inflame what seemed an already volatile situation.

“Git yer hands off my woman.”

He disengaged himself from Renee’s grasp and pushed her gently to the side as he stepped away from both her and Barranca. This surprising avowal led him to suspect that at last some answers might be forthcoming, if he played his cards right.

“Javier… I think there must be some misunderstanding.” One look could tell that the young man, who had come to work for them just scant months ago, had reached breaking point. “How about we talk?”

“Talk? You wanna talk?” Javier spat. His revolver, already held loosely in his hand, followed the arc of saliva. “Whatever happened to Johnny Madrid? He wouldn’t be standin’ here just talkin’.”

“You know it’s Johnny Lancer now. Johnny Lancer, rancher.”

“And you reckon bein’ a rancher gives you the right to go after my woman?”

“I don’t reckon anyone has the right to go after another man’s woman, providin’ he knows she’s spoken for. And providin’ she doesn’t mind being spoken for.” He daren’t risk a glimpse at Renee, knowing how important it was to read every movement Javier made. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder whether this was news to Renee. “You know, Javier, I think maybe you just put the gun down and we talk about this.”

“I’ve had enough of talkin’ and watchin’ and waitin’. Let’s get this over with.”

Rather than calm the young man, Johnny’s measured tones seemed to be raising his ire even more. The volume was bound to start drawing a crowd and Johnny could picture the men already pouring out of the surrounding buildings. Dios, he hoped he could diffuse this situation before his family emerged from the hacienda.

The other man had made no move yet Johnny could tell Javier’s rage was escalating. At that moment he sensed as much as he saw his older brother take up position by the patio pillars as his father headed towards the corral. If he had doubted whether his father had fully regained his faculties the older man’s next words and actions removed all doubt.

“What’s going on here?” He stopped in such a position that he, Javier and Johnny formed the three points of a triangle, with Renee on the far side but still offering Scott a clear shot should the need arise.  “Renee, go get inside now, please. Teresa’s been looking for you.”

The woman didn’t move. She seemed wracked by indecision.

“Why, you’re just like your son. Think you can do and say what you like with my woman?”

Johnny knew he hadn’t been getting far, trying to talk Javier down, but he doubted his father was going to do well either. Still, it was a good move to divide the man’s attention. So far the young hand had only held his gun loosely in his gun and Johnny had chosen not to react to Javier’s words as a challenge. Still, he knew it wouldn’t take much to tip the balance.  He decided to let his father keep talking while he watched. Closely.

“There’s seems to have been some misunderstanding, lad. I didn’t realise you’d been keeping company with Miss Cassat and I’m certain my son was unaware of it also.”

“Of course he was unaware of it. That’s the way she wanted it,” Javier spat.

“Shut up, you fool.” The venom in Renee’s voice chilled the blood of all those who had gathered to watch. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits as she willed his silence.

“I won’t shut up. I bin keepin’ quiet long enough.” Javier’s shoulders drooped with his admission and the gun dangled loosely in his hand. “You and your grand schemes. They were never gonna work. Who have you been kidding all along? Just me or yourself too? Pardee might have promised you a life of luxury here at Lancer but I was a fool to think that you could ever make it happen. After he died you shoulda just gone back to your family and let it go. But you’ll use anyone you need to get what you want.”

“That’s enough out of you. Shut up now and maybe you can still walk away from here.” With these words Renee dismissed the young hand and turned, ready to fall into Johnny’s arms but his steely facade held her transfixed. “Oh Johnny, he’s been following me and saying things, things I didn’t want to hear. He’s insane, I tell you. He said if I told you he’d make me pay. You’ve got to believe me. I never wanted to help him but he threatened me.”

Johnny caught another movement out of the corner of his eye. Teresa was standing by the side of the house, not far from Scott.  The look on her face made it clear she had heard the brutal confession regarding the woman she loved as a sister. Her obvious feeling of betrayal was heart-rending.

“What? You lying…” Javier’s breath was coming in heaving gasps, such was his fury. “I don’t know what I ever saw in you. I’d have done anything for you, Renee. In fact, I have done some pretty terrible things and all because I loved you. I can see now you were just using me all along. From the moment you appeared on Day Pardee’s arm I couldn’t look at another woman. There you were all young and innocent, looking for a bit of adventure. Well, I guess you got more than you could handle. And I guess I did too.”

Sensing a weakening of Javier’s resolve, Johnny said, “I won’t draw on you, Javier. I figure this is all a big misunderstanding and there’s no need for anyone to get hurt.”

“No, it’s too late for that. I’m gonna finish this myself.” He tightened his grip on the revolver. “C’mon Johnny, who am I facin’?” A Colt pointed squarely in his direction.

Holding his hands up, Johnny slowly approached Javier, his intention being to eclipse the others from any stray shots, should they fly. Maintaining eye contact he noticed beads of sweat forming on Javier’s forehead. Yes, it was starting to warm up. Javier’s adrenalin must be making him feel a powerful discomfort. Johnny knew well the hammering that must be beating out a cadence in the younger man’s chest. Compounding this, Javier was facing east and had to squint against the low but unrelenting morning sun, while Johnny’s face was masked in cool shadow. It must be unnerving for Javier, not to be able to see Johnny’s eyes and this was bound to push Javier closer to an edge he had not known before.

Many a time Johnny had seen desperate men and knew exactly what Javier was thinking. He continued to try to make Javier see reason but he could tell that Javier wasn’t really listening. Suddenly the younger man realised that Johnny was still talking to him. He looked confused, probably wondering what Johnny had said. If Johnny understood anyone, he understood this type of man, the gunman who suddenly found himself out of his depth. Watching Javier’s eyes was like telepathy. Johnny could almost hear the confused voices in Javier’s head asking What was Madrid saying? and another Listen you fool… Calm down! Yet another voice Don’t trust him, whatever he says…. He’s trying to trick you. This unnerved Johnny. Reading a desperate man’s mind was one thing, but trying to decipher the disharmony of the mob between Javier’s ears was nearly impossible. He read men well, but not that well.

Then, behind the stinging trickle of sweat that was causing Javier to blink repeatedly, Johnny saw a change come over the other man’s face. It seemed like a new rage. At that moment, adrenalin, fury and a fear of being shamed overtook Javier. The revolver at the end of his outstretched right hand began to shake, gently at first and then more violently. Javier again began to speak. It was gibberish, more or less, something about people like the Lancers having whatever they want, whenever they wanted it. Treating everyone else like dirt. Mid sentence he stopped. He muttered a curse at the sun. It was clear he could hardly see. Johnny knew it was time to stop second-guessing this madman. You can’t reason with a sick mind. He took another stealthy step towards his adversary, never one to trust others to control a situation he was a part of.

“Stop right there!” Javier had obviously collected himself and this sudden change saw Johnny freeze five feet away, slowly lowering his hands. Too far to reach for Javier’s weapon and suicide to try for his own. Knowing that he couldn’t reason with him, knowing Scott wouldn’t shoot unless there was no alternative, Johnny’s gut wrenched as he realised that he’d have to lunge for the gun and probably not make it. Only Javier’s crazed state gave his plan a glimmer of hope. Eyes on Javier’s gun, Johnny watched it shake upwards and downwards. If he lunged while the gun was shaking upwards there was a small chance that its discharge would be skyward.

Each time the revolver shook upwards Johnny counted it off. Five, four, three …. He thought that he’d jump after the fifth shake. Three, two … (who was sweating now?) Two, one ….a split-second before leaping, moved by a premonition, Teresa let out a gasp that startled everyone by breaking a silence the ranch had never known before. Javier looked across. Everybody looked across. Everybody except Johnny.

Before Javier knew it Johnny had enveloped him, wrapping the gun between their twisting bodies. In seconds, slaves to a foolish instinct, the two struggling forms were surrounded by the Lancers, the ranch hands and Teresa. Only Renee stood back, a scowl on her face, knowing that the damned fool had now put her into an impossible position.

Writhing like a cut snake, Johnny and Javier wrestled each other for only a few seconds before the revolver’s report brought cessation to the tangle. Too afraid to move, the onlookers stood transfixed while the dust cleared. Agonisingly the moments seemed like hours before Johnny pushed off the lifeless form before checking himself for a wound. Seeing his shirt stained with blood Johnny had to pat himself down to make sure he had not been hit. More than once he’d been shot before, and he knew that often the pain only made itself known some time after the bullet’s trespass.

“Oh Johnny! Thank goodness you stopped him!” Renee exclaimed as she tried to run to Johnny’s side. But Johnny’s eyes were daggers and along with Murdoch’s grip on Renee’s wrist, both stopped her in her tracks. Her demeanour changed instantly. Confident, defiant, haughty in defeat, she shook loose from Murdoch’s grasp and stood her ground.

Teresa strode up to her and slapped her cheek. Having never seen her display anger in such a way before, all the men winced. “Call the sheriff. She should be locked up immediately,” Teresa spat like a startled cougar.

“I’ve done nothing wrong. It was all him I tell you. He was evil and he used me. It’s his word against mine and now he’s dead.”

Murdoch stood before her, his towering form dwarfing her boldness. “We’ve seen enough of your act to know how convincing you can be, Miss Cassat. No doubt at trial you’d play the poor innocent girl, a victim of a despicable cad.” He met his young ward’s eyes. “I’m afraid, Teresa, she wouldn’t stay locked up for very long, even with our testimony. We’ll still inform the sheriff but we can save us all some trouble and give her the punishment she truly deserves. If the monks have taught me anything, it is the value of family and friends.” He turned back to face the cause of all their grief. “And that, Miss Cassat, is the price you will pay. It is a lasting and horrible punishment but one you so richly deserve. You father will be thoroughly ashamed of you after these latest deeds. Having spoken to him recently I can promise you he has already disowned you. And to think, you foolish girl, you’ve forever lost the opportunity to join us here on the ranch and perhaps even become family.” At this pronouncement he turned to face the assembled crowd. “Let her go. She’s nothing.”

So while Scott organised the hands to remove Javier’s body to the barn, place it on the dray, and take it to the undertaker, the others moved back to the homestead, Teresa supporting Johnny. Though he didn’t really need it, he thought perhaps she did.

Alone stood Renee, now deserted, a look of disbelief her solitary companion.

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And Then There Were Two – Chapter 14

Teresa looked up from her needlework and studied, in turn, the men around her. Each was cradling a glass, the contents of which were apparently fascinating. She threw down her work in disgust and leapt out of her seat.

“The atmosphere in here is stifling but you all seem quite happy to just wait around and mull it over – when will somebody actually say something? I for one have lots to say and I think it needs to be said.”

She strode over to stand, hands on hips, before Scott. He looked up from his place on the sofa. “I think you owe me an apology,” she insisted.

Scott raised one eyebrow. He opened his mouth to speak but before he could utter a syllable Teresa had whirled on her heel and spun around to confront Johnny. “And you… You… You let me down. I trusted you and you let me down. You ought to apologise too.”

Johnny pushed away from the fireplace mantle he had been supporting.

But it was Murdoch’s voice that answered her accusations. “Be careful, Teresa, sweetheart. You don’t want to say something you’ll be sorry for later.” 

She looked towards him but couldn’t raise her gaze any higher than his legs, stretched out before him as he sat in his favourite armchair.

“I just don’t understand what’s happened to us.” It was almost a sob. “Murdoch, your sons came home. They finally came back and everything was meant to be perfect. We were meant to be a family and we ended up…”

Murdoch pushed himself out of his chair and wrapped her in his embrace. His giant hand gently swept over her hair, again and again, soothing her with his rhythmic motion. When she had calmed he led her to the sofa and ensconced her next to Scott. Johnny moved to perch on the arm of the sofa beside her. All three of them looked up at Murdoch who had taken the place by the fire recently vacated by Johnny. There was an air of expectation.

Murdoch sighed deeply and then began.

“There are things I can’t admit to you, things I can barely admit to myself, but I will try to make you understand. As Teresa has already said, you boys returned and it would have been nice if we could have all been family, but we were strangers and the only way you can build up trust is over time. We needed time but we didn’t have it. It was taken from us.”

Murdoch walked over to his desk and three sets of eyes followed him.

He continued. “After Pardee’s final raid, when he and many of his men were killed, things settled down, as you know. The others in the gang just seemed to vanish. I thought they’d gone looking for trouble elsewhere. When Javier came looking for work it never occurred to me he might have been part of that mob. He certainly didn’t seem like your usual trouble-maker. Renee had him duped. I’m sure he thought it would be the two of them living the high life at Lancer before too long. And speaking of Renee, she had always been friendly with Teresa so I saw no reason to question her appearance at the ranch. Things should have started to get better between us but they didn’t. My whole life was spent building up this ranch and getting ready for the day you boys returned to it. My disappointment when things didn’t quite go as planned, well, it hit me that maybe we’d never be able to make up for lost time. In those very early days we were knocking heads constantly. Scott, you were argumentative and headstrong. Johnny, you were closed off, secretive. Perhaps now I can see that the apple never falls far from the tree. But at the time it was... well, it was dispiriting. When things started going wrong around here, things started going missing, it was more than I could face. What was the point? It was all for nothing.”

His voice trailed off and his head dropped. Teresa started to raise herself from the sofa to go to him, to comfort him, but Scott swiftly held her arm and silently forced her to stay still. They waited. Pushing the memories that were assailing him aside, Murdoch relaunched into his narrative.

“I’d spent a lifetime fighting. Fighting to get away from the poverty of Scotland. Fighting to make my way to a new land. Fighting to make a new life. When I found my way here there was more fighting. Fighting those who wanted my land. Fighting the land itself. Fighting to stay alive. Fighting for my family and losing them anyway. I lost my best friend when your father was killed, Teresa, but still I fought on. Then I saw Cipriano suffer the same fate just months later. Every time I let someone get close I lost them. But still I fought on. It makes no sense and it shames me to say it but I was still fighting when I called you boys back to Lancer. I’d felt I had little time left but I kept fighting. For what, I’m not sure. Maybe for time to make amends. But by the time we were done with Pardee I had no fight left in me. It’s humiliating to admit it, but I was well down the road of giving in before Miss Cassat arrived. She was an opportunist. She saw her chance and took it. With Javier as her accomplice they could cover the whole ranch between them. She saw I was losing my grip on things and just added to it.”

He shook his head doggedly, as if such an action would dislodge his demons.

“I gave up.” Murdoch’s stark confession rattled them all yet they kept their silence, transfixed by the insight they were gaining. “It took time but being at the monastery was the best place for me to recover. There was a tranquillity there I had never known before in my life. For the first time ever, I stopped fighting. In fact, I just stopped. I stopped and I listened and I learnt.” A smile crept over his features. “And once I had stopped long enough to listen I discovered many things.”

He walked around to the other side of his desk and opened a drawer, removing a small pile of letters. He tossed them on the desk and rested his hand on top of them. “The letters here come from the three of you. I take it you each wrote to me at the monastery without letting the others know what you were doing. And from the contents of these letters it appears you each felt safe in opening up your innermost thoughts to me. I guess you didn’t think I was really in a state to pay attention. And for a long time I wasn’t. But a dear friend told me to listen for a voice.” He chuckled softly. “I don’t think he anticipated that the voice would in fact be three voices. Anyway, by piecing together the different insights you each offered the picture became clearer. I could see you weren’t trusting each other and I suppose that was what eventually gave me my reason for returning.”

He strode back to the fireplace, his reticence at opening up to his family giving way to an apparent eagerness to share his story.

“On my way back here I took the time to stop at the Cassat place. That’s when I found out Renee’s father had disowned her. He’d found out about her dalliance with Pardee. He knew she had been sneaking out to meet someone but could hardly believe it when his son came back after following her and told him who it was. He confronted her and she mocked his concern. He realised then that, in trying to atone for the accidental death of her sister, he had let Renee get away with too much.  He threatened to disown her and she laughed in his face. She declared she didn’t need him and that she had much grander schemes. She saw Lancer as being hers, hers and Pardee’s. Just the two of them. That was the last he saw of her until Scott took her over in the buckboard to pick up her belongings. He felt sorry he hadn’t warned us but, frankly, I don’t think he’s done much else than study the bottom of a whiskey bottle since she left. When he saw her with Scott he thought she’d sought our forgiveness. It was easier to just ignore the whole sorry business and pretend it had never occurred. I suspect she hasn’t returned to them since leaving here. Frank says she was seen leaving on the stage, headed north. No doubt she has made plans. Heaven help any other poor man who falls prey to her. She’s pitiable. She will never know true friendship, let alone love.” His brows knit in consternation. Silence reigned in the great room for many minutes, the only sound being the steady, stolid strike of the grandfather clock.

Eventually Scott hoisted himself from his place on the sofa and stood before his assembled family. “Teresa, you were right. We do owe you an apology. It seemed to Johnny and me that you may have been involved. That’s why I confronted you with the decision to send you away and Johnny went along with it. We were trying to provoke a reaction. We were trying to see if, in fact, you were in league with Renee. By that time we had very firm suspicions about our house guest.”

“We should have trusted you,” muttered Johnny.

“It doesn’t matter now.” Teresa replied. “To tell you the truth now I can see that Lancer was the only thing that Renee was after all along. She wanted it any way she could get it. I think she would have been just as happy if the two of us had been left alone at Lancer, two mistresses without masters to consider. Though I dare say my position would have been less than secure once you men were all gone.”

They each contemplated the revelations that had been made.

A thought occurred to Teresa and she looked accusingly at Johnny, still seated beside her. “So you doubted Renee. Did you ever trust her? Or were you toying with her emotions? She was my friend, Johnny. She confided in me her joy at considering the two of you as man and wife, owners of Lancer. As wicked as her actions have been, as selfishly as she behaved, how could you do that to her?”

He shook his head slowly. “Sorry, T’resa. I didn’t want to string her along. I just wanted to know what she had planned. I never promised her anything and I never took advantage of her. I wouldn’t do that.”

Scott stepped in to support his brother. “To be fair, Teresa, it could have been either one of us placed in that position. I experienced Renee’s attention when she first joined us. And I would have played along exactly as Johnny did. Our very lives were at stake.”

“I guess you’re right,” she admitted.

Again, the silence ticked over and again each of them ran through the questions they needed answered.

“I need to ask one more thing,” begged Teresa. She turned to face the man who had been as a father to her. “Murdoch, do you hold a grudge against us for sending you away? I’m so sorry we abandoned you. We felt we didn’t have a choice.”

He walked towards her, leaned over and took her hand, pulling her from the couch into his arms. “Oh sweetheart. Don’t give it another thought. It was the best thing you could have done for me. In fact, I’m going back there in the spring.” A quick glance at the concerned faces around him caused him to smile. “Not to stay. Just for a short visit. I’d like to see how their irrigation is going. And tell my friend how those voices are going.”

The tension left the room.

“So where does this leave us?” Teresa expressed the concern the others must also have been feeling.

“We’re here,” declared Murdoch. “Here where we belong. And given time we will make this place the home it should be. We just need time and determination and good-will.” There was a general nodding of consensus. “But that’s for another day. What I need most right now is a good night’s sleep. Breakfast is at sun-up, don’t be late.”

They contentedly watched the man who called the tune climb the stairs.

Johnny remained idly picking at the edge of the Indian blanket draped over the back of the sofa. Scott lingered against the mantle. Each seemed to have more on his mind. Teresa started gathering the glasses scattered about the room. As she headed to the kitchen she overheard their conversation.

It began with Scott’s interruption of his brother’s reverie. “You know I had your back.”

“I know.”

“But still you tackled Javier when I had the shot.”

“I did.”

Scott waited.

“Look, I’ve spent a lifetime looking out for myself. I trust you, Scott. Like I’ve never trusted anyone else. And that’s why I couldn’t let anyone else get hurt. I couldn’t take the chance. I’m sorry.”

Teresa continued into the kitchen and washed the glassware. As she left to make her way to her room she stopped at the base of the stairs and looked back at the brothers who seemed to have come to an agreement.

She left them standing together, thinking to herself, “And then there were two …”

 

~end~
June 2007

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