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MargaretP

 

Twelve Days

Part of The Eliots series. Series Overview here.
Many thanks to my betas, Terri Derr and Cristy Wyndham-Shaw

 

Tuesday, October 1st, 1872

As Scott hooked the hanger over the top of the open door, he checked his new jacket one last time. No loose threads or marks to be seen; it was perfect. Its dusky suede and dark lapels made him smile. He hadn’t minded the idea of wearing a morning suit, but this was much better, and it somehow proved to him that Katie would settle into their new life together just fine.

I was helping my brothers buy clothes for the ranch when I saw it, she wrote in her letter. Wear it with your best string tie on the day, and you really will look like the handsome cattleman I am marrying.

“Hey.” Johnny appeared in the doorway. “Got enough room for your gear?”

“Plenty.” Scott dragged his mind back to the task at hand and dropped two work shirts into the bottom drawer of the compactum wardrobe. He was moving into Johnny and Emily’s tiny second bedroom so Katie could take over his room in the hacienda when she arrived with her family the following afternoon. “I’ve only brought the basics and what I know I’ll need for the wedding.”

“Good idea. Katie can’t take over the whole wardrobe if you leave stuff in it.” Johnny eyed Scott’s new jacket. “Nice. When did you get this?”

“Last week. It’s for the wedding. Katie sent it ahead in case alterations were needed, but it’s a good fit.”

“She’s letting you wear a regular jacket? Does that mean she won’t make me wear a monkey suit?”

Scott laughed; the look of hope on Johnny’s face was comical. Maybe it was time to put him out of his misery. “Here, she sent this too.” He gave Johnny a parcel with ‘For Johnny and Emily’ written on it. He had a fair idea what was inside.

“Oh, good.” Emily appeared from nowhere. She whipped the brown paper parcel out of Johnny’s hands and plumped down on the bed. “The letter I got from Katie this morning said she’d sent them to you, but you hadn’t mentioned anything. I was afraid she’d got mixed up…Darn knot.” She gave up trying to loosen it with her fingernails and used her teeth instead.

“Here.” Johnny slipped a knife out of his boot and cut the string. “So what’s in it?”

“These.” Emily held up two lengths of blue-grey satin. “Oh, the colour is perfect. I thought she might have problems finding the right shade.”

“Pretty,” Johnny agreed, clearly not appreciating what was so perfect any better than Scott.

“The idea is we wear the same clothes as we did for our wedding, but with these sashes. Bob will wear his uniform of course, and Jamie and Freddy their normal best suits with ties in this material. Julia, Victoria and Teresa will be in blue or grey or a combination of both using dresses they already have, and maybe sashes if needed. I think the wedding party will look very smart, don’t you?” She put the sashes back in their wrapping and stood up ready to leave.

“So Katie doesn’t want me to wear a morning suit?”

“A morning suit? Of course not.” Emily opened her eyes wide in surprise. “Why on earth would she want you tugging at your collar the whole way through her wedding ceremony?”

Johnny speared Scott with a look that said it all.

“Don’t blame me. You’re the one who jumped to conclusions.” Scott tipped his remaining clothes out onto the quilt and tossed the empty bag under the single bed he now had to sleep in. The reward at the end would be well worth a few nights banging his elbow against the wall. Katie had described her wedding gown; he would help her out of it one pearl button at a time, kissing his way down, savouring the softness of her skin until… “Ahem.” He’d almost forgotten where he was. Hopefully it hadn’t shown on his face. “Get out of here and let me finish unpacking.”

*****

Exchanging smiles, Johnny and Emily went back into the living room, leaving Scott to take his jacket down and hang it on the rail inside the compactum. He shut the bedroom door behind them.

Emily carefully placed the grey-blue satin sashes in the linen chest behind the sofa and then went to the kitchen area of their little apartment. It was mostly one big room for living, cooking and dining. The room Scott was in opened directly off the main room on one side of the stove next to a short hallway leading to Johnny and Emily’s bedroom and an indoor bathroom. The door into the apartment was diagonally opposite on the other side of the kitchen facing the dining and living areas. It opened to a loggia that connected to the hacienda so they didn’t have far to go if they wanted company.

Johnny lifted the lid of the pot on the stove. “Smells good.”

“Nearly ready.” Emily nudged him out of the way and grabbed a tea towel. “The biscuits are done.” She lifted the baking tray out of the oven and put it down on the trivet.

The biscuits had risen beautifully and the smell made Johnny’s mouth water. He leaned against the wall between the end of the sink bench and the front door until she turned to season the stew. Then he skirted around behind her. “Why didn’t you tell me what Katie had plann—Ouch.”

“Serves you right.” She laughed and shooed him out of the kitchen.

Still juggling the hot biscuit, he found a new perch on the arm of his Carver chair and swiped a neatly folded napkin from the pile on the table to save his fingers.

“How could I know you had such a hare-brained idea? Don’t you remember how much Katie admired you in your wedding suit?”

“Nope.” Breaking off a piece of the biscuit, he blew on it, popped it in his mouth and smiled as he chewed; Emily’s cooking was getting better. “Maybe worrying about being interrogated by your adopted grandfather addled my brains. Given up that crazy idea yet?”

“Nope.” Emily brought glasses and a jug of water to the table.

Johnny glowered.  

“James McIntyre was my father’s friend. He knows things about him and his views that I was too young to understand. He’s offered to talk to you on Father’s behalf, and I’d really like it if you’d let him.”

“But we’re married already.”

“Funny, I had noticed that.” She laid out the knives, forks and remaining napkins on the table. “You would learn more about Father and my background. Katie’s family sees a talk between a girl’s father and the man she intends to marry as a rite of passage. It’s important. I know in our case it’s a little late, but I’d hate you to miss out.”

“That makes one of us.” Johnny scooped Emily around the waist as she turned to go. He nibbled her neck. “Okay, I’ll do it, but I want something in return.”

“And what’s that?”

He thought for a moment and then whispered in her ear.

“Johnny Lancer, your brother is in the next room!” Pushing him away, she went back to the stew.

But before she got there she gave a saucy sway of her hips.

Grinning, Johnny headed for the sofa. He’d set up the chess board; one game with Scott after supper to be sociable and then, with tomorrow’s excitement as an excuse, an early night.

Roll on bedtime.

 

Wednesday, October 2nd, 1872

“You own all this?” Standing up in the driver’s seat, Katie’s older brother, Bob Eliot, shaded his eyes; he was a strange sight out of his naval uniform, but it was good to see he had obeyed orders and was wearing a gun belt. Road agents were still common along the thirty miles from the railhead to the ranch; it was better to be safe than sorry.

“Lancer stretches to that ridge on the horizon—as far as the eye can see.” Scott pointed from the saddle as Katie and her younger brothers and sisters got out of the carriage for a better look. The hills were unseasonably green after a week of rain, and the river meandered lazily through the valley, glistening in the sunshine.

“I should have brought my telescope.”

Scott smiled at the awe in his friend’s voice; in the twenty-six years they’d know each other, Bob had never been easily impressed.

Turning his horse, Scott went to greet Katie’s parents and grandparents as their carriage came to a halt a few yards further back along the road.

Dr Eliot had hired two private carriages. It was a sensible option as the family was too large to come together by stagecoach, but Robert, his wife Beth, and her parents, James and Mary McIntyre, travelled in the luxury of a Landau no less—not what Scott had recommended.

“Am I still in your bad books?” Robert called as Scott approached.

Scott smiled. He had said his piece when they first met on the public road an hour before. “Even with a driver and a man riding shotgun, Robert, a vehicle like this is bound to draw unwanted attention in the San Joaquin. I wish you had listened to me.”

“I took your advice about the hired men, my boy; be satisfied. A journey is so much more enjoyable in comfort, and we haven’t had any trouble.”

“More good luck than good management, sir, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Robert chuckled and waved Scott’s comment away. He didn’t seem to mind the rebuke, but he also didn’t seem the least bit repentant.

Katie, Julia, Victoria, Jamie and Freddy rode inside a much more sensible, less ostentatious carriage, with Bob sitting up top with the driver and a rifle stashed under the seat. A wagon with two more armed men transported the luggage.

After his guests had admired ‘the most beautiful place in the whole wide world’, as Teresa had described it when he and Johnny first arrived, and his pride in the ranch had received a healthy boost, Scott led his guests down into the valley.

The guard on the roof shouted to announce their arrival, and children waiting close to the arch scrambled up the banks of the culverts onto the road.
 
“Bienvenido!”

“Welcome back!”

“Señorita Katie!”

The children ran alongside the carriages into the yard, waving and calling out greetings.

Murdoch, Teresa, Emily, and half the ranch community stood in front of the main entrance to the hacienda ready to welcome the weary travellers.

The drivers drew the carriages and wagon to a stop. The passengers tumbled out, and for the next few minutes there was happy chaos, everyone hugging and kissing and exclaiming over the pleasure of seeing each other again.

One of the boys held up a jam jar filled with muddy water. “Look, señorita. See what we caught.”

Katie didn’t seem to hear him, but her animal-crazy youngest sister, Victoria, cheerfully admired the small creature within until Murdoch called for attention.

“I believe we have a little ceremony?”

Housekeeper Maria and one of the other female servants led five little girls forward.

“They must have planned this themselves,” Scott whispered to Katie as he came up behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. He certainly hadn’t known anything about it.

“I thought you’d got lost,” she murmured, leaning back into him. A faint scent of rosemary from her hair tempted him to kiss her, but there were too many people around. He would wait and do it properly.

“Meet me outside after supper. I want you alone, Miss Eliot.”

She touched his hand in response, but then moved away. The ceremony was about to begin.

“Charming.” Mary McIntyre bent and accepted a posy of flowers from a solemn child with long plaited pigtails. “Thank you, my dear.”

Curtseying, the little girl scurried away and hid behind her mother’s skirt while her friends presented posies to each of the other ladies. Cipriano said a few words of welcome on behalf of the ranch hands and their wives, and then the crowd began to disperse.

But the niños stayed put.

“Gracias.” Scott spread his arms and tried to herd the boys and girls away. “Run along now. Let our guests get into the house.”

The children took no notice. They stood their ground, looking past him towards Katie.

She blinked and then frowned. “Oh dear, you really shouldn’t expect something every time I come back.”

The bigger kids shrugged or smiled politely, resigned to disappointment, but bottom lips quivered on a few of the younger ones.

“However, as it happens.” With a flourish, she magicked a large paper bag from her skirt pocket and their faces lit up like gas lamps. “Here, Gabriela, you give them out.” She handed the candy to the eldest girl.

Scott quickly scanned the yard for the girl’s father. Strictly speaking Gabriela shouldn’t have been running with the children. She was in long dresses now and the special mass honouring her as a young woman had been held less than a month ago. Jorge was nowhere to be seen though; with luck she’d get away with it.

“Not too many before supper or their mamas will growl at me.” The few women still standing nearby nodded their approval as Gabriela curtsied and led the youngsters away.

“The government should employ you as a diplomat,” Emily said in a low voice, slipping her arm through Katie’s and drawing her towards the portico. “Those women love you almost as much as their niños do.”

Katie laughed and hugged Emily’s arm. “Oh, it’s good to be back at Lancer.”

Smiling, Scott watched them stroll indoors. Then he turned and had another look around. “Where’s Johnny?”

“Not back yet.” Murdoch glanced over his shoulder as he and Teresa ushered the other members of Katie’s family into the house. “Here, Beth, let me carry that.” He took the picnic basket she had brought with them for the journey and escorted her inside.

“Damn,” Scott cursed under his breath.

 “What’s wrong?”

Trust Bob to be standing behind him.

“Nothing.” Scott tugged off his riding gloves and stuffed them back into his pocket. Someone had to put the ranch first, and Johnny had deliberately drawn the short straw. He’d claimed he owed Scott, but Johnny and Emily’s wedding had been a lot less trouble. There probably wasn’t any better plan though. As Murdoch said, “If Johnny manages the ranch, we can host our guests properly and deal with the preparations,” but Scott was damned if he was going to let his brother do all the work and have none of the fun. “Johnny wanted to be here when you arrived. Something must have come up.”

“Not to worry.” Bob unhooked the backboard on the wagon. “It’s probably—Hey, where do you think you’re going?” He grabbed his youngest brother by the collar, as Freddy tried to follow the rest of the family inside. “We’re helping with the luggage.”

“Why should I? Jamie’s not.”

Katie’s middle brother, the medical student, was disappearing into the hacienda with Teresa on one arm and his sister Julia on the other.

“Jamie helped load. Where were you?” Bob climbed up onto the back of the wagon and tossed down a leather briefcase. “Grandfather’s.”

“Upstairs on the left.” Scott nodded towards the front entrance. “But hang on, since you’re going there, you can help carry your grandparents’ trunk. Look for their names; Teresa said she was going to put cards on all the doors.”

The wagon driver took one end of the large leather trunk and waited until Freddy took the other.

“Make sure you come back, little brother,” Bob called after them. “Don’t make me come looking for you.”

“You have him on a tight leash.” Scott chuckled as he took the weight of the next trunk and lowered it to the ground. Jelly and one of Robert’s armed guards came forward and carried it inside.

“We take turns,” Bob replied as soon as they were out of earshot. “Young Freddy is being a first class pain in the ass.”

“That bad?”

“Put it this way: if he was one of my sailors, he’d be in the brig. Feel free to takeover at any time. This is your ranch after all.”

Five minutes later Freddy returned, scowling. He scuffed his boots on the ground, while the wagon driver went to settle the horses and Bob and Scott tried to unearth the next trunk without causing an avalanche.
 
Scott grabbed a couple of bags resting on the back end of the trunk and leaned over the side to pass them down to Freddy, but the boy wasn’t ready. He was standing up straight, adjusting his hat, eyes fixed elsewhere.

Scott followed his gaze. The girl who had taken charge of the candies was approaching from the direction of the cottages.

“Miss.” Freddy touched his hat, and Gabriela blushed.

She turned to Scott up on the wagon. “Señor Scott, have you seen my notebook? I must have dropped it.”

“No, Gabriela, I’m sorry I haven’t.”

“It must have fallen out of my pocket when we were running beside the carriages.” She looked towards the arch in the distance. “I’ll re-trace my steps.”

Scott jumped down as she walked away.

“I could help her, if you like?”

Freddy was slouching again, his thumbs hooked casually over his belt, and Scott struggled to keep a straight face. The boy was trying too hard.

“I think we could spare him, Bob. What do you say?”

Bob shoved the trunk they’d been trying to uncover across the tray of the wagon and sat down on top of it. “Your ranch. Your call.”

Freddy was off before they could change their minds.

Scott and Bob watched him until he caught up with Gabriela just before she reached the road.

Then they looked at each other and burst out laughing.

*****

Johnny rode in as the luggage wagon was driven off towards the barn. It turned out he’d been wallowing in a bog, rescuing a heifer. His clothes and hair were caked with mud.
 
“I was half way back when I heard it bellowing. Fool animal.”

“You’d better take a bath before supper,” Scott said, relieved Bob had gone inside and Katie’s parents and grandparents weren’t nearby to see this particular example of ranch life.

“No kidding? Give me half an hour.” Stomping and brushing off some of the drying mud, Johnny passed Barranca’s reins to a helpful ranch hand and skirted around the outside of the hacienda to his apartment.

Scott went into the house through the front door, intending to socialize with their guests, but the great room was deserted. They must have gone to their rooms to unpack or freshen up before supper. The dining table was already set. A trestle table had been added to one end so everyone could sit down together, the join barely noticeable under the matching table cloths.

He headed upstairs to his bedroom, but about-turned on the landing. Now, that would go down really well—bursting in on Katie as she changed for supper. Not the best way to endear himself to his future in-laws on their first evening at the ranch, even if they accepted it was done by accident.

Arriving back at Johnny and Emily’s place, he opened the door to the sound of Johnny singing and splashing in his new bathtub, a pile of muddy clothes lying on the bathroom floor in full view of the living room.

“Do you mind if I wash up in the basin?” Not waiting for the reply, Scott grabbed his towel from the washstand in his room.

“Emily’s gone to cut flowers for the supper table.” Johnny sank down into the water and shut his eyes. “I’m in heaven.”

Scott laughed and stripped off his shirt without undoing the buttons. He flung it down on top of the pile of dirty clothes in the doorway, and began to soap up his underarms. Johnny wasn’t wrong; it was hard to imagine living without indoor plumbing now.

An hour later, washed and dressed for supper, everyone gathered in the great room and sat down to a meal that wouldn’t have been out of place in Boston. It seemed Teresa had learned a thing or two over the past year.  Scott squeezed in beside Katie, and they held hands under the damask table cloth until the food arrived.

Then shortly before coffee was served, they slipped out of the hacienda, one at a time, as the others transferred from the dining table to the sofa and armchairs. They thought no one had noticed them leave, but before they’d gone more than a few yards together, Victoria came after them.

“Grandmamma says I’m to stay with you. She says it’s not decent for you to be out here alone.”

“Oh, Victoria, please. Go visit the horses. We want a little time to ourselves.”

“Sorry, can’t do it. I have to go back to Boston with Grandmamma, remember? Let’s all go and see the horses. Then I’ll have something else to look at if Scott wants to get romantic.” She giggled and led the way, stopping and waiting for them when they didn’t immediately follow.

Scott bit his tongue—fat chance of any romance with Victoria prattling on beside them—but he shrugged and escorted Katie across the yard to the corral.

Victoria immediately went into raptures over the mahogany bay he and Johnny had caught a few days after returning from San Francisco.

“How many hands is she?”

“Thirteen.”

“She’s beautiful.” Victoria climbed up on the gate and reached out to stroke the mare’s neck, but it shook its head and stepped back. “Can I ride her?”

“Not yet; she’s not fully broken. Johnny works with her when he can, but he hasn’t had much spare time.”

“Do you think he’d let me help?”

“Maybe. Why don’t you go and ask him?”

“Oh, Scott, you’re funny. I’m seventeen, not seven.” Victoria laughed and kept on talking about horses and anything else that came to mind. She wasn’t going to leave them alone.

Exchanging frustrated but amused glances, Scott and Katie made a couple more attempts to get rid of her, but eventually Katie accepted defeat. “It’s time we re-joined the others.”

“Okay, but before we do, Victoria, look at the horses. I’m feeling romantic.” Lifting Katie’s chin with his finger, he gazed into her eyes and kissed her gently on the lips; not the long, lingering kisses he’d planned on, but enough to be going on with. “Right, you can turn around again now.”

He offered an arm to each sister and returned them inside in time for the last round of coffee. Mary McIntyre was enthroned by the fireplace with Katie’s other sister, Julia, by her side. The old lady looked up as they entered and smiled. Scott hadn’t bargained on her being any kind of problem, but the message in those intelligent brown eyes was abundantly clear: the next ten days were going to be much, much longer than expected.

The ladies retired to their rooms soon after. If Scott had to guess, it was Grandmamma McIntyre’s idea. The men lingered, continuing their conversations over expensive Cuban cigars and good whisky. Murdoch had stocked up on both, and even Freddy was allowed a small dram.

“What about a cigar?”

“Mamma would have a blue fit. Be grateful for this. The old man must be in a good mood,” Bob said in a low voice as he handed his brother a glass. Scott pretended not to be listening. Bob poured himself a healthy measure from the decanter and savoured a mouthful. “Hmm, is it Glen Ord, Murdoch?”

“Yes. You recognize it?”

“Give me a bottle of this or a good Jamaican rum and I’m happy man. Speaking of which; Scott, I have a bottle of very good Jamaican white rum for you in my trunk.”

Scott raised his glass to the fulfilment of an old promise. “I might save it until after the wedding.”

Bob grinned and staggered backwards, laughing.

Johnny raised an eyebrow, but Scott wasn’t planning to share that particular story, especially not in present company. “Don’t ask.”

Robert came to his rescue. “I’ve ordered wine and spirits and a few boxes of cigars for the wedding day. They’ll arrive with the tents next week.”

“Tents?” Murdoch looked over at Robert in surprise.

“Katie was afraid it would be too much of a crush in here, and now I see it, I think she’s right. Not to mention the inconvenience of moving furniture. Fortunately, a gentleman in San Francisco hires out marquee tents. I’ve ordered two: one for the ceremony and later the dancing, and the other for dining.”

“We thought they could be set up out back with lanterns in the trees.” Scott hoped the idea wouldn’t be an issue; he’d completely forgotten to mention it to Murdoch and Johnny. Katie’s daily letters had been full of questions and instructions, he was losing track of what he’d relayed and what he hadn’t.

“How many guests will there be?” Murdoch asked.

Robert shrugged. “No idea. I’m only the father of the bride, payer of bills, and I expect the groom here just does what he’s told.”

“It seems the safest way.” Scott smiled, happy to accept the camaraderie of a man he’d been a little intimidated by not that long ago. The others laughed. “The guests at Johnny and Emily’s wedding filled this room. Most are invited this time, plus immediate family. Then there are the McIntyres, Telfords and Burkes from San Francisco, Grandfather and a handful of others. Tents seemed to be a practical solution.”

“You could be right.” Murdoch sipped his whisky; he didn’t seem bothered. “Is your mother coming, Robert?”

“No. As expected, her calendar doesn’t permit it. None of my family can attend at such short notice. Sadly, not even Dottie.”

“That’s too bad.” Johnny stretched out and blew smoke into the air. “Isn’t she the aunt Katie went to London with?”

“Yes, and she’s Katie’s godmother. Can’t be helped. Dottie’s husband is a senator and needs her with him in Washington at the time. She has promised to be in Boston in March—put it down, Freddy.” Robert sounded fed up. He didn’t turn around. Instead he used the reflection in his whisky glass to see that his instructions were followed. Freddy dropped the finely made Cuban back into the walnut cigar box on the edge of Murdoch’s desk. “Close it and go to bed.”

Tight lipped, Freddy did as he was told.

“Good night,” Scott said as the boy slouched past him.

Freddy responded with a grunt and then stomped his way upstairs.

Jamie got to his feet and stretched. “I think I’ll head up too. See you in the morning.” He followed his brother, somewhat more quietly, and Scott wondered if it was Jamie’s turn for guard duty.

 

 

Thursday, October 3rd, 1872

Katie confirmed Scott’s suspicions the next day as they drove into Green River. “Freddy seems determined to make things worse for himself. His grades have been poor for a while, but he’s become unbelievably rude and full of himself this last year. I didn’t realize it had gotten so bad, but he was suspended at the end of last term—he and his friends actually made a new schoolmaster cry.”

“A grown man?”

“I know, isn’t it terrible? And then the day after his birthday last week he disobeyed Papa and went out to explore San Francisco on his own. Jamie had said he’d go with him as soon as his morning lectures were finished, but Freddy was too impatient to wait. Mamma was frantic with worry by the time Bob and I came back from the mission at midday.”

“When did he turn up?”

“Just before supper, all swagger and cheek. Papa ordered him to his room without anything to eat. Freddy started yelling that he wasn’t a child, and…oh, it was awful. Bob and Jamie have both argued with Papa in their time, but they were never as disrespectful as Freddy. He sounded so…entitled.”

Scott resisted the temptation to joke about Eliot blood shining through; being part of a dynasty could have something to do with it though. All schools could be tough, and all schools had bullies, but Boston Latin added wealth and family name into the mix.  Scott hadn’t been high enough on the social ladder to be one of the Machiavellian elite, or servile enough to serve them. He hadn’t been weak enough to be a target either, but he’d once earned a bloody nose protecting another boy who was.

“Freddy has always suffered from being the youngest.”

“I thought the youngest got spoiled.”

“Like an only child, you mean?” Katie blinked innocence and Scott laughed.

“Touché.” He flicked the reins to make the horses go a little faster. “But I don’t believe Grandfather ever read the manual.”

“Neither did my parents.” Katie smiled. She knew full well he couldn’t do anything to stop her teasing while he was driving. But her time would come, and when it did…. His thoughts strayed to the penances he could exact—particularly the ones made possible by marriage.

Then Katie sighed. “Freddy gets compared to Bob and Jamie, but they’ve always been more self-confident. By sixteen they’d found their passion in life.”

“And Freddy hasn’t. I suppose those things often go hand in hand.”

“I’m afraid so. Mamma and Papa have never pressed Freddy to excel in the same things, but they’ve always expected him to make them proud. They don’t seem to understand the extra hurdles he faces.”

“I guess being the third son and the youngest in a family of six children can’t always be easy.”

“His teachers remember how well Bob and Jamie did at school, and some of my aunts and uncles have made unkind comparisons.”

Being an only child had been lonely on occasions, but Scott had never been unfairly compared to others and found wanting—at least not until he’d come to Lancer and then only for a short time. As he remembered, he didn’t like the experience much. Maybe there was something he could do to help Freddy? He’d have to give the situation more thought.

“Whoa.” He pulled the buggy up outside the Presbyterian Church on Main Street. The hired gunman following them rode on. As agreed, he would wait in a saloon further down the street until it was time to return to the ranch. “I suppose we should be grateful he keeps his distance.”

Katie twisted the cameo ring on her finger. “I’m sorry, my darling. It’s old fashioned, I know, but Grandmamma insists on a chaperone, and I don’t want to upset her.”

“It’s okay.” He stopped her worrying the ring and brought her fingers to his lips. “Better him trailing after the buggy than one of your sisters squeezed in between us.”

“Thank you for being so understanding. I’ll make it up to you when we’re married. I promise.” Katie smiled into his eyes, and he was tempted to throw caution to the wind.

A cheery greeting from a passer-by saved him from doing anything so stupid. If he kissed her properly, there and then in full view of half of Green River, a report was bound to get back to Grandmamma. Those net gloves and lacy bonnet were deceptive; she might look frail—she might even be frail—but that little woman wielded an awful lot of influence. There was no telling what the consequences of such indecorous behaviour would be.

Resigned, he pushed thoughts of romance aside and helped Katie down, taking care her skirt didn’t catch on the long step. She waved to a young woman coming out of the dressmaker’s shop—a member of the local the AWSA apparently—and then allowed him to usher her through the blue-painted door.
 
Their chat with Pastor Appleby didn’t take long. He gave them the normal lecture about the sanctity of marriage and the importance of bringing up children within the bosom of the church, and then settled the practical considerations of what they wanted for the service.

He seemed happy to drive out to the ranch. “Much as I enjoy marrying a young couple here, I don’t think our little church has room for so many people.”

“Well, we appreciate you taking the trouble, Pastor.” Scott shook hands as they said their goodbyes.

Clutching an order of service, he escorted Katie across the street and along the boardwalk to the Occidental. They needed to get there before the lunchtime seating in order to talk to the pastry chef. Teresa had arranged for him to make a three tiered wedding cake, but they still had to decide how it would be decorated.

“We’ve left him a swatch of blue satin. The icing will be mostly white, but with lace-like decoration and a few flowers made of fondant in blue, white and silver.” Katie explained to Aggie Addison over lunch. They had bumped into her in the restaurant foyer, and Katie had invited her to share their table. Ordinarily Scott wouldn’t mind, but thanks to Grandmamma McIntyre he was jealous of what little time they had alone. He felt unreasonably put out.

To make matters worse, Buck was away on business, and all the women wanted to talk about was the wedding. When the subject turned to flowers, Scott’s thoughts wandered to barbed wire and cattle.

It was hard to believe this was only the Eliot-McIntyre family’s second day at Lancer. Before their arrival, he’d been dreaming of long walks and intimate moments with his fiancée. Now he was looking forward to a few days in the saddle, organizing work crews and punching cattle.

*****

 “I’m supposed to be setting salt licks. I thought something bad had happened.” Johnny followed Emily along the loggia from their apartment to the hacienda. “What’s so important you sent Jelly to get me?”

“James wants to talk to you.”

“McIntyre? You got me back here for that?” Johnny threw his arms up and stopped walking. “Emily, I’ve got a ranch to run.”

 “You promised before Katie’s family arrived that you would have a chat. The ranch can do without you for an hour.”

“There’s too many people around. I’m not having a conversation like that with other folks listening in.” He folded his arms; this was as far as he went.

But she took his hand and pulled him forward. “Scott and Katie are in Green River finalizing things for the wedding. Murdoch has taken Robert, Beth and her mother on a tour of the ranch. Victoria is saddling up to ride out with me, and the others went to Spanish Wells. You’ll have the great room to yourselves.”

“I’ve changed my mind.” He dragged his heels and tried to think of a better excuse.

“You can’t; it’s all arranged.” Emily backed through the open door into the hacienda. “James is such a lovely man.”

“Humpf.” Johnny scowled. “‘Lovely’ isn’t the word I’d use.” The old goat had watched his every move the night before. Every time Johnny opened his mouth, McIntyre seemed to be listening.

Emily smiled and let go. From the sparkle in her eyes, she knew damn well he’d follow her. Someone should have warned him that’s what marriage did to a man.

“He’s so kind and wise.”

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Scott hated his interview with Dr Eliot.”

“Nonsense.”

“Then why does he change the subject every time anyone mentions it?”

Emily turned around. They had reached the main foyer. She placed her hands on his chest and lowered her voice. “You’re reading too much into a very natural desire to keep some things private.”

“Pfft.” He was not going to be sweet-talked, but staying in a pucker with her standing so close was hard work.

“James wants to be sure in his own mind you will make me a good husband.”

“And what if he decides I won’t?” Not that he cared what McIntyre or anyone else thought.

Emily stroked his cheek. “Humour him, Johnny—for me.” With a quick kiss, she pushed him towards the great room.

Johnny cocked his head sideways as she headed out the front door towards the barn. Those new riding britches Katie bought her in San Francisco sure were an improvement on her old trousers. Hmm-mmm!

“Ahem.”

He spun on his heels.

The stuffed shirt from Boston was standing in the archway. “Thank you for joining me, Johnny.”

“Emily said you wanted to talk to me.” Johnny faked a smile.

“I do.” McIntyre led the way into the great room. “I was good friends with Emily’s father. The abolitionist cause brought us together, but our friendship went far beyond that. I feel I owe it to him to keep a fatherly eye on Emily.”

McIntyre sat down at Murdoch’s desk and leaned back in the chair. “Arthur Rust and I met several times and corresponded regularly. He was a great one for discussing the politics and social issues of the day. Naturally we also shared news about our families.”

“From what Emily says her father was always campaigning or studying.” Johnny perched on the arm of the sofa. He’d never say it to Emily, but so far what he’d heard about Arthur Rust didn’t impress him.

“In truth, I was perhaps more interested in discussing family than he was. Sometimes I felt he only told me about his children because he believed I expected it of him in exchange for what I shared about my own.”

Johnny played with the beads around his wrist. “Sounds to me like he was more interested in abolishing slavery than he was in his kids?”

“Perhaps, although I think that’s a little harsh.”

Johnny looked over at McIntyre. How much weight should he give his opinion? “Did you see much of Emily?”

“I met her once, in Philadelphia when she was about five or six. She doesn’t remember, but I know a lot about her early life through her father’s letters. When Arthur started on a subject, he always went into it in great depth and detail, albeit with little of the light-hearted subjectivity that makes such information really fun to read.” McIntyre smiled and shook his head.  “I believe I could tell you what Emily’s grades were from six to fifteen and at what age she went into full length dresses, but he gave me little insight into her passions and desires.”

“But you said you met her.”

“Indeed. And at that young age she reminded me of my granddaughters, full of life and curiosity, but more of a wild flower than the cultivated blooms from my garden. I am pleased to find in essentials she hasn’t changed.”

Johnny smiled. He could imagine Emily as a kid, running through an Ohio cornfield, her hair loose and her stockings torn, free as a bird, exploring, and rescuing hurt animals—a combination of Lucrece Normile and Pony Alice when he first met her, but with better manners. “Emily says her parents were free-thinkers.”

“Arthur and I would debate which method of child-rearing was most beneficial. I suspect in the end it depends on the nature of the child. For the most part I’m proud of my own children and grandchildren, and Emily is a credit to Arthur.”

“What about Glen?”

“Ah. I admit I believe Arthur and Lydia should have taken a more active role in the up-bringing of that young man; perhaps if they’d been younger, but they started their family late in life, and they were so consumed by their causes. I am left in no doubt that they loved Emily and Glen, but I fear they showed them less affection and gave them less discipline than a child deserves. I sometimes wonder whether that is why Emily was so ready to accept Josiah Morris’s proposal.”

Johnny bit his bottom lip. Even now he couldn’t really understand why Emily had married Morris. The affection part was true, at least the outward signs of it. Emily declared she never felt unloved, but she never knew what it was to be really loved until she met Johnny. She didn’t know how to be touched when they first met. She wasn’t afraid exactly, but kind of tense as though being hugged or held was something unfamiliar and strange.  How can you marry someone and hardly ever touch them? “She says he was a good man.”

“I believe he was, but do you consider that to be a satisfactory reason for a young woman to marry a man more than twice her age?”   McIntyre shook his head and tapped his fingers absentmindedly on arm of his chair. “I suspect at the time Emily was incapable of recognising there was more to marriage than a safe house, common intellectual interest, and respectability.   I wrote to offer my assistance as soon as I heard of her father’s death, but she had already married and left for California. As there was no means of forwarding my letter to her until Morris made contact, the local pastor opened it and replied to let me know. He declared Morris to be a decent man and said she had married him willingly. There was nothing I could do, but given the chance I would have tried to dissuade her.”

“You never tried to get in touch later.” Johnny shifted on the arm of the sofa. He wasn’t sure if he was asking a question or making an accusation. It was all very well for the man to say he was concerned for Emily’s welfare now when he wasn’t needed. What about when he was?

“No. To my shame I did not, but you can’t imagine my pleasure when I heard Emily was at Lancer. Beth said Emily was happy and that her second marriage would be a love match, not a matter of convenience. I trusted her word. Had I been here at the time, I would have simply asked for a chance to have this conversation before the wedding and the honour of giving her away in her father’s name.”

“No one could give Emily away, Mr McIntyre.” Johnny looked over and met the lawyer’s eye. “Murdoch walked her down the aisle, but no one gave her away. No one owned her, not even her father.”

“Young man, you speak like you have swallowed tracts written by suffragist zealots. My daughter and granddaughters have more sense than to espouse such nonsense to me; kindly exercise the same self-control.”

Johnny opened his mouth to bite back, but James McIntyre wasn’t finished. He stood up and began to pace in front of the picture window as though he was in a courtroom giving closing argument.

“I do not talk of ownership, but of duty of care. A father feels a duty of care for his children, particularly his daughters. Rightly or wrongly, their independence is more restricted by social norms. God willing, you might have a daughter one day; and eventually you too will be required to give up that duty of care to another.”

Johnny smiled and then frowned. He liked the idea of having a little girl, but he wasn’t so sure about giving her up.

“A father never really stops feeling responsible for his daughters, but if he is wise he accepts the prime responsibility must pass to his son-in-law. Ideally, a man she truly loves and has chosen to share the rest of her life with for all the right reasons.”

Well, Johnny couldn’t disagree with that.

“I would not just have asked for the honour of escorting Emily down the aisle. I would have asked for the honour of passing the prime responsibility for caring for her over to the man of her choice.” James McIntyre pinned Johnny to the spot with a look even more authoritative than Murdoch could muster, and that was saying something. “Do not argue semantics with me young man, because you will lose.”

Now Johnny knew what Scott meant when he’d said Dr Eliot had made him squirm in their interview. Clearly Katie’s father had learned his craft from his own father-in-law. What the hell were ‘semantics’ anyway?

“Here.” McIntyre picked up the dictionary from the corner of Murdoch’s desk and shoved it into Johnny’s chest, forcing him to take hold. “Keep it close. You’ve married an educated woman. You’ll no doubt need it.”

Johnny glared at James McIntyre’s back as the gentleman helped himself to Murdoch’s best whisky. Beside the fact that he was a mind reader, what was the man trying to say? “Emily and I understand each other fine. I didn’t have much schooling, but I’m no fool.”

“I would be surprised if you were.” Mr McIntyre turned over a second glass. “Do you want one?”

“No, thank you.” The irony was not lost on Johnny that a guest at Lancer was offering him Lancer whisky, but the lawyer seemed to be making himself right at home, and it was Johnny who felt wrong-footed.

“You are married. I was too late to do more than make a few enquiries and accept Emily’s judgement, but I have corresponded and talked with her since, and I have offered my support should she ever need it.”

“She won’t.” That came out ruder than Johnny intended, but hell, the old man made it sound like one day he could be rescuing Emily from a wife-beating drunkard.

He tried not to frown or glare as McIntyre studied him with a look of amused curiosity. The lawyer knew he’d struck a nerve. Damn it—the bastard would have made a good gunfighter.  “I still have one concern, and Emily has given me permission to talk to you about it—ask a few questions. Will you respect my wishes and hers?

Johnny stared back. It was tempting to say ‘no’. “I guess it depends on the questions.”

“I aim to speak on behalf of her father so what do you think he would want to know?”

Returning the dictionary to the desk, Johnny rested on the corner and wrapped his arms around his chest to consider for a moment. “If I love her.”

“I can see that you do.” James McIntyre savoured his whisky. Looking puzzled, he turned back to where the liquor and glasses stood. He picked up the bottle and read the label, raising his eyebrows before putting it down again and taking another sip. He seemed more interested in what he was drinking than in Johnny’s answers so why the hell were they having this conversation?

“If I can support her.”

“I’m satisfied that you can.” McIntyre walked past Johnny. He settled into Murdoch’s favourite armchair and put his feet up on the footstool.

Cabrón! If it wasn’t for Emily, Johnny would walk out. Go back to what he was doing or get on with one of the million jobs still to be done before Scott and Katie got hitched. “That I can protect her.”

“I knew something of your life of course from my long association with Murdoch, but I took the liberty of investigating you as well as your brother when Beth returned to Boston and told me how things stood.” McIntyre looked up and smiled. “You’ve led an interesting life.”

“You…” Johnny shook his head. It wasn’t worth the argument, but what was it with people from Boston that they felt the need to know every little thing about a person? “My past is no secret. It wouldn’t take much investigating.”

McIntyre raised an eyebrow. Ha, he disagreed. With luck that meant it had cost him mucho dinero to stick his nose where it didn’t belong.

“I did some bad things, but if you’re worried for Emily on that score, don’t be. My life is different now, and I won’t let my past hurt her or any of my family.”

“Do you really believe you can prevent it?” McIntyre fixed Johnny with a calm stare.

The question made Johnny feel a little queasy, but he matched McIntyre’s gaze. “I can try.”

“You can, and increasingly you may succeed. I note there have been a few incidents since you came to this ranch, but the frequency is reducing; and having experienced the very worst, Emily accepted you anyway. Her faith in you says a great deal, young man.”

God damn it, how much did the old coot know? Scott had warned Johnny his future Eliot in-laws were snooping and, although their main interest was Scott, they might dig into Johnny’s past as well. He hadn’t said anything about the McIntyre side, but it seemed like Katie’s Grandfather McIntyre was every bit as nosy, and he was digging with Emily’s welfare in mind and not just Katie’s. On the plus side, his opinion of Emily didn’t seem damaged by what he’d learned. That wouldn’t be the case for many men.

Johnny took a seat opposite McIntyre and studied the man in front of him: greying temples, about his height and dressed like Harlan Garrett. From what Johnny had heard though, that was the only similarity. By all accounts James McIntyre was a man he could respect. Shoot, he didn’t really care how much the man dug into his past. Sure, he’d crossed a few lines when he’d hired out, but there weren’t many witnesses left to tell tales on him, and he’d come clean about most things with Emily and Murdoch. Why did he feel like he was on trial? Then it struck him: the question was whether he was good enough for Emily. “I know I don’t deserve her, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“In a way.”

“Look Mr McIntyre, I can’t change the past, but I’d lay down my life for Emily.”

“Very gallant, I’m sure, but one dead husband is enough for any woman. I don’t think she wants another.”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” Johnny got up and paced. “Look, I don’t hire out any more. I don’t look for trouble, but sometimes it finds me. Is that what you want to hear? I make sure I can still shoot fast and straight, because I know there’s a chance my past won’t let go of me.”

McIntyre savoured his whisky and eyed Johnny over the rim of his glass.

Taking a breath to calm down, Johnny moved to the sofa and looked McIntyre in the eye. “I am Johnny Lancer, sir, not Madrid. Emily is my wife. I own one third of this ranch. I work hard and honest. It’s a good life here at Lancer, a life we intend to share with each other and family.”

“I’m not sure that’s enough.”

“Honestly, sir, I don’t care what you think. I have a lot to offer Emily.”

“So you misled me before. You do think you deserve her?”

Johnny hesitated. He was so used to being guarded about his past. No one at Lancer really understood the world he’d lived in, and he hated seeing the pain or the pity in their eyes when they were reminded of it. Even the skills he was proud of were tainted by a kind of guilt, but Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer were inseparable. Every morning when he woke up next to Emily he thanked God for her love. He used to be scared of losing her, but that feeling had faded. He was giving her what she needed; he saw it in her eyes every day.  “Yes, sir. I do think I deserve her.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say so. You had me worried for a while.” McIntyre rose and went back to the liquor tray. He poured more whisky into his glass and filled a second glass as well. “Take it. You look like you could do with one. For an ex-gunfighter, young man, your feathers are easily ruffled.”

Johnny frowned and accepted the whisky.

“Congratulations.” Katie’s grandfather raised his glass. “You have proven your case: Emily’s second choice of husband is much better than her first. I would even go so far as to say you are well-suited.”

Johnny found himself gaping and clamped his mouth shut.

McIntyre chuckled. “There will always be people who consider Emily too good for you—some may even think you are too good for her—but what others think doesn’t matter. The important thing is what you and Emily believe about yourselves.” He strolled over to the grandfather clock and checked his fob watch against it. “I’m a bit of a philosopher, Johnny. It’s a characteristic I shared with Arthur Rust. He believed, as I do, that husbands and wives need to feel they are deserving of each other. Self-belief is the cornerstone of a good marriage.” McIntyre smiled and raised his glass again.

This time Johnny responded in kind.

“You’ll do, Johnny Lancer. On behalf of Arthur and Lydia Rust, I give you and Emily my blessing.”

Johnny stood up and offered his hand. “Thank you, sir.”

“James.” McIntyre shook with strong grip.

And Johnny smiled. “James, it is.”

“Good. And, Johnny, may I say on my own behalf that I hope Scott will not be the only Lancer to look upon me as a grandfather.”

For a second Johnny bowed his head, surprised how touched he was by the offer.

Then, he looked up again and grinned. “Cheers, Grandpa. To Emily.”

 

Friday, October 4th

“You’re kidding me.” Freddy Eliot snatched banknotes up from Murdoch’s desk. “Where’s the rest?”

“I’ll give you three guesses.” Robert put his pen down and met his son’s eyes with an expression of bored disappointment.

Scott retreated quickly, hoping he hadn’t been seen. Maybe this wasn’t the best time to ask Katie’s father if he wanted to ride out with him.

Damn, he’d shut the front door. If he opened it now they’d hear him. Turning, Scott considered his options. He couldn’t cross to the stairs or to the hallway; he’d be seen. He had a decent view of the great room in the reflection of the wall mirror. Maybe it was best to bide his time.

Robert dipped his pen into the inkwell and continued to write.

Freddy didn’t seem to know what to do. He turned, got as far as the model ship and then turned back again. “You have no proof I took those cigars.” 

Robert looked up. “Do you deny it?

Freddy fidgeted and didn’t answer.

“No, I didn’t think so.” Robert lowered his eyes again.

Scott rubbed the back of his neck. So that’s why they couldn’t find the cigars last night. Murdoch had claimed he’d put a spare box in the cabinet next to the fireplace just in case, but it wasn’t there when they’d needed it. Johnny had to go down into the wine cellar to get another box out of the crate, and they’d all teased Murdoch about his failing memory and getting old.

“I have deducted the cost of the missing Cubans from your allowance. That’s what’s left.” Robert pointed with his pen without looking up.

Freddy started pacing between the ship and the desk. “But it isn’t enough.”

“Excuse me?”

Scott wished he could see Robert’s face, but Freddy’s back was now in the way. From his tone though, Robert wasn’t asking for forgiveness, and honestly, Scott couldn’t blame him. Apart from anything else, Freddy should have had more consideration for his sister; Katie would be horribly embarrassed if she ever found out about this.

“Be grateful I’m giving you anything at all. We are guests in this house, and you have disgraced yourself and your family.”

“I was going to replace them. It wasn’t stealing.”

Scott could barely hear Freddy’s muttering, but perhaps that was a good sign. Maybe he was ashamed and about to apologise.

“If you’d treated me like a man and let me have one on Wednesday night, I wouldn’t have taken them.”

Scott shook his head in disbelief. He wouldn’t have seen daylight for a week if he’d ever said something like that to Grandfather.

“I trust you’re not suggesting this situation is my fault? I’ve told you before you can smoke when you turn eighteen and not a day earlier.”

“My friends smoke. Their fathers are okay with it.” Freddy started picking things up and putting them down again. He grabbed a cushion off Teresa’s chair, and a second later threw it hard at the sofa. “And another thing, Papa, Geoffrey Harrington and John Rowe get ten times as much pocket money as I do.”

Dear God! Did the boy have a death wish?

In the reflection of the mirror Robert stopped writing. “I am not interested in how other men spoil their sons.”

“But I need the money, Papa.”

“Do you? What for?”

Freddy ran his fingers through his hair, turning one way and then the other. “If I tell you, will you give me my normal allowance?”

“Probably not.”

“Then I’m not telling you.”

Oh, Freddy—rein it in! Scott leaned back against the wall and shut his eyes. He didn’t need to see Dr Eliot’s face to know what it must look like.

“I shouldn’t have to beg, Papa. I’m an Eliot! The Eliot wealth is my birth right.”

“Enough!” What sounded like the flat of Robert’s hand hit the desk hard. “Money is not a right.”

“Oh, here it comes: the speech about rights and responsibilities. When are you going to let me have a little fun like the rest of the world?”

Scott waited for the thunder clap, but the great room clock chimed the quarter hour instead.

As the last knell faded Robert pushed back his chair and stood up. He spoke so quietly Scott had to strain to hear him. “You are an Eliot, my son, but our ideas about what that means appear to be very different.”

Scott swallowed, relieved that Robert had regained his self-control. He sounded sad, and Scott felt sorry for him. He felt sorry for both of them. Shut up, Freddy, and get out while you’re ahead.

But the boy clearly wasn’t tuned in to Scott’s thoughts. “Eliots are expected to have cash to burn. All I ever get from you is a few measly dollars each month.”

“If you want more, find a job. Your brothers are helping around the ranch for free, but ask Scott. He might have work he’s willing to pay you for.”

Freddy huffed with frustration. Then he stalked over to the fireplace and began kicking at the hearth.

Robert straightened the papers on his desk. “Frederick, I have a lecture to write. Leave now before I decide to take back what I have given you.”

“Over my dead body!” Freddy swung around and glared at his father.

Hell. Time to intervene; Scott opened his mouth, but a second too late. The volcano erupted.

“You’re a mean old bastard. You don’t care what I want. I hate you!” Freddy barged between the sofa and an armchair, knocking the chair sideways and escaping through the French doors. He slammed the door so hard, the glass rattled in its frame. He was lucky he didn’t break it.

In the reflection of the mirror Robert came out from behind the desk. He stood next to the model ship, staring after Freddy, muscles tense and looking lost—looking, in fact, a lot like Murdoch after one of his early-day arguments with Johnny.

Scott was stunned by the resemblance.

But then the long clock began to strike eleven o’clock.

He pulled himself together. This was his chance to leave unnoticed. Easing the door open, he slipped outside.

To his surprise, Freddy hadn’t gone far. He was leaning against a pillar at the other end of the portico, ripping leaves from the creeper growing up over the arch.

Scott took a few steps back and then went wide to reach the hitching rail so it looked like he had come from Johnny’s apartment. “Morning.” He kept his eyes on his horse and began tightening the cinch. “I’m going to check on the fencing crews. Do you want to come?”

Freddy ignored him.

“Suit yourself.” Scott mounted and steered Ulysses away.

“Wait.” The boy pushed off from the pillar and grabbed Ulysses’ bridle. “Give me a minute to saddle up and I’ll come.”

Without waiting for an answer, he jogged across the yard towards the corral.

There were four good horses to choose from, but Freddy being Freddy decided he wanted to ride the mahogany bay.

“Not that one.” Scott rode nearer as Freddy struggled to put on the bridle. The mare tossed her head free and skittered away. “She’s not fully broken.”

“I could handle her. I ride every week at home.”

“A half-broken cow pony is a far cry from a Boston livery horse. What about the buckskin?”

Freddy looked ready to argue, but Scott raised an eyebrow, and the boy thought better of it. He shrugged and harnessed the buckskin gelding instead.

Ten minutes later, having crossed the good pasture near the hacienda, they cantered towards Thunder Canyon.

“We’re running a barbed wire fence to stop cattle wandering too close to the bluff.”  Scott glanced sideways. When he got no reply, he didn’t press the subject. Freddy looked lost in thought.

They were well into the canyon and fording the shallower channels of the river before he said anything. “Is that a cave?” Stopping his horse on a gravel island, he pointed upwards at the cliff on the far side of the main channel.

Scott came up alongside. “It is. Years ago Indian hunting parties used it for shelter. Probably as a lookout too. You can see a good way down the canyon in both directions from the entrance.”

“Did Murdoch tell you that?”

“No, Johnny and I discovered the cave by accident. A bush hid the opening from view until recently, but a steer fell on it.”

Freddy’s jaw dropped, and Scott laughed. “Things like that happen here. It’s why we need the fence. See the burnt pine on the opposite hillside?”

Freddy twisted around in his saddle.

“Lightning strike.”

“Wow!”

Feeling a little more hopeful, Scott led the way upriver until they were parallel to a willow overhanging the bank.

“What makes you think Indians used the cave?”

“There are paintings on the walls.”

“Really? I’d like to see those.”

“They’re something special all right. Miwok, we think—braves with bows and arrows hunting deer and wolves.” Easing Ulysses into the deep water, he signed for Freddy to follow. “Don’t fight the current. We should come out near the start of the track on the other side.”

For the next few minutes they couldn’t talk, because they were concentrating on the task at hand. Despite the recent rain, the main channel wasn’t much more than knee deep on the horses, but the swirling water turned white around their legs, pushing them off-balance. One wrong step could easily cause an injury.

Freddy spurred the buckskin when they reached safety, and it clambered up onto dry ground. “Let’s visit the cave now.”
 
“Not today. I’ve got too much to do.” Scott eyed the churned mud at the river’s edge; the wagon carrying the fencing materials must have gotten stuck. He hoped it hadn’t damaged anything.

“Tell me how to get to it then. I’ll go by myself.”

“No.” Scott turned his horse away from the water. “The path down is hard to find and tricky. It’s too dangerous alone.”

“Aw, I’d be fine.” Freddy brought his horse up level with Scott’s.

“I said no.”

The boy frowned, but Scott ignored him. He looked skyward, watching an eagle circle overhead. Suddenly, without warning, the bird swooped out of sight. Seconds later it reappeared, soaring over the treetops with something clutched in its talons. “You see, patience brings its own rewards.”

“Okay, I’ll wait, but when can you take me?”

“Next week maybe.”

“Promise?”

Biting his tongue, Scott kept riding. Couldn’t Freddy ever accept an answer he didn’t like without arguing?

Scott didn’t want to disappoint him, but what with the ranch and the wedding preparations, he didn’t know when he could fit it in. “I’ll do my best.”

Veering right, he urged Ulysses up the slope through the long grass and trees rather than following the rutted trail snaking its way up the hill.  The grazing looked good—it was amazing what a little rain could do—they’d be able to move a herd onto it as soon as the fence was finished.

When they reached the trail again, Freddy cleared his throat. “Scott, have you got any work I could do?”

“Work?” Scott glanced over at him, but Freddy kept his eyes straight ahead.

“For money, I mean.”

Scott turned his head so Freddy couldn’t see him smile. How the mighty had fallen, but at least he’d gotten there in the end. “You could help with this fence if you like. A dollar a day.”

“Is that all?” Freddy reined his horse to a stop.

Scott did too. “It’s what a ranch hand gets. Plus keep, of course.”

“Oh.”

“I can’t pay you anymore, Freddy. What would the other men say?”

They rode on.

“I was thinking maybe bookkeeping.”

“Sorry, we don’t need a bookkeeper, but we can always do with strong hands.”

“I’ve never put up a fence.”

“There’s a first time for everything.” Scott squinted into the late morning sun and adjusted his hat. Truth be told, Freddy had probably never done any kind of work before; certainly not manual labour, and certainly not to earn a dollar or two. Money grew on trees in his world. Scott knew that all too well, because once upon a time, it had been the same for him. His first few weeks in the army had been a very rude awakening. “The other men would show you what to do.”

The crew was within sight now, sweating and straining in the hot sun. Digging post holes was a pig of a job. Scott didn’t mind stringing the wire so much, but the soil here was sun-baked, stony and damn back-breaking.

He left Freddy with Frank, the leading hand, three other men and a wagon two thirds full of fence posts and wire. They were making slow progress, but with an extra pairs of hands they might get the first wagonload of posts into holes by suppertime.

It was nearly six when Frank and Freddy drove back into the yard. The others had camped for the night. Frank pointed to a pile of posts stacked by the barn and Freddy started to load them for the next day. Frank went to unhitch the horses.

Scott slapped Ulysses’ rump as he let him loose in the rear corral and laughed when the horse kicked up his heels and then tried to cosy up to the mahogany bay. Ulysses seemed to have forgotten he was a gelding.

Shutting the gate, Scott strolled over to where Freddy was hauling posts. “Leave it. Go get washed up for supper.”

“Thanks.” Freddy tossed the thick leather gloves he was wearing into the back of the wagon and drudged towards the hacienda.

“How did he do?”  Scott leaned against a front wheel as Frank undid the last chain.

“Well enough.” The leading hand’s teeth shone a startling white against his black skin. “Got a few blisters on those pink and white hands, but he didn’t complain too much.”

“Pulled his weight then?”

“The kid’s okay. He reckons he’s gonna come back up with me tomorrow.” Frank led the string of horses towards the barn.

Scott rubbed his chin and followed. “I don’t suppose you know why he wants the cash?” It must be something serious for him to go to so much effort.

Frank tongued a wad of tobacco sideways and spat on the ground. “Well, now, I don’t rightly know if I should say, boss.”

Scott stood side by side with Frank undoing buckles and taking off tack. “Just tell me he’s not in any trouble.”

“Well, shoot, I can’t do that.” Frank chuckled. He led the four horses into stalls, one by one, and tied them to the rings by the hay feeders. “He’s in the worst kind of trouble there is.”

“What do you mean?” What the hell had Freddy done now?

Frank started brushing down the grey mare.  Scott grabbed a dandy brush and got to work on the old horse’s more sensitive parts.

“He’s sweet on a señorita, boss.”

“A girl?” Scott straightened in surprise.

“Gabriela Alvarado. He wants to buy her a locket he saw in Spanish Wells yesterday, but he ain’t got the money.”

So that was it. Freddy had been talking to Gabriela the morning before by the water pump and then later Scott had seen him carrying wood for her; he hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.

Pushing his hat back, he smiled. Katie’s baby brother was in love.

How much pocket money had Robert given him? There were at least two notes on the desk. Let’s say it was two dollars. If he needed two more, by local standards that was an awfully expensive present for a boy to give a girl he’d just met.

“Why is nothing ever simple?” Scott asked later as he joined Bob and Jamie on the cane chairs outside Johnny’s place. He uncorked the bottle of ‘liquid sunshine’ Bob had brought him from Jamaica and waited for Johnny to provide glasses.

“No fun in simple.” Johnny plonked four crystal tumblers down on a box. They were part of a set the Addisons’ had given him and Emily as a wedding present.

“I hope he doesn’t tell the other men how much he already has.”

“Jorge Alvarado will eat him for breakfast either way.”

“It’s not funny, Johnny.”

“Yeah, it is.” Still chuckling, Johnny passed the glasses around and put his feet up on the box.

“I take it Gabriela’s father is a tad protective.” Bob savoured his drink and closed his eyes, a look of contentment on his face. He obviously wasn’t too concerned about the well-being of his younger brother.

“Watches his daughters like a hawk.” Johnny glared wide-eyed by way of demonstration, and Jamie choked on his drink. “He’s bound to read too much into a gift like that.”

Jamie wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. “Freddy won’t see the locket as extravagant. He’ll have chosen it because he thinks she’ll like it.”

“Couldn’t you explain, and get him to give her something else?”

“Scott, you have a lot to learn.” Jamie stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. “Freddy’s a stubborn little beggar.”

“Unlike his brothers.”

“Now, now, no call for that.” Bob reached behind Johnny and cuffed the back of Scott’s head.

Scott retaliated with a peanut, and for a minute there was an exchange of fire. It was like the good old days; growing up, Bob had been the closest thing Scott had had to a brother—strange how things had turned out. “I admit I’m a little worried.”

“No need. Freddy’s still at the kiss stealing stage.” Bob leaned back in his chair. For a moment he looked thoughtful. “I suppose, it’s incumbent upon me to do something about that.”

“Before you return to sea, if possible.” Jamie batted a moth away. “You are the eldest, and he’s sixteen now. I don’t want the job.”

“No? I don’t see why. From what I hear, you could do it as well as me. But I’ll take care of it.”

“When you get back to San Francisco, if you don’t mind. I don’t want you giving him ideas.” Scott would lay money that Bob had already identified where most of the bawdy houses were in the Bay area, and for various reasons he didn’t want him visiting the bordellos near the ranch.

“Rest easy, Scott. I’m telling you Freddy won’t expect more than a peck on the cheek from Gabriela.”

“It won’t make no difference what he expects.” Johnny pulled a box of cigars out from under his chair and handed it around. “Her pa will take one look at that locket and reach for his shotgun.”

Scott frowned. It wasn’t quite that bad—or was it? Jorge was strict, and he had a history of jumping to conclusions. “Mind if I drop Freddy a few hints?” He clipped his cigar and accepted a light from Bob’s. “I could speak with Gabriela’s father too. Smooth the path.”

“It’s more than the little ratbag deserves, but I’d appreciate it.” Bob exhaled smoke into the warm night air. Everything was still and quiet except for the scritch-scratch of Emily’s pen as she wrote up her notes on the table inside.

“Yep, Scott, you practice being a good brother-in-law.” Johnny took a large mouthful of rum and then chortled, nearly spurting it all out again. “Do you remember when Jorge caught Gabriela’s sister socializing in the orange grove? Boy, could that fella run.”

“Speaking of socializing, when is your stag party?” Jamie leaned forward and looked past the others at Scott. “I’ve two study-free weeks. I’d like at least one night to let loose.”

“Hear, hear!” Bob raised his glass. He had swiped the bottle Scott had put down behind Johnny’s chair and was onto his second.

“I wasn’t planning on having a stag party.”

“And you’re letting him get away with that?” Bob thumped Johnny on the arm. “What kind of best man are you?”

“The kind who arranges things without a ruckus.” Johnny grinned, taking the cigar out of his mouth and knocking ash into the tin can between him and Scott. “All fixed for tomorrow night in Morro Coyo.”

“Johnny, I don’t think that’s a good idea. There’s too much to organize, and Grandfather arrives on Monday. Katie wouldn’t…”

“Katie’s fine with it; and you’ll have Sunday to recover before your grandfather arrives.”

“I won’t drink much.” Scott looked down at his ‘liquid sunshine’. Given what happened last time Grandfather came to the ranch, maybe he should rethink that statement.

“Suit yourself. I’ll make sure you get home in one piece either way.” Johnny drained his glass and looked around for the bottle.

Scott smiled. He was secretly rather pleased Johnny had organized something, but he’d better hurry up and drink his rum or he wouldn’t get a second glass.

Bob solved the problem by topping up everyone’s glass, empty or not. “What are the saloon girls like in Morro Coyo?”

“I’m not supposed to notice anymore, but….” Johnny stretched his neck to see through the window. Emily was absorbed in her writing. “One or two are real pretty. They’ll fall all over a naval officer and a doctor. You’ll have to fight them off.”

“The respectable ladies too—now the Lancer brothers are off the market and assuming you make it to church on Sunday.” Scott stubbed out his cigar. If they had a day’s work and a late night ahead of them, they’d better get to bed. “Watch out for their mothers.”

He clapped Johnny on the shoulder and pushed up to his feet.

Jamie followed suit. “Never fear. Out manoeuvring matchmaking matriarchs is favourite pastime. Send the local damsels our way. The Eliot brothers will show you how it’s done.”

 

Saturday, October 5th, 1872

“Keep your eyes shut.” Scott held back the heavy tapestry that covered the wall behind the main stairs of the hacienda and led Katie through a hidden arch. “Watch the step.”

Dust motes floated in sunlight coming through the narrow window at the end of the hallway.

“Where are we?”

“No peeking.”

“This isn’t fair.” Katie giggled as Scott covered her eyes with his hands to make sure she didn’t cheat.

The tapestry had guarded the entrance to the east wing since well before he and Johnny had come to the hacienda; even Teresa hadn’t been inside it then. When Scott realized there was a part of the house he hadn’t seen, he wanted to explore, but Teresa had stopped him. Only once they were more at ease with each other—and once Murdoch was more at peace with his demons—did he invite them all in and explain why this part of the house had been closed off from the rest.

“There is a door handle in front of you. Turn it.”

Katie did as she was told and walked through into the bedroom beyond.

Scott took his hands away. “Okay, now you can look.”

“Oh, my.” Katie blinked her eyes open and gazed around. She circled the empty room slowly, reaching out to touch the wrought iron candleholders and decorative wall tiles. Light filtering through the grimy glass of the windows and French doors dappled the whitewashed walls and dust-covered floorboards.

“There is a small courtyard. It’s barely noticeable from the outside; the bushes have grown so high and thick around the walls.” He tried to open the French doors, but they seemed to be stuck.

Katie peered through the glass and then turned towards a side door. “Where does this lead?” She disappeared into the dressing room beyond.

Scott wrestled with a leaf of French door until she returned. The hinges had seized, and when he finally got it open, he found a pile of rotting leaves and moss blocking the way. He was kicking a path when Katie re-emerged.

“I don’t understand. Where are we? Why is such a wonderful suite not used?”

“We’re in the downstairs part of the east wing, the hacienda’s original main bedroom.”

Katie’s eyes widened. “Your parent’s room?”

The pale green silk of her dress rustled as she came up to him. She tried to search his eyes, but he turned his head away. He felt more than he’d realized, and he wasn’t ready to share what he didn’t fully understand himself.

“I thought about the possibility some time ago.”

“The possibility?”

“Yes, but I decided it was better to broach the subject with Murdoch after we were married. Only he brought me in here this morning and asked if we would like it.”

“This room, you mean—as our bedroom?”

“He’s offered us the whole wing.” Scott took her hand and led her back out into the corridor. “You see, there are other rooms.” He opened the next door along.

Katie looked inside. “This is sweet. It would make a lovely nursery.”

“It was Johnny’s. The other three rooms are bigger. We could have one plumbed as a bathroom and use the others for bedrooms—or a private sitting and dining room if you’d prefer.”

They strolled through one room at a time. The room next to Johnny’s old nursery was only slightly larger and almost directly under the new bathroom on the upper floor.

“From what the plumber told me a few months ago, this should be fairly easy to turn into a bathroom; the main pipes are already nearby.”

The other two rooms were a decent size and could be double bedrooms, one for girls and one for boys. Scott smiled; there was no harm in planning ahead. In the meantime the one on the right had two sets of windows and would make a pleasant sitting room with a little titivating.

“A sitting room to call our own would be nice, but Scott, you’re not suggesting we live apart from Murdoch and Teresa, are you?”

“Well, we could, but I know they’d like us to share the great room and rest of the hacienda with them.”

“What do you want?”

Scott stroked Katie’s cheek. She was beautiful, inside and out; he was a lucky man. “I like the idea of having this wing as our own space, but most of the time—if you don’t mind—I think I’d prefer to live together as one big family.”

“Good.” Katie gave him a peck on the lips. “The arrangement Johnny and Emily have works well, I’m told. Emily says you eat breakfast and supper as a family most of the time.”

“Emily usually cooks for just the two of them on a Tuesday, and they don’t always stay long after supper some other evenings, but otherwise things haven’t changed much. I’m afraid if we follow their example though, you’ll have to put up with Johnny falling asleep in the great room.”

“Does he snore?”

“Not if you kick him at the first sign.”

“Ah, well, that’s all right then.” Laughing, she returned to the main bedroom and circled it again. Then she stood in its centre without saying a word and let her eyes do the walking.

Scott watched from the doorway trying to read her mind. The wrought iron candelabra had a spider’s web and the curtains had seen better days, but a little cleaning and some new furnishings would do wonders in here as it would in the other rooms. Did she like the plain walls or would she fill them with paintings and mirrors? It didn’t matter; as long as she was happy living at the ranch she could paint the entire room pink for all he cared.

After several minutes, she turned towards him. “I think we should accept. But are you absolutely sure? Is Murdoch sure?”

“I’ve never seen him so sure of anything.” Scott coughed to dislodge a lump forming in his chest.

He’d never seen Murdoch so sure or so gruff with feeling. “Scott, I hope you know I have always loved you. I’m grateful we’ve had time to get to know each other. I want you to know how proud I am to be your father. I want you know how happy I am that you and Katie have found each other and have chosen to live here at the ranch.”

“He said when he sees us together it reminds him of how it was between him and my mother. How he loved her with all his heart, and how she loved him.”

“Oh, Scott, really? That’s beautiful.”

Scott brushed a tear away from Katie’s lashes with his thumb. Murdoch’s words were beautiful; almost too beautiful for a man who had hidden his feelings from everyone around him for the best part of twenty-five years. It must have been hard for him to say those things, but it was the best wedding present he could have given his son. Scott had choked out a ‘Thank you, sir’ and then Murdoch had saved him from saying more by offering the east wing and gifting something that had once belonged to Mother. Scott would give that to Katie too later. Not now. One thing at a time.

“You don’t think it would bring back painful memories if we took over these rooms?”

“Not for me. I rather like the idea of sleeping here.”

Scott came closer, and Katie walked her fingers up his shirt until she reached the top button. “One more week.” She gazed into his eyes.

He smiled, wrapped his arms around her and kissed her long and slow.

When their lips parted, she rested her head on his chest, and he stroked her hair. She’d washed it that morning, he could tell; the strands were lighter and softer than the day before. “Murdoch moved out because the room reminded him of the happiness he’d lost, not because of bad memories.”

“We could bring the happiness back.”

She looked up again, and the certainty and love in her eyes triggered something inside him.

“But what about Johnny; how does he feel?”

“Don’t worry. I asked him and he’s fine.” Scott let go before the soft glow of her eyes and the scent of rosemary from her hair took him places. He crossed the room and examined the empty fireplace. The grate would need blackening, but the tiles were good. “He said it was an excellent idea. According to him, my bedroom upstairs isn’t big enough to hold all your clothes.”

“Is that so?”

Scott checked over his shoulder.

She’d sounded offended, but she looked amused.  “I hate to admit it, but he might be right.”

“We could fill the other rooms with children.” Scott took her in his arms again and danced a slow waltz. The longing in her eyes matched his, and…

“Behave yourself.” She pushed him away. Not angry, but not about to give way to any natural urges either.

“Sorry.” He turned his back and conjured a memory of standing to attention in the pouring rain, ankle-deep in mud—the good old days in Belle Isle Prison and the fastest remedy he’d found so far for this particular ailment.

While he brought his body under control, Katie put safe distance between them by exploring the courtyard. When she came back inside, she didn’t look more than a little flushed. “We could go shopping in San Francisco.”

“Good idea.”

“We could choose the bedroom furniture together, and Fanny and Aunt Anne would help me buy linen while you finish your business with Uncle Will.”

They were scheduled to return to San Francisco with Katie’s family two days after the wedding, see them off on the train to Boston a couple of days after that, and then take a leisurely tour of the Napa Valley by way of a honeymoon. They probably wouldn’t have time for any shopping immediately, but they had been invited to stay a few nights with Katie’s aunt and uncle on their way back to the ranch.

“So I’ll tell Murdoch it’s a yes?”

“Definitely…if you’re sure. You’re not just saying you don’t mind for my sake?”

“Absolutely not. It’s all for my sake. I need at least one set of drawers that I can call my own.”

Katie flung her arms around him and kissed him hard. “I love you Scott Lancer.” Then letting go, she rummaged in her pocket and pulled out a measuring tape, a notebook and a pencil.

“You don’t have a kitchen sink in there too by any chance?” The girl he was about to marry was nothing if not prepared.

She stuck out her tongue and within seconds was almost skipping around the room. She measured the windows and walls, paced the room, and scribbled in her notebook, talking at a rate of knots. They could do this and that and oh, this truly was a lovely room.

Scott leaned against a wall, agreeing and smiling, amused by the whirlwind he’d unleashed.

He watched her—occasionally holding the measuring tape—until the old cow bell rang in the distance calling everyone to supper. They were having an early meal so the single and younger men of the ranch could get on the road. His bachelor party lay ahead, and they wanted to reach Morro Coyo before it got dark.

Despite the efforts of the best man however, the sun was low on the horizon by the time they got underway. Two wagons and a buckboard trundled out of the yard laden with men singing Little Brown Jug and ready to cut the wolf loose.

“It was probably a good idea to take over those rooms,” Bob chuckled between songs as they crested the hill. “Katie is trying hard not to step on Teresa’s toes. Giving her a space of her own may avert disaster—at least for a while.”

“Teresa was one reason Emily wanted our place,” Johnny chimed in, leaning forward between the two friends. He was perched on a pile of hay in the back of the wagon.

“I thought you said the hacienda was too grand for her.”

“That too.”
 
“You’re wrong. Katie and Teresa are good friends.” Scott pulled on the reins, steering the horses around a pot hole in the road. “Katie is looking forward to sharing the hacienda with her and Murdoch.”

“Murdoch won’t be a problem, and Emily and Teresa are good friends, but that doesn’t mean they can share a house day in and day out.” Bob took cigars out of his pockets. Keeping one for himself, he gave another to Scott and passed the rest back to Johnny to give to the men sitting on the wagon bed. “Take it from a man who comes from a large family. Women are like cats. They’re territorial. One minute they’re playing nice, and the next one steps over an invisible line and they scratch each other’s eyes out. Two strong-willed women sharing the management of the same house….” Bob gave a shudder. “Good luck, my friend.”

Scott swallowed hard. Why hadn’t he thought about this before? Teresa had been in charge of the household ever since she came to live with Murdoch, but Katie would be Señora Lancer. Already some servants were asking her what they should do. Katie was used to grand living; she would fall into the role of mistress of the hacienda quite naturally if it wasn’t for Teresa.

“Whips up twisters in your belly, don’t it?” Johnny held his cigar between grinning teeth so Bob could put a match to it. Then he blew smoke into the air, while Scott alternated between gloomy thoughts and a strong urge to wipe the smirk off his brother’s face.

Fortunately, both sensations eased by the time they arrived in Morro Coyo. It was properly dark, and only the half-moon shining brightly in the sky stopped them from lighting the lanterns. The men tumbled out of the wagons and into their favourite saloon, dragging Scott to the seat of honour in front of a makeshift stage.

“Beer’s on the Lancer ranch. Buy your own liquor,” Johnny hollered as he delivered beers to Scott, Bob and Jamie. There was a small stampede to the bar, but he pushed through the crowd to collect the hard stuff.

“My turn to introduce you fellas to something different.” He pulled the cork from a bottle with his teeth. “Ever tried tequila?”

“Yes, and I’ll stick with whisky.” Bob reached over and snagged the second bottle Johnny had brought back from the bar.

“It’s rye. You won’t get scotch here.”

Bob took a swig straight from the bottle. “I’ve had worse.”

“I’m game to try some tequila.” Jamie held up a glass. “What do I do with the salt and lime?”

“I’ll show you.” Johnny finished pouring and sat down. “Lick, sip and suck.” He demonstrated as the entertainment began.

For next hour Scott was too busy to care what anyone drank. Soft, bare skin cavorting on stage—and off it— in frilly unmentionables was definitely too much for the comfort of a man about to be married and determined not to do anything stupid.

When the dancing stopped, the girls made a beeline for him.

“Hello, honey. Let me help you celebrate your last night of freedom.” A buxom brunette planted her ample rear end on his knee, pressing into him as she ran her fingers through his hair. If he bowed his head even slightly, his face would be in her cleavage.

A blonde came from behind and nibbled his ear, massaging his shoulders and upper arms between nips.

The flowery scent of Florida water attacked him from both sides, urging him to action, so he took hold of the brunette and kissed her like the ex-soldier he was. Damn, she felt good.

Then he glanced over at Bob and Jamie. Were they on the same page?

Bob raised his glass and winked.

Jamie was too busy with a señorita of his own to give any kind of sign, but Scott took it that Katie’s brothers were prepared to cut him some slack. It was his stag party after all.

For the next two rounds of drinks he made the most of being single, speaking in tongues with the brunette between swigs of beer or whisky to lubricate his throat. He let his hands go places they hadn’t been for months until her fingers slipped under his belt and went places they definitely didn’t belong. Coming up for air, he peeled her off and stood up, conjuring images of Belle Isle as fast as he could. “Sorry, ladies, that’s as far as we go. I’m spoken for, and I’d prefer to stay that way. Please help yourself to my friends.”

He waved towards a group of ranch hands admiring the women from the bar.

“Yes, my darling, come to Paddy.” The Irish labourer Murdoch had hired a few weeks ago, lurched forward with open arms, but the dancers pouted and tried pawing Scott again. He had to escort them to a couple of younger men before they’d leave him alone.

When he returned to the table, Johnny, Bob and Jamie were doubled over laughing, tears in their eyes.

“It’s all very well for you lot. You’re free to go upstairs.”

“I’m not,” Johnny protested between a gulp of air and a burst of laughter. He was trying to stop.

“You only have to wait until you get home.” Smart alec.  Scott glared at Johnny. He had what Scott wanted; a wife to go home to—one who would take pity on him, even if he came home a little worse for wear. Scott had a week of doing without to go. He wouldn’t damage his chances of a happy marriage by doing anything silly, but those seven days and seven nights seemed like an eternity.

He took his mind off the problem by hunting out Freddy for a heart to heart. The boy was in a bad mood with Bob and Jamie and had chosen to watch the show with his work buddies.

Little did he realize he owed his brothers a vote of thanks. Their father hadn’t wanted to let Freddy go to the bachelor party. Even his recent efforts with the fencing crew hadn’t swayed Dr Eliot. It had taken a united front from Bob, Jamie and Scott to finally bring him around.

Scott nodded the other men away from the table when Freddy’s eyes were busy elsewhere. Hopefully, Bob was right about the boy not expecting too much from Gabriela, because from the look on Freddy’s face it wasn’t because he wasn’t interested in that sort of thing.

Taking a vacated seat, Scott topped up their glasses from the jug of beer on the table. “Enjoy the show?”

“I’ll say.” Freddy’s eyes swivelled between Scott and a saloon girl in a pink dress. She blew him a kiss, and he gulped his beer.

“Pretty. You’d have to pay for the lady’s attention, but you’ve got money now.”

For a moment, Freddy looked tempted. He glanced over at his brothers and then back at the girl before shaking his head. “No, I’ve got other plans.”

“Must be something important.”

“It is.”

“Nothing to do with Gabriela Alvarado, by any chance?”

“How do you…?” Freddy swung around angrily, looking for his friends. “Did they tell you?”

“I’m not blind, Freddy. I’ve seen you with Gabriela a few times over the last couple of days.”

“Oh.” He looked down at his beer.

“You like her and that’s fine.”

“You don’t think we’re too young?”

“That depends on what you have in mind, but I think I should warn you her father is strict. If I’ve seen you so has he, and knowing Jorge—I mean Señor Alvarado—he’ll be coming to the boil fast. If you want to see more of Gabriela, I suggest you ask his permission.”

“I’m not planning to marry her.”

Scott smiled. “Well, good, but it would be wise not to let him hear you say that.”

“Why not? What?” Freddy went red. “We’ve only just met.” Lowering his eyes, he stared at his beer again as though trying to get the words straight in his head. “We’re interested in the same sort of things: she makes up stories and I draw. I’ve done some illustrations for her. We want to walk out together and dance at your wedding. Maybe when I go home we’ll write to each other. What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, but you should get Señor Alvarado’s permission to do any of those things. Otherwise he might get the wrong idea.”

Freddy puffed up indignantly. “I’m a gentleman.”

“I’m pleased to hear it, but you can’t expect Gabriela’s father to know what kind of young man you are unless you show him. Take it from me, if you don’t pay him the respect he’s due soon, you’ll end up with buckshot in your backside, and Gabriela will be locked in the house with her mother doing chores for the rest of your stay.”

“He can’t do that.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “He’s her father.”

Freddy breathed in to argue, but exhaled as reality hit home. “So what do I do?”

“See the guy in the corner in the blue shirt?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s Xavier, Gabriela’s older brother. He’s all right. Make friends. Ask him how and when to speak to his father. Don’t see Gabriela again until you have Señor Alvarado’s permission.”

Freddy stared at Xavier; a stocky young man of about twenty with his arm around the waist of a dancing girl. One of the men he was chatting to was Luis from Freddy’s fencing crew. “Okay, I suppose I can do that.” Freddy got to his feet.

“Here take this with you.” Scott pushed the beer jug across the table. “It will help break the ice.”

He watched Freddy until he was certain his reception was friendly; then he went to join Johnny, Bob and two wranglers at the poker table. Bob’s attention was more on the saloon girl on his lap than on his cards, so the others were doing unusually well.

“Pull up a chair, brother of mine. You know, I’ve been thinking. You should invite more of your Boston friends out here.”

“They don’t all have deep wallets, but I’ll see what I can do.” Scott picked up his cards. Not bad. “I’m in.”

He avoided further attempts to get him drunk or into the arms of a dancing girl for most of the evening. He figured out Bob topped up his glass with whisky whenever it went below half full so he kept it at about two thirds. The cigar smoke scratched his throat though. He had to drink something to sooth it, and beer was the only other beverage on offer. By eleven o’clock his head was starting to swim.

“I’m going outside.” He stood up and grabbed the edge of the table. It was worse than he’d thought; the floor was moving beneath his feet.

Pushing through the swing doors, he walked almost a straight line out onto the boardwalk and filled his lungs with fresh air.

“Well, if it isn’t the groom.” Josh Granger from a spread southwest of Green River, his brother Saul and another man dismounted and tied their horses to the rail. “Sorry we’re late, but we only heard about this fandango an hour ago. Our invitations must have got lost.”

“Glad you could make it. I wasn’t planning on a party, but Johnny and my future brothers-in-law ambushed me.” Scott slapped his hand into Josh’s palm and then Saul’s. “Who’s this?”

“Our cousin from back east—your part of the world, in fact.” Josh grinned.

“Exiled to the frontier for being a naughty boy, eh, Davy?” Saul grabbed the newcomer around the neck and gave him a friendly shake.

“A slight exaggeration.” Davy freed himself and gazed around with a look of distaste. Evidently, Morro Coyo wasn’t quite what he was used to.

“How do you, Davy.” Scott offered his hand.

“Davenport.”

Their hands barely touched.

Scott dropped his to his side.  Oh, God, surely not. “Davenport Granger?”

“That’s right.” The young man smirked. He didn’t seem to notice Scott’s cursory shake. “My cousins insist on shortening it, but I prefer ‘Davenport’.”

Shit. Scott bit his tongue hard. Katie’s younger sister, Julia, flashed before his eyes and he suddenly felt painfully sober. Of all the places…
 
“Well, be fair, ‘Davenport’ sounds like you’ve got a stick up your ass,” Josh growled. A little fed up with his cousin already; that was interesting, but he and Saul couldn’t possibly know what Scott knew or they’d never have brought him within ten miles of Lancer. “Fact is you won’t stay upright long in these parts if you keep introducing yourself as ‘Davenport Granger, one of the Davenports from Springfield and Beacon Hill’. Save it for the ladies on Sunday.”

“The Davenports are among the first families of New England.”

“I keep telling you that don’t mean horseshit in California. Now Scott here is more understanding than most fellas, because he comes from Boston, but you need to tone it down some before you meet his brother.”

“What you need to do is leave, and not because of Johnny. Josh, take Davy to the cantina down the street. I’ll join you there and explain after I’ve seen to a few things.”

“What the hell?”

Scott’s heart sank; Jamie Eliot—one of the things Scott needed to see to—had come out of the saloon behind him.

“Eliot!” Granger glared over Scott’s shoulder.

Turning, Scott groaned inwardly. Ignoring Granger, Jamie was trying to stop Bob from coming out onto the boardwalk.

“Get out of my way, will you. I need to piss.” Bob pushed passed his brother and threw his arm around Scott. “There you are. I’ve been looking for you. Point me in the right direction.”

“I’ll show you.” Scott grabbed Bob’s arm and pulled him around the corner, hoping Jamie would sort the problem out in their absence.

Scott ushered Bob to a shack set up as a urinal a few yards to the rear of the saloon. He took as much time as he could over his own business, but Bob was impatient to return to the saloon.

“I’ll see you back inside.”

“No, wait for me.” Scott hurriedly did up his fly and followed. They came to a halt at the front corner of the saloon.

“Fuck off, Eliot! Your family may own Massachusetts, but they’re nothing here. I came for a night out and in there sounds like the place to be.” Granger was nose to nose with Jamie. This was not the kind of sorting out Scott had in mind. “Your minx of a sister was begging for it.”

“Say one more word and I’ll hit you myself. I’m warning you, Granger, get out of here before my brother gets back. I’m the scholar and diplomat of the family; he’s a war veteran with medals to prove it.”

“He doesn’t scare me.”

“Well, he should.” Bob’s words hung cold in the night air.

Scott felt the chill run up his spine as his friend stepped up out of the shadows onto the boardwalk, smiling the kind of smile Johnny Madrid would have been proud of. He sure as hell hoped Granger was paying attention. Even out of uniform, Bob didn’t look like a man to be messed with.

Scott put out a hand. “Bob, leave it. This is my bachelor party remember. I promised Katie: no fighting. Your father’s hired a photographer. Nobody wants photographs if the men all have black eyes.”

“Quite right,” Bob pulled his arm free. “You promised. You stay out of it.” Without taking his eyes off his quarry, Bob ambled forward, pushing Jamie aside. “Let me get this straight, this…person…is Davenport Granger, the piece of shit who groped our sister?”

“Prissy madam. One minute batting her eyelids and the next ‘Oh, no, Mr Granger’. She owed…”

Bob smashed his fist into Granger’s jaw.

The force of the blow sent him crashing into the horses behind. They snorted and stamped, and Granger laid spread eagle on his back in the dirt—out for the count.

Scott had never seen Jamie move so fast. “Bob, no. You’re a captain now. Think of Katie.” He put his arms out and stood as a barrier between Bob and Granger.

Bob spat into the dust, a few inches from Granger’s crotch.  “Weak bastard!”

“Let’s go back inside. Leave Scott to deal with him.” Jamie tugged at his brother’s arm.

“I was just getting warmed up.” Bob scowled, but he let Jamie steer him away while Scott checked Granger was still breathing. He was a lucky man; once upon a time Bob wouldn’t have given way so easily.

“Josh, Saul, get your cousin to Doc Owens in Green River. Then keep him out of the local towns and away from Lancer until after my wedding.”

“We’re sorry, Scott. We didn’t know.” Josh hauled a groggy Granger to his feet and with Saul’s help, hefted his cousin up into the saddle.

“Can’t be helped. Just get going before Bob decides to finish the job.” Scott waved them off with his hat. Consideration for Katie may have saved the day, but Bob was clearly far enough away from salt water and the navy not to feel encumbered by his promotion. Granger needed to keep a safe distance.

Bob had always taken his position as eldest in the family seriously, and he was a man of action, not words. He’d been Boston Latin’s boxing champion three years running, and then the same at the naval academy. Who knew what skills he’d picked up since? Scott knew he carried a flick knife.

From the look in Bob’s eyes moments earlier, Davenport Granger was fortunate to get away with a cracked jaw.

“I’m not kidding, Johnny,” Scott whispered as they drove the lead wagon home. “Granger should thank his lucky stars his head and his manhood are still attached to his body.”

 

Sunday, October 6th, 1872

“I missed all the fun.” Johnny mopped up egg yolk with a slice of bread and washed it down with the last of his milk.

“Good,” Emily replied without sympathy, relieving him of his plate and cutlery before reaching for Scott’s. 

“Thanks for breakfast, Emily. That was just what the doctor ordered.” Scott passed the dirty dishes over to her and helped himself to more coffee.

“You’re welcome.” She flashed a smile and turned towards the sink. She didn’t normally cook on Sundays, but after sleeping in, Scott and Johnny had missed breakfast in the hacienda. They could have gone to the bunkhouse and eaten with the other men nursing hangovers, but Emily had taken pity on them. “Do you think that’s the end of it?”

“Josh promised to let me know what Dr Owen said.”

“One smack wouldn’t do much harm.” Johnny pushed back his chair and stretched.

“One of Bob’s might, but Davenport was coming around when Josh and Saul loaded him onto his horse. With luck, he’s okay and he keeps away from here. I’ve enough to worry about with future in-laws around every corner and Grandfather arriving tomorrow.” Scott folded his napkin. He never thought he’d say it, but elopement was starting to look like an attractive option.

Johnny tossed his napkin on the table and took the bread board and his empty glass over to the sink. He was heading out to check on a herd grazing on the black mesa. Scott eyed the crumpled cloth. Emily was making progress—Johnny would never have thought to help clear the table before he got married—but she still had a little way to go.

Cold water splashed from the faucet into the sink as she added hot water from the kettle and shook the soap shaker to lather it up. “So you don’t think there’s any chance of Davenport Granger being at this morning’s service?”

Dear God, I hope not. Scott swallowed without tasting his coffee. He trusted Josh and Saul to do what they could, but their mother was a god-fearing woman. It wasn’t often they escaped church. He lowered his cup. “Bob and his brothers must be having a hard time getting out of bed or they’d be here by now. Emily, would you do me a favour? Tell them to hurry up and let them know I’ve gone ahead.”

Johnny looked over from where he was tightening his gun belt, but Scott avoided eye contact. Dropping his cup into the dishwater, he grabbed his jacket and hat and headed for the door. “I want to catch up with Katie before she reaches Green River. See you later.”

He strode towards the corral without looking back. One of the hands had Ulysses saddled up and waiting for him, and he was soon galloping across country. It was like riding with Garrison’s Raiders again, jumping ditches, urging his horse uphill and down with barely a change of pace until he joined the churchgoers a mile from Green River.

“I’m pleased to see you survived, Scott. Where are my sons?” Beth tilted her parasol to look up at him from the Landau. “I hope you haven’t left them lying in bed.”

“No, ma’am. They’re coming. I wanted to make sure I was in time to escort Katie into church.”

Beth smiled her approval, but her father, sitting opposite, raised a sceptical eyebrow. Scott tipped his hat and spurred Ulysses forward. With luck James McIntyre would forget his curiosity before they reached town.

Teresa, Katie and her sisters were being chauffeured by Murdoch in the carryall. The carriage transported four comfortably, but it was a bit of a squeeze with five. The sisters didn’t seem to mind though. They laughed and clung to the sides whenever a dip in the road threw them together. Victoria sat forward much of the time, chatting to Teresa in the front seat.

“We thought about taking the other carriage,” Katie said, leaning out as he came up beside them. “But it’s so much nicer in the open on a day like today.”

“Indeed it is.” Scott pulled Ulysses wider to avoid being nicked by the wheels, and for the first time took a moment to appreciate the gentle sunshine and light breeze of the morning. The leaves on the trees were turning gold like the long grass. Fall had arrived without him even noticing.

As they travelled, Murdoch shared his knowledge of the area. The girls asked questions and chimed in with anecdotes of their own so Scott didn’t have to talk much. He nodded and agreed occasionally until the two carriages approached the church on the far side of town. Then he scanned the street and the parked buggies and wagons for any sign of the Granger family. Thankfully there was none. Maybe God was on his side.

Or maybe not.

Just as they pulled up outside the church, his muscles tightened with a jerk. A surrey with a red fringe was turning the corner two blocks down.

Damn.

With as much patience as he could muster, he helped Katie out of the carryall.

“Hold it.” Cursing silently, he unhitched her skirt from the step.

“Scott, what is the matter?” After checking her hem hadn’t torn, she stood on tiptoes to see over the heads of the gathering congregation. “Are you looking for someone?”

“No—no, it’s just I’ve remembered something I need to do.” He forced his attention back to where it belonged and brought her hand to his lips. “I’m sorry, darling. Do you mind? I won’t be long.”

Before she could reply, he escaped and intercepted Phyllis Granger in her flowery straw bonnet about a wagon’s length from disaster. “Good morning, Mrs Granger.”

“Oh, Scott, how do you do? I’m so glad you’re here. Please accept my best wishes for your wedding next Saturday.”

“Thank you, ma’am. That’s very kind of you.”

“Not at all; I’m looking forward to meeting your bride. I’m sure she will prove an asset to our little community. Perhaps you could do me the honour of introducing me to Miss Eliot and her family now?” She stretched her neck to look past him.

“I’d be pleased to, ma’am, but as you can see Katie and her parents are rather surrounded at the moment.” He sidestepped to prevent the good lady moving forward, thankful that the Eliots and McIntyres had been swooped on as soon as they disembarked.

“After the service then. When Mr Granger is with me. We’ll look forward to it.” Mrs Granger glanced to her left. “Are those young ladies Miss Eliot’s sisters?”

“They are: Miss Julia and Miss Victoria Eliot.” He was quite certain the girls hadn’t intended to stand out, but there was no mistaking them. In their fashionable silks and hairstyles, they looked like roses among buttercups. Even Teresa looked like the country girl she was in comparison, and she was wearing a dress she’d bought in San Francisco.

“Well, that explains why so many saddle horses are in town today.” Mrs Granger chuckled good-naturedly. “Quite a group of would-be suitors vying for their smiles, I see.”

“Ah, yes, I suppose there is.” Scott adjusted his hat. There were a few young women standing nearby, but undoubtedly most of Julia and Victoria’s audience were men. “But no Josh or Saul.” He looked around. “Are they here?”

“Sadly not. They’re back at the ranch with their cousin—recuperating. The boys were viciously attacked by road agents last night.”

“Road agents?” Scott made no attempt to hide his surprise. Well done Josh and Saul for thinking up a story that didn’t involve his bachelor party. “Are they all right?”

Mrs Granger pursed her lips. “Josh and Saul tell me they have minor abrasions in places a mother is no longer allowed to see, but oh dear, their poor cousin.” She shook her head in dismay.

Scott frowned. Had Bob’s fist done more damage than he’d thought?

“Apparently Davenport refused to hand over his billfold in a manner the scoundrels took exception to.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Davenport is from Boston. You don’t know him—or at least I asked him if he knew you when he first arrived and he said he didn’t recall your name. He spoke highly of your grandfather though. He was looking forward to meeting you.”

“He was beaten up because he has an eastern accent?”

“Yes—well, no. It was more than that I think. I’m sure Davenport doesn’t mean to offend, but he does sound rather…well, no matter. There’s no excuse for nearly killing the boy.”

Scott’s eyes widened. Shit.

“His face is black and blue.”

“But his life isn’t really in danger, I hope.”

“No thanks to those ruffians, but Dr Owens assures me he’ll live.”

“That’s a relief.”

Mrs Granger sighed. She didn’t seem very relieved. “Mr Granger is furious. Davenport is his eldest brother’s son, you know.” She grimaced and then blushed. “I’m sorry, Scott, but my brother-in-law will blame Josh and Saul for this. He’ll never let Mr Granger hear the end of it. No matter the hold-up happened on a public road.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t be so unreasonable.”

“Humpf. If you only knew.” The blue and white paper flowers on her bonnet bounced as she huffed and puffed. “We’ll not get one word of thanks, I guarantee you. Never mind I nursed his son half the night, and Mr Granger is doing all he can. He’s talking to Sheriff Crawford about a posse right this minute.”

“A posse?” Scott gasped and then clamped his mouth shut; he hadn’t meant to let his alarm show. A posse was all he didn’t need. How was he going to stop Val raising one without getting Bob into trouble?

Mrs Granger shook her head, evidently too concerned with the internal tensions of the Granger family to notice Scott’s momentary lapse. “Josh says the robbers are long gone. He says there’s no point in a posse.”

“I’m inclined to agree. It’s probably not worth the effort unless…” Scott swallowed—this was the crux of the matter and he still didn’t have a clear answer. “Was your nephew badly injured?”

“Dr Owens has fitted him with a funny kind of collar. He says Davenport’s jaw was dislocated and his neck was severely jolted and strained. His chin has swollen to twice its normal size. I’m so glad his mother isn’t here to see him in such a state.”

“But he will recover?”

“He has to stay in bed for ten whole days. After talking to Josh and Saul, Dr Owens decided there was a risk of complications. Something to do with the way Davenport was hit and fell—concussion is possible. He will mend, but he needs a lot of rest first. It’s such a shame you won’t get to meet him.”

Truly devastating—Scott could have cheered, but he kept his face solemn with concern. “Maybe after the wedding. When Katie and I come back from our honeymoon.”

“Perhaps, but Davenport may not be staying with us by then. When his father hears the news, he’ll demand Davenport and his money return to Boston, I just know it.”

“Money?” This conversation was getting confusing.

“The loan for the new breeding stock. Oh, it really is too distressing.”

“Indeed.” He checked over his shoulder as several churchgoers moved past them. Pastor Appleby stood in his robes by the open doorway, welcoming his greatly enlarged flock inside. “If you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I see Mr Granger is coming, and I should escort my fiancée into church.”

He made a swift exit, planning what to do after the service as he went. There were so many townsfolk wanting to meet Katie and her family, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep the Grangers at a safe distance from those most likely to be upset by the encounter. He would introduce them to Jamie or maybe Katie’s grandparents. James and Mary McIntyre could be relied upon to be courteous and discrete even if the name of the nephew was mentioned, and once that was arranged Scott could slip away and talk to Val Crawford. “Fingers crossed.”

“I’m sorry, Scott; what did you say?” Katie turned as he sat down beside her.

“Nothing. I was just thinking aloud. Look, your brothers have arrived.”

As the blue doors closed, the Eliot brothers sneaked into the back row and joined in with the opening hymn. Bob and Jamie sang with the gusto of experienced carousers, but poor Freddy looked worse for wear. Once the service was over, he took refuge amongst the horses, clearly not up to making polite conversation with family or strangers.

Scott wasn’t feeling much like it either, but he had no choice. He also had no choice about how to divert Mr and Mrs Granger. Jamie was pounced on by every mother with a daughter of marriageable age as soon as he left the church, so Katie’s grandparents were Scott’s only option.

Looking impressive in his uniform and medals, Bob attracted a number of giggling young ladies as well as several men wanting to hear about his exploits at sea. That suited Scott’s purpose, but in the time it took him to set the Grangers up with the McIntyres, Bob somehow managed to escape his audience.

He waylaid Scott halfway between the church and the boardwalk. “Point me in the right direction.”

“What do you mean?”

“Dr Owens had a quiet word as I was leaving church. Apparently, he’s extended Granger’s convalescence for our benefit, but the uncle is hell bent on making a complaint to the sheriff.”

“I know. I heard much the same from another source.”

“Looks like it’s time for me to come clean then.”

“I’m going to talk to the sheriff now. I was hoping to keep your name out of it.”

Bob clapped Scott on the shoulder. “Thanks, but I won’t have you lying for me. What’s Sheriff Crawford like?”

Scott smiled. How would he describe Val Crawford? “A character, but all right.”

“Good. Then there’s hope of me making your wedding without having to break out of jail.”

Scott laughed in spite of himself. “Come on. Let’s face the music together.”

They found Val with his feet up reading wanted posters while a couple of drunks slept off the night before in his cells. “Coffee’s hot. Help yourself.” He waved a poster in the direction of the pot belly stove.

“Thanks, Val, but this isn’t a social call.” Hands on hips, Scott glanced down at his boots and then took the bull by the horns. “Sheriff Crawford, this is Captain Bob Eliot of the US Navy, Katie’s brother, and I think there’s something we need to tell you before you go raising a posse.”

Val stood up and shook Bob’s hand. “Howdy.” Then he scratched his chin and eyed Scott. “Who said I was raising a posse?”

“Well, I understood from Phyllis Granger—”

“Oh, the nephew and the road agents. Load of horseshit, if you ask me. Betcha that fancy Dan just got whacked by Bill Foster at the Golden Nugget.”

“Why do you say that?” Scott’s thoughts raced. Maybe there was a way out of this after all.

“He was a mite too heavy-handed with one of Foster’s wagtails the other day. If I hadn’t walked in when I did he’d have had a fist in his belly then.”

Scott and Bob exchanged glances. So Granger made a habit of forcing himself on women. He must have done something really bad for a saloon girl to call Big Bill out from behind his bar. Maybe Julia had had a narrower escape than they’d thought.

Val spat into the spittoon by the door. “Could be wrong. Guess I won’t know for sure until I check it out.”

“Yes, well, we’re glad you’re not rushing to form a posse.”

“Scott, if them road agents are real, they could be halfway to Mexico by now. I ain’t raising no dang posse.” Val rummaged in his desk drawer and pulled out a plug of chewing tobacco. Dusting it off on his shirt, he bit a chunk off and held the rest out to Scott and Bob. “Want some.”

“Ah no, we won’t, thank you.” Scott waved away the offer as politely as he could. He had never seen the appeal of chewing tobacco, and he knew Bob’s views on the subject didn’t bear repeating in present company.

“Suit yourself.” Val threw the tobacco back where it came from and slammed the drawer shut. “I’ll visit the Granger spread this afternoon, get a few answers. Likely make up more of these if I think them lads are being straight.” He tossed the posters he still had in his hand back down on the desk.

“I’ll save you the trouble, sheriff. Davenport Granger wasn’t attacked by road agents. I punched him over a personal matter.”

Val straightened and glowered at Bob. “Now, hell, why’d you have to go and tell me that?”

“I don’t want you to waste your time.”

“This sailor boy comes from your neck of the woods, don’t he?” Val tongued his tobacco to one side. “Locking up the bride’s brother a week before the wedding. Now won’t that make me popular?”

“Well, about that. I was hoping we could come to an arrangement. I would promise to turn myself in as soon as the wedding was over.”

“Shoot!” Val threw his hands up in the air, and started pacing. “One minute I’m dealing with unknown outlaws—nice and easy—and the next…” He stopped and prodded Bob in the chest. “Darn it, mister; meddling in a fight gone wrong between the kin of two big bug ranchers, ain’t my idea of fun.”  

“I’m sorry, but—”

“Stop your yammering.” Val glared at Bob and then threw Scott a dirty look. “Ain’t living out west knocked some sense into you yet? Don’t you know who pays my wages?”

Scott frowned. What had the Cattleman’s Association got to do with anything?

Val spat in disgust. “There’s an election next month, remember?”

“Yes—officially there is.” Scott still didn’t understand. Murdoch was required to stand for re-election as president of the Association, but no one was standing against him.

“Too busy spooning—I should’ve known. It ain’t a one man contest anymore. Abe Granger threw his name in the hat two weeks ago. And what’s more, he wants the job real bad. He’s even telling other members he’ll let them put a heifer in with one of those fancy new bulls of his if they vote for him.”

Hell. No wonder Val was upset.

“As soon as he gets wind of this, he’ll be banging my door down.” Val turned towards Bob. “Old man Granger will demand I arrest you straight away, and you’ll be stuck in here until the circuit judge shows up next month. All because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut about one stupid fight.” 

“There was no fight, sheriff. Davenport Granger said something I didn’t like, and I hit him.”

“You’re not making this any easier, son. Scott, help me out here.” Val rumpled his hair and looked frustrated, angry, and desperate all rolled into one. He was sheriff. He couldn’t just ignore Bob’s confession now he knew about it. One word from Davenport Granger or his cousins in corroboration, and Abe Granger would be on the war path. Murdoch would try to get Bob released for the wedding, and the two ranchers would battle it out with Val in the cross-fire, his long-term job prospects dependent on who won the election. Scott and Bob had unintentionally put Val between a rock and a hard place.

Think, Lancer, think. Scott cleared his throat. “Well, it crossed my mind in church…the incident occurred at my bachelor party, and I was wondering—”

“I thought you had that shindig in Morro Coyo.”

“I did. Does it make a difference?”

Sitting down on the corner of his desk, hands on his knees, Val leaned back and grinned tobacco juice through his teeth. “Dang right, it does.”

“So what actually occurred is out of your jurisdiction?” Scott raised his eyebrows, hopefully.

Val picked up a cardboard folder. “This here report is about road agents on the outskirts of Green River.”

“But that isn’t what happened.”

“Well, dang, Captain, I know that now, don’t I, but I’m the sheriff of Green River, not Morro Coyo.”

“Are you saying I should visit the sheriff in Morro Coyo?”

“Are you saying you’ve got salt water for brains?” Jumping up, Val shooed Bob and Scott towards the door. “Go on, get out of here. I’m a busy man. I’ve got goddamn fairy-tale road agents to track down.” He shoved them out onto the boardwalk before they could respond and slammed the door.

“What just happened?”

“You’re off the hook as long as we keep our mouths shut.”

“Well, that shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Hell, no.”

Laughing, the two friends dropped down onto the dusty street and crossed diagonally back to the crowd socializing outside the church. Mrs Appleby, the pastor’s wife, had set up a table with glasses, a large bowl of fresh-made lemonade, and several bottles of her special recipe ginger beer. They helped themselves to a glass of ginger beer each and then dived into the throng.

Amazingly, the Grangers were still talking with James and Mary McIntyre. Katie’s grandfather gave Scott a knowing look when he re-joined their conversation, but it seemed age and experience had managed the situation. Neither Davenport Granger nor his adventures were mentioned again.

Bob returned to his admirers and was the last to remount for the journey home. Despite the uniform however, it was Jamie who ended up with most invitations to dine over the following week.

“Face it, a doctor is a better catch,” he smirked as they rode back to Lancer together. “What matriarch wants her daughter marrying a sailor?”

“Sad but true. I could be doomed to bachelorhood.”  Bob shook his head with exaggerated sorrow and then winked at Scott.

He didn’t seem too disappointed.

 

Monday, October 7th, 1872

“A penny for them.” Katie hugged Scott’s arm and drew his thoughts back to her soft brown eyes.

“Not worth that much.” He smiled, wishing he could stay lost in their depths forever. Sadly, there was no chance of that. The three o’clock stage was already twenty minutes late; their time alone must be almost over. “Grandfather will be tired when he gets here. Don’t take it personally if he’s a little crotchety.”

“Never fear, I’m used to soothing the weary spirits of aged gentlemen. Mamma always gave me the job of making Grandfather Eliot family-friendly whenever he came to dine.”

“Indeed?” Well, Scott couldn’t argue with her experience. He’d met the late senator a few times as Grandfather did a lot of business with him. Lowell Eliot certainly wasn’t the easiest of men. 

“I’m sure your grandfather won’t be too grumpy. He must be used to traveling. Doesn’t Garrett Enterprises have investments all over the world?”

“Not quite. It has interests in one or two South and Central American countries and in several states as far west as St Louis, but Grandfather doesn’t like long journeys. He usually sends representatives to do business in any place not accessible by first class rail. The Trans-Pacific to San Francisco might be an acceptable mode of transport by now, but the local railroad and stagecoach definitely won’t be.”

“We’ll take him for some refreshments before we go back to the ranch.”

Scott nodded. He doubted anything a Morro Coyo café could offer would make up for three hours’ drive from the railhead over sun-baked, potholed roads, but he didn’t want to sound too gloomy. “If we’re lucky your company and the prospect of covering the last few miles to the ranch in the comfort and grandeur of a Landau might improve his temper.”

“Scott, this is the third time your grandfather has visited California. Either he doesn’t dislike travelling as much as you think or he must love you a great deal.”

“Yes, I suppose he must.” Scott looked down at Katie and the knot in his stomach unravelled a little. He placed his hand over hers and felt the diamond and ruby engagement ring on her finger. Soon a plain gold band would join it, and Katie would be his; forever by his side to remind him there is a bright side to every situation—even one involving Grandfather.

He glanced back down the street. Their regular chaperone-guard was polishing the brass lamps on the Landau and dusting down its black leather upholstery. Don Baldermero and a number of other curious Morro Coyo residents were asking him questions while he worked.  It was probably the first carriage of its type they’d ever seen.

“I’m sure your grandfather will be fine.” Katie straightened Scott’s tie and stole a quick kiss. “This will be a fresh start for you both.”

He kissed her back more slowly. Be damned who was looking. Even though he hadn’t told her everything about Grandfather’s last visit, she’d still got to the crux of the matter, and he loved her for it. “I hope you’re right. Grandfather and I didn’t part on the best of terms.”

A lot had been said the year before after the Deegan affair, not least about what must and must not happen when it came to Julie and her father. Katie knew Grandfather had tried to use Julie to get Scott back to Boston, but Scott could hardly tell the woman he was about to marry that he’d been badly hurt by Julie’s involvement. Damn it, he wouldn’t have minded so much if Julie had really thought herself still in love with him. But she didn’t. She admitted it. Her feelings for him had dwindled to affection and fond memories. He was grateful for the truth, but she left him feeling heart-sore and stupid.

Scott gritted his teeth and frowned into the warm, early afternoon air as he gazed up the street. Pull yourself together, man.

He had forgiven Julie—maybe not entirely at first, but it had gotten easier as his feelings for Katie grew. Neither he nor Julie had ever truly been in love—he knew that now—and if he were honest, the misery of the previous year had been as much his fault as hers. He should never have rushed into proposing to her a second time. With hindsight, it was ridiculous.

Likewise, it was ridiculous if Grandfather thought Scott would ever fully trust him again. “I have forgiven Grandfather, but things will never be the same between us.”

“Understandable, but who knows, now everything is out in the open, you might build a new and better relationship.”

“Maybe.” Scott sensed Katie’s concern, but he kept his eyes fixed on the road. She stood next to him on the boardwalk, looking northwest, patiently waiting for the stagecoach to come and for him to free himself of troubled thoughts. The problem was undertones of tension and ill-feeling still lingered between him and Grandfather in their letters. Scott had insisted that Grandfather give Julie’s father time to pay off his loan. Would Katie get the wrong idea if he told her about those arrangements? Possibly not, but he’d have to explain too much, and perhaps she would think it was a kindness Julie didn’t deserve. Grandfather certainly thought it was a kindness George Dennison didn’t deserve. But Dennison was Julie’s father, and her love for her father was as real as Scott’s love for Murdoch. Maybe he was a gullible fool, but Scott couldn’t stand by and let her suffer. He understood why she’d done what she did, and in the end she hadn’t gone through with the plan.

He sighed. Julie had been manipulated by the master accountant, and Scott knew what that felt like. Under the circumstances, if anyone got a second chance they didn’t deserve, it was Grandfather. In spite of everything, Scott still loved him.

“Enough.” Katie gave a huff and pulled him around to face her again. “Mamma says Mr Garrett is overjoyed about our wedding.”

“Hmm.” Scott was sure it was true, just not necessarily for the best reasons.

“Oh, Scott, what am I to do with you?” She scolded and laughed at the same time. “I’m sure your grandfather is no worse than several men in my family. You have to learn to focus on their good points.” She wrapped his arms around her waist and cocked her head to one side like a puppy with play-with-me eyes. She didn’t seem to care if passers-by or their official chaperone thought they were standing too close.

He couldn’t help but smile. “You’re right, of course.” He pulled her into a proper hug. Having made the decision not to break ties with Grandfather, he needed to accept him, warts and all, and look forward to his visit. It would be easier if it weren’t for Murdoch and Johnny, but with marriage to Katie as the prize at the end of the week, Scott could cope with anything.

Decision made he was absolutely convinced of it for a full ten seconds.

Then the stagecoach clattered into town and the first words to spring to mind were, ‘Here comes trouble’.

“Scotty, my boy!” Grandfather beamed as he climbed down from the carriage.

“Grandfather, good to see you again.” Scott shook hands as though nothing bad had ever passed between them, amazed by his grandfather’s good-humour. Two unwashed wranglers and a farmer’s wife with a snivelling child disembarked at the same time, and Grandfather even raised his hat to the lady.

He then turned to Katie. “My dear, what can I say? You have made an old man very happy.”

“You’re too kind, Mr Garrett. Welcome.” Katie hugged the old devil and kissed him on the cheek.

“‘Grandfather’, my dear; I insist you call me ‘Grandfather’.” He took her arm and patted her hand with affection.

Katie smiled. “We thought you might like a drink and a bite to eat before heading out to the ranch, Grandfather.”

“A marvellous idea. It will give us a chance to get to know each other.”

Scott helped the stagecoach driver lower Grandfather’s trunk to the ground. “You two go ahead. I’ll take the luggage to the Landau.”

Grandfather followed Scott’s gaze and raised his eyebrows in surprise. Then he beamed even more broadly than before, and escorted Katie along the boardwalk in the opposite direction, chatting and commenting on his surroundings as though nothing could be more pleasurable than an afternoon stroll in a small, largely-Mexican town in the middle of nowhere.

The fare at Scott and Katie’s favourite café was modest but tasty. The owner offered a quirky mix of Mexican and Anglo food, seasoned to the strength of each customer’s stomach. The coffee was particularly good, although Grandfather didn’t drink much of it. He was too busy expressing his joy over the upcoming nuptials.

Finally, half an hour later, he declared he was ready to depart for the ranch, and Scott reached for his wallet.

“No, no, my boy. This is my treat. I insist.” Grandfather signalled the proprietor and settled the bill, leaving a substantial tip. “That was most refreshing. My compliments, ma’am. Thank you for your excellent service.”

Scott kept his mouth firmly shut, but he was blinking more from disbelief than the glare of the sun as they left the café.

The bonhomie lasted for the rest of the day, and by evening Scott was chiding himself for being such a pessimist. Grandfather was at his sociable best, and the signs were good that it would continue throughout his stay. He talked mainly to Katie and her family, but in no way snubbed the rest. He greeted Emily with pleasant courtesy. “I look forward to knowing you better, my dear. I believe you are from Ohio? I spent some time there as a boy.”

Johnny kept out of his way until supper and managed to remain civil until bedtime.

Murdoch gave Grandfather a grim welcome at first, but a few drinks and the diplomacy of Katie’s parents and grandparents gradually worked its magic. Murdoch was so thoroughly happy about the wedding that it seemed to be too hard for him to stay angry with anyone who shared his joy.

“To Catherine, wherever she may be.” He raised a glass as the two old adversaries stood on the portico gazing up into the night sky.

“To Catherine. Dear, sweet girl.”

Scott retreated back into the shadows. He had been checking on the night watch; once he was sure the conversation wasn’t going to disintegrate into an argument, he’d slip around the back and go in through the kitchen.

“Scotty tells me he and Katie will visit Boston in March.”

“For a few weeks. Then they will come home again to Lancer.” Murdoch continued to gaze out into the darkness of the yard, but his message was clear.

Scott held his breath afraid Grandfather wouldn’t take the hint, but Harlan Garrett stared placidly into his brandy. “Murdoch, I won’t try to persuade them to stay. You have my word.”

“Only because you know it wouldn’t work.”

“Perhaps, but at least now I have learned that lesson. Can we let bygones be bygones?” Grandfather offered his hand. “Let’s make Scotty’s wedding day a happy one.”

Murdoch hesitated. He studied his father-in-law’s eyes, and then to Scott’s relief he shook hands.

Taking a few steps backwards first, Scott strode forward whistling as though he had just rounded the corner—prophetic in a way, because perhaps in that moment they all had.

 

Tuesday, October 8th, 1872

“Knock, knock.” Scott tapped his knuckles against the frame of his bedroom door.

Katie turned from putting something white and silky away in the middle drawer and smiled. “Come in, but leave the door open. We don’t want to shock our grandparents at this late stage.”

“Just our grandparents? You think our parents would be okay with us in a bedroom alone?” Scott slipped his arms around Katie’s waist and kissed her firmly. She was tempting fate wearing her muslin dress with the green sash.

“Hmm, maybe not okay, but disappointed rather than shocked.” She pushed him away and went back to transferring chemises, bloomers and petticoats from a trunk on the floor into the drawer. “Don’t worry I’ll make the wait worthwhile. I’ve been doing my research.”

“Research.” Scott gaped in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“Never you mind.” Katie tiptoed to peck him on the nose and went to hang a bustle in the wardrobe. “What I want to know is where all your clothes are and is there a cabinet maker hereabouts who could make us another wardrobe?”

“I thought we were ordering a whole new bedroom suite once we decided what we wanted. As for clothes, I have a few work things and what I need for the wedding at Johnny’s. Apart from that and what’s in the wardrobe, this is it.” He opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and one of the two half-size drawers at the top. He’d left the other four drawers and two thirds of the wardrobe for Katie, and even then he’d known it wouldn’t be enough.

“It’s not. It can’t be.”

“It can and it is. This is a ranch.”

“I don’t care. I’m not having you in various shades of brown when you’re not herding cattle. I’ll send to San Francisco if I have to.”

“I like brown. It doesn’t show the dirt.” Scott pushed the drawers shut and rested against the dresser, amused by her horror.

“Johnny wears colours and patterns—not just boring check.”

“Oh, now it’s coming out. You think my shirts are boring?”

“Only the brown ones. I like the one you’re wearing now.” She sashayed up to him and kissed him like she’d done her research. Maybe letting her buy him new shirts wasn’t such a big deal.  “The dark blue brings out the colour of your eyes.”

“Well, if you must know, most of my old Boston clothes are in a trunk in the attic—except for a few shirts that I lost.”

“Lost?”

“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you one day, but this is California. Plaid pants and shirts with ruffles just aren’t the style around here.”

“No, but we can do better than brown. What’s that?”

Scott had pulled a small black velvet box out of his jacket pocket. This was what he had come up to his room for, and he smiled in anticipation as he opened the box.

“Oh, Scott!” Katie reached her hand out and touched the fine gold filigree wings of a beautiful butterfly brooch. Light reflected off the citrine gems. “It looks almost real.”

“This was my mother’s.” Resting the box on top of the dresser, he took the brooch from its satin bed and placed it in her hand. “Now it’s yours.”

“Thank you, Scott. I will cherish it always.” She ran her finger over the fine gold motifs.

“Murdoch says Mother wore it often. I know you want to wear the pendant Murdoch gave you at your christening with your wedding dress, but I thought this would go well with your going away outfit.”

“Oh, how clever of you.” Katie almost danced over to the wardrobe. Drawing out the skirt of her cream and gold striped silk gown, she held the brooch up against the fabric. “It’s perfect.”

“It is indeed.” Scott’s grandfather stood in the doorway. “I’m sorry. I hope I’m not intruding.”

“Not at all, Mr Garrett. Scott has just given me this wonderful butterfly brooch. I believe it belonged to your daughter.”

Grandfather entered the room and looked down at the brooch in Katie’s hand. “It was one of her favourite pieces. I bought it for her mother soon after we got married from the proceeds of my first major business success. They both wore it often.”

“Murdoch kept it for me. He gave away the lesser pieces to his goddaughters; the ones who were named after mother. Katie has the aquamarine and pearl pendant, and Catarina Ramirez has a turquoise and gold cross. I haven’t met Catherine Johnson, but she has a locket.”

Grandfather frowned.

“You don’t approve?”

“No, no. It was only right that your father responded to your mother’s friends in such a way, and that he should keep the more valuable pieces for you.”

“Unfortunately, there is only this brooch, but knowing it was my grandmother’s too gives it added value.” Scott looked towards the miniature of his grandmother hanging above a similar portrait of a youthful Harlan on the wall next to the dresser.

His grandfather followed his gaze and gave a small smile. “So those survived. I’m glad.”

“Murdoch kept what he thought was important to Mother to give to me.”

“I shall treasure this brooch, Mr Garrett, and when I leave it to one of your great granddaughters I’ll make sure she knows its history.”

“Very good, my dear, but you must remember to call me ‘Grandfather’ now. No woman wearing that brooch would ever address me as Mr Garrett.”

Scott smiled as Katie kissed his grandfather on the cheek; they came as close to hugging as he’d ever seen Harlan Garrett get with anyone. God knows, the last few years hadn’t been easy, but perhaps marriage to Katie really did signal a new start.

“I need to get back to the road crew or they’ll be sending out a search party.” He kissed Katie goodbye, and the two men went downstairs together.

Before leaving, he showed Grandfather one or two other things that had belonged to his mother: a fine bone china tea set and several books, including the family bible that his parents had been given as a wedding present by Alfred Burke. “The cover was carved by one of the monks at the San Francisco Bay mission. It’s made from local timbers. Murdoch says it was one of Mother’s most cherished possessions.” He touched the copperplate writing that recorded his mother’s death. “And see here, Murdoch has entered my birth, the details of his marriage to Maria, and Johnny’s birth and marriage too.”

“But as the eldest son the bible will eventually be yours.”

“Traditionally I suppose so, but really it belongs to the hacienda and all of us who live here.” Scott put the bible back on the bookshelf. “I’m sorry I can’t spend more time with you now, sir, but I need to get back to work.”

“That’s perfectly all right, my boy. I believe I saw McIntyre outside with his dear wife. I will join them.”

Scott nodded and headed away. One advantage of so many guests at the ranch was that there was pleasant company to be found for everyone. As he rode away, he saw the grandparents chatting over lemonade and newspapers. Grandfather had brought several journals and newspapers with him from back east; he seemed to be under the delusion that the really important news didn’t reach as far west as California.

Grandfather and the McIntyres had left the shade of portico by the time Scott returned. He was earlier than expected, and after a quick freshen up he entered through the back entrance with hopes there would be time for a stroll with Katie before they sat down to supper.

“You sold them, didn’t you?”

Scott stood stock still. He was making an unfortunate habit of accidental eavesdropping; what was it this time?

“She wasn’t cold in her grave before you sold them and ploughed their value into this place.” Grandfather’s voice was high and unusually unrestrained.

“That’s not true.” Murdoch growled back.

“Then what happened to them?”

“It’s not important now.”

Someone moved in the opposite direction. Scott was at the wrong angle to see anything in the reflection of the mirror, but straining to hear, he thought it was his father.

“It is to me.”

“It’s none of your business, Harlan.”

“Catherine was my daughter!” Grandfather was losing control like the day Scott had defied him and left for California. “I gave her the matching necklace and earrings. The ring was an heirloom from her grandmother’s family. I have a right to know where they are.”

“Catherine was my wife!” Murdoch’s fist thumped timber and glass rattled. He had to be by his desk, standing near the ink wells. “You have no rights in the matter beyond what I choose to give you.”

“I demand to know what happened to the rest of her jewellery, and if you don’t tell me, I’ll ask Scott. I’ll give him every detail of the missing pieces.”

“Don’t…please.” Murdoch sounded suddenly defeated. “I can’t explain, but I assure you I didn’t sell them. I didn’t get any financial benefit from them.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Legally they belonged to me, Harlan. What happened to them is no one else’s business.”

“We’ll see if Scott feels that way, shall we?”

Scott peeked around the corner of the arch, wary of being seen. The two men were glaring at each other. Should he make it known he was there? For some reason, Murdoch didn’t want him to know what had happened to the other pieces of jewellery. Why? Another secret? Damn it, Scott had thought they’d got past all that. But did he really want to rock the boat again so close to his wedding day?

“They were taken.” Murdoch’s words hung in the air like the spider Scott could see in the archway climbing upward on an invisible thread.

“Taken? Stolen, you mean? Who by?”

“It was a long time ago, Harlan. It won’t do any good dredging up the past. I put the brooch, ring, necklace and earrings aside for Scott. I would never have sold them.”

“You expect me to believe a thief took the ring and the demi-parure, but left the brooch. What kind of fool do you take me for?”

“Think what you like. Scott gets married in five days. You told me only yesterday you regretted hurting him. Unless that was a lie, please don’t pursue this.”

“How very convenient, Murdoch, but you will not make me the villain this time. You sold those jewels or put them up as collateral and then couldn’t repay the debt. That’s it, isn’t it? You borrowed against them, and then because of the flood or the drought in the ‘60s you defaulted.”

Murdoch didn’t reply.

With a huff of frustration Grandfather stalked out of the room. Scott dodged back behind the stairs to avoid being seen.

When the bedroom door slammed on the floor above, he emerged from hiding and went over to the arch leading into the great room. His father had his back to him, staring out of the picture window.

Murdoch turned as Scott entered the room. “I’ve told…oh, it’s you.”

“Are you all right, sir?”

“Fine, fine. It’s nothing.”

“Well, I’d like to believe you, Murdoch, but that’s not quite true. Is it? I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I’ve been here for a while.”

“I see.” Murdoch went to the liquor tray on the table behind the sofa and poured himself a whisky. He lifted a second empty glass, but Scott shook his head. “How much did you hear?”

“Enough to know we should talk.”

“It was a long time ago, Scott.”

“I understand that. And I agree; it’s none of Grandfather’s business. My mother was your wife and her jewellery belonged to you.”

Murdoch spun around. “Her jewellery belonged to her. I would never have sold any of it for the ranch or anything else.” He took a large mouthful of whisky and swallowed hard. “She offered to sell it once, but I wouldn’t let her. I kept all the more valuable pieces for you, but…”

“You lost them.”

“The past belongs in the past Scott. It does no good dragging it up after so many years.”

Scott studied his father. If the jewellery was forfeited to pay off a loan, he couldn’t see Murdoch denying it. But if it was taken as Murdoch had said earlier, it couldn’t have been by any ordinary thief. Murdoch wouldn’t have any reason to keep a simple theft quiet, and he’d said ‘taken’ not ‘stolen’. “I don’t claim a right to know, sir, but I thought we’d agreed there should be no more secrets between us.”

Murdoch raised his eyes—sadness, desperation and then resignation. “If I tell you, promise me it goes no further.”

“If it’s that important to you. I reserve the right to tell Katie, but no one else—I promise.”

“Where is everyone?” Murdoch strode past him, checking the hall to the kitchen and then the front hallway.

“Johnny will probably be another half an hour. Grandfather has gone to his room, and the Eliot men are helping to put up the marquees. I don’t know where the women are, but they’re not here.”

After opening and closing the door to the side entrance, Murdoch returned to his desk, looking a little more at ease. “I kept your mother’s jewellery in the strongbox.” He waved towards the large iron casket beneath the picture window. “I used to hide the key in different places.”

“But someone found it?”

“Maria knew where to look.”

“Maria—Johnny’s mother?”

“I don’t think she intended to take the jewellery.” His shoulders slumped as Murdoch sat back onto the edge of his desk. “That bastard gambler…he helped her leave the house, I’m almost sure of it. I think when she opened the strongbox to get Johnny’s baptism certificate, he spotted the jewellery cases.”

“You don’t think she took them?”

“No.”

“Didn’t Maria consider Mother’s jewellery to be her own?”

“Is that what you think of me?” His father flared. “I would never… “

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any offence.” Scott would need to be more careful. It wasn’t uncommon for women to take possession of their predecessor’s jewels. He’d been prepared for that to be the case with Maria. He was glad it wasn’t, but he wouldn’t have thought any worse of his father if he had given his second wife the bulk of his first wife’s jewellery.

“Even if I’d offered them to her—which I didn’t—Maria wouldn’t have accepted them. She said our marriage was haunted by Catherine’s ghost. She was fanatical about it. She emptied this house of almost every trace of her.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. He had wondered why there was so little evidence of his mother’s touch in the hacienda when he arrived. He had put it down to time, and his own unreasonable expectations, but this was a more sobering truth. “Thurstan Cole wasn’t so particular?”

Murdoch winced at the mention of the man’s name. Sometimes Scott thought his father regretted letting him read the Pinkerton reports he had received about Johnny. They contained names and events he still preferred not to think about. “All he cared about was money. He cleaned out the cash box and started breaking up the necklace in San Diego. The gems helped pay for their escape into Mexico.”

“But surely the necklace and earrings were a matching set worth far more intact.”

“If he could get it to a dealer, but there weren’t any in San Diego at the time. Besides, a demi-parure of such high quality would have been traceable. Either it wasn’t worth the risk, or he needed cash immediately and cut his losses. I found out later he gave the earrings to his fancy woman in New Orleans.”

“Did you try to get them back?”

“At the time I had more important things on my mind.” Murdoch’s face was grim.

Scott kicked himself. It had been a stupid question.

“I might be able to recover them. If you want me to, I’ll try.”

“I’ll think about it. Under the circumstances, they might not remind me of Mother.”

Murdoch nodded. There were no prizes for guessing what the ear rings would remind him of.

“Are you sure Johnny’s mother didn’t keep any of the jewellery?”

“It’s the one thing I am sure of. At first I told myself she didn’t know what Cole had done, but that was wishful thinking. Ben Telford recognized the brooch in a shop window in New Orleans when he was bringing his family from St Louis to San Francisco. Cole had sold it in exchange for money and garnet earrings for Maria. She was with him at the time.”

“How did Ben know it was Mother’s brooch?”

“The butterfly is unique. Harlan had it made as an anniversary present for your grandmother, and Catherine wore it when we got married.”

“And Ben was your best man.”

Murdoch sat down at his desk. “He knew Maria had taken it. He says it jumped out at him as soon as he saw it in the window. He asked a few questions and bought it back for me.”

“That was good of him.”

Even allowing for the fact that Ben could expect to be repaid, not many men would have parted with so much cash for a friend. It said a lot about him and Murdoch.

Scott perched on the corner of the desk and picked up the paperweight, turning it in his hands. “I bet you wish you could have spoken to the jeweller yourself.”

“I did speak to him. I left California as soon as I could after Ben returned the brooch. I went on one of many wild goose chases in search of your brother. But I didn’t find him then, and I don’t want to destroy what we have now by telling him about the jewellery.”

Putting the glass ball back, Scott looked over at Murdoch. “Johnny would blame himself for what happened.”

“Himself or his mother, and his faith in her has been badly shaken since coming home. I don’t want things made any worse. Please, Scott, don’t let there be ill-feeling over this.”

“I promise, Murdoch; I won’t say a word to Johnny. I’ll tell Grandfather we’ve talked and the matter is settled.” Standing up, Scott made a move to go back to Johnny and Emily’s apartment.

“You won’t tell him what happened to the other pieces?”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

Murdoch reached out and caught Scott’s arm. “Thank you, son. I’m grateful.”

 

Wednesday, October 9th, 1872

“Your grandfather didn’t say anything about the jewellery last night. I think it’s going to be all right.” Katie poured Scott a second cup of coffee and pushed a buttered slice of walnut loaf towards him.

He wasn’t going to be able to move if he sampled everything on the table, but she was so eager to find out whether he liked what she’d made that he didn’t have the heart to refuse. “Mmm, this is delicious.”

“Thank you, sir.” She beamed and bobbed a curtsy. Then she topped up his coffee and sat down opposite him with a cup of her own. “All in all my first unsupervised attempts at baking haven’t gone down too badly. Freddy had a caramel cookie with everyone else and then grabbed two more on his way out the door.”

“I noticed he wasn’t with Frank this morning.” Scott took another bite of loaf. “Earning extra cash for San Francisco didn’t last long.”

“He’ll probably be back with the work crew tomorrow. He’s gone to Spanish Wells to buy you-know-what for you-know-who.”

“Ah, I see. Has Bob gone with him?” Scott passed the rest of Katie’s family driving towards Green River on his way back to the hacienda. After the effort it took to persuade Robert to let Freddy go to the bachelor party, he couldn’t imagine the boy being allowed to visit Spanish Wells alone.

“Bob is over in the old Spanish lock-up helping Jelly make seats for the wedding.” Katie’s eyes twinkled, and Scott laughed. Something told him learning a new skill wasn’t entirely Bob’s idea.

“Your father must be lightening up.”

“It’s a nice thought, but no. Freddy hasn’t gone alone. Your grandfather very kindly offered to accompany him last night. I don’t think Papa would have agreed to him going otherwise, even with our gun-toting chaperone riding by his side.” Katie sipped her coffee. “Apparently your grandfather has never been to Spanish Wells.”

“Hmm, I suppose that’s true.” Scott stood up from the table. He had a bad feeling, and it had nothing to do with Katie’s cooking. The idea that Grandfather had any desire to visit a town full of miners and country folk was almost as farfetched as him being kind. “Time I got back to work. I’ll see you later.” He kissed her goodbye and went to deal with the simpler things in life like barbed wire, ornery cattle and lazy ranch hands. He couldn’t hold out much hope, but there was a slim chance Grandfather wasn’t up to something.

The real reason the mighty Harlan Garrett willingly spent two hours travelling on dusty roads and most of the day with a teenage boy came to light shortly before supper. Scott arrived back at Johnny and Emily’s place about five o’clock, hoping to get a quick bath and change his clothes before stealing Katie away for a stroll.

“Damn!”

“Did you say something?” Johnny called from the bathroom over the sound of running water. He’d beaten Scott to it again, and knowing him, he could be in there forever.

Scott ignored him and lifted the corner of the chequered cloth covering a cooling rack on the table. Oatmeal cookies; Emily must have been baking that morning too. Judging by the crumbs Johnny had already helped himself to a welcome-home snack so Scott did the same. He chewed slowly. He would have to wait for a bath or make do with the sink or the basin and ewer in his bedroom. None of those options appealed, but he was saved from making the choice immediately by a tap on the door.

“Grandfather—come in.”

“Thank you, my boy. So this is where you’re hiding.”

“Not hiding, sir, but until the wedding, Johnny and Emily are kindly putting me up.”

“Very snug.” Grandfather cast an expressionless eye about the room. “More what your half-brother is used to, I expect.”

Scott kept his mouth shut. Johnny and Emily had said much the same thing, but coming from Grandfather the comment conjured a different meaning. He didn’t waste time thinking too much about it though; he had an idea this wasn’t a casual visit.

Grandfather wandered over to a landscape painting on the far wall. “Young Freddy has inherited his mother’s talent for drawing. Those pencil sketches he showed us last night were rather impressive.”

“I agree. The one of the men erecting the fence was particularly good. He seemed to capture the effort and energy involved.”

“Indeed. I thought that must be your favourite. He had it framed in Spanish Wells today. I think you can expect it as a wedding present.”

“I hope you’re right. I know just where to hang it.”

Hands in his coat pockets, Grandfather turned around. “I took the liberty of asking Master Eliot to do me a favour while we were out today.”

“Oh? What sort of favour?”

“I got him to draw your mother’s jewellery from my description. I thought you would like to know what each piece looked like, and something of its history. There were more pieces than Murdoch told you about.”

Scott glanced down the hall. Johnny must have rushed his bath and snuck out of the bathroom; the door was open and his bedroom door was now shut. With luck it would stay that way, but Scott kept his voice low just in case. “You’re mistaken, Grandfather. Murdoch did tell me about the other items.”

“I’m not talking about the jewellery he gave to his goddaughters.”

“I know. You’re talking about a ring and Mother’s aquamarine necklace and earrings.”

“Where are they?”

“That’s not your concern.”

“Not my concern?  Family heirlooms are missing, and you have the audacity to say it’s not my concern. See here.” Grandfather removed some papers from inside his frock coat and slapped the sketches down on the table one by one. “These are what were given away. This is an aquamarine and diamond demi-parure I gave your mother for her twenty-first birthday. And this is a diamond ring passed down through several generations of your grandmother’s family.”

Scott examined the sketches. Each one was labelled with what the item was made from and a brief account of its background. They must have taken Grandfather and Freddy a long time to complete. “Mother is wearing this in the photograph Murdoch has on his desk.” Scott traced the shape of the necklace. It was a shame. It would have looked lovely around Katie’s neck, and the earrings would also go well with the pendant she had inherited. “I haven’t seen this before. I thought from what you and Murdoch said it was a woman’s ring?”

“It is.”

“It looks too heavy.”

“The style of the time. The ring is very old and very precious. Whatever Murdoch has done with it, you must demand he gets it back. It’s yours by right.”

“Not by any legal right, Grandfather, and regardless, I told you, Murdoch has explained and I have accepted his explanation. That’s an end to it.”

“Scotty, I won’t let you…”

“You have no choice. Now, please, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I need to get ready for supper.” Scott ushered his grandfather through the door and out onto the loggia. “I’ll see you later in the great room, but please respect my wishes. I don’t want any more discussion about Mother’s jewellery.”

“I won’t disrupt your wedding, but I promise you I will get to the bottom of this.” Grandfather marched off towards the hacienda. “The man’s brainwashed you, and one day you’ll realize it.”

Scott sighed and went back into the living room. Damn!

Johnny stood by the table in his stocking feet, gazing down at the drawings. “Missing, huh?”

“Ah, yes, some pieces were lost. Can’t be helped.” Scott gathered up the pages.

“Lost? Murdoch, the man who double checks everything, lost your mother’s jewellery? That don’t sound right.”

“Some pieces were taken and can’t be recovered. Murdoch tried. As I’ve just told Grandfather, I’d rather leave it at that.” There was an awkward moment, and Scott escaped into his bedroom. Shutting the door, he pressed his back against it. Please God, let Johnny lose interest and drop the subject.

But it didn’t look hopeful after supper. As Teresa served coffee Johnny whispered something in their father’s ear. Murdoch frowned. The next thing Scott knew, they had left the great room together.  He tried to follow, but he was hemmed in near the fireplace.

“What do you think?” Beth asked, assuming he had been listening to the conversation. Julia and Katie exchanged amused glances.

“I’m sorry I was miles away. What do I think about what?”

“Should we have vases of flowers on the dining tables or on stands at each corner of the tents?”

“I really don’t mind, Beth. I’m sure you’ll make the right decision.” He smiled and sidestepped around her. “Would you excuse me? I believe I’m needed outside.”

He crossed the room, placing his cup on the table as he passed. Then Bob hailed him with an offer of brandy.

“When I come back.” He waved and slipped through the French doors into the moonlight. Where had they gone?

At first he couldn’t see them, but then dark shapes moved out of the shadows between the barn and the corral. He strode towards them, speeding up as he caught snatches of an argument.

“Who took them?”

“Johnny, I said I don’t want to talk about it.” Murdoch turned away and saw Scott approaching.

“Well, I do.” Johnny pulled his father around. “You have to stop this, Murdoch. I’m a man, not a boy. I don’t need protecting from the truth.”

“Hey, hey, what’s going on?” Scott held up his hands as if they could put out his brother’s fire.

“And you’re no better.” Johnny glared and jabbed a finger in his direction. “Not happy when Murdoch keeps secrets from you, but more than happy to go along with the ones he keeps from me.”

Scott swallowed. There was a certain amount of truth in that.

“I’ll tell you what I think. Your mother’s jewellery wasn’t lost. It was stolen—by my mother—and you both know it.”

“No, son, that’s not true. Maria never wanted anything of Catherine’s.”

“Yeah? Well, that bastard she ran off with wasn’t so fussy.” Johnny looked grim.

Scott glanced at Murdoch. There was tension in every muscle. Scott needed to be the one to speak. “I’ll take your word for it, brother, but why you think either of them had anything to do with my mother’s jewellery, is beyond me. You’re as bad as Grandfather: jumping to conclusions without a scrap of evidence.”

“I have evidence.”

Scott’s heart sank. “You do?”

“The ring.”

“What about the ring?” Scott wasn’t going to give up just yet. There was no way Johnny could have the ring. He only had the clothes he stood up in when he came home to Lancer. Besides, if he had managed to hide something like that in his boot or someplace else, Scott was sure by now he would have shown it to one of them.

“I recognise it.” Johnny stood, hands on hips, his jaw set as though he knew what he was talking about. But even recognising it seemed unlikely. How could he?

Murdoch’s face was so pale it looked like a death mask in the moonlight, but he wet his lips and tried to sound unconcerned. “You couldn’t possibly, son. You were too young when it went missing.”

Johnny stared at Murdoch and then barked a laugh. “You didn’t know Cole very well, did you?”

“I knew him better than I ever wanted to.”

“Didn’t we all?” Johnny snapped back. Then he bowed his head and scuffed his boots on the ground. The night air suddenly felt very cold.

An owl hooted and Scott took a chance. “It was a long time ago, Johnny. The ring you remember probably wasn’t Mother’s.”

Johnny’s head jerked up.

“See this.” He jabbed at a small white scar under his jaw. “See it. Those diamonds were fucking sharp.”

“Maria did that?” Scott was appalled. He’d heard plenty of unpleasant stories about Johnny’s mother, but never anything to suggest she’d hit him.

“No, of course not.”

“Cole.” Murdoch’s mouth formed a hard line. “I thought he’d sold or gambled the ring away soon after they left.”

“Not him. The ring was his insurance. He carried it in his pocket until he nearly lost it in a fracas. I was about eight or nine. Then he started wearing it.” Johnny waggled the little finger on his right hand.

“Wasn’t that dangerous in the border towns?” Scott was no expert, but if someone recognised the gems for what they were, they could have gotten him killed.

“He took the ring to a goldsmith in Kansas City. It looks like an ordinary signet ring now; the diamonds are hidden.”

“Cole always did like his trinkets.” Murdoch gripped the corral fence rail and looked out into the night, a cloud of bitterness surrounding him.

“Yep, fancy cigar case and match safe, rings, tie pins and cuff links. A signet ring fitted right in. He had almost as many doodads as Mama.” Johnny gave a cold laugh, and then looked straight at Scott. “I’m sorry…”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It’s my responsibility.”

“I disagree.”

Johnny waved Scott’s remark away. “I have an idea where the ring is, and I’d lay money you two know where the other pieces are. It’s up to me to get them back.”

“No one can get the demi-parure back.” Murdoch pushed off the fence, turning to meet Johnny eye to eye. “Cole broke the necklace up in San Diego and sold the stones one by one.”

“What about the earbobs.”

“They’re gone too.”

Johnny studied his father and Murdoch flinched. “You’re not a good liar, Murdoch, but I don’t remember Mama ever wearing them.”

“I told you she wouldn’t.”

“Didn’t you say Cole lost them in a poker game?” It was a lame attempt at a rescue; Scott should have known better.

Johnny’s scorn was scathing. “You’re not a very good storyteller either, brother.”

He turned his eyes back to Murdoch. “So what did Cole do with them? Too valuable to give to a border whore. No, I reckon the only other person he’d give something like that to would be his Mademoiselle in New Orleans.”

Murdoch’s mouth fell open.

“At least she earned them, but I can buy them back.”

“You know about her?”

“Sure. Mama refused to do some stuff the bastard liked and none of the brothels west of the Mississippi cater to that sort of thing. Every now and again he’d take himself off to a big old house in the French Quarter of New Orleans.”

“You were only a little boy. How do you know what he liked?” Murdoch nearly choked on the question; Scott would have laid money he was afraid of the answer.

Johnny laughed, but not with any humour. “How do you think?”

“My God, Johnny, he never touched you, did he?” Scott blurted it out before he could stop himself. Damn! Damn! Damn!

“Pfft.” Johnny didn’t seem bothered. If anything he appeared amused by what he could see on their faces. “Cole wasn’t that kind of pervert. What he liked to do with women was almost as sick though.”

Scott glanced at Murdoch. They still didn’t know how Johnny knew so much about Cole’s inclinations. He’d only been twelve when Maria died, and he and Cole parted company.

“Sheesh, I can’t believe you two. The bastard shared Mama’s bed for the best part of ten years. What did you think: that we slept in mansions like this every night?” Johnny waved towards the hacienda. “Most of the time it was two rooms with paper thin walls in a hotel if I was lucky and a one room cabaña if I wasn’t. What I didn’t see, I heard until I was old enough to hightail it out of there before they got started.”

“Son, I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, you tried to find me. I didn’t know it at the time, but it means a lot now.”

“I’m still sorry.”

“It wasn’t all bad. I learned what kind of man not to be, and what kind of women to steer clear of.”

“Your mama never used to be that kind of woman.”

“I remember sometimes when she wasn’t.” Johnny bowed his head again and for a while no one said anything. Then he looked up. “Okay. Enough jawing.”

“Where are you going?” Scott grabbed his arm.

 Johnny shook him off. “Back to my place for now.”

“For now?”

“After you get back from your honeymoon I’m riding out.”

“What do you mean?” Murdoch’s voice broke.

“Mama and that mongrel Cole took Scott’s things. It’s up to me to get them back. However long it takes.”

“You can’t.” Panic took over, and Murdoch no longer tried to hide it. “What about Emily? The ranch?”

Johnny blinked.

And Scott exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

“Shoot, Murdoch. I’ll come back. I won’t be away for more than a few weeks at a time.”

Scott put a hand on his father’s shoulder and felt the muscles relax; it was still hard for Murdoch to believe two years could trump twenty.

“Where would you go, little brother?”

Johnny looked up at the stars and breathed in and out, slow and steady. “Last place I saw the ring—Santa Fe.”

So that was it, the gambler was wearing the ring when Johnny Madrid gunned him down. The Pinkerton report Scott had read only a year ago hadn’t been very detailed, but he remembered it had said there were plenty of witnesses. Would it be safe for Johnny to go back there? Expecting Murdoch to say something, Scott looked sideways, but his father had locked eyes with Johnny and they didn’t need words.

Scott bit his tongue and prayed hard.

“Wait until winter, John. I’ll come with you.”

Johnny shrugged. “There’s no need.”

“Scott, can take care of the ranch, and we’ll go together. It’s my responsibility too.”

“I can look after myself, Pa.” Johnny smiled, and Murdoch smiled back.

“I know that. But you’re missing the point, son.” He pulled Johnny into a bear hug. “I want my turn.”

 

Thursday, October 10th, 1872

“I knew something had happened. I just knew it.”

“I wanted to talk to you about it last night, but there were too many people around. I couldn’t get you alone.”

“I know and I’m sorry. It won’t be for much longer.” Katie snuggled into Scott as they enjoyed the privacy provided by the early morning and the old orange tree behind the hacienda, its boughs now hanging low, heavy with green leaves and slowly ripening fruit. “I’m glad it all worked out in the end. It will be much safer if Johnny and Murdoch go together.”

“I hope so.” Scott sighed and squeezed her hand. Last night had opened his eyes to some things he had never fully understood.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He smiled as Katie raised her eyebrows in disbelief. He liked that she could read him so well. “It’s just that I’m kicking myself. I’ve always been a little jealous that Johnny had his mother with him all those years when I didn’t. I was a fool.”

“I don’t think so.” Katie turned his hand and traced her finger over the lines and callouses on his palm. “Your earlier lives were blessed and deprived in different ways.”

“Only I lived in the lap of luxury while Johnny...” Scott turned away. He was being ridiculous, but he couldn’t help it.

Katie reached out and took his hand again. “It’s not a competition, Scott.”

“No.”

“Say it like you believe it. Johnny’s life before he came to Lancer is not your fault. And from what he says, it wasn’t all bad. He wouldn’t want you to feel like this.”

“You’re right, but Murdoch still feels guilty about what happened to me and Johnny, even though most of it wasn’t his fault. Why should I be any more rational?”

“Because you have me, and he didn’t have anyone for years. Did he tell you he felt like that?”

“Pretty much. Not exactly those words, but he said a lot of things in the east wing the other day. Some of it didn’t sink in until later. It was so unlike him to say any of it.”

“He loves you.”

“So he said.” Scott smiled self-consciously and plucked a leaf from the branch above his head. He’d grown to like and respect Murdoch. Hell, he loved him, but neither of them had been very good at putting those feelings into words, not to each other at any rate.

“He may not show it to you and Johnny often, but I see the pride and love Murdoch has for you both every day.”

Scott drew Katie closer and kissed the top of her head. “Are you going to make a habit of saying everything I want to hear?”

“Only when it’s true.” Her eyes twinkled as she lifted a lock of his hair with her finger. “I don’t want you getting big headed.”

“Indeed?”

“Indeed. And what’s more, I intend to make up for everything your childhood lacked, even if we have to have twelve children to do it.”

“Now there’s a thought.” He brushed his lips against hers.

“Katie! Scott!”

Sighing, Scott leaned back against the tree trunk and looked towards the hacienda. Dressed in her riding gear, Katie’s youngest sister appeared in the arch leading from the kitchen courtyard.

“That girl’s timing is unbelievable.”

Katie laughed.
 
Then Victoria shouted their names again through cupped hands.

“Oh, there you are,” she said, spotting them and marching up to the orange tree. “Stop mooning over each other. Breakfast is ready.”

“There were some advantages to being an only child.” Scott got to his feet and offered Katie a hand up.

She accepted his gallantry as Victoria spun on her heels and strode off towards the house.

“Hurry up.”

Strolling arm in arm behind her, Scott and Katie paused to smell the apricot-coloured roses that twisted and climbed over the arch.

Victoria stopped on the kitchen step. “Katie, please. Mamma won’t let me ride out with Emily until we’ve had breakfast.”

“You mean until you’ve sat down like a lady for twenty minutes with the rest of the family.”

Victoria stuck out her tongue and disappeared inside.

“Very lady-like.” Scott held the beads back from the kitchen door so Katie could go through.

“Yes, well, one step at a time. We don’t need her or Emily this morning. They might as well go looking for wild horses. It will help take Emily’s mind off Johnny and Santa Fe.”

With only two days left before the wedding, preparations were soon in full flow with Beth in charge. The seamstress from Miss Menzies’s Dresses and Gowns arrived from Green River soon after breakfast and whisked Katie and most of the other women upstairs for their final fittings. Even Beth and her mother seemed to be having something made or adjusted. Several ranch hands had been diverted from their normal routine to collect flowers, vases, crockery and linen from neighbouring properties, and yet another postal delivery of wedding presents from back east arrived mid-morning.

While Katie and Beth were still busy upstairs, Teresa, Julia and her grandmother received the various items as they arrived. They took the flowers down to the wine cellar where it was cool and they could arrange them ready to be put out on their stands under the tents on Saturday morning. There were decorations to make, place cards to write, and details of every kind to finalise with those involved.

Housekeeper Maria and other women from the ranch took over the kitchen. Delicious smells filled the hacienda.

Scott popped in at midday, but every time he opened a door someone squawked and ordered him away. The kitchen was out of bounds to hungry men so he had to make do with bread and cheese in the bunkhouse.

Resigned to not seeing Katie again before suppertime, he saddled up a fresh horse from the corral.

“Dang mule. As if I ain’t got enough to do.” Jelly dragged Jemima out of the barn into the daylight and began harnessing her to a cart laden with ladders. “What you looking at?”

“Not a thing. Is everything all right?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Jelly!” Murdoch came striding around the corner. “What’s taking you so long with those ladders?”

“I’m coming. I just got to fix something first.”

“Do it later. The others are waiting.” Murdoch turned his attention to Scott. “Where are you off to?”

“Bull Creek unless you need me?”

“No, no, we can manage. The chairs are nearly all set out now, and we’re making a start on the Chinese lanterns—or we will be once we have ladders.”

Muttering under his breath, Jelly glared at Murdoch’s back and finally got Jemima moving in the right direction.

Murdoch scanned the yard. “Where’s Johnny?”

“I haven’t seen him, but he arranged last night to take Julia and Teresa up to the hunting cabin this afternoon.” Scott smiled. He and Katie had decided to do the same as Johnny and Emily and spend their wedding night away from all the fuss. The best man and matron of honour had been taking care of the details, but they had enlisted a few willing helpers to assist with the finishing touches. On their wedding night the guests could party into the night without them while he and Katie slipped away to the little cabin in the woods. Unlike Johnny and Emily they would come back to the hacienda the following afternoon however, as they were to accompany Katie’s family back to San Francisco on Monday.

Murdoch went back to hanging lanterns and arranging chairs, and Scott rode out to inspect the creek that provided water to one of the main pastures.

Cipriano had spotted a problem on his way back to the yard the evening before. “Bull Creek is down to a trickle at the bridge, Señor Scott. I don’t like the look of it.”

Scott found the cause about half a mile upstream where the roots of a large willow grew out from the bank. A broken branch had washed down from one of the oaks higher up and got stuck across the full width of the creek. Smaller debris was building up fast behind it.

“Damn.” He had hoped it could wait until after the wedding, but a crew would need to start clearing the next day, or there would soon be no water for the cattle grazing further down.

Cipriano had several work crews digging culverts nearby, but Scott didn’t want to divert any of them if he could help it. The rainy season wasn’t far away and the section of road they were working on had flooded last winter. With luck, Frank’s men were nearly done with the fence above Thunder Canyon.

When he arrived to check, he was pleasantly surprised to find Freddy still working on the bluff. The crew was digging the final few post holes too so they would be free to move onto the creek the next morning.

“When can we visit the Indian cave?” Freddy asked, wiping sweat off the back of his neck.

“I forgot about the cave. Let’s do it next time you come to the ranch. I’m not sure we’ll have time now.”

“But you promised.” Freddy threw the spade down in disgust.

“Not exactly…Look, Freddy, I’m sorry.”

But he was already talking to the boy’s back.

“You’re just like all the rest.”
 
Scott sighed. There wasn’t a lot he could do.

“Don’t worry, boss; he’ll get over it.” Frank offered him the canteen as Freddy went to help Luis.

“I hope so.” Scott took a swig and frowned. Freddy was hauling posts off the wagon as though they had done him a personal injury.

Putting the top back on the canteen, he returned it to Frank. Shame it contained water and not whisky; he could use something a little stronger to give him strength. All his wedding day needed was a sullen teenager. Maybe he could find a spare hour somewhere—perhaps when Grandfather offered to dig ditches.

 

Friday, October 11th, 1872—How it began

“Now you stand here, Johnny, next to Scott, and then the groomsmen.” Pastor Appleby arranged Bob, Jamie and Freddy like chess pieces until he was satisfied.

Scott glanced down the line, but looked away quickly. The minister was in great earnest and this rehearsal was for his and Katie’s benefit. They mustn’t laugh, and yet he could feel Johnny’s shoulder shaking against his.

“Right, bridesmaids.” The good pastor’s eyes were fortunately fixed on the rear of the open-sided tent where Teresa, Emily and Katie’s sisters stood talking to Katie and her father. “When the organist begins to play the wedding march you four make your way, one at a time, up the aisle. Matron of honour first and then in the order agreed. Yes, that’s right. Slowly with modesty and grace.” He swept his arms wide and demonstrated.

One of the graceful, modest bridesmaids gave a snort—Scott wasn’t totally sure who, but Victoria was blinking rapidly with her lips tight shut when she ended the small procession and lined up opposite Freddy.

Julia gave her a sharp nudge with her elbow, and then gave Pastor Appleby a beaming smile. He blushed. The little flirt—she’d been entertaining herself all morning doing this kind of thing, flattering and batting her eyelids at the poor man.

It was the unholy result of a light-hearted discussion she had had with Scott the night before. According to Julia, part of a Boston high society lady’s training involved how to charm men, young and old.

“Indeed, but you, my dear sister, need to learn where and with whom it is safe to practise such arts.” Bob had handed her a fresh glass of wine and given her a stern look.

“It’s not my fault some gentlemen aren’t gentlemen.” As far as Scott knew she hadn’t heard about the fight in Morro Coyo. She simply thought Bob was being a tiresome big brother. “But I have learnt that lesson, thank you very much, so don’t go on about it. I’ll be more careful in the future.”

“I’m pleased to hear it.”

Julia gave a small huff and turned back to Scott. “Anyway, as I was saying—before I was so rudely interrupted—even Victoria has learned a few tricks.”

“She’s a novice. You’re much more adept.” Bob raised his glass in a toast, and she gave a smug curtsey. “But Katie is queen.”

“I’m as good as she is now. You’ve been away at sea too long to notice.”

“That could be true, but I’ll reserve judgement until I witness your improvement.” Bob chuckled; he was clearly very fond of Julia, even if she had caused him to bruise his knuckles.

“Well, Katie didn’t use any arts on me. It was swords drawn when we met again in San Francisco.”

“So I heard, but how do you know that wasn’t part of her strategy? Never underestimate the ability of any of my sisters to manipulate a situation. I believe your bride is demonstrating the value of her talents as we speak.” Bob gave a nod to where Katie was talking with Grandfather by the fireplace. She certainly was doing an excellent job of keeping him sweet and off the subject of jewellery.

“It’s a fact, future brother-in-law: few men in this world can resist the charms of a Miss Eliot, and if I get the chance I’ll prove to you both that I’m just as skilled as Katie.”

The subject had then moved to other things, but Julia must have seen Pastor Appleby as an opportunity to show off her prowess. She winked at Scott across the grass, and he couldn’t help but smile. She lacked Katie’s subtlety and understanding in a number of ways, but Julia was fun-loving and good-natured, and like most men, he had a soft spot for her.

But in Bob’s words, Katie was queen, and as she began her slow walk down the grassy aisle with her father, Scott forgot about everything and everyone else around him. It was only a practice, and she was wearing a day dress, not a bridal gown, but her hair, simply tied, was cascading down her back, her skin looked soft and inviting, her eyes sparkled and… As their eyes met she took his breath away. He was the luckiest man alive. Katie was beautiful.

“And now, Dr Eliot, you take a seat next to your lovely wife and…” Pastor Appleby stopped mid-sentence as the fire bell clanged from the yard beyond the hacienda.

“It’s the barn.” Someone yelled, and everybody ran.

By the time they reached the other side of the house, smoke was billowing through the open double doors of the barn, men and women were relaying buckets of water, and Murdoch was hollering.  A couple of hands pulled bandanas up over their mouths and noses and ran inside with shovels and sacks to beat out the flames.

“Get that hay wagon out of there,” Murdoch bellowed, and Jelly and another hand struggled with the horses to pull it out of harm’s way. The hayloft doors were wide open. Men must have been pitching hay into the loft when the fire broke out.

“Are all the animals out?” Scott panted as he and Johnny reached Murdoch.

“Yes, they’re out,” Murdoch snapped. “We caught it early, but there will be hell to pay when I find out who started it.”

“What do you mean?”

Murdoch shoved a charred cigar box into Johnny’s stomach. “Walt found this inside.”

Johnny turned the cigar box over in his hands; there were a few cigars left, but it definitely wasn’t full. He passed the box to Scott and went to take a closer look.

Scott had a horrible sinking feeling.

“May I see that?” Robert Eliot came up behind them. He took the box and stared at the burnt remains of the label. They were the same expensive cigars they’d been smoking in the hacienda. The same cigars that went missing a few days after the Eliots arrived.

“Now, Robert, don’t go jumping to conclusions.” Even as he said it, Scott knew he was too late.

“Freddy!” Robert erupted.

The boy came forward warily like an animal sensing danger. The rest of the Eliots hung back; they knew when not to interfere.

“Well?” Robert thrust the box at his youngest son.

Freddy eyed the burnt remains of the box.

“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Freddy’s head jerked up. “I’m not responsible for that.” He waved his hand towards the barn as the bucket carriers started to disperse. The fire was out.

“These are the cigars you took. Don’t deny it.”

“I’m not, but—.”

“They just walked inside, I suppose.”

“No, I hid them under some sacking behind a shelf full of tins and lanterns, but I’d never smoke in there. I’m not stupid.”

“Oh, please. Who else…”

“Let’s talk about this inside in private.” Beth put herself between her husband and son. She reached out to Freddy, but he brushed her off.

“Don’t you dare treat your mother like that!” Robert snatched at his son’s arm, but Freddy dodged him and backed away.

“I’m sorry. Mamma. I didn’t mean—”

“You tell the truth and take the consequences right now, young man, or so help me…”

“I am telling the truth. Not that you’ll ever believe me.” Freddy glared at his father and then swung around. “Think what you like.” He marched off, pushing roughly through a group of on-lookers.

“Come back here!”

“Robert, let him go.” Scott blocked the older man’s path. “He needs time to cool off.”

“You need time to cool off,” Beth slipped her arm through her husband’s. “This isn’t doing anyone any good.”

“He could have burned the barn down, Beth.”

“We don’t know for sure he was responsible.”

“Beth, he’s been smoking for months. I’ve had more than one run in with him about it. I didn’t want to say anything before, but he stole those cigars from Murdoch’s cabinet.”

“Oh, Robert, stealing? You should have told me.” Beth looked mortified. “Murdoch, Scott, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right, Beth.”

“It’s not all right, Murdoch. Just because I forced him to pay for them from his allowance, doesn’t make it right at all. I’ve been too soft on him. The boy needs to grow up.”

“Maybe, but I don’t reckon he set the barn alight.” Johnny approached from the direction of the barn, holding a blackened object.

“What’s that?” Scott took the thing from his brother’s hands. It was a broken oil lantern. One side was bashed in and the glass was gone.

“Found it in the middle of the burn with a mess of broken glass shining in the sunlight. If you ask me this and the open hayloft door are what caused the fire.”

“Ahem.” Jelly cleared his throat. He’d been hovering in the background, cap in hand, listening into what was going on.

“Do you know something about this?” Scott held the lantern out for Jelly to see.

“Might do.”

“Spit it out, man.” Murdoch was in no mood to be patient. “What do you know?”

“Well, it ain’t my fault, boss. I was going to clean up, but you came a hollering for me to hurry up, and I just forgot to go back is all.”

“What are you talking about?” If Freddy wasn’t to blame, Scott wanted the truth as soon as possible.

“When I fetched them ladders yesterday that dang mule got all ornery and wouldn’t budge. I gave her a hurry-along and she kicked out. Knocked a lantern off the shelf and smashed it. I was aiming to go back and clean it up, but—”

“But I told you to do whatever it was later.” Murdoch sighed.

Scott looked over at Robert. “So it wasn’t a cigar butt.”

“Shit!” The curse sounded strange coming from Dr Eliot’s mouth, especially with Beth standing right next to him. “Where’s he gone?”

They looked around, but no one could see him. They spread out and searched, but he’d disappeared. Then Scott noticed a horse was missing from the corral.

“Johnny, where’s the mahogany bay?”

“It was over there this morning.”

They checked with some of the hands, but everyone who had seen it earlier said the same; it had been in the back corral.

“That’s all we need.” Scott gripped the corral rail and stared off into the distance. He was supposed to be getting married tomorrow and that fool kid had ridden off on a half-broken cow pony. He would wring his sorry neck, if the horse didn’t break it first.

“Don’t worry. He won’t have gone far.” Johnny mounted, preparing to join the vaqueros herding cattle on the black mesa. “I’ll send him back on Barranca if I see him.”

“Do that.” Scott headed inside to break the news to Katie and her family. It wasn’t going to make them any happier.

“Robert.” Beth’s normally calm and cheery voice had an anxious pitch.

Her husband put his arm around her shoulder. “It will be all right. I’ll find him and make peace. Murdoch, can I borrow a horse?”

“Of course, but it’s hard to know where to start looking. No one saw which way he went.”

Scott stared at the map on the wall of the great room. Where would Freddy have gone? “We might be better to wait. He’ll probably come back under his own steam soon. I’m sure he’ll be okay.”

“Yes,” Katie said, taking his cue. “Don’t worry, Mamma; Freddy is an excellent rider, and I saw Johnny schooling that mare only yesterday. It did everything he asked of it.”

It was a good thing Johnny wasn’t in the room. Scott and Murdoch tried to look as confident as Katie sounded, but they knew too well the mahogany bay needed more work before it could be considered generally ridable.

“I bet he’s gone to join Frank and his crew. Now the fence is finished they’re clearing a stream about a mile away.” Scott grabbed his hat and pecked Katie on the cheek. “Get on with the wedding preparations. I’ll go and check.”

“I’ll come too.” Bob pressed his mother’s hand and exchanged a look with his father.

Then Scott led the way to saddle up.

“You’re not sure about that horse, are you?” Bob tightened the girth on a brown gelding.

“Johnny says it’s not ready, and I trust his judgment. Do you think Freddy could keep control of a green horse?”

“Maybe. It’s a while since we rode much together. Let’s hope we find him before the silly ass finds out.”

The two friends galloped east along the valley and then slowed to follow Bull Creek until they reached the willow. They found the men hauling broken branches onto the bank.

“Have you seen Freddy Eliot?”

“Nope. Is he missing?” Frank pulled off his bandana and mopped sweat from his neck as the water gurgled and swirled around his legs. “Thought he was practising for the wedding.”

“He was until…Well, never mind. He rode off in a temper.”

“Want me to set some men looking for him?”

“Maybe later. With luck he’ll calm down and come home on his own.”

Scott and Bob rode back to the hacienda.

Walt left what he was doing and came over to take care of their horses. Scott dismounted and hand him the reins.

“Did you find him?”

“No. I take it he hasn’t come back here?”

Walt shook his head.

Scott wasn’t surprised. “Bob, you go in and report. I’ll be along soon. I think I’ll have a word with Gabriela.”

He found her peeling vegetables outside the cottage where she lived, but she didn’t look pleased to see him.

“I was wondering if you knew where Freddy might have gone.”

“I would not say if I did, Señor Scott. First you break your promise and now his papa accuses him falsely.”

Scott frowned at her rudeness, but he made allowances for young love. “We’re worried about him, Gabriela.”

“He is a man, not a boy, señor. Excuse me.” She got up from the bench seat and went inside.

Scott almost went after her. She wasn’t a silly girl. He would have thought she’d realise the danger Freddy could be in. He might know his way around the streets of Boston, but that was a far cry from a cattle ranch. As far as Scott knew Freddy hadn’t even taken a weapon. Hell, he couldn’t shoot straight if he had.

Then what Gabriela said sank in.

The cave. Why hadn’t Scott thought of it before?

I’d lay money that’s where he’s gone.

Scott headed back to the hacienda, determined to ride out again almost immediately, but by the time he reached the portico he was less sure. Thunder Canyon was a long way. Would Freddy really have ridden so far?

There was no firm evidence, and it would make the Eliots anxious if Scott suggested it. Everyone was going about their business when he went inside. Maybe he’d give Freddy until suppertime to turn up. For all he really knew, the boy could be brooding somewhere on the hillside overlooking the hacienda trying to work out how to come home without another fight with his father.

With that hopeful thought, Scott made himself useful for the next hour forking the last of the hay into the loft, but by the time the work crews rode back into the yard, there was still no sign of Freddy and even Katie’s brave face was failing.

“Grandmamma said hunger would bring him home.” She gazed up the valley from the fence behind the old Spanish lock-up.

“Well, a woman with four sons should know what she’s talking about.”

“Then where is he?” Katie bit her bottom lip and twisted the cameo ring on her finger, her eyes searching the grassland and hills surrounding them.

Scott almost mentioned the cave, but again he thought better of it. What if the idea stirred up her old fears about ranch life? “He came back in one piece when he went exploring alone in San Francisco.”

“True.” She leaned back into his chest and he wrapped his arms around her from behind, resting his chin on her head. “But he grew up in the city. A few days working here doesn’t mean he understands this kind of country. What if he’s lost? What if a snake startled the horse and he got thrown?”

“Then he’s walking home.”

“He could be hurt.”

“Unlikely. He’s young and bullet-proof.” Scott laughed at his own joke and hoped she would join in. “Odds are he’s sitting up there on the hill under a tree watching us chase our tails looking for him.”

“We might have to postpone the wedding.”

“It won’t come to that.” By God, if it did, the boy better be seriously injured or dead. Otherwise Scott would beat the living daylights out him.

As if mirroring his thoughts, Katie forced a laugh. “I swear I’ll throttle Freddy when he does turn up.”

That was better. Scott smiled and offered his arm. They strolled back across the yard towards the hacienda.

“We got a lot done this afternoon. Everything is ready for tomorrow.”

“Good.” Scott was pleased the household had kept busy, but he wished it had been with more joyous excitement. The atmosphere had been very un-wedding like when he’d come back inside after talking with Gabriela.

“Mamma is worried about Papa as well as Freddy.” There was a slight tremor in Katie’s voice as she leaned more heavily on Scott’s arm. “Papa talked with Murdoch soon after you left for the creek, but he hasn’t said anything to anyone since.”

Scott had heard much the same story from Jamie. Katie’s father had brushed off attempts by several family members to give comfort. Jamie had accepted defeat and gone to help set up tables and a makeshift bar in the food tent. The two grandfathers had withdrawn to the library, and the women had fussed with clothes, food and decorations. Flowers were transferred from the hacienda to wooden stands by the tent poles, candles were fitted into lanterns, chairs had been decorated with paper garlands and ribbons, and fine linen table cloths sat ready to be draped over two dozen trestle tables the next day.

Servants were setting the dining table when Scott and Katie entered the great room, and Murdoch and Robert were over by the fireplace in deep discussion.

Scott cleared his throat to let the two men know that they were there, and Katie’s father turned. “Good, I’m glad you’re here. I’m going to look for Freddy.”

“Don’t you think you should wait until after supper, Papa?”

“No, my love, he’d be back by now if food was all he cared about. Murdoch, I’d be grateful if you’d come with me.”

Murdoch nodded. “It’s time. Scott, you organize more search parties. Robert and I will ride towards Spanish Wells.”

“Fire two shots in the air if you find him. Three if you need help. We’ll do the same.” Scott went to the gun cabinet and began giving out rifles.

Katie stepped forward. “I’ll get changed.”

“No,” Robert and Scott said in unison.

“Stay here, sweetheart. Look after your mother.”

“Others can do that, Papa. I’m as good a rider as any of you. I should be helping with the search.”

“Katie, please. The last thing your father and I need right now is to be worried about you—and if you went, Emily and Teresa would insist on doing the same.”

“We could search together.”

“No.” Scott put his hands on Katie’s shoulders and looked down. “Johnny and Murdoch don’t want that worry either. Please, trust us. We will find Freddy and bring him home.”

Katie looked up into his eyes and, after a moment, nodded.

“Good girl.” Robert grabbed his hat, and he and Murdoch rode out within minutes.

Scott rounded up the men. The grandfathers would remain behind with a skeleton guard. The rest were divided into twos and threes and sent out in different directions to search. Katie would explain things to the women as they assembled for supper.

There were two hours of good light left. They were bound to find Freddy in that time. Weren’t they?

 

Friday, October 11th, 1872—How it ended

Scott rode east with Bob, Johnny and Jamie. About three miles out the valley forked in different directions like fingers from a hand, and they split into two groups.

“Bob and I will go to the fencing crew’s old campsite.” Scott pointed up the arm leading to Thunder Canyon. “You two check out the lakes.”

“We’ll go as far as the line shack on Black Ridge.” Johnny waved and led Jamie across the last of the good grassland towards the steep narrow track that wound its way up into the hills. Frank had told Freddy and Jamie about the blue and green lakes the night of the bachelor party. The lakes were glacial and startlingly beautiful, nestled just below the ridge and a favourite spot for hunting and fishing. It was another place Freddy had wanted to visit.

Scott and Bob rode on towards the canyon, stopping now and again to shout Freddy’s name.

As the sun started to dip behind the hills the horses threw long shadows on the ground.

“Whoa.” Bob reined his mount to a halt as they neared the river.

“What’s up? Did you hear something?”

“No, something’s wrong with my horse.”

They checked the animal’s hind legs.

“Damn, he’s thrown a shoe.” Scott pulled a knife from his boot and prised two broken nails out of the hoof. “See if you can find it.”

Bob backtracked on foot several yards before returning. “Not our lucky day.”

Scott lowered the horse’s leg. He’d put salve on the only scratch he could see. “I’ll bandage the hoof later if we need to ride him.” Until he knew what lay ahead he wanted to save his small supply of bandages. “We’ll leave him here and double up.”

“Maybe we should turn back. It’s getting dark. Someone else has probably found the little ratbag. We just haven’t heard the shots.”

“You could be right, but I want to make sure he hasn’t done anything stupid first.”

“Like what?”

“There is a cave up ahead.” Scott pointed at the cliffs above the river and frowned. How long had they wasted messing around with the horse? The sun had sunk behind the hills, turning the sky purple, pink and black. The cliffs looked like great grey curtains with the cave hidden in the shadow of its folds. “Indian hunting parties used it for shelter.”

“Wasn’t Freddy going on about cave drawings the other night?”

“Yes, he wanted me to take him to see them, but I didn’t have time.”

“Is the cave hard to get to?”

“It’s not easy.” Even in good light, it required care. Scott’s hand went to the extra rope he’d brought with him. He had packed other things too, just in case. Hopefully, they wouldn’t need them.

Katie and the others would worry when they weren’t back by nightfall, but they were too close to the cave now to give up on the idea. The river was only yards ahead of them splaying out over the wide gravel bed.

Hobbling the lame horse, they rode with Bob sitting behind, holding onto Scott’s waist. They splashed and waded through the channels to re-join the trail on the other side of the river.

“Hoof prints.” Bob slipped off the saddle and touched the mud. “Fresh?”

“Looks like it, but it might not be Freddy.” Scott offered his arm and hauled Bob back up.

They climbed the hill slowly, taking care to avoid ruts and potholes. The last thing they needed now was for Ulysses to break something.

“We won’t be able to see a darn thing soon.” Bob adjusted his hold around Scott’s waist. The dirt road had faded out, and they were following the flattened grass left by the fencing wagon.

“As long as the moon stays out from behind cloud, we should be okay.” Scott steered Ulysses towards the new barbed wire fence and let it lead them to the work crew’s old campsite.

Once there, Scott hunkered down to feel the ash and stones at the centre of the glade—cold and no sign of horse or rider nearby. He shouted a couple of times just to be sure.

“Looks like I was wrong.” The knot in his stomach eased. Freddy wasn’t found, but at least they could cross one danger off the list.

Bob didn’t seem so sure. Stony-faced, he turned slowly, staring into their moonlit surroundings.

“What’s the matter?” Scott swallowed; not sure he wanted to hear the answer.

“Where is the cave from here?”

“It’s almost opposite the burnt pine we saw crossing the river.”

“So we’re about level with it now?” Bob squinted into the darkness.

“Roughly, but the path begins higher up, and Freddy doesn’t know that.”

“So you thought he’d go to the cliff edge from here and look for a way down.”

“With the fence in the way it would make sense. Leave his horse here and climb through the wire.” Scott walked over to the barbed wire fence and looked more closely for torn cloth or any other tell-tale signs.

“Fine in theory, but I know my baby brother. Freddy doesn’t walk when he can ride. The fence must end somewhere and those hoof prints were fresh; you said it yourself. Let’s go a little further and make sure he’s not here.”

“Fair enough.” Scott moistened his lips and tried to tamp down a rising unease. Could Freddy have been that silly? The boy knew the low growth along the edge of the bluff masked a sheer drop beyond. That’s why they were building the fence.

Even though they were on the safe side of it, the two friends went on foot, following the fence upward over the uneven ground. Scott led Ulysses and Bob tramped behind, checking the wire as he went. The moon slipped in and out of clouds as they trudged, and with the light behind them the bushes and trees on the cliff side of the fence looked like shadowy sentinels. All was quiet except for the scrunch of hooves and boots on dry grass and sun-baked soil.

“What’s that?” Bob stopped and pointed a little further up beyond the fence.

At first Scott could only see a tree. Then something dark separated itself from the trunk and moonlight reflected off metal. A horse snorted, and his heart sank. He’d spoken too soon.

Trailing her reins on the ground, the mahogany bay grazed barely a yard from the cliff’s edge.

“Freddy!” Bob bellowed through cupped hands. The mare pricked her ears, shook her head and skittered away. “Freddy!”

They listened for a response, but heard nothing.

The loose horse snorted again from higher up the hill, her eyes glistening in the dark.

“Look! She’s on this side of the fence. There must be a gap.” Pulling on Ulysses’ reins, Scott scrambled towards the runaway until he was within five yards of her.  

“Leave the horse. We need to look for Freddy.” Bob leaned forward to catch his breath.

“We’ll find him, but when we do we’ll need that horse. Here, take Ulysses and look for the gap while I catch her.”  Scott edged towards the mare. “Easy now.” She snorted, ears flicking back and forth, tail tucked against her hindquarters. He stopped and waited. Flaring her nostrils, she raised her head, curled her upper lip and breathed in and out. “That’s right, girl. You know me.” He moved again, slowly, no sudden movements, until he was within reach. The mare blew softly. “Good girl. You recognise me.” He stroked her muzzle and then her neck, gently until he could get a firm grip on the bridle and reins.

For a moment he rested his head against the saddle and closed his eyes.

“Well done. I was afraid she was going to bolt.”

“So was I.” Scott turned and smiled. “Did you find the gap?”

“Over there, by that split tree.” Bob pointed to a large oak wedged into a massive rock shelf.

“This is where Johnny and I found the path down to the cave.” Scott hurried to tether the mare next to Ulysses. Had Freddy discovered it too?

The fence ended at the tree. Together the oak and the rock formed a barrier that would keep the cattle away from the bluff. There wasn’t much good grazing beyond them so that’s where the fence ended. Rather than cut through the barbed wire lower down and ruin all his hard work, Freddy had prised out the fixings on the end post and folded the wire back like a gate. A trail of flattened grass was visible in the moonlight. Scott’s fears about the path lessened, but how stupid could the boy get?

Scott bit his tongue hard, angry now as well as worried. Riding downhill along the edge of a cliff—unbelievable. “I thought Freddy had more brains.”

Bob shrugged. He looked gaunt and as old as his grandfather. Clearly how they’d got to this point no longer mattered to him; all he cared about now was finding his brother alive. “What do we do?”

“Grab a rope.” Scott began untying a lantern from his saddle bags. There would be no wedding tomorrow if Freddy had broken his neck. Shut up. Don’t think like that. They were going to find the little idiot lying on the grass at the top of the cliff with nothing worse than a bump on his head.

Lighting the lantern, Scott ran to the edge of the table rock and held it high. The river shone silver in the moonlight, snaking through the narrow canyon below. Where was the step? There. Chaparral clinging to a crevice in the rock had grown bushy again. Johnny had been right; cutting it back had been pointless. The deep step and the path were almost hidden from view. No one had passed this way for some time.

He ran back to the tree. “We’ll leave the horses here. Follow me, but stay clear of the bushes; the ground near the edge overhangs.”

Skirting bush and rock, they searched for Freddy or any sign that he’d tumbled over the edge.

“There!” Bob pushed Scott aside, and ran towards a half-flattened greasewood. 

“Be careful!” Scott’s eyes were fixed on the broken turf beside it.

Bob dropped to his knees and crawled to the exposed cliff edge, testing the ground as he went. “Freddy! Freddy are you down there?”

No reply. Bob shouted again, louder and more urgently this time. Scott felt sick. The signs were clear. Freddy had gone over the edge, just like the cattle. One steer had broken its back, landing on the bush outside the cave. Another Scott had found days later, half a mile down river being feasted on by condors, a gory mess of pulverised blood and bone wedged between rocks. Oh God, Freddy. How am I going to tell Katie?

But Bob was not giving up. “Freddy, damn you, answer me!”

The cooling night air added to chills already running down Scott’s spine. How long should he let Bob keep trying?

How long before—?

What was that?

Scott fell to his knees too. “I heard something…Freddy!"

The breeze caught a sound. It was faint, but it twisted upwards from the canyon. A groan—it was definitely a groan.

“Freddy, can you hear me?” Bob shunted diagonally forward and hung his head over the landslip. “Jesus!” His right arm disappeared, sending dirt and stones clattering down the cliff.

Scott grabbed his ankles, but nothing else gave way.

“Bob, is that you?” The words floated up from below, breathless and raspy.

“Thank God.” For a second, Bob bowed his head, and Scott did the same. Freddy was alive.

Bob thumped the grass in front of him and then shuffled further forward until his shoulders were out over the rim. He was taking a risk, but Scott held his legs firm on solid ground.

“I’m here, kiddo. Scott too. Are you all right?”

“I think…I’ve broken…my leg.”

“Did you hear?” Bob looked back at Scott. “I think I can see him. He’s on a ledge about ten yards down.”

“Is he near the cave?”

Bob turned and shouted, “Freddy, can you see the cave?”

“I think so.”

“Tell him to hold tight. I should be able to get to him if he’s near the cave.”

Bob relayed the message, and Scott pulled him back to safety. “We need a horse.”

Stumbling in the dark, they ran to the oak. Most of the search parties would be back at the hacienda by now. They’d be too far away to hear gun shots, but just maybe—

“With luck, Johnny and Jamie waited for us at the fork.” Scott grabbed his rifle, moved away from the horses, and fired three shots into the air. “If not, it’s all up to us until new search parties are sent out in the morning.” He threw the rifle to Bob and tied a rope around his own middle. “Tie the other end to Ulysses so he can take my weight if I fall. Lead him along the top of the cliff. Let the rope out as I need it, but don’t get too close to the edge. I don’t want either of you falling and squashing me flat.”

Bob chuckled despite the circumstances. His brother was still breathing, and his relief was palpable. “Aye, aye, Lieutenant.”

With a shorter, thinner rope, Scott made a kind of haversack with his blanket and looped the second lariat and canteen over his shoulder. Should he take the lantern? No, the sky was clear at the moment and he’d need both hands.

Jogging over to where the path began, he sat down on the shelf. “Ready? Rope secure?”

“I’m a sailor. I know how to tie a knot.” Bob held Ulysses by his bridle, soothing him with his hand. The lantern stood on the grass at his feet casting strange shadows, waiting for him to pick it up and move off down the slope.

“As long as you can take orders from a subordinate, Captain, we’ll be fine.” Scott grinned and lowered himself to the indent in the rock. Then he stepped awkwardly onto the path, breaking branches as he pushed through the chaparral, glad of his gloves as he grasped the sharp foliage.

The moon was high in the sky and stars twinkled. It must be nearly ten o’clock, but the path was visible, descending steeply ahead of him.

Keeping a hand on the rock wall or tight around one of the small bushes growing out of it, Scott traversed the downward slope. “More rope.”

The hemp lurched in response. Bob must have had to swing it like a skipping rope to get it over a bush. A few seconds later Scott felt the slack and moved on.

Bob was doing well, but he wasn’t a seasoned ranch hand. He didn’t know horses or the land, and they might need a rancher’s know-how before the night was over.

Johnny, if you heard those rifle shots, don’t mess around.

At least Bob hadn’t wasted time arguing over who would go and who would stay. Another greenhorn might have—it was his brother in danger after all. Thankfully Bob was military. He knew how to take orders as well as give them, and he’d recognized Scott needed to be in charge from the outset.

“More rope.” Scott frowned as he waited. The moon had disappeared behind clouds. The few stars he could still see only gave enough light to make out shapes.

Feeling his way more than seeing it, he made slower progress. The path was more level now, but it was curving slightly.

He took another step.

“Shit!” The rope jerked tight under his armpits as his foot went down onto nothing. He threw himself sideways, his shoulder banging against the cliff.

Scrambling, he clawed wildly. For a second, he swung in thin air until the roots of one spindly sage brush held firm, and he regained his footing.

With heart pounding hard enough to break a rib, he collapsed onto the path, hugging the rope to his chest.

“Ahoy there. Scott, are you all right?” Bob shouted from above, sending a small shower of stones down the rock face.

“Stay back. I’m fine.” Except for his fingers and shoulder; they hurt like crazy.

Scott leaned against the cliff and shut his eyes. Then he looked at his hands and panted out a laugh. “My gloves have seen better days.” The fingertips were torn to shreds.

“Part of the path has gone.” Goodness knows how he was going to get an injured Freddy over the gap, but he’d figure that out once he found him.

The path had been like this when he and Johnny first came along it, but that was in daylight. The gap had been easy to jump then. In darkness it was hard to judge distance and how much space he had for landing on the other side.

Wiping grit from his eyes, he stared hard into the shadows. What was dirt and rock and what was a fast route to the river below?

He stood up and pulled the noose back down around his waist. “Bob, I’m going to jump the gap. Be ready in case I miss.”

“Do it on the count of three.”

“Will do.” Scott moistened his lips. Here goes nothing. “One, two.” He leaned back—“Three.” Leaping forward, he fell on all fours on the other side.

Well, that was fun. He rubbed his right knee and stood up. “Okay, I’ve made it.”

Now, if he remembered rightly, the path widened from here. He took a few steps, making sure he had firm handholds all the way.

Then, he stopped and looked skyward—a glimmer of light. Come on. Do it.

The three quarter moon floated through thin cloud twice more, and then—

Yes! The track stretched ahead of him, clear in the moonlight.

He jogged the next ten yards and reached the wide shelf in front of the cave entrance.

“Freddy, can you hear me?” Massaging his aching shoulder, Scott scanned the shelf. The black mouth of the cave gaped a few feet to his right. Where was Freddy?

“Over here…Scott, I’m over here.”

Scott squinted in the direction of the voice. Freddy was half propped up against rock, rubble and bits of broken bush scattered around him. He must have slid much of the way and brought the debris down with him. He was lying on a ledge, an extension of the shelf. If he’d gone over a yard or two higher up the hill he would have only slid half way, and the last few yards over the cave mouth would have been a fall great enough to kill him. If he’d gone over a yard or two lower down the hill, he would have plummeted all the way to the river.

Freddy Eliot had a guardian angel.

“I’ve found him,” Scott yelled up to Bob and knelt down beside the injured boy.

Freddy flinched as Scott accidently brushed his leg.

“Sorry.” Unloading the things he was carrying, he helped Freddy to a drink from the canteen. Then he examined the damaged limb. The lower part bulged oddly.  Using his knife, he cut the trouser leg from a rip near the knee down to the ankle and folded back the fabric. There was no bone pushing through the skin. Maybe it wasn’t too bad. “Anything else?”

Freddy shook his head. He had a few scratches and probably bruises everywhere, but apart from his leg nothing looked too serious.

“I’m cold.”

“Maybe I can get you into the cave and make a fire.” The night air was chilly.

“Papa says you shouldn’t move someone with a broken leg until it’s splinted.”

“We might need to do it anyway.”

“Is he all right?” Bob hollered from above.

“Giving orders.” Scott called back, and then climbed over Freddy to see from the other side what he was dealing with. The rock tapered away on that side. The ledge went for another yard, maybe more, but except for where Scott was standing it was only six inches at its widest most of the way. “You can’t stay where you are.”

“I can. It doesn’t hurt too much if I stay still.” Freddy winced, his face whiter than a flour sack. “Please, Scott, don’t try to move me. Not without a splint. I don’t want to end up a cripple.”  

Scott gazed down at him. More than one friend from the war had come home limping or without a leg, and it wasn’t a fate he’d wish on anyone. Freddy’s father was a surgeon too. The boy must have seen a fair few cripples. Scott could see the fear in his eyes.

“We’ll see.” Stepping over him again, he went to the cave opening and peered into the gloom. There was an uneven sloping lip at the entrance; it would be impossible to get Freddy over that without jarring his leg. Beyond the lip the cave opened out into a space similar to an average size living room. The dirt floor was fairly smooth. The cave was about six yards deep from memory, narrowing near the back where the Indian drawings were. In this light he couldn’t see well enough to be sure of anything else. For all he knew some animal could be bedded down for the night inside. Was it worth finding out?

He glanced back. If he dragged Freddy inside, they’d be out of the breeze, but it wouldn’t be much warmer, and it would cause Freddy a lot of pain. Maybe he was right. Maybe they’d be better to sit tight until they could get more help.

“What’s happening?” Bob yelled.

“I’m thinking.”

Scott could send Bob for help now, but Bob didn’t know the ranch and in the dark there was too much chance of him getting lost or hurt as well. The search parties would be sent out again in the morning, and Johnny knew which direction they’d gone. The chances of the wedding going ahead as planned were virtually zero now anyway. It would be safer to wait until morning.

Freddy was shivering when Scott returned. “Okay, you win; but lean forward.” He took off his jacket and draped it around the invalid’s shoulders before spreading the blanket over the top of him. “Better?”

“Thanks.”

Scott went to the edge of the shelf and stared up and down. It was too far down to the river and the cliff bellied out before curving under the upper ground. It would be almost impossible to pull him up with a rope from the top anywhere near the cave. The path looked like their only option.

“Bob, are you there?”

“I’m here.”

“We need a splint to brace Freddy’s leg.”

“How big?”

Scott closed his eyes. Thank you, God. “What took you so long, little brother?” He hadn’t really dared hope that Johnny and Jamie would wait for them at the fork, but they must have or they wouldn’t be here. He could hear them greeting Bob and asking questions. “When you three have finished yammering, the splint needs to be about two feet long.”

“What’s the leg look like?” Jamie called down. “Are you sure it’s broken?”

“It’s badly swollen below the knee and juts out at a funny angle.”

“Can you see bone?”

“No.”

“Good, but it still could be difficult to splint. I’ll come down.”

“Wait until daybreak. The path is tricky.”

“Can we hoist him up with ropes once his leg is splinted?” Bob sounded less worried now he had company.

“No chance.”

Scott glanced at Freddy. He was listening to every word. “It won’t be easy, but Johnny’s right, we’ll have to bring him up by the path.”

“How the hell will you do that? You needed a rope to get down there.”

“That was for safety, because of the dark. I’m pretty sure I can carry him over the first part. We’ll need to bridge the gap somehow, but then there is a spot just before the path starts to rise steeply. We might be able to hoist him from there.”

“And if we can’t?” Johnny sounded dubious.

“He’ll have to hop or be dragged up the last part and hope the splint does its job. The path is too narrow from there for piggybacking.”

“Okay, so we need to make splints and a bridge of some kind.”

“There’s a tomahawk in my saddle bags.” Scott was glad he’d come prepared. “Let’s get some sleep. When it’s light, make the splints, and Jamie can bring them down. Once they’re on, we’ll try to move him.”

A plan of sorts agreed they settled down to sleep.

Scott looked for sticks to make a fire, but there wasn’t enough to be worth trying. Instead he sat down next to Freddy, taking care not to knock the injured leg, and put his arm around him. He arranged the blanket over them both. “Rest your head on me if you like. I’m softer than rock. Try to get some sleep.”

Freddy looked strained in the moonlight; he was in more pain than he’d admit. “Is Papa still angry?”

“No, just worried.”

“But he still thinks I smoked cigars in a barn full of hay.” Freddy stiffened as he spat the words out.

Scott sighed. Why was he doomed to play peacemaker for the pig-headed and volatile of this world? “If you’d stuck around long enough you’d know we discovered the real cause.”

“Oh.” Freddy bit his bottom lip. “Papa thought it was me until then though, didn’t he? He doesn’t give me credit for anything.”

“I’m not sure that’s fair, but I don’t have all the answers, Freddy. Some things you have to work out for yourself.”

“But it’s hard when he won’t listen.” Freddy picked up a stone and hurled it over the edge of the ledge, blanching because he jarred his leg in the process.

“Feel better?” Scott shifted position. A sharp piece of rock was digging into his sore shoulder. “You know when Johnny and I first came back to the ranch he and Murdoch were always arguing over something. They both said the other wouldn’t listen.”

“Katie says the Lancer men are as stubborn as the Eliot men.”

“Does she?”

“She also says Murdoch and Johnny are too much alike in some ways.”

“Yes, well, that’s a more observant comment.”

“But it doesn’t apply to me and Papa. We have nothing in common.”

“You think so?” Scott would have said otherwise, but then again these things always depend on perspective.

“Don’t you?” Freddy twisted his neck so he could see Scott’s face. “When he’s not burbling about medical stuff, he’s always rabbiting on about social responsibility and making a mark on the world.”

“Don’t you want to do something worthwhile?”

“I suppose so, but I want to have fun too. Commerce and politics are boring, and I’m not interested in being a doctor, lawyer or some other kind of do-gooder. I want to see places.”

“You could join the navy like Bob.”

“Not on your life. I want to draw the world, not destroy it.”  

“I’m not sure Bob would appreciate that analysis of his career.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t mean that exactly, but I want to draw real men and women doing real things. In peace time. I want to show the strength and beauty there is in ordinary life.” There was a look of earnestness and self-realization on Freddy’s face. Scott would have laid money he had only just figured out what he really wanted to do.

“Have you told your father that?”

“He wouldn’t listen. He’d just go on about grades and responsibilities. You were lucky to grow up with Mr Garrett. He makes an effort to understand. He really liked my drawings. He thinks a friend of his might want to buy some for his magazine.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, he’s going to find out when he gets back to Boston.” Freddy pulled Scott’s jacket more tightly around him and secured the blanket between his shoulder and rock so it didn’t fall away. “I bet Mr Garrett never tried to force you into a career you weren’t interested in. He probably gave you plenty of freedom and pocket money too.”

For a moment Scott was speechless. Now this was taking perspective a little too far. If he wasn’t so tired he’d laugh. “Ahem, I certainly had a respectable allowance, but only after I finished school.”

“Really? My friends get as much money as they want now. It’s embarrassing when I can’t afford to do something they can. Papa doesn’t listen to a word I say. He flatly refuses to give me more allowance. He won’t even fork out for a special event. He says I should learn to put money aside, but how can I do that when he never gives me enough?”

Scott didn’t answer.

“You’d think he’d understand. Eliots have to keep up appearances. He just doesn’t care if I lose friends. I’m never allowed to have any fun.”

“You consider bullying your classmates and teachers fun?”

Now it was Freddy’s turn not to answer.

Well, good. At least Scott had touched a nerve.

“You don’t understand. It’s hard at school. Sometimes a fellow has to do things he doesn’t like doing just to fit in.”

Scott shut his eyes. He did understand, but maybe the shock of having his grandfather portrayed in such a favourable light had slowed down his ability to respond.

“Papa doesn’t understand either.” Freddy scratched out his frustration on the stony ground.

“Maybe you need to explain it to him.”

“It wouldn’t do any good.”

Scott opened an eye. Freddy was looking up at him.

“He was young once.”

“Yeah, right.” Freddy grimaced. Anger had made him forget his leg and he’d paid the price once again.

“As I recall, your father is one of the younger members of his family, and he chose a career completely different to anything anyone else pursued. What wouldn’t he understand?”

“I can’t talk to him.”

“That’s how Johnny felt about Murdoch in the early days.”

“You’d think if Katie is right about them being alike, they’d have gotten on from the start.”

“Life is never that simple. Murdoch and Johnny both felt alone for a very long time. It made them suspicious and defensive.” With hindsight it seemed obvious why they had rubbed each other raw at times. Years of relying on no one but themselves, guilt, pride, and a belief in facts that turned out to be lies—or at best misinterpretations of the truth. Now Scott thought about it, the progress they had made since those early days was quite remarkable. “They are also as stubborn as mules and prone to locking things inside until they explode.”

“Like Papa and me, you mean?”

“You tell me. All I know is that it’s a lot less stressful now Murdoch and Johnny have learned to talk to each other.”

Freddy fell silent again. The sound of the river below them was soothing, and after a while Scott started to doze.

“I’m sorry.”

“What?” Scott jerked awake.

“I’m sorry. I’ve messed up your wedding.”

The apology was long overdue, but Scott didn’t have the energy to hold a grudge. Freddy was paying for his mistakes. “Go to sleep, Freddy. You haven’t ruined anything yet.”

The boy closed his eyes and nestled his head into Scott’s chest. He had to be dog-tired. Maybe he would be able to relax now he had got some of the tension out and it was only the pain of his leg keeping him awake.

Scott stared upwards until the lights in the sky became the sparkle in Katie’s eyes. She seemed to float in front of him, reaching out to give him comfort. Who were you calling stubborn, Miss Eliot? Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. But the Katie of his dreams just laughed at him. Then she leaned forward and whispered in his ear, and he smiled. I promise, my love. I promise.

 

Saturday, October 12th, 1872—How it began

There were fourteen candles and fifty-four curls on the wrought iron chandelier hanging from the centre of Scott’s bedroom ceiling. Katie knew because she had counted them at least ten times as she lay in his bed the night before. The oil lamp was turned down low, casting shadows on the walls. She had clutched the old brown shirt she had found in the bottom drawer of the dresser. It didn’t smell of him—that faint hint of leather and spice she loved or the less alluring odour of cattle and sweat she now yearned for had been laundered away—but she felt better holding it in her arms. The shirt was his.

The search parties had returned to the ranch one by one. Murdoch and Papa were among the last.

Mamma had run to meet them.

Mamma never ran. “Did you find him?”

“Isn’t he here?” The devastation on her father’s face had made Katie cry, but she had dashed the tears aside. She had to be strong for her parents. Freddy was missing—a city boy lost on a vast ranch miles from anywhere; she must stay strong.

Oh, but it was hard.

Breathing in deeply, she exhaled slowly. The knot inside her didn’t lessen, and if she hadn’t had Emily to hold onto, she didn’t know what she would have done. The dangers even for experienced ranch hands were very real. They both knew that, and more than just Freddy were now missing. A wolf howled in the distance as the sun bedded down behind the hills and the muscles in her stomach clenched. What if?

“They’ll be okay.” Emily hugged her arm. They stood in the shadows of the portico together, a little apart from everyone else. Julia and Victoria, Grandfather and Grandmamma, Mr Garrett, Teresa and Jelly were all there, hovering around the entrance to the hacienda, blocking the light from inside, hoping against hope for good news. “Johnny has Scott’s back, and Scott would never let anything bad happen to Johnny or your brothers.”

“You’re right. I’m being silly.” Katie raised her chin. She had to have strength if only because she knew where imagination could take her.

She watched Murdoch, giving advice and encouragement to her parents. Teresa said when she lost her father, Murdoch was the rock she clung to, and after Johnny discovered the real cause of the fire Murdoch was the only person, apart from Mamma, that Papa would talk to. Katie would follow his example, and do her best to be a support to her family and not a burden.

Leaving Katie’s parents, Murdoch walked over to her and Emily. “I hear Scott, Johnny and yours brothers aren’t back.”

“No, not yet.” Emily squeezed Katie’s hand.

“Scott said they would split up where the valley forked so they could cover more ground.”

“Hmm.” Murdoch scratched the back of his head and looked towards the horizon. Was he worried? It was hard to tell. “It’s nearly an hour’s ride to the fork in daylight. I expect they’re together again now and camped for the night.”

“But Scott wouldn’t….” Katie let go of Emily. Murdoch was wrong. Scott wouldn’t leave her in suspense like this; not if he had a choice. “Something must have happened. We need to find them.”

Murdoch wrapped his big, comforting arms around her and kissed her head. “Trust me, darling; they’ll be around a camp fire. I’ll send men out first thing, but I know my son. There is no way he’ll miss his wedding day.”

“If there is one.” She bit her tongue. She must not think like that; she mustn’t.

“Of course there’s going to be one.” Emily took Katie’s hand again, and Katie gripped it hard. Emily understood; Katie’s fears had never been for herself. “Scott and Johnny will bring everyone back safe. I bet you they’ve found Freddy, but it’s simply too dark now to ride home.”

Oh, how Katie prayed Emily and Murdoch were right.

By the time the long case in the great room chimed ten, Mamma had convinced herself to believe it. She ordered them all to bed. “I don’t want photographs of a bridal party with bags under their eyes.”

Neither did Katie, but her mind wouldn’t rest. She lay in bed counting candles and wrought iron curls, hugging an empty shirt, eyes opening wide at the slightest sound and feeling sick to her stomach. Oh, please, God, let them come home safe. Please!

One minute she pictured Freddy lying injured and alone and the next she conjured wildcats and rustlers to endanger the others. For a time only Scott and their wedding filled her thoughts, but then guilt for being so selfish drove them back to her brother.

By the time the hall clock began to chime midnight, her head was throbbing.

She rolled over on a wet pillow and whispered into the crumpled shirt, “Our wedding day, my dearest. Promise me you’ll be back in time. Promise me.” And in her misery and her hope she imagined Scott answering.

It was silly. She knew it was silly, but it had allowed her to sleep, and she had awoken with the conviction that he would return in time.

That was at daybreak though, when the sound of Murdoch sending out fresh search parties had breezed through the open window, and at breakfast when Papa had given her the option of postponing the wedding. “If we send messages to Morro Coyo and Green River now we can stop most of our guests from coming out to the ranch.”

“No, Papa. Scott and the others will be back soon with Freddy, all safe and sound.” She had skimmed her toast with butter, not hungry, but determined to give her family no reason to worry about her. “You are giving me away today whether you like it or not.”

Her bravado had achieved its purpose; Papa smiled for the first time since the fire. But had she done the right thing? Now she was starting to have doubts.

*****

 “Guests are beginning to arrive.” Victoria played with the lace curtain at the window. In the reflection of the mirror she looked tall and slim in her grey silk gown, unusually ladylike with her normally unadorned hair plaited, curled and decorated with flowers like the other bridesmaids.

Katie tried to turn her head, but Julia wouldn’t let her. “Hold still.” She was putting the final touches to Katie’s hair, interweaving her long chestnut locks with blue and white flowers and small pearl-headed hairpins.

Teresa had gone downstairs to help organize refreshments. Papa, Murdoch and the grandparents were greeting guests.

 “If the boys aren’t back soon, we’ll start with the reception and finish with the ceremony. Your father has bought more than enough wine to keep everyone happy.”

Oh, how Katie loved Mamma for trying, but Katie wasn’t a child anymore. She remembered the last time her mother had spoken with such fake cheerfulness. It was when Grandfather Eliot was ill, and in the end, he had died.

Katie bit her tongue, willing the tears just under surface back where they belonged. A young woman of good breeding never lets her true emotions show in public—it was Grandmother Eliot’s mantra—and besides, this time there would be a happier outcome.

She smiled at Julia in the mirror as her sister accepted a clip from Emily and twisted another tress back into place.

Emily sat quietly, passing Julia hairpins and flowers as needed.

Emily was never chatty, but earlier she had talked. Earlier she had met Katie’s eye. Now she was avoiding it. For the last hour she hadn’t spoken a word unless asked a direct question, and she kept glancing at the window. She was worried about Johnny. Katie twisted her cameo ring and forced another smile for her friend. Scott and Johnny had been gone too long.

The women were in Teresa’s room. It was the only bedroom in the hacienda with a decent dressing table so it had been commandeered. First they had done Mamma’s hair, then Grandmamma’s, and the bridesmaids’. Emily’s hair looked wonderful now it had grown long enough to properly tie back. Katie had put a lot of effort into curling it and getting every lock in just the right place. It had kept her mind busy for quite some time.  Now it was her turn to sit still, and it was taking all her will-power to keep the bad thoughts at bay.

A tap at the door made her jump; she hadn’t realized she was so tense.

“May I come in?” Papa entered, looking tired; not at all like the father of the bride should look on his daughter’s wedding day.

He sat down on the edge of Teresa’s bed, his hands clasped in front of him. “Darling, I think it’s time to reconsider. Most of our guests are here now and there is still no sign of Scott or your brothers.”

“Scott is coming and Freddy is safe.”

“I pray you’re right, my dear, but—”

“Barranca.” Victoria jumped up from the window seat. She pushed the sash wide and leaned out as far as she could go. “It is, Emily, isn’t it?”

Emily dropped a lap full of hairpins on the carpet in her hurry to get to the window. She looked out of it and then flung her arms around Victoria.

Katie pushed past them to see for herself, but the riders were still too far away to see clearly. “Oh, please God let it be them.”

Turning around, she looked for her parents, but they had already left the room. The girls rushed downstairs after them and out into the yard. The riders were coming through the arch in a straggly line. Jamie entered the yard first and then Bob—why was he riding Ulysses? Where was Scott? Johnny followed on Barranca, holding Freddy in front of him, and thank you, God, there was Scott, riding the mahogany bay and leading a lame horse.

“Katie, go inside now.”

Katie spun around. Grandmamma was standing behind her.

“Julia, take your sister away from here. It’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding.”

“Oh, Grandmamma, that’s just superstition. I must see Scott.” Katie moved towards the corral, but the old lady somehow got in her way.

“You’ve seen him. Away with you now before he sees you. You’re in your dressing gown for goodness sake.”

“Mamma!”

But Mamma just laughed. “Do as Grandmamma says, my love. Our men are home safe. It’s time to get ready for your wedding.”

Julia and Victoria pulled at her arms, and reluctantly she let them take her inside, but she refused to go upstairs.

“This is as far as I go.” She grabbed hold the drapes by the French doors.

“Promise you won’t go outside.” Julia held onto her with both hands.

“This is stupid.”

“Maybe, but do you promise?”

“Oh, for goodness sake, yes, I promise, but I won’t forget this, Julia.”
 
Her sister laughed and blew her a kiss as she followed Victoria out through the French doors. “You’ll thank us later. It’s tradition.”

Katie sighed. Normally tradition was important to her, but she doubted she’d ever think this one was worth it, not under the circumstances.

She opened the leaves of the French door as wide as they would go and hovered on the threshold. She wasn’t outside; she was keeping her promise; but there was a pillar in her line of sight and too many people for her to see what was going on. She went to the neighbouring window and got a slightly better view. Freddy was still on horseback. Johnny was in Emily’s arms. Katie’s heart stopped. Scott was talking to her grandparents, and he didn’t seem happy. He looked towards the hacienda, and without thinking, Katie ducked behind the drape. Why did she do that? She wanted him to see her, and she wanted to be in his arms. Was he going to ignore her grandparents and come to her? She peeked through the glass. He was going to come, but—Oh, Grandmamma! For an old lady she was far too nimble. She would not let Scott go past her, and even from this distance Katie could see his frustration. Thankfully, Murdoch joined the conversation and calmed everyone down. Then Johnny came over. He put an arm around Scott’s shoulder and led him away.  

As she lost sight of them, Emily and Teresa ran into the house through the French doors. They began moving furniture, clearing a path to the fireplace.

“What’s happening?” Katie took the other side of the chair Teresa was attempting to move.

“Scott and Johnny have gone to get ready. They’re fine, but Freddy has broken his leg.”

Katie swept back to the window. Freddy’s leg was in a splint. With his arms over his brothers’ shoulders he was facing Papa, but only for a second. Then he was in Papa’s arms and Mamma was fussing around both of them.

Emily came up beside Katie and offered her a handkerchief.

Katie hadn’t even realized she was crying. “Thanks.”

“Everyone else is all right.”

“What happened?”

“Well, according to Johnny, they split up at the valley fork as planned. He and Jamie rode as far as the line shack on Black Ridge, and Scott and Bob went into Thunder Canyon.”

“Wasn’t that where Freddy worked on the fence?”

“Yes, but more importantly it’s where the cave is; the one with the Indian drawings.”

“No, he didn’t. Scott warned him not to go there alone.”

Emily shrugged. “Apparently, he didn’t listen.”

Oh, my God. If Katie wasn’t so anxious, she’d be furious. “Look, they’re bringing him inside. Quick, tell me the rest.”

The huddle of family in the yard was breaking up, and Papa was striding towards the hacienda.

“Johnny said there was no arrangement to wait for each other, but he could tell Scott and Bob hadn’t come back.”

“He waited?”

“Not for long. He had a gut feeling so he and Jamie rode into the canyon hoping to meet them coming out. Then just after it had gone properly dark, Scott fired his rifle, calling for help.”

“Oh, thank goodness they heard the shots.” Katie left Emily’s side. Bob and Jamie were supporting Freddy into the great room. He was awfully pale. “Is he all right?” She grabbed a cushion from the sofa for his head, as they helped him lie down on the floor in front of the fireplace.

Mamma stopped her from doing anything else. “Your father says he needs to examine him first.” Then, ignoring her own instructions, she sat down next to Freddy on the floor. He reached up and took her hand before hiding his face in her skirts.

Bob hugged Katie’s shoulder as they watched their mother stroke Freddy’s hair. “He’ll be fine. Only the good die young.”

Papa came into the great room from the stairs as Emily went to check on Scott and Johnny. He hunkered down with his medical bag and started examining Freddy’s leg. Murdoch, Teresa, Katie and the rest of her family waited impatiently for him to say something.

“Katie.” Freddy tried to prop himself up on his elbows so he could see her.

“Lie still,” his father ordered.

Katie came around the sofa and sat down in a chair at his feet.

“Katie, I’m really, really sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter now. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

“I wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for Scott and the others. I fell off a cliff, and Scott had to carry me back up.”

“Who splinted your leg?” Papa had untied the rough timber splints and was cutting away what remained of Freddy’s trouser leg with scissors.

“I did.” Jamie placed bandages, water and a towel next to his father. “Fortunately, he landed outside the cave he was looking for, and there was a path down to it.”

Papa ran his hands gently over Freddy’s leg; so gently that Freddy barely winced.

“Johnny made the splints from fence posts—and a bridge for where the path had collapsed. The splints aren’t the best, but I packed the leg with pieces of blanket first.”

“You did well, and they did the job. It’s a nasty break.” Papa sat back and turned to Freddy. “You’ve broken your fibula and your tibia, my son, but your brother has been paying attention in class. I think you’ll mend.”

Freddy’s eyes watered with relief.

“Right then, we need to set this leg and put a cast on it. Jamie, you’ll have to help me. Bob and Murdoch, I might need you too. Freddy, I have a small amount of chloroform with me so I’m going to put you to sleep.”

Freddy nodded and looked determined to be brave.

“Beth, you can stay if you sit over there and don’t interfere.” Papa knew Mamma wouldn’t leave; as usual he avoided the argument by proposing a compromise. “The rest of you, go away. I need an hour to get this done, and some time to get tidied up. Then I should be ready to escort my eldest daughter down the aisle.” He smiled up at Katie. “Hopefully, in something more presentable than her dressing gown.”

“I think that could be arranged.” Katie kissed his cheek, and hurried upstairs.

Teresa’s bedroom became a hive of activity with laughter, jokes and all the happiness that had been so lacking earlier. Even Grandmamma smiled as she sat quietly with her embroidery frame, supervising from the window seat.

Emily came in while Katie was washing her face and hands in rose water. The coolness and the scent were refreshing.

“How is Scott?” Katie tried to sound casual, but she was longing to know. Scott had looked all right from her vantage point by the window, but Bob hadn’t sugar-coated his account of the night before. He’d told her Scott had nearly fallen. He’d even suggested Scott might be hiding an injury.

“A few scrapes and bruises. Johnny had him sitting on a stool with his shirt off when I arrived. The worst bruise is on his shoulder. I filled a bag with ice for him to hold against it, and Johnny anesthetized him with a large whisky.”

“Thank you.” Katie was relieved there was nothing worse. “Was Johnny hurt?”

“No, but he had a glass of whisky anyway.” Emily smiled. “I told them there was no rush. Your father will be busy with Freddy for at least an hour, and what they both need most is food, rest and a bath.”

Katie laughed as Emily pegged her nose with her fingers. She could just imagine what they smelled like. Her brothers had been a little pungent too.

Sitting down again at the dressing table, she waited patiently while Julia finished arranging her hair. Then each of her bridesmaids took a turn in the chair to mend anything that had gone astray.

Emily and Teresa went down to bring up the bouquets from the wine cellar, and just after they returned, Mamma arrived to say Freddy’s cast was on. “Everything went well. Freddy is awake and resting, and the others have gone to get ready for the wedding.”

“In that case, it’s time we got you dressed.” Julia jumped up from the end of Teresa’s bed and went to retrieve Katie’s wedding gown from Scott’s wardrobe.

She came back into the room, holding the hanger high with the skirt draped over her arm. Mamma helped her lay the gown out across the bed, and together they began unwrapping the tissue paper. 

“Careful with the pins.” Mamma demonstrated with the first two, and Julia and Emily removed the rest.

Then all the bridesmaids helped Katie into her dress and stood back to admire her.

Katie smoothed down the white silk and French lace with her hands. She was so glad she had chosen to wear her mother’s gown. It had been made more modern without losing its character and elegance. It was a good luck charm for the future. Mamma’s marriage had been a success and hers would be too.

For a full minute she gazed at her reflection in Teresa’s long mirror without saying a word. She felt very strange and other worldly. Her bridesmaids hovered around the outer edges of the looking glass, smiling and exclaiming, but she couldn’t hear them. What were they saying? Why couldn’t she make out the words?

Her heart began to drum, and her body began to tremble. She tried to steady her hands, but they wouldn’t obey her. What was happening? She had no control. Old fears hurtled towards her. Images forced down over the last two days, boiled up and overflowed: men with guns; Scott motionless on the ground; Freddy, his face deathly white; Johnny handing her a bloodied brown shirt…. Oh, dear God! Coyotes howled inside her head. A cougar snarled. She gasped and doubled over. How could she have been so foolish? How could she have thought she could live here and be Scott’s wife? Tears flowed down her cheeks. She could hardly breathe.

“Katie, what’s wrong?” Mamma came to her side.

The other women buzzed like bees in the background, and Katie knew if she moved she would faint.

“Mamma, I don’t think I can do this.”

 

Saturday, October 12th, 1872—How it ended

Scott emerged shirtless from the bathroom to find Emily standing by the dining table whispering anxiously to Johnny. 

“What’s up?”

“Nothing.” Emily blinked like a cat caught in the light of a lantern. “Beth just asked me to check how far along you were.”

Scott pulled down on the ends of the towel hanging around his neck and considered whether to challenge her on that statement. It may have been partly true, but there was definitely more to the frantic whispering than that.

“Another fifteen minutes. How’s Katie?”

“All dressed.” Emily avoided Scott’s eye. “I’d better go back and tell her you’re nearly ready.” She gave Johnny a peck on the lips and disappeared out the door.

“Now you tell me the truth.”

Johnny picked up his pale blue sash from the table and started wrapping it around his middle. “Nothing to tell.”

“Johnny, if you don’t tell me, I’ll march over to the hacienda now and find out for myself.”

Securing his sash, Johnny looked up and pondered a moment before he spoke. “Okay, but don’t get in a pucker.”

“What about?”

“Shoot, Scott, it’s nothing. Katie’s just got a few wedding jitters.”

“Wedding jitters? You mean she’s changed her mind about getting married?” Scott couldn’t believe what he was saying, but Johnny just shrugged. He didn’t deny it. “I need to see her.”

“Nope.” Johnny sidestepped, intercepting him before he reached the front door and turning him around by the shoulders. “You need to put your shirt on. Get in there and get gussied up. Leave Katie to Beth and the other women.”

Propelled towards the bedroom door, Scott swung around before he got there. “But…”

“Hang it, Scott, don’t make me get all messed up. I’ll hog tie you if I have to.” Johnny stood hands on hips, ready to tackle him again if he tried to get past. Odds were Bob and the others would wrestle him in the hacienda too if they saw him trying to go upstairs.

“Okay, but if Katie doesn’t show up when she’s supposed to, I’m going to find her.” Scott retreated to his room. He should have known better. The reason given for her not being there to greet him when they got back was horseshit. Katie wouldn’t hold onto a stupid tradition, not after he’d been gone so long. Ouch. He’d nicked himself with the razor and had to use his towel to stop the bleeding. Calm down. Grandmamma McIntyre would have insisted, and Katie always did what she said. The sooner Mary McIntyre went back to Boston the better. But even if Katie’s grandmother was to blame for her absence then, what should he think now? Hours of nothing to do but worry would have driven Katie crazy. She was marvellous in a crisis when she was in the thick of things, but she hated feeling helpless. He knew better than anyone that she had only suppressed her fears about ranch life. She hadn’t fully overcome them. She loved him, but usually her head ruled her heart. Was loving him enough?

His stomach rolled with renewed doubts as he finished shaving and got dressed. He put shirt buttons in the wrong holes, and it took him three attempts to tie his tie. Not knowing what was going through Katie’s mind was driving him crazy. Hauling his suede jacket on with barely a glance in the mirror, he grabbed his hat and exited the room.

Johnny nodded his approval, and they went to meet the groomsmen on the portico in front of the hacienda.

The Eliot brothers were in good spirits. There was no sign that they knew about Katie. As expected Bob was in dress uniform and Jamie and Freddy were in their best suits—in Freddy’s case, half a suit.

“Sorry, Scott, I can’t change my trousers.”

His injured leg was in plaster with the trouser leg cut back to just above the knee. The other trouser leg looked like it had had a brush down; they would have to hide him in the back for the photos.

“It doesn’t matter.” Scott clapped a hand on Freddy’s shoulder. “At least you’re here.”

“Fit for anything now.” The boy grinned and waved a crutch in the direction of the tents. “Lead the way.”

As they rounded the corner of the hacienda and crossed the grass towards the tent where the ceremony was scheduled to take place, guests let out a huge cheer. Soon the five men were surrounded by well-wishers, and Scott was forced to appear more cheerful than he felt. Between words of congratulation and hand shaking, his eyes strayed back to the hacienda. If he could only see Katie or even her bridesmaids; but the few women he saw were guests or servants coming from the kitchen, relaying food to the trestle tables in the other tent.

After the welcoming subsided, Pastor Appleby clapped his hands and attempted to bring order back to proceedings.

“Now the groom has arrived, I invite you all to take your seats,” he announced from his podium. “I’m sure the bride won’t be long.”

The pastor’s wife took her place at the organ at the back, and Murdoch and the two grandfathers helped direct guests to the chairs and benches set out in neat rows on either side of the grassy aisle.

As the seats filled, Scott took up his position on the right side of the podium with Johnny next to him, then Bob, Jamie and finally Freddy. Murdoch brought a stool for Freddy so he could sit until things got started.

Scott scanned the crowd, looking for Beth. James McIntyre helped his wife to her seat in the front row very early on, but as the last person sat down, the chair to her right where the bride’s mother should sit was still vacant.

Scott felt hollow inside. Beth would be there if Katie was coming. She would be there if everything was all right. How could they get to this point, and Katie change her mind? It wasn’t possible. Was it?

Minutes crept by like hours.

Guests turned their heads toward the hacienda from time to time, but there was no sign of the bride or her entourage. The hum of whispered conversation got louder.

“The bride is always late,” someone observed to their neighbour. “It’s tradition.”

“Revenge is sweet,” another joked. “A girl after me own heart.”

None of the guests seemed really worried. Under the shade of the tent they were perfectly comfortable, and they’d waited this long for the groom; they could wait a little longer for the bride.

Sitting in the front row on the groom’s side, Murdoch and Grandfather were chatting away like old friends with the Addisons who sat behind them. At any other time Scott would have been happy to see it, but at the moment he just wanted to yell at them. Go and remind Katie that she loves me and I love her. There’s nothing we can’t work out together once we’re married.

He glanced over at the McIntyres again. James smiled back, but his wife avoided eye contact. She knows something is wrong. I’d lay money on it. She knows something, but the men don’t. The women have closed ranks around Katie, and Grandmamma McIntyre is here keeping up appearances until a decision is made—one way or the other.

“Maybe my little sister has got cold feet,” Bob teased, not knowing how true his words could be. “Want me to go check?”

It was tempting to say yes, but Scott forced a smile. “Ha, ha, very funny. I’ll remember this when it’s your turn.”

“I don’t see that fellow who road shotgun for you and Katie, Scott.” Jamie leaned forward, chuckling. “Perhaps she’s decided to elope with the chaperone.”

“Quit horsing around.” Johnny pulled the ring out of his pocket as if checking it was still there. He put it back again without looking up. “Your grandmother is watching.”

Jamie clammed up immediately and straightened his tie.

“Katie will be here soon.” Scott wished he was as certain as he sounded. Across the grass he saw Dewdrop waddle out from behind a tree. If Katie didn’t turn up by the time that over-stuffed bird reached the yard, Scott would go looking for her, and Johnny could just try to stop him.

Dewdrop honked and paused to graze on a patch of long grass. Scott gritted his teeth and flexed his hands in frustration. This was ridiculous; now he was waiting on a goose.

His patience had almost worn out when Johnny nudged him.

“What?” Scott wasn’t in the mood for anymore teasing.

Johnny nodded towards the house.

At last! Beth was coming. But was she coming with good news or bad?

She went wide around the outside of the seating instead of coming down the aisle. In the glare of the late afternoon sun, Scott couldn’t see her face clearly. Was she happy or sad? Pastor Appleby greeted her as she reached the front row. Get out of the way, man; I want to see her face.

But the pastor blocked his view as she passed her parents, and sat down, her head turned away from Scott. She squeezed her mother’s hand, and only then—finally—she looked over at him.

He nearly whooped.

Beth was smiling.

Grandmamma McIntyre was smiling.

Beth swivelled around in her chair and looked back towards the hacienda.

Scott followed her gaze and his grin nearly split his face. Robert Eliot stood by the shrubbery near the side door, reaching out his hand.

Seconds later, Katie came out into the sunshine, dressed in a pure white gown with a long train and veil. Her bridesmaids fussed around her, and Scott caught snatches of laughter on the breeze. It was going to be all right.

The little group crossed the grass, Katie on her father’s arm. They stopped at the far end of the tent, and Emily and Teresa used up a few more of Scott’s heartbeats by arranging Katie’s train and veil again.

Then the bridesmaids took their places, Emily nodded to Mrs Appleby, and the wedding march began.

“This is it, brother. Last chance to change your mind.”

“Not going to happen.” Scott didn’t even glance at Johnny. His eyes were on Katie as she and her father followed the bridesmaids down the central aisle. Emily came first, then Teresa, Julia and Victoria, each one looking lovely in soft grey and blue. The way Scott was feeling at that moment they were like angels from heaven, but none was more lovely than Katie, his Katie, the woman he was about to marry.

As she arrived at the podium, he took his place next to Robert.

Katie handed her bouquet to Emily, and Julia helped her lift back her veil.

Pastor Appleby welcomed everyone to the wedding and gave the usual recitations of scripture to get things underway. Scott was too happy to listen to what he said, at least until he got to an important part.

“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”

“I do.” Solemnly, Robert Eliot placed Katie’s hand in Scott’s. His eyes gleamed with emotion as if to say, ‘I trust you to take care of her,’ and Scott felt both proud and humbled.  

Kissing his daughter’s cheek, Robert took his seat next to his wife, clasping Beth’s hands in his. Together they prepared to watch their eldest daughter marry the man she loved.

Scott and Katie turned towards each other, smiling. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. Her eyes glistened, but he searched their depths and his heart eased. There was no uncertainty, only love.

Pastor Appleby’s voice rose and fell like music. Later they laughed at how little they could remember of his speeches. Their hearts were too full and their thoughts were only for each other. Scott would remember sliding the ring on Katie’s finger forever. “With this ring I thee wed.” The surge of emotion he felt made it hard to get the words out.

When the pastor ended the ceremony with “I now pronounce you man and wife,” Scott took Katie in his arms and kissed her properly for all the world—including his new in-laws—to see.

Laughter and joy rang in his ears. Guests rushed forward to congratulate the bride and groom, and all the worry of the last hour was forgotten.

Photographs followed, and then everyone sat down to a sumptuous feast. The women of the ranch had done them proud. It was dusk, hours after the intended time, but miraculously, there was still food and wine aplenty.

When the meal ended, the speeches began.  There weren’t many. Scott and Katie both had horror stories of weddings they’d attended in the past, and neither of them had wanted to inflict that on their guests.

Robert toasted the bride and groom, and Scott responded in the usual style, thanking everyone and raising a glass to the bridesmaids and groomsmen at the end.

Johnny responded on behalf of the bridal party. He was supposed to go on to reading out the small mountain of telegrams and messages of goodwill, but first he added a few unscripted words of his own. “When Scott and I came home to Lancer neither of us knew we had a brother. I’ve got to tell you the look on his face when he found out he had one, and I was it—well, it didn’t give me high hopes for the future.”

The guests laughed loudly as Scott sank down in his chair, covering his face with his hand, half-embarrassed by the underlying truth of the joke.

“He might’ve hurt my feelings, except I was thinking pretty much the same about him.” Johnny had the audience in stitches.

Scott reached behind Katie and tried to pull him back down into his seat. “I’ll get you for this, little brother.”

But Johnny dodged. Grinning, he waited until Katie had Scott in a secure hold, and then he continued along the same lines.

When the laughter subsided for about the sixth time however, he turned serious. He lowered his voice and met Scott’s gaze. “This brother thing has worked out okay, I think.” He raised an eyebrow.

With a flicker of a smile, Scott nodded.

“There’s a saying, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’. Well, I didn’t know what I was missing by not having a brother until I got one.”  The guests gave a murmur of approval, and Johnny broke eye contact. He raised his glass to his new sister-in-law. “Katie, you’re something special. You’re beautiful, kind, fun-loving and feisty, and you’re ten times too good for any ordinary man. So it’s lucky you fell for Scott. Because after two and a half years, I can tell you he’s not an ordinary man. He’s something special, and I’m proud to be his brother. I know he will make you a wonderful husband, just as my gut tells me you’re going to make him a wonderful wife.”

“Here, here!” Someone shouted from the back of the dining tent.

Johnny smiled. “Welcome to the family, Katie.”

That speech was one of many memorable moments. Amazingly, in the end, after all the drama, their wedding day turned out to be a great success. Murdoch and Grandfather exuded happiness and bonhomie; the jewellery and earlier conflicts seemed forgotten—at least for now.

The celebrations continued well into the night. Johnny and Emily looked like they were reliving their own wedding as they danced under the stars a little apart from the main party. Even Freddy and Gabriela managed a stationary waltz, Teresa caught the bouquet, and the orchestra was still playing when Scott stole his bride away.   

“In joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live,” Katie repeated their vows as they drove towards the hunting cabin where they were spending their first night as husband and wife.

“Amen.”

Sitting close, she rested her head on his shoulder and looked up at the stars in the night sky.

“Happy, Mrs Lancer?”

“Beyond happy, Mr Lancer.” She snuggled into him. “I wonder if your mother watched us get married.”

“I’d like to think so. Murdoch said he felt her presence.” Scott looked skyward too and smiled. “Even Grandfather had a tear in his eye.”

The moon lit the road the whole way to the cabin. There were no clouds to spoil things tonight, no coyotes or wolves howling to make Katie shiver; the breeze was gentle and everything was peaceful. Before they knew it, they saw the light from the lantern hanging over the porch flickering through the trees.

Scott reined the buggy to a halt, jumped down and offered his hand. “Milady.”

Katie slipped on purpose into his arms, and he spun her around before setting her down and kissing her long and slow.

“Ready?”

She nodded, and he scooped her up into his arms. Climbing the steps, he used his unbruised shoulder to push his way through the door, crossed the threshold into the cabin and placed her gently down on the calfskin rug. The lamp was turned down low, and a fire was banked up in the grate. There was wine and food on the table, flowers everywhere, and the bed loomed large and inviting in the background.

He hung his hat and jacket on the hook behind the door and took off his boots as she plumped down on the edge of the bed and kicked off her silk slippers.

“The fairies have been busy.” Katie stroked the handmade quilt. The women of the ranch must have worked very hard to get it done in time, but they had clearly made it with the same love and affection they had put into the one they made for Johnny and Emily. “Oh, look, Scott, a chickadee and cranberries to remind us of Boston.”

Bringing the fire back to life, Scott smiled up from the hearth as he watched her turn down the quilt. Behind her, he could see a small dressing table and mirror and an elegant mahogany dressing screen. The fairies had thought of everything. Something light and lacy lay folded on the dressing table stool.

She followed his gaze and went to pick it up. “My nightgown. Do you like it?” Holding the flimsy white cotton and lace garment up against her body, she swayed and smiled with the merest hint of embarrassment.

Oh yes, he liked it very much, very much indeed; and the look on his face must have told her so because she blushed and turned away, dropping the gown onto the stool again. She stayed standing with her back to him looking down at the dressing table, perhaps rallying her courage, until he got to his feet and poured the wine.

“Katie.”

Turning, she smiled and came to him, accepting a glass from his outstretched hand.

“To my beautiful wife.”

“And my handsome husband.” Katie tasted her wine and gazed into his eyes. He could see she was a little frightened, but trust and desire was there too.

Cupping her face in his hands, he kissed her gently, and they began a slow waltz in the firelight, sipping wine, whispering, nuzzling and laughing softly.

When he sensed she was at ease again, he put their glasses aside, and began to remove her jewellery and the decorations from her hair, one flower and hairpin at a time, putting them down on the table next to the wine glasses, his eyes never straying from hers.

Katie’s chestnut locks fell free over her shoulders and down her back, and he ran his fingers through the strands, playing with them so they shimmered in the firelight. She turned her cheek into his palm and kissed it. The faint hint of roses on her skin urged him on, and he kissed her forehead, her nose and then her lips, over and over again.

“I love you, Katie Lancer,” he murmured as he held her close, feeling the rise and fall of her chest and the warmth of her breath against his skin.

“I love you too.” She tugged his tie free and slipped her hands beneath the collar of his shirt. Pressing into the hardness of his body, one hand reached up into his hair, as she undid the top buttons of his shirt with the other.

He kissed her more firmly, caressing a silk-covered breast as he felt his way to the pearl buttons at the front of her bodice. Oh God, how he wanted her.

They licked and bit and kissed as she loosened his shirt. His fingers delighted in the softness of her hair. Her fingers found bare chest. She slid his shirt over his left shoulder and touched the bruise. “Does it hurt?”

“Not much.”

“I don’t believe you.” She kissed his shoulder, and then raised her eyes to his.

He pressed his lips against hers, more urgently than before, and her ardour seemed to rise to match his.

One by one, by one, he undid the pearl buttons on her gown.

One by one, by one, he released the silk ribbons and strings on her undergarments, kissing a path down her neck, over her collar bone to her breasts.

Maybe it was his long abstinence, but the taste and feel of her skin was like no one else before.

Her touch sent tremors through his body and the small mewing noises she made as he explored her caused his blood to race.

Peeling back layers of silk and lace, he let them fall to the floor. They had no need for her nightdress; it could stay where it was.

Lost in brown eyes, he carried Katie to their wedding bed and laid her down. She slipped between the sheets, and watched as he stripped off the remains of his clothes. Her eyes widened as he took off his pants, and he hesitated. For several heartbeats he stood naked—waiting.

Then she lifted the bedcovers.

And their waiting came to an end.

 

 

~ end ~

Notes:

  • This story is the seventeenth episode of the Eliot Series.
  • The McIntyre and Eliot families were first introduced in my back story for Murdoch, From Highlands to Homecoming. Some characters also featured in Circumstances, my back story for Scott from age 21.
  • The fiesta de quince años celebrates the transition from childhood to womanhood on a girls fifteenth birthday.
  • AWSA is the American Woman Suffrage Association, one of two organisations campaigning for women’s rights. The AWSA believe votes for women was more easily achieved through state-by-state campaigns whereas the NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association) believed campaigned for a federal constitutional amendment.
  • Aggie and Buck Addison were introduced in The Rivals, Series 2, Episode 24.
  • Lucrece Normile was the young woman in A Person Unknown, Series 2, Episode 9, who rescued hurt animals, including Johnny, and Pony Alice was the little girl in The Heart of Pony Alice, Series 1, Episode 11.
  • Belle Isle Prison near Richmond, Virginia was the Confederate Prisoner of War camp I used for Scott in From Highlands to Homecoming.
  • Davenport Granger was first mentioned in my earlier story, Family Matters, No.16 in the Eliot Series.
  • According to Circumstances, my back story for Scott from age 21, he rode with Garrison’s Raiders briefly during the American Civil War.
  • The story of the jewellery and the butterfly brooch can be found in From Highlands to Homecoming, 2014.
  • The green sash is mentioned in What Katie Did, 2015.
  • Johnny’s childhood is touched upon in various stories: From Highlands to Homecoming, The Beginning, Hate, and Intervention in particular.
  • The reason Emily’s hair was cut short is explained in Hurting, by Doc.


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